Friday, April 9, 2010
My Superchannel Nights
For the past few months I’ve been a subscriber to the Superchannel package of cable networks, and I don’t know too many people who can say that. I’m not claiming I’m much of a husband (I’m not saying I’m a loser at it either – I’m just not addressing that subject one way or the other) but like all of us I guess I have my moments, because one of my wife’s favourite shows is The Closer, and I set up Superchannel so she could continue to watch it. Subsequently, she got into Men Of A Certain Age, Ray Romano’s more reflective post-Raymond show, so that was like gravy.
My motives then were entirely altruistic, but it’s worked out really well for me too, because Superchannel turns out to be a treasure trove of movies you otherwise wouldn’t think of seeking out. The occasional exception aside, like Valkyrie, Superchannel rarely seems to carry the box office hits: those all go to TMN. I could certainly believe Superchannel fills its schedule merely by scooping up the stuff TMN rejected (I’m not saying that’s what actually happens of course). But it makes for a rather wonderfully wacky mix. Some of it actually did have a (usually brief) release in theatres, but more often not (in Canada anyway); I imagine most of it’s available on DVD, but who would bother to go and look? So this week – and I must specify here that I am not receiving any promotional consideration from the people behind Superchannel – some recent/current examples of the kind of riches awaiting those who jump in.
Stuck is a tight little genre movie (shot entirely in Saint John, New Brunswick!) with Mena Suvari as a nurse, driving home high, who runs into a homeless guy (Stephen Rea). The collision propels him into her windshield; she keeps going in a panic and leaves him in the garage overnight while she has sex with her drug dealer boyfriend, and then again the next day (knocking him unconscious to keep him from honking the horn) while she goes to work (see, she’s in line for a big promotion). Suvari seems to me a candidate for the emblematic Superchannel star – undoubtedly a “name,” the details of whose career for the last ten years are mysterious to all. But she’s appealing here, and Stuck is a consistent nutty pleasure, well controlled by director Stuart Gordon. I also highly enjoyed Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, a knuckle-biter with Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley, set mostly on a train taking the desolation route back from China. Unsurprisingly, it winds itself so tight that the ending is something of a letdown, but up to then the underrated Anderson is completely on top of the wintry Lady Vanishes-type dynamics.
The Good Night is one of those increasingly common celebrity-laden exercises where you get the feeling they all forgot halfway through why they bothered. It has Gwyneth Paltrow, Penelope Cruz and Danny DeVito, but the central point is the unglamorous British actor Martin Freeman, as an underachieving composer whose dreams become more real to him than his waking hours. The movie has some interesting rough edges, and is intriguing for about an hour, after which you realize it’ll never go anywhere. I preferred it though to the somewhat rancid Choke, where Sam Rockwell plays a sex addict trying (not particularly hard) to pull himself together. This one has Oscar-winners too - Joel Grey and Anjelica Huston (you can’t help thinking the makers set their mind on getting Oscar-winners and just kept going down the list until someone said yes) – and seems to achieve its game plan pretty effectively, but it feels like being cornered in a topless bar by a smutty relationship therapist.
Battle For Haditha
That kind of stuff’s really the Superchannel bread and butter, but it also carries films of real distinction. Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, for me a much more impactful and moving Iraqi movie than The Hurt Locker, depicts a real-life incident in which a group of marines slaughtered dozens of local citizens as retaliation for losing one of their colleagues. The film might be viewed as unsubtle, drawing an explicit link from the US Army’s self-regarding (if not functionally deranged) excesses to the surge in local radicalization, but it’s extremely vivid and troubling. The same goes for Tony Kaye’s epic documentary Lake Of Fire, a long and unsparing journey through America’s abortion wars, sufficiently even-handed to leave the filmmaker’s own sympathies in some doubt (although it’s unmistakable that one side of the argument sounds much more bombastically neurotic, and male-dominated, than the other).
I actually saw Vinyan at the 2008 film festival, after which it disappeared before now reappearing on Superchannel: a grieving couple who lost their son in the 2004 tsunami travel to Burma in search of him. It’s exotically if murkily distinctive, carrying heavy shades of Apocalypse Now, although with a very different heart of darkness. Another MIA film festival premiere, River Queen has Samantha Morton on a similar quest in New Zealand, a century or so earlier, searching for her half-Maori son who’s been snatched by his grandfather. This one’s more of a slog, reminiscent at every turn of better films, but at least it’s distinctive. Yet another ex-TIFF presentation (so this is where they all go to die), Intimate Enemies recreates the war in Algeria through the eyes of a young lieutenant who resists his colleagues’ violent tactics, insisting on recognizing the freedom fighters’ humanity. It’s soberly gripping on its own terms and an effective reference point for the (it seems) never-ending debate about the appropriate terms of reference with terrorists (however defined).
The Yacoubian Building
As far as I know, The Yacoubian Building, a big hit in its native Egypt, was never shown at the festival or anywhere else here. It’s an epic saga of changing times, from the fading fortunes of the upper class, to the everyday injustices that see young women habitually molested in the workplace and young men driven to (again) terrorism. Told in broad, brassy (sometimes cheesy) strokes, you can virtually feel the filmmakers congratulating themselves for their daring in some scenes, and it’s certainly anthropologically interesting.
With four channels broadcasting twenty-four hours a day (for $16 a month), this is obviously just the tip of the iceberg (it also has boxing, and various other TV shows including some acclaimed ones from the UK). A lot of the content, as far as I can tell, lacks the distinctive features of the examples I’ve described here, but even when it sounds like trash, it often seems to carry some extra sprig of audaciousness (or an Oscar winning actor). Despite everything I’ve said, I don’t really need it – it just means I spend even less time watching my accumulated DVDs – but for now its ramshackle brand identity gives (almost) everything I watch on there a quirky sheen.