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À propos de Nice (1930)
defacing the surface of 'documentary'
This priceless, jokey little movie has got to be one of the very first self-conscious assaults on the 'documentary' aesthetic. Purporting to do for Nice what Walter Ruttmann did for Berlin, in fact the movie is constantly delving below surfaces, or else simply defacing them, with the obvious intent of generating as much outrage as possible. There's plenty of shots of the various goings-on about town, but from the opening animation of tourist puppets being swept up by the croupier, everything is subject to the most explicitly subjective commentary imaginable: a rich lady is intercut with an ostrich; a filthy alleyway precedes a lavish ballroom dance; grotesque papier-mache parade mascots give way to closeups of the miserable guys inside the costumes, and soon the whole parade devolves into a violent flower-flinging riot. One hilarious scene cuts from street musicians to countless citizens dozing in their chairs, then to a shot of a woman, which turns out to be staged as we dissolve to her in outfit after outfit, until finally she sits naked! Another sexual outrage comes toward the end, as a gang of excitingly plain women mug carnally for the camera while we look casually up their skirts. Definitely driven by contempt, but it's healthy and well-aimed contempt, ridiculing the artifice and inattention that has typified tourist bureau cinema since the genre was invented. And it's more than justified by the mad invention and energy that the filmmakers apply to their polemic.
The Far Shore (1976)
hits the rocks in the third act
It is said that Wieland had a difficult time making this movie, and as someone who comes at film from the visual arts, it figures - narrative film has its own rules and hierarchies. Also its own clichés. This antique tale of a woman (Celine Lomez) who abandons her high-society husband for a Group of Seven-type nature artist worked well enough in the early scenes for me to cagily suspend my animus against mannered period dramas. The staging is precise as well as deliberate, the scenario scores a couple nice points off puritan philistinism, and Larry Benedict's neurotic social climber is fitfully charming as well as tight-assed, leaving the real hateful stuff to professional drunk Sean McCann who provides some welcome counterpoint. As soon as things truck up to the woods, though, we're in big trouble, as narrative and characters alike dissolve into hackneyed metaphor: one guy is Civilization, the other guy is Nature, and in her escape to the latter the girl finds Freedom. As a result, the relationship between Lomez and the painter never gets a chance to develop; there's plenty of ambiguity about how this woodsy loner could sustain a relationship with this cultured, strong-minded woman, but the film unwisely abandons such concerns in favour of the usual shots of canoes and big rocks. And one good dynamite-at-the-picnic gag cannot make me forgive the Easy Rider-style climax - the worst and most familiar kind of sentimental fatalism. How did the creator of "Rat Life And Diet In North America" get dragged into exactly the kind of obscurantist nature-mystic claptrap which that film lampooned so brilliantly? By getting in over her head, is my wholly uneducated guess.
the parts do not sum
Here is a movie that really does not know what it wants to be. The triple-crossing gangster narrative might conceivably make some kind of sense if you applied yourself to it I guess. But who cares? Whenever Harry Caul, I mean Harvey Keitel, is on screen, the movie is a brooding surveillance procedural with dark overtones of tragedy and loss; when he's not, the movie is an overdrawn melodrama bordering on farce. All the 'clever ideas' - the surveillance tape in the hi-fi store, explaining the corpse at the RIDE checkpoint, the yelling at Santa Claus - make the Keitel stuff seem even more alienated, while simultaneously making the menacing criminals look like utter buffoons. Not that Michael Rudder's lead thug needed any help; his sneering grandstand routine makes you want to avert your eyes and plug your ears. And anyway why does everyone keep conducting their highly sensitive conspiratorial dialogues at top volume in public places like shopping malls and porcelain museums? Rudder and conspirator Alan Fawcett even rent adjacent rooms, but there they go trudging out to the gas station. Everyone was clearly so awestruck at having Keitel on set that they forgot to call upon him to act; he mostly just stands there, except for one scene where he throws an inexplicable hissy fit on Lolita Davidovitch and then they go camp out in a used car for no good reason. The most unforgivable botch yet from Paul Lynch, who was handed a mismatched bunch of parts and crafted them into...a mismatched bunch of parts.
location, location, location
Cronenberg's first feature is a bizarre, distended thing, whose real star is the location. I'm guessing we're looking at York University campus; regardless, every obscure tableau he stages is self-consciously dwarfed by the forbidding institutional architecture that houses it. The sporadic voice-over that occasionally rises from the silence suggests that we're watching a narrative about a sexual telepathy clinic whose mandate goes seriously awry. If you concentrate, you can see how this relates to the on screen shenanigans in a linear and probably even preplanned way - it's not just precious mannerisms, although it is that as well. The film makes the most of its visual material with a special thing for fisheye pans, and it runs free love through a dystopian sci-fi wringer in a way that will be familiar to fans of his later work, even including a giveaway throw to "Scanners". But after a while it does get tedious, and while Cronenberg's iconoclasm remains enjoyable and felt, minimalist sci-fi on no budget was always easier to pull off in print than on screen.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
sensibility taking form
Cronenberg's second feature length shot is no radical departure from the first - still obscure, still static, still dwarfed by that hypermodern architectural location. But it is an advance. The color cinematography is more precise than that of "Stereo", and the silences are broken by bizarre, muffled sound loops that sound like nature LPs put through a Seth Brundle telepod. The narrative has taken on more forward motion this time, and is better integrated with the voice-over. And the absurdist humour is more precise, more pervasive, and less improvisational: you feel he's got control over the actors as well as the camera. And in the final sequence he pulls a real gotcha, as the rebel doctors set out to impregnate the little girl they have kidnapped; this palpably tasteless, horrifying scenario could have been played for easy irony, but the scene carefully choreographs a series of complex and challenging emotional reactions to this 'strange, unfathomable captive', sending us out the door on a mind-bending curve that both foreshadows and illuminates his later bravura nose-thumbing atrocities.
Fast Company (1979)
real director wrestles bogus script to a near-draw
Unless "The Devil At Your Heels" counts, this is the best racecar film I've seen, which is naturally to be credited to the director. Out to prove that he could sublimate his signature quirks into a workmanlike commercial approach, Cronenberg does his best work with actors to this date: the genre's usual range of saints and evildoers and women with hearts of gold are so free of histrionics it's almost disorienting. He even finds space to get a little perverse; the obligatory sex scene prominently involves motor oil, and the way the men melt into the machines in the racing sequences is as distinctive as the attentive accumulations of mechanical detail that set them up. You could even argue that the lurid flaming death at the climax plays to his preferences as well, but that would be stretching things - more likely it's another booby-trap courtesy of the derivative hack-job script he's been given to work with. That he can wring any dinner at all out of this dish rag is a credit to his talents, but come on - he's a director, not an alchemist.
The Changeling (1980)
he could have got away with it if it wasn't for that meddling pianist
Dogged by a vague feeling of emptiness - of mobile fisheye lenses and dutch angles overcompensating for flat patches, of Scooby-Doo like sleuthing rationalizing the horror away. Perhaps because of the latter, some of the supporting performances bring to mind seventies TV rather than Val Lewton - shallow and silly. But you don't really go looking for depth or high seriousness in a haunted house movie, do you? You go looking for the creeps. And there's some real good ones here. I'm partial to the extended sequences centering on the rubber ball and the well; the wheelchair is a good idea too but they milk it a bit too hard. George C. Scott may not get much of a workout, but he does carry the film almost single-handedly for long stretches, and the leads are each given one fleeting emotive moment to heighten our engagement. In short, a shaggy dog with a couple new tricks, executed with economy, a dandy sense of rhythm and composition, and that special Drabinsky touch of chintzy 'class'.
Le sang des autres (1984)
stumbling masters: inert and empty
The great concern of this film is the way love interacts with the inhumane psychological pressures of war. It offers three case studies: Jodie Foster's callow fashion designer joins the resistance in the name of personal love, Michael Ontkean places his convictions above his emotions, and Sam Neill is a Nazi whose crush on Foster ties him in gordian knots. Based on Simone de Beauvoir's novel, and directed by old master Chabrol, it's not for lack of brains that this movie hits the dirt. But if Chabrol can speak English at all, he can't direct it. The entire first hour is impossibly stilted and distant; Foster's refusal to emote generates more frustration than insight, and she sets the tone for the rest of the cast. It's a relief when Neill finally shows up, because he's not so on guard against melodrama; but by then he has to cram his broad character arc into such a small handful of scenes that he ultimately fares little better. Even the reasonably tense third-act suspense sequences fail, because they don't advance Foster's character; if she's progressed beyond romantic self-interest by then she's keeping it to herself, and she's pretty much along for the ride in the climactic jail break. Lots of small moments and nuances that never add up to anything are crammed between loving shots of expensive set design and the kind of gratuitous cameos (Kate Reid, John Vernon) that signal the worst kind of international coproduction - too many cooks in the kitchen.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
we get wise to em
A visionary fusion of social-commentary pic and farce, styled for the new age of television. I admit I did not imagine Andy Griffith capable of such a charismatic, impassioned performance as down-home Arkansas demagogue Lonesome Rhodes, whose jailhouse radio interview sets him on his archetypal rags-to-riches way. But while he starts by broadcasting home truths to housewives and ends by asking where that "uncomplicated unliberated woman" has gone, he's no more of a swindler at the beginning than at the end - he's just playing for bigger stakes. What has changed is that his main audience is now the sponsor instead of the listener; so where he once used his perch to get even at the sheriff he's now using it to suck up to the senator, and where he once required an audience, now he's got sycophants and canned applause. Everyone else is playing an angle as well - even Walter Matthau's truth-teller gets a piece with his tell-all book deal. At first the satire is so broad, with listeners playing Pavlovian dog to Rhodes' every suggestion, that it seems like the truth value will be undermined by the cynicism. But that's before the indescribably bravura Vitajex promo sequence takes broad to a whole new level: after that the film becomes an all-over-the-map fusion of classical drama, self-reflexive burlesque, and fearless carnal showmanship. From the down-home baton twirl, to the expiry of the sweaty account executive, to the single desperate gasp Patricia Neal makes when Griffith leaves her apartment, to Griffith's hopeless assault on the pointedly black servants who will no longer do his bidding, every moment is intensely complex and fully realized. And as Lonesome Rhodes yowls into the night and Matthau delivers his closing remarks, you can't help but feel that the whole cacophonous ordeal can also be read as the flipside of director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg's "On The Waterfront" - a final and unanswerable repudiation of the ultimate hick demagogue turned media darling, Mr. Joseph McCarthy himself.
Birds of Prey (1985)
terse, terse, terse
Around the one-hour mark a couple actors are actually called upon to act, which is so disastrous that it clicks in just how much the filmmakers have managed to achieve with their scant resources. No stupid repartee or filler driving shots in this Edmonton police procedural; its tale of murder and mistaken identity is terse above all. Jorge Montesi does his best Dirty Harry impersonation as "Detective Carter Solo"; he's also the director, editor, co-writer, co-producer, art director and sometime camera operator. But unlike most one-man shows, he clearly knows what he's doing, giving us clever staging, smart tension devices, memorable images and remarkably compact storytelling. The film hardly even suffers as it disperses its narrative haphazardly between three protagonists - Montesi, the small time crook caught in the frameup, and the silent female assassin - one of several women who are strong enough to defeat their own objectification. It's no great font of moral wisdom that's for sure, and some elements are secondhand, and the ending is a bit unsatisfying. Also, is that the Kraft Cheese guy voicing the shadowy underworld boss? But on balance, it does its formula proud.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Gorgeous, schematic, heart-rending
I love this movie very much even though I am aware of its flaws - mainly an excessive schematism in the portrayal of the wild things themselves. With no choice but to move beyond the perfect primal simplicity of Sendak's book, the movie turns them into almost a catalogue of juvenile neuroses. The angry kid, the low-self-esteem kid, the mouthy kid, the loner - it's an elephantine Seven Dwarfs. Every incident is telegraphed as a Freudian symbol, so that the movie never becomes a wild thing in itself. But while the design may be linear, it's also deep - in addition to nailing the unsolvable messiness of childhood, the Max-as-king charade provides an unforced commentary on grown-up dilemmas from nationalism to xenophobia to love itself. So while the softening of Sendak's finale is a bit suspect, it's also emotionally devastating - the chicken's false stick-arm is a piercing symbol of the mistakes that can't be undone, and the angry thing's final helpless yowl can mean whatever you want it to mean. And I'm positive that the Henson folks' incredible character designs - you can feel them, you can smell them - compounds the impact.
Bedroom Eyes (1984)
bad Hitchcock, but pretty good Lantos
Having established his admiration for the master with the Psycho-for-Dummies of "Funeral Home", here Fruet serves up Rear Window with a dash of Spellbound: jogging voyeur Kenneth Gilman falls in with comely psychiatrist Dayle Haddon, before his kink gets him caught up in all kinds of shady intrigue. Needless to say, the film doesn't benefit from the comparison. It's frustrating how they keep pulling us out of the characters' point of view with cheat flashbacks or overdoses of stupid detective, and the pacing and cinematography are both damagingly pedestrian. By the more, er, modest yardstick of Robert Lantos sex schlock, however, it succeeds pretty well; at times the voyeurism theme actually feels like something more than an excuse to show pretty women undressing, and Gilman and Haddon are genuinely appealing and show genuine chemistry. So it's almost tragic that the filmmakers had to boil it all down to a murderous ex-hooker who thinks that "all men are pimps" - not just a stupid device, but a shamefully irrelevant one, unless of course they're working a moral angle, something along the lines of 'being a deviant will get you killed,' which I could also live without.
Cries in the Night (1980)
very well made genre pic
Not bad at all. As a proudly slumming Certified Canadian Cinema Artist, Fruet adds some juice to this elemental eighties horror scenario, getting the most out of a pretty good bunch of actors and playing each situation for as much horror, comedy or pathos as it will support. The flashbacks are well integrated, and the occasional gore is incidental to the unnervingly careful pacing and genuinely creepy atmosphere, with credit also due to Jerry Fielding's excellent score and Mark Irwin's moody-to-murky cinematography. And while it's not hard to guess where things are going, it doesn't really bother you until you get there, at which point the Psycho ripoff becomes a bit too overbearing, and the staging slips into cluttered chaos. But the critique of rural parochialism is textured with digs at equally obnoxious urban types, and the treatment of the 'slow' yard hand is refreshingly kind; they even have the grace to bury the ludicrous pop-psych wrapup under the end credits.
Fly with the Hawk (1985)
not Lionel Shenken's finest hour (!!!)
Personally I'd rather be lost in the woods - it couldn't possibly be this boring in real life. After extensive debriefing by a friendly trapper dude, bullied-city-kid-on-the-lam Peter Snook walks, camps and lights a fire, then walks, camps and lights a fire again, for an entire winter, with nothing so much as an incident to show for it. When something finally does happen at the very end, though, it tips the production's hand. All those woodland survival skills, and all that gratuitously appropriated Indian iconography, was just a means to a normative end, so that the kid could trot on back to the civilization he left behind, redeemed by his new self-reliance, spared the slightest reckoning with the reform-school bullies and pigheaded administrators that inspired him to run away in the first place. This is bad ideology and bad dramatics, squandering every opportunity for conflict let alone insight; all life's problems are washed away by alternating beauty shots of trees and birds - exactly the kind of rampant longueurs that separate the wheat from the chaff in Emmeritus Productions' cockeyed universe. And just when you think they can't betray your trust an inch further, along comes the stupid twist ending.
you can do it! YAWN
It's not really about gymnastics; swap out the occasional training montages and it could just as easily be about archery, or microbiology, or a booger-flicking tournament. Instead, like every other Rocky/Flashdance derivative that flooded the 80s market, it's about conquering adversity with stick-to-it-iveness, rendering all social/personal realities irrelevant by your lonesome - with love interest standing by of course. Ronald Reagan top to bottom, in short; so as a piece of cinema it's down to the details. Some of the actors are quirky enough to liven things up - especially the love interest, brought to you by none other than Mr. Keanu Reeves, warming up for Ted; heroine Olivia D'Abo's hateful alkie dad and big-hair stepsister are more interesting than the sickly mom or her utterly inert bitch-nemeses/teammates, one of whom appears to be made of porcelain. It's my instinct to be appalled by the comic-relief black guys, but on the other hand at least they're in the movie. But D'Abo doesn't quite convince with her awkward-girl shtick, and in the absence of any other narrative focus the lack of interest in the gymnastics themselves really does matter; it's all just bodies hurtling around, and not only is the outcome of the big tournament a foregone conclusion, it's all performed by an obvious double.
The Boy in Blue (1986)
"Educational" stodge, with a couple bright spots
Rocky meets Canadian Heritage Minutes, so be thankful that it's not absolutely unwatchable. The underdog-friendly class consciousness is pervasive and fitfully amusing, although it's schematic and sentimental as well. Heroic rowing star/bootlegger Nicolas Cage is his usual dopey, wooden, charming self, and he has some lively moments, especially when he comes into conflict with the starched shirt types. Christopher Plummer's villainous manager is nothing to write home about, but even he transcends this material; in all other cases the costumes and hair seem to be doing all the acting. The frantically underlined Careful Research, and the general odor of educational intent, smother the valiant gestures at comedy, and the pricey period detail of the production design is wholly undermined by a dramatic arc that is pure 1980s bootstrap trash.
The Funny Farm (1983)
never trust the back cover of a video. never.
Showcases the hilarious on- and offstage shenanigans of some of today's most lovable standup comics, while simultaneously exposing the dark side of the entertainment business. That's the pitch, anyway. In the real world, though, every last shred of attempted wit - much of it furnished by Canadian comedy's alleged A-list - is labored, infantile, or just DOA; and the backstage commentary is self-pitying and hackneyed. In this the film does provide its own kind of statement regarding the state of the comic mind, and for a while the tone is so uniformly ugly, so bizarrely joyless, that it seems deliberate, some kind of big artistic statement. But in the end things revert to completely incongruous keep-your-chin-up homilies, and the box does promise that 'the laughs are nonstop'...so I guess it's just another crappy movie after all. Oh well.
Gallery of Horror (1967)
a deadly weapon
Hewitt's trademark is vaulting ambition approached with the scantest possible means, and when he applies himself to a horror anthology format the result is gruesome and calamitous, and kind of fascinating for it. The first story relates to a bewitched grandfather clock and just about the whole damn thing is shot from a single camera setup. The second tackles vampirism, first from a police HQ with the unmistakable acoustics of an empty warehouse, then from a streetside crowd scene almost entirely composed of offscreen murmurs; the louts who do wander into frame offer the most fascinatingly various and mangled British accents on record. Volume three mainly features the rantings of a corpse over some looped footage borrowed from Roger Corman, to whose bountiful resources Hewitt can only aspire longingly, with the added bonus of Rochelle Hudson (James Dean's mom in Rebel Without a Cause!) playing one seriously antiquated love interest. Lon Chaney Jr. stumbles on set for part four, a Frankenstein variant whose loutish flatness does actually take on a certain lovable aspect in this company, especially the two lab guys with their frat boy impersonations. Finally we return to the vampire theme in part five, accompanied by the dumbest twist ending of the lot, not to mention the most haphazard pan-and-scan job in a crowded field. Toastmaster John Carradine shows up once in a while and mumbles into his sleeve.
Body Count (1987)
this cheese ages quite well
On the surface this looks like a fairly nondescript entry in producer Shenken's made-for-Hamilton-TV oeuvre, lacking both high concept and flamboyant weirdness while suffering the usual lapses in script, performance and direction. Nonetheless, this time there's actually something to lapse from: the killer-on-the-rampage narrative is remarkably coherent by the usual Emmeritus standards, the actors generate an impressive amount of interest, and the direction is focused and terse. Strictly formulaic Canadian action-movie stuff, suffused with unintended camp, and yet the site-specific miniaturism of the cheeseball SVHS production somehow gives added texture (if not depth) to the pervasive born-loser fatalism. From cop to cabbie to cashier, these characters are really going nowhere, and that we can call them characters at all places this a good cut above the norm.
sneaky and subversive
Where most 'international' cinematic ventures are crass exercises in lowest-common-denominator mathematics, this film is a remarkable fusion: clean-cut North American narrative meets European philosophical desperation. You can't imagine how the movie occurred to anyone, and you can't quite believe you're even watching it. It's almost like an evil twin to Jodie Foster's other Canadian tax-shelter film of the same year, Echoes of a Summer: a made-for-TV type movie about a resourceful kid in a small town and her precocious little friend, only in this one there's bodies in the basement, Martin Sheen tortures her hamster, and the beloved controlling father figure has gone away for good, leaving only his warped imprint on Foster's brain. Her project is to resist the corruption of 'normal' society by any means necessary, and the slowly revealed outcome is devouring solitude and emotional self-devastation. By the time we get to the mind-bending final scene, the horror is complete: unable to envision any escape beyond the horrific desperation her father has implanted, she fails to achieve even that; and yet there in front of her is ample evidence that the outside world really is irredeemably evil. Gessner (where'd he come from? where'd he go?) takes us all the way into Foster's head without losing his balance for a second. The style is simple yet impossibly sneaky, just like the script, just like every one of the performances.
Big Deal (1985)
huge cast performs CPR on shoddy farce
This corny, anachronistic, measly excuse for a film has problems that only begin with the erratic cinematography and atrocious, hyper-literal musical score. Healy's only feature as director stretches the farce-of-misunderstanding to its limit, relying on speed and clutter to distract us from some extremely questionable turns of logic. And yet, somehow, the movie steamrolls past its failings to take on a good deal of clunky charm. Most of this can be attributed to the performers, literally dozens of third-stringer pros who attack the material like a starving man at a banquet; they are so enthusiastic that the quality of the material almost becomes irrelevant. It's particularly entertaining to watch the heterosexual flirtations of several transparently gay actors, including Louis Negin in his pre-Guy Maddin days, but from the horny housewife to the Scottish hit man to the suicidal East Indian fellow, virtually every actor brings the shtick. Even the Rick Moranis and Al Waxman stand-ins are tolerable. And the pervasive sexism is so received that it doesn't offend; it's ADULT sexism, give-the-people-what-they-want dinner theatre type stuff. In fact, with Honest Ed's a principal location and Anne Mirvish popping by as a secretary, this movie could hardly exist without the benign, showy, proudly mercenary example of Saint Ed Mirvish himself.
River of No Return (1954)
she doesn't change her hands!!
It's Robert Mitchum as Civilized Man! Protecting his wheat farm, his kid, and saloon broad Marilyn Monroe from the tribulations of the (Canadian??) Wild West, including Monroe's sleazeball card sharp boyfriend, a terribly generic and perfunctory buncha Injuns, some horny prospectors, and the titular river, which they must navigate by raft to retrieve Mitchum's gun and horse. Everything looks gorgeous in Cinemascope (Monroe most definitely included) and there are clever tidbits throughout, but after a spectacularly detailed opening sequence at the prospectors' encampment things do thin out, with Mitchum and co. mainly duking it out with a bunch of wholly unconvincing rear projections. If Bob is so resourceful how come he can't get more than a measly rump roast out of that elk? The original 3-D process was probably supposed to pick up some of the dramatic slack, as usual. Monroe has a bit of difficulty wedging her persona into the tough-broad routine; she looks pretty out of place on that raft. And there's little critique to be seen as Mitchum's machismo, or generational projections thereof, provide the only resolution to whatever conflicts happen to arise. In that vein, the (studio-imposed?) final scene is so objectionable that it has got to be some kind of a joke, right? Right? One more knee-slapper: Monroe's first song is called "Changing Hands", and she pretends to play it on guitar...only she doesn't change her hands.
An exquisitely simple, well crafted documentary about the regulars at a Toronto bingo hall. Without getting judgmental, sentimental, or unduly ironic, the film manages to avoid deadening neutrality and establishes a voice to complement the genuine characters it captures. The editing is especially strong: building tension and gradually shifting the tone from sequence to sequence, it serves the content wonderfully, as do the careful, unobtrusive compositions. There's just enough of a glimpse of the subjects' outside lives to provide context without diffusing the focus. I appreciate the decision to limit most interview content to the soundtrack, providing counterpoint to the action. And when the interviews do take place on screen, there's counterpoint as well: one heartbreaking moment has a living room discussion disrupted by a televised horse race, wordlessly expressing the dangerous pervasiveness of gambling culture in these lives. But the movie makes clear that, like any self-destructive subculture, there are social benefits to go with the neurosis; and every one of these weathered survivors are as likable as the film itself.
Stone Bros. (2009)
Fun sometimes, but misses the mark
This movie is as easy to like as it is difficult to enjoy. In essence, Frankland sets out to make an Aboriginal ocker comedy, with rampant vulgarity and low humour played off of race and identity issues of some depth. Only they aren't really played off so much as alternated, and they undermine each other. It's too scattershot; the attempts at addressing serious themes keep getting lost in the digressions, and the comic momentum gets killed by the reflective stuff. And neither element holds up in and of itself, either. The race issues are not well integrated into the thin fabric of the characters; and for every gag that hits bulls-eye, there are three that hit the dirt, running aground on miscalculated timing or emphasis, bad choices in framing, or overextension. Finally they throw up their hands and climax with an outrageous, Pythonesque possessed-dog bit, funny in itself - for a while - but not exactly rife with thematic relevance! The Italian hitch-hiker and cross-dressing cousin in the back seat could easily have been removed from the movie entirely, allowing us more time to get to know the quite likable leads.
Reel Injun (2009)
this film freak says: needs a bit more work
This native-directed documentary about Hollywood portrayals of First Nations through the years is appealing, good-humored, and watchable, and will be a valuable educational tool. However, it would have been more valuable (and may be yet; this screening was apparently not the final cut) if its various flaws were addressed. There is a sense throughout of the film biting off more than it can chew. The "journey" framing device - in which Diamond heads out on the road to visit various real-life locations of cinematic lore - works case-by-case, but there's no through line and Diamond isn't on screen enough to establish a presence. While one sees the need to address on screen portrayals' relationship to the realities of early colonialism, 70s AIM activism, macho Indian-themed summer camps etc, these byways reduce the space for the central discussion of the movies themselves. Instead things drift toward pat decade-indexed generalizations, so that in the 70s Billy Jack leads directly to Wounded Knee - quite a stretch! While one can readily understand that native viewers don't much like John Ford westerns, presenting the racist cowboy of The Searchers as a direct expression of the filmmakers' attitudes is asking for trouble. And if you're going to show Little Big Man to an elementary school audience to gauge their reaction, then SHOW US the damn reaction! The best talkers of the film are activist John Trudell and comic Charlie Hill, but as insightful as they are, the native stunt man and costume designer do a better service to the movie's themes. (And please spare me the Robbie Robertson star turn!) And in the end everyone lives happily ever after in rose-colored Celluloid Closet style. All that said, though, the film also reveals the existence of a self-portraying Native cinema in the silent era, translates some hilarious Lakota profanity from a vintage western, and highlights the tragedy of the secretly triracial early movie star Buffalo Child Long Lance, among other revelations. Its moments of insight earn it a more than passing grade in spite of its failings.