Catching Up on Canadian Screen Award Nominees with 'Amsterdam', 'Vanishing Point', and 'The Mortal Instruments'

There aren’t many Canadian Screen Award nominees that one can catch up on in the last few weeks leading up to the awards, so I crossed a few more films off my list:

(Canada, 108 min.)
Dir. Stefan Miljevic, Writ. Louis Champagne, Stefan Miljevic, Gabriel Sabourin
Starring: Gabriel Sabourin, Louis Champagne, Robin Aubert, Suzanne Clément, Fanny Mallette, Marie-Chantal Perron.

A strong cast saves Amsterdam from being a totally unconvincing misfire. It’s a Raymond Carver-esque scenario about three friends—Jeff (Gabriel Sabourin), Marc (Louis Champagne), and Sam (Robin Aubert)—who say à bientôt to their wives and go on a fishing trip. Once the men get to the cottage, however, they pull some frozen fish out of a cooler, snap some photos, and then hop a plane to Amsterdam for a riotous week of drugs and Red Light District naughtiness.

A big lie spins into a bigger lie, however, and Amsterdam spirals out from being a taut character drama to an all-out fracas of soapy convolution. There’s a bit too much moralising to Amsterdam as it struggles to balance an air of mystery with the domestic drama. The ensemble holds it all together, though, and grounds the film in a world of emotional realism as they make for a sextet of flawed and relatable characters. Amsterdam, however, also suffers from the problematic sketching of paper-thin female characters who are unwitting dupes to the web of lies their husbands spin, although Laurence Anyways star Suzanne Clément redeems the film with the depth of her performances as Amsterdam shifts the blame from her boys’ behaviour to Marianne.

Amsterdam might be ambiguous in the overall message it tries to convey, but it’s a competently made film from a technical perspective. (The editing is particularly compelling, as the pace and convolutedness work together to keep the viewer on edge.) It’s a flawed film, albeit an engaging one, as debut director Stefan Miljevic doesn’t shy away from leaving room for the audience to question the motives of the protagonists.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★

Amsterdam is now available on Google Play.

Vanishing Point
(Canada/Greenland, 83 min.)
Dir. Stephen A. Smith, Julia Szucs
Photo: Julia Szucs

Vantage Point, somewhat of a surprise nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category, looks at Inuit life with a fond and reflective eye. The film follows a Polar Eskimo elder named Navarana as she traces her roots from her home in Greenland to that of her ancestors in Baffin Island. Her trip is the return of an epic journey made by her shaman ancestor Qitdlarssuaq, who led an Inuit migration to Greenland. Nearly two centuries have passed since Navarana’s ancestor made his voyage and Vanishing Point sees her reflect upon the journey that the Inuit have taken since Qitdlarssuaq took his fateful trek.

Directors Stephen A. Smith and Julia Szucs thankfully let the subjects of the film do the talking. The Inuit have come a long way in documentary representation since Nanook of the North, and this objective expository doc simply shows life as it is on Baffin Island today without much commentary aside from the odd thought from Navarana herself as she interrogates why her people uphold their traditions in an increasingly globalized world.

There isn’t much to the film aside from its affectionate slice-of-life observations, but the film smartly steers clear of nostalgia as it looks at cultural preservation in the face of a landscape that often forces change. Images of the declining ice speak to shifts in hunting patterns and candid remarks on the food industry situate the Inuit within the larger cultural shift. Vanishing Point doesn’t depict the Inuit as an isolated community thanks to ample references to “Southern Canada” and other influences, but it subtly notes how said influences force a person like Navarana to reflect upon her culture. One episode of the narwhal hunting, for example, sees a hunter remark that the mattak of the narwhal has become so costly that many families are unable to afford the delectable meat. (The observation seems especially ironic as the hunters dine on Chef Boyardee during the trip.) The narwhal hunt, however, underscores the aspect of community that exists among Navarana’s kin, as the riches of the hunt are shared, as opposed to gains in other Western communities that might restrict profits to the individual.

Some traditions are worth passing on to generations, Navarana says, as she accompanies the family on the narwhal hunt, which is one of several impressive hunting sequences offered in the film. Practices differ from place to place, but Navarana notes a common link between the sense of community with the family on Baffin Island and her own family back in Greenland. A philosophy for passing on old customs to preserve a culture made the trip with Qitdlarssuaq many years ago, and his way of life will continue to prosper through the community engagement and elements of shared experience depicted in the film.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Vanishing Point is now available on home video. (iTunes, Netflix, and from the NFB)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
(USA/Canada/Germany, 130 min.)
Dir. Harald Zwart, Writ. Jessica Postigo
Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Jemima West, Jonathan Rhys-Myers, Robert Sheehan, Jared Harris, Lena Headley.
Jamie Campbell Bower and Lily Collins star in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
Courtesy of eOne Films

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones might have seemed like an ideal venture for the Canadian film scene to gain a boost by hopping on board the Twilight train. The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare could have been the next big thing, but this laugh-a-minute misfire is such a mess that not even its target audience could admire it. It’s a cheap-looking fantasy thrill-ride full of ridiculous dialogue and mailed-in performances.

The first (and hopefully last) adaptation of the series is abhorrently bad, even by the incredibly low standard with which one approaches YA flicks. (Case in point: Vampire Academy.) Some of the teenybopper Twilight aspirants have afforded surprisingly good escapism by embracing the lunacy of the teen-lit world (see: Beautiful Creatures), but The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones seems particularly oblivious to the fact that it is brainless escapism, although the wayward performance by lead Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror, Stuck in Love) might have sold the film as a comedy with the correct marketing

The Mortal Instruments clearly aspires to something more, as buckets of money are visibly wasted in an attempt to transform Toronto into the next teen-lit cash cow. Not an ounce of the film works, though. It’s sloppy, silly, and consistently ludicrous from beginning to end.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa among this year’s Canadian Screen Awards nominees. Both films are god-awful turkeys through and through, and it’s mind-boggling that better craftwork in superior films went unacknowledged by the voting bodies. Jackass, however, has more merit to its lone Oscar nom for make-up than The Mortal Instruments does to its sextet of Screenie nominations and its booby prize of the Golden Reel, which grants the film—a commercial (and critical) bomb that grossed roughly half of its 60-million-dollar budget—an award for being Canada’s box office star. What an embarrassment.

Rating:  (out of ★★★★★)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is now available on home video.

Oh, I should also mention that I tried watching Upside Down on The Movie Network recently, but I learned a thing or two after Jackass and The Mortal Instruments and decided to shut off the film and catch something better. It’s utter nonsense!

How is your Canadian Screen Awards checklist going?