Movie reviews: 'Wonder Park' more poignant and heart-tugging than you'd expect
CTV film critic Richard Crouse reviews the animated feature 'Wonder Park,' the character-driven remake 'Gloria Bell,' offbeat comedy 'To Dust,' dystopian thriller 'Level 16' and the slow-burning Quebec film 'Ghost Town Anthology.'
WONDER PARK: 3 ½ STARS
If nothing else the new animated film "Wonder Park" will teach kids how to use and possibly overuse the word "splendiferous." Good lessons on self reliance and facing fears abound, but "splendiferous" appears so many times it's as if the screenwriters earned a bonus every time a character utters it.
Precocious ten-year-old June (Brianna Denski) spends most of her days hanging out in a world of imagination. Encouraged by her loving mother (Jennifer Garner), June is a mini P.T. Barnum, inventing a fantasy theme park, Wonderland, "the most splendiferous park ever," using nothing but bendy-straws, stuffed animals like her monkey Peanut and her creativity.
When her mother falls ill and has to be hospitalized June puts away childish things, putting Peanut and all of Wonderland into boxes. Looking after her father she becomes obsessed with running the house. Concerned he cannot survive without her, she plays hooky from math camp, creating a diversion so she can get of the bus and cut through the woods to get home. On the way she discovers a discarded amusement park ride that transports her into the land of her imagination.
But things aren't quite how she imagined them. Her beloved stuffed animal mascots are on the run from hoards of chimpanzombies determined to destroy the park. As the architect of the park her imagination will be put to the test as she searches for a way to restore harmony to her beloved Wonderland.
Even at just one hour and twenty-six minutes "Wonder Park" feels padded. Music montages and several frenetic action scenes stretch the story to feature length but there is much to like nonetheless. Good messages about the power of imagination to help work through life's challenging moments and self-belief are sincere and powerful — "There is wonder in all of us!" — but it is the film's willingness to expand beyond the eye-distracting action scenes into more personal territory that earns it a recommend.
The mother's illness sub-plot is handled subtly and carefully but drives the entire story. "I got so scared of losing her," June says, "that I lost myself." It's poignant and more heart-tugging than you might expect from a movie featuring a talking porcupine (John Oliver, doing some fun voice work).
"Wonder Park" is a movie that respects its audience. That understands children can handle complex ideas about real life and for that, it is splendiferous.
Read another take: Animated 'Wonder Park' is at war with itself
GLORIA BELL: 4 STARS
"Gloria Bell," a new film starring Julianne Moore, tells a story about one woman navigating between loneliness and love.
In the remake of his 2013 film "Gloria" Chilean director Sebastián Lelio casts Moore as the title character, a fifty-something divorcee looking for love. An office worker by day, she haunts the discos of suburban Los Angeles in the evening. One night she meets Arnold (John Turturro), a recently divorced man still tethered to his former wife by his ever-present cell phone. They hit it off; he serenades her with quirky, romantic poetry, teaches her how to play paintball and makes her laugh. He meets her family, including the ex-husband (Brad Garrett) and son (Michael Cera) and seems to be falling hard for Gloria. Except for that damn cell phone. Every time it rings it splits his attention between his dramatic former family and Gloria. The prospects for long-term love become more distant every time his phone rings.
"Gloria Bell" is a shot-for-shot remake of Lelio's 2013 film. It's a movie that doesn't rely on conventional narrative but rather focuses on the characters to tell the tale. To that end Moore works wonders. In each episodic snippet Moore illuminates Gloria, giving us everything we need to know in the subtlest of ways. A turn of the head, a too-loud laugh or the way she sings along to the radio. Each of these flourishes breathes life into a character fighting against becoming invisible in a world that values youth.
It's an astounding performance especially in its understated moments. When Gloria gearshifts from tears to laughter as the weight of a bad relationship lifts or finally dances to her own beat on the dance floor, Moore is vulnerable and jubilant, awkward and comfortable, and always relatable.
Read another take: Julianne Moore shines in 'Gloria Bell'
TO DUST: 3 ½ STARS
Every one of us processes grief differently. Most people know the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but in "To Dust," a dark comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig, suggests there are a few phases missing from that list.
Röhrig, the Hungarian actor best known as star of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner "Son of Saul," stars as Shmuel, an upstate New York Hasidic cantor distraught by the sudden passing of his wife Rivkah. Tormented by the thought that her ruach (soul) will not rest until she is turned to dust he becomes obsessed by the rate of her decomposition.
As I said, we all grieve differently.
His anguish pushes him to break religious law andseek guidance outside of his community. A casket salesman (Joseph Siprut), once he realizes Shmuel isn't in the market to buy a casket, offers no help. "We don't check their progress," he says. In desperation he approaches bumbling community college biology professor Albert (Broderick).
The odd couple perform some decidedly non-kosher experiments — most notably with a stolen pig named Harold — to establish a timeline for Rivkah's decay and put Shmuel's mind to rest.
"Who doesn't like bacon?" asks Albert, placing foot firmly in mouth.
First time feature director Shawn Snyder has crafted an offbeat but appealing comedy that offers up laughs as well as bittersweet sensitivity. In what is essentially a two hander, Snyder amps up the absurdity by allowing his actors to be both unlikeable and yet strangely compelling. Röhrig and Broderick are a perfectly matched, if morbid, odd couple.
Röhrig plays Shmuel as a sympathetic character but one who pushes the boundaries of behaviour as he follows through in his tormented obsession. He finds the tragedy and the humour in the situation, equal parts comic exasperation, stubbornness and heartache.
Broderick, often decked out in his ex-wife's lacy housecoat, is a delight. His Albert has let life pass him by. Hapless and hopeless, he seizes on this experience as a way to reawaken his love of science and life. Broderick is deadpan perfection.
"To Dust" is a one-joke movie but it is a good joke brought to life by two actors who make their extreme characters relatable and recognizable.
LEVEL 16: 3 ½ STARS
A mix-and-match of "The Handmaid's Tale" and any number of dystopian young adults tales "Level 16" is a powerful statement on the expectations levelled at young women.
The Vestalis Academy is a drab training centre where any deviation from the lesson plans of female virtue — cleanliness, obedience, humility and patience — gets students labelled "unclean" and results in a trip "downstairs" for severe punishment.
The kind of prep school that provides well-trained "daughters" to the highest bidder, its teachers educate on grooming, hygiene and life lessons like, "curiosity is the first vice," and how to dress like the daughter of a top society family.
It's also the only home its students have ever known. "When a girl is obedient and sweet the world cannot help but love her," says Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge). "Follow the rules. Be patient. Let us take care of you."
Each year is a level. "Level 16 is not like the other levels," lectures the stern head mistress Miss Brixil (Sarah Canning). "All your training has lead up to this moment. Soon our sponsors will arrive to choose their new adopted daughters." Interestingly, what the schooling doesn't include are life skills like reading and writing.
The story focuses on Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin), two students who stop taking the "vitamins" that put them into a coma-like sleep every night. Working together they hatch a plan to save themselves and the others from a hideous fate.
Director Danishka Esterhazy's "Level 16" details how so-called traditional feminine values can actually be tools of oppression. It's a powerful message coupled with thoughts on objectification that pays off with a tense and horrifying climax that feels earned by the preceding story. (NO SPOILERS HERE!)
Esterhazy's colour palate of grey, grey and more grey enhances the institutional nature of the story, helping to create the bleak atmosphere surrounding the students, most of whom find out the hard way that following the rules isn't always the best path.
Mixing elements of social justice, horror and sci fi, "Level 16" is a genre movie that delivers both intellectually and emotionally.
GHOST TOWN ANTHOLOGY: 4 STARS
"Ghost Town Anthology" feels like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" that Rod Serling didn't get to make. Set in the tiny fictional Quebecois town of Irenee-les-Neiges, it's a story about a tragedy that mixes the physical and metaphysical.
Irenee-les-Neiges is a wind swept town of just 215 people. Austere and unwelcoming, the snow bound town has been hit hard by a souring economy. It's the kind of place where everyone knows everyone's business so when a popular 21-year-old hockey player Simon Dubé kills himself in a rather dramatic fashion, it is the talk of the town.
Most directly impacted are his older brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor) and parents Gisele (Josee Deschenes) and father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil). Jimmy skips through most of the five stages of grief, vacillating between two, anger and depression, while his devastated mother and father search (sometimes literally) for answers. Soon ghosts from the past, including Simon, appear in town as though they had never left. "If you think about it," says Richard (Normand Carrière), "they're like us, in a way."
Written and directed by Denis Côte and based on a novel by Montrealer Laurence Olivier, "Ghost Town Anthology" ("Répertoire des villes disparues") is not a horror film. There are unsettling moments but the tone is more mournful.
Côte does an admirable job of creating an atmosphere of unease, using handheld cameras and a grainy film stock that emphasizes the stark nature of life in Irenee-les-Neiges.
"Ghost Town Anthology," in French with English subtitles, is a slow burn that builds to a disquieting climax. These ghosts are not malevolent; they are nostalgia, reminders of what once was. Simon and the others may or may not be real but this isn't their story. This is a story of the people living in a forgotten place in a changing world thinking about what they have lost, of appraising their past and facing an uncertain future.
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.
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