Notes on Revisiting “Breathless”

I’ve probably seen Breathless five or six times, but not much in the last few years, so I was lured to revisit it two weeks ago at the TIFF Bell Lightbox by the prospect of a 35mm print. It was an invigorating experience. Even familiar movies tend to ossify in one’s mind, reduced to a series of still images—most famously in this case, Jean-Paul Belmondo (in a fedora, smoking a cigarette) and Jean Seberg (in a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt) walking along on the Champs Élysées. But on this viewing, the biggest surprise was just how alive it is.

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Notes Towards a Personal Blockbuster Video Canon

In the spring of 1993, at Westway and Royal York Rd. on the border of Etobicoke and York, a gas station was demolished and a new construction project started. Every day, as my mom drove me past, we monitored the progress. First came the off-white stucco walls… then the floor-to-ceiling windows… then the bright blue roof… Finally, when I saw that ticket-stub-shaped sign, bearing the glorious words “BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO®,” I knew my life had changed. That’s a pretty pathetic-sounding thing to say, but when you’re a small child, your world is limited, and my family’s Friday night visits to Blockbuster became the centrepiece of my weekend. I used to savour every moment, carefully considering every video in every aisle before eventually settling on one of the same handful of movies.

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Notes on Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man”

I’ve always held Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1961) in high regard, but a recent rewatch confirms by suspicion that it’s one of the great comedies of all time. Lewis’s second and arguably most audacious directorial effort is a remarkable object—endlessly inventive, surprising, and confounding. Has a more abrasive performer or eccentric an American artist ever become as popular as Jerry Lewis?

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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.


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”

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.

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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:

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