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Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Beloved New Beverly Cinema

Last night I attended a showing of Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Trick 'R Treat at the beloved New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles. I'm sure my money and time were better spent going to see this double feature than the latest Saw installment or—ugh—Paranormal Activity 2. And it's none other than director Quentin Tarantino who keeps this theater going.

The New Beverly was a porno theater when Sherman Torgan took over in 1978 and began running eclectic double features. Tarantino was a fan, and when the theater was in danger of closing in the mid-oughts, he quietly began paying its bills. Torgan died suddenly of a heart attack in 2007, and Tarantino shortly thereafter bought the property outright to prevent it from "becoming a Super Cuts," as he says.

He programs many of the theater's "Grindhouse" movie nights, but Torgan's son Michael still manages the day-to-day operations. Far from being a grindhouse itself, it attracts a diverse Hollywood crowd (Kate Mara and Max Minghella were at last night's screening) and the filmmakers often appear in person to speak about their work.

When I moved to L.A., home video was still a novelty, and pay channels like HBO were only interested in new releases, so there were a bunch of "revival theaters" flourishing in town: the Nuart, the Fox Venice, the Tiffany, the Vista, the Rialto in South Pasadena and —of course—the New Beverly. They'd run double or triple bills of classics, recent releases or foreign films with the occasional first-run independent film thrown in. The programs changed either daily or every couple of days, so there was always a variety of films to choose from.

I first saw Pink Flamingos during one of its infamous Friday midnight showings at the Nuart, and my mind was expanded by a Pasolini triple feature at the Tiffany. At the Rialto—a double-feature of Eraserhead and Night of the Living Dead. When the Fox Venice screened a program of Cronenberg films, Joe Blasco's infamous slugs from They Came from Within (aka Shivers) were on display in the lobby, and the actor who played the guy who starts the contagion made an in-person appearance, much to the audience's delight. My first connection with the New Beverly was to see Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Luna. Like Tarantino, I got a great education in world cinema from these theaters.

Last year I saw The Decameron and Arabian Nights at the New Beverly. Even though I've owned these films in various formats (Beta, laserdisc, VHS and DVD) over the years, there's just no substitute for enjoying them with movie lovers of the same stripe on the big screen. And sharing the same experience when the film is a clinker can be even more fun. I've actually stomped my feet laughing so hard during communal viewings with like-minded audiences howling over classics like Fulci's City of the Living Dead, part of the aforementioned "Grindhouse" festival.

Some of that magic was captured last night with Halloween III. We all chortled over the repeated use of the obnoxious "Happy, Happy Halloween" jingle, and Stacy Nelkin's eagerness to hop into bed with doughy Tom Atkins was also greeted with laughter.

I didn't see H3 during its original theatrical release. I thought that Halloween II was pretty lame, (except for the kid going into the hospital with a razor blade wedged in his mouth—eww), and I wasn't interested in seeing a third installment that didn't have Michael Myers in it. But I watched it on video a couple of years later, and I must say it's one of my favorites in the franchise.

Don't get me wrong—it's not a classic by any means. The story is ridiculous and the acting is terrible, but it has a strange '50s sci-fi charm and the gore effects are still pretty good. Director Tommy Lee Wallace was scheduled to appear for a Q&A after the final show, but I caught the earlier one, unfortunately.

Home video quickly shuttered the revival houses. The Rialto became a foreign/art theater in the 80s but eventually had to close its doors. The Tiffany became a legitimate theater before becoming an "actors' studio." The Fox Venice became a swap meet. The Vista and Nuart are still going strong as specialty houses (and the Nuart still has its midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday night), but only the New Beverly survives as the true revival showcase.

Thanks, Quentin!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friend "The Social Network"

How frequently do you go to a movie and say, "Awww..." when the end credits begin to roll? That happened to me with The Social Network this weekend. It clocks in at just about two hours, but I wouldn't have minded it running longer.

I've enjoyed many of director David Fincher's films over the years, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac and Panic Room, and he puts his slightly off-kilter style of filmmaking to good use in this fast-moving, funny and compelling story.

For those who don't know (?), it's the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)—creator of Facebook—and the friends and business associates he collaborated with and ultimately burned. After a lighting-fast opening sequence in which his girlfriend breaks up with him at a bar, he goes back to his Harvard dorm room and drunkenly builds a Web site in a single night, using an algorithm created by his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Calling it Facemash, he emails male students and invites them to compare photographs of female students and give them a "hot or not" rating. The university's servers crash and he is nearly expelled, but he draws the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss (Armie Hammer), big men on campus who want him to help them develop their social Web site, HarvardConnection.com.

Zuckerberg likes the idea but thinks their model is wrong, so he creates thefacebook.com with Eduardo. The Winkelvosses are furious, sending him a cease-and-decist letter, which he ignores. Eduardo sets up a meeting with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), founder of Napster. It's hate at first sight—Eduardo thinks Parker is a sleazy hustler, and Parker thinks Eduardo is too small-change for the success of the company, so he quickly takes over and drives him out. More backstabbing ensues, Zuckerberg becomes wealthy beyond words and finds himself battling lawsuits initiated by the Winkelvosses and Eduardo.

Eisenberg is ideally cast as anti-hero Zuckerberg. a geek genius whose desire for social acceptance fuels his every move, even as he's alienating those around him. He perfectly conveys Mark's cold and calculating exterior while giving us a glimpse of the lonely little boy inside who's crying out for acceptance. I've enjoyed Eisenberg's work—from The Squid and the Whale to Zombieland—but he really shows his chops here. I see an Oscar nomination coming.

Hammer is hilarious as the lunkheaded "Winkelvi," in an impressive digital stunt that puts his face on two bodies. Timberlake (who I also liked in Alpha Dog) is charismatically sleazy as Parker. Garfield is terrific as Zuckerberg's scorned friend, one of the few characters that you can develop any sympathy for. Another good character is Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones), an intern at the law office who seems to be able to see through Mark's frozen exterior.

The score, by Nine Inch Nails collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, propels the story and adds an appropriate feeling of dread. Jeff Cronenweth's impressive cinematography vividly depicts the cold, dark New England winter on the Ivy League campus, contrasting it with the sunniness of Palo Alto. The cloning of the Winkelvoss twins is seamless, and I only had one complaint special-effects-wise: when characters are talking outside in the cold, the digitally-added condensation from their breath is rather obvious. Maybe it was exaggerated to play up the chilliness of the film overall.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, based on Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires" is snappy, smart, and frequently amusing. The film moves at a breakneck pace, which is probably a good thing, because if it had a slower rhythm, the essential shallowness of the story (and the characters) would be more extreme. Alternating scenes in lawyers' offices during the litigation with sequences at Harvard and in Palo Alto, it never pauses to take a breath. Some have complained that Fincher's direction is too slick and emotionless, but I think it's perfect for the story of such an isolated individual.

And you certainly don't have to be a computer geek to keep up with the film. Enough factoids are tossed out to keep you abreast of the development of the site, but far more emphasis is placed on the verbal jousting of the various characters, and it's absolutely absorbing. I love the scene in which Eduardo realizes Mark's motivation for screwing him is a long-standing resentment for having gotten into a popular fraternity that Mark was not invited to pledge. And the final scene, which I will not give away, is just a terrific capper.

Hmm...I just went to the film's Facebook page and all it has are repeated posts about sexual positions that can kill you and some guy who keeps saying he's going to see the film on Halloween. Weird.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

For the love of "Jackass"

While I was visiting my family in Texas, my nephew and I went to see Jackass 3D on opening day. We liked it a lot, and we laughed—a lot. And we weren't the only ones. From the Dickhouse website:

Jackass 3D earned $50.4 million dollars on its opening weekend. Pretty amazing, huh? Or at least that was my initial superficial take on the news, but just look at how someone else delved into the record books for the full "by the numbers" breakdown:

1) Jackass 3D is the highest opening film ever in the month of October (passing 2003’s Scary Movie 3’s $48.1M).

2) Jackass 3D is the 9th highest opening R-Rated film of all-time and 2nd highest for a comedy only behind 2008’s Sex and the City ($57M).

3) Jackass 3D is the 9th highest opening 3D film (9th to have a $50M+ opening – best for an R-Rated film and best for a comedy).

4) Jackass 3D is the 10th highest opening comedy of all-time (includes action comedies Rush Hour 2 and both Men in Black’s, otherwise it’s the 7th highest).

5) Jackass 3D is the highest opening ever for a non-scripted/documentary-esque film.

What is it about the violent and frequently nauseating antics of these guys that is still so much fun to watch? Certainly it's the camaraderie; they're all buds, and no matter how cruelly they treat each other, they usually laugh it off (except for Bam and his mortal fear of snakes). They break and bruise and get their teeth knocked out, and yet they jump right back up and ask for more. Jackass is like a live-action Tom and Jerry cartoon with humans.

And we've gotten to know and love these guys over the years. We know that Bam is going to terrorize his parents, Preston and Wee Man will do a stunt that plays up their vast size differential (they were super-glued stomach-to-stomach in the latest installment) and Chris will get naked. Steve-O has become a specialist in the gross-out stunts and has developed the ability to vomit on cue.

I don't want to spoil any of the fun with a great deal of description, but the film was actually shot in 3D, rather than upconverted, so some of the mayhem is nicely enhanced by the added dimension. The opening credit sequence in particular has lots of slow-motion destruction with shards of glass and water flying out of the screen.

It was hard to top Part 2's horse scene for grossness (and you know what I'm talking about), but they give it their best shot by strapping Steve-O into a Port-a-Potty and bungeeing it up in the air. Here, you see...stuff...in 3D that gets pretty hard to watch. But that's part of the fun, isn't it? How long can you look before you are forced to turn away?

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called Knoxville "the purest, most devoted slapstick anarchist in comedy today," while the Washington Post's Dan Kois said that Jackass is "a touching ode to male friendship at its most primal." Wow. And last week the newest film screened at New York's Museum of Modern Art!

The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris gets downright prosaic in his description: "...the Jackass crew ...understands that what’s compelling about 3-D is not what it sprays or rubs in your face, but how expanding the depth of field enhances that splendor of the spraying. At a late stage, urine cascades through the air. As it arcs up then down onto an unsuspecting bystander — always a member of the gang, never you, never me — what’s apparent in its trajectory is the crisp beauty of the stream. Light reflects off the droplets. The hang time is Jordanesque. Meanwhile, the rumpled hose that does the spouting occupies a sizable portion of the left side of the screen. At such a swollen size, it’s more like a giant leaky slug than a human penis, and, though it belongs to the small, floridly tattooed Bam Margera, it and its contents are treated as lovingly as Michelangelo treated David’s."

Now that's a review!

Slate's Dana Stevens is the first to admit that the Jackass series is for the boys, although there were quite a few girls, woman and entire families (!) at the screening I attended. I think the secret to its success is that it's everything-friendly. As crude as the humor gets, no one is really demeaned or humiliated. When you think about it, Jackass is really not that far removed from the "we dare you to watch" mondo movies and cannibal vomitoriums of the 70s and 80s. It's just that you feel like you've spent some time with good buddies while you were puking.

Johnny Knoxville says that so much footage was shot that there's enough to put together an immediate sequel. Now, if they present it in 3D and Smell-o-Vision. While we wait for that, Knoxville will appear in Untitled Comedy, a series of comedic vignettes inspired by old-school films like Kentucky Fried Movie and Pontius will be in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere starring Stephen Dorff and arriving December 22.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

First-Person Horror

As I've mentioned before, I always cast a cold eye on films that are being massively hyped, so I refrained from seeing Paranormal Activity when it played in theaters, and I am so glad I did. I finally watched it on DVD a couple of days ago, and it boggles my mind that this $11,000 quickie made over a hundred million dollars in the U.S.

Folks, it's a home movie. I know—it's supposed to resemble one—but there's not particularly any distinguished talent on display or an innovative story. Instead, as the "plot" develops, it falls back on creaky haunted house tropes and absurd character shifts that the filmmakers and actors don't have the depth to support.

Like 1999's The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity became an internet sensation and drove audiences into the theaters. Unlike Blair, this one stinks. The set-up is preposterous. Katie (Katie Featherstone) and her live-in fiance Micah (Micah Sloat) have moved into a new home in suburban San Diego, and the otherworldly being that has been haunting Katie since childhood has followed them there. Mikah buys a video camera and sets it up in the bedroom to try to capture the disturbances that have been plaguing them.

The film actually begins rather promisingly. The actors are naturalistic, and the paranormal activities are at first teasingly subtle, gradually increasing in intensity. But Katie drags in a psychic (Mark Fredrichs, obviously from the local community theater) to check out the joint, but he is unable to help; he's merely an expert on hauntings, so he gives her the name of a demonologist.

As the plot sickens—er, thickens—the film just falls apart. The performers just aren't competent enough to handle the character shifts. Katie alternates between comatose and hostile, and Micah becomes increasingly macho. As the dialogue becomes more intense, the actors' shortcomings really come out.

For example, when Katie is unable to reach the demonologist, she calls the psychic back. The minute he enters the house, he can sense how strong the demonic force has become, and he wants to leave immediately. The actor's "performance" in this scene is hilarious.

The plot developments are simultaneously cliched and absurd. A Ouija board bursts into flames; Katie is suddenly yanked out of bed and dragged out of the room; Micah puts baby powder on the floor to reveal the demon's footprints and—shock horror!—an old snapshot of Katie is found in the attic. "YAAAGGHH!!! How did it get there?" As I slipped in and out of consciousness, I kept thinking, "Well, everyone talks about the brain-melting conclusion, so I guess I should hold out until then." When it finally arrived, I said, "Oh, brother." And it looks like the "surprise" came courtesy of distributor Paramount's digital effects department. There are actually three endings to the film available, and all of them sound pretty lame.

First-time director Oren Peli shot the film in his own house and has said that he's been afraid of ghosts his entire life, even fearing Ghostbusters. That would explain the squealing teen girl-level "scares" offered in this turkey. I love the descriptions on Wikipedia explaining away the director's cost-cutting choices: "a stationary camera on a tripod adds plausibility" (cheap); and the actors were not given dialogue scripts but rather plot outlines so they could feel free to improvise (cheap, cheap).

Now, don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed a lot of the first-person horror films of recent years. Matt Reeves' Cloverfield gave me sweaty palms and Quarantine was tense. Granted, they were operating with far, far bigger budgets, but I think limited resources should motivate filmmakers to stretch their imaginations even more.

The success of such an incompetent piece of rubbish as this is unfair to those current and future filmmakers who may take the same low-budget approach and truly have something original to say. Just as lousy 3D movies will eventually cause audiences to turn away from all 3D, getting theatrical release for this kind of sub-par junk will eventually poison the well.

So Paranormal Activity 2 is coming up later this month. The brief synopsis sounds ridiculous, but I enjoy this column speculating on what the plot could be. Hey! Maybe it'll be as awful as Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and ruin the franchise!

I wonder if Paranormal Entity, the ripoff released by The Asylum, the low-budget distributor specializing in films "inspired" by other films, is any better? Hey, anybody who distributes the Mega Shark franchise is okay in my book!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Horror Movie Parodies

We've discussed comedy in horror before here on Weird Movie Village, but today we're going to focus on horror parodies—spoofs of horror films or genres. It's a hit-or-miss category with only a handful attaining "classic" status.

I was so stoked when I heard that Linda Blair was going to reprise her Exorcist role for the 1990 spoof Repossessed, and I was probably one of the few people to actually pay to see it at a theater. Leslie Nielsen, playing the exorcist, was riding high on his Naked Gun fame at the time, so all signs pointed to a good time.

Boy, was I wrong.

For legal reasons, I imagine, Blair is now known as Nancy Aglet (whatever that means), survivor of a childhood possession and exorcism by Nielsen's Father Jebediah Mayii (groan). Now an adult and with children of her own, she finds herself being pestered by that ol' devil again, ironically after watching a religious program, "The Ernest and Fanny Miracle Hour." Soon she's spewing made-up obscenities (the film is only rated PG-13), spinning her head around and exhibiting various demonic behaviors.

When Father Brophy (Anthony Starke) concludes that she is indeed possessed again, he goes to Father Mayii to ask him to perform the exorcism, and the opportunistic televangelist Ernest Weller (Ned Beatty) talks the Supreme Council for Exorcism Granting into letting him broadcast the ritual.

Blair is certainly game and Nielsen is in his full trademark goofy mode, but this film piles on the hit-and-miss gags that are unfortunately mostly misses. It opens with a spoof of the THX logo, announcing that it's being presented in BFD Sound, which is pretty funny, and seeing Blair do comedy is novel. But it wears down quickly. The televised exorcism is interminable, with the jokes coming fast and furious, but to no good end.

I haven't seen this in ages (for obvious reasons), but I imagine the gags are pretty stale. One inspired shot has Blair laying on the bed, dressed as an ice cream cone, snarling "Lick me! Lick me!" But the televangelism angle falls flat, and Nielsen's frantic efforts to inject humor into the proceedings get pretty desperate.

Ironically, the film was released on DVD last year as part of Lion's Gate's "Lost Films" Collection. Writer/director Bob Logan also made Blair's earlier foray into comedy, Up Your Alley (1988). Final judgment? If you want to see an Exorcist parody, just watch Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) instead. It's a riot!

What do you do when you're an Italian comedian who's unheard of in the United States? Why, you befriend Mel Brooks and Dom DeLuise, who will help you make Silence of the Hams (1997), a spoof that sends up both Demme's thriller and Hitchcock's Psycho.

Ezio Greggio has built a reputation as a popular comic in his native land, and he must have used some of his Neopolitan charm on Brooks and Deluise, because they helped him make this strange, strange comedy and even rounded up a pack of marginal-to-legendary celebrities to star in it. Billy Zane plays rookie FBI agent Jo Dee Fostar (oh, God) who is working on a case involving the Psycho Killer, and he enlists the aid of Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza (Deluise). Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Jane Wine (Charlene Tilton) steals $400,000 from her boss so that she and Jo Dee can start a life together, but she ends up checking into the Cemetery Motel, run by Antonio Motel (more groans), who is dominated by his loony mother (Shelley Winters).

Sound like a train wreck? Well, it sort of is, but it's also so incredibly bizarre that you find yourself laughing anyhow. Check out this clip of the climactic unmasking scene. It's funny to hear Shelley Winters say "fuck"!



In addition to the previously mentioned stars (and those you see in the clip), Phyllis Diller, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, John Landis, Larry Storch, Henry Silva and even Brooks himself show up. Roger Corman's wife and producing partner Julie serves as one of the producers, and although it didn't cost a lot to make, it's a wonder it was made at all.

Everyone seems to be having a good time on the set, and their mood is infectious. Greggio seems to realize that his brand of humor will be perceived as strange by American audiences, so he lets loose with a series of groan-worthy gags that are just so freewheeling that you can't help but get caught up in this mess.

You get a newspaper headline that says "Psycho Killer Claims 120th Victim. Is He Serious?" Stuart Pankin emerges from a bathroom and behind him the toilet is ablaze. Silva plays his traditional tough cop, mowing down innocent people on the streets of Los Angeles. And an establishing shot of downtown L.A. has the helpful caption, "Downtown."

Zane isn't afraid to spoof his glamour-boy image, and he is funny. And you get to see Martin Balsam reprise his detective role from Psycho. As the knife-wielding killer approaches, he groans, "Not again!" Greggio himself is happily devoid of the Roberto Begnini style of mugging, and his deadpan delivery is pretty amusing.

Silence of the Hams isn't available on DVD, but you can watch it on YouTube.

The slasher movie boom initiated by Friday the 13th (1980) of course begged for a send-up, so it wasn't long before Student Bodies (1981) appeared. As with the prototypical slashers, the killer, here named The Breather, stalks high school teens who are having sex.

Since it's so early in the slasher game, the only films in the genre that existed for spoofing at the time were Friday, Halloween, When a Stranger Calls and Prom Night. There's also a nod to Carrie. A lot of fans who are far too young to have seen this theatrically caught it on home video and just love it, proclaiming it to be the pre-Scream Scream. I just remember it as being a rather dreary, hamfisted attempt with a lot of bad jokes.

Plus, the murders are too goofy and blood-free. I think even a slasher film parody should still have violent killings, but maybe that's just me. So clean is the film, as a matter of fact, that the "executive producer" pops up midway to say "fuck" and assure an "R" rating.

One of my favorite parodies isn't really a parody at all, but an official entry in the Friday series, Part 6: Jason Lives. With its invigorating James Bond-style opening and its tongue-in-cheek dialogue, it makes fun of the prequels while still delivering the violence that gorehounds seek. Plus, it's got Thom Matthews, fresh off Return of the Living Dead (another classic spoof) as the adult Tommy Jarvis, the kid played by Corey Feldman in Part 4.

I've never been a fan of the Scream series, finding them to be too self-satisfied, not scary and really talky. The Scary Movie series is far better, with Scary Movie 4 being the pick of the litter for me. With its sendups of The Grudge (with the creepy kid), M. Night Shyamalan's ridiculous The Village and Tom Cruise's macho posturing in the War of the Worlds remake, it hits its targets pretty frequently.

Most importantly, the Scary Movie series introduced us to Anna Faris, one of today's most appealing and hilarious screen comedians.

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