Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Christmas

Black Christmas screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, December 17th at 9:30pm.

All cliches have to start somewhere, but there has probably never been a film to kick start as many cliches as Bob Clark's Black Christmas. Generally regarded as the film that birthed the slasher subgenre of horror movies, Christmas creates all the moments in horror history that would quickly grow to annoy audiences in a litany of Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels by the end of the 1980s. Back in 1974, however, Black Christmas was seen as nothing short of groundbreaking. Looking back on it today, it is still a wonderfully taut and tightly crafted thriller. It is a shame this film quite often gets defined as a part of the genre it helped to create because it is also one of the best suspense thrillers that Hitchcock or Polanski never made.



The plot is brilliantly minimalist. The girls of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority have been subjected to an increased number of lewd and scary phone calls that eventually grow violent and deadly. When one of their own goes missing (but the audience knows is dead) the girls begin to fall apart and begin to get picked off one by one by the incoherently moaning and babbling killer.

Looking through the lens of history, Black Christmas might be the eeriest and most subtle slasher film ever created. The film is relatively bloodless and none of the characters are really caricatures (save for the woefully incompetent police Sargent Nash) and they all have real world problems to deal with outside of the killing spree that is occurring around them. The specter of abortion also hangs heavy over the proceedings, making the subject matter itself damn near revolutionary for the time. The cast is also top notch, led by Jess (who is actually the antithesis of the "final girl" found in most horror films), played by Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), who not only has to deal with the stress of her friend's disappearance and murder, but also her own unwanted pregnancy. There are also great turns from Margot Kidder as a tough minded sister with a raging alcohol addiction and John Saxon, this time playing a cop (surprise, surprise) who isn't crooked or troubled. It might be the only time post 1965 that Saxon played a normally functioning officer of the law.

On a technical level, anyone looking to make a slasher film needs to make this required viewing and take copious amounts of notes. Clark's point of view shots are used to great effect. The musical stings are either subtle uses of popular Christmas carols or noise that sounds like piano strings getting plucked by hand. The script never makes it's red herrings obvious until the final third and it leads to a conclusion that is still very unsettling and creepy to watch even if you have seen every slasher film that has followed in it's wake.

Sure, Black Christmas is a film full of stock cliches, but they weren't so plentiful when the film was released in 1974. Hence why I am not listing any of them in hopes that if you haven't yet seen the movie, you watch it in the proper context and with an open mind. That way the film can be viewed as the revolutionary experience it it. Black Christmas is a film that is often duplicated, mimicked, ripped off, and remade (both in name and in concept), but it has never been fully replicated. In this case, such imitation is the highest and most sincere form of flattery.

Dead Alive

Dead Alive screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Thursday, December 16th at 9:30pm and on Friday, December 17th at 7:00pm.

It takes a lot to gross me out or offend me. Even as a young man I could sit through the craziest of gore flicks and not bat so much as an eyelash. It was also, at the time, very easy to make me laugh. Movies that I laughed at when I was younger embarrass me now that I know they were terrible movies. Even the worst of them were able to elicit chuckles from me. I really didn't have the most discriminating of tastes, but by the age of 14 nothing even shocked me anymore.

I watched Dead Alive of the first time that fateful year with my arch conservative father reading a newspaper in the same room. My father couldn't last in the same room as Peter Jackson's delirious zombie film for more than 45 minutes because I was howling with laughter. He stormed out of the room, folding his newspaper under his arm and exclaiming "It's not fucking funny." It was the first film to ever become a favourite of mine before the plot even had a chance to get going. Also, by it's conclusion, it became a film that shocked me like no other before or since.



Poor mother's boy Lionel (Timothy Balme) has his hands full with his domineering mother (Elizabeth Moody) even before she is bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey and turned into a rapidly decomposing zombie. Having known nothing other than the hellish cloistered life his mother has crafted for him, Lionel is now determined to care for his now bloodthirsty mother. Eventually, however, thanks to his own bumbling and the actions of his lecherous Uncle Les, the town of Wellington, New Zealand is overtaken by a horde of newly sprung zombies that only Lionel, Les, and Lionel's love interest, Paquita, can stop.

Dead Alive (known as Braindead everywhere else but North America to avoid confusion with a Roger Corman film released two years earlier) is a delirious theme park ride of gore effects the likes of which I had never seen and have not been replicated since. The final 20 minutes of Dead Alive shocked me to no end. I wasn't scared in the slightest, but the film is so visually inventive that the images of zombies having sex and others being cut down en masse by a lawnmower were forever burned into my memory. My father reentered that room during the film's grotesque Freudian grand finale. It was the only time he after told me he was ready to shut off a movie I had been watching. It was the only film I ever got yelled at for bringing home. This coming from a man who had recently watched Videodrome when I rented it the year before. I guess I wasn't the only one affected.

Despite having already made Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles (which, in my eyes, is the ultimate in bad taste outside of an early John Waters film), Dead Alive firmly established Peter Jackson as a visually powerful filmmaker with a quick wit. He has an ear for comedy, a heart built for tragedy, and an eye for gore. Dead Alive plays like a live action Tex Avery cartoon without a filter. Dead Alive is beyond cartoonish, boundary pushing, and one of the most entertaining zombie films ever created.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scrooged

Scrooged screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, December 10th at 7pm and Sunday, December 12th at 7pm.

Scrooged is not a movie for everyone. It takes a special kind of humor to truly appreciate director Richard Donner's 1988 cult comedy masterpiece. It is a relentlessly cynical and sarcastic film that doesn't exactly scream "holiday cheer." It was hailed as a disappointment upon initial release and both Donner and lead actor Bill Murray have both gone on record as saying they weren't exactly happy with how the film turned out. Both actually hoped for an even darker version of Scrooged to end up on the big screen. Instead, this updating of A Christmas Carol seems to be grafted onto an alternate universe version of Murray's other film, Ghostbusters. That isn't a bad thing and for my money, next to Ghostbusters, Scrooged is Murray at his absolute funniest and the film holds up as my favourite Christmas film of all time.



Murray plays Frank Cross, the loathsome and greedy head executive for television network IBC. In between belittling his co-workers and stealing cabs from old ladies, Cross is in the middle of mounting one of the most ambitious productions in the history of the network: a remounting of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (here called Scrooge) that is being sold with fear and being produced with both an iron fist and a hard cold stance on deadlines. Cross is smitten with a woman he used to love that now works with the homeless (Karen Allen), but he is too heartless and cold to do anything about it. He is also far too busy making life a living hell for his long suffering single mother secretary (Alfrie Woodard) and making sure the most vulnerable staff member he has (Bobcat Golthwait) is broke and penniless by the end of Christmas Eve.



Cross is then visitied, in typical Scrooge fashion, by his former boss and mentor Lew Hayward (John Forsythe in a lot of prosthetic makeup) who tells him he is going to be visited by the ghosts of Christmases past (David Johansen as a cab driver), present (Carol Kane as an ultraviolent sing-song speaking fairy), and future (just about the most terrifying thing this side of Freddy Kruger).

While on the surface, Scrooged is simply a straightforward retelling of a well known story, it is also as black as comedy can get. Cross is one of the meanest film characters I have ever seen and to watch him undergo such a transformation is quite cathartic (no matter what writers Mitch Glazer and the like Michael O'Donoghue have to say about how much they hate the film's happier ending). The barbs shot at the cynical nature and the commercialization of Christmas hit the mark every time and Murry is pitch perfect in the lead. The rest of the cast is full of familiar faces and cameos and all are up to the same level as Murray. A holiday classic for those like myself who like their holiday coffee spiked with a little something bitter.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy

The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Sunday December 5th at 9:30pm as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? film series.

The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy by guest blogger Heather Bellingham

Everyone feels sad every once in a while. Why them do we feel like we are supposed to be happy all of the time? Why do we choose to get rid of this basic human emotion through the use of drugs? And why do we celebrate the fact that we can do that? These are the questions addressed in the 1996 film The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy.



The film is about a scientist, Chris Cooper (played by Kevin McDonald) who invents a super-drug to cure depression, called GLeeMONEX. Despite going though very little testing, the drug is rushed into production to help the financially ailing Roroitor Pharmaeceuticals boost their business. The drug becomes popular immediately and hurls Chris into instant celebrity. However, the drug begins putting people into comas, trapping the users in their happiest memory, which they repeat over and over again.

Despite being a comedy, the film has a rather depressing ending, with Chris and his fellow scientists going into hiding to find a cure for happiness, while the people in happiness comas are glorified and celebrated by society.

Anyone who has seen The Kids in the Hall television show would not be surprised at all to see each member of the troupe play multiple roles (although, Dave Foley has significantly fewer roles than the rest of the guys, as he had begun filming NewsRadio at the time and was largely absent from the writing process). Loyal viewers of the TV would also spot well-loved characters such as the cops and the white trash couple, as well as a brief appearance from Bellini, a silent man in a towel.

There are some entertaining and bizarre musical numbers as well, such as "I'm Gay", which turns from a confession to a man's family into a mini-parade down the block, and "Happiness Pie", a new style of music coming from hard-rocker Grivo (Bruce McCulloch), after he takes the drug.

The film caused a small amount of controversy upon release, as it features a character names Cancer Boy (again, played by McCulloch) who has a positive demeanor despite being very sick, and ends up releasing a single entitled "Whistle When You're Low". Some viewed this as being in poor taste, others (like myself) saw this as typical for The Kids in the Hall - an attempt to make you laugh at things you shouldn't be laughing at.

As a hardcore Kids in the Hall fan, Brain Candy is a film that is very funny and very quotable ("It was only a couple of flipper babies" being a personal favourite). It's also a film with a message - despite what you're told, you are not supposed to be happy all the time. You are supposed to be sad. Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy is an absolute must-see.

Heather Bellingham has written for various websites, such as Helium and Demand Studios, since 2009. Currently she is becoming over-educated in film, books, and theatre and she will finish her BA in April. Follow her on twitter: http://twitter.com/bluealbow4eva

Good Canadian Cinema? - Your Thoughts

Earlier in the week, we asked for your opinions on what you think Good Canadian Cinema? means to you and what state you thought Canadian cinema was in (or if it even existed or was an applicable term). Here are some of the responses we got.

Responses on here are anonymous and somewhat edited to exclude any personal messages we received with them that were off topic. In terms of on-topic content, these are unedited responses.

-I don't know whether I should even be responding to your post because I haven't seen very many Canadian films. I could say that it's strange that this aspect of our culture is so underdeveloped and unknown compared to Canadian music and literature, but I know people who claim ignorance of Canadian music and literature, and that doesn't mean that those worlds don't exist and aren't full of great talent. So maybe it just comes down to publicity and timing.

-It's incredibly hard to pigeonhole Good Canadian Cinema, and the picks that are playing are a good example of that. I like to think that the hallmark of our cinema is honesty. The great films don't compromise, they show flawed characters in difficult situations, and they don't always make the best choices, but there's honesty in their motivations. Watching Gordon Pinsent quietly suffer in Away From Her is a great example, and on the other end, the characters trapped in the Cube act appropriately given their insane situation. Even the Trailer Park Boys are just trying to reach Freedom 35, they're just looking for shortcuts. Their methods are illegal, but in their minds, it's an honest living that doesn't hurt anybody. Except for people that deserve what they get. My personal favorite, Last Night, is a perfect microcosm of Canadian cinema. A small scale end-of-the-world story, focusing on real characters dealing with the ultimate ending. I wish we could escape the shadow of American cinema, but that's a pipe dream, and we can't match Quebec's passion for their own culture, since our own is so tied to our American cousins. We just have to keep supporting the great films and filmmakers and hope that Joe Six Pack eventually doesn't dismiss a film just because it's Canadian.

-This is a heavily loaded question! There's such a huge problem in this country with national identity, and arts and culture's role in that. The fact that we have governmental controls legally requiring television and radio stations to play a certain amount of Canadian content is laughable to most countries in the world. They're basically saying "if we don't force you to play Canadian stories starring Canadian actors with Canadian writers filmed in Canada, then there's no way anyone will watch them or even make them".
The funniest part is that this is a totally different situation in Quebec. Quebecers have such a sense of their culture and history, and Quebec films regularly debut to #1 box office standings, grossing millions on opening weekend. They have their own movie stars and celebrities. It definitely helps that they have their own language, but it has to be something more than that.
The strange thing about Canadians is that they hate watching Canadian movies, but as soon as an American movie mentions or shows something about Canada, we're all over it. (Remember when The Simpsons did a Toronto episode? Unbelievable). We won't go see a Canadian film that stars Canadian actors, but as soon as Mike Myers becomes famous down south, we can't wait to point out that he was born and raised in Toronto. Is it just because we have such similar language, culture, and tastes as Americans? Ask any Canadian if we're the same as Americans and they'll tell you absolutely not- we have snow and the metric system and gay marriage and free health care. Although that hardly constitutes a culture- more of a generally accepted set of political ideas and geographic facts.
There is, though, a distictive "je ne said quois" to Canadians. This is why I'm so excited to watch Brain Candy. I don't think anyone has captured Canadians like The Kids in the Hall did. Something about our relaxed attitude toward the world while simultaneously being polite and reserved has left us with tremendous fodder for mockery and ridiculous non sequitors. And we should be proud that the show never would have made it in the U.S. in the early 90s with the vulgarity and frank jokes about sex and homosexuality that made it so great. (Not only that, but it was produced by the CBC- government funded jokes about sex!)
It's hard, I know, to make a film with no budget, and an audience one-tenth the size of America's. But there's such a delightful freedom in knowing that you can use government money to make a movie not that many people will see. When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.
Canadian films do matter...you just have to keep reminding people of it.

- I definitely think there was, is, and always will be good Canadian cinema, the problem is we don't promote our own movies. most of the movies go straight to dvd, or if they do hit the theatre they have zero marketing so no one even knows they are there. When TIFF comes around I try to make a point to see some of the Canadian screenings just because that might be only opportunity to catch them in a theatre, or even hear of them at all. The only ones that seem to get any publicity are either so stereotypically Canadian or made by an already well known team. We just need to boost our marketing a bit and it should be a better place for Canadian Cinema.

-I think good Canadian cinema is alive and well. Because we get less recognition and have smaller budgets, it forces us to be more creative and to strive for something better to get people to talk about us. There is a lot of ingenuity in Canadian films, I find, because we try not to rely on tricks, and focus more on story.

-Good Canadian Cinema? Sure. Of course there is. It doesn't necessarily have to directly identify itself as Canadian to be Canadian in my estimation. A good film is a good film, regardless of who starred in or directed it, where it was shot or just how much of it was financed by whom. Whether there is 95% Canadian Content or 10%. There are so many movies out there that I absolutely love. Some people grumble about the quality and content of Canadian film and it seems the industry even tries to distance themselves from it, but you can take something like Scott Pilgrim which clearly identifies itself as Canadian and enjoy it just as much, if not more than if they decided to set itself distinctly in New York.

-I think that the whole “controversy” regarding what constitutes a Canadian film is just ridiculous. Really good movies are disallowed from Canadian awards because of silly technicalities, and the red tape seems to extend down from the decision-makers to the fans. None of us really know what a Canadian movie is. I was surprised a few years ago when Juno wasn’t accepted as “Canadian” by the Genie awards, in spite of starring two Canadians in the lead roles and being directed by a Canadian. I love the hypocrisy of people rejecting good movies as not being Canadian enough, but fall all over themselves trying to find a “Canadian connection” in every celebrity, invention, event and anything else we can get our hands on. We will claim any one or thing as Canadian; just not films.

We are a silly, silly country.

-We're talking about Canadian cinema without talking about the most important difference, English Cinema and pretty much everything else. Currently, French Canadians have a veritable wunderkind in Xavier Dolan, who got attention from Cannes last year for J'ai Tu Ma Mere and global attention for L'amour Imaginaires this year. Denys Arcand has impressed people the world over, continuously, even at at the Oscars, What about C.R.A.Z.Y (which constantly gets shelved in the FOREIGN CATEGORY at so many video stores, ugh) as well as Atanarjuat? I think we need to stop whining about English films being bad or not getting their due and see the bigger picture.

I just get a little miffed when we ignore the fantastic stuff being produced in Quebec, more co-productions are needed to really gel the two sides of Canadian cinema together, and something a little better than Bon Cop Bad Cop, thanks.

-There do seem to be a number of really good Canadian films such as Fubar, One Week, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, etc. I'm not sure if it's the greatest thing for our film industry but the fact is getting any sort of grant requires over the top 'Canadian' content in the project. Although this is great for showcasing Canada to the rest of the world, i think it also limits the potential for these films to be distributed and relate-able to a worldwide audience.

-Your blog post (and the screening series itself) buzzes on an issue that my friends and I often debate. Quite a few of us are writers and directors. Good Canadian cinema does indeed exist. Part of the problem is the label. The other part is the math.

When a new Canadian film is being released, we talk too much about it being Canadian (the exception being Canadian films released so far under the radar that they have no labels at all). It becomes a qualifier, and sets expectations. Many of them bad. The most successful Canadian films, to me, are the ones that find more useful labels for themselves. Young People Fucking lucked into its label, thanks to blowsy conservative posturing. People spoke about the title and the controversy, instead of constantly driving home its Canadianness. Pontypool is pretty distinctly Canadian in its quirk, but it's about language and suspense, and it clothed itself in those latter before the former.

It's the same reason why we're far more known for our documentaries--most of these, even when they're about Canadian stories, label and sell themselves on the basis of larger issues. And hell, money or no, I'd say the least successful Canadian films are the ones that slather themselves in maple syrup. Your review of the hockey musical was generous at 2 stars. Passchendaele was a bloody joke because (as well as terrible writing) it worried more about mythologizing "our" story of WWI instead of concerning itself with any universal story of distinct heroism. Or you have Gunless (not to rag on Paul Gross too much), which did nothing interesting or new with its wild west setting except drag it into boring, stereotypical Canada.

And we filmmakers have to take some of the blame. There's so little money, so few avenues of distribution, that sometimes stamping yourself with a big maple leaf is the easiest way of attracting enough attention to get your film made, or thrown into a dark, one week engagement in a downtown Toronto theatre. We've internalized this label, and rather unsurprisingly (given the influence of American media), the audience has followed our lead. If we could just find a way to consistently make "small-c" Canadian feature films (and maybe fix the gaping holes in our distribution system), people wouldn't treat our C's as the bloody scarlet letter in the theatres.

And then there's the math. I would say by ratio that make roughly the same number of bad movies to good movies in this country as are made in America. The problem is that we make so many fewer films overall, that the fiasco films are the ones that attract the most attention. By my metric above, the most successful films are usually the quietest (in the context of their nationality), and are probably more likely to be missed during those hyper-serious conversations about Canadian Movies. We'll discuss One Week before It's All Gone Pete Tong, and ten hockey musicals before The Hanging Garden.

Maybe at the core of this diatribe is that we just need to start thinking about Canadian films differently, stop acting as if "Canadian" is a genre.

-I think this is a very interesting topic. It's a difficult thing to define a nation through cinema, but I guess we can say this especially for Canada because there isn't a consistent theme in Canadian films. When we think of the U.S. through film it's easy to think of Westerns or heist movies. We can define France through film when we say something is "French Cinema" and Italy with "Italian Cinema" But what is "Canadian Cinema"? We can easily think about this through money and that Italy, France and U.S. are nations that have heavily invested in Cinema at one time or are currently doing so, but it's more than just dollars and cents. Some of the investment is based on the fact that the nation loves the art, but it's also to invest on constant themes because they know What the people like, so why invest in risky change when you can gamble on a sure thing that you know will give you a return. Another thing that the U.S., France and Italy have in common is that they have large populations of people in smaller land masses, this means that there is a bigger and more visible collective in these groups, meaning that it is easier to define a culture in these places because people can see it more clearly and it is easier to put it on film.

So what about Canada? We're a small population in a large mass of land and we're all clustered mostly along the U.S. Border so it's very hard to get a Collective idea or culture when we're so spread out, but this is not a bad thing. Canada is So diverse in different cultures and ideas and each one wants to stand out, especially through film. Until somebody or a group individuals find a way to express the diversity of Canada through film that influences a change in cinema that will be when we can officially Say, "Canadian Cinema", until then I'll say that Canadian cinema is a film with Good Strong content that makes you think, but doesn't always have the budget to match it.

-Good Canadian Cinema for me consists of films that recognize they needn't bear the burden of the nation on their maple-dappled shoulders. Filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin have long been carving out an idiosyncratic niche for themselves, and they've impressively done so without having to make condescending asides to nationalism-starved audiences, a la Score or the interminable slog that is Passchendaele. That is not to say that films like Videodrome or My Winnipeg are somehow unCanadian -- the former shares DNA with the freaky body shit going on in the work of writers like Margaret Atwood or Barbara Gowdy, and the latter is very much a portrait of a place -- but they dispense with the kinds of goofy winks and questionable claims to polite Canadian universality, EH, that characterize our most egregious flops. While Score's colonization of prime poster real estate across the downtown core this fall was alarming, this isn't the apocalypse: Good Canadian Cinema lives on in the work of new idiosyncratic talents like Daniel Cockburn, whose debut feature You Are Here was one of the greatest discoveries of this past TIFF, Canadian or not. And maybe that's the definition we should be striving for: good cinema by Canadians, possibly set in Canada.

-I would just like to say that good Canadian cinema does exist. When I was in high school, a dedicated English teacher and I teamed up to keep it very much alive in a community that was engrossed in the 3-D, flashy, big budget Hollywood movie. I screened Vincenzo Natali's 1997's classic Cube and he screened Peter Medak's 1980 The Changeling. I don't think good Canadian cinema constitutes profit or the amount of people who know the film -- I believe it should surpass the debilitating setback of time. Think about it, your most beloved films have transcended temporality (John Hughes' Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, John Paizs' Crime Wave, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch). That, and only that, (at least in my opinion) amounts to "good Canadian cinema."

-I think good canadian cinema should involve poutine.

-I think Canadian movie makers excel at movies that are clever and pretty and fascinating. I think we have an ear for a good story and a knack for working in challenging environments, landscape and fiscal. I enjoy Canadian movies like Pontypool because they are fantastic and surreal and firmly set within so much that shapes us - weather, language, getting along with each other, resources, etc. Can we get away from hewers of wood and drawers of water even in our 21st century cinema? I dunno - tar sands pay for a lot of these movies.

Good Canadian cinema, and whatever canucksploitation may be, work very similarly to our pop music. We're great with working with the tropes but we can say interesting things without being too bloody obvious about it. We're good at subtle. We're good at dry wit. We're good at gross.

-Sure, there is good Canadian movies, but they have a hard time getting access to marketing dollars, and so there's vicious cycle of movies not being seen, not getting big production budgets, not getting theatre space, and so on. Plus, for the most part our movie business is part of the American market, so to make it big here, you have to make it big in the US (the same problem radio/music used to have, until the government forced radio to play Canadian content - sure it produced crappy music, but it also opened the space for good Canadian music). I'm not surprised no one came to see Fubar - who knows what it is, compared to who knows about Pretty In Pink? I knew about it - but i've also already seen it.

Cube

Cube screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Saturday December 4th at 9:00pm as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? series. A Q&A will follow with co-writer Andre Bijelic.



If you found yourself trapped in a room or a torture device of some sort, would you be more concerned about how you got there and what exactly it is, or would you focus more on trying to get out in one piece? In Cube, the film that far and away got the greatest number of votes when we conducted our Good Canadian Cinema? poll asking what our patrons wanted to see, the characters don't question the origin of the cube they find themselves in. No one knows why they are there or how they got there. They understand the mechanics and rules behind the cube only through observation. All these captives know is what they do for a living and who they are. Given those circumstances, the what doesn't really matter. To get out you need to know the answer to every other question.

Director Vincenzo Natali and his writing team have crafted one of the best low budget chillers of the past twenty years with this tale of several people who quite literally find themselves trapped inside of a cube that is slowly killing them off one by one and doesn't play with any sort of rules regarding human life or fairness. The rooms are constantly changing and staying one step ahead of everything going on is nearly impossible. Think Saw with a more of a brain and even less control over who lives and who dies.

Cube boasts some of the most imaginative set design for a low budget film I have ever seen. The staging is perfect because you are never really able to tell just how cheap the film was to make (slightly over $300,000). It is also relentlessly intense and adheres to my favourite horror movie convention: anyone can die at any time. But probably the biggest part of Cube's appeal is just how existential it all feels. It is the rare case of a horror film where the audience and the characters are equally detached from their surroundings. When everyone is in the dark, both mentally and in the confines of a movie theatre, the terror in some cases equals out.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Porky's

Porky's screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Saturday December 4th at 7:00pm as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? series.

Porky's by guest blogger Ryan Bureyko

If you were born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s, you were either in one of two camps. The first, stood in line for hours to see the latest Star Wars epic. The second, you were doing any damn thing possible to see some boobs, and as we all know, no one ever saw Princess Leia's. We more than made up for it once we got to see Porky's.

As someone who was too young to see Porky's in the theatres, i had to wait until the VHS/BETAMAX book to occur, and each and every time I walked by that big clamshell box in the movie store, i knew I had to see it. My mother, being staunchly religious, adamantly refused to rent me such filth. Sigh. Yet another weekend alone in my basement with nothing but National Geographic and Lubriderm.

On one fateful Saturday afternoon, however, cruising down the aisles of the infamous D and D World of Video (Thunder Bay, represent!), a lovely clerk took pity on me. She saw me staring at the box for what seemed like an eternity, and seemed to fully understand my barely post-pubescent dilemma. Without parental permission, and at the risk of losing her job, she let me rent it! I carried the movie out of the store much in the same manner a married man would leave a porno theatre. I was finally a part of the raincoat crowd and I could not be happier.



The movie itself is exactly what you think it is. It is a celebration of male coming of age. It's about guys named Pee-Wee, Meat, and various other walking teen male stereotypes. It's about an awesomely slutty girl named Wendy, and a morbidly obese criminal named Porky. Most importantly, it's about an evil, undersexed and over fed gym teacher: Miss Beulah Balbricker. Ok, maybe Miss Balbricker isn't the central character, but outside of the film Stand By Me, I cannot recall in movie history forcing teenagers to realize how valuable one's testicles are.

All the guys just want to ride outside of town to Porky's Bar and Grill to rent a prostitute or two; a seemingly innocent plan that would go off without a hitch. Oh, how wrong these boys were. The shit hits the fan almost immediately for these kids, as Porky is not a pig to be messed with. Throw in some car chases, and explosion and some amazing full frontal nudity for it's time and you are left feeling exhausted, yet oddly liberated and entertained at the same time.

This teen movie is unlike most other teen movies in that it lacks the viciousness of films made later. There is a refreshing lack of a "clique" element, and the usual high school drama cliches are left on the side lines so completely separate issues can be explored.

I had the amazing opportunity to meet director Bob Clark shortly before he died at a dismally attended Porky's marathon here in Toronto. He sat next to us in the theatre and was smiling as if it was the first time he had seen these films in years. He looked over at my friend and I and simply said, "Fun, isn't it?"

These boys weren't out to fight the war on terror or the war on school corruption. They were out to fight the war on panties. A real war that I think many young men like myself could get behind.

Ryan Bureyko, a stalwart at one of the last mom and pop video stores in Toronto, regularly waves late charges for cans of beer.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pontypool

Pontypool screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, December 3rd at 9:00pm as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? festival. It is presented in association with Rue Morgue and Chizine publishing. Actors Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle and writer Anthony Burgess will be in attendance and a Q&A will follow. Tony Burgess will also be signing copies of his book.

It is oddly appropriate and in no small way terrifying that the first time I saw Pontypool was in the basement of a friend's house in Pontypool, Ontario. We were miles from anywhere. Heck, just getting back to the road that led to the house itself was miles from anywhere. I was a city boy who was mildly acclimated to the country. I knew the lay of the land and could get around, but I still kept that swagger that only us city folk could provide.



This is the same world that disgraced and aging radio shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) finds himself thrust into. He now has to wake up every morning and do a show that he fully feels is beneath him in every way. Grant knows everything about everything and clashes almost immediately with his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle). The only friend or confidant he seems to have in the tiny radio station is a recently returned veteran who is a minor local celebrity, yet still works the phones (played by Georgina Reilly).

Very quickly it becomes apparent that this will not be a normal news day in the booth. It all starts with a riot at a dentist's office and people mumbling about the missing cat named Honey that people see signs up for all over town. Pretty soon and almost without warning, the small secluded town becomes besieged by humans who appear to be turning into zombies by way of some infection; only instead of the cause being a virus passed through the bloodstream or though saliva, this virus is passed through the English language.

As a writer the idea that language is cursed is something I wrestle with every day. Every word that I say could have a loaded meaning. In fact, just yesterday alone I had two separate incidents where something I said was taken the wrong way. It was misconstrued and people got angry at me as a result. Director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess work on a similar, but more deadly level. The idea that a word could have two different meanings is something people in the film generally lose sight of. That contradiction leads to madness.

The other thing about having violence come as a result of a linguistic problem is that you quite simply don't know what is going to happen at any time. What words are the infected ones that will lead to your potential infection. You can say them time and time again and you still might not be able to pinpoint what you did wrong. You could screw up and say the wrong thing. In a real world scenario, such a prospect is terrifying on it's own. In Pontypool, it could kill you.

McHattie is at his finest in this film and Houle and Reilly are his equals in a movie where you really only see the three of them for large spans of the film. McDonald knows that the scariest things are the things you don't see and he plays with audio cues more that visual ones to achieve a very claustrophobic feeling film (90% of the film takes place in and around the recording booth of the station) that chillingly informs the audience of the world around them without once showing just how bad it has become. Once you get past the "language as a killer" idea of the plot, it isn't as avant garde as it sounds on paper. And possibly most importantly, it is utterly terrifying.

Hard Core Logo (and an explanation about why it took so long to announce it)

Hard Core Logo screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday December 3rd at 6:45pm as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? series.

What is it about rock stars that fascinate us so much? Is it because we want them to succeed, or we want them to fail? Is it because they work hard to get where they are or is it because they are so debauched that their success is mind boggling? There are so many bands and musical artists that I begrudgingly respect for their work eithic (Justin Beiber, Kanye West) and others that I respect that they are simply still alive (Motley Crue, The Rolling Stones, Kanye West). Maybe it is that life or death struggle that makes mockumentaries like Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo so satisfying. The people on screen are in a life or death struggle, but other than success the stakes really aren't that high. Egos are overinflated to the point of caricature. That is also what makes Hard Core Logo so darn believable.



The titular band of Hard Core Logo is getting back together again after a five year hiatus for what they believe to be one last show. Bruce McDonald, playing himself films Spinal Tap style as the band attempts to patch up old wounds and simultaneously opening up new ones.

The film itself is quite simple and has some pretty ardent defenders (such as Quentin Tarantino, who picked up the film for distribution in the U.S.) and it often shows up on lists of the greatest Canadian films ever made. The film, despite being fictional, is completely believable and this is the rare case where you actually care for the rock stars no matter how boorish your behavior.

So why did it take us so darn long to announce that we were playing it?

Because this is not the movie that we were planning on playing. It was the next film in line according to the results of our poll.

What we wanted to play was our #6 finisher Ginger Snaps, but unfortunately that films seems to have fallen into a morass of rights issues. All calls and emails we attempted to make to the rights holders went unanswered and we even questioned if the right holders had gone bankrupt or out of business. We apologize for anyone who was really looking forward to that one. We were as well.



So with that in mind, and knowing what I posted in my American Perspective blog, I am interested to see how Hard Core Logo does this time. It did well in the voting, but it didn't win. The last time we played it, audiences were apathetic. Let's see if being a part of this program makes things any different. It is definitely a great movie. Now lets just see if people will come out to see it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? series on Thursday December 2nd at 7:00pm.

Special thanks are in order to my good friend Jenna Hossack for helping me put this and the forthcoming Naked Lunch blogs together while under large amounts of stress.

Growing up, you generally don't gravitate towards movies that depress you in any way. Teenagers generally don't want to watch a film about the deaths of children, incest, and how towns are torn apart by tragedy. I know I wasn't one of those teenagers, but for some reason The Sweet Hereafter shook me to my very core. I have very rarely had a more visceral reaction to a film prior to that. In fact, The Sweet Hereafter is a film that solidified my thoughts of being a writer or working in film. Apparently, I am not alone. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows I am not alone amongst critics. The Sweet Hereafter has a perfect 100% approval rating (based on a little over 50 reviews) on the aggregate website which even the most dubious doubters would have to admit is pretty impressive. The film was the second highest vote getter in our Good Canadian Cinema poll.



In Atom Egoyan's meditation on loss (based on a book by Russell Banks that took place in upstate New York, that was based on a real life event that happened in Alton, Texas) a small British Columbia town is rocked when every child in the town, save for one (Sarah Polley) is tragically killed in a school bus accident. Into their grieving lives comes Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a lawyer encouraging the surviving parents to join in a class action lawsuit against some defendants with big pockets. But Mitchell has dark familial secrets of his own and the one surviving girl, now a paraplegic might not be willing to bend the truth to Mitchell's will. On top of that, she is also hiding a devastating secret of her own.

Egoyan, in what I believe is hands down his best film, uses a uniquely Canadian landscape to heighten the feeling of isolation these parents must be feeling (portrayed by an all star cast including Bruce Greenwood, Maury Chaykin, and Tom McCamus). The setting is bright because of the abundance of snow, but things could not possibly be bleaker. It is interesting to note the use of snow in a bleak film. Snow is a very reflective surface that tends to bring a lot of things to light even in the darkest parts of the day.

The snow and the remote location also speaks to the nature of silence, both in nature and such a close knit community. The Sweet Hereafter gives the viewer a real presence in the absence of sound; a place where silence and the impossibility of speech leads to awkward silences that reach across the landscape and the emotional divide. This is a town full of people robbed of the moment when their children could even be old enough to ignore and abandon their families. The grief they were deep down expecting is replaced by one completely unfathomable and unseen, even by the viewer. The bus crash is shown inter-cut with Mitchell telling a story of a black widow spider bite in one of the eeriest and most unsettling moments in film history.

Another interesting parallel is that of the old nursery rhyme The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Sarah Polley, playing Nicole in one of her best performances, is quite literally the character of the rhyme by virtue of her survival; a key element when you consider that she sing songs the same poem to a child in the film. It stands as a testament to the secret she is keeping and to the accident itself. You could also look at Mitchell as a similar character, leading the parents of the town blindly in a lawsuit that will not only bring their children back, but the money from which might bring more harm than good.

The Sweet Hereafter is quite possibly one of the most depressing films I have ever seen in my life and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a film of real drama and real emotion; not tarted up in any way with any sort of fake sentiment. It is brutally honest, undeniably compelling and eminently watchable despite it all. It is a film of such complexity, where the beautiful mixes openly with the ugly, that I wish I had it in me to make something with half the power of this film. I say this rarely, but The Sweet Hereafter is truly a must see.

Last Night

Last Night screens at Toronto Underground Cinema as part of the Good Canadian Cinema? series on Thursday December 2nd at 9:30pm

Last Night by guest blogger David Demchuk



Last Night takes all the elements of the classic American end-of-the-world disaster movie—the all-star cast, the planet in peril, cities in chaos, gunshots, rioting and thuggery, fateful eleventh-hour chance encounters, families pulling together and tearing apart—and turns them upside down and inside out. No astronauts shooting into space to blow up errant meteors are to be found here, no uploading of Windows viruses to short-circuit alien computers, no pockets of humanity huddling together underground to start civilization anew. Don McKellar’s remarkable film counts down the final hours, the final minutes, the final seconds…and then the world really and truly ends. Everybody dies. Does that count as a spoiler?

It shouldn’t. Last Night may have its unblinking eye clearly and resolutely trained on that ultimate moment, but its heart is with the ensemble of doomed Torontonians that populate the film and their efforts to recapture and redefine some shred of intimacy in their lives before they face the blinding flash of light that consumes them all. McKellar takes the lead as a young widower who would rather die alone than with his tense WASPy family and their faux-Christmas celebration. Callum Keith Rennie charms as a youthful roué who spends his last hours enacting the wish list of sexual desires that he has inscribed on his kitchen walls. The late, lamented Tracy Wright is gravely touching as a loyal office assistant infatuated with her oblivious boss David Cronenberg. Geneviève Bujold beguiles as a French teacher whose surprising encounter with one of her grown students brings back the glow of her youth. And Sandra Oh devastates as a woman struggling to make her way across the city to reunite with her husband so that they can fulfill their suicide pact. All the while, exuberant harbinger Jackie Burroughs, whom we also lost this year, runs through the city shouting out how much time is left to all who care to listen.

This description makes Last Night sound dire but, really, it’s not. Alternately disquieting, wryly funny and unexpectedly moving, the film successfully sidesteps movie making clichés from both sides of the border—not only the bombastic patriotism, gluey sentimentality and eye-watering special effects of its apocalyptic American correlaries, but also the tidiness, tastefulness and suffocating emotional reticence of so many of its Canadian peers. With a soundtrack that sports Edward Bear, Parliament and the DeFranco Family and, instead of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous Hallelujah, the best use ever of Pete Seeger’s Guantanamera. The cast is rounded out with supporting performances by Sarah Polley and Arsinée Khanjian and blink-and-you’ll-miss-em cameos by Bruce McDonald, Kirsten Johnson, Michael McMurtry, Darren O’Donnell, Bob Martin and Tom McCamus. It also has vintage cars, bad red wine, a nasty gunshot wound and a description of the internet that holds up even today.

David Demchuk writes for film, television, radio, stage, print and digital media. He is one of the organizers of Don’t Wear Black, a project using arts and culture to examine police actions during Toronto’s G20 summit, slated for April 2011.