Beyond the Black Rainbow

Eva Allan in Beyond the Black Rainbow (Mongrel Media)

As the Toronto International Film Festival rolls back into the media, one thing we won't be hearing a lot about is Canadian cinema. Most of the country's big-name directors don't have movies to bring this year -- only Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children is launching -- and the news that the festival has quietly terminated its Canada First program means debuting Canadian filmmakers no longer have even the modest of spotlights placed upon them.

I've never really considered myself a booster of our national cinema, but this seems like a bad idea. Film festivals are meant to nurture talent, and give good movies a shot at building some buzz before they're dumped into the raging sea of the megaplex. And sometimes Canadian filmmakers do produce something of value; this week's DVD slate offers three very different homegrown productions, two of which are actually pretty good.

Let's start with the one you're most likely to have heard of, Edwin Boyd. When it came to TIFF last year, critics and audiences were buzzing about Scott Speedman's complex performance as the real-life WWII veteran (and frustrated actor) who found a new calling as a Toronto bank robber in the 1950s.

Boyd's greasepainted face and flamboyant patter made him an early media star at a time when Canada didn't have too many of those, and Speedman is perfectly cast as a man who spends most of his time hiding himself from the people around him. As he ages, Speedman's matinée-idol looks are softening into something more interesting, and writer-director Nathan Morlando uses that aspect of his star very well, suggesting a raging emotional sea beneath that placid, pretty-boy façade.

The movie loses momentum in its second half, as the character aspects take a back seat to the crime story, but Speedman's performance keeps it together, along with a fun turn from Kevin Durand as a jailhouse acquaintance who becomes one of Boyd's accomplices. (Kelly Reilly struggles with the underwritten role of Boyd's wife, Doreen, though, and neither Brian Cox nor William Mapother do much in supporting roles.)

So yeah, Edwin Boyd isn't quite the triumph of commercial cinema it was made out to be by certain festival journalists, but it's a good story well-told, with a little more grit than one might expect from this sort of thing.

And it looks great, with Morlando and cinematographer Steve Cosens re-creating 1950s Toronto on a microbudget in Sault Ste. Marie; why eOne isn't making this available on Blu-ray, I cannot understand.

In fact, Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow is the only one of this week's Canadian titles getting a Blu-ray release -- thanks, Mongrel Media! -- and that's a very good thing, because the visuals are one of the film's best selling points.

With a nifty retro sensibility that reaches back to hermetic sci-fi films of the early 1970s, Cosmatos -- whose father, George P. Cosmatos, made the Stallone epics Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra -- sets his film in a place called Arboria, where a young woman named Elena (Eva Allan) is being held in a heavily sedated state for reasons unknown. Why is her interrogator (Michael Rogers) messing with her emotions? Is she a political prisoner? Do we even know what the politics of Arboria are?

As Elena attempts to wean herself from her meds, slip her guards and escape from Arboria, Cosmatos unleashes a series of trippy, possibly hallucinatory sequences, and his film plunges into unapologetic surrealism. If you grew up on movies like THX 1138, Phase IV and even Silent Running, you'll get what he's going for fairly quickly... but if you didn't, you may find yourself hopelessly lost. All I can say is: it worked for me.

Now, if you're just looking for something simple, let me introduce you to our last selection for the week, Jonathan Sobol's A Beginner's Guide to Endings. A Gala presentation at TIFF 2010, it's a comedy about three Niagara Falls brothers (Jason Jones, Paolo Costanzo and Scott Caan) who discover that the drug trial in which their skeezy father (Harvey Keitel) enrolled them as teenagers has drastically shortened their lives; basically, they could drop dead at any minute.

Naturally, this sets off a series of wacky complications, as the brothers scramble around town trying to set their affairs in order (or, in Costanzo's case, check off everything on his bucket list), succeeding only in making more trouble for themselves. It's supposed to be a farce, but writer-director Sobol bobbles the tone at the outset with a whimsical sequence in which Keitel's character throws himself into the Niagara river and never really finds the right black-comic groove. But it's absolutely the least challenging of the three films we've been considering, and Jones makes his scenes work through sheer force of will, so there's that. And the cost of a rental is a lot cheaper than the price of a TIFF gala ticket, too.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com