In This Game of Survivor, No One Gets Off the Island

Gary Burns’ Waydowntown , from a screenplay by Mr. Burns and James Martin, was reportedly shot on digital video and 35-millimeter film entirely on location inside a maze of corporate offices and urban malls in downtown Calgary, Canada. By making this madcap movie about the plight of the cubicle-office worker, the filmmaker satisfied a longtime grievance against the “Plus 15” walkway system of his hometown’s business and shopping center. Constructed 15 feet above the street (hence the name), the walkways interconnect many of the downtown buildings. “The unfortunate result of this ever-expanding system,” Mr. Burns complains, “is that these walkways have sucked the life out of the downtown core.”

Developing his idea with his writer friend Mr. Martin, Mr. Burns contrived a plot in which four lower-level office workers have bet a month’s salary on who can stay indoors the longest. The story takes place on the lunch hour of Day 24 of the endurance contest, with all the contenders about to go bonkers in different ways.

Tom (Fabrizio Filippo) is the point-of-view protagonist and part-time narrator as all hell breaks loose–fortunately with no lethal results, except for the recurring image of one unidentified office worker leaping to his death from an upper floor to the sidewalk below. Sandra (Marya Delver) is convinced that she is being poisoned by the toxic air conditioning, which she counters by tearing apart fashion magazines for their perfume samples and compulsively inhaling them. Randy (Tobias Godson) is the most mysteriously passive of the four, while Curt (Gordon Currie) sets out to seduce a susceptible female co-worker named Vicki (Jennifer Clement). And have I told you that Tom smokes marijuana, has a fantasy of flying around the halls as a superhero, and imagines that Calgary’s whole downtown skyline has magically levitated? Sound like fun? Well, perhaps for Canadians.

Tom and his friends work on undefined jobs with computers, but there is no sense of office politics at work in any shape or form, and the sense of authority figures or supervision is minimal. Brad (Don McKellar), who shares office space with Tom but is not part of the bet, is almost suicidally deranged. The villain is the modernist architecture that tends to enclose people in an artificial environment. We must take it on faith that the pre-Plus-15-walkway “core” of Calgary was more exciting and life-affirming than what replaced it. One hears New Yorkers complain in much the same manner about the Disneyfication of good old funky Times Square.

Still, one lunch hour at the end of a 24-day stretch of confinement does not give the characters enough time to avoid seeming like anything more than ant-like lunatics let loose on a slightly comically indifferent public. The performers are all extremely busy establishing patterns of eccentricity, and even Tom himself is too weird to serve as an adequate raisonneur for all the lunacies around him.

Hence, just as Lord of the Rings is Wagner without the music, Waydowntown is Dilbert without the right-on satiric humor. Still, it was awarded the prize for Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival.

Behind the Music In Czechoslovakia

Jana Chytilová’s The Plastic People of the Universe , from a screenplay by Ms. Chytilová, takes as its title the name of a hitherto little-known Czech rock band strongly influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. The history of rock ‘n’ roll in Czechoslovakia begins in 1964 with the Beatles. American jazz, which had been explicitly banned by Nazis during the long German occupation, resurfaced with a vengeance after World War II, followed by the first stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 50’s and early 60’s with Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

By the time the Plastic People of the Universe were formed in 1968, Czechoslovakia was reoccupied, this time by Soviet tanks, and a repressive regime was instituted, one that was determined to remove rock ‘n’ roll from the cultural landscape. Ms. Chytilová’s film tells the story of a determined band of musicians who risked imprisonment to bring their cutting-edge form of rock ‘n’ roll with its politically explosive lyrics to underground audiences assembled clandestinely in barns and garages throughout the countryside.

The repression ended in 1989 with the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the inauguration of Vaclav Havel as president. If there is a single hero of this period, it’s Mr. Havel, who lent his political and cultural prestige to a rebellious younger generation. The music in the film, however, is secondary and insufficient, though I was moved by how much it meant in a nation’s struggle for freedom.

Not-So-Goodfellas

Charles A. Addessi and William DeMeo’s Wannabes , from a screenplay by Mr. DeMeo, was shot entirely in the streets of Brooklyn–in Park Slope, Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay and Carroll Gardens–but it’s never made clear what period is being represented when grown men are still shown playing stickball in the street. The wannabes in question are two brothers, Angelo (Mr. DeMeo) and Paulie (Conor Dubin), who work as waiters in a local restaurant frequented by mobsters like Santo (Joe Viterelli) and his hot-headed son Vinny (Joseph D’Onofrio). Angelo dreams of becoming a big gangster like Santo, and persuades the initially skeptical Paulie and two of their neighborhood buddies, Pete (Daniel Margotta) and Dom (John Palumbo), to join in a bookie operation. All they need is $20,000 in start-up money. Angelo and Paulie are refused the money by their Uncle Tommy (Raymond Sarra), a law-abiding construction boss, but the determined Angelo goes to a Harlem loan shark instead and they’re in business. (I have never run a bookie operation myself, but it all seems too easy.)

At first, the fledgling bookies are wiped out by their lucky customers, and Uncle Tommy has to bail them out with their loan shark. The customers, dazzled by their good luck on the first try, double their bets and lose their shirts. When they hesitate paying their losses, Angelo puts a gun to one deadbeat’s head, and the rest fall in line. Soon the gang is prosperous enough to begin extorting money from local merchants. Santo is impressed enough with Angelo’s abilities to bring him and his boys into the organization. This infuriates Santo’s bypassed son Vinny, who vows to revenge his slight.

We are suddenly thrust into the royal-succession gambit of Gladiator , and when the smoke has cleared the screen is strewn with dead bodies.

Veteran character actors Joe Viterelli and Ray Serra give the action more heft than it deserves. On the whole, the movie lacks wit, feeling and believability to compensate for its incessant coarseness and banality. The filmmakers are the real wannabes, as they fail to follow in the footsteps of a genre of classics blessed with the humor of bourgeois presumption.

Toying Around With Our Mortality

Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom , from his own screenplay, is a French-Canadian film set in Montreal with one of the most intricate narrative structures I have seen in a long time for what turns out to be a remarkably simple story. When we first encounter our beautiful heroine, Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), she is undergoing an abortion, with her feet still in the stirrups. Her story with its philosophical accompaniment is being told by a fish, whose head is periodically chopped off by a fishmonger. We very gradually learn that she is a poor little heiress whose face appears on magazine covers.

One night after drinking too much in a nightclub, she’s involved in a hit-and-run accident that results in an old man’s death. Overwhelmed with guilt over her moral cowardice, she drives her car off a pier, but somehow survives. When Evian (Jean-Nicholas Verreault), the dead man’s son, arrives to claim his father’s ashes, Bibiane seeks him out to confess her crime, but they fall in love before she can–and even after she does confess, Evian is too much in love with her to do her any harm, even though he’s vowed to avenge his father’s death.

A synopsis of the story does not provide even an approximation of the variety of visual ironies that are deployed in the director’s intensely subjective style of expression. In his director’s statement, Mr. Villeneuve supplies his own ironic overview: “We interpret the world and construct for ourselves an image of it, which comforts us and eases our conscience, and we do this instinctively. For me, Maelstrom is a playful call to be responsible and to be careful.”

For me, the operative word in the director’s statement is “playful.” He seems to realize intuitively that even morality is reduced to an option by the ultimate mysteries of life and death. Life goes on somehow, and we must cope with it.

In This Game of Survivor, No One Gets Off the Island