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The Day the Music Died (1977)
An amazing mess of a movie about an amazing mess of an era...
This whacked-out documentary is about the ill-fated Randall's Island rock festival of 1970, which was a financial bust, due to its being picketed by a coalition of 21 radical groups (including such people as The White Panthers and the Weather Underground), chiefly because they wanted the capitalist pigs to give back to the counterculture that made them millionaires in the first place. Among the list of demands was $100,000 bail for a Black Panther, and 10,000 free tickets.
Nonetheless, the fences fell because of the demonstrations, and the venue was overrun with freeloading gate-crashers. As a result, many performers refused to play, even though they were paid half in advance. (One scene has a wimpy exec having the unenviable task of telling the ugly crowds that Sly and the Family Stone wouldn't be showing up.)
In order to pad out this documentary, some fictional footage was shot years later, featuring DJ Murray the K taking calls from people relating what's going down at Randall's Island. Also, there is an actor who portrays the concert promoter. In one pivotal scene, he meets with the demonstrators. And since he is an African-American who has worked his way out of the ghetto, he asks why he is the one who has to solve their problems (remembering that these groups feature a lot of well-fed white people).
And truthfully, he has a point. This is a volatile argument in one angry, sarcastic movie. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED is perhaps the best film I've seen that describes the dichotomy of 60's counterculture.... where hippies who utter peace and love, or people who take the stances of radicals, use these identities as excuses to freeload off of other people's hard work. What is even more incredible is that this documentary makes this point with its ridiculous fictional footage!
And amidst the documentary footage of people bitching that they paid 21 dollars for this event, and some random clips of the performers who did play, -Mountain ("Mississippi Queen"), Van Morrison ("Come Running")- we see footage by artists who were never there! The Doors' "People are Strange" performance film (later featured in their "Dance on Fire" video collection), is prominently featured. While at first this seems like a silly way to give more running time to the movie, it nonetheless makes sense featuring Jim Morrison, the poster boy of chaos and disorder, amidst a backdrop that is out of control.
Similarly, we see snippets of Angela Davis, Richard Nixon, Vietnam, The Red Berets and Malcolm X interspersed throughout, and the choice of music becomes more symbolic. When we hear Steppenwolf, the song is "America". The movie concludes with Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner", which although played at Woodstock (3 Days of Peace and Love), is in a perfectly Satanic context here.. summarizing this hour-long treatise of a nation (and a generation) out of control.
Sometimes the most profound things occur by accident. This scruffy, out-of-control of a movie is the perfect metaphor of the scruffy, out-of-control generation it eulogizes.
Moment to Moment (1975)
So help me, I like this bloody thing
After having comparatively mainstream success with PUTNEY SWOPE, POUND and GREASER'S PALACE, it is somewhat ironic (and somehow poetic) that Bob Downey made a picture that is a return to the underground: with a narrative that almost defies description, and that it had only been screened a handful of times before disappearing.
This is a collage film in the most obtuse sense of the word... half-baked sketches and unfinished story ideas are chopped up further, mixed in with each other, so as to make even less narrative sense than they already do! In a few minutes of screen time, we see a restaurant skit, people asking for directions to "Jive", a guy on a roof talking to God, people on a park bench, and then we will refer back to more snippets of these scenes, in whatever order. For the most part, this film (presumably) exists as a valentine to Elsie Downey, who, as in her previous film for her husband (CHAFED ELBOWS) plays several characters. Downey's voice rhapsodizes his love for her in the opening credits, in his own brand of wild beat poetry, and throughout Elsie (or, L.C.) is a woman for all men, as a frequent motif is her constantly being chatted up by two-bit hustlers.
Yet when you think that this movie is completely incomprehensible, one begins to see a thread of logic here. A line uttered at the end of one scene has a response to it in the next segment which for all we know, could have been shot years and miles away.
Plus, this film crassly reminds you of how artificial the movie world on screen really is, with a kitchen posing as a restaurant (with piped-in crowd noise), a half-finished spaceship set (which also has a janitor... more than the Enterprise had), and people in paper wigs coming out from the hair dryer. Perhaps the most pivotal moment on screen occurs when characters storm the editing room, much to the surprise of the editor crouched over the Moviola and shout: "Haven't you made up your mind yet?"
Thus, one realizes what perhaps Downey is up to... he is trying to create a jazz improvisation with fragments of film, where each scene is a phrase, and thus tries to make endless "call and response" variations with them.
Amidst this picture's few screenings, it was also titled TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS, which refers to a throwaway line in a throwaway scene with some guys (who have seen way too many Leo Gorcey movies) in a pseudo-gangster plot. Similarly, MOMENT TO MOMENT also refers to a throwaway line in the opening of the movie, but it perhaps makes the most sense in describing this movie. All of these moments from different times are cut together, to simulate the appearance that they are all happening simultaneously... without beginning and without end.
But of all things, MOMENT TO MOMENT ends up being quite a moving experience... it is a return to Downey's roots, and a deeply personal movie. With a beautiful score by David Sanborn, it is a shout for artistic freedom (no matter how demented the artist's vision is), done with an uncompromising structure, made years after such a thing was fashionable. As with all of Downey's films, this certainly isn't for everyone, but if one hangs in there with it a bit, one begins to see the beauty and logic underneath.
The Text of Light (1974)
A Man, A Movie Camera and an Ashtray
This 71-minute effort is one of Stan Brakhage's most enjoyable films. It is a "chance" study of light refracted from a crystal ashtray. With its extreme closeups of the prismatic reflections, this movie creates a micro-universe all its own, which has no relationship whatever with our physical world. In fact I am reminded of the similarly wonderful films of Jim Davis, whose prismatic works also give a sense of weightlessness and otherworldly feel.
But for all that, Brakhage refuses to turn this into a "head" film. Its choppy editing discourages us from surrendering ourselves completely in this world. As the film seems to form its own "chapters" by the way the light shapes and colours begin to coalesce, its rhythm is interrupted by a hard cut and several frames of black before we continue to a different composition. (One wonders therefore, if we are seeing this film precisely in the order it was shot, or in how Brakhage discovered the effects.) Personally, I wouldn't have minded to have been lost completely in this universe, but the choppy editing perhaps allows the camera to be a slave to the subject, rather than the traditional film-making case of manipulating the subject for the good of the camera. In that regard, TEXT OF LIGHT treats its subject matter as though it were a living thing, and the camera thusly records whatever messages it desires to share.
In any event, this film is a joy... these 71 minutes go fast.
Plein Air Etude (1991)
As with his masterpiece MACHINE IN THE GARDEN, Richard Kerr takes a physical surrounding and turns it into a living being with some rhythmic editing. Seemingly shot frame-by-frame, this short is a study of the Montreal River.
The camera "pans up" its varied subjects, in a fragmented way, resembling stop-motion (which is perhaps due to the frame-by-frame shooting). Yet this motion is so mathematically precise, and its persistent rhythm gives one the illusion that the picture is breathing. As the "organism" pulses, so too the colours change from their natural habitat to over-saturated hues of aqua, turquoise, green and red.
Where Richard Kerr would later make rather slow, dreamy, meditative pieces filmed at bodies of water, this film has none of that eloquence. It instead evokes the overwhelming, muscular surrounds with its exaggerated movements.
Cyclone Alley Ceramics (2000)
Another wonderful home movie from George Kuchar
Like his classic film HOLD ME WHILE I'M NAKED, this effort by "camp artist extraordinaire" George Kuchar is similarly structured around chance events. Kuchar is in a motel room in Oklahoma (where his Bronx accent must stand out in this surrounding), whose only companion is this ceramic doll (whose mouth is morphed in post-production to seem like it is talking).
I can't believe I am writing this- so bear with me for this paragraph. "Hell hath no fury like... ahem, a ceramic doll scorned"... and once Kuchar spurns its love for him, it conjures up a tornado! This twisted revision of The Wicked Witch of Oz must have been created once Kuchar saw the dark clouds of the tornado brewing out his hotel window, filmed the rain and wind, recorded some radio announcer's broadcasts of impending weather, and then added the insane plot of the vengeful ceramic doll!
Few fictional narrative filmmakers rely so much on chance and found situations as Kuchar does-- and this wonderfully cracked, visually innovative little gem is another reminder that George Kuchar can make something out of scraps.
El camino de las hormigas (1994)
If you like BARAKA....
....then you will be interested to see this experimental hour-long feature from South America, which also offers a highly stylistic look at "life in the balance" (to take the English translation from BARAKA's sister film KOYAANISQATSI). With time-lapse photography, voice-overs of commuters in a traffic jam, candid cameras watching suburban drug dealers make the rounds, a man reading the paper to the lens, and people selling goods amidst a jammed highway, this is a study of how people's lives are governed by the out-of-control society (which they unwittingly help support).
If it's not on the same overwhelming, all-encompassing nature of BARAKA, it is nonetheless a fascinating effort, and I would be interested to see any future work by this filmmaker.
Sobering Study of Activism
This is an absorbing and thought-provoking look at a Middle Eastern activist who is captured (in an exciting opening sequence in which he and his fellow renegades become slowly aware of rival forces surrounding them in their meeting place), and then is tortured in prison by people who are supposed to be his allies!
His persecution is intercut with the arrival of his newborn-- during his capture, his wife is giving labour; and during his incarceration, she clutches their baby, crying incessantly, knowing that this infant will never see its father. BOYCOTT avoids the complexity of the political and religious issues surrounding the Middle East conflict, and instead fleshes out a human story of a man who is a martyr for a belief system that similarly exploits him.
Of the handful of films I have seen by the wunderkind Iranian director Mohsen Makmalbaf (whose work I actually prefer to the more recognizable style of his more well-known countryman Abbas Kiarostami), not one of his films are like any other he has made. (Even his masterpieces, GABBEH and MOMENT OF INNOCENCE are technically and stylistically different from each other) And of the master's movies of I have seen, this perhaps is his most "commercial", if because it relies less on visual ideas than a more conventional narrative. With its hyperactive chase scenes, gunshots sounding like those in Spaghetti westerns, and melodramatic music, this perhaps is more imbued in Western film-making techniques than any other... ironic for a film featuring a world that is unlike that of the Western World.
Saturday Night at the Movies (1974)
My film education began here....
How does one begin writing comments about something like this, which for most of my years on this planet, was the instrumental thing that nurtured my passion for cinema, and showed me the rich diversity of film history. It isn't just enough that this show continues to show two films every Saturday night since its inception. It simply goes without saying that this show would not be the legend it is, had it not been anchored by the love, lore and enthusiasm of Elwy Yost.
Although "Saturday Night..." had already been on television a few years, I had actually first discovered Elwy by way of his serialized weeknight show, "Magic Shadows" (see my review). So, when I was old enough to stay up late on Saturday nights (or for that matter, strong enough to wrestle the TV away from my babysitter's Saturday night staples of (ick) "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island"), I was thusly introduced into an even broader spectrum of movie-making.
Even more, between and after the two films (which were often paired as themes for studying genres, directors, actors, or social matters), we were greeted to a "who's who" of movieland- interviews conducted by Yost correlating to the films at hand. In his annual pilgrimage to Hollywood, Elwy had the good fortune to interview stars, directors, writers and technicians from Hollywood's golden age before they had passed on. For that matter, he also sat down for conversations with some of the young lions who were then making names for themselves in the present-day movie world.
Southern Ontario viewers never had a better crash course in cinema than they would get with this weekly show. Elwy took you increasingly further into the magic of the movies, and you came away with much more substance than that thin "Entertainment Tonight" pap that passes itself for TV journalism these days. He would take us out to see how those bullet holes in THE WILD BUNCH got made, behind the scenes for the stop motion animation of THE LOST WORLD (1960), or he would check in on an editor hunched over a Moviola. While you would turn on knowing who Henry Fonda or Bette Davis were, you would leave also learning about Preston Sturges, Franklin Pangborn, Nunnally Johnson, Powell & Pressburger, or Sven Nykvist... to name only a few out of hundreds.
Still, it is important to note that Elwy was more than just a host-- he was a surrogate friend on the other end of the cathode ray tube. With his warm demeanour and natural gift for storytelling, he emerged as more than simply a well-read scholar, he was first and foremost a fan. Through Elwy you were introduced to films without bias or reservation. Whether his films of the week were Ingmar Bergman, or Dorothy Lamour sarong pictures, it ALL mattered. And with his wide-eyed enthusiasm, he was eager to share it with you. Needless to say, we eagerly took it all in.
In 1999, Elwy Yost had left the show. His retirement was certainly well deserved, but he left a long shadow to be filled. Nonetheless, Shelagh Rogers, to our delight, was a fine replacement (I believe, hand-picked by Mr. Yost)- an affable, knowledgeable host, with a wonderfully game approach to the material. However, (if my memory serves) after one year she had to leave the show out of commitments with the CBC. And for years, the program remained without a host. Simply, screens with typeface would introduce the films, and even the newer interviews appeared to be faceless (as the offscreen interviewer never seemed to have any kind of presence). Now there is a new host, delivering the exact same introduction before both films on the bill, whose monologues are with big words and no panache.
Even so, after thirty-odd years, "Saturday Night at the Movies" remains the best date on television.
Before I go, I want to share this with you. In 1989, I had the honour and privilege of meeting Mr. Yost and his wife Lila on the subway. This was even a bigger treat because that season, he -tried- to lighten his work load (introducing only one film on Saturday Night, and then Jay Scott's "Film International" would fill the second slot), and thusly wasn't in Toronto as much. (However he was back the following year, working full time.) So for the duration of about ten subway stops, I managed to talk cinema with Elwy and his wife (and they are a team by the way- no "celebrity-and-spouse" business here), and amusingly enough, he was amazed at how many films a young guy like myself had seen. (He hadn't yet seen Murnau's THE LAST LAUGH!!)
So, as I got out at my subway stop and walked down the platform, Mr. Saturday Night went by on the subway car, doing his trademark wave that ended his show every week, and I had tears in my eyes.
De weg naar Bresson (1984)
Superb documentary of one of cinema's true masters
THE ROAD TO BRESSON is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen about film or film-making. This should be seen in film schools and on public television, because it is such an insightful and informative learning tool of one of cinema's most uncompromising, yet elusive figures. Until New Yorker had recently issued a lot of Robert Bresson films on video, they were about as hard to see as this obscure documentary on the man and his work.
This is two films at once- it is a record of the filmmakers trying to land Bresson for an interview, all while explaining to us what is so unique about his movies. If you've never seen a foot of film directed by the man, you leave this documentary knowing his work intimately... it is that good.
Bresson began making features which were indicative of the "classical" style of French films of the time (LES ANGES DU PECHE, LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE). However, he began a more personal, minimalist style with DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, and on. His use of non-actors were so that a star persona would not dominate the film. Since he spent years on one picture, he would tirelessly direct his cast to deliver the absolute monotone delivery and wooden performance that he felt would befit his dehumanized subjects. He would further drain his films of any passion with his sense of economy. One cut-in would replace all of the more expansive setups that any other directors would use for a scene (what mattered most to Bresson was what happened offscreen). Further, the people in his pictures often committed acts (murder, suicide) for which the screenplay would fail to explain. Thus, his characters were just as irrational as any human being.
The documentary opens with the striking, silver-haired septuagenarian director accepting an award for L'ARGENT (which would be his final film)- and this must be one of the few images one can ever see of this notorious recluse. We see the filmmakers finally track down the legend for an interview. Over the phone, they compromise and are allowed to ask the director only one question if they are to interview him at all. Thus, we see the fabled interview, where the director sits down, and the people behind the camera ask him their one question. True to form, the crusty man gives them a one-word answer and then gets up to leave.
Thus, THE ROAD TO BRESSON becomes a documentary about a man whose behaviour is as elusive as the people who populate his films. Along the way to this shaggy dog of a climax, we see lots of valuable sequences of what typifies the man's style: the repetition of simple shots to convey that same repetition in THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC, the use of a few cut-ins for a jousting scene in LANCELOT DU LAC, and a shooting occurring offscreen in THE DEVIL PROBABLY. It is simply one of the finest pictures ever made which offer any insight into the work of a director.
Smile Jenny, You're Dead (1974)
Harry O and Zalman King in the same film... what more can one ask?
Man, do I miss "Harry O". I used to love seeing this detective series with David Janssen's gravelly charm as a cynical PI who has to take public transit to solve mysteries! It is completely antithetical to the "Magnum PI" slick cars, slick everything that now permeates the standard TV detective format. This is partially why I love the 1970's era of cop shows. They portrayed the heroes as overworked, underpaid, world-weary, blue-collar joes who are always swimming upstream. There are no super heroics here. In fact, the Harry Orwell character pushed the detective archetype back a rung or two. He shows us that being a PI isn't so bloody marvelous.
It's been a long time since "Harry O" disappeared even from filling in a time slot on the late late show, and almost as long since this TV movie (the second pilot to the series, if you will) used to fill programming on lazy Saturday afternoons on my local bands.
This time Harry O is after an obsessive nut job photographer played by Zalman King. Since BLUE SUNSHINE is one of my favourite cult movies, I have a soft spot for this interesting actor, even though he isn't the greatest thespian the world has known. Before he went behind the camera to produce the soft core fantasies of TWO MOON JUNCTION or the "Red Shoes Diaries" series, he nonetheless had his share of weird roles. Case in point, this psycho goes around with this huge bow-tie- he more resembles Bozo the clown than a stalker, but King's "edgy" acting gives the character the danger beneath the sheep's clothing.
This TV-movie also features an early performance by Jodie Foster in her "tomboy" stage (think ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) as an urchin who sets up home on Harry O's beach property.
In all, SMILE JENNY YOU'RE DEAD is a satisfying thriller with an unusual climax. It is another nice memory of TV-films of the day. Video, please?
The Missing Are Deadly (1975)
Fun Made-for-TV movie
I just love those made-for-TV films of the 1970's that usually ran 70-odd minutes to fill a 90-minute timeslot. Sometimes they were simplistic and contrived, but they were compact stories, and often very entertaining (some of my favourites include DYING ROOM ONLY and DELIVER US FROM EVIL). THE MISSING ARE DEADLY is one of these- and makes the best of a wild idea.
This surely must be the most unique act of teenage rebellion committed to film- certainly it is the most apocalyptic. Some screwed-up kid decides to get back at his inattentive scientist father by swiping a lab rat. Only problem is, the rodent has a plague which could wipe out the planet!
This fast thriller benefits from a great performance by Leonard Nimoy, who is 100% aggression as he follows the path of death that the kid has unwittingly caused. I haven't seen this film in over twenty years, since the last days of the late late late show.
Imagine the Sound (1981)
Fascinating document of a seldom-appreciated form of music
Ron Mann makes documentaries about art and artists, yet always chooses the most subterranean subjects of the medium. For instance, COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL spends more time on Robert Crumb than Superman, and this jazz documentary is not about Dizzy or Miles, but about some of the key players in the free jazz movement. Jazz purists argue hotly about the merits (or lack thereof) of the jazz avant-garde- some regard it as pointless noise, others as a complex form of music.
Having said that, you are not going to see in this film why this music is so controversial or vanguard. This is a shame, because not even Ken Burns' "Jazz" mini-series made a satisfying portrait of the free movement. Therefore, "the" film on the jazz avant-garde has yet to be made, however Shirley Clarke's ORNETTE: MADE IN America comes close.
What you do see however, are some marvelous performances, and interesting comments by the artists (however skin deep their words may be). Specifically, there is a stunning piano solo by Cecil Taylor, and a fine showcase of Bill Dixon's band. Cinematic ally, there is little to offer- however the crude camera-work seems to properly capture the ambiance.
If you want to learn more free jazz, IMAGINE THE SOUND may not be the place to start- this is a movie for those already in the know.
Watching for the Queen (1973)
Time is an unweeded garden...
I had the misfortune of seeing this film in a program of experimental shorts, right after the "Fluxfilm Anthology", which was one of the most excruciating things I've ever sat through (right next to my gig as a seat-filler at the Joel Schumacher appreciation benefit). Therefore, since I was so depressed, I enjoyed this film a lot less than I could or should have. Even so, WATCHING FOR THE QUEEN has nonetheless stayed with me all these years, while the Fluxfilm foolishness has receded like a distant memory of a hangover.
This short is interesting for taking one already brief moment of time (a snippet of film of spectators watching the queen go by), and slowing it down to a near comatose pace, where each frame of the original film plays for a long period of time. While it does not have the calming effect of Brian Eno's experimental video THURSDAY AFTERNOON, it nonetheless shares the same idea of abolishing our normal film sense of time and rhythm- showing us how much information our fleeting eye misses 23/24 of a second.
Arthur? Arthur! (1969)
If you've been looking for a film with Donald Pleasence and Shelley Winters in bed together...
...then ARTHUR? ARTHUR! is the movie for you. This obscure psychedelic psychiatric comedy was already quite dated when I saw the film 20 years ago on the late late late show, so I can only imagine now how it seems. But even as minor as I feel it is, I'd love to see this movie on the tube again,simply because having a late late show at all these days which would show curiosities like this would be a sense of rebellion.
Donald Pleasence is one my favourite character actors, and he specialized in playing batty obsessives, recluses and oddballs. While obviously not having seen everything in his massive filmography, I would venture that Arthur is probably the most normal role he has ever played. Arthur is an everyman- so average that he seems to disappear into the film's bland, cramped settings. On the advice of his psychiatrist, he ventures out into swinging London to find some happiness.
This very low-key picture is as bland as the title character, although it strains to be a wacky, trippy psychedelic look at swinging London life (and there were so many pictures like this in the day). The most memorable scene, I have already alluded to in the summary above. But why that is, is because this coupling is performed while a Felliniesque parade of hipped-out oddballs prance around the bed, but also, this scene is actually rather touching because movies seldom portray anyone bigger than Twiggy as being healthy, sexual human beings.
Ornette: Made in America (1985)
Revealing portrait of the controversial jazz player
40 years on, the jury is still out on Ornette Coleman. His "harmolodic" theory was/is one of the foundations of the free jazz movement. His original quartet (with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins) was the scourge of the jazz world in the late 1950's... and even today the revolutionary sax player is still a hot topic for debate.
I am not schooled enough in music theory to properly explain free jazz to those who may not know the term, but the best attempt I can say is that free jazz players ignore melody and seem to play in one long line of sound, rather than playing off of each other. (Hope that makes sense...)
Anyhow, there haven't been many films made on free jazz, but of the few I've seen, Shirley Clarke's documentary on Coleman is by far the most thorough in terms of explaining the revolutionary sense of the music. Although I like free jazz, I prefer Cecil Taylor, Art Ensemble of Chicago or Pharoah Sanders to Coleman. He was instrumental in giving voice to this strain of music, but still I think his sound is one of the least interesting of the movement. But that's just my subjective response to the man. The beauty of ORNETTE: MADE IN America is that it doesn't try to change one's mind about him. It is however a fascinating study of a figure who really sacrificed a lot for his unique voice.
The film opens in the present tense with his band Prime Time (which adapted his theories to jazz fusion)- and it is ironically amusing seeing him play before a black-tie crowd in his native Texas. Yes, Coleman has come home again.... and to open arms, however this warm greeting was hard won. In Coleman's own words, the sudden appreciation of his work is this: "I guess if you live long enough, you get to be an elder statesman."
It is enough to see Coleman practice his music in one of the most unholy places in Urbana (an abandoned building often populated by addicts and knife-wielding crazies)- fittingly working on outlaw music among other societal outcasts. However, this film pushes Ornette's legacy even further-- he often comes across as some kind of pop icon or superhero (as best exemplified by the cartoonish image of his likeness flying across a starry backdrop)- while he may be more mainstream than ever, this silly bit pushes it a little too far.
Sadly, ORNETTE MADE IN America is not widely available. My one and only screening of this in 2001 at Toronto's Cinematheque was made available by a film print which came and went under the arm of someone from New York the same day. It is a revealing, complex and somewhat moving portrait of a person who stands by his art regardless of its interpretation.
Unfinished Business (1984)
On paper, doing a sequel to the classic Canadian film NOBODY WAVED GOODBYE seemed like a good idea. 20 years on, it would be intriguing to revisit the tragic characters of the 1964 movie, to see how they could have gotten on. We see that Julie and Peter got married, had a daughter and then became another divorce statistic.
The sequel nonetheless focuses on their rebellious daughter Isabelle who, like her screwed-up father in his day, is trying to make an identity for herself in this big bad world. All right, but this sincerity is made somewhat contrived as the daughter begins a "save the earth" crusade. These segments seem somewhat forced. In fact the entire film reeks of good intentions but rewards instead with sophomoric results. UNFINISHED BUSINESS, indeed.
In fact, Isabelle's scene with Peter later in the film is one of the few poignant moments. Since Peter and Julie were such fascinating people, it is a shame that they didn't appear here more often. That is the drama- instead the main thread of Isabelle, her environmental crusade, and her relationship with her boyfriend comes off as second-rate.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS is once again a depressing example of one of our country's most famous filmmakers having to churn out such poor material for a living.
The Rubber Gun (1977)
Intriguing Canadian movie, worth seeing again
Our "CanCon" (Canadian content) legislation can be both a blessing and a curse. Because 30% of our TV waves have to have homegrown content, a lot of stations fill lazy afternoons with Canadian movies to honour that. In some cases, it isn't very flattering, because any more they often show the same mediocre stuff again and again. However, one station squeezed in RUBBER GUN about 12 years ago. Typically, I haven't seen it on air since- this is a shame because I remember it being a rather remarkable little movie.
Before Allan Moyle went to Hollywood to make movies about counter-cultural lifestyles (TIMES SQUARE, PUMP UP THE VOLUME), he made this fascinating, gritty ensemble piece about drug users in Montreal. Now, since mainstream cinema had had its fill of movies about addiction in the 10 years prior, this one may be a case of too little too late.
People who remember Stephen Lack's rather unappealing performance in SCANNERS may be interested to see his animated portrayal of a gonzo character. But RUBBER GUN is however unique for it is the rare film (or at least among the first) that shows drug addiction as seen through the eyes of children. Even though these substance abusers have grown up and have children of their own, their habits inevitably affect the family unit.
I'd love to see this picture again; are you listening, Bravo?
The New Show (1984)
Fifty times better than "Saturday Night Live", but one fiftieth of the lifespan
I remember seeing this short-lived series on Friday nights on NBC just after "The Master". It was sketch comedy featuring a lot of alumni from "Saturday Night Live" and SCTV. I used to watch it weekly, however 20 years later, I can only recall some gags with any clarity.
Steve Martin and (I believe) Catherine O'Hara appeared in one cafe setting where the extras in the table behind them keep on interrupting their performance. For a breath or two, Catherine isn't saying anything- one of the people in behind turn around to remind her of her next line. She retorts, "I was making a dramatic pause!"
Other funny bits include a 1984 parody where a face on a jumbotron is telling people what dance moves they should make in a discotheque (and being in a dance club listening to music from the year 1984 was truly an Orwellian nightmare). John Candy had a skit as a food repairman- he tells one potential client of the long hours and labour costs that would be involved in having to put all the salt back onto his pretzels! Plus, I remember a funny ripoff of the movie WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (still a cable favourite in those days).
I had long written off "Saturday Night Live" as having anything of worth, so it was a delight seeing famous alumni from that show, and Canada's own SCTV (which NBC had aired and then canceled), working together with material worthy of their talents. Too bad it didn't last long. I'd love to see if it still held up after all these years. DVD, please?
Slam Dance (1987)
One of those films...
I may be a one-person cult for this picture. I have had a soft spot for it ever since I saw the movie on the late show in 1989. Some of the other reviewers for this title have made a reasonable assertion as to why they don't like SLAMDANCE, and interestingly enough, I understand and agree with their decisions. Yes, this movie is a disjointed mess, but it has a strange beauty on a visceral and emotional level; this sets it apart from way too many films made in the decade which threw everything together in order to seem different, regardless of whether everything gelled.
For instance, this film veers uncomfortably from goofy comedy to more sordid material. However, that makes sense as the central character is a cartoonist- a man-child who teeters between the comic book sensibilities of his work, and the demands of the very adult real world (he seldom lives up to his responsibilities). Mr. Drood is a perpetual screw-up; he was barely supportive of his wife and child, and now must deal with unfathomable emotions since he is now implicated in the murder of a fleeting flame.
I've never been much of a fan of Virginia Madsen, particularly because this classy, slightly mysterious blonde has never been given good material... at least until recently. But Wayne Wang understands her screen presence perfectly. The highlight of the film is Tom Hulce's scenes with her (set in the movie's past). These moments with the femme fatale are beautiful evocations of allure, desire and implicit danger underneath the colourful settings- classic traditions of film noir. With their saturated hues and sexy jazz soundtrack, these moments work on an almost dreamlike approach.
Even though SLAM DANCE is a dog's breakfast of styles and tones, this segment is nonetheless indicative of the film's success on a completely non-literal level. Yes this is another 1980's quirky film which has the obligatory cameo by a punk musician... and the "hip" quotient also given by a Harry Dean Stanton role, but there's just something more about it that makes not just another curiosity piece. The first time I saw it in 1989, I was with two others who didn't like the movie at all. As much as I could understand their reasons why, I still feel that this odd duck of a movie has that special "something"... and I have still felt that after repeated viewings. It either works for you, or it doesn't. It just depends on whether the film hits you on the right emotional level.
If you looked up this title because you have a strange attraction to this picture, you're not alone.
Color Me Dead (1969)
D.O.A. updated to 60's chic
This color remake of the noir classic (with Edmond O'Brien in the lead) may have been a mistake, but it is not a complete disappointment. If you know the original (a man tries to find out who poisoned him in the limited time left of his life), you may agree that black and white was essential to the mood. But since no one would book a B&W film in the late 1960's, it kind of makes sense that this story is expanded somewhat to an international glossy color film, so indicative of the period.
Tom Tryon was never much of an actor (and would soon abandon the screen for a highly successful writing career), and thereby cannot carry the sense of urgency needed to bring to the role of a man living on borrowed time. Nonetheless, COLOR ME DEAD is worthwhile for a pretty good sequence in shopping center, and an "of its time" psychedelic sequence featuring a lot of gels and topless women.
The Canned Film Festival (1986)
An early textbook in the field of bad cinema
SKI FEVER (1969), SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964), ROBOT MONSTER (1953), THE CRAWLING HAND (1963), DOCTOR OF DOOM (1960), UNTAMED WOMEN (1952), BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955), LAS VEGAS HILLBILLIES (1966), PROTECT MOONBASE (1952), ROCKET ATTACK USA (1960), THE SLIME PEOPLE (1962)
What did these titles have in common? Every week in the summer of 1986, one of these was the offering of "so bad it's good" cinema on this thirteen episode syndicated show. If for nothing else "Canned Film Festival" was invaluable for introducing people to the realm of the golden turkey movies, which had had a renewed interest in recent times. However, even in the dawn of the video age, a lot of these titles were hard to come by. Therefore, anyone who dared got a good crash course on the best of the worst in the summer of 86. Now if only summer school was THIS beneficial...
However, rather than just present the films on their own, some producer saw fit to insert wraparound segments featuring former SNL comedienne Laraine Newman as an usher in this representative set of a movie theatre, who also discuss the film in question with the regular bunch of goons that show up there every week. Considering this theatre was only filled every week with these five or six geeks, it's no wonder the Canned Film Theatre only stayed open thirteen weeks!
Someone forgot that the true laughs of this show came from the films in question, and not, certainly not, from the pathetic "comedy" offered up by the twerps in the theatre. Sample dialogue (from the episode which programmed SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, featuring a very young Pia Zadora):
Twerp: Pia Zadora?!?! Does she take her clothes off?
Laraine Newman:She's only eight years old.
Barrel of laughs these folks are. One wonders what Starbucks they work at now.
This "comic relief" might be forgivable if it didn't cut into the programming that people really came to see. Because "Canned Film Festival" was made for a 90-minute timeslot, that left roughly 72 minutes of show, including the new footage in the theatre. Therefore, the films were cut down to barely an hour. ROBOT MONSTER was missing all the bizarre dinosaur footage, and the immortal jukebox segment from THE CRAWLING HAND was missing in action.
Even so, as the video age opened the doors of bad cinema to a new generation, "Canned Film Festival" was a noteworthy little primer that is still well remembered by discriminating insomniacs.
The Robonic Stooges (1978)
Oh oh, it's O-O-O!
Here's another obscure short-lived gem buried deep in the annals of television history.
"The Three Robonic Stooges" was shown for one year on, I believe, CBS. This was made during the renewed interest in slapstick comedians of yore. Lest we forget, around the same time, the cartoon series, "Baggy Pants and The Nitwits", featured a cat who dressed and walked like Charlie Chaplin. Anyway, the classic team of Moe, Larry and Curly are featured as superhero robots (right down to the long underwear), whose appendages can also extend! In between their internal squabbling, they also went to save the world. My one-line summary above is the line that the stooges would utter whenever their less-than-pleased boss, Agent O-O-O, appears on the telescreen to give them their next assignment, or to give them heck...
Hmmm, to think the government hired these goons to save the world. Maybe Chuck Barris DID work as a political assassin after all...
A nice memory.
Back in the early 1980's, on Saturday mornings, CBC used to run
episodes of "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon", and this. "R.C.M.P." was a
crisply-shot, realistic crime drama which was also a total
antithesis to the usual creaky stagebound stuff that passed for
Canadian television programming back then.
The two leads of "R.C.M.P." was a variation on the classic pairing
of older, experienced slightly world-weary captain, with the
ambitious young rookie. But what made it special was the almost
documentary-like feel as they take steps to get their man. The
series was beautifully shot in black and white, and had an
authentic feel of time and space.
There are two episodes I remember. The first features the young
hotshot rookie going undercover to infiltrate the beatnik scene to
make a pot bust! In order to fit in, he even takes a crash course on
the slang terms that the kids used: "My old man, etc." In one
scene set in a bohemian cafe, some cute beatnik chick offers him
a pull on a joint , but he decides to stick to his black coffee. The
second features Jimmy Doohan (yes, Mr. Scott himself) as a
murderer who then tries to destroy the evidence of his misdoings
by spraying acid jets on the corpse!
"R.C.M.P." was a fascinating, intelligent and realistic series. I sure
hope someone resurrects this from the vault. It would be
interesting to see if it still holds up almost half a century later, and
I'm betting it would. Is anyone in TV-land listening?
Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)
The innocence of youth fumbles towards the dark abyss of adulthood.
I react to movies the same way people react to music. In other words, when people hear an old song on the radio it takes them back to a time and place when they first heard the music, or its sounds evoke some private memories based on its atmosphere or tone. When I think of a film, above and beyond recalling the emotions it gave me, I also think of what was going on in my life at the moment of that screening. And if you've actively sought a title like this on this site, perhaps you do too.
ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU is certainly a juvenile, sometimes cardboard, horror movie, not least because zombie monsters were pretty juvenile after Victor Halperin and before George Romero. However this effort was made to please the juvenile within someone of any age. Why this film affects me is that I happened to watch it during the time in which I was preparing to leave my home town (and simply, my home) to go to school in the city. This was on a Thursday night just before the last true weekend of my youth, in which I was severing some ties while still grasping onto others. What I often did in this not-endless summer when I had the house to myself was take the VCR upstairs and hook it up to my little black-and-white TV in my bedroom-- having my own space, yet still being dependent on a bigger unit to do it. During this time I had an obsession with 1950's science fiction or horror movies, big or small, good or bad, simply because they took me to a comfortable inner landscape which these films idealized. The world still felt safe and unthreatening, and my youth still felt innocent before seeing "the real world" which existed outside my mind or my own little world. Perhaps subconsciously, this too explains why I have felt the need to re-visit these films again over the past few years. Only now, these innocent movies emerge as places in which I attempt to retrieve that last youth.
Now this behaviour may sound naive, but let's face it, so are a lot of these films that we escape to. Whether they're good or bad, big or small, these genre efforts of a bygone era can be now viewed as moving testaments to a safe place that we want back, yet nonetheless acknowledge we cannot have. It may also sound naive to subscribe such psychological stuff to a flick that's titled ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, but there is a beautiful poetry at work in this movie if the viewer is willing to meet it on its own terms.
Despite that this movie somewhat lumbers to the adult within us, it still speaks to the child in that same body. I saw this film at a time when current horror films of the day attempted to scare people with blood and guts. This film is disarming in its innocence which invites the willing into its simple world-- it still manages to deliver the goods with such simple means as a creepy scene in which candles surround someone with "zombie fever". Plus, teenage boys of all ages still had a crush on Allison Hayes even 30 years after her films were made. Not for nothing did she become the fifty foot woman.
Having to return this 99-cent rental back to the country grocery store before it closed, I was in my car driving through the night, with the lights of the town behind me, pushing forward in the darkness. It was then that I realized that this sly metaphor encapsulated my life at that moment. And I also learned that because I had a soft spot for movies like this, that I was still trying to hang onto was receding in the background of my life. There was a wealth of memories, a state of being, that I admit I could not and cannot relive, but then as now, they remain as vital pieces of my human baggage.
This time-lapse film -chronicling the day in the life of a harbour taken from one vantage point- is characteristic of Jonas Mekas' usual diaristic work. We forget that in his longer, more personal pictures, like REMINISCES OF A JOURNEY TO LITHUANIA and HE STANDS IN THE DESERT COUNTING THE SECONDS OF HIS LIFE, they evidence a radical cutting technique, in which images pass fleetingly by, as quick as a thought. Thus, CASSIS is less a chance document than a disciplined rendition of that document. Chiefly, ships in the harbour disappear before we see them leave the frame to go out to sea, or before they dock. Thus CASSIS throws its subject matter into a sort of limbo; one is made to think that nothing else in the world exists but this port. Within its scant running time, CASSIS is certainly exciting to watch, as images come and go like thoughts in a stream of consciousness.