Birdseed, Greased or Ungreased? I Miss Bill Schulman (1926-2013)

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The Ritz closed in 1990, and for three years the neglected marquee of the one-screen theater in Crockett, TX was perpetually showing Gremlins 2 and Fire Birds (a rare Nic Cage action film that actually precedes The Rock). I think every one in town assumed the place was closed up for good, though there were always rumors that it was going to suddenly throw open its doors and start playing movies again. It took until May of 1993, with a double-bill of Aladdin and Groundhog Day, before it started its current run, under the management of Bill and Christine Schulman.

CountryLifeOnline.com has a history of the Schulman Theatres, and it’s mostly stuff I’ve heard first-hand from Mr. Schulman himself. Right when I got out of high school, I went to work for the Schulmans for that grand re-opening, and continued to work for them right up until I moved to Austin, Texas in 1998. Mr. Schulman trusted me with a key to the place, and even after I quit, I held on to that key for posterity, not letting it go until my wedding in 2002 – a wedding that took place in the Schulman’s Ritz auditorium.

That key allowed me to go in and make up and break down the films that would arrive, but also (with Mr. Schulman’s permission, of course) allow me and a guest or two to sit up in the formerly “coloreds’ only” balcony of the old place on weekends and watch trash cinema (biker flick The Devil Riders, faux-documentary Forbidden Sexuality and Texas-made stag cheapie Common-Law Wife) and Woody Woodpecker reels that he’d collected over his many years of theater operation. I can draw a direct line backward from my current job as a movie critic and blogger to the days when I was a teenager with my own access to a movie theater any time I wanted.

I worked for the Schulmans at the Ritz, and for a short stint at the Palestine Twin (to help out with overwhelming crowds for The Lion King) which set the stage for my job as assistant manager at the Dogwood 6. I met my best friend and current “boss” at the Ritz. I met my ex-wife at the Dogwood 6. I made friendships that have lasted forever and life choices that continue to influence me, all because of the ripple effect caused by Bill Schulman.

Bill Schulman liked me, and I liked him. He was quick with a laugh and a smile and a strong squeeze of the shoulder; he was short, but compact and muscular, even into old age. He had his own made-up slang for concession items, like “birdseed” for popcorn, “carbonated lemonade” for Mountain Dew, and “expectant’s delight” for pickles. The one that always got the laugh from customers was whether they wanted their M&Ms “male or female.” The difference? Males have nuts.

I would gladly listen to his stories dozens of times over – about his victory in an exhibitor bidding war for Dune, or the box office employee who was shot in College Station, or the rescuing of old 35mm prints from being destroyed. I’m tempted to call the recording at the Ritz right now, just to see if his voice is still there, loudly announcing showtimes and mangling the names of fly-by-night fad celebrities. I know it’s not though, and any other voice would disappoint me.

I loved Mr. Schulman, though I never told him as much. When I would come into town for any extended period of time, I would stop by and say hello. The last time I saw him was in 2008. Looking for comfort in my old digs, I took in a double-feature of Leatherheads and The Ruins. Mr. Schulman was still going strong, running the entire operation by tooth and nail. He was happy to see me, and we hugged and chatted like we always did – as if no time had passed at all and I was still my eager 17-year old self.

We all get old and pass on, and I knew this day would eventually come, but I was really kinda hoping he would outlive me so that I wouldn’t have to think about a world without him. Bill Schulman was important to me.

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My Top Ten Movies of 2012

Just a list, so I can have something for future reference…

10. Lincoln

9. Cloud Atlas

8. Paul Williams, Still Alive

7. The Master

6. Zero Dark Thirty

5. Looper

4. Silver Linings Playbook

3. Take This Waltz

2. Django Unchained

1. The Imposter

 

My Adventures in the Tallyteers Pt. 2: The Second 100 Films

I cleared 200 films!  Thank the Heavens for Netflix and such, because I haven’t been getting out to the movies much at all.  In fact, I only saw seven first-run theatrical releases since my last update in April!  Let’s dig into the second 100 movies I tallied (you can see the first 100 here)…

2nd 100:  Top Five Favorite Vintage (pre-1990′s) Movies I’d Never Seen Before 2011

I watched more vintage films this time around, but few were close to the quality of the films in the first 100. Here are the ones I liked…

1.  The Masque of the Red Death (’64)

From what I’ve seen of Corman’s films (the ones he actually directed, not just produced), this one is the best.  It holds up as a sinister, perverse ode to Poe, with Vincent Price’s slimiest performance.  Corman reveals an artist’s touch here that isn’t always evident in his work, and if you like classic horror films at all, this one is a must-see.

2.  The Living Dead Girl (’82)

Thanks to Netflix, I discovered French director Jean Rollin this Summer.  This was the first of his films that I watched, and it’s still my favorite as I dig deeper into Rollin’s work.  His films straddle a line between cheeseball softcore Euro-horror and atmospheric, artsy spine-tinglers in a way that beats many of his Italian contemporaries, who were also attempting the same balance.  Living Dead Girl, between its spurts of gore and rampant nudity, manages to actually have something to say about co-dependency.  Highly recommended to open-minded horror fans.

3.  Angel Heart (’87)

Its length robs it of some of its punch (and I don’t think there’s much of anything surprising about its mystery’s big reveal), but the movie has a timeless quality not found in most 80’s chillers.  Angel Heart looks like a period piece that could’ve been shot last year; it’s that air tight.  It’s fascinating to watch Mickey Rourke in this phase of his career.  DeNiro has aged gently over the past 20+ years (partly because he always had an “old” face), but Rourke looks like a completely different human being than the scarred, Easter Island-headed mug that shows up in The Wrestler and Iron Man 2.  This is a worthwhile watch, and  I know it has its fans, but I didn’t quite fall in love with it.

4.  Duck Soup (’33)

There’s just not enough time to watch everything, so I hope you’ll take that as a good enough excuse for me not to have seen a Marx Brothers film before this one.  Duck Soup was fun, particularly the trial of Chicolini — a masterpiece of comedic wordplay.

5.  Fright Night (’85)

Just in time for the remake!  Director Tom Holland finds that rare right-down-the-center tone that can turn horror into a crowd-pleaser.  Balancing comedic touches with adventure tropes (a hero, his mentor, a villain, and a damsel in distress), it’s easy to see why Fright Night was so popular for its time, and why it’s endured all these years.  Holland seems convinced the vampire film would get a PG-13 now, and while the tone is relatively light, it’s still an R-rated horror film to me, complete with peekaboo cheesecake and inventive gore.

2nd 100:  Top Five Favorite Modern Films (1990-2010) That I’d Never Seen Before 2011

1.  Fish Tank

I was pretty much blown away by Fish Tank, a character study that examines the uncomfortable space between being childhood and adulthood.  Katie Jarvis as Mia is probably not someone I’d like to know, but she’s incredibly real — an energetic bundle of insecurities and anger and a palpable frustration that’s forcing her down a path which she doesn’t seem to have any control over.  I can’t recommend this enough.

2.  Dark Days

This wasn’t quite the doc I expected.  I was looking for a broader film on the subject of tunnel squatters, and instead I was treated to a microcosmic study of one tight-knit community of homeless addicts, hustlers, and drifters making their nest in a NYC Amtrak tunnel.  I found it to be both grim and life-affirming, and first-time director Marc Singer captures some really striking black and white images (even if he admits a general lack of skill).

3.  Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talking About Him)?

I’m still haunted by this movie, and I can’t seem to articulate why.  This music documentary was recommended by two very different acquaintances (“Triple Kelly” of Wrestlecrap.com fame and Lars Nilsen of Alamo Drafthouse fame), and I’ll admit I was dismissive, based solely on the fact that I don’t like “Coconut” or the soundtrack to Popeye.  I’m glad I gave it a chance.  This is a story of how short-sighted self-destructive behavior can be, and that maybe surface talents can’t change the course of who a person is at their core.  The soundtrack opened up my eyes to Nilsson’s genius, and I can’t hear his songs now without being taken back to exact moments in the film.

4.  Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord, 1980

You have to watch 1974 before this installment in the Red Riding trilogy, but this one is superior, with a mystery more tautly drawn and dialogue that these American ears could (mostly) understand.  I haven’t gotten around to 1983 yet.

5.  Still Bill

Three docs on this list, and two of them are about music.  This would actually make an interesting double-feature with Harry Nilsson, because Bill Withers is also one of those people who’s created music that has already stood the test of time, and his story is almost the flip side to Nilsson’s.  Quietly stepping back into a comfortable family life while his career was still on fire, Withers stopped working to be successful and made his successes work for him.

2nd 100:  The Five Worst Movies I’d Never Seen Before

1.  Marilyn:  Alive and Behind Bars

Unscrupulous psychiatrists use mind-control to force a widower into kidnapping women for Arab slave trade.  Along the way, the widower discovers Marilyn Monroe is living in the top story of the sanitarium in which he stays, and they quickly fall for each other.  Also, WHAT???

2.  Carnival of Fools (aka Death Wish Club)

From the creators of Marilyn:  Alive and Behind Bars comes this story of a college “kid” who becomes obsessed with a nutty, infantile porn star.  She’s the moll of a bored millionaire and the two bide their time getting their kicks as part of a “death wish club,” where they challenge each other with unique Russian roulette-style games of death.  Repelled by this secret club, the college boy dumps her, breaking her heart and her mind.  She fakes her own death and re-emerges as male lounge singer tough guy Charlie.  Now, it’s up to the college dude and the millionaire to restore her sanity!  Also, WHAT???

3.  The Van

Hey, dude, I used all my college money to buy a custom van with a built-in toaster!  Wanna get raped?

4.  Predator:  The Concert (aka Grizzly 2)

In this sequel to Grizzly, a grizzly bear eats George Clooney, Charlie Sheen, and Laura Dern, and almost ruins a Toto Coelo concert.  Also starring John Rhys-Davies, who never met an American dollar he didn’t like, this film was never officially finished or released.

5.  Monster Dog

From the director of Troll 2, comes this tale of a music video shoot that all goes to hell when everyone starts turning into wolves.  Starring Alice Cooper.

>> All About Steve (4/10)

All About SteveThe makers of All About Steve want to present  Mary Magdalene Horowitz (played with tics and smiles by Sandra Bullock) as a desirable, attractive, brain-damaged idiot woman-child–the sexiest, smartest weirdo you’ve ever met–and in doing so, create one of the most insufferable characters Sandra Bullock has ever played.  The issue here is that she’s the heart and soul of All About Steve.  If she doesn’t win you over as a character, the movie fails completely.

Mary is an oversexed crossword puzzle writer who attempts to jump the bones of news cameraman Steve before they can leave the driveway on their first blind date together (Steve is played with the same bland second-fiddle charisma Bradley Cooper was known for, pre-Hangover).  This aggressiveness, and Mary’s remarkable inability to shut up, freak Steve out to the point that he fakes a phone call from work to get away from her.  Mary is oblivious to this and cooks up an “All About Steve” Steve-themed crossword puzzle for her Sacramento paper the next day, causing her to get fired from her job, but allowing her the opportunity to follow Steve’s news crew (played by Thomas Haden Church and Ken Jeong) all around the country.

Church, as boorish reporter Hartman Hughes, convinces Mary that Steve is in  love with her, and, in the kind of set-up that only happens on Planet Movie World, Mary needs to constantly ignore Steve’s fear and pleas for her to leave him alone.  Hartman’s never given a good reason to tell Mary to do this (professional ribbing seems to be the movie’s lousy excuse), but she does it with gusto.  To follow Steve, Mary tags along in a vintage 1970’s Gremlin with an apple sculptor played by DJ Qualls and a political activist played by bimbo brickhouse Katy Mixon.  You can imagine all the wacky antics that ensue as Mary travels from state-to-state, tragedy-to-tragedy (they are a news crew after all), stalking Steve and befriending everyone she comes into contact with through the sheer power of her irresistible quirkiness.  Yes, you can imagine wacky antics, but you won’t get any.

What you will get is Mary behaving, at times, genuinely disturbed and frightening.  There’s an unusual lack of jokes in All About Steve, replacing snappy banter and gags with the kind of stillborn casting that assumes that just because you cast funny people means they’re automatically going to be funny (Ken Jeong, in particular, is floundering here with nothing to do).  There’s a schmaltzy crossword-puzzle-as-life-lesson voice-over from Bullock that sounds like a last minute addition to counteract Mary’s unattractive lunacy, but it just makes things worse.  When it chimes in, it only reminds us that we’re watching this movie drown, struggling to find a comedic tone.

All About Steve never even comes close to finding that tone, no matter how many times they use Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” as Mary’s entrance cue.  That right there is crime enough for me to tell you to avoid it, but if you’d like some more reasons, I’d point you to director Phil Traill’s general lack of energy and this movie’s cheap-looking, direct-to-video visual style.  All About Steve does a huge disservice to Bullock’s appeal, casting her as a character too pretty to be that unattractive, too old to play so young, and too smart to be this stupid.

4 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Gamer (3/10)

Gamer“Is this bad?” asks Michael C. Hall as Gamer‘s Ken Castle, the villain of the new film from Crank auteurs Mark Neveldine and Bryan Taylor.  The answer is a loud and clear “YES!”  Gamer could be viewed as either an ADD-addled exercise in deplorable, violent garbage or an astoundingly  juvenille z-grade popcorn movie, but there can be no denying that it is very, very bad.  Neveldine and Taylor are back, ladies and gentlemen, blasting good taste (and filmmaking  fundamentals) in the face with an assault rifle of a movie.

Gamer is astonishingly bad.  Gerard Butler, wearing one facial expression for ninety minutes, plays Kable, a death row prisoner fighting for his freedom as part of the televised video game Slayers.  His every movement during the game is controlled by an arrogant teen (Logan Lerman as Simon), using nanotechnology Ken Castle originally developed  for a real-life version of Second Life called Society.  Kable knows that he was framed for a crime he didn’t exactly commit, and his plight (and totally awesome high-score) gets the attention of talk show host Gina Parker Smith (Kyra Sedgwick) and an underground group of “Humanz” (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Alison Lohman, and Aaron Yoo) dedicated to stopping Castle’s use of remote-controlled people as popular entertainment.  It’s as if Neveldine and Taylor watched Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race and WWE’s The Condemned and decided that those movies were way too brainy.

Frankly, as bad as it is, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.  Michael C. Hall seems to be playing the love child of Foghorn Leghorn and Rob Liefeld, and, in the film’s climax, leads a group of Slayers‘ contestants in a Sammy Davis Junior lip-synched dance sequence.  The Society subplot is both hilarious and irritating, filled with extras apparently cosplaying as incidental Fifth Element characters, constantly humping each other under the control of a sweaty, grey-skinned, naked fat guy eating waffles with his bare hands and making Amber Valleta crawl around a shag carpet on all fours (with the camera tastefully pointed directly at the parts of her where the sun don’t shine).

The action in Gamer is so spastically edited, so full of forced techno-glitches,  it makes Tony Scott look downright Kubrickian.  These aren’t action sequences so much as they are poorly-shot scenes of Butler running around objects that are exploding.  No rules to the game are ever established (a pretty big detail when your movie is about a game) and all of the gunfire serves to only break up the quick-edit views of the only things Neveldine and Taylor are actually interested in, namely sports and women’s breasts.

As a matter of fact, they get so distracted by basketball and girls flashing boobs, that they forget to fill in major logic gaps in their story.  Characters are introduced as important, then promptly dismissed when it comes time to explain their actual purpose to the plot (Terry Crews and John Leguizamo, specifically).  In this movie, no one ever has any motivation for any of the actions they take.

In one of the stupider moments in a film with more stupid moments than any other movie this year, Kable asks Simon to disconnect him and let him roam free in the game.  Simon obliges, but Kable doesn’t anticipate it, and downs an entire bottle of vodka before a firefght, nearly getting himself killed.  There’s no explanation as to why Simon would disconnect, or why Kable would get drunk before a game–it just happens.  (This idiotic sequence continues with Kable discovering the first truck he finds runs on ethanol, so he pukes and pisses in the gas tank to get the truck to run.)  When Kable finally makes it to the end of his journey, we never get an answer as to why he was framed in the first place.  He finds out the bad guy did it and he gets his revenge on the bad guy.  All of this is simple, sure, but it’s also completely retarded.

Everyone involved with Gamer should be embarrassed to have this on their resume.  To its credit, it’s never boring, but any fun I had (I laughed way too much) was at the expense of a movie that thinks that it’s being stylish and clever when it’s only being childish and abrasive.  I can imagine a small minority of folks defending the film as “dumb fun”, but, even then, the reality is that  Gamer is a scummy bottom feeder of an action movie, designed specifically to titillate emotionally stunted young males with unhealthy doses of blood splatter and leering sexuality.

3 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> The Wrestler (9/10)

The WrestlerThe Wrestler is not an underdog story.  It’s not the story of a man with an unattainable dream who works beyond all odds to get within reach of his dream.  If that story is a part of The Wrestler at all, then it happened a good twenty-five years or so before this film starts.  Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) has already achieved his goal; he has already lived the dream.  The Wrestler is about the “now what?” that comes afterward, in a profession where the human body will insure that you aren’t the top star forever.  Pro wrestling is a profession where the fake extends beyond just the in-ring violence, where the distinction between your own personality and the character you play every single night begins to blur so badly that it affects your personal relationships, where your own level of celebrity is a sham, calculated for you by booking agents and your in-ring partners, both with their own set of agendas.  The Wrestler is a story that feels like the very real biography of the dozens, if not hundreds, of men that have seen their lives go from bubble gum cards, action-figures, and  performing on television in front of millions to menial jobs, nagging ailments, and wrestling shows in gymnasiums in front of a handful of people.

This movie just feels lived in, more than any other narrative film released in 2008.  You get that sense of fly-on-the-wall audience participation while you watch this that some documentaries have, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Wrestler has a documentary feel.  It’s intimate.  The actors physically inhabit their roles.  I believe Mickey Rourke is Randy the Ram.  I can see it in his watery eyes, the face that looks like it was formed out of clay, the way he breathes and sighs and talks in that gravel-pit voice  of a pro wrestler.  I believe Marisa Tomei is Pam.  I can see it in her desperation, her sad smile that still manages to burn at 100-watts through sheer force of will.

Pam is “Cassidy”, the dancer that Randy takes a shine to at a local strip club, both of them drawn together in part by the artificial personas they’re trapped in, alter egos of their own creation, neither one finding real life particularly easy to deal with.  Randy decides to take a crack at a real retirement, after being treated for heart problems, and he’s urged by Pam to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  It’s a noble idea, but the truth is that Randy is a bit of a bastard–it’s the reason he’s broke and alone–and the pop of an always adoring crowd is not easily substituted by the emotional stickiness that comes with real life.

In this way, director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) has created another portrait of addiction.  Randy is addicted to love, and “fake” love is much easier to get than real love.  It’s by no means as rewarding, but Randy only knows that when he is performing, he feels love.  When he’s working the deli counter at a supermarket, when he’s pleading with his daughter, or when he’s trying to get Pam to bend her own rules on dating customers, he doesn’t feel it.  We know that the crowd response is fleeting, because we’re on the outside looking in, but to the person standing right in the warm glow of the cheering crowd, the emotions are much too strong to make a difference.

I loved every minute of The Wrestler.  It’s a small, truthful movie, one that will offer non-wrestling fans an extremely personal look into a world they didn’t know was this interesting, and for the wrestling fans, it reflects the tale of every upper-mid card superstar that went from fame to famine.  It’s the year’s best love story, and fully deserving of every bit of praise it has received along the film fest circuit.

9 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Disaster Movie (2/10)

Disaster Movie

Let me save you the money.  The following is a complete list of all of the references that Disaster Movie makes.  The film does not attach any meaning or jokes to the references, so I won’t either, in keeping with the spirit of the film.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Cloverfield, Amy Winehouse, High School Musical, A Night at the Museum, Hannah Montana, Alvin & the Chipmunks, Justin Timberlake, Speed Racer, Kung Fu Panda, Iron Man, Hellboy, Twister, Head On (Apply directly to the forehead), AT&T, Juno, Beowulf, Michael Jackson, Enchanted, Step Up, Step Up 2:  The Streets, Jimmy Kimmel’s Matt Damon song, Jessica Simpson, No Country for Old Men, Dr. Phil, The Love Guru, Flava Flav, Sex in the City, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Hancock, Superbad, Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Prince Caspian, and Jumper.

I think that’s it.  I can’t remember if I skipped any.

Here is an example from the trailer for this film of the kind of jokes you can expect:

Iron Man shows up and says “I AM IRON MAN!”.  Then, a cow falls on him.

Here is another example, not shown in the trailers:

Prince Caspian is standing the forest, sword aloft, when Hayden Christiansen’s character from Jumper teleports onto Caspian’s sword, prompting Prince Caspian to say, “Hey, it’s that guy from Star Wars!”

All of the dialogue in this movie consists of actors announcing who they are dressed up as and then leaving, or other characters pointing out who the other characters are and running away from them.  It’s not a movie; it’s a costume catalog.

Still doubtful?  I went from “I don’t like this one bit” to “I hate this and I want to stab this movie” with the pre-ending credits musical number, wherein the entire cast sings a song that allows them all to come back and say what character they are supposed to be.  Yes, after watching a film that conisted entirely of announcements (“I’m Batman!”, “It’s Hannah Montana!”, ad naseum), I was punished with a song made up of characters singing who they are dressed as.

This avoids a 1-point rating because it was shot with actual cameras and lights, and because I thought Nicole Parker’s Enchanted parody might’ve been amusing in a different movie.  She plays the princess as a drug-addled homeless sewer dweller, and it is quite literally this movie’s only actual joke.  It’s a bit of a tough call to give it that one extra point, esepcially in light of how willing this movie is to get extremely ugly with women to try for a laugh.  It’s a vile exercise in junk culture worship, a humorless, misogynistic, dull revolving door of unnecessary reminders of every movie that has been released in the past year.

2 on a 1 to 10 scale