Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A KIND OF WONDERFUL THING - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sweet, Funny, Quirky & Moving Canadian Family Drama that's playing at the first edition of the Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF 2014).

The Niagara Integrated Film Festival launches its first exciting season June 19-22, 2014 inclusive. You're probably wondering about the "integration" aspect of this cultural event and I can assure you it has nothing to do with President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Civil Rights Act. No Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe sporting guns and fedoras to stop Mississippi [from] Burning, no To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) show trials, no Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) coming to town In the Heat of the Night to solve murder with a racist lawman (Rod Steiger), no Melvin Van Peebles singing that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and most certainly, no William Shatner, The Intruder, heading to Wine Country to preach against desegregation. No-siree, Bobski! We're talking all about the integration of fine cinema, fine dining and the finest wine from the luscious grapes of Southern Ontario, all finely mushed together by the skillful prowess of only the finest bare feet a-stomping on the sweet orbs of fruity delights in those healthy receptacles designed to yield the nectar of the Gods. This is going to be one unique film festival and I've had a chance to preview a few of the cinematic morsels on view this coming weekend. The Film Corner reviews of NIFF's bevy of cinematographic delights right here and now.

Quirky Anna (Erica Sherwood) shares some tender moments
with her equally quirky little brother Josh (Brad Moore).
Happily, neither of them deserves to be punched in the face.
A Kind of WONDERFUL Movie.
A Kind of Wonderful Thing (2013) ****
Dir. Jason Lupish, Written by Erica Sherwood and Jason Lupish
Starring: Erica Sherwood, Ralph deGroot, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Edward Balli,
Bill Sherwood, Arlene Copland, Emma Sherwood, Brad Moore, Liam Sherwood,
Tiffany Browne, Sydney Thompson, Nicole Maris,Darlene Sherwood, Beth Moore,
Mitchell Wood-Sarkisian, Greg Switzer, Rob Colonico, Brian Andres.

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Preface: On Quirky Comedies: 

I think I hate the idea of quirky comedies more than I actually hate the thing itself. I suspect this has to do with seeing so many bad ones that I've automatically built up a knee-jerk resistance to them. What I detest most is when the pictures go completely out of their way to be off the beaten track, so much so that you can actually see the soiled remnants of the creator's dirty mitts all over the piece itself. What you actually see is the stitching more than the fabric, and often, the fabric itself tends to be a cheap cut of cloth. Worse yet, is that the whole notion of a "quirky" comedy should really be one that's rooted in both the originality of the filmmaker(s) and sprout from seeds of reality that we all recognize. When the "quirks" we experience on-screen are like a mirror reflection of either our own experience and/or that of those we know, then what we're experiencing is something very special indeed.

We're not, for example, being gagged with a spoonful of rancid cinematic afterbirth like pictures that have been machine-tooled to be quirky like, for example, the despicably overrated "cute-retard" Oscar winner Silver Linings Playbook. What signals truly great eccentric laugh-fests are those like such bbonafide classics or near-classics as Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Mike Judge's Office Space and/or Napoleon Dynamite by Jared Hess. Not a single one of these films feels "manufactured".

Seeing obvious signs of any artist's abominably soiled fingers is the worst thing in any movie, but especially in offbeat comedies. I'm not necessarily talking about their style, or voice, because if that were the case I'd detest ALL of Woody Allen's movies, many of which could well slip into the realm of "quirky". Luckily, he's a genuine filmmaker and because of it, I clearly like and most often, love his stuff. When Allen or any other filmmaker is working at the peak of their powers, you don't see what they're up to - the pictures are so exquisitely crafted that what you're getting is the full monty. There are no annoying moments where you're being ripped out of the dramatic trajectory and asking, "Hey, where's the salami?"

In recent years, quirky comedies have also been shit-stuffed with far too many tell-tale signs of their desire to be outside of the purview of the ordinary, the commonplace. Wes Anderson, of course, used to be one of the most horrendous of these dabblers. Rushmore, for example, is so sickeningly twee and quirkily so, that all you really want to do is slam that stupid kid's face, teeth-first, repeatedly against a water fountain's metal spigot, then stick his idiotic red beret up his ass. Of course, the absolute worst offender is the wretched screenwriter Diablo Cody whose obvious, cellar-dwellar snappy dialogue is little more than gussied-up TV-sitcom writing which, with the horrendous Juno seemed perfectly suited to the marginally talented camera-jockey Jason Reitman, who thus far has proven that all he can do is make feature length versions of TV dramedies.

In many ways, there's not a damn thing wrong with the commonplace. There's no need to manufacture "quirk", because the ordinary is so often what is funny. Truly great and/or natural filmmakers are able to mine this territory for all its quirky worthiness. There's no need to look under every rock for the offbeat and then, if it isn't there, invent it for the simple reason of making sure it exists.

Canadian filmmakers, especially in English Canada, have naturally migrated to slightly out of the gourd comedies. Our unique perspective as a nation resisting Manifest Destiny (while schizophrenically wanting to embrace it), in addition to the basic reality of substantially lower budgets to play with, has contributed to a ludicrously high number of such films - perhaps generating more of them on a per-capita basis than anywhere else in the world. Like our American indie or indie-styled counterparts, the best work in this sub-genre has been rooted in a genuine sense of skewed reality coupled with original filmmaking voices like that of John Paizs (Crime Wave, Top of the Food Chain), Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky), Michael Dowse (FUBAR, Goon) and most recently, Kathryn Palmateer and Shawn Whitney's A Brand New You. Alas, the number of perfectly wretched quirky Canadian comedies is also, on a per-capita basis, probably higher than any other country. Even bothering to cite them here, would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

All this, however, brings us to the order of the day - a first-rate solo sophomore directorial effort and yes, a quirky comedy. It's not only a terrific movie, but it's Canadian!


Why is this pretty girl hanging
herself? Is it because she's quirky?
A kind of, well, you know, a kind of pretty good, I guess, well, you know, a kind of, well, maybe it's a bit better than pretty good, maybe it's, well, uh, well, you know, it's Canadian so it's kind of going to be, you know, kind of well, you know - maybe it's A KIND OF WONDERFUL THING.

Anna (Erica Sherwood) wants to kill herself. She's single. She works in a laundromat/coffee shop. Her annoyingly Status Quo-loving sister Sarah (Beth Moore) is about to get married and hates her for presumably being responsible for their Dad's accidental death and spilling his urn of ashes before they could be scattered, uh, properly.

Oh yeah, Anna is going to die anyway.

She's been diagnosed with what is most probably terminal cancer. Unfortunately, Anna's so close to being a female version of a nebbish that she can't even hang herself properly, so when that fails, she turns to drowning her ennui with liquor and diving headlong into 98-hour work weeks.

Seems reasonable, yes?

Her little brother Josh (Brad Moore) wouldn't think so. He's returned home to attend the wedding and decides to crash with Anna. After all, she lives alone in the old family house and if it wasn't such a mess, there'd actually be plenty of room. Josh is a musician, a seemingly happy-go-lucky wandering troubadour, though mostly, no doubt, an odd-jobber to support his music career. His return stimulates the warmth and good humour the brother and sister shared as kids - before, of course, the accident.

Always, the accident. It clearly touched the whole family's life, but none more than Anna. It consumes many of her waking hours when she's not working or drinking herself into a stupor, mixing the booze with her drugstore-full of anti-depressants. Worse yet, even at rest, it doesn't escape her. Anna's dreams are filled with memories of her late father which, rather than offering solace, only serve to remind her of his death. In some ways, Anna's life is not so much a living nightmare, but one of those horrendous, icky disturbing dreams we sometimes get when we accidentally fall into those decidedly unexpected catnaps on hot, humid days.

We've all experienced them. I have a recurring one, myself. It involves a slime-drenched foetus-like creature being stroked gently by my bedridden Mother who inexplicably has knobby stumps for arms. When the foetus slithers away, up a wall, then onto a ceiling, it drops, splattering onto my face and waking me up.

But, I digress. You get the idea, I'm sure.

To complicate matters further, Anna notices that a super-handsome hunk (Edward Balli) has moved into the house next door. She obsesses over him and he seems to like her, too. He likes her so much, he admits how easy and delightful it would be to kill her. This seems to be courtship-talk of the strangest kind, but as the story is set in the bucolic Southern Ontario city of St. Catharines, a sort of wine-country Canadian version of David Lynch's Lumberton in Blue Velvet, anything is possible. The sleepiest burghs in Canada tend to be roiling with all manner of dark undercurrents. And let's not forget that St. Catharines, Ontario is the former kingdom of the happily married schoolgirl-killer-rapist hubby and wifey, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Our hunky neighbour could well have a few quirks he needs to genuinely iron out. Don't we all?

Speaking of quirks, one huge spanner in the works with respect to romance for Anna - well, aside from her terminal cancer - is that lover-boy has a pretty, blonde ex-girlfriend (Tiffany Browne) who is not only stalking him, but shooting evil eyes into our heroine. Oh, and our stalker chick also steals gum. This is inexcusable, especially, it would seem, in St. Catharines.

And please, allow me to reiterate. This movie is, after all, set in St. Catharines, Ontario. As weird a place as that is to set a movie, it seems to be just what the movie doctor ordered, because it's the indigenous qualities of that world that contribute greatly to the film's winning originality. The writing by star Sherwood and director Lupish is some of the best I've had the pleasure to experience in a Canadian comedy. It's up there with the best. Though the dialogue dangerously borders upon the almost stock indie-quirky-comedy tone of deadpan disaffection, it brilliantly never plunges straight into that chasm. The screenplay is deftly balanced, always fun, often telling and extremely affecting. One of its strengths is how clever it is without being self-consciously clever.

(There's one strange false note in the writing that I just didn't get. I've watched the film twice now and still can't figure out why Anna is beleaguered with medical bills when she lives in Canada, a country with universal healthcare for all. I thought that maybe she was traipsing down to nearby Buffalo, New York to circumvent the sometimes tortoise-like machinations of the national health system in Canuckland, but I don't know any American hospitals that bill you for services rendered. It's cash or credit card up-front in the Land of Stars and Stripes. At least that's been my experience. Yeah, this is a nitpick, but it does kind of stand out like a sore thumb.)

Sore thumb or not, the movie grabs you by the funny bone and the heart and it never lets go. Lupish directs with the kind of sincerity and simplicity that allows for the screenplay to soar and the performances he elicits from the cast are nothing short of miraculous. The acting is naturalistic and fresh - from its charming leads right on down to bit players and even extras. We never feel like we're watching "actors" or rather, actors who ever try to overplay dialogue that could well veer into the aforementioned "quality" of machine-tooled quirkiness.

In spite of its layers of darkness and even heartbreak, A Kind of Wonderful Thing creates a natural feeling of buoyancy in an audience. It makes you feel good, even when you're tweaked and singed by the reality and even sadness of Anna's world (and by extension, the world of all the characters).

Lupish also creates magic where it really counts. Letting the script take its odd southpaw turns, the movie builds to a climax that comes completely out of nowhere, but even that's the delicate magic of his work as a director. It doesn't really come from nowhere - it's an inevitability we can't escape from, but one in which we participate with blindfolds. The film astoundingly engenders a sense of repression - not only within the characters (one which they all must narratively overcome), but within us, the audience. We repress what's staring us in the face because we love the world and characters of this film too much.

This is what tears at your heart. The film cuts deep. I even urge an audience to load up on kleenex and/or hankies before watching the movie. Lupish creates an ending so beautiful and haunting that you might well be needing them. A Kind of Wonderful Thing serves up something that's finally not kind of wonderful, nor is it tear-jerking, nor is it sloppily manipulative. It's wonderful, alright and it's so damn moving, it'll send you out of the cinema soaring with both melancholy and contentment.

In the end, you can't ask too much more from a picture.

A Kind of Wonderful Thing plays at the inaugural Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF 2014). For tickets and further info, visit the festival website HERE.