Thursday, 14 August 2014

IT WAS YOU CHARLIE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sad & Funny First Feature By Indie English-Canuck Shirinian

NOTE: The Film Corner's Star Ratings will now appear at the end of the review.
Bittersweet comedies always need BABES. This one has two!!! Good deal!!!

Brothers and Doormen make great cinematic bedfellows.
It Was You Charlie (2013)
Dir. Emmanuel Shirinian
Starring: Michael D. Cohen, Aaron Abrams, Anna Hopkins, Emma Fleury

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"You was my brother, Charlie. You should'a looked out for me…I could'a had class, I could'a been a contender. I could'a been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it. It was you, Charlie." -Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg's On the Waterfront
Any low-budget independent movie that mixes-up its approaches to both comedy and melodrama (sometimes perfectly, at others, not so seamlessly) as this one does, but also has the audacity to overtly reference the sibling relationship of Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront and then toss in some subtle shadings of The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau's tragic tale of an old doorman played by Emil Jannings, is a movie, that in spite of occasional stumbles, is well worth seeing. It's one flavourful cinematic kishka.

It Was You Charlie explores the lonely life of Abner (Michael D. Cohen) a short, schluby, suicidally-depressed former teacher-artist turned graveyard shift doorman and the fierce sibling rivalry he endures (if not imagines) with Tom (Aaron Abrams), his tall, handsome, lady-killing brother. Abner also harbours a tragic secret that has debilitated his professional and personal life while Tom not only seems to have everything going for him, but also scores with Madeleine (Anna Hopkins), the babe our haplessly loveable schlemiel has long held a torch for. Seemingly round the corner and under his nose, though, is Zoe (Emma Fleury) a kookie female cab driver who meets cute with him as he's trying to access a suicide help line on a speaker phone when the lovely blonde comes into the front lobby looking for a fare.

Sounding whimsical? Actually, none of it - thank CHRIST!!! - plays as such and is one of the film's gifts to those of us who become deeply nauseated by even the mere thought of whimsy. Shirinian and his first-rate cast careen comedically like a pinball blessed with a bonus-bumper in the gutter to keep the silver orb in play - from straight-up human comedy to pitch-black guffaw-grabbers and (less successfully) broad comedy (Abner's first suicide attempt is played in the latter style and lays a rotten egg rather than a golden one.) The dramatic/melodramtic aspects of the film, however, play superbly. Shirinian is wisely never afraid of indulging in glorious sentiment (a scene with Abner and an infant is a heart-tugger of the finest order).

The film has an especially brave and intelligently-wrought structure involving flashbacks which mesh beautifully with the present-tense dramatics. Alas, there's one almost-horrendously obvious plot element within this structure which is as glaringly obvious as a boil on a fat whore's ass. Thankfully, it's liveable since so much of the film clicks in its delectably oddball fashion.

Working with Luc Montpellier (The Saddest Music in the World, Take This Waltz), the best living cinematographer in Canada (English and French), and surely one of the best in the world, Shirinian is blessed with a look that plays gorgeously with his offbeat mise-en-scene. The lighting is always evocative of both the natural settings and emotional core of every scene and when the camera moves, it's as if we're allowed to cascade with both the narrative and emotional beats with pure fluidity.

That said, there are a few moments where we're begging for either a medium two-shot or closeup and in one case, during a scene between the brothers in a cafe, where we're waiting - nay, emotionally demanding a dolly shot from behind Abner as the camera is perched over his shoulder on Tom so that it swings around to give us a reveal on Abner's face and then swinging back again on Tom, just before a non-existent (but needed) cut to a nice medium two-shot profile of the brothers facing each other in the booth.

This, and a few other salient moments are lacking the kind of panache which, admittedly, are imagined from my perspective, but not, I suspect, because we sense that it hasn't been planned for by either the director or cinematographer, but because of, perchance, exigencies of production as they relate to the budget. (As well, there do seem to be a few too many under-populated settings that betray the film's budget, but chances are, they'll only drive a nit-picking cinema-curmudgeon, like me, crazy.)

Other technical credits are equally impressive as Montpellier's. From Aren (Modra) Hansen's deft cutting (especially so given the strangeness of the storytelling structure), to a fine score from Ryan Latham that beautifully captures the film's spirit, but also works in tandem with the very cool selection of songs by Emma Carbone Fleury, Roger Clown and Sugar Brown and last, but not least, loving production design by Nazgol Goshtasbpour that creates very real interior worlds rooted in both tone and character.

As noted, Shirinian's principal cast is first-rate. Abrams is delightfully sexy, handsome and a perfect brotherly straight-man to Cohen's dervish-like Abner. And speaking of sexy, it's so nice to see a Canadian feature film that casts babes like Hopkins and Fleury, as opposed to the "naturalistic" dish-rags shoved-in as drain-stoppers into the sinks that are so often Canadian films. These ladies are not only, uh, babes, but terrific actresses with great comedic and dramatic range.

The revelation here, though, is made-for-the-movies character actor Michael D. Cohen who's given a shot at being a delightfully sexy-ugly leading man. With his shiny pate adorned with goofy locks of hockey-helmet-hoser-hair, Cohen bravely runs a gamut of emotions - from whiny to wisecracking, from bitter to sensitive and finally, the kind of screen mensch we want to embrace wholeheartedly. This guy's the real thing. In a real country, with a real movie business, he'd be rightfully ubiquitous on the screens small and large. Let's hope his role here brings him the kind of cache he deserves. (I'd give my right nut to see Cohen and another one of my favourite Canadian character actors, the insanely intense Robert Nolan, together as leads in some perverse genre film.)

So just do it.

High-tailing it down to the TIFF Bell Lightbox or your local art cinema and/or VOD'ing this sucker will be a decent 80 minutes of your life to fork over. Best of all, it'll allow you a chance to get in on the ground floor of a promising English-Canadian director who, prior to this feature debut, delivered two of the country's finest short comedies, The Last Bang (involving an old Jewish man's dalliance with a heart-of-gold hooker) and Song of Slomon (a frothy, feel-good comedy about a Rabbi who discovers disco dancing, the fellowship of gay men and over-indulging in his weakness for crispy, fried bacon). Though It Was You Charlie is not without occasional missteps, it's more often than not on the right track of being naturally skewed without feeling like it's being quirky just for the sake of being quirky.

Me, I'm putting my money on Shirinian's sophomore effort to be something that smacks a major league leather Rawlings clear out of the park. I mean, really: Murnau and Kazan shoehorned into a wonky sentimental comedy? The sky's gotta be the limit next time out.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** It Was You Charlie, from 108 Media and A71, is in limited platform release across North America and is currently unspooling at the majestic TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.