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by Jay Seaver

"This could certainly use some kind of transplant."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Canary" is not for everyone. I know this because despite sitting in the fourth row of the auditorium, I saw a dozen or so people in front of me up and leave; I assume there were others behind me. Usually this happens in intensely off-putting films like "Audition" or "Irreversible", but these people weren't grossed out or shocked in some other way. They were just fed up.

How did Canary try their patience? Well, to start, it opens with a scene of people speaking unsubtitled German, with no apparent reason for them to be incomprehensible to most of the audience. Later scenes in a doctors' office contain so much overlapping dialog that even if it's in English, it's nearly incomprehensible. And it utterly refuses to tell its story directly, reveling in approaching main storylines from a tangent - for instance, a story about a news crew investigating Canary Industries spends more time on the reporter feeling that her producer is undercutting her authority and effectiveness than the actual investigation.

For some, this is going to be boring and intolerable; others will see it as brilliant, improvisational pseudo-documentary style filmmaking that challenges the audience. There are certainly elements of both to it. What it comes down to, in a nutshell, is that director Alejandro Adams is completely forsaking plot in favor of world-building. He's not interested in crusading reporters discovering the truth about Canary Industries' "organ redistribution" program, members trying to escape their fate, or how the plague of organ failures may be connected. He just wants to show us this world and let us mull it over a bit. So we're given reflections to study, little bits of everyday life that build not to a climax, but a picture.

It is not a wholly successful technique; as much as challenging the audience to engage their minds is something to be commended, taunting us is another thing altogether. If I work at it, I suspect that I can find a rationale behind almost every scene that irritated me and drove the departing audience members up the wall; that opening scene with all the German, for instance, tells the audience that they're not going to be spoon-fed information and they had better study every detail of the film carefully if they want to know what it's all about. Single mother Larissa's argument with her daughter's nursery school teacher is about how we monitor everything so closely that there's little room for randomness or deviation from the norm in our growth or health. And so on. It is, when you get right down to it, quite formally impressive, but not very exciting.

And I think this movie could have used more excitement. Just because a movie is cerebral and expects the audience to play an active part in deciphering things does not mean it has to be dull. There are scenes in this film which entertain, especially as black comedy (the scene where Canary doctors try to impress upon a two-year-old the importance of following the diet and exercise guidelines, or they may have to take her organs away, for instance), but far too many feel like nothing more than work whose rewards don't seem to reflect the effort put in. This is especially true since the payoff for most viewers won't be a big surprise; it's precious little more than what a preview or festival program will say in order to get one's interest in the first place.

And that's too bad, because the cast of mostly-amateurs handles their end of the bargain pretty well. Carla Pauli makes her Canary Agent a mysterious presence in the clients' lives - a constant observer whom most tune out, but one who seems to have doubts about her work. Jennifer Latch is likely drawing directly form life as the busy but loving mother of a two-year-old (and real-life daughter Chloe is adorable). Larissa Kasian builds a character that we like a little more for all the way other characters complain about her foul mood, as well as because Eli Kramer's character, her boss, is pretty much scum that has learned to skate past trouble.

"Canary" is too abstract an intellectual exercise to be a really great film experience. I have to give it some respect; I've got a very low tolerance for films where the audience just watches without the characters doing things, and this one had me intrigued more often than frustrated. That's not a small accomplishment, but it also reads like damning with faint praise - and, honestly, I don't have much trouble with characterizing it that way.

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originally posted: 07/22/09 17:03:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 10-Aug-2010



Directed by
  Alejandro Adams

Written by
  Alejandro Adams

  Carla Pauli
  Eli Kramer
  Larissa Kasian
  Jennifer Latch
  Galen Howard

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