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Hobo With a Shotgun:
...and I say: "huh"?


Even after all these years of watching Canadian movies and TV shows, reading articles, perusing critical analysis...the industry can still leave me going: "huh?"

Canadian film is always searching for that elusive animal -- the box office hit. There are always hopefuls, near misses, and worthy attempts. Movies that do well critically, but tank at the box office. Movies that do well domestically -- better even than a lot of Hollywood movies -- but don't travel well and, given Canada's population size, can only gross a limited amount. Or movies that do travel, picking up a few bucks in this market or that, but not making a big splash anywhere in particular. But inarguable, break out box office hits? Few and far between.

Which brings us to...Hobo with a Shotgun. And, as I say...huh?

It isn't that there's anything especially wrong with the movie. I should quickly point out, I have not seen it...so nothing in this editorial should be construed as opining on the actual movie itself. I'm merely considering the surrounding hype and commentary. It might seem odd that I'm writing about a movie I've not seen, but to some extent that's the point. As with some previous essays I wrote (such as here) I want to reflect on it from the point of view of marketing and perception, divorced from any personal bias -- I neither love nor hate the film.

Hobo with a Shotgun is a deliberately "trashy" movie made as an homage to the old, low-budget, exploitation flicks of the Drive In movie house. Apparently its genesis was the U.S. film(s) Grindhouse -- where heavy weight director Quentin Tarantino and semi-heavyweight director Robert Rodriguez got together to produce a double bill movie (Planet Terror and Death Proof) as an homage to those sordid by-gone glory days of the Drive In cheapies and their double feature spectaculars.

Now one might ask: what do you mean "homage" to "by-gone" days? The drive ins are a fading institution, sure, but those same kind of films still get made -- whether as straight-to-DVD releases, or for cable stations like the US SyFy Channel, or whether they've gone "mainstream" like with the Saw franchise. The "grindhouse" concept (referring to how the films were ground out cheaply, as a quickie commodity), frankly, seemed like an idea in desperate need of a reason to exist. Anyway, apparently, as part of the Grindhouse experience, Tarantino and Rodriguez invited aspiring filmmakers to submit mock commercials for their own grindhouse-type movies -- and the entry for Hobo With a Shotgun, by an aspiring Canadian filmmaker, so caught their interest, that it got the green light to actually be turned into a real movie.

That's the background.

Now here's where it becomes interesting.

'Cause I first started hearing about Hobo with a Shotgun a few months before its official release, and the press seemed to be heralding it as the Canadian box office smash that has long been anticipated but yet to truly materialize (I think Nostradamus prophesied its coming). Now what was odd about these glowing articles, these trumpeting heralds announcing the coming of The Promised One, was how they didn't really seem to have much to say about the actual film itself -- it wasn't even clear if the commentators had even seen it. But with that title, the articles seemed to say, how could it miss? I mean -- Hobo with a Shotgun? That just screams box office gold!

Which kind of raised my eyebrow. 'Cause, truth to be told, the title "Hobo with a Shotgun" didn't really strike me as...well, anything. I mean, I didn't hate it, I didn't think it precluded it being a good movie...I just didn't see it being something where the title alone was quirky enough to bet the bank on. Snakes on a Plane? Sure. Hot Tub Time Machine? Okay. But Hobo with a Shotgun? I dunno.

Hobo with a Machine Gun? Maybe ('cause, like, where'd he get a machine gun!)

Mime with a Machete? Now that's a title.

But Hobo with a Shotgun? (And critics did acknowledge that title-driven movies are a risky enterprise -- Snakes on a Plane having proved less than a box office smash).

Being the grumpy iconoclast that I am, the more I would see articles trumpeting this soon-to-be-released opus, articles assuring me that I didn't need to know anything more about the film than that kick ass super bitchin' title (and that these aren't the droids I was looking for), the more I started to get worried. Partly that's because I'd been on this particular merry-go-round a time or two before, when the gestalt consciousness of the Canadian media throws its weight behind a particular film, or actor, or director...only to have it fizzle out in the final litmus test when the lights dimmed and the curtain went up.

I also got a bit nervous reading articles where the filmmaker explained the inspiration for the film was how one day a friend came up to him, dishevelled, and carrying a toy gun, and the filmmaker thought -- wow! that's a great movie.

Again, I just didn't see it.

Now, admittedly, I'm not maybe the movie's target demographic...yet, then again, I sort of am. I mean, I've sat through more than my share of low-budget cheese fests, horror thrillers, and the like. Partly because I'm a "genre" fan, and for decades if you wanted to see a sci-fi or horror movie, it was the Drive In features and grindhouse films that were your only option. And partly, as a self-styled Canadian film aficionado, I've sat through hundreds of hours of low-budget grindhouse films -- Canadian-style. So I'm less into the milieu than some...but considerably more familiar with it than a lot of people. Admittedly, I tended to watch such films looking for the diamond in the coal, looking for the movies that rose above their modest roots. I could like the original Death Race 2000 because it was a kind of clever satire, or It's Alive for the unexpected character exploration, or Blacula for William Marshall's charismatic performance. But to a lot of fans of that idiom, they weren't looking to brush the crud and grime off the little treasure like an archaeologist looking for something precious...no, they liked 'em bad, and badly made. They watched the movies as pure camp, to be laughed at. (Which is why horror franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm St. so quickly degenerated into self-mockery...they realized their audience was laughing already, so they figured they might as well go along with the joke).

So part of the point of Hobo with a Shotgun (as with its predecessors, Planet Terror and Death Proof) was to kind of do a movie that was supposed to be bad...on purpose.

So now we've got a movie that is supposed to be campy-bad, as an homage to a sub-genre of movie making that has only a niche audience (they were low-budget because even their producers didn't expect a large audience!), and inspired by Tarantino & Rodriguez' Grindhouse which, lest I forget to mention...actually underwhelmed at the box office itself! And yet this was the movie behind which the Canadian press seemed to be marshalling itself as the best hope for the current Canadian film season!

Now, of course, WHAT DO I KNOW? That's the thing I keep telling myself when pondering the fate and fortune of Canadian film and TV. See, it wasn't that I objected to Hobo with a Shotgun, or that I thought it was inherently incapable of being a good movie...it's just nothing in the advance press gave me much expectation of that when the critics are assuring me that the title, and the title alone, should win me over...and it didn't.

And so, eventually, the time came, and Hobo with a Shotgun hit the screens. A review in my local paper seemed to be good on the surface...except that when you actually read the review, it kind of seemed to be saying the movie wasn't very good, or very interesting, that it lagged a lot...but that the action scenes were suitably gory so, like, cool!!! Admittedly, I'm kind of bored by violence, so that didn't really impress me -- yet that seems to be what those who like the movie, like. None of the stuff on message boards seems to indicate anyone thinks its has a well developed story, or penetrating character insight. It's largely a bunch of scenes of gory violence strung together by a vigilante hobo. Reading that newspaper review it seemed once again like the press was kind of bending over backward to praise a movie that, deep down inside, even the reviewer was at best ambivalent about. I mean -- was that really the description of a movie you'd want to spend 10 bucks on (plus popcorn, maybe a babysitter)? To be fair, internet message boards did seem to present comments from people who really liked the film -- who even loved it! But, as I say, they liked it for the gore, for the apparently never ending stream of graphic death scenes, more than for plot or characterization, the movie apparently arising out of the "gorn" genre (gore-porn, or torture-porn, as it's called) albeit with tongue-in-cheek -- not exactly aimed at the audience that goes to see The King's Speech...or even the Bourne thrillers.

And yet...WHAT DID I KNOW? Because then I was in a store, and I happened to overhear a couple of guys talking...about Hobo with a Shotgun. And the one who had seen it really liked it and was recommending it to his friend! So -- how significant is that? It's purely anecdotal, of course, but overhearing two guys discussing a Canadian film is about as common as hearing a Conservative Party member say, "Hey, you know what? -- let's find some middle ground." I don't think I've ever eavesdropped on two strangers discussing, say, an Atom Egoyan film.

What's more, Hobo with a Shotgun was playing at the local megaplex -- right up there with all the big Hollywood movies (and normally months can go by without a single Canadian film playing at anything but the art house repertory theatre). So it looked like I was maybe wrong. I still had no particular desire to actually see the film -- and given the Canadian movies I've willingly sat through over the years, that's saying a lot -- but, honestly, I'm happy if a Canadian film can succeed. Sure, it wasn't really a "Canadian"-Canadian film...the movie's star was imported Hollywood veteran Rutger Hauer, and though the film was shot in Nova Scotia, it wasn't clear from the press whether it was actually supposed to be set in Canada. But still, when it comes to Canadian film and TV, I'm actually happy to be proven wrong.


What does two guys talking mean except...two guys were talking? (I mean, only one of them had even seen the film at that point). And within a week, Hobo with a Shotgun was gone from the local theatre. One. Week. For a movie that the press was hyping as the next big thing in Canadian film. (I'm sure it played longer in bigger markets like Toronto and Vancouver).

So what's my point? Why am I trying to kick the shins of a little Canadian film that I haven't even seen? Well, because it seems so much indicative of a recurring, chronic problem in Canadian film. Movies and TV shows that get made for reasons that can seem problematic to begin with, and yet then will be hoisted onto the shoulders of cheerleaders in the press, triumphantly carried onto the field...only to get the stuffing knocked out of them, and then everyone looks at each other, stunned, and then they quickly run away until they can champion the next, equally questionable contender. Whether it be some self-important Art House opus or some supposedly populist grindhouse pretender.

Did Hobo with a Shotgun make money? You know what -- probably. One week at my local theatre notwithstanding, if it was cheaply made, and given an international distribution thanks to Hollywood players like Tarantino and Rodriguez, I'm sure it probably can recoup its costs. I hope it did. I hope the filmmakers who put it together enjoy a long and productive career.

But after all that hype, all that press hoopla assuring us that that title -- that oh-so brilliant and catchy title -- was all we needed to know to know this film was going to be a winner, clearly there was a pretty hefty part of the potential audience that was looking for something a little more.

And the fact that no one in the press seemed to anticipate that...well, it just makes me go: "huh?"

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

May 1, 2011

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