Edgar G. Ulmer

Last week I watched Murder Is My Beat (1955) and this week I watched The Naked Venus (1959), and I just ordered St. Benny the Dip (1951) on Amazon, so there’s no denying it: I’ve made one of my periodic tumbles into an Edgar G. Ulmer rabbit hole.

A quick Cliff’s Notes: Edgar G. Ulmer, luckless German emigre who struggled to impose a personal vision on low-budget exploitation films made on the fringes of Hollywood. His stylistic hallmarks: German Expressionist-influenced lighting, classical music, fluid camerawork, art-deco sets, and, if there was no money for sets, heavy fog. His career ran the gamut from historical dramas to musicals to westerns to educational films to a nudist-camp movie, but he is best known today, if at all, for the Karloff/Lugosi horror film The Black Cat (1934), the film noir Detour (1945), and a handful of disreputable horror movies.

detour_1945_poster_03-jpg-html

Like so many great American artists, Edgar G. Ulmer was first canonized by the French. Francois Truffaut called Ulmer is favourite American director, and cited The Naked Dawn as his inspiration for Jules and Jim. In Cahiers du Cinema, Luc Moullet called him “les plus maudit des cinéastes.” In 1968, Andrew Sarris (who brought the auteur theory to America) wrote the most influential words ever written about Ulmer in his book The American Cinema: Continue reading “Edgar G. Ulmer”

Advertisements

Ebert & Roeper Celebrity Guest Hosts: A Canon

This week marks the 10th anniversary of John “Cougar” Mellencamp’s guest appearance on Ebert & Roeper. If this doesn’t make you misty-eyed, there’s no way we can relate.

In 2006, while Roger Ebert was hospitalized for the cancer surgery and subsequent burst artery that would claim his jaw, his show Ebert & Roeper continued with a rotating lineup of guest critics until he could return. Alas, Ebert would never regain his ability to speak, so for the remaining two years of the Roeper era, film journalists (A.O. Scott, Michael Phillips, that smug Robert Wilonsky guy whose byline kept showing up in the Village Voice) alternated with a motley assortment of celebrities with varying levels of critical insight. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and recall a few of the celebs who visited the balcony and matched wits with the mighty Roeper.

Please note that very few of these reviews are online, and I’m relying almost entirely on fuzzy, decade-old memories.

Jay Leno

Ebert and Roeper were regular guests on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, where the movie-related chatter felt comfortable and unforced. Leno became the first celebrity guest of the post-Ebert era, and when they’re all tallied up, he falls squarely in the middle. He was enthusiastic about Talladega Nights and Little Miss Sunshine (“It’s a movie where they said, ‘Okay, we’ve got no money, so let’s just write good jokes!'”), and gave thumbs-down only to Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (it diverged too far from the TV show, he argued). I give him points for his bemused thumbs-up for Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer (“It was odd“) in the face on Roeper’s strong opposition.

Continue reading “Ebert & Roeper Celebrity Guest Hosts: A Canon”

The Ecstasy of the Press Screening

You think you’ve accomplished things in your life? You think you’ve amounted to something. Well folks, get ready to reevaluate your lives. I’d like to take you back to one summer 2008, when, in my capacity as a student journalist and part-time alt-weekly film critic, I earned a rare and exclusive privilege. I saw The Dark Knight at a press screening. A full four days before its opening.

I left the theatre buzzing. I knew things about Batman and the Joker that these suckers on the street didn’t know. These rubes and maroons would have to wait a full four days to find out the shocking fate of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), or how the Joker’s brilliant ferry-boat scheme would be foiled, or who would take the rap for Harvey Dent’s untimely depth. Just think — two years ago I was a teenage nobody from the suburbs of Toronto. Now I was the kind of guy who got to see The Dark Knight four days early.

Looking back, this was maybe the stupidest chapter of my life. But god help me, back in those days I loved the ritual of signing my name and outlet on the little sheet of paper at the entrance, and (if it was a really big movie) leaving my flip-phone at the entrance, and making my way to the “Reserved – Press” seats, and pulling out my little notepad that I rarely wrote in, and kicking back to enjoy Cop Out or Love Happens or I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell a week before the plebes. I know I wasn’t alone. In my undergraduate days, working in student media, I saw many amateur reviews that began with some variation of, “As I walked out of the press screening…”

My face turns scarlet as I write this, but back when I was in high school, when movies were practically my only interest, I fantasized about my ideal vacation destination: the Cannes Film Festival. That glorious mecca of culture where titans of cinema unveiled their latest masterworks. Oh how I dreamed of walking down the red carpet of the Palais des Festivals for the virgin unspooling of Wong Kar-wai’s latest. Well, here we are in 2017 and I have a used, ex-rental copy of that particular movie (a chef-d’œuvre by the name of My Blueberry Nights) gathering dust on a shelf at my parents’ house, and I didn’t even have to cross the Atlantic for it. The “historic” Cannes screenings of Antichrist and Fahrenheit 9/11 that I read about with such anticipation have faded from the popular memory. This year, the DCP prints they show will be the same as at the Yonge/Dundas Cineplex. This year, I see Cannes is showing the new season of Twin Peaks, hopefully direct from Thierry Fremaux’s laptop.

Looking back on the many mornings I spent hauling my ass out to the see garbage kids’ movies at Yonge/Eglinton for the privilege being able to write 300-word capsule reviews, I’ve come up with these two proposals:

  1. There are 73 reviews of Smurfs: The Lost Village on Rotten Tomatoes right now. I would humbly suggest that this is too many.
  2. I’ve seen enough movies. Most of them are bad. From now on, I only want to go to parties.

Dollar Store Cinephilia

As a frail, asthmatic boy who spent much of his childhood convalescing, Martin Scorsese famously discovered his love of cinema by watching  “Million Dollar Movie” on New York television. In interviews, he has spoken of being introduced to Citizen Kane with the opening newsreel cut, or Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman in fuzzy black-and-white, or classics of the Italian neorealist movement chopped to fit 90-minute time slots, but being moved all the same.

I sometimes think about Scorsese’s childhood when I’ve caught myself bellyaching that 1.33:1 movie has been squished into a 1.85:1 frame on someone’s TV. Now that I’m an old fogey who requires perfect Blu-Ray clarity every time I sit down to watch a Bela Lugosi cheapie or a John Holmes porno, I sometimes think about the pre-video days, when the best options for owning your favourite movies included buying abbreviated 8mm versions or perusing any volume from Richard Anobile’s “Film Classics Library” (which reproduced hundreds of stills from famous films like The GeneralPsycho, and Frankenstein in book form).

Actually, I don’t have to think that far back. When I was 10 years old, I spent a long, painful summer saving my allowance so that I could afford (or at least pay halfsies with my dad on) my first DVD player. My life was permanently changed when I visited a friend’s house and discovered that his DVD copy of Armageddon contained not only the movie, but also such exciting bonus features as a theatrical trailer and the Aerosmith “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” music video, and I realized that VHS was for suckers. Once I finally had the player, I discovered that in those early days of the DVD format, there was a relative dearth of software that I could afford (Austin Powers retailed for $30 in those days — but lord knows I saved up for it) or even particularly desired (my very first DVD purchase: Arthur, starring Dudley Moore).

However, there was an area where my burgeoning cinephilia and my modest income intersected: the cheap DVD releases of public-domain classics released by companies like Front Row Entertainment, Madacy Video, Delta LaserLight, and Alpha Video. Before everything was available on the internet, stores bought these DVDs in bulk to fill their shelves. For a few years, they were important resources for those of us whose moviegoing horizons were limited to the local Blockbuster.

What follows is a rundown of some of the auteurs whose work I learned to love through garbage public-domain DVD releases:

Continue reading “Dollar Store Cinephilia”

Late-Period Seagal

One of the few joys of the last election cycle was the emergence of Steven Seagal as a minor player in geopolitics. Long-time fans already know Seagal as an outspoken activist (for environmentalism, Buddhism, Aboriginal land, animal rights, and, uh, the Second Amendment) who has specialized in fuzzily-politically-charged action movies, and has even dipped his toe into domestic politics (musing on a run for Arizona governor in 2014, palling around with Sheriff Joe Arpaio), but it was in 2016 that his blossoming friendship with Vladimir Putin climaxed with the Russian president personally awarding Russian citizenship to the Aikido Ace. Though ostensibly an “absolutely depoliticised act,” Putin expressed hope that the gesture might serve as “a sign of gradual normalisation of the relations between our countries.” The event came shortly after the election of Donald Trump, a candidate who Seagal enthusiastically supported.

Between his political activity and frequent ringside appearances at MMA fights, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Seagal is still pumping out movies. In fact, he’s more prolific than ever: in 2016, Seagal was top-billed (I hesitate to say “starred”) in no fewer than seven movies, the most that he has ever unleashed in a single year. Killing SalazarSniper: Special OpsCode of HonorThe Asian ConnectionThe Perfect WeaponEnd of a GunContract to Kill… titles that promise so much, with a star who so rarely delivers much at all. As a confirmed Seagal fan with a substantial-but-still-spotty grasp of his post-theatrical work, I decided to dip into the newest Seagal offerings on Netflix: The Perfect Weapon and Contract to Kill.

Continue reading “Late-Period Seagal”

A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation

(The following article was written for my colleague and Important Cinema Club co-host Justin Decloux’s zine, The Laserblast Film Society, #5)

A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation

By Will Sloan, Bruceploitation scholar

When Bruce Lee died in 1973 after starring in only four completed films, he left a box office void that unscrupulous producers were eager to fill. Before long, a plethora of stuntmen and bit-part actors from the Hong Kong film industry were being outfitted with bowl-cuts and yellow tracksuits and branded “the next Bruce Lee.” Names like “Bruce Li” (Ho Chung Tao), “Bruce Le” (Wong Kin Lung), “Dragon Lee” (Moon Kyoung-seok), and others began gracing marquees across the world in dozens of disreputable films. The Bruceploitation canon is large and daunting, full of wrong turns and dead-ends. Here is a beginner’s guide to exploring this strange and wonderful genre. Continue reading “A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation”

Mystery Science Theater 3000: A Memoir

The impending revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix has put me in a nostalgic and bittersweet mood. With the backing of the biggest streaming service in the world and the most successful film/TV Kickstarter campaign in history, the ratings-challenged, twice-cancelled, cultishly beloved TV show is now officially in the mainstream (or has at least become a powerful force in a more fractured media landscape). During my teenage years, MST3K was my Star Trek. In Canada, where the show never aired on broadcast television, it felt like a secret that only I (and a few friends) were privy to.

Continue reading “Mystery Science Theater 3000: A Memoir”