Nov 8, 2008

The Swimmer (1968)

This screening at Trash Palace was a special event, not just because it was personally delivered (in the nick of time) from Montreal, but it's also the favourite movie of TP's snack bar attendant, Dan The Mouth. (As such, you would often hear lines being uttered before they hit the screen.) The Swimmer is a feature-length expansion of a short story by John Cheever, scripted by Eleanor Perry, who had written a lot of films for her husband, director Frank Perry, and is surely another unusual film in his canon (Last Summer, Doc, to name a few).

In this tale, set in Cheever's familiar New England suburbia, Burt Lancaster decides to journey home by taking a swim in everyone's pools on the way. As the odyssey progresses, things get darker, and Lancaster is forced to confront ugly truths about himself, right up to its bizarre ending. It's been years since I've read the short story, but I admire how the Perry's have fleshed this out to a full-length film, where we take the time to learn about the unhappy suburbanites along the way. The dialogue is full of ruse, bitterness and sexual longing. And the allegorical nature of the piece is enhanced by Frank Perry's psychedelic touches that give the movie a dream-like effect.

It's hard to imagine a film like this getting out the gate today without worrying the bankers who run Hollywood (especially the scene with the teenage girl). One assumes that back in its day, the casting of Burt Lancaster helped to get this picture made. One is reminded of how often the actor would take risks on screen with unusual roles or scripts customarily given a Hollywood star (Executive Action, anyone?) After the screen fades, and the viewer is left to sort out the ending, to paraphrase the promotional ad, when they talk about The Swimmer, they talk about themselves.

Nov 7, 2008

El Super (1979)

In this very good comedy-drama, the spirit of Cuba lives on while in the dead of winter in New York City. This tale by Manuel Arce and Leon Ichaso (who also co-directed with Orlando Jiminez Leal) is largely set in the basement apartment of a building superintendent whose family and circle of friends are exiles from Cuba. The homeland lives on through their talks of politics and religion, and Cuban machismo is evident even in the smallish superintendent.

El Super is often very funny (as in the scene with the building inspector who pays a visit) and sometimes sad (Elizabeth Pena, in her first role, plays their rebellious daughter who becomes pregnant), but always thought-provoking. It is a film full of dreamers yearning for a better place outside these four walls.

Nov 6, 2008

Magnum Force (1973)

Since I saw Hal Holbrook the day before in All the President's Men, I decided to give another look to Magnum Force, perhaps the most low-key and surely the most character-driven of all films of the "Dirty Harry" franchise. (All of the subsequent films after this second installment largely became live-action cartoons.) In this film, the tough cop Dirty Harry meets his match when a bunch of motorcycle cops act as a vigilante force (among them, David Soul!) who are assassinating big-time crooks who manage to escape justice.

The pace is slow, and the mood is mannered to say the least, but it is interesting to see this automaton superhero as a human being for a change, as we see his humble lifestyle after hours, and Harry even has a love interest! (How's this for a writing team- John Milius and Michael Cimino!) Director Ted Post was a TV veteran, whose sporadic theatrical films showed those origins with economic storytelling and rather flat mise en scene. And despite the generous display of sex and violence, all of the frissons here seem on the level of an episode of "Baretta". Still, I put this flick on every ten years or so, because it has an interesting feel, and this would be one of the few times until the 1990's that Clint Eastwood wouldn't play someone so larger than life. Hal Holbrook, who plays the over-zealous police lieutenant, said in an interview that he gladly accepted this role, because after doing films like The Group and The People Next Door, he would finally appear in a movie that people would actually see! And to be sure, four decades later, people will still line up to see anything with Clint Eastwood. God help me, I just know I'll line up to see Gran Torino.

Nov 5, 2008

All The President's Men (1976)

Every time this is on television, I put it on "just for a minute", and end up watching the whole thing. All the President's Men is perhaps the most exciting movie ever made with people on the phone for most of its running time. Director Alan J. Pakula is a master of low-key thrillers, sustaining a mood just with having people talk. But since this movie is about Watergate, and how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story, one is reminded how true life can have the most fantastic stories of all. What holds me captive every time I watch it, is its remarkably complex story, as subplots burst out of every scene that the men dig deeper into the Watergate robbery, which would eventually lead to Nixon's resignation.

I thought it would be a darkly amusing film to watch on Election Day, considering that the crimes Tricky Dicky committed in his reign seem like chump change compared to the antics of the current administration that is mercifully leaving soon. Despite that the story becomes more serpentine as it goes along, the film seems deceptively simple, as many scenes play out in simple takes, music is seldom used to sustain suspense, and cinematographer Gordon Willis' signature underexposed look gives the everyday a feel of mystery. This is a textbook on how to make a terrific thriller without bombastic music, rapid editing for the attention-deficient, or pyrotechnics for the brain-free. Instead, here is a suspense film that refreshingly knows the story is the thing, and the subtle approach to the technical aspect creates the maximum effect.

Still, William Goldman's screenplay lends to a great character-driven film. Not only do Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman make indelible impressions as underdog reporters who futz their way to a Pulitzer, but the film is full of great character players who do so much with so little screen time: Ned Beatty, Lindsay Crouse, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Jason Robards (in his Oscar-winning role as the Post editor Ben Bradlee), and of course, Hal Holbrook in his fleeting appearances as Deep Throat. "Follow the money!"

They sure don't make them like this anymore.

Nov 4, 2008

The Mechanic (1972)

Once Upon a Time in the West IS the greatest film ever made, for those who aren't already aware of this fact. And as such, this should qualify as my favourite Charles Bronson movie. But my favourite "Bronson vehicle", that is all of the action films in the 70s and 80s that were specifically made for his persona (rather than the film above being simply a larger canvas that Charlie immersed in), would be The Mechanic. Therefore, on the date of his birthday (egad- he would be 86 today), I felt it fitting to have another, long-lost look at this crackerjack action film.

This is a marvelous example of Bronson's appeal, and a reminder of the diverse roles he was still playing before doing one routine Cannon film after another, still gunning down bad guys in his 70's. (In current cinema, if the trailer for Gran Torino is to be believed, it appears that Clint Eastwood is now suffering from Charles Bronson Disease.) In The Mechanic, Bronson plays the hitman Arthur Bishop, who recruits a young protege (Jan-Michael Vincent) to help out once he realizes the stress of the job is becoming too much. The organization, however, is displeased with this arrangement. Lewis John Carlino's script digs deeper than simply providing a cat-and-mouse action thriller (despite that there is plenty of action and thrills), and provides a three-dimensional portrait of Bishop's life. Between assignments, we see Bishop in his comfortable abode, in robes, smoking a pipe, listening to classical music, and admiring fine art. Yet he is still emotionally hollow. Perhaps the most telling scene is a brief interlude with a prostitute (played by Mrs. Bronson, Jill Ireland), who has to write for him some memories to have!

Michael Winner (who made many Bronson films) keeps the film going at an exciting pace, and also has a great eye for detail (love that opening where we see how intricately Bishop plots someone's death). Jerry Fielding's jazz score is also great, definitely giving this picture a vintage 70's feel. This is much more engaging than many of the Bronson pictures that were to come, is a reminder of the time when its star was still getting unique roles.

Nov 3, 2008

Red (1970)

In the summer, I underwent my annual employment of digitizing the latest edition of Hunkajunk for Dion Conflict, and was especially entranced by a trailer for a Canadian film named Red. Ironically, only a few weeks earlier I had picked up a VHS of said film in a bin for two bucks. Upon seeing it was an early Gilles Carle film, and having had Canadian cinema back on the brain thanks to the efforts of one Jonathan Culp, I took it to the cashier without hesitation. Watching the trailer made me want to see it even more. We often question the truth in advertising, and in the case of this mouthwatering trailer (which is black and white, even though the film it promotes is in colour), the advertising is a half-truth. The ad we saw promotes this movie as a revenge melodrama piece of exploitation, but that is really only part of this fascinating film.

In past writings, I had often likened Canadian cinema (circa 1968-73) to the French New Wave, British "Kitchen Sink films", or even American independent works of the 1960's (specifically Shadows). Our films of this period share much with those influential movements, such as experimentation of film form, "on-the-street" docudrama approach, yet all done with a proper dose of playfulness. And each of these movements had a cultural icon which defined them: the French had Belmondo in Breathless, the British had John Osborne, and America had Ben Carruthers. If we were to think of our own cultural icon from this period, the common (yet not incorrect) answer would be Joey and Pete from Goin' Down the Road. However, now, I'm not so sure. Perhaps our true answer to this equation would be Daniel Pilon's titular character in Red.

And further, Red is perhaps the ancestor of both things that Canadian cinema would become: self-conscious art-film and Canuxploitation. It is torn between two disciplines much like the central character. Red is a hustler who ekes out a living in urban life in Quebec, but still revisits his native heritage. When his sister is killed, and he is blamed for the murder, he spends time in the wilderness with his people while he bides time to decide his fate. Whether driving in his fast car through the skeletal freeway system or placidly boating through a lake, Red is equally at home, yet both of these worlds collide.

The first hour of this film is dizzying, as there are more story threads than in most commercial movies. We see Red blurring between scenes with his mother, his siblings who work at a construction site, and various chippies along the way, until the movie converges to a singular plot line about his escape from authority and ultimate revenge. But Red continues to surprise us. It subtly lets the viewer study and understand his complex relationships without having to over-explain them. Plus, the movie's consistent shifts in tone, and some geniunely bizarre moments (like a bachelor party that initially resembles a wake), always veer this revenge melodrama from its conventional path.

Red is a marvel of Canadian cinema that assuredly will reward with multiple viewings. It is a movie so complex and unconventional for the art house crowd, but still has lots of sex and violence for the drive-in. Like its central character, it has the best of both worlds.

Nov 2, 2008

Plague (1978)

When Trash Palace showed Plague (1978) in January, I sadly couldn't attend the screening because I had the plague, and was too sick to leave the house. This thirtieth anniversary screening also featured an appearance by Barry Pearson, who co-authored the screenplay for this thriller with the director, Ed Hunt. Since it was still the thirtieth year of Plague, the folks at TP decided to do an encore performance on the Saturday evening of their Halloween weekend extravaganza. Sadly, Mr. Pearson wasn't in attendance this time, for if he was, I would've bombarded him with questions about Ed Hunt.

To some of us regular Trash Palace denizens (as well as some others in my social circle who are interested in Canuxploitation), the mention of Ed Hunt's name brings forth quirky enthusiasm. For my money, the man's name will live on for being the brainchild behind Canada's only science fiction masterpiece, Starship Invasions (1977). Perhaps he is better known for his daft films from the 80's (Bloody Birthday, Alien Warrior, The Brain) before disappearing from the director's chair. Twenty years on, his small oeuvre of strange films deserves rediscovery. (In his early career, he helmed a couple of naughty movies, as well as two paranormal docs-- the creepy UFOs Are Real, and the elusive Point of No Return, which is high on our list of lost films to search and rescue.)

Plague is another interesting Ed Hunt movie which has fallen off the radar. Like many of the director's films, it was only briefly on video, and has never appeared on DVD. My sole encounter with it was an airing on Global television one evening in 1987, and while I didn't think much of it at the time, a certain mystique had formed with the movie, especially since I became more familiar with its creator.

In this tale, a plague is spreading through Toronto because of a leak from a laboratory. While people are dying all over the city, the scientists at the lab (namely Daniel Pilon and Kate Reid) are put under quarantine, and work around the clock for an antidote. Meanwhile, Celine Lomez (who is HOT HOT HOT) escapes a quarantined hospital, and unknowingly causes more deaths from the plague she carries, yet she is immune (a device that is never explained).

Despite the endless padding of far too many extreme closeups of organisms squiggling on a microscope slide, and some admittedly shoddy production values, this amiable piece of schlock is nonetheless fast-moving and enjoyable, especially when witnessed in a screening room of hecklers who now view the film with post-modern irony.

But despite how we think of the cinema of Ed Hunt (a friend of mine once referred to him as Canada's own Ed Wood), this guy however "had something". I admire his panache (or some might say, "overkill") in creating a sense of paranoia with oblique camera angles, anamorphic lenses and jagged editing. Actually, my favourite moments in the film are those of urban warfare: when two guys attempt to break out of the lab and shoot it out with the cops, and when a bunch of hosers (from Mississauga?) open fire on the army officers that barricade an escape route. (This film couldn't have been made 20 years later-- the army would've been shoveling snow for mayor Mel.)