March Break hasn’t been on my radar since I left school. I have no kids; I’m not a teacher and I don’t feel the need to let it all hang out at keg parties in Daytona Beach with people a third my age. So it came as quite a surprise to me when I had to book a flight to Los Angeles for March 18 that all the flights were full with rowdy March Breakers except the 8:15 pm, which had only limited seating.
You know what you get when you book last minute for March Break? Row 31. Yup, the toilet row. Not only are you at the desolate end of the plane, but you will be the first to get on, the last to get off and spend the whole flight listening to shrieking flight attendants dropping glasses and smelling wafts of toxic waste from the loos. That’s how I spent March Break this year. Hope you had more fun.
Got into LA late, checked into the Four Seasons—no bad smells or noisy staff there—and went to bed.
SATURDAY, MARCH 19, 2005
The late, great Hunter S. Thompson used to say that “breakfast is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same traditonalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner.” He recommended starting the day with “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon or corned beef hash with sliced chiles, a Spanish omelette or Eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.” He also suggested eating outside and “preferably stone naked.” I bring this up because I too believe in the multi-course breakfast, but rather than brace me for the day, I think the four Bloody Marys might just send me back to bed. But, with Dr. Thompson in mind I order a substantial breakfast, the same one I have every time I stay at the Four Seasons—Huevos Rancheros, a Jet Lag smoothie and a giant urn of Earl Grey tea. It’s delicious and gives me the kick start I need to face the day, although I have to marvel that two eggs, a black bean quesadilla, some guacamole, a smoothie and some tea costs 47 US dollars.
I’m here to see the new Robert Rodriguez movie Sin City, a gritty translation of the Frank Miller graphic novels, and interview some of the cast. I don’t have to be at the screening until 6:30, and despite LA’s record rainfall in recent weeks—and a light drizzle today—I have a number of errands to run and I’m determined not to take cabs everywhere. I’m going to get around town the two ways that would make most Los Angelians wince—walking and the bus. I walk down to Fairfax and Third Street and just outside of the Farmer’s Market I catch the bus. For three dollars you can buy a day pass that’s good for the whole day.
My first stop—two busses later—is Astro Burger (7475 Santa Monica Boulevard) on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. You may have seen the place on the cover of the New York Post or in People recently. Photos of Million Dollar Baby star Hilary Swank, still dressed in her revealing backless gown, chowing down at the low-cost burger bar after partying at the Governors Ball and the Vanity Fair shindig on Oscar night were everywhere following her win. Accompanied by husband Chad Lowe and a group of friends, the actress ordered a vegetarian cheeseburger and fries and plunked her new Oscar down on the plastic tray next to her burger while she ate.
“She walked in with a big smile, raised the statue over her head and everybody burst into applause,” said Astro Burger owner Dino Andrianos. “It was a thrilling moment for everyone.”
Restaurant boss Andrianos says Swank is a regular visitor to the West Hollywood burger-bar—described by one LA food writer as “the kind of place where the cast of Happy Days would feel right at home”—which is also frequented by luminaries including Leonardo Di Caprio and the late Marlon Brando.
He added: “She doesn’t have the personality of a star. She’s just a regular person—and very low-key.”
I was going to have the Ostrich burger—I’ve had it before and it tastes like really lean beef or maybe like a cow and a chicken had a baby—but instead chose the Swank meal, a Santa Fe Veggie Burger with avocado and Swiss cheese, fries and a root beer ($9.85). It was delicious and I’m told the secret to a truly scrumptious veggie burger is in the cooking. It must, I was told, be grilled over charcoal and never, ever microwaved or fried.
From there I walked back to the bus stop in a light drizzle, stopping only to watch the police arrest someone who I thought was Dave Foley from The Kids in the Hall. It wasn’t Foley and standing there watching what I thought was a celebrity take-down made me miss the 217 bus on Fairfax and I had to sit for twenty minutes to wait for another one.
From there I took a series of busses that dropped me at Sunset and Vine. Not exactly where I wanted to go, but there was something disrupting traffic and my bus was detoured. As I walk toward Hollywood Boulevard I discover why my bus had to detour. The streets were blocked off to make way for a large scale peace rally. It was a sea of “Bush Lied-Thousands Died” placards and fists raised in defiance for as far as I could see. I walked with them for a while—I was going that way anyway—and soon found myself chanting their peace mantra.
“What do want?”
“When do we want it?”
I felt like I had stepped into time warp back to 1969. Beware the brown acid, man. For a peace rally many of these people seemed a little aggressive—madder than stranded Jets-Go passengers at March Break. Despite the hippy-dippy peace and love message of the crowd, I had the uneasy feeling that things could go wrong at any time. I later heard that there were 20,000 people there, and when you have that many fired-up people in one place, trouble can’t be far away.
I dropped by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—the Hollywood landmark recently featured in The Aviator—and stood in its famous forecourt. Here Hollywood legends from Mary Pickford to Tom Cruise have left their footprints, handprints and more—John Barrymore left an impression of his famous profile and Marliyn Monroe left an earring—in the cement slabs outside the theatre. I hear some tourists talking as they look at the Peter Sellers autograph.
“Do you know who he is?” asks a mother to her daughter. “He did Three Men and A Baby.” Somewhere Steve Guttenberg chuckled and Sellers rolled over in his grave.
I’ve been to this theatre many times, but have never taken the daily tour, so I cut away from the protesters—I’m with you in spirit my brothers and sisters—and ducked into the theatre. It was a more appealing option than walking around LA in the rain, so $12 later I find myself standing in the ornate lobby with a tour guide in an ill fitting tuxedo. He was enthusiastic, but spoke just a little too loud and seemed like he was reading from cue cards that none of us in the tour could see.
He did, however, have lots of cool info on the theatre. The inside of the lobby has giant garden fairytale style murals on the walls which have been in place for over seventy years. They are quite beautiful, but the really cool thing about them is that they were painted by Keye Luke, an accomplished artist who also painted the theatre’s massive auditorium ceiling. Luke was also the actor who played Charlie Chan’s No. One Son in the movies, but even cooler than that, he was Kato on the original Green Hornet television series and was probably best known as Master Po—“Quickly as you can snatch this pebble from my hand”—on the Kung Fu series from 1972 to 75.
The theatre is tacky-beautiful, with every inch of wall space covered in murals and Asian themed paintings. The curtain, which measures more than 80 feet wide, is embossed with a palm tree pattern originally designed by Rumba King Xavier Cugat. Also still in place are large, hollow imported marble columns which are air cooled and have provided the theatre with air conditioning for over seventy years. Grauman’s Chinese was the first air conditioned theatre in America.
The fancy wooden and brass armrests on the end of each aisle are also originals, we’re told, having recently been rescued from storage, restored and re-installed.
From there the tour quickly denigrates into a sales pitch for the various amenities offered by the theatre. We’re shown the “VIP” room which is a glorified waiting room above the old theatre, but, our guide says, “you never know who you might see up here,” and relates stories of various celebrities who have frequented the place. From there we are taken to one of the newer, smaller theatres and shown a five minute documentary on the theatre. The place has a rich history, but you would never know it from this puffed up commercial, which rapidly skips through the Hollywood history of the place in favor of plugs for the corporation that owns the building.
The tour ends where so many of these kinds of things often end—in a gift shop. I leave the tour with buying a souvenir—no Grauman’s night light, trivet or polo shirt for me. I’ll be content with the memories.
By the time I bolt from the gift shop the screening is just an hour away. Not enough time to go back to the hotel—especially since Hollywood Boulevard is still closed down for the protest—so I decide to walk over to the screening room. LA is so massive that a walk that I thought would take fifteen or twenty minutes based on the number of the address, took almost an hour.
It was worth the long sweaty walk. Sin City may be the best movie of the year—and perhaps last year and very possibly next year. The movie is utterly unique, using legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller’s Sin City books as storyboards for the film’s trio of noirish blood-soaked stories, it is unlike anything I have seen before. Every frame is high black and white style with the occasional dollop of color thrown in for effect. Fans of hard-boiled ‘40s-era crime fiction will recognize many of the conventions of those films—low-key lighting, a bleak urban setting and corrupt, cynical characters—but while the film has a decidedly retro feel, it manages to feel absolutely current at the same time.
Viewers should be warned that this movie is not for everyone, and I think audiences will be split into two groups—people who love this movie and people who hate it. There won’t be any middle ground, and for a take-no-prisoners kind of movie like this that’s the way it should be. Directors (yes, there are three of them) Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino have made a movie that doesn’t compromise visually or thematically. It is violent, distasteful and pushes the “booze, broads, and bullets” (and adds at least one more “b” word in there in the form of Carla Guigino’s character) ethos of classic film noirs to the limit. In what are essentially three love stories, Sin City explores taboos that not even the most cynical, pessimistic noir director from yesteryear would have considered. It’s a muscular movie, which pulls no punches—although many punches are thrown during the course of its 100 minute running time—made with defiance, but also with grace.
(WARNING: Extremely clumsy metaphor ahead!) If Sin City was a cup of coffee to make it you’d first need to fill a Double Indemnity filter with finely ground Pulp Fiction and Dick Tracy, then pour liquefied Sam Peckinpah through it and let it brew until it is dark and so filled with caffeine that it makes your brain buzz.
For an extended review, tune into Reel to Real March 28.
I was scheduled to see another movie after Sin City, but bailed out. Anything would have been too much of a buzz kill after that one. Instead I headed back to the Four Seasons for a late night snack at the bar. Three Heinekens and some Kobe Beef Sliders with Bavarian Potatoes—which, in Canada we would call Hickory Sticks—a bill for $41 USD and it was sack time.
SUNDAY MARCH 20, 2005
Up early, packed and headed upstairs to do my Sin City interviews. While I’m waiting by the elevators a door opens behind me and a familiar face walks out of the room next to mine. Apparently Clive Owen was nearby. It’s about 8:15am when I see him, and he is wearing a finely tailored Saville Row black suit, a white shirt open at the collar and very shiny black shoes. Damned if he doesn’t look like James Bond. I have said for years that they should give this guy the license to kill and bring some grit back to the increasingly lame Bond franchise.
I said hello and told him how much I enjoyed Sin City. We chat about the look of the film and he is genuinely enthusiastic about it. I have been doing this long enough to know the difference between someone who really believes the movie is good verses those who are trying to convince you that the movie is worth watching. He told me that he saw the film for the first time on Friday and was blown away by the look of it. Remember it was shot in a small room, completely on green screen, so he had no idea what the finished product would look like. It sounds as if he was happy. He told me that after the screening he hugged Robert Rodriguez. “I was blown away,” he told me. “I told Robert afterwards that he was a genius.”
When the elevator comes we go out separate ways—he takes the down elevator to the lobby, I go up to the interview suites. These things rarely ever run on time, so I rustle up a plate of breakfast and dig in. I’m three mouthfuls in when my name is called to interview Robert Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is wearing his trademark oversize cowboy hat, a shirt with flames licking up the side and a large belt buckle with a real scorpion encased in plastic. We made small talk for a while before the cameras rolled. I told him that I have a plastic bolo tie with a real scorpion in it, much like his belt. He wanted to know where he could get one like it. He doesn’t like wearing ties, but he would wear a scorpion bolo tie from time to time. Here’s the transcript from our on-air interview.
Richard Crouse: Today I was looking at the EPK—the Electronic Press Kit—and I saw some footage of you and Tarantino sitting together and you both looked kind of like the cats that swallowed the canary, and I wonder: When you were on set, when you were making this thing, was there a sense that you were breaking the rules or redefining things a little bit? Because you’re working outside of Hollywood, you’re working in a much different thing, and it just looked like two guys having a great time—
Robert Rodriguez: That’s mainly what it was…
Richard Crouse: —and doing something really interesting.
Robert Rodriguez: I think it’s just that we were just having a great time together. And you don’t feel like you’re making a movie because you’re in Austin, you’re in this green stage, and uh, Francis Ford Coppola came and visited the stage and he said “This was my dream for Zoetrope.” To have all these artists come and, you know, it was very strange. I got two—three directors at one point and all these different actors coming in doing something very experimental. It felt like renaissance. I mean, we really were just beside ourselves that this was what we—beyond what we had dreamed of when we began, that we would have the kind of set-up where we could just make anything happen. And it’s really exciting, and just as friends, getting to work together in a way that’s not the norm. I mean it is against the rules to actually do that.
Richard Crouse: Yeah…
Robert Rodriguez: And when you realize you just made it happen yourself it’s like: “How fun this is! People should do this more often.” It’s actually a great collaboration.
Richard Crouse: Do you see yourself as kind of a rebel in terms of the way you make films and the way you work.You quit the DGA so that you could have three directors on your film because the rules…
Robert Rodriguez: It just felt right. It was a very new movie. You watch the movie and you can see the results. It just doesn’t look like a regular movie. but had I followed the rules, I’d be stuck with the same old thing, and audiences need something new. So in order to sometimes change things, you have to break the rules, and that’s always happened in the industry with the guilds (and they usually then change the rule afterwards), but it has to be stretched a little because art can’t be confined. You’ve got to be able to break out, otherwise nothing new ever gets invented.
Richard Crouse: Without breaking the rules there’s no way to advance.
Robert Rodriguez: You’re just driving the same two streets over and over. “Can’t go beyond that!”
Richard Crouse: Do you feel now, after seeing the film—See, by the time this airs, nobody much will have seen it yet, right.
Robert Rodriguez: Right…
Richard Crouse: So, I can’t really stress how different it is from most films you see in the theatres, and what I wonder is: Do you see yourself sort of on the vanguard of a new kind of filmmaking? You know, if you look through history you have, you know, from the breakdown of the studio system, you know, into the sixties where people started using hand-held cameras all of a sudden, and then you know, in the seventies you had—sort of more toward in the US—you had Scorsese and people like that making films. Do you see a new wave here? A new kind of filmmaking?
Robert Rodriguez: I mean I felt it was new filmmaking when I read these books, and I’ve been collecting the books twelve years—Took me ten to figure out that I needed to make a movie out or it…
Robert Rodriguez: …but when I did look at it again, I thought: “Oh, technologically I know how to do this now, with the way I know effects and my photography I can pull it off, but beyond that, when I read the books and started thinking about how to adapt it, I realized there weren’t—not that they were cinematic, they were almost beyond cinema. They do things that not even cinema would do: white silhouettes and imagery you just weren’t used to seeing. They worked on the page and the storytelling didn’t sound like screenplay dialogue so I thought: “Man, let’s not adapt it, let’s shoot it just like this and then it’ll really be different.” So in other words, to make movies different I really went to the comic book to help change it by using that format that Frank had really created, cause his comics are different from other comics even. And that’s why it feels so new, and I just thought it would work because visual storytelling should work on the page or on the screen. And if it worked on the page, I said “Let’s just shoot this. Just make it move, and people won’t believe what they’re seeing, yet they’ll still be able to follow it and it won’t be just totally weird. And they’ll just feel refreshed seeing something exciting and different.”
I enjoyed talking to him, but got the sense that he enjoys making movies a lot more than he talking about making movies.
Next was Jessica Alba. She plays Nancy in the film, and while she doesn’t have a great deal of screen time, her character is pivotal to the Bruce Willis story arc. We spent our time talking about her character and the challenge of bringing a cartoon character to life.
Then it was time for me to grab my tapes and head to the airport. I was sharing a cab with a friend of mine, and agreed to meet her in the lobby. While I waited I see Clive Owen again. This time he is surrounded by protective publicists, attached to his side like barnacles. He says hello when he passes me, I respond and for some reason one of his minders scowls at me.
The trip back to Toronto is much less traumatic than the flight to Los Angeles and for me, March Break is officially over.
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