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Three Billboards, a must see, plus rumpled Denzel strutting his stuff and Pixar’s new one

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Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell play former Marine Corps buddies who served in the Viet Nam war. They were wild men and are now, respectively, an alcoholic bartender, a Baptist minister and a hangdog father who spent a couple of years in military prison for something or other. He’s hangdog because his wife has died and his son was killed in a new war, Iraq. He has to go claim the body for burial in Arlington Cemetery and asks his old pals to come along for support. Little turns out to be truthful. Government lied to them when they went to war and is doing it again in 2003. Even about the boy’s death which was not heroic as claimed. Cranston’s character is the source of most of the cynicism (and humor) while Carell’s is broken. The film, directed by Richard Linklater, is satisfying as an anti-war and anti-government treatise until a late cop-out tries to argue another way. (International Village)         3 out of 5.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS: Think of “invented” as meaning something like “boosted”. At the time this one is set, the year 1843, Christmas was not much more than a “minor holiday.” So says one of the characters in it. I don’t know if that’s true but today certainly it’s bigger than even Black Friday. The film, and the source book by historian and creative writing teacher Les Standiford, suggest that’s all thanks to Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. They don’t elaborate and merely purport to show how he wrote it.

 

He needed a hit after publishing three duds in a row. Christmas brings together his favorite themes of goodwill, charity, acknowledging the needy.  But, no interest. He had to self-publish and he had only six weeks to write it. Gradually we see every element of the book take shape. He meets a man named Marley.  “Humbug” he hears a curmudgeon say. “Are there no workhouses?” A nephew inspires his Tiny Tim. It’s a treat to follow it if you already know the material. 

Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame) is solid as Dickens. The ghosts and Ebenezer Scrooge (a lively Christopher Plummer) come to him in his imagination, maybe visions, and pretty well tell him the story. There’s a wonderful cast of English actors and beautiful settings around them but I had to wonder why was it made?  It’s essentially just another movie version of the same story. Alistair Sim’s is still the best. This one is an Irish-Canadian co-production; filmed in Dublin with a script by Susan Coyne of Toronto and some Telefilm money from Ottawa. (International Village and a few suburban theatres) 3 out of 5

FACES PLACES:  Here’s a road trip that’s informative, funny and poignant. It played at VIFF and it’s good to see it back.  89-year-old Agnès Varda, a veteran director dating back to the French New Wave, is travelling with a hot-shot  photographer known simply as JR through rural France, meeting people by chance and celebrating their lives and livelihoods with an art project.

 

They take pictures of ordinary people (or creatures in some cases) make giant prints and paste them on walls, buildings or other structures. A water tower gets a fish. A farmer is pasted up the full height of his barn. A line of brick cottages slated to be demolished gets a portrait of the last holdout still living there. At Le Havre every cargo container in a huge stack gets a dockworker’s picture. The film conveys the whimsical tone of the project and also the serious thoughts the two artists toss back and forth or hear from the people they photograph. It’s charming and warm-hearted but you’ll be a little bit startled when Varda has occasion to term an old associate, Jean-Luc Godard, a “dirty rat.” (VanCity Theatre) 4 out of 5

EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL: It comes every year and brings an interesting mix of new films from almost all the member countries. (The UK is missing for a second year in a row. Bit early; Brexit hasn’t been done yet). But there’s good stuff here without them. I’ll review two now and more next week. But check out the full line up at http://www.thecinematheque.ca/ or in the guide available around town.

There are small personal stories, thrillers, Oscar submissions, biographical looks at Marie Curie and the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and several reflections on history. Looking back at life in the old Communist days is popular. Austria’s submission contemplates its fascist history, but in an intriguing and fanciful way.

Night of a 1000 Hours starts as a dispute over who can get control of a family business. The matriarch blocks one son because he’s far too right wing. But she dies and he seems to win. Except, that she comes back, as do a number of other dead ancestors and old disputes and secrets are opened up. One who did not return (apparently) may be key to the whole story. There’s dry humor at first but that gradually morphs into a cleverly written and quite serious deliberation on guilt, collaboration and facing up to the past. (It screens Wednesday) 4 out of 5

Boy on the Bridge (also Wed) has a bit of living with history about it too, but only a bit. This one is from Cyprus and the old battles are part of the background to a murder investigation and a boy’s idyllic summer gone awry. 12-year-old Socrates and his pals love to set off pipe bombs like firecrackers. One causes a death, or so it seems. There’s much more than that involved, gambling debts, domestic abuse, and so on and three different characters say they did the killing. Oddly, it seems much thinner and more plodding than the novel it comes from even though the author, Eve Makis, wrote the screenplay herself. But it’s got atmosphere and a wonderful performance by young Constantinos Farmakas.  2 ½ out of 5 

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