Friday, November 21, 2014

Crying at Movies: What’s Grief Got to Do With It?

The other day, on my gym’s treadmill TV, I tuned in to the climax of Father of the Bride Part II. In case you missed it, that’s the one where Steve Martin’s wife and his daughter are both unexpectedly giving birth at the same hour, in the same hospital. Poor Steve dashes back and forth between the two delivery rooms, trying desperately to remain calm. And then, suddenly, he’s holding two not-small-enough-to-be-newborn bundles in his arms, one wrapped in a pink blanket, one swathed in blue. Watching Steve Martin’s character beam from ear to ear, and hearing him announce to the world that life doesn’t get any better than this, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.

Here’s what made this strange: on the Sunday before I got the weepies watching Father of the Bride, I had buried my ninety-six-year-old mother. The seven days between her funeral and my trip to the gym had mostly been spent greeting well-wishers and making poignant visits to the home in which I grew up. That week -- preceded by long hours of watching at a dying woman’s bedside --was stressful in the extreme. And I had loved and admired my mother very much. But during the solemnities of her burial service and all the condolence visits that followed I remained dry-eyed. So why did I choke up when an on-screen character experienced an improbably happy turn of fate?

It’s partly that I’m a sucker for happy endings. In movies I cry easily, but usually not when life on screen turns sad. Growing up, I loved the cinematic version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. There’s a point in the middle of that musical when a leading character dies, and a kindly neighbor folds the pregnant widow in her arms as she warbles, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s an undeniably heart-wrenching moment. But my tears do not flow until the end of the movie, when Billy Bigelow’s sad and lonely young daughter is finally accepted by her classmates, to a reprise of the same song. At that point, when life becomes sunshine and rainbows, I predictably turn into a regular Niagara. Perhaps it’s because I realize that life’s perfect moments are all too fleeting. When they’re captured on film in all their transient beauty, my tear ducts are wholly beyond my control.

A while back, I read a clever memoir by a writer named John Manderino. It’s called Crying at Movies, and it traces his development from boy to man in terms of his obsession with motion pictures. Often this involves his strong emotional response to oldies like It’s a Wonderful Life, King of Kings,  and Wuthering Heights. In Manderino’s telling, his relationship with the woman who later became his wife nearly died aborning because he was devastated by Brief Encounter, while she condemned it as a sappy story in which Celia Johnson wore a ridiculous hat. 

I can’t explain why Manderino cries at movies, though rarely in other circumstances. He himself has a curious theory, though: “It’s because there’s no theme music in real life. Seriously, I think it’s because there’s no background music.” He cites the long-ago funeral of his father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. The funeral parlor was crowded with weeping friends and family, yet he found himself dry-eyed, and totally ashamed of that fact. “But then the organist started playing ‘Amazing Grace,’ very quietly, very tenderly, and I fell apart.” Why? Who can say? But a word from Noel Coward seems apt here: “Strange how potent cheap music is.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Brad Krevoy: Dumb (and Dumber) like a Fox

Who woulda thunk it? Releasing a sequel to Dumb and Dumber, twenty years later, has turned out to be a smart move. Dumb and Dumber To, reteaming original stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, pulled in $38 million in its opening weekend, leading all films at the box office.

The 1994 Dumb and Dumber launched the careers of the Farrelly brothers. It further confirmed that Jim Carrey – also featured that year in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask -- was a genuine comedic star. Carrey and the Farrellys have gone on to be household names, especially in households that appreciate outrageous goofiness. Far less well known are the film’s producers. But one of them is a former colleague of mine, and it’s a pleasure to salute him here.

Brad Krevoy graduated from Beverly Hills High School, then went on to study at Stanford. After passing the bar, he entered the field of entertainment law. Then, in a 1983 episode that could have been concocted by a Hollywood screenwriter, Brad attended a Stanford football game. Also in the stands that day  was low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman, himself a Stanford grad. Brad had just read an article about the coming of the VCR, and how this new technology could revolutionize the film industry. He mused to Roger that the big studios would doubtless be slow to take advantage of the home viewing audience, preferring to wait until the market matured. Roger, he felt, was well equipped to ride the coming wave by quickly supplying product to fill up video store shelves. As Brad told me, “I said that to Roger on a Saturday, and Monday I was working for him. ”        

Brad’s role initially was to handle Concorde’s business affairs, looking for new opportunities as well as new sources of movie funding. His hunch about video quickly paid off:  “As the video business grew, we were at one point the largest supplier. We had deals with every major video distribution company in the world, to the point where we had orders in excess sometimes of 30 to 40 films a year we had to produce, because we had all these orders.  It was a really extraordinary period.” (I personally remember those busy days quite well. Yes, it was extraordinary!) Though Roger sent him out on occasion to slap competitors with lawsuits, Brad had no delusions about his prowess as a litigator. But moviemaking quickly got into his blood, and the lessons he learned from the master have stayed with him ever since.

As he moved into his own producing career, as founder and CEO of the Motion Picture Corporation of America, Brad always kept in mind the Corman mantras. Such as: rather than follow a trend, it’s wise to try satisfying the needs of specialty audiences. Says Brad, “Any film that I’ve ever had that’s done big business, it was because I was trying to play the niches.” He cites Dumb and Dumber as such a broad, silly comedy that no established studio would dare to make it. Roger taught him that “you really don’t have to be the biggest or the best on the block.  Do the best you can  . . . if you’re going to do a smaller film, be the best at the smaller film, and compete at your own level, that you’re comfortable with.”

Brad Krevoy is now the producer of over one hundred films, including the Emmy-nominated Iraq War teledrama, Taking Chance and the upcoming holiday romance, A Royal Christmas. All hail to yet another Cormanite who didn’t take dumb for an answer.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"2001": The Grand-Daddy of All Interstellar Movies

Last year it was Gravity; this year it’s Interstellar. In the real world of space exploration, the focus is now on robotics, like the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission that this week (semi-)successfully landed an unmanned spacecraft on a comet. But moviegoers still enjoy watching men and women personally contend with the perils of outer space. Space-travel movies date all the way back to the 1902 Georges Méliès fantasy, A Trip to the Moon. In the era of Sputnik, Roger Corman got into the act with 1958’s hilariously low-budget War of the Satellites. Of course there’ve been outer-space films aplenty. But the one that made all the difference was released in 1968. It was, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When 2001 first appeared, Time Magazine hailed it as “the most dazzling visual happening in the history of the motion picture.”  Today, when asked where he’s spotted the long-range impact of Kubrick’s space adventure, film industry veteran Bruce Logan responds, “Well, everywhere. From on-screen graphics for TV stations on down.” Bruce should know. A London-born cinematographer and effects specialist, he’s worked on such classic fantasies as Star Wars, TRON, and Batman Forever. But he started out as a self-taught animator, one who began his motion picture career at Britain’s MGM Elstree studios as part of the special photographic effects unit on 2001, under the supervision of the great Douglas Trumbull.
Says Bruce, “2001 was my film school.” For the first year of his involvement, he contributed to the animation of what looked like a spacecraft’s computer screens. Given that the film was made years before such computers existed, these computers today look remarkably convincing. He’s particularly proud of his work on the read-out monitoring the “sleeping” astronauts who all flat-line, in one of the film’s most disturbing moments. It took a while, though, before he was able to fully appreciate Kubrick’s achievement: “For the first ten or twenty years after the movie came out, to me it was just a bunch of shots that I had worked on, strung together. . . . I think that the time that I saw the genius most was when I saw it about a year ago, at the Academy, without any recollection – and I was able to see for the first time what a brilliant piece of work it was.”
In preparation for filming 2001, Kubrick had his visual effects team watch such sci-fi flicks as Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Voyage (which Bruce now calls “that terrible movie with bad special effects where they go inside the body”). Ultimately, though, Kubrick’s vision was wholly unique. It’s worth remembering that when the film was being planned, NASA missions were paving the way for the 1969 moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.While Kubrick and company were deciding what the moon in their film should look like, actual photographs of the far side of the moon were starting to be made available for the first time. The filmmakers seriously considered altering their visual concept to make it resemble the lunar surface as seen in NASA’s photographs, but then admitted to themselves that “the moon looks kind of boring.” That being so, they decided to forget about authenticity and stick with their original design plan.
Though Bruce made a Roger Corman detour upon first coming to America, he’s best known for his work on big-budget Hollywood spectaculars: “I blew up the Death Star. It wasn’t Luke, it was me! That’s one of my claims to fame.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Saving Charlie MoPic

War movies continue to attract audiences, as the strong box office for Fury makes clear. On Veterans Day 2014, I want to remember the war that tore my own generation to shreds: Vietnam. Though Hollywood’s first response to the Vietnam conflict was John Wayne’s flag-waving 1968 flick, The Green Berets, the following decades brought cinematic reassessments of America’s role via The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986) Those films all featured major stars and won prestigious awards, including multiple Oscars. But today I’d like to salute an indie, 84 Charlie MoPic. Shot on a shoestring in Southern California, it has been hailed by Nam veterans as a truly realistic depiction of a grunt’s life. 

Made under the auspices of the Sundance  Institute, 84 Charlie MoPic cleverly finesses its low budget by pretending to be documentary footage shot by a young recruit from the U.S. Army’s motion picture unit. His subject is a reconnaissance patrol operating behind enemy lines. As he conducts in-the-field interviews with five tight-knit platoon members as well as the eager new lieutenant who sees war as an opportunity for his own advancement, we get an increasingly graphic view of the stresses and strains of combat. The cameraman, known in military parlance as MoPic, at one point hints at his own role in this subjective-camera saga: “I was working in a lab, back in the rear -- post-production. Sometimes we would get these cans of film in, you know? No cameraman, just the reels of film. And, we hear he got shot, he's dead or something. But the spookiest thing is waiting for that film to develop, man, because you didn't know what you were gonna see. Sometimes you saw nothing. But other times . . . “

A fan on the IMDB site gives credit for 84 Charlie MoPic’s authenticity to the film’s two technical advisors, Russ Thurman and Dale Dye, both of whom served in the Marine Corps. As he explains, “Dye's method of running the actors through a mini-boot camp helps raise this film to the level of Platoon and Saving Private Ryan, his more widely-known achievements.” But it’s hardly fair to forget the film’s writer-director, Patrick Sheane Duncan, whom I had the privilege of interviewing once upon a time.

Pat, like so many in Hollywood, was a Roger Corman alumnus. He started out as an accountant, though one who aspired to write. Vietnam was his first big subject. Too poor to go to college, he’d enlisted in the Army in 1965. For fifteen months from 1968 through 1969 he served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade.  Once he returned home, he was determined to tell the truth about his combat experience, which was a far cry from the sentimental pap he saw on movie screens. Pat pointed out to me that Charlie MoPic and his later Vietnam films were distinct because they weren’t about the war. They were about the soldiers. I tried to make them more intimate.” He well remembers that “when we showed MoPic at Sundance, some kid came up to me . . .  and he says, ‘I didn’t realize it but sometimes when people die, they don’t get any last words.’ That’s because in all those war movies we saw, the guy layin’ there had a nice speech about ‘Tell my mom. . . .’”

For a filmmaker with such a powerful perspective on men at war, Pat Duncan’s public reputation rests on something quite different. In 1995 he wrote a quiet little film that paid tribute to a dedicated music teacher. Nobody dies in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Casting a Ballot in Movieland

Cindy Crawford phoned me last evening. Yes, I’m talking about Cindy Crawford the supermodel. But I can’t pretend that she and I are close chums. She was phoning to tell me that she has kids in my local school district (who knew?), and that I should think about voting for the school board candidate of her choice. Personally, I have little interest in Cindy’s preferred school board member. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District serves my city and also the much tonier enclave up the coast. I’m not much inclined to give Cindy and her beachfront neighbors their own handpicked representative.

All across the country, elections bring out superstars, whether political stars like Bill Clinton or showbiz celebrities. Pop music icon Carole King, for one, has shown up in my email in-box, urging me to donate on behalf of several candidates for the U.S. Senate. Here in California, singer-songwriter John Legend is stumping for Marshall Tuck, who hopes to be the next State Superintendent of Public Instruction. And such movieland insiders as Matt Damon and Norman Lear are backing with serious bucks a candidate for State Assembly with the unlikely name of Prophet Walker. Walker, who hopes to represent a blue-collar district encompassing Compton and Watts, has a life story seemingly made for Hollywood. The son of a birth mother who succumbed to heroin addiction when he was still an infant, he grew up in South Central L.A. At sixteen, he was convicted of armed robbery, then sentenced to six years in prison. It was while behind bars that he began an unlikely turnaround that led him to graduate from college and embark on a career as a community activist. If he wins his race, his story will have a true Hollywood ending.

But Hollywood is more than superstars and the intriguing underdogs whose up-from-the-gutter stories would make for a great movie-of-the-week. There are also those unionized behind-the-scenes crew members who are worried that their jobs are being outsourced to New York, New Mexico, and Canada. My good friend Ben Allen, an outstanding candidate for State Senate, has circulated a mailer that trumpets his endorsement by all Los Angeles-area locals of IATSE, the international union representing film and TV production folk. He’s also won the support of Councilman Paul Krekorian, author of the first California bill to establish an entertainment tax credit for the Golden State.

Similarly, one would-be L.A. County Supervisor, Bobby Shriver, has sent out flyers emblazoned with a vintage photo of a movie premiere on Hollywood Boulevard. The text reads: “We Founded the Movie Industry. Let’s Bring Our Jobs Back.” He also lets it be known that among  his staunch supporters is Steven Spielberg, along with several Kennedys. Shriver’s opponent, Sheila Kuehl, likes to play up her own Hollywood connection. Back in the day (before law school and years of service in the California State Senate) she was Sheila James, who memorably played plucky little Zelda Gilroy on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.       

Over the years, Hollywood has had its own fun with movies about politics. Among the best, of course, is Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which idealism triumphs over the schemes of corrupt politicians. Much more cynical is Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty. I loved Alexander Payne’s wicked high school satire, Election, in which a campaign for student body president ends up laying bare what can happen when a candidate who will stop at nothing (Reese Witherspoon) takes on her high-minded civics teacher (Matthew Broderick).

As for Election Day 2014, may the best man (or woman) win. Go Ben!