REVIEW: Tomb Raider Is Serviceable Fun

Back in the day (2001), when Angelina Jolie was announced as the incarnation of the world’s (second) most famous tomb raider, the decision was celebrated as a victory for Girl Power: Finally, a female hero carrying an action film.

Besides the fact we have progressed astonishingly little in that regard (word by word, the same was said of Wonder Woman last year), it’s worth mentioning Jolie’s Lara Croft movies were not great. Not only the plot was unwieldly, Angelina played a sassier version of herself and not really a character.

The main change the 2018 version of Tomb Raider is that Alicia Vikander actually plays Lara Croft. The film is simple but cohesive and the action set-pieces are fluid, as opposed to the choppy style of some other genre specialists (ehem, Michael Bay, ehem).

In this incarnation, Croft is an bike courier/MMA aficionado living paycheck to paycheck. She doesn’t have to. Lara has inherited millions of dollars from her missing father, but she is reluctant to take a penny as she hasn’t given up hope that her dad may resurface.

On the verge of caving in, Lara stumbles upon a clue of her father’s whereabouts: A restless man, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) may have ended in Japan, in pursuit of the resting place of a witch with devastating powers. And he wasn’t the only one in pursuit of the grave.

Tomb Raider is one of those rare cases in which the marriage of an European filmmaker’s sensibilities and a Hollywood production works out. Director Roar Uthaug, responsible for the low-budget, high-octane tsunami flick The Wave, keeps things grounded in reality. Because Indiana Jones’ parentage is undeniable, Uthaug embraces it, leading to effective sequences of Lara Croft using brains and brawn to escape from impossible situations.

A reliable performer, Alicia Vikander brings her low-key charisma to the role. She is immensely watchable and brings a modicum of verisimilitude to ludicrous scenarios. Fans of the videogame (the film is based on the 2013 reboot) are served with winks and nudges, without going overboard.

As the first movie of a would-be franchise, the film does a good job sticking to the story at hand and not overloading in mythology, so often the kiss of death of origin stories. A strong supporting cast (Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott-Thomas and a criminally underused Derek Jacobi) and rather amusing set pieces make Tomb Raider an enjoyable popcorn flick. 3/5 prairie dogs.

Tomb Raider is now playing everywhere.

REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time Could Use Some Ironing

Storm Reid is Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time”

Director Ava DuVernay has had a remarkable career. Outside forays in music videos and television, her films have been consistently powerful: The fierce family drama Middle of Nowhere, the revelatory doc 13th and the heart-wrenching Selma, they all have left an indelible impression. It wasn’t a surprise Disney would pick her to head the adaptation of the emblematic sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time. She has the chops and the sensibility to pull it off.

Which is why it pains me to say A Wrinkle in Time is not up to par. It’s not necessarily DuVernay’s fault. The script is agonizingly obvious (kids are more sophisticated viewers than the movie gives them credit for) and commits a capital offense for an adaptation of this nature: It nearly forgoes world-building. Also, as seminal as the Madeleine L’Engle book is, it’s 56 years old, and every plot point has been recycled to death.

The one thing A Wrinkle in Time has going for is zeitgeist: All major social movements crystalize in the story of Meg (Storm Reid), a brilliant 13 year-old who -following her father’s disappearance- has turn sullen and withdrawn. Well on her way to hopelessness, Meg and her family are visited by Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a kooky figure who seems to know more than she should about Meg’s dad and his interdimensional travel theories.

Soon Meg, her would-be boyfriend and her annoying little brother head to other worlds in search for the missing father, under the tutelage of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Oprah, supernatural, benevolent beings battling the Darkness, the source of all evil.

I could go into further details, but there is no end to all the narrative details the movie both tackles and glosses over. While nobody expects a page-to-page recreation, A Wrinkle in Time does a poor job explaining the mechanics of the story. Things happen. It’s magic. Moving on. A poor casting decision (Meg’s younger sibling is hard to understand and much of the plot hinges on him) further hinders the film’s unfolding.

Ava DuVernay manages however to keep the visuals interesting, particularly when choosing practical effects over CGI. For brief moments, the film becomes tactile, relatable. Makes you wonder what could it have been… with a better script. 2/5 prairie dogs.

A Wrinkle in Time is playing everywhere.

REVIEW: Up ‘The Stairs’

Regent Park in Toronto is an area in transition. Once a drug traffic and sex trade hub, gentrification has turned the neighbourhood around. Alas, the district’s denizens remain in the borough, trying to survive day in and day out.

The Stairs sheds light on their existence by focusing on their daily routine. The approach is respectful of their choices and prevents any judgement from seeping through. Director Hugh Gibson interviews a handful of residents in the course of five years, and documents their struggle with sobriety and their efforts to gain stability. They fail more than succeed, but the realization that there isn’t a way out is somewhat freeing.

The one element that sets the subjects in The Stairs apart is their community involvement and genuine concern for their fellow men. This trait makes them more relatable and their stories more heartbreaking.

While cinematographically flat, The Stairs has an immediacy that elevates it above similar ventures.  Three prairie dogs.

The Stairs will be playing at the RPL Theatre from Thursday 25th to Sunday 28th. Director Hugh Gibson will be in attendance for Q&A.

REVIEW: ‘The Last Jedi’ is Star Wars’ Best Film Since ‘Empire’

Rey (Daisy Ridley) looks into the horizon, as all you do in Star Wars.

As satisfying as The Force Awakens was, as the dust settled, it became clear than J.J. Abrams had basically remixed A New Hope for a new generation without bringing new ideas to the fore (heck, Abrams went for yet another Death Star, the most cumbersome of weapons). Considering this development, concerns over The Last Jedi being another Empire Strikes Back weren’t unfounded.

Enter Rian Johnson. The writer/director behind the brainy indies Brick, Looper and The Brothers Bloom explores corners of the Star Wars universe never seen before on screen, without breaking the mold. Chief among them, a scenario beyond the battle between good and evil that has characterized the saga. Johnson also takes full advantage of the visual possibilities and deliver the most unique-looking episode of the franchise, without becoming a CGI hodgepodge like the prequels. Continue reading “REVIEW: ‘The Last Jedi’ is Star Wars’ Best Film Since ‘Empire’”

REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You

Pixar’s less heralded but most remarkable skill is its ability to introduce ideas and concepts one would be hard-pressed to consider appropriate for a family movie: Mental health comes from managing our emotions, not denying them (Inside Out); the value of criticism lies in the discovery of new talent (Ratatouille); overprotection can stunt a child’s growth (Finding Nemo).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Coco -it’s visually stunning and it’s undeniably fun- but the message (“families are important and want the best for us”) is pedestrian at best and debatable under certain circumstances. Not that the value of family was ever a novel idea, but the Fast and Furious saga has driven the notion into the ground.

Coco is set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the one time of the year those who have passed can come for a visit. At the Rivera household, the fiesta is celebrated without music. A few generations ago, the paterfamilias left his wife and baby daughter to pursued a career in music and never returned. It was decided then the family would make a living making shoes and no tunes will ever be played at home, or surrounding areas. Continue reading “REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You”

Byron Bashforth: From the Prairies to Pixar

Pixar’s Coco.

Okla native Byron Bashforth has been involved in nine Pixar movies and four shorts to date, including the Disney subsidiary’s brand-new feature, Coco. Bashforth is the film’s character shading lead, meaning he is responsible for the team in charge of the look of all the characters in the film. Considering that Coco unfolds in two separate realities and the number of roles is in the dozens, Bashforth has his work cut out for him.

Byron got his Master in Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan and has been involved with Pixar for almost two decades. “I remember watching the trailer for Toy Story and it occurred to me for the first time that you could use computers to do something else than computer science stuff. It opened the possibility of being able to combine my artistic streak and computers as a career.”

The animator has been the character shading lead for the short Lava and the features Monsters University and Ratatouille. I had the chance to catch up with Byron over the phone from California. Continue reading “Byron Bashforth: From the Prairies to Pixar”

REVIEW: Not Loving Vincent

Saoirse Ronan in Loving Vincent.

There is no denying Loving Vincent is an extraordinary achievement. All 65,000 frames of the movie are oil paintings, courtesy of 115 artist who aped Van Gogh’s style for almost a decade. The outcome looks like a living, breathing canvas.

If only the same amount of care had been put on the script.

Story-wise, Loving Vincent is a pedestrian affair, practically pulled from Wikipedia: A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death, Armand, an adrift young man (Douglas Booth, Noah), is tasked with delivering the artist’s final letter to his brother Theo. Doesn’t take too much digging for Armand to discover the brother has been dead for a few months. Finding Theo’s surviving family proves a little more difficult, especially after stumbling on clues that suggest Vincent may not have killed himself.

The mystery of Van Gogh’s death is amped up for dramatic purposes, but the investigation never feels too pressing. The red herrings are painfully obvious and the information is dispensed in roundabout and clumsy ways. Clearly the wrong person for the job, Douglas Booth overdoes it as the lead, as if believing the animation technique may prevent his acting from coming across.

All we are left with is the gimmick. Thankfully, it’s a memorable one. Loving Vincent recreates the artist’s most magnificent creations: Much of the fun of the movie comes from recognizing Van Gogh’s masterpieces on screen, from his many portraits to the ubiquitous “Starry Night”. Pick any detail -cigarette smoke, a windmill in the background- and you will discover remarkable artistry and attention to detail.

One can certainly appreciate the effort put into the making of Loving Vincent, but film is a different medium and requires a more holistic approach than just pretty pictures. 2.5 prairie dogs (out of five).

Loving Vincent opens Friday 17th at the RPL.

REVIEW: Justice League’s Trial Run

Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash and Aquaman.

Following a shaky start, the DC Extended Universe has reached a modicum of stability (thanks Wonder Woman!). There are still some kinks to work out, but glaring problems like cohesiveness and that whole “Martha!” business seem to be a thing of the past.

Considering the problematic installments that preceded it, Justice League is fine. The story is constrained and doesn’t take itself all that seriously: The Flash notwithstanding, it’s still grimmer than Thor: Ragnarok laugh-fest, which may not be a bad thing.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Justice League’s Trial Run”

Frankie Drake’s Lauren Lee Smith: “In Canada, We Take Care of Each Other a Little Bit More”

Lauren Lee Smith as Frankie Drake.

Lauren Lee Smith has been a staple of Canadian film and television for over a decade. Her filmography includes niche titles like Lie with Me and Art School Confidential and TV mainstays such as The Listener and The L Word. Frankie Drake Mysteries, the CBC drama that premiered last Monday, is Smith’s first solo lead and she is almost in every scene of the series.

A Murdoch Mysteries spinoff of sorts (the two shows are set 16 years apart and linked by web series), Frankie Drake Mysteries revolves around Toronto’s only female private detective in 1921. Frankie (Smith) is a woman ahead of her time, frequently underestimated, but more resourceful than the police and criminals alike. “I’m a mother to a daughter now and the importance of playing strong female characters has become even a bigger priority”, elaborates the actress.

I had the chance to talk with Lauren about the watershed moment women in the industry are experiencing, and whether she knows in advance if a show has staying power.

– While you’ve been the co-lead on a number of shows, it seems Frankie Drake Mysteries falls squarely on your shoulders. Does it feel differently?

– I think there were maybe three scenes over the course of the entire season that I was not in. Playing the title character is a new experience, a different kind of pressure I wasn’t exactly used to. But having a leadership role gave me the energy on 15-hour days to be a cheerleader for the rest of the cast and crew.

– Considering your experience in other TV shows, do you have an inkling which series are going to last?

– I wish I did. I’m usually the worst person to know these things. Every time I think “this is amazing, this is going to work” … It’s hard to tell, especially considering how the television world changes so drastically year to year. I do think Frankie Drake has a little bit of everything to appeal to a large audience, and we have a really good shot at being successful.

– You are finishing the year very strong, between Frankie Drake Mysteries and your role in The Shape of Water. How long did you work in Water?

– I shot it last summer, I was in Montreal doing This Life when I got a call telling me Guillermo del Toro had a role for me in his next film. I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. I knew nothing about the character, I had a four-month old baby in tow, but decided it had to happen. We drove six hours to Toronto, shot two nights in a row, drove back and continued shooting This Life.

– You play Michael Shannon’s character’s wife. He seems very intense.

– It was a great pleasure getting to work with him. He is such a focused actor and it was incredible to watch his process.

– Would you say you have planned your career?

– When I was in my early twenties, I had this idea of who I wanted to be as an actor and how I wanted my career to go. The moment I let that go and stop worrying so much, the opportunities I was looking for started coming in. Now it’s just about not overthinking it and trust that work will come, which is easier said than done.

– Do you have second thoughts about developing most of your career in Canada?

– Not for a second. When I was younger, there was this constant push to get to L.A. I followed that lead, I did many, many, many pilot seasons and, while I was there, I was constantly getting booked out of Canada. It was ridiculous. Right after CSI, I got Good Dog (HBO Canada) and The Listener (CTV), and I didn’t want to go back. Here is where my family and friends are, I love my country, I didn’t see the point of fighting to do work somewhere else when you are getting great work here.

– Given the recent slew of revelations coming from Hollywood, do you feel the Canadian TV and film industry operates at a different level?

– I do. We have a growing community, but definitely smaller. We are more family oriented, there is a different level of respect, we take care of each other perhaps a little bit more. You are going to see these situations no matter where in the world you are, but based on my experience, I believe in Canada we have a sense of security and safety. That’s my hope, anyway.

Frankie Drake Mysteries. CBC, Mondays at 9 pm. Season premiere is available at

Todd and The Book of Pure Evil Hit Saskatchewan

Those familiar with the Space Channel cult horror-comedy Todd & The Book of Pure Evil may remember the show ended its two-year run on a cliffhanger. Five years later, the resolution has finally arrived: As a feature-length animated film.

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End starts shortly after the events of the series finale, in which relationships became strained and one of the main characters was killed off during the vanquishing of said book. The film doesn’t quite resets the story but reshuffles alliances and gives the student body of Crowley High new reasons to fear attending school.

Quirky as ever, animation frees Todd‘s creative team to up the ante (two words: acidic acne). You don’t necessarily have to know the show to enjoy the film (a thorough recap is provided), but it enhances the experience. The comedy in display is a bit of an acquired taste. That said, those with tolerance for gore and gross-out humour are in the clear.

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End will play only this Saturday 4th at 9.30 pm at the Rainbow Cinemas-Studio 7, with director Craig David Wallace and actor Alex House (Todd himself) in attendance.

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok Is Pure Kiwi Fun

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in Thor: Ragnarok.

As high as Marvel’s batting average is, there is a ceiling the MCU movies struggle to break through. Outside the first Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel has had a hard time generating stakes. Sure, the MCU movies are a guaranteed good time (especially when compared to the DCEU), but I can’t say I’ve been all that invested in the wellbeing of the people of Sokovia, Xandar or New York.

The lack of emotional weight rears its head again in Thor: Ragnarok, but the movie makes up for it with charm and laughs. Far and away the best movie about the God of Thunder and the funniest comedy of the year not involving Stalin, the third Thor movie benefits greatly from having Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) at the helm. Waititi understands the character better than his predecessors, brings his dry, sharp comic sensibility to the table and makes the most of Chris Hemsworth’s considerable comedy chops. Continue reading “REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok Is Pure Kiwi Fun”

REVIEW: Thank You for Your Service Works for Blue and Red States

Miles Teller and Beulah Koale in Thank You for Your Service.

At the advance screening of Thank You for Your Service, I was informed it was from the same writer of American Sniper. My heart sunk. Alongside Lone Survivor, American Sniper is the most questionable portrait of American military in modern day. Not only Sniper presented a warped version of the Iraq War courtesy of Clint Eastwood, a number of the events depicted by the film turned out to be false.

I’m happy to inform Thank You for Your Service is nothing like Sniper or Survivor. A subdued approach to the less than welcoming environment that awaits soldiers deployed abroad, Thank You for Your Service is devoid of any jingoism. For the characters of this movie, becoming a soldier is a final career opportunity after running out of options.

Adam (Miles Teller), Solo (Beulah Koale) and Will (Joe Cole) are three close friends from Topeka, back in their hometown after serving a tour of duty in Iraq. None of them are in good shape. Adam is wrecked by guilt for his responsibility on the death of a fellow soldier, Solo’s brain is “scrambled” after being blown up seven times (!), and Will is putting all his hopes and dreams on his fiancée, who may not be in the picture by the time of his return.

This is not one of those movies in which the lead doesn’t want help to deal with their PTSD. Adam and Solo are eager to receive assistance, but the backlog is such, they could be waiting for months on end. The delay proves to be unbearable for the young veterans, whose family lives hang by a thread.

Through the entirety of Thank You for Your Service, first time director Jason Hall sustains enormous tension, even though towards the end the film leans on dramatic tropes not at the same level than the rest of the movie. Miles Teller is becoming a very effective and unassuming performer, especially now he is not involved with comic franchises or YA adaptations.

A mishap worth mentioning is the casting of Amy Schumer as a soldier’s widow. She is not bad per se (although her climatic scene could have used a more seasoned dramatic actress), but is definitely distracting. It’s one of those cases in which name recognition comes with a price tag.

Overall, Thank You for Your Service is a healthier take on the costs of war, which reverberate long after the conflict has ended. Something to keep in mind when casually suggesting bombing some country, or stating soldiers know what they signed up for. Three prairie dogs.

Thank You for Your Service is now playing at the Cineplex in Southland Mall.

REVIEW: The Snowman Is Melting

Michael Fassbender tries hard to save The Snowman.

It would be easy to dismiss The Snowman as the standard troubled production that couldn’t be saved in post (three-time Oscar winner editor Thelma Schoonmaker notwithstanding). Alas, the outcome is so uniquely weird -disjointed, beautiful, nonsensical- it’s kind of fascinating how this movie came to be.

Based on Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, The Snowman pits the titular detective (Michael Fassbender) against a serial killer who targets adulterous women. The maniac enjoys taunting his pursuers with childlike notes commenting on their investigation (he doesn’t think highly of it). As the bodies begin to pile up, Hole finds a link between the killings and a decade-old unsolved murder involving Norwegian captains of industry.

While mostly a plot-driven thriller, The Snowman is also a character study. Harry Hole is an alcoholic whose level of self-loathing is so high, he would rather alienate those who love him than give domesticity a try. The film fails to integrate both threads and, for most of the movie, the family drama feels not only disconnected, but unnecessary.

The Snowman unfolds in stilted fashion. Some of Hole’s decisions are baffling and a number of plotlines go nowhere. Director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) confessed production was rushed and not all the script was shot. This would explain why so often the story is pushed forward via ADR.

The saddest part about this misfire is all the casualties: The possibility of a Harry Hole franchise, Dion Beebe’s gorgeous cinematography, a cast as deep as underutilized (Chloe Sevigny plays twins and still seems barely there), and -above all- Val Kilmer. On the mend from throat cancer, all of Kilmer’s lines have been noticeably dubbed. The actor’s performance is so over the top, it seems to belong to an entirely different film. His weirdness, however, is strangely compelling and one wishes to see more of him.

There are hints of the Tomas Alfredson that brought us the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let the Right One In. Deeply idiosyncratic characters and potent images can be found here and there, but The Snowman never seems under his control. Two prairie dogs.

The Snowman opens this Friday everywhere.

REVIEW: The Meyerowitz Stories Acknowledges Lives of Unfulfilled Potential

Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories.

The easiest way to approach Noah Baumbach’s latest movie The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) would be to talk about Adam Sandler’s performance. Sure, Sandler’s work is way above average, but it’s hardly news that the low-brow comedian can act. He just chooses not to.

The real headline here should be that the film features Dustin Hoffman’s finest work in nearly two decades. The two-time Oscar winner is Harold Meyerowitz, the patriarch of a balkanized family with an artistic streak. Harold has three kids: Danny (Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and Matthew (Ben Stiller). Despite the fact Harold wasn’t a constant presence in their lives, Danny and Jean fuss over him. Alas, their father takes them for granted and seem to care only for Matthew, who lives in the West Coast.

The film is episodic by design, focusing alternatively on a different family member. Outside a considerable level of unhappiness, the Meyerowitzes share the feeling none of them lived up to their potential. Harold, a sculpting teacher, has problems accepting the fact a contemporary of his (Judd Hirsch) racked fame and fortune and he didn’t. Danny finds himself divorced, jobless and nearly fifty. Matthew is successful just on paper, while Jean goes through life unappreciated and lonely.

Location is fundamental for The Meyerowitz Stories. The film attempts to capture the artistic New York, the one slowly fading away due to gentrification. As it’s traditional with Baumbach, the script is impeccably written, and the filmmaker’s ability to capture difficult family dynamics (see The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) is in full display. Their pathos and manias lead to several explosive combinations, without forgetting the underlying affection the characters feel for each other.

Long-standing feuds and petty squabbles often ring true and when they don’t, they are entertaining enough to keep the audience invested. Think of The Meyerowitz Stories as Woody Allen on steroids. Three and a half prairie dogs.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) premieres on Netflix this Friday, October 13th.

Guillermo del Toro’s Monster Celebration

Photos by Suzy Lyster.

Synergy can be a wonderful thing: Guillermo del Toro has made Toronto his base of operations and has a new movie coming (The Shape of Water) awash in critical and commercial buzz. The Art Gallery of Ontario is consistently looking for ways to bring first-timers in and is open to non-traditional exhibitions. Put Del Toro and AGO together and you have “At Home with Monsters”.

The stunning exhibit, organized alongside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, aims to break into the Mexican director’s creative process. Mission accomplished: It actually feels like stepping inside Del Toro’s head.

“At Home with Monsters” features over 500 objects, many from Guillermo del Toro’s personal collection and others selected by the filmmaker from AGO’s storage. The exhibit gives us a glimpse of Del Toro’s Bleak House, his home-studio in L.A. The place is filled with strange art pieces that captured Guillermo’s imagination and inspired him at one time or another.

Most of the rooms in the exhibition are linked to Del Toro’s movies, and grouped according to the director’s favorite authors and subjects. Among them, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, outsiders, insects, Victoriana, death and the afterlife, and a striking corner dedicated to Frankenstein’s monster.

Comfort Creates Fear

Guillermo del Toro was at hand to introduce “At Home with Monsters” to the press alongside co-curator Jim Shedden. In perfect Del Toro form, the director came on defense of genre filmmaking and pre-establishment Disney (“Like Frank Capra, Disney is often misrepresented. Fantasia, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty contain moments of great darkness.”) In spite of the remarkable collecting items he has lend to the exhibit, he doesn’t think of himself as a hoarder (“I can live without all of this”).

Not one to shy away from sharing his opinion about today’s political climate, Del Toro stated that “comfort creates fear” and brought up Tod Browning’s Freaks: “In the movie, normal people are horrible while the freaks have a cohesive, functional society based on accepting one another. Judging yourself by the standards of perfection is torture.”

“At Home with Monsters” will open to the general public this Saturday, September 30th, and is set to close January 7th, 2018. Del Toro himself will be signing the companion book and related items tomorrow Wednesday 27th from 4pm to 9pm. Some restrictions apply.

Bee Nation Hits the Airwaves this Sunday

The definition of a crowd-pleaser, Bee Nation (Sunday, CBC, 9pm) revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition, the first ever for Saskatchewan’s aboriginal communities.

It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from the Kahkewistahaw reserve in SK and shows their lives and their preparation for the event. The spelling bee pool consists of 4,000 words and there is no standard training, and the level of parental support fluctuates wildly.

The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their institutions’ curriculum.

The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but each has a personality of their own: Mikayla is your traditional good student; For William, the sole idea of failure is devastating; The bullied Savannah is a model of personal drive. In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve.

Heartbreak is unavoidable for the scrappy underdogs (the winners of the provincial chapter get to travel to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema. It’s hard not to root for these kids or share the excitement of their first flight.

Bee Nation feels a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs POV banner and it shows), but the power of the story transcends the format.

TIFF ’17 Day 9: The Lightning Round

Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz in Disobedience.

When a movie falls through the cracks, Prairie Dog catches it in a yearly section called The Lightning Round.

Disobedience (UK, 2017): Understated drama about two women coming to terms with their sexuality within a Jewish Orthodox community. It doesn’t obey any of the clichés this subgenre has us used to.

Downsizing (USA, 2017): By far director Alexander Payne’s worst film to date, it has plots for about five movies, all undercooked.

Oh, Lucy! (Japan/USA, 2017: Slight and tonally awkward. I wasn’t expecting Josh Harnett (of all people) to pop up in a Japanese movie.

The Crescent (Canada, 2017): Imagine The Others, but boring and badly acted. It looks otherworldly, but desperately needed a better plot to go with the visuals.

The Summit (Argentina, 2017): There are two plots in this film: Political intrigue among Latin American countries, and the daughter of a president acting crazy. The former is far better than the later, but the movie focuses on the wrong one.

Cocaine Prison (Bolivia, 2017): Underdeveloped country chooses to punish drug traffic small offenders over the infinitely more powerful kingpins. It personalizes the problem without forgetting the context. Not bad.

Princesita (Chile, 2017): Twelve year-old girl lives in a cult, gets a taste of the outer world, wants out. Noteworthy allegory of the oppression of the patriarchy, with a truly horrifying, artfully shot sexual violence sequence.

Let the Corpses Tan (France, 2017): The story of a robbery gone wrong embodies everything wrong with the Midnight Madness program this year. Weird for weird sake, barely competent filmmaking and ultimately, a pointless enterprise.

mother! (USA, 2017): Masterpiece. We’ll be talking about it for years.

Happy End (France, 2017): Michael Haneke’s weakest effort in years. Family alienation was better dealt with in Caché.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (USA, 2017): A glorified behind-the-scenes doc from the time Jim Carrey interpreted Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, this doc has great footage but loses its way trying to pretend is deeper that it actually is.

The Shape of Water (USA, 2017): A beautiful, dark fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro featuring a man-fish and Sally Hawkins. It certainly has its virtues, but I was less blown away than most people here.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (USA, 2017): Martin McDonagh relies less on his sharp dialogue and more on his character building skills in this black comedy with a heart. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell use their well-honed personas to great effect.

The China Hustle (USA, 2017): Apparently, investing in China is a terrible idea. Dense but important doc.

Borg/McEnroe (Sweden, 2017): In theory opposites, the cool-as-ice Swede and the hothead American came from the same place. Well-made and ntertaining, although I ended up wanting to watch a Vitas Gerulaitis biopic.

Revenge (France, 2017): We live in 2017, do we really need to take ideas from I Spit in Your Grave? This is not feminism, it’s exploitation disguised as feminism.

TIFF 2017 overall: Three dogs. The movies were average, but the parties were fantastic.

TIFF ’17 Day 8: The Death of Stalin, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Pyewacket

The Death of Stalin.

The Death of Stalin (UK/USA, 2017. Dir: Armando Ianucci): Wondering what would be of Armando Ianucci after leaving Veep? Look no further. The brain behind The Thick of It and On the Loop, is back to mercilessly mock a new institution, in this case, the Communist Party leadership and their power squabble following the passing of Comrade Joseph Stalin.

The best positioned to replace the mustached genocidal maniac is Lavrently Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the secret police apparatus. Beria’s callous behavior rubs the rest of the Stalin administration the wrong way and soon a team of rivals targets him, although inner struggles make the task more difficult than it should.

While the plot sounds serious and the body count is considerable, Ianucci’s scalpel-sharp dialogue and some brilliant slapstick makes The Death of Stalin the funniest film of the festival by a mile. Actors not known for generating laughs like Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs demonstrate killer comic timing, supported by experts in the field Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin. Everything about this movie works, particularly depicting the dictator’s inner circle as a frat house. Hilarious and unsettling. Four dogs. Distribution: Presumably theatrical.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (USA, 2017. Dir: Angela Robinson): This is the year of Wonder Woman: Never mind the two DC Comics film with the Amazonian at the forefront, here comes a biopic about her creator and the two women who inspired him.

William and Elizabeth Marston (Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall) are a couple of academics focused on the female mind. Rational to the extreme, their relationship is tested when William becomes infatuated with Olive (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon), his teaching assistant. Olive is not your average college student. Her open mind and sweet disposition soon turns her into a component of the Marston family. As they explore the limits of their polyamorous bond, the idea of a powerful woman with superpowers and a taste for bondage begins to take shape.

Professor Marston is an effective feminist film that benefits from strong turns by Evans, Hall and Heathcote. That said, it tends to state the obvious, as everybody feels the need to verbalize their feelings at all times. Regardless, it’s worth your time. Three dogs. Distribution: Opens October 13th.

Pyewacket (Canada, 2017. Dir: Adam MacDonald): Pyewacket is the kind of movie that makes you wonder why would Telefilm support this (shades of the unwatchable Teen Lust). Reportedly a horror flick, Pyewacket is at heart a film student short stretched into 90 minutes. And that’s the least of its problems.

A goth teen who dabbles in witchcraft (Nicole Muñoz, in a less than stellar turn) gets mad at her grieving mother (Laurie Holden, The Walking Dead) and conjures a demon to get her killed. Eventually (and much later than you would think), the daughter-of-the-year comes back to her senses, but undoing the spell may be more difficult than expected.

I don’t know what I found more annoying: The cliché dialogue (teen angst has never been this flat), the across-the-board terrible acting (Laurie Holden excepted, despite her character’s inconsistency), the belief inexplicable sudden noises are scary per se, or the hilariously silly conclusion. Pyewacket is a step back for Backwoods director Adam MacDonald. One dog. Distribution: Presumably theatrical.

TIFF ’17 Day 7: Suburbicon, Eye on Juliet

Matt Damon and Noah Jupe in Suburbicon.

Suburbicon (USA, 2017. Dir: George Clooney): There is no way Suburbicon could be considered an average film. It’s topical (fear of the “other” prevents us from noticing the true monsters in our society) and is directed by proven commodity George Clooney, from a script from the Coen Brothers. In spite of it all, it doesn’t add to more than the sum of its parts.

Matt Damon taps into his dark self as Gardner, a presumably average suburban dad in the 50’s. His home is invaded by a couple of thugs and his wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore) is an unintended casualty of the break-in (or is she?). Meanwhile, their entire neighborhood is up in arms because a black family has moved in, oblivious to the horrors taking place a few doors down.

The film could be described as a mix of Fargo and Blood Simple by the way of Tim Burton. It’s undeniably entertaining but is hard to shake the feeling we have seen all this before. Furthermore, Clooney’s films are often staged to a fault and this one feels particularly airless. Oscar Isaac as a wily claims investigator provides the one breath of fresh air in this otherwise hermetic cautionary tale. Three dogs. Distribution in Canada: Theatrical.

Eye on Juliet (Canada, 2017. Dir: Kim Nguyen): After the hard-hitting Rebelle and the fierce Two Lovers and a Bear, it’s no surprise writer/director Kim Nguyen has chosen a gentler piece as a follow-up. Eye on Juliet is a romantic drama in which technology acts as an accessory to amorous pursuits in unexpected ways.

Recently dumped by his girlfriend, Gordon (Joe Cole, Green Room) is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. His behavior has started to affect his job operating security robots remotely. In the midst of his pity party, Gordon becomes smitten with a young Arabic woman who hangs out near the pipeline his bots are protecting. The girl’s parents have arranged her wedding, unaware that she has a boyfriend and hopes to escape to Europe with him. Particularly susceptible to love stories, Gordon attempts to help them, but his involvement causes more trouble than good.

Even though the premise has potential and the visuals rise to the occasion, Eye on Juliet leans heavily on narrative clichés and corniness. The “growing tension” hardly registers and the final five minutes are blatantly borrowed from a 90’s travelogue classic. The film is not without merits, but it could have used a better story. Two and a half dogs. Distribution in Canada: Theatrical.

TIFF ’17 Day 6: A Fantastic Woman, The Disaster Artist

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman.

A Fantastic Woman (Chile, 2017. Dir: Sebastián Lelio): One of the two films Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio is presenting at TIFF, A Fantastic Woman is an intimate portrait of three particularly bad days in the life of Marina (star-making turn by Daniela Vega), a transgender singer.

Orlando, Marina’s much older partner, has died of an aneurysm, but she is not allowed to grief. Marina must face mistrust and prejudice at every level, as if she was responsible for Orlando’s death.

A Fantastic Woman is a superb character study and a severe indictment of a society that’s more hypocritical than open-minded. The film does falter every so often (I call for a moratorium of sex dungeons in movies), but overall it underlines Lelio’s talent to write female characters. Considering Gloria, A Fantastic Woman and the upcoming Disobedience, the Chilean director is poised to give Almodóvar a run for his money. Four dogs. Distribution: Theatrical.

The Disaster Artist (USA, 2017. Dir: James Franco): A dramatization of the behind-the-scenes of The Room (the infamous cult classic renown only by its awfulness) is a minefield of outlandishness: If the subject itself is already laughable, how could you top it? Can you impersonate The Room star/writer/director Tommy Wiseau without turning him into a caricature?

Director James Franco doesn’t quite succeed at turning The Room into a triumph of the human spirit, but damn if he doesn’t come close. The Disaster Artist approaches the figure of Tommy Wiseau sideways, through his sidekick (and the author of the book that inspired the movie) Greg Sestero. Originally struggling actors from San Francisco, Tommy and Greg decide to try their luck in L.A. After a number of discouraging encounters and Tommy’s desire to be cast as the hero, not the villain, Wiseau decides to make his own movie. This, in spite of being a terrible actor, writer and not having directed a thing in his life. The rest is movie history.

The film doesn’t even try to respond the most pressing questions about Wiseau (first of all, where does he get the money from). Instead, it focuses on the friendship of Greg and Tommy. Wiseau is strange, difficult and prone to outbursts, and Greg enables him for longer than expected. The film (and The Room itself) hints at a history of betrayal that explains Wiseau’s behavior, but doesn’t dig further. The Disaster Artist is undeniably fun, but just skin deep. Three dogs. Distribution: Theatrical.