Tag Archives: Canadian

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.1 Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Fowler

FEATURING: Taylor Dianne Robinson, Ben Cotton, Matthew MacCaull, Hilary Jardine, Cindy Busby, Andrea Brooks, Michael Rogers

PLOT: After a bear mauling, a man and his daughter are rescued by a strange cult in the woods.

Still from Welcome To The Circle (2020)

COMMENTS: “The meaning is the message.” “And the message is the meaning.” “So what is the message?” “That is exactly the question.” “What is?” “We have to figure out what it is.” “What, the message?” “The meaning.”

No, that’s not a transcription of a first draft of a discarded sketch where Abbot and Costello meet the Dalai Lama; it’s a typical “circular” dialogue exchange in Welcome to the Circle.

To be fair, this cult’s dogma is supposed to be mumbo-jumbo; and given all the crazy things people believe in nowadays, it’s not too much to ask us the audience to take the seductiveness of this verbal jujitsu on faith. The decision to give the Circle’s philosophy no intellectual content whatsoever is deliberate; the movie’s thesis is that the things we believe can override reality, and so it’s important to focus not on the strings, but on who’s pulling them.

It’s a thoughtful idea rife with possibilities and potential allegories, but unfortunately the message gets lost under too much obfuscating trickery. It’s relatively straightforward horror ride through the first act, but then the plot loses its way with information overload (founder Percy Stevens’ strange and confusing backstory, in which a tiger shark plays a role) as it’s simultaneously diving into a rule-free, anything-can-happen abyss. It’s a nice touch that cult membership includes an unusually high number of creepy mannequins—most of the prop budget went to this small army—but other ideas don’t pay off. Too many sudden cutaways to stock footage montages (marionettes, chess moves), too many portals that pop characters from one location to another, too many ostentatiously delivered Zen warnings that “nothing has any meaning” and “the thing we have to do is nothing.” It’s tough for a movie founded on such a free-floating structure to work, unless it has the budget to pull off some majorly distracting special effects, or a long series of catchy/scary surrealist ideas consistently pitched on the level of a .

Needless to say, Welcome to the Circle can’t match these standards. There’s no one we strongly care about to interest us in entering this circular labyrinth. Greg, bear victim and loving father, should be the character we identify with, but there are a couple problems. He’s  too slow on the uptake: he leaves his daughter in the care of the winsome twenty-something females who put her in a creepy happy-face mask for a couple of days, before finally thinking to look for his cellphone to call for medical help after his mauling. And Greg is pushed to the sideline relatively early in favor of a new main character, a stoic cult deprogrammer (who talks, one character observes, like a “stoned robot”), headed into the Circle intent on rescuing one of the females. It’s a bold narrative gambit, but we would need to be much more invested in the overall stakes of this story than we are for this perspective shift to pay off.

Ultimately Welcome to the Circle lacks the budget and, unfortunately, the imagination to fulfill its lofty ambitions. The film’s meaning gets lost in its message—or maybe it’s the other way around.

David Fowler’s previous credits were mostly writing the narration for Disneynature documentaries like Elephant and Penguins. A low-budget surreal horror film was an unexpected choice for a directorial debut. Artsploitation Films picked it up and debuted it on VOD and physical media in late 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense.”–Josh Bell, Crooked Marquee (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

CAPSULE: DEAD DICKS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

FEATURING: Jillian Harris, Heston Horwin, Matt Keyes

PLOT: Mentally ill and suicidal, Richard tries to off himself but is repeatedly reborn though an orifice that’s growing on his wall, leaving his apartment cluttered with corpses of his previous selves.

Still from Dead Dicks (2019)

COMMENTS: Richie and his sister Becca debate about the exact anatomical correspondence of the orifice that has suddenly appeared on his bedroom wall. He calls it a vagina; she replies “it looks more like an asshole to me.” He sees at as a possibility of rebirth, while she sees it as just the same shit over and over? (For the record, it’s obviously shaped like a vulva; trust me, I’ve seen one before.)

Whatever the hole in the wall is, it’s driving the plot. Well, not really. The real conflict in Dead Dicks is not the eternal struggle between death and rebirth, but the more down to earth sibling drama between Richie, a mentally ill artist who annoys his only neighbor by forgetting to turn down the music after midnight, and Becca, who’s always nurturing her brother instead of pursuing her own dreams to become a nurse. As a career enabler, cleaning up her brother’s many spare corpses comes naturally to her.

Sometimes, the bare sets, unimaginative staging, and uneven sound levels—especially in the few shots occurring outside Ritchie’s apartment—smack you in the face with the fact that Dead Dicks a low-budget affair.  But the main place where the budgetary limitations become intrusive is in the long middle act, where cheap conversation takes the place of more expensive action. It seems most of the available money went into a one big effect, a brief but nightmarish gore scene that does dazzle.

The acting is spotty, with Matt Keyes coming across the best (although there is little nuance required of his perpetually annoyed neighbor). Jillian Harris has a hard time of it; her character is often written so as to under-react to the insane events, and to comply with Ritchie’s odd requests too quickly. I’m not sure exactly how an actress should play a character asked, by her brother, to hack up her brother’s body; but there were many times where I expected Becca to object or freak out in a much higher register than she does. There are some attempts at black comedy—sis is more shocked by her brother’s full-frontal nudity than by the fact that he’s just come back from the dead—but on the whole the script eschews yuks in favor of a dramatic tone.

But, warts and all, Dead Dicks is worth a watch to those who find the premise or the mental illness theme compelling. It lags in the middle with a bit too much dialogue, but it starts the third act with two twists that come in quick succession, and ends on a strong note. The ultimate resolution is unexpected, and morally troubling—some may complain, but this is horror after all, and I’m glad they took this brave step rather than a more conventional feel-good ending. Dead Dicks is an ambitious and largely successful feature, though one that might have been scaled back to be an impressive short.

Plus, the body count is much higher than the total number of characters in the film, which is quite a trick to pull off.

The Artsploitation DVD/Blu-ray contains commentary from the two directors and video diaries of the production. These extras are valuable to anyone considering making their own movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Dead Dicks tackles taboos, blending trippy horror, irreverent humor, and shocking tenderness to create a film that’s both darkly challenging and wildly entertaining.”–Kirist Puchbo, Pajiba (festival screening)

CAPSULE: DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Albert Shin

FEATURING: , Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson,

PLOT: Returning home to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death, a woman remembers a childhood incident that haunted her—witnessing a one-eyed boy being abducted in the woods—and decides to investigate.

Still from Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2019)

COMMENTS: Clifton Hill is a tourist trap street in Niagara Falls, Canada. Although a memorable scene in Disappearance at Clifton Hill occurs at Clifton Hill, the titular disappearance doesn’t occur there. Make of that bit of misdirection what you will.

The disappearance we’re concerned with occurs upriver, and about twenty-five years before Abby returns to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death. Abby wants to preserve Rainbow Inn, the old family business which has fallen into disrepair, from being bought up by the Charles Lake corporation; her sister wants to sell and move on with life. Browsing through mom’s old photographs turns up a picture that sparks Abby’s memory of the day she saw the boy abducted, and she begins investigating. Her followups bring her into contact with a podcaster and local historian who operates out of a UFO-shaped cafe and who knows where the bodies aren’t buried, a husband and wife magic act modeled on Siegfried and Roy, and the dashing Charles Lake III. Evidence of what might have happened to the boy builds slowly, while a series of glitchy, tiger-infected dreams that look like bad montages edited on third-generation VHS tapes liven things up (and provide the film’s sole weird moments).

The ultimate mystery has as much to do with Abby’s past, slowly revealed through her interactions with her sister and others, as it does with the disappearance she’s investigating. Abby’s backstory isn’t a twist, exactly; it’s more of a change of focus that turns Disappearance from a thriller into a character study. The movie’s eventual revelations about Abby do, however, illuminate a couple of incidents that might not have made complete sense otherwise (for example, why Abby’s parents never contacted the police after the incident in the woods). The switch of emphasis works; the script slowly (and purposefully) undermines its own narrative.

Full of psychological unease rather than jump scares, Clifton Hill plays well within its budget. Superior writing elevates it from merely a “modest thriller” to a “modest-but-clever thriller.” An ace performance from lead Tuppence Middleton carries the film, aided by an unnerving woodwind and synth score.

In some quarters, much is being made of David Cronenberg‘s small role as a podcaster (first seen in a wetsuit). While Old Croney holds his own against the more established actors, there’s nothing revelatory in his performance. The significance of his presence has more to do with his endorsement of the film, which is a major marketing point for a not-flashy indie that relies on a slow-burn to pull you in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Shin isn’t shy about laying on quirky details and liberal oddball splashes to make his third film swing from bizarrely entertaining  to dark (helped by an excellent moody score from instrumental group BadBadNotGood).”–Linda Barnard, Original Cin (contemporaneous)

PAUL ANTHONY’S TALENT TIME (2008-Present)

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DIRECTED BY: Paul Anthony

FEATURING: Paul Anthony, Ryan Beil, various guests

PLOT: Once a month, Paul Anthony gathers the best talent to show off on Vancouver’s premiere public access station, filmed live at the Rio Theatre.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is, yessir, a television show—and not a weird one. However, any regular reader of this site should check out this odd-ball, screw-ball, fast-ball show.

COMMENTS: Just over a week ago, reader “Jesse G.” brought the phenomenon of “Paul Anthony’s Talent Time” to our attention. I’m not generally one to hustle favorites to the front of the line (and, indeed, can’t say I know much of anything about Jesse other than that his last name begins with a magnificent letter), but with the keywords “heartfelt”, “crazy”, and “Vancouver” sprinkled across his recommendation, I realized two things. First, I like entertainers who make a genuine effort to entertain; second, I like them even more if they wear a bowtie.

Paul Anthony and (more often than not) Ryan Beil co-host a variety show every month at the Rio, a downtown Vancouver theater. While tickets to see the event live require a cash outlay, Canadians (or at least Vancouverites) are able to watch it for free on their public access station. The seven episodes assembled on Amazon Prime provide only a limited view of the action, but I suspect an adequate one. Paul and Ryan introduce the show. They quip. They cavort with the audience. And they have a good time—and judging from the crowd reactions (of an almost-always almost-nearly full house), everyone else does, too.

The acts vary in quality, as is to be expected, but no more than what I’ve seen in more professional variety show outings. Weak or strong, the real magic comes from Paul (with a more sarcastic counter-magic from Ryan, when he’s on stage). Watching him perform, obviously relishing the opportunity to be with the crowd and  introduce really niche acts, is nothing short of joyous. Whether it be explaining why something technical won’t work that night, talking to a rock band made up of 9-year-olds, or hyping the crowd for the big chance to win “One! Hundred! Dollars!” through answering a staggeringly obscure trivia question, Paul has found his vocation, and he’s more than happy to share his joy. This joy is only dampened in the final episode found on Prime, where there are flashes-back to someone actually answering the question correctly.

Every installment has a theme. The hot tub episode, in particular, ably milks the fact that they were unable to arrange for an actual hot tub to be present on stage. The Christmas extravaganza with “Regular Santa” (a recurring guest donning the traditional look) vs. “Cool Santa” (some skinny-ass metal guitarist) also stands out. The theme for Prime’s final episode was money-grubbing, as Paul and his assembled “celebrity guests” man the telephones to raise money for the now bankrupt program. Things seem be going well, until the host realizes that the money raised doesn’t even cover half of the episode’s expenses.

I very much love the city I live in and wouldn’t trade it for any other location in the world. That said, I did have twinges of regret when watching that I probably will never make it up Northwest to see this fun-time fellow live. No matter. His show has a website, a fan-base, and a bright future. One word review: Infectious. (Particularly the show’s jingle; Be gone, you quirky, up-tempo tune.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Talent Time defies genre. You have to experience it to truly appreciate it.”–Guy McPherson, The Georgia Straight

CAPSULE: “DIVORCED DAD” (2018)

DIRECTED BY: , ,

FEATURING: Matthew Kennedy, Gilles Degagne

PLOT: A Divorced Dad and his even sadder-sack co-host, Gilles, produce a public access TV show that continually goes off the rails.

Still from Divorced Dad (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The format—cancelled web series repackaged as a home video release—rules it out from consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time. It’s more of a supplemental oddity for weird movie fans (even more specifically, for fans).

COMMENTS: Served papers by YouTube after only five official episodes, Canadian comedy troupe Astron-6’s “Divorced Dad” (based, as the opening credits to each episode explain, “on a dream had by Divorced Dad”) never really got the chance to find its footing. Star Divorced Dad and co-host Gilles were developing a classic abusive, co-dependent comedy duo dynamic (if Divorced Dad was as passive-aggressively condescending to his wife and children as he is to the admittedly annoying Gilles, it might explain why he finds himself single). After Divorced Dad’s dreams were shattered for a second time when his mock public access webseries was yanked from the platform, Kino Lorber came to the rescue with this home video release of the show’s complete YouTube run, plus two completed but unaired episodes, and some odds and ends to pad out the disc.

The episode that got the show pulled—“My Sis,” in which Divorced Dad accidentally signs up the Islamic State as beneficiary of his charity bingo show—is hardly the hot stuff one might have predicted, given how quickly the heavy fingers at YouTube corporate pushed the ban button. Ironically, “My Sis” may also have been their most conventionally structured comedy, and could have been a breakout episode. The series’ other sources of mirth were more conceptual bits like Gilles demonstrating less-then-delicate bedroom techniques on fruit, Divorced Dad getting into it with a female “restler,” and the “Treasure Man” parody, a microbudget attempt to create an “Indiana Jones”-style adventure series. Most notably for us, in three episodes he suddenly finds himself lost in existential netherworlds: one where he’s driven mad by the show’s bad sound, one where he overdoses on blue slushies, and one where he zones out while Gilles is misbehaving in the supermarket. The sly surreal comedy in these segments would have been a bit abstruse for the average YouTube surfer.

The visual aesthetic is a drunken take on early 90s cable access TV shows, with vertical hold issues, wandering picture-in-picture effects, and strange lo-fi wipes. Divorced Dad’s video board operator doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the show, instead spending his time checking out what happens when he spins the various knobs and dials before him. The end result is a show that looks like something you might find on an tape, with the absurdist comic sensibilities of an  live-action one-off.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for preserving this chunk of pop-culture flotsam, but… content-wise, it’s a little thin, as the main attraction takes up less than an hour of running time. Commentary tracks for the five original episodes beef up the presentation a bit. Besides the two previously-unseen episodes, extras include unaired footage (most notably, a hilarious faux-promo for “Treasure Man.”) There are also two “Merry Christmas” dispatches from a very depressed Santa (no one wants to hear that jolly old elf pleading “pray for me”). The disc’s hidden treasure, however, is “Chowboys,” a 9-minute short about cowboys on the range who contemplate cannibalism while hallucinating from hunger one chilly Christmas Eve. It’s described (sad spoiler ahead) as “the final film from Astron-6.” This is obviously a must-have release for Astron-6 fans; casual viewers might want to see if they can borrow a copy before shelling out a double-sawbuck, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Astron-6’s material may not be for everyone, but for those who have come to appreciate their quirky output, this release comes highly recommended!”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)