The Cancon conundrum
Atom Egoyan's Canadian classics Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter finally come to Blu-ray
Mia Kirshner and Bruce Greenwood in Exotica (Miramax)
Canadians have Blu-ray players; Canadian films are available on Blu-ray. These are two facts that should go together very nicely. But very few Canadian films are available on Blu-ray in Canada. Thanks to a raft of catalogue sales over the last few years and the sales and acquisitions of various studios, the rights to various films have been scattered hither and yon.
Oh, they pop up here and there: A decent double-feature of Vincenzo Natali's first features Cube and Cypher in Australia, a proper special edition of Bruce McDonald's Pontypool in the U.K.; a French release of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. None of those titles has been released in high-def at home, nor are any of them likely to be any time soon.
Now, if you have a multi-region BD player you can import them easily enough -- though you might want to pass on Dead Ringers, which is 1080i/50 rather the ideal 1080p/24 -- but this is ridiculous, right? Cronenberg didn't even know his 1999 movie eXistenZ had been released on BD in the States until I gave him my copy at the Cosmopolis press day in Toronto earlier this month.
The explanation for the paucity of homegrown HD discs seems to be a presumption within the industry that Canadians aren't interested in buying Canadian movies. This is probably not true -- Canadians bring home plenty of Canadian films, and now that those of us who still buy discs are upgrading our libraries, we'd be more than happy to pick up the domestic product when it's available. And local labels are slowly responding to the demand
eOne's been rolling out combo BD/DVD editions of Quebecois titles like The Decline of the American Empire and the Les Boys films, and Alliance has been expanding its own combo catalogue with titles like The Barbarian Invasions and The English Patient. It's just been announced that Union Pictures will deliver a high-def double-feature of Donald Shebib's essential Canadian classic Goin' Down the Road and its far less essential sequel, Down the Road Again, on July 10.
And this week, Alliance releases Atom Egoyan's Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter in combo editions that marry the existing DVD special editions to brand-new Blu-rays built around lovely new 1080p/24 masters with new audio commentaries. Exotica pairs Egoyan with composer Mychael Danna, while the director goes solo on The Sweet Hereafter.
I'm very glad to see these two features restored and reissued in the best format available. They're cornerstones of English Canadian cinema, capturing a certain moment in the industry when a massive talent pool was gathered and ready to explode. Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Don McKellar, Elias Koteas, Maury Chaykin, Tom McCamus, Alberta Watson, Gabrielle Rose, Mia Kirshner -- they're all in there, working for a director who lets them fill in their performances as they see fit.
Greenwood's never been better than he is as Exotica's ruined family man, and that's not a knock against nearly two decades of subsequent work; this is just the best he's ever been. Egoyan similarly finds something in the young Polley's ethereal, old-soul presence that no other filmmaker ever quite recaptured; watch her in The Sweet Hereafter and you can totally understand why she was Cameron Crowe's first choice to play Penny Lane in Almost Famous.
On another, more personal level, these are the only Egoyan films I actually enjoy watching. Exotica is the first and best expression of his puzzle-box approach to storytelling, and it's filled with richly realized characters and emotional curlicues that pay off in a powerhouse ending. The Sweet Hereafter isn't quite as solid, showing the first signs of the misplaced intellectual haughtiness that would cripple his subsequent films, with Egoyan unable to trust that the audience will figure out his mysteries themselves and telegraphing plot points too early on. (We shouldn't know why Ian Holm is taking that plane trip until the movie's very last scene; instead, we suss it out about 45 minutes too soon.)
These films haven't really been treated well on home-video. The Sweet Hereafter hasn't had an upgrade since its first DVD edition back in 1998, well before digital mastering technology had reached a point where the movie's snowy vistas could be transferred with anything like the proper detail, and Exotica suffered even further by being released in a subpar widescreen edition that wasn't even enhanced for 16:9 televisions. Alliance's Blu-rays are likely the best either movie has looked since their 35mm prints first ran through TIFF's projectors. And they're not expensive.
C'mon, go pick them up. Show your love for the home team. Maybe it'll get the ball rolling on those other titles.
E-mail Norman Wilner at firstname.lastname@example.org