“Canadian” films, not-so-Canadian stories

Alas, I pretty much missed the last few days of the Vancouver International Film Festival this week, but I hope to get a few capsule reviews up in the near future anyway. In the meantime, I think it’s worth noting how this year’s festival, perhaps unwittingly, underscored the ongoing question of what, exactly, constitutes a “Canadian” film.

The movie that opened the “Canadian Images” section of the festival two weeks ago was Stone of Destiny, which tells the true story of how a handful of Scots drove down to London in 1950 and stole the titular relic from Westminster Abbey. What is the Canadian connection, you ask? Well, it was produced with a bit of Canadian money, and writer-director Charles Martin Smith — best known perhaps for playing one of The Untouchables (1987), along with Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Andy Garcia — happens to live and work in Vancouver. But that’s pretty much it. (For what it’s worth, though, one of the characters depicted in the film did move to Vancouver some years later; his widow was at the screening I attended.)

Meanwhile, the film that won the “Western Canada Feature Film Award” last night was Fifty Dead Men Walking, which tells the true story of how a member of the IRA saved a few dozen lives by leaking information to the Brits. What is the Canadian connection, you ask? Well, it was produced with a bit of Canadian money, and writer-director Kari Skogland comes from British Columbia. Even better, a brief prologue shows the former snitch living in hiding somewhere in Canada — but the rest of the movie, told as one giant flashback, still takes place in Belfast.

See the problem? If the purpose of promoting Canadian filmmakers — whether by giving them government grants or by devoting an entire festival series to them — is to help our artists to “tell our stories”, then these particular films wouldn’t quite seem to do the trick. They may be “Canadian” behind the camera, but in front of the camera, they tell basically Scottish or Irish stories instead.

Now, Canada certainly has a strong connection to the British Isles in general, and to its Celtic roots in particular, so it’s not surprising that we would have an affinity for stories like these. And there were certainly lots of other films at this festival which were indisputably Canadian on both sides of the camera. But it still seems a little odd to see these two particular films highlighted in this way.

Oh, how were the films themselves? Okay, but not great, I thought. Stone of Destiny is a bit rote and perfunctory in some ways, and shamelessly Scottish-nationalist to boot; but it tells a story I had never heard before, which has to count for something, and the night of the heist itself is an amusing series of errors and near-misses. Fifty Dead Men Walking is more of a jumble, with its relentlessly brutal depiction of Belfast’s streets, its seemingly indestructible protagonist, and its fitful explication of the political landscape; but it has its moments, too.

Billy: The Early Years — the review’s up!

My review of Billy: The Early Years is now up at CT Movies. I may post a slightly different version here later.

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. Mike Leigh, 2008)

Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

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Review: Billy: The Early Years (dir. Robby Benson, 2008)

Billy Graham has appeared in many movies over the years, most of them produced by World Wide Pictures, the movie studio that he founded through his evangelistic ministry in the 1950s. But apart from a handful of parodies, no actor has ever played him before, and certainly no film has tried to show what kind of person he was prior to becoming the internationally recognized preacher that he is today. So there was lots of fertile ground for Billy: The Early Years, the first major Graham biopic, to explore. Too bad, then, that the film does such a poor job of bringing his story to life.

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Yet another movie not screened for critics?

Quarantine, a horror movie produced by Screen Gems, opens today, and as of this morning, there are only four reviews posted at Rotten Tomatoes — none of them by major outlets — and no reviews whatsoever at Metacritic. So, it looks like this is another one for the “no advance press screenings” file.

Newsbites: The biblical epic edition!

Just a few quick updates on some previously announced projects.

1. Year One, the upcoming biblical comedy produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Harold Ramis, is going back for reshoots at the end of this month. — Louisiana Movies Blog

2. At the tail end of a long-ish interview on the making of Billy: The Early Years, writer-producer Bill McKay says he is “in pre-production” on Resurrection, which he describes as “kind of a sequel to Mel Gibson’s picture ‘The Passion of the Christ.'” He says he was brought onto the project by Sony, which raises a few questions: Is this the same film that Tim LaHaye was developing for Screen Gems, which is also affiliated with Sony? Does this mean LaHaye’s movie is still in the works? Or is this a completely different project? — Christians in Cinema

3. Christian Duguay’s $30 million TV mini-series adaptation of Ben-Hur is one of several projects that the Alchemy Television Group is bringing to MIPCOM in Cannes, France next week. — Hollywood Reporter