At The Movies: Luca tells of a charmed Italian childhood; Hand Rolled Cigarette fails to ignite

On the surface, there are similarities to another Pixar work, Coco. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Luca (PG)

101 minutes, available on Disney+ from Friday (June 18), 4 stars

This sweetly nostalgic story born of a film-maker's childhood memories takes familiar Pixar elements - light humour, a setting that blends fantasy with a down-to-earth suburban reality, and the idea that leaving home is part of growing up - and turns it into a movie aimed at younger viewers. It should, however, still have plenty of appeal for older audiences.

Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a scaly, shape-changing creature living in the waters off the Italian fishing town of Portorosso. His over-protective parents, Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) and Daniela (Maya Rudolph), want him to stay away from the surface, inhabited by humans who speak of Luca's people as beasts fit only to be hunted.

Luca meets the bold Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a young sea creature like him, except Alberto scoffs at the tribe's taboos and ropes Luca into stepping foot on land, where they magically take on the form of human boys. As they embark on an adventure in Portorosso, discovery of their true nature could have lethal consequences.

On the surface, there are similarities to another Pixar work, Coco (2017). While the multi-generational family milieu, humming village life and a boy's quest found in Coco are also here, Luca feels like a less ambitious film. There is no pantheon of otherworldly creatures, eye-popping vistas or massive crowds.

And more significantly, the musical elements are reduced, though what is played as counterpoint to the action is infectious. Search YouTube for the soundtrack - the bouncy retro Italo pop is irresistible.

Also, there is a distinctly modern moral lesson here. Some people are too afraid to show the world their real sea-creature selves, says the story.

Director Enrico Casarosa, a Pixar animator who made his mark with the Oscar-nominated short La Luna (2011, also available on Disney+), suffuses every frame of his feature debut with an aching remembrance of a lost age - when a Vespa scooter signified unlimited freedom and children played soccer on cobblestone streets.

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Hand Rolled Cigarette (NC16)

101 minutes, opens Thursday (June 17), 2 stars

The attempts at building sympathy for both men are undermined by the film's extreme tonal shifts. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Chiu (Gordon Lam Ka Tung) and Mani (Bipin Karma) have never met, but Hong Kong's history has made both men outcasts.

Pre-handover, Chiu is led to believe that he, along with all his Hong Kong-born comrades in the British armed forces, will be given new lives in the United Kingdom after the territory is back in Chinese hands.

That promise is broken. Their abandonment by the British has left the former soldiers desperate for income, leading to poor choices and shattered hopes.

Mani is among those of South Asian ancestry with deep roots in the former colony, but who are still regarded as outsiders by the majority.

In the present day, Chiu is a drug smuggler while Mani earns money helping drug dealers. After a drug deal goes wrong, their paths cross and they have to decide if they are on the same side or enemies.

Director and co-writer Chan Kin Long's debut feature has a lofty goal: Craft a thrilling hard-boiled crime drama out of ingredients found in Hong Kong's political history. The effort earned this movie seven nominations at the 2020 Golden Horse Awards, including for Best Picture, Best New Director and Best Actor for Lam.

Credit must be given to Chan for sticking with the historical truth of his characters when the fists start flying.

Chiu is shown reckoning with his past as a colonial soldier - both in the present day when he meets former comrades and in flashback, when he was a member of border patrols grabbing mainlanders trying to cross illegally.

Mani's status as a maligned racial minority is given not much more than a token mention. Chiu is a surly anti-hero, but Mani exists mainly as a test of Chiu's moral compass.

The attempts at building sympathy for both men are undermined by the film's extreme tonal shifts. The villains - triad members out for vengeance and to recover lost loot - are over-the-top baddies fond of theatrical feats of violence that appear cut and pasted from a South Korean black comedy.

Six Minutes To Midnight (PG)

100 minutes, opens Thursday (June 17), not reviewed

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In this World War II espionage drama loosely based on real events, an array of British stars (Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench and James D'Arcy) play characters linked to an elite English school where daughters of high-ranking German officials are boarding.

When war clouds loom, British authorities plan to keep the girls under guard and surveillance, but things fail to go as planned after a teacher disappears.

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