City on Fire 1979 ***


Good movies are great, but so, in the right circumstances, are the stinkers. Alvin Rakoff’s City on Fire won’t be troubling the Smithsonian anytime soon, but Amazon Prime seem to have felt it was worth a revival, introducing this shop-worn, tatty but delightfully slipshod production to a new generation. An AVCO Embassy production, this is an all-star disaster movie which really is a catastrophe, with stranded performers, a hard-to-visualise concept, and some strange production decisions that end up baking an explosive soufflé that you’ll be scraping off the inside of your oven for years to come.

The title sounds simple enough; there’s a city on fire, but which city? That question isn’t answered at all, since Canadian producers seem to have felt that to gain universal appeal, it would be better not to identify the city in question. ‘This could happen to any city, anywhere’ reads an opening title. Montreal, cheap and bland, is the actual location, but the backgrounds are as anonymous as the foreground dramas. Barry Newman cashes in the last of his Vanishing Point credibility as doctor Frank Whitman, a maverick who enjoys one-night stands and disrespects authority in the form of “Mister Mayor”, played by Leslie Nielsen. Nielsen’s subsequent stardom in Airplane and Naked Gun franchises adds value to his role here, but the scenarios he encounters are no less ridiculous; he’s paralysed with guilt when he realises that he should never have allowed an oil refinery to be built in the city centre. Who could have seen that coming? As things get worse, Whitman and the mayor are trapped by a fire-storm in a burning hospital, and have to lead an escape through a water tunnel; Nielsen was a great physical comic, and the forty minutes or so he spends directing a fire-hose over wheelchair and stretcher-bound characters have to be seen to be believed.

Exploitation whizz Jack Hill contributed to the script, and presumably the plotline concerning Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is his work. A Travis Bickle character, Stover wants society to hear him roar, and when passed over for promotion, blows up an oil refinery and then allows the raw crude oil into the city’s water supply to produce the city on fire of the title. Stover’s plea for understanding makes the Joker look positively woke, killing what would appear to be millions of people if the production values had risen to any decent effects. Meanwhile Fire Chief Henry Fonda looks concerned and newscaster Ava Gardner relates the horrors to those watching at home; Gardner’s performance suggests she’d never seen a newscaster in her life, and the weird, dreamlike voice she reads the news in is an undoubted highlight here.

In any other film, casting the venerable Shelley Winters as a young, idealistic and gutsy nurse would be a talking point, but she’s only one more shonky element in a tower of inanities. City on Fire is a so-bad-it’s-good reminder that terrible films are a perennial delight, an alternative to the seriousness of life, a pressure valve through which we can put aside our differences and laugh at the worst excesses of the entertainment industry. This film costs £0.00 on Amazon Prime and it’s worth every single penny.

Stateline Motel 1973 ***

Also known under the underwhelming title Motel of Fear, Maurizio Lucidi’s Stateline Motel is a rather cool little melodrama, ruined for your home viewing by this hideous print on Amazon Prime. Looking like the disregarded holiday snaps of an extremely amateur photographer, Stateline Motel is of interest primarily to connoisseurs of murk, but for those prepared to look beyond the abject, miserable presentation, there’s some narrative gold to be mined.

More recent efforts like Deadfall or Reindeer Games have a similar vibe; Stateline Motel is a Canadian-set, Italian financed melodrama the follows crooks in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. Fabio Testi plays Floyd, jail-bird partner of Eli Wallach’s Joe, who both have blood on their hands and some priceless jewels to split after a Montreal store-raid; Joe takes the bus across the border, while Floyd takes the car. Driving like a diddy for no obvious reason, Floyd totals his car and is forced to check into the motel of the title, where Michelle (Ursula Andress) is undressing five times nightly, distracting him from his share of the loot. Floyd and Michelle inevitably get it on, but when he wakes up, the jewels are gone…

Stateline Motel is no masterpiece, but it’s actually pretty compelling in the final straight as Joe closes in and the plotlines finally intersect before a cool final twist; it’s tough, hardboiled stuff, the kind of thing that Tarantino’s best films ape effectively. Testi and Andress are fine, and Wallach is a nasty bad-guy, with another Bond- girl Barbara Bach also in a key supporting role.

With horrible dubbing, gibberish subtitles and a dismal print quality, Stateline Motel perhaps is not the ideal place for genre fans to gain a taste of the 1970’s, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to justify a watch. It’s just a pity more time and effort hasn’t gone into restoration; the cast deserve better than this.

Enemy 2013 ****

Enemy (2013)

It’s hard to imagine what Jose Saramago’s book is like; Denis Villneuve’s accomplished psychological thriller is so cinematic, there’s few trace of the literary origins. Enemy explores the idea of dopplegangers, on old chestnut from The Man Who Haunted Himself to The Double, but adds a new and disconcerting angle. Jake Gyllenhaal gives two subtly differentiated performances as a college lecturer and a aspiring actor who share the same face and body; when Adam spots his look-alike in a movie bit part, he sets out to track him down, only to be confronted with Anthony. Anthony suggests swapping places, and their respective partners Sarah Gadon and Melanie Laurent seem unable to spot the difference. Villneuve makes clever use of Toronto’s architecture to suggest the dualities of the deception, and Enemy also offers a weird backdrop of sex-clubs where naked women in high-heels squash giant spiders in stilettos. It’s weird fare, but not as overblown as Villneuve’s well acted but overlong and melodramatic Prisoners, and brilliantly performed by Gyllenhaal in probably his best performance to date.

Scanners 1981 ***


While there’s not much to be said for the sequels that followed, David Cronenberg’s consideration of telekinesis is a nicely-done conspiracy thriller than benefits from the cold Canadian feel of the locations. Taking some ideas from the Thalidomide scandal, with pregnant women given drugs which adversely affected their children, the Scanners of the title are grown-ups who have destructive powers which the government seek to control; Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is on the case, and his final confrontation with revoke (perfect villain Michael Ironside) has become such a pop-cultural meme that it can cheerfully be referenced on The Big Bang Theory. Cronenberg also creates a big bang of his own in an explosive opening sequence, with a head tearing apart like a tomato in a microwave, but while the gore is capably handled by genre master Dick Smith, the whole production has a grimly downbeat feel that haunts the mind.

Black Robe 1991 ***


Bruce Beresford’s film would make a good double-bill with Roland Joffe’ s The Mission; with Jesuit priests as their main characters, both films explore the difference between heaven and earth with skill. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, set in 164 Quebec, Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) sets out across snowy wastelands to establish contact with a remote mission, only to find the superstitions amongst his party tearing it apart. Based on a true story, Black Robe contrasts the beautiful but deadly vistas of remote locations with the physical and mental tortures that men exert on each other; it’s a darkly spiritual film that repays patient viewers.

I Love A Man In Uniform 1993 ****


Also known as A Man in Uniform, presumably to hide any gay subtext, writer/director David Wellington’s low-budget drama has a strong central idea; bank worker and aspiring actor Henry Adler (Tom McCamus) is bored of his life, but gets a part in a TV show as a cop. Taking his uniform home, he enjoys dressing up as a cop, and starts wearing his uniform on the streets to help him get into the part. But taking on the mantle of a policeman lands Henry in trouble; his encounters with real-life copy Frank (Kevin Tighe) can only lead to disaster. I Love A Man In Uniform is a slow-burning but tense affair, looking at the media’s obsession with police-work and how it impacts on one man’s frazzled psyche; well acted and constructed, it’s a perfect little sleeper.

The Brood 1979 ***


A typically chilly Canadian venture from writer/director David Cronenberg, The Brood is a thought-provoking horror film that deals specifically with psychiatry and therapy. At  the Summerfree institute, Dr Raglan (Oliver Reed) is experimenting with his patients; one, Nola (Samantha Eggar) is able to produce  dwarf-like figures that act on her vengeful impulses. The dwarves resemble the haunting figure from the end of Don’t Look Now, and set about their victims in highly disturbing set-pieces.  The Brood deals overtly with divorce and custody issues, as well as offering a withering critique of psychological  experimentation techniques  in a vivid, gory thriller.

Stories We Tell 2013 ***


Actress Sarah Polley has made quite a career for herself as an actress in popular movies like the Dawn of The Dead reboot, and as a director with Away From Her and Take This Waltz. For the documentary film, she turns the camera on herself and her own family, and documents her own search for her real father. Using home movies, she builds up a picture of her mother and family life, then embarks on a series of interviews with her adoptive dad and the man she believes his her real father. Stories We Tell ruminates intelligently on the way people can lie to themselves about who we are, and Polley includes herself in this equation; she demonstrates how she has to fake elements of the story to deal with them. Where most documentaries happily take on the mantle of truth, Polley’s film looks with admirable honesty at the nature of lies and why we need them to survive.

Everything’s Gone Green 2006 ****


Novelist Douglas Coupland has produced a consistently high quality of novels with only a few clinkers (All Families Are Psychotic, Generation Y). His first effort at writing an original screenplay resulting in the excellent and relatively unknown comedy/drama Everything’s Gone Green, the story of Ryan (Paul Costanzo) an unmotivated young man who gets a new zest for life when he takes a job working for a national lottery in Canada. The catalyst is seeing his parents delighted then horrify when they wrongly imagine they’ve won a huge prize, but soon Ryan is coining in cash, and getting involved in money laundering. Paul Fox’s film has a superb attention to the minutia of Coupland script, from Ryan’s pimped-out car, the off-beat soundtrack, and the evocation of the sci-fi film that’s shooting in the background of Paul’s misadventures, the alien details of which pop up to reveal Ryan’s own alienation from his Toronto-based life. A great little comedy drama that hardly anyone saw, Everything’s Gone Green is a snapshot of a turning point of social disaffection with capitalism.

Away From Her 2006 ***


Adapted with great sensitivity from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, Sarah Polley’s directorial debut rises far above the disease-of-the-week TV movie genre. Set in a snowy Ontario, Polley’s script depicts the internal angst of Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsnet), who notices that his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Reluctantly accepting the need for Fiona to be in a residential home, Gordon has to face a stark reality when it becomes apparent that his beautiful wife has forgotten his caring touch, and started a relationship with another man. Mental illness is often stigmatized in cinema, but Polley takes a less judgmental tack, sticking closely to the emotional journey of her characters and maintaining sympathy for all parties in an unusual take on sexual jealousy. Pinsent and Christie are magnificent, capturing all the nuances of a sophisticated relationship foundering on the rocks of a difficult reality.