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I happened to catch part of Crime Wave on CBC late one night in the 80s
and I was hypnotized by it's underground feel and truly offbeat humor.
Then I didn't think about it again for about fifteen years until I came
across a used copy in a video store that was going out of business.
I have watched it a few times and each time my eyes widen like a little child. John Paizs as Steven Penny is a deadpan delight, future anchorwoman Eva Covacs is perfect as the precocious Kim. And of course there's Dr. Jolly. The cornfield scene is probably the weirdest scene of any film I've ever seen.
Overall if you appreciate low-budget comedy miracles, this is a prototype.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Top! One man made it!"
John Paizs's "Crime Wave" is one of the most original film produced. Although I'm sure you've heard that before about countless other movies, unless you've seen this film you likely can't imagine just how unique it is.
Writer/director John Paizs pulls triple duty by starring as Steven Penny, a "quiet man" who is intent on creating the perfect version of what he hopes will be the best color crime movie ever: Crime Wave. For this reason, he is often re-writing his script and changing the lead characters for his future film. However, he suffers from an inability to write the middles to any of his (somewhat) different versions of Crime Wave.
Steven lives in the apartment over a family's garage. Their daughter Kim is excited to have him living there, and strikes up a friendship with Steven. Kim is excited to have a "real movie person" living in her garage, and does her best to support Steven during his struggle to write his movie. He reciprocates by teaching her how color crime movies work, and by showing her his stuff.
When Steven loses hope, Kim finds an ad in "Colour Crime Quarterly" placed by Dr. C. Jolly. Dr. Jolly, the ad states, is seeking fresh young talent to collaborate on a script. She secretly sends Dr. Jolly a letter and the unfinished middles to Crime Wave. He responds by sending a bus ticket to Kansas and expense money so that Steven can meet with him.
The movie gets quite odd at this point.
Now, the plotline to John Paizs's "Crime Wave" (not Steven Penny's film of the same name) doesn't sound all that different. It's when you couple it with all the other pieces of the puzzle, however, that you notice that a film like this hasn't been made before or since:
Though he is one of the main characters, Steven Penny has no lines of dialogue in the film; it is narrated entirely by his friend Kim. Also, aside from writing (which he only does at night by streetlight), Steven hardly seems to actually do anything when other people aren't around. One scene has Kim going up to visit Steven, and we see that prior to her arrival he was doing nothing but standing motionless in the center of his suite.
John Paizs's acting, though wordless, is very expressive yet perfectly subtle. You can tell exactly what his character is thinking at all times, or if his character is thinking at all. Eva Kovacs (Kim) also turns in a great performance that completely fits into the world of this film. There are some cast members whose acting is a little on the weak side, but for some reason it all seems to fit in with the film and wouldn't work if it were otherwise. And of course, Neal Lawrie's Dr. Jolly is absolutely one of the most riveting performances I've seen. Ever.
It's a shame this film wasn't distributed better, as it would definitely show up on a lot more lists of cult classics. However, it does tend to make Crime Wave seem even more special when you finally end up owning a copy.
If you would like to locate this movie, don't worry -- it CAN be done! After combing through all the video stores in your area, you may try finding this title on various internet auction sites. It appears that many video rental outlets will liquidate stock this way. Also, there are admirers of this film who will provide you with a copy (don't ask me - I'm not one of them). Since all of the companies that distributed this movie are now defunct, I would imagine that this is the only method of obtaining a new copy until it is (hopefully) re-released.
Also, Canada's CBC television network will broadcast this movie -- usually in a 2:00am or similar time slot. This is how I became aware of Crime Wave, incidentally.
So if this film sounds interesting, get hold of it at any price you feel comfortable with. I guarantee you will not be disappointed with it no matter what you paid.
I don't want to spoil anything in this fantastic movie, so I'll just say: SEEK IT OUT. The CBC runs it every now and again, which is where I saw it. If you are a fan of David Lynch, John Waters, or just bizarre filmmaking in general, you will *love* this flick. It is often uproarious and occasionally poignant. One of my all-time favorites. Viva Steven Penny!
If you haven't seen Paizs's film work before, you may or may not know
that he later directed remote segments for The Kids in the Hall ("It's
a Fact!" and "30 Helens Agree", etc). I saw Crime Wave shortly after it
came out, and then I taped it off CBC, at which point I've shown it to
everyone who's come to my place. 30 viewers agree, it's one of the
funniest, darkest, quirkiest movies ever to come out of the Canadian
prairies, Canada in general, or anywhere.
The plot points have already been covered in the other reviews, but there are a few other things I could mention. For instance, I figured that the colour and lighting were an homage to all those National Film Board shorts we watched in high school. I asked Paizs about this, and he confirmed it.
The dialogue is sharp, the satire is pointed, and the acting has an edge.
Some fun moments:
Steven and Dr Jolly's dead-of-night meeting in the cornfield outside Sayles, Kansas;
The masquerade party where Steven shows up shirtless, painted up with green camouflage markings, festooned with dynamite and holding a detonator -- his costume was of a guy who blew himself up in a bank;
Inside the traffic-counting booth, where Steven's friend has three buttons to push: left turn, right turn, and straight ahead. When he sees a car sitting at an intersection, Steven's friend has his finger poised and hovering over the buttons, waiting, waiting, waiting to see which button he should push, beads of perspiration forming on his upper lip. Then the car turns left and with relief he pushes the "left" button. Who knew counting cars was so stressful? Go figure;
Eva Kovacs's line delivery throughout the movie, but especially where she shows Steven a letter and says "Steven, Steven, read this! Don't ask why, don't ask how, just read it!";
Steven explaining the concept of "persistence of vision": Keep looking at the dot through two verses of "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the harmonica;
All the assorted movie beginnings and endings that he can't join together, all satires of various genres, and all of which contain the phrase "But from the NORTH!"
This movie is a cult classic and not to be missed!
An absolute peach of a film about a "quiet man" Steven Penny (played by director John Paizs himself) and his desires to pen the greatest colour crime movie ever told. His attempts are lovingly documented by his chipper and inquisitive neighbour Kim (Eva Kovacs), who becomes fascinated by Steven after reading scraps from his discarded screenplays, which Steven has thrown to the trash. For you see, Steven is a tormented artist. He can write the beginnings and endings of screenplays, but not the middles... and what screenplays they are! They tell sordid tales of hapless and violent Elvis impersonators; murderous Amway recruits; self-destructive self-help gurus! Yet, however sordid these cutaways become, the film retains a giddy innocence amidst the darkness. It also achieves a feat that very few films achieve, which is to use kitsch in a way that is wholly earnest and sincere, rather than ironic. The whole film has the feel of an after-school special, or those awkwardly mannered edutainment titles reserved for the classroom, but the spirit of parody remains wholly affectionate and the film is often touching and beautiful. This is especially impressive for a film with such strong meta-fictional elements, since it would be easy for such an exercise to become distanced and cynical. However, when Kim educates the viewer about persistence of vision, passing on the knowledge given to her by Steven, we are simply caught up in the joy of it, rather than smirking some knowing smirk as to how clever-clever the enterprise is. With the entrance of criminally insane script doctor Dr. Jolly (Neil Lawrie) the film threatens to become rather dark, yet still retains a lightness of touch. It's a magical piece of filmmaking, quite unlike anything you've ever seen before, one infused with the joys of filmmaking, friendship and the wonder of childhood with the experience of being an adult. It's a beaut.
Most importantly for a comedy, Crime Wave is very funny. It's a
masterpiece of black humor, with one twisted laugh out loud sight gag
after another (I have too many favorites: the kid with the empty
birdcage, the morgue tags, Ronnie up against the telephone pole,
Steven's costume for the Halloween party, the drooping penis plant
painting on a background wall, etc.). It's a comedy, but like Lynch's
Blue Velvet, it also takes a retro 50s "normalcy" and reveals how
bizarre, threatening, and, in the episode with Dr. Jolly, how downright
creepy events can become within it. Paiz also shares Lynch's ability to
make regular objects like street lamps feel stranger than they are. So,
Paiz can't avoid comparisons as a sort of Lynch-lite. But he's also a
grand surrealist who concocts layers of realities within realities.
Budding screenwriter Steven Penny writes the starts and endings of scripts but can't seem to fill in the middles (layer 1). We are shown "clips" of what Steven has written as though they had been filmed (layer 2). While the scripts lie in limbo waiting to be finished, their characters "come alive" and hang out in Steven's room and fight with each other (layer 3). Steven doesn't narrate his own story, in fact he doesn't talk at all, and the film is seen and narrated through the viewpoint of Kim (wonderfully played by Eva Kovacs), the young teen daughter of Steven's landlords, who comes to admire and help Steven. Meeting one odd character after another in one strange event after another, Kim's blaze, take-whatever-comes attitude anchors the film in yet another reality (layer 4). And, she speaks directly to the camera, the "objective" film, to us, the audience (layer 5).
Eventually Steven writes a script about Steven who is a screenwriter who made it big with the scripts we saw before. He opens a Disney-like theme park based on his work featuring those characters. Still, he feels at a personal loss until he meets and is redeemed by no one less than Jesus. At this point so many subjective viewpoints have converged that I can't tell you at what layer number we're on (6? 7? 8?) but what I can tell you is that we're in front of some epic inner-connected complex at the level of Borges or Philip K. Dick. As cool, objective, and deadpan in tone & presentation as Crime Wave is, it throws in everything including the kitchen sink (police chases, serial killers, rat infestations, chemical disasters, and so forth). Still, I don't want to give people the wrong impression here. Crime Wave is not a puzzle, nor is it at all confusing or hard to get, it has a straight-forward plot that simply involves a lot of episodes with differing sketch material that, as a whole, ends up covering a lot of ground. If the film has any sort of theme beyond the fun, Crime Wave is ironic about & mocks the lengths people will go through to become successful.
Consciously or unconsciously, many have borrowed from Paiz: Lynch in Mulholland Drive, Maddin in Dracula (his "From the East" a direct crib of Paiz's "From the North"), The Coen Brothers in Barton Fink, and Abel Ferrera in Bad Lieutenant (whose main character is also redeemed meeting Jesus). And yet, Paiz, the funniest & most imaginative filmmaker to come out of Canada next to Maddin and Norman McLaren, is but a minor cult figure. Why such injustice? Both he and his great Canadian cult film comedy deserve a much wider audience & recognition.
As far as commenting on the film is concerned, I can only echo what
others have already said. "Crime Wave" is brilliant and beautifully
filmed. I watched the film today and I found the Kodak film used is no
longer available so perhaps another film with just this look will never
be possible again?
Now to the exciting news: I have just purchased (and received on 8 February 2009) copies of "Crime Wave" and "Springtime in Greenland" on DVD.
The guidelines prevent me from linking directly to the site but just use Google and look for "John Paizs" and "Crime Wave". I hope the 'availability' clause still won't prevent this comment from appearing.
I just watched this film today at school. The professor brought it out to cheer the class up since it had been raining and cold all day. He labeled it as the funniest Canadian movie of all time and he really wasn't far from the truth. The beginning of the film is a bit weird and campy, and it's hard to imagine that it will actually produce real laughs. By the end of the first scene, however, you'll have laughed out loud and will be in anticipation for what will happen next. This continues for th entire movie. Every scene has at least a few great moments in it that are really funny (mostly in strange, sometimes uncomfortable, and unexpected ways). Some of the greatest moments happen while Kim reads the "middles" that have been discarded. The Halloween party is also fantastic. When the film ended the effect on the entire class was clear. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and making comments about the very last joke in the film. The rainy day had been forgotten and some students were even whistling the music that had accompanied the end credits. The film is a must see at any time, but even more so when you need something to bring a smile to your face.
Such a great film on so many levels! It is about a struggling Crime Wave writer that can only write the beginning and ending to any of his stories. Further more, he can only write by the luminance of the street light. But that is only the beginning, the whole film has such a delightfully surreal feel to it. Oh, and not to mention it is narrated by a small girl. There are murderous Elvis impersonators, bio suit wearing escapades, psychopathic cowboy doctors, truck driving dogs and that is just the tip of the bizarre ice berg. The film never gets boring and is just as clever as it is funny! A film that definitely thinks much outside the box to give the audience a thoroughly entertaining experience. The only downside is it is not on DVD at all. You must find an old copy of the VHS or hope your local independent theater is cool enough to screen it. If this ever gets a DVD release I know so many folks that buy it right up! It would come in from the North and move right to the top! (This last sentence will make more since once you see the film). :)
I found this film in a video store in the late '80's. I had no idea
what it was, didn't recognize anyone involved with it. I rented it. I
watched it. My mind was blown. I have never seen a film quite like it
before or since, never discovered a film that is as innocent, dark,
hysterical, twisted and beautifully odd as Crime Wave.
And the brunt of the credit goes to writer/director/star John Paizs, whose vision for this low budget masterpiece (with great production values nonetheless) is compelling and spot-on. I could gush on and on, you bet I could, but there's no adequate way to describe the sense of wonder that is attendant with every viewing I've had of this film.
Just get your hands on a copy. Trust me.
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