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March 30, 2012

Movies You Missed 32: Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Cormans-worldThis week in movies you missed: Celebrate the start of drive-in season (the Sunset is open!) with a documentary about the king of good old bad B-movies.

What You Missed

He gave Jack Nicholson his first screen roles. He gave Ron Howard his first directing gig. He helped Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Jonathan Demme get their starts. He produced nearly 400 movies, starting in 1954, and is still working. But if you're young or unversed in film history, you may never have heard of Roger Corman.

So long and colorful is this soft-spoken mogul's career as the "King of the Bs" that someone already made a documentary about him, way back in 1978. But that was before VHS technology ended the golden age of the grindhouse and drive-in, before movies like Corman's started going straight to DVD, before he was finally honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and before he found himself making films like Dinoshark for SyFy.

All those developments are chronicled in Alex Stapleton's Corman's World, which also includes clips from Corman's oeuvre (and their wonderfully salacious trailers) and interviews with the many Hollywood luminaries who got their start with him.

Why You Missed It

Widest U.S. release: two theaters.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Not if the sight of a 1970s MPAA symbol shivering at the end of a trailer fills you with nostalgia, and not if you wish you could have seen X or The Wild Angels or Death Race 2000 at a drive-in.

Maybe it's a generational thing, but Corman's World made me sad that cheap exploitation films are gone. As Corman himself says in the film, they've been replaced by expensive exploitation films that are test-marketed to death and lack the weirdness and (sometimes) subversive energy of old-time B-movies. (Wrath of the Titans, anyone?) Schlock cinema has been relegated to places like SyFy, where pushing boundaries is no longer an option.

How did Corman movies such as Attack of the Crab Monsters or Teenage Caveman or A Bucket of Blood push boundaries, exactly? (Here's his filmography.) Stapleton does a decent, though incomplete, job of showing how Corman became a "Hollywood rebel."

In the early '50s, after a big studio failed to give him proper credit for his work on a hit, Corman left the establishment and signed up with upstart American International Pictures, which would bankroll whatever he made as long as it was dirt cheap. He found his niche appealing to rebellious teenagers who didn't care how well a movie was made as long as it gave them a jolt — basically, the same moviegoers who swarm to found-footage horror flicks today.

With The Intruder (1962), a thriller about school integration, Corman reached for social significance, but it didn't sell. So he returned to exploitation, but always tried, he says in one interview, to hit the genre beats while sneaking in some radical content.

Stapleton never really shows how Corman managed this, outside of his counterculture-era movies like The Trip. As film history, the documentary stays on the surface. But Stapleton gets wonderfully candid interviews with people like Nicholson and Howard, whose affection for Corman is as palpable as their embarrassment about the work they did with him. A twitchy Scorsese tells a priceless story about Corman's vision for Mean Streets (blaxploitation!).

Verdict: See it in a double feature with Caged Heat or Piranha, popcorn bucket in hand.

Then go to White River Indie Films this April 27 and ask special guest John Sayles about his work with Corman. In Corman's World, the indie director (and Piranha screenwriter) recounts to Stapleton how Corman told him he could easily make Lawrence of Arabia for half a million. Just ditch the tent!

More New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • The Broken Tower (James Franco directs himself as poet Hart Crane!)
  • A Dangerous Method (I liked this Cronenberg flick better than Rick Kisonak did, but be prepared for "Masterpiece Theater" pacing.)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (9/11. Tom Hanks. Precocious kid hero. Jonathan Safran Foer novel. Oscar nom.)
  • The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch (A "fast-paced Euro action-adventure thriller" with Kristin Scott Thomas.)
  • My Joy (A Kafkaesque road movie set in Russia.)
  • Slavery by Another Name (It persisted in America after abolition, says this doc.)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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