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‘Phil the Alien’: More of What Ails

Canada’s a funny place that can’t seem to do funny movies.

By Dorothy Woodend 18 Mar 2005 |

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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There are lots of funny people in Canada -- Bob and Doug, Wayne and Shuster, Andy Jones, Rick Mercer, Jean Chrétien, Leslie Neilson, Cathy Jones, Mike Myers -- but Phil the Alien is not among them. I wish he were. Lord, knows we could use a few laughs, even a titter or two. Canada is a funny place, so why can't we make a comedy that's actually funny?

Phil the Alien opens with a boy and his father getting drunk in a shack; the father is imparting fatherly advice like sometimes a man needs to be alone. So the kid leaves him alone. He takes his gun, his mack jacket and the whiskey bottle and heads out into the woods where an alien crash lands into the bush behind him. It's Phil, the Alien, and he's lost, alone and missing his daddy who got smooshed in the crash. When we first see Phil, he is a stop motion Ray Harryhausen type drooling monster. He looks uncannily like Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg's The Fly. The monster vanishes and turns into nebbishy nerd, complete with vest, plaid shirt and funny hair. Alien and kid head back to the cabin and continue drinking. The brother from another planet is a cheap drunk, and once he starts, he can't stop.

There isn't much else to do in rural Canada other than drink, and then drink some more, as the patrons of the Canadian Bar know full well. It's a motley crüe, a drunken American agent, the gruff bar keep (played by Graham Greene), and the totally inept bar band. Phil fits in real well. But he's sad and lonely and the American agents from an organization not associated with PETA (they REALLY like fur) are on his trail. Phil just keeps drinking despite advice from his talking beaver friend (voiced by SCTV's Joe Flaherty). This part of the film goes on for a very long time. It's like watching drunks anywhere. They think they're funnier than they really are. Maybe if you were drunk too it might be amusing, but they don't serve liquor at Canadian movies. Perhaps they ought to start.

Who wrote this?

Phil gets jailed, gets Jesus and embarks on a career as a singing levitating evangelist. A pair of assassins, one washed up Yankee, and one Madame Madame, a femme fatale from de Belle Province, are hunting him down. Phil is mysteriously drawn towards Niagara Falls. Maybe it's the strange coloured lights in the rushing water or the cheap hotel rates. Once there, Phil has a near brush with romance, and near death experience both courtesy of the Mysterious Madame. Jammed in amongst the plot there are cameos from Canadian Idol's Ryan whatever-his-name-was and comedian Sean Cullen, plus Americans with mammal fetishes, fur coats, puppets and a whole lot of Rush. Finish up with a little gore galore, and that is all she wrote.

So who wrote this? The person who bears the responsibility is Rob Stefaniuk. He is, as Scott Thompson from 'Kids in the Hall' used to say, a triple threat: writer, director, Canadian.

Phil the Alien was made supposedly because writer/director Stefaniuk inherited a stuffed beaver and an alien from his brother who runs a prop shop. To give him credit, the prop alien is probably the most watchable part of the entire film. His soft spoken menace has a certain gonzo charm. But the rest of the film is like someone drank a case of plot, threw it all back up and let the chips fall where they may. It's not always the best way to construct a narrative; everything has a kind of slip shod half-assed quality to it. Shot in 17 days with a budget of $340,000, it's little wonder.

Too much of a shoddy thing

There's a reason ‘Trailer Park Boys’ is only 30 minutes; anymore and it might collapse under its own shoddiness. When you're watching drunk people (and aliens), a little goes a very long way. Feature films deserve better treatment, or at least, a little more care. Maybe it's money, or maybe it's something else. Independent films are often written, produced and directed by the same person, so there is never someone to come along and say, 'I'm sorry but your script is really awful.' In Phil, scenes are either far too long or they're cut short, there are too many musical montages, the film speed changes for no apparent reason, and it keeps cutting to clouds passing by. If you've ever sat through three hours of student film you'll know what this feels like.

Which is a loss, because the Monty Pythonesque style of comedy has been done very well in Canada. In fact we have a long established tradition of high absurdist funniness. 'SCTV,' 'Kids in the Hall,' 'CODCO,' 'The Frantics' all mined that hole in the head, and did it supremely well. So how come it doesn't seem to translate to film? Well, sometimes it does. John Paizs' Top of the Food Chain springs to mind here. Paizs' film The Big Crimewave is considered to be one of the most hilarious Canadian features to come out of Winnipeg, and believe me that's saying something. Winnipeg makes Hell look good, at least it’s warmer. Along with his sometime partner in crime, Guy Maddin, Paizs made strange weirdness extremely funny. He could teach young Stefaniuk a thing or two.

Bizarre weirdness for the sake of bizarre weirdness is usually only amusing to teenage boys, but in Phil's case, it also seems to have found favor with film critics. Phil is one of those films, where you find yourself in need of a second opinion. Maybe I'm entirely wrong about it. The film got picked for a distribution deal by Lions Gate, and is opening internationally. Leah McLaren in the Globe and Mail, seemed to like it well enough, but do you really trust her? It's even screening at the MoMa in New York City, but it left me thinking, is that the best we can do? Has the buzz of nationalism blurred our judgment, like too many cheap beers?

To be fair, Phil has some promise. There are a few good jokes, but even at 85 minutes it feels overly long. It's lazy where it should be sharp and stupid for the sake of silly. Canadian film is patting itself on the back at the moment, with a big lead up to the 25th Anniversary Genie Awards. The fact that many of the nominees this year aren't all that Canadian (Being Julia or The Triplets of Belleville?) should say something. Will we support anything as long as its even vaguely associated with Canada?

Come on! Lighten up!

Are Canadians simply lazy, or are our cultural standards just really low? Canada produces great writers and great actors. Our documentaries and animated films capture top prizes around the world, but our feature films, at least in Western Canada, are a largely dismal affair. And I do mean dismal. Bleak, drear, grey, take your pick of adjectives. There are exceptions of course, films like Stander, which garnered a Genie nomination for director Bronwen Hughes. But the more unsettling thing is just how immature a lot of Canadian films seems to be. If you hire great actors like Sir Ian McKellen or Graham Greene at least give them something to do. The sight of Ian McKellen wandering about pretending to be a Saskatchewan farmer in Emile was simply painful.

The only thing worse are comedies like The Wild Guys or Men with Brooms. If Canadian film wants to succeed, it better wipe that stupid adolescent smirk off its face and get its shit together, because practically every country in the world does it better than us. The global marketplace is flooded with films from Korea, Thailand, China, Japan not to mention every nation in Europe. Even Bhutan makes better films than Canada and they don't even have TV sets or paved roads. It might be a good time to take a good look at Canadian film, because if we don't, who will?

Despite reviews, distribution deals or whatever else, it all comes down to bums in seats. And when I saw Phil the Alien, I was the only bum there.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee on Fridays.  [Tyee]

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