THE BOOKSHOP: Here’s one for people who love reading. And for people who prefer to support local bookstores. And for people who enjoy a good yarn about a woman pursuing a dream. A lot of people in Spain seem to have found it pleasing. They gave it three Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) including best feature film. It’s in English and set in England but the director, Isabel Coixet, is Spanish.
Emily Mortimer plays a small-town widow who has plans for a heritage house she owns. She’ll spiff it up, move in and start a bookstore. Seems non-threatening enough but not to a local society matron (Patricia Clarkson). She wants to start up an arts centre there. The locals can’t see any urgent call for either proposal in their village but the two women take to their plans with intense resolve. The matron starts a campaign against the shop, even fostering a law that would allow expropriation. The storeowner is bringing in books like Fahrenheit 451 and Lolita and is described as naïve, unaware that human beings are divided into two groups: those who exterminate and those who are exterminated. Bill Nighy, as an avid reader, joins the controversy but he’s only got words to fight with. There’s a quiet literary tone in the script. It didn’t need to be as low-key as it is but look closer. It’ll resonate with anybody concerned about power struggles that churn up neighborhoods. 3 ½ out of 5
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST: I couldn’t help thinking as I watched that maybe the director, Desiree Akhavan, and many of the actors really wanted to say something stronger. What they’ve made feels too polite, too balanced and understanding and yet the litany of details they present would seem to call for shouting.
The subject is gay aversion therapy, at a religious camp to which Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is sent after she’s discovered in the back seat of a car going down on the prom queen at her high school. Don’t call her Cam, though. That’s too 'masculine,' she’s told by the icy camp doctor (Jennifer Ehle) who instills in her God’s message that homosexuality is bad and it’s up to her find what in her past turned her to it and then to correct herself. The camp methods and the thinking behind them are all clearly observed. Gradually something else emerges: subtle controls that later seem like invasions of privacy and the self-loathing that Cam says is being taught. “I’m tired of feeling disgusted with myself,” she says. She allies with a couple of dissidents (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck) and, in her mind at least, resists the Camp Promise principles. The film nicely conveys the lunacy without being too obvious about it and leaves it to the audience to supply more indignation. That blunts the impact though. The film was a big winner at Sundance this year. 3 ½ out of 5
1945: Three years ago a Hungarian film about the Holocaust won an Academy Award and many other prizes. This one from the same country isn’t grim like that, but it is mysterious and gripping, and brilliant. It dramatizes an issue we don’t hear much about: what happened to Jews who after the war returned to the towns they were driven out of? Were they welcomed back? Not according to this film by first time director Ferenc Török. He has two arrive by train in a small village and walk right across to the other side (and back) behind a cart carrying a wooden crate.
They don’t say why, and that starts everybody in town talking. Do they want to reclaim property that was taken from them? Did the Pollocks send them? Are the Pollocks coming too? As the town frets, talks and argues, we gradually learn what had happened there, how the town clerk got the shop he owns, how others got houses that they legally own. We get the facts clearly and emphatically just by listening to these people. The film isn’t didactic with speeches that say it all. It puts it out bit by bit, slowly escalating the anxiety. All that, while preparations are supposed to be going on to hold a marriage and a big celebration. This film is riveting and strongly dramatic. Most of all, it reveals an important story. 4 ½ out of 5
SUPPORT THE GIRLS: Hell, support the movie. It celebrates the travails of people who work in the service industry (once known as waitresses) and one fine woman who works for them. Regina Hall plays a manager at a Texas bar and grill named Double Whammies. It’s a Hooters-like place offering the 3 B’s “boobs, brews and big screens”, but no touching or abuse, because this is a “family place.” Regina has to enforce those rules throughout one full day. That includes throwing a biker out, calling the cops on a burglar, hiring a new girl and finding a way to hold an unauthorized car wash fundraiser for one of her staff. She’s more than a den mother; she’s a spokeswoman for the good ways of doing business in America.
Her ideals are challenged over and over. Her boss (James Le Gros) won’t allow her to schedule more than one black server a shift. He fires her over the fundraiser and she finds she had been deceived into running it in the first place. Her staff had been bringing her their problems and hang ups all day. At night as the whole restaurant is watching a big boxing match, the TV goes dark. Commotion ensues. Some of this is funny; a lot is sorely credible. The drama is in watching her keep her cool (in public, at least) and do her work with a mixture of strength and a touch of derision for the industry she’s in. I imagine that afflicts a lot of those workers and the scenes that director Andrew Bujalski has staged and a fine cast, headed by Hall, has brought to life, are authentic. This film is brisk and warm-hearted. 4 out of 5
PAPILLON: I caught the 45-year-old original on TCM recently and can report that this modern re-make does a pretty good job of matching it. It’s just as engrossing about a thief from Paris sent to the horrible prisons in French Guiana, the co-operative pact he makes with a financial criminal also confined there and their determined efforts to escape. The brutality is amped up and a few adds and deletions have been made in the tale but the key theme remains: the resilience of the human spirit. That and the friendship that bound the two characters, played back then by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek now. They’re also a good match.
The film doesn’t have quite the grandeur of the 1973 version or the atmosphere, although we get all the landscape, jungles, dank cells and numbing solitary confinement we need. It just seems smaller under Danish director Michael Noer. He concentrates more on the bond between the two main characters, one with money (hidden in his body) and needing protection, the other (Papillon, after a butterfly tattoo) offering muscle. In the major difference from the original, we get his back story, of a thief in Paris framed for murder. There’s no leper colony this time but there is a guillotine scene and a lot of grinding attempts to break Papillon’s psyche. Light entertainment this is not. 3 out of 5
BREATH: This film from Australia has at least four things that make it worth recommending. First it’s the directing debut by Simon Baker. We know him from American TV but he’s originally from down under and clearly has strong feelings for this story. It is from a popular novel by Tim Winton about two youngsters growing up. Winton himself narrates, just like in his book which is a long look back at youthful discoveries. Third, the two are played by first-time actors, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, chosen for their surfing abilities but doing fine naturalistic acting here. And finally, the surfing. This film has some of the most exciting wave riding I’ve ever seen in a movie.
But the heart of the film is the friendship between the danger-testing Loonie (Spence) and the generally sensible Pikelet (Coulter). “We imagined ourselves into a different life,” he says via narration. A bike ride to the coast lets them see surfing in action which he calls “beautiful but pointless and elegant.” They get into with enthusiasm, first on Styrofoam boards, and then on wooden ones bought from a beach hippie type (played by Simon Baker) who turns out to have been a world class surfer and now lives quietly with a wife (Elizabeth Debicki) who was a free style skier until an injury stopped her. The boys learn from them to take bigger and bigger chances, especially Loonie who “did it harder like someone who didn’t believe in death.” The film is very evocative about coming of age, time with friends and daring to push yourself. And then there are those great surfing scenes. 3 ½ out of 5
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: Don’t for a minute think that, just because this one was made by Jim Henson’s son Brian and it has puppets, you can take the kids. This one is raunchy, foul-mouthed and sprinkled with sex scenes you don’t want to have to explain. One of those goes on and one and on and ejaculates silly string everywhere. It starts out funny but then can’t stop itself from carrying on too long, something the film is guilty of in a number of scenes. Overall it’s pretty thin with jokes, only a few of which feel clever. Most are broad and crass.
That’s too bad, because there’s actually a nice spoof of film noir and the hard-bitten private detective genre. Also a modern angle, the discrimination puppets suffer from the humans they have to live among. And there’s a surprisingly complex plot about the PI (a puppet and ex-LAPD cop voiced by Bill Barretta) forced to work again with his former partner, the very human Melissa McCarthy, who hates him. The plot eventually shows why but for now they have to find who is knocking off the actors (most of them puppets, one human) who played in a legendary TV sit com The Happytime Gang. They bicker, they’re tormented by a police boss and a visiting FBI agent and he becomes a suspect. Familiar stuff, but it needs more and better laughs. Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph provide welcome support. The puppetry is excellent and some of the effects work was done in Vancouver at Stargate Studios. 2 out of 5
LITTLE ITALY: I thought Dog Days was the worst film I saw this summer. Then this came along. The fact that it’s Canadian, and proudly shows off a colorful part of Toronto makes my pan even more disappointing. This one deals with stereotypes, effusive and excitable Italians that you encounter only in films. I have relatives who are Italian and none of them are like this.
The cast is promising: Hayden Christensen, Alyssa Milano, Andrea Martin, Danny Aiello, Jane Seymour (briefly) and Emma Roberts (centrally). Donald Petrie, in charge here, also directed her aunt Julia Roberts in his 1988 film Mystic Pizza. Only the food is the same).
Emma and Hayden play Romeo and Juliet types between two warring pizza joints. They’ve been friends since they were kids and re-meet after she returns from London. The plot pushes them forward to a big pizza-making contest, she vs. him, and by implication her family vs his. Before that we get humorous scenes at confession, double entendres with sly intent and lots of old age jokes as Andrea and Danny get it on. “Everything still works,” he proudly proclaims. Not everything, Danny. The color and the sprightly pace in this movie, yes. Not much else. 1 ½ out of 5