Wednesday, March 31, 2010


(Richard Martin, 1988)
Here's a genre film that is S-M-A-R-T and really puts it out there to be seen. The self-reflexivity of the horror-film-at-the-horror films setup is neither pompous nor diversionary; at all times it is actually about something. The narrative foregrounds and literalizes the eternal horror motif of repression, the milieu absolutely nails the 'quiet' small town myth in abundant and cynical detail, and as the former greases the wheels of the latter in scene after scene, the movie shows off its comprehension of the genre it addresses. Not respect, mind you, not exactly - the films within the film are explicitly moronic straight down the line. And in spite of a some well-handled suspense sequences, the tone is too even and the dynamic too cerebral for "Matinee" to really come off as gut-level horror qua horror. Instead, with Ron White's moral detective up front, and plenty of vivid and viable suspects coming and going - arrogant filmmaker, uptight mom, supernally annoying young punk, a couple impressively non-stereotyped small town queers - its sensibility winds up more Chandler than Craven. Not as complex in its narrative mind you, so that, yes, you are likely to get out a bit ahead of the whodunit, and the resolution bites off a bit less than it can chew. But what it lacks in dynamism it makes up in control, invention, and wit.

The Marvelous Land of Oz

(Gerald Potterton/Tim Reid, 1987)
Typical of the upstanding citizens at Cinar to list the directors behind their brand in the credits and nowhere on the box. I bet the Margot Kidder 'narration' was their idea too - sounds like she's cold-reading screen directions over somebody's shoulder. And with a direct-to-cable budget, you can be sure that Potterton won't let loose with the spectacular graphic displays that he brought to "Yellow Submarine" or "Heavy Metal". So watching this work - among his last in the medium - is a reminder that Potterton could do characterization, too. Forget the characters familiar from MGM - this 'public domain' appropriation of the Oz narrative tweaks them into generic inoffensiveness, just different enough to be the same. But the uppity palace-crashers Mombi and Jinjur are retrieved from Baum's impossibly period-specific suffragette parody and given a genuinely inspired makeover. One an old hag on a magic learning curve, the other a Valley Girlish whiner/slacker, the two get a really nice comic interlock going. (Wish I could credit the actors, but Cinar is keeping that info to themselves too). Potterton's refusal to sugar-coat Ozma's gender-bending genesis is further evidence that he's still got the spirit. Unfortunately, the squandered climax is typical of the film's pervasive failings: the gestures toward grand effect all look cheap, and without much to occupy the eye, the mind wanders.


(Jean Beaudin, 1984)
When the girls come into the Magdalen Island cave for the marshmallow roast at sunset, it's official - this is a beautiful film. The visual flow may not match the compositions, but Pierre Mignot's cinematography is all remote, windswept otherworldliness, and eventually his rich visions uplift this narrative. In portraying the love between an autistic kid and his exuberant teenage brother, the movie has a few uphill battles to fight - its wide-shot nonverbalism is sometimes too obvious cover for the bad English dubbing, and the austerity can get as mannered as the 'fun'. And for sure the disappearance of the teenaged love interest, just as she's starting to engage with the narrative, is abrupt and disorienting and doesn't resolve. But what happens from there is so affecting and so right that I'm prepared to accept that turn of events as an imperfect expression of a theme rather than a structural defect. Because nothing resolves here - every character withdraws further and further into themselves, nobody has a solution to the real-world practical crises that Mario's autism creates, the sense of tragedy is pervasive. But the film portrays love and fantasy as valid escapes from tragedy and irresolution, and because the imagery is so alive the effect isn't sentimental, it's heroic. And standing above all this is the climactic scene with that coyote doll, a visionary gesture that totally got me in the heart - I haven't seen anything like it since, of all things, the last shot of "Stalker".

Martin's Day

(Alan Gibson, 1985)
After setting himself on fire and threatening to slit a prison guard's throat, Richard Harris kidnaps little boy Justin Henry at gunpoint...and then joins him on a charming voyage of friendship and self-discovery? Who's buying this? The efforts to show Harris as an innocent soul torn asunder by the cruelties of the penal system aren't accompanied by any actual insight into the system, or even the character. Without any backstory beyond childhood flashbacks, there's no sense of how he got from there to here, no sense of his violence as a symptom - why are all the cops so nice? The film is as confused as we are, and spends half its running time on a completely nonsensical Platonic dialogue between police chief James Coburn and prison psychologist Lindsay Wagner - stuck trying to make their abstract sociopolitical arguments without logic or evidence, it's no wonder they totally phone it in. Compared to them - and to a distinctly 'awkward stage' Henry - Harris comes off pretty well, for an old creep. When he visits long-gone sweetheart Karen Black, or finds his childhood paradise defiled by industry, you feel a bit of the tragedy this character is supposed to represent. And the movie does make the most of its gorgeous Northern-autumn settings. But guess what? The ending sucks.

The Mark of Cain

(Bruce Pittman, 1985)
Either this film was shot piggyback on 1986's "Confidential", or else Pittman is the first director to come with his own principal set - both films linger (and LINGER) on the same big old country home. Like that other production, "The Mark of Cain" features remarkably terse, vivid compositions that keep on surprising you, and combined with some nice creepy scoring, they create a disquieting, off-kilter mood. But soon you realize that all this laying on of cinematic effect is not only beside the point of the evil-twin narrative, it's actively undermining it. And the diversion could well be deliberate, because this is an incredibly lazy script: halfway through, just when you're expecting things to kick into high gear, things grind to a halt instead, with great blocks of time dedicated to actors lounging uncertainly within their striking compositions waiting for the narrative to resolve itself. Really, though, the gambit won't fool anyone, as what few suspense sequences there are get clunkier and more lethargic as the film goes on. In fact once the setup is over, the film is almost entirely devoid of shock, let alone invention, let alone insight. A waste.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Loving and Laughing

(John Sole, 1971)
It makes perfect sense that Quebec's 'Quiet Revolution' coincided with the rise of exploitation kings John Dunning and Andre Link, who in this film make their goofball case for nudism, free love, getting stoned, and subverting authorities too dumb to assert their prerogatives. Sure it's a total pander-fest, but it's also a breezy and quite hilarious piece of filmmaking; the extreme male-centrism of the world view is tempered by the wit and eccentricity of the skimpily-attired female performers, and while the 'faggot'-baiting is pretty sad, it could certainly be worse. In fact by midway there are almost as many weenies as mammaries flapping around the screen, and the film lucks out with its parallel of hippie commune and New England mansion - the point is that horniness is the universal language, and better that than Duplessis. The energy level of the Vermont performers is positively shocking - that yoga-freak daughter actually made me collapse in hysterics at least twice - and the steady stream of verbal wit augments the slapstick engagingly enough to suggest actual intelligence. You're definitely laughing with, not at, and while it wouldn't survive a deep reading, it rarely stands still long enough to encourage one anyway. The hippie brass band is a lovely touch too, and the film features an actual, detailed aside on the economics of communal living - I love the doomed attempt to buy health food from a small town Quebec grocer, who considers sesame seeds 'foreign food'.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Love At The Top

(John Bowab, 1982)
This completely hackneyed 'Romance Theatre' soap opera - it keeps dipping to black in the middle of scenes to make way for imaginary commercials - applies some incredibly bad set design (dig that cityscape!), spaz lighting, and occasionally haywire camera work to its strictly boilerplate corporate climber love narrative. But it does retain a certain fascination if only for the unbridled hyperbole of its performers. It's sad that James Ingersoll's utterly clownish shmuck is absent for the second half, but at least his hopeless 'fun' routine provides a keynote for the others. Lead Marcy Vosburgh is a high-strung, grinning fool of a fashion executive, Kathleen Coyne repeatedly indicates stress by bugging out her eyes and pulling her hair, Robyn Millan does a great lip-biting bitch before she goes all conveniently virtuous at the end, and even Richard Young's dullard love interest seizes every opportunity to make a fool of himself. The constant resort to interior monologue is almost as amusing as the relentlessly recurring 'driving' shots. Still, no one needs 105 minutes of this shit, hyperbole or no.


(Anne Wheeler, 1987)
This film made me very angry. Its central conceit is to portray repression by being repressed itself - a high-stakes gambit that fails spectacularly because Wheeler's directorial artistry has no vigor. Vic Sarin's attenuated cinematography is always suffocatingly clinical in wide shot and maddeningly neutral in closeup, whether the subject is the desperately neurotic white family with the pedophile at its nucleus or the conflict- and poverty-ridden First Nations clan who would be more effectively used for instructive contrast. It's arty nonsense to taint the northerners with the same arid inexpressiveness as the good-and-proper interlopers. But the most aggressively offensive failure comes at the film's so-called 'resolution'. At this point we've been waiting around for at least an hour in the full knowledge that Kenneth Welsh's relentless creep is destined to molest Tantoo Cardinal's young daughter Diane Debassige, and meanwhile Susan Wooldridge has been investing untold shading and complexity to her initially remote, neurotically enabling wife. The filmmakers are right to foreground Wooldridge's tangled psyche, and as the situation explodes you are genuinely invested in how she plays her hand. But after the agonizing, sensationalized assault sequence (you've never seen a film that uses thunder cues so ham-fistedly), it's as though the filmmakers have exhausted their attention span; Welsh is never seen again, Debassige is never granted the dignity of a single close-up to convey her pain, Wooldridge resolves her arc not by actually doing anything but by phoning the fucking police, OFF SCREEN - and worst of all, we are asked to believe that this anti-dramatic, wildly insufficient corrective will inspire Cardinal to repress all her raw maternal fury and invite this basket case to move in with her without a single word of reprimand. Absolutely incredible, 'women's' film or no; viewers of all genders deserve to see their representatives resolve their own narratives! While the camera is rolling, okay!!!

Friday, March 5, 2010

pressing pause

I'll be in a land of no computers for the next two weeks - I'll miss you. But Canuxploitation is reprinting some of my reviews as part of their expanded Emmeritus Productions section, so you can get your fix there (a few of these reviews got their start on this blog!)

This would also be an appropriate time to plug Trash Palace for those of you who haven't already been introduced...I'll be showing the Emmeritus classic "The Tower" there on March 27 with actors in attendance, and on March 26 we're doing a whole night of vintage 16mm student films. More to look forward to, and I promise you and myself that the pace of the reviews is gonna pick up when I'm back...must watch more movies!!!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Love At First Sight

(Rex Bromfield, 1976)
Dan Aykroyd's deadpan (in his first-ever theatrical feature) and Mary Ann McDonald's mousy charm mesh well with director Bromfield's measured comic style, and their tale of a young woman falling for a blind guy keeps giving up unexpected small moments of visual wit. The bizarrely emphatic barrage of KFC product placements is finally rendered overtly hilarious when Colonel Sanders himself shows up in the park. And the liberal message of tolerance in opposition to McDonald's rampaging redneck dad is administered gently, with a fairly generous extension of goodwill to harmless outsiders of various stripes (crazy old people, stutterers) and a good deal of genially tasteless humour growing out of the blind guy himself. But tolerance is one thing and comprehension another. In various scenes this blind guy seems to also be incapable of hearing obvious sound information, of tasting the difference between fish food and black pepper, of feeling the edge of a piece of paper, and of having the brains not to leave clutter in the footpath of his own stairwell. Either no one here has ever met a real blind person, or else the spirit of on-set improvisation needed a sterner directorial hand. And verbal wit? See title.

Losin' It

(Curtis Hanson, 1983)
AKA "Porky's Goes West" - gaggle of horny teens goes and loses their virginity in Tijuana instead of the Everglades. Only damned if I didn't like this a little better than "Porky's" - the extremely familiar, extremely broad material is competently handled and, for the most part, inoffensive. Our heroes' juvenile quest is viewed at arms' length, and is disposed of by midfilm. The many Mexican stereotypes are relatively sympathetic and varied, even allowing a junkyard worker an articulate tirade against Yankee imperialism; standing in for Tijuana proper, Calexico CA does an eerie impersonation of a studio lot. The third act's surprisingly moody descent into various perils is scattered and imbalanced, but the tonal shift at least holds your attention, probably reflecting Hanson's creative priorities. But in the end the performers are front and center, and the film's fortunes rise and fall on their work. Deluded hipster Jackie Earle Haley shows genuine goofball verve, and his resourceful younger brother John P. Navin Jr. almost steals the movie wirh his cocky deadpan. John Stockwell as Spider, on the other hand, is a petulant energy vacuum; he looks pissed off that no one wrote him a character. And while Tom Cruise is mostly asked to stand there and look pretty, and Shelley Long's divorcee is her usual bundle of brittle mannerisms, their little romantic interlude is charming in its neurotic way.


(Peter Rowe, 1986)
What began as a true story is now firmly in the realm of allegory, as friendly normals Helen Shaver and Michael Hogan find themselves shipwrecked and battling not just the ocean but Hogan's batshit Christian brother. As played by Kenneth Welsh, this guy is so single-minded that he practically disappears into his faith. Setting sail without preparation or competency, hucking precious food and water into the ocean, Welsh aims to prove to atheist Hogan that God will meet the needs of the faithful, and for a while only his unreadable remoteness prevents him from turning into an outright monster. The film is so fixated on this clash of wills that it teeters on the brink of one-dimensionality, and some bad bluescreen work during the storm sequence further threatens the movie's credibility. But Hogan's amiable down-to-earth routine plays so well off Welsh's obsessive turmoil that the thematic single-mindedness frequently takes on an aspect of black comedy, and as the movie winds down, the competing ideologies are revealed as the spiritual life rafts they are, giving way to a dimensional and felt humanism. The movie stops rather than ends, pasting on an unusually alienated where-are-they-now screen; and the shark was a bad idea badly executed. As long as we're on the boat, though, the focus and control of the filmmaking here is a pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Haunting of Julia

(Richard Loncraine, 1977)
This movie about the spirit world has no inner life. Never as Mia Farrow quests around the London cityside do we get any sense of clarity or revelation; first she's mourning her dead daughter, then a seance points to a dead boy, which puts her on the trail to a murderous little girl, also dead...and what of it? Either Farrow's gone bonkers, or else one or the other of these children have possessed her, instigating a new round of heinous acts inflicted on a confoundingly arbitrary cross-section of the supporting cast, friends and enemies and strangers alike. Lucky for such a superficial film that the surface is pretty watchable: the film milks olde fog-encrusted England for all the subtle atmosphere it's worth, and the performers invest a lot of detail in their panoply of repressed classbound types. Sad then that none of these characters really develop or resolve within the narrative. Loncraine plays even the big death scenes for murky mystery, which may be aesthetically principled of him but also compounds the already perilous dragginess of the whole thing, and none of Farrow's spirit visions have any poetry to them. How can a film this studiously indebted to "Don't Look Now" be so innocent of rhythm, dynamics and effect? You keep hoping it's all leading somewhere, but in the end this is basically a Heimlich Maneuver PSA with a ninety-minute coda. And while the title theme is memorable, it is also hammered to death.