Monday, August 30, 2010

The Pyx

(Harvey Hart, 1973)
This movie milks the new-cinema tricks of wandering camera, dominant foregrounds, and overheard inarticulate dialogue for sheer malevolent atmosphere: its fantastic allegory of satanic sacrifice amid the Godless urbanites is given more power by its palpably human scale. The horrific details of Karen Black's sex-working junkie lifestyle unfold alongside Christopher Plummer's murder investigation in a deep but organic flashback framework; the grim wit of Plummer's scenes balance the sad desperation of Black's, whose mournfully ululating folk score fits right in. While our firsthand access to Black keeps us two steps ahead of Plummer at all times, we get more info about her life than about her death, which renders the police procedural oddly impotent, and purposefully so. Still, you do hope for a better payoff than you get. The satanists are obviously being used metaphorically, a dark culmination of urban desperation and faithlessness, and with that creepy chipmunk-choir-from-hell music all over the climax Hart certainly hammers that theme home. But in narrative terms, it does in fact matter that the climax reveals little new info about Black's death while suddenly asking us to care about Plummer's character. Although he's having a great time, Plummer clearly cares little about the character himself - he's remote throughout in that taciturn-cop way - so we don't really give a fig for his existential dilemma. Still, this remains super creepy and quite watchable. Also of note are the most hateful madam of all time, and a quite anti-stereotypical gay guy as Black's best friend - an obvious olive branch from the director of "Fortune and Men's Eyes", although just to be contrary he has him gunned down anyway.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


(George Kaczender, 1987)
This looks like one of those movies where the ad campaign came first - just about the only thing wrong with it is its 'concept'. Always big on sex, here Kaczender gets to explore the world of the high-priced call girl, and while the cops are in the foreground, the girls' milieu is presented with detail, sympathy and rage. The context is a serial murder plot, and lead call girl Suzanne Snyder's complicated relationship with stressed-out cop David Birney adds resonance to the procedural stuff. When Birney lapses into Dirty Harry talk it only leads to impotent macho fury, unleashed on a painfully vulnerable black dandy and an unapologetically gay crook. In other words, Sandra K. Smith's script has good things to say and says them well. So why oh why did somebody then have to turn the whole thing into a 'split personality' drama? The conceit does make sense thematically, I'll admit; and as she veers between sweet young sex worker and abusive Daddy, Season Hubley gives the routine everything she's got. But in that process she robs the film of everything it had: this is hackneyed, dramatically disastrous stuff. In the end everyone is so glad to be rid of Hubley that they rush straight out the door with a denouement so self-effacing it might have been furnished by Robert Wise.

Prescription For Murder

(Clarke Mackey, 1987)
The first thing you notice about this made for TV drama is the deftness of the scenes among the nurses, displaying a surprising depth and detail of characterization; the small talk and camaraderie are so felt that you suspect writer Rebecca Schechter has spent her share of time on the delivery ward. More time than she spent hanging around with cops anyway; the interrogation scenes are laughable victims of stupid detective syndrome, and the courtroom procedural that follows from them are a nightmare of generic imposition, with the director clearly as bored as anyone. Since we now require a hero, Kate Lynch's conflicted daddy's girl gets to ponder her personal moral dilemma as a wholly unsatisfying replacement for the ensemble. While her later scenes with jaded hubby Saul Rubinek and working lout Sean McCann are more responsive and patient than usual for this kind of project, the investigative narrative remains so stilted and remote that the multi-plane talkover bits that keep popping up between testimonies eventually reveal themselves as a showy directorial tic. And while they may think that the trick ending underlines the theme of individual responsibility, it cheats it instead. By cutting to credits at the big moment, the filmmakers relieve Lynch's grand moral gesture of all content and repercussion, not only letting her character off multiple hooks but also leaving more than half of their own story untold.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Power Play

(Martyn Burke, 1978)
So what country is this coup d'etat taking place in, anyway? Presumably not the UK or Canada, although the accents in this international coproduction are strictly northern. This glaring lack of specificity turns out to be definitive. Seemingly pivotal dialogue scenes are glossed over with rampaging orchestras to keep the running time down; the climax consists almost entirely of extras in helmets running around the outside of large buildings; the setup introduces a revolutionary underground that barely registers before it is whisked out of view. Obviously social change from below is an imponderable alternative to overthrow by military brass, which the film ponders at length before disowning as well, generating great ennui in the viewer especially since said brass spend almost the entire running time sitting around a table. And even at that most of the generals remain little more than asses in seats, barely permitted to establish a character or a motivation. If I enjoyed this film in spite of itself, it may be because after watching so many damn Canadian movies I was thrilled by the 'all-star cast'. It's great fun watching Barry Morse, Jon Granik, Harvey Atkin, Gary Reineke, August Schellenberg, and (my favourite) Chuck Shamata rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Hemmings and Peter O'Toole for an entire movie. But only diehard Chuck Shamata fans need apply.

Possession: Until Death Do You Part

(Michael Mazo/Lloyd A. Simandl, 1987)
Ostensibly a movie about a psychopath in thrall to his mother - now where have we heard that one before? - this movie achieves the remarkable feat of running out its entire narrative in the first fifteen minutes. Given the calibre of performances, you might in fact be grateful that things then revert to the usual menaced ladies in a cabin, and since these ladies in fact comprise a home-based escort service, the so-called directors (Simandl has learned nothing in the eight years since the hateful amateur hour that was "Autumn Born") claim ample resort to the female torso. They can't act - best line: "You were in a BAR?!" - and they're pretty obnoxious, but they sure come as a relief after the nondescript frump of a mother and the dull-ass lump of a psycho. The first problem, though, is that the opening teased us with the promise of a plot, thus calling attention to the sad nothingness of all that follows; these clowns can't even stage a decent stabbing. The second problem is that the psycho is still with us. John Robert Johnson is like a guy doing a retard impression at a frat party only less subtle, and by the third stroll in the woods you'll wish the credits had rolled as soon as his dinghy exploded.

Paperback Hero

(Peter Pearson, 1973)
No boring smalltown prairie slice of life here. This character study of a rebel in his own mind is full of wit and critique, from the slush on the surface of the doomed hockey rink to the showdown climax that finally nails Kier Dullea's good ole boy to the wall. The main concern is with rural systems of power. Still living at his parents' place, Dullea draws status from his hockey coworkers and from the many women he romances, as he thumbs his nose at bosses and cops. For all his attitude, though, he's still at their mercy, and as the owner pulls the plug on his team and the women in his life get fed up with him, he learns the limits of playing cowboy as a resistance strategy. The filmmakers understand the crushing closeness of country society well enough to draw out universal truths about the difficulty of opposition, without ignoring the countless ways that the status quo is well worth opposing. These complexities express themselves through dynamic gray shadings that are given compelling shape in just about every scene. And it's most impressive that the desperate highs and lows of sexual questing on both sides of the gender divide get the most vivid and humane treatment of all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Porky's Revenge

(James Komack, 1985)
With Bob Clark having fled the country, so goes the patina of "quality". As the guys' sense of ensemble deepens they also start to show their age, especially Meat who appears to have developed a steroid dependency; the women are pure window dressing and are given zilch to do. The only thing dumber than the plotting is the execution, which goes out of its way to underline every improbability, longueur and logical lapse. The sexual liberation of Balbricker is such a botch from top to bottom that the quantum leap in kindness from previous installments is rendered a liability, and the paddleboat destruction of the end sequence is predicated on a 'big scheme' of unbelievable sloppiness. But while this is obviously a far, far lousier piece of filmmaking than the original "Porky's", I still find it just a bit more watchable - because high moral seriousness is not even on the radar, because its idiocy is harmless, because absurdly overdrawn boner gags still touch the child in all of us.

Porky's II: The Next Day

(Bob Clark, 1983)
Is it really so hard to see this movie as the atonement and improvement it is? Winning my heart up front is a scene in which Kaki Hunter finally gives voice to a female perspective on teen sex, insisting that she does it because she enjoys it and describing the painful experience of being labeled a slut. Sure, there's something a little, oh, self-serving about Clark comparing his brand of smut to Shakespeare and/or the Bible. But the juxtaposition gives the franchise a goose, creating comic opportunities (many of which are of course flogged to within an inch of their lives) even as it startlingly displaces much of the sexual humour in favour of the social commentary that is obviously Clark's more pressing concern. Here's a movie where a bunch of frat boys team up with the Seminoles to defeat a hypocritically puritanical coalition of government, the religious right and the KKK! The preacher is a Billy Graham lookalike, the politician is named "Gebhardt". And this time it's handled with a touch so much lighter and friendlier than the original that it actually does make irresponsibility seem responsible. In other words, this is the long-sought missing link between the original film and Clark's classic "A Christmas Story" - there's even a cameo appearance from what I'll swear is the exact same mannequin leg that shows up in Darren McGavin's lamp.


(Bob Clark, 1981)
Unlike most subsequent comedies of sexual humiliation, this trailblazer is a 'real' movie, made by a capable craftsman. In between the sex talk, Clark explores his themes of machismo and racism with palpable seriousness, and the scenes at Porky's sex bar have an undertone of real malevolence, not the usual fun stuff. In fact, it's not fun at all. The unrelenting, smug cruelty of the humour is painful to endure; Clark may think he's building bridges by showing women and black guys joining in the escapades, but the result feels evasive and wrong. In this context, and sincere though it might be, the (highly compromised) anti-racism subplot feels like a diversion: at no point does anyone issue a comparable challenge to the view of sex as guys getting women to do what they want by any means necessary. The fat-phobic stuff certainly doesn't help, nor do the exhaustingly endless prompt-shots of guffawing bystanders. I will only confess to laughing twice: Peewee's naked night run is handled with uncharacteristic finesse, and the long-take penis identification conference in the principal's office takes broad as far as it will go, climaxing with a zoom that puts the project's normative mission in a nutshell.


(Stuart Gillard, 1982)
It is a positively heroic quest to endure the ten thousand walking-camel shots that stand between the viewer and Phoebe Cates' teenage anatomy. And after the horndogs are thrown their meat, we are then forced to endure running commentary from a truly hateful pair of trained chimps, who eventually start clocking more screen time than the hairless bipeds. Since by then the human performers are down to Cates and the grotesque Willie Aames, this might seem like a small mercy, but believe me when I tell you that it is not. The protracted flight from danger, the narrative of sexual awakening, the abrupt resort to nuclear-family domesticity, and the 'climactic' battle scene are unified by a jaw-slackening contempt for the audience, lazily connecting the Blue Lagoon dots like grade-schoolers acting out Star Wars in their treehouse. It is so hopelessly bad that when they renege on the familiar not-really-dead trick ending, you actually resent it - not least because of the missed opportunity to take a machete to Aames.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Pit

(Lew Lehman, 1981)
Any movie about a bullied autistic kid who enlists a cave full of man-eating "tra-la-logs" to exact revenge on his nemeses would seem to be tilting toward some kind of a positive social statement, especially when the kid is also actively interested in sex. It's even possible that the extreme mildness of this particular case of autism is a positive reaction against cinematic norms rather than a token of incomprehension. But the kid's monstrousness is so convincingly conveyed by both the director and the brat who plays him that by the time he pushes the old lady's wheelchair into the crevice it looks more like a Struwwelpeter-style middle finger to the whole notion of positive social statements. In this context, the pubescent misanthropy is startling and holds your attention up to a point, but the plot pushes all the carnage so far to the back end that one starts to wonder whether this was intended as a horror film at all. And so, in a transparently belated attempt to correct this miscalculation, the producers preview one death scene in its lengthy entirety before the opening credits, then paste on ten minutes of absurdly gratuitous tra-la-log rampage at the swimmin' hole in the third act. Throw in the babysitter's ghost and one of the cheapest end gags of all time, and you've got one weird movie.