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.)

Sep 30, 2008

What Was The Word?

At the time it was hard for me to believe that a year had elapsed since I was at Queens Park during Word on the Street. It felt like I was just here, peddling the "VHS RIP" issue. After an extra long winter and a too-short summer, the fall roared into action, and as usual I was barely prepared to launch the new issue, despite the fact that all summer I was moving at a fine clip gathering research for ESR's latest incarnation, the tribute to late-night television, and before I knew it, what with a huge work schedule and feeling of lethargy after hours, I had once again broken a promise to myself not to indulge in this "night before" crunch that always happens.

Saturday afternoon, it was bloody obvious that the new issue wasn't going to exist for the next day, which would be ESR's fifth appearance at Word on the Street. After an anxiety attack (no doubt brought on by overtired-ness), I had succumbed to the realization that I wasn't going to get the new issue done in time, and also pondered not even going to the fair at all. Seriously. With all the stress and frustration in my life, I was not only getting worked up about doing this magazine, but also felt embarrassed about being so. Susan then came up with the brilliant suggestion to cut the issue down. I was still struggling over the content for the midsection, and deep down I knew my heart just wasn't into the content of this section. Since all of the more "personal" stuff (which bookended it) had been completed, I published the issue without its middle, and the result was seamless. (Ultimately, the research I had accumulated for this midsection had been for naught, but I do intend to use it still in a future issue.) And as usual, the new issue debuted under the wire.

Despite my negative feelings the day before, 2008's Word on the Street proved to be a rewarding experience, if in spirit, and not necessarily in coins. (Financially speaking, this was my second-worst year at the show.) Serendipitously, having a smaller (and therefore cheaper) issue helped to move more copies. This industry has become more nickel-and-dime than ever, so it would seem that that for future issues (not including special one-shots like the Corman scrapbook), perhaps smaller would be better. It was encouraging getting notions to "keep it up" from some of the regular readers (one easily forgets why we do what we do), and I am also grateful for the volunteers who really showed up this year, thus making the day move fast, with some fun along the way. So, ladies and gentlemen, for your pleasure, here is the new ESR.. "A Tribute to Late Night Television". It would be remiss without thanking Mike and Anj for helping out on the day, Simon and David for contributing to the new issue, and of course, my deepest thanks go to Susan for her spiritual advisement. Enjoy.

Sep 27, 2008

ESR presented... Dogpound Shuffle

Way back in the eighties, I encountered a film title called Dogpound Shuffle while browsing through the TV Guide at 2 AM, was intrigued by its quirky synopsis, and switched over to Channel 11. And I was hooked. 20 years later, I had found a used VHS copy of the film (which had fleetingly been released by Key Video) and was delighted to see that it still worked its charms. (I had mentioned this re-discovery in one of my first ever blog postings.) Last year, I had the good fortune of finding a 16mm print, and had waited for a good opportunity to show it.

As of this writing, Dogpound Shuffle would be the fourth film I had shown at Trash Palace (with the exception of contributing to the educational film festival in the summer), and this was the film I was most looking forward to show. It didn't matter to me if only two people showed up-- to me, this film is an object of beauty, and I just wanted it to be seen. This screening was truly done out of love-- any prospect of making money was secondary to me.

This little fable, shot in Vancouver in the mid-1970's, features Ron Moody (from Oliver!) as a hobo (and former tap dancer) whose beloved dog Spot is captured by the dog catcher. Along comes David Soul (pre-"Starsky and Hutch") as a tramp who can play a mean tune on the harmonica (that is, when he doesn't have something to eat in his hand), and so the two former a music-and-dance act to raise the thirty bucks to get the dog out of the pound!

To my delight, this was one of the most satisfying screenings I've done anywhere. The audience ate the film up-- they laughed at all the right places, and were also moved at all the proper spots. And you just had to be there, to witness a bunch of forty-year-old tattooed males go "Awwww" when Spot does his little dance. What a night-- at the end, I was refreshed as though I drank from the holy mountain. I know my deepest thanks to Stacey and Dan, not just for inviting me into the Trash Palace family, but for allowing me to take a chance and show a film like this.

Jul 2, 2008

The Analog Video Enthusiast Book Four: Randy, Where Are You Now?

Upon preparation for this blog entry, over the weekend I pondered just exactly how many video stores (including convenience stores who had given over significant retail space for movie rentals) had existed in my home town during the boom years of the VHS revolution. In 1983, there were three stand-alone video stores. In 1988, four-- plus five or six convenience stores. In 1993, there were perhaps eight convenience stores doling out video rentals. In the interim, the three original stand-alone video stores had closed, and two more sprung to action. The more I thought of this, I was reminded of an old National Geographic documentary about cowboys in the 20th century, and the oldest ones would talk at the dinner table about how many saloons there used to be.

Among the three stores that had closed up, the smallest, yet the one with the most interesting history, was Hollywood Nights, which was located at in a strip plaza on West St. Its amusing slogan was "Take home an Oscar tonight"-- a misnomer for two reasons. At first, like many video places, it stocked a lot of low-rent sleaze, because people would put anything in their stores, as VHS was such a craze that customers would virtually rent whatever they could find to play on their newfangled VCR. And then, in its twilight years, the inventory became more geared towards art-house stuff that the Academy would ignore... and here is where my episode begins.

In 1990-1, back home from university, I had begun my "art film" phase. While still devouring whatever schlock I could find, I also opened a window for whatever foreign or art-house pictures would fleetingly appear on the shelves. In truth, previously, ever since acquiring a VCR, I had probably rented from Hollywood Nights once a year- tops. But in the intervening years that I was away, the inventory had given itself over from things like Beast of the Yellow Night or 1990: The Bronx Warriors, to well-regarded art-house films like To Kill a Priest or The Unbearable Lightness of Being... titles that were always available for rent, if you catch my drift. And as such, I became friendly with Randy, the manager, as he had some interesting out-of-the-way titles that would satisfy my new interest. It was through him that I had my first real taste of Kurosawa (I don't count the time I fell asleep through Rashomon in film school), as he had a few of the Connoisseur VHS releases that he would lend to people. Why he didn't rent out his copies of Ikiru and Throne of Blood is beyond me, but maybe he didn't want to lose them.

His renting policy was certainly curious-- when you paid your money to rent a movie, he'd only write down your name next to what titles you took out. He never asked for your phone number, because if you were trying to rip him off by giving him a fake name, the number would be fake too, right? THAT is a business built on trust.

I believe he was the sole employee in Hollywood Nights' later years, and his store was the one video outlet in the county that was led on a singular vision. In others words, he stocked his store with titles that interested him, instead of things that interested the customers. A risky move for sure, especially in a small town whose residents think that Truffaut is the name of a chocolate. And as such, the adage of "Build it and they will come" didn't work.

Another curious entrepreneurial ambition was that in the latter weeks of the store's life, he was also renting his record collection! Another video store in town was renting CD's, as compact disks still cost an arm and a leg those days, but Randy, God bless him, was really going old school by renting out LP's at a couple of bucks each for a weekend.

But alas, this presumed attempt at bringing in some more business was not to be, as in late spring of 1991, Hollywood Nights ended with a whimper, as the door was chained up, and soon his stock disappeared from the shelves. Perhaps my most enduring image of Randy was late in 1990, when a friend and I went to the Pizza Delight next door in the strip plaza. He had come in for a drink after work, then went back to the store. After we were done, and pulled out of the parking lot, I looked back out of the passenger window and saw the interior lights of Hollywood Nights giving a dull glow into the empty lot. There was Randy in his sports jacket, sitting at the counter, smoking, watching something on a little TV set-- whatever it was I'm certain was unique fare, once again playing to an audience of one.

Jun 26, 2008

The Analog Enthusiast Part Three:
Twisted Brain

My reader(s?) may have surmised that I have run out of ideas for my irregular series of Analog Enthusiast posts since the last installment was in August, but that isn't so! We're just getting started! If anything, the VHS tape is on its way to becoming "the new vinyl". Back in the 90's, during the CD boom, many music collectors would often say "I have that on vinyl"-- out of nostalgia or maybe even some kind of status. And in the glut of DVD and BluRay, so too do people like myself utter: "Oh, I have that on VHS." Where even so the videotape is now replaced by a technologically superior format, the conceit is the same: to have some affection for an obsolete device possibly because it speaks to a simpler and more youthful time. And as such, we're all full of stories about how the video tape has played a part in our lives as a consumer, or as a collector.

As I mentioned in my piece on Interglobal Video in the "VHS RIP" issue of ESR, I unconditionally buy any title with an Interglobal logo. (For a better and more detailed explanation as to why I do, best to read the issue.) Yet, one movie released by Interglobal has eluded me for years-- until now. I speak of no other than the horror schlock title Twisted Brain.

This delightfully bad flick has a special resonance for me, because my cousin John (whom I mentioned in my very first Analog Enthusiast post) had told me about this movie for years, because in the 1970's, Global television used to show it constantly at night. He and his friends would get together (in varying degrees of sobriety) and watch... plus poke fun at it. This piece of cult adulation had made me curious for a long time based on his loving anecdotes about it. One afternoon in 1987, I was strolling through Woolworth's on my lunch hour (during when I was a delivery driver for a flower shop), and lo and behold: there was a copy of Twisted Brain for ten bucks! Why, what was a person to do, other than to call John right away and tell him about it?

Well, even though it was 12:30 in the afternoon, I had unknowingly gotten him out of bed when I called, as I hadn't realized he had just worked the night shift at the hotel. Nonetheless, he later told me that he went to Woolworth's in short order to pick it up. In fact, I had joked that one could see the burn marks from tire treads all over the mean streets of Simcoe as he hurriedly drove his car downtown.

I should mention that John does not buy movies--- but he bought a copy of Twisted Brain. That alone should give some testament to the power of this film. And remember, this was back in a day when the act of buying movies was rare, as people would just rent films instead. The retail prices for pre-recorded VHS tapes were prohibitively expensive in the 1980's-- the only wallet-friendly videos one could buy would be from cheap public domain labels. Interglobal perhaps was the grandfather of all of these companies. As far as I know, it was the first to make an unprecedented move to stock movies for sale in department stores. Soon, companies like Star Classics and Goodtimes jumped on the bandwagon to likewise have films for sale in K-Mart. And to be sure, despite that you were getting a pre-recorded tape for the (then) steal price of ten bones, you weren't getting Criterion transfers. Twenty years on, a lot of these cheap tapes, transfered from already well-worn public domain prints, are barely watchable with their generation loss, persistent tracking problems and washed out colour. But in all fairness, many of Interglobal's titles are still actually pretty good... considering.

Their copy of Twisted Brain however looks like it was rescued from the bowels of Hell, and it is all the better for it. This film (also known as Horror High) is a sordid tale of a high-school nerd that is played to the nth degree. Vernon Potts (played by former child star Pat Cardi, of And Now Miguel and Let's Kill Uncle) is the archetypal wallflower with greasy hair, horned-rimmed glasses, pen holder, and socially displaced from all except his science teacher and his pet guinea pig, Mr. Mumbles. However, Vernon soon develops a potion which turns him into a monster so he can get revenge on all the jocks and teachers who picked on him.

This movie was shot in 16mm (and as such, looks like a step above a home movie), then picked up by Crown International for distribution. Despite that there are lots of outrageous killings (including the scene where a janitor gets tossed in a vat of acid, causing John and his friends to yell out "Janitor in a drum!" -coining a popular cleaning solution of the time), I think the tawdry nature of the film also has an appeal to people like myself who have developed a soft spot for the movie. Perhaps because of the home movie feel to it, viewers may relate to it more, as it is a movie they could have made, and the locations are so generic, yet familiar, that they could easily be fragments of our childhood. And unless one was on the football team, there is likely a bit of Vernon in all of the viewers. Despite the novelty of football players like Joe Greene cast as police officers, and the hokey gore and violence, one has to hand it to the people for playing this movie straight. The excellent character actor Austin Stoker (of Assault on Precinct 13 and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) geniunely lends some class as the detective investigating all the murders around school.

A few years back, Rhino acquired some Crown titles to put out a couple of boxed sets with the "Horrible Horror" banner-- this flick was among those picked. I haven't seen that DVD set, but apparently it was authored for DVD from a VHS source, but I would imagine that it didn't come from Interglobal. This bizarre narrative (including an overlong scene with Vernon's parents on vacation-- this is the only time you see them in the film) is given a further otherworldly feeling with all the blotchy blues and reds that a public domain tape can offer, and it looks like this was recorded from television with the commercials taken out (there are even old-school squiggly video breaks where the edits likely occured). The threadbare presentation of this tape actually compliments that of this film.

After 30 years, the legacy of Twisted Brain lives on, thanks to those who became enchanted by this grimy flick from television or video. In the interim, Pat Cardi has spent a lot of time on message boards sounding off about what a thief Crown International is, and likewise hinting that a remastered version of this movie will happen soon. Personally, I'm not sure I want one. This is a rare film whose luster is from its very grimy nature. Interglobal could've cared less I'm sure, but they've enhanced that feeling even more.

Hey kids, here's a neat poster for the movie.

Jun 25, 2008

ESR Is On The Air

On June 6, I had the honour of being interviewed on the air by Stuart "Feedback" Andrews for his weekly show, Cinephobia, broadcast on CKLN. Finally, after two years, our schedules jived enough for us to get together and discuss things ESR, even though I had to do the interview via telephone, and from a pay phone at that, because my office building had contractors drilling outside without notice.

Stuart was gracious to post the interview online, and for those who missed it, you can click here to listen to, or download it. In 30 minutes you'll get a good history of my film publication, including talk of the new screening series I'm proud to be a part of, and a plug for the new issue. Here is a jpeg of the cover for our latest creation, "Independent Voices". To learn more about this issue and anything else in ESR's back catalog, feel free to visit me at ESR's website by clicking here

Jun 23, 2008

Grinding at the Fox... or, I managed to stay up till 10 AM watching films...

On Saturday night, or Sunday morning, whichever you prefer to call it, Toronto programmer Dion Conflict fulfilled his long-held ambition to have an all-night film show, entitled "Shock and Awe", in tribute to the Grindhouse days of yore, held, ironically, at The Fox Cinema, in the heart of The Beaches, where not much else goes on in this sleepy yuppie retreat all year long except for The Beaches Jazz Festival (which is derided by most of its locals except the business owners). This location is certainly a long way from the fabled Times Square grindhouses, or even our own Yonge Street strip, which in its heyday housed the Rio, whose all-night runs of sleaze films influenced Dion's own desire to give Toronto another taste of such long-extinct action. But The Fox itself is representative of how times have changed, and so it is doubly ironic and fitting that we received doses of cinematic sex and violence in such a family-oriented neighbourhood.

Those who read Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's quasi-romantic reportage of the debauchery in the Times Square theatres as collected in their book Sleazoid Express will be informed that no rough trade, clouds of marijuana, drinking or police raids were found this night, and the only cans rolling in the aisles were Red Bull. I went to the bathroom a lot, but that was because I was drinking so much coffee. The audience was well-behaved, the decor was modern, and my shoes didn't stick to the floor. Perhaps one should be grateful for the passage of time, after all. Thus, all of the ingredients of the iconic grindhouses were found on the screen, not below it, and that suits me fine. Seeing these half-dozen artifacts from less politically correct times was enough of a history lesson on how much cinematic form and content has changed. But perhaps more importantly, seeing these films on a big screen with a responsive audience added another dimension even to the movies on the bill that I had previously seen. Getting the chance to see any non-current film on a big screen is a valuable cultural lesson, and also a fragile gift that we must continue to appreciate, lest it go away tomorrow.

For those not among the eighty troopers who watched films from 11:30 AM to 10 PM, here's what you missed:

The Boogeyman (1980): I've always considered director, former Fassbinder protege and current direct-to-video hack Ulli Lommel to be a two-trick pony. This and Brainwaves were the only two good films he ever made, in my opinion. The event wisely began with this well-remembered horror film-- the perfect appetizer to get everyone wound up for the six-course meal. All of its weird violence kept the audience going, and after having seen it a couple of times on video, its mood still holds up quite well (also love the use of primary colours in the last third). But the viewers' snickering at the non-horror scenes only confirmed my belief that Lommel can't direct actors to save his life. But isn't wooden acting also part of the menu for a grindhouse festival? Plus, I love Tim Krog's electronic score-- soundtrack album, anyone?

Perhaps the surprise hit of the evening was Matt Cimber's apocalyptic The Black Six (1976), which has the giggly novelty of having six football players filling the title contingent... and not one of them is Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. To be sure, the audience had a blast watching these guys kick some cracker butt, as well as digging the hip dialogue. One of the six discovers that his brother was kicked by some white trash bikers, and his friends help him get revenge. The plot is operable at best-- as it takes about as much time for him to find the culprits as it does to get a haircut. Instead, the narrative is more thought-provoking for its politics evoking everything from Angela Davis to Uncle Tom, showing the complexity of white-black race relations, and its climax lets no-one off the hook.

At best, Naughty New Orleans (1954) is a valuable filmed document of exotic dancers, musicians and comedians from the period-- and I use the term "filmed document" very loosely, as there is little that is cinematic in this rigid affair, replete with day-for-night shots, the same bizarre reaction shots of toothless patrons and spectators who inexplicably bring their wives along to see the strippers, and a nailed-down camera a la Warhol that records dancing moves that wouldn't pass amateur night at The Brass Rail. Interspersed with the acts is the emcee whose tableau of real groaner jokes are at least better than the average homegrown show on The Comedy Network. In the same tradition of a Sam Katzman musical, the plot is merely an excuse to string along the acts. Yell "yeah right" with me unison as I reveal the storyline about a jetsetter who goes out book-shopping in N'awlins, comes across this burlesque club, and is delightfully surprised to see that his girlfriend isn't a secretary after all. The burning question of what kind of book store he'd find at midnight remains unanswered, but I'll bet it would be like that smut shop on Yonge St. that mercifully closed last year.

And now, for a double-shot of 70's hedonism. Rene Cardona Jr's Tintorera (1977)is one of the many "Jaws" rip-offs of the period, but to say this is a shark movie is to call Porky's a stinging satire of our educational system. Mostly, this is a sex romp, as a three-way act is rudely interrupted by a pissed-off tiger shark. Like other Cardona films (Survive; Guyana- Cult of the Damned) this is completely shameless. At least it delivers more sex than most non-porn films of the era ever dared. It is an ugly movie about people with equally ugly morals-- when the shark shows up one almost can read this as a biblical metaphor about the fornicators being punished for their sins, but when the danger passes, people go right back to the pelvic push. This just wouldn't get out of the gate today with its likely authentic scenes of clubbing sharks-- if there was anyone from the Humaine Association on this set, they were likely being serviced while the crew was out filming. It is a fascinating piece of misanthropy.

Danish Pastries (1973) on the other hand, seems like a frolic. This featherweight cheerfulness shows what happens when an aphrodisiac gets mixed up in the water supply, and the students of an all-girls school have their way with all the cartoon-like male goons in the village. This Euro-trash mixes sex with typically overcranked and overdone slapstick, centering on the switching of suitcases... the other containing some potion which would have controlled the passions of the young ladies during the predicted passing of Venus, to prevent another exercise in debauchery that occurred in seventeen-hundred... and sixty-nine. But what fun would that have been?? This silly hardcore fluff was sinfully entertaining to watch on a Sunday morning.

Finally, with the sun already high in the sky, we had the headliner act, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992), presented in its seldom-seen uncut version. While surely it is one of the bloodiest films you'll see in a month of Sundays, all of the carnage is perversely cheerful. Jackson instead delivers a non-stop roller coaster ride in the spirit of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films. A hapless schmoe's domineering mother becomes a flesh-eating ghoul after a bite by a rat monkey, and soon more of the undead begin piling up in his basement. This crazed film may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is surely not boring. It is a Grand Guignol exercise, with every nuance overplayed to operatic proportions-- almost every shot swoops, zooms and tilts. At the heart of it all is a pitch-black Oedipal satire unlike any other on the screen, where the poor guy can't shake free of his mother, even when she's a shambling, rotting corpse. Dead Alive was the perfect jolt in the veins after such a trip through various aspects of grindhouse culture. While this film was made well after most of the archetypal grindhouses had been plowed over in favour of Starbucks and condos, it surely keeps in the gleefully nasty spirit that encompasses the rest.

As it stands, "Shock and Awe" was a fun night alone for its marathon journey through the history of exploitation. But it just wouldn't be a Dion screening without his bizarre prizes -which were drawn every intermission- and blue light specials (finally-- a copy of Sun Bunnies). Plus, the Fox also served up burritos, pizza and -haha- Danish pastries, making this a night full of goodies. It could hardly be called just a night at the movies-- it was a piece of history, and an event unto itself. Such a good time was had by all that they're already talking about doing another grindhouse festival in the fall. Bring it on MacDuff.... and keep those blue light specials coming....

Jun 20, 2008

Small Press Fair 06.07.08

...and so, after coming home from This is a Hijack (see below), I finished the layout for the new ESR, and after three hours sleep, I printed a run of the new issue to take to the spring edition of the Small Press Fair. This time, the fair was being held at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center, a block east from the usual location at the Trinity-St. Paul church. The space was much bigger and -thankfully- air conditioned. After the political strife that had erupted between small pressers last fall (and I think escalating into a bloody mess that neither side wanted), I was nervous about the tempo of this fair, but that fear was short-lived, as at first, I had a greater sense of urgency. There was zero traffic for the first couple of hours, and I trembled in my soul, thinking that promotion and PR had flown out the window.

However, serendipitously, the early lull turned out to be a strange blessing. Throughout the morning, I had fueled up on coffee like a crazed beatnik in order to stay awake. (Plus, I still had a bit of adrenaline from the giddy atmosphere of the previous night's screening.) I had experienced a moment not felt since those precocious days of first-year college, when exuberant amounts of coffee, coupled with oxygen deprivation in the brain (caused by lack of sleep), resulted in my finding surreal observations to scribble about for the next poetry session, which I would unleash upon my poor classmates in English the following Thursday. And as such, during this two hours of silence at the fair, in that same half-asleep mode of whimsy, I began scribbling my random thoughts in a notebook (a practice I have not done this century). One of the current topics of conversation with my fellow small pressers was the blue sheet handed out to vendors to share their thoughts on the fair, and how to improve it. One fellow vendor, who will go nameless, suggested "Hot dog vendors". And that was enough to keep me laughing for half an hour straight. You had to be there. (People must have thought I was stoned.) But for the next couple of hours, I scribbled down any random observation or idea, while waiting for customers to show up. And if I ended the day with zero sales, I vowed to print it all in one feverish, stinking dirty rant on this blog.

Well thankfully, I didn't have to result to such drastic measures. In the early afternoon, presumably after the locals had had their fill of bagels and brunch, the place began having a steady flow. It was nice to see some regular customers coming by to say hello, pick up the new issue and shoot the breeze. Having done dozens of trade shows in seven years, I always enjoy how they turn into a social hour. Barry Smight popped by and we exchanged horror stories about the stupid industry we both work in. It was also nice to see my pal Laura, who I used to work with, and my on-air comrade from the previous day, Stuart "Feedback" Andrews came by to shop, and also introduced me to a couple other film writers. So in all, it was a nice melange of seeing old friends, and possibly making new ones who became interested in all things ESR that day. After the show, I picked up my tickets for Leonard Cohen, and Dion's "Shock and Awe" festival, and then somehow found the stamina to travel with Kitty to see Roller Derby before finally crashing at one AM.

It fascinates me how things in the underground-small press community always happen in bursts, never constant hums. In one 24 hour period, or two calendar days, I did a screening, a radio interview and a trade show-- and then, this crescendo will be followed by a very long diminuendo. But after a long period of inactivity, it felt good for me to be back in business, and if I may be so immodest, I also feel proud at the fact that I didn't let other crap in my life become a deterrent from me not accomplishing what I wanted for this lovely weekend.

Above: fellow small presser Jen Finlayson and her trusty assistant/mascot, Buddy.

Oh to hell with it. Here's the stuff I scribbled down that morning-- you tell me if it's any good. (Complete and unabridged-- God help us.) It even has a title: "Random Thoughts At the Small Press Fair While Waiting for Buddha to Put a Bullet In My Brain"

-How come I didn't get a blue sheet? Aren't I literary enough? (as I stroke my goatee and twiddle with my neckerchief)
-Ways to Improve Fair #1: hot dog vendors (I won't name who thought of this one, for fear of incrimination)
-Ways to Improve Fair #2: free balloons for seniors. (I'm taking credit for this one.)
-couldn't they splurge for a microphone?
-I didn't know this was going to be in a gymnasium-- my groovy boots are killing me-- I should phone home and have my wife bring my Scooby Doo slipper socks.
-Things To Do: count how many times I turn and look at the door longingly
-...should've gone to the drug store and bought a couple of skin books to pass the time.
-Ways to Improve Fair #3: country and western band.
-I should carry a book with me more often to write random shit like this, instead of sitting at the keys in the twilight, waiting for inspiration.
-Things to Do: take pictures of myself until I ask myself just how fucking vain can I be?
-Ways to Improve Fair #4: bongos!
-For kicks, publish "A Collection of Angst-Ridden Twentysomething Garbage I Wrote Back in the 90's" and see if it sells more.
-The sudden realization that I may be even more fun to be around when I'm tired and pissed off. (And if any of this shit stills seems funny tomorrow, I'll publish it.)
-Thought while waiting in line at the 7-11: "Is this guy making a will?"

Jun 11, 2008

Hijacking the Trash Palace

Last summer, Stacey Case began his bi-weekly screening series "Trash Palace", at his little hideaway of the same name, as a temporary little fling, that just continued to live, and grow. In the past year, the theater moved to a bigger location, and just more involved, as such amenities as a hot dog maker, a pinball machine and, most recently, the popcorn machine, have been added to the fun to be had Friday night. While the programming fare often consists of whatever 70's drive-in exploitation could be acquired on 16mm for cheap, often times whatever was-is being screened would be just part of the ambience. In short order, and with the assistance of Dan "The Mouth" Lovranski at the concession stand, Trash Palace reminded us of the fun and community to be had going to the movies.

In February, Stacey had approached me at 8 Fest about my doing screenings at his venue. I thought that was a noble gesture on his part, and put that thought in my memory banks for when I decided to do another screening series. Then a few weeks later, he had approached me again, as well as Jonathan Culp, to assist with programming at The Trash Palace, beginning in June, in his ambition to now make TP a weekly venue. While Stacey would still program two shows a month, Jonathan and I would each do one. I wholeheartedly accepted his kind gesture, and was literally bouncing up the street at this sudden good fortune. Over the past three years, I had slowly acquired 16mm prints of certain oddball films for my long-range plan of programming them when ESR did promotional screenings. All of the shows at Centre for the Arts in the previous eighteen months were video screenings. It's a cool little place to do shows, but not properly set up to show films. There is really no way to project stuff without a constant noise problem in that one room. So, when Stacey then asked us about what we could show, I offered up This is a Hijack, and he dug that one alone just on the title.

I've already written a synopsis of the film (and its campy virtues) twice on this blog, and therefore feel no need to repeat it (you can just scroll down, if you like). Suffice to say, that a few weeks back, one Saturday morning, while still in my housecoat, huddled over a cup of black coffee, I decided to pre-screen the print, for quality checking. From the word "Go", I was keeled over in laughter at every cheesy line, and overacted nuance. I just hoped that the audience would see it in the same frame of mind....

Prior to Friday, I had a lot of anxiety because I had an extremely stressful work week, and as such, my time and energy devoted to getting the new ESR issue done, updating the web site and other things for the weekend was dwindling. But Friday was just the shot in the arm I needed. That afternoon, I finally had that radio interview with Mr. Stuart "Feedback" Andrews on CKLN's Friday show "Cinephobia", in which we discussed all things ESR, including, timely enough, the show that night and the small press fair the following day. Coming from that, despite treading on glass at work, I had a good blast of positive energy, and Trash Palace gave me another.

In keeping up with the TP tradition of presenting a short prior to the feature (and also keeping in tune with the crime theme that night), I put on the educational flick Policeman on the Job, which extolled on such things as women squabbling over parking tickets and improper use of the 911 number. (And in keeping with another TP tradition, I hadn't yet watched this short.) Whatever concerns I had over ...Hijack though, quickly vanished, as the audience just ate the film up. After the movie, Stacey "hijacked" the projector, and in keeping with the 70s trash theme of the evening, closed the show with highlight reels from various kung fu films. What a night. The following day I was still giddy from all the laughs we had. This is what a show should be like.... a good responsive crowd, a fun time had by all, and that feeling of sharing something with an audience. After more than six months away from doing shows, I had forgotten what that feeling was like.

I am grateful for Stacey and Dan for inviting me into this venue, and look forward to further good times with the next three films ESR is presenting till the end of September. But in general, for the next twelve weeks there are even more amazing gems of drive-in cinema awaiting your attention. Check them out here.

Below: here are some stills for This is a Hijack. If you missed the show, don't worry, we are already planning to show it at a future date....

May 29, 2008

Mondo Roncesvalles Conflict Revue

Last night, ESR's good friend Dion Conflict had a rare screening of the 1964 documentary Only One New York at the Revue Cinema. From the get-go, the evening had that feeling you get with wearing a favourite jacket: the familiarity and the comfort derived from it. Before the movie, Susan, David Faris his friend Heiki and I had some drinks and food at Gate 403 right across the street. I had arrived there a bit earlier than everyone, and listened to a couple of fabulous numbers by the Glenda Del Monte band (a Latin-flavoured jazz band; she at the piano, accompanied by fretless bass, and drums). This club has had a long history with Susan and I, and I never get tired of digging its bohemian surroundings. (If I ever do the third film in my "beatnik trilogy", I'd do it here.) I was delightfully surprised to discover that they had dinnertime acts nightly, before the 9 0'clock band showed up. It didn't seem too long ago that they only had one musical performance a day for about five days in the week, plus a Sunday matinee. (Well, maybe it was a long time ago...) The venue reminded me how long it's been since I had gone to hear live music. Now that I've hopefully shaken my winter blahs, and have started to become pro-active about things, I imagine I'll be taking advantage of more musical venues in the city. This rendezvous was but one gentle reunion with familiar habitat.

You, dear reader, may know that Dion used to show films from his collection every eight weeks at the Royal Cinema before they closed two years ago. Since then, his Toronto screenings have been fewer and further between. And despite the special shows he had last year (Hunkajunk 5; Christmas Kitsch-a-Roo), this one felt more like a traditional "Dion Show". Yet even this night was a bit different, as it was prefaced by a performance with the amazing Parkdale mentalist Mysterion. Otherwise, Dion returned to familiar territory with his kitschy door prizes (but cannily drawing the numbers before people discovered what they were bringing home), and filled the playbill with such ephemera as Around the World With Uncle George (a TV filler where "Uncle George" educates us on a different part of the globe) -this installment featured Mexico- and a trailer for The Jerk.

Even so, Only One New York is perhaps the most ephemeral feature shown in all of the Conflict Archives (and I am speaking only of features, not shorts). Despite that this night's show was billed as "Midweek Mondo Madness", I'd hesitate to call this movie a "mondo" film, since it is hardly as sensational as many films under that banner, however it follows their strategies of taking viewers to some places hitherto unseen by motion picture cameras.

This film was directed by a French filmmaker (Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau), and his approach to his subject echoes the same overwhelming feeling that Fritz Lang from Germany likely felt having experienced the New York skyline for the first time. As such, he captures the project from the same viewpoint of someone entering an unknown foreign land. The result is that what seems obvious also becomes new to us. He is enraptured by the glass and steel skyscrapers (exemplified by copious footage, much shot from unusual angles) and as such these buildings turn New York into a "character" that leads the narrative. He intersperses the film with traditions performed by many of the different cultures in the Big Apple, such as Ukrainian sword dances, Harlem gospel, Hasidic feasts, Gypsy weddings and even voodoo rituals! Since this was lensed in the 1960s, there are some interesting glimpses at mod fashion, and a hilarious "happening" where an artist splashes paint about and sticks his head through a ceiling. (Sadly, there are no sequences at Beatnik joints or jazz clubs, but you can't have everything.) While this film is perhaps not too impressive in continuity (a religious event is followed by Playboy bunnies!), it does give a fascinating glimpse into a city that speaks to many (like myself) who have never even been there, and reveals more fascinating corners of its culture. Norman Rose's tongue-in-cheek narration is in first-person, presumably echoing the director's impression of this foreign land. Sometimes it is an outsider to show others what is inside.

Throughout the movie, I kept wondering to myself what prompted Dion to show this film, as it is most unlike anything he has programmed before. Once the belly dancers emerged, I nodded. Despite that this was released by Joseph Levine's Embassy Pictures, with an of-its-time lounge score by Milton Delugg (who just did the music on Levine's masterpiece Santa Claus Conquers The Martians), one echoes Mr. Conflict's query as to why this film isn't available on home video. And the fact that it isn't is why we rely on people like Dion to resurrect forgotten pieces of our culture.

When we were finding seats, I had joked to Siue Moffat that this was like a family reunion, as 6/8 of the attendees at ESR's brunch on Sunday were at this screening (Dion included). And I don't wonder that a smaller portion of this "regular crowd" will be at Trash Palace tomorrow! The scenario reminded me of Nashville in which the lives of 24 people keep weaving in and out with each others over a weekend. This evening is a similar narrative, in which one constantly meets the same members of this surrogate family who support this subculture. It is another act that is familiar and comforting.

Apr 24, 2008

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Four Episode Three

The April 22 installment of The Third Floor Drive-In featured the 1973 sci-fi thriller Clones, preceded by a trailer for the 1979 sci-fi horror film, The Dark.

Today I was in a headspace for lo-fi 70's sci-fi, upon thinking about those cheapo Schick Sunn paranormal documentaries that packed 'em in at the drive-in, as well as the discovery that I may finally have found a title belonging to a scene to a tawdry low-budget UFO picture I saw on the late show 25 years ago, and has since made me curious as to what exactly was on the tube that night (the film in question: James Flocker's The Alien Encounters).

In the 1970's, public fascination was on high with strange phenomenon, especially UFOs, which prompted countless zero-budget efforts to be made, for a fast buck in exploiting the curiosity of drive-in viewers. And despite how many of these films (the non-documentary ones, I mean) seldom delivered the goods (in terms of suspense, action or decent special effects), I think back on these pictures, and am fascinated to see them again-- perhaps because these films lacked so many frills, they instead were more character-driven, and as a result succeeded more than big-budget Hollywood glossy efforts in exploring that theme of how supernatural phenomenon would truly affect real people. With all this in mind, what could I have possibly chosen for the drive-in that night?

Well, The Clones turned out to be an excellent choice. This low-budget effort is perhaps more of a chase thriller with science fiction elements, and as such the scenes which attempt to explain the bizarre plot behind the cloning of these scientists are rather corny, doing a disservice to the otherwise unique feel of the picture.

Dr. Gerald Appleby (Michael Greene) escapes an accident at the lab, and then discovers that his daily routine is being filled by a clone. At first, this film is marvelously creepy, sustaining a mood with an idea that would have served Hitchcock proud. The concept of one's life being replaced by an exact duplicate is just one iron in the fire. Soon, Appleby is on the run from two FBI agents, Gregory ("Sanford and Son") Sierra and Otis (The Last Detail) Young, who are set to eliminate him. He learns that he is implicated in the plot of several of the world's top scientists are to be cloned, and then "the original" is to be killed, while the duplicates carry on the bidding of a diabolical mastermind who wants to control the world with the weather. The novelty of this premise in his quest for survival and to right the wrongs, he is being helped out by his own clone! (And the way that they overlap the two Michael Greene's in the same scenes, is simply but effectively done with over-the-shoulder shots, or using a double in long shot.)

Cinematographer Gary Graver (whose long list of credits is a Christmas wish list of 20 years of drive-in cinema) maintains the paranoid atmosphere with anamorphic lenses, hand-held camerawork and solarized colour. Further adding to the bizarre atmosphere is the casting of John Drew Barrymore, well past his glory days, as a hippie on the road, Angelo Rossitto banging on a telephone booth, and best of all, Stanley Adams (yes, Cyrano Jones from "The Trouble With Tribbles"!) as the villain.

Co-directors Lamar Card and Paul Hunt (both of whom have had spotty but interesting careers in the B-movie trenches) have concocted a memorable visceral experience. The Clones is truly is a great discovery.

Apr 21, 2008

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Four, Episode Two

The April 20 edition of The Third Floor Drive-In was the adventure film Flight to Fury, preceded by the trailer for the infamous Mexican film, Survive!

I did not realize this, but the next day after screening this film, Jack Nicholson turned 71. And as such, this little gem is a perfect way to honour his birthday, as it features Jack Nicholson during his salad days, when he was still trying to make it as an actor, and was also writing screenplays. As such, The Trip and Head give proof that perhaps the greatest actor of his generation also was an entirely unique writer. One can only imagine what the results would be if he continued writing after his Easy Rider fame.

In the mid-1960's, Nicholson collaborated with the quirky genius director Monte Hellman on a pair of existential westerns, Ride the Whirlwind (which Jack also wrote), and The Shooting. Prior to that, they had also teamed up on a back-to-back pair of lesser-known, gritty adventure films shot in the Philippines: Back Door to Hell and tonight's film, the superior Flight to Fury.

While third-billed (after the bland leading man Dewey Martin, and actress Fay Spain), Jack obviously wrote the best role for himself, as the adventurer Jay Wickham, a con man and killer that detours this matinee picture by way of Albert Camus. (His way of chatting up a woman on a plane is: "Man sends millions, perhaps billions of dollars a year on women, booze and drugs, just to hide the fact of his ultimate demise.")

Any new misfortune is simply a new experience for Wickham to appreciate. His character blurs through the vague narrative, which at best circulates around the McGuffin plot of a bunch of disparate characters who want the diamonds being carried by a passenger pilot. The plane crashes, and the survivors are attacked by unnamed guerrillas, yet these emerge as secondary inconveniences to their lust for loot.

At a brisk 74 minutes, this little gem is still tremendous fun, and remains one of my favourite Monte Hellman pictures. The dialogue is snappy, and there are several interesting characters thrown into this oddball adventure. Vic Diaz, a supporting character in countless Filipino-lensed exploitation films of the 70's, is great fun as the Sydney Greenstreet-esque hood Lorgren who also wants the diamonds: while charismatic and good-natured, his character would still betray someone on a whim.

While I've always been a fan of this picture, it has an even more special place in my heart after having viewed it at the Third Floor Drive-In. Seeing these characters in their mysteriously unsoiled white polyester suits in the Filipino jungle while I'm hovering at the screen with a coffee and a blanket wondering how they keep cool, made for an interesting juxtaposition.

While at heart this is a 1940's matinee film, updated with 1960's edginess, and further made surreal by the locations and tinny old-fashioned music score, it appears as a movie with its own time and space. Seeing this outdoors as the cold wind wreaked havoc, further added to this Zen-like experience.

Apr 20, 2008

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Four, Episode One

Yes ladies and gentlemen, now that the nice weather has finally reared its head, and that we're no longer surrounded by snowdrifts (with apologies to Saskatchewan), the G-Man wasted no time in opening up The Third Floor Drive-In (founded 2005) for its fourth season, and perhaps the best yet.

The inaugural 2008 screening on April 19 was... the 1968 western Blue, with Terence Stamp and Karl Malden. Preceded by... trailer for The Stranger and The Gunfighter.

Blue baffled most upon its initial release, and perhaps understandably, but 40 years has been rather kind to this bizarre opus. Terence Stamp is the titular character, a gringo also referred to as "Azul" (the Mexican translation) by his surrogate father Ortega (Ricardo Montalban) who is a revolutionary leader. During another of his customary raids on the "Yanquis", Blue shoots one of the bandidos who tries to have his way with the fetching Joanna Pettet. Her father (Karl Malden) is the doctor who nurses him back to health, and much to his chagrin, Blue has rather adopted them as the next surrogate family. And despite the scorn Blue receives from the Yanqui settlers, they realize he is their greatest hope against Ortega's impending revenge.

Casting a British actor as a cowboy is a bizarre choice, but this actually compliments the material. Stamp doesn't completely hide his English accent, but however intentionally or not, this, plus his fair skin and bleached hair, adds to his character's displacement from his surroundings. He is a man without a country-- owing much to his American and Mexican heritage, yet similarly being ostracized from both. Stanley Cortez's magnificent cinematography, often filming the characters as specs on landscape, with its saturated colours and wide vistas, further accentuates the otherworldly aspect of the scenario. The music by Manos Hatzidakis, with its thick Greek chords sounding unlike a traditional frontier score, are also evocative of a man from a different world.

This oddball film was a critic's joke in 1968 (even more that its director, Silvio Narizzano, had just completed Georgy Girl!), and while it doesn't always work (for instance, Blue doesn't speak for the first half of the film- a gimmick more contrived than symbolic), it is certainly interesting. There were many "existential cowboys" in the 1960's, perhaps none more than Blue.

Mar 25, 2008

Global TV signoff

Now THIS is the kind of thing YouTube was made for.... here is the signoff from the Global Television network that countless insomniacs like myself would view after watching the late night movie, or reruns of "The Mod Squad" and "Room 222".

The theme song during the montage has haunted me for years-- an admirable feat, considering I haven't heard it since 1986! Listening to it again all these years, it's not hard to get back that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes hand in hand with the late late show. Now I'm wondering who the singer is--- maybe Tommy Ambrose?

Anyway, enjoy. And I can't help but wonder what that Robert Goulet movie was like....

Feb 23, 2008

Hamilton, Mid-Course Correction and whatever else enters my brain as I type this....

Man, I bitch a lot.

This morning I was re-reading through a lot of old posts on this blog, and most of the entries not devoted to film reviews usually vent about lousy sales, lousy attendance at trade shows, and lousy attendance at screenings. I had created ESR as a refuge to escape to, not as something else to complain about. I realize that all dreams, no matter how big or small, are only realized through a lot of determination and hard work, and sidestepping obstacles is the rule not the exception. But rather than share and celebrate all the unique and interesting experiences that ESR has garnered, it seems that all I do is complain, and quite frankly, I don't need any more negativity in my life.

What with my worrying that I'm going to put myself into cardiac arrest with the stress surrounding my day job(s), and the constant frustration of not finding another position in my industry because everyone only wants to hire a 25-year old babe instead of a world-weary 40 year-old who has, you know, experience, the day-to-day "What the fuck am I doing?" as I look into the mirror, and the resolution amidst the process of finding visual ideas for Gordon's reading project that I don't have a creative bone in my body, and regardless of how all or most of the above may be true, I really don't need to crab about anything else, thank you. And plus, in light of the recent disaster downtown (see below), I am sick and tired of the daily fog and malaise that has clouded my existence. It is time to focus on something positive, no matter how big or small it may be.

I think a lot of my decision to embrace the light instead of retreating to the dark corner may have to do with the fact that on this morning's commute, I finished Paul Cox's autobiography, Reflections (proper review coming soon), which affected me much the same as his own films: astute, subversive, yet mostly haunting in a quiet sort of way. Here is a man who has consistently battled many obstacles to make his personal films, despite their small budgets, in the face of many financial committees who fret that they aren't commercial enough.

And despite that there are numerous anecdotes throughout, chronicling his efforts to fund such works as Island and Man of Flowers, what actually remains in the memory after one closes the book, are the quiet moments of beauty. The latter is also a phrase I often use to describe what I most remember coming away from one of Cox's own films. Throughout are passages about stopping to admire some natural beauty, and taking the time to appreciate the little moments. And in our world, this is something increasingly hard to do. But where I'm going with this narrative, is that this blog needs more moments like that.... more emphasis on those precious little moments and less on the adversity.

Three weeks ago, I was invited by Mark Innes, whom I met at the 2006 edition of the Hamilton Small Press Fair, to come down to his own version of the Hamilton Small Press Fair, which he was holding the following weekend. The people who originated the fair in 2005-6 apparently had no plans to do another, so Mark saw it fit to continue the tradition on his own, yet nonetheless had to re-title the event to "The Crawling Eye."

I never pass up an opportunity to go to Hamilton, as I always come away with a very positive vibe. In fact, before we continue, I'd like to do another of my classic segues... and don't worry, it will fit the subsequent context.... kinda. I've been wanting to share this subtle moment for over a year now, just waiting for the proper opportunity to fit it in. When I was at the 2006 Hamilton Fair, I was invited to a screening the following Friday at this gallery called The Factory. One Friday every month, Hamilton has the James St. Art Crawl, in which the numerous galleries on the James St. area stay open for people to hop from one gallery to the next to schmooze and check out the new work. Ultimately, people end up at The Factory, which holds a screening on that Friday night. On that night in question, they were showing a retrospective of films by the great Arthur Lipsett, followed by the documentary Remembering Arthur, with its director, Martin Lavut in attendance. It was a lot of fun, with good ambiance all around-- the members of The Factory also gave out free refreshments and popcorn. What I also loved was the loose, yet communal feeling surrounding the event.

On another completely unrelated note, when I got back to Toronto that night and turned on the computer (this was now about 1:30 in the morning), I had learned that Jack Palance died. At that moment, I watch a bit of my DVD of the Palance spaghetti western It Can Be Done, Amigo, and Luis Bacalov's enchanting opening song score (right-click or apple-save here to download it) has stayed with me all this time. In fact, whenever I think of this night in Hamilton, that song instantly appears in my head. That is my quiet moment of beauty.

Hamilton was-is a second home to me, as back in the 80s on Friday nights while I lived in the town of Simcoe I'd drive down to go record shopping. And because I live in Toronto, with a population of two million versus a town of fifteen thousand, I consider myself to be a long way from my roots. Yet, Hamilton brings me that much closer to "home" because it's a smaller city, geographically closer to my hometown, and I still easily see the ghosts of my youth as walk down its streets.

So for all of this, I happily accepted Mark's invitation to come on down to Hamilton on the 9th. The event was held at the Sky Dragon Centre downtown on the Friday and Saturday, but I could only make the Saturday show. Upon my arrival, Mark told me that the Friday night fair was really happening, as there were about ten vendors and lots of traffic, as it was held in conjunction with the James St. Art Crawl. On the Saturday, Mark and I were the only two vendors, and traffic was down to a trickle. However I did sell one Roger Corman issue. And in truth, Mark was more concerned than I was that I hadn't sold enough to even pay for the bus fare I spent to come down. That's the kind of guy Mark is. But I think appearing at this fair was more of a spiritual necessity than a financial one. And as such, it felt good to be back for an afternoon, learning about the scene and old haunts I used to visit.

If anything, I'm grateful to Mark and his generosity for putting the event on, and for keeping that community spirit going. He has been a publisher of comic books for about 20 years, and is still going at it. That weekend he launched what is perhaps his magnum opus, "The Comic Eye", seen above. This book is a collection of comics, submitted by many artists with widely diverse styles. Each story is about the appeal of comics-- collecting them, and their influence in the authors' lives. In fact, some of the styles in the book will remind you of other comics which you would have read thirty years ago-- this only adds to the nostalgia. I haven't bought comic books in well over 20 years, chiefly because I became more interested in film (appropriately, another medium that told a story within a frame), but also I grew tired of the long underwear superhero titles. And in a small town, that's all one had exposure to-- the indie direct sales boom did not hit us. If I had had more exposure to those books, which were much more personal and spoke to the livelihoods of their readers, I'd likely still be reading them today. So picking up this marvelous anthology was another way in which Hamilton felt like home.

To order your copy of "The Comic Eye", visit Mark's website here. To learn more about events at The Factory, click here.

Feb 17, 2008

An introduction by Paul Cox....

Right now, I'm reading through Reflections, a memoir written by Australian director Paul Cox, first published in 1998. And once I've completed the book, I will post a proper review of it here. But for now, I wanted to share this passage that paraphrased his opening introduction for his star Isabelle Huppert, when he was invited to the Telluride film festival for his 1986 film Cactus, in which the two worked together. He had just seen Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, and the experience moved him so deeply that he decided to rewrite his introduction completely, and ultimately it had less to do with Isabelle Huppert, than with the whole dichotomy of the American film industry. I hope Mr. Cox will forgive my adding of such a long quotation, but it touched me so much that I had to share it.

"Thank you for inviting CACTUS to Telluride and for paying this tribute to Isabelle Huppert. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more, especially here where people, for a few days at least, are serious about film. So far I haven't heard the word 'product' once and even the question, 'What's your next project?' hasn't been asked.

Unfortunately I have to digress a little here, as I've just seen the real sacrifice Andrei Tarkovsky made with his film THE SACRIFICE. From the town of Larissa in Greece to the city of Arles in France, I've recently seen Rocky fighting for his tenth title, Rambo committing more obscenities and Arnold Schwarzenegger terminating anything that moved around him. Today I saw an extraordinary film made by an extraordinarily courageous man. No American producer or company wanted to help him make the film, yet you're all here now celebrating his sacrifice. It must be embarrassing for any thinking, feeling American to find even the smallest cinema in Europe loaded with films like, TEEN WEREWOLF, THE KARATE KID or TOP GUN representing your country, together with McDonalds and Kentucky Fried, while you could have been the proud producer of this important contribution to contemporary cinema.

Walking the streets of Manhattan is a far more exciting experience than watching the average American movie. Why is this in a country that harbours the amazing Julliard School of Music, has the finest dance and opera companies and a bubbling cultural life that embraces many cultures? Why all this wonderful activity can't rub off a little on your cinema, is an appalling mystery. Cinema in this country is nothing but the manufacture of bad taste, which is pretty tricky stuff when you realise that the right marketing of chicken winds or hamburgers can change the form and shape of less advanced countries.

Film wasn't invented to patronise and corrupt our children and to appeal mostly to our lower instincts. America is the country that has the power to change the future use of the medium, to restore some balance, to allow people like Tarkovsky to speak. After all you control, legally or illegally, most screens around the world and could bring love and peace and true imagination to those screens, instead of constant exploitation. I know of many marvellously talented people in your country who, in this climate of exploitation, will never get a chance to show what this country really has to offer.

I'm not totally condemning what most of you think is 'the right stuff', but I'm pleading for some balance. I'm asking you to restore the cinema to its true potential and once again make it available to grown-ups.

I did see TOP GUN and was appalled. Its budget was at least thirty times more than that of THE SACRIFICE. To think that TOP GUN will be seen by a hundred million people and THE SACRIFICE by a handful, is horrifying.

I'm here to introduce Isabelle Huppert and I'm sorry I had to digress. I just wonder what would have happened to Isabelle had she been born and raised in America and THE LACEMAKER had been a 'package' aimed at a particular youth market. Most probably the film would never have been made or, if by some fluke the film had gone through the system, it would never have had the same poignant integrity. Too many experts would have stood by to tell the director Claude Goretta how to make it more marketable."

Understand that this passage was said during a time when the Pac Man generation had taken over the box office, and before the indie boom of the 90's, which at least gave American cinema some however brief flirtation with the consideration of art before commerce. But once again, we find ourselves back at those times when bubblegum reigns supreme, and it is still difficult to see smaller, independent films (let alone get them funded), and as such, these comments ring true once again. This section is classic Paul Cox- savage and uncompromising, but in a unique way-- forcing us to consider truths we may not want to think about.

Jan 20, 2008

Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

Here's a word I don't use lightly or often enough, but it applies. "Masterpiece."

Tonight TCM showed the restored, 124-minute version of Budd Boetticher's 1951 epic Bullfighter and the Lady, a thrilling piece of gritty melodrama (produced by John Wayne!). When Republic Pictures released the movie, they had cut more than 30 minutes out of it. Towards the end of Boetticher's life, the film was restored to its original full length, thereby realizing the filmmaker's true intentions. I have not seen this movie before in any duration, so cannot account for what the studio removed for the release version. But suffice to say, this two-hour cut is an American masterpiece- one of the most breath-taking commercial pictures from the golden age of the studio system.

While perhaps Boetticher is better remembered today for the string of gritty westerns he made with Randolph Scott (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome), he was a bullfighter before entering the movie business, and got his big break as a technical advisor for Tyrone Power's matador epic Blood and Sand (1941), and spent a decade directing B noirs and thrillers, before getting the opportunity to venture to his surrogate home of Mexico to make this motion picture.

32 year-old Robert Stack plays Johnny Regan, an American upstart in Mexico who takes bullfighting lessons from aging matador Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland) in order to impress a young lady (Joy Page) whose suitor was injured in the ring. Throughout the film, Regan creates much heartache and misunderstanding (unintentionally or not) because of his ignorance of Latin culture in general. He is truly a stranger in a strange land who too often lets his bravado make up for lack of experience.

Boetticher and cinematographer Jack Draper create an ambiance that is by turns docu-realistic and dream-like. The deep focus chiaroscuro photography, with rich tones and long shadows, and the striking composition, turn nearly every shot into a separate work of art. The excellent footage within the ring is properly gritty. With so many scenes of natural light (in the ring, on the streets, in pastures), and where sequences often play without any English translation, one quickly forgets this is a movie, and believes we are really there in the crowds next to the camera.

This story of twentieth century bullfighters perhaps finds its cinematic equivalent in, of all things, sword and sandal epics, where these matadors are gladiators in an arena who play with their lives for sport. The scene with the glowing, sweaty, rippling bodies of the matadors in the steamroom recall similar moments of beefcake eroticism in any big-budget toga movie you can think of. A clever framing device of shooting the matadors in low angles against the sky recalls the striking composition of Sergei Eisenstein (and many outdoor scenes here surpass what he attempted in Que Viva Mexico), and makes the modern-day matador look like a warrior out of mythology.

Perhaps the most telling scene is when they visit an older man whose book on bullfighting remains unfinished because he failed to answer the question of why matadors do what they do. That answer is not revealed explicitly here, but to see Robert Stack's open-faced radiance after being in the ring is to suggest that the appeal of such a dangerous vocation is that one truly feels alive after dancing with death. In a film about male virility, this inference may not be far from the truth. (In fact, the two-shots where Stack and Page exchange longing glances are extremely erotic.)

Budd Boetticher returned to the arena later in his career for the 1972 documentary Arruza about the famed matador, and is likewise hard to find. Having scanned all of the titles in his filmography, I sheepishly confess to having seen only three of his forty features. This is why I love this job-- there is always new work to discover. In an age where more obscure films are being resurrected on DVD each week, the work of Budd Boetticher is a perfect candidate for rediscovery by a new generation. As for Bullfighter and the Lady in specific, this cries for a Criterion release (in its full version of course) with a documentary of this auteur as a bonus. In the meantime, this masterpiece plays again on TCM February 6. Warm up the VCR.