Three Little Flics
Since Mack Sennet’s Keystone Cops, the silent classics in which Charlie Chaplin made his movie debut, bumbling, frenetic policemen have been a mainstay of screen comedy. People like watching uniformed authority figures, who in other kinds of films are dedicated and heroic or corrupt and menacing, make total fools of themselves.
In Quebec, where coincidentally Mack Sennet was born, producers keep trying to emulate the box-office status of hits like Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006) and De père en flic (2009), both of which track the antics of gumshoes investigating a case. This month, veteran moviemaker Yves Simoneau is hard at work on the Quebec-French cop comedy, L'appât, and Filière 13 (File 13) opens this month to wide expectation of a summer hit.
Directed by Patrick Huard, who co-wrote and starred in Bon Cop, Bad Cop, and whose directorial debut, Les Trois p’tits cochons (Three Little Pigs, 2007), did solid if not spectacular business, Filière 13 re-unites the stars who played the “pigs.” This time around, Claude Legault, Guillaume Lemay Thivierge, and Paul Doucet are three screwed-up lawmen: short-fused, headache-plagued Thomas; phobia-ridden Jean-François; and their boss, Benoît, whose neglect of his wife has led to a break-up that pushes him over the brink. As Benoît spies obsessively on the departed Isabelle (Marie Turgeon), psychologically unstable Thomas and Jean-François are assigned to an undemanding surveillance job that becomes more challenging as the film wears on.
Opening on a botched arrest during which a suspect almost dies, Filière 13 tries to put itself over with pumped-up slapstick, pounding music by Montreal trip-hop duo, Beast, and cool threads. While Les Trois p’tits cochons worked as an ensemble comedy that probed dysfunctional manhood, Huard’s latest is the sporadically amusing kind of flick that relies on an incompetent dentist, a giggling pharmacist, and a maniacal shrink with fright wig hair to get yuks. That old standby, relentless vomiting, had me weeping with laughter in Team America: World Police, but in Filière 13, it plays as an attempt to stir some gross-out humour into the mix. Then there are the fag jokes, the slapstick fights between cops and skateboard punks, the supposedly amusing ditzy girl (Amik Jean) who endlessly whirls and spins around Thomas until he realizes he’s in love with her, and a running gag involving one of the cheapest props in movie history, a rubber band.
As Filière 13 launches into the marketplace, the summer box-office has been ruled by Piché: Entre Ciel Et Terre (Between Heaven and Earth), the real-life story of the pilot who safely landed an airbus, saving 304 people from a fiery death (see July Inside Quebec). The Quebec release earned $3 million in three weeks while it took the vastly superior Splice eight weeks to bring in about the same grosses across Canada with the benefit of U.S. release-generated media attention. It’s not as if Splice is just a predictable Canadian attempt to be clever or cute. As for Xavier Dolan’s much-hyped Les amours imaginaires, the young director’s follow-up to J'ai tué ma mère was a box-office disappointment, earning less than half the $1 million total returns of the first film. Does this mean that Quebeckers have a problem with stylishly pacaged, twentysomething, bi-sexual Ménage à trois stories?
Telefilm Canada exec Sheila De La Varende showed up at the opening of the 2010 FanTasia Film Festival and addressed the typically boisterous audience of genre fans, a confirmation that the festival is getting the kind of official recognition that long evaded it. On top of that, 100,000 spectators, more than ever before, turned out for the 14th edition, selling out 49% of its screenings.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the fest’s opening picture and a Canadian premiere, turned out to be a studio confection that provoked deep thoughts about the differences between strong action sequences and ineffectual ones. “It isn’t a question of fast cutting or CGI but of meaningful articulation between images,” Henry K. Miller observed recently in Sight and Sound Magazine. During the Q and A following the screening, Jay Baruchel, who stars in the picture opposite Nicolas Cage, was more amusing than the movie itself.
A genre fan and FanTasia devotee since adolescence, the peripatetic Montrealer delivered a profanity-paceed routine that had the Disney suits in attendance squirming in the shadows. For one thing, Baruchel recalled telling co-star Monica Bellucci that his favorite movie of hers is Irreversible, in which her character gets subjected to a brutal anal rape. Baruchel also joked that poor Mickey Mouse is in rehab and “hangs out with Carey Price a lot.”
Asked whether The Sorcerer's Apprentice is taking on a certain fantasy film franchise, Baruchel cracked, “We want to give Harry a run for his money.” And as a “big nerd,” he thoroughly enjoyed fighting monsters that he couldn’t see until the CGI kicked in. Clearly, Baruchel is happy to be cast in big Hollywood productions although he will always take on parts in low-budget Canadian films like his close friend Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky. “They make me a better actor,” he said in an irony-free moment, As for collaborating with Nicolas Cage, the duo “improvised until the cows came home, geeked out together for six months, and also made a lot of enemies.”
Contemplating the Unknown
One of the strongest pictures in FanTasia’s lineup was UK writer-director Simon Rumley’s Red, White, and Blue. Set and shot in Austin, Texas, this melancholic, ultra-violent elegy for the American soul plays out in a world of warehouses and hardware stores, frustrated dreams of rock ‘n’ roll glory, and hooking up in downscale bars. As the film opens, Rumley zeroes in on Erica (Amanda Fuller), who does menial labour by day and fucks anybody, or any gang of anybodies, who catch her eye by night. Eventually, Amanda gets into big trouble with musician Franki (Marc Senter) and his bosom buddies.
The only man Erica won't sleep with is Nate (Noah Taylor), who coolly confesses a history of childhood sadism and claims he was offered a CIA posting after his honourable discharge from Iraq. Capable of horrendous acts of vengeful violence, Nate loves Erica with courtly soulfulness and devotion. When he climbs out of his pickup and takes action in her name, the stars and stripes planted outside Franki’s house shimmer noticeably.
The sordid content of Red, White, and Blue counterpoints with its moral complexity. None of the three lead characters are purely good or bad; they are understandably human, and they are monsters. Moreover, the film is dignified by its formal brilliance. The story unfolds in rapid, tightly edited montages that sometimes jump slightly forward in time and then back again – as if the movie, like its characters, is impatient for the next event. Rumley eliminates whatever is unessential, he punctuates with bursts of quick cuts, and shifts point-of-view radically. When he slows down the action in certain horrific scenes, sounds of human suffering drift into elegiac soundtrack music.
Red, White, and Blue was shot with a hyper clarity and detail that recalls David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and P.T. Anderson films like Boogie Nights. In its bursts of kinetic energy, the film also hearkens back to Sam Peckinpah, while showing the obvious influence of Korean visionary Park Chan-wook’s vengeance cycle. By the end of the festival, Rumley’s movie shared Sequences Magazine’s award for best international feature with Jorge Michel Grau's Somos Lo Que Hay (We Are What We Are) while the Feature Film Jury named Noah Taylor best actor.
Also from a British moviemaker, Robin Hill’s Down Terrace conflates Mike Leigh’s working class dramedies with the comic menace of a Harold Pinter play, especially The Dumb Waiter. Compared to The Sopranos by some, the film depicts a family of minor criminals in all its homey ordinariness and detached ruthlessness. Hill also acts in the movie, his character’s blues singing, hippie philosophizing father, played by his real-life father, Robert.
A highlight of the FanTasia selection Subversive Serbia, Uros Stojanovic’s Tears for Sale is a wildly phantasmagorical comic fable about a village that has lost all its men to World War I. Crazed events transpirewhen a pair of village beauties bring two attractive chaps into the village’s witchy world of starved females.
Recalling the mood swings and hallucinated visuals of Bosnian moviemaker, Emir Nemanja Kusturica, Tears for Sale contrasted with the cool poetry of another female oriented picture, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll. A likely candidate for a U.S. remake deemed best Asian feature at the fest by the Quebec Film Critics’ Association, the Japanese movie fantasizes that a lonely guy’s inflatable sex doll can do a Pinocchio and morph into a naïve young girl discovering the tender beauties and devastating horrors of being human. The sine qua non of the movie is Korean actress Bae Du-na’s supernatural performance as creature who is part human and part plastic. From South Korea itself, legendary director Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is an inky film noir about sexual betrayal and revenge in a middle-class household. Made in 1960, the picture was inaccessible until the Korean Film Archive restored it, and the World Cinema Foundation, launched by Martin Scorsese, preserved it. A Korean re-make of The Housemaid played Cannes 2010 and will screen at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.
Within FanTasia’s Docs from the Edge series, Marc D. Levitz’s Feast of the Assumption: the Otero Family Murders is a crudely made but unsettling film documenting flawed Charlie Otero’s struggle to transcend the horror of his loved ones being tortured to death by the BTK serial killer. Another film about a struggle with trauma, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol is a haunting tale about a compulsively detailed, 1/6th scale representation of an imaginary Belgian town during World War II created by an upstate New Yorker to live beyond a barroom beating that almost killed him.
Canadian films at the festival included the closer, Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale Vs Evil, Dominique Adams’ Twisted Seduction, Rob Stefaniuk’s musical vampire extravaganza, Suck, and a “special work-in-progress” screening of Jephté Bastien’s Sortie 67, a potent, darkly lustrous film about Haitian street gangs sure to shake up Quebec’s culture milieu when it’s released in October. The sold-out second play of Bastien’s movie was the best attended weekday afternoon screening in FanTasia’s history.
In the realm of hardcore horror, little at the fest could compare to Dutch writer-director Tom Six’s notorious The Human Centipede. The set-up is familiar; what follows it comes as a stomach-churning surprise. Vacant American tourists Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) get lost in a German forest and seek help where they shouldn’t: the swanky home of crazed Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser). A retired specialist in separating Siamese twins, the most demented mad scientist in horror history now wants to surgically join human beings, but not at the hip. Uniquely, Six creates an agonizingly nightmarish situation that’s impossible to escape from. The Final Girl can’t even stand.
FanTasia 2010’s special events really were special. For instance, the screening of The Complete Metropolis drew 3000 instant silent movie aficionados to Salle Wilfred Pelletier of Place des Arts. One of them, a Montreal film professor, told me he sat there counting the shots eliminated from Fritz Lang’s spectacular vision of a nightmarish future when the film was released in 1927, and eventually found in a print that surfaced in 2008.
The 25 minutes of footage chopped out of Metropolis are easy to spot because they’re so deeply scratched. Among other differences between this version of Lang’s deeply influential sci-fi expressionism and the film most people have seen is the fleshing out of a bizarre villain who barely registered until now. Catapulting the experience into the sublime, silent movie specialist Gabriel Thibaudeau’s music for a live 13-piece orchestra hit every cue, always finding the right nuance, particularly during the wildly percussive accompaniment of the sequence when Rotwang, the mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) hunts down saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm) so that he can transform her into a robot. The moment the screening ended, the 3000 spectators jumped up for one of the most heartfelt standing ovations I’ve ever heard.
A wave of applause also greeted iconoclastic British moviemaker Ken Russell when he received Fantasia’s lifetime achievement award. Dressed in a black and white striped jacket, white hair all over the place, Russell was honoured on the night the fest showed his 1971 picture, The Devils. It was touching to see the mainly young audience cheer the faltering 83-year-old.
FanTasia’s first expansion into live performance was also memorable. In Nevermore: an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, actor Jeffrey Combs, under the direction of his long tine colleague Stuart Gordon, plays the Divine Edgar “after the death of his wife,” says FanTasia co-director and programmer Mitch Davis. “It ends with him in a drunken stupor throwing himself around on the stage. It’s as if he’s in a church basement in front of a crowd that doesn’t really care about his presence.” With its heavy, brocaded stage curtains and ornate, albeit faded décor, onetime movie palace the Rialto was a dream venue for Gordon and Combs.
Climaxing with a stunning recitation of The Raven, the one-man show also highlighted The Tell-Tale Heart in a cascade of words that brought out the story’s dark humour. Montreal Poe specialist Walter Krajewski liked the show, but told me that Poe would never have boozed it up on stage, let alone got so pissed he fell into the audience. Poe had an alcohol problem, but he drank in binges, and unlike say, Raymond Chandler, never while working. Poe also would never have publicly embarrassed a friend like poet Sarah Helen Whitman the way he does in the show. On the other hand, if Gordon and Combs didn’t give themselves dramatic license, how could they have depicted Poe’s slide into chaos?
As for the often maligned lovers of horror and other genre movies who flock to FanTasia, Mitch Davis thinks of them as “extremely open-minded. They’re pegged by outsiders who don’t really understand what they’re about as being people who just want to see silly sequels, or the same movie re-made 93 times, or extreme violence without context or reason. There’s a certain contingent that’s like that, but most of the horror fans I know are giants in literature. They all have huge book collections. They love documentaries and any unusual stories. It’s all about unusual, exotic experiences and contemplating the uncomfortable, or the unknown. Horror is often a gateway to those types of things.”
C.R.A.Z.Y. on the Left Bank
Of all the new Quebec movies in the works, the one I’m seriously looking forward to is Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore, which starts shooting this month. The writer-director of C.R.A.Z.Y. has come up with a supernatural love story that bends the rules of time and space, playing out in 1960’s Paris and 21st century Montreal. The title refers, of course, to the celebrated Left Bank hangout where Parisian bohemians and intellectuals once philosophized and fell in love, most of them with singer Juliette Greco.
A Canada-France coproduction with new Quebec company Item 7 at the table, Café de Flore features Quebec singing star Kevin Parent in his first screen role and French singing star, not to mention Johnny Drepp’s compagne, Vanessa Paradis. Vallée hopes that his return to directing a project of his own after the success of Young Victoria “will touch, surprise, give goosebumps, and share my happiness in bringing music to cinema and to daily life.”