for this week’s ‘Tribune’ magazine: CORMAN’S WORLD [7/10]; RAMPART [6/10]

Published on: February 17th, 2012

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
Director: Alex Stapleton

Rampart
Director: Oren Moverman
{nb – UK release put back to Feb 24 after Tribune publication deadline}

ANYONE who wants to know all about Roger Corman – legendary producer/director of innumerable low-budget genre-movies, and the man who gave more early-career leg-ups to eminent film-makers than anyone else – is advised to go straight to the horse’s mouth. His unputdownable 1998 memoir How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, co-written with Jim Jerome, is easily one of the most entertainingly informative books ever written on cinema, chock-full of lively first-person anecdotal testimony from those who had the arduous (and notoriously ill-paid) honour of toiling for Corman during their formative years: Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Ron Howard, Joe Dante and dozens more.

Perhaps inevitably, the cannily-titled Corman’s World – Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (his cheapies have often been categorised as “exploitation” pictures for their blatant, lucrative targetting of certain demographics) isn’t quite up to that kind of class. First-time director Alex Stapleton’s approach is rather more about functionality than flair, and while the now-octogenarian Corman enjoys ample screen-time (we see him in action on the set of his latest anti-epic, a ropey-looking TV-movie entitled Dinoshark) this is hagiography rather than autobiography. And, while he’s more slavedriver than saint, the erudite and quietly-spoken Corman – a perennial Hollywood outsider who was finally awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2010 – has always exuded a mildly ecclesiastical, avuncular vibe.

It’s an unflappable patrician mien decidedly at odds with the unapologetic, way-out absurdity that has characterised his output since moneyspinning 50s romp Monster from the Ocean Floor – with some notable exceptions like Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets and Saint Jack, Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and Corman’s own dead-serious racism expos√© The Intruder (1962) which is famously the one production on which Corman actually did lose a dime or two.) That picture’s star – a suavely lean, silver-tongued Canadian newcomer named William Shatner – pops up in Corman’s World as just one star in a dazzling galaxy: all of the aforementioned associates, plus more youthful rabidly admiring acolytes including Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth.

Having succeeded in the daunting logistical task of obtaining access to such notables (and the end-credits indicate many more worthies ended up on the cutting-room floors) Stapleton then succeeds in getting them to open up on camera – a rarity for the normally-reclusive De Niro, whose contribution is brief but heartfelt. Jack Nicholson’s perpetual, beamingly shark-like mask of capo-style bonhomie, meanwhile, unexpectedly gives way as the triple Oscar-winner, – whom Corman chiefly employed as a writer and re-writer on C-grade horror quickies – is uncharacteristically overcome with tearful emotion.

The unseen MVPs of this particular show are, however, editors Victor Livingston and Philip Owens, whose selection and compilation of clips from the vast Corman back-catalogue represent a masterclass in the snappy presentation of archive materials. Corman’s World may not necessarily be 2012’s most profound or provocative documentary. But in terms of providing a breezy good time at the pictures, it’ll take some beating. And, given its subject’s predilections, one really can’t say fairer than that.

Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is the, hero/anti-hero/villain – his exact status very much a subjective decision – of Oren Moverman’s Rampart, set in a sun-baked, acrid Los Angeles of 1999. The headlines are dominated by the ‘Rampart’ scandal in which the misconduct of certain LAPD officers attracted international opprobrium, though the picture is misleadingly titled as the case itself is never more than a background element. Instead, the script – by Moverman and L A Confidential‘s James Ellroy – is a claustrophobically intense character-study of a 24-year veteran officer, the proudly-unreconstructed Brown, whose bullish old-school brutality makes him a convenient scapegoat to distract the media from the ongoing “shitstorm of epic proportions.”

But Brown is more complex than his ultra-aggressive belligerence – aviator sunglasses, high-and-tight military haircut – would suggest. Ferociously articulate to the point of browbeating verbosity, he has bizarre domestic arrangements – he lives with his girlfriend and her sister, with whom he was previously an item – and while guilty of numerous character-flaws, is most definitely innocent of the racism charges which end up being levelled against him.

This is only the second feature from Moverman, a US-based Israeli, the relative newcomer proving rather more suited to digital than, say, David Cronenberg in (last week’s)¬†A Dangerous Method. While highly unflattering to Sigourney Weaver (as one of Brown’s exasperated superiors), the close-up DV imagery renders every pore and wrinkle of Harrelson’s skin – his redneck fleshtones providing the orangey-red palette for the picture’s journey into macho perdition. Bobby Bukowski’s overactive camerawork, meanwhile, succeeds in keeping us on edge, even if it too often strays into gratuitous excess: wobbling shaky-cam, and/or head-spinning circular pans.

And while there’s no knocking Harrelson’s gutsy, warts-and-all performance, there’s the distinct feeling that Ellroy has gone to this particular well once too often – especially compared with Ron Shelton’s unfairly-overlooked Dark Blue from almost a decade ago, which featured Kurt Russell as yet another bull-necked, red-faced LAPD dinosaur struggling to adapt to a brave new dawn.

Neil Young
8th February 2012
written for Tribune magazine