Published On: Thu, Jul 13th, 2017

Reel Brief: Mini reviews of Past Life, The Little Hours and Mermaid doc

Past Life

Starring Joy Rieger, Nelly Tagar. Written and directed by Avi Nesher. Opens Friday at Canada Square. 109 minutes. 14A

Venerable Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher’s latest film provides an interesting take on the consequences of war, specifically the Second World War.

And while so many films have examined the war and the Holocaust that took such an egregious toll on the Jewish community, Past Life looks at it from a novel perspective, examining the possible “crimes” committed by a survivor.

The story is set in 1977 when young Sephi Milch is performing as part of a choir at a concert in Berlin. An elderly woman, recognizing her last name, approaches her afterward and when she learns she’s the daughter of Dr. Baruch (Bunio) Milch, calls him a murderer.

While the encounter unsettles Sephi, it becomes an obsession back in Jerusalem for her older sister, Nana, a magazine writer with strong personal and political convictions.

When Nana is struck by cancer, the quest for the truth becomes even more personal: she believes her father’s past sins have a link to her dire illness.

Nesher, who wrote the screenplay, demonstrates his skill as a masterful storyteller. As the story unfolds, both sisters with varying degrees of urgency seek out the truth.

Their father (Doron Tavory) was a strict and occasionally cruel taskmaster. Did the war turn him, like so many others, into a monster?

The action jumps between Jerusalem, Poland and Germany as the mystery is revealed in bits and pieces.

Nesher gets the period detail spot on, right down to the wardrobe, and there’s a scene set in an underground Warsaw nightclub that demonstrates just how funky life was even under a repressive communist regime.

The performances are also exceptional, starting with Joy Rieger as Sephi, a gentle, soulful would-be composer, and Nelly Tagar providing a nice counterpoint as Nana, her livelier, combative sister.

Rafael Stachowiak is watchable as Thomas Zielinski, a Polish-German composer who plays a critical role in the story.

The story, both intricate and compelling, provides a sombre and satisfying conclusion.

Bruce DeMara

The Little Hours

Starring Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza. Written and directed by Jeff Baena. 90 minutes. Opens Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 14A

Medieval purists: prepare to cringe.

The Little Hours, allegedly based on part of a well-known Middle Ages book of tales called The Decameron, may be set in 1347, but it’s got a modern sensibility right down to the contemporary language, including f-bombs galore.

It’s a simple tale: servant Massetto, fleeing a vengeful master, meets a drunken Father Tommasso, who offers him work to replace a recently departed lackey in a religious community with some seriously naughty nuns.

Oh yes, and Massetto is supposed to be a deaf mute, ostensibly to curtail unwanted interplay.

About the only thing writer/director Jeff Baena gets right from the source material is the bawdiness.

There’s certainly plenty of comic talent on board, including SNL alum Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, eye-rolling Aubrey Plaza of the late Parks and Recreation and castmate Nick Offerman.

But the comic sparks fail to ignite as hapless Massetto (Dave Franco) falls in and out of one honey trap after another.

The classics aren’t what they used to be.

B.D.

Mermaids

Documentary directed by Ali Weinstein. 80 minutes. Opens Friday at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. PG

When you think about mermaids your thoughts likely don’t immediately swim over to a New York couple by the name of Cookie and Ralph.

But perhaps they should. Devoted to each other for 30 years, the Harlem pair have embraced mermaid culture — Cookie wears the tails, Ralph sews them — in a way that has helped Cookie escape her abusive past and glide toward a happier future.

Canadian director Ali Weinstein’s first feature documentary — back for a longer run after its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs festival — takes a deep dive into this deep-sea world, including a fascinating look at the women who performed as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park half a century ago.

In her small Florida town, says 76-year-old Vicki, “You either went off to college, got married . . . or you became a Weeki Wachee mermaid.”

Weinstein finds poignancy in the tales of the tails and Catherine Lutes’ stunning underwater photography just might send you out searching for a fish tail of your own.

Kathryn Laskaris

The Lost City of Z (DVD)

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Angus Macfadyen and Tom Holland. Written and directed by James Gray. Out now on DVD. 142 minutes. 14A

James Gray takes the road less travelled, literally and figuratively, for his enveloping jungle Grail quest.

It’s as much an adventure of the mind as of the eye, although cinematographer Darius Khondji outdoes himself.

Writer/director Gray values character, mood and message over rote action. Most filmmakers would exploit the Indiana Jones aspects of David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction source book, which detailed the decades-long search by ex-British Army stalwart Percy Fawcett — brilliantly played by Charlie Hunnam — for a golden ancient civilization he believed lay hidden in Amazonian rainforest.

Indy-isms are there, right from Fawcett’s initial foray in 1906, when he unflinchingly accepts a perilous Royal Geographical Society mission to map the Rio Verde bordering Bolivia and Brazil.

Fawcett shows no fear as his men — including good friend Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) — take on threatening locals (poison darts, cannibalism), toothsome wildlife (piranha, panthers, snakes) and treacherous interlopers (Angus Macfadyen). Extras include “Locating the Lost City” featurette.

Peter Howell

Kong: Skull Island

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman and Toby Kebbell. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Out July 18 on DVD. 118 minutes. 14A

This is a real Kong show, the one demanded by popcorn peddlers and munchers alike. There’s minimal boring dialogue and plenty of blows-up-good action, especially the critter-on-critter kind.

The giant ape slurps down a giant squid/octopus like sushi and gives knuckle sandwiches to weird “skull crawlers” that look like particularly scary Tim Burton creations. Kong is still the snarling softie he’s always been: a misunderstood lug who’s a sucker for a woman’s smile.

The dumb and puny humans who attack him in Kong: Skull Island are led by an American warmonger (Samuel L. Jackson), who declares the Vietnam War wasn’t lost by the U.S. but rather, “we abandoned it.”

Resist the marketing tosh that the pro-environment backbeat of this flick is a new idea. The don’t-mess-with-nature subtext has always been part of this saga.

Sticking to tradition seems the right call, because would you want a really bloodthirsty Kong? He’d mop up the humans in minutes and you’d be left with just an extended trailer.

Extras include a director’s commentary, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

PH

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Reel Brief: Mini reviews of Past Life, The Little Hours and Mermaid doc