Author: Amanda Clarke

How do you define Canadian film culture?

What makes a film Canadian? No one seems to be able to agree on this relatively simple question. Is it the presence of Canadian talent in key creative roles either in front of or behind the camera, such as the writer, director or stars? Does it need to be shot on Canadian soil? Or is Canadian content the requirement? And what exactly is Canadian content? Unlike most other nations, defining a distinctive Canadian film culture proves difficult. Part of this is our proximity to the United States. While we can probably all agree that Canada and Canadians are not the same as America or Americans, there is no denying that culturally there are many similarities, with the two blending together at many points. It doesn’t help that the two film cultures have a lot of overlap. Many talented Canadian filmmakers, writers and actors end up in Hollywood at some point in their careers and become American stars. Hollywood often uses Canada as a shooting location, employing Canadian background cast and crew. The melding of our industries is best summed up by the simple fact that the Americans consider Canada to be a domestic market. There is also the question of whether a country as large and diverse as Canada can have a single unifying culture. Arguably, different regions of Canada are culturally distinct, although the same can be said...

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Review: Woman in Gold

When the Austrian government passed a law in 1998 to re-examine the restitution of artworks stolen by the Nazi’s during the second world war, Maria Altman (Helen Mirren) applied to have several paintings by the Austrian great Gustav Klimt that once belonged to her family returned, including his most famous painting “Portrait of Elena”. With the help of the lawyer son of a friend (Ryan Reynolds) when the Austrian government dismissed her claim, she sued the Austrian government to have the paintings returned to her. Like other similar prestige films from the Weinstein Company, it’s difficult to find anything to directly criticize in the Woman in Gold. It is well done from top to bottom, however, it is also inherently formulaic. The true story it’s based on might be original for the screen, but in reality this film has been made before, and that’s a shame. The story itself is not only fascinating, it is also an important one. But within the well oiled Hollywood machine, Woman in Gold loses most of the power and weight it might have carried as it is reduced to hit every single beat that is expected from a ‘based on a true story’ film. Watching it, you can’t help but feel some resentment at the blatant emotional manipulation you are subjected to. Fortunately the casting of Helen Mirren and Tatiana Maslany, of Orphan Black...

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Review: Cast No Shadow

Thirteen year old Jude Traynor (Percy Hynes-White) lives with his abusive father Angus (Joel Thomas Hynes) in a small town. To escape from the unpleasantness of his life, Jude collects objects that he paints gold, saving up to pay off the troll that lives in the seaside caves and befriends the old witch Alfreda (Mary-Colin Chisholm) who lives on the outskirts of town. But the world of fairytales can only protect him from the very real horrors of his life for so long before they catch up with him. Fairytales were designed to scare children. They created witches and goblins and ghouls to haunt childhood dreams, teaching them that the world is a strange and terrifying place. For a kid like Jude, this fantasy is safer than reality. The troll of his nightmares can at least be bought off. Give him enough gold, and you will be left alone. Jude’s father Angus isn’t so easily vanquished. Cast No Shadow walks this line between fantasy and reality confidently, showing us the disturbing realities of Jude’s daily life and taking us inside his head to where he escapes, a place that is equally terrifying. There is a mystical quality to the film, helped by the rocky cliffs and crashing waves of Newfoundland’s coast. It’s not difficult to imagine there is a troll lurking in the depths of the caves in the...

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Organic adaptation: interview with Christian Sparkes, director of Cast No Shadow

Adaptation from the page to the screen is always a tricky task. What works on the page doesn’t always translate to the screen. There is a fine balance that must be struck between remaining faithful to the original intent and accommodating the requirements of the moving image. Does the original lend itself to adaption? Then there is the intent behind the adaptation, does the filmmaker have something to add to the original work? All of these things are factors in Christian Sparkes’s debut feature Cast No Shadow, an adaptation of Joel Thomas Hynes’s “Say Nothing Saw Wood”. Sparkes was looking for material for his first feature film and had always been a fan of Hynes work. Something in “Say Nothing Saw Wood” caught his attention. “When I read it, a lot of the things I really liked in it were the flashbacks of childhood. There are so many rich details and I have always been a big fan of coming of age films in general, especially the ones that are very social realistic, very dark, but at the same time as beautiful as they are dark.” For Sparkes, the process of adapting the novella to the screen was a very organic process. The prominent themes from “Say Nothing Saw Wood” “along with a couple of other threads from different books just jumped off the page. I could see that...

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Playing the long game: Lee Daniels’ Empire and synonyms for American culture

“So you can witness as Empire becomes synonymous with American culture and Lucius Lyon becomes a god.” These words, spoken by Lucius Lyon (Terrance Howard) to a group of reporters part way through Empire‘s first season finale, can be read as a manifesto from creator Lee Daniels. While Daniels isn’t trying to bestow godhood on anyone in particular, he is out to change perceptions of race and sexuality in American culture, to challenge the the straight-white male default, to create a world where it is possible for a black owned and run hip hop empire to be considered the height of American popular culture. Lee Daniels has always been a filmmaker whose work focuses on the lives and perspectives of those whom Hollywood ignores, with his work largely focusing on the marginalized black voice. Unfortunately, the commercial film world has never been a particularly receptive place to diverse voices and Daniels work, while critically acclaimed, has remained on the outskirts, much like the film’s characters. This is where the medium of television manages to surpass film. That’s why Daniels’ latest project, Empire, airing on FOX, is such an effective vehicle for the foregrounding of race and homosexual representation within a popular sphere. Unlike film, television plays the long game which means it can afford to reduce marketing costs and rely on word of mouth to build an audience. Over...

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The TFS List: can’t-miss Canadian cinematic television

General wisdom is that films are superior to television, but there’s no denying that television has become really good in the past few years. As the line between film and television has begun to blur, it’s the big American cable networks that have started to gain a lot of critical attention with big budget cinematic series. It could be said that Canadian television gets less attention, but Canadian television is just so good that you can barely tell the Canadian from the Hollywood on the small screen. Here is some Canadian cinematic television you should check out for the big screen experience in the comfort of your own home. Flashpoint Slick and stylish, Flashpoint ushered in a new era of big budget Canadian television. A high concept show that followed in the mold of American shows like CSI, Flashpoint managed to tap into the international, and more importantly the American market, while maintaining a distinctly Canadian identity. Each episode of Flashpoint is like a bite sized action film, complete with high-octane car chases, sniper standoffs and hostage situations. The only difference? Fewer explosions and a minimal body count.   Book of Negroes The story of Aminata’s epic journey spans decades and multiple continents. It is a story with a scope that is difficult to fit into a standard film’s run time, making it perfect for a television miniseries. But...

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Review: Playing It Cool

The story of Playing It Cool follows a screenwriter (Chris Evans) tasked with writing a major romantic comedy. The problem is that he doesn’t believe in romance or love, that is until he meets the perfect woman (Michelle Monaghan) at a charity event. True to generic form, she is involved with another man, so Evans befriends her in the hope of falling out of his infatuation, opening paths to a complicated relationship. Playing It Cool hits every cliché of romantic comedies presented in a cute little package. It starts out promising, poking fun at the genre, playing with the “meet cute” that is a staple of the genre. Stylistically, it’s off beat in a good way, with Chris Evans’s narrator inserting himself into others’ stories and his heart following him around in a cloud of cigarette smoke like the brooding hero from a 1940s film noir. Evans and Monaghan are both charming as the unnamed leads and they have decent chemistry. When their hands meet for the first time, sparks literally fly and it’s almost believable. Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on, the more things begin to grate as the self-aware touches that make the first half enjoyable disappear, leaving us with nothing but the very tired tropes of the rom-com. At this point the film loses its cool. The light hearted tone is jettisoned in favour of one...

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