Tuesday, April 27, 2010

24 Frames: 8 1/2 (1963, Frederico Fellini)

To celebrate my first trip to Italy next week, here are 24 frames from 8 1/2, directed by Frederico Fellini, cinematography by Gianni DiVenanzo.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mr. Show Sketch of the Moment: "Worthington's Law"

When a prominent right wing windbag blurted out a defense of his anti-health care reform stance that pretty much added up to the assertion that people with more money have better houses and cars than the less fortunate, so why shouldn't they also better health care, the reduction of what should be a common goal for a country (IE the health and well being of it's citizens) to a capitalistic commodity, I instantly thought of this prescient Mr. Show sketch that ruthlessly skewers this way of thinking and the whole Fortune 500 list by presenting Worthington's Law which is comprised of one basic tenet, the more money you have = the better a person you are. Henceforth, the Great Caruso < Sammy Hagar.

Hey the monkey says I am number 124,523,099, I'm moving up!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Posterized: Now Playing April 1980

A pretty paltry month for releases, but here are the films that made their United States debut in cinemas sometime this month thirty years ago.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things As I Grow Another Year Older

The one thing that's really starting to get my goat is the proliferation of negativity on the internet. I am not a shiny, happy personality by nature, but sheesh, does the information superhighway only seem to breed the most contemptible needlessly argumentative trolls or contrarians whose desires aren't to foster a provocative and open discussion but to taunt, bully, or self congratulate themselves for their superior insight or what have you (of course to everything, there are exceptions)?

Today is my birthday, and to celebrate the final year of being in the desirable 18-34 year old range favored amongst advertisers (and as someone who used the expression "get my goat" and "sheesh" in the prior paragraph, it's likely I was never a desirable element to begin with), I am going to celebrate the art of positivity by sharing a few of the things that made my 33rd year enjoyable.

A Cocker Spaniel named Lucky

At this time last year, my wife and I were knee deep in the joys and pains of being home owners, a sea change that altered our lives. Remarkably due to being in the right place at the right time, we had another life changing event occur in July, when we spontaneously adopted a dog from a woman off the street in front of our house who was too sick to care for him. While I have owned dogs before: a grey haired poodle Sammy when I was five, our Lab/Shepherd mix Norman when I was about fifteen, this is the first time where I am one of the primary caregivers for an animal. And it's a lot of work (and money) but worth every penny and ounce of effort, seeing his little smile melts my heart, coming home and snuggling next to him brightens my mood every time, and as cliché as it sounds, in nine months time he has truly become my best friend.

My neighborhood Eagle Rock

People say community and neighborhoods don't exist in the urban sprawl that is Los Angeles. I say the people who say that, probably never lived in Los Angeles. I've been lucky enough to live in three great neighborhoods in my years here, Los Feliz, Silver Lake and now, Eagle Rock, which is one of the more diverse (race, age and income bracket wise) in the city. It's equal part urban and small town sensibility. Where chain stores and restaurants exist, but more often then not, find themselves playing second fiddle to their quirkier independently ran and/or classic institution alternatives. A brief list of some of my favorites haunts of this great section of LA are (to name but a few) Read Books, Dave's Chilin-N-Grillin', Ca Cao, The Oinkster, Colorado Wine Company and Eagle Rock Lumber and Hardware.

Bart's Books in Ojai

While I joked about no longer being in the desirable 18-34 year old age bracket, the fact of the matter is, I have probably been a bit of an anomaly for some time. I do not watch a single "reality show" (unless you count the occasionally catching of the Dog Whisperer), I log into Facebook about once every two weeks and I have absolutely no desire to read books or newspapers via the Kindle or the iPad. So for this past weekend, my birthday wish was to make the ninety minute trek to Ojai, CA and pay a visit to Bart's Books. Bart's is located in the outdoor courtyard of what was once a residence surrounded by a hundred plus year oak tree that features used and first edition books tightly stacked in every square inch. Pretty much any genre can be found, be it art books, cookbooks, history, modern literature or the most specific war and/or Sci-Fi curio. I spent about two hours here on Saturday and found about twelve books, all used (mostly ranging from classic literature to crime fiction) for the insanely reasonable price of $55.

The Pasadena City College Flea Market

As my scaredy cat reaction to the Kindle and iPad probably revealed, I am a collector of the old school kind. I like physical product. I have sampled and download songs or albums via the internet, but without the artwork or an actual disc, be it vinyl or CD, I feel a part of the equation is missing. The Pasadena City College Flea Market, held the first Sunday of every month, is a collector's dream. Unlike the $20 entry fee to the Rose Bowl Flea Market, admission is free, and a big chunk of the sellers are inside a parking structure, making a hot summer afternoon shopping trip bearable. A big section is dedicated to record collectors, and no matter if you're looking for a brand new LP, a bootleg or, like me, cheap $1 records, you will find something interesting. And if you have no interest in record collecting, there are hundreds of vendors with items ranging from books, DVDs, vintage furniture, clothing, board games, or, and this is a recent proclivity of my wife, yard art.

Los Angeles' One Screen Theatres

I've been meaning to comment on this, but back at the start of the month, the Regency Theatre chain took control over the classic Westwood one screen theatres The Village and The Bruin from the dying Mann chain (which is still in control of the Chinese Theatre, with possible changes developing). While geography dictates that they are difficult theatres for me to make it out to, I am ecstatic that they will still be around and promise to give Regency some business soon.

My first memories of seeing films in Los Angeles was catching a screening of Star Trek III at the Village and the opening night of Top Secret! with Val Kilmer in attendance at the Bruin back in 1984. Even with the neighborhood in a bit of economic slump, Westwood still reminds me of those formative experiences and it would be a damn shame if they were shuttered due to the Mann theatre chain's incompetence, especially in favor of the wretched Landmark multiplex. Regency which successfully ran the Fairfax theatre after it floundered for years under the Laemmle chain, before it sadly closed earlier this year due to the owner not updating the structure (in a move to sell it to condo developers...sigh, sorry, trying to focus on positive) deserves a successful venture

As for the other one screen theatres still operating, I've spent countless hours waxing rhapsodic on the New Beverly and the Vista (which I turned my mother and uncle onto in the last year!), so no need to again, other than to reiterate they are the two best managed theatres in the city. L.A still has other great venues like the Majestic Crest (in some trouble), the Chinese Theatre, the Cinerama Dome, the Silent Movie Theatre, The Egyptian and the Aero. Also, every summer, some of the old grand downtown palaces open for one-off shows thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy Foundation Last Remaining Seats series. All these theatres have what Quentin Tarantino alluded to in Inglourious Basterds: a certain church like reverence to cinema.

Netflix Watch it Now

As much as I love the experience of attending films at theatres, the fact is circumstances such as working full-time and the aforementioned dog dictate that a good 70% of my viewing habit is centered around DVD, Blu-Ray and DV-R'ed fare watched at home. When I got a new LCD TV set this year, I went and purchased a Playstation 3 for its Blu-Ray player (I still own no games, and it's the first game console I've had since Sega Genesis). One of the perks with the PS3 is that if you have a Netflix account, you can view their selected Watch It Now products on your television (and a good chunk of them are actually in HD!).

While the selections are peculiar to say the least, they are filled with some interesting fare, including a big chunk of the Criterion collection and a good cross-section of recent independent films. But most intriguing is the amount of out of print or never released on DVD titles that are available, including Fat City (John Huston), The Swimmer, California Split (Robert Altman), Blue Collar (Paul Schrader) and occasionally (but not now) Rolling Thunder (which I talked about in 2007 here) pops up. Currently in my Watch Instantly queue are the out of print John Cassavettes film Minnie and Mosokowitz, the never released on DVD, Diane Keaton 1970's thriller Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the Australian horror film that got a lot of recognition in the documentary about Ozploitation, Not Quite Hollywood (which itself is on Watch it Now), Patrick.

There's also a lot of television series including the original Battlestar Galactica, Lost and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The one series I've been working my way through is the great 1970's detective series starring James Garner, The Rockford Files.

Conan O'Brien

I grew up with David Letterman (whose birthday is today as well!), and remember staying up late during the summer to watch his format skewing reign on Late Night when I was in high school. And I still have a great respect for the man. But Conan O'Brien is the first talk show host that I witnessed from the beginning and share a certain kinship and comedic wavelength with. Yes, somewhere I have my VHS recorded copies of his first week of shows (he was never as bad as his earliest detractors claim, just not fully developed). When it was announced he was taking over the Tonight Show, I was generally psyched, finally the enemy to comedy Jay Leno would disappear and be replaced by actual written content over "gee aren't people stupid" man on the street gags.

Like the first year of Late Night, Conan was still testing the water, slowly ingraining his sensibility while trying to respect the history of the show and the older demographic that went with the earlier timeslot when...well you know what happened.

Through it all, Conan handled the affair with humor and dignity. His final weeks were highly energized, edgy and classy. Since being given the boot he's become one of the rare Twitter accounts actually worth reading and he's going on an American tour (which I have tickets too!!!). And today, it's been announced he will be going to TBS (really?). Not the expected move, but I will be watching, as I have been since 1993.

Thanks for reading, here's to another year of surprises and good vibes.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mr. Show Sketch of the Moment: 'Why Me? The Bob Lamonta Story"

I grew up in a particular fertile time for sketch comedy. When I started watching Saturday Night Live in 1986 (the episode that Joe Montana and Walter Payton co-hosted) it was at the start of what would be the second strongest period of the show's lifetime with a cast featuring Dana Carvey and the greatest sketch comedy actor ever, Phil Hartman, and a writing staff that included Bob Odenkirk, Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel. And having now watched a lot of the earlier seasons in total via DVD, I think a case could made that this era was more consistent then those beloved first five seasons.

In addition to the then-current Saturday Night Live, Nick at Nite was airing half hour best-of blocks of the original cast, and the fledgling Comedy Central network was running a similar best-of sketch compilations of SCTV. I was also devouring the Canadian cult troupe Kids in the Hall which aired on HBO, Comedy Central and briefly CBS, where it ran against SNL for a few seasons. There also was the short lived FOX series, The Ben Stiller Show, with a cast that featured Odenkirk (and Ben Stiller, obviously) and a writing staff that included future comedy writer-producer-director-cottage industry Judd Apatow and David Cross, I remember scanning TV Guide religiously for the rare airings and reruns, as it was often times pre-empted, and was gone after about half a season.

But the show that really got me, and inspired me to study sketch comedy writing at Second City was Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (whose resumes I touched on briefly above). The show which aired from 1995 to 1998 on HBO, is what is commonly referred to as a "writer's show" as set-ups were more elaborate and allowed for experimentation within the format. All the sketches transitioned from one to the next a la Monty Python (a major influence) which would lead to quick non-sequitor riffs that often were equally as hilarious, if not more, than the longer sketches (such as the Cock Ring Warehouse liquidation sale!!!).

One of the several refreshing aspects of Mr. Show is that it hardly ever relied on straight impersonations of celebrities, choosing rather to go with composite characters with obvious trace roots (like the Hank Williams Jr. inspired CS Lewis Jr.). They also never went for obvious targets like specific political figures and when they did riff on a specific pop culture staple, they did it in a roundabout way that never called attention to itself or relied on a cheap callback for an easy laugh. And mercifully, they only had about four recurring characters, each of which never made more than one appearance a season. I'm assuming this stemmed from Odenkirk seeing things like the Church Lady, Hanz and Franz and Matt Foley the motivational speaker (a character he originated) drudged out week after week in his days at Saturday Night Live.

While Mr. Show never achieved more than cult status, it has seen several of the performers and writers that worked on the show go on to successful careers. David Cross performs stand-up comedy regularly and has two comedy albums released on the Sub Pop record label, he's probably best known for playing Tobias Funke on the hilarious Arrested Development (and yes, he's been in the two Alvin and the Chipmunks movies). Bob Odenkirk has had made the transition to a director, with unimpressive results (The Brothers Solomon, Let's Go to Prison), but now has a guest role on the critical favorite AMC show, Breaking Bad. Other alumni include Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Bill Kenny (the voice of Spongebob Squarepants), Brian Posehn, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Paul F. Tompkins.

Okay, after that long winded introduction, let's get to the sketch. I actually always think of this at Academy Award season as it's a razor sharp satire of the cliches that the middle of the road "prestige" films that Hollywood congratulates itself for making. I kind of wish the person who posted this on Youtube had included the bumper that follows this clip, which is at an Award show where the real Bob Lamonta reveals that certain liberties were taken with his life, like pretty much everything (his parents were of normal intelligence, he never won an Olympic medal, and he's still alive...though he did grow a moustache once, but it made it look gay, so he cut if off) as it hammers the sketch's point to it's conclusion.

All four seasons of Mr. Show are available on DVD, check them out, and without further delay, here's Why Me? The Bob Lamonta Story.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague)

Part of the 1980 Project

Before he was known for his work as a writer-director of socially conscious independent films, John Sayles was a screenwriter with a deft touch and a tongue firmly planted in cheek at homaging (okay, ripping off) the big genre hits of the day for B-movie producer Roger Corman. Resulting films include the Joe Dante helmed Jaws inspired Piranha, giving John Dillinger the Bonnie and Clyde treatment in The Lady in Red, and the Star Wars on a Corman budget, Battle Beyond the Stars. In 1980 he wrote what would be his penultimate genre screenplay, Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague) [he also provided the screenplay for 1981's The Howling (reuniting him with Dante)], which in a bit of meta reflexivity is a satirical homage to the many Jaws imitators (which included the aforementioned Sayles' penned Piranha) as well as the rogue cop genre that was de rigour at the time. As with Piranha and The Howling, there is a real affection for genre tropes on display as well as a sense of humor making Alligator a enjoyable B-movie.

With a day's worth of stubble perpetually attached to his face, a pained grimace of an expression (due to the actor's real life spinal meningitis), and his gun holster positioned a la David Toschi/Bullitt, future Academy Award nominee Robert Forester is the detective who investigates a series of mysterious deaths in the St. Louis sewers that could be the work of a gigantic alligator. Of course, nobody believes him, and his edgy nature will get him kicked off the force by his Chief, played by the second Academy Award nominee in the cast, The Godfather part II's Michael V. Gazzo. Forester does amazing work, allowing himself little ego as he plays up the whinier, more anti-social aspects of these types of cops while still hitting the sheets with the hot scientist played by Robin Riker pretty quickly, and even impresses her mom! Providing a MVP cameo is Henry Silva as the crazed military leader who is brought in when the shit really hits the fan. Silva (and Sayles' script) emphasizes his fetishistic destructive side and plays the role with the intensity level turned to eleven .

While lacking Steven Spielberg's knack for suspense filmmaking and Joe Dante's knack for gonzo mayhem, director Lewis Teague, who directed the Sayles' scripted The Lady in Red, performs admirably, allowing even the more wilder aspects of the plot to play out as matter of factly as possible. And this is a film whose plot revolves around a little girl who dumps the baby alligator she got at an amusement park down the toilet at her dad's insentience, where it feeds on illegally experimented dogs that the science lab she works for fifteen years later are dumping into the sewer, making it grow to a massive size. While no one will label the film atmospheric, there is a particularly effective shot when Forester and his doomed partner go down to the sewer to investigate, and unbeknowest to them, the alligator lurks above. We see the alligator very subtly as a flashlight flickers, a scene reminiscent of some of John Carpenter's more effective technique of maximizing suspense via framing and lighting. Teague would go on to have a strange though not very distinctive career, helming two Stephen King adaptations (Cujo, Cat's Eye), the quickie Romancing the Stone follow-up The Jewel of the Nile, and Navy Seals as well as several made for TV productions.

Later in the year, John Sayles first film as a writer-director Return of the Secaucus Seven would be released and by the end of 1981 he would, with the exception of some work doing uncredited screenwriting touch-ups for big studio fare (and full credit for Clan of the Cave Bears), focus primarily on directing his own scripts. By the middle of the decade, Drive-In attendance began to dwindle with the burgeoning home video market and with studios focusing their efforts primarily on genre fare and making their own larger scale attempts to replicate successful films either by borrowing liberally from successful templates (resulting in stuff like Krull) or increased sequels to existing franchises, these more modest type of films started becoming regulated to straight to video status. Another unfortunate trend that makes Alligator an anomaly today is that horror films are rarely allowed the chance to inject some humor, other than a wise cracking sidekick to the final girl, a prime example being that the Piranha remake due this year (in 3-D, natch) is to be directed by Alexandre Aja, whose prior films include the self-serious The Hills Have Eyes remake (which I kind of liked) and High Tension. I'm betting that the tone for the remake will be a 180 degree turn from Dante's film. Though in fairness, his Mirrors was hilarious...although that was probably unintentional.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Posterized: Now Playing March 1980

I will eventually get back to some substantive posting ("why start now?" you say), but in the mean time here are some of the films that opened theatrically in March Nineteen Hundred and Eighty. Starting with the film that thus far gets my vote for worst of the year.

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