Monkey Warfare

Monkey WarfareSynopsis: Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright) are two ex-revolutionaries from Vancouver who live underground in Toronto and survive by cruising garage sales for buried treasures they sell on the Internet. Bound together by past misdeeds, the once passionate pair have become ambivalent about their political beliefs and feelings for each other. To numb the pain, Dan and Linda smoke weed—a lot of it—all day.

Dan and Linda’s lives are turned upside down when an enigmatic, young radical named Susan (Nadia Litz), who trades in ‘green beans’ enters the scene just as their dope dealer is busted. As Dan and Linda grow closer to Susan, they come to learn about revolutionary activities she is involved with that could threaten them. As it turns out, Susan’s guerilla antics are nothing compared to what she eventually learns about the past Dan and Linda’s have been hiding from.

Monkey Warfare 6.5

eyelights: the concept. the fanciful editing. the closing credits.
eyesores: lacked joy, humour. felt incomplete somehow. too short.

I don’t know what to think of ‘Monkey Warfare’. It’s the story of a couple who are living off the radar, wandering about town on their bikes, who make a meagre living by finding rarities that were dismissed as old junk and reselling them online at a profit. While their life is routine and mildly uninspiring, it would soon be shaken up by the arrival of a younger woman in their lives.

A pot seller, Susan intrigues Dan, played here with his usual awkwardness by Don McKellar. Not only does she have great pot, but she has a political bent that, while naïve, stirs up some old flames in him. His partner, played by Tracy Wright, is suspicious of the growing relationship between them, but seems too blaséd to really confront the issue.

Nevertheless, a relationship grows between them, and much discussion arises over their respective politics. We find out that Susan partakes in an underground movement bent on causing havoc on the streets. In her attempt to reel the couple in, she -and we- discover(s) why they have been living their current lifestyle for close to two decades.

This feature-length film by Reginald Harkema has interesting ideas express, but it all seems lost in a pot-fuelled haze: much of the movie revolves around the purchase, the sharing, the discussion of, and/or the smoking of joints. Say what you will about pot smoking, the problem with its portrayal in ‘Monkey Warfare’ is that it takes away from the substance at the heart of the picture.

While we could be discussing the concerns that make radicals or revolutionaries out of everyday folks, presenting coherent arguments for alternative lifestyles, or even engaging in a debate about legalization of marijuana,  the film is content with sampling here and there, toking the talk instead of walking it. This, in and of itself, poses a tremendous problem to its credibility – if it is at all in search of any.

Of course, it could also be trying to capture a certain type of demographic or a subgroup. I have known people who likely have lived a similar lifestyle and were perfectly content with that. If this is what the film intended to do, it has succeeded somewhat. It just hasn’t given us any reason to care about this lifestyle or about these people; we are merely observers, with no real connections to be found.

It doesn’t help that the characters are all somewhat unlikable. Don McKellar comes off as a sleaze who would not only betray his partner’s trust, but would take advantage of someone if given the chance. Tracy Wright, although perfect in the part, has a character as dour as she is dull. Meanwhile Nadia Liz is stuck playing a wannabe anarchist who is really just a petulant little girl in search of something she can defy.

They’re not exactly easy people to appreciate.

But I’ll give Harkema this: they do feel real. As writer-director, he put together a story that is absolutely credible. The key problem is that, at only 75 minutes, it is far too short to fully work; it feels incomplete, like a sketch of something that it longs to be. Bizarrely enough, the DVD has a full-length work edit of the film, so this end product was actually crafted this way for a reason – there was method to the madness. Of course, it was made on 30 grand – so one might want to forgive this issue.

This sign of intention also appears throughout the film in various touches, such as its editing style, which showed certain moments in jump cuts, and in the unique closing credit sequence, which echoed the design and feel of LPs – and, seeing as music plays a big part in the soundtrack and in the characters’ lives, this was totally fitting. And a lot of fun to watch, I might add – something that most credit sequences could never boast.

Be that as it may, ‘Monkey Warfare’  generally feels depressing and doesn’t really shake it off at any point. If only it tackled some issues instead of just casually hinting at them, then I would be more likely to appreciate it despite the mood. But, as it stands, it’s a rebel without a cause – the only substance to be found is the incessant pot-related sequences, the abuse of which contributes as little to the audience as it does to the characters’ well-being.

Date of viewing: January 1 + 11, 2013

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