Meryl Streep sings again, a politician crashes and Disney brings another fine family film
PETE’S DRAGON: If you’re one of the many fans of the original 1977 film, be prepared. This is almost completely different. It’s now set in the west, not the east, is not a musical (the few songs are from records, including one by Leonard Cohen) and the characters are more real-life than caricatures. Pete is, as in the orginal, an orphan. A car crash at the start kills his parents. But Eliott the dragon isn’t a cartoon; he’s a CGI creation that’s furry and friendly like a giant dog. The film is terrific family entertainment from Disney with more than a little Free Willy ambience about it.
Pete, played by a fresh-faced young actor named Oakes Fegley, is a wild child who has been out in the woods for several years protected by the dragon. Bryce Dallas Howard, as a forest ranger, finds him and brings him into town but rejects the dragon story although her dad (Robert Redford) had told such tales. A logging crew comes across the animal, captures it and brings it in on a flatbed truck and the Free Willy parallel takes hold. I thought there’d be more of an overt environmental message here but the film stays steady as an adventure, first in the natural world and later roaring into a big road chase. There’s sweetness in the boy-and-his-pet plotline and kids will especially enjoy Pete’s tentative entry into civilization. It was filmed in New Zealand, set in the Pacific Northwest but looks like B.C. (Dunbar, Scotiabank, Marine Gateway and many suburban theatres) 3 ½ out of 5
HOW HEAVY THIS HAMMER: There’s a subtle jolt of recognition watching this small Canadian film. Am I like this? Do I know people like this? Could be because this film is so sharp in profiling a character who comes across as absolutely real. He’s middle-aged, with two sons and a wife who keeps her distance. “Get off me,” she shrieks. But when he plays a video game, as he often does, she’s there to interrupt. He falls asleep watching TV. “I’m an old man. I get tired,” he says.
There’s very little story; it’s more a slice of life and a succession of petty annoyances for him. His job is boring and his best outlet is playing tough at rugby. He moves out but nothing much improves in his life. His attempts to move back are rebuffed. The film progresses like that, deliberate, pace by pace but completely engrossing because of the spot-on performance by Erwin Van Cotthem and the clear-eyed direction by Kazik Radwanski. He’s an Ontario filmmaker with a future, especially if he keeps up his study of modern men’s troubles. (The Cinematheque) 3 ½ out of 5
THE INFILTRATOR: If it wasn’t a true story, you’d find it hard to believe. But Robert Mazur the man who lived it, wrote the book and executive-produced the movie, convinced me. So did Bryan Cranston playing him as a customs agent working undercover in the 1980s but the movie as a whole has a little too much flash and color and star-actor presence to really grab me. We have to also accept John Leguizamo and Diane Kruger as federal agents. International drug dealers have to believe he’s a money launderer and she’s the fiancé of another one and then attend their wedding. Apparently it happened.
Cranston is steady if a bit drab as the agent posing as a banker and persuading the slick operators in the drug supply chain all the way back to Pablo Escobar that he can launder their money. The story speeds along at a snappy pace but doesn’t build a lot of tension as he pushes for more and more access to information and they come close to figuring him out. The drama is only moderately engaging because we get only hints about his personal fears and doubts. That leaves the basic story and the details and perils of undercover work. They’re worthwhile although the context is too hazy. It seems like there should be more than just brief references to the CIA, banks in Panama and (in one line in a postscript) the shameful Iran-Contra scheme of the Reagan years. (International Village) 3 out of 5