JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Guest of Honour | Red Penguins | The Tent (Directors: Atom Egoyan, Gabe Polsky, Kyle Couch) - August 4, 2020
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Guest of Honour | Red Penguins | The Tent

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Three vastly different productions yield mixed results.

Guest of Honour
105 minutes, 2020
Atom Egoyan
Four stars

Of rabbits, women and men

Not seen in these pages since a stint at the Canadian Opera Company 14 years ago (cross-reference below), writer-director Egoyan’s latest feature film is a fascinating tale of love (real, imagined, made up), lies (almost every character tells a few) and “a parent’s” devotion run amuck.

At the centre of it all is former restauranteur--now food health inspector (how the mighty do fall…), Jim Davis. David Thewlis is more than up to the task of playing the mostly devoted father, rabbit lover and red wine enthusiast (eventually to his downfall) as he patiently visits eateries to pronounce pass, conditional or fail verdicts. His performance immediately conjures up fellow countryman Denholm Elliott’s equally understated performance as George Smiley in 1991 (cross-reference below).

As Davis’ wife prepares to leave the world too soon, daughter Veronica (a musical prodigy—Latsya De Oliveira is a convincing maestro-in-training and tempting bedmate, or not, for her eager charges) ends up in jail for indistinct crimes that were never tested in court.

Most of the production focusses on interviews: father-daughter in jail; daughter-father/priest (Luke Wilson provides a quietly calm performance—at one with his duties and insider knowledge) on the outside.

Egoyan artfully shares just enough of the facts (notably the possibility of sexual activities, fuelled largely by cellphone texting and illicit handholding) to keep viewers guessing. Never far from the surface are the bunnies—whether well-loved family pets (Benjamin) or soon in the pot for “private” diners.

Not surprisingly, the music (notably “Veronica’s Theme” by Shannon Graham and J.S. Bach classics brought to glorious life via “tuned” wine glasses) adds much to the ebb and flow that also owes much to John Steinbeck’s tale of George and Lennie (cross-reference below) also struggling in their world without coming to grips with reality. JWR


Red Penguins
81 minutes, 2020
Gabe Polsky
Four stars

Penguins or bears?

How marvellously coincidental to be halfway through The Cambridge History of The Cold War (2010) prior to a viewing of Polsky’s documentary chronicling the brain trust of the Pittsburgh Penguins doing whatever they could to get the Red Army’s hockey team back on its feet following the “avalanche” of democracy in 1993, where no one (save and accept the mafia) knew how to embrace freedom (especially as Russia’s best hockey talents simply “defected” to the NHL to seek relative calm, fame and fortune).

But not just that, with COVID-19 ravaging team sports—including the NHL—and the president of the United States sending unwanted paramilitary officers to Portland (and other “out of control”—Democratic—cities), it is also not much of a stretch to compare Boris Yeltsin’s floundering leadership after the attack on the Kremlin’s White House to that of Donald Trump’s attack on anyone who does not do his bidding. Plus ça change…

At the centre of it all are, on the Russian side, coach Viktor Tikhonov and his ever-affable (but don’t ever fuck with him) general manager Valery Gushin. Heading up Team USA are Howard Baldwin (former Penguins Chairman of the Board) and apparent marketing whiz, Steven Warshaw, who has no qualms about relocating to Moscow (despite Russia’s long history of repressing Jews), and once again filling the stands. He does so by ignoring the actual game and offering everything from strippers at the intermissions, a finely mustachioed mascot, giveaways (including a “free beer” night with suds from a Pittsburgh brewery) and even fabled, live dancing bears serving drinks. Soon enough the rubles roll, sponsorships and box seats are sold, but the level of play is mediocre at best. Proving that mediocrity, is a whirlwind trip by the Russians Penguins to play a series of games against the International Ice Federation (USA), then losing miserably. Nonetheless, that too was profitable.

No worries: systemic greed (senior Russian management stealing from the till) and the arrival of the mafia as the “third partner”, seems right at home on both sides the “sporting” divide.

With a dash of Disney (Mighty Ducks and Michael Eisner), changing of the guard (the army marching past beleaguered Yeltsin and fresh-faced Putin sending as much as is needed to keep the ice playable) and a few assassinations (ranging from a player, to an assistant coach, to a famous TV personality), it seems abundantly clear that the foxes were running the henhouse as the salvage team in search of a profit (Baldwin, Warshaw et al), beat a hasty retreat back to the land of the free, It falls to Gushin—literally—to have the last laugh: death, defeats [on the ice] and corruption are all integral parts  of the game to him, in the rink or out. JWR


The Tent
85 minutes, 2020
Kyle Couch
Two and one half stars

David then and now

In more ways than one, life is about survival: physical, mental, workplace, family, wars…

In David’s (Tim Kaiser) case—counsellor by day, outdoors enthusiast whenever spare time allows—he speaks to viewers via a series of made-long-ago brief home movies outlining his “rules” to get through anything (Rule 1: “all about the knife”) and also employs those rules to get through a present-day example of coping with pain, fears, whispers and apparitions.

In what amounts to a two-hander, Mary (Lulu Dahl’s feature début) comes along for the journey, but her place in David’s life and predicaments range from abject rejection to reluctant need. Can either survive the ordeal?

Writer-director Kyle Couch has crafted a loving homage to special persons, but is hampered in the dialogue department by too often “on the nose” or cliché lines, which, like in David in the woods, is a trap that once stepped on is almost impossible to remove without assistance from another.

The notion is laudable, but the “aha” needs more punch to fully satisfy. JWR

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