Tuesday, September 28, 2010

SALLY MENKE 1953 - 2010


UPDATED 10:02 a.m.
UPDATED 4:35 p.m.

This is incredibly sad news to report. Those who have followed Quentin Tarantino's career are well familiar with the name Sally Menke, who was the director's film editor for every movie he made, from Reservoir Dogs in 1992 to last year's Inglourious Basterds. Menke went hiking with her dog during a wave of extreme heat yesterday (Los Angeles temperatures hit a record high of 113 on Monday) and was discovered dead early this Tuesday morning by rescue searchers combing the Beachwood Canyon area.

Her locked car was parked in a lot in Griffith Park, indicating that she had gone into the trails among the hills. After receiving information from friends that she had not returned home from her scheduled outing several patrol officers and a helicopter from the Los Angeles Police Department began a search for Menke that lasted hours and ended with the discovery of her body at the bottom of a ravine early this morning. Menke's dog was found alive and sitting next to her body, according to the L.A.P.D.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, sources familiar with the death investigation believe Menke became disoriented and collapsed, and the county coroner's office is trying to determine whether the heat played a role in Menke's death. As of 9:00 a.m. this morning, no official cause of death had been reported.

Menke was 56 years old and was also the editor on, among many other films, Lee Tamahori's Mulholland Falls and two films directed by Billy Bob Thornton, All the Pretty Horses and Daddy and Them. She was twice nominated for the Academy Award, for Pulp Fiction in 1994 and for Inglourious Basterds in 2009.

(Thanks to Andrew Blankstein of the Los Angeles Times, who will be continually updating this story as more information becomes available.)

UPDATED

From the Inglourious Basterds DVD/Blu-ray, this reel of acknowledgments of Sally Menke from the cast and crew of the movie. It's almost too painful to watch right at this moment, but the clip is comforting evidence that she knew just how much she was liked, loved and respected by those who worked with her. I'm sure I can be presumptuous enough to say that the hearts of SLIFR readers go out to those who knew and loved Sally Menke, as well as our thanks to those who worked with her and put this tribute together.



And of course, from the Death Proof DVD, Tarantino himself talks about his collaboration with Sally Menke. (Plus some more now-heartbreaking "Hi, Sallys.")



(Thanks to David Hudson, MUBI and especially Bob Westal, who passes along a wonderful quote from Menke regarding her work on Inglourious Basterds, for calling attention back to these tributes.)

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UPDATE 4:35 p.m.: Here's S.T. Vanairsdale's astute breakdown of Seven Quintessential Clips from the Quentin Tarantino/Sally Menke Canon. Current and future film editors, take note and take a little joy while mourning the untimely end of what Vanairsdale rightly describes as "one of the longest, most inspired and fruitful creative collaborations in Hollywood."

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

HAPPY 15th BIRTHDAY TO SHOWGIRLS!



Hats off, everyone, and pasties, and G-strings—Oh, hell just take it all off and salute with me the 15th anniversary of Paul Verhoeven’s brilliantly randy Showgirls, which made its ill-fated NC-17 debut in American theaters this very day in 1995. As part of the celebration, I will shamelessly recommend my own defense of the movie’s glorious excesses, as well as a much better piece—the piece that actually opened my eyes to what was going on in the openly sleazy widescreen worldview Mssrs. Verhoeven and scandalous scenarist of the day Joe Eszterhas—by Charles Taylor. Taylor doesn’t presume to explain it all for you, but he does offer a compelling case for why the critics (and audiences) were at the very least misguided (by the media and the conventional wisdom surrounding the movie after its premiere) for snidely dismissing the movie in the first place. At the very least, Showgirls, if you haven’t given it one already, deserves a second look, and its 15th birthday (old enough to get a learner’s permit in most states) is a great occasion to do so.


Coincidentally, Paul Verhoeven himself will be appearing at the Aero Theater here in Santa Monica tomorrow night to host a screening of another of his terrific pop masterpieces, Starship Troopers. This one sailed over the heads of a lot of folks who chose to get all sticky about the movie’s garish violence at the expense of the satire at the foundation of the entire enterprise. Or perhaps it was just that audiences didn’t care for a snazzy entertainment which posited humanity as a largely interchangeable nation of Aryan-esque Ken and Barbie dolls who engage in a war in which, thanks to manipulation tactics on the part of a fascistic world government (and the attendant media), the mindlessly aggressive forces turn out not to be the giant cockroaches but (if you’re paying attention) us. Doubtful this one could even get funded in this current atmosphere of global destabilization, which makes Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier’s prescience (based on Robert Heinlein’s book) even more valuable. This is a can’t-miss appearance—Verhoeven will discuss the movie after the screening, and if you get to the Aero early, around 6:30, you’ll have the chance to press the flesh with the director himself, who will be signing copies of his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, a seriously iconoclastic account of the life of Christ written from Verhoeven’s studies with the Jesus Seminar. (Paul Schrader recently wrote a very positive reaction to the book in Film Comment)

I’ll have a copy of Jesus of Nazareth ready to be signed, certainly, but I’m hoping Verhoeven will have time to scribble on my Showgirls and Starship Troopers Blu-rays too.

(Thanks to S.T. VanAirsdale for the most appreciated heads-up!)

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FUNK DECIMATOR: GENEVIEVE BUJOLD SAYS, "DON'T NEED NO GENERAL ANESTHETIC!"


Well, the funk got pretty funky around here over the weekend, so the Funk Decimator had to be called in early and he has provided the perfect remedy. Even though the specter of a certain uncomfortable preventive medical procedure looms large in the aftermath of a relatively glowing report from my general practitioner after my 50th birthday, I remain fearless because I'm pretty sure that as unpleasant as things could possibly get, they are unlikely to get as bad as what Lois Chiles and Tom Selleck got in Coma. What? You say you don't recall this 1978 classic, or your memories of it are clear like through a bad ether haze? Well, here's the trailer to Decimate the lingering Funk and kick-start your recall of the jangled nerves to be harvested from this Michael Chricton thriller, all on a beautifully overcast L.A. Wednesday, and complete with ominous score courtesy of the master, Jerry Goldsmith. Funk, be decimated!



"They're putting people into comas! They're murdering them!"

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

A JEWEL IN THE CROWN: THE NEW BEVERLY SHINES BRIGHT AGAIN



Patrons of the New Beverly Cinema have enjoyed several upgrades to the theater that have been initiated over the last few years. The screen, projection and sound have all been subject to significant and noticeable improvements over the last five years or so, and two summers ago plush seats purchased from a theater in Westwood that had recently closed were installed to the delight of film fans who for decades had been at the mercy of the theater’s most uncomfortable feature. And now even those who are just passing by and perhaps considering a night in with a classic double bill, or an evening’s programming of independent film, or a cult-oriented midnight movie will find the lure of the New Beverly shining out through the darkness of the La Brea-Beverly neighborhood with renewed intensity. Yes, the new marquee is up and blazing into the night, a visual reminder of the theater’s renewed commitment to the future of revival independent, calendar-based revival programming for Los Angeles film buffs, even the ones who no longer live here but well remember the theater’s glory days under the guidance of the late Sherman Torgan.

Sherman’s son Michael, owner and curator of the theater’s programming (along with Phil Blankenship and Brian Quinn), has shepherded the theater through these much-more-than-cosmetic changes, with an awareness that making for a comfortable and attractive environment in which to experience classic and contemporary cinema is almost as important as marshalling a well-balanced and challenging schedule of films to occupy the screen. The upcoming October schedule, which will be highlighted here in a week or so, is the best testament to Michael’s programming acumen, a brilliantly selected lineup that of course leans toward horror for Halloween but leaves room for lots of variation, within that theme and without, as well as for an appearance by one of his dad’s old favorites, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. And now the New Beverly looks, outside and inside, more like a little movie palace worthy of the jewels it shows on a daily basis because of that beautiful new fa├žade.
While we wait for that October schedule to kick into gear, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the upgrading of the New Beverly marquee stage by stage. There’s still some work around the edges to be done, but knowing that won’t prevent you from getting a little chill of excitement at seeing the old girl looking more beautiful than ever.


This is the way she looked into the fall of 2008. There was still plenty of light behind the board, though inconsistently distributed, but the corona of lights around the cinema logo sign had long since ceased to make their glittering run around the edges of the oval track.


March 2010. The logo sign removed, the board still looked good in the daylight as work began in earnest restoring and retrofitting the frame around the marquee itself.



April 2010. Still waiting for the crown to be replaced, you can see much more clearly as the sun sets just how the lighting behind the board had become a mere formality, a pockmarked gesture toward the brilliant glory of the marquee’s past and the promise of its immediate future.


July 2010. The crown is restored, more beautiful than ever, its running lights tracing the edges of the oval-shaped logo in a way that they hadn’t for a long time. Just seeing how bright the sign shone out of the dark was inspiration enough to keep Michael and everyone following the progress of the New Beverly’s facial hope for the best during the long summer months.



The lid gets lifted, and for much longer than anyone expected the New Beverly went without a marquee, likely causing some passers-by to wonder if the theater had in fact been closed like so many other businesses of late. Michael and the faithful battled the perception by making sure there were lines for the programs all summer long, knowing that soon there would again be a worthy construct out front from which to trumpet the theater’s pulse and excitement.



August 2010. Still some work to be done around the edges—you can compare where the marquee attaches to the front of the building in the first four shots above to this photo to observe where the details still aren’t quite there. But just seeing the bright new board, still sans the all-important letter racks, was enough to make the spirits soar.


September 17, 2010. I drove up to the theater early for a Barbara Stanwyck double bill and got my first glance at the new marquee complete with brand-new letters and the racks to hold them. Unlike a couple of years ago, the New Beverly’s marquee now fairly jumps out into the night, visible even through the small, short trees adorning the sidewalk in front of the building, which often could obstruct the marquee when its illumination was weakened. Roll over, cinephiles, and tell Tartovsky, not to mention Hitchcock, Fellini and Peckinpah the news—the New Beverly is now looking better than ever inside and out. There may be other theaters that can boast better technical presentations or more comparatively luxurious surroundings, but none can equal the good vibes of walking into the lobby, underneath this beautiful new construct, greeting and being greeted by old friends and perhaps new, and enjoying a great classic film or a soon-to-be classic in the company of fans who are there to have fun but who also tend to be more respectful of the experience of others than any other revival cinema where young hipsters mix it up with the old(er) faithful. If you haven’t been in a while, make plans to visit the New Beverly Cinema soon, enjoy all the wonderful face lifts, take in a great double bill, and make sure to stop and let Michael or someone else on the staff know just how much you appreciate it. The New Beverly, a true Los Angeles jewel, just got brighter and shinier, and we should never take her for granted.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

VISIONS IN SHADOWS AND LIGHT-- CHRIS MENGES #1 THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF




The Yellow Handkerchief, directed by Udayan Prasad (My Son, the Fanatic) from a screenplay by Erin Dignam based on a story by Pete Hamill, is certainly one of the loveliest movies of the year. Set in Louisiana in the months just after Hurricane Katrina (an event which is never directly addressed but which hangs over the movie like a gathering thundercloud), The Yellow Handkerchief follows the tentative steps of a recently freed ex-con (William Hurt) whose prison term for an initially undisclosed offense has alienated him from the outside world. He hits the road with a young runaway (Kristen Stewart) and a self-conscious boy (Eddie Redmayne) who claims Native American heritage, even though he looks like Howdy Doody's lanky older brother, in search of some way back into society, all the while haunted by the memory of a woman he once loved (Maria Bello). Any description such as this is likely to make the movie sound as if it were hamstrung by character cliche and weather-worn plot devices, and to give no sense whatsoever of the pleasures of the movie's lingering ghostliness, or of its sensitivity to the way the world looks through a pair of jaded eyes which have been denied for far too long the sight of a rain-filled sky or the way daylight illuminates a glass of beer. Prayad, a talent unknown to me before seeing this film, guides Hurt to a career-best performance in which tremors of pain are communicated with a simple glance, a dead-eyed stare, a quiet turning away. The rest of the actors are just as good-- Redmayne is sympathetic even at his most obnoxious (he has the off-kilter stare of the socially inept down pat, and we're never quite sure where he's coming from, which in this case is a good thing); Bello is solid as usual and a welcome presence, even if she has fewer moments to work true magic than Hurt; and Stewart is animated and in tune with with her surroundings in a way I've never seen from her before, feeding off the energy of actors like, well, new blood.

Bu the movie's real star is Chris Menges, master of light and composition, who infuses The Yellow Handkerchief with a pallet alive to the connections between the actors and their environment, placing them within a world that seems not only alive but unpredictable in its beauty, its danger, its portent, and its accidental magic. Menges has been shooting features since 1962, and he was probably first noticed by discerning audiences abroad and in the U.S. for the images he made for Neil Jordan's Danny Boy (1982). But it was his next feature, Local Hero (1983), which he shot for director Bill Forsyth, that showcased his brilliance and instantly made him one of the most sought-after, fascinating and original "lighting cameramen" in cinema history. In subsequent years Menges has lent his talent to the visualization of moving (in the emotional sense), shimmering, achingly beautiful movies as Comfort and Joy, The Killing Fields, Marie, High Season, Michael Collins, Dirty Pretty Things, The Good Thief and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada before bringing his conjuring of light and texture to bear on The Yellow Handkerchief. It is a fine movie, its more conventional elements made finer by the gasp-inducing beauty Menges interlaces through the movie's spectral fragility, its sense of a world stirred up by nature which hasn't quite settled back into the patterns of the usual. When I saw the movie last week I was so taken by the movie's masterly presence with the wide-screen frame and the power it draws from Menges' vision that I felt the best "review" would be a tour, sans comment, through some of its most evocative images, disconnected from the flow of the narrative, as solitary illustrations of singular pictorial beauty sans preciousness, of the power of pictures without sound.

And as soon as I started contemplating how Menges' most powerful work has always traveled that open-air corridor between the recognizably human and the natural world in which human drama plays out, of course I began flashing back to similar (and dissimilar imagery) from the movie that first impressed Menges on my receptors, Local Hero. Here then are two visual essays, if you will, in which I've chosen not to compete with the imagery through clever or self-consciously poetic captions, but to simply let some of the most indelible, magical images from each movie speak for themselves. Each shot is an expressive beauty on its own, but each movie also has a shot or series of shots that required more than one screengrab to adequately convey the true splendor of the sequence. I'm thinking especially of the transcendent majesty of the way the convertible cuts through the water that partially floods the marsh road from The Yellow Handkerchief (a helicopter shot adorned with a grace note of a sea bird flying right to left in the shot in perfect compliment to the speed of the car). Then compare that to one of the most magical sequences of any modern movie, from Local Hero, when the townspeople gather on the beach and head toward a showdown with old man Knox over property rights to their seaside village and are, incredibly, followed by a celestial object, perhaps the moon moving of its own accord, which turns out to be something both of the sky and of the earth that, improbably, delivers the solution to their problem.

The transfer on the DVD of Local Hero leaves much to be desired, but even an indifferent digitalization cannot muffle the comfort and joy with which Menges envelopes the audience in Forsyth's film. And in The Yellow Handkerchief he provides a beautiful visual bookend that demonstrates much of the same visual ingenuity and intuition that has only become richer over the years, a map of the ethereal highway traveled by humans who reach out to a God who may be present only in the details of contrasting natural light, in the vision of peeling paint on a church draped in willows, or the pain on the faces of people who find no solace in a touch, and only yearning to fill the space between.

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Visions in Shadows and Light-- Chris Menges #1, The Yellow Handkerchief (Click on each image to enlarge)

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(Scroll down for "Visions in Shadows and Light-- Chris Menges #2, Local Hero)

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