Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dogpound Shuffle

(Jeffrey Bloom, 1975)
Sure it's sentimental - it's a movie about a tap-dancing hobo rescuing his dog for God's sake. And the sentiment is touching and charming in itself. But it doesn't contaminate the portrayal of homelessness per se - behind Ron Moody and David Soul's shambolic charm is a penetrating sensitivity to the ways in which the world is organized to exclude them. From class-phobic dog pound attendant to gave-at-the-office homemaker, we see a world of economic apartheid through their eyes, and by watching them we can see the resourcefulness, breadth of experience, and human sensitivity that their nemeses overlook. Soul's attaching neediness is the flip side of Moody's dropout autonomy, but both showcase their capacity for generosity and joy. Bloom's first effort as writer-director (he went on to bring us "Blood Beach") wastes few words - most information is communicated between the lines, and the film moves between the points of its simple journey with confidence and economy. And about that dog - he's really cute.

Lions For Breakfast

(William Davidson, 1975)
The irresponsibility which is this cheapo's main charm is regrettably inextricable from the peculiarly ingrained maleness which is its downfall. It's a genuine and pleasant surprise to find a kids' movie that presents drinking, gambling, unencumbered premarital sex, and running away from home as manageable-to-agreeable facts of life, and as the brothers Danny Forbes and Jim Henshaw are almost as engaging as Jan Rubes as the hard-luck father figure who takes them on. But why did they have to portray all the women in the narrative as entrapping sentinels of the social order? Susan Petrie as the auctioneer's runaway daughter has as much or more to escape from as the guys, but rather than let her share in the fun they soon have her playing petty marriage-trap games that get her left behind pronto. The journey to the mystical verdant promised land they call "The Blue" leads them to a derelict farmlot, and somehow the kids convince themselves that true love and responsibility means not keeping to the road and following their dreams, but succumbing to guilt and joining Rubes in this neurotic nowhere for an eternal sausage party. A charming thought, sort of, but the film can't sell it; I bet they all start losing their minds well before the first winter's behind them.

Lock Up

(Tom Shandel, 1984)
A principled (not to say earnest) synthesis of B-movie dramatics and liberal reformism, this based-on-a-true-story prison film depicts solitary confinement as the anchoring method in an arsenal of psychological torture enacted by jailers against their inmates. It's remarkably disorienting when the camera dollies past the upstairs cells and we perceive their scant natural light and paltry personal effects as beacons of liberty. The depictions of cruelty and mental degeneration ring true, and the office drama surrounding Andree Pelletier's social worker provides counterpoint and context. But extending the prisoners' revolt and hostage taking to a full half hour at film's end was a big mistake. Coming after the intimate claustrophobia of the prison cells, the altercation in the office feels scattershot and peculiarly remote - instead of reversing power dynamics, the convicts are largely left menacing a new assortment of relatively innocent bystanders. It is also at this point that the film loses its generic balance and becomes a series of philosophical counterassertions on justice and violence, rather than illustrating these assertions through dramatic action - aside from the comings and goings of lawyer Alan Scarfe, there's barely any movement at all. And while the film's analysis could survive a kinetic narrative, it dies when it's held up to the light: everyone suddenly starts delivering over-pronounced position statements that sound like they're coming from overly schematic scriptwriters, not characters. And these failings confirm your lingering doubts about the bad-apples institutional theory, not to mention lead con Winston Rekert's far-fetched banquet speech - better on problems than solutions, as usual.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Skip Tracer

(Zale Dalen, 1977)
What's not to like about this gloriously sleazy tale of mid-seventies BC repo men? The barrel-scraping production values lead the filmmakers to lean on the real-life sights of down-and-out Vancouver, giving us plenty to look at through the neon-lit darkness and grey foggy daylight. The pace may be deliberate, but the concentration is intense, and the slow build becomes increasingly tight-wound until the sudden illuminating horrors of the finale. While the entire milieu is deeply ugly and mean, there's a persistent undercurrent of grim humour, accompanied at least once by absurd 'funny' music. Dalen never gives up on his characters, finding the humanity in every chump and bully who pops in, choreographing his largely amateurish cast to brilliant effect and giving the anchoring pros the platform they deserve. Ultimately, the film is about systemic corruption and the capacity of moral individuals to leave the machine behind, so that while the ending may seem incongruously feel-good, it is also carefully anticipated and essentially well earned - a brave statement of hope in a hopeless setting, not a capitulating cop-out. And overall, the cinematic craft that undergirds the themes is almost off the charts for a Canadian film - visionary, exciting, and inimitable.

Like Father, Like Daughter

(Christopher Chapman, 1981)
Ship the young delinquent from her corrupt urban home to the wide-open country of the far north, and you're obviously setting up the usual line of bullshit re nature as spiritual restorative for troubled teens. But how exactly does Twyla-Dawn Vokins navigate the long journey from surly petty thief to bouncy, nature-savvy pathfinder? Through nuances of performance and accumulation of incident? No, you naive fool, through the chrysalis-like safety of a totally perfunctory three-minute montage, the cinematic equivalent of Clark Kent's phone booth. This is the very laziest kind of non-filmmaking, and it inspires an aggressively reciprocal contempt in the viewer. As does the straw man 'bad guy', a muttering old crazy trapper on whom daddy Robert Logan dishes out escalating degrees of frontier justice until at the climax it looks like he's going to murder the guy outright. The bad taste this leaves is neither erased by the stupid 'twist' nor leavened by huggy denouement. You wish he had gone after the cutesy-pie monk instead, or for that matter the cinematographer, who just can't get enough of his precious fisheye lens. Also featuring: about ten thousand shots of incoming light aircraft.

Lilac Dream

(Marc Voizard, 1987)
Another installment in the "Shades of Love" romance series, whose scripts were the most notable late-career achievement of Julian "The Mask" Roffman. As usual, this soap opera romance is static, pandering, and corny. At least the narrative isn't violently neurotic, though, and the attraction between Susan Almgren and Dack Rambo is dramatically comprehensible even if one could live without the recurrent tongue action. The narrative of a career woman taking care of a washed-ashore amnesiac at the cottage is pure fantasy, and that is a genuinely good thing, insulating its wish fulfilling functionality against any disturbing real world implications. Too bad they stuck on the utterly mailed-in ending, a rote cop-out which lands us back in the real world with a loud thud. Up to that point it's actually kind of sweet. The long, wordless opening sequence signals an uncommon concentration, never resorting to the usual gauzy montage stuff even when they're slathering on the expensive Patti Austin power ballad.

Hang Tough

(Daryl Duke, 1981)
Duke tackles this coming-of-age nostalgia piece as though he were still directing "The Silent Partner". The relentlessly bad original score is desperate to generate drama, but there's never any payoff; every time the film allows us a fight or a fondle it's maddeningly interrupted by some third party. You can occasionally glimpse a smart script begging to be released from under the dead weight of the direction - for all the teen emotions on evidence, the rigid lifelessness of the blocking complements cinematography and editing which are visibly terrified of intimacy. Only Charlaine Woodard manages to fully connect through the veil of dead competency, and her interracial brief encounter with Carl Marotte is doomed to remain a tangential subplot. If they gave it any more focus they'd have to actually address some of the racial/social issues they raise instead of using them as wallpaper. Woodard's brother Grand Bush is on duty to teach fraidy cat Marotte to walk like a man and give him a gun, but when the bully comes after him in the big climax he runs like a chicken as before, and then suddenly he's throwing punches like a welterweight; so who taught him to do that? It's that kind of movie.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lies My Father Told Me

(Jan Kadar, 1975)
In an obvious effort to balance the sentimentality inherent in the child's-eye view of Yossi Yadin's saintly Zaida, old European master Kadar (and lefty control freak Ted Allan, who wrote the Oscar-nominated script from memory) surround him with some really obnoxious people. Of course you expect the nosey neighbour to be a harpy for comic effect, and the unrepentant whore and laid-back Leninist who also share the courtyard are sympathetic as well as shrill. But the father - oy, the father. As played by Len Birman, this 98-pound Jake LaMotta is a severe test even for Yadin's stoic patience, so you can imagine his effect on the audience. Endlessly hustling doomed get-rich-quick schemes and grotesquely self-dramatizing when they collapse, espousing "modern" virtues as he spews invective against savages, offering an ongoing crash course in bad parenting, this character has no redeeming features, and he takes up a lot of space. With his boneheaded blather seeping infernally through the paper thin walls, he not only perfectly evokes the experience of living at close quarters with people you can't stand, he contextualizes Zaida's gentle Orthodoxy as a spiritual refuge from an intrusively nightmarish reality. No wonder cute kid Jeffrey Lynas goes into hiding in the heart-freezing ending - he's lost his buffer, and he's basically fucked. Up to then his cute inquisitiveness plays out in curious discord with his surroundings - hard to tell whether the general abrasiveness was intentional or a tonal miscalculation, but the result is pretty fascinating although or because it gets on your nerves.

Leopard in the Snow

(Gerry O'Hara, 1978)
Harlequin's first movie, and the exploratory transition from text to visual medium would explain the film's fatal inability to help us understand what exactly is going on in these people's heads. To be specific, why does the recalcitrant Susan Penhaligon suddenly fall in love with Kier Dullea's sour gimp upon being told he's holding her hostage? And why is Dullea demanding her immediate departure five minutes hence? No interminable backstory, Freudian deep reading, or female-friendly pop cultural theory is going to rationalize this level of inchoate nonsense. I suppose some canny hack could have smothered the illogic with images, but as primal metaphors go the leopard in question looks awfully bored. It's all very pretty of course, but inevitably there's not a trace of wit or grit, and the romantic fulfillment fantasy is cruelly yoked to Robin Leach-esque upward gazing and the kind of desperately neurotic clinging that might suggest why bored housewives need this tripe in the first place.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Left For Dead

(Murray Markowitz, 1978)
Structurally this appears to be one of those you-be-the-judge whodunits, except that the courtroom flashbacks have nothing to do with the witnesses' points of view - sometimes they're not even indexed to the testimony. Only at the very end does the portrayal of the events leading up to Elke Sommer's murder diverge from linear objectivity, and while the filmmakers are obviously on the side of Donald Pilon's accused husband, the drift of the narrative is that anyone could have done the deed, so why not him? Still, two things make it all fairly interesting. The unusually specific backstory, which follows three friends' escape from revolutionary Hungary and onward to their peculiarly bitter falling out, turns the film into something of a study in how the psychological traumas of war linger and resonate through decades. The other fascination lies in how nasty it is. Every endlessly leering act of violence is accompanied with liters of oozing ketchup, including a remarkably gratuitous rape-murder courtesy of some escapee from the "Queen Street Institute for the Criminally Insane." Cec Linder's villainous chief of police breaks every rule with glee and impunity. In fact, just about every hand on deck is a conniving, self-centered son or daughter of a bitch, so that the film becomes this orgy of neurotic, circular backstabbing. About the only wholly sympathetic adult is a relatively moral hit-man/boxer played by none other than George Chuvalo. It's a strange world when Chuvalo out-acts the lead - Pilon is discomfitingly prone to bug-eyed tantrums, which does little to encourage our already tenuous sympathies.

The Last Chase

(Martyn Burke, 1981)
This plus "Firebird 2015" equals an actual new genre: NEPsploitation, anyone? Heartening that it didn't catch on - with its paeans to liberty and rugged individualism inseparable from the fossil-fuel monkey on its back, it's a wonder similar productions aren't rocking Fort McMurray to this day. Forcibly retired race car driver Lee Majors is so sobbingly self-righteous in his expose of public transit as a commie plot that I nearly bit a hole in my bottom lip getting through the first act, and computer/explosives nerd Chris Makepeace is mainly an inert object on which Majors can practice surrogate daddyhood. Please take my word for it when I tell you that this is the highest-quality production of its two-film movement; Majors does shut the fuck up eventually, and the vehicles here do drive in a straight line toward a tangible objective, instead of doing donuts nowhere forever. And Burgess Meredith lends an appropriate note of abject insanity to his role as the un-retired fighter pilot nemesis. But repositioning the imaginary Indians from murderous conspirators to ripe-for-slaughter symbols of 'freedom' isn't really much of an improvement, and it's utterly impossible to give a damn about the dorks at Master Control - a one-dimensional bitch, a one-dimensional Strangelovian bureaucrat, and the guy from "Goofballs".

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Harry Tracy

(William A. Graham, 1981)
The early scenes are impressively light and funny as they lionize turn-of-the-century outlaw Bruce Dern as laconic proto-beatnik - thrown into relief by sidekick Michael C. Gwynne, a frustrated artist with a taste for adventure and no moral code whatsoever. Things clip along nicely from holdup to holdup and escape to escape, right up to the moment Gwynne starts going sour. His character transition is way too abrupt and totalizing, and his departure severely decenters the film - Dern shows no rapport at all with proxy sidekick Helen Shaver, playing an unnecessarily vacuous nice girl with little to do or say. Gordon Lightfoot has more energy and timing than you'd expect playing the lawman on his trail, but he doesn't have much to do either - he needs more face time with his nemesis and less riding around. It's a lucky thing Dern is so good because the film peters out a half hour before it ends. His charm may provide a rationale for his status as living folk hero, but it doesn't add much interest or tension to his meandering interactions with the starstruck common men, which reduce the movie to wispy echoes of "Bonnie and Clyde" well before he meets his predictably tragic end.

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

(Lou Adler, 1981)
How strange that the first film ever to not only portray women in punk but passionately identify with their point of view was helmed by Adler, a middle-aged music bizzer responsible for bringing the world Sam Cooke, the Mamas and the Papas, and Cheech and Chong - not to mention Carole King, who turns up on the radio in an early scene to symbolize everything young hater Diane Lane is rebelling against. Of course the staunch girl-power POV is no doubt attributable to writer Nancy Dowd - who also gave us the boy-power classic "Slap Shot" - but I'm sure Adler is responsible for the finer details of an impossibly bleak rock tour through rainy autumn Pennsylvania. Lane's relentless snot routine doesn't compromise the film's world view of universal sisterhood, in which her drumless, shambling trio of pals speaks loud and clear to everyone from mall rats to news anchors, before they're sold out by a mercenary son of a bitch music bizzer. The resolution starts out looking like the usual punk's-a-capitalist-gimmick cynicism, and it kind of is, but in Adler's hands this actually takes on the aspect of a positive message: since personal pain can't be honestly commodified, you might as well "join the professionals today," the better to speak to your femme faithful. It doesn't quite come off because Lane never embodies the transition: it's fuck-you from beginning to end, and then suddenly she's all smiley with a perm under the credits. However, while her bandmates - including Laura Dern in her first speaking role - deserve more focus than they get, their wide-eyed vulnerability does give Lane a chance to show some empathy, and her tryst with boypunk Ray Winstone is a gift rather than a cheat, suggesting that hating the world needn't cut you off from everyone in it.

Friday, February 12, 2010


(Don Shebib, 1981)
This film about love in all its manifestations really is beautifully done, so much so that its flirtations with cuteness and pathos didn't turn me off, they kept me on the edge of my seat. Will they be able to maintain the balance? Will they stay honest? Yes and yes, emphatically - given a real budget for the first time, Shebib simply hires the best actors he can find and gives them all the space they need. What an ensemble this is - every character has a unique rhythm, and their intersections are remarkably unpredictable and entertaining. Pregnant smalltown escapee Annie Potts is adorable without trying, but roomie Margot Kidder is mercurial and complex, a classic wounded brassy broad, and her hard work in the role never upsets the film's casual, shambolic mood. When she climbs the Scarborough Bluffs at the climax it's really an absurdly modest gesture, but in context it plays like Lillian Gish on the ice floes. But the film's best moment is one of the simplest - the releasing of Potts' and Robert Carradine's pet duck is an utterly perfect symbol for life after relationship. Carradine's suspended-adolescent hoser sidekicks are treated with as much affection and respect as the ladies in the mattress factory. And the calculated irresolution of the ending - will she get the abortion? Will they get back together? - is the opposite of a cop-out. This is the movie "Juno" wants to be when it grows up.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Klondike Fever

(Peter Carter, 1980)
Right off the top, a title card defiantly renounces all obligations to historical accuracy, an obvious pre-emptive strike against the Pierre Berton crowd. I'm no stickler for detail myself, but the movie does make a big deal of featuring real historical characters in their actual historical setting, and it does clearly aspire to the kind of nationalist myth-making that one would expect of such a project; if they were going to fly in the face of the facts they could have at least had some fun with it. Centering on the Northern odyssey of good old Jack London, they trip right out of the gate with the casting of Jeff East, a callow nonentity who might as well be Christopher Atkins, or Justin Guarini. When he gets really worked up he threatens to shatter glass, which differentiates him from the sleepwalking big-money guys - Rod Steiger, Angie Dickinson, Lorne Greene - and makes him a good match for his prospecting partner Barry Morse, who does improve somewhat after an exhaustingly 'energetic' first act. In fact the only actor Carter shows any rapport with is his old "Rowdyman" partner Gordon Pinsent, and this script must have made them both nostalgic. But an attentive director would have demanded a rewrite, and the third act is emblematic of Carter's serial late-career catastrophes. Morse abandons East for no good reason, then changes his mind for no good reason again. Pinsent goes 'into hiding' one scene, and is found inside his own saloon the next. Law-and-order mountie Greene is visibly pleased when East wins the stupid dog sled race by murdering his opponent. East finds gold and wins $2000, then immediately leaves town 'with $5 in his pocket'. I give up.

King Solomon's Treasure

(Alvin Rakoff, 1977)
There's dumb and then there's stupid, and this movie offers you plenty of both. While H. Rider Haggard purists (I know you're out there) are sure to bemoan the flashlight-eyed crab monsters and a viking ship whose figurehead appears to be a twenty-foot chicken, I strongly suspect that the worst elements are the most faithful to the original, namely the nagging racism that keeps interfering with the camp. On this journey to the dark continent's lost Venetian kingdom, the natives aren't even individuated in slaughter - even Ken Gampu's grinning sidekick ends up taking an arrow for massa. We are also asked to empathize with the tragedy of Britt Ekland's fiefdom being forced to open their doors to non-Aryans, including a crazed voodoo priest who's no more of a 'character' than the other Africans even though he's supposed to be the main villain of the piece. Sure the flashback framing device points frantically to an intentionally antiquated serial approach, but if they thought this would earn them a pass on the retrograde colonialism they were just wrong. It's really too bad because in and of themselves the gaggle of British colonials are quite hilarious, with enough rapport to actually enliven the agonized, shticky script. David McCallum's stuttering twit earns a special prize - almost as entertaining as the guy in the fan-lizard suit.

Kings and Desperate Men

(Alexis Kanner, 1981)
Go ahead and scorn the vertiginous camera work and the nonlinear montage and the dots-and-loops scoring as mere self-indulgences. They're also gorgeous - as close as Canadian narrative has come to 'pure cinema' outside of Winnipeg - and, after you acclimatize yourself, surprisingly kinetic for an almost two-hour movie. And that's not even mentioning the brilliant, punk-Altman sound design, which winds up being more meaningful than the script itself. The tale of a talk-radio host (Patrick McGoohan) held hostage by a revolutionary cabal of dubious provenance tilts uncomfortably toward brainwashed-masses cynicism and dead-end philosophics. The hyper pyrotechnics also keeps us a long arm's length from the performers, who despite their crucial human frailties wind up functioning more as symbols than characters, an impression undiminished by the stunt casting of Margaret Trudeau as the host's wife. All of which is ultimately okay, because behind the veil of attenuation this movie is a quite committed and expert piece of deadpan comedy. Avant-garde showmanship is something we could use more of, and when things threaten to spin out of control there's McGoohan holding it all together in a great performance that really does have some depth. Shot in '77, festival premiere in '81, and banished to cable in '84, this is not your usual failure story - its discord with the marketplace is conscious and purposeful, and Kanner's years of manual labour under myriad hats is all up there to be seen.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The King of Friday Night

(Andrew Gosling, 1985)
Not just shot on video - the majority of the movie takes place in glittering, cheese-saturated chroma key, and with its mid-80s take on early-60s youth culture, it's like a great acid trip at your local Wimpy's. The clash of hyper-stylized pastel elements is so gaudy and incessant that it nearly overwhelms the stagebound rock-and-roll fantasy of the script - but not quite. John Gray's plainspoken dialogue is generously laced with affection and lived detail, and it makes a point of being witty as it posits the music as a harmless ego-projection and social unifier. But the nostalgic frame of reference comes with its own built-in critique. By setting the action in an uncomplicated and homogeneous 1961, Gray duplicitously ignores a quarter-century of challenges to his simplistic thesis, and while his celebration of "boring" people is totally valid in itself, the situation of redemption in the distant past is the usual bourgeois snow job. Ideology aside, the climax is corny and pat in the great musical theatre tradition, and the sharp lyrical moments are never matched by the too-clean, too-emotive score. Though the performers are fairly appealing and individuated, only Eric Peterson's holy greaser ghost manages to address the camera with the necessary cinematic finesse.

Killing 'em Softly

(Max Fischer, 1985)
There are a few, er, problems with this twinkly light comedy about a singer who falls in love with the old bum in the next apartment after he murders/robs her manager and frames her boyfriend. The filmmakers do really seem to be expressing some kind of ass-backwards class consciousness here, but they sure don't give it much of a sales job: should we cheer when George Segal throws acid in the eyes of a guy who's mad because he bought a bad car? Are we to admire Irene Cara for crawling in the bath with this guy while her sympathetic boyfriend rots in jail, forgotten by lover and filmmaker alike? Did we really need that scene-long chat with the floozy about the volume and velocity of Segal's ejaculate? All the bits and pieces of backstory strewn around Segal's apartment never add up to a character, and while his scenes with Joyce Gordon's blowsy neighbour at least work as shtick, they're also typically extraneous and unresolved. Cara's presence requires a bunch of rock-club singing and dancing scenes early on, which warp the arc, though the Segal-Cara piano duet at the end is unexpectedly charming. Nicholas Campbell got a Genie nomination for his performance as the manager, who does get to establish a character, then promptly undermines it, in about three short scenes. But Campbell's really a victim here: his performance largely unfolds in halting, endless wide shots whose only possible explanation is that he's anticipating cutaways that never arrive. Of course any cross-cutting more complicated than two people sitting at a table seems to be beyond Fischer, as one parallel-action setup after another are lost to the linear-sequential energy void. Remedial film school, here we come.

The Killer Instinct

(William Fruet, 1982)
The classroom-debate framing device promises a movie about the moral justifications for murder, but in fact the teens angle seems like a market-driven afterthought. The film is really about machismo and morality, in full Southern Gothic mode. Remove the screamers altogether and there's still the complex 'family' dynamics of the mountain-shack community, the divided loyalties of the sheriff's department, and the philandering gas company man - an adult cast dealing with actual themes in a coherent (if frivolous) way, acted and directed with the kind of concentration you don't usually encounter at the drive-in. Check out the scenes between lead hick Henry Silva and jailbait Danone Camden - they don't waste a word or a frame in establishing this ambiguous, neurotic relationship, and there's comparable intelligence throughout. But while erasing the kids would have allowed us to get a little further into these peoples' lives, they are integrated well enough that they don't really hurt anything. In fact they bring some fun action with them - a mountaintop car chase, an antenna-impalement, and an unforgettable climax with Silva covered in boiling tar and waving his axe around, plus, you know, Ralph Benmergui with his leg in a bear trap.

The Kidnapping of the President

(George Mendeluk, 1980)
The "President" part of the title is taken care of by sending Hal Holbrook on a diplomatic mission to Toronto, with stumblebum entourage including Secret Service hack William Shatner. The "Kidnapping" part is taken care of by an explosive truck permanently parked in Nathan Phillips Square. Thus - after the first act throws us a couple White House sets, a weekend-in-Cancun guerrilla opener, the old reliable exploding gas station, and a ticker tape parade down a notably abbreviated side street - things give way to an even more brutally efficient, one-location movie. Sure it's totally ridiculous, but it also manages to be pretty entertaining - most interestingly, the state security apparatus is as bewildered as the terrorists themselves, and the power-mad interactions that ensue lead unpredictably into bad decisions and failed gambits. As a result the tension building devices tend to work, providing a nice counterpoint to the slop-trough of hams in the foreground. Shatner and Holbrook's contrasting thespian rhythms are sandwiched between a panoply of street-level Canuck regulars (Gary Reineke, Miguel Fernandes, Maury Chaykin) and some bizarre Arthur Hailey-type interludes featuring Van Johnson's worse-than-Palin VP and Ava Gardner as his clotheshorse wife. The ending fails to resolve the various tensions, pasting a series of happy faces onto a trick shot that could have been one of the great iconoclastic statements of its era.