It's not common to have two animated films the same week. But one is big, part of the on-going DC vs Marvel battle. The other is only partly animated recalling a grand deception that became legendary in Scotland. Add a small Canadian film about drug addiction and a small English film replete with big themes, and we've got an interesting week.
Here's the list:
DC League of Super Pets: 2 ½ stars
My Old School: 4
Vengeance: 3 ½
River Road: 3
Ali and Ava: 3 ½
DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS: I've complained about this before and this film gives me another chance to say it. Big animated film these days have action, flash and noise but rarely emotional content. It's what makes a film memorable but producers don't seem to need it. They could take a lesson from the Minions, though. Even without much emotion, you can have a big hit if you have characters that children can attach to. DC hasn't bothered with that here. This film is driven by marketing.
Background: DC put several of their heroes together in the Justice Society of American back in the 1940s, let it expire when interest waned, brought it back as the Justice League in the 1960s in both comics and on TV and as a counterpart to Marvel's Avengers. So what new can you do? The kids will like this: a film all about their pets. Superman (John Krasinski ), Batman (Keanu Reeves), Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and others have been captured by super villain Lex Luthor (Marc Maron). They're locked up in cages. Who must try to save them? Their pets, of course, led by Krypto (Dwayne Johnson) and Ace (Kevin Hart). Spectacular animation (done in Vancouver) ensues with big chase scenes, a building collapsing, a monster stomping around but little to stir your heart. Good family entertainment for undemanding families. (Theaters everywhere) 2 ½ out of 5
MY OLD SCHOOL: It's a documentary but not like any I've seen before. And with a story that's utterly incredible, except that it's true, and has been a legend in Scotland since 1993, when it happened. A new student arrived at a highschool in Glasgow with a strange personal story: Canadian, son of an opera-singer mother who died in a car crash and get this, his name: Brandon Lee. Remember Bruce Lee's son, Brandon, died that year in a film-shoot accident. This Brandon was into hip music like Joy Division and Husker Du and very smart judging by his surprisingly advanced class-room comments about relativity and an Arthur Miller play. Did nobody suspect something was wrong?
Director Jono McLeod, who attended the same school, tells all. Brandon was actually Brian, not a teenager but 32 years old (how staff and students were fooled is a mystery) and his family situation was weirder than he let on. And there was the matter of his great ambition: to be a doctor. That is a key part of the story that evolves. To tell it, McLeod had to resort to a unique format.
Brian was to appear in the film then backed out. He had told his story on audio tape though and actor Alan Cumming appears lip-syncing his words. Former students and staff tell what they remember and those tales are shown in animation. As a film, it's one of the most absorbing and puzzling ever. (Two theaters now--Toronto (Hot Docs Cinema)and Vancouver (Vancity). More to come). 4 out of 5
VENGEANCE: For a movie mystery with a light touch this film is heavy with ideas. Too many maybe and ultimately not perfectly clear is to what they amount to but definitely interesting along the way. The writer, director and lead star is B.J. Novak who was a writer and producer on TV's The Office. That same mixture of thoughtful and funny is evident here, though the funny is not very high. Good, because that would be a case of city intellectuals laughing at country hicks. Novak doesn't stoop to that as he enacts a New York podcaster and New Yorker writer's investigation into a woman's death. He had slept with her; got a call from Texas that she had died, attended the funeral and stayed to find out what happened to her towards talking about her in a podcast. His producer (Issa Rae) already has a title for it: “Dead White Girl”, a sly stab at the true-crime podcasts that are so popular these days.
In Texas, Novak's character gets widely varied theories on what happened to her. One suggests a drug overdose, though she was not a user. Her brother says she was killed by a Mexican immigrant who had a crush on her for years. Another theory involves a local record producer played by Ashton Kutcher. She wanted a singing career and he was working with her, all the while expounding home-spun philosophy. Kutcher has a couple of lengthy scenes laying out his thoughts about storytelling, small-town thinking and what he considers a real no no: refusing to follow your creative ideas. Novak's thesis is really about a more common failing these days: avoiding the truth and adhering to conspiracy theories instead. In this story, what people believed and suspected just isn't true, not really. Point well made, fun even, but shaky in what it means. (In theaters) 3 ½ out of 5
RIVER ROAD: There have been a lot of films about drug addiction. This one isn't groundbreaking but it is a good version of the basic story. Rock musician is worn out after a long tour. A woman who saw him in Brooklyn and came all the way to Vancouver to meet him invites him to do some cocaine. Oops, it turns out to be heroin. They want more, the cost is high, the dealer is a tough nut and they turn to petty crime to get the money. Eventually, as foretold in the very first scene in the film, they rob convenience stores.
The story as written a directed by Rob Willey is much more involved than that but it does show the downward path these characters are on. Cody Kearsley as Travis and Lexi Redman as Zoe get across both the hold the drug gets over them and the attraction. They seperately tell their stories to AA sponsors. As he says he "felt like all of my friends were hugging me at once." Scenes with the dealer are quite different because Steven Roberts portrays him as a threatening and intimidating loud-mouth. He steals this movie with that performance, even bragging that he doesn't cut the H with fentanyl ("for the good of the community.") The film, which has played at several festivals, has little that's new but does know it's stuff. It also has lots of scenery from Vancouver and nearby Delta where the real River Road is. (Starts Wednesday on Apple TV and Aug 12 on Amazon and Google Play) 3 out of 5
ALI & AVA: So observant is this film about real life that at times you might think not much is happening. Actually there's a lot going on. Issues of race, class, age differences, regrets over wrong turns and unfulfilled dreams, testy relations with parents and children are all wrapped subtly around a love story. Some might shout and lecture about them, but writer-director Clio Barnard has them in the background, affecting things but never taking over. They co-exist with ordinary everyday events, don't feel forced and help make the romance feel authentic as it grows.
The story is set in Bradford, the Yorkshire city in England that Barnard herself is from. Adeel Akhtar plays Ali, a landlord's son who, driving a girl to school one day meets her teacher, Ava, played with cheery goodwill by Claire Rushbrook. Later when it's raining he gives her a ride home and a relationship starts up. They're both lonely, both immigrants (his background is Pakistani, she's Irish) and both have stories they gradually share. He's married, though separated. She's a widow. His sister and her son both object to the growing affair. They carry on anyway. They find the biggest difference between them is what music they prefer. He's into rock and punk. She's into country and folk. That'll be key and part of what makes this low-key film so captivating. (Playing in nine arthouse theaters from Ottawa to Vancouver, two in Toronto) 3 ½ out of 5