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East of Euclid
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by Jay Seaver

"Like Guy Maddin lite."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: A lot of cities have their own distinctive art scene or music scene. But not many have their own film scene, or at least, not one that outsiders would necessarily recognize. Winnipeg may be on the road to becoming one of those cities, as Jeff Solylo, the production designer for some of Guy Maddin's early films, has made a film of his own, which is similar enough to note influences but has a sensibility of its own.

East of Euclid is set in Winnipeg's North End in the early 1970s, and takes its cues more from film noir than silents. This slavic enclave is home to Villosh The Gambler, a former KGB assassin and (very) small-time gangster who dreams of making enough money to go to Atlantic City and test his luck against the gamblers there. Elsewhere, gossip columnist Natalia (Daina Leitold) romances her paper's ace photographer, Valeri (Brent Neale), who becomes smitten with Villosh's mistress Alexandria (Maria Lamont) at a party. The picture Valeri takes of Villosh there prompts him and his henchmen to deliver Valeri a savage beating. Villosh also kidnaps the star local hockey player, Veli-Pekka (Miles Boiselle).

The visuals are stylized, though not so much as might be expected from the guy who did the production design for Careful and the like. The film is in black and white, with deep blacks and crisp grays. Many exterior "helicopter" shots are clearly a meticulously constructed miniature, covered with confectioner's sugar to simulate snow. It's a nifty effect which lends the whole film an air of unreality, which makes even some of the strangest things that happen at a smaller, more human scale enjoyably ridiculous.

And, yeah, that story is goofy. It's got a gambler with inhumanly good luck, a highly improbable bit of surgery, and a man wrapped in a giant perogie after going through a perogie-making machine straight out of Looney Tunes. I must admit to being initially unclear on whether Natalia was Villosh's lover or daughter, which probably made one scene more uncomfortable for me than it really should be. Solylo also has a weakness for the groaners, although to his credit he doesn't pepper the film with them so much as bury two or three where the audience is most susceptible. He likes to do deadpan comedy, too, encouraging his cast to say strange things with a straight face, in a way highlighting the absurdity to the moment by not calling any attention to it.

The supporting cast is pretty good at selling this understated sort of humor, while star Michael O'Sullivan is notable as a teddy bear who can quickly change into a grizzly. He makes Villosh the kind of round, eccentric guy who becomes a neighborhood fixture, appearing befuddled at the lock on the thermostat immediately after plotting a crime. Indeed, when he's holding the hockey player hostage toward the middle of the movie, we've got delightfully mixed emotions because, even while he's being thoroughly intimidating, he's doing it to finance his dream trip to Atlantic City, and the look in his eyes is that of a little boy pleading to go to Disneyland. Few of the other actors get a chance to be that expressive. Brent Neale is kind of blandly perfect toward the start, and becomes much more entertaining once he adds an element of cold revenge-seeking. Ms. Lamont plays a kind of generic blonde beauty, this far off from being a plot device, while Ms. Leitold is okay at doing the whole "were you looking at her" thing with Neale, but I think she lays the accent on a bit to thick. A woman her relatively tender age writing a column for a daily newspaper, I'd expect her to sound more like the thoroughly assimilated kids than the old guys from the old country.

Of course, if it sounded "real", the film might not work quite so well. Solylo is going for a sort of "heightened reality" here, very cognizant of the genre he's tweaking and his world's deliberate artifice. His movie sort of meanders, dragging a bit in the first half while he establishes the characters and situations, and the payoff in the second half is entertaining, though sort of low-key.

Which is fine. Telling a story with a straight through-line is a higher priority for Solylo then it is for Maddin, but he's still very much a visual stylist who likes eccentric characters and plot twists. If you like that, it makes "East of Euclid" at least worth watching once.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14206&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/27/06 21:48:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2006 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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8/19/07 Darryl Willie Good for them! 4 stars
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