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Hollywood North

2003, Starring Matthew Modine, Saul Rubinek, Alan Bates, Joe Cobden, Deborah Kara Unger, Alan Thicke, Jennifer Tilly. Directed by Peter O'Brian (New North Productions).

Guest review by Patrick Lowe

Midway through Hollywood North, a comic account of Canada's movie industry in the late '70s, a rare thing occursa scene which manages to reveal both the philosophy as well as the fundamental flaw of the entire picture. On the set of the fictional, out-of-control production  Flight to Bogota, the energetic, but naive producer Bobby Mayers (Matthew Modine) must contend with yet another SNAFUan unexpected and unwelcome visit from haughty Can-lit queen Lindsay May Marshall (Clare Coulter). Realizing that her Governor-General award-winning book Lantern Moon (on which Bogota is based on) has been trashed for a glitzier, more "American" product, Marshall vents her rage upon Mayers, declaring "If God were Canadian, he would come down and destroy you and this production in a fiery apocalyptic rebuke!"

Somehow, Marshall's Old Testament-style furor reveals more about Hollywood North's own thwarted ambitions than its purported target: the dreaded tax-shelter era of 1978-83that embarrassing but over-vilified reign of the Capital Cost Allowance, when dentists and lawyers invested in the nation's largest output of motion pictures for a 100% tax write-off. It has also been the source of way too much knee-jerk nationalist lamentation, as just a mention of the topic will cause Canada's highbrows to cover themselves in sackcloth and mourn over so much spilled milk. As if in answer to their pleas for atonement, Peter O'Brian, a veteran producer of the era, decided a little comic purging was in order. Hence the long-awaited Hollywood North, a film that was originally to have been produced in 1987, with director Zale Dalen (Skip Tracer) at the helm. When that fell through, the project was repeatedly postponed over a period of 16 years, until O'Brian decided to direct the movie himself. And in some ways, it was only fitting that he do so. O'Brian had plenty of first-hand experience of the tax-shelter era, and had gone through the best and the worst for not only had he suffered through the disastrous production of Mr. Patman (a 1980 thriller starring James Coburn), he did much to refurbish the tarnished image of the film industry with the production of The Grey Fox and My American Cousin.

As he explained in Take One magazine: "The (tax shelter) era could have produced all kinds of great things, but we screwed it up, exploited it and destroyed and pillaged and desecrated it... It was out of anger and frustration over that loss that I wanted to make Hollywood North." That might have allowed O'Brian to finish the movie, but good intentions do not equate good films. Far from being a stinging look at our country's epoch of cinematic shame, it's a toothless satire that aims at obvious targets and draws comic blanks. Granted, O'Brian's directorial debut is funnier than Paint Cans, Paul Donovan's insipid attempt to lampoon Telefilm bureaucracy, but it still falls well below the standards of The Player or Living in Oblivion. God--if he really is Canadian--may never show mercy to Robert Lantos come judgement day, but given the lukewarm reception of Hollywood North, perhaps the Almighty isn't a big fan of cinematic absolution either. After all, is an unheralded two-week run in Toronto less punishing than fire and brimstone?

The film opens with the eager Bobby Mayers in L.A., trying to enlist Hollywood star Michael Baytes (Alan Bates) in order to put some real star power behind his adaptation of Lindsay May Marshall's book. Baytes, an aging relic living out of a bullet-proof trailer dubbed "Alamo," is so shamelessly right-wing that even Charlton Heston would blush, so naturally the idea of going up north doesn't immediately appeal to him. "Canada," he says, " Is it a good idea?" But after persuading Baytes to come on board, providing he is written as the lead role, Mayers heads back to Toronto to round up the remaining $5 million from head investor Peter Kasey, (Alan Thicke) plus the rest of his production crew. With the help of his sleazy cousin Howard Atkins (Joe Cobden), Mayers persuades  veteran but senile director Henry Neville (John Neville) to helm the project, and casts Gillian Stevens, (Jennifer Tilly) a whiny nymphomaniac, to play the female lead. Observing the proceedings is Sandy Ryan, (Deborah Unger) an independent filmmaker who's hired to direct the making-of doc, but instead uses the opportunity to embezzle money from Mayer to finance her own independent feature.

Needless to say, mayhem ensues. A freak blizzard screws up the film's exterior South American sets a supporting actor is almost killed while unofficially doing his own stunt Gillian creates havoc by fornicating with her co-star Frankie Candido (Fab Filippo) and  Sandy, who is also dating Frankie,  pushes Bogota overbudget with her constant need for funds. Worse, Baytes reveals himself to be an even bigger looney, demanding extravagant changes to the script before sinking into a deeper state of cocaine-fueled xenophobia which is enhanced by the backdrop of the '79 Iranian revolution on TV. "I've been sold a defective star," Bobby groans, as he now scrambles to salvage the remains of his one shot at the big time. In the end, God's wrath becomes manifest when Baytes loses his grip on reality completely. He freaks out on the last day of shooting, convinced America is under attack, then blows up his trailer before hightailing it to the border. As Sandy explains it to Bobby, pondering the decision he made at the proverbial fork in the road, "You aimed for Frost but you ended up with Faust."

In fairness, Hollywood North does generate its share of guffaws (the best gag includes watching the dubbed version of Flight to Bogota which as Bobby explains, sells well overseas). And the film does deliver an accurate look into the mindset of all those professional lemmings, who in their heyday, jumped at the opportunity to soar like eagles but went turkey-shooting instead. But by pandering to nationalist sentiments, the script, with three writers to its credit, goes too far out of its way to make sure the audience WILL GET THE MESSAGE. So, by focusing on Canuck piety, O'Brian lets the movie-making satire go stale by falling back on the all-too familiar caricatures of the genre. They're all there: the swollen star egos an aspiring but incompetent neophyte the pretentious director and the ever-amoral money men. Sure, it's fun to watch Bobby's compromised vision go downhill as he gets his comeuppance, but it feels all too familiar. And while O'Brian is a competent director, he lacks the comic inventiveness of a John Paizs or Bruce McDonald to push his film beyond movie-of-the-week fodder. I don't know if the movie would have had more impact if it had been finished in the late 1980s, but in the shadow of vastly superior home satires like The Newsroom or Made In Canada, it's a pretty lukewarm offering.

Even more bizarre are the casting choices, which while palpable, are less than inspiring. Matthew Modine is okay as Mayer, getting the '70s blandness of his character right, with the sideburns and turtleneck outfits, though at times, he seems to do little but just appear sympathetic. Jennifer Tilly provides some much needed laughs doing her whining, winsome slut (even if she's basically replaying the talentless Olive Neal from Bullets Over Broadway), but as the film's red-white-and-blue blooded patriot cum psycho, Alan Bates is way over his head. With his hammy mannerisms and bizarre Anglo-Irish accent, he becomes more of a stereotype than an actual character. In fact, the part cries out for an actual has-been like Tony Curtis or Barry Newman to do the role, exactly the kind of Tinseltown relics that were lured into the 70's tax-shelter abyss. And not to quibble, but for a film so critical of using American star power to bolster Canuck box-office potential, isn't it just a teensy-bit hypocritical that O'Brian should rely on primarily foreign leads for what is supposed to be a nationalist statement?

Of course, O'Brian wants to make the case for our own homegrown product, using Sandy's own film,  Human Voices, as the sincere, if arty counterpoint to the commercial drek Bobby is contributing to. Applying a direct reference to the mythic production story of Don Owen's Nobody Waved Good-bye, the film is constantly reminding us how important it is to have one's own voice heard, lest it be drowned out from all the noise south of the 49th. It's a message that's been parroted by our champions of CanCon, about how our own stories--whatever they may beare more essential to our nation's wellbeing than another helping of Prom Night. But would a better film have been made if Bobby remained faithful to  Lantern Moon? Are films made any better by catering to national loyalty rather than  the U.S. market? Is our country any better or worse off because of the likes of Bear Island or Circle of Two, or by culturally earnest, but deadly dull productions of films like The Wars or Bethune? Do movies make the nation?

I wish O'Brian could have addressed the kinds of questions our own cultural defenders ignore, trying to foster a cinema that served the country and not the other way around. But by appealing to the likes of Mel Hurtig or Maude Barlow, O'Brian reaches out to the converted--only the converted ain't the ones lining up around the block to watch this flick. In fact, a radical film on the subject might have suggested that the tax-shelter era was actually a good thing, maybe satirizing the nationalist poobahs who feel more than qualified to cast the first stone. And for all the cinematic compost produced, it can't be denied that the era created a working movie industry within our borders plus a handful of really good Canuxploitation flicks, the obvious titles being The Silent Partner, The Changeling, My Bloody Valentine, Quest for Fire, Ticket to Heaven, Murder by Decree, Rock 'N' Rule, Videodrome, and Atlantic City. Which is to say, wretched as the era was, it wasn't all bad.

Cultural relevance aside, O'Brian had the misfortune of realizing a movie-industry satire at a time when the subject had already been done to death. Without a fresh angle on the topic, plus the need sermonize, Hollywood North surrenders too much of its own potential comic ground. Don McKellar's Childstar was more successful at satirizing the Yanks' presence in Toronto by making its criticisms of the Ugly American more indirect (though the film is far from perfect). In any event, let this be a lesson for those filmmakers wanting to mix didactics with entertainment. Or to quote Pseudolus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight!

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