Valentine's Day is one of those special days at the movies. Classic romantic films are brought back for the day. Some are even re-released and play longer. This year, for instance, Amelie, the French charmer from 2001 is back as is Anyone But You the popular rom-com that premiered just days before Christmas.
This next week, some of the new titles are opening on Valentine's Day. I review one of them today.
And take note of this: CRAVE has just added Charles Officer's Akillah's Escape to its streaming service. The gritty tale of urban crime in Toronto's Jamaican community was a big winner at the Canadian Screen awards three years ago and was Officer's final film. He died in early December. The film is definitely worth watching.
And these are the new arrivals:
PERFECT DAYS: I can't recommend this one strongly enough. It's smart and literate, poignant and deeply engrossing. Not what you might expect from a film about a man in Tokyo, Japan who works cleaning public toilets. But with Kōji Yakusho in the lead (Cannes awarded him best actor) and Wim Wenders directing (he made The Buena Vista Social Club among many others) it's a gem, and Oscar nominated. There's little dialogue, Koji speaks hardly at all, but a lot happens. Facial expressions and body posture help create a moving character study.
He reads William Faulkner and is obviously from a higher social level than we see him. So how did he end up cleaning toilets? We're offered tiny clues but no answers. And why is he so seemingly content doing his job? Has he just resigned himself to it? Is it a way to find peace in his life? And from what? All we can do is speculate.
The questions all come up when his niece arrives. She's run away from home. Her mom, his sister, arrives later on in a chauffeur-driven car. She says his dad is in a nursing home and he should visit. "He won't act like he used to," she adds. They are only tiny clues like that that we get but they're enough to keep us rapt. Aging and even death come up as themes. He listens to cassettes of 1970s rock. "Is this on Spotify," his niece asks? There's much more to savor especially a final sequence as mixed emotions flicker across his face. (In theaters: Toronto now, Vancouver next week, many others in two weeks) 5 out of 5
THE TASTE OF THINGS: It had a better title, The Pot Au Feu, when it played the festivals a few months ago, but bland title or not, see it. No pun intended, but it is a very satisfying movie. It's from France and is elegant and civilized. It's about food (and love) and therefore perfect for Valentine's Day, which is when it opens. Just one caution though: don't see it on an empty stomach. There is so much beautiful-looking food seen in here you'd just feel extremely hungry.
Juliette Binoche plays Eugénie a cook who creates like an artist. Benoît Magimel plays her boss, of 20 years in an establishment that seems more like a private gastronomy salon than a restaurant. A group of local gentry, including a doctor and a judge, dine there and marvel at the dishes brought to them. We see extended scenes of that food being prepared and it never gets boring. It's enlightening. We learn how it's done what goes into it and in one amazing scene a young assistant is asked to name all the ingredients she tastes in a sauce. There must be two dozen she rattles off.
The love story is polite and quiet, not at all steamy. He's in love with her, has asked her to marry him but was refused. No reason given. There is connection though. Occasionally she leaves the door to her room open for him. Without giving any more details I can tell you that a few plot points later the issue turns out to be this: did he wait too long? It's a sophisticated film well-crafted by director Anh Hung Tran, whose best-known film is The Scent of Green Papaya. (In theaters, opening Feb 14 in some places, Feb 16 elsewhere) 4 out of 5
THE PROMISED LAND: Here's another film with a gripping struggle, a strong man of the earth and a despicable villain. It's from Denmark and has Mads Mikkelsen starring a second time for director Nikolaj Arcel. Their first, A Royal Affair, was Oscar nominated 12 years ago. This one is set in the 18th century on a barren heath that is said to be unsuitable for farming. Mads plays a soldier who has returned from fighting with German army and a bit of information that will change everything. Potatoes can grow there, he says, and gets permission from the king's aides to try framing with the promise of a knighthood if he can make it work.
But a nearby noble wants the land for himself. It's a status thing, and he's a classic snivelling no-good. Even his name is strange: Frederick De Schinkel. He added the “De” to make it sound more grand and corrects anybody who doesn't use it.
He's played with villainous relish by Simon Bennebjerg. He's incensed that Mads is hiring runaway farmworkers (which is illegal), brings Roma people onto his farm and takes in a maid , Ann Barbara (played by Amanda Collin). She used to work for the noble, was sexually abused by him and ran away. (Sexual wrongs also figure in the farmer's family history and give an extra impetus for his battle). When the noble sends a pack of tough guys to drive him out, the film which had been a fairly slow burner turns violent. It's from a novel that was a bestseller in Denmark and on film is a potent chronicle of determination thanks to a fine performance by Mikkelsen. (In theaters: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal now, Ottawa next week). 4 out of 5
HOW TO HAVE SEX: No, it's not an instruction manual. More of a what-to-avoid essay. It does a very good job of exploring how sex is an obsession and a danger. Three English girls go on a vacation to a Greek resort while they await the results of the highschool exams they've just written and get far into the high-spirited party culture there. Apparently it's a common holiday trip taken by English teens and first-time director Molly Manning Walker (who worked for years as a cinematographer) captures the appeal right on. The bars are raucous, the music throbs and sexual tension is constant. Certainly for one of the three: Tara, still a virgin, set on changing that and getting a push from the other two, Skye and Em, who say if not now, she'll never have sex.
I won't say what happens and she won't either after a night out partying and time on the beach with a guy named Paddy. His best friend, nicknamed Badger, and Tara's two friends are all put out by what might have happened and that they're not getting the facts. Tara becomes remote from her pals, feeling the insecurity. She's also not sure she liked what happened on the beach and whether she consented to anything. The film raises a lot of relevant issues and feelings like that. They'd be stronger if the characters of the three were more fully drawn. As it is, Mia McKenna-Bruce (Taz), Lara Peake (Em) and Enva Lewis (Sky) as well as Samuel Bottomley (Paddy) and Shaun Thomas (Badger) are familiar and archtypical. The storyline is strong though. Teens should see it. (In Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal theaters now, Ottawa and Winnipeg next Friday) 3 out of 5
LISA FRANKENSTEIN: Diablo Cody the writer of the cult film Jennifer's Body and director Zelda Williams, Robin's daughter, team up for this horror-comedy that teens might like but I found trivial and silly. Too bad because it's got some clever writing and fun with horror movie tropes. And teenage movie tropes. Lisa you see is misunderstood at home (typical) and with good reason. She (Kathryn Newton) saw her mother killed by an axe-murderer. Dad remarried and so with a new stepmother (Carla Gugino), a new house and attending a new school, Lisa has trouble adjusting.
Not one of the cool girls, who in this story are cheerleader-types, she spends time at the cemetary speaking to a tombstone addressing love vibes to the body below. Cue a lightning storm and he's risen from the grave, a living corpse if you will, played by Cole Sprouse. If that's not enough, parts of his body have to be replaced so Lisa and he go on a killing jag to get replacements. She also gets him new clothes and puts him into a tanning bed to pep him up. She's crazy but the script doesn't bother with pondering such an idea. Also not with asking if she has any regrets with what she's doing. Nothing as serious as that. No, just the push-right-on story line about a teen who's having a hard time growing up. For like-minded teens. (In theaters 2 out of 5