Sunday, November 6, 2011
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2009)
I didn’t have any intention of seeing One Week, but a friend and I wanted to see a movie, and since my friend is a great Canadian, I thought this was the way to go: One Week, as one of the advertising pull-quotes has it, is “a love letter to Canada.” Joshua Jackson plays a Toronto teacher in his 20’s, with a fetching fiancée (Liane Balaban) but something missing, suddenly diagnosed with one-in-ten-odds cancer, who can’t face going into treatment; a well-timed chance encounter suggests the perfect delaying tactic – to buy a classic motor bike, and head west.
He ends up making it all the way to the coast, after photographing every giant dinosaur, photo mosaic and whatnot along the way, ooh-ing and ah-ing at lots of glorious scenery, and scooping in various other well-timed chance encounters; all of which facilitates a better focus on his real priorities and desires than he’s ever had before. Obviously, the movie is a contrivance; it’s consistently handsome and smoothly put together, but it’s the kind of thing where the relative strengths are manifestations of its inherent limitations. If you think about the last few minutes of any episode of Grey’s Anatomy, where the narrator muses about some banal life lesson over a bittersweet montage set to coffeehouse music, and you add in assorted Canadiana, then that’s just about One Week for you.
But you know, it did make me wish I saw more Canadian films, because for all its limitations, I liked the idea of it. I love Canada and have no intention of ever leaving, but I wasn’t born here, and I’ve never lived outside Toronto, so there are big gaps in my cultural appreciation. One Week’s “love letter” aspect comes across pretty well, including a very fetching portrayal of this very city (I guess it helps that everything takes place on the brightest of summer days); whatever the character’s unfulfilled ambitions might be, they’re not the fault of his homeland.
It’s not like I don’t see any Canadian films. I see everything Egoyan, Arcand and Cronenberg do…but the first two almost inevitably disappoint me. I see the occasional smaller film – I liked Ed Gass-Donnelly’s This Beautiful City last year (Young People F***ing, not so much). But I know it’s dabbling. I always muse about spreading myself too thin, cinematically speaking. Maybe I should just retrench and become a flag-bearer for the home front. I’ll nurture that thought for a while and see if it percolates.
One aspect of One Week suggests the possible frustrations of such a path: the squandering of several fine performers in inadequate supporting parts. I’ve seen Fiona Reid and Caroline Cave, who play his mother and sister, many times on stage, and never not been dazzled by them; their use here is pretty insipid (particularly in a clunky set-up toward the end where they just stand there silently looking misty-eyed). If I drew a broader lesson from my own experience, it might be to put my faith in local theatre and treat Canadian cinema merely as an occasional dessert, with all the nutritional limitations that implies.
But there again, I’m extrapolating too much from an unrepresentative sample. The following week, inspired by these thoughts, I went to see Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, which had already been playing for several weeks. McDonald deserves to be a bigger hero than he is – a proudly Canadian filmmaker who’s consistently pretty successful at getting to do his own thing, in between lots of TV directing work. I have to admit I’ve seen only one or two of his films, and have probably never mentioned him in the ten years I’ve been doing this column.
Well, better late than never. Pontypool is set in a small Ontario town, almost entirely inside a local radio station. Morning DJ Mike Mazzy, a laconic veteran with an urge to be more iconoclastic than the format allows, starts getting more material than he can handle – confused but horrifying reports of people flipping out; mass riots, attacks and worse. The stimulant, it seems, might in some way be the English language itself, rendering the radio station a possible source of contamination.
Speaking French (to the extent the protagonists know any) might be a better protection against such a plague than any assault weapon, from which you can see that McDonald’s film is a witty riff on the cracks in the melting pot. In other countries, the living dead is spawned from a space virus or mad scientists or what have you; in Canada, it’s as if they manifest a crack in our ideals. And even though we never see the besieged town and most of the action happens off-screen, it’s a remarkably evocative portrait of outer circle Ontario.
McDonald’s actors (only a few with speaking parts), especially the lead Stephen McHattie, seem to be having a blast too, and why wouldn’t they? If Joshua Jackson’s travels had brought him into the world of Pontypool, he’d be zombie food within seconds – he’d probably hand out napkins and lie down for them. Sure, Canada’s convivial, and we love that, but what kind of calling card is that for our challenged century? Pontypool is the smaller film by conventional measures, but with much stronger (and sure, more deranged, that’s what I mean) DNA.
Going back to the subject of nutritional limitations, I went to see my first big-budget crowd-pleaser in quite a while, Duplicity, won over by mostly good reviews, by a sudden flurry of interest in writer-director Tony Gilroy (full-blown New Yorker profile, either the stepping stone to glory or the beginning of the end), and not least by Julia Roberts’ radiant appearance on Letterman. All of this outweighed my feeling it might just turn out to be a soulless series of manipulations. So there you go, should have followed my instinct.
Duplicity has Roberts (only slightly less radiant than on Letterman) and Clive Owen (fine, but inherently a lesser star, what’s a man to do) playing former secret service professionals now in the private sector (working for rival Johnson and Johnson type companies, although she’s actually undercover for the other side), looking for a big scam opportunity. It arrives in the form of a secret formula, but how to get through the state-of-the-art security set-ups? And can they trust each other?
Gilroy’s intricate structure is impressively sound overall, and he’s quite an elegant filmmaker at times, but the film has less subtext than his last one, Michael Clayton; it’s all about the reversals and the twists and the mis-directions. Sometimes it’s so immaculate it seems to skirt profundity; it might have got there too if the implied indictment of corporate amorality had hit a little harder, but it’s all too abstract to chime against the headlines. And they visit just about everywhere in the G7 except Canada, so no joy there.