Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Morning Man

(Daniele J. Suissa, 1986)
It's not just the syrup-drenched score that identifies this as a soap opera - this tale of an escaped bank robber trying to prove his worth to society is soft-focus throughout, never convincing as a social document even if it is based on a true etc. Still, this is pretty impressive for soap opera, a fairly honest and touching piece of work. Suissa's outsider eye may smooth out some rough spots in her search for the humanity of her underworld characters, but she leaves enough in to complicate the texture. Crucially, while she's working on a feminist analysis here, she never falls back on her female characters, never turns them into mouthpieces - the point of view is steady, coherent, and not without humour, and while on balance her generosity may teeter on the brink of wishful thinking, it's surprisingly justified dramatically. It does feel like there's an act missing - Bruno Doyon's entire tenure in the titular radio gig is ellipsed, which further alienates the maudlin finale, though not so's you don't get swept up in it against your will. Kerrie Keane's empathetic performance as the good doctor is another plus.

Child Under a Leaf

(George Bloomfield, 1974)
I hate to sound like an ingrate, but while this self-starting narrative of infidelity and obsession is unrelenting in its bleakness, it still lacks conviction - formula existentialism. The film's schematic of desperation is so stubborn and so willful that the moments of putative joy and release that get sprinkled in are either glaringly alienated or subsumed by the murk. There's some interest in the way the film sets up thriller elements only to have them collapse into the impenetrable angst of the protagonists, and everyone but new mother Dyan Cannon and her artist lover Daniel Pilon seem to recede into the background, suiting the doomed single-mindedness of their affair. But it rarely rings true. Playing Pilon's jilted ex-girlfriend, Micheline Lanctot is only on screen for about ninety seconds total, yet she's so much more vivid and appealing than the repressed Cannon that you want to send these self-dramatizing fools to a psychotherapist and follow Lanctot around instead.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nowhere to Hide

(Mario Azzopardi, 1987)
Emotionally affecting, structurally clever, breakneck paced, wonderfully cast - this movie is so fun and so well made that it almost doesn't matter that it fails to live up to its initial promise. There's nothing slavish or cloying about the film's debt to Hitchcock - the influence is all thematic/structural, inhering in the individual's hallucinatory struggle against enormous, unknowable institutional forces. In this version the villians are in the upper echelons of the military-industrial establishment, and as Amy Madigan uncomprehendingly suffers the consequences of her offed husband's inquiry into lax safety standards, the ideological implications of the scenario up the interest. Not that the film ever promises a truly radical critique - in another nod to the master, there are significant hedges from the outset. But sometime after the halfway mark the film stops taking itself entirely seriously, and while the goofy action stuff has its definite pleasures, it does feel like a bit of a copout given the intensity of the early scenes. The almost totally blank wrap-up gives away the film's intellectual retreat, and well before then promising bits like the blowtorch-to-the-face and the homing device under the pillow seem to beg for further exploitation. And I wish they'd cut back on the conspiracy conference stuff, which is never a win cinematically. But on the whole this is still an impressively smart piece of work, and worth a watch for sure.

No Surrender

(Peter Smith, 1985)
I really don't get how Telefilm Canada got mixed up in this film, which is as British as mushy peas - more appetizing, though. An impossibly dingy Liverpool pub becomes the staging ground for a new year's eve showdown between two busloads of seniors - one a Catholic costume party, one all Orange Lodge stodge. The sectarian rivalry is embodied by an assortment of aging ex-boxers, and augmented by all manner of bits and baubles - gangsters in the back room, feuding glam-punkers in the dressing room, a token turn by Elvis Costello as a nebbish magician, and Michael Angelis leading a very funny and attuned front-of-house. The integration of absurd humour and malevolent tension is quite effective, and sustains itself almost to the end, at which point of course things degenerate into large crowds noisily shoving from room to room. Then we get an unnecessarily pat and sentimental denouement, also very British but unworthy of the film's otherwise sharp outlook, not that I grasp even half of the cultural baggage they're unpacking here. That it hangs together regardless is quite likely attributable to 'supervising editor' Kevin Brownlow - the dense array of characters and relationships achieves a nice slow build, though inevitably there are spots that leave you wishing for more (Joanne Whalley's limey singing cook shows more promise than she gets to deliver) as well as less (the senile dementia shtick wants finesse).

Nothing Personal

(George Bloomfield, 1980)
This movie is like Stephane Dion: it's kinda nice that he's on your side, except then you're stuck with him. You want to appreciate the nods towards consciousness in re seal hunts and militarism and land claims. But not only are the specifics muzzy to the point of embarrassment (the film locates the "Manitoba Indian" band in the Alaska panhandle), it's all kept at a severely remote geographical and spiritual distance from the cute escapades of professor and lawyer romping from library to bed to car chase to car chase to car chase. With Sam Arkoff looking over his shoulder, Bloomfield does keep things moving, Suzanne Somers could definitely be worse, and as always Donald Sutherland ambles through his contrived rom-com paces like a duck in water. But that same casualness does no favours at all to the big Frank Capra anticorporate speech at the end; the filmmakers literally look away in embarrassment as Sutherland mumbles his barely coherent indictment. And let's not even get into his insights re the failings of women's liberation. Keep an eagle eye out for most of the cast of SCTV - Bloomfield's old stomping grounds - on screen for about three seconds each.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Norman's Awesome Experience

(Paul Donovan, 1989)
The parallels to Donovan's "Def-Con 4" are obvious - just substitute time travel for space travel and Roman rabble for the post-apocalyptic kind. But whatever half-realized virtues the earlier title evinced are lost in a painfully unrealized hipster bid that frankly drove me into a permanent blind rage within a half hour. Tom McCamus's 'funny' hair signals a longing for cult cred a la, I don't know, Buckaroo Banzai or something, but in this interpretation cult means forsaking all narrative coherence and characterization in favour of appalling shtick unworthy of Pauly Shore. I mean, "Don't leave Rome without it?" Warring peasants singing the Roger Ramjet theme? Give me a fucking break, asshole. The entire movie is as remote and unmotivated as possible at all times, and manages to appear spectacularly wasteful of its relatively modest budget. And delving several leagues beyond twee are the unfathomably hateful characterizations of Laurie Patton's fashion model and especially, especially Jacques Lussier's smirking creep photographer. His final comeuppance is wholly inadequate: I truly wanted to see this performer hanging from a tree by his intestines. And no complaints if Donovan gets hung up there with him, which would have spared us his subsequent directorial catastrophes along similar lines.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Un Zoo La Nuit

(Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1987)
The underdevelopment of the drugs-and-money subplot is clearly deliberate; Lauzon wants to undercut the conventions of the genre by turning them to the service of a far more personal commentary on violence and male bonding, a condition that in his view pervades the mainstream as surely as the underground. Every act of violence is followed through to its emotional response, the film is gorgeous in both pastoral and industrial-wasteland modes, and Roger Lebel's performance as the doddering father is so clearly the best thing in the movie that it's no wonder Lauzon wants to keep him on screen. But despite a real visionary undertow that emerges most strongly in the final scenes, the overall effect is to reduce the underworld material not to archetype but to cliche. The prison rape, the sadistic queer cop, the bitch whore ex-girlfriend, the shootup in the skid row motel - these are all awfully familiar tools of the trade, and the compressed exposition deprives each one of the opportunity to show any added nuance or depth. And in the end the final scenes are also compromised by an affecting but peculiarly inappropriate sentimentality that makes one question the director's command of his themes. The glut of motorcycle-riding scenes doesn't help either, although when Lebel catches a ride even they are a pleasure.

90 Days

(Giles Walker, 1985)
Building off the characters and techniques of their earlier "Masculine Mystique", Stefan Wodoslawsky and Sam Grana return as a couple of aging bachelors who get involved with a Korean mail-order bride and a mysterious sperm donor ring, respectively. No true documentary content in this one, just a clever stylistic overlay, with naturalistic cinematography and sporadic, unconvincing interview inserts. While the Korea-Montreal cultural divide stuff mainly generates mild smiles, the sperm-donor routine can be laugh-out-loud funny, with a nice sense of exaggeration and timing. Overall the comedy of romantic errors is surprisingly tender, and this gang of barely part-time actors treat their characters with compassion and respect even when they're acting like buffoons. Too bad, though, that the relatively conventional narrative approach leads the filmmakers to upset the balance with a rushed feel-good ending that is insufficiently motivated and unsatisfying in its tidiness. And too bad that their lack of trust in the material manifests itself in a dinkily pushy Casio score that gets more annoying the longer it sticks around.

No Blame

(Daniele J. Suissa, 1988)
"Not a movie about AIDS", the back cover protests. Uh huh. Maybe what they meant is, not a movie that does the subject of AIDS any justice, even at this relatively pioneering date. Helen Shaver plays a glamorous but down-to-earth fashion editor in her third trimester who is diagnosed as HIV-positive by Jan Rubes's icky bourgeois doctor. Right after the diagnosis there's a beautifully handled elevator scene, and this largely holds its own as high-class soap opera - Stephen Macht's surprisingly irredeemable love interest compensates somewhat for the (arrrgh) cute kid, and things don't really go off the rails until Linda Smith's pivotal, 'inspirational' counsellor shows up. In a hectoring scene that is obviously meant as a rallying cry, Smith is obliged to enact a series of face-palming nonsequiturs that only climax with a 'never say die' message that equates the disease unequivocally with death, and lonely death at that. Nowhere do we see anything of the community of support that Smith's rhetoric momentarily evokes, least of all when her own infection leaves her friendless and alone in the hospital. What's more, in the entire film we are granted one single sidelong glance at a guy who might possibly be gay. Copping out where it counts, the film spoils its own ending, a series of surprising anti-utopian gestures that might have seemed genuinely brave in a different context.