Dec 30, 2010

Who's Singing Over There? (1981)

In the few years before his death in 1993, the late, great "Globe and Mail" film critic Jay Scott also lent his talents to the television medium for TVOntario's "Film International", which would show some unsung foreign films every Friday night. Before this show became a weekly entity in 1990, "Film International" simply existed as an annual six-week mini-series shown on Wednesday nights in the late 1980's. No doubt this venture exposed international cinema to a lot of people in southern Ontario who would not normally have access to it.

Even more, "Film International" offered immeasurable insight into foreign film which still remains elusive-- even to those in the big city. One of the true joys of the six-week seasons was the broadcast of the superb Yugoslavian film, Who's Singing Over There? (1981). Many consider this to be the finest film made in that country. North American cinephiles mostly associate the nation's cinema with the works of Emir Kusturica (Underground) or Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism)- not exactly inaccurate mind you, but I am told by a Yugoslavian native that this picture was a phenomenon in its own land. It is a crime that this gem is not commercially available (save, perhaps, from those dealing in imported DVDs). I am happy that I still kept my off-air VHS copy from "Film International" in 1988.

For his maiden effort, director Slobodan Sijan was inspired by, of all things, Roger Corman biker movies and Russ Meyer's southern-fried sexploitation films. In truth, this film seems to be crafted by someone immersed in Luis Bunuel. This funny, surreal, bawdy, harsh, violent road movie has a lot of trademarks of that director's work, yet transposed to an Eastern European milieu. However, the emphasis is less on religion than politics.

The film opens on April 5, 1941- one day before the Nazis would bomb Belgrade. As fate would have it, the story concerns a busload of eclectic characters who are travelling to that city. The old bus owner and his klutzy son (who does most of the driving-- sometimes even blindfolded) are joined by a fancy dan singer, a hunter (whose gun always fires at the least appropriate times), a retired Army veteran, a salesman, a newlywed couple, a TB sufferer, and two gypsy musicians.

Four times in the film, the musicians break from the story to sing to the camera- chiefly to advance the plot. This device is not new by any means, but it makes perfect sense in context with the rest of the film. A consistent verse in the gypsies' sung narration is "But to have dreamt it all." We are seeing this film through their eyes (they appear in every scene). As the movie escalates with hatred (especially towards them), they wish that this voyage was nothing but a dream after all. By the same token, the movie itself looks dreamlike. Almost entirely shot in hazy gray overcast, it has a slightly unnatural look to it. This is also complimentary of the metaphor of war, itself an act that is unnatural, yet a fact of life. It is not only ironic that these two are the sole survivors at the end once a bomb drops on the bus, but the gray haze of the day is replaced by gray smoke from which they emerge, wishing this life was but a dream.

But still, Who's Singing Over There? is worthy of Bunuel. The simple premise of a busload of strangers whose destination is consistently frustrated by the most outlandish of events is right out of Mexican Busride or Discreet Charm of the Burgeoisie. In most cases, however, the delays are politically motivated. Initially, the road is blocked by the army, so the bus has to detour over a farmer's field. The property owner, however, who is suing the government anyway, is making back revenue owed him by the state by charging people to travel across his land because of the barricade. Also, a bridge is out of service because it was weakened by the army carrying cannons over it. Then, the bus is commandeered by the army-- they even enlist the son!

Further, there is a subtly subversive tone to the whole piece. When the funeral procession appears, the dapper singer throws a stone at the horses drawing the casket to make them go faster-- suddenly the procession of mourners (on foot) is running to catch up to it! It is also at this point that the immature newlywed groom takes his bride to a meadow to consummate their marriage!! Naturally, all the passengers come to watch-- thus, their "holier-than-thou" behaviour gives way to expose the primitive beings they really are.

Another delightful moment occurs when the roly-poly man falls from the bridge that has been weakened by drawing cannons, the other passengers are unable to find his body. They put his bowler hat on his knapsack as a place for him on the bus! When the busload later stops to have lunch by the river, the man is spotted floating in the current! Alas, he runs into more bad luck when the hunter shoots him in the rear end while trying to bag a rabbit.

Throughout the movie, the people's petty conflicts are compounded by an unseen entity that all of the characters must pledge allegiance to. The old bus owner continuously grumbles that he must follow regulations to the letter or get reported (he even forces the hunter to walk another 200 metres to be picked up at the next designated bus stop, instead of taking him in right then). The army is continuously affecting their route -one man mutters that the impending German takeover would be a good thing because "at least we would have some order over here".

Another amusing facet of this journey is always the symbol of money as power. "Following regulations", the older bus driver rechecks everyone at a certain point to make sure that they still have their ticket stubs. The old farmer won't let them cross his field without paying -the wizened old man's goliath sons start to let the air out of his tires until he does- and then in order to leaven the pressure from that deflated wheel everyone has to stay on one side of the bus. This is already after they have been herded to the front after the old man has blocked off the last row of seats to put in pigs ("I make more on one pig than on all of you."). The gypsy musicians are always being accused of theft- the dapper singer makes sure the old man's wallet doesn't fall out of his pocket before the gypsies lift it. However, the owner of the bus pays them to play music while he sells food and drink to the passengers, and even promises a bonus if he sells everything! And of course, in the final fateful conflict, once a man's wallet does disappear (it has actually fallen on the road), everyone beats up the gypsies who are accused of theft.

In this one day, we get to see the characters evolve. The foppish son of the bus driver becomes a "man" (he surprisingly shows pride for his son). The suave singer puts the moves on the lovely young bride and tries to convince her that her new husband is a waste of her life. And the hunter... well, he's just trying to get back on the bus.

In this microcosm, we see people squabble over money, race, religion and class. (That the gypsies are constant butts of their derogatory comments are ugly reminders of the acts of genocide in World War II, and Bosnia's ethnic cleansing in the 1990's.) However, all of that is shockingly silenced by a bomb. The violence towards the gypsies is slowed as the sound of offscreen planes gets louder. The invading forces are treated as some invisible force-- an evil one to be certain, but they almost seem biblical in a sense, because the passengers' insolent behaviour is rendered meaningless by a (literally) higher power.

Who's Singing Over There? is a very funny, quite surreal black comedy, yet also a harsh portrait of human cruelty. Although this is set in the early 20th century, this film nonetheless has a medieval quality about it-- if you take away the bus and the sound of planes, there is really very little that is modern. People still live off the land, and the road is merely two little brown lines. The look of this film also has an engagingly primitive aspect. Many times it gives the illusion of being shot merely with available light, further adding to its gritty feel.

With such an ambitious storyline, scenes of hilarity and pathos, and, during a time of (more) war, it is a moving portrait of ordinary citizens always living under the threat of combat. Nearly thirty years later, we still can't find Who's Singing Over There? under the "Foreign" section at the video store. This is a real shame. This may be one of the greatest films you will never see.

(Adapted from a review originally published in ESR #9)

Dec 28, 2010

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

The first time I went to The Nostalgic Cinema in 1989, that one guy (who was there every time I went there) in some loud, loud sports jacket thanked the projectionist / owner for programming a certain film the night before. This was the movie. Finally, after years of tracking it down, I see why. This movie is of special interest to me as I am fascinated with movies about moviemaking, especially the peculiarly unglamourous ones that Hollywood makes about itself. This effort is irresistible. Not only is it an amusing look at how Tinseltown chews up and spits out its great talents, but it is also a glorious representation of the Hollywood schmaltz that it also satirizes.  It is also a high achievement so early in the career of director George Cukor, who would be renowned for several decades in helming pictures with strong female roles.

In a superb opening sequence, Constance Bennett is a waitress in the famed Brown Derby (what a great set!), who dreams of becoming a star. For now, she is basically serving coffee to the drunken movie execs. Then, a big Hollywood director (soused at the time, naturally) gives her a small role in his latest picture. Her tiny scene is however woeful, and she is to be replaced by another star, until the completely implausible "Give me another chance" scene, in which she does a retake, and suddenly the Hollywood brass think they have a new major star on their hands! This slightly comic fare, with superb dialogue and great dreamlike sets is at first a witty satire on Hollywood (with a neat look at the filmmaking process), then it suddenly turns tragic, as scandal ensues, and the once-great director who got her started hits the skids. Joan Bennett is cute and spunky in the lead role, but Lowell Sherman positively steals the film as the drunken big shot director. With his sardonic wit, slightly lofty demeanour, his combination of humor and pathos is astounding. His is one of the best performances of its decade-- no kidding.

Pretty much any "Hollywood biopic" cliché you can think of is in full view here-- in fact, this fictitious film probably invented them! (All it's missing is the bottle-thrown-into-a-mirror sequence) But What Price Hollywood is a wicked satire on how easily attained (or lost) stardom is, and the prices paid for it are indeed dear. And if the ending suddenly becomes too schmaltzy and optimistic for its own good, remember that this is what the formula demanded, and at the same time this is also a satire about those very pictures.

(Originally presented in ESR #9)

West of Zanzibar (1928)

Lon Chaney Sr. once again displays his histrionic talents to the screen as a phony magician who becomes crippled due to a scuffle arising from his discovery that his wife is running away with Lionel Barrymore to Africa. Fifteen years later, Chaney leads a motley group of people towards a meticulous revenge plot.

Apparently his wife's extramarital union sired a daughter, whom he had raised in a brothel (!) and has now summoned her to his lair to meet her father. This is an example of how sadistic Chaney's character really is. Plus, he purposely has Barrymore's ivory stolen in order to lure him into his web. Throughout there is a subplot of the natives burning the wife or daughter of any recently deceased man, which foreshadows Chaney's diabolical scheme.

This outrageous melodrama is one solid hour of cruelty. It is held together by Chaney's momentous command of the material. Seeing him twist his body around on the floor is once again another demonstration why he is considered to be the finest actor of the silent screen-- a time when acting meant body language over dialogue, he inhumanly contorted his own body to convey memorable portraits of twisted human beings. Also the drama is strengthened by a striking visual style which emphasizes the savagery. The high-contrast black and white, plus an expert use of lighting makes for a memorable moodpiece of sadism.

This is another of several collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning, some of which are now lost (most famously, their 1927 effort London After Midnight).

(Edited from a review originally included in ESR #9) 

25 New Films Selected for Preservation

The year-end list I most look forward to reading is when the Library of Congress announces more "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" to be added to The National Film Registry for preservation.  What I particularly love about this list is that they are equally respectful of independent or experimental films and documentaries as they are of mainstream releases.  It's fun to peruse the new titles and think "Gee, they haven't added that one already?"  More than any other year-end list, the National Film Registry titles make one truly proud to be a film enthusiast.

Here are this year's titles:

1. Airplane! (1980) 
The classic disaster movie parody.  Interestingly, we lost three of its stars this year (Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Barbara Billingsley)- this may have affected its inclusion.

2. All the President’s Men (1976)
One of those films where if it's on "just for a minute",  I'll watch the whole thing. Possibly the most exciting film ever made about people who make telephone calls, this thriller tells the story of the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate Scandal.

3. The Bargain (1914)
A feature-length western which launched silent cowboy star William S. Hart (pictured below) to stardom.  This title reminds me that despite how much one may know about film, there is still always something more to explore.  Among Hart's most durable titles are Hell's Hinges (1916) and Tumbleweeds (1925): will have to view his work at some point.

4. Cry of Jazz (1959)
I reviewed this long-lost title way back in ESR #16, when this short film made its long-overdue release on DVD.  This study of jazz music correlating to the black experience remains an important cultural document of race relations, and a reminder that while we've come a long way, we members of the human race still have more to learn about each other.

5. Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)
Now here's an interesting choice: George Lucas' student film, which was later expanded into his 1971 feature film debut, THX 1138.   This short has been made available on the Criterion DVD of the 1971 movie.

6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
And here's another example of the congress' move to preserve lesser known works.  Just kidding.  Perhaps this was included in light of director Irvin Kershner's recent passing, but understandably so, because it is Kershner's no-nonsense tone that elevates this above the comic-book level escapism of the other films in the Star Wars franchise.

7. The Exorcist (1973)
This classic horror film of a little girl possessed by the devil still packs a wallop, largely because its matter-of-fact presentation makes you forget you're watching a movie.  An unforgettably visceral experience.

8. The Front Page (1931)
The first of many adaptations of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play, about wisecracking reporters freeing a wrongly accused man from the gallows.  Although Howard Hawks' 1940 film His Girl Friday is generally regarded as the definitive version, this Lewis Milestone film is a classic in its own right.

9. Grey Gardens (1976)
The Maysles brothers' amazing documentary about the upstate New York recluses, mother and daughter "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale.  Some have called this film exploitative, because the filmmakers spare nothing in their look at these isolated lives, but this wouldn't be as honest a work otherwise. It remains a daring and moving film about the human condition.

10. I Am Joaquin (1969)
Here's a title that even eluded yours truly.  Luis Valdes (later the director of La Bamba and Zoot Suit) made a short film based upon Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales' epic poem "I Am Joaquin", associated with 1960's Chicano movement's cry for social justice and equality.  This is another to add to my "must-see" list.

11. It’s a Gift (1934)
W.C. Fields made a long list of comedy classics, but for my money, this film is his masterpiece.  74 minutes of non-stop hilarity with Fields as a hapless shopkeeper who wages an everyday battle with his eccentric customers and nagging family.  The first time I saw this was (sigh) late at night on "The Cat's Pajamas" in 1986, and how I didn't wake the neighbours with my laughter remains one of life's mysteries.

12. Let There Be Light (1946)
John Huston was one of many filmmakers (John Ford and Frank Capra among them) who produced documentaries for the war effort in WW2.  This film studies the rehabilitation of soldiers who developed emotional trauma and depression in combat.  Although it was suppressed by the government for 30 years, this film is another classic John Huston piece which exhibits his typical risk-taking, and presenting the viewer a world unseen to most.

13. Lonesome (1928)
Two lonely people meet and then lose one another during a day at Coney Island in Pal Fejos' study of urban loneliness.  Another one to add to the "must-see" list.

14. Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)
Long hard to find, and a "collectors favourite" until Criterion released it to DVD this year, this unbearably moving drama by Leo McCarey chronicles the efforts of an elderly couple to stay together after their apparent inability to take care of themselves, and lack of support from their adult children.  Unforgettable.

15. Malcolm X (1992)
This massive biopic of civil rights activist Malcolm X, with a towering performance by Denzel Washington, remains one of director Spike Lee's finest achievements: an incredibly ambitious, layered study of this inspirational and controversial figure.

16. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
One of the most important films to de-construct and re-construct the all-American western genre, and another masterpiece in the canon of Robert Altman, this dreamy film of free enterprise in the snowy old West is daring for debunking the studio star system, where the actors and the emulsion itself appear so unflattering, and thus more faithful to the period it depicts.

17. Newark Athlete (1891)
William Dickson's short features an athlete swinging Indian clubs in a film which is equal parts documentary and abstract, as the footage is repeated rhythmically.

18. Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)
Abstract animated short by celebrated experimental filmmaker Larry Jordan, one of the key members of the Bay Area movement, and co-founder of the Canyon Cinema Collective.

19. The Pink Panther (1964)
Perhaps another choice influenced by a recent passing (writer-director Blake Edwards), this is the first of several comedies featuring Peter Sellers as the bumbling inspector Clouseau.

20. Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
This two-minute short features George Veditz, one-time president of the National Association for the Deaf of the United States.

21. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

22. Study of a River (1996)
And here is another reason why I love this list: the Library of Congress is sure to include works of independent, experimental filmmakers like those of Peter Hutton.  This work is an impressionistic study of the Hudson river.  I saw Mr. Hutton in person a few years back, presenting largely his work from the 1970's, so I don't believe I've seen this.  But if it's anything like the serene films I've viewed, this is a welcome treat.

23. Tarantella (1940)
This animated short illustrates Edwin Gerschefski's modernist composition, part of the "Seeing Sound" series of films by the celebrated Mary Ellen Bute, who collaborates here with Ted Nemeth .

24. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
The first feature of director Elia Kazan,  this marvelous film based upon Betty Smith's novel chronicles a tenement family in early 1900's Brooklyn.  Moving and exuberant in all the right places.

25. A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
This 12-minute film was shot from the front of a cable car through its route down Market Street in San Francisco.  This is also especially poignant because it was made just months before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  An historic cinematic document in more ways than one.

Below is the complete listing of the titles that have been selected since the inception of this program from 1989 to 2009.

1) Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
2) Adam’s Rib (1949)
3) The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938)
4) The African Queen (1951)
5) Alien (1979)
6) All About Eve (1950)
7) All My Babies (1953)
8) All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
9) All That Heaven Allows (1955)
10) All That Jazz (1979)
11) All The King’s Men (1949)
12) America, America (1963)
13) American Graffiti (1973)
14) An American In Paris (1951)
15) Annie Hall (1977)
16) Antonia: A Portrait Of The Woman (1974)
17) The Apartment (1960)
18) Apocalypse Now (1979)
19) Applause (1929)
20) The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
21) Atlantic City (1980)
22) The Awful Truth (1937)
23) Baby Face (1933)
24) Back To The Future (1985)
25) The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)
26) Badlands (1973)
27) The Band Wagon (1953)
28) The Bank Dick (1940)
29) The Battle Of San Pietro (1945)
30) Beauty And The Beast (1991)
31) Ben-Hur (1926)
32) Ben-Hur (1959)
33) The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
34) Big Business (1929)
35) The Big Parade (1925)
36) The Big Sleep (1946)
37) The Big Trail (1930)
38) The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
39) The Black Pirate (1926)
40) The Black Stallion (1979)
41) Blacksmith Scene (1893)
42) Blade Runner (1982)
43) Blazing Saddles (1974)
44) The Blood Of Jesus (1941)
45) The Blue Bird (1918)
46) Bonnie And Clyde (1967)
47) Boyz N The Hood (1991)
48) Bride Of Frankenstein (1935)
49) The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
50) Bringing Up Baby (1938)
51) Broken Blossoms (1919)
52) A Bronx Morning (1931)
53) The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act Of Man (1975)
54) Bullitt (1968)
55) Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
56) Cabaret (1972)
57) The Cameraman (1928)
58) Carmen Jones (1954)
59) Casablanca (1942)
60) Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser And His Singing Duck (1925)
61) Castro Street (1966)
62) Cat People (1942)
63) Chan Is Missing (1982)
64) The Cheat (1915)
65) The Chechahcos (1924)
66) Chinatown (1974)
67) Chulas Fronteras (1976)
68) Citizen Kane (1941)
69) City, The (1939)
70) City Lights (1931)
71) Civilization (1916)
72) Clash Of The Wolves (1925)
73) Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
74) Cologne: From The Diary Of Ray And Esther (1939)
75) Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, S.C., May 1940 (1940)
76) The Conversation (1974)
77) Cool Hand Luke (1967)
78) The Cool World (1963)
79) Cops (1922)
80) A Corner In Wheat (1909)
81) The Court Jester (1956)
82) The Crowd (1928)
83) The Curse Of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
84) Czechoslovakia 1968 (1968)
85) D.O.A. (1950)
86) Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
87) Dances With Wolves (1990)
88) Daughter Of Shanghai (1937)
89) Daughters Of The Dust (1991)
90) David Holzman’s Diary (1968)
91) The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
92) Days Of Heaven (1978)
93) Dead Birds (1964)
94) The Deer Hunter (1978)
95) Deliverance (1972)
96) Destry Rides Again (1939)
97) Detour (1946)
98) Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-5)
99) Disneyland Dream (1956)
100) Do The Right Thing (1989)
101) The Docks Of New York (1928)
102) Dodsworth (1936)
103) Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
104) Dog Star Man (1964)
105) Don’t Look Back (1967)
106) Double Indemnity (1944)
107) Dr. Strangelove (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb) (1964)
108) Dracula (1931)
109) Drums Of Winter (1988)
110) Duck Amuck (1953)
111) Duck And Cover (1951)
112) Duck Soup (1933)
113) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
114) Early Abstractions #1-5,7,10 (1939-56)
115) Easy Rider (1969)
116) Eaux D’artifice (1953)
117) El Norte (1983)
118) The Emperor Jones (1933)
119) Empire (1964)
120) The Endless Summer (1966)
121) Enter The Dragon (1973)
122) Eraserhead (1978)
123) Evidence Of The Film (1913)
124) The Exiles (1961)
125) The Exploits Of Elaine (1914)
126) A Face In The Crowd (1957)
127) Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928)
128) Fantasia (1940)
129) Fargo (1996)
130) Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
131) Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)
132) Film Portrait (1970)
133) Five Easy Pieces (1970)
134) Flash Gordon Serial (1936)
135) Flesh And The Devil (1927)
136) Flower Drum Song (1961)
137) Foolish Wives (1922)
138) Footlight Parade (1933)
139) Force Of Evil (1948)
140) The Forgotten Frontier (1931)
141) 42nd Street (1933)
142) The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1921)
143) Fox Movietone News: Jenkins Orphanage Band (1928)
144) Frank Film (1973)
145) Frankenstein (1931)
146) Freaks (1932)
147) Free Radicals (1979)
148) The French Connection (1971)
149) The Freshman (1925)
150) From Here To Eternity (1953)
151) From Stump To Ship (1930)
152) From The Manger To The Cross (1912)
153) Fuji (1974)
154) Fury (1936)
155) Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980)
156) The General (1927)
157) Gerald Mcboing Boing (1951)
158) Gertie The Dinosaur (1914)
159) Giant (1956)
160) Gigi (1958)
161) Glimpse Of The Garden (1957)
162) The Godfather (1972)
163) The Godfather, Part Ii (1974)
164) Going My Way (1944)
165) Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933)
166) The Gold Rush (1925)
167) Gone With The Wind (1939)
168) Goodfellas (1990)
169) The Graduate (1967)
170) Grand Hotel (1932)
171) The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)
172) Grass (1925)
173) The Great Dictator (1940)
174) The Great Train Robbery (1903)
175) Greed (1924)
176) Groundhog Day (1993)
177) Gun Crazy (1949)
178) Gunga Din (1939)
179) H2o (1929)
180) Hallelujah (1929)
181) Halloween (1978)
182) Hands Up (1926)
183) Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
184) Harold And Maude (1972)
185) The Heiress (1949)
186) Hell’s Hinges (1916)
187) Heroes All (1920)
188) High Noon (1952)
189) High School (1968)
190) Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937)
191) His Girl Friday (1940)
192) Hitch-Hiker, The (1953)
193) Hoop Dreams (1994)
194) Hoosiers (1986)
195) Hospital (1970)
196) The Hospital (1971)
197) Hot Dogs For Gauguin (1972)
198) The House I Live In (1945)
199) The House In The Middle (1954)
200) House Of Usher (1960)
201) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
202) How The West Was Won (1962)
203) The Hunters [Kalahari Desert Tribe Anthropological Film] (1957)
204) The Hustler (1961)
205) I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
206) Imitation Of Life (1934)
207) Immigrant, The (1917)
208) In A Lonely Place (1950)
209) In Cold Blood (1967)
210) In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
211) In The Land Of The Head Hunters (1914), Aka In The Land Of The War Canoes
212) In The Street (1948/52)
213) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
214) Intolerance (1916)
215) Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
216) The Invisible Man (1933)
217) It (1927)
218) It Happened One Night (1934)
219) It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
220) The Italian (1915)
221) Jailhouse Rock (1957)
222) Jam Session (1942)
223) Jammin’ The Blues (1944)
224) Jaws (1975)
225) Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1959)
226) The Jazz Singer (1927)
227) Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
228) Jezebel (1938)
229) Johnny Guitar (1954)
230) The Jungle (1967)
231) Kannapolis, Nc (1941)
232) Killer Of Sheep (1977)
233) The Killers (1946)
234) King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery To Memphis (1970)
235) King Kong (1933)
236) The Kiss (1896)
237) Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
238) Knute Rockne, All American(1940)
239) Koyaanisqatsi (1983)
240) The Lady Eve (1941)
241) Lady Helen’s Escapade (1909)
242) Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
243) Lambchops (1929)
244) Land Beyond The Sunset (1912)
245) Lassie Come Home (1943)
246) The Last Command (1928)
247) The Last Of The Mohicans (1920)
248) Last Picture Show, The (1972)
249) Laura (1944)
250) Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
251) The Lead Shoes (1949)
252) The Learning Tree (1969)
253) Let’s All Go To The Lobby (1957)
254) Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)
255) The Life And Death Of 9413--A Hollywood Extra (1927)
256) The Life And Times Of Rosie The Riveter (1980)
257) Life Of Emile Zola, The (1937)
258) Little Caesar (1930)
259) The Little Fugitive (1953)
260) Little Miss Marker (1934)
261) Little Nemo (1911)
262) Living Desert, The (1953)
263) Lost World, The (1925)
264) Louisiana Story (1948)
265) Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
266) Love Me Tonight (1932)
267) M*A*S*H (1970)
268) Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
269) Magical Maestro (1952)
270) The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
271) Making Of An American (1920)
272) The Maltese Falcon (1941)
273) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
274) The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
275) Manhatta (1921)
276) Manhattan (1979)
277) The March (1964)
278) March Of Time: Inside Nazi Germany--1938 (1938)
279) Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939)
280) The Mark Of Zorro (1940)
281) Marty (1955)
282) Master Hands (1936)
283) Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913)
284) Mean Streets (1973)
285) Medium Cool (1969)
286) Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
287) Melody Ranch (1940)
288) Memphis Belle (1944)
289) Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943)
290) Midnight Cowboy (1969)
291) Mighty Like A Moose (1926)
292) Mildred Pierce (1945)
293) The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
294) Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
295) Miss Lulu Bett (1922)
296) Modern Times (1936)
297) Modesta (1956)
298) Mom And Dad (1944)
299) Morocco (1930)
300) Motion Painting No. 1 (1947)
301) A Movie (1958)
302) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
303) Mrs. Miniver (1942)
304) Multiple Sidosis (1970)
305) The Muppet Movie (1979)
306) The Music Box (1932)
307) The Music Man (1962)
308) My Darling Clementine (1946)
309) My Man Godfrey (1936)
310) The Naked City (1948)
311) The Naked Spur (1953)
312) Nanook Of The North (1922)
313) Nashville (1975)
314) National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
315) National Velvet (1944)
316) Naughty Marietta (1935)
317) Network (1976)
318) A Night At The Opera (1935)
319) The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
320) Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
321) Ninotchka (1939)
322) No Lies (1973)
323) North By Northwest (1959)
324) Nostalgia (1971)
325) Nothing But A Man (1964)
326) Notorious (1946)
327) Now, Voyager (1942)
328) The Nutty Professor (1963)
329) Offon (1968)
330) Oklahoma! (1955)
331) On The Bowery (1957)
332) On The Waterfront (1954)
333) Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
334) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
335) One Froggy Evening (1956)
336) One Week (1920)
337) Our Day (1938)
338) Out Of The Past (1947)
339) Ox-Bow Incident, The (1943)
340) The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
341) Pass The Gravy (1928)
342) Paths Of Glory (1957)
343) Patton (1970)
344) The Pawnbroker (1965)
345) The Pearl (1948)
346) Peege (1972)
347) The Perils Of Pauline (1914)
348) Peter Pan (1924)
349) Phantom Of The Opera (1925)
350) The Philadelphia Story (1940)
351) Pillow Talk (1959)
352) Pinocchio (1940)
353) A Place In The Sun (1951)
354) Planet Of The Apes (1968)
355) The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936)
356) Point Of Order (1964)
357) The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
358) Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor (1936)
359) Porky In Wackyland (1938)
360) Power Of The Press (1928)
361) Powers Of Ten (1978)
362) Precious Images (1986)
363) President Mckinley Inauguration Footage (1901)
364) Primary (1960)
365) Princess Nicotine; Or The Smoke Fairy (1909)
366) The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)
367) The Producers (1968)
368) Psycho (1960)
369) The Public Enemy (1931)
370) Pull My Daisy (1959)
371) Punch Drunks (1934)
372) Pups Is Pups (Our Gang) (1930)
373) Quasi At The Quackadero (1975)
374) Raging Bull (1980)
375) Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
376) Raisin In The Sun (1961)
377) Rear Window (1954)
378) Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
379) The Red Book (1994)
380) Red Dust (1932)
381) Red River (1948)
382) Regeneration (1915)
383) Reminiscences Of A Journey To Lithuania (1971-72)
384) Republic Steel Strike Riot Newsreel Footage (1937)
385) Return Of The Secaucus 7 (1980)
386) The Revenge Of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
387) Ride The High Country (1962)
388) Rip Van Winkle (1896)
389) The River (1937)
390) Road To Morocco (1942)
391) Rocky (1976)
392) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
393) Roman Holiday (1953)
394) Rose Hobart (1936)
395) Sabrina (1954)
396) Safety Last (1923)
397) Salesman (1969)
398) Salome (1922)
399) Salt Of The Earth (1954)
400) San Francisco Earthquake And Fire, April 18, 1906 (1906)
401) Scarface (1932)
402) Schindler’s List (1993)
403) Scratch And Crow (1995)
404) The Searchers (1956)
405) Serene Velocity (1970)
406) Sergeant York (1941)
407) Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)
408) Seventh Heaven (1927)
409) The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)
410) Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989)
411) The Sex Life Of The Polyp (1928)
412) Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)
413) Shadows (1959)
414) Shaft (1971)
415) Shane (1953)
416) She Done Him Wrong (1933)
417) Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
418) Sherman’s March (1986)
419) Shock Corridor (1963)
420) The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
421) Show Boat (1936)
422) Show People (1928)
423) Siege (1940)
424) Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
425) Sky High (1922)
426) Snow White (1933)
427) Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
428) So’s Your Old Man (1926)
429) Some Like It Hot (1959)
430) The Son Of The Sheik (1926)
431) The Sound Of Music (1965)
432) St. Louis Blues (1929)
433) Stagecoach (1939)
434) Star Is Born, A (1954)
435) Star Theatre (1901)
436) Star Wars (1977)
437) Stark Love (1927)
438) Steamboat Willie (1928)
439) George Stevens WW2 Footage (1943-46)
440) The Sting (1973)
441) Stormy Weather (1943)
442) The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945)
443) Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
444) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
445) The Strong Man (1926)
446) A Study In Reds (1932)
447) Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
448) Sunrise (1927)
449) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
450) Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
451) Swing Time (1936)
452) Tabu (1931)
453) Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse (1940)
454) Tall T, The (1957)
455) The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
456) Tarzan And His Mate (1934)
457) Taxi Driver (1976)
458) The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
459) The Ten Commandments (1956)
460) The Terminator (1984)
461) Tess Of The Storm Country (1914)
462) Tevye (1939)
463) There It Is (1928)
464) The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)
465) The Thin Blue Line (1988)
466) The Thin Man (1934)
467) The Thing From Another World (1951)
468) Think Of Me First As A Person (1960-75)
469) This Is Cinerama (1952)
470) This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
471) Three Little Pigs (1933)
472) Thriller (1983)
473) Through Navajo Eyes (Series) (1966)
474) A Time For Burning (1966)
475) A Time Out Of War (1954)
476) Tin Toy (1988)
477) To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
478) To Fly (1976)
479) To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
480) Tol’able David (1921)
481) Tom, Tom The Piper’s Son (1960)
482) Tootsie (1982)
483) Top Hat (1935)
484) Topaz (1943-45) (Home Movie Footage Taken At Japanese American Internment Camp, The Topaz War Relocation Authority Center)
485) Touch Of Evil (1958)
486) Toy Story (1995)
487)Traffic In Souls (1913)
488) Trance And Dance In Bali (1936-39)
489) The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)
490) Trouble In Paradise (1932)
491) Tulips Shall Grow (1942)
492) 12 Angry Men (1957)
493) Twelve O’clock High (1949)
494) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
495) Under Western Stars (1938)
496) Unforgiven (1992)
497) Verbena Tragica (1939)
498) Vertigo (1958)
499) Water And Power (1989)
500) The Wedding March (1928)
501) West Side Story (1961)
502) Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
503) What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
504) Where Are My Children? (1916)
505) White Fawn’s Devotion (1910)
506) White Heat (1949)
507) Why Man Creates (1968)
508) Why We Fight (Series) (1943-45)
509) Wild And Wooly (1917)
510) The Wild Bunch (1969)
511) Wild River (1960)
512) Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
513) The Wind (1928)
514) Wings (1927)
515) Within Our Gates (1920)
516) The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
517) Woman Of The Year (1942)
518) A Woman Under The Influence (1974)
519) The Women (1939)
520) Woodstock (1970)
521) Wuthering Heights (1939)
522) Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
523) Young Frankenstein (1974)
524) Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
525) Zapruder Film (1963)

Nov 7, 2010

Stardust Memories (1980)

Charlotte Rampling, Woody Allen
It's hard to believe that such a rich film as Stardust Memories caused an uproar back in 1980. In light of the "automatic pilot" films Woody Allen has been making lately, this object of bitter debate is much more adventurous, more dense, and certainly more challenging. Allen of course was pigeon-holed after Annie Hall- all anyone ever wanted from the poor guy was more of the same kind of romantic comedies. Then his subesquent film was the confounding Interiors, his first foray into Ingmar Bergman Territory, whose austere, cold tone shocked a lot of his fans. All that was forgiven however, with his next release, Manhattan. This great old-fashioned valentine featuring a heartbreaking romance made a lot of viewers feel safe again. Then came Stardust Memories.

Even today, people still write this film off as being narcisstic, and cruel to Allen's own fans. This argument is understandable, but not entirely founded. Stardust Memories chronicles the weekend in which director Sandy Bates is at a festival screening his films, "patricularly the early funny ones". Every other scene depicts the man being mobbed by psychotic fans, or leeches who want him to do a favour for their cause.

All the poor guy wants to do is make movies! Because these admirers are so exaggerated, I highly doubt that these scenes are meant as an attack on his loyal fans (if anything, they satirize the Hollywood scene, which Allen has safely avoided for most of his career). Plus, critics may have cringed at the Q&A sequences in which Bates expertly shoots down people's pretentious questions. In this case, he is dead on. Press junkets are full of hogwash like this. Let's be honest, 90% of film criticism is junk. But perhaps most scabrously, Stardust Memories could be his revenge on those who frowned on Interiors.

Bates' neuroses is steeped in his desire to make serious films; in light of all the human suffering, he can no longer make funny movies. Like the lead character in Sullivan's Travels, he doesn't realize his greatest gift of all: the gift of laughter. This quirk is certainly indicative of Allen's state of mind-- why shouldn't he make a serious film like Interiors if he wants to, just because some fan only wants to laugh? But what is most uncompromising about this picture is its ambitious narrative. Annie Hall is very complex with its "flashback within a flashback" structure, but this film consistently challenges the viewer to discern what is real, and what is part of the movie within this movie.

The opening sequence is one of Allen's greatest setpieces. Our favourite red-haired New Yorker is in a train filled with morose people who sit around pondering (the greatest satire of Bergman since De Duva). He becomes aware of a beautiful blonde in the train leaving next to his. He tries to get out of the train to join her, but is trapped. Cut to white leader. Dissolve to Allen walking through a land in which seagulls fly overhead. At first we think it is a beach, and then it turns out that he and his fellow passengers are at a garbage dump! Cut to critics in front of a black cyc saying what a pretentious piece of crap Sandy Bates' latest film is. So begins Woody Allen's own 8-1/2, a confessional fantasy about a director questioning what his next film should be, as surrealistic moments reflect on his own neuroses.

Like that inspiring 1963 movie, as Stardust Memories unfolds, we are constantly questioning what we see. Some moments which we believe to be in the present are actually flashbacks (he has mastered Bergman's use of characters looking offscreen to "view" an incident in their past). Other moments which we are sure really happened in the "real" world, turn out to be neurotic dream sequences, or scenes from the films which Bates is showing at the festival. Plus, he uses Fellini's clever device of confounding the POV. In the scene where Sandy visits his sister, we see this moment through his eyes (as people with whom he interacts speak directly to the camera), then Bates walks into frame.

Sandy Bates with Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) and Daisy (Jessica Harper)
Ever the cavalier actor-writer-director, Allen also writes in three women who share Bates' life. We first meet the dark, coldly sexy, but neurotic Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling!) before he leaves for the festival. Then at the hotel, he reunites with Isobel (played by Marie-Christine Barrault; whose pale features may have reminded Allen of Bergman's frequent star, Liv Ullmann). Plus, he is charmed by a daffy groupie, Daisy (Jessica Harper), whose off-the-wall demeanour is an interesting photocopy of Annie Hall. However, we soon learn that Daisy's flightiness is a facade-- she is a depressive neurotic... much like Sandy.

During Sandy's stay at the Hotel Stardust (hence, the title) he frequently has Bergmanesque sequences which involve Dorrie, both romantically and professionally. One memorable moment features the two kissing in the rain, then the camera tracks out to reveal that the two are being filmed on a movie set. This simple, sly gag is indicative of the film's entire dizzying structure. So crammed is this film with fantasy sequences, that we begin to question if Dorrie exists in the present at all (despite what we hear in her first scene).

What is also striking about this picture is that Allen wisely gives each scene a different texture. He begins his movie with a light-hearted nod to the classic traffic jam sequence which opens the great Fellini film. But Allen's movie is a nod to more than a few great European masters. Throughout, there are whispers of Bergman, Antonioni, Melies, and even the delicate touch of Tati!

Even the flashback sequences to Bates' own childhood have unique styles. When Sandy as a child breaks down on the stage of a school pageant because he wanted the part of God, the destruction of the set is filmed like a Keystone Kops comedy. Because this film is about a guy who can't seperate real life from reel life, what better way to illustrate this fact than to load this picture with scenes which evoke references to directors and/or filming styles of the past?

Another amazing setpiece unfolds when Sandy and Daisy encounter a group of people waiting for a UFO landing-- a perfect motif for his character to ask the big cosmic questions.  But in this field, (a classic location for Bergman's characters to have dream sequences), we also begin to see major characters in Bates' life, even the extras who appeared in the opening scene! Like Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, Allen fills the frame with characters who less represent people than a state of mind. Every person on this enchanted locale is some facet of Bates' own doubts or fears. Within this sequence, we are given to question life, love, religion and finally, death.

Despite the dense narrative, Stardust Memories is also a romantic comedy, only this time the fans have to dig a bit to find it. As usual, Allen's character is questioning whether or not he has found the right woman. Like any classic Truffaut, the one who loves the most is ignored. But because of the clever ending which reveals all of the preceding characters to be walking out of a theatre showing Bates' latest movie in which they all appear, we are never certain who if anyone he gets at the end.

But this amazing ending begs as many questions as it answers. Is everything we see previously a movie? Or is this just Allen's way of capping his own 8-1/2, much like Fellini ended his with a parade representing life, the universe and everything? And in that regard, does life, the universe and everything only exist for Sandy on the movie screen?

Finally, we are treated to a lovely fade-out as Bates walks through the empty theatre. This is everything he is. He is nothing without the image. I am reminded of Poe's lines: "Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?". Substitute the word "dream" with "movie", and that is Sandy Bates. That is Stardust Memories. Superb.

(originally published in ESR #7)

Nov 3, 2010

Hereafter (2010)

With the plethora of Hollywood product being aimed for twelve-year-old boys, it gets harder to become excited for any new mainstream release.  But I couldn't wait to see Hereafter.  The tantalizing subject matter, featuring three stories in which characters ponder the afterlife, makes for an endlessly fascinating discussion.  In addition to one's curiosity about our existences beyond the material world, one is also surprised to see a change of pace for director Clint Eastwood.  But the actor-director's oeuvre in the past decade has been nothing but surprising, creating a body of work with such a vitality that eclipses those of many filmmakers half his age.

The reaction to this film has been rather cold, perhaps because the trailer deceived people into thinking they were getting another Sixth Sense, but instead received another of Clint Eastwood's "chamber pieces".  Also, people have attacked this film for being rather superficial in terms of its approach to the subject matter.  But Hereafter isn't about providing answers about what exists further on, it's about how people cope with life-changing incidents.

ABOVE: Cecile de France, Thierry Neuvic

Peter Morgan, the script-writer of The Queen and Last King of Scotland once again incorporates historic events into a narrative, as seen in the opening scene which recreates the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, devastating a resort at which journalist Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) is vacationing with her lover and producer Didier (Thierry Neuvic).  Much has been made of this sequence, in which CGI has (for once) been properly used so that one doesn't see the craft.  Even the film's detractors concede that this scene is spectacular, but in truth this sequence is presented as lean and matter-of-factly as any other dramatic moments that follow.  For instance, a later closeup of a bereaved sibling is far more devastating than anything that the Dream Factory conjures up in these first few moments.  As usual, Clint Eastwood is less interested in spectacle than the humans affected by it.  (I am reminded of his refusal to turn Flags of My Fathers into a war-is-hell epic that could have rivalled his producer's own Saving Private Ryan).  Instead, you see just enough of the chaos to push the narrative forward, as Marie nearly drowns in the deluge, and has a near-death experience.  After this trauma, the aggressive journalism celebrity (whose face also adorns billboard ads for Blackberry) instead becomes aloof and meditative. While taking time off from her television show to recuperate, she begins her long held ambition to write a tell-all book about politician Francois Mitterand, but instead (much to the chagrin of her publishers) decides to write about her brief encounter with the hereafter.

ABOVE: Frankie / George McLaren
The second story, set in London, features 12-year old twin brothers Marcus and Jason, who live with their loving but drug-addicted mother.  (It is to Morgan's credit that this substance abuser is presented as a compassionate human being, instead of a physically or psychologically abusive lout.)  After Jason's death in an accident, social services move Marcus to a foster home.  However, he remains socially withdrawn and instead spends his time researching psychics in order to seek some solace over the loss of his brother.  Of the three stories, this one is perhaps the most satirical, despite that it it depicts a broken family unit and the unimaginable loss of losing a child.  In one sequence, Marcus sees an array of caricatured new age psychics in his quest for answers, each one more ridiculous than the last, thus informing the viewers that this film is less keen on providing answers about the almighty than studying the lengths to which its characters will go to explore these new senses brought upon by grief.

ABOVE: Bryce Dallas Howard, Matt Damon
And while these central characters are trying to explore the other side, in the third story, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) conversely wants to put aside his former self as a celebrity psychic and live a simple life in LA.  However, he is constantly forced to demonstrate his psychic abilities on people who are seeking contact with those on the other side, often at the prodding of his own brother.  His sibling Billy (Jay Mohr) urges him to use the gift he is given, but George relents, instead calling his abilities a curse.  As George attempts to have a normal life, wearing a hardhat at his construction job and taking a cooking class, one is tempted to compare Damon's character to that of his boy genius character in Good Will Hunting, who likewise forsakes his gifts for a blue collar world. Despite that these moments have the most star power, perhaps some of these scenes are the weakest in the film, especially when George attempts to have a relationship with his cooking class partner Melissa (Bryce Dallas Howard).  The overlong sequence in which their tasting of food, while meant to be passionate and subtly erotic (as which both of these characters are escaping pasts and attempting to embrace the gift of life), instead becomes plainly silly, because Ms. Howard doesn't rise up to the fun and frolic that these moments require.  (One is reminded of the endless Lady Chablis sequence that train wrecks the otherwise very good Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.) Much better are the dramatic moments when Melissa discovers George's psychic abilities (indirectly due to his brother), and urges him to do a reading for her, which reveals more of her past than she would have imagined.  As the other characters in the narrative are seeking answers, this story thread reminds us that some questions are best left unanswered.

These three stories converge in a carefully plotted resolution that feels neither contrived nor satirical (for example in the cute ending of Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red, which joins the stories of the other two films in the "three colors" trilogy).  Eastwood has a good trump card with Peter Morgan, who cleverly weaves the threads together, unlike Paul Haggis' messy attempt at meta-narrative in Flags of Our Fathers.  (He further blurs fiction and reality with the addition of the 2005 London bombing, and actor Derek Jacobi playing himself.)

Hereafter isn't the masterpiece I had hoped for, as it admittedly has some choppy sequences, and some weak secondary characters.  If one is expecting a Hollywood extravaganza, one will end up being as disappointed as some of the characters looking for enlightenment.  Instead this is a low-key study, where the other world is presented only sparingly (with blurry silhouettes in the foreground, bleached out by the traditional white light), and the supernatural is presented as subtly as a hat blowing away.  Despite that Steven Spielberg is the executive producer, there is little wonderment to behold other than that of human emotion.  Once again, Eastwood presents a film with his typically lean direction, jet-black cinematography by Tom Stern, and a characteristically sparse musical score. (Upon leaving the theatre, I found myself humming the similar piano trickle from Million Dollar Baby.)  And perhaps in light of the bombast we customarily expect from Hollywood this days, this film is a quiet relief.

In the past decade, Clint Eastwood has consistently given us surprises: seldom delivering what we expect, but instead what we need.  Happily, Hereafter is another fine example of Eastwood's renaissance as a filmmaker.  His recent oeuvre can only be compared with the impressive string of films released by other directors like Robert Altman, Luis Bunuel or John Huston, who made career-defining comebacks in their post senior years.  While this film may sound elegiac, (as in Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, which the director likely knew would be his final picture) especially since it is made by a filmmaker in his autumnal period,  it is one of the most life-affirming movies ever made about death.  (One would put this film in that very small catalogue shared by Peter Weir's Fearless.)   It is a surprisingly rapturous study of people who learn to appreciate the great gift of life after their experiences with death.  And while still showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 80, we can only ask, what is Clint Eastwood going to do next?

Oct 28, 2010

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)

Shriek of the Mutilated is one of the great drive-in films of all time. It symbolizes the perfect 1970's independent horror film - cheap, gruesome and unerringly fantastic, with plot twists and imagery that stay long in memory - in this case, a result of the meeting of several great filmmakers, who pooled their particular talents to create what might be considered a "hybrid" of various earlier grindhouse/drive-in genres, including speculative documentary, horror, and sexploitation. Indeed, the mastermind behind Shriek may be its director, Michael Findlay who, along with his wife Roberta, created some of the most notorious and successful sexploitation "roughies" of the 1960s, including the infamous "Flesh" trilogy starring Findlay as the quintessential one-eyed misogynist, Richard Jenkins. Shriek shows that Findlay had a flair for horror and suspense as well, and in harness to his wife's astute cinematography, managed to create a film which, although not in his usual genre, stands above all his others as his inarguable masterpiece.
Much credit must also go to producer/screenwriter Ed Adlum, who in addition to concocting the hare-brained scenario with Ed Kelleher, gave the Findlays free reign to film the screenplay in their own inimitable style. Yet Adlum's presence can be felt throughout Shriek, which shares stunning narrative and aesthetic similarities to his earlier drive-in smash, Invasion of the Blood Farmers (1972). In both films, a rural New York community is invaded by a killing satanic cult! In Farmers it's druids, in Shriek it's cannibals, but the effect is largely the same. Also, both films share a marvelous depiction of suburbia as it edges towards the rural wilderness, and both films are remarkably attractive in their capturing of the natural beauty of the surroundings, tainted by human evil and savagery.

Oct 4, 2010

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

There's something refreshing about seeing a little movie like this.  Track of the Moon Beast is one of the countless regional films made during the last golden age of the drive-in. Produced in a location light years removed from Hollywood, seldom employing name talent, these films also had an authenticity for their time and place that any studio product would lack. This down-home kind of charm would be completely lacking from screens in just a few years, as movies (even those made for the direct-to-video graveyard) became more generic. Also, viewing some of these films like The Alien Encounters or Ghosts That Still Walk would become all the more personal, as everyday people (like you or me) in drab everyday locations (like yours or mine) are seen encountering unusual phenomenon. And in many instances, we are further endeared due to the fact that with these same resources, we could have made these movies too.

Oct 3, 2010

The Power (1984)

In the 1980's, the duo of Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter made a trio of modest low-budget horror films: each sharing writing and directing credits, while Carpenter also doubled as cinematographer.  Perhaps the best of the lot is their final collaboration, The Kindred (1987), as it had enough money for some cool makeup effects to compliment the offbeat story.  Their second film, The Power, is an ambitious, if not entirely successful horror update of the old Manhattan Melodrama formula.  Instead of viewing an overcoat passing from one owner to the next, one is treated to a mosaic chronicling the odyssey of an Aztec doll, which holds a curse that wreaks havoc on anyone who possesses it.

Oct 2, 2010

Death Curse of Tartu (1967)

Over the years I've retained a certain fondness for this horror flick after my single viewing, and some of that appeal is retained in slightly more mature eyes. In this tale, four archeology students on assignment in the Everglades unwittingly disturb the resting place of the medicine man Tartu. First he summons sharks, snakes and crocodiles to dispatch of these insensitive kids who awakened him with their rock and roll music, before doing the job himself.

Sep 28, 2010

ESR was on the street

Yesterday, ESR made its seventh appearance at Word on the Street, Canada's largest literary fair. After intermittent rain for the previous several days, the weather held up, even though the temperature was a little cool. WOTS is perhaps a lot like Christmas Day: you spend weeks preparing for it, and the day passes so quickly, that in the following morning, it feels like it never happened. I never get over that sensation of the calm after the storm, which begins immediately at the close of the fair, when the park is near empty, and most of the tents are already undergoing destruction-- one would never get the impression that less than an hour earlier, there was so much life on these streets.

Happily, this was probably the most stress-free WOTS attendance yet, despite that we premiered two new releases this year. It always seemed that in previous years, things always came down to the wire, whereas the night before (or sometimes even the morning of...) I'd be scrambling to take care of things. But this time, the issues were already ready in the box before the weekend began, and I was able to spend quality time with Susan on Saturday night instead of the usual scurrying around before Sunday's big adventure. And now that that big adventure had passed, dear reader, I am about to fulfill a promise to somehow get my life back to basics. This year flew by as I had spent a couple months largely inactive due to sciatic injury, then renovations, then a heatwave which pretty much killed my ambition to work on the projects I do after the full-time job (no, sadly, ESR is NOT my premiere employment). But in the meantime, in preparation for the new issue, I had de-discovered something easily forgotten: the simple act of JOY I get with sitting down and transferring my thoughts to paper (well, its electronic equivalent). Thus, as the fall (my favourite time of year) unfolds, I hope to regain that creative sense, as I clean up a lot of psychological clutter, and get back to a more simple kind of livelihood that had easily been neglected due to the running around in circles over the past year.

Sunday began on a humourous note, as for weeks I had cursed the fates that the latest edition of Dion's all-night "Shock and Awe" review was scheduled for the night before, and obviously I couldn't attend in order to stock up on blue light specials. In fact, when we arrived at WOTS, they were probably beginning to show Ghoulies. However, it was great to see a couple of regular customers drop by, AFTER seeing Shock and Awe, and picking up the new issues before going home to bed. It was also great to finally meet in person some "virtual" friends: Aaron Keele, whose CD release Present Idiolect I have enjoyed for many years (in fact, the final tune "Retribution Song" plays on my iPod almost daily), and Paul Corupe (webmaster of Canuxploitation), who was there with his wife and one-year-old son. Plus, for me, WOTS just isn't WOTS with doing the customary stops at Cineaction's table and the Musicworks buck bin.

Yet, as the hours wore on and the sales got slower, I became more melancholy, as the day ended not with a bang but a whimper. On the drive home, however, I came around as the stereo played, guess, "Retribution Song", and the lyrics perhaps spoke to me in a way I hadn't previously heard:

"How can I move forward
The song is just reward"

Then, instead of the quiet mourn of dusk, I was reminded of the promise of a new day, with the feeling I always get upon driving into the festival for the first time in the morning, seeing "The Eclectic Screening Room" tent sign slowly dollying into view, and reminding myself again, "Wow- I did this." Again, in "Retribution Song":

"I give thanks for everything I had
Not in measures of first and last."

One of the most valuable times of the entire trade show experience is the morning after. As I quietly tiptoe around the house, make coffee and look at the pink sky of dawn, I am finally given time to reflect upon how many lives this project has touched. Even if what I do enriches just one person's life for a moment, well, that's all we can ask for, isn't it? I'm one lucky son of a gun.

new ESR releases

After a full year of inactivity here at ESR (save for screening dates, and attending tradeshows), we're back in print with two more releases.

Our -gulp- twenty-third issue of The Eclectic Screening Room (or ESR for short) returns to its roots. For the first time in five years, ESR has released an issue not devoted to one central theme, offering a more -ahem- "eclectic" grab bag of articles than recently seen. To start the issue off with a bang, Brian Random offers his wonderful piece on the Superbug films, made in Europe in the early 1970's to cash in on the "Herbie Love Bug" craze. Then yours truly offers a couple of nostalgic pieces on good old Hollywood melodrama in 1952's Phone Call From a Stranger, and one of my favourite films, 1977's Citizens Band (also known as Handle With Care).

The centerpiece of the new issue is a lengthy piece discussing a dozen films by Hugo Haas, an unfairly maligned and all but forgotten B-movie auteur of potboilers in the 1950s and 60s. Haas wrote, directed, produced and starred in these films, which as history records, may be a fall from the grace of his work in his native Czechoslovakia, but there is clearly a great deal of surprises to be found in his American films, which, if addressed at all in print, have usually been regarded as "camp".

Although the new ESR was designed without a particular theme in mind, serendipitously it became an indirect look at the 1950's, with the pieces on Haas, Phone Call From a Stranger, and the closer, "They Came from the 1950's", in which Rob Craig offers up four reviews of fantasy films from the decade. These pieces by the way were extracted from a much longer body of work, It Came From 1957, which discusses over 50 fantasy films released in that year. The four films in the ESR issue are actually titles which were produced earlier in that decade, however re-released that year, and deleted from It Came from 1957, as that book now entirely focuses on titles initially released in that pivotal year.

It Came From 1957 has over four-dozen analyses of fantasy films, all written by our old friend Mr. Rob Craig, in his typical revisionist fashion: sometimes knocking over sacred cows, while championing lesser known works of the period; all while correlating the work to the social tempers of the time- as issues of atomic energy, Communism, racism and the seeds of the feminist movement are all weaved into the text.

Both of these titles are now available to order. The new ESR retails for $4.00 CDN, and It Came From 1957 sells at $6.00 CDN.