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Coming to a Theater Near You: Wholesale Paranoia

07/20/2012

by Glenn Lovell

The audience emitted a collective gasp Friday morning as the exit door at the front of a northern California multiplex opened about 30 minutes into “The Dark Knight Rises.”

With CNN updates of the overnight massacre at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, fresh in our minds, those of us in attendance at Santa Clara’s Mercado 20 had our focus snapped when a pool of bright sunlight poured into the auditorium. A figure exited furtively through the door, leaving it slightly ajar for a minute or two, and then reentered ‒ the shooter’s M.O. at the midnight showing of the new Batman movie.

Of course it turned out to be a theater employee doing a security check.

Still, for a moment there, suspecting a copycat crime, our hearts were in our throats.

I’m sure the above scenario will play out at hundreds of theaters around the country this weekend.

And while they won’t admit it, box office analysts are right now wondering how the horrific events in Colorado will affect ticket sales. Will they keep people away from the dour, plenty violent Warner Bros. release co-starring Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway? Will potential ticket-buyers say, “Not on your life ‒ I go to the movies to escape, not to be reminded of a real-life movie massacre!”

Or, God forbid, will the mass shooting add a filament of danger, morbidity, making the new Batman saga all the more alluring to young thrill-seekers?

Warner Bros.’ front office won’t own up to this, but I would wager it’s secretly banking on the latter response. After all, it’s in the business of making money and “The Dark Knight Rises” was highly touted as the summer blockbuster.

To the studio’s credit, it wasted no time yanking most of the trailers for its fall release “Gangster Squad.” The tease includes a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre variation, with gangsters positioned behind a movie screen, spraying an audience with machine-gun fire.

Will the sequence be cut from the feature, much as domestic terrorism scenes was deleted from movies released in the wake of 9/11? Probably. Audiences wouldn’t be able to look at it now without being reminded of the carnage in the Aurora strip mall.

Auteur! Auteur! Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

06/22/2012

By Glenn Lovell

Andrew Sarris, who died Wednesday at age 83, wrote about movies his entire life but most notably during the 1960s-1970s. It was a heady time, a time of spirited debate over the merits of Bergman, Antonioni and Kubrick. And the scrappy Sarris was at the center of it all, driving and informing the dialogue with his long, rambling, impassioned columns for the Village Voice. The following is an interview I did with Sarris in 1994.

FOR THOSE OF US who began thinking seriously about film in the ’60s, he was the guru, the man who somehow made it all make sense. For his opposite numbers across the Atlantic ‒ Cahiers du Cinéma critics Francois Truffaut and Jean- Luc Godard ‒ he was the chief American proponent of the “auteur theory,” which downgraded Hollywood’s more self-conscious “artists” and made heroes of Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger and especially Alfred Hitchcock.

Sarris

At “65 going on 66,” Andrew Sarris is still hard at it, writing a weekly column for the New York Observer, teaching at Columbia University and putting the finishing touches on his 11th book, “The American Sound Film.”

Sarris, who will be speaking tonight on “The Iridescence of Irene Dunne” (Stanford Theatre, 7:30 p.m.), refers to his latest tome as “my magnum opus.” It was supposed to be out last year, but Sarris being one of the great dreamers and procrastinators pushed the deadline to this summer. “I haven’t done as much as I should have,” he says of his career in general, “but I’m a very late starter.”

Initially, he saw himself as a novelist. But the “real writing” didn’t come. At 27, after a stint in the Army Signal Corps, he submitted a review of “The Country Girl” to Film Culture (“I really panned it”). Remuneration: zilch. But that was OK; he was living with his mother in Brooklyn and working as a script reader for 20th Century Fox.

Four years later, he walked into the editorial offices of the Village Voice, then all of eight pages. Under his arm was a review of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Not only was it a rave, it argued that the “master of suspense” should be placed on a pedestal with the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman.

“It caused a great storm,” he recalls from his East Side apartment, which he shares with wife and fellow critic Molly Haskell (also a guest speaker for Stanford’s on-going screwball-comedy series). “I was treating Hitchcock as a major artist. Their idea of an art film was something by Bergman or Fellini. The idea of Hitchcock as a great artist was anathema.”

Those early reviews ‒ now described as “very crude, clumsy” ‒ caused quite a commotion among New York film buffs and left their author with a feeling of euphoria, power. A year later, Sarris began his reign as the Voice’s regular film critic. From 1961 to 1989, he wrote the “Films in Focus” column, which became required reading for fledgling critics and sparked very public feuds with anti-auteurists Pauline Kael and John Simon.

In 1968, Sarris loosed a salvo that reverberated throughout the critical community: “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions.” Beginning with the line, “The need for an updated film history is self-evident,” Sarris juggled the standings of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors. The darlings of the critics ‒ John Huston and Elia Kazan, among them ‒ were lumped under the heading “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Studio workhorses, such as Michael Curtiz and Henry Hathaway, were downgraded to “Lightly Likable.” Cerebral mavericks ‒ Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick ‒ were consigned to “Strained Seriousness.”

And the new residents of Sarris’ Pantheon? Such previously underrated entertainers as Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks, Fritz Lang and, of course, Hitchcock. Their personal vision of “a self-contained world” earned them a place beside Orson Welles, F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith. Reissued in 1985 with a new afterword by the author, “American Cinema” is required reading in most film aesthetics classes and, along with “What is Cinema?” by André Bazin and the collected reviews of James Agee, a seminal work in film scholarship.

Sarris himself believes the “cult of the auteur” has gone too far. All directors, even the hacks, are revered over screenwriters now. “It was never meant to be the last word, and I was never meant to be a prophet.”

Pressed for changes he would make in his rankings, Sarris says he’d leave the Pantheon category alone, but would be kinder to Wilder, Wellman, Frankenheimer, Leo McCarey, William Wyler.

“I’m always changing. Times change. Movies change. I think differently today than I did when I started out.”

As for the widely hailed Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”), he’s still an overrated “superego.” Ditto David Lean, whose “Lawrence of Arabia” was panned by Sarris when it opened in 1962. He considered the epic gaseous and pretentious then, and still does.

Sarris’ recent favorites: Stephen Frears’ “The Snapper,” Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day” and (as he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Francophile) anything by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. Critics who measure up by combining “intelligence and intelligibility”: Kael, Vincent Canby, Richard Corliss, Manny Farber, David Kehr and Haskell (who chronicled her husband’s prolonged hospitalization in ’85 with a mystery virus in the unique memoir “Love and Other Infectious Diseases”).

At a time when many are decrying the state of film criticism ‒ where gossip and the direction of one’s thumb have replaced learned discourse ‒ Sarris is surprisingly upbeat. “I think film criticism has improved enormously,” he says. Sarris’ assessment of his own writing: idiosyncratic, a weakness for alliteration. “I’m lazy ‒ I don’t work hard enough on my writing.” He believes such traits kept him from breaking into mainstream publications. He would have joined The New Yorker or The New York Times (like buddy Canby) “in a second.” He left the Voice, he says, because he was “tired of that atmosphere. It was too political, too radical, for my taste. I’ve always been sort of a centrist, an anomaly.”

The key to his longevity, he believes, is that, for him, film was always a means to an end: self-awareness. “Film enabled me to find myself. Through film, I’ve been telling the story of my life, like an ongoing memoir.”

Classic Ray Bradbury on “Fahrenheit 451″ Redo

06/06/2012

by Glenn Lovell

Eloquent, profane, blustery, eternally boyish — Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday at age 91, proved all of the above in our numerous chats. I met the science fiction-fantasy author in 1983, upon the release of the long-stalled adaptation of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Our interview was set for late afternoon at a San Francisco hotel.

But it didn’t come off as planned because Bradbury, by 4 p.m., was happily in his cups, slurring his words after one too many martinis. We rescheduled for two weeks later — at his office-cum-warehouse on Wilshire Blvd. Bradbury couldn’t have been more gracious, regaling his guest with stories of his love/hate relationship with Hollywood. A child at heart, the author surrounded himself with toys and movie memorabilia, including, on his large, cluttered mahogany desk, a model of the Nautilus from Disney’s “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.”

Though we talked numerous times after that meeting, the last story I wrote about Bradbury was on a proposed remake of “Fahrenheit 451″ by Mel Gibson. Excerpts from that never-before-published 2001 interview show Bradbury in rare form, at once caustic and testy.

RAY BRADBURY IS FUMING mad at Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions. “One of their scripts for ‘Fahrenheit 451’ should be seen by people to show how dumb studios can be,” the author grouses. “And please quote me on that!”

Bradbury was hoping things would go smoother this time around with Icon holding the rights to his 1953 sci-fi classic and Frank Darabont now set to direct for Castle Rock Ent. But so far, the author reports, the new “F-451” has been more exasperating than the 1966 Francois Truffaut version with Oskar Werner as Montag and Julie Christie — in what Bradbury calls “a stupid bit of miscasting” — as both Montag’s wife Mildred and the 16-year-old girl next door.

“F-451,” about a dystopian society in which reading is outlawed, was optioned four years ago by Icon as a possible “Braveheart” follow-up for Gibson. Bradbury lunched with Gibson in 1998 to discuss the project. “We had a terrific meeting,” the author recalls. “He seemed very enthused. He showed me plans for the sets and a design for the mechanical hound, which was cut from Truffaut’s version.”

But then, complete silence. “Every six months I call them and they say the same thing: ‘Oh, we were just about to call you.’ Yeah, sure. Can you believe they’ve let so much time go by, when the novel is in every school in America?”

Bradbury says there are now nine “F-451” scripts circulating, plus his own. “How can you write 10 screenplays on ‘F-451,’ when all you have to do is open the book and shoot the pages? It’s stupid.”

Adding insult to injury, none of the scripts has been sent to Bradbury for comment. He did, however, receive a bootlegged copy of draft six from a bookseller in Atlanta. It was very “un-Bradbury-like,” in the author’s words.

“I was afraid to open it. Finally I turned to page 42, very gingerly. It’s where Fire Chief Beatty comes to Montag’s house and Mildred asks, ‘Would you like some coffee?’ Beatty replies, ‘Does a bear s— in the woods?’ I closed the script and didn’t read the rest. I couldn’t believe it.”

Now that the highly regarded Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”) is connected with the project, as well as a proposed $70-million HBO serialization of Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” the author is more optimistic. “He’s does beautiful work. When I saw ‘The Green Mile,’ I called him and said, ‘Is the ending a Bradbury ending?’ He said, ‘Yes, I read you in high school.’ ”

Among the actors periodically mentioned for the Montag role – after Gibson bowed out as director or star – are Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Sean Connery once expressed interest in the Beatty role. “Either Cruise or Pitt would be great,” says Bradbury. “Especially Cruise – he’s a very good actor.”

“Alien” vs. “It! The Terror …”: Feud Revisited

06/03/2012

With Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” about to set down, I thought it might be fun to revisit my 1979 story about “Alien” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space.” This story originally appeared in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where I worked as entertainment editor. A second version appeared in “Cinefantastique” magazine.

by Glenn Lovell

Here’s a riddle for you. What came first, the creature or the alien egg?

Put another way, is “Alien,” 20th Century-Fox’s $9-million release, the innovative shock show critics from coast to coast have rushed to call it? Or, is it simply a flashy retread of a number of low-budget 1950s creature features, like “The Thing from Another World” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”? With the alien-hitches-a-ride movie already well over the $40 million mark and reaching daily for a spot beside “Jaws,” “Close Encounters” and “Star Wars,” a backlash has begun among onetime admirers who are now asking, “Just how original is ‘Alien’ anyway?”

What they’re discovering ‒ with a little help from horror/sci-fi aficionados ‒ is that “Alien” is not only a first cousin to some of the seedier ’50s monster movies, it is also something of a rip-off of these exploitation numbers.

Although other titles have been bandied about ‒ like “This Island Earth” and “Forbidden Planet” ‒ the two films “Alien” most resembles are “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958)  and “Planet of the Vampires” (1965). The storyline, almost scene for scene, comes from “It!”; the eerie lighting and stylized, expressionistic landscapes are pure “Planet,” an Italian SF/fantasy shocker by Mario Bava.

For those of us who can recall the summer of 1958 and the release by United Artists of a $110,000 quickie titled “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” watching “Alien” for the first time evoked a strong sense of déjà vu. The new script, credited to Dan O’Bannon, seemed nothing less than a verbatim replay of what director Edward L. Cahn and screenwriter Jerome Bixby had supplied in the way of extraterrestrial fright.

Briefly, in “It!” a spaceship lands on an uncharted planet to search for survivors of a downed rocket and, unbeknown to the crew, picks up a deadly, blood-sucking hitchhiker. As in “Alien,” the thing from another world hides in the ventilation shaft, is warded off by a crew member with a blow torch, and is finally sucked into deep space where it dies from lack of oxygen. What the makers of “Alien” have done is change the shape of the creature (theirs is insectoid, Cahn’s was humanoid with reptilian features) and assault us with more sophisticated shock effects.

Still, the stories bear an uncanny resemblance.

Aware of this, we contacted 20th Century’s “Alien” office for the official word on whether the brains behind the hit were conscious of copying an earlier film or had latched onto a project they assumed was original. British director Ridley Scott escapes complicity because he is unacquainted with most American sci-fi. His U.S. collaborators, however, are another matter. At least three were aware of the striking similarities between “Alien” and “It!” One of the film’s producers even admitted screening portions of “It!” during production “to make sure we weren’t  doing a bald remake.”

Producer David Giler: “We only began to hear about ‘It!’ toward the end of production. I haven’t seen it, but t I know of the film. We were convinced we were doing something new stylistically, even if the basic outlines were the same. I gather the alien-hiding-on-a-spaceship idea is pretty much a classic premise with science fiction writers, like the gunfight in the Western. So the similarities you refer to didn’t bother us.”

Interestingly, Giler was only too happy to brand O’Bannon “a fake” and “rip-off artist.” Giler said he and co-producer Walter Hill wrote most of the script but lost out to O’Bannon in an “idiotic” Writers Guild arbitration. He called O’Bannon’s original draft “amateurishly written ‒ just awful! Basically, it was a pastiche of ’50s movies thrown together. If we had shot the original script we would have had a remake of ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space.’ ”

When pressed, Giler confided: “I know some of the more esoteric SF magazines have commented on tie-ins between ‘It!’ and ‘Alien.’ But I’m not a regular reader of these magazines. Personally, I think that’s a question you ought to put to O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (co-author of the ‘original story’). If somebody is responsible for stealing the idea, it’s them. They signed a paper saying it was an original idea. If it isn’t, they lied to us. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Dan O’Bannon stole the idea, I must tell you.”

For a different perspective, we contacted “It!” screenwriter Jerome Bixby. He had not seen “Alien” but, through his sons, was aware of plot similarities. We talked him into viewing the film, then reporting back to us. He called two days later.

“Frankly, I feel like the grandfather of ‘Alien,’” chuckled Bixby, whose credits include 1,300 short stories and segments of “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone.” “There’s a whole roster of similarities between what I wrote and the new film. They’re both about a small group of people trapped aboard a spacecraft with an inimical creature out to get them and which, in fact, knocks them off one by one. No problem there; that’s a pretty general plot outline. In both stories the creatures use the ship’s air ducts. In both stories they are held off with gas and electricity. And at the end of both stories, they’re dispatched by suffocation, by evacuating the creatures from the ship and depriving them of air.”

Although Bixby wouldn’t say whether he intended to take action against O’Bannon and 20th Century, he did say he was in touch with his lawyer about the matter.

“In all honesty, my story was also derivative,” he allowed. “Essentially what I did was take Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’ and play it aboard a spaceship. But I didn’t copy the storyline; I used the film ‒ a masterpiece in the genre ‒ as inspiration for my story. The Hawks film has long been a model for SF writers.”

Bixby said he enjoyed “Alien” but believed the film’s extravagant budget and f/x covered for a weak storyline. “When I think what we could have done with that kind of money …,” he mused. “A lot of people saw our little grade-B flick because there was something of a science-fiction boom back then. But it was nothing like we have today.”

“Radio” Days

05/26/2012

by Glenn Lovell

When news arrived of Donna Summer’s cruel passing at age 63, I reached for my Summer Greatest Hits CD. But I didn’t play the thumping disco anthems “Last Dance” and “Love to Love You, Baby.” I went to the swoony “On the Radio,” her Casablanca collab with Giorgio Moroder that was used in the mostly forgotten “Foxes” (1980), co-starring the 17-year-old Jodie Foster as one of four vaguely rebellious Valley girls and Sally Kellerman as Foster’s lost, unassertive single mom.

Directed by Brit Adrian Lyne (“Fatal Attraction”) from a script by Gerald Ayres, “Foxes” is very definitely a guilty pleasure, much like “Cat People,” “Flashdance” and other films wed to the pulsating synthesized sound of Moroder. Still, for all its dated, Day-Glo glitz — think skateboards and Scott Baio in cutoffs — there’s something achingly sad about “Foxes,” and much of the credit for this belongs to the dreamy photography, Cherie Currie as the most at-risk of the high school clique … and Summer’s yearning rendition of “On the Radio,” at least the piano prelude ‒

          Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio

          And they told the world just how you felt

          It must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat

          They never said your name

          But I knew just who you meant

Yes, “Foxes” — set in a San Fernando Valley P.T. Anderson would never recognize — is one for the time capsule, but, for a few of us, Summer’s lilting “On the Radio” will remain timeless.

Faulty “Tower”

11/10/2011

That strangled “Aaargh!” you hear is the sound of Universal execs bemoaning the lousy showing of their pricey, over-hyped “Tower Heist.”

Following a carefully orchestrated send-off, the Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy comedy caper failed to secure the top spot at the box office its opening weekend. (Adding insult to injury, it was bested by the kidpic “Puss in Boots” ‒ its second week in release.)

Certainly timely enough ‒ Stiller, Murphy and four others exact payback for a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme ‒ the $85 million crime farce surprised industry prognosticators with its less-than-stellar showing.

I asked a couple of my film classes at De Anza College if they’d rushed out to see the comedy. En masse, they shot me one of those “Huh? What planet are you from?” looks.

Stiller, Ratner and Murphy

Almost to a one they agreed the film had a tired ‘boomer vibe. Though I liked it, I could see their point. Besides its ersatz “Mission: Impossible” jazz theme, the film is crammed with pop culture references from the 1970s and ’80s, including Steve McQueen, Tina Turner, “Boys from Brazil,” “The Doberman Gang” and, from TV Land, “Matlock.” The casting of Alan Alda as the villain conjures memories of another time-capsule experience: CBS’s “M*A*S*H.”

If the comments by my students are indicative of how today’s target audience feels, producer Brian Grazer, director Brett Ratner and Murphy, who developed the project, would have done well to canvass campuses before going into production.  The interaction would have been eye-opening, leaving the trio to conclude, Hey, maybe the audience we should care about doesn’t want to see this film.

My classes, I’m sure, wouldn’t have minced words. They sure didn’t Tuesday.

“The trailer looks incredibly cheesy and washed-out, like a boring version of ‘Ocean’s 11,’” volunteered Sharif Elrefaie.

“Eddie Murphy gives off a family vibe,” observed Erik Ard. “It’s hard to take him seriously in a crime plot.”

“Eddie Murphy?” shot back an incredulous Roderic Wilson. “He hasn’t been funny since the ’80s. He needs to get his mojo back!”

Of course, “Tower Heist’s” reception wasn’t helped by Ratner’s gay slur during a preview-screening Q&A. Asked “What was your rehearsal like?,” Ratner replied, “Rehearsal? What’s that? Rehearsals are for fags!”

Talk about clueless! Ratner not only offended the entire LGBT community, he demonstrated what my students already knew ‒ how really out of touch he is.


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