Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998)

Sandra Oh in Don McKellar's Last Night (1998).

I was glad to see that Don McKellar’s fine feature debut Last Night (1998) was part of the roster of the large list of Canadian films to be picked for free showings on National Canadian Film Day 150. This annual appreciation of Canada’s cinema is taking place on April 19 across the country, this year showing 150 different films among its 1,700 events, in commemoration of Canada’s forthcoming 150th anniversary. Last Night was originally commissioned by a French film company as one of a series of ten films from ten countries, entitled 2000, Seen By... (2000 vu par...), all offering cinematic views on the Millennium, though Last Night doesn't specifically indicate when it's taking place. McKellar’s Toronto-set, quietly apocalyptic drama, which he wrote and directed, is a unique take on the end of the world as we know it.  It’s also one of the strongest English Canadian film debuts from an outsize talent who, though he has not subsequently carved out a consistent film career, is still making his mark in his native land.

The initial brilliance of Last Night’s concept is that the news that the world is going to end has already been digested and accepted by humanity – the science-fictional aspects of the film’s premise thus don’t need to be explained in any possibly pedestrian or pretentious way – leaving only the remaining question: how will you spend your last hours on earth? The answer is: in many ways. A disparate group of Torontonians each selects a pathway to what some hope will result in something else after the end. (The movie never does spill the beans on that possibility. The only clue that something's off is that the sun never sets.) At the centre of the film is Patrick (McKellar), a lonely cynic who doesn’t want to spend time with his family or friends as the end looms. On the other hand, Sandra (Sandra Oh of Sideways and Grey’s Anatomy) wants merely to connect with her new husband Duncan (Videodrome director David Cronenberg) so she doesn’t die alone. Patrick and Sandra accidentally meet up and slowly bond even as Toronto’s residents go through various actions in their final hours. Some, like Patrick’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie of Hardcore Logo and Battlestar Galactica), are intent in carrying out all their long-held sexual fantasies, and others simply finish their work. Duncan, who works at a gas company, is going through his customer data base and calling them to reassure them that their gas will stay on until the end, a very polite Canadian way of providing reassurance. As the clock ticks down, the movie’s strong emotions bubble to the surface, providing a mélange of poignant, comic, tragic and memorable moments, with the film as a whole leaving an indelible impression.

Callum Keith Rennie and Don McKellar in Last Night.
McKellar’s direction of Last Night is remarkably self-assured, maintaining an intimate mood and a consistent tone throughout that rivets you to the characters and what’s going on with them and the world outside. Not many movies can juggle as many different emotions as Last Night does without falling flat or seeming overdone but McKellar doesn’t set a foot wrong. (Alexina Louie and Alex Paul’s moody score and Douglas Koch’s lovely cinematography also stand out.) It’s an apt reminder, too, that the best cinematic science fiction isn’t about special effects – see also Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2003) – or even grand ideas but revolves around protagonists who are authentic and compelling. McKellar’s who’s who of Canadian talent, also including actor-director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell) as Patrick’s sister, who just wants to party down, Geneviève Bujold (Coma, Dead Ringers) as Mme. Carlton, a French teacher who figures in Craig’s fantasies, and the late Tracy Wright (McKellar’s longtime life partner) as Duncan’s employee Donna, who wants to lose her virginity before the world’s finale, add immeasurably to the proceedings. There’s also a great cameo by Arsinée Khanjian as a Toronto woman who is waiting with her daughter on one of the city’s distinctive streetcars in the vain hope that it will actually move. The driver abandoned it long ago but like the city folk who wait for the light to turn green at night even when there are no cars coming, she instinctively obeys the rules. (That’s a specifically Toronto characteristic, often incredulously remarked upon by other Canadians.) But McKellar’s satire is of a gentle sort and also respectful to those folks, like Patrick’s parents, who prefer to pray to God when their time comes.

McKellar obviously loves his city and captures it with an accuracy I’ve rarely seen in any Canadian movie, where the streets usually seem underpopulated and the geographical connections seldom make sense. (Last Night’s streets are supposed to be mostly deserted so it’s not a flaw here and the city's rhythm as depicted in the film seems very real to me.) Toronto isn’t immune to the destruction and violence that we know most of the planet is undergoing in Last Night, of course – the film’s depiction of violence is judicious and upsetting – but it’s comparatively subdued and minimal, which strikes me as quite believable and true to type. (We’re not awash in guns like our American neighbours, which would help ameliorate this type of dire situation.) When President George  H.W. Bush proclaimed his desire for America to become “a kinder, gentler nation,” we joked that he meant Canada. And my city happens to be the one that doesn’t indulge in mayhem when our sports teams, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, win championships, something that can’t be said for other Canadian cities like Edmonton, Vancouver and, especially my hometown of Montreal.

Last Night did alright at the Canadian box office and McKellar won awards at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival (Best Canadian First Feature Film), as well as three Genie Awards (now known as the Canadian Screen Awards) for Best First Feature and for Sandra Oh and Callum Keith Rennie’s performances. But though very well reviewed, Last Night, regrettably, did not indicate the beginnings of a stellar film directing career for Don McKellar as it would have almost anywhere else. (Canada is not always kind to its idiosyncratic talents.) His follow-up film Childstar (2004), chronicling the adventures of a spoiled American child actor on the loose in Toronto, was a box-office bomb but not deservedly so; it was an uneven sophomore stumble but worthwhile nonetheless. It took almost another decade before he helmed another film, The Grand Seduction (2013), an English-language remake of a French-language Quebec film (La grande séduction) that actually improved upon its predecessor. McKellar, however, has never been idle, with numerous credits over the years on television (the cult hits Twitch CitySlings & Arrows, and Sensitive Skin), theatre (he wrote the sublime book for the mock-musical The Drowsy Chaperone and won a Tony for his efforts) and radio (hosting the show High Definition).

And nearly twenty years later, he’s still one of this country’s few hip and accessible filmmakers around; Bruce McDonald, for whom McKellar starred in and wrote Highway 61 and Roadkill, and who appears fleetingly in Last Night, is another.  And Last Night is slowly gaining traction, I think, among filmgoers and filmmakers alike. (The similarly themed inferior 2012 American movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has to have been influenced by Last Night.) In any case, its inclusion in National Canadian Film Day can only help spread the deserved word for this strikingly original effort.

Last Night is scheduled at the Revue Cinema in Toronto tonight (Wednesday, April 19) with Mr. McKellar in attendance for a Q and A session after the film.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on May 5 he will begin teaching a course entitled America’s Concerns: How the Movies Have Tackled Issues That Matter to the Voting Public, examining cinematic depictions of the issues, illegal immigration, environmental concerns, blue collar portraits etc., that dominated the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

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