“Icarus”: This Year’s Oscar Winner, and a Documentary Unlike Any Other

March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel in “Icarus”/Courtesy Netflix

For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.

Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.

At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.

The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:

Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Fogel: Yes.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.

Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.

Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.


“Loveless”: Russia’s Entry for Best Foreign Film, and a Masterpiece

February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Alexy Rozin and Maryana Spivak in “Loveless”

I’ve seen many good dramas this season but only one great one: Andry Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” a searing portrait of marital dissolution and its consequences in present-day Moscow. Like the wintry landscape and sleek apartment blocks it depicts, the film is bleak, bracing and suspenseful. It’s also utterly devoid of cinematic bromides and head and shoulders above the competition. It deserves to win not only Best Foreign Film but Best Picture, despite not having been nominated for that award. For those who prefer movies based in reality, “Loveless” is an absolute masterpiece.

The film opens with a blond boy taking a meandering route home from school along a nearby river. Alyosha (Matey Novkov) is twelve, a loner and the only child of a middle-class couple. Though his family lives in a spacious modern apartment, Alyosha’s world is coming apart: his parents despise each other and are in the midst of an ugly divorce; the apartment is on the market. That night in bed, he overhears his father Boris (Alexy Rozin) and mother Zehnya (Maryana Spivak) fighting and learns that neither wants custody of him. When Boris says he can’t care for his son, Zehnya suggests putting Alyosha in an orphanage. The look of anguish on the boy’s face when he realizes he is–and always has been–unwanted by both parents is heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The next day, we learn that both parents have already found new partners: Zhenya a rich older man whose only daughter is not only grown but conveniently living in Portugal; and Boris a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Zehnya, after leaving work to have her hair and nails done, meets her lover for dinner and spends most of the night at his apartment, while Boris spends the night with his lover at her apartment. Zehnya returns home late and doesn’t bother to check on Alyosha. In the morning he’s missing, and Zehnya soon learns he skipped school the previous day and hasn’t been seen since.

On the advice of a policeman, Boris and Zehnya enlist the services of a private group dedicated to finding runaways. With admirable skill, they search the woods, riverbanks and a new but abandoned building where Aloysha and his only friend liked to play. When the search party finds no sign of the boy, they paper the area with flyers and search the stairwells, balconies and elevators of nearby buildings. There are visits to hospitals and the morgue, tips about unnamed corpses and a growing sense of despair. Early on, the group leader persuades Zehnya to visit her monstrous, estranged mother to see if Alyosha might have gone there. Their brief encounter is primer on what not to do, both as a parent and an adult child.

Compared with his icy wife, Boris seems warm and cuddly, but he’s just as much a narcissist as she is. A moral weakling whose main goal is to keep his job by deceiving his boss, a religious fundamentalist who fires divorced employees, Boris sleepwalks through the crisis of his son’s disappearance, unable to comprehend its meaning.

In the end, both Boris and Zehnya get new lives but not the fresh start they expected, and Aloysha’s disappearance is not transformative for either. Both parents remain irredeemably selfish in spite of their new partners and homes, and Boris loves his new baby no more than he did Alyosha. But life goes on as predictably as the children who sled outside the family’s apartment, now under renovation by its new owners.

It’s this refusal to indulge in sentimentality that ultimately makes “Loveless” great, as well as a welcome antidote to every film with a contrived ending. It opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles but should be more widely available soon.

Poinsettias: Hollywood’s Christmas Gift

December 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign!

Poinsettias of Old Hollywood, Part I

December 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

I was surprised to find this vintage postcard in the collection of Tommy Dangcil because I had not previously heard of poinsettias being grown in Hollywood. Judging from the single building in the hills, the image dates back more than a century, to when Hollywood still had large agricultural tracts. Most were planted with lemons and oranges, crops that would soon give way to movie studios and other commercial properties.

What makes the postcard even more striking is the fact that the poinsettia was not well-known at the time, and less a commercial crop than a curiosity. Native to Mexico, the plant–despite its red color–was not even particularly identified with Christmas. Its popularization was largely the work of Paul Ecke, a San Diego County grower who not only tirelessly promoted the poinsettia as the Christmas “flower” (in fact, the red parts are leaf-like bracts, while the yellow centers are the flowers) but who, with his son Paul Jr., created the white, pink, yellow and variegated types that are available today. Because of Ecke, Encinitas has long been the undisputed capital of poinsettia cultivation, producing 80% of the world’s plants. In light of its long history in Encinitas, discovering the poinsettia’s early connection to Hollywood was an unexpected pleasure.

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Poinsettias of Hollywood, Part II

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

After I posted my last piece, I discovered an article in the current issue of Discover Hollywood * that completes the poinsettia’s history in Hollywood. It seems that it was none other than Paul Ecke’s father, Albert, who started growing the plants in here in 1900. Like many Angelenos of the era, Ecke was headed somewhere else–in his case, Fiji–when he discovered Hollywood’s ideal year-round growing conditions and decided to stay. He settled his family on Hayworth Avenue and soon established an orchard and a dairy.

Noticing that poinsettias grew wild in Hollywood and bloomed at Christmastime, Albert Ecke cultivated them in the field on Sunset Boulevard shown in the postcard above. Father and son sold them in pots from roadside stands in Hollywood and later Beverly Hills, where winter visitors as well as locals bought them. The painter Paul DeLongpre painted them (one of his watercolors is featured in the article) adding to their popularity beyond Southern California.

As many have noted, the poinsettia is memorialized as a street name in Hollywood. Now we know why.

*The issue is available free of charge now, but isn’t up yet on the magazine’s website http://www.discoverhollywood.com
Presumably it will be soon.

Holiday Gifts from Under the Hollywood Sign: DVDs, Downloads and eBooks

December 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

Back of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Back of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

In 2009 I started this blog to promote my work as a documentary filmmaker and writer, the fruits of which are available as downloads and/or DVDs. If you’ve enjoyed my blog, please support the work that inspired it.

DVDs can be shipped overseas as well as domestically. Orders of two DVDs will be shipped at the price of one; though the option doesn’t appear on the site, I refund the second DVD’s shipping cost when payment is received. Please order soon to have them arrive in time for the holidays.

Documentaries on DVD:

JIM THOMPSON, SILK KING–Remastered 2015 Version with DVD extras http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

THE JIM THOMPSON HOUSE AND ART COLLECTION http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

UNDER THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

PEG ENTWISTLE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN ACTRESS http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

Documentaries on Vimeo:

JIM THOMPSON, SILK KING–2015 Version with DVD extras https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkking?utm_source=email&utm_medium=vod-vod_publish_confirmation-201408&utm_campaign=10308&email_id=dm9kX3B1Ymxpc2hfY29uZmlybWF0aW9ufGYyYjY0OTMzYjc0MTVjM2Y4ODdiY2E5ZWJjNGJmM2I0NjUwfDI1Nzc3MzE3fDE0NDI5NDU5MDV8MTAz

UNDER THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

PEG ENTWISTLE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN ACTRESS http://vimeo.com/ondemand/17445/100467934


ON “BLADE RUNNER”: FOUR ESSAYS https://www.amazon.com/Blade-Runner-Four-Essays-ebook/dp/B00E8M1GW2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400119149&sr=1-1&keywords=on+%22blade+runner%22+by+hope+anderson

PEG ENTWISTLE AND THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN https://www.amazon.com/Entwistle-Hollywood-Sign-Hope-Anderson-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400119275&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=peg+entwistle+and+the+hollywoodsign+by+hope+andersonH

Remembering the Bel Air Fire of 1961 as the Skirball Fire Rages

December 7, 2017 § 2 Comments


Roscomare Road, Bel Air, During the 1961 Fire, courtesy LA Times Archive

Waking to the news that the Sepulveda Pass was burning yesterday, I immediately thought of the last major wildfire to hit the area. On November 5th, 1961, the Bel Air Fire raced through the Hollywood Hills, burning 16,000 acres and destroying 484 houses. Though there were no fatalities, it was the largest fire to strike the City of Los Angeles, unrivaled until the current one began late Tuesday night.

The Bel Air and Skirball Fires began in similar conditions: fires from ignited brush were spread by Santa Ana winds at the end of an unusually long dry season. Without measurable precipitation or humidity, both catastrophes progressed quickly, flames racing from canyon to canyon along the ridge line of the Santa Monica mountains.

In Beachwood Canyon, the 1961 fire claimed 17 houses, including that of the writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Laura. When I interviewed Laura Archera Huxley in 2007, she vividly remembered being mesmerized by the flames near their house on Deronda Drive. Unable to grasp the urgency of the situation, she and Aldous waited too long to evacuate and lost nearly all their possessions as well as their home.

The Skirball Fire is being blown west instead of east, so Beachwood Canyon isn’t in danger from it. But bone dry conditions combined with tourists who smoke with impunity near the Hollywood Sign puts those of us who live here in constant jeopardy. When I learned that firefighters from our area were being deployed to fight the Skirball Fire, I started packing my bags.

Twenty-four hours later, the situation seems to be improving. But until this winter’s rains begin, fire danger remains, as does our fear. Visitors who ignore Beachwood Canyon’s No Smoking signs should know that all it takes is a single flick of a cigarette to destroy homes and lives. For those who don’t care, there’s a hefty fine for smoking. Let’s hope the City enforces it.

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In the Ongoing Sexual Abuse Scandal, the Myth of the Studio System Endures

November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments

Louis B. Mayer in his Office

Amid the daily revelations of sex abuse and harassment by entertainment executives, I’ve noticed a large number of online commentators asking, “Why aren’t all meetings held in offices at the studios?”, and “Why don’t actresses refuse to meet producers/directors/actors in hotel rooms?” The implication that everyone has an office in a studio is laughable; a couple of years ago, I read an article by a producer who worked out of his car, which he recommended because he was always driving from one office to the next. As for actors being able to refuse a meeting in a hotel, it’s hardly possible when agents send them there via written instructions on agency letterhead. That these assumptions exist at all is proof the enduring myth of the studio system.

From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.

Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.

Creepy Hollywood A-Listers: A Personal History

October 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Mike Ovitz

Kevin Costner

Ben Affleck

I first worked in the entertainment industry as a story analyst at CAA, a job I did part-time from late 1989 to around 1992. Though it paid horribly–$25 per script and $50 per book, as I recall-it was a good way to find out what other people were writing (crap, for the most part). Because this was before PDF’s, I had to go to Beverly Hills to pick up my assigned scripts, which I would read, synopsize and analyze overnight. Arriving at CAA’s brand new, I.M. Pei-designed building at Wilshire and Santa Monica, I would announce myself at the desk and wait under the giant Roy Lichtenstein painting until I was allowed to go down to the Story Department, a cramped warren of basement rooms that, in addition to unrelentingly tense CAA atmosphere, led me to refuse a staff position.

One night, after a last-minute call to pick up scripts, I had to bring my five-year-old son with me. As we crossed the lobby toward the elevator, I saw Mike Ovitz, then CAA’s Chairman. Peering out from behind a column, he was staring at me stonily. I glanced back; more staring ensued. Years later, I read that CAA employees were instructed to avert their eyes in Ovitz’s presence, but I never got that memo. Ovitz continued to stare until the elevator doors closed.

At that point Mike Ovitz was the most powerful and feared man in Hollywood, threatening, cajoling, and making and breaking careers. He also had an uncanny knack of being everywhere, including many of the places I went. Soon I was receiving the Ovitz stare at the Forum during a Lakers Game, and during lunch at Locanda Veneta and Maple Drive. Both Ovitz’s ubiquity and his staring came to an end when he left CAA for Disney, at which point he also lost his power. But before that fateful move, he presided over some staring by a client, Kevin Costner.

Costner, then at the height of his career, was having lunch with Ovitz at the latter’s special booth at Maple Drive on a day I was there for a business lunch. The booth was lozenge-shaped, allowing Ovitz almost total privacy and his client a view of the room. The woman I was meeting was an hour late, and I was too naive to take this as a sign and leave. Between the wait and the lunch, I spent nearly four hours at Maple Drive that day, making three trips to the ladies’ room. To get there I had to pass Ovitz’s booth, and each time I walked by Costner would stop talking and watch me. This was no flirty glance or admiring gaze but a fixed, unblinking stare, reptilian in its intensity and impossible to ignore.

Years passed, and I assumed my days of being stared at like prey by Hollywood stars were over. Then, in 2000, it happened again. This time I was having lunch with my then teenage son in the courtyard of Pinot Hollywood. It was a hot August day and most of the patrons had finished, leaving us and the couple at a neighboring table. At some point I realized the man had been staring at me for some time, and showed no signs of stopping. “That guy is making me very uncomfortable,” I said to my son, who turned around to look at him. “Mom,” he said, “That’s Ben Affleck, and he’s with Gwyneth Paltrow.” Affleck was wearing a baseball cap; his hair, dyed for “Pearl Harbor,” had masked his appearance, and all I could see of Paltrow was her blonde hair. In time they got up and left, leaving me to wonder why a movie star who was having lunch with his movie star girlfriend would bother staring at me.

More than two years later, I was stopped at a long red light at the corner of Rossmore and Beverly. Though it was a cold day, the young man in the convertible to my right had the top down. He wore a grey watch cap, and he was staring at me so intently that if he had been a cartoon character his eyes would have been out on stalks. His car was uncommonly beautiful and expensive for a young person, and I was about to roll down my window and say, “Hey guy, nice car–is it your dad’s?” when I realized it was Ben Affleck. The convertible was the blue Bentley Azure given him by Jennifer Lopez, who was then his fiancée. I said nothing, and a moment later the light changed. He turned right and I went straight, already certain he was never going to marry Lopez.

Though I haven’t seen Affleck since, the creepiness of these encounters has stayed with me. To the horror of my boyfriend at the time, I once tried to hide under a table at Matsuhisa when I spotted someone who resembled the actor. Even worse, my subsequent boyfriend’s parents lived next directly next door to Affleck, who by then was married to Jennifer Garner. Though walls and trees blocked all views of their property, I half expected him to appear out of thin air and start staring at me again.

Last week Affleck made news by claiming not to know anything about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women. He was then accused of lying by Rose McGowan, who reported not only telling Affleck that Weinstein raped her but his response: “Goddamnit! I told him to stop doing that.” This, and the allegation that Affleck groped Annamarie Tendler after the Golden Globes in 2014, brought back memories his fixed stare, and not fond ones.