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Problem With Fear, A

TVA International // Unrated // February 10, 2004
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 18, 2004 | E-mail the Author
"Uh...I may be afraid of a few things."
"You can't use the subway. You can't ride a bicycle or eat in public."
"No, I'll eat in public."
"You won't eat soup or spaghetti or any noodle-based foods. Good thing this isn't Chinese! You won't use chopsticks or drink red wines or ketchup or any red-sauce meals. You won't talk in public if anyone's within earshot! Bookstores. You're afraid of bookstores."


A Problem with Fear (or Laurie's Anxiety Confronting the Escalator) marked the followup to writer/director Gary Burns' critically acclaimed comedy waydowntown, which took home or was nominated for every conceivable award Canada offers. The reception to A Problem with Fear at the Toronto Film Festival last year was decidedly mixed by comparison. It's an oddball comedy, the type of movie that's rarely overtly comedic but doesn't fit squarely into any other genre, something I find irresistable. Although A Problem with Fear may not have won over an overwhelming number of critics, hopefully it'll be able to find its audience on DVD.

The premise revolves around the deeply paranoid Laurie (Paulo Costanzo), who's completely and utterly consumed by his fears. While strolling down the street, he avoids stepping on the grates that look down on the subway. He's terrified of open spaces, navigating the mall where he works through back entrances and dimly-lit corridors. Crossing the street is an ordeal, and elevators, escalators, subways...forget about it. Hundreds of corporations have developed their business models around fear, and one upstart to follow suit is run by Michelle (Camille Sullivan), Laurie's sister. Global Safety sells safety bracelets and PDAs that alert their owners when danger is imminent, even contacting the police if necessary, all without so much as a press of a button. Laurie was a natural test subject, although the kinks weren't entirely worked out before going to market. Business begins booming when the city is plagued with a "fear storm". People's worst fears being to come to life, and Global Safety's stock price skyrockets at a time when the country is teetering on financial devastation. Laurie, pursued relentlessly by a crazed Global Safety employee, begins to believe he's the epidemic's epicenter, scribbling down a list of his greatest fears and overcoming them one by one.

A Problem with Fear is the cinematic equivalent of a band like They Might Be Giants -- accessible and polished, but just strange enough to leave many viewers scratching their heads in confusion as to why anyone would possibly like it. Though not a conventional comedy, it's certain to be slapped with that label because the square peg fits less uncomfortably into that slot than any other. There isn't any mugging to the camera, pratfalls, or even witty wordplay. It's not the type of movie likely to leave an audience out of breath from laughter, but A Problem with Fear still manages to effectively establish a tone that's comedic despite not overtly trying. The biggest laughs are almost sadistic, seeing a man tossed around violently in a revolving door before being spat out into traffic, or a looped piece of footage of an SUV plummeting to its fiery demise. I also appreciated that A Problem with Fear establishes its premise without fully exploring the forces that induce it. Crossing its Ts and dotting its Is wouldn't have made it an appreciably better film, and I think a more explicit approach might even have hurt it.

The movie benefits from the presence of a lot of talent both in front of and behind the screen. Regardless of how someone might feel about its content, A Problem with Fear is, if nothing else, an interesting movie to watch. The camera seems a little more fluid than in most comedies, and Burns and cinematographer Stefan Ivanov play with the palette, giving many of the film's exteriors a steel blue tint. Focus also varies; a number of shots are clearly defined in the center of the frame, but remain soft and blurred otherwise. The way that Laurie appears distinct while his surroundings are barely discernable is in keeping with the idea that his fears disconnect him from the rest of the world. The futuristic setting, occasional blue tint, and the omnipresent advertising are reminiscent of Spielberg's Minority Report, and although A Problem with Fear obviously didn't have a nine-figure budget at its disposal, production values remain respectably high throughout. Having a cast like this helps too. I've liked Paulo Costanzo in the other movies of his that I've seen -- Road Trip, Josie and the Pussycats, and Scorched -- and he manages to make a completely neurotic character seem sympathetic rather than grating. The real standout is Emily Hampshire, who's been nominated for a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, for her performance in this movie. She plays Dot, Laurie's girlfriend, a college student who pesters mall shoppers with questions about their fashion sense for a Sociology project. Dot apparently has turned to Riverdale for her fashion inspiration, adopting a '50s retro look to complement her braces and lisp. It's also nice to see Keegan Connor Tracy again, though there's something about her and an elevator-severed body part that strikes me as strangely familiar. A Problem with Fear is the type of movie that gels based on the combination of all of its inputs, and without Dot, with a different actor in the lead, or even a different cinematographer, the end result wouldn't have been nearly as satisfying.

One of the downsides of watching a dozen movies a month is that a lot of them bleed together. Overly familiar formulas and clich├ęs leave me wanting to stab myself in the leg with a fork. A Problem with Fear doesn't feel like a movie I've seen before, and that's refreshing. Though unlikely to play to a massive audience, A Problem with Fear is quite possibly my favorite movie about carnage set in a mall that doesn't have hordes of the flesh-chomping undead or cybernetic Killbots.

Video: A Problem with Fear is letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, although it isn't enhanced for widescreen displays. That's really my only qualm with the presentation, which is otherwise excellent. There are only a couple of tiny flecks for the entire length of the movie, and, not surprising considering how recent a production this is, there are no print flaws of any sort. A very slight amount of film grain is present, but nothing unusual or intrusive. No authoring concerns like mosquito noise or compression artifacts sneak in either. Crispness and clarity are both above average, and black levels are appropriately deep and inky. Aside from the lack of anamorphic widescreen enhancement, I can't really muster any complaints.

Audio: A Problem with Fear includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps. The sonics don't veer too far away from the six-channel comedy standard -- dialogue front and center, ambience and some light reinforcement of the score in the surrounds. Maybe nothing awe-inspiring, but it does it well. There are a lot of discrete effects in the rears that plop the viewer in Laurie's world, making it a little easier to relate to his phobias. Usually they're ambient in nature, but they also come into play during a sequence where Laurie is immersed in booming voices and in a shot near the end of the movie where a highrise office window bursts open. It's a good track and complements the movie well. A French dub, also in Dolby Digital 5.1, and closed captions have been provided as well.

Supplements: The only extras are a letterboxed trailer and a link to the movie's website. A Problem with Fear includes a set of animated 4x3 menus, available in both English and French, and the disc's sixteen chapter stops are listed on the flipside of the keepcase.

Conclusion: Apparently A Problem with Fear is still shopping for a distributor stateside, currently only available on DVD in Canada, as far as I can tell. Canadian readers are encouraged to check it out at least as a rental. I wasn't smitten enough to suggest readers in the lower 48 go out of their way to import it alone, but if you're planning on grabbing Ginger Snaps, waydowntown or one of the other Canadian DVDs that are superior to their U.S. counterparts or otherwise unavailable, A Problem with Fear may be worth tacking onto that order at the right price. Recommended.

Related Sites: The nicely-designed official site offers some more information on the movie as well as a trailer.

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