Troian Bellisario and Patrick J. Adams in 'Clara'

Movie reviews: 'Clara' wobbles as it reaches for the stars

Published Friday, November 30, 2018 6:15AM EST
Updated Friday, December 7, 2018 10:32AM EST

Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on six movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: "Clara," "Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back," and "Nothing Like a Dame."

Clara movie poster Clara movie poster. (Serendipity Point Films)

 

CLARA: 3 STARS

No one will accuse "Clara" director/co-writer Akash Sherman of playing it safe. For his debut feature the twenty-something filmmaker essays no less a topic than the existence of life in outer space.

Patrick J. Adams and wife Troian Bellisario Patrick J. Adams and wife Troian Bellisario arrive a for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, on May 19, 2018. (Ian West / pool photo via AP)

Suits star Patrick J. Adams is Dr. Isaac Bruno, a university professor placed on sabbatical when his obsession to find life on other planets gets in the way of him doing his job. Time off is no remedy for his fixation and he continues his search with the help of a co-worker Dr. Charlie Durant (Ennis Esmer) and a research assistant named Clara (Troian Bellisario). 

Bruno is a facts and figures guy, a pragmatist who studies the data looking for connections, desperate to fill the hole left in his heart by the death of his child by finding new life in the universe.

Clara is more abstract, a believer in the randomness of the universe beyond the numbers and maps. The push and pull between their approaches makes for a rocky relationship, but her spiritualism may hold the roadmap for Isaac's quest. 

Austere, low-key and yet ambitious, "Clara" is about the power of loss and discovery. Add in a big dollop of spirituality and you have a movie that isn't quite sci fi even though it spends much of its time ruminating on speculative themes. It's solemn and often feels overwrought, asking question after question without offering much in the way of insight or true emotion. 

Director Sherman shows an undeniable eye for composition and atmosphere. It's in the storytelling that "Clara" wobbles. The push-and-pull between objectivity and intuition is interesting, but overplayed to the point of exhaustion. The climax reaches for the stars, offering a hopeful note, will strike some as poetic, others as the very definition of schmaltz. 

Tom Wilkinson in 'Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back' Tom Wilkinson in a scene from 'Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back.' (Marc Brenner)

DEAD IN A WEEK: 3 STARS

"Congratulations! You just signed your own death warrant. If you're not dead within a week you get your money back." So begins the business deal between unpublished writer William Morrison (Aneurin Barnard) and Leslie O'Neill (Tom Wilkinson), the man he has just hired to kill him.

"You seem like a decent man. I'm very happy to kill you." That exchange sets the tone for what is to come in this dark comedy from writer-director Tom Edmunds. 

The story of the benevolent hitman who only kills those who want to die is quite simple, but there's a twist: we learn more about the characters. 

Leslie is an aging contract killer afraid he'll be terminated from  the British Guild of Assassins if he doesn't keep his quota up. 

Aneurin Barnard and Freya Mavor in 'Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back' Aneurin Barnard and Freya Mavor in a scene from 'Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back.' (Marc Brenner)
Christopher Eccleston in 'Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back' Christopher Eccleston in a scene from 'Dead in a Week: Or Your Money Back.'

William is obsessed by death and plagued by questions — What's the point? Why am I here? What am I contributing? — but starts to see some light at the end of the tunnel when he meets Ellie (Freya Mavor), a book editor with an interest in his story. 

Will William go through with the planned assassination or will he try and get out of the ironclad contract?

"Dead in a Week" has a low-key, but pitch black tone. The farcical, occasionally over-the-top treatment Edmunds applies to death and dying is tempered somewhat by Wilkinson's performance as the genial but deadly Leslie. Ultimately the movie isn't about the suicidal writer, but the broader story of a man forced into retirement before he wants to go.

"Retirement," he moans. "It's the start of the end of our lives." He's the most compelling character and as the movie finds itself drawn to cliché it is Wilkinson that keeps us interested. 

Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright in 'Nothing Like a Dame' Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright in 'Nothing Like a Dame.' (Mark Johnson)

NOTHING LIKE A DAME: 4 STARS

There's an old Irish proverb that says, "A good friend is like a four-leaf clover; hard to find and lucky to have." Watching "Nothing Like a Dame," a conversation between stage and screen legends Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie Smith, will make you feel lucky to have these four, four-leaf clovers in your life, if only for the 80-minute running time. 

Director Roger Michell keeps it simple, placing his four transcendent stars in a simple setting. The dames convene at the rural cottage Plowright built with her late husband Laurence Olivier, taking tea and champagne in the garden and inside.

From witty and wistful to strong and vulnerable, the four women tell stories about their lives on stage and off. They laugh about terrible reviews — "You remember the bad ones"; dish on working with their famous husbands (all deceased) — "Obviously mine was the most difficult," Plowright says of Olivier. "We all found him tricky," Smith interjects; their health — "Have we got three eyes between us all?" says Dench; and more.

Dame Maggie Smith Dame Maggie Smith in London, on Dec. 16, 2015. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)
Dame Judi Dench, left, and Dame Eileen Atkins Dame Judi Dench, left, and Dame Eileen Atkins at the British Consul Generals' residence in L.A., on April 24, 2008. (Matt Sayles / AP)
Dame Joan Plowright in 1999 Dame Joan Plowright at a New York hotel, on May 4, 1999. (Suzanne Plunkett / AP)

The conversation sparkles but don't come looking for a timeline of their careers. Look instead for insight into lives lived on stage. Atkins reflects on stage fright, admitting, "On my way to the theatre I would always think, ‘Would you like to be run over now, or in a massive car accident?' And I only just about come out on the side of ‘No.'" Dench calls fear "the petrol," which she says "can be a help." 

Smith owns up to never watching "Downton Abbey," the show she calls that "wretched thing" that won her three Emmys, even though the producers gave her a box set. 

Late in "Nothing Like a Dame" the quartet are asked what they have learned. "When in doubt, don't," Smith says after some thought. It's that kind of documentary, a rare pleasure that succeeds on charm, wisdom and personality, and there can be no doubt about that. 

Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.