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JULIET, NAKED: You’ll find a lot to delight you in this romantic comedy, but there’s substance too. Together they’re enough to let you overlook the coincidences that drive the story. It’s from another novel by Nick Hornby and like previous adaptations, especially High Fidelity, works with a sharp understanding of the popular music industry, some of the people in it and the people who follow it obsessively.
The delight is thanks to the amiable performances by the three leads. Rose Byrne is the wife of a college instructor in England. Chris O’Dowd, as her distracted husband, is almost totally fixated on studying the music and lyrics of an obscure recording star in America. Ethan Hawke is that singer-songwriter, long past his glory days, disappeared from the business and now living in the garage of one of his ex-wives. When a stripped-down (hence “naked”) demo of his last album shows up, and Rose posts a negative review on a website, two things happen. Life with hubby turns sour and the artist comes for a visit. He conveniently happens to be coming to England anyway. More than the plot though, it’s the full and rich character portraits that make this film enjoyable. The manchild and the put-upon wife. He wants no children; the artist has many by different women. Rose is caught in between. The film is light, often funny and quite charming. 3 ½ out of 5
SEARCHING: Sony brought this to town completely unheralded, just plunked it down in a few theatres starting last night and that’s a shame. They’ve got a little gem here chock full of something we’re always looking for: innovation. Imagination. Different story telling. This one is also smart and, although marred by a few problems, believable, very modern and engrossing. What’s new is that it uses exactly what we see and do on our computers every day to tell its story. It plays out on screens, with skype conversations, google searches, texting exchanges, YouTube videos and occasionally some TV newscasts. A couple of other films have tried the same; this one succeeds.
John Cho plays a dad in California whose teenage daughter doesn’t come home one night, can’t be found through the few friends she had and has left no trail. Debra Messing as the missing person cop on the case can’t find her so Cho joins the search. He breaks into her laptop to find out what she’s been up to. You get entirely involved at every step of the search, even though it’s only on computer screens. Actually, we find so much information there these days, that the film doesn’t feel unusual at all. What’s more as it unravels its mystery, it keeps tossing in surprises. Even when the case is solved, there’s more to come. The final answers are somewhat vague and the very structure of the film restrains the emotional impact but you can’t help feeling for the dad when he comes to realize he really didn’t know his daughter very well. 3 ½ out of 5
BECOMING WHO I WAS: One of my favorites from VIFF last year is finally back. This is a charming and emotional documentary with an endearing young boy at its centre and religious faith, belief in reincarnation and even international politics in force around him. Padma Angdu is nine, although we see him at other ages too because the filmmakers, Moon Chang-Yong and Jeon Jin of South Korea, watched his life in India over seven years to get these enthralling scenes. He’s a “rinpoche,” the re-incarnation of a Buddhist spiritual leader. He can recall his previous life in Tibet and since his followers aren’t arriving to join him, he wants to go back there. A warm bond develops between him and a kindly doctor who has become his teacher and guide.
Being a rinpoche gives him rights, including acting like a master over his teacher. “Stop nagging me,” he says at one point. We get scenes of him as a normal boy, laughing, playing badminton, sometimes turning petulant. He’s fed up with ritual; his monastery expels him and he’s anxious to make the trip “home”. The last part of the film shows the two on an arduous trek through the mountains and deep snow towards Tibet. And the Chinese-controlled border. Intimate scenes closely observed, then a road trip with tension growing, make this a very absorbing film. 4 out of 5
GENERATION WEALTH: Here’s a documentary that’s absolutely appropriate for these times. It explores, and without directly saying so, slams the current mania for amassing wealth and luxury goods. The pictures shout the message “If a lot is good, more is better,” and even children are lured to venerate “glamour and feathers and glitz.” Michael Douglas’ line in Wall Street, “greed is good” is the underlying thinking here and various observers, including a former hedge fund manager currently eluding major fraud charges, blame “the end of fiscal discipline.” The film takes that idea down to the personal level and shows consumption run amuck. $20,000 hand bags? TV and music videos take a lot of the blame.
Lauren Greenfield also studied excess six years ago in her film The Queen of Versailles about a couple building a giant mansion. They’re back, in clips from that film, and then sitting close behind Donald Trump at one of his rallies. There’s a connection, for sure, but Greenfield doesn’t explore it any more than that. Instead she veers off into side issues, the current craze for plastic surgery, the boom in pornography and then to her own life and how her mother raised her. That personal soul searching over her career as a photographer versus something more socially helpful is out of step and goes on too long. The rest of the film has the good stuff: extravagance and financial fallout from several countries. 3 out of 5
WE THE ANIMALS: You want to see what really shapes the personality of children? It’s the parents according to this tough-love look at the lives of three boys and their sometimes fighting mom and dad. It’s from a semi-autobiographical novel by Justin Torres rendered into film by Jeremiah Zagar. His background is in documentaries, one of which was about his own difficult life as a child. So it’s with a double dose of appreciation of how harsh those early years can be that we get this fictionalized tale. It comes across as very real.
The youngest of three brothers, Jonah, tells the story of his father, known simply as Paps (Raúl Castillo) and his mother (Sheila Vand) and the dysfunctional household they run. They fight, separate, and re-unite. The boys can only watch, although one time, dad disappears, mom stays in bed in pain, and lets the boys run free and find their own food. They turn to shoplifting and raiding a farmer’s field and that gets them invited in for a meal and time with a porn-video-watching son. It’s through such incidents that we see these boys grow up. Jonah, who dad thinks is rather mild, does seem to be. Getting tossed in the lake as a swimming lesson doesn’t seem to toughen him up. He shows his real feelings about his life (and about men) in drawings he makes and hides away. They and the whole film are calm and then chaotic and back, a pretty good reflection of this uneasy childhood. 3 ½ out of 5
TRENCH 11: I was ready to trash this horror thriller before I saw it because of what I had come to know about it. Yes, some German doctors conducted horrible experiments in World War II but not in tunnels under a French forest (as far as I know). And not so that we have to get up close and see these gory sights described as immensely disgusting? Turns out it's not quite like that. The gory parts are brief, though still painful to watch, and there's a well-made film around them. And it’s Canadian.
Actually it's World War I. An German experiment with a new type of gas has gone bad and produced a band of infected soldiers that look like zombies. The tunnels are sealed to keep them inside. A British officer leads a band of soldiers to break in and find out what's going on. Rossif Sutherland, is the Canadian in the bunch. There are creepy searches through makeshift tunnels, sudden attacks by these zombies, infected with worms by the way, and gross scenes of exploratory surgery. But there's also a heavy debate about the ethics of war and the use of science. German actor Robert Stadlober steals the movie with his intense performance. Director Leo Scherman has style but needs a more palatable subject. This one is for horror hounds only. 2 ½ out of 5
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KIN: Twins Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker took a short film the made and did this new longer version. Teen action fans might like it. The reviews haven’t been good where it was previewed, which did not include Vancouver. A young man gets hold of a futuristic gun (and apparently uses it repeatedly) in this mash up of a family adventure and sci fi. He and his brother are on the run from a “gang of otherworldly soldiers” and from James Franco. Montreal-born Sean Levy produced it.