Movie reviews: Knightley in top form for sparkling biopic 'Colette'
Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on four movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: 'Colette' starring Dominic West and Keira Knightley, animated feature 'Small Foot,' the documentary 'My Generation' narrated by Michael Caine, and Kevin Hart's 'Night School.'
Bad theatre is like dentistry," declares critic and author Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). "You're compelled to sit in your chair, as they drill into your head, until the procedure is over." Luckily there is no such endurance test in "Colette," a sparkling biopic that shows star Keira Knightley in top form.
"Colette" begins traditionally enough, with "Masterpiece Theatre" style attention to detail as the love affair between Parisian "literary entrepreneur" Gauthier-Villars, who goes by the nom-de-plume Willy, woos country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley). They soon marry, and after slowly adapting to life in the salons of the big city — "You must present your personality with a capital P," he says — she is drawn into the family business ghost writing a novel loosely based on her life. The resulting book, "Claudine à l'école," released under the Willy name, becomes a sensation, bringing in some much needed money.
As Willy hogs the spotlight she continues to write the increasingly popular books. Soon her character, Claudine, is the fictional exemplar of the Belle Époque, influencing fashion, literature and dominating the trendy magazines of the day. Denied the recognition that should accompany their success Colette asserts her independence, beginning an affair with "wayward American debutante" Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson). That relationship blows up when it's revealed that Willy is also trysting with the same woman.
Professional and personal twists and turns lead the increasingly distant couple into bankruptcy and into a dodgy business deal that sees Colette financially cut out of her most popular character's future earnings. On a happier note she begins a relationship with "Missy" (Denise Gough), the highborn transgender pioneer Marquise de Belbeuf.
"Colette" is a period piece, all corsets and dinner jackets, but one with a very modern approach. Before her awakening Colette finds herself under the thumb of a domineering husband but afterward she forges a life that broke rules and paved the way for modern feminism and LGBTQ acceptance. It is a well-told story of empowerment that blends creative process, sexual politics and Colette's progressive spirit.
"Colette's" set decoration and Wash Westmoreland's direction are top notch but it is Knightley that breathes life into the frothy but fascinating story of a pioneering woman. She provides both the heart and furious intellectualism necessary to present a fully rounded portrait of a person who waged a battle against societal norms and a life lived in the shadows.
Richard Crouse rates ‘Colette’: 4 STARS
"Smallfoot," a new animated film starring the voices of Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common and LeBron James, does a flip flop on the regular Bigfoot legend. Instead of humans wondering if Sasquatches are real, in this musical fantasy it's the ape-like Yetis who doubt the existence of humans.
Migos, voiced by Tatum, a giant white-haired Sasquatch lives, in with his clan in the Himalayas, high above the clouds. He, like all the Yetis — they look like distant cousins to Rankin & Bass's Abominable Snowmonster of the North — believe they fell from the butt of the great sky bison, that they live on a giant ice island supported by mammoths and that a glowing sky snail illuminates their world. Their laws are literally written in stone and kept by tribal leader the Stonekeeper (Common). What they don't believe in are humans.
"Everyone knows the Smallfoot isn't real."
One day, while training for his new job of gongmaster—the Yeti who wakes the village every morning—he overshoots the gong and tumbles into the snowy distance where he sees—or at least thinks he sees—a Smallfoot. Excited, he rushes back to his village with the news. He is met with equal parts wonder and anger. "If Migos is saying he saw a Smallfoot," they say, "he is saying the stone is wrong." His heresy gets him banished but soon he connects with a secret group, the S.E.S. (Smallfoot Evidentiary Society) run by the Stonekeeper's daughter Meechee (Zendaya). A small collection of artefacts—like a tiny toilet paper rolls they think is a "scroll of invisible wisdom"—has convinced them of the existence of humans. Together they challenge their belief system to find the truth about Smallfoot. "It's not about tearing down old ideas," says Meechee, "it's about finding new ones."
Meanwhile in a nearby mountain town a wildlife television show host Percy Patterson (Corden) sees the Yetis as a way to improve his sagging ratings. It would be the scoop of a lifetime but at what price?
"Smallfoot" feels stretched to feature length. The animation is solid, there are jokes to make young and old laugh and Migos even revives a few of Tatum's "Magic Mike" moves. The trouble lies in the music. It feels wedged in. This isn't a musical by any stretch but its littered with generic pop songs—and one truly nightmare inducing version of "Under Pressure"—that are nicely realized but add little to the overall experience except for a few minutes of running time.
Better are the ideas. Wedged in between the singing and slapstick are good messages about communication and authenticity—"The truth is complicated and scary," says Meechee, "but it is better than living a lie."—and questioning authority. "Questions lead to knowledge," says Gwangi (LeBron James), "and knowledge is power." It's about acceptance, about celebrating our differences and co-existence. In troubled, divided times these are powerful messages even when delivered by a giant Yeti.
"Smallfoot" is a big splashy movie stuffed with important ideas. Unfortunately propping those ideas up is only about an hour's worth of story padded with songs and silliness to an hour and forty minutes.
Richard Crouse rates ‘Small Foot’: 3 STARS
In the Swingin' Sixties Michael Caine had much luck with the ladies. Perhaps you already knew that. If not, it's about the only thing you'll learn from "My Generation," a new peppy but unnecessary documentary.
"My Generation" starts off well enough, painting a vivid picture of drab post-war England. Grey, class conscious and run by stiffed-shirts London was far from the hip vortex it would become with the advent of Bibi, mini-skirts, the Beatles and Pop Art.
Caine, who acts as host, along with new and archival interviews with John Lennon, Marianne Faithfull, David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton and other luminaries, describe the beginnings of a cultural revolution. They talk about shattering the class divide that kept working class men and women from breaking into public life, the country's sexual awakening and Paul McCartney's appetite for LSD. In short, how sex, drugs and rock n' roll made London the coolest place on the planet for much of the 1960s.
From there it becomes a greatest hits look back, a K-Tel collection of interviews and footage. It's fun to hear some of these stories rehashed — Why Faithfull was naked when the police burst into Keith Richard's home in 1967? — and see the sights but these are fuzzy thumbnails, not full resolution pictures.
Most of "My Generation" is engagingly told and Caine is a charming host but it often feels more like the nostalgic musings for a long ago time than insightful commentary.
Richard Crouse rates ‘My Generation’: 2 STARS
After years of slogging it out in the comedy clubs Tiffany Haddish burst into the collective consciousness with a bravura turn in last year's "Girl's Trip." Charismatic, funny and filthy, she became an overnight sensation with years of experience. In "Night School" she stars opposite superstar Kevin Hart in her first name-above-the-title movie.
Hart plays Teddy Walker, a successful BBQ salesman about to ask Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the love of his life, for her hand in marriage when disaster strikes. A stray champagne cork knocks off the top of a gas container and BOOM, his car dealership is reduced to rubble. His investment adviser best friend (Ben Schwartz) wants to give him a job but can't.
"You're the best salesman I've ever seen," he says, "but my boss won't let me hire a dropout." If he ever wants to make real money he has to go to night school and get his GED.
Enrolling at an adult education course at a local school he meets fellow students hipster Mila (Anne Winters), single mom Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and their teacher Carrie (Haddish)."I'm here to make a little extra cash so that I can afford rent and some luxuries like antibiotics because this job makes me sick sometimes." She's a no-nonsense teacher who realizes Teddy may have a learning disability.
Forget sending teddy back to school. It's "Night School's" script that needs to go back to class. While it touches on worthy, hot-button topics regarding the lack of funding for schools, and the importance of education most of the jokes get a failing grade. There's the odd laugh but this is a comedy in genre category only. Haddish is wasted in a role that doesn't give her the chance to fully strut herself, Hart pulls out his usual crowd-pleasing schtick to diminishing returns. The supporting cast supplies some giggles. Kudos to Romany Malco for ramping up the weird in his portrayal of the conspiratorial student Jaylen.
"Night School" is filled with funny people but the humour falls somewhere on a scale between "Welcome Back Kotter" and "Saved by the Bell."
Richard Crouse rates ‘Night School’: 1 ½ STARS
Read more of Richard Crouse's recent movie reviews:
- 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' is good, silly gothic-themed fun for kids
- 'A Simple Favor' is a maze of good and bad intentions
- 'The Nun' is all soulless hype
- 'Juliet, Naked' a rom com for adults'
- 'The Happytime Murders' least funny comedy this year
- 'Crazy Rich Asians' an escapist fantasy that entertains