The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies (& TV) presents...


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Sample: Title; rating (out of 4); principal setting; year of release; international co-producer (if any); cast; description; scriptwriter; director; content warning; running time.

SKATE!  * * 1/2  setting: Ont.
(1987) Christianne Hirt, Colm Feore, Rosemary Dunsmore, Patricia Hamilton, Stuart Hughes, Cec Linder, Wanda Cannon, Stephen Marshall, Tom Butler, Tom Harvey.....Talented young figure skater (Hirt) is exposed to the back stage obsessions and manipulations of the professional figure skating world. Technically well-done made-for-CBC TV drama is too cold and clinical, but has some strong performances. Hirt is exceptional in her first major role. Won three Geminis including Best Movie/Special. a.k.a. Blades of Courage. sc: Suzette Couture. dir: Randy Bradshaw. 98 min.

SKI SCHOOL  * 1/2  setting: B.C.
(1990) Dean Cameron, Tom Breznahan, Patrick Labyorteaux, Stuart Fratkin, Darlene Vogel, Ava Fabian.....Hi-jinks at a ski resort -- and you thought they stopped maaking these kind of films. The cast seems better than their dreadful material, which isn't hard. Followed by a sequel. sc: David Mitchell. dir: Damian Lee. - partial female nudity, sexual content.- 87 min.

SKI SCHOOL 2  * * 1/2  setting: USA.
(1994) Dean Cameron, Heather Campbell, Brent Sheppard, Bil Dwyer, Wendy Hamilton, William Sasso, Noah Heney, Doug Copithorne.....Ski bum (Cameron), learning his ex-girlfriend (Campbell), whom he never got over, is getting married to Mr. Wrong (Sheppard), decides to intervene with the help of his buddies. Comedy is less obnoxious than a lot of its type with a decent cast and some genuinely funny jokes (even witticisms) among the usual sophomoric gags. sc: Jay Naples. dir: David Mitchell. - partial female nudity, sexual content.- 90 min.

SKIN DEEP  * 1/2  setting: Ont.
(1995) Natsuko Ohama, Keram Malicki-Sanchez, Dana Brooks, Melanie Nicholls-King, David Crean.....Lesbian filmmaker (Ohama), working on a psycho-sexual thriller about tattoos, befriends an enigmatic, troubled person (Malicki-Sanchez) for insight into the fascination with body art. Well-intentioned drama -- and sort of suspense flick -- seems like one of those things where the filmmakers either know too much about their subject matter, and fail to convey that to their audience, or not nearly enough. Has some interesting character ideas, but doesn't quite pull them off convincingly. Suffers from its low-budget, with uneven performances and an, at times, choppy narrative. Malicki-Sanchez and Brooks, as the manager of a local drag club, come across best. sc: Midi Onodera, Barbara O'Kelly. dir: Midi Onodera. - sexual content, partial female nudity, representative male nudity.- 82 min.

SKINWALKERS  * *  setting: USA.
(2006) (/U.S./German) Jason Behr, Elias Koteas, Rhona Mitra, Matthew Knight, Natassia Malthe, Sarah Carter, Kim Coates, Tom Jackson, Shawn Roberts, Lyriq Bent, Barbara Gordon, Rogue Johnston.....Prophecy says a 12 year old boy (Knight) will bring about a cure to all Skinwalkers (ie: werewolves), causing conflict between two opposing werewolf factions -- a vicious gang that likes being werewolves (led by Behr) and want him dead, and those protecting him who wish to reclaim their humanity (led by Koteas and Mitra, the latter as the boy's initially unsuspecting human mother). Mix of supernatural horror and a kind of John Woo-esque modern western (the action often involving gun fights in city streets between the characters in their human forms), has a slick look and a surprisingly respectable cast all around (Canadian save imports Behr and Mitra) -- heck, when Wendy Crewson can appear in only one scene, or Carl Marotte (as a sheriff) can appear briefly without any dialogue at all, you know they've got an embarrassment of actors on hand. All of which makes it a shame it isn't better! There are one or two twists, and a few attempts at emotional scenes, but overall it fails to rise above a generic, bare bones fight-and-flight plot, with characters that never really become interesting (Behr, as the villain with slight flashes of conscience, comes closest to having an intriguing personality). And for all the monsters and mayhem, it rarely manages genuine thrills or chills. Despite being co-produced by the Stan Winston Studios (a U.S. special effects company) the skinwalker effects are basically just humans with wolfish make-up that's not very convincing. Bottom line: it's not egregiously bad...just bland. The U.S. release was apparently trimmed of some gore, profanity and raciness (not that the racy scene is that racy even uncut!) -- but not to the point of significantly affecting the running time. The uncut version (which is what I'm reviewing), though arguably warranting an "extreme violence" still pretty mild by modern horror movie standards. sc: James DeMonaco, Todd Harthan, James Roday. dir: Jim Issacs. - extreme violence; brief sexual content; casual male nudity.- 89 min.

SKIP TRACER  * * 1/2  setting: B.C.
(1977) David Petersen, John Lazurus, Rudy Szabo, Mike Grigg, Al Rose, Sue Astley.....Cold-hearted skip tracer -- or repo man -- (Petersen) slowly begins to question his occupation while vying for the Man of the Year honours at his company. Interesting low-budget drama with memorable scenes suffers from weaker supporting performances and a sluggish rythm. A lot more could have been done with the premise in this minor classic of Canadiana. Interestingly enough, the thug in the hockey mask predates the American "Friday the Thirteenth" movies. sc./dir: Zale R. Dalen. - brief female nudity.- 94 min.

SKULL: A Night of Terror  a.k.a. Don't Turn Out the Lights

(2016-) * * 1/2 series 1: Katie McGrath, Brandon Jay McLaren, Steve Byers, Christopher Jacot, Patrick Garrow, Dean McDermott, Mayko Nguyen, Wendy Crewson, Enuka Okuma, Rob Stewart, others.....Horror/mystery series featuring serialized plots (the intent, if renewed, being for each season to tell its own arc featuring new characters -- ala the American series "American Horror Story"). The first season focuses on a young woman (McGrath) whose parents were brutally murdered by a serial killer the day she was born (literally!). She and her husband return to her hometown just as a seeming copycat killer (dubbed The Executioner because he wears a medieval executioner's costume) starts a new killing spree, apparently "punishing" town's folk for past sins. As the title implies, this is meant as a knowing nod to Old School 1970s/1980s "slasher" flicks -- joining an entourage of similar series such as "Harper's Island," "Scream," and "Scream Queen's." Canada stakes a legitimate claim to the genre as many seminal films in that (less-than reputable) genre were Canadian -- often with the Canadian iteration grisly whodunits (like this series) whereas often the American films were more like "monster" movies (giving pop culture Jason, Michael Myers and Freddie Kreuger). And perhaps surprisingly, this series doesn't entirely hide its Canadianness (Canadian flags are occasionally seen in shots, and characters use terms like government "ministry" and "Anglican" church) even as it's mostly under-the-radar (a New York reporter shows up to cover the unfolding story, but there's no indication there's a border inbetween).

Surprisingly (given the title) this takes itself seriously, eschewing deliberate tongue-in-cheek (although it might lean on that a bit to get away with some of the cheesier suspense scenes). It's as if someone nostalgically looked back at the old slasher flicks -- often low-budget and of middling quality -- and said: wouldn't it be neat to do a slasher flick but with good production values, a solid cast, and taking it seriously? Essentially doing an A version of a D genre (or at least a B version of a D genre). It's also worth mentioning the gore -- there are definitely gory death scenes as befits the schlocky genre, yet equally there are other deaths that are depicted more subduedly, or even off-camera. Though the result may be neither fish nor fowl: too gory n' gross for those looking for a prime time mystery-thriller, while not (consistently) gory enough for those who get off on graphic violence.

But the end result is mixed. On one hand it is slickly put together, with solid performances throughout (some actors under-utilized, and with some questionable age dynamics -- like Wendy Crewson as McGrath's grandmother!). And writer Aaron Martin gives the characters more nuance than just killer-fodder, and with secondary plot threads justifying the multiple episode format and adding some off-beat dynamics (like the "Silence of the Lambs" relationship between McGrath's character and the original Executioner, serving time for her parents' murder). But few of the characters become that engaging, and for a mystery-thriller it never really generates (or at least sustains) true edge-of-the-seat suspense, or narrative drive (the episodes often feeling longer than they are), sometimes with plot points poorly explained, where characters know things you don't remember them learning, or barely alluding to some revelation from a previous episode. And when the killer is revealed toward the end, you mostly just shrug, and go "Oh -- okay." (As opposed to it being a revelatory shock -- especially since his/her motive is that s/he's just nuts). And it has a kind of weird climax that at first seems like it's meant to be some dark denouement about violence-begetting-violence or something -- but actually seems like the filmmakers thought it was fine and a reasonable way for the characters to behave. The result is a series that is smarter and more slick than the B-movies it is emulating -- without maybe transcending them enough to fully rise above their limitations. - extreme violence.-

SLEEP MURDER  * * 1/2  setting: Ont./Nun.
(2004) Jason Priestley, Kristin Booth, Natar Ungalaaq, Makka Kleist, Marnie McPhail, Joris Jarsky, Richard Donat, Jeremy Akerman.....Toronto lawyer (Priestley) goes to Iqaluit simply to quickly plea bargain a case of an Inuit man (Ungalaaq) accused of a senseless murder...but then begins to question whether it's quite that open and shut when all the physical evidence points to guilt, but the client has no memory of the crime. Booth plays the psychiatrist called in to assess the man. Made-for-CTV drama is "inspired" by a true incident and starts out promising. It's slick-looking and moderately intriguing at times, but at other times seems to be spinning its wheels, story-wise, as if they had trouble figuring out how to fill 90 minutes (even with the wholly fictional romance between Priestley and Booth's characters). Priestley is personable enough, and Ungalaaq effective, though Kleist steals the show a little as the head of a boarding house. Though based on a real case, the names have been has the final verdict! This was originally scheduled to air in 2003. sc: David Fraser. dir: Andrew Currie. - violence.- 91 min.

THE SLEEP ROOM (TVMS) * * *  setting: CDN./USA.
(1988) Leon Pownall, Donald Moffat, Marina Orsini, Macha Grenon, Nicola Cavendish, Eric Peterson, Gabirelle Rose, Frank Moore, Diego Matamoros, Emmanuel Bilodeau, Nicholas Campbell, Blu Mankuma, Daniel Kash, Bruce Dinsmore, France Castel.....Drama about the infamous mind control experiments conducted in a Montreal psychiatric hospital by Dr. Cameron (Pownall) and the trial, decades later, when the victims sued the American C.I.A. who had helped fund the experiments (as part of the MK Ultra project). Essentially two different movies, the first chronicles Cameron's experiments in the 1950s, and his various patients; the second part follows an American legal team (Orsini and American actor Moffat) in the 1980s as they represent the Canadians against the C.I.A. The first half is exceptional, with Pownall superb playing a character who isn't (quite) the obvious black hat/mad scientist. Despite the grimness of the story, it's compelling, told with subtlety and mood, with shades of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (with Grenon as the rebellious patient) and fine performances from a cast that, with the exception of Grenon, are mainly character actors. By comparison, the second part is weaker despite following a more sure fire template (the David against Goliath court room drama). A bit broader in its presentation, lacking some of the finer human drama points of the first, it improves as the film's target shifts (a bit) from the C.I.A. to the way the Canadian government sided with the C.I.A. against its own people (and some well aimed kicks at the Mulroney administration)! A "shocking true story" that genuinely needs to be told (as opposed to the usual serial killer movies). Like all true stories, there are confusing bits, stories left untold (by focusing on the American trial, it leaves unanswered who finally got the Canadian government to provide compensation) and questions as to the production's accuracy -- particularly when the end blurbs reveal that Orsini's real life counterpart was a man! The first half, in particular, is a nice reminder of the kind of superior dramas the CBC can still, occasionally, turn out when it puts its mind to it. Four hours. sc: Bruce M. Smith (from the book In the Sleep Room by Anne Collins). dir: Anne Wheeler.

SLEEPING DOGS  * 1/2  setting: USA.
(1998) (/Czech) C. Thomas Howell, Scott McNeil, Heather Hanson, Ciara Hunter, Paul Jarrett, Richard Toth, Sean Fuller, Darren Dalton.....In 2029, after a botched job, a thief and a woman (McNeil and Hanson) inadvertently stow away on board a space ship that gets taken over by a psychotic criminal (Howell) and his psychotic gang. Familiar Lloyd A. Simandl production -- he's churned out a bunch of these very low-budget films (Dead Fire, Escape Velocity) seeming recycling the same sets, costumes, lighting, machine guns, plot ("Die Hard" in space) and attitude: lots of cussing, lots of sadism (no one shoots someone once if they can shoot him six times), and where dialogue seems more there just to pad things between the shoot outs. Hanson is okay and American import Howell hams it up (it's not a great performance, but he seems to be enjoying himself). Actually, Simandl apparently has two careers -- as a producer of violent sci-fi shoot 'em ups and erotic soft porn...but the latter films don't seem to crop up on TV or in the local video stores as frequently as the former (darn it!). sc: Christopher Hyde. dir: Michael Bafaro. - violence, partial female nudity.- 90 min.

SLEEPING DOGS LIE  * *  setting: Ont./USA.
(1999) Wendy Crewson, Joel Keller, Leon Pownall, Michael Murphy, Eric Peterson, Shawn Doyle, Leslie Yeo, Shannon Lawson, Art Hindle, Cedric Smith.....A private eye (Keller) becomes embroiled in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of theatre impresario Ambrose Small in the '20s when he's employed by the millionaire's wife (Crewson). Fact-based (or, at least, fact-inspired) made-for-CBC TV suspense-drama suffers from unappealing characters, thin characterization, and a failure to really create the murky mood of conspiracies and paranoia that it's trying for. Crewson is badly miscast as a (cliched) femme fatale and baby-faced Keller's "decent" hero is a thug who beats up protesters and slaps women around -- ironic, since he's a fictional construuction and so could have been written as a much more sympathetic (and fleshed-out) figure. It wants to be "Chinatown" more than a sleazy, true-crime-drama, but doesn't pull it off. Ironically, by playing Small's disappearance as a straight crime-thriller, it loses some of the eerie -- even supernatural -- flavour that probably made the case so notorious to begin with. sc: Raymond Storey (from the book The Strange Case of Ambrose Small by Fred McClemment). dir: Stefan Scaini. - violence, sexual content.- app. 90 min..

SLEEPING WITH STRANGERS  * * 1/2  setting: B.C.
(1993) Adrienne Shelly, Kymberley Huffman (a.k.a. Kim Huffman), Neil Duncan, Shawn Alex Thompson, Scott McNeil.....Story of two rival small town hotels in B.C., the owners (Duncan and Huffman on one side, Thompson on the other) locked in a romantic triangle, and what happens when a sort-of involved movie star and rock star (Shelly and McNeil) arrive. Amusing romantic comedy, though a little too obvious at times, benefits from a good cast and its refreshing lack of pretention. sc: Joan Carr-Wiggin. dir: William T. Bolson. - sexual content.- 105 min.

(2003, 2005-2006) * * * 1/2...* * * Paul Gross (Stephen Ouimette, Martha Burns, Mark McKinney, Susan Coyne, Graham Harley, Michael Polley, Catherine Fitch, Don McKellar, with (1st season) Rachel MacAdams, Luke Kirby, Sabrina Grdevich, others, (2nd season) Geraint Wyn Davies, Leon Pownall, Joanna Kelly, David Alpay, Jonathan Crombie, others (3rd season) William Hutt, Janet Bailey, Chris Leavins, Sarah Polley, others......Comedy-drama about life backstage at the New Birbage Theatre (think Stratford, Ontario), focusing, in part, on the new artistic director -- an unstable former actor (Gross) recovering from a nervous breakdown, and haunted by the ghost of the previous artistic director (Ouimette). Each season involves a myriad of sub-plots but focuses on the mounting of a particular play (Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, with the plays' themes mirroring the behind-the-scenes action). Burns, stealing more than a few scenes, plays his ex-lover, and the troupe's high strung grand dame. Each season would also involve a different supporting cast of struggling actors and the like. 

Originally billed -- misleadingly -- as a "mini-series", the first six episode season is the best, brilliantly capturing a kind of Robert Altman-esque feel -- but Altman at his best. Superbly acted all around, quirky, clever, and involving. The subsequent seasons remained good, but seemed to diminish, the multiple story lines making the whole less focused and more meandering (in the first season, the focus was on the mounting of Hamlet, while in later seasons, the focus is divided between more than one play). As such, it's a series that did seem to lose some of its initial fire -- but that fire can not be overstated. The first season may well be one of the most consistently brilliant pieces of television ever produced in North America, full of sharply drawn, brilliantly textured characters, all played with note perfect perfection by the cast -- it's hilarious, touching, intriguing, compelling, and definitely quirky. McAdams, shortly before attaining Hollywood fame, is especially memorable as the guileless understudy who finds herself winning the role of Ophelia and the heart of her leading man. The second season is also strong, with Geoffrey butting heads with his arrogant lead actor (Wyn Davies) during MacBeth, and the third season boasts some nice, dramatic undercurrents as they try to mount a production of King Lear with only Geoffrey aware their difficult, erratic, ageing star (well played by theatre legend Hutt) is terminally ill. Each season used a different opening theme song, with the first being, appropriately, the best. Six hour long episodes per season, originally shown on the Movie Network (then on Showcase). sc. Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, Mark McKinney (concept by Coyne and Tecca Crosby). dir: Peter Wellington. - sexual content.-

SLIPSTREAM  * 1/2  setting: Man.
(1973) Lew Askew, Patti Oatman, Eli Rill, Scott Hylands, Danny Friedman.....Stubborn, independent d.j. (Askew) alienates those around him, including his conformist-minded producer who doesn't like what he plays. Handsome drama, but really slow and pointless. It wants to be profound, but has little substance to support it. Won three Etrogs including Best Picture. sc: William Fruet. dir: David Acomba. - casual nudity.- 93 min.

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