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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: 'Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection' by Mike White

Ah, L.A. in the mid-1980s — what a magical place. The punk rock scene was going strong, KROQ ruled the radio dial, Elvira's Movie Macabre was a Saturday night must-see on KHJ-TV, and I was working at a down-at-its-heels TV distribution company called Four Star Television.

Founded by Hollywood stars Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino in 1952, Four Star had been a leader in television production through the 1960s, selling such hits as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Burke's Law and The Big Valley to the networks. But by 1984, with nothing in the pipeline and a dusty library of forgotten black and white shows, the company had slowed down considerably. A new regime was brought in to juice up the joint, and that's how Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection was born.

But let's step back a bit. The L.A. Connection improvisation troupe had been successfully performing live redubs (called "Improvision") of movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space at theaters around town, which led to a brief stint doing the same thing for "Flicke of the Night" segments on Alan Thicke's 1983-84 talk show, Thicke of the Night.

Meanwhile, Four Star had acquired the questionable assets of another syndication company, Gold Key Entertainment, and with that purchase had gotten a library of what today would be a goldmine of cult classics, but back then was just a bunch of unsellable bad movies.

It was destiny that the dubbers of bad movies should join forces with the purveyors of bad movies...and therein lies the tale.

In his new book, Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection, author Mike White chronicles the colorful history of the L.A. Connection and the development of the show that was ahead of its time — and still has a following today.

Ample behind-the-scenes reminiscences are provided by L.A. Connection founder Kent Skov and cast members and writers Bob Buchholz, Connie Sue Cook, Stephen Rollman, Steve Pinto and April Winchell, as well as the show's producer, Randy Ridges. They describe how Mad Movies was pitched and produced (including the making of the first pilot, Dungeon Women, that was scuttled for being too racy), researching appropriate properties, scouting locations for the wraparounds — and delivering 26 half-hours on a budget that wouldn't even pay for craft services nowadays. It truly was guerrilla television. As Four Star's Director of Promotions at the time, I provide some recollections from the corporate perspective.

Fans of the show will appreciate the book's complete episode guide, rare production photos and the "after Mad Movies" section. As for me, it brought back great memories of a time when we were all so young and L.A. was a town that represented limitless possibilities.

Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection is available from Amazon.

Monday, November 17, 2014

'Birdman': Keaton's Revenge

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in "Birdman"
Keaton and Norton
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Michael Keaton worked his way up the showbiz ladder, paying his dues in such now-forgotten television shows as Working Stiffs and Report to Murphy before soaring into the stratosphere with films like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and especially Beetlejuice. But when he put on the cowl to play Batman, his career — for better or worse — was never the same.

Now, playing Riggan Thomson in Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant new comedy/drama, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Keaton takes on a role that very nearly mirrors his own life — and he runs with it. Riggan is a fllm star who lost momentum after playing superhero Birdman in a series of blockbusters back in the ‘90s, and is now trying to gain recognition as a serious actor by staging an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. He’s put everything he has into it, serving as writer, producer, director and star.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

When his terrible male lead (Jeremy Shamos) exits the production after being brained by a falling arc light, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), offers to bring in her man, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a hotshot Broadway actor, as a replacement. Riggan is thrilled at first, but is soon plagued by feelings of inadequacy when faced with a legitimate stage professional. Worse still, he feels that the more experienced actor is attempting to steal the show away. And when Mike is gushingly profiled on page one of the New York Times arts section, his suspicions are seemingly confirmed.

Fueling his paranoia is the voice of his alter ego, Birdman, constantly ringing in his head. He tells Riggin that he’s better than all of this, urging him to just run way from it all and go back to Hollywood. As opening day draws near and they run through a series of disastrous previews, Riggan begins second-guesses everything and gives in to bouts of fury, even as his producer (Zach Galifianakis) assures him that the show is getting good buzz.

He’s also afflicted by hallucinations that make it difficult to comprehend the real world. He’s out of synch with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is serving as his assistant, and it barely registers when Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his femme lead and offstage lover, tells him that she may be pregnant with his child. Thankfully, as Birdman takes pains to remind him, he has telekinetic powers and the ability to fly…or does he?

In a film populated by fine performances, Keaton shines, providing layered and sympathetic work. He’s still manic, but the years have softened his edginess — perfect for this role. He’s nearly matched by Norton, whose arrogant Mike is a symbol of Broadway’s “superiority” to film as the only true art form. Stone, Watts and Riseborough are all given their memorable moments, and Galifianakis plays against type as the voice of reason. Amy Ryan is also wonderful as Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia, who clearly still adores him and mourns the death of their marriage.

The sharp screenplay by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, pits not only the stage against film but also old versus new. Indeed, Riggan behaves as if his life stalled out along with his career back in the ‘90s. His refusal to participate in social media as a way of marketing himself to the new generation while hungering for legitimacy in the ancient world of the theater is a useless pursuit that Sam decries in an explosive rant (wonderfully delivered by the doe-eyed Stone).

Birdman is certainly the lightest film the gritty Inarritu has made to date, and yet it’s also his most satisfying. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Gravity) and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone, he makes the film flow as if it’s been shot in one continuous take. Lubeski’s camera constantly roves around the actors and slithers through the corridors of the St. James Theatre, where much of the action takes place. Adding to this sensation of nonstop movement is the unusual but effective all-percussion score provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.

The much-discussed fantasy sequences are well-integrated and even essential to the story. Who among us has never imagined, when things got really tough, that we could vanquish our enemies with a snap of our fingers or suddenly soar high into the air, leaving our problems far below us? That’s the universal message of Birdman, one of the year’s best and a sure contender come Oscar time.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Movie Review: 'Nightcrawler'

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a small-time thief who drives a junkheap and sells stolen goods to get by. When he brings a load of hot metal to a construction foreman, he inquires about a job, outlining his qualifications as if he's an upstanding young professional as opposed to a two-bit hustler. Clearly considering him to be delusional, the appalled man tells Bloom that he doesn't hire thieves. Unperturbed, he moves calmly on to his next opportunity.

He passes a car accident on the freeway and is intrigued by camera crews recording the action, so he pulls over. He catches up to one of the videographers, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), and asks him what he’s doing. Loder explains that he runs a freelance operation that  monitors the police band overnight and rushes to scenes of crime and violence that they capture on video and sell to local stations for their morning news shows.

Bloom decides that this could be a good job for him, so he steals a bicycle, pawns it for a camcorder and police scanner, and sets to work. The first scene he arrives at is a carjacking, and he is able to capture gory, close-up footage of the dying victim before being pushed away by the police. Loder is also ordered to stand back, and when he sees that Bloom is the reason for his ejection, he's furious.

Bloom goes to KWLA, the lowest-rated station in town, and talks his way into the office of the overnight news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who at first brushes him off, saying they’ve already acquired Loder’s stuff. But he insists that he was able to get closer than Loder, so she agrees to take a look. Although the quality is low, his footage is indeed more compelling, so she makes the purchase.

As weeks pass, Bloom continues to supply superior footage to an eager Nina, who compliments his "style," and his economic situation improves. He takes on an assistant, the desperate and homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also acquires a new vehicle, a cherry-red Mustang that he races at harrowingly high speeds to crime scenes, and better video equipment. His reputation in the business increases as well, so much that Loder comes to offer him a partnership, which he — of course — refuses.

Constantly pressured over ratings, Nina is willing to air the most egregious content, and the morals-free Bloom has no problem manipulating accident scenes to make them more dramatic. But as he descends into the pit, his confidence continues to increase.

Screenwriter/director Dan Gilroy takes a jaded view of Los Angeles that recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 Drive. As captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit, the streets are dark and dangerous, and the city is populated with characters who are either corrupt or corruptible. Bloom is a blatant misanthrope — at one point he even admits to a chronic dislike of humankind — but he provides the juice that other, equally opportunistic people are desperate for.

It’s always admirable to see an actor take a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and make him fascinating to watch, and that’s something Gyllenhaal has achieved here. Having dropped nearly 30 pounds to portray this parasite, he’s acquired a hungry, feral mien, and his already large eyes become positively enormous and unblinking.

Bloom is a kind of brethren to De Niro’s Travis Bickle, yet even Bickle had altruistic motives. Bloom is a total sociopath, having created his own persona via online study. His self-righteous diatribes alternate between hilarity and hideousness, and the fact that others even take him seriously is a telling condemnation of society.

Russo’s Nina is similarly tainted. Bouncing from job to job and realizing she’s not getting any younger, she enters into a devil’s pact with Bloom to make sure she’ll continue to be first in line for his footage. Her producer, Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), attempts to stand in as the voice of reason, but his quiet objections are easily drowned out by the yowling madness of the news machine. Ahmed's Rick is equally appalled at the things he's being forced to do, but his situation and genuine terror of his clearly unhinged employer prevents him from doing anything about it.

Darkly satiric and relentlessly grim, Nightcrawler plays like the bastard child of Lumet's Network and Scorsese's Taxi Driver. It's bleak stuff indeed, but stylishly compelling.

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