Brave, four new indies (including a must-see) and Hot Docs reviewed
A great children’s movie, four independent films and an insult to history lead this week. There’s far better history in one of the documentaries showing this weekend.
Here’s the list:
Brave: 4 stars
Your Sister’s Sister: 4
Safety Not Guaranteed: 3 ½
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: 3
Lola Versus: 2 ½
HOT DOCS: Ethel: 4 ½,
The Imposter 4,
Charles Bradley 3 ½
Beauty is Embarrassing: 3
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter --
BRAVE: It’s as if the Pixar people have found a previously unknown tale from the Grimm Brothers. Among the story elements there’s a mother-daughter clash, a runaway princess, a wood-carver witch in a cabin hidden in the woods. And a spell the princess regrets attracting, one she has to labor urgently to undo. (Don’t let anyone tell you what it is. It would spoil a great deal of the fun). Familiar stuff yes, drawing on many a fairy tale, but set in Scotland and given a modern twist. This princess, like the two Snow Whites we saw just recently, is a rebel, fighting for herself, against tradition. Urged to get married, she declares she’s not ready, and may never be. She’s into archery and wild galloping horse rides.
The story deftly mixes in a bit of magic (a will-o’-the-wisp that leads her into the woods; a Stonehenge-like rock circle) but is a bit clumsy with a recurring bear threat. That’s probably in there for the boys who may want more than a tale of a young woman’s destiny. Neither the story nor the scary bear sequences are for little kids. The movie as a whole though is fabulous, exquisitely designed, animated in 3D and well-played by a voice cast that includes Kelly Macdonald (the princess), Emma Thompson (her mother, the queen) and Billy Connolly (the king). (Scotiabank, The Dolphin and many suburban theatres) 4 out of 5
YOUR SISTER’S SISTER: I sat amazed at how natural the acting and the dialogue play in this inspired film. And how the excellent writing fashions an intelligent piece of work. Then I learned what was really going on. Very little was written. Director Lynn Shelton gave the actors the general situation and what she wanted to happen and let them improvise. It was possible because the main section only has three actors, Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt, and they were all game to play that way. The result is stunning because nobody ever knew what would be coming at them. In one scene in particular Blunt is clearly astonished and nonplussed by what DeWitt says to her.
Oh yes, there’s a story too. Duplass, as Jack, gets uncomfortably caustic at his late brother’s memorial and Blunt, as his friend Iris, tells him to go chill out at her family’s cabin on one of the San Juan Islands. But her sister Hannah (DeWitt) is already there. She’s getting over a breakup with her lesbian partner. A few drinks, some snappy conversation and attraction sets in which leads to a major dispute when Iris shows up and announces she’s been secretly in love with Jack for years. The siblings’ quarrel comes in waves. The dialogue is often peppered with irony and humor. The result is an engaging character study of three likeable people. (5th Avenue Cinemas) 4 out of 5
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED: Two films in the same week with Mark Duplass? At this rate he’s going to get known. He’s natural and easy going once again, this time as a possibly sane, possibly delusional man in Washington State who advertises for a companion for some time travelling (which he says carries no guarantee because he’s only done it once before). A reporter from nearby Seattle (Jake Johnson) smells a story and drags two interns along to check it out.
He’s a self-aggrandizing cynic and promptly manages to alienate the would-be-time traveler. Aubrey Plaza, as one of the interns, has more success. She connects with him (they share deep reasons for wanting to travel back in time) and starts to believe. Or maybe wants to believe. The film keeps us in tow without ever presenting a definite answer. A few things turn out to be true. Government agents are snooping around. They say the man is a little too interested in particle accelerators and we do see him steal equipment from a research lab. The film ends enigmatically, but then it’s not really about time travel anyway. It’s a well-written fanciful interaction of characters who want to change something out of their past (even the reporter). You’ll enjoy their company. (International Village) 3 ½ out of 5
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD: Don McKellar gave us a better pre-apocalypse vision a few years ago with Last Night. It was both funnier and scarier. This one is easy-going, a romantic comedy about two souls who find they have to spend time together and gradually realize they like each other. “I’m really glad I got to know you,” Steve Carell says to Keira Knightley at the end. That’s pretty well it for intensity.
Carell is plays a sad-sack insurance man whose mother, father and now wife have all left him. Knightley plays a neighbor who’s run off from her live-in boyfriend. She’s a bit mercurial but knows everything about vinyl records and the machines that play them. An asteroid will destroy the world in a matter of days so they set out on a road trip. He wants to re-connect with an old love; she needs a plane to take her home to her family. The people they meet no longer follow the rules, but except for rioters in the cities, the way they break the rules are temperate and inconsequential. The film lives (and at times slows down) with Steve and Keira’s gradually evolving relationship. It’s pleasant and often funny but not compelling. (International Village, Ridge and suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
LOLA VERSUS: Self-absorption can get annoying. Just watch Greta Gerwig in this one. She’s an indie-movie star known for acting that seems effortless and yet creates characters you swear you’ve actually met. Lola is authentic as usual, but also too much. Her fiancé dumps her less than a month before wedding day. She’s already bought the dress. She descends into self-pity, drinking bouts and sleeping around. Did I mention this is a comedy? The dialogue sounds like it is. Sample, in a fish store: “I can’t be picked up right now. I appreciate the interest.” Her descent goes on and on though. When we see her pole dancing drunkenly in a strip club it’s embarrassing.
Her best friend, played by Zoe Lister Jones (co-writer of this script) is actually a more interesting character. She’s an actress, full of fidgety insecurities herself, taking too many pills but always ready with earthy advice, mostly of the get-laid variety, or bump your age up a year to 30 to get “the cougar advantage.” Lola sleeps with her boyfriend. And so it goes. It’s still nice to spend time with Greta, but not so much with Lola. (5th Avenue Cinemas) 2 ½ out of 5
THE BEST OF HOT DOCS: That’s eight documentaries from the annual festival in Toronto over three days this weekend at the VanCity Theatre. CHASING ICE will be a highlight. It’s described as a “visually stunning” portrait of the Arctic’s declining glaciers. It was the audience favorite in Toronto.
I’ve seen four in the series:
THE IMPOSTER: A story with as many twists and turns as a Ross MacDonald novel.
A boy goes missing in Texas and shows up years later in Spain. The family welcomes him back and is slow to notice that something is different about him. Reflections from him, most of the family members and several others involved tell a gripping story. Re-enactments show it visually. 4 out of 5
ETHEL: An intimate look inside the Kennedy clan. Initially, it’s a portrait of Bobby Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, by the daughter he never knew. Rory was born after he was assassinated. But you can’t tell her story without his, and not his without a big chunk of American history. We get it all with a huge collection of news clips, the memories of Ethel and some of her children and plenty of home movies, some dating back to 1942, some taken right in the White House. Rory at times assumes a cheeky tone as when she reminds her mother that with 11 children she was pregnant 99 months of her life. 4 ½ out of 5
CHARLES BRADLEY: SOUL OF AMERICA: Bradley toiled for 42 years as a minor singer and then at age 62 was discovered by a record company for his soul and r&b talent. The film recounts a life of poverty, racism and crime as it counts down to the day his record was released. It went on to be a big seller. An inspiring tale. 3 ½ out of 5
BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING: Get to know Wayne White, described in here as “a founding father of the current state of pop art.” Clips from Pee Wee’s playhouse, other shows he worked on, his puppetry, painting, his admirers and he himself, attest to that. It’s funny and colorful. Pop art in style as well as subject. 3 out of 5
For more about the whole schedule visit http://www.viff.org/theatre/
PATANG: India’s largest kite festival is the background to this story of modern life in that country. It brings a visual splendor to the movie, particularly in some nightime scenes as kites carrying lanterns fill the sky. They’re also a key metaphor for both tradition and current life. And most usefully they enliven this film and glide us over some problems in the story, which stalls a few times or drops a strand we’re following. Prashant Bhargava the writer-director is an American from Chicago. He set out to tell about life in India as it is, not as it’s imagined in the movies and for the most part does it right. We feel the vibrant streets and celebrations and see the poverty alongside comfort. The central story has a rich businessman returning to the regional city he grew up in and stirring up tensions with his mother, sister-in-law and nephew. Well-acted by a mix of professionals and neighborhood people, this film has been popular at festivals. (Denman Theatre) 3 of 5
And one I haven’t seen ...
ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER: As a grad with a degree in history, I’m not at all happy when people mess with the facts like this. Scholars have debated the reasons why Lincoln freed the selves but stopping southern plantation owners from breeding vampires has never been one. Ok, yes, the filmmakers didn’t make this up. It comes from a novel. However, there’s no reason to spread this hogwash any further. (International Village and suburban theatres)
NOTE: The images are movie stills provided by the studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners