Wednesday, December 15, 2010

my excuse

Guys I'm still watching movies like crazy. And I am still committed to reviewing at least every Canadian movie I have seen this year. But my (top secret) parallel project relating to this material has a deadline, and this blog does not, and the deadline has been dictating my life. Please be patient with me! This blog will return full force in the new year.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Skull: A Night of Terror

(Robert Bergman, 1987)
Superficially slick, writer-director Bergman gets in way over his head when he starts fussing up this simple revenge plot with his notions of human behaviour. The gang of murderous criminals is bad enough - Didn't they know Skull was a sadistic pedophile before they sprung him from jail? Why are they getting cold feet now? - and the attempts to complicate Robbie Rox's boneheaded characterization with phobias and frailties only serve to make him as incomprehensible as his cohorts. But those guys have nothing on Robert Bideman's cop, one of the most agonizingly stupid protagonists in the entire exploitation canon. An emotionally intelligent filmmaker might conceivably have kept us identifying with the schmuck as he accidentally shoots hostages, fucks around on his wife, lets mass murderers escape for no reason, and drives into a swamp instead of calling for backup, but as things stand he's just contemptible. As a result, when he finally goes into avenging-warrior mode, we wouldn't give a shit even if the routine didn't inexplicably reverse the trauma-based impotence which defines the guy's entire characterization to that point. By the end, you desperately want the gasoline-soaked Bideman to obey the laws of physics and go up in flames along with the exploding house he's two feet away from - or at least for his wife to kick him in the balls instead of accompanying him on his walk into the goddamned sunset.


(Andrew Jordan, 1989)
Forget "Strange Brew", "Fubar", even "Goin' Down The Road". This astonishing film is the ultimate hoser movie, because the beer-guzzling dimwits at issue are also in charge, although not in control. Disheveled and distracted, manically overstated without purpose or effect, constantly interrupted by a 'newscaster' porn star whose cue cards are way too far off to the side, the holy trinity of Barry Gillis, Bruce Roach and - my very favourite - Doug Bunston are just about the least motivated protagonists in cinema history. Hordes of bloodthirsty, inert papier-mache ants are erupting from the stomach of Bunston's wife, and yet these dudes are so into drinking beer, rifling the cupboards and making the stupidest of stupid wisecracks that they barely notice - until they have to a) take a leak or b) change a blown fuse, which banal endeavours comprise the entirety of this film's 'narrative'. A couple agonizing dream sequences and some alienated mad-scientist torture stuff barely register given the overwhelming discontinuity of this grimy, stuttering, grinding catastrophe of a movie. Those intrepid or stoned enough to stay seated, however, will find themselves utterly enthralled by the movie's unprecedented will to fail - every time you think it's explored every possible way to be bad, it comes up with something new.


(Robin Spry, 1980)
This film dooms itself right out of the gate by boasting its status as a treatise on Anglo-Francophone relations, as embodied by Jennifer Dale's 50/50 babe. In fact the parade riot under the credits is absolutely the only onscreen incident in this multi-decade narrative where Dale is engaged in anything other than romantic entanglement. If she's with a friend, they talk exclusively about men; if she's got an enemy, it's because they like the same guy; if she gets a job she's not at it for fifteen seconds before one dude or the other comes charging in; she doesn't even get a one-on-one interaction with her fucking kid. No wonder the filmmakers run over her mother with a truck; this is a man's, man's, man's world, and the femme-free production team seem to be consciously laying the ground work for the Bechdel Test. Perhaps as a result, although there's nothing particularly wrong with Dale's performance, she comes off as considerably less interesting than her suitors, angelic Gabriel Arcand and devilish Winston Rekert, both of whom do well under the circumstances. Some individual scenes are well-observed, and Helen Hughes is a riot as Rekert's souse mom, but it's just not worth it.

Canada's Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks

(Donald Brittain, 1985)
Deft, ironic, and scathing, this excellent film achieves the mythical synthesis of drama and documentary. One reason is that Brittain actually understands drama, and the many re-enactments and speculative dramatizations are achieved with a precision and wit that the wonderful cast could not have achieved without his steady hand. Further, where archival inserts and retrospective interviews can usually be counted on to drag such projects to a screeching halt, here the mixing of media actually adds energy to a narrative that would otherwise be rather heavy on the union meetings. One reason you notice the film's wondrous balance is that, regrettably, it eventually loses it - while the courtroom drama of the third act is better than most it remains courtroom drama, and for its duration the multiplicity of inputs is boiled down to a less than satisfying transcript. But even Brittain's occasionally pushy narration can't stop Maury Chaykin in his riveting performance as the common thug turned Commie-busting union boss - the film presents so much factual evidence of the guy's rampaging malevolence that Chaykin is free to concentrate on the endearing eccentricities that the absolutely powerful are free to indulge in. While Brittain's larger social critique unfolds in measured tones, you can't miss the parallel between Banks' goldfish and Jack Pickersgill's sausage dog.

Tell Me That You Love Me

(Tzipi Trope, 1983)
Here we have something approaching Method soap opera - so felt and so nuanced that for a while you're fooled into thinking it's meaningful. The key is the agonizingly unresolved Andree Pelletier/Kenneth Welsh subplot, which foregrounds the issue of domestic abuse as an outcome of personal trauma and learned non-communication. In this context, the central marital breakdown between ambitious journalist Barbara Williams and jet-setting lawyer Nick Mancuso digs beneath its glamorous trappings and takes on some actual emotional power, attentively performed and mercifully free of hyperbole. The film is so true to its characters and situations that for a while it seems almost organic, embracing struggle amid chaos instead of the usual pat prescriptions. But after Mancuso leaves for New York Williams is saddled with too much meaningful gazing, and her own fleeting and unconvincing descent into abusiveness betrays the narrative's psychological complexities with the usual romance-versus-career trash. The predictable resolution is handled with a surprisingly light touch, but since neither Williams nor the audience has seen the slightest evidence of self-examination on Mancuso's part, it feels false anyway.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


(David Winning, 1987)
Made for zero money by a bunch of Calgary kids, this film has exactly one thing going for it, and that is its eccentric, amiable tone. It was an inspired choice to yank gawky nerd David Palfy out of the film's initial high school milieu and into a tense rural-thriller narrative, and his work is of a piece with the nasty, displaced, casually ironic direction. A prologue that comprises three guys glancing at each other in balaclavas for eight full minutes makes a surprising joke out of relentless overextension, but soon enough it becomes apparent that the joke's on the audience, because things never pick up - everything goes on far, far too long, with little payoff. The relationships and motivations are vague, the geography of the action ill-defined, the various cute props never exploited to their potential. The school sequence makes one joke, then takes ten minutes to make the same joke again. The narrative contrivances are incredible and annoying, and get more so as the movie goes on. And it's telling that in the first scene, two of the balaclava guys look so identical that I couldn't tell them apart until they unmasked. This is half a real movie at best.

Strange Brew

(Rick Moranis/Dave Thomas, 1983)
Even in their sainted heyday, the SCTV gang could rarely navigate the rigors of an extended plotline. And that was with a full comic ensemble pushing from behind - here Moranis and Thomas are stranded at the head of an endless sea of failed straight men. You can literally see their spontaneous, improvisational working methods die on screen - they encourage countless little bits of business from Paul Dooley and Max von Sydow, but without an actual director at the helm or any comic verve to the performances, these barely catch your eye. Where the original routine was defined by its strict formal limits, this film plods through a formless and pushy narrative, some corporate hypno-espionage thing that takes up way too much space and limits the stars' creative elbow room. And where the McKenzie brothers originally conspired to take the piss out of the Canadian stereotypes they embodied, this movie's endless silly riffs on beer and hockey are lazy signifiers for the outside world and pandering, fist-pumping affirmations for the dumb louts these guys never really identified with in the first place.

Tanya's Island

(Alfred Sole, 1980)
How do things like this happen? A barely-clad actress in a shitty relationship appears to have a dream that she's a barely-clad non-actress in a different shitty relationship, except on a desert island, where she befriends a gorilla. The point appears to be some kind of critique of civilization, as insufferable tortured artist Richard Sargent makes various rules and builds various Gilligan's Island-style bamboo cages to prohibit his bimbo prize (D. D. Winters a/k/a Vanity, which explains this movie's continued if nominal commercial existence) from exploring her 'savage', 'wild' inner nature with the gorilla. If the metaphoric thrust doesn't really parse, that's probably because Winters is almost totally vacant, a slack-jawed, ill-motivated baton to be passed between Sargent (who does at least hint at self-awareness with his hyperbolic wildman routine) and the hairy ape (a down-on-his-luck Rick Baker). The overall effect is akin to a softcore pornography ensemble suddenly dislocated to film school, with rampant pretensions that are both hilariously unearned and stretched to within an inch of their alleged life.

Summer's Children

(Julius Kohanyi, 1979)
Brooding auto mechanic Thomas Hauff's quest to reunite with his once-beloved sister boasts a surprisingly effective flashback structure as well as an unusually apt fusion of social realist and exploitation modes - both the horseplay with the boys at work and the (awesome!) tours of Toronto city lights recall "Goin' Down the Road" even as the plot descends into a sensationalized tour of bookies, floozies, hit men, and telegraphed kink. Not that it's a thrill a minute - the pace remains confoundingly deliberate throughout, with long minutes dedicated to sour domestic exchanges with a health-nut girlfriend and a jazz DJ acquaintance. Even the flashbacks comprise little more than testy sibling interactions, packing little drama until you figure out what they're leading up to. And you do figure it out, which further dulls the impact of a damagingly under-realized climax. Still, there's something haunting about the peculiar mix of elements here; the dropped threads and dead ends add to a pervasive sense of disorientation that befits these lost, frustrated, questing characters, and if it ain't profound, it's still kind of mesmerizing.


(Claude Jutra, 1981)
One nice thing about novels is they don't have theme songs - Ann Mortifee should have been deported for the disfiguring atrocity that bookends this nightmare adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 'classic'. I gather there's some metaphorical stuff about the mystery of Canadian identity buried here somewhere, but the filmmakers are clearly more interested in the gender angle, no doubt because characters are easier to market than symbols. Unfortunately, these characters remain hopelessly symbolic. I'll grant that the movie's primary concern is not why men are such insufferable bastards but why women are idiotic enough to put up with them, but we're still left with an evening full of bastards and idiots - R. H. Thomson's infantile sexist makes me reach for my revolver, Margaret Dragu shrieks when she's not whimpering, and Joseph Bottoms is impossibly vague from beginning to end. I suspect that the casting of hottie Kathleen Beller in the lead was driven by market imperatives as well - while she's not as hateful as her posse, stick her in a canoe and she comes off as exactly the lost, urbane Yankee she is. And if the ending isn't a profound act of violence against the source material, then an entire generation of Canadian literary critics have a lot to answer for.

The Surrogate

(Don Carmody, 1984)
I like how the script keeps tossing off suggestively left-field details of character and motivation at the most improbable moments - it keeps you on your toes, just like the plethora of plausible suspects in the grisly-murder subplot that eventually catches up with the foreground action. And the pleasures of the casting only begin with duelling-uberbabes Shannon Tweed and Carole Laure, although of the top-tier supporting crew only Jackie Burroughs really gets a proper showcase (and how). The narrative's handling of its various psychosexual disorders is candidly lurid and preposterous, which is appropriate and fun - but also pandering, which is annoying. Gay guy Jim Bailey's stock camp mannerisms don't become any less tiresome when he's revealed as a secret skirt-chaser, especially given angry guy Art Hindle's unchecked 'faggot'-baiting. And while the across-the-board association of kink with psychosis is probably meant to set judgmental straights up for the surprise ending, the ploy doesn't work, mainly because the surprise is preposterous in a bad way - contrived, arbitrary, and laborious.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Stone Cold Dead

(George Mendeluk, 1979)
While it doesn't come close to living up to its ambitions, this police-and-prostitutes procedural does have something going on upstairs. In telling the tale of the murderous hooker-hater with the camera that is also a gun, Mendeluk aims for a vulgar existentialism, with generous shades of gray in the interplay between cops and criminals, and a surprising emotionalism - when Richard Crenna outs crooked partner Chuck Shamata he bursts into tears, and drug-smuggling kingpin Paul Williams (!!) seems to be channeling Brando as he mourns his junkie girlfriend or cries plaintively from the cell for his glasses. The surprise identity of the killer offers one more variation on the enemy-within theme as well as complicating the film's attitude toward sex workers, but it works (just a bit) better as ideology than as drama - in spite of the usual lengthy confession/explanation, this red herring doesn't pass the smell test. Part of the problem is that except for the anomalously earthy Crenna and tormented 'hostess' Linda Sorensen, none of these potentially compelling characters are on screen enough for us to invest much in them - their development is so stunted that the emotive high points seem to fall out of the sky. Because of this, when the big "Chinatown"-style defeatist ending comes down, it feels unsatisfying and unearned - just like the allusion to "Peeping Tom".

Thursday, October 14, 2010


(David Acomba, 1973)
Good fucking lord. Released within months of "Paperback Hero", it makes a striking contrast - it's as though Kier Dullea's deluded cowboy had taken up the director's chair. Luke Askew's DJ is a literal loner, perched in his prairie farmhouse and broadcasting his 'iconoclastic' selections - such as Van Morrison and "Layla" - in defiance of the station which wants him to play commercial crap a/k/a 'funk'. He does however find time to strike up a romance with part-time hippie Patti Oatman, in between run-ins with a hyperbolically villainous radio exec and a conniving newspaper columnist. When Oatman upbraids the guy for doing his job instead of making out again it looks like we're dealing with some kind of manhandled anti-capitalist statement, except after she leaves him she gets a job filing mail at the post office! No, the critique here is strictly limited to the media establishment, who get their jollies holding down this virile he-man individualist. You keep waiting for the artist-versus-straights rhetoric to show some sense of irony or proportion or realism, but all hope is lost after they symbolically ride their horse naked across the open plains - so overripe and self-aggrandizing it made me want to get a job.

Spanish Fly

(Bob Kellett, 1976)
With its sunny seaside setting, its structural dependence upon four stunning if barely characterized fashion models, its general orientation toward high-living decadence, and its generously funded un-Canadianness, this is dangerously close to filmmaking as paid vacation. Only Terry-Thomas, doing a highly lived-in but still charming shtick as a pretender to upper-class twithood, suggests anything close to actual comic craft. His scenes with beleaguered servant Graham Armitage keep a happy arm's length from the innocuously smutty hijinks that dominate, although whenever he wanders off Armitage is grabbing some poor woman's ass in less than charming fashion, and Thomas himself feeds the beast with his aphrodisiac plonk-marketing strategy. The counterplot, concerning Leslie Phillips' horny henpecked husband, provokes not one thin smile, strip mining the most familiar and least charming of British comedy traditions. And even if you like this kind of thing, you're likely to get impatient with the long, formless scenes of extras dancing around and kids with butterfly nets.

Something About Love

(Tom Berry, 1988)
Venturing into private-sector coproduction, the NFB issues forth a bizarrely lumpy and compromised variation on their usual naturalistic docudrama. Set in Cape Breton (although the whole cast speaks perfect Toronto English) and dealing earnestly with the issue of Alzheimer's, the presentation emphasizes the usual grainy verite-lite aesthetic, with low-key, character-based dramatics and passing commentary on domestic sexism and the violence of industry. But there's also an effort to inject this kitchen sink stuff with a different kind of populism, the commercial kind, rife with Hollywood high-rollers and high school sweethearts played by Jennifer Dale; things even stop dead at the halfway point for the big Motown production number that gives the film its title. The mesh doesn't take; the schmaltzy, pushy score stomps all over the modest dramatics, and Stefan Wodoslawsky looks lost and miserable in the lead role even though he helped write the script. He certainly can't cut it up against Jan Rubes, as masterfully charming as ever in the role of the afflicted undertaker dad. His big sentimental end speech is genuinely moving, and would have left a nice taste in the mouth if the filmmakers could have just let it be, but instead they piss all over it with a hamfisted opera-style Big Ending that epitomizes the production's unhappy confusion.


(William Fruet, 1982)
Fruet is smart enough to know what to do with a script concerning a telepathic Micronseian demon-snake: make a joke out of it. And given his filmmaking knowhow, it's a pretty good joke, well shot and well paced and outfitted with just enough mock-seriousness to be credible. Not that it's anything to write home about, of course. While they deliberately balance the stuff about the 'savages' with a subplot involving snake-handling Christian zealots on home turf, that thread gets lost well before the abortive climax; after all that fuss, it turns out you can defeat Evil by shooting it in the head. The surprisingly high-octane cast are all visibly in on the gag, but they don't mesh: Peter Fonda's doctor does laid back wink-wink, Kerrie Keane's big-haired love interest plays for constipated melodrama, and as the tormented game hunter Oliver Reed goes for such a high-serious hushed whisper that you can barely make out what he's saying. The film's main contribution to cinema is the Dick Smith-devised swelling snakebite gore effect, most spectacularly applied to Al Waxman's crusty mercenary. But it's the hilariously hysterical sorority house snake rampage that delivers the real payoff.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Spring Fever

(Joseph L. Scanlon, 1981)
The utter wrongness of this vanity vehicle for tennis prodigy Carling Bassett starts with a sun-and-surf sex comedy packaging job that fails to even mention Bassett's name. And the fraudulence continues with the casting of Bassett as a working-class underdog - mommy Susan Anton is an oppressed Vegas showgirl - when her real-life daddy produced the thing himself under the auspices of the family media conglomerate. Not that the writers don't get all excited about their critique - on the contrary, they depict the juvenile tennis circuit as such an unremitting cesspool of greed, graft, coke fiends, and outright child abuse that it's a wonder the morality squad doesn't have the entire league in the wagon by the second act. The climactic tennis match is beset with a desperate cascade of thefts, arrests and heart attacks, but nobody seems to have figured out how to shoot a damned tennis game - there's so much half-baked 'montage' that you barely see the ball hit the court. Jessica Walter's chain-smoking, hemorrhoidal bitch of a tennis mom is clearly meant to make the showgirl look good by comparison, but with her predilection for pursuing unrestrained free love in the room she shares with her 13-year-old, Anton doesn't come off much better - "Why do I have to be so stupid?" indeed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sincerely, Violet

(Mort Ransen, 1987)
It's remarkable how just a little bit of judiciously applied intelligence can enliven, if not quite redeem, the tiresome soap cliches of Julian Roffman's "Shades of Love" franchise. As usual, this one has a harried career woman (Patricia Phillips) falling for some blow-dried guy even more affluent than she is (Simon MacCorkindale). The wrinkle this time is that, in pursuit of documents for her research project, Phillips first breaks into the MacCorkindale residence in the middle of the night, then poses as a street-smart mental patient for his benefit. Ransen plays the break-in for amiable farce, the double-identity plot for Freudian musings re the truth of social performance, and both turn out to be exactly the right decisions, embracing and heightening the unreality of the scenario while hitting actual emotional resonances that carry you through the predictable romantic narrative that ensues. Ransen's atypical outbursts of humour - check out the interactions with the secretary, or the eavesdropping-dude-in-the-cafeteria routine - give the project such a lift that you don't even mind the remarkably dubious counsel of Phillips' psychotherapist buddy. And when the big musical numbers kick in, he focuses in on the faces of his subjects instead of collapsing into the usual vaseline-smeared montage - a small mercy, maybe, but a telling and generous one.


(Paul Donovan/Maura O'Connell, 1983)
While the (honest!) Fuller-style limited action of this remarkably terse film leaves plenty of room for Donovan's liberal conscience, it imposes so much rigor and excises so much bullshit that you can't imagine it sprung from the same mind that tried to make us watch "Norman's Awesome Experience". Which makes me think that maybe O'Connell is the brains of the operation, especially since she also produced Donovan's other tolerable film, "Def-Con 4". After escaping a harrowing massacre in a Halifax gay bar, some guy teams up with an apartment full of slackers and misfits he's never met before to engage in a protracted and ingenious showdown with the hateful thugs. And that's all, folks: the movie never once breaks its thrillingly obsessive focus on the eccentric landscape and arsenal of the warehouse-district battlefield. The warriors' personalities, rendered in exquisite shorthand, are varied and vivid - resourceful or useless, sympathetic or remote, with complex variations on both sides of the war. Without any cosmetic separation between lead and support characters, you never know who's going to get offed next, especially since each side's weapons are jerry-rigged and prone to failure. It all adds up to a great deal of calculated, nerve-wracking excitement, and any concern that the police-strike context isn't as morally neutral as the filmmakers think it is is blown away by the final shot, which proves with quiet finality just how smart this team is.


(Harvey Hart, 1976)
As with his previous commentaries on buggery and religion, Hart's take on the NRA is well-nigh useless as documentary - instead, he's once again made some kind of weird horror movie, one that dares to push back against the collective psyche instead of pandering to it. After all, the public was hardly clamoring for a film that identified sport hunting with militarism with tribalism with fascism, and yet here it is, centered tellingly on Cliff Robertson's wealthy bastard of a furniture salesman instead of some hapless redneck. Glowering and heartless, Robertson has enough status to rally the troops for his nonsensical mission of supremacy, recruiting everyone from his black security guard to some loudmouth kid to his veteran buddies, including Ernest Borgnine as the alarmingly impotent and conflicted voice of conscience. Hart paints a picture of a 'community' far too bleak and repressed to reward the loyalty and unity it demands, a community wholly dedicated to single-minded paranoia and hatred - the kind of community, in short, that makes modern warfare possible. Hart's nightmare vision is so single-minded that he invests little in such niceties as credibility or even narrative - through the seemingly endless chatter, you can see the climax's wildly hyperbolic carnage coming a mile away. Of course, you could say the same thing about, for instance, Afghanistan. Which is what makes this movie's dragginess haunting and its excesses resonant.

The Silent Partner

(Daryl Duke, 1978)
Since this is the lazy man's example of quality Canadian filmmaking in the tax shelter era, it's worth pointing out that Christopher Plummer doesn't quite cut it as a psychotic criminal. His steely glare keeps breaking to reveal the cultured softness underneath, and where his brutalization of women is completely off the handle, he keeps letting Elliott Gould off the hook. If these contradictions are intended as commentary then they don't quite work, and the resulting confusion raises some dangerous credibility issues in what is otherwise an airtight cat-and-mouse contraption. Curtis Hanson's script is so clever and compelling, so full of memorable detail, it leaves all comparable rom-com action films in the dust, and if Daryl Duke doesn't keep Plummer in full control, maybe it's because he was busy reining in Gould, who gives one of his best, most focused, least Gouldish performances. There are unresolved tensions between the scenario's brutal cynicism and the shaggy-dog tendencies of the production, but the newly built Eaton's Centre makes a great location, Duke makes the most of his wonderful ensemble cast, and Oscar Peterson's orchestral discords play brilliantly off the Christmas carols that set the ironic scene.

Silence of the North

(Allan Winton King, 1981)
It would seem counterproductive for this script to advance the thesis that happy times have more staying power than tough ones, because the narrative itself barely glances at the fond memories en route to the next heartbreak, hardship, or imperilment by wild animal. Of course, the sentiment is also exactly the sort of homespun chestnut you'd expect from this kind of True Life Story; Olive Fredrickson's tale of Northern frontier life is indeed full of drama and adventure, but the telling of it is so steeped in ancient melodramatic cliche that I kept flashing back to "The Fatal Glass of Beer". Granted, this is quite accomplished hokum. King is smart enough to keep a lid on the histrionics until they're really needed, he gets charming performances from Ellen Burstyn, Tom Skerritt, and Gordon Pinsent in a rare romantic lead, and Richard Leiterman's photography half-redeems the excessive lingering over lakes and trees - in fact the extended meditation on the river ice breaking up is the most inspired part of the movie. The rest of the time, though, the director is only a body doing a job, not quite betraying his intelligence but never really putting it to work either - no real humour, no felt horror, just one big demonstration of resilience.

See You Monday!

(Maurice Dugowson, 1979)
Certainly more honest and engaging than your average soap opera, in part because it argues for female bonding over romantic escapism, in part because the females in question are Carole Laure and Miou-Miou, who are appealing and sympathetic as well as drop dead gorgeous. It's a pleasure to watch them pal around as they struggle with their exceedingly first-world problems, especially because the French co-production details their dilemmas with some cinematic sense and wit. Like any soap opera, though, this movie absolutely clobbers its central dramatic crisis, as Miou-Miou traipses off to domestic boredom with David Birney's preoccupied clod of a Tampa doctor, while Laure gets something going with Claude Brasseur, a shifty travelling salesman in the ugly-older-guy tradition of French love interests. Anybody in the audience can see through these bozos from the minute they show up, and it discredits the women in this movie that they can't do the same, dallying interminably in their respective kept woman/nervous breakdown dilemmas. Imagine how much more credible and rewarding it would have been to just watch these two women keep on hanging around, trying and failing, getting on with their lives, instead of laying on the hard-sell melodrama. It might even have transcended soap opera.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Second Wind

(Don Shebib, 1976)
I'd swear this was an answer film to "Rocky" except the damn thing came out six months earlier! It certainly does have its comparative uses, though, presenting the insatiable drive to win as a neurotic diversion rather than a panacea. James Naughton is not particularly likeable in the lead role, and that's the idea: he lets his midlife crisis distract himself from his work as a stock broker (which is understandable) and his marriage to Lindsay Wagner (which is pathological). But the ever-generous Shebib neither mocks his ambitions nor punishes him unduly for his self-absorption; he just denies the ordeal the mythic redemptive powers that such narratives (including his own "Running Brave") assumed in the shadow of Stallone. Admittedly, the training narrative draws Shebib away from his strength, which is to be found in the modestly eccentric interactions with the teeming support cast - who else would have deployed rejected hottie Tedde Moore in such a kind and unexpected way? The movie would be very close to the precarious balance it strives for, if only it weren't stampeded by the clownish triumphalism of Hagood Hardy's awesomely obnoxious score.

Seasons In the Sun

(Ain Sodoor, 1979)
Looks as though one-hit-wonder Jacks, not noticing that the pop world had already forgotten about him entirely, decided that his belated star vehicle should be a personal statement about his deep desire to quit the rat race and go fishing. Only someone at Jacks Inc. must have let slip that this would not make a very compelling movie. So for drama the filmmakers lead off with their man falling into a sudden, hallucinatory coma on his way to the Gardens stage. Then, once our hero escapes from a protracted NYC meander and returns to his solitary reverie, they throw in a grizzled sailor who's really a Commie spy; a burly loudmouth who somehow fails to beat Jacks up; and an air-dropped love interest who is also a spy. All of these disjoint personae are beset by incomprehensible confusions or reversals of intent, and all are sprinkled in lightly and incongruously on top of absolutely endless footage of Jacks drinking tea, gutting fish, looking at trees, getting mildly dizzy in his toilet, and tumbling into unexplained piles of skulls. The effect is of a (barely) feature-length delirious episode, as though dude never really awoke from his coma after all. In fact, maybe I dreamed the whole thing.

The Accident

(Donald Brittain, 1983)
Brittain's third feature narrative after a lifetime of documentary shows an astonishingly steady hand. The aftermath of a collapsing hockey arena affords a series of long and painful looks at the workings of personal trauma among local families, and Brittain shows great insight and compassion as he steadily unpacks the varieties of repression and introversion that ensue. As a detailed, disturbingly familiar snapshot of learned emotional failure in middle-class Ontario, this is given great impact by the precise, controlled acting, the expressively simple staging, even the uncommonly apt musical score. And the terrible failures that the trauma precipitates are not without a certain grim humour even as Brittain evokes with aching clarity how deep and culturally ingrained these failures are. So it's doubly depressing that the ending is so neat, so false, so made for TV - not only does every single character come to their senses and resume their role as productive members of society, they all do so simultaneously. It is an unholy copout that turns every searing truth the movie has told into a lie, and as an admission of defeat they wrap things up with an absurd where-are-they-now newscast that literalizes the film's painful retreat from reality.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Search and Destroy

(William Fruet, 1979)
For once, what's wrong ideologically is precisely what's wrong cinematically: Jong Soo Park's vengeful Vietnamese guy isn't a character, he's an idea. Screenwriter Dan Enright (yeah, the game show magnate, who also co-produces with partner in crime Jack Barry) tries to complicate things by making "Assassin" a collaborator/politician instead of a soldier; there are fleeting parallels between his inhumane conduct and that of the American GIs, and in a lonely nod at characterization Park is revealed to be some kind of Christian. But Fruet's otherwise evident facility with actors is wasted on this stoic killing machine, and the vitriol of lead cop George Kennedy leaves no doubt that the man is symbolic of the country and the conflict is symbolic of the war: the extended confrontation between Park and vet Perry King is explicitly designed to be cathartic, not problematizing. Not that the film doesn't hold your attention; there's thrills and fascination to be had with the restaging of the war around the familiar terrain of Niagara Falls, and the subtext of military traumas that can't be shaken off does resonate in its typically insufficient way. But with two of the four targets offed by the end of the opening credits, there's not quite enough going on, and plausibility issues keep intruding on the action. The final battle in the jungle-like park is a great idea poorly realized, as what might have been an emotion-charged reckoning between two actual characters is reduced to an excessively vague exchange of bullets and blows.

Screwball Academy

(Reuben Rose, 1986)
In between his triumphant direction of SCTV and his triumphant direction of Kids in the Hall, John Blanchard lent his talents to this wacky slapstick satire. So why is his name absent from the credits? Possibly because this movie is a disaster; or maybe I should say 'these movies' - each of the multifarious narratives seems to be aspiring to a different genre. Colleen Camp's feminist director does wisecracking screwball while her mincing Czech backers do gross dialect humour; Kenneth Welsh's hammy deadpan as the luddite fundamentalist gives way to the painfully gloppy romantic awakening of sheltered son Peter Spence. Meanwhile Janet Good plays herself and Damian Lee acts like he wishes he was an actor. Maybe Blanchard was trying to show off his unquestioned mastery of diverse comic styles - in which case somebody should have reminded him that movies don't work like that - but one suspects less calculated machinations were at play. And nobody benefits from the softcore drop-ins, the abrupt narrative truncations, or the 'inspirational' climax comprising a few dozen extras going for a walk. Some of the performers - Camp, Welsh, even love interest Wendy Bushell - might have seemed inspired in a competently made film; we'll never know.

Loose Screws

(Rafal Zielinski, 1985)
The lovable dorkiness of the original leaves a nice afterglow, and some of the gags work fine. But who needs them? Without Miklos Lente's mediating lens, Zielinski gets lazy. Not only does he choose to recycle the least inspired bits from the first movie - the mammary inspection clinic, the trip to Filmore's - but the execution is comparatively sluggish and dire. As prudish objects of lechery go, Cynthia Belliveau's Mona Lott is no Purity Bush - too earnest, too nice. Mike Macdonald is all right as the principal, but his usual knowing smirk suggests a discordant aloofness from the material, and the subplot about his love life cuts into the sense of ensemble. Did I say subplot? Oh yes - this time, free-form chaos gives way to a perfunctory and sporadic points-collection narrative, and things have slowed down enough that you notice how thin it all is. You also notice the way all the nice, game female students are used up and thrown away just when you're starting to like them; I wanted more of the nearsighted cutey and dykey matron. And where the tossed-off absurdist asides of the first film generate a good will that carries you over the iffy spots, the funny-Asian-guy routine here turns that smile upside down.


(Rafal Zielinski, 1983)
Of course this narrative of douchebags devising ways to see and/or fondle women's tits without consent is problematic in all the usual ways. What's miraculous is that it remains pretty damn funny. Abjuring the tiniest hint of narrative structure, the disjointed quest to disrobe a prudish teen queen named Purity Bush manages to show genuine cinematic inspiration, giving this ripoff exploitation a great deal of comic energy that tends to keep your brain from engaging with the yucky stuff. So contrivances like the multi-mirror panty peeper, the predatory BDSM biology teacher, and the Coke can beach-scope scheme don't impress you? What about the horny humping teddy bear? Or the quick cut from the shotgun going off to ketchup squirting on a plate? Sure they rip off the entire drive-in scene from "Pickup Summer", but they improve on it too. Of a piece with Zielinski's other incoherent 80s smut comedies, it remains leagues ahead of them in left-field impact, and I can only assume that the cinematographic eye of sainted "Oddballs" director Miklos Lente played a decisive role in making it roll out so unrelentingly. Thank God nobody shoehorns in an anti-oppression subplot to prove how serious and moral they are, because they aren't - it's just lovable, risible dorks FTW.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


(Ed Hunt, 1978)
The ideas that animate this paranoia thriller might seem superficially more useful than Hunt's usual insights regarding spacemen or gangland reform, except as usual he beats them over the head with a cricket bat - the dangers of scientific careerism are ill-represented by the skittish incompetent with the prosthetic leg, the idiot hush campaign is strictly post-"Jaws" boilerplate, and the spectacularly abrupt shootout on the highway is a pretty vulgar argument against state repression. But my Canada includes vulgarity, and as usual Hunt makes it work in spite of himself. For all the cringing apologetics of the opening text, the man's ass-backwards world view is laid out with such conviction that nothing so banal as mere logic or taste can hold him back. So what if the special effects budget is limited to three exploding cars? With a bare minimum of dialogue, a desperate maximum of viral macrophotography, a few wriggling extras, and a central narrative that comprises four people watching each other on TV sets, Hunt manages to manufacture real momentum and engagement, and his characteristically able cast keeps a straight face this time.

Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper

(Lamont Johnson, 1981)
Old Hollywood hand Johnson ventured North in tribute to Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who achieved passing fame and notoriety for his gesture of international goodwill in helping six Americans escape Iran during the hostage crisis. Of course at this remove the narrative angle is hobbled by the much subsequent revelation that Taylor was also a CIA operative, which casts these events in a rather different light; Yankee lout R. H. Thomson even calls out the CIA by name so that he can be reassured that they have nothing to do with it. One wonders if Thomson or Gordon Pinsent would have been so taken by the project had they had access to this little info nugget, although the rote demonizing of the Islamic mob suggests ulterior motives in itself. A halfhearted counter-movement inserts several carefully positioned 'good Iranians' including another Canadian diplomat's wife, which is not the only racially mixed marriage here, probably a TV-movie first. As long as the piece stays off the streets and concentrates on the tension, paranoia and boredom of the fugitives, it's quite enjoyable, although one wishes they got as much screen time as the masterminds; few get the opportunity to establish a real character. The La Presse subplot is also pleasant enough until it succumbs to a similar fate, with a few polite digs at network news superficiality and government obfuscation promptly rationalized into a manipulative plea for journalistic 'responsibility'. If Pelletier had kept digging, after all, we wouldn't have waited thirty years for the real narrative to be told.


(Paul Krasny, 1974)
The first hint that TV hack Krasny is not up to the job is that he allows Wally MacSween's PI to get away with the most dumbfounding faith-and-begorrah Limey routine on record. Granted, the director's utter lack of control also bequeaths us James McEachin's fun riff on the cop; he's so energetic and lifelike he seems marooned in this film. Peter Haskell's lead performance is merely blank, and inoffensive enough that for a while you are happy enough to amble along with him as he seeks the secret identity of Barbara Parkins' paper-marriage conspirator. I grudgingly forgave several dead-end plot contrivances and barely tolerated Haskell's pigheaded romanticism in the forlorn hope that events would pick up in the third act, but instead things go straight to hell, and not in a fun way. A 'good girl' sidekick is laboriously set up, deployed for two worthless scenes and then forgotten entirely, and subsequently Parkins reveals her motives in a comically unrelenting fit of confessional glossolalia that attains unprecedented levels of ill-motivated boredom. By the time Haskell signals the film's end by passively meandering off screen, his blankness is no longer inoffensive. At which point you angrily realize that you've been suckered into watching the whole stupid mess by nothing more than the mesmeric heft of Parkins' variously attired boobs.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

(Denis Heroux, 1975)
As a Brel virgin, I come to this film seeking enlightenment. He certainly can write him a melody, and several of these songs really are gorgeous. But I could hum you not one of them a day later, and as an unapologetic rock and roll guy I note that he can't come near a fast tempo without getting all rinkydink and ironically nostalgic. And while his own walk-ons suggest something a little less cloying, the film's interpretations cast his lyrics as the voice of the knowing observer, watching the cruel ironies of life unfold at a measured, mournful distance. This either works or it doesn't, and while the singing soldier statue and lovesick cabbie resonated, the one about old people struck me as a disgustingly gloppy tipping point. One reason the statue was an appropriate conceit is that this is one static piece of filmmaking - not only is it episodic, but the episodes themselves are unmoving tableaux which might make brilliant Kinescopes but grow exhausting when piled on top of each other. Another reason is that of the three apt and skilled singers who take center stage, Mort Shuman is the only one with experience or ability as a screen performer. And the vulgarly 'artistic' procession of quaint cafes, cruel ladies of the night and world wars evokes a tourist brochure of Paris rather than the genuine article.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sudden Fury

(R. Brian Damude, 1975)
The slightly stilted, over-articulated acting of the early scenes could almost be a deliberate audience trap: soon enough the bottom drops out, quickly giving way to one of the finest and most affecting thrillers ever to come out of this country. Damude goes for Hitchcock gothic, taking the familiar motifs of guilt, desperation and mistaken identity and transposing them to the Ontario countryside. His means are more limited - no dazzling set pieces or spectacle of scale here. But his narrative devices are so ingenious and so incisive that very little is lost in the translation, and he really knows how to make a movie out of them - he is fully on top of his material. Cuckolded loser Dominic Hogan settles into a startling impersonation of a feral animal, but great performances are as beside the point here as they were for the master: all that matters is that the players execute their role in the schematic, and they all do at least that, as functional and precise as the accumulation of everyday props - a knife, a stick of wood, a milk bottle, a bucket of water - that give form to the characters’ inner lives. Even when the script cuts the cops an unexpected break at the denouement, it only serves to heighten the sense of haunting irresolution.

Running Brave

(D. S. Everett, 1983)
This First Nations-financed narrative of hardship overcome by individual will diverges in several seemingly significant ways from the Michael Douglas flick that shares half its name, but for all the film’s Sioux specificity the dominant ideological and narrative frames hardly budge an inch. I don’t know whether the retreat into pedestrian ‘inspirational’ bootstrap hokum was a tactic of the Ermineskins or if Buena Vista demanded changes when they picked it up, but I’m guessing the latter - otherwise how would they have suckered Don Shebib into directing in the first place? Shebib eventually had enough and removed his name from the project, but throughout the film there’s evidence that someone around here has an interest in telling rather than regurgitating a story; lots of neat little moments ornament the predictable arc. While jack-of-all-ethnicities Robbie Benson does a creditable enough job capturing the tensions of life among the whites, it’s vividly repressed coach Pat Hingle and sensitive drunk artist Denis Lacroix who dig the deepest. One hopes that Shebib had more in mind for Benson’s life partner Margo Cane than the loving gazes she’s limited to here, and the references to class and race hostility among the Sioux are cartoonish and context-free, which can only be Disney’s doing, right?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Russian Roulette

(Lou Lombardo, 1975)
Robert Altman editor/apprentice Lombardo tries to soft-sell the Alan J. Pakula-style paranoia thriller by locating all the double-crossing intrigue among the evil Russkies, then bringing in the RCMP to set things right. That said, the film scores a lot of witty points off the Western cops' flexible ethics - they steal newspapers, they score free cars, they search apartments without warrants. Maybe the way George Segal's suspended Mountie flouts the rules to get his man is a Dirty Harry move at its generic root, but in this context it reads more like a passing challenge to law-and-order rhetoric than an urgent plea for fascism. The even tone can get a bit dull, and the romantic subplot with Cristina Raines is an ill-defined dud, but Segal and Denholm Elliott come up with fun bits of business, Lombardo goes out of his way to exploit the sights and sounds of mid-seventies Vancouver, and the tension-building devices of the third act build pretty effectively. Of course, none of it would work if you turned your brain on. But why on earth would you do that?


(Steven H. Stern, 1979)
One of those Canadian films whose strenuous Americanness drew howls of outrage at the time, although I am more offended with its attempts to compensate - the cunning insertion of a pilot hyping Montreal's Olympic stadium is pure tourist bureau garbage. Technically this tale of Michael Douglas' NYC jogging enthusiast with self-esteem issues could take place anywhere - Ottawa, Flin Flon, Lagos - only then its automatic Rockyism would be exposed as the craven sham that it is. The early scenes are relatively intimate and agreeable, thanks largely to Susan Anspach and a relatively relaxed Douglas, but as soon as the guy makes the qualifying round the script starts laying on the excessively familiar bootstrap patriotism. 'Wasted' does not begin to describe the misuse of the Canuck support team - Levy, Dane, "Charles" Shamata, all are sidelined before the characters they've established can be put to any practical use. In a further sin of omission, Stern differentiates his narrative arc from his progenitor mainly by completely vaguing out on the training process - instead of bringing Dane in to discipline his old charge, we get yards and yards of highly economical but shapeless and content-free footage of Douglas running around. And I wish one of these damn movies would speak up for self-worth as an end in itself, not just a cunning strategy to 'bring honor to your country' and Get The Girl.

Running Time

(Mort Ransen, 1974)
Throwing up their hands, the NFB describes this film (when it dares to mention it at all) as 'about' the sixties. In fact it is clearly and defiantly OF the sixties - begun in 1969, it took Ransen and his ramshackle team years to assemble this unheralded epic of patchouli pastiche. Admittedly, it isn't about what it says it's about either, not quite - its plea for cross-generational empathy in the war against the Establishment is firmly rooted in the trappings of youth culture. Replete with psychedelic tapestries and pot brownies, unapologetically scorning cops and capitalists and upstanding good citizens, climaxing in a painfully white, bongo-fueled 'rain dance', it certainly won't disappoint anyone looking for a time capsule. But the craft and invention that go into the presentation is notable in itself; the use of rear projection and animated sequences (by Co Hoedeman as well as a still-functional Ryan Larkin, who also appears onscreen) is innovative and gorgeous, the glimpses of the sound stage crew suit the film's concern with how things work, and Jackie Burroughs' old lady makeup job eerily predicts her visage of twenty years hence. Eventually the film bogs down in musical numbers, which restate the basic themes too insistently while hobbling the film's manic drive. But within its limited world view it scores some enduring ideological points and has fun doing so.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


(Glen Salzman/Rebecca Yates, 1983)
Not technically a feature - rather, a network-hour TV special, revived for the home video market due to the subsequent career achievements of second lead Jim Carrey. Its original title, "Introducing...Janet", is more representative of its focus and aesthetic; this is an earnest film about teenage identity crisis that happens to use comedy to illustrate its theme, and those dupes who come in expecting an actual Jim Carrey movie will be properly outraged. The main reaction it provoked in me was pity for Adah Glassbourg. Even without the false advertising, it was sadistic to ask her to mug competitively with Carrey, who is in full manic mode here when he isn't obliged to express his deeper emotions. Meanwhile Glassbourg's odyssey leads her to the conclusion that good comedy is about being yourself. This dicey conceit is undermined by Carrey - who barely has a self to be - and positively trashed by the script itself, which bequeaths us agonizing Groucho Marx pantomime and builds to a putatively climactic comedy-club routine that evinces howls of laughter from the onscreen audience and crickets in your living room.

The Rose Cafe

(Daniele J. Suissa, 1987)
Here director Suissa's marginally impressive feel for humane soap opera is completely subsumed by writer-producer Julian Roffman. Continuing his atonement for the groundbreaking energy and invention of "The Mask", here Roffman achieves total disconnect with his soapy formula of class-conscious power feminism plus romantic dependency divided by big-name power ballad. Linda Smith does no harm as the ambitious workaholic chef. But Damir Andrei stacks the narrative deck with his cloddish fiancee, Bronwen Mantel can't redeem the insufferable laff-a-line best buddy conceit, and long-lost high school buddy Parker Stevenson reads less as the perfect lover emerging from the mist than as a horrifying dead-eyed predator. Stevenson makes so many craven end-runs in his pursuit of romantic consent that the film begs for a "Stepfather"-style third act where he reveals the desperation behind his rehearsed charm by pursuing Smith with a cleaver. Then, after a couple trick endings, Smith could drown him in the lake abutting his mansion, thus freeing her to pursue her career as the happy single woman whose existence Roffman has so much difficulty imagining.

Rolling Vengeance

(Steven H. Stern, 1987)
At first you're struck by the surprising dramatic competence and nuanced characterization of this monster-truck action revenge movie. Soon, though, you're tormented by it. Instead of burlesquing this outrageously dumb material, Stern tries to turn it into a heartfelt allegory about the beleaguered nuclear family's triumph over the blackhearted predations of murderous drunken rednecks. The class fear this scenario so urgently expresses does not achieve a lived-in view of the rural life, and yet the film's misbegotten earnestness removes the general orgy of death and destruction from the safe cover of showbiz and becomes alternately tin-eared and prescriptive. Of course, it would be just about impossible to flatten the comic effect of this drill-enhanced big wheeled messenger of vengeance barrelling over hill and dale toward the bug-eyed bad guys, but there's no joy in watching bland normative warrior Don Michael Paul squish his bastard adversaries. The bastards do their nose-pickin' and beer-guzzlin' best to be humorous, and sheriff Michael J. Reynolds' raised-eyebrow bemusement does suggest a suitable contempt for the script. But ultimately the only performer that wriggles out from under the director's heavy thumb is highway entrepreneur Ned Beatty, and even he is denied the dignity of a funny reaction shot - or any reaction, really - when Paul demolishes his entire used car lot.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rock & Rule

(Clive A. Smith, 1983)
Nelvana's entry into the trippy-dippy adolescent animation market opened up by Gerald Potterton's "Heavy Metal" showcases comparably expansive design work, and certainly shows more conviction than their later resort to Care Bears cross-marketing. It is also less doggedly male-identified than its progenitor, with a strong female lead showing up her petulant-to-dorky male bandmates, although the same slack-jawed fascination with big boobs feels less integrated as a result. In fact, for all the adult language and stoner-pleasing psychedelics, this is of a piece with Nelvana's classic kiddie TV specials of the seventies - "The Devil and Daniel Mouse", "Rome-0 and Julie-8", etc - with the same eventful, deadpan humour and genuinely expressive, individuated characterization. Unfortunately it also ends the same way the specials always ended, with pretty boy and pretty girl joining together to vanquish Evil - this time personified by Mok, Don Francks' Jagger/Tyler-inspired rock and roll tycoon. In this context the device is not only lazily redundant, it's also incongruous in its conservatism, and deflates whatever iconoclasm the film had going for it. Compensating considerably is the frequently nifty soundtrack, including a mind-boggling Mok theme song prepared to order by none other than Lou Reed himself. Love the kiddie-show explication of good versus evil too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


(Peter Carter, 1977)
Brilliantly compact and elemental, and genuinely chilling to boot, this is far from just another "Deliverance" rip-off, although it's that too. Every one of the five doctors on this camping trip from hell is a total pain in the ass, carrying years of interpersonal baggage which is implied with the barest quantity of exposition. We learn just enough about their immersion in first-world problems to fully feel their disorientation as a mysterious enemy targets them with shocking speed and unpredictability. Because the assailant remains unknowable until the very end, the film keeps an appropriate focus on the rapidly deteriorating psychology of the victims. While it would have been even more powerful if the killer remained totally ambiguous, the big reveal is murky enough and leaves enough unanswered questions - and is an impressive enough set piece in its own right - that one hesitates to complain. Most importantly, the performances are all brilliant, with a hauntingly childish vulnerability lurking just beneath their defensive belligerence. The depth of craft in writing, direction, and cinematography is comparable, allowing for far more human insight than you expect from what is essentially a prototypical slasher film. A hard one to shake off.

Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare

(Jon Sasano, 1987)
For all the sex and violence, what really defines this howlingly bad heavy metal horror movie is its innocence. Without pretending to be a role model or anything, Jon-Mikl Thor's clean living, hard-working heavy metal bodybuilder comes off as an impossibly nice guy, and he's no fabrication. This really is Thor playing Thor - he wrote the script himself, as a vehicle for his real-life band, the Tritonz. When at the climax he reveals his devious plot to foil Satan and his legion of rubber starfish, then strips down to his studded thong and dances with the devil until it falls over and bellows "You win this time", there's no cheap irony or intentional badness at play. Seriously; the guy is actually doing the best he can. Not 100% sure if you can say the same thing about fake Australian drummer Stiggy or the hoser landlord who goes "heh heh you'll see", but in the end everyone is serving the master and it's his vision that holds it all together. Two musical numbers, a couple silly sex scenes, and a handful of piss-poor latex molds are all this movie needs to hold you spellbound for 80-odd minutes of dazzlingly tedious, incompetent fun. He even lets us see his ass.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


(Tom O’Horgan, 1974)
By centering a whole scene on a portrait of Nixon, the production tips its hand: “Hair” braintrust O’Horgan takes such earnestly literal steps to emphasize that this shit is now, man, that he both miniaturizes it and undermines his presumed right to mess with Ionesco. I’ll warrant that for as long as the comedy remains broad and fast, the man does make the most of the inherently stagy construction; the artifice of the performance style is matched by the setting. But the movie really flouts the corners of its box when the big moral gets triple-underlined in red at the climax, which I can only hope is another vulgarization of the apparenty reputable original. But only Gene Wilder ends up bested by the material; the performances are of a peculiarly overemphatic piece. And Nixon aside, Mostel’s transformation scene is worth enduring a little bad direction to see.

Reno and the Doc

(Charles Dennis, 1984)
Travelling shyster Henry Ramer discovers a peculiarly sporadic psychic connection with ski-wizard mountain man Kenneth Welsh, and with the help of humorously oral-dyslexic Linda Griffiths they seek to take the world skiing championship title from German blowhard Gunther Schloss. Sounds moronic, right? Well, I must report that instead of flailing about as you’d expect, the three leads go for a very calm deadpan, actually recalling the best shaggy-dog American comedies of the 70s, and their work is certainly more endearing than you expect from an 80s ski movie. But what the fuck are they doing in an 80s ski movie? Whenever they start to get some mild mileage out of their doggedly quirky interactions, out trot the ski montages, with the America tributes on the soundtrack and those idiot announcers droning away. Anything designed to impose a narrative on the scenario further poisons the well. Makes you wonder whether the actors took over the set and demanded all those eccentric little touches, which are the only things that make the movie almost, but not quite, watchable. Complicating things further: the Kukamungas.

The Reincarnate

(Don Haldane, 1971)
The exceptional talkiness of this occult potboiler is redeemed by its surprising literacy. Amounting to a “Faust” retooled to the Toronto art scene of 1971, it affords viewers the pleasure of seeing future Nabob pitch-man “Jay” (Michael J.) Reynolds play a cranky hippie artist who gets in on a virgin sacrifice so as to rescue his muse from dying reincarnate Jack Creley. Nowhere near as action-packed as you might hope, but the writing is so precise, the small cast of performers so committed and so engaging, that the talk ends up managing your rhythms right down with it, settling into a slow unnerving creep that is broken up effectively by a particularly bloodthirsty black cat. And even if the relentless prattle about ancient Greek cults and eternal life doesn’t sound like your thing, in fact it runs alongside a fairly detailed and mordant examination of the economy and work life of the artist, allowing for just enough grimly ironic subtext to get you through the heavy stuff.

Red Handed

(Jacques Santi, 1987)
Taking on the familiar police-drama themes of corruption and loyalty, this one is notable for its emphasis on the psychology of Richard Bohringer’s lead cop. When he finds out that longtime colleague Pierre Arditi is cosy with the criminals he’s trying to bust, we know that he’ll come up with a clever scheme to expose the collusion. But before we get there the cop’s sense of betrayal and disillusion leads him, and us, into an exceptionally protracted personal spiral: he spends fully half the movie breaking up with his girlfriend, gambling himself into an impossible hole of debt, eating noodles over the sink. The irony is that this downward trajectory brings him into ever closer intimacy with the criminal underworld himself; by the time he does spring his trap, his motivations have progressed past moral outrage to simple self-preservation. Bohringer’s taciturn unreadability fails to let us into his head the way this approach would seem to require, but this remains a rather engaging, tersely executed take on this material, and the resigned admiration with which Arditi accepts his fate caps the film’s sense of moral ambiguity with impressive concision.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


(David Cronenberg, 1977)
It's superficially derivative of Romero, The Crazies especially, and both Marilyn Chambers' phallic-armpit attacks and the scenes with people drooling shaving cream get pretty repetitive. But the inciting notion of newfangled plastic surgery techniques gone terribly, terribly awry is a classic Cronenberg conceit, delivered with an exceptionally deadpan comic touch that almost disappears into the menacingly sleazy atmosphere. The martial law narrative which ensues from the carnage is suitably dire and keeps things moving forward. While little in the way of acting is required by the material, what's there is impressively controlled and ably handled by the performers, including Chambers. And while Cronenberg would never be caught dead within a ten-mile radius of a positive social statement, here his pervasive neurotic body-horror is complicated as well as cruel, with countless skeevy guys underlining the theme of a woman alone in a man's world. After all, Chambers is spreading her meta-venereal plague with the aid of an invasively manufactured phallus, and if there remains a tinge of misogyny amid the misanthropy, you can't deny the compelling weirdness of this guy's exquisitely antisocial vision.

Ragtime Summer

(Alan Bridges, 1977)
More than an hour into this well-observed but highly uneventful period piece about smalltown mores and personal conscience, something finally happens: Joey Davidson's petulant drunken youth pushes Honor Blackman through a glass window, causing her death. Or does he? In one of the dumbest moments of censorship I've ever seen, the video edition of this film cuts straight from Davidson leering menacingly to Blackman hitting the window; in situation it plays out as though she cut her throat on her own steam. I guess somebody in the chain of command thought that the cultured audience this film addresses would not stand for violence against women of any sort, was informed that this incident was the absolute pivot of the narrative, and accepted this 'minor' trim as a compromise. And so the film remains of a piece, because for all its allusions to early 20th century pacifism and feminist thought, it never breaks out of its repressive milieu; people talk about things, people's inner lives are transformed by things, but never is anything substantial actually done or experienced on screen. The meandering road to this inert hell is paved by fine performances and adorned by many small moments of truth and humour. But it leads nowhere.

Quiet Cool

(Clay Borris, 1986)
Don't gainsay him. Had Borris stuck with kitchen-sink autobiography instead of going pro, the formula would have run dry fast - movies like "Alligator Shoes" don't come along every year. And this is exactly the kind of film a working-class lout like the Borris of "Alligator Shoes" would be likely to come up with: simplistic, businesslike, and action-packed. This is no amateur-hour Hollywood wannabe, it's a successful assimilation of the American action-movie codes of the time, on a smaller scale perhaps but slick top to bottom, with clever and concise staging throughout. But even in kitchen-sink mode there were hints of a peculiar emotional vacancy in the guy, and even for an 80s action flick this is exceptional in its gleeful disregard for human life. The scale matters: as a Rambo's-eye view of B.C. grow-ops, this flick lays bare the willful idiocy of standard issue us-versus-them action dynamics in spite of the 'surprise' ending. However much enthusiasm and skill Borris may display as a generic craftsman, his single-minded bloodlust keeps him well on the outside of these characters and reduces the dramatics to the level of 80s TV, body count notwithstanding. The cheesy, nagging score does nothing to dispel this association. Populist ambition needn't equate to total brainlessness, you know?

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Quiet Day In Belfast

(Milad Bessada, 1974)
Pretty easy to tell this is based on a stage play, although not from the staging - cinematically, this is a genuinely successful opening up. But as a director of actors, Bessada is no control freak. The performances range from stoic to buffoonishly loud, and while Barry Foster tries to do realism these other guys are walking around with absurd spirit gum mustaches and blackened teeth. The buildup to the bombings in the final sequence does generate some tension, although the ultimate closeups of mutilated bodies are of a piece with the rest of this hamfisted allegory. The script's one-world analysis of the troubles seems both secondhand and simplistic, and only occasionally does the large ensemble bring things to life. Tellingly, Sean McCann's cold bastard is the best performance in the movie, while Margot Kidder's sporadic turn as the symbolic pretty twin sisters (sound familiar?) feels alienated and extraneous, not least because she botches the accent. Other annoyances: the alternately vague and hyperemphatic scoring, and the over-enunciated, Canadian Cooperation Agreement-style nods to nation of origin.

Psycho Girls

(Gerard Ciccoritti, 1985)
This is not your average stupid movie, because it is also maddeningly pretentious. Tearing a strip off the hypocritical intelligentsia (to whose status its makers transparently aspire), it critiques psychiatric rationalism in a complacent and pandering way while handing the psychos - two of whom, for the record, are actually male - the keys to the asylum. While the film is dispiriting throughout, you can kind of see how then-Globe media critic John Haslett Cuff wound up in the lead, since the script makes a big deal of its quite finite intellectual attainments. But one boring dinner party later we're strapped in to the unforgivably sadistic torture gallery of the third act, an ill-conceived attempt at "Salo"-in-reverse which compounds the already rampant offenses of pathological overextension, smirking smugness and complete unwatchability. Two or three times a haunting image or idea struggles to the surface, but filmmakers this committed to static poses should put away their gore fetish and get back to their dissertation, and Cuff's occasional outbursts of hard-boiled narration would make matters worse if such a thing were possible.

Red the Half Breed

(Gilles Carle, 1970)
A pioneering attempt to bring the nouvelle vague fusion of art film and crime film to Canada, via Quebec of course, this suggests possibilities that were rarely breached again in our sadly bifurcated film culture: a small, intimate character study with grand themes expressed through action. Both form and content inhere in Daniel Pilon's title character, the literal product of Francophone and Iroquois culture clash; a suave petty thief, he goes about his tawdry business until he's accused of the murder of his beloved half-sister and takes it on the lam. The first half of the film builds a compellingly intimate portrait of Pilon's white community, presented with a relaxed, engaging offhandedness; the initial murder/shootout/chase material comes out of left field in the second act, but makes sense internally and is momentarily exciting. Carle is to be commended for his reach, but grasp is another thing. Having abstracted his themes into a genre scenario, he immediately abstracts them further; all remaining material seems to be working on a symbolic/allegorical level, none more so than Pilon's retreat to his reservation hideout with white girlfriend. This sequence is a total disaster, both ideologically (there are better ways to deromanticize First Nations culture than portraying them as one big sexist smuggling ring) and dramatically (the chick is a huge pain in the ass). Digressing at this moment in the plot comes off as a nervous retreat from the genre material; instead of going out and gathering evidence on the true murderer, the guy just...figures it out, and then trots back into town for his martyrdom. In short, this is not a fusion, it's a dog's breakfast. Tragic indeed.

Rebel High

(Harry Jakobs, 1987)
This "Harry Jakobs Comic Book" is based on a novel called "New Africa High", which may help to explain the uncomfortable ideology that keeps peeking out around the edges. At bottom this is a conservative adult's-eye view of inner-city school as gangsta's paradise, with class and race politics to match; it beats Tarantino to his gratuitous N-word games by five years. What half redeems it, however, is that Jakobs himself hasn't got a brain in his head; all he sees in this material is an opportunity for extremely broad slapstick, and much of this is fairly endearing in spite of the frequently atrocious execution. Whatever the social assumptions behind the scenario, teachers and students alike are portrayed as lovable fuckups rather than threats to the social fabric; and by uniting them against bureaucrats and capitalist opportunists the movie renders its ideology merely incoherent, thus freeing us to mildly enjoy the silliness. The end product is obviously some kind of patch-up job, just professional enough to render its amateurishness a liability; shots don't cut, gags hit the dirt, "funny" narration patches holes. But thanks to the superabundance of dum-dum stuff, it's rarely hateful; even the geek gets a gentle ride.


(Rafal Zielinski, 1986)
The peculiarly sluggish opening scenes suggest an actual attempt at understatement - Mike Macdonald doesn't even make an ass of himself - but sheer ineptitude seems a likelier explanation. Soon enough, the civilian recruits begin their police training, and the movie regresses into a long series of stock slapstick setups with a shockingly short attention span; quite often the camera appears to be leading our eye to a visual gag that never appears. The actors are all playing one-dimensional stereotypes, and what thin character logic there is keeps getting broken in the service of these witless, lifeless blackout gags. Making matters worse are the scenes involving racist rednecks (the black cop is actually tarred and feathered) or cops shooting at children on tricycles; these are desperately tin-eared and uncomfortable, showing a complete lack of feel for the genial tastelessness the genre requires. The cast is game and tries their best to whip up some energy in the vacuum, but you are unlikely to come away satisfied even if you like uncommonly alienated boob shots, pallid tributes to scenes from other movies, and people falling into water.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Rainbow Boys

(Gerald Potterton, 1973)
Renamed "The Rainbow Gang" for US video release, which still doesn't quite capture it but at least acknowledges Kate Reid as an equal partner in this lovely little three-hander. Long-abandoned housewife Reid joins addled lifelong prospector Donald Pleasance and adventure-seeking New Yawker Don Calfa on a search for a lost stash of gold in the Pacific Northwest. And that's it for narrative in this reed-thin meander; for the entire movie, Potterton simply places these radically contrasting eccentrics into situations that they can bicker about, and lets them do their thing. Smart move: these actors' sense of comic timing is perfectly sufficient, all the more so for the common undertow of heartbreak and loss; it's this deep, minimally articulated melancholia that helps define the film's ultimate, surprisingly moving theme of acceptance. Reid does the brassy Northern gal to a T, Calfa's facial reactions and line deliveries are brilliant, and Pleasance gets an all-too-rare opportunity to conceive an actual performance in a North American motion picture. His distracted, grizzled quietude offer more than a hint of the stock Pinterisms that made him his name in the first place, and in this context this method remains absolutely confident and humane and moving. Added bonus: the calculated inclusion of First Nations characters who are just as quirky and funny as the interlopers - check out the startling, hilarious punchline to the Indian graveyard scene.

Quest For Fire

(Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981)
Presented with generous art-film trappings and production values to match, this bizarre occurrence is in fact an attempt to drag Joseph Campbell and/or Syd Field kicking and screaming into the wayback machine. While I'm sure everything was meticulously researched, I'm equally sure that John Kemeny and Denis Heroux fixed the intelligence: the impressive battle scenes and embarrassing romantic subplot are entirely familiar despite the grunt-reliant script, and the history of human sexuality - in which Rae Dawn Chong wields the missionary position as an instrument of cavewoman's liberation - bears the same relationship to its audience as National Geographic's topless Africans. Neither profound nor convincing, this confounding schlock mutation remains a great deal of fun, and seemingly quite aware of its strengths in spite of the overlay of high seriousness. On a single road trip, Everett McGill enriches his culture with the discoveries of monogamy, laughter, and how to rub two sticks together, and when you think about it aren't those three things the most basic elements of 20th century commercial cinema? Wicked!

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2

(Bruce Pittman, 1987)
Just as the first film was not your usual genre ripoff, this one is not your usual franchise ripoff. In fact, for a while I had hopes that this would not only top the original but also crown the previously unreliable Pittman as a director of substance. While the narrative bears no relation to the first episode, it not only features equally likable characters (although in this one a bitch is just a bitch), it also allows for more character development, particularly re Wendy Lyon, whose not-completely-innocent young thing generates a great deal of sympathy as her possession by evil prom dress progresses. There's even a couple Real Actors (Ironside, Monette) in support, and Pittman puts his usual striking visual sense to good use. And then, suddenly, the thing just dies. Lyon's good-versus-evil personality metamorphosis is stupidly foreshortened just as it's getting interesting; thereafter we're simply asked to accept this previously virtuous teen as a swaggering murderess with an amazing rack. I couldn't make the leap, although I bet another director could have made it work; always prone to dozing off in the third act, here Pittman beats an infuriating retreat into nasty camp self-referentiality, throwing all content to the winds in favour of serial fanboy in-jokes, signifying nothing. He even throws in visual nods to The Third Man and Vertigo, just to prove how smart he is. Whoop de doop.

Prom Night

(Paul Lynch, 1980)
The truly embarrassing disco dancing motif is a failing with no upside, unless you're the kind of person who watches movies mainly to ridicule them (hey - what's everyone looking at me for?!) But most of the problematic stuff here actually bears happy dividends as well. Ransacking generic elements from Carrie and Halloween (with Jamie Lee Curtis on board in case we didn't get the point), this is exceedingly familiar slasher fare, but in this case the deja vu allows the filmmakers to shed unnecessary exposition and just give the people what they want: boogie aside, the picture never drags. While one casualty of this approach is any hint of character development, the characters are pretty dimensional in their larval state, and watchable too, far from the usual hateful stereotypes. This minimizes the moral identification with the mysterious killer - you want these characters to survive, in spite of the deadly conspiracy the carnage is obviously meant to avenge. And obvious it is; while the large cast allows an unusually robust catalogue of suspects, the overt steering of the genre toward good ole Whodunit games - with audience rather than characters doing most of the sleuthing - won't fool anyone who knows how horror movies work. Intentionally or not, though, the teasing ambiguity necessary to this approach both complicates the film's moral position and renders it a fair bit more watchable than most shameless ripoffs.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Pyx

(Harvey Hart, 1973)
This movie milks the new-cinema tricks of wandering camera, dominant foregrounds, and overheard inarticulate dialogue for sheer malevolent atmosphere: its fantastic allegory of satanic sacrifice amid the Godless urbanites is given more power by its palpably human scale. The horrific details of Karen Black's sex-working junkie lifestyle unfold alongside Christopher Plummer's murder investigation in a deep but organic flashback framework; the grim wit of Plummer's scenes balance the sad desperation of Black's, whose mournfully ululating folk score fits right in. While our firsthand access to Black keeps us two steps ahead of Plummer at all times, we get more info about her life than about her death, which renders the police procedural oddly impotent, and purposefully so. Still, you do hope for a better payoff than you get. The satanists are obviously being used metaphorically, a dark culmination of urban desperation and faithlessness, and with that creepy chipmunk-choir-from-hell music all over the climax Hart certainly hammers that theme home. But in narrative terms, it does in fact matter that the climax reveals little new info about Black's death while suddenly asking us to care about Plummer's character. Although he's having a great time, Plummer clearly cares little about the character himself - he's remote throughout in that taciturn-cop way - so we don't really give a fig for his existential dilemma. Still, this remains super creepy and quite watchable. Also of note are the most hateful madam of all time, and a quite anti-stereotypical gay guy as Black's best friend - an obvious olive branch from the director of "Fortune and Men's Eyes", although just to be contrary he has him gunned down anyway.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


(George Kaczender, 1987)
This looks like one of those movies where the ad campaign came first - just about the only thing wrong with it is its 'concept'. Always big on sex, here Kaczender gets to explore the world of the high-priced call girl, and while the cops are in the foreground, the girls' milieu is presented with detail, sympathy and rage. The context is a serial murder plot, and lead call girl Suzanne Snyder's complicated relationship with stressed-out cop David Birney adds resonance to the procedural stuff. When Birney lapses into Dirty Harry talk it only leads to impotent macho fury, unleashed on a painfully vulnerable black dandy and an unapologetically gay crook. In other words, Sandra K. Smith's script has good things to say and says them well. So why oh why did somebody then have to turn the whole thing into a 'split personality' drama? The conceit does make sense thematically, I'll admit; and as she veers between sweet young sex worker and abusive Daddy, Season Hubley gives the routine everything she's got. But in that process she robs the film of everything it had: this is hackneyed, dramatically disastrous stuff. In the end everyone is so glad to be rid of Hubley that they rush straight out the door with a denouement so self-effacing it might have been furnished by Robert Wise.

Prescription For Murder

(Clarke Mackey, 1987)
The first thing you notice about this made for TV drama is the deftness of the scenes among the nurses, displaying a surprising depth and detail of characterization; the small talk and camaraderie are so felt that you suspect writer Rebecca Schechter has spent her share of time on the delivery ward. More time than she spent hanging around with cops anyway; the interrogation scenes are laughable victims of stupid detective syndrome, and the courtroom procedural that follows from them are a nightmare of generic imposition, with the director clearly as bored as anyone. Since we now require a hero, Kate Lynch's conflicted daddy's girl gets to ponder her personal moral dilemma as a wholly unsatisfying replacement for the ensemble. While her later scenes with jaded hubby Saul Rubinek and working lout Sean McCann are more responsive and patient than usual for this kind of project, the investigative narrative remains so stilted and remote that the multi-plane talkover bits that keep popping up between testimonies eventually reveal themselves as a showy directorial tic. And while they may think that the trick ending underlines the theme of individual responsibility, it cheats it instead. By cutting to credits at the big moment, the filmmakers relieve Lynch's grand moral gesture of all content and repercussion, not only letting her character off multiple hooks but also leaving more than half of their own story untold.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Power Play

(Martyn Burke, 1978)
So what country is this coup d'etat taking place in, anyway? Presumably not the UK or Canada, although the accents in this international coproduction are strictly northern. This glaring lack of specificity turns out to be definitive. Seemingly pivotal dialogue scenes are glossed over with rampaging orchestras to keep the running time down; the climax consists almost entirely of extras in helmets running around the outside of large buildings; the setup introduces a revolutionary underground that barely registers before it is whisked out of view. Obviously social change from below is an imponderable alternative to overthrow by military brass, which the film ponders at length before disowning as well, generating great ennui in the viewer especially since said brass spend almost the entire running time sitting around a table. And even at that most of the generals remain little more than asses in seats, barely permitted to establish a character or a motivation. If I enjoyed this film in spite of itself, it may be because after watching so many damn Canadian movies I was thrilled by the 'all-star cast'. It's great fun watching Barry Morse, Jon Granik, Harvey Atkin, Gary Reineke, August Schellenberg, and (my favourite) Chuck Shamata rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Hemmings and Peter O'Toole for an entire movie. But only diehard Chuck Shamata fans need apply.

Possession: Until Death Do You Part

(Michael Mazo/Lloyd A. Simandl, 1987)
Ostensibly a movie about a psychopath in thrall to his mother - now where have we heard that one before? - this movie achieves the remarkable feat of running out its entire narrative in the first fifteen minutes. Given the calibre of performances, you might in fact be grateful that things then revert to the usual menaced ladies in a cabin, and since these ladies in fact comprise a home-based escort service, the so-called directors (Simandl has learned nothing in the eight years since the hateful amateur hour that was "Autumn Born") claim ample resort to the female torso. They can't act - best line: "You were in a BAR?!" - and they're pretty obnoxious, but they sure come as a relief after the nondescript frump of a mother and the dull-ass lump of a psycho. The first problem, though, is that the opening teased us with the promise of a plot, thus calling attention to the sad nothingness of all that follows; these clowns can't even stage a decent stabbing. The second problem is that the psycho is still with us. John Robert Johnson is like a guy doing a retard impression at a frat party only less subtle, and by the third stroll in the woods you'll wish the credits had rolled as soon as his dinghy exploded.

Paperback Hero

(Peter Pearson, 1973)
No boring smalltown prairie slice of life here. This character study of a rebel in his own mind is full of wit and critique, from the slush on the surface of the doomed hockey rink to the showdown climax that finally nails Kier Dullea's good ole boy to the wall. The main concern is with rural systems of power. Still living at his parents' place, Dullea draws status from his hockey coworkers and from the many women he romances, as he thumbs his nose at bosses and cops. For all his attitude, though, he's still at their mercy, and as the owner pulls the plug on his team and the women in his life get fed up with him, he learns the limits of playing cowboy as a resistance strategy. The filmmakers understand the crushing closeness of country society well enough to draw out universal truths about the difficulty of opposition, without ignoring the countless ways that the status quo is well worth opposing. These complexities express themselves through dynamic gray shadings that are given compelling shape in just about every scene. And it's most impressive that the desperate highs and lows of sexual questing on both sides of the gender divide get the most vivid and humane treatment of all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Porky's Revenge

(James Komack, 1985)
With Bob Clark having fled the country, so goes the patina of "quality". As the guys' sense of ensemble deepens they also start to show their age, especially Meat who appears to have developed a steroid dependency; the women are pure window dressing and are given zilch to do. The only thing dumber than the plotting is the execution, which goes out of its way to underline every improbability, longueur and logical lapse. The sexual liberation of Balbricker is such a botch from top to bottom that the quantum leap in kindness from previous installments is rendered a liability, and the paddleboat destruction of the end sequence is predicated on a 'big scheme' of unbelievable sloppiness. But while this is obviously a far, far lousier piece of filmmaking than the original "Porky's", I still find it just a bit more watchable - because high moral seriousness is not even on the radar, because its idiocy is harmless, because absurdly overdrawn boner gags still touch the child in all of us.

Porky's II: The Next Day

(Bob Clark, 1983)
Is it really so hard to see this movie as the atonement and improvement it is? Winning my heart up front is a scene in which Kaki Hunter finally gives voice to a female perspective on teen sex, insisting that she does it because she enjoys it and describing the painful experience of being labeled a slut. Sure, there's something a little, oh, self-serving about Clark comparing his brand of smut to Shakespeare and/or the Bible. But the juxtaposition gives the franchise a goose, creating comic opportunities (many of which are of course flogged to within an inch of their lives) even as it startlingly displaces much of the sexual humour in favour of the social commentary that is obviously Clark's more pressing concern. Here's a movie where a bunch of frat boys team up with the Seminoles to defeat a hypocritically puritanical coalition of government, the religious right and the KKK! The preacher is a Billy Graham lookalike, the politician is named "Gebhardt". And this time it's handled with a touch so much lighter and friendlier than the original that it actually does make irresponsibility seem responsible. In other words, this is the long-sought missing link between the original film and Clark's classic "A Christmas Story" - there's even a cameo appearance from what I'll swear is the exact same mannequin leg that shows up in Darren McGavin's lamp.


(Bob Clark, 1981)
Unlike most subsequent comedies of sexual humiliation, this trailblazer is a 'real' movie, made by a capable craftsman. In between the sex talk, Clark explores his themes of machismo and racism with palpable seriousness, and the scenes at Porky's sex bar have an undertone of real malevolence, not the usual fun stuff. In fact, it's not fun at all. The unrelenting, smug cruelty of the humour is painful to endure; Clark may think he's building bridges by showing women and black guys joining in the escapades, but the result feels evasive and wrong. In this context, and sincere though it might be, the (highly compromised) anti-racism subplot feels like a diversion: at no point does anyone issue a comparable challenge to the view of sex as guys getting women to do what they want by any means necessary. The fat-phobic stuff certainly doesn't help, nor do the exhaustingly endless prompt-shots of guffawing bystanders. I will only confess to laughing twice: Peewee's naked night run is handled with uncharacteristic finesse, and the long-take penis identification conference in the principal's office takes broad as far as it will go, climaxing with a zoom that puts the project's normative mission in a nutshell.


(Stuart Gillard, 1982)
It is a positively heroic quest to endure the ten thousand walking-camel shots that stand between the viewer and Phoebe Cates' teenage anatomy. And after the horndogs are thrown their meat, we are then forced to endure running commentary from a truly hateful pair of trained chimps, who eventually start clocking more screen time than the hairless bipeds. Since by then the human performers are down to Cates and the grotesque Willie Aames, this might seem like a small mercy, but believe me when I tell you that it is not. The protracted flight from danger, the narrative of sexual awakening, the abrupt resort to nuclear-family domesticity, and the 'climactic' battle scene are unified by a jaw-slackening contempt for the audience, lazily connecting the Blue Lagoon dots like grade-schoolers acting out Star Wars in their treehouse. It is so hopelessly bad that when they renege on the familiar not-really-dead trick ending, you actually resent it - not least because of the missed opportunity to take a machete to Aames.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Pit

(Lew Lehman, 1981)
Any movie about a bullied autistic kid who enlists a cave full of man-eating "tra-la-logs" to exact revenge on his nemeses would seem to be tilting toward some kind of a positive social statement, especially when the kid is also actively interested in sex. It's even possible that the extreme mildness of this particular case of autism is a positive reaction against cinematic norms rather than a token of incomprehension. But the kid's monstrousness is so convincingly conveyed by both the director and the brat who plays him that by the time he pushes the old lady's wheelchair into the crevice it looks more like a Struwwelpeter-style middle finger to the whole notion of positive social statements. In this context, the pubescent misanthropy is startling and holds your attention up to a point, but the plot pushes all the carnage so far to the back end that one starts to wonder whether this was intended as a horror film at all. And so, in a transparently belated attempt to correct this miscalculation, the producers preview one death scene in its lengthy entirety before the opening credits, then paste on ten minutes of absurdly gratuitous tra-la-log rampage at the swimmin' hole in the third act. Throw in the babysitter's ghost and one of the cheapest end gags of all time, and you've got one weird movie.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pinocchio's Birthday Party

(Ron Merk, 1974)
The main selling point of this poor excuse for a movie is Pinocchio's status as a life-sized marionette among humans; he's pretty creepy. With the puppeteer a good twenty feet's length of string away, he's also pretty haphazard, flopping around on roller skates or dancing on the table - the actors have to keep nudging him back on track. Apart from this dazzling technical innovation, the movie resembles a typically desperate local-affiliate kids' show, adorned somewhat by the colorful artifice of the studio sets and the "Hair"-ish tinge of the stiff-as-a-board musical numbers. The idiot child Pippafax does inspire unhealthy fantasies of violence, but don't worry, he disappears along with everything else to make way for two staggeringly extraneous, threadbare cartoons which someone probably found behind the radiator and which take up fully half the film's running time. I mean, there's bad and then there's bad. Pity poor Sean Sullivan and especially Nancy Belle Fuller, who in a just industry would have rode her Hard Part Begins role to an actual career instead of hopscotching from here to oblivion.

The Peanut Butter Solution

(Michael Rubbo, 1985)
Working for Rock Demers, Rubbo finds the perfect tone for this kid's film: conversational, casual, bemused. There's nothing scrubbed-down or idealized about the chaotic family at the film's center; they pursue their petty obsessions, they get in each other's way, they chat on about nothing. In particular, the kids' eccentric artist dad seems to live on another planet, as does his evil opposite number, a diabolical art teacher who demands strict realism with an obsessiveness that resonates with the filmmaker's NFB pedigree. So, all mixed up with the haunted houses and phantom panhandlers and household magic gone wrong, we get a delirious child's-eye view of the neuroses of the art world - as well as, eventually, a completely deadpan introduction to the cruelties of sweatshop labour. Such things are not exactly staples of the genre, and they're heartfelt and whimsical, played for enjoyable absurdity instead of redeeming social value. In fact, each pivotal touch of fantasy and heroism is so cockeyed and so offhand that the film could have been written by an 11 year old, with the tossed-off pubic hair gag emblematic of the whole enterprise's brilliant lack of propriety.

The Pink Chiquitas

(Anthony Currie, 1986)
What promises to be a mythic showdown between Frank Stallone and a bunch of Amazonian bimbos from space is mainly a showcase for some Second City second-stringers to chew the scenery. Of these guys, John Hemphill does the least damage, playing a twitchy mayoral candidate/Howard Zinn lookalike as if he actually knows the camera is there; but the director doesn't seem to quite know what to do with his repressed mugging. Meanwhile, Ron Lake's doofus cop and Bruce Pirrie's doofus weatherman shout at the back of the presumably empty theatre in perfect accord with the script's lead-sledgehammer touch. There's more than a touch of male-chauvinist anxiety in the setup, so it's a relief that it's too silly to be particularly offensive. Still, the women are uniformly more interesting (though no less annoying) before they mutate into sex-starved marauders, Frank is a less compelling performer than the kid who plays him in flashback, characters disappear from the narrative left and right, and the gags only make you laugh in that horrified head-shaking way that you do when a joke is stretched and squeezed to within an inch of its barely existent life.


(Sandor Stern, 1989)
Towards the end a good boyfriend tilts the rhetoric toward the usual mental-illness frame, threatening the film's very impressive balance of thematic concerns: patriarchy, misogyny, repression, false idol as ventriloquist's dummy. Stern gets serious mileage out of his central conceit of visible man as imaginary friend, and I was afraid that he'd cop out instead of summing up. These worries proved unfounded, though. Up against dad's relatively sympathetic vacuity, the one-dimensional status consciousness of the mother figure is problematic too; but both characters are dispatched early enough to shift focus to Cyndy Preston's strong, resourceful, sympathetic sister, who winds up being more than a match for David Hewlett's dangerously stunted teen head case. A bit stiff and a bit annoying, Hewlett still impresses in his center-stage role, digging ever deeper into the hole of avoidance which his wrong-headed rearing has deposited him in. The narrative rarely lets its considerable creepy thrills distract from the working through of its ideas, although the reverse may be true; this is almost too cerebral, too schematic, for real classic horror status. Still, this remains a near-poster child for the intellectual attainments of modern genre cinema at its best.

Pick-Up Summer

(George Mihalka, 1980)
They changed the name, but at least they didn't change the theme - "Pinball Summer" is typical of a Brian-Wilson-meets-Rupert-Holmes soundtrack that is as catchy and competent as it is obnoxious. Kind of like the movie itself. The broad smuttiness is executed with a fair degree of technical finesse, adding an extra half-dimension to the prototypical 80s comedy of sexual cruelty: the fat kid named "Whimpy" undergoes a moral awakening, the biker dude turns out to be a closet nebbish, and the obligatory nerd is actually a rich twat who pretty much deserves the treatment he gets. No such complications among the main protagonists, two blow-dried nonentities who are as bland as they are irritating plus girlfriends with camera-friendly asses. You really don't care to see these people pitching woo on the beach or driving their customized van around town. The chase scenes get old fast, but the pinball showdown at the end is more engaging than you'd expect, and the way the drive-in movie echoes the idiocies of the main narrative is a genuinely inspired touch. Which is not to say that this is anything more than a barely watchable piece of sexist garbage, but for what it's worth its makers do seem to have their eye in the viewfinder most of the time.