Monday, July 26, 2010

Pinocchio's Birthday Party

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

The Peanut Butter Solution

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

The Pink Chiquitas

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


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

Pick-Up Summer

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


(John Huston, 1980)
Here's a lesson for all you auteurists out there - proof that even a Great Director is no match for a Bad Producer of Zale Magder's calibre. Magder's philistine fingerprints are all over this hoary whodunit, a fraudulent condemnation of the psychiatric establishment that takes its audience for a truckload of idiots. Leading with the laughable spectacle of an exploding filing cabinet and closing with the least convincing armchair Freud routine in the canon, the yawning midsection comprises a then-there-were-none shtick whose only unfamiliar element is the startling asininity of Paul Michael Glaser's shrink. Repeatedly leading his fragile charges on pointless wild goose chases, reacting to their spectacular deaths with lackadaisical trips to the rink and tin-eared paeans to professional detachment, this character is so transparent as to absolutely destroy the credibility of both the mystery and the "message" that decorates it. Speaking of tin-eared, Andre Gagnon ain't no Bernard Herrmann, and Kenneth Welsh offers a textbook rendering of the Stupid Detective, waving his accusatory finger around with a random certainty that only underlines the attention deficit of the production as a whole.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Perfect Timing

(Rene Bonniere, 1986)
Saddled with a painfully anachronistic script confined almost entirely to a single set, the filmmakers set out to dress the turkey with great quantities of frontal nudity - even a splash of male dangle, ooh la la. But while by and large the babes come on with more energy and verve than the material deserves, the dangler in question is about the most hateful lech ever to appear in the smut-comedy genre, so the gesture doesn't come off as especially generous. At least Paul Boretski does appear to be performing, which cannot be said for Stephen Markle's narcoleptic turn as the photographer, a sucking black hole worthy of the film's self-serving take on the art-versus-commerce dilemma. In order to fill out his less than onerous 87-minute running time, Bonniere really, really drags 'er out, stretching each dead-end shtick like a botched facelift whether it's a running gag (Michael Rudder waving endless impotent implements of destruction at his plaster-imprisoned model) or a set piece ("Introducing Papusha", who blows almost ten 'climactic' minutes doing her witlessly heterofied Carole Pope impersonation - the last straw).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


(Richard Benner, 1977)
At first I reacted against the sentimentality of the madness-as-nonconformism theme, which is really mostly down to Hollis McLaren; as Craig Russell's heavily medicated roommate, she can get pretty hackneyed expressing her mental downturns with hushed gibberish or staring through the fingers. But in between episodes she really gets to articulate the bill of outsiders' rights, and Russell is right there with her. No comparable cliches in this film's depiction of the Toronto gay scene, a diverse yet claustrophobic enclave that places transvestites on the bottom of a depressingly rigid hierarchy - an economic threat to closeted hairdressers, stealth patriarchs to the second-wave dykes. At a time when cinematic queerness was synonymous with effete self-loathing, this sympathetic and detailed depiction of a complex, vital skid-row subculture was decades ahead of its time, and has real time-capsule value today. All of which to say is that they're far from just marking time between Russell's impersonations, which are definitive even if he did steal them from Mae West herself. Put it all together and you've got a film that synthesizes social engagement and entertainment value with almost unprecedented verve.

Out of the Blue

(Dennis Hopper, 1980)
Hopper's CFDC-facilitated return to the director's chair caps his lost decade with a production that could have been called "The Lost Movie" - protagonists and nemeses alike struggle, fail, fuck up, give up, die. While the sleaze will definitely be suffocating to some, it's incredible how much compassion Hopper musters for these wasteoids, most of all his own dangerously careening drunk; without sacrificing humour or irony, the man puts all the pain and longing he's got inside him into one hell of a performance. Fellow showbiz survivor Sharon Farrell gives him a run for his money as his shattered wife, especially toward the end, and they're not even the central figures here - they're just something for Linda Manz's Cebe to rebel against. As cold as the oldsters are hot, this disagreeable, Elvis-worshipping punk rocker is Hopper's vision of youth rebellion as unstoppable, eternal primal force, embodying the impulse to freedom that can find no outlet in this desperate vision of the world. Kissing off Raymond Burr's moral interventions in no uncertain terms, Manz ultimately cuts the gordian knot, and this absolute rejection is actually a message of solidarity across generations, an aesthetic salute from a man who knew a thing or two about constructive negation.

Order to Assassinate

(Jorge Montesi, 1984)
Sketchy narrative, minimal characterization, and wooden acting, with Montesi more remote than anybody in his central role of grizzled assassin with secret moral code. All of which is entirely appropriate to a film that approaches its genre with the seriousness and formal discipline of the best experimentalists. The dedication to Jean-Pierre Melville is the giveaway, but it's not the whole story: this impossibly cold gangster narrative is the product of a guy who knows cinema from the inside out, exploiting his expressionless cast for Bresson-like alienation and tossing in a suggestively overextended hotel-room tryst a la Breathless. And bringing things back to Hollywood, we have dry Casablanca and Disney references that are as close as this project ever comes to actual humour. The narrative draws a suggestively ambiguous line from third-world warfare to native land claims to the sleaziest corners of the sex trade, evoking worlds of malevolence and corruption with the details it leaves untold. Imperfectly realized, but Montesi is really on to something with his passionate commitment to exploitation as artistry.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

One Night Stand

(Allan King, 1977)
You know all those horror movies that are predicated on the innate, mind-numbing stupidity of the heroine? Imagine how much worse they would be if you took away all the scary scenes. This is an inert adaptation of a two-character stage play - you know the kind, where ninety percent of the action takes place on a single set, the other ten percent looks perfunctory and lost, and the actors still seem to be pitching their performances at theatrical volume. A director best known for his cinema verite documentaries is clearly doomed when pitted against lead actor Brent Carver's showboating egotism. Reprising his stage role, Carver's twinkly fast-talking minstrel is such obvious trouble from the word go that you could predict the ending within two minutes even if you hadn't seen "Zoo Story", under whose shadow writer Carol Bolt shamelessly toils. You won't believe the tortured logical knots Bolt ties herself in just keeping idiot date Chapelle Jaffe in the room. The shockingly sloppy re-editing of the single incident of note into a late-movie flashback does nothing to turn this into cinema, and the attempt to funk things up with the Rough Trade score/cameo runs smack into Bolt/Carver's dubious folkie originals, which somebody should have sassed up or deep-sixed. I barely got through it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

One Man

(Robin Spry, 1977)
Spry shows ample signs here of the random didacticism that corrupted his 80s work - did he actually think that running a sotto voce litany of vaguely relevant biochemical disasters over the end credits would enhance the impact of his narrative, or was it just a sop to the doc-hoppers at the NFB? Either way, the Film Board aesthetic of grainy intimacy certainly does his headline-chasing agenda more favours than the remote slickness of his later work. It also reflects the dominance of human over rhetorical concerns - the corporate-conspiracy details of the narrative are secondary to the dilemma of Len Cariou's conscience-plagued newsman. The struggle with the oppressively immediate real-life consequences of speaking truth to power - or not - is captured with appropriate urgency and gravitas, so that with the help of some genuinely inspired tension sequences we really get inside Cariou's doubts and fears. This is an unusual emphasis for a seventies paranoia thriller, and it's directly attributable to the strong, complex female characters that share the foreground - Carole Lazare's tormented whistle-blower and especially Jayne Eastwood's beleaguered housewife take the piss out of the usual system-smashing heroics in a smart, illuminating way. One man indeed!

125 Rooms of Comfort

(Patrick Loubert, 1974)
Compulsive irony, compulsive freakishness, uniformly neurotic characters, garbled crosstalk, layers of slapstick and cynicism mired in textured obscurity...remind you of anyone? Admittedly, the prospect of Altman transposed to St. Thomas, ON is pretty tantalizing, and the uppity, negationist tone is in many ways a healthy corrective to the beautiful-loser mopiness of yore, although from here it looks just as dated. The borrowed eccentricity of the shooting style still has its rewards, though, and the interactions between these memorable eccentrics provoke many knowing smiles and a few laughs. There are whiffs of elitist contempt that amplify throughout, but the real issue seems to be a lack of means: not just the frequently muffled sound quality but an 82 minute running time that gives the electrons precious little space in which to bounce. Episodic digressions and transgressions steal so much spotlight from core plot and character development that the big statement of the queer-bashing climax feels incongruously overwrought instead of incisive.

Of Unknown Origin

(George P. Cosmatos, 1983)
This is by far the most thoughtful of Canada's man-versus-rat movies, but exactly how thoughtful do you want a man-versus-rat movie to be? For the first hour it is a real pleasure to watch Peter Weller playing an upwardly-mobile businessman matching wits with the elusive super-rodent who plagues his castle. Weller is engaging in a demanding role, and so are his weasel co-workers Kenneth Welsh and Maury Chaykin; in fact all the performances are understated and well-observed, including Shannon Tweed. Cosmatos has a flair for composition and really works the dramatic build, but as the movie wears on the gap between thoughtful and smart is exposed. The climax drains all the fun away in the service of an all-too-familiar screed about the 'savage' inner nature of the civilized urban man, too 'symbolic' and full of itself by half. He may think he's channelling Hemingway, but what we get is man-versus-rat as the missing link between "Taxi Driver" and Cosmatos' subsequent "Rambo", and I'll take "Deadly Eyes" over that any day.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Odyssey of the Pacific

(Fernando Arrabal, 1982)
This kids' film is goodhearted, lush, and eccentric. I feel funny about critiquing it for not hanging together - the disjointedness is in itself so pervasive that it feels like a deliberate statement, and yet it falls just short of clicking. Every single character is possessed by their own very peculiar inner life. A little boy projects himself into heroic fantasies, a little girl is discovering her sexuality, a Cambodian refugee boy longs to return and marry his mother, and with such divergent inner lives it seems that there's no equal interaction: even outside of the dominant fantasy/flashback sequences, every scene is dominated by one character's concern, with the others present as sympathetic spectators. A remote and toy-obsessed uncle would seem to present a critique of this dogged inwardness, but then Mickey Rooney's wheelchair-bound train engineer comes along to channel all this fantasy into a fantastic collective project. Nobody is transformed; in spite of the camaraderie everyone continues to dwell within their eccentricities. Which is actually kind of daring, noble even. I guess that means the problem is Rooney, whose usual juvenile enthusiasm is louder and busier than the rest of the movie, and so upsets the delicate balance.


(Miklos Lente, 1984)
This movie is terrible. Terrible! But I love it. Without the slightest self-consciousness, the film's approach to the summer sex comedy is so appallingly wrong and stupid that it acts as a kind of corrective. Situating the usual hormonal overkill among a cast dominated by pre-pubescent boys, it treats us to an absolutely incoherent onslaught of bad puns, desperate slapstick and cringing smut, not so much humorous as laughable, and yet the careening, train-wreck illogic of the plotting is of a piece with an unbridled vulgarity that borders on surrealism. The defining comic device consists of unrelenting cartoon-style sound effects, frantically double-underlining every attempt at humour and making matters worse almost without fail. Mike MacDonald's perilous, smirking overkill becomes tolerable when balanced by Milan Cheylov's bounding idiocy and especially Foster Brooks' pathetic drunk landowner. His climactic moral awakening is as moronic as everything else here, and that's a good thing: no moist grandstanding to compromise the simple-minded exploitation. Sometimes unbridled, opportunistic greed bears such dumb gifts as this, and I for one am quite happy to enjoy the sideshow.


(Robin Spry, 1987)
Having failed at light espionage thriller with "Keeping Track", here Spry fails at the social-issue drama. Macro there's attempted big statements about law and personal responsibility, micro there's extensive hand-wringing over a particularly problematic clause in the Canada-US extradition treaty, but the details are alternately vague and fussy, so one doesn't resonate with the other. And the delivery device for this polemic is a psychological thriller that understands neither psychology nor thrills. An inciting incident that should have been a devastating shift in tone is cruelly undermined by the under-dramatized halfpipe demonstration that precedes it and the over-dramatized emotional manipulation that ensues; and instead of establishing a sympathetic character off the top, feral mom Kerrie Keane starts self-absorbed and remote and goes off the deep end. In fact every character is so doggedly underwritten that any time anything happens at all it appears attributable to a case of temporary insanity. The A-list cast often looks like they might be on to something if only the movie would grow a brain, especially Saul Rubinek as the nemesis. Even the child performers are impressive. But the form and content are so alienated, the human logic so lost in the op-ed armchair, that you feel more pity than empathy.

Malachi's Cove

(Henry Herbert, 1974)
A kids' movie this awash in poverty and grief is virtually obliged to turn to mush in the third act, and sure enough Veronica Quilligan's scrappy young seaweed collector falls in love with bratty nemesis David Bradley, overcoming the petty prejudices of her 19th-century village and struggling free of the memory of her drowned parents. This predictable turn of events is brutally mismanaged by Herbert, who encourages Bradley to act like a total unredeemed snot for a full hour before suddenly wrenching a halo on to his creepy little head. This is doubly unforgivable given the laziness of the pacing and construction, undermining its sense of place and pathos with repetitive, static interactions and way too much wandering around the English countryside. Quilligan is on screen for almost the entire film so it's impressive that she doesn't wear; especially when working in tandem with wheelchair-bound grandpa Donald Pleasance, she lightens the bleakness somewhat, but she can't do anything about the tedium.