Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Simon of the Desert

(Luis Bunuel, 1965)
I am so blessedly ignorant of all cultures of religious faith that Bunuel's Mexican stuff always feels a little beyond me - I'm sure he's referencing specifics that I can't come close to appreciating. On the most obvious level, this parable of a saintly guy standing on a pole is another showcase of the futility of individual saintliness in a wretched world - in my favourite bit he blesses the food in his teeth, but every interaction with his earthbound lessers is a fresh blasphemy, and it's all very funny. It's also impressive that there is no restlessness with the single-location scenario; it keeps moving, thanks in part to the inspired character interactions, and in part to great use of the vertical line of action to change things up. Interestingly, Simon is not exactly a fraud; he actually does perform miracles. Which makes him more tragic than contemptible, in spite of the jokey (and budget-conscious) disco scene at the end, in which he succumbs to the most banal of temptations.

The People Who Own The Dark

(Leon Klimovsky, 1976)
Things start out terse, with tight little scenes of uncertain continuity drawing us in up to a certain point at which you start to wonder what exactly is going on. Then suddenly we're at the opening remarks of a bourgeois orgy, which, just as suddenly, is rudely interrupted by a nuclear war. At this point the orgy party dubiously decrees that nothing will be radioactive for a couple days so they should go out and loot provisions now. Then they discover that the blast has turned everyone into insane and murderous blind people, all of whom seem to have managed to track down canes and/or sunglasses in their infirmity. And on it goes from there: the hostile attitude toward logic and motivation creates an atmosphere of chaotic incoherence that is pretty fascinating to behold. The producers hew to the formula, "when all else fails, rip off Romero" - various random echoes of Night of the Living Dead give way to a truly tasteless Crazies homage at the climax. The latter also indicates that some kind of Big Statement was intended - anti-nuclear, anti-fascist, anti-something. But while the un-expurgated European version may possibly have been less alienating, there's no way it was more profound. Accidental surrealism, anyone? In the Judith O'Dea trauma victim role there's this naked fat guy running around on all fours, and Paul Naschy's trigger-happy louse comes as close as anyone to establishing a character.

Monday, December 28, 2009


(Harvey Hart, 1976)
This conflicted 'women's movie' is paradoxically at its best when it's wallowing in the sordid details of machismo. Tony Lo Bianco is great as the alcoholic bronco rider, but he's inevitably greater dishing out male-chauvinist invective at the beginning than reciting hushed and wise climactic speeches about letting the lady think for herself. Actually her decision is both a foregone conclusion and a highly dubious fantasy; build the homestead and the wife will come back. Imagine the insights that could have been accessed if she didn't bite. With Harvey Hart and Lionel Chetwynd at the reins, it's all done with an uncommon level of craftsmanship, and for the first half the downcast brutality is delivered with energy and verve. But what follows is so transparent and so wrong that it looks like the good guys gave up. Donald Pleasance's dirt-farming souse gets a great intro before being shoehorned into stock sidekick duties.


(Brad Turner, 1987)
For what it's worth, this is somewhat less juvenile and offensive than most 'balls' movies. The overall mood of the thing is rather amiable and relaxed, the women portray actual characters of sorts rather than functioning as catalogues of anatomy, and Turner gamely gives his performers free reign. This can go extraordinarily poorly - as in the faux-Arab shmucks with their Lorre and Bogart impersonations. It can also get very weird, as in Ron James doing a hopelessly inaccurate Tom Jones impersonation with confused steel-band backing and lots of fog; unfunny but in a kind of fascinating way, like a Second City improv gone awry. Wayne Robson and John Hemphill impress by wringing some mild smiles out of their gangster-golfer routine, even though they're saddled with some of the worst moments in an appallingly lazy, incoherent script. So no, of course it's not actually any good, but it's a better kind of bad than "Fireballs", you know?


(Pete Docter/Bob Peterson, 2009)
Like "Where the Wild Things Are" (and "The Wizard of Oz", lest we forget), this starts as a wondrous fantasy/adventure and ends by damning the imaginative act in favour of the real world. Here, though, they're also scoring real and honest points against the superman impulse and obsessive compulsion. Ed Asner's widowed old man quests for Paradise Falls, and he's matched by his badge-mad boy scout sidekick and an explorer "hero" on a blind quest for his own trophies. They also meet several funny animals who prefer their love and gratification in the present tense. The first act is remarkably concise and controlled as it recaps the old guy's marriage from youth to death, and the pervasive melancholy is artful and earned. I could really live without the barrage of "Star Wars" in-jokes in the climax, and the denouement papers over some serious issues. But the journey of the house is exciting, I love the voice trick on the nasty dog, and overall this is my favourite overhyped kids' movie of the current cycle.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lady Ice

(Tom Gries, 1973)
This movie achieves an uncommon kind of unity for a heist-caper flick; the tedium of the countless dialogue scenes is so pervasive that the scant action bits scarcely alter the rhythm. There's a ton of plot, and I barely caught a word of it; so many ulterior motives and divided loyalties that the stakes are lowered and you don't root for anybody. As usual Donald Sutherland is relaxed and appealing, Jennifer O'Neill less so but nice to look at, and Robert Duvall should have done more supporting character work like this. But aside from a very arbitrary and kinky strip-search sequence, it's all a botched blur; the protagonists' forced laughter at the ending just cries out for a freeze frame and horn fanfare.

Going Berserk

(David Steinberg, 1983)
The most tragic thing about this movie is that once in a while there's a situation with some comic potential - like when John Candy is forced to wait in the hall while the guy he's handcuffed to has sex behind the door. Or when his cohort, now dead, is cornered by an acquaintance for a lengthy one-way conversation. Yes, that's the GOOD stuff - wrecked by overextension and formlessness - and it's downhill from there. What's intended as urbane tastelessness is just gross - Candy beating up some women at a beefcake show, African tribesmen singing "Blue Moon", a gratuitous "Leave it to Beaver" takeoff that prefigures "Natural Born Killers". All the name performers are wasted, and there's not a laugh to be had. But let's leave all that aside for a moment and ponder the following sequence. We're a little over an hour in. Candy meets with his girlfriend (utter nonentity Alley Mills) to apologize for his smutty behaviour under hypnosis at the wedding rehearsal; she is visibly upset. Then the hypnosis kicks in again, and in the middle of his apology he attacks a waitress and gets on stage to sing a song about his penis. And in spite of the laborious setup, Mills does not react; in the next scene they're strolling happily along without discussion or incident. Rarely in the annals of cinema has there been a sequence that screamed 'troubled production' with more volume or clarity; who knows what other atrocities the doctors inflicted in post. But it's clear that they were operating on a cadaver from the git. Perhaps tellingly, the soundtrack features a collaboration between Tom Scott and Lee Ving!

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

(John Trent, 1975)
A wilfully silly, class-conscious farce in the British tradition, and maybe Anthony Newley fans will dig it; I wouldn't know. The multilayered tale of corruption, extortion and blackmail doesn't make much sense, but of course plot is just a device to keep this conspicuously tripartite apparatus on the move. Things do accelerate with gratifying speed as the first act consists of a bunch of rowdies taking over a political fundraiser at Yvonne De Carlo's place and feeding the elite a laxative greek salad. Act two involves Newley's ex and the politico (named Sinclair Burton, a nice in-joke that no one outside Canada can possibly comprehend) menaced by a trained bear and skunk at a cottage retreat, at considerably greater length than the conceit can support. Act three comprises the extortion subplot and introduces Lawrence Dane and John Candy's bumbling cops, and while they're no funnier than the rest of the cast, they are somewhat more appealing - so it figures that they would get their own, equally painful sequel in "Find the Lady". The broad, smutty carnivalesque is friendlier and more tolerable in this version than in its 80s equivalents, but that's not to say it's successful - all the googoo eyes and speeded-up running around and peepee-caca histrionics leave me tapping my foot in the aisles.

Going Home

(Terry Ryan, 1986)
Can you imagine how much more terse and revealing this film would be if it had kept the camera and the narrative locked inside the transit camp with the soldiers? Just think how much more evocative it would be of the actual experience of being stranded halfway home from WWI, how much more time there would have been to evoke the frustration and develop the characters that form the shapeless mob of the shapeless final massacre. But nooo, they gotta have Nicholas Campbell making soft-focus love to the Welsh lassie by the fireside and doing his goddamn monologue by the seashore. What a stilted, contrived disaster that monologue is - what post-traumatic stress case would ever express his dilemma to his girlfriend with the words, "The future has been buried with the corpses of a generation?" Ugh! Such smeary abstraction is an extreme disappointment in a movie that portrays Canadian commanding officers slaughtering their own men out of paranoid hatred for Bolshevism. The movie has the trademark dull grey hush of most 80s British TV movies, and it seems to be operating on a "tell, don't show" basis - too many guys sitting in offices talking about the excitement outside. And with Eugene Lapinski single handedly leading the anti-Commie charge against the protests of his eloquently right-headed colleagues, all the ideological points get watered down into a kind of cinematic Warren Report.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

(Nicholas Webster, 1964)
Well, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it is reasonably merciful in granting us the spectacularly absurd polar bear and robot in the second act. But by then they have got a lot of ground to make up: the Martians' battle against the stock footage, the ooh-hoo-hee-hee North Pole newscaster, and of course the doddering Yuk Yuk's lech that John Call makes of Santa are all acts of unspeakable cruelty. By the end there's not much left except the Martians themselves, prancing around their echoey cardboard sets, declaiming so frantically in their effort to impart some energy to the material that they almost drive the viewer from the room. The juvenile performances are worthy of Phil Tucker, and the cute idiot Dropo should be trapped in an eternal elevator with Jar Jar Binks.

Girls on the Road

(Thomas J. Schmidt, 1973)
A very strange, boundingly trashy movie that is watchable mainly for its bizarre displacements. Having just graduated, a couple cute rich kids head for their parents' cottage in their parents' car - such rebels! In so doing they occasion a driving sequence which is like a funhouse ride of cheese - weaving all over the road, throwing their bras around, dissing cops and guitar-playing hippies and limp-wristed 'fags'. It's non-stop, outrageous, and very very bad. Soon though they pick up Michael Ontkean, as a manic-depressive Vietnam vet who gets extensive trippy-wavy tinted flashbacks where he recalls army discharge and encounter sessions. These are bad too but also kind of pretentious, in a totally failed way. Given Ontkean's unmotivated inciting rampage against a couple pool-playing louts, it stands to reason that he's the mass murderer they're prattling on about on the radio. But once they get to his guru pal's Big Sur retreat, it's pretty obvious pretty fast that we're in for a 'surprise'. In spite of the relentless parade of outrageous hairy freaks - including Pa Walton himself, Ralph Waite, as the lecherous guru - the wildly misfiring exuberance of the first half gives way to heavied-out psychobabble and dubious romantic interludes. Ontkean, an actual actor who actually acts, is as out of place as the surprisingly explicit commentary on post-traumatic stress. At the end, though, the bald hyperbole is restored, as they try to turn the whole thing into a horror movie by dint of a lot of screaming and some running around. One wonders, though, how the people who came up with this idea managed to avoid shooting an actual ending; the final seconds are desperately patched together with spit and chewing gum. The surprisingly clean, west coast 70s sunshine look of the whole thing only adds to the confusion.

The Glitter Dome

(Stuart Margolin, 1984)
You can tell this is an HBO made-for-early-cable production because it has the square plotting and obtrusively mechanical detective voice-over of any TV movie of its time, but there's some forced swearing and implied sex and the bullets actually do kill people from time to time. There's also a real aura of gaudy sleaze, thanks no doubt to the Joseph Wambaugh source material but also perfect for convincing single guys in motels that their lives could be even worse. Quite a challenge to sustain a light comic undertow in a movie about a kiddie-porn ring, but this movie does a pretty good job at the balance: the desperate futility of everyday existence is played for bitter laughs by drunk codger cop James Garner and for pathos by Catholic divorcee cop John Lithgow. With Hollywood portrayed as ground zero in a family-values armageddon, the movie is also subject to the regrettable pitfalls of cop-flick sentimentality, but at least it's terse and punchy throughout - there's a lot of words here, man. Producer/director Margolin doesn't just cast himself as the unlikely yoga-prone studio mogul's son, he also furnishes the high-rolling sleazeball musical score. Margot Kidder has fun as a jaded starlet.

The Girl In Blue

(George Kaczender, 1973)
AKA "U-Turn" - a very peculiar little drama in which Kaczender imports the relaxed, semi-improvisational tone of his NFB shorts into the realm of slick commercial filmmaking. The juxtaposition is almost shocking; the work is not just technically pristine but physically gorgeous, and yet here these people are goofing off and acting up like they just discovered the Nouvelle Vague. While it is about romance and freedom, it's not a 'youth film' - David Selby's thirtysomething lawyer protagonist is far from a dropout. Instead it's almost a feature-length rendition of Everett Sloane's monologue about the girl with the white parasol; Selby sees Maud Adams at a Thousand Islands ferry and dedicates himself to locating her, seeing in her an impossible promise of romantic perfection. For this type of character, Selby is uncharacteristically watchable, if not exactly sympathetic, and there are all kinds of well-played, surprising and funny interactions with vivid supporting characters major and minor. Too bad, then, that the ending is a total cop-out, retreating at a run from every psychological issue the movie ever raised; Selby's climactic shrug seems to be saying 'the CFDC made us do it'. And they should have left the overbearing, flute-heavy musical scoring back at the Film Board.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


(Jim Makichuk, 1981)
This film is remarkably successful at sustaining its creepy mood - so successful that you don't really mind that there's not much else there. There's hardly a shock effect in the movie; everything seems half formed, ambiguous, dead-ended, like the chainsaw that is produced for half a chase scene then disappears. The deformed guy in the ice room hacks one woman up with an axe, but is a benign puppy in his next and final appearance; the male lead goes mad in one abrupt, awkward ellipse, as if a scene got lost at the lab; who knows what the ending is trying to say about the heroine. And yet somehow all these problems feed an atmosphere of disturbing disorientation appropriate to the shape-shifting Windigo mythology the movie purports to embody. The abandoned resort setting is photographed with extreme creepiness, and the infernal looping of Paul Zaza's atonal orchestral score only adds to the unnerving effect. And while Georgie Collins is a peculiarly un-mysterious ghostkeeper, she weirds you out anyway.

The Gate

(Tibor Takacs, 1987)
A remarkably charming and successful little movie about a couple pre-pubescent pals who discover a gateway to hell in the back yard. The tone is deadpan-funny when it aims to be, which is usually, and it is also remarkably kind: these nice, normal kids form a tight unit whose affection is not shaken by bickering exchanges with sister Al's hilariously dumb teenager friends. Every element from the treehouse to the model rocket to the death-metal album gets put to ingenious use, and that goes double for the dead dog, an unusual device that generates a range of emotional responses in various situations. The effects are startlingly good, especially the army of tiny Shrek-like demons who manage to be amusing and menacing at the same time, and the look of the film is remarkably controlled and textured. I only wish that the ending could have been a little more kinetic and better integrated; with one kid facing off against a big special effect, I find myself missing both the character interactions and the sense of purpose of the rest of the film. But that's a small quibble; overall this is exactly the kids-eye-view fantasia of malevolence that it sets out to be.

VIrgin Paradise

(Ron Standen, 1987)
A big comedown after Standen's inspired "Mark of the Beast", this one centers on three newly-graduated hotties - a rich kid, a boy toy, and a drag - who hop down to Tortola on Daddy's dime and yacht, only to find themselves ensnared in a highly improbable gem-smuggling plot. The girls are charming except for the drag, and the Toronto-based doublecross is amusingly preposterous, but except for Ron Byrd's shticking henchman, the cops, criminals and gangsters are all strictly rote and dull as dishwater. Of course it doesn't make sense - when do Emmeritus movies ever make sense? - but it gives us too much time to ponder this fact as it lingers on interminable sunbathing sessions and telephone conferences. The best thing about the movie is a transparent afterthought - Zuzana Marlow in her linking-narration scenes, fully out of character, surrounded by teddy bears and talking in an absurdly flirtatious little-girl voice. This stuff really is tawdry enough to be least until the script tells the same joke for the tenth, or fifteenth, time.

Survival Earth

(Peter McCubbin, 1985)
The best Emmeritus productions overwhelm their own cheap, shallow essence with pacing, wit or energy. So if you think a post-apocalyptic drama is going to catch them at their best, you are not thinking clearly. You are of course aware that apocalypse movies inevitably use the setup as a peg for philosophic hand-wringing, and the only novelty here is the utter vague aimlessness of the discourse. The 'hero' here is bent on re-establishing nuclear fam domesticity in his old stone foundation, which inspires not the slightest hint of critique - on the contrary, the gender politics here are candidly boneheaded - and ensures that the movie will be hopelessly rooted to the ground in its deadly verdant setting. The opening newsreel montage features a nuclear explosion, but in contrast the dialogue refers only to the end of capitalism, which would explain why the air and water in their park refuge are still so lovely and clean. Loincloth babe Nancy Cser's 'mutant' status and Jeff Holec's mysterious lurking clone are total dead-end diversions, and the outbursts of witty repartee are unbelievably stupid and wrong - check out the uproarious improv-to-fade at the end.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

(Sergio Leone, 1966)
Truly vulgar and truly epic, this is an amazing piece of work. Leone's incredible visual sweep and sure, sustained rhythm are here applied to a remarkable assortment of true lowlife, for whom the director shows great affection. All three are self-interested mercenaries, but where Lee Van Cleef's cunning Army man will kill anyone for the right price, and Eli Wallach's sleazeball criminal is just a greed-crazed maniac, Clint Eastwood operates by an actual moral code - a complex and fallible code, but even at that he's as close as the film gets to 'civilization'. Certainly closer than the indiscriminate slaughter of the civil war which rages in the background of the protagonists' money-grubbing odyssey; Leone doesn't just blow up that bridge, he blows up the idea that built it. From the war-cheerleading coward innkeeper to the wooden Indians on the target range, here is a remarkably informed, ironic and arms-length treatment of Wild West folklore. And while Eastwood may be the spiritual center of the film, it's Wallach that really makes it what it is - conniving, cunning and Catholic, his comedy is as deep as it is broad, cutting a defiant channel through all this spectacularly operatic grandeur.


(Don Dohler, 1980)
The deficiencies are prominent and should by all rights be terminal - Dohler has real trouble with basic framing and composition, the pacing is nonexistent, and the Baltimore-school actors are mostly wooden, if endearing. The special effects are limited to stage blood and a cheapo optical involving glowing hands. But one way or another the deficiencies match the quirky specifics. This is a movie where Evil rises from the dead, moves to the suburbs, and opens a music school! So why should it provide a thrill a minute? The slack tempo and workaday details end up enhancing the movie's portrayal of early-80s suburbia as a scrub-encircled cul de sac, a perfect setting for the bizarrely genteel hulk Don Liefert to drain people's souls. While he may be a murderous demon, the film also gets digs in at the conformist impulse behind the neighbor dad's clumsy sleuthing, and ultimately the banality and improbable mildness of the whole film give it a unique kind of charm.

Nowhere to Hide

(Jack Starrett, 1977)
The very strange and alien terrain of seventies television - this flat, bizarrely homogenized neverland where everyone's got a gun but no one gets shot - is a very strange place to run into Lee Van Cleef, here enacting the usual tough-as-nails but morally upright U. S. Marshall assigned to protect bozo informant Tony Musante. Meanwhile long-suffering wife Leila Goldoni has discordant Cassavettes flashbacks in the domestic-strife snippets. In other words the homogenization is not complete - no style or excitement whatsoever, but some scant pleasure in the transparent goofiness of the details. There's the ambush lesson opener, the attempted church hit, the kid finding the frogman's dynamite. And while the desert-island police protection getaway is a pretty boring (if economical) centerpiece, the writers do manage to wring out a hilariously desperate 'climax' - an out-of-nowhere fist fight over a disloyal cat. After that, what can they do except drive around the block in a postal truck. Be still my beating heart.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Marked For Death

(David Nisbet, 1987)
Businessman witnesses gangland hit from his subway window. Reports to cop. Cop is corrupt. Cop and gangsters conspire to rub out witness while he's out jogging. Sounds simple, right? No sir! Not when you're dealing with about the dumbest and pokiest bunch of gangsters ever to appear on screen. Instead of just grabbing the guy and throwing him off a bridge, they tail him until they run into parked cars, they stake him out and get parking tickets, they wait in the park but get caught up reading the paper, they wait in the park but a little girl wants to chat, they wait in the park, they wait in the park. And if you think THEY'RE stupid, wait until you meet the homicide cops, who have their own tail on the bad guys every step of the way, yet somehow never manage to figure out that their man's in on it even as he shiftily misplaces witness reports and invites guys in trenchcoats over to his place for Chinese. Good thing for them that when bad cop finally does corner the jogger, he considerately takes the time to spell out every last detail of his scheme, because they never would have figured it out by themselves. I suppose it's possible that the comedy is intentional, but the contempt for basic logic still boggles the mind. As Emmeritus productions go, not as horrendously ragged as "The Bounty Hunters", but almost as oafish anyways.

Mark of the Beast

(Robert Stewart, 1986)
A couple Mohawk College TV production students are quietly invited to videotape a 'secret' political rally on the lawn of City Hall. So, what the hell is a 'secret' political rally anyway? And why do the eight working men who comprise the audience still have their hard hats on? That sets the tone for this screamer, and it doesn't even matter: you are virtually obliged to check your brain at the credits, which leaves you free to enjoy one of the tackiest and breeziest of all Emmeritus productions. The kids end up taping a political assassination, and the trail leads to a cult of cowled masterminds of world government - some kind of Mr. Dressup freemasons, a snapshot out of David Icke's nightmares. The beastly cabal's disciples reveal themselves in ever greater numbers, identified by a dollar sign with a coiled snake for the 'S' tattooed on their wrists. While the filmmakers do go for suspense and malevolence, there's no "They Live"-style social commentary here; it's sci-fi-horror stuff, pure showmanship. This jives exceptionally well with the comic shtick of the leads - goofball cinematographer James Gordon and hottie nurse Carolyn Guillet (who comes with even hotter nurse sidekick Charlene Richards at no extra charge). Gordon's wise-cracking lunkhead is an absolutely perfect Emmeritus character. From his megaphone shtick in the outrageous film-within-a-film flashbacks, to the ratatat repartee with Guillet in his brokedown car, the comedy is way livelier than you expect; it overwhelms the heavy stuff and redefines the movie as pure wicked fun.

Niagara Strip

(Jim Makichuk, 1987)
Emmeritus goes to the Falls - and sets a heroin-smuggling procedural in a tiny town where everyone knows everyone else except the 'punks' (who look like A Flock of Seagulls pretending to be W.A.S.P.). The federal cop, the local cop, and the shady businessman are all old football buddies, and the offed drugrunner's widow went to the same school. And while as usual this movie is visually tacky and dramatically overdrawn, it actually does manage to capture a mood - wistful, melancholic, unfulfilled. Essential to this is Paul De La Rosa as the smalltown cop with Hollywood cops on his walls - emotionally stunted and agonizingly immature, his character spells the themes with uncommon precision, so lost that he's tragic. There's also something about April Johnson's pretty, uncomplicated widow that makes you get what these guys see in her. And in it's zero-budget tawdriness it captures its time and place, with a nice eye for detail.

Price of Vengeance

(Alistair Brown, 1985)
Here Emmeritus attempts a narrative of the Hamilton mafia, as an upwardly mobile businessman is called back to his sleazy roots when his hockey-player-gone-wrong brother is murdered. As he pieces things together, he finds himself on a collision course with some Italian gangsters he's known since childhood. Bizarrely, the Don is actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the piece, certainly more so than the protagonist - the more appalling details emerge of his brother's conduct, the more single-minded he seems to become about avenging him. It's self-consciously gloomy, almost 'existential', never a good idea since the shot-on-video production values automatically negate all atmospheric tension. As usual, illogic is rampant - dude recovers awful fast from that beating, and the still-camera-in-the-fish-finder routine is not redeemed by its procedural detail. And lead actor Edmund James does not convey the moral complexities that the director seems to be tilting at. At least there's some nice use of Hamilton Harbour, a climactic shootout on the Skyway, and most impressively a sidekick who's a black hockey player.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Brain Damage

(Frank Henenlotter, 1988)
This being Henenlotter, I knew that it was going to be lurid, vivid, and nasty; and while "Basket Case" might have prepared me for heartfelt, it didn't hint at the visionary poetics on display here. Aylmer, the phallic brain-eating slug, is not only a brilliantly disgusting piece of puppetry; he is voiced with such a delicate mocking lilt (by John Zacherle!!) that it transforms the whole experience of the film. This is your brain on drugs, quietly seductive until it's feeding time. Aylmer's hapless victim/host - cut off from real life, unable to kick the hallucinatory blue gunk, doomed - is only one example of a consuming pathos. As riotous and disgusting as the brain-eating scenes are, they are also overwhelmingly sad; nobody deserves their fate, and Henenlotter takes pleasure only in his craft. Which is pervasive. The hallucination scenes hit the nail on the head, the performances are just hyperbolic enough to keep things from getting oppressive, and the final image is startlingly beautiful. And beneath all this is a virtual tour of the most absolutely desolate corners of skid-row NYC in full bloom. A work of art.

Lady Bear

(Peter McCubbin, 1985)
One suspects that they knew that the plot made no sense, so in order to distract us they piled on twist endings like Jenga. The boss knew it all along, dad isn't dead after all, the shrink is a spy, the librarian is a spy, etc. This is doubly disorienting because, while this is going on, other plot elements implode uselessly. The British guy Lady Bear was supposed to be spying on heads home unannounced after one brief scene and so much for that; her clown RCMP boyfriend doesn't know what the hell's going on even after several scenes of firsthand observation and/or hearty exposition. And anyway, he was gauche enough to put the moves on her immediately after her announcing that he was the Commie's mistress, and she was flaky enough to bite; what planet are we on here? The planet Emmeritus, of course - where women have nightmares about KGB karate class and men film infidelities with Bolexes in the heating ducts of unlit bedrooms. So low energy, sober-sided, and incomprehensible that it takes on a certain fascination in spite of itself.

Greedy Terror

(Steve DiMarco, 1985)
Emmeritus Productions tries its hand at the anthology thriller with this one. While it falls on the earnest side of their sensibility, it can't help but partake of these folks' usual campy underachievement. "Country Hospitality", the middle episode, has the most energy, a plot that comes close to making sense, and an inspired twist at the very end. But I wish the mute got more screen time, and as usual the villain here is a one-dimensional putz. "A Symbol of Victory" is the classic shlub buys a love potion scenario, and it achieves a degree of pathos, but the characters are remote and the storyline is preposterous. The final story, "The Injection", is even more ridiculous in its plot logic, but still there's something compelling about the down-at-the-heels losers at its center, and the production values are so low that it lends the skid-row setting an authenticity that can't be bought. Check out the jaded sex-worker dialogue in the diner for a true highlight that has nothing to do with camp. The framing device is a mother telling the stories of her three sons to a reporter in a church; but weren't the protagonists of "The Injection" brothers themselves? Did I miss something here? Or is this just Emmeritus working their inimitable magic yet again?

Night of the Comet

(Thom Eberhart, 1984)
This bizarrely deadpan, resolutely quirky sensibility of this movie can be disorienting and is sometimes not fully realized - a bit draggy, a bit thin. But if you gear down and roll with it, you are rewarded. Basically, it showcases the resilience and self-regard of Valley Girl culture - the world ends, and while they have some regrets they basically just go on hanging out and dishing and dealing with shit as it arises. Which shit includes Raoul himself, Robert Beltran, as ambiguous and neighbourly enabler; the great Mary Woronov as righteous rebel from the lab-mad brethren of the compound; and some mall working slackers gone wrong. The latter groupings have lapsed into varying degrees of zombiedom, and if there's any logic to how they attained this state while everyone else turned to dust, it must have passed me by. But what really matters are Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, who have a great thing going with their smart interplay; their force of personality give a humane jolt to such merely witty Eberhart conceits as the trick dream sequence and the MAC-10 target practice. Not to mention the positively Brechtian happy ending, a Reagan-era nuclear fam fantasy so brazenly alienated that it takes the whole thing up a notch.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

(Tobe Hooper, 1974)
The perfect thing to see in a sparsely-populated movie house at sunrise, because that's the ambience it evokes better than any other movie: pure, squalid human exhaustion. It's no surprise to learn that it was intended to be a comedy, because concise shtick and tricky timing effects are at the heart of it, and the hicks-from-hell that make it go are a showbiz ensemble to die for. On the other hand, there's nothing remotely comic about the dread-ridden, punishingly claustrophobic cinematography, or the calculatedly nauseating production design, or the unrelenting industrial shitstorm of a soundtrack. So if this really truly was all a fluke, then it was one of the luckiest accidents the movies ever produced - whether you want to think it out and pick it apart, or just sit there and let it engulf you, it is basically flawless. On an ideological level this is the most outrageous, lacerating class-revenge fantasy imaginable, and also the most penetrating - the hapless teens come from the same place as the crazed perps, and both are monstrous and sympathetic in baffling turns. This is no good-versus-evil boilerplate, and the happy ending is neither. Most impressively though, the movie scores these points without even requiring you to think - it simply embeds its ideas in the closest approximation of actual nightmare that I ever expect to see in a movie. The medium is the message.

Supergirls Do the Navy

(Henri Pachard, 1984)
This pornfest starts out likably enough, with pretty gals, a reasonably humorous setup, and an occasional snatch of actual cinematography. And there's no rule that says a dirty movie can't fake a multi-chambered 'submarine' by continually redressing the same single boxy set. However, I do remember reading somewhere that dirty movies were supposed to be erotic, or at least enthusiastic; one of these shmucks can't even get it up! The absence of any interesting scenarios is not obscured by the desperate cross-cutting, rendered even more distracting by the incongruous hyperactive musical segues. Eventually the entire movie devolves into a single triple-bunk routine with no energy or invention to speak of - they just hump and blow, hump and blow, either hopping around distractedly or obliviously pounding away with their back to the camera. Other demerits: the Asian gets called a 'commie pinko Chinko', the director's flailing hand is in frame for an entire scene, and in general everyone is shown from the most unattractive angle available - one poor soul even has band-aids on her ankles.

The Shape of Things to Come

(George McCowan, 1979)
Here is a movie that gets over on pacing and energy and absolutely nothing else. The plot - intrepid space bureaucrats travel through space to stop nasty man Jack Palance from staging an intergalactic coup - seems to have lost a little something in the translation from the H. G. Wells original. The actors are attractive, and also earnest to the brink of constipation. The achievements of the special effects department are indicated by the teleportation talents of robot sidekick Sparks, who travels through space via jump cuts - I once taught a video class to a room of ten-year-olds who already knew that trick. But while you may be face-palming for the whole 98 minutes, you might just have a good time doing so; it moves from point to point pretty efficiently, and at each stop there's something wacky going on: nuclear rays, jousting, mutant child-shrubs, comically sped up vehicles, 2001-style space psychedelia topped by a perfectly unexpected lunkheaded punchline, planetary implosion. And let us not the priceless running gag of the enemy robots themselves, who spend the whole movie lumbering around uselessly like an army of epilated Ro-Men.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park

(Gordon Hessler, 1978)
Hessler, you idiot, you are sitting on a gold mine! You've got KISS with superpowers, you've got a mad scientist, you've got an amusement park - what more do you need? Don't try to blame it on the drunken fools in the band - their garbled loutishness gives the film the only entertainment value it's got, and even then they're stuck with the lifeless wide-shot compositions and stupid cop-show repartee. And you don't even allow them on screen for the entire first act! Anthony Zerbe's ostensible supervillain does nothing but sit at a video switcher and hang around with a great number of mimes pretending to be automatons - are we supposed to be impressed? And with the whole park to play with, the best you guys can come up with is to have Zerbe maniacally turn on the machines, spin them for a couple minutes, then maniacally turn them off again. With sponsors Hanna-Barbera leaving their thumbprints everywhere in the form of stupid cops and laser beams, it can't help but retain a lot of camp value. But they never could figure out how to put together a proper feature, and no movie containing this particular Gene Simmons performance has any right to drag this badly.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One More Time

(Ray Dennis Steckler, 2008)
No craft-versus-content tension here. Self shot on retina-scouring Hi 8, Steckler's final film is incredibly ugly and formless - not least because it expends half its running time on huge undigested slabs of "Incredibly Strange Creatures," to which it purports to be a sequel. It gains only the most passing smidgen of resonance from Steckler's autumnal moodiness. The downcast panorama of Santa Cruz, the extended run-ins with his shrink, the hairy bar band playing Steckler's Greatest Hits, the starlet's rejection at the pizzeria, the video store owner who can't scare up an investor for his next movie - all these things add up to a lament for the unfulfilled promise of his own career. But budget or no budget, it's hard to believe that someone who has been making movies for almost half a century could present these themes in such a crudely artless way - swinging his camcorder around aimlessly, squelching from one orphaned unlit episode to the next, the thing is damn near unwatchable. Rest in peace, Ray.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

(Ray Dennis Steckler, 1964)
Far and away the most tiki movie I've ever seen - and if it is bad, then it is bad the way tiki is bad: tasteless, delusional, and full of fun. With absolutely mesmerizing cinematography, competent editing, and constant surprises on the soundtrack, an obvious amount of technical know-how is on evidence behind the camera - the problem is that the director is in front of the camera. Not that Steckler/Flagg's monumentally perverse sensibility doesn't define the thing top to bottom. But the reason it works so well is the obvious tension between the dazzling cinematic presentation and the yard-sale Freudian antics onscreen. Every single character provides a new level of incongruity: the incomprehensible Atlas King, Madame Estrella's halloween-hobo sidekick Ortega, Sharon Walsh's dunderheaded square brother, Steckler's own hoodied layabout - all these clashing poverty-row types coalesce into a discordant symphony of quirk. And while you are right to be suspicious of any horror movie that is fifty percent musical performances, here they actually add to the momentum for once, growing more baroque and hallucinatory with every number.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The King's Regiment

(Allan Levine, 1984)
With zero production values, an incredibly blunt disregard for historical fact, and a bunch of outrageously inaccurate Scottish and English and Yankee accents, this tall tale of 1812 is in fact a glorious and (I think) quite self-aware farce. With its smart-asses and dumb-asses prancing around the Bruce Trail in tall hats and epaulets, it should by all rights have been a turgid disaster, but in fact it's as close as Emmeritus ever came to Cormanesque lightness and verve. The villains bug out their eyes and stamp their feet, the good guys wisecrack and riff and twinkle, and everyone puts out with such bounding enthusiasm that it transcends nitpicking questions of artistry. The narrative makes no sense whatsoever - how did the King of Spain get mixed up in this? What kind of moron would fall for this document-switcheroo scheme anyway? - but that only adds to the fun. The real giveaway is when one of the gratuitous arr-arr pirate guys lapses into - I kid you not - a word-for-word Captain Highliner tribute! What a hoot.

Tropic Thunder

(Ben Stiller, 2008)
How does a movie with this much talent and this many clever ideas wind up so resolutely unfunny? It's like a pitch session suspended in amber - a funeral march of high concepts. That potty-mouth dancing executive was no more or less of a laughless dud after I found out it was Tom Cruise in disguise. Also typical is the fate of the central conceit - they think they're making a movie but it's real! This idea could have been played for a lot of comic mileage, with clever variations stemming from the delusions of each lead. Instead it's worth about three gags in five minutes and then it's over. Whereupon Stiller gets shoved violently into the background - presumably he had his hands full directing, but with him gone the film loses its through line, its momentum, its point. Downey's faux-black routine and Jack Black's heroin withdrawal thing are genuinely inspired, but they are shtick in a vacuum, not least because they are saddled with two Zeppos - Jay Baruchel has a funny organ-loss shtick in the opening scene and then bubkes, while Brandon T. Jackson is there solely to provide distancing commentary on Downey's racial neurosis. This latter is a transparent market-driven plea for clemency and is the most offensive thing about the movie - if half their target audience had been Asians or 'retards', you know damn well they'd have hedged those juvenile burlesques as well.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Hijacking of Studio 4

(Joseph A. Gaudet, 1985)
This latest offering from the Emmeritus pile is surprisingly concentrated and coherent. Most of the first act consists of the crazy guy silently planning his terror campaign, and surprisingly enough it works pretty well - when they aren't looping transparently bogus dialogue over the back of his head. It was quite a task to measure this extended sequence into a narrative comprising some two dozen characters, and sure enough the arcs get lumpy and ends are left dangling; but while the individual players never mesh into an ensemble, that is appropriate to the varied neurotic preoccupations of the characters, and taken one at a time they're functional enough. The recasting of the terrorist as a heroic crusader in the third act is silly, and the expose of corrupt third-world dictatorship is not particularly daring or insightful, but at least they implicate first-world corporatism in the critique. And at the center of that critique is television itself; this made-for-TV movie is startlingly cynical about its chosen medium. Station grunts utter countless home truths about the gap between talent and success, and from very early on the film shows examples of how facts are bent to ideological and economic agendas. The commentary is lent flavour by the control-room procedural stuff, which is quite fun in its mid-80s detail, and it's pretty funny that the evil station owner is portrayed by none other than the Emmeritus mastermind, Lionel Shenken himself. Likable trash.

Panic in the Streets

(Elia Kazan, 1950)
It may be about plague in New Orleans, but it's really about the nature of power and authority in America. City cop Paul Douglas and federal health agent Richard Widmark duke it out among themselves, while testing their jurisdiction over crooks, longshoremen, and the media. Meanwhile, "Walter Jack Palance" demonstrates his remarkably complex reign over the streets - with benevolence, persuasion and coercion all in the kit alongside his startling bursts of violence, he often seems to hold more cards than the 'authorities' themselves. The domestic power structure isn't ignored either, with wives asserting themselves all over the place and Widmark's young son at the center of a dozen tiny battles; the near-mutiny when the ship's captain tries to slough off the plague is another demonstration of the fragile consent on which authority rests. This latter insight insures that there's nothing pat or triumphalist about the film's conclusion; the game continues. The staging is as rich as the themes, strikingly modern in its approach to dialogue and character, and gorgeously designed to boot. Kazan is really on top of this material, and if it doesn't quite pack a knockout punch, that's only because he's playing a different game.


(Lewis Milestone, 1932)
"Yeah, too bad about the soundtrack! Was it the print or the projector?"
"I dunno, but it zapped me for the first half hour or so."
"I thought I heard you breathing heavy."
"Yeah I woke up when Crawford gave her first big speech though."
"Jeez she was wearing a lot of eye liner! I was so glad they ended it like that, with her tricking Walter Huston."
"Oh! Oh. Is that it? I had a different read."
"Yeah, totally, she was doing it to get to him. Otherwise that part where she goes down on her knees going 'our father who art in heaven' would be totally over the top."
"Well, it was theatrical but it was also beautifully modulated. Gee, I thought that she really did convert, but that Huston then came in and violated her and she was like, fuck this."
"Oh, that wouldn't be anywhere near as good."
"Wait though. Then why does Crawford still act all saved when the guy comes to take her to Australia? Huston wasn't even around then."
"Well, it was just a movie thing."
"No way, it would totally screw up the internal logic. I mean, I can't be sure because I missed the setup, but I think the point of the end is that Huston gets everything he wants, and then sees that it's all wrong. That face-drama he goes through in his last scene is incredible!"
"It was very silent-movie. But she seduces him!"
"No no no he responds sexually to her, but it's not about seduction. It's all about him getting power over her through his missionary thing, and about how there's a Freudian angle to that. It's totally ANTI-production code, incredible."
"Aww well I'm disappointed then. I thought it was about woman power."
"Oh come on, the woman doesn't have to be a superhero for it to be good. Isn't it more interesting for the woman to make a mistake, and to learn to be herself from that? I mean, she does go and get married, but still. And isn't it more radical for Huston's fundamentalism to implode on its own than if Crawford is like, ha ha I fooled you?"
"Yeah. Put some Snickers bar on that soy ice cream."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Heatwave Lasted Four Days

(Doug Jackson, 1974)
At the dawn of the era of Canadian sleaze, the National Film Board itself actually got a piece of the action with this film, originally serialized on CBC. Gordon Pinsent plays an amoral TV cameraman who neglects his family in favor of hard drinkin' and wooing bikini-clad teenagers. When he accidentally captures escaped convict Lawrence Dane on his news camera, he tries to play the situation to his advantage, but then things get complicated. In a sense this is the mirror-image of "The Silent Partner" - no one is particularly clever, and the ending is designed as a stern lesson that crime does not pay. Unfortunately the lack of shifting power dynamics between antihero and villain means that Pinsent, who is a great heel, doesn't really have that much to do; he simply disappears for a big chunk of the second half, tripping up the momentum as he cedes center stage to the criminals. The film-manipulation motif of the early scenes is not followed through, Al Waxman's news director disappears well before the climax, and the musical commentary is absurd. Still, while the film's moralizing anti-thriller posture is ultimately an annoyance, the film does have a decent bag of tricks - there's a respectable attention to internal logic, and a real sense of malevolent tension runs through it. Also, the costume and set design are 70s to the max, a genuine bonus.

The Highroller

(Peter McCubbin, 1984)
If you can cut through the usual Emmeritus chintz, this familiar tale of an immature shlub bilking his own bank is pretty watchable. As usual, its relative success relates to character and theme rather than style: we see enough of Jeff Holec's daily routine to establish him as a character, while the genuinely painful yacht party intrusion toward the beginning sets up a pervasive class-consciousness. While the sound editing is notably bad, the camera placement is more considered than usual; there's even a few reasonably elegant dolly moves. Sure, gambling shots can get almost as tiring as driving shots; and at the climax they ask us to believe that Holec's escort girlfriend could safely remove and run off with his diamond-packed shoe when security has already shot him for smuggling and has him surrounded. As the heist plot climaxes it looks like the film will just nudge into the upper tier of this company's output, tighter and smarter than usual while remaining typically dull and ugly and missing something at its center. However, nothing - and I mean nothing - can prepare you for the big twist ending, which comes out of absolutely nowhere, undermines everything the film had going for it up to that point, and suddenly transforms the whole into some kind of camp masterpiece. I nearly fell out of my chair; the sheer dunderheaded audacity of the thing is hugely entertaining and takes the whole enterprise to a new, unexplored level of glorious trashiness. It works better if you don't see it coming, so please try to forget you read this review!

The Last Tycoon

(Elia Kazan, 1976)
As the profoundly enigmatic object of movie mogul Robert De Niro's affections, Ingrid Boulting presents a riddle you may not be patient enough to figure out. On the most obvious level, she is a real-life riposte to the perfect-woman idealism that De Niro demands of his scriptwriters, shaped and distorted by his sorrow for a lost love. Boulting is gorgeous and sensual, yes, but also contradictory, remote, and ultimately unknowable; and while her halting self-assurance and intrusively elusive backstory do prevent her scenes from getting too predictable, Kazan's mannered staging here is almost as remote as her character. At least Boulting gets two bookending scenes which partake of the otherwise pervasive razzle-dazzle - the disintegrating diagetic orchestra of the dancing scene and the eye-contact-through-the-lens of the finale are as perfect as the two-part earthquake gag that sets things up. The first act is all insouciant energy and satire, as a mind-boggling array of powerhouse performers fill the screen in perfect harmony and balance. Later on Jack Nicholson shows up to show everyone how to underplay with wit and energy, and De Niro responds well to his cue, finally turning his relentless deadpan to outright comic effect. Theresa Russell's inspired sassy kid plays Bel Geddes to Boulting's Novak, but while the middle third may be valid and even profound, I still wish that it was more entertaining.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Brood

(David Cronenberg, 1979)
OK - ever read any Philip K. Dick? One of his novels is called "Clans of the Alphane Moon," which on one level is an allegory about psychiatric disorders but in the main is a book about this detective in outer space whose wife is a total bitch! No way to put a positive ideological spin on that one either, but also no getting around that the man was a brilliant, eccentric visionary who could spin gold out of that kind of trash. With this film - although far from his best work -Cronenberg took a big step toward Dick's league. Same shit going on here - the viciously contrarian self-help mutation satire is a mere sidebar to the impassioned, delirious estranged-wife-as-monster misogyny, and Art Hindle's bland normality leaves no room for self-criticism either. We're just trapped in a room with this raging divorcee, rubbing our noses in his inchoate, flesh-rendingly hateful metaphors, and because he happens to also be some kind of genius, his imagery gets under your skin and the film generates tons of horrific impact. Howard Shore's music is like fingernails on a blackboard, and the devious shock cuts are no more or less unnerving than what lies lingering in plain view. If it's frequently horrifying for all the wrong reasons, well, at least it makes art out of it.

Blue Murder

(Charlie Wiener, 1985)
Coming as it does from the director of "Fireballs", it's a wonder this movie provides even a couple scant pleasures - one perfectly played running gag built around the phrase "pinched the wrong guy's bum", and a few performances that are at least relaxed. They even bring in good ol' Bob Segarini for soundtrack and cameo. But this Blake guy at the center of things is a total vacuum - no backstory, no motivation, none but the most arbitrary relationship to the main action. The who's-murdering-the-porn-magnates plot is halting and disjointed; you can easily guess the killer in his first scene, characters appear and disappear at random intervals, and the ending would be supremely anticlimactic even if it weren't predicated on Blake suddenly developing psychic gifts. Apparently shot on film, it remains drenched in Emmeritus's trademark cheese nonetheless; fun to hoot at, but not one camera placement or edit point adds an iota of interest to this hopeless script.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


(William Sachs, 1980)
What few points this movie scores are almost entirely creditable to a young Chris Walas, whose creature design is silly and cute. I was rooting for Dorothy Stratten, really I was, but her transformation from robot sex object to human sex object lurches forward in such unconvincing spasms that she couldn't have impressed even if she was in fact capable of impressing. And funny? Forget it. The script is adrift in some misbegotten hyperspace between Fleer Funnies and strip-club standup, Avery Schreiber's ultra-cornball overstatement is the closest thing the movie contains to a performance, and the direction is almost obsessively lethargic. Sure, OK, "Dark Star" was lethargic too. Only "Dark Star" was about lethargy, and reeked of intelligence and invention too. This reeks like it was scribbled on the wall of a Borscht Belt toilet.


(Les Rose, 1981)
Some kind of mutant beast - this gas-crisis caper oozes money from every frame, yet it's as shoddily conceived as the worst zero-budget hack job. Its manic smut smells vaguely like the lowbrow commercial cinema of European lore, and there are frantic memory cues to everything from Curly Howard to the Keystone Kops to...Robert Altman? But it's as though everyone involved were promised a second draft that got lost in the mail. Donald Sutherland, Sterling Hayden, Susan Anspach - they all look desperate and depressed. Somewhere buried under the unrelenting clutter is Sandee Currie's potentially appealing love interest, but even she's sandwiched between a barely-there Howie Mandel and Peter Aykroyd doing Kung Fu. Down below that are three skids full of vile regurgitated race humour, mainly generating horrified empathy for the performers; an orgy of crashing cars standing in for a third act; and let's not forget the fat ladies. Such an absolute piece of shit that its technical competence compounds the waste.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Propos de Nice

(Jean Vigo/Boris Kaufman, 1930)
This priceless, jokey little movie has got to be one of the very first self-conscious assaults on the 'documentary' aesthetic. Purporting to do for Nice what Walter Ruttmann did for Berlin, in fact the movie is constantly delving below surfaces, or else simply defacing them, with the obvious intent of generating as much outrage as possible. There's plenty of shots of the various goings-on about town, but from the opening animation of tourist puppets being swept up by the croupier, everything is subject to the most explicitly subjective commentary imaginable: a rich lady is intercut with an ostrich; a filthy alleyway precedes a lavish ballroom dance; grotesque papier-mache parade mascots give way to closeups of the miserable guys inside the costumes, and soon the whole parade devolves into a violent flower-flinging riot. One hilarious scene cuts from street musicians to countless citizens dozing in their chairs, then to a shot of a woman, which turns out to be staged as we dissolve to her in outfit after outfit, until finally she sits naked! Another sexual outrage comes toward the end, as a gang of excitingly plain women mug carnally for the camera while we look casually up their skirts. Definitely driven by contempt, but it's healthy and well-aimed contempt, ridiculing the artifice and inattention that has typified tourist-bureau cinema since the genre was invented. And it's more than justified by the mad invention and energy that the filmmakers - and their subjects - bring to the project.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Far Shore

(Joyce Wieland, 1976)
It is said that Wieland had a difficult time making this movie, and as someone who comes at film from the visual arts, it figures - narrative film has its own rules and hierarchies. Also its own cliches. This antique tale of a woman (Celine Lomez) who abandons her high-society husband for a Group of Seven-type nature artist worked well enough in the early scenes for me to cagily suspend my animus against mannered period dramas. The staging is precise as well as deliberate, the scenario scores a couple nice points off puritan philistinism, and Larry Benedict's neurotic social climber is fitfully charming as well as tight-assed, leaving the pure hateful stuff to professional drunk Sean McCann who provides some welcome counterpoint. As soon as things truck up to the woods, though, we're in big trouble, as narrative and characters alike dissolve into hackneyed metaphor: one guy is Civilization, the other guy is Nature, and in her escape to the latter the girl finds Freedom. As a result, the relationship between Lomez and the painter never gets a chance to develop; there's plenty of ambiguity about how this woodsy loner could sustain a relationship with this cultured, strong-minded woman, but the film unwisely abandons such concerns in favour of the usual shots of canoes and big rocks. And one good dynamite-at-the-picnic gag cannot make me forgive the Easy Rider-style climax - the worst and most familiar kind of sentimental fatalism. How did the creator of "Rat Life And Diet In North America" get dragged into exactly the kind of obscurantist nature-mystic claptrap which that film lampooned so brilliantly? By getting in over her head, is my wholly uneducated guess.


(Paul Lynch, 1986)
Here is a movie that really does not know what it wants to be. The triple-crossing gangster narrative might conceivably make some kind of sense if you applied yourself to it I guess. But who cares? Whenever Harry Caul, I mean Harvey Keitel, is on screen, the movie is a brooding surveillance procedural with dark overtones of tragedy and loss; when he's not, the movie is an overdrawn melodrama bordering on farce. All the 'clever ideas' - the surveillance tape in the hi-fi store, explaining the corpse at the RIDE checkpoint, the yelling at Santa Claus - make the Keitel stuff seem even more alienated, while simultaneously making the menacing criminals look like utter buffoons. Not that Michael Rudder's lead thug needed any help; his sneering grandstand routine makes you want to avert your eyes and plug your ears. And anyway why does everyone keep conducting their highly sensitive conspiratorial dialogues at top volume in public places like shopping malls and porcelain museums? Rudder and conspirator Alan Fawcett even rent adjacent rooms, but there they go trudging out to the gas station. Everyone was clearly so awestruck at having Keitel on set that they forgot to call upon him to act; he mostly just stands there, except for one scene where he throws an inexplicable hissy fit on Lolita Davidovitch and then they go camp out in a used car for no good reason. The most unforgivable botch yet from Paul Lynch, who was handed a mismatched bunch of parts and crafted them into...a mismatched bunch of parts.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Crimes of the Future

(David Cronenberg, 1970)
Cronenberg's second feature length shot is no radical departure from the first - still obscure, still static, still dwarfed by that hypermodern architectural location. But it is an advance. The color cinematography is more precise than that of "Stereo", and the silences are broken by bizarre, muffled sound loops that sound like nature LPs put through a Seth Brundle telepod. The narrative has taken on more forward motion this time, and is better integrated with the voiceover. And the absurdist humour is more precise, more pervasive, and less improvisational: you feel he's got control over the actors as well as the camera. And in the final sequence he pulls a real gotcha, as the rebel doctors set out to impregnate the little girl they have kidnapped; this palpably tasteless, horrifying scenario could have been played for easy irony, but the scene carefully choreographs a series of complex and challenging emotional reactions to this 'strange, unfathomable captive', sending us out the door on a mind-bending curve that both foreshadows and illuminates his later bravura nose-thumbing atrocities.


(David Cronenberg, 1969)
Cronenberg's first feature is a bizarre, distended thing, whose real star is the location. I'm guessing we're looking at York University campus; regardless, every obscure tableau he stages is self-consciously dwarfed by the forbidding institutional architecture that houses it. The sporadic voiceover that occasionally rises from the silence suggests that we're watching a narrative about a sexual telepathy clinic whose mandate goes seriously awry. If you concentrate, you can see how this relates to the onscreen shenanigans in a linear and probably even preplanned way - it's not just precious mannerisms, although it is that as well. The film makes the most of its visual material with a special thing for fisheye pans, and it runs free love through a dystopian sci-fi wringer in a way that will be familiar to fans of his later work, even including a giveaway throw to "Scanners". But after a while it does get tedious, and while Cronenberg's iconoclasm remains enjoyable and felt, minimalist sci-fi on no budget was always easier to pull off in print than on screen.

Fast Company

(David Cronenberg, 1979)
Unless "The Devil At Your Heels" counts, this is the best racecar film I've seen, which is naturally to be credited to the director. Out to prove that he could sublimate his signature quirks into a workmanlike commercial approach, Cronenberg does his best work with actors to this date: the genre's usual range of saints and evildoers and women with hearts of gold are so free of histrionics it's almost disorienting. He even finds space to get a little perverse; the obligatory sex scene prominently involves motor oil, and the way the men melt into the machines in the racing sequences is as distinctive as the attentive accumulations of mechanical detail that set them up. Also check out his striking and atypical use of silence during the speedway's downtimes. You could even argue that the lurid flaming death at the climax plays to his preferences as well, but that would be stretching things - more likely it's another booby-trap courtesy of the derivative hack-job script he's been given to work with. That he can wring any dinner at all out of this dish rag is a credit to his talents, but come on - he's a director, not an alchemist.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Changeling

(Peter Medak, 1979)
Dogged by a vague feeling of emptiness - of mobile fisheye lenses and dutch angles overcompensating for flat patches, of Scooby-Doo like sleuthing rationalizing the horror away. Perhaps because of the latter, some of the supporting performances bring to mind seventies TV rather than Val Lewton - shallow and silly. But you don't really go looking for depth or high seriousness in a haunted house movie, do you? You go looking for the creeps. And there's some real good ones here. I'm partial to the extended sequences centering on the rubber ball and the well; the wheelchair is a good idea too but they milk it a bit too hard. George C. Scott may not get much of a workout, but he does carry the film almost single-handedly for long stretches, and the leads are each given one fleeting emotive moment to heighten our engagement. In short, a shaggy dog with a couple new tricks, executed with economy, a dandy sense of rhythm and composition, and that special Drabinsky touch of chintzy 'class'.

The Blood of Others

(Claude Chabrol, 1984)
The great concern of this film is the way love interacts with the inhumane psychological pressures of war. It offers three case studies: Jodie Foster's callow fashion designer joins the resistance in the name of personal love, Michael Ontkean places his convictions above his emotions, and Sam Neill is a Nazi whose crush on Foster ties him in gordian knots. Based on Simone de Beauvoir's novel, and directed by old master Chabrol, it's not for lack of brains that this movie hits the dirt. But if Chabrol can speak English at all, he can't direct it. The entire first hour is impossibly stilted and distant; Foster's refusal to emote generates more frustration than insight, and she sets the tone for the rest of the cast. It's a relief when Neill finally shows up, because he's not so on guard against melodrama; but by then he has to cram his broad character arc into such a small handful of scenes that he ultimately fares little better. Even the reasonably tense third-act suspense sequences fail, because they don't advance Foster's character; if she's progressed beyond romantic self-interest by then she's keeping it to herself, and she's pretty much along for the ride in the climactic jail break. Lots of small moments and nuances that never add up to anything are crammed between loving shots of expensive set design and the kind of gratuitous cameos (Kate Reid, John Vernon) that signal the worst kind of international coproduction - too many cooks in the kitchen.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Face In the Crowd

(Elia Kazan, 1957)
A visionary fusion of social-commentary pic and farce, styled for the new age of television. I admit I did not imagine Andy Griffith capable of such a charismatic, impassioned performance as down-home Arkansas demagogue Lonesome Rhodes, whose jailhouse radio interview sets him on his archetypal rags-to-riches way. But while he starts by broadcasting home truths to housewives and ends by asking where that "uncomplicated unliberated woman" has gone, he's no more of a swindler at the end than he was at the start - he's just playing for bigger stakes. What has changed is that his main audience is now the sponsor instead of the listener; so where he once used his perch to get even at the sheriff he's now using it to suck up to the senator, and where he once required an audience, now he's got sycophants and canned applause. Everyone else is playing an angle as well - even Walter Matthau's truth-teller gets a piece with his tell-all book deal. At first the satire is so broad, with listeners playing Pavlovian dog to Rhodes' every suggestion, that it seems like the truth value will be undermined by the cynicism. But that's before the indescribably bravura Vitajex promo sequence takes broad to a whole new level: after that the film becomes an all-over-the-map fusion of classical drama, self-reflexive burlesque, and fearless carnal showmanship. From the down-home baton twirl, to the expiry of the sweaty account executive, to the single desperate gasp Patricia Neal makes when Griffith leaves her apartment, to Griffith's hopeless assault on the pointedly black servants who will no longer do his bidding, every moment is intensely complex and fully realized. And as Lonesome Rhodes yowls into the night and Matthau delivers his closing remarks, you can't help but feel that the whole cacophonous ordeal can also be read as the flipside of director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg's "On The Waterfront" - a final and unanswerable repudiation of the ultimate hick demagogue turned media darling, Mr. Joseph McCarthy himself.

Death Lords

(Neil Ayers, 1979)
Messy and amateurish don't have to equal disaster: this incredibly lowbrow biker comedy shows more sense of comic timing and surprise than most films with actual budgets. From the opening shakedown of the innocent school girl, to the multi-planed gag of the nerd's crumpled dollar bills, to the fire in the station wagon, to the entire absurd subplot with Satan's messenger trying to off them, this movie knows how to get the most out of its gags. It's a shame that the misogyny gets heavy a couple times, because otherwise the stoopid stuff is all in front of the camera - and while I don't approve of the DVD reissue pasting on new music and useless computer animation sequences, I guess if George Lucas can do it they can too.

Read me at Canuxploitation!

Hey - I've written a feature review of Science Crazed (capsule below) for the most wicked web site. You can read it here!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Birds of Prey

(Jorge Montesi, 1985)
Around the one-hour mark a couple actors are actually called upon to act, which is so disastrous that it clicks in just how much the filmmakers have managed to achieve with their scant resources. No stupid repartee or filler driving shots in this Edmonton police procedural; its tale of murder and mistaken identity is terse above all. Jorge Montesi does his best Dirty Harry impersonation as "Detective Carter Solo"; he's also the director, editor, co-writer, co-producer, art director and sometime camera operator. But unlike most one-man shows, he clearly knows what he's doing, giving us clever staging, smart tension devices, memorable images and remarkably compact storytelling. The film hardly even suffers as it disperses its narrative haphazardly between three protagonists - Montesi, the small time crook caught in the frameup, and the silent female assassin - one of several women who are strong enough to defeat their own objectification. It's no great font of moral wisdom that's for sure, and some elements are secondhand, and the clever ending doesn't quite come off. Also, is that the Kraft Cheese guy voicing the shadowy underworld boss? But on balance, it does its formula proud.

Where the Wild Things Are

(Spike Jonze, 2009)
I love this movie very much even though I am aware of its flaws - mainly an excessive schematism in the portrayal of the wild things themselves. With no choice but to move beyond the perfect primal simplicity of Sendak's book, the movie turns them into almost a catalogue of juvenile neuroses. The angry kid, the low-self-esteem kid, the mouthy kid, the loner - it's an elephantine Seven Dwarfs. Every incident is telegraphed as a Freudian symbol, so that the movie never becomes a wild thing in itself. But while the design may be linear, it's also deep - in addition to nailing the unsolvable messiness of childhood, the Max-as-king charade provides an unforced commentary on grown-up dilemmas from nationalism to xenophobia to love itself. So while the softening of Sendak's finale is a bit suspect, it's also emotionally devastating - the chicken's false stick-arm is a piercing symbol of the mistakes that can't be undone, and the angry thing's final helpless yowl can mean whatever you want it to mean. And I'm positive that the Henson folks' incredible character designs - you can feel them, you can smell them - compounds the impact.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bedroom Eyes

(William Fruet, 1984)
**spoiler alert** Having established his admiration for the master with the Psycho-for-Dummies of "Funeral Home", here Fruet serves up Rear Window with a dash of Spellbound: jogging voyeur Kenneth Gilman falls in with comely psychiatrist Dayle Haddon, before his kink gets him caught up in all kinds of shady intrigue. Needless to say, the film doesn't benefit from the comparison. It's frustrating how they keep pulling us out of the characters' point of view with cheat flashbacks or overdoses of stupid detective, and the pacing and cinematography are both damagingly pedestrian. By the more, er, modest yardstick of Robert Lantos sex schlock, however, it succeeds pretty well; at times the voyeurism theme actually feels like something more than an excuse to show pretty women undressing, and Gilman and Haddon are genuinely appealing and show genuine chemistry. So it's almost tragic that the filmmakers had to boil it all down to a murderous ex-hooker who thinks that "all men are pimps" - not just a stupid device, but a shamefully irrelevant one, unless of course they're working a moral angle, something along the lines of 'being a deviant will get you killed,' which I could also live without.

Funeral Home

(William Fruet, 1980)
Not bad at all. As a proudly slumming Certified Canadian Cinema Artist, Fruet adds some juice to this elemental eighties horror scenario, getting the most out of a pretty good bunch of actors and playing each situation for as much horror, comedy or pathos as it will support. The flashbacks are well integrated, and the occasional gore is incidental to the unnervingly careful pacing and genuinely creepy atmosphere, with credit also due to Jerry Fielding's excellent score and Mark Irwin's moody-to-murky cinematography. And while it's not hard to guess where things are going, it doesn't really bother you until you get there, at which point the Psycho ripoff becomes a bit too overbearing, and the staging slips into cluttered chaos. But the critique of rural parochialism is textured with digs at equally obnoxious urban types, and the treatment of the 'slow' yard hand is refreshingly kind; they even have the grace to bury the ludicrous pop-psych wrapup under the end credits.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Funny Farm

(Ron Clark, 1983)
Showcases the hilarious on- and offstage shenanigans of some of today's most lovable standup comics, while simultaneously exposing the dark side of the entertainment business. That's the pitch, anyway. In the real world, though, every last shred of attempted wit - much of it furnished by Canadian comedy's alleged A-list - is labored, infantile, or just DOA; and the backstage commentary is self-pitying and hackneyed. In this the film does provide its own kind of statement regarding the state of the comic mind, and for a while the tone is so uniformly ugly, so bizarrely joyless, that it seems deliberate, some kind of big artistic statement. But in the end things revert to completely incongruous keep-your-chin-up homilies, and the box does promise that 'the laughs are nonstop' I guess it's just another crappy movie after all. Oh well.

The Boy In Blue

(Charles Jarrott, 1986)
Rocky meets Canadian Heritage Minutes, so be thankful that it's not absolutely unwatchable. The underdog-friendly class consciousness is pervasive and fitfully amusing, although it's schematic and sentimental as well. Heroic rowing star/bootlegger Nicolas Cage is his usual dopey, wooden, charming self, and he has some lively moments, especially when he comes into conflict with the starched shirt types. Christopher Plummer's villainous manager is nothing to write home about, but even he transcends this material; in all other cases the costumes and hair seem to be doing all the acting. The frantically underlined Careful Research, and the general odor of educational intent, smother the noble gestures at comedy, and the pricey period detail of the production design is wholly undermined by a dramatic arc that is pure 1980s bootstrap trash.


(Paul Lynch, 1986)
It's not really about gymnastics; tweak the occasional montages and it could just as easily be about archery or microbiology or a booger-flicking tournament. Instead, like every other Rocky/Flashdance derivative that flooded the 80s market, it's about conquering adversity with stick-to-it-iveness, rendering all social/personal realities irrelevant by your lonesome - with love interest standing by of course. Ronald Reagan top to bottom, in short; so as a piece of cinema it's down to the details. Some of the actors are quirky enough to liven things up - especially the love interest, brought to you by none other than Mr. Keanu Reeves, warming up for Ted; heroine Olivia D'Abo's hateful alkie dad and big-hair stepsister are more interesting than the sickly mom or her utterly inert bitch-nemeses/teammates, one of whom appears to be made of porcelain. It's my instinct to be appalled by the comic-relief black guys, but on the other hand at least they're in the movie. But D'Abo doesn't quite convince with her awkward-girl shtick, and in the absence of any other narrative focus the lack of interest in the gymnastics themselves really does matter; it's all just bodies hurtling around, and not only is the outcome of the big tournament a foregone conclusion, it's all performed by an obvious double.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gallery of Horror

(David L. Hewitt, 1967)
Hewitt's trademark is vaulting ambition approached with the scantest possible means, and when he applies himself to a horror anthology format the result is gruesome and calamitous, and kind of fascinating for it. The first story relates to a bewitched grandfather clock and just about the whole damn thing is shot from a single camera setup. The second tackles vampirism, first from a police HQ with the unmistakable acoustics of an empty warehouse, then from a streetside crowd scene almost entirely composed of offscreen murmurs; the louts who do wander into frame offer the most fascinatingly various and mangled British accents on record. Volume three mainly features the rantings of a corpse over some looped footage borrowed from Roger Corman, to whose bountiful resources Hewitt can only aspire longingly, with the added bonus of Rochelle Hudson (James Dean's mom in Rebel Without a Cause!) playing one seriously antiquated love interest. Lon Chaney stumbles on set for part four, a Frankenstein variant whose loutish flatness does actually take on a certain lovable aspect in this company, especially the two guys pretending to be frat boys. Finally we return to the vampire theme in part five, accompanied by the dumbest twist ending of the lot, not to mention the most haphazard pan-and-scan job in a crowded field. Toastmaster John Carradine shows up once in a while and mumbles into his sleeve.

Fly With the Hawk

(Robert Tanos, 1985)
Personally I'd rather be lost in the woods - it couldn't possibly be this boring in real life. After extensive debriefing by a friendly trapper dude, bullied city kid Peter Snook walks, camps and lights a fire, then walks, camps and lights a fire again, for an entire winter, with nothing so much as an incident to show for it. When something finally does happen at the very end, though, it shows the production's hand. All those woodland survival skills, and all that gratuitously appropriated Indian iconography, was just a means to a normative end, so that the kid could trot on back to the civilization he left behind, redeemed by his new self-reliance, spared the slightest reckoning with the reform-school bullies and pigheaded administrators that inspired him to run away in the first place. This is bad ideology and bad dramatics, squandering every opportunity for conflict let alone insight; all life's problems are washed away by alternating beauty shots of trees and birds - exactly the kind of rampant longeuers that separate the wheat from the chaff in Emmeritus Productions' cockeyed universe. And just when you think they can't betray your trust an inch further, along comes the stupid twist ending.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

(Nicholas Gessner, 1976)
Where most 'international' cinematic ventures are crass exercises in lowest-common-denominator mathematics, this film is a remarkable fusion: clean-cut North American narrative meets European philosophical desperation. You can't imagine how the movie occurred to anyone, and you can't quite believe you're even watching it. It's almost like an evil twin to Jodie Foster's other Canadian tax-shelter film of the same year, Echoes of a Summer: a made-for-TV type movie about a resourceful kid in a small town and her precocious little friend, only in this one there's bodies in the basement, Martin Sheen tortures her hamster, and the beloved controlling father figure has gone away for good, leaving only his warped imprint on Foster's brain. Her project is to resist the corruption of 'normal' society by any means necessary, and the slowly revealed outcome is devouring solitude and emotional self-devastation. By the time we get to the mind-bending final scene, the horror is complete: unable to envision any escape beyond the horrific desperation her father has implanted, she fails to achieve even that; and yet there in front of her is ample evidence that the outside world really is irredeemably evil. Gessner (where'd he come from? where'd he go?) takes us all the way into Foster's head without losing his balance for a second. The style is simple yet impossibly sneaky, just like the script, just like every one of the performances.

Body Count

(Lionel Shenken, 1986)
On the surface this looks like a fairly nondescript entry in producer Shenken's made-for-Hamilton-TV oeuvre, lacking both high concept and flamboyant weirdness while suffering the usual lapses in script, performance and direction. Nonetheless, this time there's actually something to lapse from: the narrative is remarkably coherent by the usual Emmeritus standards, the actors generate an impressive amount of interest, and the direction is focused and terse. Strictly formulaic Canadian action-movie stuff, suffused with unintended camp, and yet the site-specific miniaturism of the cheeseball SVHS production somehow gives added texture (if not depth) to the pervasive born-loser fatalism. From cop to cabbie to cashier, these characters are really going nowhere, and that we can call them characters at all places this a good cut above the norm.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pellatt Newsreel: The Man Who Built Casa Loma

(Barbra Cooper, 2008)
I'm writing this review as a protest, because this informational video almost wrecked my rather pricey visit to Casa Loma. I'm willing to entertain that there might be an argument in favor of rich guy Henry Pellatt as a citizen or as a man - what do I know? But the way to make that argument is the same way they make it in the interpretive materials of the museum itself - in balance with at least a token effort at intellectual honesty. Don't ask us to admire him for controlling a quarter of the entire economy of Canada. Don't portray public utilities as a Communist plot. Don't ask us to pity HIM because he would only refer to his niece as 'girl'. The very worst thing about this remote, brainless, obnoxious puff piece is the way Colin Mochrie's momentarily 'ironic' narration expresses just enough contempt for the material to cover his ass. And it was nominated for a Gemini. Lord help us all.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Big Deal

(Barry Healy, 1985)
This corny, anachronistic, measly excuse for a film has problems that only begin with the erratic cinematography and atrocious, hyper-literal musical score. Healy's only feature as director stretches the farce-of-misunderstanding to its limit, relying on speed and clutter to distract us from some extremely questionable turns of logic. And yet, somehow, the movie steamrolls past its failings to take on a good deal of clunky charm. Most of this can be attributed to the performers, literally dozens of third-stringer pros who attack the material like a starving man at a banquet; they are so enthusiastic that the quality of the material almost becomes irrelevant. It's particularly entertaining to watch the heterosexual flirtations of several transparently gay actors, including Louis Negin in his pre-Guy Maddin days, but from the horny housewife to the Scottish hit man to the suicidal East Indian fellow, virtually every actor brings the shtick. Even the Rick Moranis and Al Waxman stand-ins are tolerable. And the pervasive sexism is so received that it doesn't offend; it's adult sexism, give-the-people-what-they-want dinner theatre type stuff. In fact, with Honest Ed's a principal location and Anne Mirvish popping by as a secretary, this movie could hardly exist without the benign, showy, proudly mercenary example of Saint Ed Mirvish himself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

River of No Return

(Otto Preminger, 1954)
It's Robert Mitchum as Civilized Man! Protecting his wheat farm, his kid, and saloon broad Marilyn Monroe from the tribulations of the (Canadian??) Wild West, including Monroe's sleazeball card sharp boyfriend, a terribly generic and perfunctory buncha Injuns who can't even shoot, some horny prospectors, and the titular river, which they must navigate by raft to retrieve Mitchum's gun and horse. Everything looks gorgeous in Cinemascope (Monroe most definitely included) and there are clever tidbits throughout, but after a spectacularly detailed opening sequence at the prospectors' encampment things do thin out, with Mitchum and co. mainly duking it out with a bunch of wholly unconvincing rear projections. If Bob is so resourceful how come he can't get more than a measly rump roast out of that elk? The original 3-D process was probably supposed to pick up some of the dramatic slack, as usual. Monroe has a bit of difficulty wedging her persona into the tough-broad routine; she looks pretty out of place on that raft. And there's little critique to be seen as Mitchum's machismo, or generational projections thereof, provide the only resolution to whatever conflicts happen to arise. In that vein, the (studio-imposed?) final scene is so objectionable that it has got to be some kind of a joke, right? Right? One more knee-slapper: Monroe's first song is called "Changing Hands", and she pretends to play it on guitar...only she doesn't change her hands.

Seven Chances

(Clyde Bruckman, 1925)
The movie is three-quarters over before Keaton gets his first decent pratfall, and while you could argue that the slow build is part of what makes the end sequence so spectacular, there's also grounds to agree with Keaton that this material was wrong for him. What's he doing playing a stockbroker? The filmmakers wisely reduce what must have been a few scenes' worth of first-act exposition in the original stage play to a single title card, thus sparing us the details of the financial calamity that justifies the marrying-for-money scenario. You can see them cutting swaths through the material to create some outlet, any outlet, for the visual/physical scenarios that Keaton lives for; it's a good thing he's got the lovable Snitz Edwards on hand to serve the material when they can't get away with subverting it. But once the random marriage propositions start in earnest, all fuss is set aside and the film becomes one inexorable, glorious, hyper-extended crescendo, working the premise so outrageously hard that it takes on the force of nature itself - literally. Not even a full half dozen agonizing race-baiting gags can throw Keaton off his glorious, peerless stride.

Preamble: ImagineNative shorts program

It should go without saying that the existence of indigenous filmmaking initiatives - and film festivals like ImagineNative to encourage them - are good things in and of themselves. It doesn't, unfortunately. So I'm saying it, and I'll also mention that it's entirely possible that some of these films may not be designed primarily for an interloper's eyes, making my critical insights less than scientific. But that's no radical departure around here.

Also, while it wasn't quite a movie, let me add a slack-jawed ovation for Tanya Tagaq, who breezed through the festival on two occasions and whose 'contemporary' take on Inuit throat singing floored me both solo and in collective improv: without surrendering an inch of her heritage she effortlessly fuses the left-field passion of Yoko Ono with the centerfield technical command and reach of American Idol, and I mean both as the greatest of compliments. Her impassioned, multi-role embodiment of the Northern life cycle in the CGI short "Tungijuq" was a highlight as well.

Shout Out Loud Youth Program

Excavating lived experience for personal truths is not guaranteed to move an audience; as always, the trick is to give it form, On that score, the films I caught in this program were the expected mixed bag. The fascinating cultural complexities depicted in "Bollywood Dreaming" - portrait of a cocky teenage Aboriginal Afro-American skater/boxer/movie star in waiting - gain no resonance with the businesslike TV-profile presentation. As the title suggests, David Sam's bullying confessional "This Is Me" is more direct, balancing auto-peptalk with memorable first person imagery. Kiefer Collison's "Our World" ties together scenes of Haida Gwaii with an elder's reflections on youth in a brief affirmation that is ultimately kind of scattered. Of the two big-budget New Zealand films, Ainsley Gardiner's wonderful "Mokopuna" tackles race and class complexities among pre-teens with minimal dialogue and maximum impact, while Wiremu Grace's "Kehua" offers a window on a Catholic/Maori funeral ceremony - fascinating, but less elegant in its arc and mysteriously sour in characterization. Of the two Toronto filmmakers, Joel George's death-in-the-family allegory "Memories" is touching and successful except for the central, kinda heavy-handed necklace theme, while Adam Garnet Jones's "Go Get Dad" is a bit too rushed and superficial in its treatment of the First Nations generation gap. Finally, in "Kir Otei Ntcotco (For You, Mom)" young filmmaker Mariana Niquay-Ottawa uses video as a platform to reconcile with her long-suffering mother, and it is both touching and beautiful; but the pictorial beauty is of a familiar, arty sort that was almost certainly imposed by her mentor/cameraperson, and as a result it doesn't quite mesh.

Non-Compliance: Experimental Shorts

Often shaping a single governing idea into the most miniature of exclamations, many of these short-shorts were deliberately slight. Some were slight and gorgeous (Christiana Latham's "Soldier Toys"; Alexus Young's "Gimme My Fix", Kevin Papatie's "Worlds Apart"); some were slight and charming (Dana Claxton's "Her Sugar Is?"; Simeon Ross's delirious "Penicillium Roqueforti"); several others were just slight. Slightly less slight were Bear Witness's smartly rhythmic Hollywood gaze-collage "Eyes" and Steven Loft's calculatedly nightmarish "down(town) time", which split-screens Loretta Lynn barroom karaoke with a racial assault in the bathroom. Amanda Strong's "Honey For Sale" was not slight at all - a deeply textured lament for honeybees that brilliantly combines advocacy and beauty - abstract instructionism, perhaps? And amid all this were two true epics: beric Manywounds' "I Heard A Light", whose depiction of three women moving through Vancouver toward some kind of spiritual awakening is so ambiguous it's compelling; and "Horse" by Archer Pechawis, a fable of domesticated animals in enlightened revolution that isn't ambiguous, or slight, in the slightest.

Embargo Collective

Embargo is an adventure into rule-based filmmaking by seven indigenous filmmakers, urged away from their familiar styles and genres into unexplored territory. Attracting some of the most accomplished filmmakers in the festival, each met their own challenge in their own way - not always with success. I was very sorry to miss the first two films, especially because the tail end of the second, Helen Haig-Brown's "The Cave", was visually spectacular and kinetic even without the setup. Documentary specialist Lisa Jackson ventured into musical territory with "Savage", which follows a mother's kitchen-table lament with a covert residential-school zombie dance a la "Thriller". Sadly, the parts neither cohere nor feel fully realized on their own. Taika Waititi's "White Tiger" got the biggest reaction of the night with its self-referential mockery of tradition fetishism, although it did have to break if not flaunt the program's rules to do so. Naughty naughty. Sterlin Harjo's "Three Little Boys" follows a group of kids on a reluctant trip to church; the film is the most dramatically fluid of the program, but the slice-of-life ambiguity of the ending is frustrating, and the nods to iconoclasm impossibly mild. "b. Dreams" drags Blackhorse Lowe kicking and screaming into the realm of romantic comedy, and while he provides some inspired situations, he ultimately suffers from a lack of comic timing. No such problem with "First Contact"; Rima Tamou's endearing shaggy-dog tale features two Girrimae brothers whose hilarious banter leaps language barriers and more than makes up for a rather abrupt ending.

This Place I Stand: Shorts Program 2

The prevailing theme of this program is the encounter of native and non-native cultures. Maybe that's why it hit closest to home out of all the shorts programs I saw. The PSA-style didacticism of Shane Belcourt's "Boxed In" is swept away by Blackhorse Lowe's stunning "Shimasani", worlds away from his tentative romantic comedy efforts. A young Navajo finds tradition and worldliness to be tragically segregated; the irresolution of the final shot is devastating. "Ivan and Ivan" follows the workaday details of an Indigenous Russian family until the tank comes to take the young one off to school. Director Philipp Abryutin's style is supremely deliberate, drawing you in with no production values and barely any dialogue. Daniel Gerson's "Welcome" depicts a child navigating a nightmare world of relentless substance abuse in inner-city Winnipeg; gorgeous and humane, it also embodies the sentimental view of childhood that ran through many of the films in the festival, and which I find kind of alienating. In "Jacob", Dena Curtis depicts the birth of a half-white child into an all-Aboriginal community with an assured and unflinching austerity. Adrian Wills' "Bourke Boy" depicts a quite remarkably tender relationship between a white father and his adopted Aboriginal son, while unfortunately sidestepping every available outlet for drama or dynamics. "Journey to Ihipa" depicts more complex racial dynamics, as a batty old woman has an unhappy reunion with her long-estranged son; Nancy Brunning's honest and complex film is undermined by confusing exposition and an unsatisfying conclusion. And in "Keao (The Light)" Emily Anne Kaliko Spenser shows how one woman rejects Hawaiian tourist-exotica for the traditions that lie beyond it; the film is simple but concise and clear-eyed, and it looks great.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


(Alan Black, 2009)
An exquisitely simple, well crafted documentary about the regulars at a Toronto bingo hall. Without getting judgmental, sentimental, or unduly ironic, the film manages to avoid deadening neutrality and establishes a voice to complement the genuine characters it captures. The editing is especially strong: building tension and gradually shifting the tone from sequence to sequence, it serves the content wonderfully, as do the careful, unobtrusive compositions. There's just enough of a glimpse of the subjects' outside lives to provide context without diffusing the focus. I appreciate the decision to limit most interview content to the soundtrack, providing counterpoint to the action. And when the interviews to take place on screen, there's counterpoint as well: one heartbreaking moment has a living room discussion disrupted by a televised horse race, wordlessly expressing the dangerous pervasiveness of gambling culture in these lives. But the movie makes clear that, like any self-destructive subculture, there are social benefits to go with the neurosis; and every one of these weathered survivors are as likeable as the film itself.

Stone Bros.

(Richard Frankland, 2009)
This movie is as easy to like as it is difficult to enjoy. In essence, Frankland sets out to make an Aboriginal ocker comedy, with rampant vulgarity and low humour played off of race and identity issues of some depth. Only they aren't really played off so much as alternated, and they undermine each other. It's too scattershot; the attempts at addressing serious themes keep getting lost in the digressions, and the comic momentum gets killed by the reflective stuff. And neither element holds up in and of itself, either. The race issues are not well integrated into the thin fabric of the characters; and for every gag that hits bulls-eye, there are three that hit the dirt, running aground on miscalculated timing or emphasis, bad choices in framing, or overextension. Finally they throw up their hands and climax with an outrageous, Pythonesque possessed-dog bit, funny in itself - for a while - but not exactly rife with thematic relevance! The Italian hitch-hiker and cross-dressing cousin in the back seat could easily have been removed from the movie entirely, allowing us more time to get to know the quite likable leads.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Hurt Locker

(Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)
To Siue's protest that the world already has too many war films that focus on the American GI's point of view, I replied that this film takes that warhorse places that I've never seen it go before. Without that defining perspective, how else could Bigelow portray the psychology of war in which everyone, and everything, becomes an enemy - not just the curious and unknowable locals, but a cell phone, an illegally parked car, a herd of sheep, a pile of garbage, even their army's own shitty equipment? When Jeremy Renner drops the tear gas on his first assignment, it looks like he's committing suicide, but here again we have a window on an essential theme - the tension between the need for fellow soldiers to act in a predictable and regimented way, and the need to retain your status as an individual. At first Renner is as remote as the locals, but there's a slow reversal - starting with an admiring, smirking colonel miles crazier than he is, continuing as the seemingly rock-steady Anthony Mackie reveals the cracks in his own stability, and culminating in the Aguirre-like desert siege where Renner holds everything together and becomes the central character once and for all. Having taken center stage, the movie becomes his personal psychodrama as he seeks the killers of a kid he thinks he knows - it's when he tries to be a hero that we can see the hopelessness of the situation. The only way to survive is to keep your humanity in check, and it's damn hard, because these characters are nothing if not human. The chaos and despair are so powerful and so felt that the final scenes feel a little too pat, too obvious in their meaning; but even there we have an unforgettably displaced supermarket-as-nightmare sequence, and anyway the message is urgent enough to merit a double underline.