With the Vancouver International Film Festival finished, there’s always a letdown. The high-quality films are far fewer as the regular fare takes over. Today, we’ve got new work from Adam Sandler and Robert De Niro, a high school comedy, a couple of tales for Halloween and, thankfully, a very good film about a Black woman trying both playwriting and rapping.
We also have a terrific Netflix film going even wider in its early trip to real theatres. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now in two more venues, VanCity and the 5th, before its Oct. 16 premiere on the service. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
Here’s what else I’m reviewing today:
The War With Grandpa: 2 stars
The 40-Year-Old Version: 4
Yellow Rose: 3½
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw: 3
Hubie Halloween: 2½
New work from Adam Sandler and Robert De Niro, a high school comedy, a couple of tales for Halloween and, thankfully, a very good film about a Black woman trying both playwriting and rapping — here's a roundup of what's playing in theatres.
THE WAR WITH GRANDPA: This is not a career highlight for Robert De Niro. It feels like a TV movie, or maybe a Netflix film, and here it is in theatres. Families might watch it, and I suspect young boys might respond best. They’ll recognize the comic drama in this tale of grandpa moving in, being given the young son’s room and thereby sending the boy (Oakes Fegley) to sleep in the attic. What can the lad do but fight back? Anybody who has seen the conflict in Home Alone or been raised on other movies and TV will understand. Take the hardware out of a bed and chair, and they’ll collapse when grandpa sits down. Hot sauce in the coffee? Yeah, except, what if mom (Uma Thurman) takes it instead and ends up spitting it at a cop. The film is full of humour like that, very broad and sometimes badly written. Grandpa doesn’t know computers but finds a way to destroy a long-in-the-works on-screen creation.
He gets encouragement from some pals (including Christopher Walken and Cheech Marin) and unexpected outcomes, like when he falls into a coffin at a funeral. Cooler heads prevail, an armistice is declared, and the film’s life lesson is revealed: War is bad. There’s still Christmas to come, though, and grandpa falls off a ladder trying to fix the lights on the roof. There’s ageism (a long scene with dentures), bonding (on a fishing trip) and a contrived sequence of dodgeball. The director, Tim Hill, is known for a Chipmunks movie and a lot of SpongeBob. (International Village, Marine Gateway and several suburban theatres) 2 out of 5
PERCY: A bully corporation intimidates a Saskatchewan farmer. That’s the story we know about canola grower Percy Schmeiser, which the film tells again. But it then crowds it with a related issue — the fears about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That turns this into largely an informational piece and a courtroom procedural. It has value if you don’t know the story, but it really should have been far more gripping than this.
Percy, played by Christopher Walken, adheres to the old ways. Like his father and grandfather before him, he saves seeds to plant next year. The Monsanto corporation finds some of their patented seeds on his land and sues him for everything he has. The company says it owns his entire crop and demands to collect damages. The case went to three courts in the late 1990s and threatened to wipe Percy out. Zach Braff, as his lawyer, suggests he “settle.” Christina Ricci, as an anti-GMO campaigner, says keep fighting, holds fundraisers and takes him to India to talk to farmers there and learn from them about the dangers of expensive agricultural chemicals. The facts are well-presented, even the chemistry. Plants grown from Monsanto’s seeds survive while its Roundup herbicide kills all the weeds around them. The human story, though — the little guy fighting a big corporation — is under-powered and should have more impact. It was filmed in Manitoba, with Canadian-American Clark Johnson directing and Martin Donovan (company lawyer), Roberta Maxwell (Percy’s wife) and Adam Beach (his field hand) solid in the cast. (International Village and 5th Avenue) 3 out of 5
SPONTANEOUS: No matter what, high school comedies will be made. This one is a treat because it feels innovative, touches on serious matters and still manages to be funny until it deftly shifts into a darker tone. It has a strong cast, including Katherine Langford, who was so good in Knives Out last year; Hayley Law, well-known from TV’s Riverdale, as her best friend; Charlie Plummer as her boyfriend; and Piper Perabo as her mother. It was filmed at a high school in Maple Ridge, but most importantly, it speaks to the uncertain fears about the future almost everybody feels these days, and teens feel just about all the time. This is a tale of growing up, with a love story woven in and sunk into a not-quite horror picture.
As Mara, the Langford character, tells it in voiceover narration, it started with no warning at all in class. One student exploded. There are more of these, thankfully not shown graphically. Terrified teens and perplexed cops try to figure out what’s going on, and for us, it’s a fine representation of youthful anxiety. “It’s just life,” mom says. The students, wisecracking smart alecks though they appear to be, can’t explain it, either. “Nothing makes sense,” says one. They make a lot of movie references when they talk about it, and a couple of scenes mimic the sterile isolation scenes from E.T. A happy accident, I guess, that it feels so contemporary. Mara even has a fantasy vision where she verbally slams Donald Trump. It’s from a popular young adult novel by Aaron Starmer and was smoothly adapted and directed by Brian Duffield, who takes a step up from scriptwriting only. (Available now via premium video-on-demand and digitally on several platforms) 3½ out of 5
THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION: The joke in the title is typical of what you’ll get in this film. It’s full of quips and observations, jokes and sly putdowns, and the wails of an artist trying to make it before the years run out. As the main character says: “When a woman turns 40, she’s like fruit that falls from the tree for the bugs to eat.” That’s the moan of a Black woman trying to make it as a playwright in New York. Radha Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself in the film. She’s written a play set in Harlem, driven by memories of her mother’s life there, but has trouble finding a backer to stage it. She works as a drama teacher instead.
Her agent arranges a meeting with a smiley-faced white impresario (Reed Birney) who is interested but wants changes. He suggests a modern story about gentrification. Radha won’t do it and, while moping in front of the mirror, starts rapping. She realizes she’s good at it and visits a DJ who might help her. He’s in a small apartment full of other guys smoking dope, has a bunch of recording equipment there and speaks very little. But he does recognize her talent. The story doesn’t progress easily; she’s prone to stagefright, draws jeers and laughs, and has self-doubts. But when her play gets a small presentation, it horrifies her in this reworked version and inspires her to stop “selling my soul.” It’s a personal manifesto of sorts. She wrote and directed the film, plays the lead and has, at the same time, made an instructive example for aspiring artists. She won a directing award at Sundance with it. (Netflix) 4 out of 5
YELLOW ROSE: It looks like a tale of a young woman with dreams of becoming a country music star. But that’s only part of it. It’s just as much a story of American authorities cracking down on immigrants. The agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are the looming villains here, who swoop in now and then to catch their prey. The site is somewhere in Texas, where you’d think the immigrants they catch would all be Mexican. The main characters in this film are from the Philippines. Rose and her mother clean rooms at a motel.
Rose, played by Grammy winner and Broadway performer Eva Noblezada, knows country music history and the records, and says Townes Van Zandt is her spirit god. A friend takes her to a country bar in a nearby town, where she meets a local star, Dale Watson, playing himself in “the last true Texas dancehall.” She gets back to the motel just in time to see ICE agents take her mother away. So we’ve got three stories going forward: her and music, her keeping out of sight of the immigration agents and her trying to communicate with her mother, who is sure to be deported and not likely to be allowed back for 10 years. The director, Diane Paragas, has a background in documentaries. This a heartfelt story, a bit stiffly acted but moving anyway. And it's dotted with music, including a final song that’s also a declaration: I Ain’t Goin’ Down. (International Village and three suburban theatres) 3½ out of 5
THE CURSE OF AUDREY EARNSHAW: We’ve had a number of eerie films recently that draw on some milder experiences with possession and witchcraft. This Canadian entry follows the trend well, builds lots of atmosphere and a dark mood but skimps on the chills and scares. It’s more a series of incidents than a story that grows and grabs. It’s still worth watching, though; just don’t hold out for heavy thrills. Enjoy the haunting ambience.
A religious sect from Ireland came to North American in 1873 and never changed its ways. It’s now 1973, and these rural folk still dress in the old way. They’ve also been living for almost 20 years with the result of a “pestilence” that poisoned their crops and livestock. Except for one farm, that is, where Agatha Earnshaw lives and has been secretly raising her daughter, Audrey. When they go to town (in a horse cart, of course), she hides Audrey in a wooden crate. “Everybody knows what you are,” a distraught father yells at her at his son’s funeral. A heretic, some think. A witch, maybe. The film lets us ponder how true that is through a series of arguments and confrontations and creepy sights, like rotting animals, blood both coughed up and seeping from a cut, madness and a difficult pregnancy. And revenge. Newcomer Jessica Reynolds is luminous and aggrieved as Audrey, and most familiar in the cast are Don McKellar as the first townsman to see her and Sean McGinley as a pastor. Thomas Robert Lee directed and brought out the folk horror feel. (International Village and Langley theatres, VOD starting Oct. 20) 3 out of 5
HUBIE HALLOWEEN: Adam Sandler attracts good people to appear in his movies, but the result is regularly just mediocre. That is so with this latest one, too. It started on Netflix on Wednesday and immediately became the No. 1 film. People love him, I guess, though the usual collection of cheap jokes shouldn’t draw such adulation. He plays Hubie, described as a “mumbling zombie,” in Salem, Mass. He’s a goodhearted type, but teens and other rowdies persist in pelting him with food.
He has taken it upon himself to act as a monitor to see that people are safe on Halloween evening. That’s not easy because there's an escaped psychopath out there somewhere, a werewolf freshly moved in next door (played by Steve Buscemi) and a cop (Kevin James) conniving to keep Hubie ineffectual. Ray Liotta insults him and manages to reveal that he has a Canadian background. That explains his last name, Dubois, but to what effect? I don’t know. Mind you, much of what goes on has no purpose other than quick jokes. A budding romance with a local woman (Julie Bowen) is not credible at all. But check out the cast: SNL regulars Melissa Villaseñor, Kenan Thompson and Mikey Day, Sandler buddies Rob Schneider and Tim Meadows and others, including June Squibb, Ben Stiller and Shaquille O'Neal. It’s a time-waster — fun, but later you’ll feel you’ve stooped. (Netflix) 2½ out of 5