Not Everything about Los Angeles Is Bad

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that more often than not, I am complaining about LA: the traffic, the people, the pollution, or whatever pet peeve it is this month. But in recent months I have revised my opinion: yes, it is exceedingly difficult to live in LA. This is not a very livable city like Ann Arbor or Portland. But there are certain advantages to living here. What follows are some:

1. The weather. It’s eighty-four and sunny. No, not today, every day. If you suffer from Seasonal affective disorder, like I do, there is no better place to feel good, year round. The greatest weather catastrophe we get is rain, and that’s about once a year. Beat that, Seattle.

2. The beach. I live five miles from the Pacific coast. Need I say more?

 

 

 

3. Randy’s Donuts. Short of heaven, I don’t think there is anywhere better to get a hot, fresh donut. If you are ever in LA, even just passing through LAX, make it a point to stop at the giant donut.

My only complaint: more restaurants aren’t designed by way of what they serve.

 

 

 

 

4. Free movies. There really is no place else in the world where people outside theatres give out tickets to free movies. Sure, many of them are previews of movies I have no interest in, but the simple idea that anyone can get into a movie for free (and not try that hard) makes me happy.

5. Downtown LA. There is nowhere quite like Los Angeles’ downtown. Filled with interesting stories, shops, and a rich history, crowned by aging movie palaces down Broadway, it is a shame so many tourists stick to Hollywood. There is really so much more to see. At least see the giant redwoods in Clifton’s Cafeteria if you can.

6. KCSN. It may not always be The Music I Want (per their slogan) but it is always on in my car. I like the variety, the absence of deejays, and their choice to broadcast World Café every day. I don’t understand their programming philosophy, but maybe that is why I like it.

7. South Pasadena. I discovered this sleepy little town off the 110 through my work on their local Patch.com. I recently made this video for the site.

Everyone is reasonably friendly, the stores are cute and not ostentatious, and there are some amazing places to get sundaes. Maybe I like it so much because it is so un-LA. The outlying neighborhood of quaint Craftsman houses reminds me of that sleepy little mirage of a town the astronauts find on Mars in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Bradbury is local, after all, and I bet he based it a little bit off South Pas. Probably not the midnight assassination part, but the quaint part, yes.

8. Vroman’s. Located in Pasadena, this little bookstore that could always occupies several hours of my time when I am out that way. A truly independent bookstore, they are always hosting author talks, putting out good employee picks, and stocking up on new releases. When I worry about the future of publishing, I worry about Vroman’s, and hope they can stay open a little bit longer.

9. Independent Cinema. I live a couple of blocks from the Nuart, the Regal, the Royal, the Regent, and the Bruin—all great single screen theaters that do their best to be independent. And where else would Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams draw crowds other than the Royal in West LA?

10. The Margaret Herrick Library. Some of film’s greatest moments (and an Oscar or two in a display case) are available in this gem of a resource located on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Open to everyone, but used by only a knowledgeable few, it’s a perfect place to spend a couple of hours learning up on some film history.

11. Hollywood. Walking its streets, seeing the lines outside the Pantages, or even passing buskers on the street, something always catches in my throat. I start to see stars, not just the Walk of Fame kind, but the imaginary ones, too. Whatever I may know about the hard rock face of reality, I feel there is possibility here. Even if those opportunities do not exist, or the way up is pretty hard, it doesn’t feel that way on an empty stomach and a head full of stars walking on those streets.

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Quickie Review: Terri

Terri is a smart, strong film from indie up and comer Azazel Jacobs that may pass under most moviegoers’ radar, but deserves a wider audience. A coming-of-age comedy that takes its cues from another time, the story follows Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an overweight, pajama-clad boy who, while shuffling his way through middle school, is taken under the wing of assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). As Terri builds a relationship with his mentor Fitzgerald, his life seemingly falls apart, as he deals with his mentally ill uncle and guardian (Creed Bratton), and a crush on an equally self-destructive friend (Olivia Crocicchia). A tender, honest look at adolescence, the film resonated more deeply with me than any offering in recent history, seemingly worlds away from ABC Family.

Simply put, Terri’s script feels authentic. When Terri tells Mr. Fitzgerald he is in need of help, it’s not a monologue, but a simply whispered “I have trouble coming to school.” We don’t learn that Terri’s parents are deadbeats, instead he tells his friend Chad (Bridger Zadina) that “I don’t know” what happened to them. There is far more being communicated in these small words than a page of text could do. That the story neither resolves itself nor comes to a satisfying conclusion evinces a truth far stronger than any quick ending could have.

None of these telling details would mean anything without such a strong cast. Reilly is both hilarious and self-effacing as Mr. Fitzgerald. Jacob Wysocki’s taciturn Terri really proves that less is more. Even the supporting actors, eccentricities and all, feel like they belong to this odd world of middle school limbo. That Jacobs was able to control these characters, and create that mood speaks to a great gift. But it’s Jacobs’ quiet empathy that I am most drawn to. He doesn’t make us love his characters, but he doesn’t draw back in ironic distaste either. He steps back and lets the actors let us into their worlds—a far more powerful move than any ham-fisted directing. I can’t wait to see what else he comes up with.

Quickie Review: Page One

I am one of those people who are inconsolably depressed over the death of print journalism. Growing up reading The New York Times and The Washington Post, I thought it was my destiny I would one day write for one of these noble institutions. OK, maybe not write—but I took it for granted I would at least read them. The internet happened in the intervening decade or two and shocked everyone, including, as it turns out, The Times itself.

The new documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times (Andrew Rossi) addresses the internet’s aftermath, and how it affected print journalism, The New York Times in particular. Beginning with The Rocky Mountain News’ retirement and ending with The Times’ creation of a pay-wall, the director does well describing the reactions from everyone involved, from the television talking heads, the editors, and the journalists themselves.

David Carr, the irascible Times media critic, is our host, and he does a great job defending the newspaper, and attesting to all it has to offer a sustainable, intelligent democracy. His takedown of Newser’s Michael Wolff during a debate was especially fun to watch. After Wolff decries The Times for Judith Miller’s misleading reporting in the run up to the Iraq war, Carr dismisses Newser as a news aggregator. Holding up a cut-up Newser homepage, he shows that by eliminating the mainstream media, one is also sacrificing the site’s content.

There are so many great moments like these, but for an hour and a half documentary, there are simply too many narrative threads to compose something coherent. Sure, it is nominally a look inside The New York Times and how it fights obsolescence, but that in of itself is too much. Sometimes we are in the editors’ meetings, other times we are in Minneapolis learning about David Carr’s past lives, and by the end we are learning more about the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy than we are about the future of The Times.

The problem is not the documentarian, but the subject itself. A newsroom that big, and encompassing so much history, could never be distilled in one doc. And, honestly, the death of journalism is a topic too difficult to compress into mere sound-bytes. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the filmmakers to pick a subject, and the responsibility of a clever editor to make sure the final cut reflects that focus. Page One is a great movie, about a great subject, one I care to hear more of, yet there are times when great isn’t good when covering a story.

 

The Los Angeles Theatre

It’s a little offbeat to eat at a cafeteria these days, especially one where you get the senior discount. I thought this very thing last Wednesday night while I meditated in front of a plate of overcooked salmon and a “tomato platter” at Clifton’s in downtown LA. Now, to be fair, the senior discount was not because I had reached a certain age, but because tonight, I was going to see King Kong (1933) at the historic Los Angeles Theatre, a movie showing as part of the Last Remaining Seats series, and Clifton’s offers a promotion.

There’s a tendency in Hollywood to forget. Stars only last so long, careers evaporate overnight, and the next hot thing (Miley Cyrus) seems to fade all too quickly into last week’s salvia smoking scandal. As a member of twitter and facebook, sure, I ascribe to that ethos, but I’m also a bit of a rebel. Hollywood, and Los Angeles, the actual city, sometimes feels like a historic theme park to me. I only need to look down on Hollywood Boulevard and see Myrna Loy’s name or venture to Hollywood Forever to visit with Valentino to know that this place bleeds history.

For me, it’s the old downtown movie palaces of the teens and twenties—before Hollywood became the West’s film center—that are my true historical interest. Last year, I saw Peter Pan (1924) at the beautifully refurbished Orpheum, and even wrote a piece for LAist.com on the program, Last Remaining Seats, that makes it all possible. For twenty-five years now, the Los Angeles Conservancy has opened these theatres to silents, short subjects, and two reel Technicolors, so for just one night we can experience what it may have felt like in the twenties and thirties to belong to one of these glitzy movie palaces.

But there is something far more exciting about LRS than the mere experiencing of film history. For me, it’s a way to connect with my history. I think especially of my grandma Ann, who recently passed. While a true Detroiter, she visited Los Angeles during the Depression, even going so far as to write she would be attending UCLA in her Detroit Central High yearbook. Family responsibilities tugged, and except for a few trips, she never made it out here. But I remember how much she loved the movies, especially the classics. I don’t remember her television being tuned to anything but TCM. To watch King Kong in a movie theatre that may have been open when she was here reminds me of her and forges a deeper connection with her memory.

But those connections do not end there. Turns out my girlfriend’s grandmother even worked at Clifton’s as a cook. It’s exciting to learn these things, and to dive deep into a fascinating Los Angeles history, one that constantly yields pearls.

Travelin’ Man

My girlfriend is going to Alaska next month. This is good news, for her, but only depresses me. Not that I regret her trip, far from it; I feel bad because I am grounded. This summer, this fall, this winter, I probably won’t go anywhere. It’s not only the lack of dough, which is a problem, it’s the much bigger fear of the airplane, the lines at security, TSA patdowns, missed dinners, and other miserable side effects of travel.

Yet most good screenplays aren’t written in Los Angeles. They are written on the train back from Redwood City, the biplane sputtering from Ankara to Istanbul, or the boat sailing across the ocean. Only through experience can writers get to the best parts of their imagination, right? Sitting at home thinking of something cool is one thing, but actually living those adventures is something else. Look at Easy Rider, Road to Morocco, or Mad Max. These are all road movies dreamed up or put to film in exotic locations.

Of course, as we learn by the end of The Wizard of Oz (another great road movie) there is no place like home. And for all of its monotony, being at home does give me the ability to write, to eat food I’m comfortable with (read: frozen pizza), and fall asleep watching Netflix. However entrancing the idea of a long adventure sounds, it probably is best I stay at home, financially and otherwise.

It’s a shame, too, because I really could use a vacation.

Quickie Review: Submarine

Submarine is a charming film from British TV star and director Richard Ayoade (Moss from the IT Crowd) that you should see. This is his first feature—but you wouldn’t know it. The script, the direction, even the sets look like the work of a mature director. Yet it is to Ayoade’s credit that he makes an old genre, coming of age, something far more new and exciting; could it be that same inexperience working in his favor?

Submarine tells the story of a fifteen-year old boy, Oliver (Craig Roberts), with two goals: lose his virginity and keep his parents together. If his mother’s old beau (played by a wacky Paddy Considine) hadn’t moved in next door, this second checkmark may have been easier. As it is, he has better luck with his schoolmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), who, as he reasons at the movie’s start, may be unpopular, but is also less of a stretch as a girlfriend than anyone in the in crowd.

These two stories, told through Oliver’s imaginative voiceover, work together well, overlapping in a satisfactory saga of teenage angst. He’s honest, and he says what is on his mind, making his struggle much more accessible. Ayoade’s use of flashbacks, imaginative sequences, and montage works here because it feels like something a teenager would think; the stories in Oliver’s mind are the sort of filmic fantasies that a boy who frequents the local indie theatre would come up with. Not to mention that these sequences are edited well, seemingly allowing the audience into Oliver’s psyche without revealing all there is.

Only when the movie veered into the twee or the overly nostalgic did it lose my interest. Ayoade spends time quoting some of his favorite directors, especially Truffaut, which can feel derivative. Why so many shots of Oliver running on the beach if not to reference The 400 Blows?

Of course, it is Ayoade’s obsessions with these details that also draw me in. There is an odd fascination with Swansea, beige color schemes, marine biology, prisms, the beach, fireworks, and arson, which suggests that, well, let’s face it, Oliver is Ayoade and vice versa.

But it’s Alex Turner’s music that will stick with me. Turner, of the Arctic Monkeys, one of the biggest buzz bands of the last decade, provides some introspective, softly nostalgic tunes that encapsulate this movie for me. Sure, the Arctic Monkeys never became as big as the Beatles, or even Oasis, and Oliver may have never won the respect of his classmates or the world, but listening to these simple rock songs, it becomes clear that those things don’t really matter. There is something far more interesting lurking between the lyrics (and the dialogue breaks). In other words, Ayoade may not be the next Truffaut, or even Wes Anderson, but he could be something far more, for God help us, he is an auteur.

My Brother and I

Growing up, my older brother and I were never of the same mind about anything. If he liked building things with Legos, I liked destroying them, if he liked the baseball video game, we had to change it to the Hedgehog one (which is still better). Similarly, during our teen years, if my brother was into memorizing members of congress and their districts, I was trying to one-up him with The Disney Anthology. Yes, we were that nerdy.

I was certain we would never agree about anything. I staked out the left, and he the right, he obsessed over college basketball and I over college humor magazines. Sure, there was a détente during college, when he would come to visit for debate tournaments, but after college, we really started to come around to each other’s interests. It started with movies—we both liked watching the same cheesy sixties exploitation films like Psych Out or The Trip. Then that led us to discover the same psychedelic rock bands from the same era, which led to a million other things. Of course, I still had no interest in the law (his career), but I’m no longer afraid of it either, and even finished The Brethren on his recommendation.

Recently, his bar association threw a variety show, and we collaborated on a two minute video—our first film together. We wrote a Midwestern-tinged parody of the Jersey Shore, “Ohio Shore” last Christmas, a friend filmed him and a couple of pals acting out the script, and I edited the footage on Final Cut Pro. I had no way of getting to Ohio for the actual showing the other week—but from what I heard, our partnership paid off and the audience enjoyed it. This was nice to hear.

And it’s nice to be talking again, and hopefully planning the next partnership. Because, who knows, maybe our uncle is right, we could be the next Coen brothers. OK, maybe that one is a stretch.

Comments on any and all sibling rivalries, whether recovered or not, are welcome.