Friday, May 28, 2010

I'm a failure!

The number of posts this month has been completely pathetic! Sorry - huge things have moved in to occupy my time. One of which is a big Trash On Wheels screening after the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair this weekend! I'll be tabling at the bookfair too! The show is at Casa del popolo and if you're there you should come - Sunday May 30, doors at 8:30, show at 9. Full info here!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Night Friend

(Peter Gerretsen, 1987)
This movie's heart is definitely in the right place as it manouevers its concentrated cast through a virtual chamber drama about the realpolitik of street life and sex work. Far from heroes and villains, every single character is held up as a product of their environment, and the film views social conditioning and change with a thoughtful theorist's eye. The problem with this is that almost every character is pared down to their rhetorical function - only Cynthia Belliveau and a slumming young Daniel MacIvor create characters with real inner lives. As an intelligent and aware priest trying to translate his faith into action, Chuck Shamata's interest in child prostitute Heather Kjollesdal turns him into a detective in a collar, a questionable structural mannerism which really backfires as the movie enters the third act; the more we care about Kjollesdal, the more her point of view recedes to the margins. Even worse than this is the saintly bag lady symbol which Jayne Eastwood is required to mutely inhabit. Glimpses of humour and insight throughout, but Gerretsen never quite manages to translate it into cinema, and he certainly does himself no favours by gratuitously begging comparison to Agnes Varda.

Next of Kin

(Atom Egoyan, 1984)
Egoyan's vision is certainly both recognizable and remarkably out of its time in his first feature, but that's not to say it arrives fully formed. In fact the impurities - namely, the rewardingly earthy immigrant family whose uninhibited domestic dramas occupy the film's centre - are the most attractive thing about it. The film does a better job than you could hope at integrating this material into another media-saturated treatise on alienation, and its view of the old world family with the new world kid is as intimate as it is affectionate as it is ambivalent. And it's pleasing that Patrick Tierney's masquerade as this family's long-lost son is neither exposed and punished nor played for "Armenian Like Me" tolerance lessons. Instead, the film settles into an examination of the universality of role-playing, with both sides finding solace in a tenuous charade, seemingly doomed but strikingly unresolved. Unfortunately, Tierney is altogether too much of a blank slate, although you do get used to him after a while; and the extended luggage-carousel gymnastics of Peter Mettler's first-act cinematography wear out their welcome and upset the film's balance. Still pretty good, though, in its mannered way, and if you keep your eyes peeled you can catch future National Post mouthpiece Andrew Coyne as the windbag in the elevator.

The Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck

(Jean Lafleur/Peter Svatek, 1975)
A goofy criminal plot - something involving cross-border jewel smuggling and the Montreal Canadiens - is just an excuse for what turns out to be a feature-length chase scene. And this in turn is a convenient pretext for a guided tour of Quebec's most photogenic landmarks; someone has been watching North By Northwest. Don't let that get your hopes up, because this is a silly, clunky movie. But damned if it doesn't move; it never bogs down in plotting or character development, just keeps chugging from one charmingly obvious set piece to the next. And since this kids' flick is brought to you by schlock avatars Dunning-Link, God knows it never stoops to moralizing either, unless the moral is unbridled juvenile autonomy. Between running away from the orphanage and sneaking into the Forum, Michael Macdonald ("Mike" Macdonald? I don't believe you, imdb) and Angele Knight cause all kinds of havoc; but instead of learning to behave they single-handedly trounce the Bugsy-and-Mugsy gangsters, and get to hang out in the Habs' locker room as a reward. If I had any intention of raising kids I'd sure give 'em this over some Disney shit - not least for my own enjoyment.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Neptune Factor

(Daniel Petrie, 1973)
The muted tone and deliberate pacing that looks like a clever stylistic device in the first scene becomes positively sadistic as the damn thing plods endlessly on. And you've never seen a movie with so much arrant gazing - from the ship captain to the undersea adventurers, great chunks of the film's running time are further padded with the all-star cast staring relentlessly offscreen. I'd describe it as a feature-length Kuleshov experiment, except for more than an hour they're not even looking at anything in particular, so there's no emotional response - and when they do finally gaze upon their deep-sea nemeses, the only possible response is uncontrollable contemptuous laughter. Did anyone on this production actually believe that macro shots of tropical fish would fill their audience with wonder and thrills? They could barely even afford any process shots, so the actors and the guppies almost never appear in the same frame, and as things drag on you become increasingly aware of the deep-sea vessel as a four-inch toy in an aquarium. The brazen contempt this 'climax' expresses is of a piece with the film as a whole: what dramatics Petrie allows are barely worthy of bad episodic TV, with the very worst stuff accruing to Yvette Mimieux as an astonishingly inept marine biologist. Worth seeing just to prove to yourself that it actually exists.

Jesus of Montreal

(Denys Arcand, 1989)
As always speaking to Quebeckers first and foremost, here Arcand implores his Catholic countrymen to become citizens of the world - not by abandoning their faith, but by opening themselves up to the new challenges that science and scholarship present to the imposed orthodoxies of the church. Significantly, he doesn't bother speaking truth to power - the buck stops at Gilles Pelletier's conflicted priest, with nary a glimpse of the fearsome authorities whose rule he consents to police. By commissioning a 'modernized' Passion Play in the interest of outreach, and placing it in the hands of an honestly questing bunch of secular artists, Pelletier stumbles into a conflict between authority and dialogue; in raw panic he chooses the wrong side, with tragic results. It's his struggle that is at the spiritual center of the film; the performers embody the parallel question of the artist in society, seeking meaningful work as an escape from the equally hierarchical, equally vacant altar of showbiz. Where once Arcand tore a furiously vulgar strip off the powers that be, by now he's embedding his critique in comforting layers of culture, light comedy and gentle irony, and while the effect can get cloying (as in the overdrawn radio commentators), his intelligence and commitment are never in doubt, and the approach serves his agenda well. Classy and controlled, this rather detached movie winds up provoking emotional response through the power of its ideas, which is the right way to do it.

Goin' Down The Road

(Don Shebib, 1970)
Among other things, this glorious film is this country's unmatched wellspring of cinematic cliche. Consolidating the 60s NFB aesthetic of social realist character drama, it turned the style into a dubious yardstick of patriotism for years to come, yet in this rendition it's moving and hilarious all at once. We've long since tired of the indie trick of actors staring off into space, but here the device actually conveys the weight of the class/culture dilemmas these unschooled characters yearn so hopelessly to transcend. Perhaps most impressive, Bruce Cockburn's quite literal musical commentary adds immeasurably to the film's emotional power where most such scoring reeks of lazy redundancy. After all, none of these things would have become cliches if Don Shebib's rendition hadn't unleashed their archetypal power: up against Paul Bradley's amiably helpless go-with-the-flow and Jayne Eastwood's reluctant dependency, Doug McGrath's disruptive, self-centered restlessness takes on heroic force even if he is doomed to fail. While his impossible dream may be defined by the specifics of Canada's unknowable sprawl, the impact of every vivid, squalid episode is as universal as it is unique, and more powerful for its dogged irresolution.

Fortune and Men's Eyes

(Harvey Hart, 1971)
Complicated. As a shocking expose of the brutalities of prison life - which is no doubt how it was received - I can only describe it as a failure: the depiction of new inmates as wide-eyed innocents awaiting corruption by heartless homosexuals is a real head-scratcher, especially as it conflates prison sex culture with 'real' homosexuality via Michael Greer's Queenie. A flamboyant drag queen who is dearly beloved by the entire prison population - yeah right! - Queenie is transparently a literary device as opposed to a character, mocking the cruelties of the prison power structure even as she enables them, floating above and alongside the action until her final, definitive intervention. Wendell Burton's transition from lead innocent to heartless exploiter of the moment is so abbreviated that he ends up a symbol as well. But as symbols go, these are remarkably vivid and intimate, performed with great human depth top to bottom, and adapted from the stage with an uncommonly assured sense of cinema. Unquestionably problematic, but if you can give it the benefit of the doubt, the pervasive emphasis on barely-repressed vulnerability can be read as a bizarrely coded/compromised kind of queering, and suggests truths above and beyond its highly dubious documentary value.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Dead Ringers

(David Cronenberg, 1988)
As the Canadian film industry starts its move upmarket into Art, Cronenberg has an opportunity to show off his mastery - with groundbreaking technical brilliance, performances of great depth and commitment, and complex thematic resonances that are too personal and eccentric to reduce to allegory. At the same time, he's engaged in an almost unprecedented reversal of the old smuggling routine - percolating the crassest of exploitation values into 'serious' filmmaking. Maniac menaces women: can't get any more basic than that, and slasher films have always taken time out to psychoanalyze their monsters. Needless to say, though, turning the maniac into identical-twin gynecologists ups the ante. It also pulls the model in two directions at once, rendering the psycho even more abstract/unreal even as his acts of violence become unbearably familiar and intimate. Most dangerous of all is Cronenberg's defiantly male perspective on the proceedings; he's concerned with the perps not the victims, and the greatest outrage he commits is to portray the brothers' dissolution as comedy blacker than night. The human chaos behind the veneer of professional status; men diagnosing the ills of the world from a hermetic echo chamber; the way yearning for intimacy across genders can mutate into uncomprehending violence; the expedient and hopeless medicalization of unmet needs - this is heavy stuff, and Cronenberg resolves nothing by holding these things up to the light. As a result, the tightly-controlled horror and comedy are triangulated by an explosive emotional impact, more universal for its eccentric specificity, realer than countless 'realistic' movies on comparable themes. More Burroughsian than "Naked Lunch", and so totally engrossing that eventually you forget to notice the seamless technical tricks that turn Jeremy Irons into two people.

Food of the Gods Part 2

(Damian Lee, 1989)
While this cornball elaboration of H. G. Wells/Bert I. Gordon portrays vivisectors and animal liberationists alike as egotistical blowhards, the former are total dorky evil while the latter are merely youthfully deluded re tactics, and the climactic pathos re Paul Coufos's white rat further tips the ideological balance in the correct direction. None of which represents much in the way of initiative or commitment: the mad scientist and sympathetic monster are of course stock devices of the genre, and here they are merely hot buttons for a piece of camp which hovers dangerously close to Lloyd Kaufman territory. The first appearance of the giant kid is perfect and hilarious, and the scenes of guys in rat suits terrorizing York University are good for a laugh. Elsewhere, though, the gags are terribly cheap, not to mention ancient - the Clint Eastwood exterminator, the bum who wakes up and says "got a light?", Coufos telling a pile of throbbing putrescence "you look terrible". If you're going to forsake the scary half of your horror-comedy pact, you'd better provide real and consistent laughs, not just the old nudge-wink. And in the Kaufman tradition, it is also depressingly mean.