Thursday, September 30, 2010

Second Wind

(Don Shebib, 1976)
I'd swear this was an answer film to "Rocky" except the damn thing came out six months earlier! It certainly does have its comparative uses, though, presenting the insatiable drive to win as a neurotic diversion rather than a panacea. James Naughton is not particularly likeable in the lead role, and that's the idea: he lets his midlife crisis distract himself from his work as a stock broker (which is understandable) and his marriage to Lindsay Wagner (which is pathological). But the ever-generous Shebib neither mocks his ambitions nor punishes him unduly for his self-absorption; he just denies the ordeal the mythic redemptive powers that such narratives (including his own "Running Brave") assumed in the shadow of Stallone. Admittedly, the training narrative draws Shebib away from his strength, which is to be found in the modestly eccentric interactions with the teeming support cast - who else would have deployed rejected hottie Tedde Moore in such a kind and unexpected way? The movie would be very close to the precarious balance it strives for, if only it weren't stampeded by the clownish triumphalism of Hagood Hardy's awesomely obnoxious score.

Seasons In the Sun

(Ain Sodoor, 1979)
Looks as though one-hit-wonder Jacks, not noticing that the pop world had already forgotten about him entirely, decided that his belated star vehicle should be a personal statement about his deep desire to quit the rat race and go fishing. Only someone at Jacks Inc. must have let slip that this would not make a very compelling movie. So for drama the filmmakers lead off with their man falling into a sudden, hallucinatory coma on his way to the Gardens stage. Then, once our hero escapes from a protracted NYC meander and returns to his solitary reverie, they throw in a grizzled sailor who's really a Commie spy; a burly loudmouth who somehow fails to beat Jacks up; and an air-dropped love interest who is also a spy. All of these disjoint personae are beset by incomprehensible confusions or reversals of intent, and all are sprinkled in lightly and incongruously on top of absolutely endless footage of Jacks drinking tea, gutting fish, looking at trees, getting mildly dizzy in his toilet, and tumbling into unexplained piles of skulls. The effect is of a (barely) feature-length delirious episode, as though dude never really awoke from his coma after all. In fact, maybe I dreamed the whole thing.

The Accident

(Donald Brittain, 1983)
Brittain's third feature narrative after a lifetime of documentary shows an astonishingly steady hand. The aftermath of a collapsing hockey arena affords a series of long and painful looks at the workings of personal trauma among local families, and Brittain shows great insight and compassion as he steadily unpacks the varieties of repression and introversion that ensue. As a detailed, disturbingly familiar snapshot of learned emotional failure in middle-class Ontario, this is given great impact by the precise, controlled acting, the expressively simple staging, even the uncommonly apt musical score. And the terrible failures that the trauma precipitates are not without a certain grim humour even as Brittain evokes with aching clarity how deep and culturally ingrained these failures are. So it's doubly depressing that the ending is so neat, so false, so made for TV - not only does every single character come to their senses and resume their role as productive members of society, they all do so simultaneously. It is an unholy copout that turns every searing truth the movie has told into a lie, and as an admission of defeat they wrap things up with an absurd where-are-they-now newscast that literalizes the film's painful retreat from reality.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Search and Destroy

(William Fruet, 1979)
For once, what's wrong ideologically is precisely what's wrong cinematically: Jong Soo Park's vengeful Vietnamese guy isn't a character, he's an idea. Screenwriter Dan Enright (yeah, the game show magnate, who also co-produces with partner in crime Jack Barry) tries to complicate things by making "Assassin" a collaborator/politician instead of a soldier; there are fleeting parallels between his inhumane conduct and that of the American GIs, and in a lonely nod at characterization Park is revealed to be some kind of Christian. But Fruet's otherwise evident facility with actors is wasted on this stoic killing machine, and the vitriol of lead cop George Kennedy leaves no doubt that the man is symbolic of the country and the conflict is symbolic of the war: the extended confrontation between Park and vet Perry King is explicitly designed to be cathartic, not problematizing. Not that the film doesn't hold your attention; there's thrills and fascination to be had with the restaging of the war around the familiar terrain of Niagara Falls, and the subtext of military traumas that can't be shaken off does resonate in its typically insufficient way. But with two of the four targets offed by the end of the opening credits, there's not quite enough going on, and plausibility issues keep intruding on the action. The final battle in the jungle-like park is a great idea poorly realized, as what might have been an emotion-charged reckoning between two actual characters is reduced to an excessively vague exchange of bullets and blows.

Screwball Academy

(Reuben Rose, 1986)
In between his triumphant direction of SCTV and his triumphant direction of Kids in the Hall, John Blanchard lent his talents to this wacky slapstick satire. So why is his name absent from the credits? Possibly because this movie is a disaster; or maybe I should say 'these movies' - each of the multifarious narratives seems to be aspiring to a different genre. Colleen Camp's feminist director does wisecracking screwball while her mincing Czech backers do gross dialect humour; Kenneth Welsh's hammy deadpan as the luddite fundamentalist gives way to the painfully gloppy romantic awakening of sheltered son Peter Spence. Meanwhile Janet Good plays herself and Damian Lee acts like he wishes he was an actor. Maybe Blanchard was trying to show off his unquestioned mastery of diverse comic styles - in which case somebody should have reminded him that movies don't work like that - but one suspects less calculated machinations were at play. And nobody benefits from the softcore drop-ins, the abrupt narrative truncations, or the 'inspirational' climax comprising a few dozen extras going for a walk. Some of the performers - Camp, Welsh, even love interest Wendy Bushell - might have seemed inspired in a competently made film; we'll never know.

Loose Screws

(Rafal Zielinski, 1985)
The lovable dorkiness of the original leaves a nice afterglow, and some of the gags work fine. But who needs them? Without Miklos Lente's mediating lens, Zielinski gets lazy. Not only does he choose to recycle the least inspired bits from the first movie - the mammary inspection clinic, the trip to Filmore's - but the execution is comparatively sluggish and dire. As prudish objects of lechery go, Cynthia Belliveau's Mona Lott is no Purity Bush - too earnest, too nice. Mike Macdonald is all right as the principal, but his usual knowing smirk suggests a discordant aloofness from the material, and the subplot about his love life cuts into the sense of ensemble. Did I say subplot? Oh yes - this time, free-form chaos gives way to a perfunctory and sporadic points-collection narrative, and things have slowed down enough that you notice how thin it all is. You also notice the way all the nice, game female students are used up and thrown away just when you're starting to like them; I wanted more of the nearsighted cutey and dykey matron. And where the tossed-off absurdist asides of the first film generate a good will that carries you over the iffy spots, the funny-Asian-guy routine here turns that smile upside down.


(Rafal Zielinski, 1983)
Of course this narrative of douchebags devising ways to see and/or fondle women's tits without consent is problematic in all the usual ways. What's miraculous is that it remains pretty damn funny. Abjuring the tiniest hint of narrative structure, the disjointed quest to disrobe a prudish teen queen named Purity Bush manages to show genuine cinematic inspiration, giving this ripoff exploitation a great deal of comic energy that tends to keep your brain from engaging with the yucky stuff. So contrivances like the multi-mirror panty peeper, the predatory BDSM biology teacher, and the Coke can beach-scope scheme don't impress you? What about the horny humping teddy bear? Or the quick cut from the shotgun going off to ketchup squirting on a plate? Sure they rip off the entire drive-in scene from "Pickup Summer", but they improve on it too. Of a piece with Zielinski's other incoherent 80s smut comedies, it remains leagues ahead of them in left-field impact, and I can only assume that the cinematographic eye of sainted "Oddballs" director Miklos Lente played a decisive role in making it roll out so unrelentingly. Thank God nobody shoehorns in an anti-oppression subplot to prove how serious and moral they are, because they aren't - it's just lovable, risible dorks FTW.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


(Ed Hunt, 1978)
The ideas that animate this paranoia thriller might seem superficially more useful than Hunt's usual insights regarding spacemen or gangland reform, except as usual he beats them over the head with a cricket bat - the dangers of scientific careerism are ill-represented by the skittish incompetent with the prosthetic leg, the idiot hush campaign is strictly post-"Jaws" boilerplate, and the spectacularly abrupt shootout on the highway is a pretty vulgar argument against state repression. But my Canada includes vulgarity, and as usual Hunt makes it work in spite of himself. For all the cringing apologetics of the opening text, the man's ass-backwards world view is laid out with such conviction that nothing so banal as mere logic or taste can hold him back. So what if the special effects budget is limited to three exploding cars? With a bare minimum of dialogue, a desperate maximum of viral macrophotography, a few wriggling extras, and a central narrative that comprises four people watching each other on TV sets, Hunt manages to manufacture real momentum and engagement, and his characteristically able cast keeps a straight face this time.

Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper

(Lamont Johnson, 1981)
Old Hollywood hand Johnson ventured North in tribute to Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who achieved passing fame and notoriety for his gesture of international goodwill in helping six Americans escape Iran during the hostage crisis. Of course at this remove the narrative angle is hobbled by the much subsequent revelation that Taylor was also a CIA operative, which casts these events in a rather different light; Yankee lout R. H. Thomson even calls out the CIA by name so that he can be reassured that they have nothing to do with it. One wonders if Thomson or Gordon Pinsent would have been so taken by the project had they had access to this little info nugget, although the rote demonizing of the Islamic mob suggests ulterior motives in itself. A halfhearted counter-movement inserts several carefully positioned 'good Iranians' including another Canadian diplomat's wife, which is not the only racially mixed marriage here, probably a TV-movie first. As long as the piece stays off the streets and concentrates on the tension, paranoia and boredom of the fugitives, it's quite enjoyable, although one wishes they got as much screen time as the masterminds; few get the opportunity to establish a real character. The La Presse subplot is also pleasant enough until it succumbs to a similar fate, with a few polite digs at network news superficiality and government obfuscation promptly rationalized into a manipulative plea for journalistic 'responsibility'. If Pelletier had kept digging, after all, we wouldn't have waited thirty years for the real narrative to be told.


(Paul Krasny, 1974)
The first hint that TV hack Krasny is not up to the job is that he allows Wally MacSween's PI to get away with the most dumbfounding faith-and-begorrah Limey routine on record. Granted, the director's utter lack of control also bequeaths us James McEachin's fun riff on the cop; he's so energetic and lifelike he seems marooned in this film. Peter Haskell's lead performance is merely blank, and inoffensive enough that for a while you are happy enough to amble along with him as he seeks the secret identity of Barbara Parkins' paper-marriage conspirator. I grudgingly forgave several dead-end plot contrivances and barely tolerated Haskell's pigheaded romanticism in the forlorn hope that events would pick up in the third act, but instead things go straight to hell, and not in a fun way. A 'good girl' sidekick is laboriously set up, deployed for two worthless scenes and then forgotten entirely, and subsequently Parkins reveals her motives in a comically unrelenting fit of confessional glossolalia that attains unprecedented levels of ill-motivated boredom. By the time Haskell signals the film's end by passively meandering off screen, his blankness is no longer inoffensive. At which point you angrily realize that you've been suckered into watching the whole stupid mess by nothing more than the mesmeric heft of Parkins' variously attired boobs.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

(Denis Heroux, 1975)
As a Brel virgin, I come to this film seeking enlightenment. He certainly can write him a melody, and several of these songs really are gorgeous. But I could hum you not one of them a day later, and as an unapologetic rock and roll guy I note that he can't come near a fast tempo without getting all rinkydink and ironically nostalgic. And while his own walk-ons suggest something a little less cloying, the film's interpretations cast his lyrics as the voice of the knowing observer, watching the cruel ironies of life unfold at a measured, mournful distance. This either works or it doesn't, and while the singing soldier statue and lovesick cabbie resonated, the one about old people struck me as a disgustingly gloppy tipping point. One reason the statue was an appropriate conceit is that this is one static piece of filmmaking - not only is it episodic, but the episodes themselves are unmoving tableaux which might make brilliant Kinescopes but grow exhausting when piled on top of each other. Another reason is that of the three apt and skilled singers who take center stage, Mort Shuman is the only one with experience or ability as a screen performer. And the vulgarly 'artistic' procession of quaint cafes, cruel ladies of the night and world wars evokes a tourist brochure of Paris rather than the genuine article.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sudden Fury

(R. Brian Damude, 1975)
The slightly stilted, over-articulated acting of the early scenes could almost be a deliberate audience trap: soon enough the bottom drops out, quickly giving way to one of the finest and most affecting thrillers ever to come out of this country. Damude goes for Hitchcock gothic, taking the familiar motifs of guilt, desperation and mistaken identity and transposing them to the Ontario countryside. His means are more limited - no dazzling set pieces or spectacle of scale here. But his narrative devices are so ingenious and so incisive that very little is lost in the translation, and he really knows how to make a movie out of them - he is fully on top of his material. Cuckolded loser Dominic Hogan settles into a startling impersonation of a feral animal, but great performances are as beside the point here as they were for the master: all that matters is that the players execute their role in the schematic, and they all do at least that, as functional and precise as the accumulation of everyday props - a knife, a stick of wood, a milk bottle, a bucket of water - that give form to the characters’ inner lives. Even when the script cuts the cops an unexpected break at the denouement, it only serves to heighten the sense of haunting irresolution.

Running Brave

(D. S. Everett, 1983)
This First Nations-financed narrative of hardship overcome by individual will diverges in several seemingly significant ways from the Michael Douglas flick that shares half its name, but for all the film’s Sioux specificity the dominant ideological and narrative frames hardly budge an inch. I don’t know whether the retreat into pedestrian ‘inspirational’ bootstrap hokum was a tactic of the Ermineskins or if Buena Vista demanded changes when they picked it up, but I’m guessing the latter - otherwise how would they have suckered Don Shebib into directing in the first place? Shebib eventually had enough and removed his name from the project, but throughout the film there’s evidence that someone around here has an interest in telling rather than regurgitating a story; lots of neat little moments ornament the predictable arc. While jack-of-all-ethnicities Robbie Benson does a creditable enough job capturing the tensions of life among the whites, it’s vividly repressed coach Pat Hingle and sensitive drunk artist Denis Lacroix who dig the deepest. One hopes that Shebib had more in mind for Benson’s life partner Margo Cane than the loving gazes she’s limited to here, and the references to class and race hostility among the Sioux are cartoonish and context-free, which can only be Disney’s doing, right?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Russian Roulette

(Lou Lombardo, 1975)
Robert Altman editor/apprentice Lombardo tries to soft-sell the Alan J. Pakula-style paranoia thriller by locating all the double-crossing intrigue among the evil Russkies, then bringing in the RCMP to set things right. That said, the film scores a lot of witty points off the Western cops' flexible ethics - they steal newspapers, they score free cars, they search apartments without warrants. Maybe the way George Segal's suspended Mountie flouts the rules to get his man is a Dirty Harry move at its generic root, but in this context it reads more like a passing challenge to law-and-order rhetoric than an urgent plea for fascism. The even tone can get a bit dull, and the romantic subplot with Cristina Raines is an ill-defined dud, but Segal and Denholm Elliott come up with fun bits of business, Lombardo goes out of his way to exploit the sights and sounds of mid-seventies Vancouver, and the tension-building devices of the third act build pretty effectively. Of course, none of it would work if you turned your brain on. But why on earth would you do that?


(Steven H. Stern, 1979)
One of those Canadian films whose strenuous Americanness drew howls of outrage at the time, although I am more offended with its attempts to compensate - the cunning insertion of a pilot hyping Montreal's Olympic stadium is pure tourist bureau garbage. Technically this tale of Michael Douglas' NYC jogging enthusiast with self-esteem issues could take place anywhere - Ottawa, Flin Flon, Lagos - only then its automatic Rockyism would be exposed as the craven sham that it is. The early scenes are relatively intimate and agreeable, thanks largely to Susan Anspach and a relatively relaxed Douglas, but as soon as the guy makes the qualifying round the script starts laying on the excessively familiar bootstrap patriotism. 'Wasted' does not begin to describe the misuse of the Canuck support team - Levy, Dane, "Charles" Shamata, all are sidelined before the characters they've established can be put to any practical use. In a further sin of omission, Stern differentiates his narrative arc from his progenitor mainly by completely vaguing out on the training process - instead of bringing Dane in to discipline his old charge, we get yards and yards of highly economical but shapeless and content-free footage of Douglas running around. And I wish one of these damn movies would speak up for self-worth as an end in itself, not just a cunning strategy to 'bring honor to your country' and Get The Girl.

Running Time

(Mort Ransen, 1974)
Throwing up their hands, the NFB describes this film (when it dares to mention it at all) as 'about' the sixties. In fact it is clearly and defiantly OF the sixties - begun in 1969, it took Ransen and his ramshackle team years to assemble this unheralded epic of patchouli pastiche. Admittedly, it isn't about what it says it's about either, not quite - its plea for cross-generational empathy in the war against the Establishment is firmly rooted in the trappings of youth culture. Replete with psychedelic tapestries and pot brownies, unapologetically scorning cops and capitalists and upstanding good citizens, climaxing in a painfully white, bongo-fueled 'rain dance', it certainly won't disappoint anyone looking for a time capsule. But the craft and invention that go into the presentation is notable in itself; the use of rear projection and animated sequences (by Co Hoedeman as well as a still-functional Ryan Larkin, who also appears onscreen) is innovative and gorgeous, the glimpses of the sound stage crew suit the film's concern with how things work, and Jackie Burroughs' old lady makeup job eerily predicts her visage of twenty years hence. Eventually the film bogs down in musical numbers, which restate the basic themes too insistently while hobbling the film's manic drive. But within its limited world view it scores some enduring ideological points and has fun doing so.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


(Glen Salzman/Rebecca Yates, 1983)
Not technically a feature - rather, a network-hour TV special, revived for the home video market due to the subsequent career achievements of second lead Jim Carrey. Its original title, "Introducing...Janet", is more representative of its focus and aesthetic; this is an earnest film about teenage identity crisis that happens to use comedy to illustrate its theme, and those dupes who come in expecting an actual Jim Carrey movie will be properly outraged. The main reaction it provoked in me was pity for Adah Glassbourg. Even without the false advertising, it was sadistic to ask her to mug competitively with Carrey, who is in full manic mode here when he isn't obliged to express his deeper emotions. Meanwhile Glassbourg's odyssey leads her to the conclusion that good comedy is about being yourself. This dicey conceit is undermined by Carrey - who barely has a self to be - and positively trashed by the script itself, which bequeaths us agonizing Groucho Marx pantomime and builds to a putatively climactic comedy-club routine that evinces howls of laughter from the onscreen audience and crickets in your living room.

The Rose Cafe

(Daniele J. Suissa, 1987)
Here director Suissa's marginally impressive feel for humane soap opera is completely subsumed by writer-producer Julian Roffman. Continuing his atonement for the groundbreaking energy and invention of "The Mask", here Roffman achieves total disconnect with his soapy formula of class-conscious power feminism plus romantic dependency divided by big-name power ballad. Linda Smith does no harm as the ambitious workaholic chef. But Damir Andrei stacks the narrative deck with his cloddish fiancee, Bronwen Mantel can't redeem the insufferable laff-a-line best buddy conceit, and long-lost high school buddy Parker Stevenson reads less as the perfect lover emerging from the mist than as a horrifying dead-eyed predator. Stevenson makes so many craven end-runs in his pursuit of romantic consent that the film begs for a "Stepfather"-style third act where he reveals the desperation behind his rehearsed charm by pursuing Smith with a cleaver. Then, after a couple trick endings, Smith could drown him in the lake abutting his mansion, thus freeing her to pursue her career as the happy single woman whose existence Roffman has so much difficulty imagining.

Rolling Vengeance

(Steven H. Stern, 1987)
At first you're struck by the surprising dramatic competence and nuanced characterization of this monster-truck action revenge movie. Soon, though, you're tormented by it. Instead of burlesquing this outrageously dumb material, Stern tries to turn it into a heartfelt allegory about the beleaguered nuclear family's triumph over the blackhearted predations of murderous drunken rednecks. The class fear this scenario so urgently expresses does not achieve a lived-in view of the rural life, and yet the film's misbegotten earnestness removes the general orgy of death and destruction from the safe cover of showbiz and becomes alternately tin-eared and prescriptive. Of course, it would be just about impossible to flatten the comic effect of this drill-enhanced big wheeled messenger of vengeance barrelling over hill and dale toward the bug-eyed bad guys, but there's no joy in watching bland normative warrior Don Michael Paul squish his bastard adversaries. The bastards do their nose-pickin' and beer-guzzlin' best to be humorous, and sheriff Michael J. Reynolds' raised-eyebrow bemusement does suggest a suitable contempt for the script. But ultimately the only performer that wriggles out from under the director's heavy thumb is highway entrepreneur Ned Beatty, and even he is denied the dignity of a funny reaction shot - or any reaction, really - when Paul demolishes his entire used car lot.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rock & Rule

(Clive A. Smith, 1983)
Nelvana's entry into the trippy-dippy adolescent animation market opened up by Gerald Potterton's "Heavy Metal" showcases comparably expansive design work, and certainly shows more conviction than their later resort to Care Bears cross-marketing. It is also less doggedly male-identified than its progenitor, with a strong female lead showing up her petulant-to-dorky male bandmates, although the same slack-jawed fascination with big boobs feels less integrated as a result. In fact, for all the adult language and stoner-pleasing psychedelics, this is of a piece with Nelvana's classic kiddie TV specials of the seventies - "The Devil and Daniel Mouse", "Rome-0 and Julie-8", etc - with the same eventful, deadpan humour and genuinely expressive, individuated characterization. Unfortunately it also ends the same way the specials always ended, with pretty boy and pretty girl joining together to vanquish Evil - this time personified by Mok, Don Francks' Jagger/Tyler-inspired rock and roll tycoon. In this context the device is not only lazily redundant, it's also incongruous in its conservatism, and deflates whatever iconoclasm the film had going for it. Compensating considerably is the frequently nifty soundtrack, including a mind-boggling Mok theme song prepared to order by none other than Lou Reed himself. Love the kiddie-show explication of good versus evil too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


(Peter Carter, 1977)
Brilliantly compact and elemental, and genuinely chilling to boot, this is far from just another "Deliverance" rip-off, although it's that too. Every one of the five doctors on this camping trip from hell is a total pain in the ass, carrying years of interpersonal baggage which is implied with the barest quantity of exposition. We learn just enough about their immersion in first-world problems to fully feel their disorientation as a mysterious enemy targets them with shocking speed and unpredictability. Because the assailant remains unknowable until the very end, the film keeps an appropriate focus on the rapidly deteriorating psychology of the victims. While it would have been even more powerful if the killer remained totally ambiguous, the big reveal is murky enough and leaves enough unanswered questions - and is an impressive enough set piece in its own right - that one hesitates to complain. Most importantly, the performances are all brilliant, with a hauntingly childish vulnerability lurking just beneath their defensive belligerence. The depth of craft in writing, direction, and cinematography is comparable, allowing for far more human insight than you expect from what is essentially a prototypical slasher film. A hard one to shake off.

Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare

(Jon Sasano, 1987)
For all the sex and violence, what really defines this howlingly bad heavy metal horror movie is its innocence. Without pretending to be a role model or anything, Jon-Mikl Thor's clean living, hard-working heavy metal bodybuilder comes off as an impossibly nice guy, and he's no fabrication. This really is Thor playing Thor - he wrote the script himself, as a vehicle for his real-life band, the Tritonz. When at the climax he reveals his devious plot to foil Satan and his legion of rubber starfish, then strips down to his studded thong and dances with the devil until it falls over and bellows "You win this time", there's no cheap irony or intentional badness at play. Seriously; the guy is actually doing the best he can. Not 100% sure if you can say the same thing about fake Australian drummer Stiggy or the hoser landlord who goes "heh heh you'll see", but in the end everyone is serving the master and it's his vision that holds it all together. Two musical numbers, a couple silly sex scenes, and a handful of piss-poor latex molds are all this movie needs to hold you spellbound for 80-odd minutes of dazzlingly tedious, incompetent fun. He even lets us see his ass.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


(Tom O’Horgan, 1974)
By centering a whole scene on a portrait of Nixon, the production tips its hand: “Hair” braintrust O’Horgan takes such earnestly literal steps to emphasize that this shit is now, man, that he both miniaturizes it and undermines his presumed right to mess with Ionesco. I’ll warrant that for as long as the comedy remains broad and fast, the man does make the most of the inherently stagy construction; the artifice of the performance style is matched by the setting. But the movie really flouts the corners of its box when the big moral gets triple-underlined in red at the climax, which I can only hope is another vulgarization of the apparenty reputable original. But only Gene Wilder ends up bested by the material; the performances are of a peculiarly overemphatic piece. And Nixon aside, Mostel’s transformation scene is worth enduring a little bad direction to see.

Reno and the Doc

(Charles Dennis, 1984)
Travelling shyster Henry Ramer discovers a peculiarly sporadic psychic connection with ski-wizard mountain man Kenneth Welsh, and with the help of humorously oral-dyslexic Linda Griffiths they seek to take the world skiing championship title from German blowhard Gunther Schloss. Sounds moronic, right? Well, I must report that instead of flailing about as you’d expect, the three leads go for a very calm deadpan, actually recalling the best shaggy-dog American comedies of the 70s, and their work is certainly more endearing than you expect from an 80s ski movie. But what the fuck are they doing in an 80s ski movie? Whenever they start to get some mild mileage out of their doggedly quirky interactions, out trot the ski montages, with the America tributes on the soundtrack and those idiot announcers droning away. Anything designed to impose a narrative on the scenario further poisons the well. Makes you wonder whether the actors took over the set and demanded all those eccentric little touches, which are the only things that make the movie almost, but not quite, watchable. Complicating things further: the Kukamungas.

The Reincarnate

(Don Haldane, 1971)
The exceptional talkiness of this occult potboiler is redeemed by its surprising literacy. Amounting to a “Faust” retooled to the Toronto art scene of 1971, it affords viewers the pleasure of seeing future Nabob pitch-man “Jay” (Michael J.) Reynolds play a cranky hippie artist who gets in on a virgin sacrifice so as to rescue his muse from dying reincarnate Jack Creley. Nowhere near as action-packed as you might hope, but the writing is so precise, the small cast of performers so committed and so engaging, that the talk ends up managing your rhythms right down with it, settling into a slow unnerving creep that is broken up effectively by a particularly bloodthirsty black cat. And even if the relentless prattle about ancient Greek cults and eternal life doesn’t sound like your thing, in fact it runs alongside a fairly detailed and mordant examination of the economy and work life of the artist, allowing for just enough grimly ironic subtext to get you through the heavy stuff.

Red Handed

(Jacques Santi, 1987)
Taking on the familiar police-drama themes of corruption and loyalty, this one is notable for its emphasis on the psychology of Richard Bohringer’s lead cop. When he finds out that longtime colleague Pierre Arditi is cosy with the criminals he’s trying to bust, we know that he’ll come up with a clever scheme to expose the collusion. But before we get there the cop’s sense of betrayal and disillusion leads him, and us, into an exceptionally protracted personal spiral: he spends fully half the movie breaking up with his girlfriend, gambling himself into an impossible hole of debt, eating noodles over the sink. The irony is that this downward trajectory brings him into ever closer intimacy with the criminal underworld himself; by the time he does spring his trap, his motivations have progressed past moral outrage to simple self-preservation. Bohringer’s taciturn unreadability fails to let us into his head the way this approach would seem to require, but this remains a rather engaging, tersely executed take on this material, and the resigned admiration with which Arditi accepts his fate caps the film’s sense of moral ambiguity with impressive concision.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


(David Cronenberg, 1977)
It's superficially derivative of Romero, The Crazies especially, and both Marilyn Chambers' phallic-armpit attacks and the scenes with people drooling shaving cream get pretty repetitive. But the inciting notion of newfangled plastic surgery techniques gone terribly, terribly awry is a classic Cronenberg conceit, delivered with an exceptionally deadpan comic touch that almost disappears into the menacingly sleazy atmosphere. The martial law narrative which ensues from the carnage is suitably dire and keeps things moving forward. While little in the way of acting is required by the material, what's there is impressively controlled and ably handled by the performers, including Chambers. And while Cronenberg would never be caught dead within a ten-mile radius of a positive social statement, here his pervasive neurotic body-horror is complicated as well as cruel, with countless skeevy guys underlining the theme of a woman alone in a man's world. After all, Chambers is spreading her meta-venereal plague with the aid of an invasively manufactured phallus, and if there remains a tinge of misogyny amid the misanthropy, you can't deny the compelling weirdness of this guy's exquisitely antisocial vision.

Ragtime Summer

(Alan Bridges, 1977)
More than an hour into this well-observed but highly uneventful period piece about smalltown mores and personal conscience, something finally happens: Joey Davidson's petulant drunken youth pushes Honor Blackman through a glass window, causing her death. Or does he? In one of the dumbest moments of censorship I've ever seen, the video edition of this film cuts straight from Davidson leering menacingly to Blackman hitting the window; in situation it plays out as though she cut her throat on her own steam. I guess somebody in the chain of command thought that the cultured audience this film addresses would not stand for violence against women of any sort, was informed that this incident was the absolute pivot of the narrative, and accepted this 'minor' trim as a compromise. And so the film remains of a piece, because for all its allusions to early 20th century pacifism and feminist thought, it never breaks out of its repressive milieu; people talk about things, people's inner lives are transformed by things, but never is anything substantial actually done or experienced on screen. The meandering road to this inert hell is paved by fine performances and adorned by many small moments of truth and humour. But it leads nowhere.

Quiet Cool

(Clay Borris, 1986)
Don't gainsay him. Had Borris stuck with kitchen-sink autobiography instead of going pro, the formula would have run dry fast - movies like "Alligator Shoes" don't come along every year. And this is exactly the kind of film a working-class lout like the Borris of "Alligator Shoes" would be likely to come up with: simplistic, businesslike, and action-packed. This is no amateur-hour Hollywood wannabe, it's a successful assimilation of the American action-movie codes of the time, on a smaller scale perhaps but slick top to bottom, with clever and concise staging throughout. But even in kitchen-sink mode there were hints of a peculiar emotional vacancy in the guy, and even for an 80s action flick this is exceptional in its gleeful disregard for human life. The scale matters: as a Rambo's-eye view of B.C. grow-ops, this flick lays bare the willful idiocy of standard issue us-versus-them action dynamics in spite of the 'surprise' ending. However much enthusiasm and skill Borris may display as a generic craftsman, his single-minded bloodlust keeps him well on the outside of these characters and reduces the dramatics to the level of 80s TV, body count notwithstanding. The cheesy, nagging score does nothing to dispel this association. Populist ambition needn't equate to total brainlessness, you know?

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Quiet Day In Belfast

(Milad Bessada, 1974)
Pretty easy to tell this is based on a stage play, although not from the staging - cinematically, this is a genuinely successful opening up. But as a director of actors, Bessada is no control freak. The performances range from stoic to buffoonishly loud, and while Barry Foster tries to do realism these other guys are walking around with absurd spirit gum mustaches and blackened teeth. The buildup to the bombings in the final sequence does generate some tension, although the ultimate closeups of mutilated bodies are of a piece with the rest of this hamfisted allegory. The script's one-world analysis of the troubles seems both secondhand and simplistic, and only occasionally does the large ensemble bring things to life. Tellingly, Sean McCann's cold bastard is the best performance in the movie, while Margot Kidder's sporadic turn as the symbolic pretty twin sisters (sound familiar?) feels alienated and extraneous, not least because she botches the accent. Other annoyances: the alternately vague and hyperemphatic scoring, and the over-enunciated, Canadian Cooperation Agreement-style nods to nation of origin.

Psycho Girls

(Gerard Ciccoritti, 1985)
This is not your average stupid movie, because it is also maddeningly pretentious. Tearing a strip off the hypocritical intelligentsia (to whose status its makers transparently aspire), it critiques psychiatric rationalism in a complacent and pandering way while handing the psychos - two of whom, for the record, are actually male - the keys to the asylum. While the film is dispiriting throughout, you can kind of see how then-Globe media critic John Haslett Cuff wound up in the lead, since the script makes a big deal of its quite finite intellectual attainments. But one boring dinner party later we're strapped in to the unforgivably sadistic torture gallery of the third act, an ill-conceived attempt at "Salo"-in-reverse which compounds the already rampant offenses of pathological overextension, smirking smugness and complete unwatchability. Two or three times a haunting image or idea struggles to the surface, but filmmakers this committed to static poses should put away their gore fetish and get back to their dissertation, and Cuff's occasional outbursts of hard-boiled narration would make matters worse if such a thing were possible.

Red the Half Breed

(Gilles Carle, 1970)
A pioneering attempt to bring the nouvelle vague fusion of art film and crime film to Canada, via Quebec of course, this suggests possibilities that were rarely breached again in our sadly bifurcated film culture: a small, intimate character study with grand themes expressed through action. Both form and content inhere in Daniel Pilon's title character, the literal product of Francophone and Iroquois culture clash; a suave petty thief, he goes about his tawdry business until he's accused of the murder of his beloved half-sister and takes it on the lam. The first half of the film builds a compellingly intimate portrait of Pilon's white community, presented with a relaxed, engaging offhandedness; the initial murder/shootout/chase material comes out of left field in the second act, but makes sense internally and is momentarily exciting. Carle is to be commended for his reach, but grasp is another thing. Having abstracted his themes into a genre scenario, he immediately abstracts them further; all remaining material seems to be working on a symbolic/allegorical level, none more so than Pilon's retreat to his reservation hideout with white girlfriend. This sequence is a total disaster, both ideologically (there are better ways to deromanticize First Nations culture than portraying them as one big sexist smuggling ring) and dramatically (the chick is a huge pain in the ass). Digressing at this moment in the plot comes off as a nervous retreat from the genre material; instead of going out and gathering evidence on the true murderer, the guy just...figures it out, and then trots back into town for his martyrdom. In short, this is not a fusion, it's a dog's breakfast. Tragic indeed.

Rebel High

(Harry Jakobs, 1987)
This "Harry Jakobs Comic Book" is based on a novel called "New Africa High", which may help to explain the uncomfortable ideology that keeps peeking out around the edges. At bottom this is a conservative adult's-eye view of inner-city school as gangsta's paradise, with class and race politics to match; it beats Tarantino to his gratuitous N-word games by five years. What half redeems it, however, is that Jakobs himself hasn't got a brain in his head; all he sees in this material is an opportunity for extremely broad slapstick, and much of this is fairly endearing in spite of the frequently atrocious execution. Whatever the social assumptions behind the scenario, teachers and students alike are portrayed as lovable fuckups rather than threats to the social fabric; and by uniting them against bureaucrats and capitalist opportunists the movie renders its ideology merely incoherent, thus freeing us to mildly enjoy the silliness. The end product is obviously some kind of patch-up job, just professional enough to render its amateurishness a liability; shots don't cut, gags hit the dirt, "funny" narration patches holes. But thanks to the superabundance of dum-dum stuff, it's rarely hateful; even the geek gets a gentle ride.


(Rafal Zielinski, 1986)
The peculiarly sluggish opening scenes suggest an actual attempt at understatement - Mike Macdonald doesn't even make an ass of himself - but sheer ineptitude seems a likelier explanation. Soon enough, the civilian recruits begin their police training, and the movie regresses into a long series of stock slapstick setups with a shockingly short attention span; quite often the camera appears to be leading our eye to a visual gag that never appears. The actors are all playing one-dimensional stereotypes, and what thin character logic there is keeps getting broken in the service of these witless, lifeless blackout gags. Making matters worse are the scenes involving racist rednecks (the black cop is actually tarred and feathered) or cops shooting at children on tricycles; these are desperately tin-eared and uncomfortable, showing a complete lack of feel for the genial tastelessness the genre requires. The cast is game and tries their best to whip up some energy in the vacuum, but you are unlikely to come away satisfied even if you like uncommonly alienated boob shots, pallid tributes to scenes from other movies, and people falling into water.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Rainbow Boys

(Gerald Potterton, 1973)
Renamed "The Rainbow Gang" for US video release, which still doesn't quite capture it but at least acknowledges Kate Reid as an equal partner in this lovely little three-hander. Long-abandoned housewife Reid joins addled lifelong prospector Donald Pleasance and adventure-seeking New Yawker Don Calfa on a search for a lost stash of gold in the Pacific Northwest. And that's it for narrative in this reed-thin meander; for the entire movie, Potterton simply places these radically contrasting eccentrics into situations that they can bicker about, and lets them do their thing. Smart move: these actors' sense of comic timing is perfectly sufficient, all the more so for the common undertow of heartbreak and loss; it's this deep, minimally articulated melancholia that helps define the film's ultimate, surprisingly moving theme of acceptance. Reid does the brassy Northern gal to a T, Calfa's facial reactions and line deliveries are brilliant, and Pleasance gets an all-too-rare opportunity to conceive an actual performance in a North American motion picture. His distracted, grizzled quietude offer more than a hint of the stock Pinterisms that made him his name in the first place, and in this context this method remains absolutely confident and humane and moving. Added bonus: the calculated inclusion of First Nations characters who are just as quirky and funny as the interlopers - check out the startling, hilarious punchline to the Indian graveyard scene.

Quest For Fire

(Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981)
Presented with generous art-film trappings and production values to match, this bizarre occurrence is in fact an attempt to drag Joseph Campbell and/or Syd Field kicking and screaming into the wayback machine. While I'm sure everything was meticulously researched, I'm equally sure that John Kemeny and Denis Heroux fixed the intelligence: the impressive battle scenes and embarrassing romantic subplot are entirely familiar despite the grunt-reliant script, and the history of human sexuality - in which Rae Dawn Chong wields the missionary position as an instrument of cavewoman's liberation - bears the same relationship to its audience as National Geographic's topless Africans. Neither profound nor convincing, this confounding schlock mutation remains a great deal of fun, and seemingly quite aware of its strengths in spite of the overlay of high seriousness. On a single road trip, Everett McGill enriches his culture with the discoveries of monogamy, laughter, and how to rub two sticks together, and when you think about it aren't those three things the most basic elements of 20th century commercial cinema? Wicked!

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2

(Bruce Pittman, 1987)
Just as the first film was not your usual genre ripoff, this one is not your usual franchise ripoff. In fact, for a while I had hopes that this would not only top the original but also crown the previously unreliable Pittman as a director of substance. While the narrative bears no relation to the first episode, it not only features equally likable characters (although in this one a bitch is just a bitch), it also allows for more character development, particularly re Wendy Lyon, whose not-completely-innocent young thing generates a great deal of sympathy as her possession by evil prom dress progresses. There's even a couple Real Actors (Ironside, Monette) in support, and Pittman puts his usual striking visual sense to good use. And then, suddenly, the thing just dies. Lyon's good-versus-evil personality metamorphosis is stupidly foreshortened just as it's getting interesting; thereafter we're simply asked to accept this previously virtuous teen as a swaggering murderess with an amazing rack. I couldn't make the leap, although I bet another director could have made it work; always prone to dozing off in the third act, here Pittman beats an infuriating retreat into nasty camp self-referentiality, throwing all content to the winds in favour of serial fanboy in-jokes, signifying nothing. He even throws in visual nods to The Third Man and Vertigo, just to prove how smart he is. Whoop de doop.

Prom Night

(Paul Lynch, 1980)
The truly embarrassing disco dancing motif is a failing with no upside, unless you're the kind of person who watches movies mainly to ridicule them (hey - what's everyone looking at me for?!) But most of the problematic stuff here actually bears happy dividends as well. Ransacking generic elements from Carrie and Halloween (with Jamie Lee Curtis on board in case we didn't get the point), this is exceedingly familiar slasher fare, but in this case the deja vu allows the filmmakers to shed unnecessary exposition and just give the people what they want: boogie aside, the picture never drags. While one casualty of this approach is any hint of character development, the characters are pretty dimensional in their larval state, and watchable too, far from the usual hateful stereotypes. This minimizes the moral identification with the mysterious killer - you want these characters to survive, in spite of the deadly conspiracy the carnage is obviously meant to avenge. And obvious it is; while the large cast allows an unusually robust catalogue of suspects, the overt steering of the genre toward good ole Whodunit games - with audience rather than characters doing most of the sleuthing - won't fool anyone who knows how horror movies work. Intentionally or not, though, the teasing ambiguity necessary to this approach both complicates the film's moral position and renders it a fair bit more watchable than most shameless ripoffs.