This is a week with a lot of new films and big stars. Tom Hanks has Greyhound over at Apple TV (I didn’t have access to a preview) and Netflix has Charlize Theron kicking butt. (Read about her below). And there’s a widely varied collection of films also down there. While you’re here though, notice that the NFB has just added Because We Are Girls to their streaming site. It’s an incendiary documentary about abuse and recrimination in one B.C. South Asian family. If you can take a real emotional jolt, see it at NFB.ca.
These are the new ones I review this week:
First Cow: 4 stars
The Old Guard: 3 ½
Mighty Oak: 3
Fisherman’s Friends: 4
From the Vine: 2
White Riot: 3 ½
Tainted: 2 ½
FIRST COW (4 stars): Kelly Reichardt is still showing one of her directing faults. She holds many of her shots just a little too long (she also does the editing) and the result is a slow pace to her films, especially early on in this new one. Put up with that and you’ll find yourself engrossed in the story she tells and the deep atmosphere she creates. As usual it’s set in Oregon which in many of these scenes looks exactly like B.C.
The time is 1820. Two characters, played by John Magaro and Orion Lee, meet accidentally, compare their goals and travel together to fulfill them. Mangaro is a trained cook who dreams of opening a bakery. Lee is a Chinese drifter who thinks up a scheme to get him started: bake small soda cakes and sell them on the clearing outside a military fort. The catch is their recipe calls for milk; there’s only one cow in the region and they have to secretly milk it after dark. The owner (Toby Jones) fears his cow is under producing but doesn’t suspect the two men who he hires for a special job. He has them bake clafoutis, a French dessert, that he can serve to a visiting general, to “humiliate him.” The film nicely contrasts that air of pretension with the pioneering spirit of “take what we can while the taking is good” while it builds to an inevitable reckoning. (Streaming now from the Van City at https://viff.org and maybe coming to the Rio) 4 out of 5
THE OLD GUARD (3 1/2 stars): Summer action movies are missing this year. Here’s a worthy stand-in from Netflix with Charlize Theron showing that her Mad Max adventure a few years back was no fluke. She’s proficient with weapons (an axe at one point), with kicks and in hand to hand fighting. She’ll keep the fans of this genre rapt and amused. Too bad we can’t see this one on the big screen because it would thrive there.
Charlize plays Andy (Andromache the Scythian, if you need the full name from a graphic novel by Greg Rucka). She leads a group of warriors with a special attribute. They’re immortal. Injure her and you’ll see her wounds heal immediately. Consequently she’s a few hundred years old and leads a group that includes Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s been in it since 1817 and a couple who’ve been together since the Crusades. (Hey, it’s a graphic novel, and part of a series which might bring more movies). Andy brings in a new recruit (Kiki Layne) when she sees her recover quickly from a slashed throat. Also watching is a Big Pharma guy (Harry Melling) who wants to harvest some of their DNA and with it develop a cure for dementia and an ex-CIA agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who’s helping him. His first move is to lure them into an ambush in Afghanistan which he watches on a wall of monitor screens. The film has all the attributes of modern high-tech action movies, plus that contemporary business angle, and still has time to fill out character details. All in an efficiently-paced movie by Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of only a few black women directors that I know of. (Netflix) 3½ out of 5
MIGHTY OAK (3 stars): Bob Dylan's grandson, Levi, is only a secondary player but this whole film revolves around him. He's the lead singer of a band called Army of Love but on the night they're ready to get known, opening for Arcade Fire, there's a car accident and he dies. He'll be back though, in flashbacks, as his sister (Janel Parrish )(also band manager) remembers him repeatedly. Then she comes across a ten-year-old kid who can play guitar just as well, knows all of his songs and performs with just as much charisma on stage. She's convinced he's the reincarnation of her brother and hires him to be the band's new singer.
From that bizarre idea this pleasing film is constructed. It's a fantasy for young kids to imagine what the music business may be like. There's no cursing, but a lot of flash and glamor and when you're a bit tired of it, there's always surfing. Sure, it's set in California. Tommy Ragen, who plays the kid with the unlikely name Oak Scoggins, is a musical prodigy himself. He's recorded three albums and performs his own songs in the film. His story is cluttered with common story threads--junkie mother doesn't show for the big concert--but also a bouyant colorful mood that young viewers will probably enjoy. Beware of coincidences, though, especially in a very improbable late revelation. (Available on digital platforms) 3 out of 5
FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS (4 stars): No not the lozenge; the English singers, real fishermen who had a top ten album some years ago with their sea shanties. This is a highly fictionalized account of how that came about and it’s quite a treat, heart-warming, optimistic, and fervently anti-cynical. A music industry guy down from London on a holiday, found the group in Cornwall 10 years ago. In the film he’s the butt of a secret joke by his boss who orders him to sign them up expecting he’ll be humiliated because they’ll never go anywhere in the modern music industry of Lady Gaga, Florence and the Machine and Justin Bieber, all of whom are referenced. Old versus new, small town versus city, and good fun at that.
He (Daniel Mays) is charmed by the group’s acapella singing of ditties like Nelson’s Blood, Keep Hauling and What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor (“the rock and roll of 1753”) especially when he watches a whole pub join in on one. He’s also moved by the sincerity and respect for tradition of the locals, people like the lead singer (James Purefoy), his grown daughter (Tuppence Middleton) and the owners of the pub who are struggling to pay the bills. Music money could help save this “heart of the village” and that helps overcome any reluctance by the group. It also creates a complication later on but for now there’s the thrill of getting to London and showing up those fast-living industry types. It’s a feel-good film with few surprises but a lot of fine music, by them (still active as a group) and many others. (Available on demand and digitally) 4 out of 5
FROM THE VINE (2 stars): This is also about a cynical big city type who re-discovers a simpler, more sincere way of life when he travels to the rural countryside. But it couldn’t be further from Fisherman’s Friends because it’s not convincing and is bogged down by bland dialogue and silly visual gimmicks. Joe Pantoliano, Emmy winner and busy character actor, stars as a Toronto automotive company executive who is unhappy at work (not well explained) and travels to re-charge his spirit in Italy, where he’s from. He regrets missing his grandfather’s funeral and to make up for it decides to revive his rundown vineyard and make wine once again. (Russell Crowe enacted almost the same story 14 years ago in A Good Year when he revived an uncle’s vineyard in France).
This is a Canada-Italy co-production and has won awards at festivals including two in Italy. One praised it for expressing “important social and cultural elements shared by Italy and Canada.” Yes, respect for the land, for tradition and local ways. But it does it through stereotype characters, stock situations and bizarre magic realist effects (statues roll their eyes, he carries on conversations with leaves on the vines, Jesus seems alive in a picture). Above all, Pantoliano isn’t believable, maybe because we’re so used to him as characters who are not sympathetic, or worse. Canadian actors Wendy Crewson, Paula Brancati and Tony Nardi do good work but Tony Nappo is stuck playing a character who’s just too goofy. Nice Italian scenery though. (Available digitally at Telus, Rogers, Bell, Itunes, Cineplex and others) 2 out of 5
WHITE RIOT (3 1/2 stars): Here’s a flashback to a previous campaign against racism and oddly Eric Clapton sparked it. Apparently he warned that England was becoming a "black colony" and supported Enoch Powell, the politician who in the 1970s spoke out against immigration. The movement called Rock Against Racism formed almost overnight, promoted by a small publication that tracked the growing efforts of the National Front alongside covering the lively punk rock scene. Several of those organizers, including the founder, music photographer Red Saunders, are seen in old footage and in new interviews recalling it all.
This lively film has terrific film from street demonstrations from the time, and lots of montages of printed articles overlaid with graphics typical of the punk scene. As Saunders puts it 'We peeled away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika.' That’s a bit hyperbolic; I doubt that it truly characterizes even the police as they tear-gassed and sometimes beat demonstrators. The organizers then staged a huge concert in the heart of National Front support. The film builds up to it detailing the arguments and decisions and finally gives us the show. On the bill were bands I didn’t know, Like Sham 69, but also the big one The Clash. The title is from one of their songs. Rubika Shah’s film is terse, speedy and committed. It nicely captures the fervor of the movement. (streaming at https://thecinematheque.ca/ ) 3 ½ out of 5
VOLITION (3 stars): If you like time travel stories (and maybe watched the elaborate one called Dark on Netflix, here’s one made in Vancouver that should satisfy. It gets into loops and back and forth motion and so much complexity that it’s also an intriguing puzzle. I think it goes too far in that direction but there’s much to enjoy along the way, including its musings on free will and destiny. It’s been popular at sci fi and fantasy festivals.
Adrian Glynn McMorran, known from the Arrow TV series, plays a man afflicted with clairvoyance. He has visions of his future. Problem: they come on at random. He can’t call them up. So, assigned by a gangster (John Cassini) to chart the best plan to sell some African diamonds, he has to keep him waiting. Meanwhile, he sees his own death but not clearly. And we see that an early incident (he rescued a woman played by Magda Apanowicz) has already happened by the time we see it. It gets very complex that way, includes a huge twist along the way and something I thought was a time travel no no: he comes into the same time frame with himself. No matter, it’s a very involving film, briskly paced by director Tony Dean Smith and brightly co-written with his brother Ryan W. Smith. You see a lot of local sights too, like the 2400 Motel. (Available digitally—EST—and video on demand) 3 out of 5
TAINTED (2 1/2 stars): Here’s a Canadian action film that takes a familiar plot –a man trying to turn his crime-ridden life around is compelled to do one last job—and adds in some interesting new wrinkles. For instance, he’s an ex-member of the Aryan Brotherhood (he still has a large swastika tattoo) and he used to work for the Russian mob. They lean on him now to kill his former Nazi pals because they’ve moving in on their meth drug trade. He’s been in prison for 15 years and only wants a quiet life. He won’t get it. He does the job but there was a witness, a young boy, and there’s that neighbor in the apartment building that he talks to. He’s ordered to kill them too.
The film has loads of dark atmosphere (notice the industrial sites lit up in the Sault St. Marie background) and good action. But writer/director Brent Cote seems infatuated with the film noir possibilities and lets it move at too slow a pace. John Rhys-Davies, as the top Russian boss, Alan Van Sprang, as the ex-con ex-Nazi, and Sara Waisglass, as the neighbor and aspiring club singer, are convincing in their thinly-written roles. The story works and there’s an ending you won’t expect but little here that you’ll remember for very long. (Also available VOD and EST) 2 ½ out of 5