Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Between The One And Three There Is A Two

So I bailed on much of the pre-SKIDOO discussion with John Phillip Law and SKIDOO-ologist Christian Divine to go pay my respects to Blake Edwards. Hey, priorities. I did make it back to catch the last few minutes which included some talk about the later response to the film and a brief DANGER DIABOLIK mention by Law which got some applause from the crowd. But I never got to learn much about the creation of the movie or what Law had to say about working with Groucho Marx or really any other mysteries the movie brings up. Which I suppose is for the best. Perhaps SKIDOO is meant to be a mystery wrapped up in a riddle smothered in secret sauce. Because if any element of SKIDOO ever begins to make sense, what hope is there for any of us?

A satire of LSD, hippies and I suppose America at large in 1968, the plot of Otto Preminger’s SKIDOO is about retired hitman Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) living a life of domesticity with his wife Flo (Carol Channing) as he worries about the hippie (John Phillip Law) his teenage daughter is dating. His life is disrupted when a few mob bosses from his past appear and send him away to prison so he can pull off one last contract, by murdering an old friend of his. Once there, he—ok, I’m realizing that simply writing out a synopsis of this film doesn’t even come close to indicating anything about the immensely bizarre tone it maintains in one way or another through its entire running time. It never really actually starts—in fact, the opening credits are interrupted by the first scene and never return until the end—when the movie is again interrupted in similar fashion by end credits that turn out to be as memorable and unique as possible. In fact, nothing much in the way of plot or story seems to take place though the entire movie and at a certain point everything just kind of stops.

One film SKIDOO brought to mind on Sunday night was actually IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD—both are helmed by directors not known for comedies (Stanley Kramer in the case of WORLD), both feel very sixties, both seem to be making a statement about American society at large and both are cameo-laden with familiar faces—they even share Mickey Rooney. The difference is that WORLD is a very traditionally-presented story done as a tribute to old-style comedy. SKIDOO is its own beast entirely, making an attempt at addressing the differences between the old guard and the youth culture, perhaps taking a stab at what was to come in the future. And there’s a little bit of social satire, with fake TV commercials seen at the beginning that would go just fine with the one used at the very end of Robert Aldrich’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLAIRE, which also came out in 1968. There must have been something going around in the air. Like MAD WORLD, SKIDOO could possibly also be used as great example of how the Scope frame can be used and probably looks terrible on the pan and scan bootlegs that float around out there. Never officially released on video in any form, the title is presumably a very low priority for Paramount. This print seems to have come all the way from England, if the British Board of Censors approval card that preceded it is any indication.

It’s perhaps best known today for the acid trip that Jackie Gleason’s character accidentally goes on and it is a memorably bizarre scene, but it also goes on forever. SKIDOO might be a comedy and many of the actors are certainly playing it in such a style but it’s tough to tell where exactly the comedy within is. Groucho Marx plays “God”, the mob kingpin who is the center of everything. In his late 70s at the time of filming, he’s done up as classic-era Groucho and acts that way too, but seems deliberately not given anything funny to say or do. The only way to read this is as some very bizarre joke on a joke about something, but I don’t know what. Groucho also seems rather feeble and in one long dialogue scene is clearly looking offscreen at cue cards instead of who he’s playing the scene with.

Other actors present include Frankie Avalon, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens, Richard Kiel, Arnold Stang and the triumvirate of Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin—maybe they never actually appear together, but the main Batman villains are all present and accounted for. Possibly the best performance in the film is from Austin Pendleton as Fred the Professor, one of several people here who get an “and introducing” credit and acts as Gleason’s guide through his LSD trip. Not required to be the expected presence that the others are, Pendleton actually gets to create a real character, even within the screwed-up universe this movie presents, and earns the right to share the fade-out with Groucho Marx, sharing a joint with the legend in the final scene he would ever play. I’ve always been a big fan of Austin Pendleton. The very cute Alexandra Hay, who later co-starred with Law again in THE LOVE MACHINE and turned up in Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP, also makes a favorable impression as Gleason’s daughter.

Carol Channing also strips down to her bra and panties, if you’re looking for something else this movie has that no other does. And I may be mistaken but I’m pretty sure that familiar character actor Fred Clark (Mr. Sheldrake in SUNSET BOULEVARD) plays two different roles. I can’t imagine many other films where this would be the case.

As a party movie, I’m not sure how SKIDOO would go over. It doesn’t seem like the natural crowd-pleaser that something like BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is and by a certain point it felt like the audience at the Aero was kind of being pummeled into submission. Maybe it was the late hour as well. But near the end as Carol Channing storms God’s yacht with several boatloads of hippies and bursts into the title song (it would take too long to explain) the whole thing takes on a sort of joyful apocalyptic fervor that is tough to shake. And the end credits, entirely sung by Harry Nilsson (responsible for all the songs here, with “I Will Take You There” particularly good) is in all honesty, my favorite part of the whole movie. And when I say the credits are sung, I mean they’re all sung, down to the key grip and copyright notice. I swear, if the average summer movie that came out this year displayed a small amount of the creativity shown in these credits the multiplex would be a much more fun place these days. For better and also for worse there’s never been another film like SKIDOO. My biggest worry is that I haven't made the movie seem as strange and memorable as it truly is.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Report from the Clutterbuck House

Sunday night at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was a Mods and Rockers double bill of Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY and the Otto Preminger anti-classic SKIDOO. I got there very early and had a chance to walk around Montana Avenue, breathing in the ocean air that was strongly present as the sun was setting. There was a wonderful feel in the air, the sort that maybe you only get in Southern California in July.

Blake Edwards, who turned 85 last Thursday, was scheduled to attend, but a sign posted outside announced that he had unfortunately canceled. Considering his age, this was disappointing but not totally surprising. They were adjusting the marquee to read that his daughter Jennifer Edwards would be attending instead. The theater was already filling up fast when I entered. The Aero isn’t huge, but it is a nicely-sized neighborhood venue with a giant screen, ideal for the Scope images I knew we’d be seeing.

Jennifer Edwards, a familiar face from several of her father’s films, did indeed appear before the movie, apologizing for his absence due to minor surgery as he had very much wanted to attend. She described the making of THE PARTY, which she visited the set of when she was nine years old, as “a magical time” and said she felt it was one of the best films her father had made with Peter Sellers as “they still got along then.” Somewhere, she said, there are outtakes of Sellers and her father in uncontrollable hysterics as they made this film.

I have no problem with saying that a viewing of THE PARTY is enough to make me glad the movies were invented. I’ve seen the mostly improvised film numerous times before, but another viewing in a theater allows me to pick up new things. Various details of the remarkable set of the house continue to jump out at me. I again notice how many of the minor characters seem fully formed even with just incidental dialogue. I gaze at how amazing the Scope compositions are and how so much of the film is purely, simply visual. Peter Sellers is brilliant as Hrundi V. Bakshi and there are always new elements of his performance to appreciate. Claudine Longet is absolutely beautiful and I actually find the burgeoning relationship between Bakshi and her Michele Monet rather touching. The Henry Mancini score, always twinkling away in the background, is absolutely beautiful. And no matter how many times I’ve seen it much of the film sends me into absolute hysterics.

The movie played great with the packed house and ended to a wave of applause as the credits rolled. When the lights went up, Mods and Rockers host Martin Lewis raced up to the front before anyone could go anywhere, grabbed a mike and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, at the back of the theater, please acknowledge the genius who made this film, Blake Edwards.” Everyone turned to see Blake Edwards, in a wheelchair, at the rear of the theatre. And the audience gave him the longest standing ovation that I’ve ever been witness to in this town.

Martin Lewis explained that he wasn’t there to speak, he just wanted to make an appearance and see the movie with us. I made the decision to bail on much of the pre-SKIDOO screening discussion with John Phillip Law (hey, we all make choices) and went to the lobby where people were paying their respects to Edwards. I’d seen him in person a few times back in the 90s but it was very clear how frail he is right now, seeming considerably older than he appeared in his Oscar appearance several years ago. But he seemed very happy to be there. Someone said to him, “Your films will live forever,” and Edwards replied, “I wish I could say the same about me.” I knelt down and said a few things to him, about how THE PARTY is a favorite of mine, how several of his films are favorites of mine. Nothing too revelatory, but I did want to tell the man that I consider him a master. I also made it a point to express this feeling to his daughter standing nearby (I also told her how terrific she is in S.O.B.) and she seemed very touched by this, adding, “He’s a good father too.”

There’s no way I could have expressed all I wanted to say to them, but it doesn’t really matter. Being there at that moment when everyone in the theater rose to their feet was something that I found unaccountably moving. I may never be able to express or even fully understand why it meant so much for me to be there, but it's a moment that I won't soon forget.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Stripper Who Doesn't Take Her Clothes Off

While breezing through the Hollywood Farmer’s Market on Sunday morning, I ran into a few friends of mine. While I would have been more than happy to have hung out with them for a little while, I had to leave and felt it was necessary to be honest and tell them why. Since they know me, I don’t think they were very surprised.

Yes, I went and saw I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. Well, somebody had to. There’s no good reason, there’s no valid excuse, except to say that I was honestly curious. So I bought my ticket, I knew what I was getting into. And this is what happens.

It’s very difficult to accept Lindsay Lohan in any kind of role this particular week, but I KNOW WHO KILLED ME doesn’t help matters. Yeah, there’s maybe an extra level of enjoyment when we see her getting limbs chopped off or downing booze and pills, but don’t take that to mean you should see it. This would have been a bad movie no matter when it opened.

Lohan plays the improbably-named Aubrey Fleming, a college student pursuing writing who is abducted and tortured by a serial killer. Several weeks later, she is found, with one arm and one leg severed. Though alive, she claims she is not Aubrey but is in fact the equally improbably named Dakota Moss, a stripper. Soon it is discovered that before she disappeared Aubrey was actually writing a story about a stripper named Dakota and the mystery deepens as to who exactly she is.

Put kindly, it’s a bad idea given a bad execution. Why did Lindsay Lohan decide to star in this particular film? Was it to demonstrate her range? Remember, a year ago her mother was telling the press she’d win the Oscar for GEORGIA RULE, something no one is expecting right now. Did she wake up one day and decide she was going to do the next script offered no matter what? Did she toss and bunch on the floor and go “eeny, meeny, miney, moe”? Did she decide to take a project that would piss her mother off? Much of her screen time is spent in the Dakota guise and she comes off as not a tough girl but a girl trying to act like a tough girl. When she’s Aubrey, we can tell she’s the smart college girl because she wears glasses. When she’s Dakota, we know she’s the tough stripper because she smokes. That pretty much sums up the range on display here. Like many Hollywood strippers in history, she never really strips off, so nothing much is ever seen. And there’s no charge to her pole-dance scenes either, whether erotic or sleazy, giving off no discernable effect, certainly not like Rose McGowan in GRINDHOUSE.

Her parents are played by Neal Mc Donough and Julia Ormond. Remember when Julia Ormond starred in movies that were about guys fighting over her? Gregory Itzin, better known as Charles Logan on 24, plays a psychiatrist. Paula Marshall appears briefly as well. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Paula Marshall was playing twentysomethings and I had a mad crush on her. Now she plays the grieving mother of a college girl butchered by a serial killer. Things change.

Like its star, I KNOW WHO KILLED ME is kind of a stripper who doesn’t take her clothes off. Yes, some of it is grisly in its torture scenes, but right from the get-go it attempts a visual style that winds up as nothing more than an attempt to be arty. This would be fine if the movie were any good—hey, it would be flat-out welcome. But here it comes off as a film directed by somebody who is trying to be arty and flashy as opposed to entertaining. Or disturbing. Or interesting. Or, well, anything. Filmed with the digital Panavision Genesis camera, it’s an ugly-looking picture as well.

When the end comes, the film seems to make the decision to dispense with the usual wrap-up scenes that would clarify portions of the plot. Again, this would be fine if it didn’t seem like the movie was looking for an easy out. There’s a semblance of thematic completion in an image at the end, but then the camera seems to move away from that image and instead goes in on, well, a shot that contains not much of anything. If that doesn’t sum up the overall effect I KNOW WHO KILLED ME has, I don’t know what does.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Letting Success Go To Your Head

Shortly after the opening credits of DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, Elke Sommer emerges from the surf in a bikini alongside Sylva Koscina. It’s quite a sight. Is it possible that Elke Sommer was never as drop-dead alluring as she is in this film? What helps is that unlike some other Bondian knockoffs of the sixties, DEADLIER winds up being a very enjoyable film. An updating of the Bulldog Drummond character, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE screened at the Cinematheque the other night as part of the Mods and Rockers series. Richard Johnson is Drummond, a London insurance investigator who finds himself pursuing mysterious individuals who are behind a scheme to corner the oil market. Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina play a pair of sexy, ruthless assassins working for the criminal mastermind behind the plot.

The overall tone of the film is fairly lighthearted--not so much a spoof as a much lighter take on take on the genre. The relationship between the two female assassins is played as more of a Laurel and Hardy thing than anything else. Sommer as the delightfully named Irma Eckman is sensational in the part. Koscina is also very enticing--I suppose she would be the Laurel to Sommer's Hardy (the two women would also later co-star in Mario Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL and its variant HOUSE OF EXORCISM). Virginia North gets an “and introducing” credit for her minor role as Brenda, but outside of an appearance in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and the role of Vulnavia in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, doesn’t seem to have had much of a career. Too bad; she’s quite fetching in her small role here and the film could have used more of her.

There’s a very cool score by Malcolm Lockyer with a main lick that I can’t seem to get out of my head along with a Matt Munro-like theme performed by the Walker Brothers. Along with various other beautiful women and lots of Bond-type quips there’s also a dryly funny performance by Nigel Green—he and Sommer would also appear together in similar roles two years later in THE WRECKING CREW, but DEADLIER has the advantage.

Another thought about Elke Sommer—there are quite a few actresses from the sixties who were gorgeous and I always enjoy seeing films featuring them that I haven’t seen before. The unfortunate fact of this is that too many of these films feature them in roles that are small, uninteresting, making you wonder why they were cast or why elements of their roles seem so half-hearted. I don’t want to make DEADLIER THAN THE MALE sound like more than it is but there’s a rare kick in seeing a sixties spy film starring a favorite actress in a terrific role that gives her the chance to show what a star she can be. She emerges from the water in a bikini and harpoons a guy, she plays seduction scenes, she does a double-act with Sylva Koscina. She’s much of what’s memorable about this movie.

Speaking of memory, the second film on the bill for the Cinematheque’s spy movie night was LIGHTNING BOLT and I should probably say something about it now, because in a few days I won’t remember enough to say anything. Maybe it’s a translation thing, but sometimes with Italian spy movies it’s tough to tell how much they are a Bond spoof and how much they are just a Bond knockoff. LIGHTNING BOLT, also known under the even more Bondian title OPERAZIONE GOLDMAN, straddles that line between spoof and knockoff and I’m still not sure which side it falls down on. Directed by Antonio Margheriti, but the credit goes to the “Anthony Dawson” pseudonym he used occasionally, the film stars Anthony Eisley as a secret agent involved in a DR. NO-type investigation which also involves an underwater city surprisingly like THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, eleven years before that movie was made. Maybe that’s the most interesting thing about the movie. There’s also a villain who, Blofeld-like, we don’t see until very deep into the movie, but when we do see him it turns out he’s not only the owner of the line of beer used as the cover for his operation, he’s also the pitchman, so we’ve been seeing his face on posters well before his actual introduction. Maybe that’s the most interesting thing about the movie and maybe someone else could have made that Austin Powers-type joke actually work. At one point near the end, there was a mess-up during a reel change, so the film had to stop for a minute. I resisted the urge to stand up and say to the not-large crowd, “So, anyone want to have a discussion about the plot? And why are we still here, anyway?” Maybe we remained for the sake of completism, maybe we remained because there was the possibility something would happen in the film that we’d always remember. Maybe we stayed because chances are we’d never have another chance to see this film ever again in ay format. I’m not sure why I stuck around. But I did stay until the end.

In closing, let me just say that Elke Sommer is absolutely amazing, and amazingly gorgeous, in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Way to the Palace Hotel

“I wish you were dead.”
“Well, of course, you are entitled to your opinion.”
“And you are not! Out! Out of my sight!”
“You want me to leave?”

In a way, many of the films of Blake Edwards seem to take place in a kind of eternal summer. They seem to exude this feel of lounging about, sipping a cocktail as Mancini plays in the background. Of course, this will immediately be followed by somebody violently crashing through your ceiling, but you can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, or a man dressed up as a woman. Also, you won’t be frightened or shocked when it happens. You’ll just be annoyed. But if it helps, the Mancini music will still be playing. And that feeling of summer is there.

By the early seventies the careers of Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards had reached respective low points, with each man having involvement in several straight films that had failed at the box office. Edwards in particular had suffered the huge financial disaster of DARLING LILI to the point that it came out in several different versions (much of this wound up as the inspiration for his later S.O.B.) and THE CAREY TREATMENT had also been taken away from him and recut by MGM. The initial idea to return to the character of Inspector Clouseau began as a television miniseries to be produced by Lord Lew Grade, who Edwards had directed THE TAMARIND SEED for in 1974. This eventually became the film THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, released in May of 1975. Peter Sellers of course returned as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Herbert Lom of A SHOT IN THE DARK came back as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, but David Niven was unavailable to reprise the role of Sir Charles Litton, so Christopher Plummer was cast in the part.

The first thing to focus on is the degree that each PANTHER sequel is in a way a total reboot. There’s little point to look for a continuing storyline (with the exception of going from RETURN to STRIKES AGAIN) and even less reason to look for real continuity. The original PINK PANTHER was never meant to be a Clouseau vehicle and only partly became one when Peter Sellers began to walk away with the movie. A SHOT IN THE DARK, made immediately afterward, courts next to no continuity with its predecessor and in fact was based on a stage play. The idea to include Clouseau came when Blake Edwards was brought in as a replacement for the original director and they simply decided to use the character again. For RETURN, much of the reason to bring the character back was based on career doldrums and there is again little continuity with what came before. Clouseau is much the same, but Dreyfus is still his superior—an unlikely occurrence considering the end of A SHOT IN THE DARK. Also, while the film brings back the character of Sir Charles Litton, he is not only played by a different actor, but he doesn’t really seem to be the same character. In fact, what little backstory we get on the two characters don’t even seem to match up with what occurred in the original film and they barely share any screen time here anyway. Again, all this matters very little.

The plot is very simple. The world famous Pink Panther diamond is stolen and the government of Lugash demands that Clouseau, “the famous French detective who recovered the Pink Panther the last time it was stolen” (not really, but moving on) be assigned to the case. Clouseau immediately suspects Sir Charles Litton, who has long been suspected to be the famous jewel thief the Phantom, of the crime. As Clouseau survives several assassination attempts, Litton, living in retirement in the South of France, learns of the crime as his wife Claudine (not the character Simone played by Capucine in the original film) returns from a Parisian shopping trip. Desperately bored in retirement, Litton sets off for Lugash to uncover the culprit himself. Clouseau meanwhile, sets off following Lady Litton all the way to from Nice to Gstaad in the hope that she will lead him to her husband.

Simple, but almost too simple. Part of the problem with THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is that all interesting plot developments stop at around the hour mark. Litton’s storyline has potential as a comfortably familiar ‘send a thief to catch a thief’ sort of thing, but for what is supposed to be the meaty section of the film it never really goes anywhere. The character of Charles Litton in RETURN just isn’t very likable or interesting. I’ve always liked Christopher Plummer, but his innate coldness as an actor doesn’t seem right here. On the charm level, he’s definitely no David Niven. Or Cary Grant. The performance of Catherine Schell (one of the allergy girls in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE) is another problem. She’s very attractive but at times doesn’t seem to be able to do much other than smile blankly and, in the most controversial element of the film, visibly cracks up at Clouseau’s antics. This really only happens a few times, but the negative effect it gives off makes it seem like a lot more. Whether this was done for the sake of the story or if Schell really couldn’t keep from laughing, it’s just kind of confusing. Of course we need to know that she’s on to Clouseau in these scenes, but it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. And besides, there’s a reason why Marx Brothers movies never had characters laughing at their antics. If they did, it would kill the joke. For the record, the plotting also doesn’t do full justice to the character of Clouseau, since as things turn out he isn’t really allowed to solve anything, or even accidentally solve anything, in an enjoyable way like he did in A SHOT IT THE DARK. There’s a little bit of that near the end—I’m trying to avoid details here—but the fact that there isn’t enough of it maybe accounts for why THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER comes of as slightly unsatisfying.

That’s about it for the unpleasantness. Now the good news. Much of the film remains absolutely hysterical. From Clouseau’s first scene where he manages to miss a bank robbery occurring literally right behind him to his continuous bafflement of his journey from the train station to the hotel in Gstaad to every instant of Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus being driven insane by him, more movies that I’m this critical of should be this funny. All you need to do to demonstrate how good Edwards could be at his best is to check out the scene where Clouseau, being primped by Cato, is blabbering on about how all great detectives have “instinct” in common, saying how important it is, when in the very same shot he goes to answer the door, is handed a bomb and promptly ignores it. And Dreyfus demonstrating to Francois how he put “the real gun” in the bottom drawer sends me into fits of hysterics every single time. Peter Sellers does some amazing work throughout, sending Inspector Clouseau even further into his own zen-state than he had probably ever considered when first playing him a decade before. The lack of forward momentum does catch up with the film by a certain point—Clouseau’s adventures in Lady Litton’s hotel room in the second hour do go on too long, but the best parts of the film make it all worth it.

Burt Kwouk and André Maranne return as Cato and Francois, respectively. Graham Stark, Hercule in A SHOT IN THE DARK, here plays Pepi, the Peter Lorre-type who is confronted by Charles Litton in Lugash. Edwards’s doctor Herbert Tanney appears as the Nice Police Chief, billed as “Serge Tanney”-his last name is also heard as Charles Litton’s alias when he enters Lugash. Henry Mancini’s score is, admittedly, not one of my favorites by him, but does make for nice listening. One track, entitled “Dreamy” on the album, sounds the most like the classic-era Mancini we know and love.

At its best, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER has a feel of both Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers reconnecting with their love of screen comedy. It’s no secret that the two men had a rocky working relationship but in the wake of the career troubles they had experienced, the funniest sections of this film offer a feeling of freedom, of two comedy geniuses with nothing to lose and are once again returning to a type of humor that they excel in. With the next film in the series, they would take the opportunity to expand on that freedom, perhaps to heights of insanity they had never considered when they were making this return to the character of Inspector Clouseau and the insane universe he inhabits.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Port of Paradise

Shortly after I arrived home on Friday I went down the street to use the nearest ATM. While I was there, Eddie Deezen walked past. This was not a surprise. For me, seeing Eddie Deezen is almost akin to stating “The sun rose” or “My car started today”. And it’s not just this neighborhood—I’ve seen Eddie Deezen at points all around town. Once I was in a bar. There was a football game on the TV. Eddie Deezen was sitting at a nearby table, having a serious discussion with someone about the game and he sounded exactly like Eddie Deezen. What I’m saying, is that I saw Eddie Deezen and I knew I was home.

Just a little while later I went down the street to the Tiki-Ti, arriving shortly after they opened. As I walked in Mike, the owner, saw me and asked, “How was your trip?” Just one week before I had mentioned that I was going away and he remembered our discussion. I love the Tiki Ti.

It’s been there since 1961, has seen the Tiki craze rise, fall and slightly rise again and is one of the few remaining bastions of what was once a mainstay on the Southern California landscape. Even Trader Vic’s at the Beverly Hilton has been shunted out to a lounge area by the pool—and the last time I ever went to Trader Vic’s I was a little disappointed. The Tiki-Ti survives. The Tiki-Ti is essential.

The menu features over 80 drinks. If it’s your first time, I recommend the Ray’s Mistake, then you can move on from there. I usually stick with the rum-based drinks myself, but some contain gin, vodka and various mixtures. They’re very potent and very, very delicious. They are expensive, ranging from 8 to 15 dollars, but are more than worth it. If you ask for something like a gin and tonic they’ll make it, but why would you want to be boring? Beer and wine are not served. Smoking is permitted. And while 80 drinks may be on the menu, the bar can fit nowhere close to 80 people. It gets like the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA in there pretty quickly. About a dozen stools, six or seven tables, that sort of thing. They officially open at 6, but the door is usually open a few minutes before that. And for that first hour or so on Friday the place still had a relaxed atmosphere and was the perfect welcome back to L.A.

I’ve never been much for going to bars by myself, but the Tiki-Ti has such a welcoming atmosphere that I always feel comfortable going there. A cool vibe is always in the air and it’s pretty easy to strike up conversations with people. And, once again, the drinks are amazing. If this is what Tiki is all about, sign me up. In a town where places are closed before their time way too often and too many bars are just plain no fun, the Tiki-Ti is an oasis, one of the many reasons I love this town. Here’s to many more Ray’s Mistakes, and nights at the Tiki-Ti, in the future.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Memories of the New Beverly

Word began to filter around the internet on Thursday that Sherman Torgan, owner of the New Beverly Cinema, the last full-time revival cinema in Los Angeles, had died. One person who sent me an email on the subject stated that this was “actually an important event affecting all of world cinema…and I’m dead serious when I say that.” I think he may be right. For me, the New Beverly has been there since the beginning of my L.A. experience. Literally. Just a day or two after I moved here a friend took me to the place for a double bill of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and CAPE FEAR ’91. My first years here I went there numerous times and what I saw would be pretty easy to guess. Altman, Bertolucci, Cronenberg, Lynch, the Coen Brothers, John Woo. A packed Friday night double bill of SHAMPOO and THE GRADUATE. A showing of SWINGERS (the New Beverly calendar can clearly be seen on Jon Favreau’s fridge in that movie) where the 310 gag got one of the single biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in a movie theater. A Christmas Day double feature of WILLY WOMKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T. There’s a Justine Bateman story connected to that which I’ll tell sometime. Back then Lawrence Tierney was seen in the audience all the time. I never had the nerve to say anything to him. For several years in the mid-90s they showed RESERVOIR DOGS every Saturday night at midnight. I saw it there a lot.

Further into my twenties I began to get a little impatient with the whole rundown nature of the place. After all, there are some days when you want something with a little more, you know, comfort to it. Not to mention that there is a certain cyclical nature to revival house schedules that cause the same titles to turn up more than a few times. In May of 2001 I went there with a few friends to see MIDNIGHT and TROUBLE IN PARADISE…a great pair of films to watch if you ever get the chance. Afterwards we went for dinner down the street at El Coyote. It was a good day and it was the last time I entered the New Beverly until earlier this year for the Grindhouse festival. Quentin Tarantino has made no secret of his love for the place, not just holding the festival there, but also thanking Torgan and the theater in the closing credits of his last few films.

Entering the place again after several years, it really wasn’t so bad. It had been spruced up a little bit but it was still the New Beverly. And besides, it was just right for the Grindhouse festival. I love DVDs with a passion but there’s something undeniable about the joy of seeing a film in a place filled with other people who want to be there seeing that film. The sub-culture of the revival house has left us by now, but Sherman Torgan knew and appreciated how important it remains to the art form for something of that to survive.

It’s not known right now what will happen to the New Beverly. A friend and I had planned to go next week for the double bill of GREMLINS and HOWARD THE DUCK…yes, HOWARD THE DUCK. How often do you get to see that in a theater? So now we’ll have to wait and see what happens. But the New Beverly Cinema has earned a rightful place in the legacy of Los Angeles moviegoing. People come to the city and some of them actually want to expand on what they know about film. For a long time, the theater has been there to help out. And it’s thanks to Sherman Torgan that this happened. He will not be forgotten and the New Beverly, whatever happens with it, will not be forgotten.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Random and Complex

It’s quiet in Bethesda. That’s where I am right now, visiting family for a few days. It’s a nice town. According to Wikipedia, Robert Hays is from here. As I write this, he sun hasn’t gone down yet in L.A., but here it’s nothing but darkness and quiet. Maybe that’s just the sort of thing I need for a few days in the middle of summer.

Fellow Blogger M.A. Peel is not my wife, despite the name, yet she does in fact display all the independence and intellectual curiosity of her namesake. Recently Mrs. Peel included me as one of the people she has chosen to tag on the “Tell us 8 random things about yourself” meme.

Here are the rules of participation:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Look, I’m not going to tag other people. I just can’t do that. Besides, many of the people in the blogsphere who know I’m here have already been tagged about this thing, so it wouldn’t do anyone any good. That being said, here are random facts about me, Mr. Peel.

1. I walked in a blizzard to see the first showing of HANNAH AND HER SISTERS on opening day.

2. When I was a teenager I worked for a news organization which focused on children’s issues. The events I attended included the 1985 Reagan inauguration and the 1988 Democratic Convention.

3. I once flew first class on a JFK-LAX flight and sat next to Diana Ross. There was drinking involved.

4. I worked at a bookstore in Brentwood at one point in the nineties. Customers included O.J. Simpson, Faye Resnick and (so I was told) Nicole Brown.

5. Name a movie that was released from 1980 on and I can probably tell you when it opened, along with the studio that released it. Don’t give me some obscure thing that played at the Quad Cinema for a few weeks in 1986 but, really, I’m good at this.

6. My last name (my real last name) is also the name of a city in Italy. The Sopranos are from there.

7. I once met a friend of Quentin Tarantino’s and after speaking to her for a little bit she said, “You remind me of somebody I know.”

8. I once predicted I was going to meet a particular semi-famous actress and I did. But we didn’t wind up together. Occurrences like this really mess with your head in a city like L.A.

And maybe that’s one reason why it’s a good thing that I’m taking a few days to clear my head in the quiet of Bethesda. For now, that is all. Maybe I’ll reveal even more in the future. We’ll see. If you’re upset that I didn’t tag you to also make a list, please make one. For now, Bethesda remains quiet.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's An Entirely Different Kind Of Flying

When AIRPLANE!, the comic masterpiece by the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, was first released in the summer of 1980 it was a much less media-savvy world than it is now. It was thought at the time that the film was a direct parody of the Universal AIRPORT series and the rest of the disaster films that had proliferated throughout the 70s. Because of how effective the film was, it was seen as the last nail in the coffin of that subgenre not that, after films like THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79 and WHEN TIME RAN OUT, it needed much help. But the hidden secret, one that I never even knew until years after the fact, is that AIRPLANE! is a direct parody, almost a remake, of the 1957 potboiler ZERO HOUR!

All the elements are there: former pilot Ted Stryker (Striker in AIRPLANE!) who has never gotten over his horrific experiences during the war, finds himself on a flight attempting to work things out with his wife Ellen (girlfriend Elaine in AIRPLANE!), when a sudden outbreak of food poisoning (it was the fish) causes many of the passengers and crew to become ill. After this is discovered, the one doctor onboard gravely intones, “The survival of everyone on board depends on just one thing: finding someone who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner.” When it is determined that Ted is the only one onboard who any flying experience, he has to summon up every once of his courage to get the job done and land the plane. While AIRPLANE! may have been slightly influenced by the famous John Wayne vehicle THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY and some of the basic 70s disaster movie style, it’s crystal clear that ZERO HOUR! is what Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker were really aping. That film was co-written by Arthur Hailey, from his earlier teleplay “Flight Into Danger” and written by him in novel form as “Runway Zero-Eight”. He later went on to write the novels of “Hotel” and “Airport”. Who knows what he thought of AIRPLANE! Fortunately, the film has finally been released on DVD, allowing direct comparisons to be made now and forever.

Forget Van Sant’s PSYCHO—AIRPLANE! is pretty damn close to being a shot-for-shot remake. Camera set-ups are eerily similar, whole chunks of dialogue recur from one to the other. The only difference is that in AIRPLANE! that dialogue turns out to be straight lines for the jokes. In ZERO HOUR! it’s just the dialogue. Much has been made about how the line referred to above turns up in both films but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s very hard to hear someone say “You’re gonna have to talk him right down to the ground…” and not have a watermelon crash behind him.

The cast of ZERO HOUR! includes Dana Andrews (who later also appeared in AIRPORT 1975) as Ted and Linda Darnell (looking ready to take over the Margaret Dumont role in a Marx Brothers movie) as Ellen. The two leads have a child named Joey, a character who gets sick in this version for added jeopardy but was simply the son of another pair of passengers in AIRPLANE! Sterling Hayden, in what would later be the Robert Stack role, seems to be playing his part as a dry run for Jack D. Ripper in DR. STRANGELOVE. Jerry Paris, a name famous for having directed seemingly every episode of HAPPY DAYS, appears as the boyfriend of the stewardess and is intentional comic relief. There’s no equivalent for his character in AIRPLANE!

Running about 80 minutes, ZERO HOUR has to tread a little water to get to its fade-out. There’s a midsection involving contact with the plane being lost that goes on too long—AIRPLANE! solved the length problem by inserting the character’s flashbacks, one of the other ways the two films diverge. To be fair, ZERO HOUR! isn’t quite a bad movie—the editing in particular contains some enjoyably pulpy smash cuts to the following scene. But it’s impossible to watch it without thinking of the more famous film that overshadows it. In contrast, the first AIRPORT, as goofy as some of it may play today, does manage to be somewhat entertaining and suspenseful on its own terms. If you know AIRPLANE! well enough, then watching ZERO HOUR! will provide enough laughs. But if you watch AIRPLANE! yet again just after, it manages to make what Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker accomplished that much funnier. For the first time, someone came along who managed to pinpoint what was absurd, but also strangely endearing, about a certain type of filmmaking style and at the same time managed to totally obliterate it. Film comedy, and also film drama, would never quite be the same again. But in some ways none of that matters quite so much as the simple joy of being able to see both Sterling Hayden and Robert Stack proclaim into a microphone, "how there are a few people, particularly me, who'd like to buy you a drink and shake your hand."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dissolving Into Molecules

Sometimes you have one of those days, the kind where forces band against you and nothing you do, no matter how hard you try, will allow you to come out on top. Nothing bad happens as a result of this, but by the end you just feel beaten down to the point where you begin to realize just how you got there.

And then the mind wanders away to other things, to events in the past. Memories of glorious moments appear in your head and you wonder if you’re ever going to achieve a semblance of that distant feeling ever again.

The first time I saw BEFORE SUNSET it hit me like a rock. I walked and drove around in a near daze for the next hour. Moments stay with me. That first hard cut to Julie Delpy when we see her in present time. When Ethan Hawke tells Delpy he has to tell her something she faces him, eager, saying “What?” How Delpy almost reaches out to touch him in the car. That long, quiet walk up the stairs. The ending. The ending…

I’ve had things happen to me in this town, things that can easily be explained away by amusing coincidence. But I still find myself wondering why those things happened and a few of them have had such lasting effect in my life and who I am that it’s hard not to wonder about the reason for such things.

BEFORE SUNRISE was never a particular favorite of mine but in the wake of BEFORE SUNSET it seems like a movie that exists for the sole reason of being able to make that follow-up ten years later. The strange thing is that I’ve never revisited the original film in the wake of SUNSET. I think the sequel affected me so much that going back to the original seemed unnecessary. Maybe it also seemed like that if I couldn’t go back to my own past then I didn’t want to go back to the past of these characters either. What they did then didn’t matter so much anymore. What they did now, what they do each time I watch the film, is what does.

“I guess when you're young...you just believe there'll be many people with whom you'll connect with. Later in life you realize it only happens a few times,” Céline says to Jesse when they’re on the boat going down the Seine. In life we rarely get to play out our own version of BEFORE SUNSET. We wake up one day and are forced to accept that certain doors irrevocably close, preventing such a scenario from occurring. But BEFORE SUNSET is about a time in one’s life where you feel those doors closing, when you’re beginning to wonder if that time in life where you encounter others you connect with is coming to an end. Céline and Jesse have gained wisdom in the past nine years, but have lost that sense of wonder that was there that day they were able to wander aimlessly around Vienna. But they remember it and as they begin to aimlessly discuss Nina Simone, it’s still there. It’s just about the most perfect ending to a film I’ve ever seen. They’re still trying. I’m still trying.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for eachother: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

-- e.e. cummings

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Going To The Moon

It was during the July 4th weekend five years ago when word came in that John Frankenheimer had died. I remember an announcement being made during the Harry Palmer triple bill at the Egyptian that day and I got several calls about it as well. The reason people felt it necessary to call me was that two months before that day I had been privileged to spend ninety minutes with the man in his living room for an interview. Getting to speak with him was an inspiration. I only wish I could have done it again.

Prior to that day I'd received the warnings about how tough a personality he was, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, all that stuff. I was fairly terrified. But he could not have been more gracious to me the entire time we were together and I felt at ease almost immediately. The occasion for my interview with the 72 year-old director was the airing of PATH TO WAR, which he had just made for HBO about LBJ’s downfall caused by the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. It’s an excellent film and the bulk of the interview was meant to focus on it and continuing theme of politics that had run throughout his career. It’s well known that he was involved with the presidential campaigns for both Kennedys as well as being the one who drove Bobby to the Ambassador Hotel the night of the California primary. We all know how that night turned out.

The man got his start working on live TV in the 50s before moving onto features. The many titles on his resume range from the brilliant (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) to the not-so-brilliant (PROPHECY) to the near-unknown (THE GYPSY MOTHS—give it a try sometime) to sequels (FRENCH CONNECTION II) and action movies for Cannon Films (52 PICK UP). The 90s saw him moving back into television where he directed several projects for cable including GEORGE WALLACE, but the success of 1998’s awesome action film RONIN led to him spending the last years of his directorial career moving between features, television and even to directing the short AMBUSH for the continuing BMW web series THE HIRE which starred Clive Owen.

His 1966 cult classic SECONDS, fittingly described by Danny Peary in the Guide for the Film Fanatic as “one of the most depressing movies ever made” remains one of my favorites, for some very personal reasons. John Randolph plays a banker who, in the midst of middle-age malaise, is recruited by a shadowy organization to start his life anew, undergo plastic surgery and become a completely new person, a “Second” after which he is played by Rock Hudson. At the beginning of the film the Randolph character lives out in the suburbs—Scarsdale, to be precise, and around the corner from the house where I grew up. Across the street from his house in some shots you can see the driveway leading to the house where my best friend in kindergarten lived. I don’t think I was successful in conveying to Frankenheimer how much this film means to me—how much I identified with a movie where somebody lives in Scarsdale then buries his identity so he can go live out in California, but I still feel that whenever I watch the film.

Moments stick out in his films for me. Sinatra forcing Laurence Harvey to play solitaire in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, the races in GRAND PRIX, the Super Bowl in BLACK SUNDAY, the against-traffic chases in RONIN, the very end of FRENCH CONNECTION II which has one of the great abrupt “The movie’s over, now get out” endings of the 70s. Even something like PROPHECY, not at all one of his best, has sequences that jump out at you in how striking they are. 1982’s THE CHALLENGE, which probably didn’t get much theatrical play beyond 42nd Street, has some action scenes that are pretty terrific. At one point during the interview I asked him about attempting such logistically complicated sequences in his films. He started to give a general answer along the lines of, “I could say that about a lot of directors…” but then I mentioned a specific shot in BLACK SUNDAY. We start on a shot of Marthe Keller’s car, then crane up and over into the Orange Bowl where the Super Bowl is being played and move in on Robert Shaw standing on the sidelines. As I was describing it to him, without missing a beat he blurted out, “Yeah, well that was hard! What we had to do was…” and he began to tell me how they pulled the shot off. Then I moved onto another sequence at the Super Bowl where Robert Shaw learns about the possible terrorist attack and has to race across the length of the stadium during the game. It’s all covered with multiple cameras clearly taking the action as it all happens as the game is going on. I was then able to get him to talk specifically about how they pulled off filming some of the races in GRAND PRIX. As he spoke, I was just sitting there trying to conceal my excitement. This was one of those moments in life where you feel like you’ve just nailed what you’re trying to do.

In Frankenheimer I saw a man who had lived a good life. There had been troubles, bad films, a period after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination where he left the county for a while and an admitted battle with alcohol. But he was proud of what he had accomplished and looking forward to doing more. The day of the interview he was still scheduled to direct the EXORCIST prequel which was at that point to star Liam Neeson. I asked him about this and if it was at all strange, since he had made FRENCH CONNECTION II, that he was going to direct what was more or less a second sequel to a William Friedkin film. In his clipped style, he replied, “Yeah, I didn’t want to read the script. But my agent convinced me to read it, I thought it was brilliant, so I said I’d do it.” Several weeks later he had pulled out of the project due to his needed spinal surgery. Soon after that came the fatal stroke.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

So said John Kennedy, a man John Frankenheimer knew and no doubt took a great deal of inspiration from throughout his life and career. At their very best, the films he left behind display the work of someone who loved the craft of filmmaking and true inspiration can be found in how he looked forward to continuing to do that. He made his films the way he did because it was hard and that was how he thrived.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Tale of Lame Ducks

Deep into TRANSFORMERS John Turturro suddenly turns up as a sort of secret government agent. At first I had the desire to stand up in the theater chanting “BARTON FINK! BARTON FINK!” but then I started to see what he was doing, or more to the point, began to wonder what the hell he was doing. Each of the actors in TRANSFORMERS seem to be off in their own movie and I think the one Turturro is in is the only one I’d actually want to see. But after a few moments I stopped thinking about Barton Fink and started thinking about another role he played which could have been an inspiration for his work here, that of Roland T. Flakfizer in the now forgotten 1992 comedy BRAIN DONORS.

Produced by the Zucker Brothers and directed by Dennis Dugan, BRAIN DONORS was filmed under the title LAME DUCKS and slated to come out in July of 1991. Paramount promotional materials for that summer even included the title, but the release never happened and the film wasn’t seen until the following April when it sneaked out quietly into theaters under the unfortunate title BRAIN DONORS. In spite of the fact that Paramount didn’t screen it for critics some of the reviews, including Janet Maslin in the New York Times, had a “Gee, this is actually kind of funny” tone to them, with the most praise going to Turturro. In its theatrical run the movie grossed less than a million dollars.

It’s written by Pat Proft, but buried in the end crawl is a “Suggested by…” credit attributing the source to the Marx Brothers’ 1935 classic A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. This has always seemed like a case of lawyers being a little too careful to me, since it’s pretty obvious that BRAIN DONORS isn’t quite a remake but is in fact an attempt at a full-on tribute to the Marx Brothers and their films, especially OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES.

At the time this film was shot Turturro had just completed the brilliant BARTON FINK so he winds up somewhat resembling that character. Here, he plays the Groucho equivalent and embraces his role with the vigor of someone who believes they were born to play this part. Mel Smith, the English comic who also directed RADIOLAND MURDERS and BEAN, is Rocco Melonchek, the Chico character, and stand-up comedian Bob Nelson plays Jacques, the Harpo surrogate. Nelson speaks but fittingly, his character seems just as content when he doesn’t. In the Margaret Dumont role is the late, great Nancy Marchand playing Lillian Oglethorpe, a character name made even better every time Turturro says it.

With a plot that is very similar to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA only with ballet inserted, the film makes every possible attempt to make the story as similar in tone to an old Marx Brothers movie as possible, with the obvious exception of no musical numbers. This even includes a boring male and female lead (Spike Alexander and Juliana Donald) who of course play the roles of the boring male and female lead. The guy is of course named Alan, which makes sense considering this is the Allan Jones part.

BRAIN DONORS works best in its first half hour with some interchanges that may be somebody baldly trying to emulate the sort of dialogue rhythms that were commonplace in these types of movies once upon a time (“A Flakfizer doesn't know the meaning of the word ‘No!’ We're also a little fuzzy on ‘panagglutinin’ and ‘viscosity.’”), but it still sometimes succeeds. On its protracted road to release BRAIN DONORS must have had some scenes cut since the entire film runs only 79 minutes—this includes the end crawl and a lengthy opening credits sequence done in claymation by Will Vinton. Still, the brief running time is fitting considering the type of film they are trying to emulate and it certainly never gets boring. By the time the movie gets to its big sabotage-the-opening-night climax, it may not come close to what was done best in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, but it still makes me laugh to this day. What can I say, throwing a giant toothbrush at a ballet dancer in the middle of a performance is funny.

I doubt that John Turturro gets asked about the film very much but even so his performance is a wildly energetic portrayal that in spirit correctly harkens back to an earlier era and is something he should be proud of. Watch it sometime as a second feature after BARTON FINK. I think the two movies would go well together.