If you’ve glanced at our chaotic Comments section on Jay’s Golden Globes post, you may have noticed that I am a big supporter of Todd Haynes’ Carol, which had its Canadian premiere at the opening gala of this year’s Whistler Film Festival. It was the best by far of the films I saw at the festival but- my love for this Hollywood indie aside- I am as proud as I am surprised to announced that the Canadian films I saw outshone every other American entry. Here are my thoughts on the three most pleasant surprises from my side of the border.
I don’t know why why I was so surprised that How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town was exactly what it sounds like. Maybe knowing that it was Canadian, I was expecting it to be more polite and restrained. But, no, the second sex comedy from director Jeremy Lalonde does not skimp on the orgy. Having been labelled the town slut as a teenager, sex columnist and closet virgin Cassie returns to her conservative small town for her mother’s funeral. No one is particularly happy to see her until several townspeople- each one having reasons of their own- decide they need to have an orgy and beg her to facilitate it for them. Lalonde, on hand to introduce the film and to answer audience questions, packs Cassie’s living room with likable characters you’d never experience to show up to an orgy. The implausibility of the situation- especially that they’d keep coming back after every increasingly hilarious false start, is part of the fun. The jokes are mostly lowbrow (a montage of cum faces being one highlight) but rarely cross the line into juvenility.
In The Steps, Marla (Emanuelle Chriqui) and Jeff (Jason Ritter) are brother and sister living in New York who are called to their estranged father’s (James Brolin) cottage in Ontario to meet his new Canadian wife Sherry (Christine Lahti) and her three kids. Truthfully, things haven’t been going great for Jeff lately. He’s lost his fancy New York job and his fancy New York girlfriend and he watches a little too much porn. But that doesn’t stop him from judging the shit out of his new step family; Sherry loves lame icebreaker games, David (Benjamin Arthur) owns the third largest paintball course in the province and loves hair metal and Nicolas Cage movies, Keith (Steve McCarthy) is a depressed former indie rock musician, and Sam (Vinay Virmany) keeps sneaking away to smoke pot. Obviously, this isn’t going to be one big happy family right away but (spoiler alert) they’ll be backing each other up in bar fights in no time. Obviously, it’s hard to watch this movie without knowing where it’s going and each character seems plucked from the Handbook for Movies About Dysfunctional Families. But the casting, both in how they inhabit their own characters as well as how they interact with the others, is bang on. It got big laughs from a small 9 am crowd at Whistler and was well worth getting up so early for.
The Steps was a perfect example of how a familiar story, when told well, can feel new. This is just as true of Forsaken, which had its Western Canada premiere at the festival. Kiefer Sutherland (who stood like 20 feet from me when introducing the film) plays gunslinger John Henry Clayton who returns home to his Reverend father (Donald Sutherland, sharing the screen with his son for the first time). As a pacifist, Rev. Clayton is none too happy to see his boy and is skeptical that he is sincere in his vow to hang up his guns for good. John Henry’s abstinence from the way of the gun is tested when some bullies ride into town forcing people off their land and threaten his long-lost love (Demi Moore).
They don’t make westerns like this anymore. Forsaken is neither revisionist nor homage. Instead, it follows the tradition of the great westerns of the 50s that understood the excitement of watching a hero getting his revenge just as well as they did the importance of making us wait for it. John Henry takes a lot of abuse and witnesses a lot of injustice before finally unleashing hell. We’ve seen this character before and know how it’s all going to turn out but it’s fun to see it all play out, especially with first-time feature director Jon Cassar taking his time with telling the story. If there’s one thing Kiefer knows , it’s how to play a killer who just wants to retire but keeps getting pulled back in and plays John Henry with just the right mix of badass and bashful. Both Sutherlands play their parts well, although the accent Kiefer tries out in some scenes doesn’t suit him, and the two are at their best when onscreen together. Even more effortless, however, are the bad guys played by the great Brian Cox, Sean’s high school buddy Aaron Poole, and the amazing but underrated Michael Wincott. It’s a blast watching these three be despicable and even more fun knowing that, by the end, their uppance will come.