SXSW 2014: Wild Canaries and That Guy Dick Miller

Dashiell Hammett meets Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries.

Wild Canaries
Photo: IFC Films

Dashiell Hammett meets Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries, the story of a Brooklyn couple’s already troubled relationship thrown for a loop after they engage in some slapstick-y DIY detective work. Upon discovering the body of an elderly woman who lives in the apartment below her, disaffected homebody Barri (Sophia Takal) becomes obsessed with the idea that the woman was killed. Her fiancé, Noah (Levine), finds the idea preposterous yet is unable to placate her delusions, and soon Barri is donning a fisherman’s hat and aviator glasses in order to sniff out the criminal and the motivation for the murder, going so far to involve her roommate and friends in her sleuthing.

The idea of aimless dreamers becoming obsessed with paranoid intrigue instead of addressing the listlessness they feel in their own lives is well-worn territory. I know why the caged bird snoops. But Wild Canaries never belabors its secondhand subtext, firmly establishing itself, and rather incessantly, as a goofball genre throwback with a contemporary Brooklyn twist. Despite its more farcical and anachronistic attributes, the film ultimately takes the form of a rather incohesive outline; it’s a collection of affectations and misguided, stop-and-go subplots (the worst involving inchoate sexual infidelities and repetitiously bickering couples) that never coalesces into a coherent, satisfying whole. Levine’s talented young cast exhibits an awareness of the genre tropes confronted by the film, yet as a collaborative ensemble the character dynamics still come off as forced. As a trifle, Wild Canaries possesses a disarming moxie, but the premise becomes enervating and unbalanced as Levine attempts to reconcile characters’ romantic woes via feeble whodunit.

A staple of the campy and innovative oeuvres of Joe Dante and Roger Corman, character actor Dick Miller, who’s brought a certain scrappy can-do attitude and odd brand of humor to his look-away-and-you’ll-miss-them roles, is the subject of That Guy Dick Miller. Director Elijah Drenner explores the actor’s prolific output and modest accomplishments (his more notable screen credits include Gremlins, Not of This Earth, The ‘Burbs, and a rare lead role in Corman’s The Bucket of Blood), as well as his familial turmoil. Throughout, he charitably allows Miller, so skilled at playing blue-collar types because of his own working-class experience, to explain his failed aspirations to be a writer and how he ended up falling in with the giants of cult cinema, living in the edges of the frames these filmmakers sculpted and with only one toe, at most, in the spotlight.

One interviewee notes how Miller’s “mere presence in a film became self-referential,” and how the off-kilter charm of his brief performances “play to a general audience, but it helps if you’re a film buff.” The same could be said about the documentary’s sense of direction, as it does a charitable job of contextualizing Miller’s unique and unheralded contributions to a particular cult of cinema, yet is edited to prioritize a collection of unqualified praise from talking-head acquaintances, relatives, colleagues, and friends. But what’s most charming about the doc is the esteem with which it profiles Miller, reserving the kind of hagiographic affection for its subject that’s usually lavished on more household names. Drenner may give the audience only brief tastes of Miller’s actual work throughout, but it’s with such enthusiasm that one might be propelled to consult IMDb and seek out some of the works that have benefited from the actor’s presence, and unbeknownst to the undiscerning eye.

SXSW runs from March 7—16.

Nick McCarthy

Nick McCarthy is director of programming for Newfest. He is a film curator, editor, and writer who can edit everyone but himself.

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