Must-see films for children (Frozen) and mature folks (Nebraska and Philomena)

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THE ARMSTRONG LIE:  A furious drive to win, a steel-tight lie and a glib explanation when caught out. That’s the story arc in this enthralling documentary by Academy-award winner, Alex Gibney. He was making a film celebrating Lance Armstrong’s return to competitive cycling after defeating cancer. He had won the Tour de France seven times, was working towards an 8th and the air oozed out. Old rumors of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs re-surfaced. Gibney had film of Lance saying right to his face that he never used them and then saw Lance admit all to Oprah Winfrey on TV.


Gibney re-shaped the film. He interviewed Lance again and got a repeat admission but not much on why he had originally denied it. However, from him, from observers and former friends, he did get a portrait of a man who needs to dominate and simply hates to lose. It’s a fascinating picture with real drama. The first and the second interviews are contrasted; deceived friends lament and race footage dresses up the talk. My only problem: there’s too much. Facts, figures, dates, tales and critical swipes comes so fast they’re hard to absorb properly. (International Village) 3 ½ out of 5

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN: This was a big surprise hit at the Vancouver International Film Festival back in October.  I mean who would expect a film about bluegrass music from Belgium to be worth watching? And with a rocky marriage and a young daughter dying of cancer also in the mix. Turns out it’s dramatic, emotional, life-affirming, injustice-railing, joyous and spirited all in one. With lots of music, songs like Wayfarin’ Stranger, Go To Sleep Little Baby and of course Will the Circle Be Unbroken, adding counterpoint. 


A Belgian "cowboy" and banjo picker hooks up with a tattoo artist, brings her into his band as a singer and into his life as a lover. The daughter they produce is the girl with the cancer. The film nicely  correlates the sadness of her trials, including chemo, with the pain in the songs. Tensions swell in the couple’s relationship.  He rants at George Bush’s face on TV for opposing stemcell research and makes a rambling speech in a concert about the pope and God and "the imbeciles who believe in him." The film ends with one of the most emotional scenes ever, in a good way. (VanCity Theatre) 3 ½ out of 5  

and starting Saturday, playing in tandem with …

A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED: This grim film reminds us that gypsies also died in the Holocaust. Some 500,000 of them, as far as anyone can calculate. Numbers aren’t easy to pin down because the Roma people, also known as Sinti in some parts of Europe, were outsiders, nomadic or marginalized. They came from India over 1,000 years ago and luminaries like Vlad the Impaler and Henry the 8th tried to drive them away. The Nazis, and often their lackeys in countries like Romania, sent them to concentration camps and then the gas chambers. This documentary has horrific stories from survivors. A woman decribes being taken to a chamber but then brought back because the poison gas had run out. It’s one of the mildest stories. A boy’s encounter with Joseph Mengele is one of the most harrowing. Toronto filmmaker Aaron Yeger also talked to Roma activists and historians in 11 countries to tell us about the people and their history, much of it bleak. (VanCity Theatre) 3 out of 5

OLDBOY: Has Spike Lee run out of ideas of his own? He used to explore civil rights and racial tensions in America as he saw them. Here, he’s re-made a popular Korean film all about revenge. He brought the story to the U.S. and toned down some of the bizarre craziness of the original. While it’s still twisted. engrossing and Spike Lee-stylish, it’s not that special anymore.


Josh Brolin stars as an adman, errant husband and neglectful father. After a night of drinking and barfing on the sidewalk, he finds himself in a motel room he can’t escape. Food is pushed in like into a prison cell. He’s got TV which shows him as a suspect in his wife’s murder. He’s confined there for 20 years and when he finally gets out, is obsessed with finding out who held him there and why. That puts him in contact with a young nurse (Elizabeth Olson), a man working for his captor (Samuel L. Jackson) and a mysterious Englishman (Sharlto Copley). Brutality, torture and a rampage with a claw hammer follow. They, and the over-cooked theme of guilt, worked better in Korea. (Scotiabank and suburban theatres) 2 ½ out of 5

HOMEFRONT: Fighting off violence with violence is the story in this one and several times I was reminded of Straw Dogs. A former undercover drug cop retires to a small Louisiana town supposing it’s a safe place to raise his daughter. We know it’s not though because he’s Jason Statham today’s smoothest action star. In no time his daughter punches out a schoolyard bully thereby infuriating the boy’s mother (Kate Bosworth) who just happens to have a brother (James Franco) who is the local meth cooker with ambitions to expand. He’s also got a sleek partner in crime (Winona Ryder), a former biker moll who is urging him on.


It won’t be long before a gang of bikers rides into town (intercut with the daughter’s birthday party) and we’re on the edge wondering just when will the boathouse that Statham booby-trapped finally explode. Sylvester Stallone wrote the script with all the brutality (a pitchfork?) and unsubtlety he’s known for. Adrenaline stirring stuff, if you need it.  (International Village and many suburban theatres) 2 ½ out of 5

NOTE: The images are movie stills provided by the studios. They are the exclusive property of their copyright owners.


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Four good ones at VIFF take us to The Vatican, India, the Arctic and Hong Kong:

We watch two Popes, Hindu thugs, Ottawa’s control of the Inuit and a trippy dream in Hong Kong

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Also: explore Niagara Falls for its reputation and catch a couple of notable German films
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