Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Curious Case of Buzz

In the middle of the week, the internets was a buzz with the release of the trailers for two films whose reputations heretofore were dramatically opposed: the delayed and troubled remake of The Wolfman, whose original director Mark Romanek walked off before shooting began and was recently pushed from a prestigious Fall release to what appeared to be a February dump (a similar fate recently bestowed to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, his first narrative film since winning the long coveted Best Director Oscar for The Departed) and the ten year in development, San Diego Comic Con hype machine approved, Avatar, James Cameron's historically expensive follow-up to the, well, historically expensive, yet highest grossing film of all time, Titanic.

Now that the trailers and actual footage for both films have been seen, it appears the tide has shifted and early anecdotal evidence suggests that The Wolfman is garnering positive word of mouth while Avatar is eliciting muted, if not downright hostile, reactions.

Before we precede, I must add an obvious, yet necessary caveat, trailers never tell the whole story. They are first and foremost a function of marketing. They may hint at the visual style, storyline and acting performances, but their primary purpose is to produce a compelling advertisement that will get viewers anticipating the product. I, of course, have an affinity for trailers, either as an artifact that shows the manner in which something we now know as a specific commodity was once promoted or for the rare trailer that transcends cliches and and is in and of itself a piece of art. A recent example of the misleading nature of the game are the trailers for Inglorious Basterds which focus primarily on Brad Pitt and his merry band of Naht-zee bashing men-on-a-mission, which in reality only constitutes a third of a two and a half hour movie. Jeez, I wonder why the marketers didn't tip the audience that over half the dialogue is spoken in languages other than English?

Another great example that displays the full capabilities of using actual footage to misled viewers is the fan created trailer of The Shining that is recut to make it appear to be a touching comedy about the bonding of a man and boy, a cutting satire on how one can recontextualize pretty much any images and provide an entirely different meaning. You can view it here.

With that said, let's look at the trailer for The Wolfman:

Some shoddy CGI and quick cuts* aside, I like what I see. The concentration on atmosphere as well as making it a period piece set in London is more in reverence to the classic Universal monster films than anything we saw in either Stephen Sommer's Van Helsing or the Mummy films. Plus the collection of talent is impressive, Benicio Del Toro is always a welcomed idiosyncratic presence, and even if director Joe Johnson doesn't exactly instill confidence, (he's a director for hire, he won't bring too much to the table, but if the elements are in place, he won't fuck it up either) at least he had the presence of mind to keep makeup artist Rick Baker on board after Romanek exited, Baker of course designed the greatest werewolf transformation ever put on film in An American Werewolf in London. (*Can't take the graphics in CGI too much to task at this point since they may not yet be fully rendered, and the editing of course may not be representative of the approach in the film, but just an easy way to throw out a bunch of enticing images).

Here's the trailer for Avatar:

Let me say that no matter what you think of the footage, this is a well-cut trailer. It displays a distinct sensibility and has a rhythmic energy, the rare time when a trailer lets the images mysteriously communicate the story.

Now as for the images...okay, another diversion, wherein I briefly discuss my opinion of CGI in this day and age: I am pretty much agnostic with a slight lean towards atheism on the subject. That's not to say I can't be blown away by it's usage, examples off the top of my head include Jurassic Park, the Gollum, David Fincher's Zodiac and Benjamin Button, and most recently, District 9 which was made for something like a ninth of the budget of Avatar. But I believe it should be employed only in service of the story and as seamless as possible, I was a bit bummed out when in Drag Me to Hell a scene that recalled many of the gross-out gags of The Evil Dead series used cheap looking CGI when the movies Sam Raimi made for a mere fraction of the budget in the 80's had homemade practical effects that looked better!

James Cameron though is one of the innovators in the field, the T-1000 in Terminator 2 was a revelation in 1991, and Titanic, for whatever you thought of the film, had an attention to detail that only a perfectionist like Cameron could produce. However with that said, the world and creatures he's spent the last ten years of his life developing to the most minute detail quite frankly look like a video game, and not a compelling video game at that. The design of the Na'vi looks like the brainchild of a Broadway producer attempting to combine the drawing power of Cats and the Blue Man Group and the world looks like the cover of a Dungeons and Dragons spin-off novel. Everything else looks superb though, and to damn with faint praise, it looks much more appealing to me than the "photoreal" crap Robert Zemeckis has been making the last five years (of which I haven't seen either).

While everyone should reserve judgment until they see the actual film (I know, get that logic shit out of here) and Cameron deserves the benefit of the doubt, the morale of the story thus far is if you are going to tout your film as a game-changer, make sure you are changing the game to something people are interest in playing. And so far, the jury's still out.

So are you planning on seeing either Avatar or The Wolfman? What did you think of the trailers? Did they persuade you one way or another? Do trailers play a major factor on whether or not you will see a movie? Leave a comment and let me know. I assure you I am not in marketing research.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Highland Theatre

An independently run neighborhood theatre is a beautiful thing. I have only been lucky enough to live within a five minute walk of a movie theatre for approximately five years of my life. Four of those were between the years of 1984-88, when the Blossom Hill Twin Theatre, a second run dollar theatre, located in a strip mall up the street from the house I grew up in, operated. I spent many a summer afternoon lazing about there to the point I cannot begin to comprehend how many times I saw Revenge of the Nerds II during it's (rather) long run in 1987, though it must of approached the upper teens. The other time was about five years ago when my apartment was a few blocks away from the Los Feliz 3, a theatre that has much in common with the Highland Theatre. I also lived a good, but totally doable, twenty minutes from the Vista Theatre for the last three and a half years before moving to Eagle Rock in March. What’s great about both the Highland and the Los Feliz is that due to their independence and the whims of the clientele, they are not as beholden to the release patterns of the corporate chains. I remember, for example, Lars and the Real Girl, a film I didn’t personally care for, played the Los Feliz for about six weeks, way longer than any other cinema in town.

Highland Park is one of the oldest neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles, and is just southeast of Eagle Rock. The Highland Theatre is located smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood's thoroughfare street, Figueroa. Highland Park is full of interesting businesses such as Galco's, an old grocery store dedicated to the curio of bottled soda pop, the North Figueroa Animal Hospital, the affordable and friendly veterinarian where we take our beloved Cocker Spaniel Lucky to, the first Forever 21 store and most recently, the erection of Chicken Boy, a statue that once adorned an old local fast food chain situated a block away from the theatre. With cheap rent and house prices, the predominately Latino area may be going through something of a seachange as cafes and pubs aimed at appealing to a new, more artsy, and tattooed urbanite crowd (see how I didn't use the word "hipster") have been popping up. Currently though, the theatre's programming, pretty much all mainstream blockbusters/crowd pleasers seem directed at the more traditional Highland Park resident.

Built in 1924 and designed by Lewis A. Smith, the same person who designed the Vista Theatre, the Highland was once a one screen theatre with a balcony. At some point, I'm guessing the mid 60's or early 70's, it was split into three theatres, a fashionable trend at the time and a fate which also befell the Los Feliz 3, but to the Highland's credit, their division makes more logical sense than the Feliz's strange redesign. The balcony is currently unused in conjunction with any of the theatres, it's roped off and seemingly used for concession containers storage.

Somewhere in the 70's it was briefly a porno theatre, but when the residents protested, it reverted back to it's pre XXX bookings.

I caught a matinee of Orphan on Sunday, and there was a line getting inside of families going to see G.I. Joe. The first thing that will strike you when you get to the ticket booth is their low prices, only $4 for matinees, and a mere $6 for evening shows. And that’s not all on the discount front, they feature all day admission of a mere $3 every Tuesday and Wednesday. Hey for that price I might even catch G.I. Joe!

I was in theatre 1, the furthest theatre to the left of the entrance. Thanks to the suspicious glances I was getting from the cashier I didn't get to peek inside either of the other two auditoriums, but judging from the location (smack dab in the middle of the lobby), the extra width of the doors, and the popularity of the movie playing in it (Joe), Theatre 2 is probably the largest auditorium, most certainly comprised of what was once the the middle section of the original single screen layout. By that basis, theatre 3, which was playing the long in release Bruno is probably either equal to or smaller than theatre 1.

My theatre was decent enough, both it's screen size and number of seats are comparable to a mid-level theatre at the Grove. But while that theatre has the latest accouterments, the Highland theatre is, like it's historical building and discount pricing, a relic. There's no stadium seating to be found here nor a state of the art stereo surround system (though the sound was fine). The only modern convenience you'll find is a cup holder. The layout is tunnel like, which ultimately means that for the optimum viewing experience, you probably don't want to sit any further back than the mid-point.

Like many theatres that were split into smaller auditoriums, there were times the sound of the other film's big action scenes bled into our theatre. But for the most part, it wasn't an issue and only occurred during the most quiet of moments.

When the previews began, I was the sole member of the audience, but slowly people started trickling in, even after about fifteen minutes into the actual film, in total there were about twenty people at the showing. It's a neighborhood theatre, which people trend to treat like their home, coming in at the last (or past the last) minute and yes, there was some talking, though thankfully it wasn't ever too disruptive. I don't think I'd see a film that requires a premium amount of attention here, but it worked just dandy for the escapades of a murderous Russian (or was she Estonian?!? spoiler!) orphan girl.

Besides, arty introspective type movies don't really play here, it's a theatre aimed at families and teenagers, of which both where in heavy supply for a Sunday matinee. The Highland Theatre knows it's clientele, it's an independently ran neighborhood theatre.

And that's a beautiful thing, my friends.

For more on the Highland Theatre here's it's Cinema Treasures page.

Heck, they'll even spot your movie's title a definite article when they feel you need one.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Is there livestock in any of them?"

Here's a short film from the Coen Brothers, featuring Josh Brolin in a performance that appears to be an amalgam of his George W. Bush from W and Llewyen Moss from No Country for Old Men personas, called World Cinema which they made for last year's Cannes Film Festival.

The short also predominately features the Aero theatre in Santa Monica, which I wrote about a bit here. The Aero, a single screen, is seen here playing a theatre with two screens.


Tip of the hat to Drew @ Hitfix for posting this.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Movies Go to the Movies: Kentucky Fried Movie. But First a Rant

No two ways about it, the news for people who care about movie exhibition in Los Angeles the last couple of weeks has been devastating. LACMA announced it's cancelling it's wonderful weekend film series (if you haven't yet, please sign this petition to save the program ASAP), the Mann Festival in Westwood closed (with one silver lining: it's seats went to the New Beverly), followed by this report in the LA Times that Mann will not renew it's lease on either the Village or Bruin theatres when they expire next year, making their futures uncertain. Additionally, the Majestic Crest is still looking for a seller, and now the Grauman's Chinese Theatre, also currently operated by Mann, is on the sales block. I can't imagine the Chinese is in any danger of closing, and really Mann is a horribly run corporation that appears to be on the verge of dissolving, but the loss of these great one screen palaces that were de rigeur in the 60's-80's in favor of the impersonal mall multiplexes at Century City and Westside Pavilion (The Landmark is a fucking reprehensible step in a downward spiral of theatrical exhibition that is long over due for an evisceration by yours truly; alas another day) says a lot about the disposability of the theatre going experience in our modern short attention span times. Inevitable yes, depressing nonetheless, certainly.

Here's another article about the state of Los Angeles theatre exhibition, I'd like to take umbrage with something the anonymous "top indrustyite" says, specifically "you can't make a profit on a one-screen theatre", that's lazy thinking, which I guess is stock and trade for indrustyites, again I point you in the direction of the Vista, Cinerama Dome and New Beverly as exemplars of forward, personal and innovative steps to maintain relevance in the changing times.

To try to make myself feel better, I put on an old favorite, the John Landis directed Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker penned sketch comedy Kentucky Fried Movie. Unfortunately, to no avail, the constant barrage of dick, fart and boob jokes that I found hilarious in my younger days stuck me as strained today (not that there can't be good dick, fart and boob jokes, but they need to be more creative) and then early in the film I was reminded of another one screen theatre that has closed within the last two years, South Pasadena's Rialto Theatre, one of four to close in that period: the National in Westwood (another Mann theatre, natch), the Regent Showcase on La Brea and the aforementioned Festival being the others.

Closing in Autumn 2007, the Rialto was the last one screen theatre standing in the Pasadena area, owned at the time of it's termination by the Landmark chain, which was focusing all it's attention on the fucking Landmark and ruining a bunch of the historical architectural touches of the NuArt in Santa Monica at the time. It was suffering from years of neglect and even though it should've thrived in what is a small neighborhood feel in South Pasadena, it's bookings seemed directionless (the selections fluctuated between arthouse and blockbusters) and the decaying state was antithetical to the upscale neighborhood.

If you've seen your fair share of John Landis directed films, then you will know the film on the marquee, See You Next Wednesday, is his in-joke film within a film that appears in everything he directs--the Blues Brothers crash through a billboard for the film, it's on a marquee in a theatre in An American Werewolf in London--that was derived from a line of dialogue from 2001.

In another self referential nod, a poster for Landis' directorial debut , the Z-grade monster movie parody, Schlock, is in a poster frame and coming soon.

While the theatre is not in everyday operation, it has been showing some special one time only engagements, which it did last week (which I only discovered after the fact, damn it), when it had a special presentation of the 1971 motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday. Hopefully this is a sign of, if not a return to exhibition, at least more one-off screenings, and the good news is that is hasn't been demolished.

For more on the theatre, here's it's Cinema Treasures page.

Maybe they will bring back Feel-A-Round.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Death Takes a Trip to Shermer, IL

John Hughes (1950-2009)

Granted as a child of divorce growing up in the lower spectrum of a suburban middle class milieu, I was an easy mark, but save for Asian males who had to bare the brunt of ridicule caused by his most, let’s say “racially insensitive” character, Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong, I can’t imagine too many members of my generation and social status who didn’t have some sort of positive relationship with the films of writer-producer-director John Hughes, who passed away yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Among the cliques at my high school (be they of the Goth, smart or popular strata) one point of common ground was a love of The Breakfast Club. The combination of being at his peak during the rise in popularity and proliferation of VHS and cable, being one of the only filmmakers who consistently spoke to teens in a non-condensing and familiar manner while granting said teen viewers a bit of wish fulfillment--Molly Ringwald gets the hunk, the suspended misfits tell off the principal, Ferris Bueller has his day off free of any consequences--led him to become one of the most consistent hit-makers in film between the years 1983-1989. By the end of the decade, probably due to a desire to break out of the teen “ghetto” he shifted focus and made a handful of adult aimed comedies (Planes, Trains and Automobiles being the most accomplished) until the smashing success of Home Alone, which he wrote and produced but gave directing duties to Chris Columbus shifted his career once again, this time pandering to even less discerning viewers than teenagers: young kids (Beethoven, the Home Alone sequels and Baby Day’s Out amongst others being the result). After the failure of 1991’s Curly Sue, he never directed again and though he wrote a lot of screenplays in the following years (some under a pseudonym) his sudden departure from the spotlight led him to being labeled a recluse in the vain of a OMD listening J.D. Salinger.

Recently I caught a few minutes of The Breakfast Club for the first in about ten years on cable, where it and the rest of Hughes’ 80’s oeuvre will live on for eternity, and it struck me that a lot of what I saw as profound in my teens seemed a little silly in my 30’s. But that’s okay, it’s not important what their value to me is now, but rather what they provided me (the aforementioned familiarity with my concerns as an adolescent, wish fulfillment, et cetera) at an impressionable age. I don’t know if I will seek out one of Hughes films for nostalgia sake this week, in many ways it’s unnecessary, they are that ingrained in my memory. So thank you Mr. Hughes for speaking to a 80’s child of divorce who grew up in the lower spectrum of middle class suburbia for a couple of years, even if Ducky should have totally ended up with Andie.

Here are the posters for some of his most notable work.






Writer-Executive Producer:



Writer-Producer (okay, not one of his career highlights, and pretty much a 90 minute commercial for Target, but I liked it when I was 15 and always thought Jennifer Connelly looked amazing in this poster)
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