Climate journalism is urgent. Help US raise $125,000 by December's end.
No big films are newly arrived this week. Barbie and Oppenheimer are just too much to compete with. But a Disney remake and a batch of smaller films are trying, some of them very good, one of them Canadian. Read on.
Theater Camp: 4 stars
Haunted Mansion: 2 ½
North of Normal: 4
Little Nicholas: 3 ½
The Beanie Bubble: 3 ½
Talk to Me: 3
Kokomo City: 2 ½
THEATER CAMP: Of the week's new films, this is the one to see. It's very funny, insightful about our need to create and keep it going and resonant in a way I found particularly amusing. If, like me, you've ever watched an amateur performance group, maybe a play by highschool students that included a child or grandchild of yours, then this is for you. The vibe you get is very similar watching this crew at work.
They're at a summer-camp where they put on an annual show. It's to boost creativity and dispel shyness or as the founder says: “The whole world opens up.” This year, though, she's taken ill, and her son (Jimmy Tatro) has to take charge. He's a self-described financial guru, not a theater guy. The conflict between those two worlds plays out with droll humor and sharp insight.
Two counselors (Molly Gordon and Ben Platt) write an original musical to honor the founder (they also co-wrote and she co-directed the film) and we get to see the auditions and the hard work in the three-week countdown “to create a masterpiece.” The kids are real troupers, the staff have pretensions and there's a crisis looming. The bank wants to foreclose on the camp. That triggers machinations by the son and a take-over offer by a neighboring camp which is run purely as a business. The show has to be a success. We watch the preparation get more and more excitable but can that save the camp? It's made a wonderful film. (Theaters in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal) 4 out of 5
HAUNTED MANSION: The popular Disneyland attraction gets a second try at becoming a movie. Pirates of the Caribbean was a huge hit, so why not? It's inconsequential, that's why? Better than the first, which starred Eddie Murphy, and loaded with stars (LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, a unrecognizable Jared Leto and a blink-and-you'll miss her Winona Ryder) but still thin and bland. It's neither scary nor funny. Safe for families, though, and playing especially to fans of the attraction thanks to director Justin Simien who used to work at Disneyland.
Some of the sights and characters are the same (like the endless hallway, the Hatbox Ghost and Madame Leota, the clairvoyant). The story is new. A mother (Dawson) and young son move into a big mansion in New Orleans (how can they afford it?) and discover that it is haunted. They get help from a priest (Wilson), a psychic (Haddish), an expert on local ghost history (DeVito) and a former astrophysicist (Stanfield) who's been reduced to giving tours of ghostly sites. He invented a camera that can catch images of ghosts and makes several attempts in the mansion. Together the group unearths the history of the house, of the former owner and the need of his ghost for just one more victim. Clever story, nicely visualized and paced, but too mild. (In theaters) 2 ½ out of 5
NORTH OF NORMAL: This will take you back, to the 60s or maybe the 70s. If you've ever visited a rural commune where people were creating an intentional community, usually under a strong leader. Or if you've done more than visit, if you've lived in one. The story is real, based on a memoir by Cea Sunrise Person (unusual names were common in these places). She was born to a single mother (played here by Sarah Gadon) who was forced by her father (Robert Carlyle) to have the baby in the properly alternative-lifestyle commune in the Yukon where he set the rules.
Cea seems happy when young (played by (River Price-Maenpaa) but uneasy when a teen (played remarkably well by Amanda Fix). Mom leaves the commune because of dad's control but adjusting to life in the city is hard for her. She moves from job to job and man to man (usually sketchy ones). Cea dreams of becoming a model and going to Paris. That's pretty well the worst vision of the future to her grandfather, the commune leader. We later get more backstory but the notion is clear all along: his community wasn't a good place to grow up in. The film, well-acted by the cast and ably directed by Carly Stone, offers what might be hope at the end. And a strong intelligent story all the way. (In Theaters) 4 out of 5
LITTLE NICHOLAS: Delightful is the right word for this animated film. Nicholas is a very popular character in children's literature in France, ever playful and cheerful, and here starring in a tribute to his creators. They're worth celebrating. René Goscinny wrote the stories and Jean-Jacques Sempé drew the pictures. Goscinny also created Asterix and Obelix and Sempé also drew some 100 cover illustrations for The New Yorker. Nicholas helps get their own stories out by visiting them, sitting on the typewriter or drawing table and chatting them up.
It's an imaginative approach that directors Amandine Fredon and Benjamin Massoubre have taken. It gives us a zippy pace as we hear their stories and get cutaways to brief stories they've created about him. He interacts with his grandma, flies a red toy plane, shuns girls and is mischievious at school. But he listens carefully as Sempé describes himself as a failed soldier, who had a difficult childhood and was bored except when drawing or carousing. Goscinny was taken to Argentina as a boy because his father got a job there, periodically returned to Paris but stopped when the Nazis arrived (he was Jewish) but later did get to New York where he met Harvey Kurtzman, a surprise name to pop up. He was inspired. These fragmented stories are illustrated in a beautiful watercolor style. (The film played festivals last year and is now on demand from Amazon, Apple TV and other sources) 3 ½ out of 5.
THE BEANIE BUBBLE: Movies with toys are in right now so add this one. It's both entertaining and a censure of economic greed. As co-director Damian Kulash put it in an interview : “It's not a weird thing that happened. It's the same thing that always happens.” What happened here was a toy craze that grew into a frenzy and then went bust. Remember the Beanie Babies, the plush toys back in the 1990s? Salesman Ty Warner conceived them, had them made cheap in China, sold relatively cheap over here and created an artificial demand for them. People sold them overpriced on EBAY and demand just exploded.
Kulash and his co-director Kristin Gore working from a book with the subtitle “Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute" tell the whole story. Zach Galifianakis plays Warner as a smiling, pep-rallying huckster and the film shows three women who worked for him and and should have gotten some credit for enabling his success. They, fictionalized but based on women in the book, are played by Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook (best-known for Succession) and Geraldine Viswanathan as the key ideas person. She was early into the internet and used it to promote Beanie Babies. That made them the first social media sensation. He paid her only minimum wage and then generously rewarded her with a raise to $20 an hour. The film is clever and crafty and nicely critical. (Apple TV+ and still a few theaters)3 ½ out of 5
TALK TO ME: This was a sensation at Sundance and the men who made it, twins Danny and Michael Philippou from Australia, have been a sensation on You Tube. Their short films on there have attracted 1½ billion views. Here they turn to feature-legth psychological horror and mix in the difficulties of dealing with grief. And quite a bit about growing up too. It's a rich concoction, intense, chilling and smart.
Teenager Mia, played by Sophie Wilde, lost her mother, resents her controlling dad and finds an outlet for her feelings at a gathering at a friend's house. Somebody has gotten hold of an occult relic, a ceramic, maybe petrified arm that's said to contain a spirit. Speak to it directly and say “Talk to me” and see what happens. You get a brief vision of a mysterious figure. Usually. Do it again and it's stronger. Do it too long and it's dangerous. Something takes over your body. The teens do it over an over. One goes too far though and is driven to smashing his face on the table. At that point the horror turns bloody, gets terrifying. It's a metaphor, sure, but with well-drawn characters among the teens, a warning voice from an adult, played by the lone actor who is well-known (Miranda Otto), and an inventive story, it's a thrill for horror fans.(In theaters) 3 out of 5
KOKOMO CITY: This American documentary asks you to get down and dirty to hear the most graphic details about the lives of four black sex workers who are also trans. They talk openly and you learn about arcane subjects such as “topping” or “bottoming”. Or particular incidents like men who think they're buying the usual but are startled to find the woman has a penis. Or men who prefer them, though some “don't want to touch the dick.” That's the tone through this whole documentary: raw, blunt, rough. Expect ample use of the “n”, “f” and “m-f” words.
The director, D. Smith, is a Black trans woman herself and that may be why she was able to get these four to talk so candidly and unapologetically about their lives. And a few men to talk about why they prefer them as sex partners. It gives a view into a part of the world most of us probably have never thought about. We learn why and how they do it and get a bonus. They feel discrimination. Just like white-vs-black racism, there's this within the black community: straight vs trans shunning. “We hate people among us,” one says. Strong sentiments in a film that's revealing but also kind of creepy. (Art-house theaters in Toronto, Vancouver , Montreal and Quebec City) 2 ½ out of 5