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New on Blu: WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? Review

WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? wasn’t exactly the burning question on the lips of curious moviegoers in 1989, and for good reason. The main problem was that the answer wasn’t all that inspiring: “Why, Harry Crumb is the same bumbling detective character you’ve already seen in a dozen comedies, but now he’s played by former SCTV cast member John Candy!” One of a handful of Canadian co-productions thrown together at the end of the tax-shelter era, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? sees Candy team up with director Paul Flaherty (brother of former SCTV co-star Joe Flaherty) for a passable effort that nevertheless helped launch Candy’s star south of the border when it was given a wide release by Columbia.

Unlike some of his fellow Second City alumni, Candy was rarely given leading roles in films until the 1990s, and even then only managed top billing in a handful of movies before his untimely death in 1994. Instead, the Toronto-born actor was usually relegated to supporting characters or ensemble pieces, often alongside his former TV co-stars. That began to change with the release of WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? and, a few months later, the blockbuster success of UNCLE BUCK (1989). This one-two punch lead to bigger lead roles in films over the next few years including ONLY THE LONELY (1991), DELIRIOUS (1991) and COOL RUNNINGS (1993). Now available for the first time on Blu-ray from Mill Creek, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? has some issues, but still features some enjoyable moments and a peek at Candy before he broke into the big time.

The main issue with a film like WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? is that it isn’t particularly original. With its focus on pratfalls and disguises (including some regrettable racist caricatures that don’t read well today) the film builds off of already established characters like Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER franchise, Frank Drebin in the NAKED GUN series, the small screen’s gun-happy SLEDGE HAMMER! and, most notably, Chevy Chase’s titular character in FLETCH (1985), among countless others. But even then, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? is more plot-focused than some of those other entries, preferring to reel in Candy’s antics and alter-ego characters so that it can spend more time following two separate criminal groups trying to outsmart each other to get their hands on the personal fortune of a rich businessman.

In the film, the Crumb & Crumb detective agency is famous for their crime-solving founders, but few of their talents have passed on to their grandson, Harry Crumb (Candy). The new scheming agency president Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones) assigns Harry to a high-profile kidnapping case to track down the whereabouts of the daughter of millionaire P.J. Downing (Barry Corbin). Enlisting the help of the missing girl’s sister (Shawnee Smith), Harry investigates Downing’s young trophy wife (Annie Potts) and her tennis pro lover (Tim Thomerson), and clashes with a police detective (Valri Bromfield) only to discover that Draisen may not want the case solved after all.

The cast is better than you might expect and appears game for this kind of broad comedic material, but the characters they’re given to play are one-note and well-worn. Aside from clumsy detective, the films is full of banal roles like the evil executive, gold-digging stepmother and tough-as-nails female cop. The nicest surprise in the film are a series of scene-stealing cameos by James Belushi as an annoyed bus passenger, Wesley Mann as a terminally bored butler, and Joe Flaherty as a boxing-obsessed security guard that Harry must slip past.

Further, the character of Harry is somewhat confusing–at first Candy plays him as a clumsy private eye who’s totally out of his depth, but then he occasionally comes up with surprising insights. For instance, Harry’s uncannily able to tell that a stack of bills to pay the kidnapper’s ransom is one short simply by fanning it, and later is the only one to hear the muffled cries of someone locked in an airport storage room. Harry’s actual level of competence seems to be always in flux. For what it’s worth, Candy appears to be enjoying himself and has some physical comedy involving a priceless pterodactyl egg on Draisen’s desk and a handful of memorable lines (“You find that crazy typewriter, and you have your kidnapper!” he says, looking at a ransom note of letters cut out of magazines). His various disguises are less inspiring–a Turkish hairdresser and Indian air conditioner repairman trade mostly on gratuitous ethnic humour, while a turn as a jockey at the horse races seems mostly drawn from an old SCTV sketch, “Angel Cortez, FBI Jockey.”

It’s no Canadian comedy classic, and doesn’t rank among Candy’s better roles, but despite some reservations, WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? remains a decent enough time-waster almost 30 years later. Helping this go down a bit easier, Mill Creek’s brand new Blu-ray of the film features a fine and bright-looking HD transfer that brings to life the film’s rich colour palette. There aren’t any extras included here to speak of, but it does come in a nice VHS-style slip case, complete with weathered-looking cardboard sleeve with a circular “comedy” sticker that certainly brings back memories of seeing the box art on the shelf at the video store. WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? is a throwback to simpler times and is certain to prompt more than a few nostalgic purchases of this occasionally fun (if overly clich├ęd) ’80s comedy.

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Motion Picture Purgatory: THRILLKILL (1984)

Canadian genre film steps boldly into the exciting future world of 1984 with THRILLKILL, a movie about newfangled “video games” starring former local TV weatherman Robin Ward as a police detective solving the mystery of competing theives out to steal millions of bucks. Director Anthony Kramreither, the notorious Canadian producer behind MONDO NUDE, MONDO STRIP and MONDO MACHO, among other exploitation delights, offers his vision of technology gone haywire with this confusing thriller about arcade murder simulators and e-embezzling. It would almost seem ahead of its time if it wasn’t full of clunky computers, mammoth modems and weird hot dog dates. In his latest Motion Picture Purgatory, Rick Trembles hacks into the film’s complicated plot mechanics but finds mostly loose wires and fried motherboards. Rick sez:

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New on Blu: SHADOW OF THE HAWK Review

Despite Canada’s rich First Nations history, our indigenous legends and mythologies have only rarely been explored on film. The 1976 tax shelter thriller SHADOW OF THE HAWK was one of the first to fashion quasi-mystical First Nation imagery and cultural ritual into a popular genre thriller, and though it’s not particularly authentic to those traditions, it still stands as one of Canada’s only true folk horror films. While not frequently seen these days, the B.C.-shot film was just released on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment, paired with the similar 1979 chiller NIGHTWING, giving the curoius a chance to check out this underrated horror movie.

In the film, city-dwelling businessman Mike (Jan-Michael Vincent) is surprised when his grandfather Old Man Hawk (the always excellent Chief Dan George) arrives at his apartment, having trekked more than 300 miles to explain that an evil sorceress (Marianne Jones) is trying to destroy the last of his tribe. Having been recently plagued by visions and nightmares, Mike reluctantly agrees to drive Hawk and Maureen (Marilyn Hassett), a freelance reporter who helped the old man find his grandson, back to the reserve. But their journey is beset by disaster–car trouble almost sends them over a cliff, dangerous snakes materialize while they sleep and a curious figure in a carved wooden mask follows their every movement. Hawk, who has grown old and weak, explains he must pass his role as a Medicine Man down to Mike to defeat the black magic that threatens his people.

SHADOW OF THE HAWK boasts direction by George McCowan, a veteran TV director who returned to his native land in the 1970s to handle tax shelter productions like the hockey love tale FACE-OFF (1971) and sci-fi cheesefest THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1979). Boasting a bigger budget than most tax shelter productions from this era, SHADOW OF THE HAWK plays out mostly like a ghost story, with some generally harrowing sequences of the heroes crossing a rickety swinging bridge and being chased by an eerie black sedan. Later, Mike has to battle a bear and a knife-wielding Indigenous warrior. Through it all, their evil nemesis appears to be less beholden to an indigenous tradition than generic movie voodoo–dolls, ceremonial daggers, snakes, zombie-like creatures and fire all make an appearance (alongside some weirdly sexualized Inuit throat singing). Still, it’s notable that Hawk’s own Medicine Man practices are portrayed as positive force against the sorceress’ demonic magic, that seems to lay outside Native tradition.

But what really makes SHADOW OF THE HAWK an outstanding Canadian folk horror film is the way it sends Mike on a dangerous physical and spiritual journey back to his own roots. The glass towers, restaurants and bus stations of Mike’s button-down world gradually melt away so that McCowan can use the Northern B.C. interior setting to create a sense of dark menace and ancient foreboding. From Mike’s early nightmares, in which the masked figure tries to drown him underwater, to the rituals he must perform in the latter part of the film, the general arc of the film has Mike coming grips with the supernatural and embrace his destiny. And though SHADOW OF THE HAWK doesn’t draw from more obvious First Nation menaces like the Wendigo or Dogmen, it’s depiction of pre-Christian mysticism and Indigenous tradition places it firmly within the folk horror subgenre as established in other films made outside Canada like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968).

For this release, Mill Creek has paired the film with NIGHTWING, a more typical nature revenge film about vampire bats that carry Bubonic plague. This overlong American horror production is of less interest to Canadian film fans, even though it stars Nick Mancuso (DEATH SHIP) as a First Nations cop who teams up with a scientific researcher/bat exterminator (David Warner) to stop his village being attacked. As with Mike, he’s torn between his roots and modern civilization, but learns more to balance these elements by the film’s conclusion. Directed by Arthur Hiller, better known for adapting several Neil Simon comedies for the screen, NIGHTWING is unsurprisingly talky, but does build to several good sequences, including a harrowing bat attack when the protagonists attempt to shield themselves in a chicken wire cage and a final showdown that erupts in fiery splendour.

Though Mill Creek’s release doesn’t include any extras, both transfers look and sound excellent, with SHADOW OF THE HAWK’s occasionally impressive 35mm cinematography and spooky woodland sounds shining through–a notable step-up from its previous MOD DVD from Sony. The fine presentation enhances the release of this otherwise hard-to-see Canadian horror entry, making it easy to recommend.

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Motion Picture Purgatory: SUMMER’S CHILDREN (1979)

Julius Kohanyi, an independent filmmaker who started making documentary, experimental and narrative shorts as early as the 1960s, directed only one feature–the 1979 oddity SUMMER’S CHILDREN. In his latest Motion Picture Purgatory, Rick Trembles takes a look at this offbeat incest drama that takes a more arthouse-influenced approach to Toronto’s sleazier side then other Canadian entries like DRYING UP THE STREETS (1978) and the earlier PLEASURE PALACE (1974). Featuring memorable turns by local talent Michael Ironside and Don Francks, the film was partially financed by the Canadian Film Development Corporation and premiered on the CBC after a festival run. Rick sez:

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Motion Picture Purgatory: FIREBALLS (1989)

“Pull out your hoses…here comes Fireballs!” Starring a couple of actual Toronto firefighters taking a break up in Wasaga Beach the bizarre ’80s Canuck sex comedy FIREBALLS (1989) isn’t really anybody’s idea of a good movie. In his latest Motion Picture Purgatory, Rick Trembles takes a look at this four-alarm B-movie catastrophe of beer, bikinis and bad mullets that appeared at the end of the tax shelter’s last gasp and concluded Canada’s unofficial streak of dimwitted “balls” comedies (alongside MEATBALLS, ODDBALLS, GOOFBALLS & SCREWBALLS. Rick sez:

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