Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Brain

(Ed Hunt, 1988)
I've been saying it for a while, and this movie really clinches it: Ed Hunt is the Ed Wood of Canada, marrying high foolishness and high seriousness to arrive at a cinema of impossible, jaw-slackening hilarity. This one depicts a local TV pop psychologist who promotes 'independent thinking' but is in fact acting as a front for a grinning, wheezing brain in an aquarium who wants to take over the world. On a thematic level, then, this would appear to be an attempted commercial vulgarization of 'Videodrome', and the fact that attempting this even occurred to them is in itself a marvel. But the brain sometimes gets impatient with his underlings, at which point he projects himself out of the lab and goes around eating people with his sharp pointy teeth, growing bigger each time until by the end he resembles (and may in fact be) a rubber halloween mask on a forklift. There is varied, priceless mayhem throughout: a daughter stabs her mom with scissors before falling out a window, a cop gets decapitated, a handyman gets sawed in half, and the hallucination stuff is great and ends way too soon. And after all this we get a climax involving George Buza in a white smock running down the same hallway three times. Very, very easy to ridicule, but just like Wood its absurdity generates so much entertainment value that you have to give it some serious respect. The world would be a much worse place without these guys chasing their muse in dizzy circles. So while its utter extremity demands to be rewarded with a one-star rating, it is as masterfully one-star as a one-star movie can be.

Blue Monkey

(William Fruet, 1987)
The first thing to note about this goofy movie is that it looks like a TV show. It is composed and conceived very small. This is a disorienting thing in a movie about a giant mutant insect terrorizing a "Love Boat"-like hospital with a salad of Canadian performers doing their shtick - whoops, there's Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke! Here comes expert etymologist Ron Lake from the Snuggles commercials! And the dead giveaway, Steve Railsback. Why does the flower-borne plague suddenly stop asserting its prerogative a half hour into the movie? Why oh why does everyone stand around staring at the thing that wants to kill them? Oh well - it has all the atmosphere of Street Legal, but I suppose I should relax and let goofy be goofy.

Blood Relations

(Graeme Campbell, 1988)
This slick horror-mindfuck about nasty people engaged in a perversely circular murder plot is "witty" and "intelligent" - it rubs your nose in its cutesy cleverness. For a while it's amusing and disconcerting how everyone talks openly and twinklingly about their sinister plans, but a horror movie can't survive on irony alone; every time there's an opening for actual emotional engagement you get shoved back to arms-length, and eventually you just stop caring. The cocktail-party smugness also smothers any potential for actual sensuality in the film's disarmingly omnipresent sexual rhetoric, while the tentative stabs at discourse on the mind-body split only call attention to the fact that Campbell is no Cronenberg in the visionary perversity department. The main selling point is Jan Rubes, having a field day as the opera-singing brain surgeon patriarch, but in situ even he gets cancelled out by the smirking Kevin Hicks, who acts like he's auditioning for a cop show. Lead schemer Lydie Denier just can't keep her clothes on and does keep a straight face, but her gold-digger routine is too stupidly transparent to be convincing. The big ending isn't much of a surprise and doesn't land with the intended wallop, not because we don't 'care about the characters' but because by then things have become so utterly lopsided toward flash and effect that character is barely relevant.

Big Meat Eater

(Chris Windsor, 1982)
What happened to Chris Windsor? This is the person's only mention on imdb. And I hate to be a spoilsport, but I'm pretty sure Chris Windsor doesn't have a park in Edmonton named after him, but Big Miller does, and so he should have treated the poor man with a little respect. If you're going to make the Big Black Guy a homicidal Muslim, at least have some follow through man, he spends the last three quarters of the movie just glowering...and grudging. There are real charms to this camped-up, eccentric-with-a-capital-T musical-retro-comedy about a suburban town called Burquitlam that is beseiged by alien wind-up dolls that must be vanquished by this British-sounding guy's science project. But it doesn't cohere, it has some trouble with smug and empty, and back-to-back viewings with Big Crimewave do it no favours.

The Big Crimewave

(John Paizs, 1985)
This one hits the bulls eye. Carrying the standard early for the Winnipeg Weirdos, only it fetishizes the 50s the way Maddin fetishizes the 20s. It's bright and squeaky, it's consistently hilarious, and all the more so because it's also got perfectly balanced malevolent undertones. Almost a silent film, narrated by a 12-year old girl who says that writers-blocked tenant Paizs is "a quiet man" in the perfect mannered 12-year-old fashion, hooray for Eva Kovacs! With the whole movie revolving around stylized enactments of the guy's reject drafts, and with the retro production design color-saturated to the hilt, it's very arty, but it's arty in a way that's engineered for maximum entertainment value. And did I mention that it's consistently hilarious?

Bear Island

(Don Sharp, 1979)
Grade A Competency Perplex, a movie designed to show off explosions and murders and snowmobile chases across majestic Northern wastelands, but it just sits there like a lump. All-star cast runs around acting furtive, there's a lot of chit chat about Commies and Nazis, and I guess the main selling point is supposed to be that jolly old Lloyd Bridges turns out to be a homicidal maniac! But in the Soviet Union they had a description of certain MOR productions as "grey cinema", and I can't think of a better way to describe this.

Bad Manners

(Robert Houston, 1984)
Not sure what exactly is Canadian about this one - set in sunny California, it depicts the antics and jailbreak of a bunch of foul-mouthed orphans who go to rescue their friend from his adoptive parents - played with gusto and extreme blandness by Karen Black and Martin Mull, respectively. This is a staunchly anti-authoritarian piece of filmmaking, with overlays of 80s raunch-comedy thrust into the hands of pre-pubescent actors, in a strict Us Vs. Them setup against the grotesque representatives of the adult world. I'm into that. What's weird is what happens when this goes anywhere near race issues - like the icky Spanish maid, or the black kid named Blackie who says "You're a racist? That's all right - I'm a racist too." Ugh! The ninja kid is pretty bad too (he eats a raw fish head) but that's partially redeemed by a funny gag where his ninja friends want him to come out to play. Oh, all right I'll be forgiving- it's pretty funny.

Autumn Born

(Lloyd A. Simandi, 1979)
This raises the bar - for the rest of the project the big question became, "Is this the VERY worst Canadian film?" (Answer: astonishingly, no.) Even if Dorothy Stratten wasn't long murdered, it would be revolting to watch her put through these punishing paces, as a carefree heiress who is sent to some kind of mind-control school where she's locked in the cellar, whipped, smacked around and manipulated until she's docile and compliant. For one thing, at this date she has no business being forced to act - she's really bad. For another thing...well, the Canadian Cinematic Vampire has stolen off with any potential for energy or camp the project might have held, leaving us with a turgid, creepy, porny lump that is comically endless, stiff as a rod, and completely bereft of point - unless the point is to pull a Clockwork Orange jobber on people who like looking at pretty naked women.

Atlantic City

(Louis Malle, 1980)
Set in America, director's French, and in spite of the secondary casting (Al Waxman as a cokehead! Moses Znaimer as a thug!! Bob Goulet as himself!!!) the judicious sprinkling of the word "Saskatchewan" calls to mind not the Capital Cost Allowance but the Canadian Cooperation Agreement. (cf. Pierre Berton, "Hollywood's Canada"). Spiritually, this isn't a Canadian movie, it's just a movie. A really, really good movie. 31 flavors of 'loser' wander the seaboard in the days when Atlantic City still had some character left to lose - what a bizarre, chaotic place this was, and the lament against elephantitis is all the more poignant with hindsight. Anyway, the movie is about the complicated struggle of these people to get by in this place, and all are viewed with compassion and (distanced) sympathy - even the thugs. When you're supposed to laugh you laugh, when there's supposed to be tension or excitement you feel it, this thing holds your attention. If this isn't Lancaster and Sarandon at their very best then please tell me where to find better.

Apprentice to Murder

(Ralph L. Thomas, 1987)
Ooh, it's based on a true story, and it's about death and ghosts. It's got Donald Sutherland as a charismatic healer who takes young Chad Jones under his wing as they stalk the creepy guy in the old house who they think is a demon. Sounds promising, even stays promising for a few minutes, after-school-special ambience and all. But this promise is an even better reason to get infuriated as things turn to shit, logic flies out the window and all characters are drained of sympathy by doing stupid thing after stupid thing. Why does Jones' hottie girlfriend exhibit even this much patience with the clod? Isn't it, like, an obvious cheat to keep showing the creepy guy look aggressively menacing from a low angle, and then when the big confrontation comes at the end he's all meek and chatty? I don't care if I'm spoiling; this is Competence Paradox filmmaking at its worst, and will make you grind your teeth in abject frustration, should you happen to watch it, which you won't.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

(Ted Kotcheff, 1974)
Now here is a movie where competence is real and very much beneficial - abetted by the source material, of course, but there was no reason for it to translate as beautifully as it does. Very often tragic and hilarious at one and the same time, Kotcheff is sure-handed and confident and in control. The first asset - pretty much perfect performances by a top-tier cast from our nation and theirs - doesn't dominate so much that you overlook the remarkable accumulation of detail that is going on in the background. This is an immersive tour of Jewish life in Montreal at a certain time - in repose I'm finding myself recollecting the smells of individual scenes, always a sign that someone's thought things through. But of course it wouldn't be Richler without the smart-ass asides, piled on at a blinding pace that never feels unduly rushed. The greatest of these is of course "Happy Bar Mitzvah Bernie", a note-perfect attack on the film culture state policy was leaving behind at this time, and it's such a perfect skewering of pretentious self-centered bullshit that it didn't even occur to me to feel defensive.


(Boris Sagal, 1978)
Here is a working definition of 'melodrama.' You'd think a movie about a woman meeting, falling in love with, and fucking her long-lost orphan son would have, you know, plot twists, but nothing whatsoever happens that isn't telegraphed in the first five minutes; such niceties would be a distraction from watching housewife turned glamorous restaurateur Sophia Loren suffer her way around Montreal in various nice outfits. Nothing particularly wrong with her performance, or with John Huston as the rather ill-defined heavy who lumbers in from time to time. But I can't really work up much interest in John Vernon's surly son of a bitch husband, or the already-doomed Steve Railsback as the callow and twinkly love interest/son. And the obvious potential for thrilling perversion is shorted out by the usual gray banality. Shot in 1978, released in 1984, looks like 1972, and kudos to the Canadian government for their generous contribution to the retirement fund of Sagal, an all-time Hollywood hack.

Alien Warrior

(Ed Hunt, 1985)
If Tax Shelter films are supposed to be so single-minded about filling the needs of the market, how do things like this happen? One possible answer: by trying to be all things to all people. In short, this is a sci-fi blaxploitation Christ parable for kids, with rape scenes. The resultant hash may be laughably wrong, but it's also majorly entertaining in a distinctly Edwoodian way. A plethora of car chases, foot chases, fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights alternate with the burly E. T. helping playmate Pamela Saunders run a literacy center over the objections of her useless boyfriend. As anyone who sees this will tell you, there are three untoppable highlights: the building of the car, the karate chopping of the stop sign in slow motion, and the Tipper Gore Memorial Graffiti Wall. None of these highlights involve the pimp stuff, which is pretty fucking painful in more ways than one. Still, better complete enveloping chaos than suffocating competency, and the Viral Gentility Effect doesn't get any more gloriously self-defeating than this.

American Nightmare

(Don McBrearty, 1983)
Anthony Kramreither is back in the producer's chair, and he brought the strippers with him, in this Argento-style whodunit-with-gore (which actually predates "All In Good Taste"). But this time he also brought a director, and the result is an interesting, watchable movie. The most fascinating thing about it is its single-minded class consciousness - the cops, the media and the millionaires on one side, the strippers and sex workers and queers on the other, with a lapsed bougie pianist poking his nose into the underworld on our behalf. The underlighting is ugly instead of evocative, people do stupid things to make themselves available for slaughter, and things fall apart at the end - the crazed killer yammers on for SO fucking long about his motivation you want Eli Wallach to pop out of a bathtub and shoot him. But the women (and the gay guy) are extremely sympathetic and detailed, and the rather pathetic gore effects (a prop knife that squirts blood and that's about it) have the effect of de-emphasizing the sadism that comes with the genre. Someone on the writing team did some kind of research, that's for sure - from the authentically awful stand up comic to the anxious husband to the idle talk about forming a stripper's union, this sure ain't "Exotica".

The Amateur

(Charles Jarrott, 1981)
A kind of jet-setting Death Wish for Dummies (!!!). Computer wonk's wife gets murdered by Commie terrorists, and so he must lurk behind the Iron Curtain to serve up some Savage Justice. Only the terrorists aren't really Commies - they're CIA employees! Sounds fraught with resonance and dramatic possibility, you're saying to yourself - now all it needs is John Savage in the lead and the guy who directed the Lost Horizon remake. Oh and Christopher Plummer flitting about the margins for no discernible reason except to show off his Werner Klemperer impersonation (and, oh yeah, to appease the CFDC). This subverts the Competency Paradox by the simple expedient of not being competent - nothing scenes stretched to the breaking point, inexcusable lapses in logic (why don't those 500 snipers just bag the guy after he shoots his hostage?), and big-idea set pieces - shootout in a chandelier warehouse? Luxury swimming pool explodes into tiki bar? - that oughta direct themselves, but not with Jarrott back there scratching his head. And the expose of the military-industrial complex would have been a lot more effective if the Lone Man Against The System weren't such a boring asshole.

All In Good Taste

(Anthony Kramreither, 1983)
Kramreither did more producing than directing, and in case the question of 'why' was eating at your guts...this one is a proud exemplar of the Art Is Bunk school of taxshelterology: a fellow wanting to make a film exposing the injustices of 'child placement agencies' is frustrated at every turn by producers who want him to make a movie about strippers. Who writes this stuff? For the final half-hour, the answer is 'nobody', as the putative narrative turns into a totally plotless stripper montage/travelogue - London! Vienna! Rio! Tokyo! Freelton! (Freelton?!) - interrupted with very occasional dumcracks from the guy (Harvey Atkin) who these days is voicing the Bell Sympatico beaver. So why is Jim Carrey's mug on the front cover? Ah but that would be telling.


(Boon Collins, 1986)
The general cinematic condition this load of hooey illuminates is Viral Gentility, and I doubt I'll find a purer example out there, because this movie is so basic as to be almost elemental. A BC-based stab at the Hick Rape film of the Last House/I Spit On Your Grave/Deliverance tendency, it keeps tripping over the cop in its head: no matter how many times the guy growls about how he's going to beat up/rape/murder the heroine, and no matter how many times she asks politely to be let go, it's never a prelude to anything more than a rock climbing lesson, or instruction on how to prepare a rabbit for cooking. And when we run out of basic survival skills lessons, the guy curls up in a fetal position and starts crying. Then we get a few tourist bureau shots of Kootenay flora and fauna. Then before we know it they're back to growling and whining, defying all logic and motivation. Then, suddenly, GRIZZLY FUCKING ADAMS shows up - the real thing, Dan Haggerty, as the hick's home-schooling dad - but even him leering at this teenage jogger's boobs can't interrupt the Beckett-like rhythm of mind-boggling nothingness. Attempts at a conservation message fit in like Al Gore at a brothel. Imagine Faster Pussycat remade by a frat boy Hal Hartley on downs and you're getting warm.



As has been transpiring for months, my immersion in production of my monstrous film project "Taking Shelter" (see below) has thoroughly inhibited me from writing any new reviews for Cinertia. The summer months will see a quantum of catch-up, picking up where I left off (the execrable "Skull: A Night of Terror") and continuing down the alphabet from there. No promises as to exactly when this will happen, but it's coming, I can assure you of that.

However, I know you are all out there dying for more. So I have a treat for you. For a full two years before I began this blog, I was reviewing films in the margins of my personal blog, including many, many Canadian movies. So, as a gift to my flock, I'm going to start posting those reviews here.

With these early reviews especially, it should be kept in mind that I am just getting to know the field, as well as finding my legs as a writer; the judgments are often less than final. I'll be revisiting these alongside the new titles and seeing how my reportage stands up as I move toward a less ephemeral print rendition of these judgments. In the mean time, these will be at least a fun and informative way to pass the time! Lots more to come. Enjoy - JC

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A brief commercial message


Hi friends -

As many of you know, I have been working for several years on a feature length collage of vintage Canadian movies, entitled "Taking Shelter". (I also plan on adapting the reviews on this blog into a book about the movies of the same era). Since receiving an Ontario Arts Council grant last year I have pursued this project full-time, and it has become a consuming passion for me.

It is also an incredibly involved and complicated project, and one that has taken longer to complete than anticipated. In short, my artist fee has run out, and I am broke.

Therefore, I am inviting you to support this project through a funding drive I have established on a site called IndieGoGo. Through this site, with your credit card, you may make donations to help me complete this project by early 2012 as planned!

Here is the site:

Look at it this way: this is your opportunity to 'pre-order' copies of the movie at comradely rates. You may donate less or more according to your ability - the site details the many incentives I am offering for your money.

I know there's a lot of competition for your paycheque right now, and a lot of good causes out there. I am sufficiently committed to this project that I am asking you to consider this appeal among the many others that you have heard. I am creating something entirely new here, and the impact of this project is going to be huge once it is complete.

This is your chance to help me make it happen.

That site once more:

Check it out!