Friday, May 27, 2011

Cold Comfort

(Vic Sarin, 1989)
Possibly, maybe, somebody could have made something out of this script - could have tweaked its gothic burlesque of rural perversity into something appropriately lively, without all the empty gestures toward beauty and mystery. With a rewrite or two, it might have even conceivably been possible to wring consistent, comprehensible characters out of the thing, instead of the unreadable jumble of tics which survives. I can even imagine that these particular characters could have been brought to life by the rather urbane trio of Maury Chaykin, Margaret Langrick and Paul Gross; all have been winning elsewhere and show glimmers of life here. But Sarin's debut at the helm affords an almost too-perfect illustration of directorial cinematographeritis. Not only are his pretty pictures static and meaningless, but the sound editing is incompetent, the dialogue looping is halting, and the too-atmospheric musical score is mixed ridiculously high, stomping all over the film's many inert tableaux in a desperate attempt to simulate content.

Fatal Attraction

(Michael Grant, 1980)

No not THAT Fatal Attraction. This mess is at least interesting for its obsessively perverse sexuality – about 15 years ahead of the Canuck cinema curve. After a freak head-on collision, psychology professor Stephen Lack and psychotherapist Sally Kellerman progress from hostile litigiousness to red-hot amour fou, in an extramarital affair whose fanciful play-acting goes dangerously over the top in record time. In fact, it frequently seems like all of the character and plot development are happening off screen; relationships shift and mutate so quickly that the protagonists become completely unknowable and credibility is strained to the breaking point. On what planet does a university professor barge into a loaded restaurant, humiliate random diners, fire a loaded handgun into the glassware, and stage a mock-kidnapping without repercussions? And since when does the non-consenting mock-kidnappee wet her panties at the thrill of this arbitrary behaviour? With the dramatic context providing no substantial challenge to the banal realism of the era, the arbitrary eruptions of kink come off as desperate and disfiguring. Kellerman is all right under the circumstances and John Huston’s cameo is a charming afterthought, but Lack is bedeviled by the kind of atrocious post-dubbing that destroys your faith in a movie, and the entire first half is drenched in incongruous 80s synth-boppery, often with gratuitously literal lyrics that prod at the action like a Greek chorus with nothing to say.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Black Christmas

(Bob Clark, 1974)
Never immersive or cathartic, this distinctly gamey horror film is pure entertainment, saturated with craft and intelligence. The tension between amusement and anxiety that is Clark's trademark has never been more extreme than it is here, as a sorority house full of humorously incompatible types finds itself menaced by a ranting, slobbering, obscene-phone-calling killer from within. What an awesome cast! From Margot Kidder to Kier Dullea to Andrea Martin to Doug McGrath, everyone is clearly having a ball as they tense against type, and no one dominates - Lynne Griffith is still stealing scenes a full hour after she's been murdered. Yet the star of the show doesn't even appear onscreen - very few of the slasher films that "Black Christmas" prefigured are as adept in honoring the ambiguity of their psycho, and the integrity of the conception pays off in spades at the end, with a set piece even more haunting and controlled than the rest of them.

A Christmas Story

(Bob Clark, 1983)
Wherein Clark the populist provocateur sets out to create a modern holiday classic. And classic it is - but before it is anything else it is broad. Eyes roll, people run around in fast motion, dad talks in a high voice after he's bagged with a bowling ball, everyone mugs and preens into the camera. And it really, really works. Clark's nasty, cynical yet humane conventional wisdom is absolutely made for Jean Shepherd's folksy takedown of every Xmas cliché in the book. Every scene has a payoff, and with (Daniel Pinkwater's) narration tying up all loose ends it moves like slightly clunky lightning. Above all, this movie really gets the inner life of kids. Peter Billingsley's comic delivery carries the film even more than Darren McGavin's, and this absolutely nails familiar but underused types like Billingsley's utterly unreadable brother and a 'terrifying' bully-wimp named Scott Farkas. A couple self-conscious mitigations fail to redeem the gratuitous R's of the climactic Chinese restaurant thing, but coming after a mall Santa sequence as terrifying as anything in "Black Christmas", it's difficult to care.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Gainsaying myself - the dump

Anyone out there? As I mentioned earlier, the enormous dump of posts below - listed alphabetically and culled from my secret personal blog, where this project began - are provided as a kind of apology for the lull in my current reviewing activity - a lull which will continue for another couple months. Please read them with patience; if you have arguments with them, don't worry - so do I. Having been written at the very beginning of my rapprochement with Canadian cinema, I find many of these reviews embarrassingly inaccurate, glib, misinformed, and incomplete. And prolonged exposure seems to have moved around my good/bad goalposts as well - I am increasingly sensitive to the 'cultural' cop in my head. As I gradually return to the writing half of this Herculean engagement, I expect many of these to be revised substantially. Anyway, they'll still help you kill some time.

Visiting Hours

(Jean-Claude Lord, 1982)
Here's another one where you should forget about parsing the text. The gabbing about violence and morality via tormented journalist Lee Grant is no more decisive or interesting than the half-assed attempts to get inside the head of yet another Michael Ironside psycho; not that Ironside could defrost the window to his soul with a blow torch and a sunny day. So he grimaces and hacks, hacks and grimaces, in a manner so singularly ineffectual that he actually manages to upstage the idiot cops who give him every opening they can arrange. You'd think, having had a little practice, the guy would be able to plan and execute a decent murder. Instead, everyone keeps getting carted off to the hospital, so he can try again. I should say that, scene for scene, things can get fairly tense and atmospheric, and the actors largely do their job; but the absence of structural logic ultimately does it in. There's no focal point; Grant, Ironside and Linda Purl take their arbitrary turns at the fulcrum, with no sense of ensemble except for an occasional supporting-role interjection. And in this I am NOT referring to Shatner; they must have written his totally extraneous role on short notice, when they found out he was in town for the week.

Rejeanne Padovani

(1973, Denys Arcand)
Let's try to forget, for just a moment, that this is a Canadian fiction film that actually has something to say about the real world, that it is actually vents rather than channels collective anger - to the point of casting lookalikes of the then-current Montreal power structure, and portraying them as unutterable monsters to a man. And let's not get into how genuine or enduring or correct Arcand's radicalism might be; let's talk about what a fantastic movie he makes out of it. The camera seems to hide in the corners of this mausoleum-like mansion, lingering over entrances and exits until they become the content: the conduction of power and command. There's no mistaking the class commentary of the parallel parties in the dining room and basement. But the king's messengers - inarticulate, glowering, self-absorbed - are far from helpless victims. Nor does Arcand idealize the women who wander from partner to partner seeking their cut of the good life. This movie absolutely nails the sensual allure of wealth and comfort even as the emptiness is laid bare - a percussive shock cut to a close up of pants being unzipped almost steals the whole movie. Until the denouement, that is, where we learn all too clearly the consequences of underestimating the evil powers at play: appeals to human decency will not cut the mustard. In other words, this tiny, claustrophobic movie is actually an epic of human tragedy - a visionary one, and just about perfect too.


(Fernand Belanger/Dagmar Teufel, 1986)
Another in the seemingly endless chapters of shame at the National Film Board of Canada, this dazzlingly ambitious, daring, formally unique movie finally emerged from 22 years of stealth suppression, for a SINGLE subtitled screening at Inside Out last night. No wonder the Board cut and ran, though - this movie gives no quarter. It is 'about' the Pope's visit to Montreal, with a sidebar on the concurrent Jacksons Victory Tour, and the key refrain is "On your knees!" - spectacle equals subservience, and the upward gaze encourages us to forget those left behind. Queers, transvestites, abused women, old people on meds, crazy people, alcoholic rednecks - all are represented, but not as objects of pity, but as active agents on their own, connected if disparate journeys; and what vision it took to make those links in 1986! And what cheek to interrupt the documentary footage with these FICTIONAL scenes and characters, to layer real-life action with wacky sound effect commentary and creative dubbing and unmistakably non-'objective' asides, and that too-cute animated anarchy snake that keeps showing up. By rebelling so vividly and vitally against the strait-jacketing conventions of documentary, the filmmakers lay bare the way that these conventions are only conventions because they serve exactly the interests of power and repression that the film portrays. Never mind the anticlericism: it is expressly forbidden for a state-produced film to have this much FUN! Which is no doubt why the visionary creators of this amazing film were never allowed to make another.

My Bloody Valentine

(George Mihalka, 1981)
In some ways, this is a remarkable movie. It is genuinely impressive to see an utterly generic slasher-movie plot unfold in a basically social-realist milieu - the characters are not teenagers but young and not-young working stiffs, and instead of Everytown, USA, we get an unrepentant (if re-named) Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia. Both the ramshackle town and the mine itself are exploited for texture and detail, and the plot is built on a theatricalized variation on the kind of tragic underground mishap that is all too familiar to this setting. There's some good characterization and staging amid the clunkers, and up to a point you have to give the film the benefit of the doubt: as a flamboyant gore-fest with virtually all the gore shorn by its own backers, it's like a comedy routine with bleeps over every single punchline. Even the "director's cut" DVD version is no such thing, a few salvaged scraps that mostly restore only a taste of what was intended; though the pickaxe-through-the-eye-socket number is pretty wicked. Nonetheless, the filmmakers have to share the failure: the movie is stupid in all the wrong places. The rationale for Don Francks' sheriff to not just tell everyone to stay home and lock the doors because a psychotic is loose is agonizingly weak, an obvious afterthought. The Romero-derived idea of having one victim's boyfriend become catatonic for the rest of the movie is sabotaged by the guy's atrocious performance. The love-triangle plot is so predictable that you are taken by surprise when, in the third act, it seems to take an interesting turn, as the two guys team up to rescue the object of their mutual affections; but when they actually get to her they pull a 'wait here, I'll be right back', and not the first one either. And the climactic struggle alternately demands that the murderer be as sluggish and inaccurate as possible, and that the others stand around for minutes at a time, dumbly sizing up the carnage. That adds up to producers, writers, actors and directors all doing their part to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and while you can see them genuinely trying to make it work, they don't.

Life Classes

(William D. MacGillivray, 1987)
In reviewing this tale of a Cape Breton woman mingling with the Halifax art crowd, Gerald Pratley describes it as "a biting comment on what passes for art today." Maybe he was in one of his rare sour moods that day: for me, this film is remarkable precisely because it straddles worlds without resorting to such heavy-handed dismissals. From life classes to cable-TV bestiality porn, from color-by-numbers to New York video art to transatlantic object envy, on down to the Gaelic lullabies that protagonist Jacinta Cormier will carry with her to her grave, this is first and foremost a comprehensive and exquisitely balanced examination of how art works in our everyday lives. No - in the everyday lives of these specific people, in this specific place, a Halifax where tradition and modernism meet and clash. All of which is communicated through a remarkably patient character based narrative, not auteurist pyrotechnics - which isn't to say that the auteur's ultra-timely fusion of Don Shebib and Atom Egoyan is anything but brilliant.

Hog Wild

(Les Rose, 1981)
This movie was made before the teen-smut comedy renaissance of the early eighties, sat on the shelf a couple years, then got released after the genre was proven commercially viable. But this film was not viable in any sense of the word. It's unbelievably clunky. Is it even remotely possible to milk laughter from a car up a flagpole, or a stolen hearse dumping the casket at the funeral, or a fat kid acting wounded because he's instructed to murder his mother, or some guy sneaking up on a skinny-dipping woman and stealing her clothes, or a sexy teacher getting turned on by pretending to ride a motorbike, or two people groping each other lasciviously in a vat of honey? We'll never know. Tony Rosato's inscrutable mumbling biker is occasionally mildly amusing, which makes it a solid cut above the rest and the best thing I've ever seen him do, poor guy. But that's cancelled out by the stupidest putative 'resolution' imaginable.


(Peter Carter, 1982)
This 'mainstream' tax shelter movie hints at what's wrong with this whole era of Canadian filmmaking. I mean, if you are going to pay somebody a MILLION dollars to do a stunt jump off the CN tower, how about CAPTURING IT ON FILM??? The footage of this alleged climax is so shoddy it looks like Dar Robinson lost his grip before Peter Carter yelled 'action'. This director made "Rowdyman", "Rituals" and, well, "High-Ballin'", so don't blame the hired gun: laborious and pointless, this movie was clearly made by bean-counters who lost their calculator. This is the kind of movie where Richard Harris and Beverly D'Angelo will fall in love the first day they meet for no reason except that the genre demands a romantic subplot; and where Toronto and Quebec City locations seem to have been selected as a sop to Tourism Canada. Slathered in too-loud voiceover, its chase scenes eventually degenerating into stereotyped Quebecois bumpkins running down the street in fast motion with chipmunk sound effects on the soundtrack. Harris is game, and the Maury Chaykin/Saul Rubinek bumbling-hit-men routine might have been priceless, but this movie has gaping black holes where the jokes should be. If you're going to be crassly calculating, you better make it worth my time, and this movie sucks.

Fish Hawk

(Don Shebib, 1979)

An amiable kid's flick with Will Sampson as an Indian who gets in touch with himself while hunting bear and boar on behalf of his white settler friend; he kicks the bottle after his negligence causes the death of his dog. Sampson projects such strength and purpose that his settler counterparts almost disappear. Dad is sheepish and inactive; mom experiences a conversion from her racist beliefs which is sudden, absolute, and barely motivated. The kid stares a lot, and learns an important lesson about life: don't kill the agitated blind boar that killed your dog and 'slow' friend, because he'll be dead by winter anyway...hmmmm. Shebib gives this familiar and calculated script his best shot in hack mode; the animal footage isn't very well integrated, but you can see them trying. And where it doesn't work logically it kind of works emotionally, which I suppose is how it goes with kids' films.

Firebird 2015 AD

(David M. Robertson 1981)

The sci-fi angle is extremely thin cover for a movie comprising a handful of cars driving around (and around) an undifferentiated desert landscape. It doesn't even pass muster on the car movie's idiotic terms: they don't roll, they don't crash, they don't blow up - well, one does but it's standing still so it doesn't count. They This is emblematic of the confused reverence with which the filmmakers approach a fetish that they really don't seem to share: the auto-shop talk and right-to-drive libertarian outbursts seem to be pleading with an audience that knows more about their subject than they do. That would also explain the Radio Shack freebie LP of a soundtrack, which cancels out the shiny outfits that are the only real 'futuristic' gesture. The rednecks are super-normal and nice, the cops frown passively through a feature-length coffee break, and the dune-buggy love interest just can't shut up with the fey double-entendres, And then there's this Native American psycho guy who rolls with the cops, whose presence seems to be aimed at two main functions. First he's the required Big Bad Guy - a lazy 'symbol' of someone stuck in the past, aligned with authority, for the car-lovin' heroes to oppose. And when he finally DOES something, round about the end of the second act, it enables the filmmakers to remake The Searchers in their back yard, in almost total darkness and to no great purpose of course. Apart from that, you'd think no one on set had ever even seen a real movie. Good old Darren McGavin acts like he's still working the floor at the horror convention.


(Charlie Wiener, 1987)
I started with the last of the loose and autonomous cycle of tax shelter "Balls" films - Meatballs, Screwballs, Oddballs, Goofballs, etc etc - which actually bear more of an affinity with Porky's than with Ivan Reitman's breakthrough: boys, boobs, beer, and attempted belly laughs. I said attempted. This is probably the cheapest and least competent of the lot - not automatically a bad thing since smut is not improved by slickness. But these people really, really don't know what they are doing. From humorous talking parrot to the worst mullet in all cinema to the zaynee beer-hatted wildman, these guys took a sow's ear of a genre and made it into a bowel movement. The best thing you can say about it is that the relief fire crew from Japan doesn't wear buck teeth and pointy hats - unfortunately they don't do anything else, either. I am petty enough to hope no one on the creative team got laid for their efforts.

Find the Lady

(John Trent, 1976)

An absurd farce in the great British tradition, only the Canadian apple has fallen very far from the tree and got all wormy. Not only does this feature John Candy’s first marquee role, but they fly in Peter Cook, Dick Emery, even Mickey Rooney, who unlike the others is actually given some ostensibly humorous lines to deliver – well, actually just one line, but he gets to deliver it eight or ten times. In the absence of verbal wit, we are granted the most rehashed, labored slapstick imaginable, with a penchant for smashing automobiles that puts John Landis to shame. We also get an anachronistic armload of objectionable stereotyping – an inscrutable Asian cop who is introduced with a gong, an uppity secretary whose skin color is played as a climactic sight gag, and especially the omnipresent drag queen of nightmares (named Bruce LaRousse, ring any bells!) played with nagging aggression by, believe it or not, a young Richard Monette. The film ends with a chase through an abandoned funhouse whose utter familiarity doesn’t prevent the director from botching every single comic opportunity available. Makes Benny Hill look like Oscar Wilde.

East End Hustle

(Frank Vitale, 1976)
This movie deserves way better than it has received critically - a fascinating example of indie-film collectivos venturing into the well-funded world of that era's commercial Canadian cinema, and hitting the nail on the head. A grotty tale of sex workers in revolt from their scumbag pimp - played by Pump up the Volume director Allan Moyle, a regular in this Montreal cinematic repertory company - this doesn't just out-sleaze 'American Nightmare'; it also comes very close to out-politicking 'Rejeanne Padovani'. Unlike the former, this one is told entirely from the perspective of the sex workers themselves, and they are a fantastic ensemble, bright and damaged in varying proportions, with unnecessarily rich characterization. The protagonist's loving relationship with her boyfriend is particularly revealing - he offers his support, but the filmmakers go far out of their way to make sure that SHE resolves the conflict, not some hero riding to the rescue. The rape scene is as uncompromising as it is un-pornographic, the single-take sex scene is a startling condensation of the movie's down-to-earth world view, and the film's view of community and friendship as the one real lifeline for these women on the edge is almost unprecedented and very moving. And ideology aside, it works very well as a thriller, with suspense and forward motion throughout. This could be a virtual litmus test for bourgeois film critics - if you can't see the brains beneath the sleaze, you've got blinkers on for sure.

Dirty Tricks

(Alvin Rakoff, 1981)

Having already given us laughable disaster and hilarious horror, Rakoff actually TRIES to be funny here, with predictable results: horrific, disastrous, etc. The most visible irritant is Elliott Gould’s wacky sidekick Rich Little, who as always could wipe the smile off Bozo’s face, and by all appearances he brought his writers with him: the antics center on a forgery designed to convince the world that George Washington took payola from the British. This occasions several visceral and patriotic demonstrations of why high school history was so unendurably vacuous – only, hmmm, it’s set at Harvard. I’ve always liked Kate Jackson, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear her attempt an Alabama-bred Boston accent. And Gould’s usual freewheeling asides merely expose his richly-earned contempt for this material. Also featuring: two atrociously dubbed muscle men with Village People moustaches, two hit-persons who you can tell are Italian because composer Hagood Hardy lets loose with the gondola-on-Po-River clichés every time they show up, and a rogue surveillance truck that exists solely to facilitate humorous car-crashes. There's even a fucking fruit truck gag,

The Deserters

(Jack Darcus, 1983)

Here the 'Vancouver New Wave' gets seriously long in the tooth. Even if this draft-dodging allegory script is NOT based on a stage play - a long shot - it is still one of the least cinematic ‘adaptations’ I’ve ever seen. An opening scene on a train, a subsequent scene in an office, and a climactic two minutes of somebody walking down the front steps are the only escape we get from the single, dreary townhouse set, and they are so gratuitous and unintegrated that they’re more of a disfigurement than a relief – especially the first scene, where a bunch of characters we expect to be focal points pop their heads in and then vanish. It’s really saying something to note that Alan Scarfe’s bombastic, tight-ass sergeant gives you something to watch – his character reveal from fierce patriot to delirious casualty of war is definitely the stuff of theatrical cliché, but his rendition is perfectly modulated and more or less spellbinding. Otherwise, we are stuck sharing these cramped quarters with a gratuitously prissy pacifist, a shrill housewife on the make, and a simpering oaf. Darcus tries to use these characters to broaden the antiwar commentary into class and gender analysis, but his erratic grasp of these issues and his stunted staging makes you pine for a car chase.


(Alan Ormsby, 1974)
The dork onscreen narrator is only the tip of the lurid, cartoony iceberg for the trashiest, sickest Ed Gein rip of them all. The visuals cheap and cheesy yet also hauntingly precise, the varied performances anchored in the great redneck burlesque of secret poet Roberts Blossom, this is a real EC comic come to life, with a great moral to boot: fundamentalism begets insanity. On the one hand the utterly over-the-top tastelessness is played for nervous giggles, from the brain-scooping scene to the seance-seduction whose murderous climax is represented in a perfect feathery cutaway. The blood flows thick and constant and redder than lipstick. But there's also a real sense of entrapment and anxiety that can really creep you out. The victims get more and more sympathetic and innocent as the plot progresses, with no increase in luck or mercy to show for it. The opposite, in fact: each murder is more explicitly gruesome than the last, climaxing with the perfectly conceived leg-trap tragedy incident. Which may mean that the absurd humour is a trap too: by the final minutes the balance has shifted to utter consuming dread, the stuff of nightmares. The final shot is perfect in its ambiguity. No masterpiece to say the least, but it's tawdry in the best way.

Def-Con 4

(Paul Donovan, 1985)

How about that – a smart and funny dystopian sci-fi movie from Nova Scotia. Not TOO smart, mind you – beyond the usual nukes’ll-kill-ya setup, the movie has nothing whatsoever to say about the real world. And there’s some serious attention deficit in the character development – every time a new face shows up, someone we were starting to care about fades into the background like it was a baton relay. But in spite of this, the film maintains interest and momentum through a series of consistently inspired set pieces, from the vaguely Dark Star-ish neurotic claustrophobia of the spaceship incitement, to Maury Chaykin’s wacked out survivalist bunker, to the kangaroo court of the military-fascist adolescent ringleader. The character development is only an issue because the uniformly fine actors are having a lot of fun with them. And the punchline is worth a laugh even if you can see it coming a mile away.

Death Weekend

(William Fruet, 1976)
Once more for the benighted: Fruet is one of the most fascinating figures of the tax shelter era, having emerged as the writer of Goin' Down the Road, moving on to direct the almost as reputable Wedding In White, only to make a sudden and unchallenged swerve into the cinematic sleaze pit under the sway of an up-and-coming Ivan Reitman. A runty rich guy has a model over to his luxurious mansion in the woods, only to have his rather unrefined advances spurned, causing him to rant at length about the virtues of money and power. Only here come those rednecks from up the street, ready to kick some bourgeois ass. You can tell this was made by people in possession of their brains, most especially Brenda Vaccaro, who is adamant about maintaining her dignity through the lechery; and there's a class-resentment theme sitting right there if you care to look. But it does get rather confused: the same impulse that leads the bumpkins to trash the mansion lead them to rape women, and who knows what the hell that last shot is getting at: did the whole experience leave her more in touch with her primal inner nature or what? At least you're not ever obliged to sympathize with the rich dude, who is almost as hateful as the guy in "Caged Terror". Worth a second look; some cool set pieces.

Death Ship

(Alvin Rakoff, 1980)
From the people who brought you the absurd "City on Fire" comes this equally absurd yet noticeably improved piece of product about an unmanned Nazi boat that wreaks its wrath on a glamorous boat cruise's bedraggled survivors. The protagonists do almost nothing but run around the hall, the boat exterior and engine-room shots are recycled mercilessly, the 'montage' stuff has Eisenstein pounding on the lid of his coffin, and several groovy set pieces - the waterlogged net o' corpses, the alarmingly full-frontal blood shower - are shamelessly overextended. On the other hand, the film generates a degree of knowing goodwill by having Saul Rubinek's obnoxious comic relief guy drowned at the earliest possible opportunity. And ultimately, the film comes very close to camp classic status on the strength of one brilliant casting stroke: ladies and gentlemen, Mr. George Kennedy! As the asshole ship cap'n turned Nazi possessee, he makes me laugh every time he appears on screen - and when he opens his mouth, take a deep breath. He adds entertainment value to this team's crass silliness, and heroic DOP Rene Verzier - again!! - gives value for money, just enough atmosphere for the goofball content to tense against. Bald idiocy at its most amusing.


(Bob Clark, 1972)
The first thing you notice is that it looks and sounds great, astonishing enough considering the grainy-grotty Canuck genre films that it prefigures. Even the extremely economical Vietnam opener - achieved with boreal forest, flashpots, and TWO guys in fatigues - is abstract and impressionistic enough to pass. Then it sinks in how smart it is, and how daring, and how concise: the returned Vietnam veteran/zombie spends the whole movie bringing the war back home to his 'idyllic' small town. He is even courteous enough to spell it out: "I died for you, why shouldn't you return the favour?" Remember that this is 1972, fully seven years before Hollywood would permit the gauzy carnival ride of Apocalypse Now, which this movie beats coming and going simply because the spectacle is grounded in a recognizable reality. Pretty grim, but rendered bearable by its out-of-nowhere craftsmanship, and also by Clark's trademark vulgarity: the overdrawn drunk and the snappy double-date dialogue and the guy getting run over at the drive-in don't exactly fit right in, but they reaffirm the film's entertainment value without undermining the scathing nuclear-fam critique. I mean he strangles the dog - how literal can you get? Excitingly good movie.

Dead Wrong

(Len Kowalewich, 1983)

So Britt Ekland is – get this – a sharpshooting Mountie, whose husband, a hateful moron Mountie, decides it would be a good idea for her to seduce her way on to a narcotic-smuggling sailboat in scenic Colombia. Being one of your less security-minded drug runners in cinema history, and having just sent his mysteriously murderous assistant to a watery grave, the guy – who was hired for the job specifically because he can sail the boat all by himself – shrugs and says come on board, after about fifteen seconds of uninspired banter. On the way down to the shore, there’s this musical interlude thing – one of those numbers where a guy and a girl point at unidentified offscreen objects and laugh joyfully – and may I mention in passing that the music in question is the most hideously, laughably overstated Euromarimba wank that has ever assailed my ears, and that it just won’t go away. Anyway, about an hour later we are forced to conclude that that scene, by itself, was really, truly supposed to signify Ekland falling in love with the hangdog schmuck, to the point where she would forsake mission, career and marriage to be with him. I repeat: there’s NOTHING else; they barely even touch. She fell in love on the way to the boat. That’s how stupid this movie is. I hope everyone involved got sun stroke and/or screw worms.

Deadly Harvest

(Timothy Bond, 1977)

This bad movie was ahead of its time, positing climate change as a harbinger of the end times, with resultant food shortages rendered catastrophic by the obligatory bunch of corrupt politicians in a transparent stretch-er-out prologue. Hollywood old-timer Clint Walker heads a good farming family caught between marauding urban thieves and a corrupt vigilante farmer mob which tragically seduces his son. Walker’s AM-radio style delivery definitely takes some getting used to, but he sure shows up the rest of the cast: it’s amateur hour all the way, and that condition is viral behind the camera as well, especially in the excruciating master-shot exposition scenes of the first act. If you’re extremely forgiving, it’s possible as the film wears on to appreciate the action scenes and care about some of the characters. When city dad meets country dad and they come to realize the tragedy of their mutual debasement, one assumes that they are about to team up for the common good. Instead they take their debasement and run with it: city dad pulls a Jim Jones on his family, while Walker decides that vigilantism isn’t so bad after all, especially when enacted with a front end loader. Thus the film spares the viewer much agonizing over whether intellectual attainments can redeem utter technical incompetence, by dragging both down to the same rocky bottom. Somehow I am not too thankful for this.

Deadly Companion

(George Bloomfield, 1980)
SCTV director Bloomfield cashes in his chips by assigning utterly infinitesimal cameos to just about the entire cast of that show, along with Al Waxman, Michael Ironside, Maury Chaykin, you name it. And behind the camera is the ubiquitous Rene Verzier, who at least makes the thing look pretty good. Every once in a while there's a startling jolt of cleverness in the staging or the dialogue, although so much of the latter accrues to cocky bastard Anthony Perkins that one suspects he had a hand in the rewrite. The plot - journalist Michael Sarrazin struggles to regain his lost memory and recall who killed his wife - is inelegant, and the mideast kidnapping subplot is so useless and inexplicable that it just disappears, but there is a certain amount of attention to elementary logic. The real problem - and it's a biggie - is that, in order to (ostensibly) keep the lid on the Big Surprise at the ending, the film almost completely abandons Sarrazin and his investigative mission. Instead the movie turns into the story of his annoying architect girlfriend Susan Clark keeping a series of appointments. Since her character knows quite well what's up, the revelations don't build, the mystery angle hits the dirt and the movie becomes static and pointless. And so it doesn't matter too much whether the ending makes sense: it still pisses you off. Particularly annoying are Perkins' hopelessly perfunctory fate, and the black hole that is Sarrazin's dead wife - who cares about a 'character' that spends the totality of her screen time being strangled?


(Mario Azzopardi, 1981)
Well, Godard said that the proper review of a movie is another movie, and at times this reads like a feature-length adaptation of the Marshall Delaney writeup that got Cronenberg kicked out of his apartment. (It even borrows Cindy Hinds from The Brood.) The setup is transparent: Azzopardi, an acclaimed Maltese theater director, finds himself making films in Canada at the height of the crassness boom. So he makes a movie about a slumming intellectual who writes horror films, ba-dum-bum. It's a bit of a Frederic Wertham job, that's for sure, it unconditionally posits a cause-effect relationship between on-screen violence and the seduction of the innocents. But it works OK if you don't approach it as an absolute moral judgment, but as a fascinating expression of the frustrations felt by artists working in this economic environment: many of them would really rather have been doing something else, and this fact rarely works in a positive way like it does here. And it also partially redeems another Canuck kiss of death, the movie where absolutely every character is a hateful snot. The redemption isn't in the hazy morality, but in the cinematic sense: the insightful but subtle camera placements, the clever use of montage, and the powerful imagery of disintegration at the end. Also, you can't accuse it of being humorless when the first diagetic film clip we see is of a murderous snowblower manipulated by a psychic sheep! If it weren't so flawed, it probably wouldn't be as interesting.

The Darkside

(Constantino Magnatta, 1987)
This movie is absolutely terrible in a quite remarkable variety of ways. It opens up as a shot-for-shot slaughter of Taxi Driver, and that film's influence keeps popping up in desperate and irrelevant places. (Not to mention the random early-Egoyan homage of the A/V stuff; in fact, Magnatta started his cinematic career playing a tape op in Next of Kin.) The villains are the most hateful caricatures imaginable, and not just because they're played vaguely queer: they actually cackle demonically repeatedly and at length, and in between they smirk a lot. And oh yeah, did anyone even proofread this script?? Why is it so important for the scumbags to retrieve their stupid Betamax roughie? Why are there TWO different explanations for why Cyndy Preston appeared in the video? What could her dangling, utterly out-of-character 'he's just what I need' line mean?? Aaah I could go on. Even the usual name-that-Toronto-location amusements, and a wildly improbable bedroom-farce type hallway chase through the Parkdale Hotel, get swallowed by the dire murk.

Dancing in the Dark

(Leon Marr, 1986)

The only feature Marr ever made is almost entirely Martha Henry. Glacial, severe, formal, the film adopts a flashback structure to describe an isolated housewife’s sudden and brutal realization that she is living a lie. We shift between Henry in psychiatric prison after murdering her philandering, yet far from monstrous husband, and an earlier Henry in the ‘prison’ of her almost totally solitary domestic routine. Coming from an obviously theatre-reared gang, this movie is impressively cinematic whether it’s playing Citizen Kane games with the dinner table or unspooling an astonishing ten-minute single take husband-and-wife dialogue scene at a 40th birthday dinner. As the husband insistently questions his wife’s happiness, it becomes increasingly obvious that the happiness in question is his own, and the truth value of the exchange is awesome. After it’s done, though, Henry double-underlines this point in voiceover, and for me that moment was a telling betrayal: for all his attention to communication through everyday detail, Marr can’t resist spelling things out for us. However, while it is too generalized and too articulate, most of the wall-to-wall voiceover does capture the feeling of a damaged woman striving to understand and escape the hole she's stuck in. Her quest to find a voice is ultimately tragic because there's no one to talk to, thus leaving the film open to the usual charges of alienated self-indulgence. But while it doesn't match the rigor of its European role models, I found it thoughtful and moving and successful. Marr's bravura minimalism matches Henry's step for step.

Dan Candy's Law

(Claude Fournier, 1974)
Not much left of the budget after they hired Donald Sutherland, Kevin McCarthy and Chief Dan George, but in fact this was money well spent, especially in Sutherland's case. As a drunk and loopy mountie attempting to single-handedly put down the uppity Cree of pioneer Saskatchewan, he really gets some space to act, especially in the early scenes. But it's the kind of space afforded by an awestruck director who's out of his depth. Not only can Fournier not maintain any sense of ensemble, but he goes for an 'epic' feel by shooting most of the putative action scenes so ultra-wide that it's virtually impossible to tell who's who, especially once Sutherland dons the rawhide. The film does score points with its quite detailed and apparently realistic portrayal of the Cree resistance, and for a while the balance resembles wisdom; no Hollywood Indians here. But in the final scenes this balance is tragically unmasked as equivocating mush. Not wanting to offend either side in this unfortunate dispute, it degenerates into attempted historical neutrality. The ending is almost too perfect a condemnation of this approach: instead of resolving the through line of Sutherland or any other protagonist, we are treated to a montage of about 30 impassive reaction shots from characters we haven't even met. There's a reason they call them 'dramas' and this ain't it; it's like a noon-hour reenactment at Fort Qu'Appelle. Overall: could be worse, should be better.


(Mark Warren, 1981)
OK, so high school jock comedy isn't my genre. This is, believe it or not, very slightly ahead of the generic curve, thanks to John Vernon and Robert Forster's stoic professionalism in the face of adversity, and also due to a sensibility that is slightly less cruel/hateful than usual. Then again, maybe they just hadn't perfected the formula yet. Not much else in this movie looks like it happened on purpose: there is an incredibly relentless stream of ADR one-liners, as though they shot first and then tried to impose a plot via voiceover. And someone really goofed by structuring the whole film around a climactic half-hour football game, which is shot and framed exactly like...a football game. It almost unfolds in real time. I'd be surprised if even FANS of high school jock comedy gave a damn.


(John Guillermin, 1980)
A troubled production, and it does show: you can see the film doctors trying desperately to straighten out the stylistic curves in this film of a compassionate psychiatric nurse on his own mental slide. I'm not insinuating that the director's cut would have been any sort of masterpiece; he went on to give us "Sheena" and "King Kong Lives". Nonetheless, I found this film's treatment of mental illness to be exceptionally direct and unsentimental, and the critique of psychiatric institutions to be quite substantive, as in the good doctor's distracted and incessant banter about automobiles during a shock treatment session. Kate Nelligan's love interest seems to have lost some substance in the re-edit, but James Coburn is exceptionally likeable as the cat-loving protagonist, applying his usual genial laid back shtick in a revelatory context. My best guess about the disjointed third act is that a lot more hallucinatory POV stuff was jettisoned in favour of an attempted linear narrative that the footage just couldn't support. Or maybe the cutting-room floor holds an even more rigorous institutional critique. Either way, they failed to lobotomize it: this is a smart, humane and touching piece of work.

Cross Country

(Paul Lynch, 1983)
This is an intelligent, fast-paced, gripping thriller, with able performers taking on an impressive array of quirky-to-shady characters. Lynch does the best work I've seen from him to date here: atmospheric, percussive and sharp as a knife. He even coaxes a halfway-likable performance out of Michael Ironside as the detective with the sick wife. Everyone has a secret in this tale of murder and escape, and the craftsmanship draws you in like quicksand. Unfortunately, it also leaves you to die there. Twist endings are tricky things: if the proper groundwork isn't laid, the audience will feel cheated. Which means that ultimately Lynch lets us down after all: strong scene for scene, he does nothing whatsoever to prepare us for the barrage of 180-degree turns in the closing minutes. And then he admits defeat outright with the desperately cheap wrap-up - you didn't think they were going to travel all the way to the Grand Canyon for nothing, did you? For a while there it looked like this movie was about, you know, human beings. Shakes head sadly.

Crazy Moon

(Allan Eastman, 1987)
A young Kiefer Sutherland, eccentric scion of a distant and imperious Daddy Warbucks, falls in with a cute deaf woman, very appealingly played by Vanessa Vaughn. They do fun things together while learning how to communicate, until circumstances threaten to tear them apart. The best things about this movie are the moments of quirky vulgarity - Sutherland gets a lot of expressive mileage out of a stolen mannequin, and his hobby is taking photos of piles of shit - and the romance itself, which is very satisfying, right down to the improbable happy ending. I enjoyed it a lot and can see why Siue watched it four times as a kid. There are some annoying tonal issues - Kiefer's parents are anomalously predictable and broadly played, especially his stepmom - but most distracting for me was the handling of Vaughn's desire to speak. I have no problem with her character's aspirations in themselves, but if they are going to (subtly) problematize her deaf friends' disapproval of this, then they should damn well acknowledge the presumption of the hearing community in placing the burden of communication on her - especially her PARENTS, hello??? But it's very nice nonetheless. Poor Vaughn is saddled with the most hideously 80s wardrobe I can recall seeing in a movie.


(Jean-Claude Lord, 1984)
This movie wears its production values on its sleeve, like a soup stain - the runway glamour sequences, the romantic dinner with fireworks, the (inexplicable) big production number at the climax, every last frame of it tinkles off the screen and dies wriggling on the floor. The whole movie exists to serve an impossibly uninvolving romance - the smart and independent up-and-comer falls for the fast-talking impresario in about five boring seconds, all he has to do is splash some money around and she melts. A halfway intelligent script would have at least had her hold off until he stopped being quite such a callow asshole - but as things stand, that blessed moment never arrives. The substance abuse and sexual predation and corporate backstabbing and even the depressive's suicide are entirely of a piece with the jacuzzi-wrestling sequence: not 'realism', much less social commentary, just foxy decadence to shovel the housewives, who to their credit were discriminating enough not to give a damn. Even Stratford icon William Hutt is reduced to a production value; the camera treats him with the same yawning leer that it accords the cardboard box servant-robot, who acts as a visual metaphor for the soul-destroying lifelessness of the production as a whole.

The Corpse Eaters

(Donald R. Passmore/Klaus Vetter, 1974)
This movie, made in Sudbury, Ontario on the initiative of the local drive-in proprietor and then sold into oblivion to an unscrupulous distributor, is a legendary, almost-lost piece of Canadian horror history. Some dudes and dudettes interrupt their beach party (well, actually 'rock party' since we're in Shield country here) to explore an abandoned mining town's cemetery. One oaf uses this occasion to conduct a half-remembered Satanic rite he learned from his dad, and then...while this is definitely a cheap, amateurish, and clunky piece of work, it is pretty cool in spite of or maybe because of it: it's got an attitude and an imagination. The grimy texture of the location footage gives it a you-are-there feel that can be pretty creepy. The cannibalism sequences are way more lurid and detailed than the run of horror schlock from this era (somebody's mom must have complained, hence the 'warning' gimmick appended to these bits). The jaded undertaker is even more amusing and motivating than the very Sudburyesque young folks who incite the action. And because they had no obligations to the big boys, the filmmakers roll credits around the one-hour mark, instead of padding things out endlessly to fill out the running time. Goofy and creepy in equal measures, and quite memorable.


(Giuliano Montaldo, 1987)
The first half of this movie is exactly the kind of demeaning, insufferable tripe that gives international coproductions a bad name, as a stupefying assemblage of nominal humans interact amid a twenty-day bomb shelter habitation experiment. They observe procedures, they state philosophical positions, they get the hots for each other, at such length and with such cloying predictability that you want to strangle them, especially the goddam little boy. In the second half they throw a nominal curve, rescuing us from the filmmakers' self-imposed purgatory with a bit of action and intrigue. Finally, Papa Burt Lancaster intervenes with a stern lecture on moral themes. The moral - fallout shelters are no answer to the insanity of nuclear war - is hard to gainsay, but the delivery is so full of finger-wag it recalls the worst offenses of late Chaplin. Then you read the box, and the first sentence gives it away: "CONTROL is a disaster movie." Of course! For all its high-mindedness, this is another bunch of international celebrities playing not characters but unidimensional Types, marking time until the Peril arrives, then trotting out the door afterwards to absorb the Moral and cash their cheques. My only excuse for not noticing this is that everybody else stopped using this template about ten years earlier, for the excellent reason that it always, always sucks! There are less aggravating ways to save the planet, that's for sure.


(Bruce Pittman, 1986)
Again, here's a slick piece of hackwork that shows an improbable knowledge of film history. The generic noir trappings are familiar and somewhat unsatisfying, splitting the difference between fine period detail and a super-defined, slickly abstracted visual sensibility that reminds me more than anything of "The Big Crimewave". There's also a nod to "Psycho" in the protagonist-rotation at the end of the first act, and a you-do-the-math final shot that actually invokes "Citizen Kane". The plot machinations can be enjoyable although the stakes are depressingly low, and they should have kept us with the protagonists, OUTSIDE the walls of that scary old house: maybe they didn't want to play the country-folk-as-Other game, but it was a bad decision to drop the aura of mystery for a bunch of questionable domestic drama. And producer Anthony Kramreither just can't make a movie without slathering on the strippers to no great purpose. Still, it's got a good eye for detail and some cool moments.

Concrete Angels

(Carlo Liconti, 1987)
This movie is 'about' a buncha young punks starting a band at the height of Beatlemania. As such, it should be an insufferable piece of sixties nostalgia. But in fact the band subplot is the worst thing about it, and almost an afterthought: the filmmakers certainly show minimal interest or skill at showing the internal dynamics of learning to play rock and roll, unmistakably dubbing their heroes with session-musician hacks playing a mere notch or two below their true level. Otherwise, the depiction of growing up Italian at Vaughan and St. Clair is as specific as it sounds, and totally disarming in its sense of distance and modesty. These things happen, then these other things happen, and the script is blessedly free of pat resolutions whether it's dealing with romance or violence or substance abuse or even, fleetingly, pedophilia. And the visual conception is full of surprising deadpan moments, from a waiting-room couch observed at Jarmusch-like middle distance to a pay phone conversation that actually seems to reference Taxi Driver. Not that this is an 'art' movie; just a made-to-order commercial project with a surprising understanding of how a movie is supposed to work, undermined by the jam scenes and, perhaps, by performances you mostly wish were just a little less functional.

Coming Out Alive

(Don McBrearty, 1980)
In between "Hot Wheels" and "American Nightmare" - both better than this - McBrearty generated this skimpy actioner about a psycho dad kidnapping his wheelchair-bound son for nefarious ends. What's here is actually mostly great: Helen Shaver does well as the mother, upstaged only by Scott Hylands as Jocko the Bounty Hunter; he's complex, compelling and multi-dimensional. The direction is assured and kinetic, and the movie surges forward in an engaging way. And then, suddenly, it ends. And you're like, that's IT? After priming us for a scenario involving international corruption, world leaders and an exploding wheelchair, all we get is two guys punching each other out on a goddam boat? One of whom, the dad, has not been permitted an iota of character development in his fleeting seconds of screen time? We never learn what the hell he's all about, a really major letdown given that the secondhand pieces the other characters feed us promises something really juicy. He's just MICHAEL IRONSIDE, they seem to tell themselves, so of course he's one-dimensionally psychotic, what more do you need! This gross omission manages to torpedo the substantial good will generated by the fine second act. Why not save some of the cleverness to find a way out of the inevitable budgetary bind? Maybe they ran out of time as well as money. Whatever happened, it's a real waste.

The Clown Murders

(Martyn Burke, 1976)
Not the movie you'd expect from the title - a fascinating hybrid that, ultimately, loses its grip. Produced toward the front end of the tax shelter boom - whence the CFDC adjusted their funding priorities to favor 'commercial' projects which might, har har, make back some of their investment - here you can still see some push-back from the frustrated artist types over the transition. Yes dear friends, this is a polo club "Goin' Down the Road", a buncha upper-class hosers doin' dumb shit, with a dumbfounding mutation around halfway into some kind of a psychodrama about machismo. Guns guns guns, gab gab gab, and some guy in a clown mask who avenges the class-conscious kidnapping which provides the film with its nominal plot. Just which guy is not ever spelled out, but he's gotta be one of the two farm hands, so the mystery angle is not that gripping. The rampage is clearly some kind of metaphor to literalize the anti-development message, loaded with highly portentous shots of condo towers adjoining the fallow fields. In fact, that's the only way you can (maybe) make the film work, as metaphor; each of three caperers are allotted exactly one character trait, which is better than they can do for the two perversely 'romantic leads,' who are utterly inexplicable: who decided that a kidnapping would be a jolly lark? Why does she pick such a weird moment to seduce John Candy? Candy symbolically rolls around and bawls for about ten minutes after that incident, so we're in the realm of CriTique here; it's not supposed to be thrilling, for that would be base. Instead it's a critique of thrills. Would YOU invite a critique of thrills over for dinner? With Al Waxman as the cop.

Class of 1984

(Mark Lester, 1982)
Superficially, this is yet another virtuous-fammy-man-mops-up-the-scumbags jobber in the Death Wish mold. But there's a leap simply in the setting, because by recasting the opposition as teacher-versus-students, the framework takes on an almost inevitable sense of burlesque. Certain ugly potentials are avoided thanks to the upper-class pedigree of Punk One (and honestly, this movie is only 'punk' because the costumes look better that way). Furthermore, teach is not exactly catharsized by hanging Punk One from the ceiling of the recital, although it's still just nihilist bullshit instead of macho bullshit. But it's pretty great bullshit nonetheless; it encourages you to turn your brain off, and the performers are totally into it. It's even kind of prescient. Metal detectors and security guards at a high school? It is to die. Gotta love Roddy McDowell's car bursting into flames in the belly of the beast, Yonge and Elm! "Deadly Eyes" fans will be happy to see that movie's love interests showing up here, as the lead dyke-punk and the speed-freak pole-diver, respectively. With Al Waxman as the cop.

City on Fire

(Alvin Rakoff, 1979)
This lateral-inferno disaster movie seems to think that its lack of seriousness is a virtue - it wants to be a lark. Producer Harold Greenberg even snags Corman/Pam Grier veteran Jack Hill to write the script, a good start. And then, in his infinite wisdom, Greenberg entrusts the enterprise to Alvin Rakoff, who wouldn't know a lark if it shat in his beer. Ten-thumbed and crosseyed, Rakoff spends 106 minutes showcasing a peerless inability to establish a character, direct an actor, stage a scene. A gratuitously complex multi-tiered narrative disappears bit by bit into the only elements these tremorous hands can grasp, to wit: "Get everyone into the hospital! Get everyone out of the hospital!" The existential despair this plot arc evokes is written all over the performers' faces, from Jonathan "what's my motivation" Welsh to Henry "fire my agent" Fonda, whose transparent, head-shaking contempt for this project proves once again that he is a man of the people.

Circle of Two

(Jules Dassin, 1980)
Hollywood blacklistee Dassin's final film is a serious and thoughtful attempt to portray a platonic love affair between a precocious teenager and a soused painter. Well, the painter isn't actually much of a souse himself, but he is played in glassy-eyed fashion by a 1980 Richard Burton, so you do the math. Tatum O'Neal holds up her end though, and I found myself rooting for this movie right to the end. But there's way too much next-mark pacing around in the staging, Paul Hoffert's score is a nightmare about corn syrup, and utlimately the film's thesis says more about unhappy old men than it does about twinkly young women: its lament for lost youth is thick and maudlin even if it is surprisingly moral. There's a subtle hint in the scene where Burton laments his agent's rejection of portraiture for newfangled modernity; you can just hear the filmmakers indignantly defending their work on the same dubious, fogeyish grounds. I'd expect an old master like Dassin to be above such things, but this is another example of Canadian cinema eating its auteurs for breakfast.

Champagne for Two

(Lewis Furey, 1987)
What happens to the director of a happy accident like "The Mask" a quarter of a century on? Well if you're Julian Roffman you ensconce yourself as the writer of a big-news event in Canadian entertainment: 'Shades of Love', a string of classy soap operas with a 'modern' outlook and the biggest hacks available for the price. Furey does duty here, showcasing the tribulations of the ambitious career gal who cannot slow down to love. This kind of dares you to call it a name: is escapist schlock for women any more offensive than cathartic schlock for men? Especially with performances as acceptable and direction as clever as this? Well, maybe not. But while it may be clever it's not good; Nicholas Campbell's 'breaking and entering' intro cannot possibly be effective through all the gauze, the power feminism smacks into the usual monogamy wall even if it addresses real issues, and to the extent Campbell and Kirsten Bishop do their job, it's against the undertow of a script that rushes them from conflict to resolution to conflict with positively mathematical banality. By the third or fourth vacuous easy-listening montage, you start to long for the things that money can't buy.