Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Pleasure Is My Business

(Albert S. Waxman, 1975)
A constellation of dirty old men - sorry Al, but that includes you - orbit frantically around a black hole: however brilliant Xaviera Hollander's other humanitarian endeavours may have been, she Can. Not. Act. And this film was hardly designed to give her a workout; she's only really called on to stand there and be reacted to, but since she's stiff as a board and devoid of intensity she hardly resembles the icon of hegemonic sex-lib that she made of herself in print. Cast in the familiar mold of the European sex comedy - with lots of ugly guys in uniforms bugging their eyes out and shtick that's so old and rotten it's growing mushrooms - this plays off of Hollander's actual deportation dramas while frantically indicating that, unlike in real life, this character is not a 'hooker'. This conspicuously nervous revision, plus the faggot aide, plus the incessant lecherous male gaze, plus verbal humour that could have been garnished from the toilet at Sneaky Dee's, does not add up to a great deal of liberation. I admit the llama crossing got me, and maybe you are on the market for a topless Jayne Eastwood. But Tom Cochrane's song score does not live up to the man's usual standards (!!!) and on balance I'd rather read a year of Penthouse from cover to cover. In braille.

My American Cousin

(Sandy Wilson, 1986)
An extremely likeable piece of work whose deadpan comic touch is anything but dull. Its depiction of hopelessly repressed community life in the BC interior is vividly period-specific in a lived-in way; while 50s nostalgia fills the corners of the frame (and soundtrack), Wilson uses the milieu as a platform to gently deconstruct the romantic mythologies it exploits. As per the title, the big target is Canada-US relations, embodied by cousin John Wildman's rather desperate attempts to embody the greaser archetype. He's as human and insecure as anyone, and as the center of parochial attention he serves as an ink blot to the locals' longings and paranoias. Wildman pulls this tricky role off beautifully, matching the work of Margaret Langrick as the pouty, mercurial kid. She could have carried the movie by herself, only then Richard Donat goes and tops her with his absurdly stolid patriarch. It's a rare movie that evinces this much feeling for all sides of the culture war without stooping to mealy meliorism, but Wilson really does it, measuring in just the right amount of suggestive secondary business to bring the characters to life and bringing everyone back down to earth without dismissing the cultural baggage they have yet to transcend. Smart movie.

My Bloody Valentine

(George Mihalka, 1981)
Here is a film that fights running battles with its script, and almost doesn't lose. The Maritime mining-town setting is a huge plus, vivid both underground and on the deceptively quaint street level, and Mihalka milks it for all it's worth. The large ensemble cast is individuated and energetic, overplaying in clunky good humour, and the poorly articulated love triangle is at least an anchor for the narrative. And the murderous set pieces are showily inventive, even after the obvious bowdlerizing has reduced them to ribbons. Still, the usual Freud-redux and sex-equals-death objections are the least of this narrative's worries. A stupider movie than this couldn't get away with the official-cover-up contrivances that facilitate the plot, and the mine rescue suffers a terminal case of 'wait here I'll be right back'. The director's hands aren't clean either: the choreography of the climactic boxcar battle is glaringly stilted, and check out the appearance of the second heart-shaped box at the police station for an example of a stock double-whammy setup sadly squandered. Neutral framing choices sometimes undermine the creepy atmospherics as well; but they don't negate them, and there are some nice bits here. I only wish they had edited out Cynthia Dale instead of the gore - her Kids From Fame routine as the giggly drag sticks out like an amputated thumb.

Bye Bye Blues

(Anne Wheeler, 1989)
With her third feature, Wheeler applies her down-home feminism to the tale of a POW's wife (Rebecca Jenkins) who becomes a working musician in the dark days of WWII. Will she fall in with the drifting trumpeter, or remain faithful to a man who might already be dead? The streets-of-India opener effectively reminds us that there's a world beyond the prairies and that Jenkins has already been there - too bad the script doesn't play more with this. Her adventures on the circuit and at home display some wit; the predictably gorgeous Western vistas are played off of smart editing rhythms and some nice (if gauzy) local colour, and Jenkins is not only radiant, she can actually pull out the stops vocally. In spite of the catchy keynote banality "When I Sing", though, George Blondheim's honky badland jazz seems overarranged and too slick for its milieu. Since this movie is about music, you'd hope for better handling of Jenkins' creative awakening, but in practice she moves from arrhythmic oompah piano to fluid jazz chordings in an unconvincing ellipse. And since this movie is about the struggle of women, you'd hope that these struggles would be brought to some kind of active resolution, but alas as in "Loyalties" Wheeler confuses resolution with total cop-out. If she wanted to challenge the sentimental view of liberation as abandonment of roots, then she shouldn't have rigged the deck; Jenkins' return to domesticity is paved with plot contrivances and convenient character reversals that take the initiative out of her hands entirely. The movie ends when the war ends, and you feel like you've been had.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Murder By Phone

(Michael Anderson, 1982)
In spite of its vague and persistent overtures to social significance - Richard Chamberlain is some kind of eco-ideologue, not that it has any relevance to the matters at hand - this is an almost defiantly stupid movie. The narrative concerns a mysterious maniac who transmits deadly electrical frequencies over the telephone, causing victims to bleed from their orifices and, invariably, fly backwards in slow motion through panes of glass. The fetishistic infatuation with which the filmmakers regard the newfangled technology of the land line is quite hilarious. While eventually we do get the obligatory rambling confession, none of it makes any sense and the victims still seem hopelessly random...although it was of course foreordained that one of them would be Lenore Zann in her underwear, and another guy does execute a priceless skydive in his office chair. In fact, Anderson milks this less than dubious premise until it yields a mathematically impossible bucket of entertainment value - it moves fast, it looks like a million bucks, and roles that were undeveloped nothings on paper are given fun, breezy readings by John Houseman and Sara Botsford and Alan Scarfe and, especially, Gary Reineke. As for Chamberlain, he looks like he's having a great time, and I'm with stupid.

Murder In Space

(Steven Hilliard Stern, 1985)
If it somehow escaped your notice, the blurb on the box double-underlines the obvious: this is Agatha Christie in orbit. Just what we needed, right? The 'futuristic' trappings of low-budget space travel do no favours to the laborious, anachronistic plot, which positively creaks under the weight of its double crossing Commies and countless boring romantic liaisons. They do actually feature a gay astronaut, but of course he's therefore portrayed as a conniving bitch and automatic suspect so it hardly serves to modernize things. Whatever reasons they have for floating around in space are obscured by the relentless soap operatics, which do their tradition proud by being utterly corny and mechanical - these are cogs, not characters. On the ground, Wilford Brimley is amusingly laid-back as the crotchety family man who runs this sub-NASA operation, but you really don't need to see Martin Balsam playing a Russian ambassador, and by the time we reach the endless, flashback-larded deductive exposition at the climax, everyone is too bored to care.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Montreal Main

(Frank Vitale, 1974)
Tasteful is the last word you would use to describe this movie, and yet for all the seamy, sensational perversity on display it's no freak show. It's humane, compassionate, insightful; the messy, improvisational narrative betrays no agenda except to get deep inside the heads of its characters. At the centre is a dangerously intimate friendship between a tortured photographer and a frankly beautiful 12-year-old boy. Questing and bewildered, Frank (like the other players, director Vitale uses his own name) clearly wants this relationship to provide an escape from the neurotic chaos of his social scene, centering on Allan Moyle's smartass sociopath. In fact these queers and hustlers and fuckups are damaged and self-absorbed top to bottom, held together by ostracism alone, and yet they are neither reduced to symbols of oppression nor delimited by their spectacular failings. And crucially, this world has something to offer the 12-year-old: independence, danger, escape from the 'burbs. Anything but an inert object of desire, he's questing too, and as the movie goes on it's his struggle that comes to dominate. Gazing longingly out of their fixed orbits toward unattainable goals, these two meet in the middle heading in opposite directions, and that's what dooms them. Funny and horrifying, deeply uncomfortable and deeply felt, vividly capturing time and place, this movie is so great it makes Stephen Lack look to all the world like a stunningly charismatic performer.

Murder By Decree

(Bob Clark, 1979)
Of course Christopher Plummer was born to play Sherlock Holmes - his amused self-regard fits the role like a deerstalker. But whoever devised the left-field casting of James Mason as Watson wins the prize, because he's an absolutely perfect, scene-stealing foil. Many of the supporting all-stars (Sutherland, Gielgud) are underwhelming, the slasher-style POV shots are out of place, and the earth-shattering revelation at the end is too big for the movie's britches, precisely because it might supposedly be 'true' - Holmes' precious logical games have always been a healthy arms-length from reality. But in unleashing the superdetective on the enigma of Jack the Ripper, this plot minimizes the character's stifling aristocratic baggage and casts its lot solidly with the floozies and (select) nutters; it may go awkwardly out of its way to discredit the 'radicals', but the details of the narrative go some way to supporting their argument. All of which merely builds the necessary good will for you to relax and enjoy two solid hours of breezy, witty fun, with Mason's arrant green pea the glorious tipping point.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mr. Nice Guy

(Henry Wolfond, 1987)
Mike MacDonald - never my favourite comic performer - wears particularly thin as a leading man. I hate movies about 'gangsters' even more when they come with romantic subplots, and this movie is painfully anachronistic. But to my astonishment, it's also pretty funny pretty often. While one-time-only director Wolfond has absolutely no cinematic sense, he is capable of making me laugh repeatedly at bad guys falling through windows, and I bet it was Mark Breslin who gave the script its satisfying edge of absurdist displacement. No point in trying to live up to prevailing standards of cinematic artistry when your production values make Lloyd Kaufman look like David O. Selznick, and so the production's candid amateurism frees them up to be purely silly, with perhaps every third scene containing a worthy displacement or two. Too bad the good stuff isn't good enough to help us forget the usual cookie-cutter fag and retard shticks; in a movie whose ace is the element of surprise, such cliches are poison. WKRP's Jan Smithers is nothing to write home about either in a career-ending role. But there's some nice brainless fun to be had here.


(Jean-Claude Lord, 1989)
Michael Ironside's strong, sympathetic lead performance is almost a liability in this context, because it draws our attention to human beings, which as it turns out are the last thing on this movie's mind - barely-established characters and relationships are cavalierly swatted aside in pursuit of the investigative procedural, which is not how these things are supposed to work. Worse still is the squandering of the social resonances; my first hint should have been that Lisa Langlois' left-wing lawyer is splitting her time between representing psychiatric survivors and the police union, betraying an alienation from real life that only hints at the failures of the final twist to come. After all that fuss and build-up - and genuine emotional investment in Ironside and partner Stefan Wodoslawsky's fates - we're expected to ooh and aah at an uber-conspiratorial, agonizingly long-in-the-tooth news hook whose rank stupidity drags the whole movie down the toilet with it. Not that it wasn't leaning on flush already, given the transparently bogus plot engineering that facilitates the climax - since when do single-union rallies happen in almost-empty stadiums? Even the sleaze is unrealized; Sean McCann makes a pretty run of the mill hit man, and if they're going to exploit the sex industry as a milieu, you'd hope that some lucky escort would be given a character, a voice, a LINE even. Whoever decided that Sir Plummer's mad scientist required an overlay of pathos deserves a particularly sharp kick in the ass.

Maria Chapdelaine

(Gilles Carle, 1983)
For a period piece literary adaptation set in pioneer Quebec, this displays a fair amount of artistry and wit. Beautiful, for sure, but especially in the early scenes there's a surprising touch of irreverent energy, and the film takes an active interest in the outside world, whose technology and ideas only reach this remote outpost in occasional and partial driblets. There's also a lot of idle talk of 'savages', though, and that aspect of the outside world gets a much less considered hearing, with a few initial overtures to irony quickly overwhelmed and abandoned, and not a single native Canadian on screen. Instead, Nick Mancuso's freewheeling trapper is supposed to represent the so-called wild side while Donald Lautrec's snooty city slicker stands in for civilization, and the through line of the film involves Carole Laure's Maria Chapdelaine deciding whether to cast her lot with one of these extremes or with Pierre Curzi's featureless, lunkheaded settler. Alas, the game is rigged, as Mancuso is eliminated from contention by Darwinian means and Lautrec's straw-man antics cheat the themes in a way that the other urban incursions do not. But even if the contest was fair you'd hardly be on the edge of your seat, because Laure has zilch to do except stand around and look pretty; her character is so overridden with diaristic voiceover that she eventually starts to recall Christopher Lee in "Starship Invasions". The cliched Third Act Tragedy Cluster is no doubt attributable to Louis Hemon, but it's Carle who suffers the consequences, as the fragile and peripheral virtues of his version get buried in the snow.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


(Guy Green, 1974)
This is one of those movies where the camera pivots at scene's end to a guy in a helmet who stares straight at you and spells out what's going on. This kind of alienation has nothing to do with Brecht - the whole stagebound ordeal lies frozen like a bug in amber, and while the camera pokes around despondently the quite estimable actors are often reduced to declaiming over its shoulder. Stacy Keach's monastery freak-out provides the only burst of energy, and what scant wit remains gets swallowed up by the Protestant history lesson, skipping from one Important Event to the next like a textbook. Godless cad that I am, I expect some razzle-dazzle with my theology.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Meatballs 3

(George Mendeluk, 1986)
Arriving well past the peak of its generic cycle, this candid piece of crap actually appears to be aiming at self-critique - convoluting the 80s sex comedy the way "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" went meta on the slasher movie. By sending Sally Kellerman's dead porn star to offer the geek (Patrick Dempsey!!) her purposefully dubious romantic advice, the movie bids to hold the shallow moral code of the entire genre up to the light. Without suggesting any positive alternative beyond its tauntingly limited critique of 'no means yes', it gently nudges its core audience to examine those values while throwing a lifeline to outsiders willing to pay attention. Unfortunately, the approach lends no additional resonance to the typically multitudinous boob shots and sun-and-surf montages scored to Loverboy songs. At least they netted some solid thespian support for their efforts - George Buza is a riot as Mean Gene, Shannon Tweed has fun earning her Love Goddess title, and Al Waxman and Maury Chaykin enliven their disappointingly fleeting bits. But just as the first Meatball triumphed by marginalizing the deluded creeps, the third one stumbles by shunting aside the one likable human being in the entire narrative. We want Isabelle Mejias! We want Isabelle Mejias!


(Ivan Reitman, 1979)
Summer comedies about teenagers trying to get laid usually appear to emanate from amoral Martians with three Y chromosomes, and the ones that measure in sentimental subplots to balance the humour usually only underline their innate douchebaggery. So it's a shock and a delight to discover that the movie that started it all is something else entirely. His eye on the brass ring, Reitman is no fool; he knows that depth of characterization and tonal control are hard Hollywood currency. But in the light of all that followed, I found his deployment of these questionable conventions not just deeply pleasurable but deeply moving. No jocks and no tits, but it's not just mercies of omission: without neglecting the usual hormonal absurdities, this film shows amazing affection and admiration for kids of all genders fumbling their way through the minefields of intimacy and consent. Riding on top of this business is Bill Murray in his first showcase, and already his caustic non-sequiturs are inseparable from his modest humanism: the "it just doesn't matter" speech is definitive. His scenes with sad outsider Chris Makepeace are a confidently integrated case study in the morality of irony, and Reitman's handling of the climactic foot race is the final proof that he's ready for the big leagues.


(Rex Bromfield, 1982)
Working a straight romantic drama, Bromfield's penchant for caricature becomes agonizing, his sentimentality toxic, his leisurely tendencies definitively turgid. You sit there scouring the lingering closeups of Glynnis O'Connor for anything resembling information - did this really need to run 109 minutes? He does find occasional outlets for his low-key wit, but no one has ever described Burton Cummings as 'low-key', and of course his central presence is the movie's fascinating focal point. Playing an egotistical, booze-and-coke fueled, writers blocked creep of a rock star is not much of a stretch for the man - they even steal his real-life album cover. For a while, on counterpoint to O'Connor's inspirational quest for love and literacy, plunking away at his piano and acting obnoxious, he gives the movie what energy it has. But he can't navigate the treachery of the romantic narrative - their convergence is not just unlikely, it's inexplicable, and he's no less obnoxious afterwards. Paul Sorvino is too good for the movie so it makes sense that he just disappears, and I demand a sequel explaining exactly what that black maid has been doing with herself as she sits unpaid in that empty shack for the middle 100 minutes.

Middle Age Crazy

(John Trent, 1980)
For about a half-hour this exceptionally well-acted, technically impeccable film looks like it is going to perform a miracle - a narrative about the plight of the upwardly mobile husband that is not only sufferable, but dazzling. Bruce Dern feels trapped by his meaningless job and needy family, and over the course of a chaotic 40th birthday party we enter his head in a series of fantasies/rants that capture his dilemma with exceptional wit and vigor. The critique may center on the plight of the breadwinner, but the film's condemnation of suburban values is comprehensive and convincing, passionate and prescient. And having set this high bar of insight and energy, the film then runs smack into it. It kinda makes sense that Dern's philandering cowboy fantasy is the only out he can come up with, but when this doesn't work out so good the film takes that as proof that aspiring for something better is an exercise in futility. And because this conclusion is reached via a long slide from the inventive exuberance of the initial critique, the effect is doubly oppressive and wholly unconvincing: no shallower than the hit-the-road Easy Riderism it reacts against but a lot less fun. Welcome to the 80s! Also, Dern's 'son' looks older than he does.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Masculine Mystique

(John N. Smith, 1984)
I think this was Smith's first effort at combining documentary material with dramatic techniques, and it's a real and unique fusion. Four NFB filmmakers describe their relationships with women, then act out scenes from these relationships, and then harangue each other over what they're doing wrong. In spite of what you'd fear, the balance between these elements is very well handled - the dramatics lead the chatter instead of the other way around. All manner of real-life kids, mothers and wives are given as much screen time as their charisma will sustain; Stefan Wodoslawsky's vexed dating life generates the most textured drama - in part, I suspect, because his opposite number does seem to have some training in performance. Of course, the sausage-party format can get annoying, as is ultimately the point: this is a narrow cross section addressing a doggedly finite range of personal dilemmas. But as someone from that side of the table I was struck not just with how universal emotional incompetence and egotism seem to be, but that candor, introspection, and insight are just as pervasive. These people are all volatile and unpredictable works in progress, and the camera really lets us into their lives - and then, all praise to the magic of cinema, lets us back out again.