Thursday, October 21, 2010

Skull: A Night of Terror

(Robert Bergman, 1987)
Superficially slick, writer-director Bergman gets in way over his head when he starts fussing up this simple revenge plot with his notions of human behaviour. The gang of murderous criminals is bad enough - Didn't they know Skull was a sadistic pedophile before they sprung him from jail? Why are they getting cold feet now? - and the attempts to complicate Robbie Rox's boneheaded characterization with phobias and frailties only serve to make him as incomprehensible as his cohorts. But those guys have nothing on Robert Bideman's cop, one of the most agonizingly stupid protagonists in the entire exploitation canon. An emotionally intelligent filmmaker might conceivably have kept us identifying with the schmuck as he accidentally shoots hostages, fucks around on his wife, lets mass murderers escape for no reason, and drives into a swamp instead of calling for backup, but as things stand he's just contemptible. As a result, when he finally goes into avenging-warrior mode, we wouldn't give a shit even if the routine didn't inexplicably reverse the trauma-based impotence which defines the guy's entire characterization to that point. By the end, you desperately want the gasoline-soaked Bideman to obey the laws of physics and go up in flames along with the exploding house he's two feet away from - or at least for his wife to kick him in the balls instead of accompanying him on his walk into the goddamned sunset.


(Andrew Jordan, 1989)
Forget "Strange Brew", "Fubar", even "Goin' Down The Road". This astonishing film is the ultimate hoser movie, because the beer-guzzling dimwits at issue are also in charge, although not in control. Disheveled and distracted, manically overstated without purpose or effect, constantly interrupted by a 'newscaster' porn star whose cue cards are way too far off to the side, the holy trinity of Barry Gillis, Bruce Roach and - my very favourite - Doug Bunston are just about the least motivated protagonists in cinema history. Hordes of bloodthirsty, inert papier-mache ants are erupting from the stomach of Bunston's wife, and yet these dudes are so into drinking beer, rifling the cupboards and making the stupidest of stupid wisecracks that they barely notice - until they have to a) take a leak or b) change a blown fuse, which banal endeavours comprise the entirety of this film's 'narrative'. A couple agonizing dream sequences and some alienated mad-scientist torture stuff barely register given the overwhelming discontinuity of this grimy, stuttering, grinding catastrophe of a movie. Those intrepid or stoned enough to stay seated, however, will find themselves utterly enthralled by the movie's unprecedented will to fail - every time you think it's explored every possible way to be bad, it comes up with something new.


(Robin Spry, 1980)
This film dooms itself right out of the gate by boasting its status as a treatise on Anglo-Francophone relations, as embodied by Jennifer Dale's 50/50 babe. In fact the parade riot under the credits is absolutely the only onscreen incident in this multi-decade narrative where Dale is engaged in anything other than romantic entanglement. If she's with a friend, they talk exclusively about men; if she's got an enemy, it's because they like the same guy; if she gets a job she's not at it for fifteen seconds before one dude or the other comes charging in; she doesn't even get a one-on-one interaction with her fucking kid. No wonder the filmmakers run over her mother with a truck; this is a man's, man's, man's world, and the femme-free production team seem to be consciously laying the ground work for the Bechdel Test. Perhaps as a result, although there's nothing particularly wrong with Dale's performance, she comes off as considerably less interesting than her suitors, angelic Gabriel Arcand and devilish Winston Rekert, both of whom do well under the circumstances. Some individual scenes are well-observed, and Helen Hughes is a riot as Rekert's souse mom, but it's just not worth it.

Canada's Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks

(Donald Brittain, 1985)
Deft, ironic, and scathing, this excellent film achieves the mythical synthesis of drama and documentary. One reason is that Brittain actually understands drama, and the many re-enactments and speculative dramatizations are achieved with a precision and wit that the wonderful cast could not have achieved without his steady hand. Further, where archival inserts and retrospective interviews can usually be counted on to drag such projects to a screeching halt, here the mixing of media actually adds energy to a narrative that would otherwise be rather heavy on the union meetings. One reason you notice the film's wondrous balance is that, regrettably, it eventually loses it - while the courtroom drama of the third act is better than most it remains courtroom drama, and for its duration the multiplicity of inputs is boiled down to a less than satisfying transcript. But even Brittain's occasionally pushy narration can't stop Maury Chaykin in his riveting performance as the common thug turned Commie-busting union boss - the film presents so much factual evidence of the guy's rampaging malevolence that Chaykin is free to concentrate on the endearing eccentricities that the absolutely powerful are free to indulge in. While Brittain's larger social critique unfolds in measured tones, you can't miss the parallel between Banks' goldfish and Jack Pickersgill's sausage dog.

Tell Me That You Love Me

(Tzipi Trope, 1983)
Here we have something approaching Method soap opera - so felt and so nuanced that for a while you're fooled into thinking it's meaningful. The key is the agonizingly unresolved Andree Pelletier/Kenneth Welsh subplot, which foregrounds the issue of domestic abuse as an outcome of personal trauma and learned non-communication. In this context, the central marital breakdown between ambitious journalist Barbara Williams and jet-setting lawyer Nick Mancuso digs beneath its glamorous trappings and takes on some actual emotional power, attentively performed and mercifully free of hyperbole. The film is so true to its characters and situations that for a while it seems almost organic, embracing struggle amid chaos instead of the usual pat prescriptions. But after Mancuso leaves for New York Williams is saddled with too much meaningful gazing, and her own fleeting and unconvincing descent into abusiveness betrays the narrative's psychological complexities with the usual romance-versus-career trash. The predictable resolution is handled with a surprisingly light touch, but since neither Williams nor the audience has seen the slightest evidence of self-examination on Mancuso's part, it feels false anyway.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


(David Winning, 1987)
Made for zero money by a bunch of Calgary kids, this film has exactly one thing going for it, and that is its eccentric, amiable tone. It was an inspired choice to yank gawky nerd David Palfy out of the film's initial high school milieu and into a tense rural-thriller narrative, and his work is of a piece with the nasty, displaced, casually ironic direction. A prologue that comprises three guys glancing at each other in balaclavas for eight full minutes makes a surprising joke out of relentless overextension, but soon enough it becomes apparent that the joke's on the audience, because things never pick up - everything goes on far, far too long, with little payoff. The relationships and motivations are vague, the geography of the action ill-defined, the various cute props never exploited to their potential. The school sequence makes one joke, then takes ten minutes to make the same joke again. The narrative contrivances are incredible and annoying, and get more so as the movie goes on. And it's telling that in the first scene, two of the balaclava guys look so identical that I couldn't tell them apart until they unmasked. This is half a real movie at best.

Strange Brew

(Rick Moranis/Dave Thomas, 1983)
Even in their sainted heyday, the SCTV gang could rarely navigate the rigors of an extended plotline. And that was with a full comic ensemble pushing from behind - here Moranis and Thomas are stranded at the head of an endless sea of failed straight men. You can literally see their spontaneous, improvisational working methods die on screen - they encourage countless little bits of business from Paul Dooley and Max von Sydow, but without an actual director at the helm or any comic verve to the performances, these barely catch your eye. Where the original routine was defined by its strict formal limits, this film plods through a formless and pushy narrative, some corporate hypno-espionage thing that takes up way too much space and limits the stars' creative elbow room. And where the McKenzie brothers originally conspired to take the piss out of the Canadian stereotypes they embodied, this movie's endless silly riffs on beer and hockey are lazy signifiers for the outside world and pandering, fist-pumping affirmations for the dumb louts these guys never really identified with in the first place.

Tanya's Island

(Alfred Sole, 1980)
How do things like this happen? A barely-clad actress in a shitty relationship appears to have a dream that she's a barely-clad non-actress in a different shitty relationship, except on a desert island, where she befriends a gorilla. The point appears to be some kind of critique of civilization, as insufferable tortured artist Richard Sargent makes various rules and builds various Gilligan's Island-style bamboo cages to prohibit his bimbo prize (D. D. Winters a/k/a Vanity, which explains this movie's continued if nominal commercial existence) from exploring her 'savage', 'wild' inner nature with the gorilla. If the metaphoric thrust doesn't really parse, that's probably because Winters is almost totally vacant, a slack-jawed, ill-motivated baton to be passed between Sargent (who does at least hint at self-awareness with his hyperbolic wildman routine) and the hairy ape (a down-on-his-luck Rick Baker). The overall effect is akin to a softcore pornography ensemble suddenly dislocated to film school, with rampant pretensions that are both hilariously unearned and stretched to within an inch of their alleged life.

Summer's Children

(Julius Kohanyi, 1979)
Brooding auto mechanic Thomas Hauff's quest to reunite with his once-beloved sister boasts a surprisingly effective flashback structure as well as an unusually apt fusion of social realist and exploitation modes - both the horseplay with the boys at work and the (awesome!) tours of Toronto city lights recall "Goin' Down the Road" even as the plot descends into a sensationalized tour of bookies, floozies, hit men, and telegraphed kink. Not that it's a thrill a minute - the pace remains confoundingly deliberate throughout, with long minutes dedicated to sour domestic exchanges with a health-nut girlfriend and a jazz DJ acquaintance. Even the flashbacks comprise little more than testy sibling interactions, packing little drama until you figure out what they're leading up to. And you do figure it out, which further dulls the impact of a damagingly under-realized climax. Still, there's something haunting about the peculiar mix of elements here; the dropped threads and dead ends add to a pervasive sense of disorientation that befits these lost, frustrated, questing characters, and if it ain't profound, it's still kind of mesmerizing.


(Claude Jutra, 1981)
One nice thing about novels is they don't have theme songs - Ann Mortifee should have been deported for the disfiguring atrocity that bookends this nightmare adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 'classic'. I gather there's some metaphorical stuff about the mystery of Canadian identity buried here somewhere, but the filmmakers are clearly more interested in the gender angle, no doubt because characters are easier to market than symbols. Unfortunately, these characters remain hopelessly symbolic. I'll grant that the movie's primary concern is not why men are such insufferable bastards but why women are idiotic enough to put up with them, but we're still left with an evening full of bastards and idiots - R. H. Thomson's infantile sexist makes me reach for my revolver, Margaret Dragu shrieks when she's not whimpering, and Joseph Bottoms is impossibly vague from beginning to end. I suspect that the casting of hottie Kathleen Beller in the lead was driven by market imperatives as well - while she's not as hateful as her posse, stick her in a canoe and she comes off as exactly the lost, urbane Yankee she is. And if the ending isn't a profound act of violence against the source material, then an entire generation of Canadian literary critics have a lot to answer for.

The Surrogate

(Don Carmody, 1984)
I like how the script keeps tossing off suggestively left-field details of character and motivation at the most improbable moments - it keeps you on your toes, just like the plethora of plausible suspects in the grisly-murder subplot that eventually catches up with the foreground action. And the pleasures of the casting only begin with duelling-uberbabes Shannon Tweed and Carole Laure, although of the top-tier supporting crew only Jackie Burroughs really gets a proper showcase (and how). The narrative's handling of its various psychosexual disorders is candidly lurid and preposterous, which is appropriate and fun - but also pandering, which is annoying. Gay guy Jim Bailey's stock camp mannerisms don't become any less tiresome when he's revealed as a secret skirt-chaser, especially given angry guy Art Hindle's unchecked 'faggot'-baiting. And while the across-the-board association of kink with psychosis is probably meant to set judgmental straights up for the surprise ending, the ploy doesn't work, mainly because the surprise is preposterous in a bad way - contrived, arbitrary, and laborious.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Stone Cold Dead

(George Mendeluk, 1979)
While it doesn't come close to living up to its ambitions, this police-and-prostitutes procedural does have something going on upstairs. In telling the tale of the murderous hooker-hater with the camera that is also a gun, Mendeluk aims for a vulgar existentialism, with generous shades of gray in the interplay between cops and criminals, and a surprising emotionalism - when Richard Crenna outs crooked partner Chuck Shamata he bursts into tears, and drug-smuggling kingpin Paul Williams (!!) seems to be channeling Brando as he mourns his junkie girlfriend or cries plaintively from the cell for his glasses. The surprise identity of the killer offers one more variation on the enemy-within theme as well as complicating the film's attitude toward sex workers, but it works (just a bit) better as ideology than as drama - in spite of the usual lengthy confession/explanation, this red herring doesn't pass the smell test. Part of the problem is that except for the anomalously earthy Crenna and tormented 'hostess' Linda Sorensen, none of these potentially compelling characters are on screen enough for us to invest much in them - their development is so stunted that the emotive high points seem to fall out of the sky. Because of this, when the big "Chinatown"-style defeatist ending comes down, it feels unsatisfying and unearned - just like the allusion to "Peeping Tom".

Thursday, October 14, 2010


(David Acomba, 1973)
Good fucking lord. Released within months of "Paperback Hero", it makes a striking contrast - it's as though Kier Dullea's deluded cowboy had taken up the director's chair. Luke Askew's DJ is a literal loner, perched in his prairie farmhouse and broadcasting his 'iconoclastic' selections - such as Van Morrison and "Layla" - in defiance of the station which wants him to play commercial crap a/k/a 'funk'. He does however find time to strike up a romance with part-time hippie Patti Oatman, in between run-ins with a hyperbolically villainous radio exec and a conniving newspaper columnist. When Oatman upbraids the guy for doing his job instead of making out again it looks like we're dealing with some kind of manhandled anti-capitalist statement, except after she leaves him she gets a job filing mail at the post office! No, the critique here is strictly limited to the media establishment, who get their jollies holding down this virile he-man individualist. You keep waiting for the artist-versus-straights rhetoric to show some sense of irony or proportion or realism, but all hope is lost after they symbolically ride their horse naked across the open plains - so overripe and self-aggrandizing it made me want to get a job.

Spanish Fly

(Bob Kellett, 1976)
With its sunny seaside setting, its structural dependence upon four stunning if barely characterized fashion models, its general orientation toward high-living decadence, and its generously funded un-Canadianness, this is dangerously close to filmmaking as paid vacation. Only Terry-Thomas, doing a highly lived-in but still charming shtick as a pretender to upper-class twithood, suggests anything close to actual comic craft. His scenes with beleaguered servant Graham Armitage keep a happy arm's length from the innocuously smutty hijinks that dominate, although whenever he wanders off Armitage is grabbing some poor woman's ass in less than charming fashion, and Thomas himself feeds the beast with his aphrodisiac plonk-marketing strategy. The counterplot, concerning Leslie Phillips' horny henpecked husband, provokes not one thin smile, strip mining the most familiar and least charming of British comedy traditions. And even if you like this kind of thing, you're likely to get impatient with the long, formless scenes of extras dancing around and kids with butterfly nets.

Something About Love

(Tom Berry, 1988)
Venturing into private-sector coproduction, the NFB issues forth a bizarrely lumpy and compromised variation on their usual naturalistic docudrama. Set in Cape Breton (although the whole cast speaks perfect Toronto English) and dealing earnestly with the issue of Alzheimer's, the presentation emphasizes the usual grainy verite-lite aesthetic, with low-key, character-based dramatics and passing commentary on domestic sexism and the violence of industry. But there's also an effort to inject this kitchen sink stuff with a different kind of populism, the commercial kind, rife with Hollywood high-rollers and high school sweethearts played by Jennifer Dale; things even stop dead at the halfway point for the big Motown production number that gives the film its title. The mesh doesn't take; the schmaltzy, pushy score stomps all over the modest dramatics, and Stefan Wodoslawsky looks lost and miserable in the lead role even though he helped write the script. He certainly can't cut it up against Jan Rubes, as masterfully charming as ever in the role of the afflicted undertaker dad. His big sentimental end speech is genuinely moving, and would have left a nice taste in the mouth if the filmmakers could have just let it be, but instead they piss all over it with a hamfisted opera-style Big Ending that epitomizes the production's unhappy confusion.


(William Fruet, 1982)
Fruet is smart enough to know what to do with a script concerning a telepathic Micronseian demon-snake: make a joke out of it. And given his filmmaking knowhow, it's a pretty good joke, well shot and well paced and outfitted with just enough mock-seriousness to be credible. Not that it's anything to write home about, of course. While they deliberately balance the stuff about the 'savages' with a subplot involving snake-handling Christian zealots on home turf, that thread gets lost well before the abortive climax; after all that fuss, it turns out you can defeat Evil by shooting it in the head. The surprisingly high-octane cast are all visibly in on the gag, but they don't mesh: Peter Fonda's doctor does laid back wink-wink, Kerrie Keane's big-haired love interest plays for constipated melodrama, and as the tormented game hunter Oliver Reed goes for such a high-serious hushed whisper that you can barely make out what he's saying. The film's main contribution to cinema is the Dick Smith-devised swelling snakebite gore effect, most spectacularly applied to Al Waxman's crusty mercenary. But it's the hilariously hysterical sorority house snake rampage that delivers the real payoff.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Spring Fever

(Joseph L. Scanlon, 1981)
The utter wrongness of this vanity vehicle for tennis prodigy Carling Bassett starts with a sun-and-surf sex comedy packaging job that fails to even mention Bassett's name. And the fraudulence continues with the casting of Bassett as a working-class underdog - mommy Susan Anton is an oppressed Vegas showgirl - when her real-life daddy produced the thing himself under the auspices of the family media conglomerate. Not that the writers don't get all excited about their critique - on the contrary, they depict the juvenile tennis circuit as such an unremitting cesspool of greed, graft, coke fiends, and outright child abuse that it's a wonder the morality squad doesn't have the entire league in the wagon by the second act. The climactic tennis match is beset with a desperate cascade of thefts, arrests and heart attacks, but nobody seems to have figured out how to shoot a damned tennis game - there's so much half-baked 'montage' that you barely see the ball hit the court. Jessica Walter's chain-smoking, hemorrhoidal bitch of a tennis mom is clearly meant to make the showgirl look good by comparison, but with her predilection for pursuing unrestrained free love in the room she shares with her 13-year-old, Anton doesn't come off much better - "Why do I have to be so stupid?" indeed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sincerely, Violet

(Mort Ransen, 1987)
It's remarkable how just a little bit of judiciously applied intelligence can enliven, if not quite redeem, the tiresome soap cliches of Julian Roffman's "Shades of Love" franchise. As usual, this one has a harried career woman (Patricia Phillips) falling for some blow-dried guy even more affluent than she is (Simon MacCorkindale). The wrinkle this time is that, in pursuit of documents for her research project, Phillips first breaks into the MacCorkindale residence in the middle of the night, then poses as a street-smart mental patient for his benefit. Ransen plays the break-in for amiable farce, the double-identity plot for Freudian musings re the truth of social performance, and both turn out to be exactly the right decisions, embracing and heightening the unreality of the scenario while hitting actual emotional resonances that carry you through the predictable romantic narrative that ensues. Ransen's atypical outbursts of humour - check out the interactions with the secretary, or the eavesdropping-dude-in-the-cafeteria routine - give the project such a lift that you don't even mind the remarkably dubious counsel of Phillips' psychotherapist buddy. And when the big musical numbers kick in, he focuses in on the faces of his subjects instead of collapsing into the usual vaseline-smeared montage - a small mercy, maybe, but a telling and generous one.


(Paul Donovan/Maura O'Connell, 1983)
While the (honest!) Fuller-style limited action of this remarkably terse film leaves plenty of room for Donovan's liberal conscience, it imposes so much rigor and excises so much bullshit that you can't imagine it sprung from the same mind that tried to make us watch "Norman's Awesome Experience". Which makes me think that maybe O'Connell is the brains of the operation, especially since she also produced Donovan's other tolerable film, "Def-Con 4". After escaping a harrowing massacre in a Halifax gay bar, some guy teams up with an apartment full of slackers and misfits he's never met before to engage in a protracted and ingenious showdown with the hateful thugs. And that's all, folks: the movie never once breaks its thrillingly obsessive focus on the eccentric landscape and arsenal of the warehouse-district battlefield. The warriors' personalities, rendered in exquisite shorthand, are varied and vivid - resourceful or useless, sympathetic or remote, with complex variations on both sides of the war. Without any cosmetic separation between lead and support characters, you never know who's going to get offed next, especially since each side's weapons are jerry-rigged and prone to failure. It all adds up to a great deal of calculated, nerve-wracking excitement, and any concern that the police-strike context isn't as morally neutral as the filmmakers think it is is blown away by the final shot, which proves with quiet finality just how smart this team is.


(Harvey Hart, 1976)
As with his previous commentaries on buggery and religion, Hart's take on the NRA is well-nigh useless as documentary - instead, he's once again made some kind of weird horror movie, one that dares to push back against the collective psyche instead of pandering to it. After all, the public was hardly clamoring for a film that identified sport hunting with militarism with tribalism with fascism, and yet here it is, centered tellingly on Cliff Robertson's wealthy bastard of a furniture salesman instead of some hapless redneck. Glowering and heartless, Robertson has enough status to rally the troops for his nonsensical mission of supremacy, recruiting everyone from his black security guard to some loudmouth kid to his veteran buddies, including Ernest Borgnine as the alarmingly impotent and conflicted voice of conscience. Hart paints a picture of a 'community' far too bleak and repressed to reward the loyalty and unity it demands, a community wholly dedicated to single-minded paranoia and hatred - the kind of community, in short, that makes modern warfare possible. Hart's nightmare vision is so single-minded that he invests little in such niceties as credibility or even narrative - through the seemingly endless chatter, you can see the climax's wildly hyperbolic carnage coming a mile away. Of course, you could say the same thing about, for instance, Afghanistan. Which is what makes this movie's dragginess haunting and its excesses resonant.

The Silent Partner

(Daryl Duke, 1978)
Since this is the lazy man's example of quality Canadian filmmaking in the tax shelter era, it's worth pointing out that Christopher Plummer doesn't quite cut it as a psychotic criminal. His steely glare keeps breaking to reveal the cultured softness underneath, and where his brutalization of women is completely off the handle, he keeps letting Elliott Gould off the hook. If these contradictions are intended as commentary then they don't quite work, and the resulting confusion raises some dangerous credibility issues in what is otherwise an airtight cat-and-mouse contraption. Curtis Hanson's script is so clever and compelling, so full of memorable detail, it leaves all comparable rom-com action films in the dust, and if Daryl Duke doesn't keep Plummer in full control, maybe it's because he was busy reining in Gould, who gives one of his best, most focused, least Gouldish performances. There are unresolved tensions between the scenario's brutal cynicism and the shaggy-dog tendencies of the production, but the newly built Eaton's Centre makes a great location, Duke makes the most of his wonderful ensemble cast, and Oscar Peterson's orchestral discords play brilliantly off the Christmas carols that set the ironic scene.

Silence of the North

(Allan Winton King, 1981)
It would seem counterproductive for this script to advance the thesis that happy times have more staying power than tough ones, because the narrative itself barely glances at the fond memories en route to the next heartbreak, hardship, or imperilment by wild animal. Of course, the sentiment is also exactly the sort of homespun chestnut you'd expect from this kind of True Life Story; Olive Fredrickson's tale of Northern frontier life is indeed full of drama and adventure, but the telling of it is so steeped in ancient melodramatic cliche that I kept flashing back to "The Fatal Glass of Beer". Granted, this is quite accomplished hokum. King is smart enough to keep a lid on the histrionics until they're really needed, he gets charming performances from Ellen Burstyn, Tom Skerritt, and Gordon Pinsent in a rare romantic lead, and Richard Leiterman's photography half-redeems the excessive lingering over lakes and trees - in fact the extended meditation on the river ice breaking up is the most inspired part of the movie. The rest of the time, though, the director is only a body doing a job, not quite betraying his intelligence but never really putting it to work either - no real humour, no felt horror, just one big demonstration of resilience.

See You Monday!

(Maurice Dugowson, 1979)
Certainly more honest and engaging than your average soap opera, in part because it argues for female bonding over romantic escapism, in part because the females in question are Carole Laure and Miou-Miou, who are appealing and sympathetic as well as drop dead gorgeous. It's a pleasure to watch them pal around as they struggle with their exceedingly first-world problems, especially because the French co-production details their dilemmas with some cinematic sense and wit. Like any soap opera, though, this movie absolutely clobbers its central dramatic crisis, as Miou-Miou traipses off to domestic boredom with David Birney's preoccupied clod of a Tampa doctor, while Laure gets something going with Claude Brasseur, a shifty travelling salesman in the ugly-older-guy tradition of French love interests. Anybody in the audience can see through these bozos from the minute they show up, and it discredits the women in this movie that they can't do the same, dallying interminably in their respective kept woman/nervous breakdown dilemmas. Imagine how much more credible and rewarding it would have been to just watch these two women keep on hanging around, trying and failing, getting on with their lives, instead of laying on the hard-sell melodrama. It might even have transcended soap opera.