Oct 31, 2005

Ornette: Made in America (1985)


Tonight, we see the legendary free jazz player Ornette Coleman at Massey Hall. His warm reception was a delightful change from all those years of being a scourge to the jazz world.

In fact, this thunderous applause he was receiving for every song reminded me of the opening of Shirley Clarke's impressive documentary of the man. The film opens in the present tense with his band Prime Time (which adapted his theories to jazz fusion)- and it is ironically amusing seeing him play before a black-tie crowd in his native Texas. Yes, Coleman has come home again.... and to open arms, however this warm greeting was hard won. In Coleman's own words, the sudden appreciation of his work is this: "I guess if you live long enough, you get to be an elder statesman."

40 years on, the jury is still out on Ornette Coleman. His "harmolodic" theory was/is one of the foundations of the free jazz movement. His original quartet (with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins) was the scourge of the jazz world in the late 1950's... and even today the revolutionary sax player is still a hot topic for debate. The beauty of ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA is that it doesn't try to change one's mind about him. It is however a fascinating study of a figure who really sacrificed a lot for his unique voice.

It is enough to see Coleman practice his music in one of the most unholy places in Urbana (an abandoned building often populated by addicts and knife-wielding crazies)- fittingly working on outlaw music among other societal outcasts. However, this film pushes Ornette's legacy even further-- he often comes across as some kind of pop icon or superhero (as best exemplified by the cartoonish image of his likeness flying across a starry backdrop)- while he may be more mainstream than ever, this silly bit pushes it a little too far.

Sadly, ORNETTE MADE IN America is not widely available. My one and only screening of this in 2001 at Toronto's Cinematheque was made available by a film print which came and went under the arm of someone from New York the same day. It is a revealing, complex and somewhat moving portrait of a person who stands by his art regardless of its interpretation.

Supernatural (1933)


Here is a real treat- Carole Lombard, best known for her comedy roles like NOTHING SACRED, MY MAN GODFREY and TO BE OR NOT TO BE, has an early and unconventional role in this underrated thriller made by the brothers Halperin (Victor and Edward) after their surprise hit WHITE ZOMBIE (a great public domain favourite that still enchants us today). Thus, once they were called to the Paramount backlot, they made what is probably their most polished piece of work in a technical standpoint. Perhaps it lacks that unique mood and atmosphere of their earlier feature, but this entertaining piece of B movie chiller conventions is very well done.

Carole Lombard sees a phony spiritualist who claims that he can contact her dead brother... and even offers up the notion that the young man was murdered! Thus, complications evolve from this twist, naturally, and the result is a very entertaining 65 minutes, which has a marvelous ending. This is one of those horror movies that acts rather ambigiously about its supernatural quotient- rather, it plays like a melodrama and mystery with vaguely otherworldly elements. In this case, it works better, because we're never sure if some peculiar moments are due to outside forces or just weird coincidences. Also fun to see Randolph Scott as the love interest, when he had not yet found his cowboy image.

Oct 28, 2005

Strange Behaviour (1981)


When this came out amidst all those dead teenager movies, some may have written it off as such (especially when it was released with the alternate title of DEAD KIDS), but a cult has developed for this movie (I am among them), as it is a strange melange of horror and 50's sci-fi. Kids get money to undergo experiments at the local university, and then end up being programmed to kill. Michael Murphy is the top cop in the archetypal small town who investigates the murders and opens more than a few skeletal closets. While rooted in 50's milieu, it is still very contemporary, not least helped by a thick Tangerine Dream score. In fact, this movie would make a perfect double bill with BLUE VELVET, as both take a picture perfect piece of Rockwell and distort the hell out of it. In another age, Michael Laughlin produced films like TWO LANE BLACKTOP. This, and his sister film STRANGE INVADERS (pushing the 1950's evocation even further), show his promise as a unique director in his own right. I wish he had done more.

Oct 26, 2005

Alien Contamination (1980)


I haven't been big on Italian fantasy cinema since Mario Bava left this planet, but oh brother, this one is just hilarious trash that is perfect viewing for this time of year. In fact, throughout this week, my films du jour are highlighting some lesser known scary movie. For me, it is the second-tier films that are so fun to watch around now- there's so many of them to discover! Anyway, some egg things break open, and before long we have yet another ALIEN clone, with lots of goo and a thundering score by Goblin. I love the dubbed voices that have studio echo, yet we're supposed to be hearing their muted voices when they have space helmets on. Now you've got an idea of its goofy charm. I know its on DVD and everything, but for me, this is the perfect title to watch on the old ratty Paragon VHS transfer.

Oct 25, 2005

The Dead Don't Die (1974)


George Hamilton investigates some suspicious goings-on at a morgue, and soon finds out the title truth. I saw this on the late late late show 20 years ago, and dismissed it, but today it looks better than ever. What Curtis Harrington has done in the made-for-TV chiller is make it entirely in the look and style of a 1930's programmer, right down to the art deco credits. And if the plot is somewhat hoary for the 1970's, well it is perfect pulp for the then 40-year old world it creates. I've always felt that Harrington (an important figure in 1940's avant-garde cinema) had the career that Kenneth Anger wishes he could have had in Tinseltown. Harrington's features are often melodramas which evoke a style of of old Hollywood moviemaking. This one is a real winner.

The Fog (1980)


Forget about the remake, see this one instead. I grew up close to a lakeside port town, so perhaps that's why this movie has a special resonance for me. In any case, if you're looking for Halloween fare, you can't go wrong with this. 100 year-old ghosts come back to wreak vengeance in a small beachside town, as a weird fog drapes over the place. What makes this movie work for me is John Carpenter's mastery of atmosphere and offscreen imagery. This is movie that would have done Val Lewton proud. It is a minor classic of the genre. I can't believe that Carpenter himself produced the remake, and who is to say, perhaps it is worth it's salt, but this remake madness just has to stop somewhere. I hope he doesn't decide to remake DARK STAR into stoner big-budget space movie with Will Ferrell.

Oct 24, 2005

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)


Today I picked up the DVD of HOUSE OF WAX- a film I've never particularly been all enthused about. But I bought it because the bonus feature on the disc was the movie that it remade (and tried to bury)- MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, featuring the great Lionel Atwill as the madman who runs the museum, Fay Wray who snoops around the mysterious goings-on at the attraction (namely pondering why these wax bodies are so lifelike), and Glenda Farrell as a wise-cracking reporter. I used to watch it every Halloween weekend, and now I have a darn good reason to again. Shot in two-strip Technicolor, this is a melange of horror, crime and newspaper genre pictures of the early 1930's and it is very entertaining. To me, it is still miles ahead of the Vincent Price 3D remake.

Oct 22, 2005

Nunzio (1978)


One of my favourite buried treasures of the 1970's, this wonderful film features David Proval (whom you may remember as one of the four guys in MEAN STREETS, and "The Sopranos") as a mentally-handicapped grocery delivery man who thinks he is Superman. This character-driven movie is full of lovely vignettes, like where he falls in love with a girl at the pastry shop, and those very moving scenes with his tough brother Jamesy (James Andronica, who wrote the script). It is touching and honest. I couldn't believe me eyes when I saw it in a Bravo TV listing last year, and after seeing it again after 20 years, I remembered the movie as though I saw it the week before, so much has this affected me. I'm happy to have a tape of it, but hopefully someone will wise up and put this on DVD (and while they're at, the rest of the movies made by Paul Williams... and no, I don't mean the singer).

Oct 21, 2005

Someone To Love (1987)


One of the few Henry Jaglom films I've ever sat through more than once, I've always had a soft spot for this low-key comedy-drama. The actor-director more or less plays himself, and invites his friends to an empty movie theatre so they can sit around and talk about love and loneliness. The director is more or less himself too, and delivers a fascinating and maddening montage of moments with little regard to structure or continuity. Even so, as much as his films typically infuriate me, I do admire how he makes these little movies on his own terms and they do carry some noble truths in the baggage. Andrea Marcovicci has a lovely role, and Jaglom's mentor, Orson Welles, is posthumously tacked in as a spirit or muse or something, whom Jaglom chats with periodically, often nodding at any kind of philosophy that comes from this great sage.

Oct 20, 2005

There's Always Vanilla (1972)


Yesterday was the official street date of this, but because we had other plans for Oct. 18, we're honouring today with this title-- a long-lost George Romero counterculture film which has never been legitimately released on video. This movie is the only non-horror effort of the famed zombie director, and he has always refused to talk about this film. I don't know why, because I've always liked this seriocomic study of a freewheeling man's courtship with an actress leading to unhappiness. While sometimes the structure doesn't work, Romero's direction and editing are top-notch. This is released on one side of a double sided DVD which headlines SEASON OF THE WITCH. This under-appreciated horror film has been released by Anchor Bay before, but kudos to these guys for releasing this missing link in George Romero's filmography. Considering how rare this film is, the DVD transfer is actually quite good, considering it comes from a scratchy print source.

Oct 19, 2005

Space is the Place (1974)


Tonight we saw the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Lula Lounge, now being led by Marshall Allen. Even though Sun Ra left this planet years ago, it is nice to see this band carrying on the tradition- it was a phenomenal concert. Thus, it's only fitting that tonight's feature is this whacked-out space opera featuring Sun Ra landing on Earth to free the black population. Equal parts Sun Ra autobiography, blaxploitation vehicle and civil rights anecdote, this movie obviously isn't for everyone, with its gritty footage of the Arkestra playing full blast, LSD-drenched visuals and overplaying, but it's a memorable hour to be sure.

Oct 18, 2005

Calendar (1993)


Atom Egoyan directs and even stars in this "little movie" which I think is his masterpiece. He plays a man who every month has a dinner date with a different Armenian woman that perfoms precisely the same actions. This repetition is a cathartic way for him to come to turns with the departure of his wife, who ran away with their Armenian tour guide while they were travelling on a photo assignment. Basically a three-person character study (not counting the fleeting 12 women in the calendar year), a fourth character can be considered to be the camera itself which recorded a lot of the images from the shoot that Eogyan watches obsessively. In Egoyan's world, video images are not only memories but surrogate companionship. And despite that this is a film of even smaller scale than those he was making at the time, it is still very complex, and assembled in Egoyan's typical non-linear style.

Oct 17, 2005

More American Graffiti (1979)


Nobody really wanted this sequel to the George Lucas blockbuster, but any 70's movie with Paul LeMat is worth your time, as far as I'm concerned. This followup features Paul LeMat, Candy Clark, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams and Ronny Howard each in vignettes of a New Years Eve of a different year in the 1960s. Cindy is somehow caught up in a demonstration, Candy falls in with the Haight Ashbury crowd, Charlie is in Vietnam, and Paul? Well, he wants to win a stock car race. Each story thread, while taking place years apart from each other, is told simultaneously. It doesn't disguise how rather thin each of the four stories are, but interweaving these different dramas show how in multi-faceted ways how the Vietnam war affects them. The LeMat sequence represents the age of innocence that is completely lost int he other segments.

Whatever happened to director Bill Norton (he also gave us CISCO PIKE at the beginning of the 70's- what a guy.)

Oct 16, 2005

Sunday (1997)


The best film of 1997 for me was NOT that low-budget boat movie.... what was it? Oh never mind...

SUNDAY headed my list that year. It is an outstanding story of an unemployed man who lives in a men's hostel, who one afternoon is mistaken by an over-the-hill actress for being an renowned film director... and the man goes along with the mistaken identity. Equal parts cinema verite and an Antonioni-esque web of isolation, this movie is about the lies that people create, and others who let them live those lies. This drama is intercut with footage of men first seen in the hostel, out making their daily jaunts. In this world, it seems everyone is lost and empty. Overall, this movie is a complex mood piece which gives us a haunting portrayal of urban life seldom seen in an "art movie". Miss it at your peril;

Oct 15, 2005

Life on Earth (1998)


Remember the big Y2K scare, where you stocked up on water, batteries and Playboy? Yeah me neither. Anyway a couple of years prior to the turning of the millenium, a world wide collective of filmmakers made some films in the "2000 seen by..." series, each offering a unique vision of life at the beginning of January 1, 2000. For my money, the best of these is this mesmirizing and charming film by Abdermahne Sissako.

This quiet meditation of life in an African village is a celebration of simplicity, clashing with the crazy modern world we see in the film's opening. This is a place where one stands in line to use "the phone", and where the day's activity is moving one's chair as the shade recedes. I do not want to give the impression that the film itself is in any way simplistic. It actually has a very dense narrative structure, as people talk to the camera as though they are the words written on a letter.

LIFE ON EARTH is also a pleasant reminder of how in the last millenium one still had a chance to see a movie like this in a theatre. It is one of the true treasures of the international cinema of the 1990's.

Oct 14, 2005

92 in the Shade (1975)


Warren Oates and Peter Fonda are two rival tour boat guides in some godforsaken frog puddle in Florida, in this hilarious farce directed by Tom McGuane, who wrote the original novel. And the result is as eccentric as anything else from McGuane's pen that's ended up on the screen. Elizabeth Ashley steals the movie as the housewife who always wants to wear a majorette uniform. How's this for a 70's cast: Harry Dean Stanton (in one of his best roles), Margot Kidder, and Joe Spinell (who, of all things, shows he can play comedy!)

Oct 13, 2005

Low Budget (2005)

My friend Tim Norton and I went to see the premiere of this movie at the Bloor Cinema. He actually had a part in the movie that was not used in the final cut. His scene was dropped once they decided they wanted to go a particular way with one of the characters. This shot-on-video, often improvised comedy feature is about a couple of dorks in LA who get a gig doing a Canadian travel show, and decide to spend that money on doing a pet science fiction project instead. Before long, the whole enterprise turns into a fiasco, and the film is an amusing, if not gut-busting affair.

After this showing, the filmmakers are planning to shop this thing south of the border for distribution. Still, part of me wondered if tonight's audience was going to be its biggest draw.

Oct 12, 2005

Creature From The Haunted Sea (1961)


Since this is Thanksgiving in Canada, there should be some turkey in order, right? Well here at the screening room, I'm offering up this abomination from Roger Corman. And by the way, I use that term "abomination" with the utmost of respect.

If you know about the Corman filming process, they would first come up with the title, then the poster, then the movie. I'd like to know where along the line they decided that the monster in this movie was going to be some ridiculous potato sack thing with golf ball eyes. Good thing this film is intended to be a spoof. As such, for a grimy 500 dollar back alley movie, it's actually a lot of fun, with its hip narration, and plot of some gangsters looking for treasure in a lake where this high school pageant monster abides. You could call it a lighter cousin to LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and as such, it's not at bad a way to kill an hour or so while waiting for the stuffing to get done in the oven.

Oct 11, 2005

Summer (1986)


I've only seen a handful of Eric Rohmer films, most of which I've liked. This fable concerns a rather miserable young woman who leaves Paris in the hope of finding some happiness on a seaside getaway. The film is less about her finding someone who can love her, than about her allowing herself to be loved. To be certain, the central character is rather abrasive, sometimes too much so, that one may not care whether she finds love or not. As always, Rohmer's film is a complex study of relationship, full of the attraction-repulsion towards people that harkens back to LA COLLECTIONEUSE (1967). I also love the diary structure to this movie. One to remember. The actual title for this film is LE RAYON VERT, or The Green Ray, as there is a pivotal scene where characters talk about the elusive green ray of sunlight seen at dusk.

Oct 10, 2005

Hell on Wheels (1967)


No film with Marty Robbins and John Ashley as brothers can be ALL bad, right? Gosh, no. This Cain and Abel update to the race track and the moonshine racket features the rival siblings as they clash over their hot rod cars, and then righteous Robbins wants to set Ashley straight over his dalliance with the old fire water. Hey, Marty even gets to sing! This old-fashioned fun played at my third-floor deck drive-in during the summer. Man, I almost wish the heat was back so I could go back and re-open the drive-in with my patronage of two! Anyway, HELL ON WHEELS is brought to us by the great Will Zens, who did a fare share of Southern regional drive-in fare for nearly three decades (CAPTURE THAT CAPSULE, TRUCKERS WOMAN), and of the ones I've seen, this seems his most competent and straight-ahead.

Oct 9, 2005

Something Weird (1968)


I might watch an HG Lewis film a year- tops. But if any more of them are as fun as this one, I might watch them more often.

This hilarious gutter trash features a psychic whose disfigured face can be healed by a witch, who at first emerges as a drop-dead gorgeous blonde, but then reveals herself as the old hag she really is (actually a man in a wig), and the poor guy must be her lover to retain his good looks! Then this crazy duo are enlisted to help solve a murder....

Filmed for about 100 bucks, but still looking pretty good for what it is, this is a real treat for Halloween, and miles above the other miserable movies I've seen from its director.

Oct 8, 2005

So Wrong They're Right (1995)


Oh man, this is a movie made for me. Russ Forster, the man behind the fanzine, "8 track mind" made a cross-country tour to interview a whole lot of enthusiasts who in this day and age still collect 8 track tapes! This film is a scream- I love those musicians that have a huge pile of roughly 30,000 of the bloody things, and they're like kids in a candy store when the camera is on. Every single person we meet is completely unique, and Forster never turns these ladies and gentlemen into goofs (unlike Alan Zweig's movie VINYL, about anti-social record collectors)- they are funny, personable, exciting. I'd have dinner with any one of them to discuss things like "Having Fun With Elvis On Stage." It is also a revealing look at a discarded piece of pop culture that we still have an affection for, and in fact in this age of information, many of these folks consider the act of snapping up these archaic things as an act of rebellion. Rock on!

Oct 7, 2005

Short Cuts (1993)


This is one of my favourite films of the 1990's. I never did plunk down the 50-some-odd dollars for the Criterion disc last year, but I'm happy with the 15 dollar one that Alliance put out. Then as now, this is a smorgasbord of a movie, following 22 characters, whose little dramas interweave in Los Angeles. At 68, Robert Altman is at the peak of his powers, showing an energy, experimentation and scope that some directors half his age can only dream about. It helps too that most of the performances are absolutely superb, and justly so, since most of the characters are so pathetic, helpless or just plain ugly... we are glued to the screen follwing their Chinese puzzle lives in this three-hour epic. Now the DVD is part of my SHORT CUTS collection, right next to the published screenplay, the soundtrack album and the collection of stories originally penned by Raymond Carver. It is funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking all at once... well, much like life.

Oct 6, 2005

Black Orpheus (1959)


The myth of Orpheus is transposed to South America in this beautiful, carnivalesque treat... absolutely breathtaking in colour. I took my wife to see this at a free screening years ago, and was embarrassed because the print they showed was so faded that it was almost black and white! But it's on Criterion now, so rejoice! This movie single-handedly launched the bossa nova craze in North America, and the music is full of the exotica that one can find in this picture... the natural world and the fantastic blend seamlessly in this pageant of a movie. Buy it today!

Oct 5, 2005

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)


Lee Van Cleef is the man, so this film has been seen on my TV set about 2 dozen times... no jive. He fits comfortably in this fourth go-round for the seven as they prortect a town full of widowed women from Mexican bandidos. It is refreshing to see a Van Cleef vehicle in the 1970's that isn't embarassing to watch (the direction is competent, but light years from the hacks that employed him around the same time), and his tough anti-hero is a joy to watch. The movie has the feel of a TV movie (because George McCowan has directed many), but that is part of its warmth. It was never on video, so I was thrilled to see it on DVD last summer. The disc comes with a superb trailer, too. This used to play on TV so often when I was a teenager, that I could quote most of it. I still can... my poor wife.

Oct 4, 2005

Guantanmera (1995)


After the surprise success of STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE, the legendary Cuban director Tomas Guitierez Alea (with his co-director Juan Carlos Tabio) managed to do one last film before he passed away, and it is a beauty. This woefully underappreciated delight is a road movie of Cuba, as a woman tags along with her ineffectual husband who follows the Cuban bureaucratic rules (or lack thereof) to the letter, as they transport a deceased relative across the country. Along the way she constantly runs into a trucker, one of her former pupils. This road trip presents a world that is largely unseen to Americans thanks to the embargo: along the Cuban highways, there are always shortages, but a surplus of robust people- it is a bittersweet paradox. The film aloso has a stunning scene set in a rainstorm. For me, it was one of the surprises of the 1990's, and it still holds up beautifully after repeat viewings.

Oct 3, 2005

Ariel (1989)


Continuing much in the same vein of his previous "loser" film SHADOWS IN PARADISE, Aki Kaurismaki gives is another down and out fable featuring a coal worker who is suddenly out of a job, and his legacy thereafter on the road, and in a relationship with a single mother is an odyssey of one misfortune after another. The Finnish director still pulls the rug from us by tacking on a wild ending that contradicts everything we've seen. This is great deadpan fun, beautifully made. One of his better achievements.

Oct 1, 2005

Men (1985)


In Dorris Dorrie's hysterical comedy, a man discovers that his wife is cheating on him. Not only does he find out who her lover is, he even becomes his new roommate under a pseudonym, so he can try to figure out what she likes about him and basically what went wrong with their marriage. The fun really takes off when his wife comes to visit her boyfriend, and the husband wears a rubber gorilla mask to disguise himself. That's but one of maby delightful moments in this wise movie. See it before someone remakes it with someone like Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan.

Vinyl (2000)

In Alan Zweig's moving and hilarious documentary, he interviews tones of social outcasts who hoard records to the point that you can't see anything else in their apartments. This movie is full of "where did you find this guy" kind of people that you may not want to invite home for dinner, but you are glad to have met them regardless. It is a thoughtful inquiry into why people obsessively collect things, as well as a portrait of self-pity, as Zweig turns the camera on himself (literally) to examine his own empty life that his record collect has vainly tried to fill. Yes, honey, I'm working on the back room.

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