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.

Reel Injun

(Neil Diamond, 2009)
This native-directed documentary about Hollywood portrayals of First Nations through the years is appealing, good-humored, and watchable, and will be a valuable educational tool. However, it would have been more valuable (and may be yet; this screening was apparently not the final cut) if its various flaws were addressed. There is a sense throughout of the film biting off more than it can chew. The "journey" framing device - in which Diamond heads out on the road to visit various real-life locations of cinematic lore - works case-by-case, but there's no through line and Diamond isn't on screen enough to establish a presence. While one sees the need to address onscreen portrayals' relationship to the realities of early colonialism, 70s AIM activism, macho Indian-themed summer camps etc, these byways reduce the space for the central discussion of the movies themselves. Instead things drift toward pat decade-indexed generalizations, so that in the 70s Billy Jack leads directly to Wounded Knee - quite a stretch! While one can readily understand that native viewers don't much like John Ford westerns, presenting the racist cowboy of The Searchers as a direct expression of the filmmakers' attitudes is asking for trouble. And if you're going to show Little Big Man to an elementary school audience to gauge their reaction, then SHOW US the damn reaction! The best talkers of the film are activist John Trudell and comic Charlie Hill, but as insightful as they are, the native stunt man and costume designer do a better service to the movie's themes. (And please spare me the Robbie Robertson star turn!) And in the end everyone lives happily ever after in rose-colored Celluloid Closet style. All that said, though, the film also reveals the existence of a self-portraying Native cinema in the silent era, translates some hilarious Lakota profanity from a vintage western, and highlights the tragedy of the secretly triracial early movie star Buffalo Child Long Lance, among other revelations. Its moments of insight earn it a more than passing grade in spite of its failings.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Science Crazed

(Ron Switzer, 1989)
A montage prologue, quite obviously manufactured by the blessed maniacs who actually chose to distribute this thing, tries to convince us that the comic impact of this staggeringly incompetent bit of nothing is entirely deliberate. Don't you believe it: this is to Lloyd Kaufman as Andy Warhol is to Herschel Gordon Lewis. It is so thoroughgoing in its project of torturing its hypothetical audience that it seems like some kind of misanthropic negationist art installation, only it can't be because it is so completely bereft of self-consciousness. As obnoxious and ugly as "Things" or "Frozen Scream", this manages to up the ante by recycling itself with a maddeningly bald insistence that has to be seen to be believed. A Hitchcock-style shot-by-shot analysis of, say, the attack on the cardio girls might yield twenty edits and perhaps three minutes of footage - only the sequence is ten minutes long! You WANT to believe that this started life as a slightly more bearable short subject, except if you took away the repitition what's left would be far less fascinating: eg. when the 'fiend' does enter the room, he only inspires extended, highly apathetic, utterly blank stares from his imminent (offscreen) victims. Repeat this scenario about four times, in marginally varied settings; bridge these with perhaps thirty lines of dialogue total; offer up actors even more hateful and lethargic than those in the above mentioned classics; and grace us with a monster comprising gauze, ketchup and one yellow Spock ear, and you've got a movie too mind-boggling to refuse, a working definition of bad. I'm proud to own it!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Checkered Flag or Crash

(Alan Gibson, 1977)
For a movie that is of no interest whatsoever, this has quite a lot going for it, especially in the acting department: Larry Hagman, Susan Sarandon, Joe Don Baker et al are relaxed and agreeable. But no one manages to channel the glib repartee into anything resembling a character, in part because their contributions are mere slivers of celluloid crammed between pictures of cars driving around. Which does make a depressing kind of sense, since it's a racing movie; what makes no sense at all, especially given some promising set-ups, is the total absence of kinetics or pyrotechnics. It's a total arbitrary mess, looks like it wasn't even storyboarded. The filmmakers revert to slow motion every single time anyone does anything other than drive in a straight line, but that doesn't fool anyone. The one punctuation mark of the whole movie comes at the climactic Baker-Alan Vint coin toss, and I laughed as hard as anyone, but a REAL movie has one moment like that per scene. Allow me to lodge a special protest on behalf of poor Daina House, who is required to regress from classic tough-chick to wilting sex object the moment some creep gives her a flower.

A Star Is Lost!

(John Howe, 1974)
The National Film Board’s second feature musical of 1974 has an alibi: it’s one of those ‘affectionate tributes to the golden age of the Hollywood musical.’ The affection is genuine enough, with a number of benign little performances by types that appear to have been rounded up from the NFB parking lot, as well as some slapstick business that might have been fitfully amusing if Howe had any idea how to capture it on film. You’d think a movie about movies would have the courtesy to put some thought into camera placement and editing rhythms, but the whole project is so desolate and lifeless it makes “Canada Carries On” look like Arthur Lipsett. The alleged mystery - who is sending threatening letters to stodgy starlet Tiiu Leek? - is undermined by the fact that there’s only one suspect, whose motivations and movements are visible for all to see within minutes. Howe's big musical numbers are completely static, his songs devoid of lyrical or melodic content. And the way the protagonists resolve the narrative by puttin’ on a show is the final evidence that affection and comprehension are not the same thing at all.

I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art

(William D. MacGillivray, 1987)
A companion piece - included as a bonus on the Life Classes DVD - in which MacGillivray uses documentary to address the same essential theme: hyper-modern artistic practice in its alienated social context. Here we have a wide-ranging history of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, on or about the 20th anniversary of its transformation from classicist parochialism to cutting-edge internationalist scenesterama. Less revelatory in form and overall impact, it still sneaks up on you something fierce, coming at its theme from all sides as it ranges from superstars like Joseph Beuys and Robert Frank to more obscure (to me) fellow-travelers like Martha Wilson and June Leaf and Dara Birnbaum. The overall impression one gets as things progress is of an uncommonly free-spirited institution - with gratifying and uncommon opportunities for overlap of theoretical and practical content - which is, nonetheless, isolated from its Haligonian social context. ("How did local audiences react to this?" "Well, I only showed it to a couple people - but it was quite successful in New York!") While the final camera-shooting-monitor loop shot would seem to support Ian Murray's description of "machines talking to machines about the problem of machines", its finality is offset by the preceding sequence, where visiting Canadian superstar Michael Snow relates a friendly interaction with a non-scenester before lauding "the excitement of an involvement with ambiguity" - an excitement this film is, finally, just ambiguous enough to evoke.

Life Classes

(William D. MacGillivray, 1987)
In reviewing this tale of a Cape Breton woman mingling with the Halifax art crowd, Gerald Pratley describes it as "a biting comment on what passes for art today." Maybe he was in one of his rare sour moods that day: for me, this film is remarkable precisely because it straddles worlds without resorting to such heavy-handed dismissals. From life classes to cable-TV bestiality porn, from color-by-numbers to New York video art to transatlantic object envy, on down to the Gaelic lullabies that protagonist Jacinta Cormier will carry with her to her grave, this is first and foremost a comprehensive and exquisitely balanced examination of how art works in our everyday lives. No - in the everyday lives of these specific people, in this specific place, a Halifax where tradition and modernism meet and clash. All of which is communicated through a remarkably patient character based narrative, not auteurist pyrotechnics - which isn't to say that the auteur's ultra-timely fusion of Don Shebib and Atom Egoyan is anything but brilliant.

Welcome to my movie blog!

Hello and thanks for dropping by. Here you will see my very personal opinions on whatever movies come my way - old or new, classy or trashy, narrative, experimental or documentary - but especially narrative, because that, as they say, is how I roll.

I started writing movie reviews in earnest about three years ago, when some serious body issues prevented me from doing much BUT watch movies - especially random old VHS tapes acquired at various Niagara Region flea markets. I'm better now, but the fetish continues, and there's still lots of tapes to watch.

I also publish many of my views to imdb and will continue to compile these mini-reviews in an annual zine, Cinertia, which is available from Microcosm Publishing. And I contribute to other web and print zines such as Eclectic Screening Room and So Bad It's Good. I'll keep you posted on these and other doings in between the critical pronouncements. You'll get to know me quick enough - I hope you discover some new titles and are inspired to think about some familiar ones.

Comments welcome for now, although I stand on guard for trolls!

Let the games begin.