Saturday, January 30, 2010

Keeping Track

(Robin Spry, 1985)
It ain't Kidder and Sarrazin's fault - their rapport is relaxed and bright enough to render this espionage thriller almost watchable. Spry's direction is pretty laid back too, only that's no virtue for an espionage thriller - there's absolutely no momentum, and none of the set pieces have any form to them, so that we're stuck contemplating the bald idiocy of the plot. Or not - personally I tuned out within the first ten minutes, when we are asked to accept that a competent executive on the way to the most important meeting of her life would hop off a train in the middle of nowhere in unarmed pursuit of a masked murderer, leaving her word processor and luggage on board, and that she would then not run after the departing passenger train when seconds later she proves herself capable of keeping pace with a freight for minutes at a time. The high-tech trappings must have looked dinky even in 1985, and any narrative comprising Canada and Russia squaring off for a microchip that "could influence the outcome of the whole world" is its own worst enemy. Spry probably thinks he's got a clever wrinkle on Hitchcock by transforming the old master's insidious paranoia into CSIS-knows-best paternalism at the end: the moral that comes across is mind your own damn business, and if you want to sell that one it'll take more than nervous word processing and medium shots of people running down stairwells. The coup de grace is Ben Low's score, a self-destructive orgy of pan flutes and harmonica synthesizers.

Happy Birthday To Me

(J. Lee Thompson, 1981)
It's disarming and a little disorienting that this slasher pic looks and behaves like a 'real' movie. Old pro Thompson has a lot of fun teasing us with red herrings and timing tricks, Miklos Lente's cinematography is lush and deep, and most shocking of all, the sizable teen ensemble manages to establish differentiated, relatively sympathetic characters with a bare minimum of exposition. The film is also focused and coherent enough that the fun doesn't stop when the identity of the villain becomes (apparently) obvious; if you're paying attention, the focus merely shifts to the villain behind the villain. Is it the absentee father? The drunken social-climber mother? Glenn Ford's probing psychoanalyst? Experiemental brain surgery? Adolescent morbidity gone viral? You'll never guess, and that's the idea: while the random shocks and razzle-dazzle gore sequences play with the minds of the kids at the drive-in, the ending quite knowingly performs the same operation on the complacent film-text analyst. It does make a kind of sense too, tying up thematic threads and resolving our discomfort about the strangely sympathetic demeanour of the victims. (No gods of carnal vengeance in this one - even Ford gets offed!) Thing is, it's still pretty stupid - even Raymond Chandler couldn't get away with that pulling-off-the-mask bit. But any slasher pic that leaves you expecting greater depth and coherence than it delivers has got to be doing something right.

Heathcliff: The Movie

(Bruno Bianchi, 1986)
John Kricfaluci is one-fifth of the animation team, which might provide a cynical explanation for why one-fifth of the jokes aren't corny. Those are mainly in the reaction and timing department - the only piece of verbal humour I laughed at was the "Beefcliff's the Meatfodder" routine. It's nice to have Mel Blanc on lead voice, but as character trademarks go, Heathcliff's goofy nyuk is no "What's Up, Doc", and it's laid on with a trowel - thus increasing the monotony factor of this anthology-with-weak-wraparound type film, seven discontinuous television episodes that show some attitude but don't pull through in the specifics, such as humour.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Hamster Cage

(Larry Kent, 2005)
As sick horror-comedies go, this one is remarkably focused and rigorous in pursuing an actual, articulate theme - the recycling of family trauma. The actors and music conspire to impose a light-comic tone through uncomfortable interactions ranging from incest to murder, while the cinematography lingers at a patient, menacing middle distance. The slow burn of the first half hour promises a cute drama of repression, but with one act of violence the film accelerates into fantasy territory, with deep horror themes resonating in scene after scene. In body or in spirit, incestuous dead uncle keeps on returning, as every attempt to kill his influence makes it stronger and things get progressively more histrionic and perverse...and cute. I don't agree with Kent's notion that we're inevitably doomed to embody the sins of our fathers, but as notions go, that one makes a pretty good sick horror-comedy. The cinematic sense is impressive enough to overcome and/or utilize any one-set-movie claustrophobia - cf. "The Deserters," which also benefited from Alan Scarfe's manly act.

The Keeper

(T. Y. Drake, 1976)
This film packages itself as a Christopher Lee horror film, but it walks a fine line, and in the third act they fall off it, as the John Landis cops that have been stumbling in from the margins for the whole movie take center stage and skew things too far toward (admittedly endearing) dum-dum comedy. But that sense of ironic distance from genre filmmaking makes this feel of a piece with the Vancouver New Wave aesthetic more than anything - even in that third act there's this business with one of the seven-foot Leavy twins walking around the train tracks hypnotized, and being followed by the puny shoeshine boy, that's like something out of Guy Maddin. The early scenes extend the goofy-arty aesthetic with hypno-hallucination sequences - by Real Experimental Filmmaker Al Razutis - that look like the bastard child of Marcel Duchamp and William Castle. Spirals and skulls flying around, flashing lights, very fun. And in the early scenes the main asylum infiltration narrative looks like it will be treated with a margin of seriousness - it ain't, but the tension helps the movie while it's there. At least Lee retains his dignity to the end - his star power grounds the movie and adds an extra twist instead of just draining its resources.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


(Jim Henley, 1985)
Unlike most horror films this obsessed with the protagonists' asses, this amazingly lively gothic really does retain a female-friendly point of view on its profoundly un-female-friendly world: Suzanne Delaurentis may remove her bikini top, but then she stuffs it in a molotov cocktail and blows up her assailant's boat. Fresh out of juvenile prison, best buddies Delaurentis and film buff Linda Singer rob their pimp and move into an isolated, ramshackle marina to start a new life. Soon they're menaced by a creepy redneck sheriff and the titular mama's boy, and you can cut the sleaze with a knife. But these foul-mouthed women are so startlingly strong, likable and in-charge that the movie has to introduce a rather perfunctory third female character to serve as human punching bag - these two are having none of it. Where many rural-nightmare movies present the thick hicks as an unknowable zombie army, here the good old boys are remarkably human; the filmmakers have a lot of fun playing with our preconceptions of friends and enemies, and almost all the reversals make sense in context. As usual there are a few yawning gaps in logic and motivation, and as a firsthand study in psychotic misogyny this can get a little heavy. But when Junior's mama turns out to be played by some nerd in a wig, it doesn't feel cheap - it feels like a gift to the audience, a good-hearted alienation effect to keep all the ranting about 'cunts' at a generous arm's length.


(Sergio Bergonzelli, 1983)
On the box the director tries to pass as "Serge Bergon", which gives you a hint about this softcore epic's classy-French aesthetic. Rene Verzier's cinematography is slick as two eels fucking in a bucket of snot, and the exceedingly pretty Claudia Udy has a sketchy traumatic backstory which is supposed to motivate her voyage into kink. There's an orgy-with-bartender, a Tantric sex circle, a nude photo shoot on a Mexican beach, and a large circular room with a hydraulic chair. Funny thing though - everyone in this sex-obsessed world seems to come in twenty seconds, when they make it at all. Talk about much ado about nothing! I was bewildered until the credits rolled, around the 73-minute mark - a full half hour below the imdb-listed running time. This isn't porn, it's a collage film commissioned by the Censor Board, who apparently think kinky sex is all right if you come in twenty seconds. I seriously doubt that I missed much, but I do resent having to guess.

Journey Into Fear

(Dainel Mann, 1975)
One of these grey European murder-on-a-boat numbers, with the usual cast of slumming all-stars: Zero Mostel, Donald Pleasance, Shelley Winters, Vincent Price, and - since it's ostensibly a Canadian movie - Yvette Mimieux. The guys are all playing Turks or Arabs - I'm not positive the filmmakers know the difference - which stops being funny the moment Mimieux launches into her "smelly Arab" treatise. That cringeworthy exchange is far from the most glaring example of disruptive stupidity above and beyond the call of an already thickheaded genre. If you're going to do a Big Reveal on a seemingly nice guy who's really a criminal mastermind, it would be a good idea to, you know, establish a character first - Price is on screen for about 45 seconds before he goes demonic. And the leaps of logic that get targeted-for-death oil man Sam Waterston on the boat in the first place pale in comparison to Waterston's own haywire character arc. He cavalierly shrugs off three spectacular murder attempts in the first ten minutes, but half an hour later he's gibbering and flailing at the first sound of a gunshot, and never before has a marked man gravitated so stubbornly to big open spaces where nobody's around.

Monday, January 25, 2010

John and the Missus

(Gordon Pinsent, 1987)
A decrepit Newfoundland mining town is targeted for relocation by post-Confederation bureaucrats, leaving native son Gordon Pinsent to make the argument for history and community. There's never any doubt that the scheme is heartless and underhanded, but as Pinsent lodges his protest and digs in his heels, the expected glorious victory never even gets to the first battle. Everyone takes the buyout and moves on, and his impassioned speeches neither revive the dangerous, collapsing mine nor convince even a single member of his family. In its attitude to what is undeniably a tragic situation, this kitchen-sink drama distinguishes itself from its British progenitors by its stubborn and unpredictable sense of humour, entirely befitting the carefully cultivated self-image of a place that knows tragedy as a way of life. And stylistically it distinguishes itself by a concentrated grandeur of gesture that borders on the operatic. While the droning, mournful score can get maudlin on occasion, more often it complements filmmaking that at peak moments recalls the economy and power of the great Soviets. While his investment in the material is obvious, there's never any question that Pinsent is 'acting' - his carefully choreographed cadences and gestures match the precision of the movie as a whole. Most films that include this many awkward silences come off as mannered or pretentious, but here the device feels true, and so does the final act's extended visual metaphor of the uprooted house - while at first the symbol threatens to displace the characters, the sequence ends with a gesture of affirmation so perfect that it moved me to tears. Roland Hewgill's tragic, alarmingly eccentric Fred is the most inextricably Newfoundland character there will ever be in a film.

Joshua Then and Now

(Ted Kotcheff, 1985)
This tale of a Jewish guy who marries a WASP has an incomplete, tinkered-with feel to it. The obvious re-editing of a random late scene into a recurring framing device doesn't work; James Woods' sporadic voiceover narration fails to find the right tone and adds little to our understanding. There's real charm in the movie's refusal of epic grandeur as it spans decades and continents, and real energy in the unbroken array of crooks and vulgarians. Entertaining scene for scene, it ultimately feels a little empty, drifting into a Jew-among-the-Gentiles shtick that becomes predictable after a while and doesn't resolve. As the amusingly shady dad, Alan Arkin is fun enough to wish he was around more, and to regret that he wasn't better integrated into the narrative; halfway through he becomes an inert dispenser of folk wisdom, and everyone around him is reduced to audience. The Ponzi scheme subplot doesn't really go anywhere either. And in a movie this cynical, the cheerily romantic happy ending is incongruous and wrong. Gabrielle Lazure's long and unbroken descent from charming lover to stressed-out harpy is righted without adequate explanation, complication or follow-through; some vaseline gets smeared on the lens and suddenly it's over.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Note: this is a reprint of an old review, reposted to commemorate the film's sudden availability as a newly-subtitled torrent file. The NFB's been sitting on this minor masterpiece for two decades and change - thank God for bootlegs!

(Fernand Belanger/Dagmar Teufel, 1986)
Another in the seemingly endless chapters of shame at the National Film Board of Canada, this dazzlingly ambitious, daring, formally unique movie finally emerged from 22 years of stealth suppression, for a SINGLE subtitled screening at Inside Out last night. No wonder the Board cut and ran, though - this movie gives no quarter. It is 'about' the Pope's visit to Montreal, with a sidebar on the concurrent Jacksons Victory Tour, and the key refrain is "On your knees!" - spectacle equals subservience, and the upward gaze encourages us to forget those left behind. Queers, transvestites, abused women, old people on meds, crazy people, alcoholic rednecks - all are represented, but not as objects of pity, but as active agents on their own, connected if disparate journeys; and what vision it took to make those links in 1986! And what cheek to interrupt the documentary footage with these FICTIONAL scenes and characters, to layer real-life action with wacky sound effect commentary and creative dubbing and unmistakably non-'objective' asides, and that too-cute animated anarchy snake that keeps showing up. By rebelling so vividly and vitally against the strait-jacketing conventions of documentary, the filmmakers lay bare the way that these conventions are only conventions because they serve exactly the interests of power and repression that the film portrays. Never mind the anticlericism: it is expressly forbidden for a state-produced film to have this much FUN! Which is no doubt why the visionary creators of this amazing film were never allowed to make another.

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing

(Patricia Rozema, 1987)
This quiet, kind, self-consciously idiosyncratic movie explores the gap between ideology and achievement in the art world, as personified by a trio of intersecting creative types - Shelia McCarthy's awkward, neuter photo-hobbyist, plus a couple of angsty dykes. It's really McCarthy's show, and having navigated the somewhat pushy, mannered cuteness of the early scenes, she invests her character with a depth of feeling that carries the movie. While Paule Baillaregon is far from unsympathetic as the silver-spoon gallery manager, there's real urgency behind Rozema's critique of her ill-informed, regurgitated pretension; her inability to create may be tragic, but it also stunts her comprehension at the root. McCarthy's inarticulate emotional intelligence is valorized over Baillargeon's comically meaningless artybabble, with girlfriend Ann-Marie Macdonald subtly implying a resolution of the extremes. These seemingly subculture-specific concerns are presented with one eye firmly on the popular audience, using McCarthy as a sympathetic intermediary and proxy for the 'normal' uninitiated viewer. Personally, I'll take the character-based material over Rozema's more indulgent stylistics any day; the black-and-white fantasy stuff is well integrated, but the magic canvas, imaginary orchestra, and hyper-romantic final image strike me as too clever by half, and the self-reflexive video camera stuff ain't Atom Egoyan even if it does serve a structural purpose. Still, it's funny and felt in more or less the proportions it intends.

It Rained All Night the Day I Left

(Nicholas Gessner, 1980)
A film doomed in advance by its obtuse, meaningless title, which certainly gives no indication that what you're in for is a buddy/road movie about class and colonialism. The governing narrative - white "Rhodesian" ranchers Sally Kellerman and John Vernon feud over water and young hottie Lisa Langlois - is basically a melodramatic potboiler, though Vernon does have some fun with it. So it's a pleasure to watch the buddies in question goof around like crazy and stomp all over the narrative - Tony Curtis and Louis Gossett Jr. have a field day as two scoundrel gunrunners. In full male-bonding mode, the pair scheme their way into whatever luxuries they can steal, from food and shelter to the ladies themselves, while the counternarrative has them grappling with their conflicting desire to remain free and irresponsible. But Curtis is also the voice of conscience regarding the African villagers caught in the middle of the feud, which is nice although one really does wish the villagers had some kind of a voice themselves. While it's impressive that the filmmakers are tackling complex colonial dynamics in a direct way, in general the film's grasp of the issues isn't quite there - the subtheme of Gossett's class aspirations is not fully developed, Kellerman gets a bit of a free pass for her secondhand Nazism, and while it's gratifying that Kellerman and Vernon both have their land nationalized as comeuppance, the pleasure gets pretty complicated in historical perspective. But at least they gave it a shot, and Curtis/Gossett's vulgarian high spirits really do carry the film through its questionable patches.

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang

(Theodore J. Flicker, 1977)
The glaringly low production values on this kids' horror-fantasy are part and parcel of what makes it so memorable. I can testify from vivid memory that the cardboard sets, regional-theatre costuming and cheesy texture of the movie are not lost on the young viewer, but if you're not trying to place yourself above the material ("that castle miniature is about a foot tall!" "oh my god the dolly track is right in the shot!") they can create a sense of alienation and displacement that actually deepens the impact. The bad guys - a chicken lady, a fish guy, and a creep in a fur coat - are memorably menacing and grotesque, and Alex Karras' Hooded Fang embodies the tightrope the film as a whole walks between the terrifying and the cute. Adults might even find themselves a tad creeped out, and for sure the film's passionate identification with the child's point of view holds more 'message' for us than for them. The kids themselves are fully into it in a wonderfully unschooled way - no child-actor precociousness here, just full-on playacting at its best. I 100% love the Child Power superhero duo and the cunning way they are deployed in the narrative.The loving-but-distracted-family bookend stuff is appropriately compact and efficient. And though the Lewis Furey-John Lissauer score is not well integrated, in the end it's as wonky and weird as the rest of it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Iron Eagle

(Sidney J. Furie, 1986)
After a quarter century abroad, Canada's original indie feature filmmaker returned home to produce this piece of fascistic, explicitly Reaganist garbage, and I wish I could say my heart was swelling with patriotic pride. With shamelessly simple-minded dishonesty, the film channels Everyteen's angst and bravado into the indiscriminate and patriotic slaughter of foreigners, as he flies overseas to single-handedly rescue his dad from an Arabic kangaroo court. Pretty grim, and though the aesthetic is very 80s the ideology is sadly current in these here parts. And yet, I'm far enough from ground zero that I didn't find the movie completely unwatchable. The premise is so utterly outrageous that it's instructional - an impassioned, Ramboesque cry against the US military's shameful tendency to embrace diplomacy. It's too oppressive for true camp, but it is pretty funny that the entire plot hinges on a massive and comprehensive breach of American military intelligence by a bunch of goofy teenagers. And while the identification of African-American culture with military adventurism is no less offensive than the coming-of-age stuff, Louis Gossett Jr.'s proxy father figure keeps the movie alive with his looka-me-I-won-a-Oscar ACTING.

Invasion of the Mindbenders

(Eugenie Joseph, 1987)
Fans of philosophic insight, depth of vision, or simple technical competence will not find that this outrageously stupid production meets their petty standards of 'quality' filmmaking. But if you're like me, you'll dig it anyway, for its energy, initiative, and high spirits. And if you really concentrate, you might actually find glimmers of philosophic insight after all. No frat-boy cruelty here: the proto-Bill-and-Ted rockers at the film's center make common cause with a wealthy Eddie Deezen impersonator and a female metalhead. Arrayed as they are against an explicitly fascist principal and a behaviour modification expert whose subliminal mind control methods are even more sinister than they first appear, the ecumenicism of the protagonists looks like a carefully calculated statement. When the principal turns off the 'non-violence' switch and the previously free-spirited discipline cases start beating each other up, this utterly goofy movie actually shows shocking glimmers of moral seriousness. Sure the catfight in the hairdressing class and the basketball brawl are utterly overextended and discontinuous - as are the inciting food fight and the climactic hallway chase. Sure the sound dubbing could have been done on a Walkman. Sure the denouement looks like it was transferred from a tenth-generation VHS tape. Who cares - this film identifies so sincerely and enthusiastically with the world view of the immature teenager that technical acuity is beside the point, like a great short story by a superbright grade niner. "Whoever thought that rock and roll would save the world?" - you tell 'em, guys.

Friday, January 22, 2010

If You Could See What I Hear

(Eric Till, 1982)
What's good about this movie is the calculatedly straightforward treatment of Marc Singer's blind protagonist. He's introduced as a freewheeling, horny, immature charmer with an arbitrary affliction that doesn't define who he is - the inevitable "he's blind, not deaf" doesn't come until late in the third act. Nor does it begrudge Singer his tail-chasing antics, except inasmuch as he's obliged to settle down and get married at the end. Still, the Supercrip stuff is pretty extreme - he drives a car, he goes skydiving, he plays a mean game of golf. His near-failure at rescuing a drowning child does suggest a reckoning with the physical limits he's been pushing, but the articulation is bizarrely weak ("I'm blind...that's how everybody sees me"). The comedy gets better as the movie goes along - the first act almost has a hernia trying to be 'fun', but I like the business with the landlady, and R. H. Thompson smartly underplays the amiable sidekick role. Shari Belafonte-Harper is magnetic as his girlfriend - until the movie disfigures itself by copping out of their interracial romance with some arbitrary ableism. And every challenge the script makes to treacly sentiment is matched and undone by the overbearing, syrup-sodden musical score.

Improper Channels

(Eric Till, 1981)
The presence of Alan Arkin in a movie is hardly a guarantee of quality, but there's no question he's the best thing here. In fact his deadpan finesse makes all the hyperventilating crap that surrounds him that much more intolerable - I strongly suspect he shipped his son's script north when nobody in Hollywood would touch it. As long as it's Arkin and Mariette Hartley at home with their workaday domestic issues and cute daughter, the movie is watchable. But that material is completely incidental to the movie's intended burlesque of Orwellian bureaucracy, which tanks hard on grounds of credibility and watchability. They would have been wise to tell the story from the fixed perspective of the couple, especially since the behind the scenes views of diabolical social workers and computer technicians show an agonizing lack of insight into systemic corruption. Quite the opposite: with every successive crisis created by functionaries stupidly breaking the rules, the movie could almost serve as an argument for stricter regimentation. It's certainly an argument for stricter filmmaking: Till goads Monica Parker and Harry Ditson into hair-pullingly bad performances, somehow managing to be belligerent and indecisive at the same time. The kind of movie that mistakes aggravation for humour, with misbegotten asides of racial comedy for bad measure.

In Praise of Older Women

(George Kaczender, 1978)
For all its pretensions, this prestige item is fastidious in its adherence to the rules of softcore pornography. With the point of view firmly affixed to Tom Berenger's single-minded horndog, the Hungarian history lessons are merely interludes en route to the next romp in the hay, which is of course as severely shorn of vulgar detail as the political content itself. And when he arrives in Montreal, we get the intensely familiar North American gaze upon the relative sexual freedom of the enlightened European, wittier than usual but just as dubious. This rhetoric also indicates that the filmmakers were quite calculating in their challenge to the uptight cinematic morals of Canada 1978; the movie is fully obsessive in its display of sexual situations whose only practical interest are the taboos they challenge. However Kaczender is a real director working with real actors, and so there is in fact some fleeting interest in the characters doing the romping. In fact the women are infinitely more interesting than Berenger, and are presented with genuine interest and affection, which helps to temper the dominance of the male gaze a wee bit. Karen Black, Susan Strasberg, Helen Shaver, Alexandra Stewart - are all fully engaging with or without boobs hanging out, and the 'frolicking' score does actually keep things moving. Still, keying every exchange to sex inevitably means that the ones who won't put out get short shrift, and portraying the 1956 uprising as a bunch of silly people hopping up and down does nothing for the film's credibility.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


(Paul Lynch, 1981)
Who decided that some belated and speculative backstory about the murderous titular cretin would be a suitable substitute for actually having him participate in the movie? They talk a good line about him being a misunderstood man-child, but in practice he's a fisheye lens and a respiratory problem; by the time the camera is pointed in his direction the film has succumbed to the incomprehensible underlighting that renders the entire second half functionally invisible. At least the transition into darkness is a way to mark the passage of time; not only is there no narrative, there's a good 20-30 minutes between murder scenes, each of which is judiciously expurgated into nothingness. After the boat blows up there is literally zero going on except these vague-to-hateful teenagers criss-crossing the island in random groupings and hanging around the old house waiting patiently to be murdered. The Scooby-Doo like musings regarding the rampaging monstrosity's true nature are about as impassioned as the various discussions of modelling as a career option. If only the patina of technical competence the movie rides in on had extended beyond the camera department and the fascinatingly cluttered goth scoring, and found its way into the scareless, shapeless, brainless script.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Blood & Guts

(Paul Lynch, 1978)
This isn't just "The Hard Part Begins" with wrestling, although the similarities are obvious. There's no looking back for these hard-living road warriors, no soul-searching about the lives they left behind; new recruit Brian Patrick Clarke ditches his buddies without a second thought to join this self-contained, portable subculture. Their regrets center on the chances they missed, and their relegation to the small-time venues while high-rolling sleazeball John McFayden locks them out of the arena circuit. They're a quirky, gregarious bunch, and the performances are wonderfully sympathetic; Micheline Lanctot may be the true anchor of the movie as the world-weary love interest, but that's not to slight muscle man William Smith in a career performance. Even the secondary characters are detailed and fascinating - check out the midget wrestlers - as are the insights into the stagecraft and economics of the wrestling world. And though as always I could live without the training montage, the feel-good ending is justified by the litany of horrors that the protagonists endure in the lead-up. In fact, the way the climactic uplift impinges on the familiar down-and-out stuff makes this a pivotal Canadian movie, and the best Paul Lynch effort I've seen to date.

The Hard Part Begins

(Paul Lynch, 1973)
Decent, hard-working road musician Donnelly Rhodes tours his country band through his hometown, and finds himself confronting the life he left behind - a stressed-out ex, a suicidal JD son, a bedridden buddy, and a hoser who thinks he knocked up his sister. Meanwhile, the touring van is breaking down, the clubs are all switching to rock music, the labels want his girlfriend not him. A rock and a hard place - the point being that he made his choice of life, on his terms, and is sticking by it. And no, he doesn't win some big music contest at the end. This is Canfilm in born-to-lose, post-Goin' Down the Road purist mode - Lynch even casts McGrath and Bradley in pivotal supporting roles in case we didn't get the hint. Rhodes meanders from encounter to encounter in an episodic and not wholly satisfying manner, but there's plenty of compensation in the abundant local color of the smalltown Ontario bars and diners in which the story unfolds. Memorable faces and exchanges are everywhere, and the humane, dimensional performances more than justify the laconic narrative. Crucially, the music is pretty good too - makes you feel like something's at stake.

Hot Touch

(Roger Vadim, 1981)
A moderately entertaining piece of jet-setting hackwork, set in the glamorous and dangerous world of art forgery. Master forger Wayne Rogers gets mixed up with scheming dealer Samantha Eggar and her scalpel-wielding enforcer; battle of wits ensues. Directed as it is by old pro Vadim, this one exhibits a general tendency toward making sense, is presented without fuss or longeuers, and keeps the ensemble down to manageable numbers. Marie-France Pisier is resourceful and self-sufficient as well as gorgeous, Rogers is somewhat less cloying than usual, and Lloyd Bochner is quite enjoyable as the diabolical yet ineffectual enforcer - especially when he falls victim to the old hypodermic-needle-in-the-eye gag. That's a welcome punctuation point in what is ultimately a pretty dull affair - small moments do enliven most scenes, but the procedural detail around the act of forgery is mainly exploited for high-rolling glamour, and if you're going to ask me to succumb to escapist class fantasies then I'm going to demand climactic sequences that aren't art auctions.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Housekeeper

(Ousama Rawi, 1986)
Two really grave flaws here. The ill-conceived structure crams all the murder and mayhem save a couple quick hallucinations into the first and last ten minutes of the film; this leaves the middle section for character and plot development which are not forthcoming - Rita Tushingham starts as an unsympathetic biddy and stays that way throughout. Also, after a suitably bitchy intro, her wealthy employers are far too decent and reasonable - even the borderline-incest subplot is mild. This imbalance simultaneously skews the film toward bourgeois paranoia fantasy and creates unwelcome lulls in the camp nastiness. The latter is mainly provided not by Tushingham - though she has her moments - but Jackie Burroughs as the town crazy woman, a role she inhabits with alarming acuity. Ex-prostitute turned Christian soldier, domestic abuse victim and cackling survivalist, Burroughs is so compellingly obnoxious that she steals the movie. One is tempted to forgive the production its sins just for the opportunity to watch her tear up the scenery, but while scene for scene Rawi shows a nice flair for the grotesque - the church sequence is a riot - the whole lacks momentum and coherence, and the illiterate-as-monster premise fails to generate much pathos to balance the classbound revulsion.

Hot Money

(Selig Usher, 1983)
Usher gets director credit because Mr. Smithee was tied up that month; this movie was in fact removed from the creative ministrations of George McCowan by producer Zale Magder. McCowan is not the most reliable craftsman around, but compared to Magder he's Orson Welles. And speak of the devil, Welles himself shows up for several scenes as the sheriff, and in a quite hilarious turn of events is drunker than you can possibly imagine. It looks like he passed the bottle around, too; the entire movie proceeds at a disoriented, glassy-eyed stagger. Forensic study would turn up evidence that this script is supposed to be a comedy, but with subplots and seemingly pivotal characters evaporating left and right, the matter is strictly academic. The production shows comparable levels of virtuosity: lights glaring in the windows, long seconds of silence interrupted with blaring incidental music, random dialogue surgically grafted in crude simulation of flashback, several dialogue setups where the reverse shot seems to have been lost at the lab, agonizing wasted seconds ticking away at the end of every scene in an effort to pad the running time to 78 minutes. About the only incidents of note are one exploding VW and Bobby "Boris" Pickett singing "Feelings". In short, this is without question one of the worst films I have ever seen, and not in a fun way either. But let's give credit where credit is due: as a baldly craven money-laundering plot, this is a real triumph. Zale threw his own post house some much-needed work, he got to meet Orson Welles, and he bankrolled a completely useless trip to the Bahamas with his buddies, all for a measly four million bucks. Who am I to argue with success?

The Hotel New Hampshire

(Tony Richardson, 1984)
A comedy about tragedy, this film features the unpredictably timed deaths of many major characters, a rape revenge subplot, a revolutionary bombing subplot, lots of sex including a prominent incest theme, and a running gag involving a farting dog who is stuffed and mounted. Yet it is an A-list production with an all-star cast and generous production values. This sets up a tension which the film resolves with an evenness of tone and mildness of effect that softens the subversive impact - it doesn't break the taboos, it just sort of taps them on the table. One wonders whether this toning down was imposed rather than conceived, because the film's considerable craft disintegrates whenever we approach a big payoff - the bimbo in the bathroom, the cop's heart attack, and the car bomb detonation all look like they've been inexplicably edited for TV. All sequences involving Rob Lowe running around in fast motion are instant death - a ghostly echo of the farce the movie secretly wants to be but doesn't quite have the stomach for. And without big laughs, you wish there was a little more space to get to know the characters in this all-star crowd - the ensemble is right into it, but the narrative-cramming is apparent even if you don't know the source novel. I doubt John Irving was quite so belligerent with the catch-phrases either.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hostile Takeover

(George Mihalka, 1988)
For the first hour, this seems to be an reasonably honest and engaging piece of social commentary with something lacking dramatically. An early flashback implies that meek hostage-taker David Warner is weighted by childhood trauma, and his reactions imply that the toxic power-mongering of his office environment is acting as a trigger. There are indications that the filmmakers mean to extend this to a general critique of the corporate mentality; where Warner's actions imply the lack of an ongoing release valve for his daily traumas, his coworkers/hostages take refuge in regimentation (Jayne Eastwood), craven ambition (Kate Vernon) or greed (Michael Ironside, wonderfully cast against type as an ineffectual nebbish). The problem is that everything these people do or say seems to be keyed to their single character hook; there's a lack of complicating detail, so that the roles don't feel lived in. Andy Thompson's disorienting, discordant musical score adds texture though, and you bear with it out of curiosity over where it is all leading. And in the third act you find out, as things spiral straight down into an incomprehensible morass of showboating metaphor. From the moment the drunken 'trial' breaks out, all the characters suddenly stop operating as characters and instead become projections of a theme - a theme that the film is not even kind enough to articulate - and things become intensely mannered and obscure. Maybe they thought that undermining the police procedural with a T. S. Eliot read-in was acerbic or subversive, but the result is painfully twee, an early entry in the post-tax-shelter Canadian cinema of willfully obscure posturing.


(Patrick Jamain, 1985)
Not exactly tragic, but certainly sad, and more so for being so predictable - almost as soon as the premise is set up you can guess where it will go wrong. The direction does wring a nice crescendo of entrapment from the marriage-of-convenience-gone-awry premise, and does an adequate job at sleazing up the New York setting. The actors are capable too, although they suffer when the volume rises. It doesn't matter though - as soon as John Shea's twinkly Zoo Story psychopath forces his way into Nathalie Baye's apartment, you know that she will be obliged to develop feelings for the shmuck. And as soon as Shea drags Baye down to Coney Island to re-enact the murder of his first wife, you know that she's going to only tap him once lightly with that baseball bat and leave the straight razor lying at his side. Why, God, why? You can't blame it on the genre, because Jamain has spent the whole movie actively exploring the theme of misogyny as psychosis - it's self-aware, and so your brain is on, and so the stupid stuff is no fun. Thus, you're stuck with your abiding desire to kick Shea's character (not Shea, who does his best) in the balls. This movie's pedigree may be more French than Canadian, but it does carry the torch for our national mini-tradition of transcendently obnoxious male leads.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Home Is Where the Hart Is

(Rex Bromfield, 1987)
A fusion of amiable and sick humour modes, or should I say a fusion of British and American humour modes; how Canadian. It's never in a hurry, shambolic and measured, but it keeps veering between cute old men muttering non sequiturs and drunk biddies strapping dynamite to their legs. In either mode, the sporadic payoffs are damnably mild; I laughed out loud precisely once, when the rich old guy makes his prison bed. Still, the direction is assured in its imperfection, the performers are fully on, and only rarely does a gag overstay its welcome (that means you, nun; that means you, "banana"). Unfortunately, the delicate balance between modes keeps getting torn asunder by an aggressively charmless, bellicose display in the central gold-digger role. In a part that could have carried the movie with a little finesse, she drags it down instead. Why on earth might director Rex Bromfield have allowed actress Valri Bromfield to be so woefully miscast in this role? Hmmmmmm.

Hockey Night

(Paul Shapiro, 1984)
My VHS of this movie is an "exclusive edited version" from a company dedicated to "strengthening traditional values through entertainment." The plot, meanwhile, seems to promise a critique of said values, with its narrative of a girl striving to play on a boy's hockey team in Parry Sound. And somewhere in there, with lots of promise and good will on evident display - not to mention the appealing players and evocative, location-specific cinematography - the whole thing degenerates into a digest reel of itself. I suspect a potty mouth removal conspiracy; what's left of Megan Follows lead performance leaves her staring off into middle distance way too much of the time. Meanwhile, Follows' great, spunky rocker buddy disappears without leaving a note. Apparently they needed extra space for their "Where's the game? Up here" catch phrase, which eventually takes over the entire dialogue track. And what ideology could have motivated editing out the climax?! You're all geared up for the big game and then suddenly they're dancing around the locker room with a trophy. Maybe someone realized too late that you can't shoot a climax in wide shot from the bleachers - the few on-ice scenes are hopelessly remote, with Maury Chaykin's fun play-by-play pitched several decibels too mild.

Monday, January 11, 2010

High Stakes

(Larry Kent, 1986)
How about that - this vulgar, silly, stubbornly obvious movie is actually laugh-out-loud funny. For a while, in fact, it is so breathlessly energetic and so perfectly timed that it looks like it may actually bust out of its Simcom pedigree and become a lost answer film to "Crimewave". Then, sigh, the TV station antics dissolve into the dread scourge 'gangster' plot, and the narrative grows sadly saner as the second half marches on. It could be a lot worse though - the seemingly endless string of reversals and revelations at the climax isn't perfectly realized, but it does mitigate the familiarity of the Nazis-and-jewels crap. Roberta Weiss knows how to play straight lady, and Winston Rekert's lead thug has a few funny moments that could have and should have been expanded. After all, asides and nuances are bound to be lost on your audience when you're up against the manic, shticked-out teamwork of Jackson Davies and Dave Foley. In his first role, Foley has already clicked right in to his familiar, absurdist Kids in the Hall routine, and Davies makes a suitably clownish foil; in tandem with a well-attuned Larry Kent, they take a dumbfoundingly broad script and play it even broader than that - a winning tactic. Three cheers for show biz.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Higher Education

(John Sheppard, 1987)
This 80s youth comedy reminds one how John Hughes changed the game - the echoes feel almost inevitable. As with Hughes, you've got a (genuinely talented) ensemble of slightly off-kilter 'types'; you've got 80s rock piled to the ceiling; and you've got broad comedy veering into romantic melodrama in the third act. The latter was Hughes' most enduring influence - Juno? Adventureland? same shit - and, to my mind, his most pernicious. The comedy here may be a little contrived and a little sporadic, but while Sheppard's weak on the slapstick his verbal humour is often funny. However it's also transparently shallow - so what good is the angst routine? Skewed as it is toward the male point of view, the tonal shift also means that Isabelle Mejias - the funniest and most agile performer here - gets shunted into the background when she should be front and centre. Maury Chaykin's improbably witty Guido steps into the breach, which helps a bit; but while lead Kevin Hicks has a few moments, he's either miscast or poorly used - too blank, too reactive. I could have also used just a bit more Gladys and Droid, who manage their supporting-weirdo duties with honors - I love it when Gladys's pentagram stops working.

The High Country

(Harvey Hart, 1981)
When I say I like this movie, I am using the word 'like' as a superlative, the way you'd apply it to your best friend if you weren't drunk. I am automatically skeptical of quirky romantic comedies, but while this hews very closely to the structural expectations of the genre, it fleshes out the details with a lot of wit. Timothy Bottoms and Linda Purl's performances are brilliantly conceived and executed - eccentric both relative to the genre and in and of themselves, they actually nudge the material toward screwball on occasion, but are so humane that they add something resembling depth to the background commentaries on crime and disability and social withdrawal. Director Hart had me from - that's right - the attempted rape scene, executed with such purpose, concision and tonal control that I had to turn it off while I absorbed how resoundingly right it was - and how funny! The rest of the movie has comparably pleasurable surprises in tone and timing. The ending is a bit too inevitable and a bit too pat, but by then you're won over anyway and it doesn't matter.


(Peter Carter, 1977)
If your big trucking company is going to undermine its independent competition, you do have other means at your disposal than spraying them with gunfire. And if these guys do want to go that route, they might be expected to, you know, delegate the thuggery instead of leaving it to a 50% equity partner. Having set up this scenario, the filmmakers then try to portray the ringleaders as nice guy and evil guy - that's right, a 'nice' hijacking profiteer. Hero Peter Fonda figures out they're in cahoots because the hit man leads them straight to head office after shooting up his hotel room. They call on their trucker friends to help, but aside from driving through several fences, all they do is beat up some random labourers, and have absolutely no impact on the narrative. At least they were invited to the party, unlike poor Jerry Reed, the family-man trucker whose plight is supposed to be the point of the movie except he barely shows up after the first hour, displaced by Helen Shaver who may be a tough broad but probably should at least have some sort of limp or abrasion after being thrown out of a speeding car, blah blah blah. It's a shame because the film is amiable enough on the surface; it's only the performers' fault to the extent that they knew what they were getting into. Not the desperately incoherent, flop-sweat-drenched atrocity of Carter's "Highpoint", but there's foreshadowing here for sure.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Heavy Metal

(Gerald Potterton, 1981)
It may be 'adult' up against the squeaky-clean Disney iconography that was even more hegemonic at the time, but it's also definitively juvenile. In fact the convergence of fantasy and (male) puberty is the governing theme. Superficially there's a trend toward Conan-in-space hormonorama, not my favourite sci fi subset to say the least. But all those muscled warriors are mutations, projections or supporting players to the geeks and losers who stand in for the stoned horndogs who are watching. The strategy works: instead of merely exploiting this strange, huge audience, the filmmakers bond with them, as though they had been there themselves. The animation is fluid and texturally interesting, and there's ample detail and wit in the playing as well. And since we're dealing with hormonal geeks here, there's a built-in excuse for all those iron-bosomed nude Amazons. In fact, by making one of those Amazons into a heroic (and mute) protagonist and putting a little girl at the centre of the connecting narrative, the film attains an appropriate degree of balance - they may not be allowed to speak, but at least they get to hang around the clubhouse. I'll even extend that clemency to the limp-wristed fag king - he's kind of funny, actually.

Heavenly Bodies

(Lawrence Dane, 1984)
The obvious problem with any film about aerobics is that there's no endgame. It's not a competitive sport, nor a visually graceful one; it's just solitary individuals bouncing up and down in a group. So of course there's an evil big gym that wants to foil the ladies' modest enterprise, and of course there's a climactic 'challenge' where the two sides bounce up and down in a group until they fall over. Some kind of contrivance was bound to get imposed on the subject matter just to keep things moving. If only it did the job. Instead, the lumpy narrative features totally alienated go-for-it plot arcs crammed into the first and second half, so that any slight chance for momentum is fully lost in the ocean of distressed bodies. They were really asking for it by invoking the holy name of Gene Kelly when the only thing resembling a production number - Cynthia Dale cavorting around the TV studio - plays like a tentative first rehearsal. Dale is too cutesy and callow to carry the film on her shoulders, and Lawrence Dane shows why he stuck to acting after this. At least the sexual innuendo in the first half can be kind of cute.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Gunrunner

(Nardo Castillo, 1989)
This salvage job sat on the shelf for five years waiting for Kevin Costner to get famous, and the doctors mainly applied themselves to the surface - it's so smooth and tidy it seems pasteurized. Too bad about the content. A period tale of a commie-sympathizer with family troubles - who does more rum-running than gunrunning and not too damn much of that - its vast problems inhere in its absences. The jarringly discontinuous narrative tilts at themes of justice and honor in its spare time, but scene follows scene without the slightest sense of purpose, let alone momentum. Those secondary characters that don't vanish outright are as remote and unreadable as the camerawork, which is maddeningly reliant on master shots - this is one of the least cinematic pieces of cinema I've ever seen. While Costner's incongruously modern, cool blandness does nothing to jolt the movie out of its torpor, even he fares better than poor Sara Botsford, saddled with a halloween flapper costume and Esperanto accent. Her usual clipped murmur almost disappears entirely beneath the street noise and foot-shuffling of the awful location sound, and her big reveal at the end is embarrassingly stupid and perfunctory.

The Groundstar Conspiracy

(Lamont Johnson, 1972)
This psychological espionage flick has a great sneering turn by George Peppard as the bad cop, persecuting amnesia victim Michael Sarrazin for a murder he can't remember committing. George's passion for surveillance results in a variety of multimedia eavesdropping scenes, adding to a generally angular, percussive production - from the crisp television-style shooting to Paul Hoffert's unpredictable score to the funky flashbacks, things keep on moving, and there's a reasonable amount of wit to the dialogue. But the big reveal at the climax is nothing memorable, and after that the movie screeches to a halt before it has really ended.

The Grey Fox

(Phillip Borsos, 1983)
1901 as seen by a time traveller from the 1860s - stagecoach bandit Bill Miner emerges from 33 years in jail to find a world of gadgets that peel apples, trains that lumber across the landscape, and film shows that immortalize great train robbers. And so Phillip Borsos layers his tale of humanity outside the law with the self-conscious countertheme of movies interacting with history, an apt concern for what has got to be the most physically gorgeous film ever produced in this country. Its endless panoramas quickly become glowing demonstrations in the construction of mythology, only the dramatics are so intimate that it never becomes grandiose; every character and every extra radiate a deep, unknowable humanity. And the preoccupation with mythology is shared by Miner himself - as played by the lovable Richard Farnsworth, he's a mad artist, a 'nobody' with an eye on immortality. His ramblings take him from clam farming to a mining refuge to a surprisingly moving tryst with Jackie Burroughs' countercultural photographer, punctuated by train heists of varying fortune, and it's all majestically understated and penetratingly droll. Borsos even sneaks in a visit to his beloved cooperage, tangible evidence of how close this one feature was to his own heart. That he was subsequently devoured by the hack machine is why people hate Canadian movies.

The Great Land of Small

(Vojta Jasny, 1987)
There's something deeply dislikeable about this movie; it's over-projected, desperate, with loud, glazed performances. With several blatant overtures toward The Wizard of Oz, this distinguishes itself by having the least colorful entourage imaginable - the sullen and grating little Fritz, the twinkling-hobo of your nightmares Mimmick, and a big guy in a beard with a repulsive human dog. The kids look like they've been drugged and threatened, but are fun to watch in a circusy way; and I admit that the Oz-like Land of Small itself is pretty trippy, especially when a series of wire-work butterfly dances give way to an icky, globular beast named Slime-O that is a direct ancestor of Ed Hunt's Brain. But Fritz's quest to retrieve his gold dust from the dusted-out hunter is a pretty thin motivator, and the intensely familiar family scenes subtract additional interest.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Jerk

(Carl Reiner, 1977)
Steve Martin's first feature embeds a pretty much unretouched wild-and-crazee-guy character into a stock Hollywood rags-to-riches scenario. While he's overplaying to the hilt, the camera is deadpan, and so are the other performers; this gives it a classic feel. But it's also got random bursts of absurdist energy that keep you on your toes. The plot is such a foregone conclusion that all the substance comes from the random yet somehow obvious jokes they scatter about the surface, and these are a lot of fun. Bernadette Peters is great as the primary love interest, especially when she faces off with the secondary love interest, a hilariously butch circus performer. The racial comedy of the setup is impressively controlled; the joke is always on this dumb white guy. And while Martin knew all too well that his loud moron act had its limits, here he's milking it for all it's worth instead of gesturing nervously at the strange world of good taste.

All of Me

(Carl Reiner, 1984)
You can understand why Steve Martin wanted to escape from under his crazed hipster act and upgrade to romantic leading man status. But this career goal should have been sat on for one more movie, because what's wrong with what on paper must have been a farce is that Martin is all it has. To get to his brilliant half-possessed business in the second act you have to endure a painfully miscalculated first half hour where Martin stands there reacting to all manner of silly goings-on around him, and gets all the laughs anyway. It was smart to push Martin's flailing antics up front, but the decision to do this by lowering everyone else's energy level creates great dips whenever the supporting players get their turns. Lily Tomlin's deadpan snoot routine as the dead heiress is remarkably lifeless and miscalculated - stuck in her mirror, not once does she draw a smile. Aside from Richard Libertini's dum-dum swami, the rest of the movie is an infestation of straight men, often at direct odds with the needs of the script. When, for instance, they underplay the whirlwind-of-wacky-reversals climax, they are burdened with the expectation of making sense, which is a non-starter. The absolute low point in directorial judgment is allowing Steve to go "Excuuuuse me!" at Tomlin; pretty desperate.

Wild in the Streets

(Barry Shear, 1968)
This is a cynical film whose attitude toward the alienated youth it lampoons suggests that it was really aimed at the kind of stodgy geezers they send to the concentration camp (like AIP's Jim Nicholson for instance). The generation gap and a bit of alienated Vietnam commentary for the kids are the only real issues of substance that come up, and if you want evidence that the comedy is not fully developed just look at how they waste Richard Pryor. But watch it with an audience and its camp value comes front and center: the burlesque is so single-minded that it takes on some real momentum as it goes on. Christopher Jones, with his talk show hair, is nothing special as the rock star, although the Mann-Weil songs he gets to sing are surprisingly good. The biggest laughs were for Diane Varsi's acid casualty, although Shelley Winters also hits the right notes as Jones' hyperactive mother, and Hal Holbrook does a great Martin Sheen as the governor.