New Film Programs Abuzz in L.A.

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There is something in the air and it’s more than Spring pollen. The film programming that has currently reared its head in the Los Angeles area seems more than usually compelling. One can begin with the always inventive and cutting edge American Cinematheque, programming at both the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

At the Egyptian, the “Oh, the Animation” program recently took the most macabre of subjects and transmogrified them into filmic whimsy. Australia’s Paul McDermott had his marvelous animated short The Girl Who Swallowed Bees on display. Using cut-outs, paint, pen and ink and live action, this astounding work tells the tale of a girl who wishes to end it all but when the aforementioned insects take refuge in her body, things strangely become euphoric. McDermott uses perfectly the honey-smooth voice of Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) and charming, evocative music from Adrian Van De Velde.

Also impressive in the program was Argentinian Juan Pablo Zaramella’s Lapsus, a deceptively simple looking black and white animation about a tiny nun who loses her head, literally, as she enters a symbolic area of the unknown. Zaramella brilliantly creates humorous but profound sight gags that speak to life versus death, faith versus doubt and our ever-curious flirtation with the dark side of life.

Where else but at the Egyptian would a cineaste find a series like “Velvet Hustlers and Weird Lovemakers: Japanese 60s Action Films,” running April 25-27? One also looks forward in May to a week of films from the British consulate and, at both the Egyptian and Aero, a 70-millimeter film festival.

Speaking of the latter format, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills has a sold-out screening April 26 of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Tom Hanks hosting and special guests star Keir Dullea and effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. But ongoing is their “Great to Be Nominated” series of Oscar noms, each Monday at 7 PM, through August 25. It spans films from 1993-2007 and this is the fifth and final year of the program, so don’t say you were told too late to participate in what is turning into a golden Spring of film exhibition.

The Cream of the 60s Crop Concludes

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“What is the meaning of The Cream?”

Rather than a complaint to a waiter about spoiled milk, this was part of the verbatim written reaction prolific British film producer-director Tony Palmer received from American execs upon presenting them with his music documentary All My Lovin. Palmer winged out from London to wig out a delighted closing night Mods and Rockers Film Festival audience at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre with the aforementioned, as well as the premier UK rock trio in their alleged last concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Cream Farewell Concert and Palmer’s poetic travel doc with the drummer of The Cream, Ginger Baker in Africa.

Palmer, a protégé of Ken Russell, was not a rocker (nor a mod, for that matter), in the days when he did music docs on Puccini, Wagner, Callas and Stravinsky. But John Lennon urged him to do a piece that would not only display the music of Britain’s top rock acts but a mélange of views both witty and urgent, the socio-political views of such folks as Paul McCartney, Hendrix, the Who, Donovan, many of the previously expected suspects of this remarkable Mods and Rockers Fest 2007. Frank Zappa acerbically and wonderfully recalls having Marines onstage with the Mothers of Invention, singing military songs and then mutilating a scale model doll on cue. Author Anthony Burgess roundly tears into 60s youth and music but lightly backpedals when it comes to the use of marijuana.

But Palmer isn’t just kidding around, as he intersperses the more serious quotes with jolting imagery: Holocaust corpses, a burning Buddhist monk in Vietnam. This 1967 film was actually originally relegated to a time period after signoff on the BBC. It was, Palmer told the crowd and Festival founder and high wizard Martin Lewis, aired after a priest delivered a closing “Epilogue” for the night, followed by 30 seconds of darkness. Happily, the DVD of All My Lovin will illuminate home video viewers next month.

“I don’t know if they’ll let you get away it,” Eric Clapton told Palmer after he saw All My Lovin and doubted its eventual airing. Thankfully, Palmer has done so and his coverage of The Cream onstage at the Royal Albert Hall sometimes becomes video art, with flaring colors, getting across the body heat of the performers, including Jack Bruce’s powerful singing and most especially Baker’s snaky arms and writhing head during an extended drum solo. Asking Baker and Clapton to demonstrate, in the relative calm of a studio, specific blues guitar and drum techniques is a unique and additional treat.

Palmer is not quite sure why he agreed to go along with Baker in 1971 from Algeria to Nigeria, for the creation of Ginger Baker in Africa but Baker’s narrative, which sounds more like spoken song lyrics, is a pleasant choice. Whether it’s a jam with Lagos musicians, a wild dance sequence featuring Fela Kuti or an offbeat animated retelling of their arrest on a technicality, this doc constantly surprises.

As befits the best attended M&R Fest, one that exceeded the fondest wishes of many with scores of live musical performances and music luminaries, Lewis had a closing night coup: psychedelic pop icons Strawberry Alarm Clock—including five of the six original members—were pleasantly coerced into performing in the “clubhouse,” the rear room of the Pig and Whistle restaurant next door.

“Incense and Peppermints” went to number one in 1967 and the Strawberry Alarm Clock did an elongated version of it in the clubhouse, one that took the controlled fuzzy tone of that lead guitar and expanded on it, gnarly and thrashing, yet returning to the sweet melody of it.

That’s why this writer so loves 60s music and culture and this essential Fest, every year at the Egyptian. Through a lens smudged with global warming and depleted uranium and suitcase bombs and the fallout of collapsing bridges and levies, one can look back at the 60s and smile. Not because the era was free from itsown strife. Maybe a major accomplishment of the 60s was a willingness to protest war and racism and sexism and pollution and just American empire in general. And in film and music, 60s artists could deeply, purely express a righteous wellspring of rage or a giddy, feel-good, even spacy expression of the hope provided by the thing that we still, albeit shakily, hold onto: that all our loving combined, even as a psychological construct, is far more valuable than glib, clever despair.

The Delightful Chaos of “The Reunion”

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[The Reunion, co-written and -directed by Darcy Halsey and Danny Parker, with the SpyAnts Theatre Company, The Howard Fine Theater, Hollywood.]

The term “full disclosure” is used when a reviewer has a personal connection someone related to a review, and in the case of Darcy Halsey, the co-director, -writer and a performer in the ingeniously crafted The Reunion at the Howard Fine Studio in Hollywood, I am happy to oblige. Halsey was one of five remarkable performers in Simon Levy’s Fountain Theatre production of What I Heard About Iraq, a show I was proud to serve on as Media Consultant.

Halsey’s multiple characters and dialects were impressive enough during the five-month run of Iraq but with The Reunion, she, her partner in writing and directing crime Danny Parker and the SpyAnts Theatre Company have constructed an audience walk-through show that takes us to the ten-year reunion, ostensibly, of the Woodrow Wilson High Warriors, Class of ‘84. Halsey and Parker have exhaustively put together 57 scenes, totalling five hours and 25 actors. As with the former long-running hit Tamara, the audience chooses which characters to follow. The temptation to dart from a patio to a courtyard to an open door of a bathroom is great during the two- hour running time.

Among the revelations that the audience members may experience or hear about from fellow attendees: The born-again Christian girl who had her breasts photographed, photocopied and pasted up all over school. The doting husband who is reminded by a classmate of their homosexual fling. The football jock who may or may not have accidentally hit a teammate with his truck, crippling him for life. The reunon guest who blackmails a teacher into keeping silent about his attending The Reunion…with his mistress.

Full disclosure cannot be invoked in either this summary or one visit. Alas, The Reunion, subtitled Everything Changes, Everyone Stays the Same, which ran last year, must close August 4. Marvelously mind-boggling in its complexity, with lots of sordid revelations and hijinks, The Reunion deserves a long-term home. Halsey and Parker and their brilliant, scurrying SpyAnts, show not only great story sense from those three months of improvised scenes before script completion, but prove to be a large ensemble that is thoroughly talented, through and through. Go Warriors!

[Critical Moment: Hilarious, outlandish, complex, intricately crafted and a large yet very polished ensemble in a terrifically fun walk-through theatre experience.]

Lansky/The Car Plays

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Much has been made of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the “banality of evil,” the human face of a Nazi like Adolph Eichmann, about whom she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In fact, the play Lansky, written by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna, directed by the latter, manages to present mobster Meyer Lanksy as a put-upon, persecuted figure whose attempts to permanently emigrate to Israel are foiled. All this is done between his musings about his life and bromides about the corned beef in both Miami and Israel, where the play takes place.

Mike Burstyn imbues the character with the right mix of humanity, toughness and self-entitlement, and Krevolin and Bologna have done deep research, to bring to the fore such topics as his family’s persecution in Russia, his relationships to such Mafiosi as Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, investing with the latter in a new development called Las Vegas. While gambling and money-laundering seemed to be Lansky’s forte, the inner demons depicted in the work seem to be about a former wife, sketchily mentioned. Bologna’s staging becomes curious when he has Burstyn confront an audience member and insist on taking a bite of a corned beef sandwich, one that does not meet with his approval. This uncomfortable breaking of the fourth wall ironically provides one of the few moments of tension or menace. While well-constructed, the play opts for self-deceit and self-pity on the part of the character, which makes its two act structure a bit bulky.

Breaking the fourth wall in an entirely different way is the Moving Arts production of The Car Plays, presented once each month at the Steve Allen Theatre’s parking lot. Three rows of five cars are the stages for these ten-minute pieces, generated by a variety of playwrights for audiences of one or two at the time per car. Series B, the only one available to this writer, sported a couple of crime-related pieces, well-performed but not entirely gripping. But writer-director Michael David scores with Ladies of the Evening, in which a matron (Mary Boucher) attempts to engage a female prostitute, only to learn she is a he (Brian Weir).

The intense intimacy of these works, set in cars, where the audience may be guided to a front or back seat, is utterly addictive. Sometimes the performers acknowledge one’s presence, inches away from them, and sometimes not. The logistics of setting up the “stage” prevent the show from being performed for many at a time, or for more than one night a month. But the site specific boundary-stretching of the show makes it well worth one’s while to hit the open road of theatricality.

[Lansky by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, West Los Angeles. The Car Plays presented by Moving Arts at the Steve Allen Theatre, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.]

It All Goes Back to Sahl

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It is a challenge to one’s journalistic impartiality to merely say comedian Mort Sahl will be having a tribute June 28th at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. Reason one to go: Sahl deserves the epithet “legendary” more than any other comedian, outliving his contemporary Lenny Bruce in the field of political and social standup. Reason two: He turns 80 and this is a benefit for the Heartland Comedy Foundation, a provider of support to those in the comedy profession who require financial support.

Reason three: His work has made it possible for current comedy commentators Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and of course, Bill Maher, with the latter performing at Wadsworth. Reason four: Joining Maher will be an astounding line up of talent, including Albert Brooks, Jay Leno, Drew Carey, Paula Poundstone, David Steinberg, Jonathan Winters and, on tape, Mort’s longtime pal Woody Allen.

Reason five: I am fortunate to know Mort, to get to banter with him on occasion at my local Starbucks. He generously gave me a blurb on my humor how-to What Are You Laughing At?. His incisive wit skewers all sides, not easy targets. His willingness to make us think twice about our longheld notions is embodied in his line, “A liberal is just a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet.”

Tickets are available here, with a discount for using the code “MORT80.” Come, laugh and acknowledge the man who ascended the stage at San Francisco’s Hungry I in 1953, with the day’s newspaper rolled up in his hand and lightly, humorously has been swatting us with the absurdity of our world. You have more than enough reasons.

Chasing the Ending of The Sopranos

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I am amused at how upset so many viewers are at the ending of the HBO series The Sopranos.

We Americans are very much geared toward “closure,” a seemingly magical term signifying something akin to acceptance of a storyline’s conclusion, in the arts or in real life. So, the image of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) watching his daughter join his family for a rare public outing or perhaps watching a gunman come out of a restroom with a gun pointed at him (and perhaps his family as well) is not the closure so many viewers apparently wanted.

But what did you want? Tony going into the witness protection program? Does that sound plausible? A last image of a fractured family, barely holding it together, eating onion rings, before, presumably, Tony will be going to jail? Or perhaps viewers thought one of the most affecting series in the history of American television should have concluded, after eight years, with the boss lying in a pool of blood, with family crying over his prone body, with a mournful swell of violins?

In fact, series creator David Chase, in writing and directing the last episode, came up with the perfect ending for a show so many people did not want to end. It is filled with ironies that are more rewarding to ponder than a clear-cut conclusion.

Take for example the irony of a show that had shatteringly powerful depictions of violence, now ended with an inferred but unseen fusillade of bullets. How about the irony of the group Journey on the jukebox singing “Don’t Stop Believin’?” That could refer to Tony Soprano believing in the future of his family. Or his wondering whether his life, devoted to the Mafia, was worth all the death and despair that attended it. Yes, could it be that as the screen went blank on Steve Perry’s singing voice wailing, “Don’t stop!” that David Chase found the best ironic comment on both the show’s storyline and our obession with how this remarkable show might end?

I hope those who are foaming at the mouth about the ambiguity of the end will keep in mind one of the most important strands of thought to come out of the last few episodes of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is disturbed to learn that many in her profession find career criminals use therapy to justify what they do, rather than leaving it behind. And who gets to leave the Mafia anyway? And in what condition?

And what if some of the unease we felt in that last diner scene had nothing to do with a hit on Soprano? In fact, what must it be like to live your life wondering if each moment may be your last outside of a penitentiary?

One of the fascinating aspects to the series is how members of the Soprano bloodline cope with the knowledge of what the scion of their family does. Carmela, when not filled with maternal angst about her family, loses herself in materialism. A.J., suicidal after a failed love, turns from righteous indignation at society’s ills to a darkly transcendent moment, glorying in the destruction of an SUV he was in moments before.

And Meadow, most ironic of all, decides to go into law, motivated by her father’s humiliation at the hands of the FBI. It is an FBI that ostensibly has provided Soprano with information to annihilate his adversary Phil Leotardo, and perhaps, have his remaining adversaries do the same to him. The only character exultant during this is an FBI agent who relishes the self-destruction of the Jersey mobsters.

There is a perfect fatalism in not knowing whether Tony is gunned down. The point is that within that world, killing immediate family members was supposed to be off-limits. And yet, Phil Leotardo is whacked in front of his family. Before he goes down, an innocent man and woman are mistakenly killed. The fact that Tony Soprano’s wife and kids may witness his own death–and be potential victims themselves–at the end makes a stunning commentary.

The escalation of the war between Mob families in The Sopranos is the brutal, unflinching reminder that even their rules can go out the window. It is a reminder that a war in Jersey or a war in Iraq or a genocide in Darfur or even a war of silence between estranged relatives can go on and on and on, even when a majority of people involved don’t want it to. The rapid closure we sometimes seek in life, like the closure we wanted in The Sopranos, often eludes us.

An Unidentifiable, Exotic Taste

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[Paprika, written by Satoshi Kon and Seishi Minakami, based on the novel by Yatsutake Tsutsui, directed by Kon. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.]

Animation is ideal for stories that inherently warp reality and feature rapid transformations and scene changes. It was the ideal art form for a family-friendly whirligig like Disney’s Aladdin and it’s breathtakingly apropos in Japanese director Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. The story involves a device, the DC Mini, that can capture one’s dreams on electronic equipment. But when one goes missing from a psychic laboratory, it turns out that all external reality can be shifted by the illicit user, who must have come from within the company.

Thus, the circumspect Dr. Chiba Atsuko, her alter-ego Paprika, the gluttonous inventor Himuro, a cop who is haunted by a partner’s death and others undercut each other’s attempts to dominate reality. The stunning anime imagery can range from an explosion of blue butterflies coming out of a character’s head, to a giant, traditional Japanese toy doll decimating a downtown area in a fit of pique.

Paprika, like many anime projects, explores themes like the clash of Western and Eastern cultural iconography and the nature of identity. But its ongoing rush of normally inanimate objects or creatures wreaking havoc, mixed with the corporate skullduggery, are an absolute joy to behold and worthy of a second look, especially down the road on DVD.

[Critical Moment: Overwhelmingly visual stunner, with nice touches of humor and character development. At the top of the list for not just anime but animation.]

A Farewell to Art

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[Entertainment Today, Feb. 18, 2000]

Many people have waxed poetic about the Internet’s advantages. Each day when I log on, and the Yahoo! page comes up, I am greeted with the news of who has died.

Is it me or is there something wrong with the word “Yahoo!” in bright, happy red letters followed by who is recently dead?

Thus, my mornings often start with involuntary, stunned grunts. Recently, there has been a flurry of funny person necrology.

I laughed the very first time I saw rubber-faced Jim Varney on a TV commercial. Now, he’s gone.

I grew up with the comic strip “Peanuts” and now, Charles Schulz is gone.

But the Yahoo! announcement that really hit me hardest was the loss of Art Hoppe.

For those who do not read the San Francisco Chronicle or the other 100 or so papers which ran his syndicated column, Arthur Hoppe was smart without being pompous, humorous without being tasteless, passionate without being strident.

His characters were gently confused. Like redneck Joe Sikspak, put-upon Private Oliver Drab and a presidential candidate named Nobody. His better known targets included White House denizens like Nick Dixon, Ronald of Holyrude and Jiminy Beaver.

I am in year four of “Development Hell.” When Hoppe passed on to that big Copy Desk in the Sky, February 1, at the age of 74, he had been writing his column for more than forty years.

When I was editor of my high school newspaper in Northern California, the Burlingame B, my advisor, Mr. Christensen, fondly referred to me as “the poor man’s Art Hoppe.” I never considered it anything but the highest compliment.

I once attended a celebrity book sale in San Francisco, because Art Hoppe was supposed to be among those in attendance. I got there first, figuring I was in for a long wait. Art Hoppe was second.

When I told him of Mr. Christensen’s nickname for me, I received the best possible reply. A deep, resonant, honest laugh.

Hoppe was much more than a satirist. His impeccable style and journalistic acuity enabled him to report on any story, be it heartfelt or outlandish.

One of his best known columns voiced feelings so perfectly, yet so simply. During the Viet Nam war, he wrote: “The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, ‘Good.” And having said it, I realized the bitter truth: Now I root against my own country.”

And in response to inevitable, angry letters, Hoppe would often reply with one sentence:

“The cookbook you have ordered will arrive under separate cover.”

Hoppe once spent a week living undercover as a homeless man. He traveled to Europe to explain to readers the foreign policies of Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Andorra.

Who else but Hoppe, during the tensions of the “space race,” would sojourn to the African nation of Zambia to describe how astronauts were being trained by being rolled downhill in barrels?

He wrote two plays and eight books and despite lukewarm sales of the latter, Hoppe’s son Nick said he was still amused:

“Dad always said that some people collect rare books and that he writes them.”

But his books will never be as rare as Art Hoppe himself.

I can summarize his impact on me with one word.

Yahoo!

“Once” in a While, a Unique Approach

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[Once, written and directed by John Carney. Released by Fox Searchlight.]

John Carney, who has written and directed the low-budget, low-key but heartfelt musical film Once, has a special communication with his star, Glen Hansard. Carney is a former member of Hansard’s current group The Frames. Furthermore, keyboardist Marketa Irglova forms a solid triumvirate as Hansard’s immigrant love interest in this film, shot in Dublin.

Hansard, a busker (a role that suited him in Alan Parker’s The Commitments), finds the irrepressible Irglova relentless in pursuing a friendship that he tries to turn into a romance, in the course of a week. The music that they make together is so lovingly crafted and rendered with such passion on film, that the nominal story takes a back seat.

Most indies that choose amateur actors hurt the project’s believeability but Carney uses his players in a wily, run-and-gun way that emulates documentary filmmaking. That said, Hansard, should he decide to lay down his guitar and re-Frame his career for a while, certainly could hold his own with more polished film actors.

The screening, held at Harmony Gold in Hollywood, featured a Q&A and a live performance of the film’s music by Carney, Hansard and Irglova, whose musical talents are undeniable and captivating. Multimillion dollar film musicals must dazzle with greater and greater set pieces. Carney seems to have discovered that the micro-budget musical can go a long way on great songs and an utter lack of pretension.

[Critical Moment: Marvelous musical performances, simple plot, shaky cam but an authenticity that wins over audiences.]

“Whatsamatter? Don’t You Like Musical Comedy?”

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[Roy Scheider makes a big production out of dying in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.]

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the 1979 film, All That Jazz, directed by the astoundingly gifted Bob Fosse, on May 7. As confirmed by many of those involved in a Q & A, All That Jazz could not be a studio movie today. It almost wasn’t one for Columbia and Fox almost 30 years ago.

Richard Dreyfuss was going to play Benzedrine, booze and babes addicted Fosse alter ego Joe Gideon. But executive producer Daniel Melnick told the audience that Dreyfuss arrived one day with his attorney and agent and secretly confided, “I can’t see my fat Jewish ass onstage being a dancer.”

As a result, Roy Scheider gives the performance of a career as Gideon. It is there in his face during a hospital hallucination, after open heart surgery, when he escapes his bed and lovingly kisses an aged, dying woman. You see his conflicted feelings as Jessica Lange, as a white-clad angel of death, entices him to leave this world.

Among the group onstage after the film was world-class cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who flew in from Italy. “Peppino” shared emotionally how after they wrapped, Fosse put Rotunno in a chair in the middle of a soundstage, had dancers perform around him and whispered in his ear, lovingly, “I hope I have embarrassed you, Peppino.”

There is so much talent involved: Oscar-winning editor Alan Heim, the acting and dancing of Leland Palmer and Ann Reinking, as Gideon true loves, past and present. Yet it must all come back to Fosse, whose real life carousing, heart condition and need for obsessive tinkering are caught in a remarkably creative, visual manner. This stage dancer, choreographer and director captured dance on film in one of the most thrilling manners imaginable. Fosse’s work is worthy of the highest accolades, beyond the film’s Oscars and Golden Palm at Cannes. His script, with Robert Alan Aurthur, previewed Fosse’s own early demise. Melnick stated many actors, before Scheider signed, refused to do All That Jazz, if the Gideon character died. The proper response might be held within the otherworldly hospital hallucination, where Scheider as Gideon as Fosse looks up, as if to God, and asks, “Whatsamatter? Don’t you like musical comedy?”