Friday, February 24, 2012

GOON - Review By Greg Klymkiw - A Great Canadian Hockey Movie to follow in the footsteps of Canuck "Lumber-in-the-Teeth" Classics as FACE OFF and PAPERBACK HERO and, of course, the most Canadian Movie Never Made By A Canadian, George Roy Hill's Classic SLAP SHOT

GOON (2011) dir. Michael Dowse
Starring: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill, Eugene Levy, Kim Coates, David Paetkau. Marc-André Grondin


By Greg Klymkiw

I kept wondering when a great Canadian hockey movie would come along. The truly cool Golden Age of Canadian Cinema in the 70s and early 80s yielded George McCowan's legendary Face Off (with its phenomenal rare 35mm footage of actual NHL action from the period), Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero (with the irrepressible 70s anti-hero played by Keir Dullea) and Zale Dalen's lovely ode to famed Saskatchewan kids' hockey coach Father Athol Murray, The Hounds of Notre Dame.

Canadian TV-movies in the 90s briefly flirted with hockey thanks to Atom Egoyan's still-pungent Gross Misconduct (about Brian "Spinner" Spencer) and Jerry Ciccoritti's superb Net Worth, which dealt with the struggle for a players' union and was, according to my Dad, not only a fine rendering of the period, but featured - in his opinion - a brilliant performance by Al Waxman as Detroit manager Jack Adams. Dad told me that Waxman captured Adams to perfection. Dad would know. He played briefly for the Red Wings WITHOUT a union in the late 50s and in spite of being cited by goalie Ken Dryden as a personal hero in his book "The Game" was subsequently booted by Adams after he broke his ankle.

So what happened? Where did all the Canadian hockey movies go? It's the country's God-Given national sport, for Christ's sake!

Well, not much of anything happened. Charles Biname's lame 2005 biopic of Maurice Richard, The Rocket, sadly didn't cut the mustard and as terrific as they were, the 90s TV flicks were revisionist takes on the sport Canadians embrace as steadfastly as maple syrup and beaver(s). And the less said about the loathsome Breakway and utterly inept Score: The Hockey Musical the better.

So basically, no great Canadian hockey pictures existed for 30 years - unless, of course, you count George Roy Hill's immortal Slap Shot with Nancy Dowd's delightfully foul mouthed screenplay, Paul Newman's sparkling player-coach Reggie Dunlop and, of course, the Hanson Brothers. Unfortunately, Slap Shot wasn't Canadian, though it should have been, and at times, sure felt like it.

When the movie came out, I was immersed in the world of hockey whilst hanging out with my Dad during the various promotional tie-ins he orchestrated via Carling-O'Keefe Breweries with both the WHA and Alan Eagleson's various "lost" Canada Cup series. The WHA was, of course, the world leader in bench-clearing brawls and I consider the most momentous occasion of my life to have been actually sitting in the Quebec Nordiques bench during their first bench-clearing brawl with the Winnipeg Jets.

Slap Shot nailed it by so indelibly capturing the on and off-ice atmosphere of hockey that I wasn't the only person in Canada who saw the movie dozens of times - ON A BIG SCREEN. In fact, Slap Shot was a huge hit in Canada, but flopped everywhere else in the world.

Oh, but thank Jesus H. Christ! Ah, fuck it! Thank ace Canadian director Michael Dowse!

The wait is over!

The Second Coming is here!

We are all now blessed with a Great Canadian Hockey Movie and the wait was well worth it!

Call it, The Rapture, if you will.

Based upon Doug Smith's novel "Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey" and with a screenplay co-written by everyone's favourite Canuck comic genius Jay Baruchel, Michael (FUBAR I & II, It's All Gone Pete Tong) Dowse renders yet another bonafide contender for masterpiece status.

Etching the tender tale of the kindly, but brick-shit-house-for-brains bouncer Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) who is recruited to a cellar-dweller hockey team in Halifax to protect the once-promising forward Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), Dowse captures the sweaty, blood-spurting, bone-crunching and tooth-spitting circus of minor league hockey with utter perfection. The camaraderie, the endless bus trips, the squalid motels, the brain-dead fans, the piss-and-vinegar coaches, the craggy play-by-play sportscasters, the bars reeking of beer and vomit and, of course, Pogo Sticks - it's all here and then some.

GOON delivers laughs, fisticuffs, mayhem and yes, even a dash of romance in a tidy package of good, old-fashioned underdog styling. Comparisons to Slap Shot, however, are going to be inevitable. GOON does lack the almost Bunuel-like set pieces of George Roy Hill's untouchable classic. Can anyone ever forget the interview with the Quebecois goalie wherein he describes what it's like to be in the penalty box? "You sit there. You feel shame." Or Paul Newman taunting an opposing team member about his wife going "dyke" with the mantra,"She's a lesbian, a lesbian, a lesbian." Or, finally, can any hockey movie - even a Great CANADIAN hockey movie like GOON ever top the Hanson Brothers and virtually anything they did - from "putting on the foil" to manhandling the Coke machine to smacking the helmets of the opposing team in their bench or the immortal slap shot that sends a puck sailing into the side of the organist's head?

Well, Dowse and his team are smart. They know you don't fuck with the Citizen Kane of hockey movies and instead try to move in a more, shall we say, esoteric direction. Whereas Slap Shot had the legend of Ogie Ogilthorpe, the worst goon in hockey history, GOON manages to go a step further and utilize a fabulous Ogilthorpe-styled character who is all flesh and blood.

Ross Rhena (Liev Schreiber) is the goon to end all goons. (Uh, yeah - Liev FUCKING Schreiber! This is one great actor and he delivers one of his best performances here.) Rhena is, in effect, a goon's goon. And what Dowse and team do here is perfect. They create a character with a bit of sentimental, old guard flavour and in one tremendously moving scene, Doug and Ross meet face to face in some squalid diner and engage in a conversation worthy of every great sports picture that ever featured the grand old man and the eager young up-and-comer.

Right across the board the casting and performances are first rate, but the revelation here is Seann William Scott as Glatt. His sweet, goofy, still-boyish appeal is so infectious, you actually enjoy seeing this happy-go-lucky lug doing what God intended him to do - bust heads.

I also suspect Mr. Scott can finally put his American Pie laurels as the immortal Stifler aside.

Glatt now reigns supreme in Le canon de Scott.

While GOON might not have individual set pieces on a par with Slap Shot, it more than makes up for this with quantity. You will never - in your life - see so much man-on-man carnage on the ice as you will in GOON, and it's not just a matter of quantity - the quality of the carnage is pure, exquisite bravura pulverizing.

It is a beautiful thing!

If Slap Shot is the Citizen Kane of hockey movies, GOON is The Magnificent Ambersons of hockey movies only now, imagine a work that rekindles the butchered glory of Orson Welles's masterpiece, but now on the blood-spattered hockey rinks of Canada!

It is a beautiful thing!

And fuck it, let's stretch the Orson Welles metaphor further. A great director needs a great editor. Welles had Robert Wise (an editor with the soul of a director). Dowse is blessed with Reginald Harkema (an editor with the soul of a director, 'natch!). If there are better editors in Canada than Reginald Harkema, I frankly have no idea who they are. The cutting in this film is utter perfection. Harkema slices and dices both comedy and action with equal aplomb.

Now granted, a director had to get the proper coverage for an editor to work such magic, but I was utterly floored by the cutting of the sequences on the ice. The sense of pace and geography is impeccable. Though Dowse has chosen a cuttier mise-en-scene than George Roy Hill, this doesn't result in the horrible mish-mash of cutty confusion in virtually every other contemporary action sequence. Harkema makes every cut a DRAMATIC beat and this is finally what gives GOON both its drive and emotional resonance.

It is, indeed, a beautiful thing!

If I have one quibble with GOON, it's that the filmmakers, due no doubt to exigencies of financing, chose to shoot in my old winter city of Winnipeg to stand-in for Halifax.

Come on, guys. Is Halifax really that pathetic?

"GOON" is in wide theatrical release via Alliance Films.

Friday, February 17, 2012

IN DARKNESS - Review by Greg Klymkiw - This powerful true story of the Holocaust, a Canadian-Polish co-production, has been nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar. The true story of a Polish war profiteer in the Ukrainian city of Lviv during WWII is replete with great performances, a fine screenplay by David F. Shamoon and expert direction from Agnieszka Holland.

In Darkness (2011) dir. Agnieszka Holland
Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Michal Zurawski, Kinga Preis, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup


By Greg Klymkiw

Whenever a new film about the Holocaust appears, the oft-heard refrain is, "Not another one!" It's as if the subject itself is enough to inspire such dismissive reactions - which, frankly, I've never understood. Genocide is one of the greatest blights upon mankind as a species and given the especially horrific events of the 20th century, stories such as In Darkness must be told.

Set in the Ukrainian city of Lviv during World War II, we're introduced to the Polish plumber and sewer-worker Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) who supplements his livelihood during the Nazi occupation by thieving and black marketeering. A group of people in the Jewish ghetto have burrowed into the sewers in order to escape the impending horrors that await them. Socha happens upon the Jews and agrees to hide them beneath the old city where nobody will find them - for a price, of course.

A major payday awaits when Socha's old friend Bortnick (Michal Zurawski), a member of the Ukrainian SS, mentions the substantial reward available for pointing officials to Jews in hiding. Socha gets the bright idea of soaking his Jewish charges until their money runs out and THEN betraying them for the bounty.

War, however, has different effects upon different people. Some take the easy road, while others face up to who they really are and make sacrifices with their very lives.

Much of the film takes place in the dank, dark sewers of Lviv and we are privy to the horrendous conditions the Jews must live in order to survive. While we follow Socha's adventures above ground, life for the Jews is presented in clear juxtaposition.

Here is where David F. Shamoon's screenplay adaptation of Robert Marshall's book really shines. Given the number of characters, above and below ground that must be juggled, he presents a series of evocative portraits on both sides of the divide. Above ground, not everyone is a villain, whilst below ground, not everyone is a saint. The screenplay provides humanity with a layered dramatic resonance.

The fine script allows for a flawless cast to deliver a series of performances that will burn in your memory long after seeing the film. Holland's direction is precise and classical. She doesn't miss any dramatic beats and it's finally a movie that never lets up - it's compelling, surprising, shocking and finally, profoundly moving from beginning to end.

I have one major quibble, however. I will admit that it would probably not even be a problem if I was NOT of Ukrainian heritage, but luckily I am, because it allowed me to pinpoint a missing political element that might well have added an even deeper layer to this fine film.

Here's the problem, as I see it. The city of Lviv was, prior to the Nazis marching in, already an occupied city. Poland had claimed a huge portion of Western Ukraine as its own and parachuted (so to speak) huge numbers of Polish citizens to populate and run the city. Many Ukrainians were forced out and eventually settled in outlying areas of the Oblast. Being in the midst of researching my own family tree, I have discovered that a great many of my blood ancestors were driven out of Lviv by the Poles. Ironically, many of them formed their own village which also bore my surname. The village was subsequently destroyed by the Poles when they decided to build a dam and flood the whole village. From there, my ancestors split up and settled even further West in and around Ternopil.

I have to admit that in light of this research I was troubled that the script ignored the fact that this "Polish" city was, in fact, already an occupied city prior to the Nazis. I was further disturbed that the only Ukrainian character in the tale was portrayed as a vile Jew-hating pig who doesn't collaborate with the Nazis for the usual reasons Ukrainians collaborated (many were duped into believing the Nazis would be their liberators from both Polish and Russian oppression). These are issues of ethnocentric ignorance that are hurtful, but let's cast them aside for a moment and think about this otherwise compelling story if it had added the element of Poles being an occupying force to begin with who were, in turn occupied. From a narrative standpoint, I'd argue this might have made the piece far more interesting and added an additional layer of complexity to one in which the filmmakers do not present easy Hollywood-style answers to the dilemmas facing all the characters.

It's the fact that the screenplay so diligently creates drama and conflict by presenting a myriad of complexities within the characters that it disappoints me the film did not take the time or effort to explore this avenue also.

This will no doubt be seen as an easily dismissed and biased quibble, but the fact remains that World War II and the Holocaust are fraught with horrendous sufferings and issues that are not black and white.

Some biases, it seems, are acceptable, while others are not.

The bottom line though, is that it's a terrific film. That said, even great pictures have potential to be greater and I believe my "bias" might well have improved the tale considerably.

"In Darkness", 2011 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is currently in theatrical release and now playing in Canada via Mongrel Media.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

LE VENDEUR - Review by Greg Klymkiw - This stunning Quebecois kitchen sink drama is so raw and real, the pain evoked so acute, you'll be devastated by its quiet power while at the same time dazzled by its cinematic genius. The film had its World Premiere in Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011 and was cited as one of Canada's Ten Best Films of the year in the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) CTT. That it has not garnered one single nomination for a Genie Award is an utter disgrace! Don't miss it!

Le Vendeur (2011) dir. Sébastien Pilote
Starring: Gilbert Sicotte, Nathalie Cavezzali, Jérémy Tessier and Jean-François Boudreau


By Greg Klymkiw

It's a rare experience for me, but when it occurs, there's nothing like it. Sometimes I see a movie and after the final end-title credit has faded and the lights come up, I bolt from the cinema to be alone with my thoughts and to savour and extend the emotional response I had. Off the top of my head, other movies that made me feel this way were Au Revoir Les Enfants, Les Bons Debarras, The Straight Story, Ivan's Childhood and seeing the restored print of Nights of Cabiria. The experience, so indelibly etched into my soul, is as close to soaring as I'm ever likely to get.

And now, there's a new gun in town, pardner.

While its thematic concerns and narrative are both timeless and universal, and though it is set in a small factory town in Quebec, I was profoundly moved and deeply taken with just how Canadian Sébastien Pilote's astounding film Le Vendeur is. This staggeringly powerful, exquisitely-acted and beautifully written motion picture is easily the first genuine Quebecois heir apparent to the beautiful-yet-not-so-beautiful-loser genre of English Canadian cinema of the 60s and 70s (best exemplified by films like Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero and Zale Dalen's Skip Tracer).

The title character of Pilote's great film is ace car salesman Marcel Lévesque (Gilbert Sicotte). He lives in a small town on the brink of complete financial collapse - the primary industry has shut down production and locked out its workers and yet, while people are starving, losing everything, moving away and many local businesses shutting down forever, Marcel turns a blind eye to all this. He's not the undisputed Salesman of the month in the dealership for nothing - and not just one month, but EVERY month, for years on end.

Financial crisis be damned! There are cars on the lot and they need to be moved.

And they will be moved.

At any cost.

Marcel, you see, has nothing. With a healthy nest-egg and no financial commitments, he's at an age when most men would retire and enjoy life. For Marcel, life is selling cars. His late wife has been six feet under for a long time and his only real human connection is to his daughter Maryse (Nathalie Cavezzali), a hairdresser and single mother to Antoine (Jérémy Tessier). If it weren't for them, he'd have even more time to sell cars.

He is, however, in spite of this obsession, a devoted, loving and caring father and grandfather. He makes regular visits to his daughter's shop, attends local events with her, watches his grandson play hockey in the local arena whilst gently tut-tutting any suggestion from his only surviving blood relations that perhaps he should retire.

He is a friend to everyone in town, yet in reality, he has no friends. His effusive manner with all he meets is part of his ongoing schtick - he knows damn well that people will buy from someone they like.

And he must be liked to be successful.

His colleagues love him too. It's no matter to his fellow salesmen that he outsells them ten to one. He's a great guy and because he's a great guy they all believe his prowess and luck will rub off on all of them.

And then there are the locked-out workers at the factory he passes every morning on his way to the dealership. They stand in the frigid Quebec climate, snow piled up around them and warming themselves on the fires raging in steel drums as they keep vigil over their only hope for employment - their placards demanding fair treatment while the factory's fat-cats get bonuses and they potentially lose their jobs, benefits and pensions.

No matter to Marcel.

The unemployed need to buy huge, gas-guzzling American cars they can't afford as much as the next guy.

And he's just the man to make the sales. Marcel prides himself on remembering and knowing as many details about his customers (past, present and future). For those times he needs his memory jogged, he maintains a collegial and caring rapport with the guys who work in the service department. He plies them with daily cans of Coke from the pop machine and when he spies a familiar vehicle up on a hoist, he gets as much info as he needs from the mechanics about the owner of the ailing vehicle. He then consults his files to confirm he actually sold the car (and any salient details that can breed added familiarity), finds the "mark" in the waiting room, greets him as if they've known each other their whole life and slyly presents options available to trade-in the old and buy the new.

One such mark is the sad-sack François Paradis (Jean-François Boudreau), an out-of-work labourer locked out of the factory. This is a man who is unsure of where his family's next meal is coming from, but all Marcel knows is that a trade-in (at a loss to the customer), easy financing (at usurious interest rates) and cars on the lot that must be moved are the ultimate order of the day.

A sale is imminent.

So too is disaster.

Marcel's single minded need to sell knows no bounds. When this results in not just one, but two major tragic events, Marcel holds the ultimate key to his own survival - he can sell.

Pilote has crafted an astonishing screenplay - rife with details that are indelibly rooted in the realities and truths we all have experienced and/or recognize. As a director, he renders his screenplay with one jaw-droppingly poetic shot after another and yet, as exquisite as Pilote's eye is, the frame is rife with the reality of both beauty and despair.

And it is so Canadian: The endless snow, the frosty breath permeating the air, the crispness of the night, the sun and clear skies beating down on a frozen Earth, the constant parade of tractors clearing the streets, removing ice from the windshields, plugging and unplugging one's car to keep the block and interior heaters working overtime in sub-zero temperatures, the hot cups of java in the local diner, steaming hot chocolate in the hockey arena, the forays onto the frozen lakes to ice-fish and the ice-and-snow-packed highways that convey people from one solitary place to another - sometimes even as solitary as death.

Pilote's mise-en-scene has been rendered with the keen eye of cinematographer Michel La Veaux and I submit this might well be one of the best shot Canadian films in years. The compositions are often painterly, but most astounding is both the lighting of the interiors (starkly beautiful with a delicate grain and considerable detail) and the stunning exteriors wherein La Veaux paints with natural light. One of the shots I'll take to my grave is an interior of a snow-packed frigid car - that special beauty of darkness and light that we've all experienced at some point or another as we enter a vehicle that's yet to be swept free of the layers of frozen precipitation. This is great shooting and puts so much of the more expressionistically flashy Quebecois cinematography to shame.

Finally, the most Canadian image of all in Le Vendeur is the bloodied carcass of a moose who has strayed in the path of a car cascading along the black ice on a wilderness-enshrouded highway and the twisted wreckage of said vehicle that has collided with the huge, lumbering beast. I'd argue that anyone who has not seen this with their own eyes, experienced it themselves or, at least knows or knows of someone involved in such an accident can't possibly be Canadian - or, at the very least, lives a very sheltered life from one of the more characteristic experiences of Canadian life. (I've accidentally hit everything from rabbits to porcupines to coyotes to deer on the highways of northern Canada and a dear friend was invalided for life after hitting a moose. I can assure you, it's not a pretty sight.)

This is Quebec. This is Canada. And this is a film replete with so many aspects of indigenous familiarity that adds to the already tremendously moving narrative of Le Vendeur.

Yet amidst these details that speak to our culture - both English and French - there are the details of both the character and narrative which reflect realities as profound and universally recognizable as such works as Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" or David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" or Joseph Heller's "Something Happened" or Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day". These are stories of men and families torn to shreds by the seeming freedom of capitalist society.

And so too is Pilote's Le Vendeur.

While watching the film, I could not get the aforementioned canon of English-Canadian loser cinema out of my head. For the townspeople who leave Le Vendeur's northern Quebec - especially the young men, I thought about Joey and Pete in Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, leaving their small Maritime town for new horizons, yet facing equally uncertain futures once away from the nest. I imagined the future of Marcel's hockey-playing small-town grandson and wondered, if fortune allowed him a full blossoming, would he too remain a big fish in a small pond like Rick "The Marshall" Dylan (Keir Dullea), the boozing, brawling, womanizing small potatoes hockey player from Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero? Worse yet, I wondered if Marcel himself was actually Joey or (more likely) Pete from Shebib's masterpiece if either had stayed in their small town and channelled the malevolent drive to succeed at any or all cost as imbued in the character of John the psychopathic debt collector in Zale Dalen's Skip Tracer?

Look, I doubt any of the aforementioned English Canadian films registered with Pilote when he wrote and directed Le Vendeur, but what's truly uncanny is just how connected and rooted to the English Canadian experience and aesthetic his film is. Perhaps the two solitudes are not as solitary as some would like to believe.

Like those films, Pilote has crafted what may well become a masterwork of CANADIAN cinema and one that is rooted in an indigenous cultural tradition no matter what side of the French-English fence one is on.

Le Vendeur is from Quebec.

And it is truly Canadian!

This is a good thing.

"Le Vendeur" is in limited release in English Canada via E-One Films. It begins a theatrical release in Toronto February 3 at the Alliance Atlantis Cumberland Cinema. It had its world premiere in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2011 and was wisely - VERY WISELY - cited by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Canadian Top Ten (CTT). How it has not garnered one single Genie Award nomination is not only beyond me, but frankly, a disgrace. (Even the Quebec-based Jutra Awards have egg on their face for ignoring Pilote's direction, but citing the film in other categories - but the Jutras are regional and the Genies are national. They should know better.) In any event, do yourself a big favour and DO NOT MISS "LE VENDEUR" ON A BIG SCREEN WHERE IT MUST BE SEEN.

WATCH THIS TRAILER. DON'T MISS THIS MOVIE!!! (Note to Anglos: The trailer has English subtitles, but for some reason it tags the film with its English title THE SALESMAN, but when you look for the title in your movie listings in English Canada, it will most likely be listed as "Le Vendeur" - as it should be.) And again - DON'T MISS THIS MOVIE! SEE IT THEATRICALLY ON A BIG SCREEN WHERE IT MUST BE SEEN!

The film's official website can be found HERE