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Review: Mistress America

August 28, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Mistress America PosterWhen it comes to pointing out the foibles of this generation, and poking holes in the carefully manicured personas that people build for themselves, there are few more vital voices in filmmaking right now than that of writer-director Noah Baumbach, the modern master of heartfelt social satire.

Having already delivered one of the best films of the year in While We’re Young, the invaluable filmmaker has returned with Mistress America, a delightful dramedy that has been co-scripted by Greta Gerwig, his partner and cinematic muse who also brings the title character to sparkling life.

This is one of the director and star’s sharpest, funniest and wittiest efforts yet, perfectly expanding upon the beautifully captured young adult malaise of their last collaboration, Frances Ha.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an aspiring writer who has just entered college in New York, where she is struggling to find acceptance on campus, amidst rejection by an elitist group of “cool kid” intellectuals, who carry briefcases and initiate new members into their pretentious literary society by pieing them in their sleep.  Even her budding friendship with likably nerdy classmate Tony (Matthew Shear), is threatened when he seemingly replaces her with his possessive girlfriend (Jasmine Sephas Jones).

Feeling lonely and depressed, Tracy starts hanging out with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig), a well connected Manhattan socialite who brings Tracy into her world and all of the madcap problems it encompasses.  The two of them spend a whirlwind night together around town, a liberating experience for Tracy, who is looking to be inspired for her next short story, and finds more material than she could have ever bargained for in the whirlwind form of Brooke.

Filled with ideas and things she wants to do, Brooke is someone so conditioned to believe they can do anything, that she somewhat delusionally tries to do everything.  She lives in a commercially zoned building, and is trying to secure investments for the new restaurant that she dreams of opening.  She earns money tutoring and teaching exercise classes, and might still write a novel one day, or perhaps a superhero TV series.  She knows how to cook, has a well travelled boyfriend, and frequently hangs out with a local band.  This all comes in exciting contrast to Tracy’s mundane dormitory existence.

Brooke is a manifestation of the self-absorbed mindset shared by many millennials, always prepared with a clever quip or harsh criticism, and a master of finding ways to make things about herself.  We’re never entirely sure how the intentions of others really fit into her obsessively curated world, yet we are still seduced by her apparent confidence in the exact same way that Tracy is at first.  Tracy is at that age where she is torn between figuring out who she wants to be and trying to be like everyone else, and there is something intoxicating and even dangerous about the way Brooke storms through life.

Great Gerwig is perfect here as both comic foil and dramatic anchor, crafting a memorable and eminently watchable character who is at once guilty of being both narcissistic and hopelessly idealistic.  But what turns her performance into an almost miraculous balancing act, are the flashes when we are allowed to feel genuine sympathy towards Brooke.  Behind her often self-aggrandizing exterior, there is something heartbreaking about the way she falls in love with things that are just out of reach, making her an almost tragic byproduct of a generation built on blind encouragement and the need to matter.  These themes of loneliness and desire lead to an underlying sense of poignancy behind the laughs.

When Brooke comes to heavily inspire the main character in one of Tracy’s short stories, a brilliant plot device that allows for a highly literary style of voiceover and gives Mistress America its title, the film starts to explore deeper concepts about who owns ideas.  Especially relevant in an age when pretty much every moment is documented for social media, and quotes that aren’t our own are often freely shared on Twitter, the film asks if we can copyright the things we say to each other, and if shared experiences can ever be fairly used in our own fiction.

Noah Baumbach is a brilliant observer to the fine lines between young adult and regular adult, an expert decoder of the subtle differences that can make both friends and enemies of people who are in different age groups or social circles.  Every scene of Mistress America is like a spectacular display of verbal fireworks, with the dialogue and ingenuity of its wordplay simply exploding off the screen, at once intellectual and instantly relatable.  The look of the film is classically spare, often recalling the intimate shooting style of Woody Allen, with the soft lighting of the frames allowing the writing and uniformly excellent performances to remain on centre stage.

The film reaches its stunning crescendo at the affluent suburban home of Brooke’s ex-boyfriend (Michael Chernus), who is now married to her old enemy Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), just one of many grudge points between them.  This extended sequence is almost farcical, and brilliantly pulled off by all involved, shifting seamlessly between quirky comedy and emotional reconciliation.  The single setting allows the delightfully heightened theatrics to unfold like a great stage play, with the intentions of several different characters ingeniously intersecting, as new faces keep getting caught up in the action.

Noah Baumbach has crafted no less than the great modern screwball comedy, an absolutely delightful and frequently surprising film that understands the value of a perfectly timed pratfall or visual gag to make us laugh, without undercutting any of its emotional centre.  This is a smart and endlessly clever affair for those who love words, and by the time we reach the deeply poignant voiceover of the almost unexpectedly bittersweet final scene, I was unabashedly in love with Mistress America.

Criterion Release: Two Days, One Night

August 25, 2015

By John Corrado

Two Days, One Night Blu-rayThis week, Two Days, One Night is being released on Blu-ray, through Criterion.  Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a working class mother in Belgium, suffering from severe depression.  When she is unfairly fired from her job, with her coworkers voting in favour of getting a hefty bonus for themselves instead of keeping her on the payroll, Sandra spends the weekend tracking down her fellow employees, trying to convince them to rescind their votes.

The latest from master filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night takes this deceptively simple premise and turns it into an emotional and utterly compelling human drama.  Filled with rich subtext, this is a deeply moving film about the small moral dilemmas that people face every day, and the unfairness of how financial problems can literally balloon out of control.

Having received a much deserved Oscar nomination for her fiercely powerful role earlier this year, Marion Cotillard is simply masterful here, never striking a wrong note in bringing this character to the screen, earning both our sympathy and utmost respect.  Although a relatively recent film, Two Days, One Night absolutely deserves its placement among the pantheon of greats in the Criterion Collection, a modern classic that already feels timeless.  My full review of the film can be found right here.

The Blu-ray has an extended interview with the Dardenne Brothers, an interview with Marion Cotillard and her co-star Fabrizio Rongione, and a featurette on the locations used in the film.  Also included is the Dardenne Brother’s 1979 documentary When Leon M.’s Boat Went Down the Meuse for the First Time, and another interview with the filmmakers about their earlier non-fiction work.  There’s also a video essay by critic Kent Jones, and a written essay by critic Girish Shambu in the package.

Two Days, One Night is 92 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Release: Big Game

August 25, 2015

By John Corrado

Big Game Blu-rayAfter premiering during Midnight Madness at TIFF last year, Elevation Pictures is releasing Big Game on Blu-ray today.  Sent out to prove himself as a man on his thirteenth birthday, young hunter Oskari (Onni Tomilla) stumbles upon President William Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) in the middle of the wilderness in Finland, after Air Force One is taken down by terrorists.

Director Jalmari Helander does a fine job of staging this all in the form of a loving throwback to summer afternoon entertainment from a few decades ago.  With the feel of something that Amblin Entertainment could have produced back in the 1980s, Big Game is a ridiculously entertaining coming of age thriller, that deserves a wider audience of both young teens and adults.  My full review is right here.

The Blu-ray includes both theatrical and unrated versions of the film.

Big Game is 98 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Release: Good Kill

August 25, 2015

By John Corrado

Good Kill Blu-rayAfter playing at TIFF last year, Remstar Films is releasing Good Kill on Blu-ray today.  Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a drone pilot, locked in a bunker firing unmanned missiles at selected targets in Afghanistan, before going home to his wife (January Jones) and kids.  But he can only manage living this privileged suburban life for so long, before the trauma and guilt of his work catch up with him.

Ethan Hawke sells this role every step of the way, turning in compelling and nuanced work that brings fascinating complexity and genuine emotional depth to this conflicted character.  His performance, and the morally ambiguous questions posed even just in the title, are what make this thought provoking modern war film worth seeing.  My full review can be found right here.

The Blu-ray includes no bonus features.

Good Kill is 112 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Release: Aloha

August 25, 2015

By John Corrado

Aloha DVDAfter just being released in theatres earlier this summer, Sony Pictures is releasing Aloha on DVD today.  Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is a military contractor who returns to Hawaii to oversee the private launch of a satellite for Carson Welch (Bill Murray).  The scenic trip allows him to reconnect with his ex (Rachel McAdams) and her new husband (John Krasinski), while falling for Allison Ng (Emma Stone), the Air Force watchdog assigned to him.

Aside from the star-studded cast, and a typically well curated soundtrack, pretty much everything about Aloha feels oddly amateurish, from the awkward tonal shifts and pacing problems, to the overly bright cinematography.  It’s hard to believe this is the work of writer-director Cameron Crowe, the same filmmaker who previously gave us beloved classics like Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.

The screenplay has few flashes of his original wit, at once guilty of being both predictable and overly convoluted, ultimately devolving into apparent self parody.  Even the great cast can’t really elevate the material.  Bradley Cooper looks great, but can do a lot better, Rachel McAdams isn’t really given anything interesting to do, and John Krasinski is stuck doing this weird mute routine.  I like Emma Stone, but here she is saddled with playing an overeager stereotype, and considering that her character is supposed to be part Native Hawaiian and part Chinese, she seems like a misjudged and even racist casting choice.

Even the great Bill Murray is wasted here, in perhaps the only uninteresting role of his career.  Becoming depressing in its extreme mediocrity, and even offensive to the Hawaiian culture it tries to celebrate by focusing more on the often petty problems of its white stars instead of the island natives, Aloha is a huge missed opportunity for all involved.  I really wanted to enjoy this romantic dramedy, and still hold out hope that Cameron Crowe will some day return to making great films, but this sadly isn’t one of them.

The DVD includes a cast gag reel, and The Untitled Hawaii Project: The Making of Aloha, a feature length documentary about the production.

Aloha is 105 minutes and rated PG.

Bloor Cinema Release: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

August 21, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Man in the Machine Poster“What were his values as a citizen,” director Alex Gibney asks in voiceover of his widely celebrated title subject in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.  “Was he interested in power to change the world, or the right to have power without responsibility?”

This compelling debate about the late Apple icon is at the centre of the documentary.  Through interviews with former colleagues and archival footage, the film aims to dissect the almost mythic reverence that people had for the man who helped revolutionize the electronics world, and the grief they felt in the wake of his death, and expose his dark underbelly as a business man.

Required viewing for both Apple fanatics and the uninitiated, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine opens today at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Like in his other recent documentary, the shocking and revealing Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Alex Gibney sets his sights on exposing the carefully covered up dark side of an organization that is shrouded in secrecy and has attracted an almost cult-like following.  The film explores the history of Apple, and the David and Goliath narrative that propelled the company to stardom in the age of IBM’s dominance in the personal computing world, an underdog facade that Steve Jobs retained, long after becoming that exact type of corporate giant that he claimed to be against.

First and foremost, this is a gripping portrait of the many contradictions that made up Steve Jobs, a man who considered himself deeply philosophical, but also often lacked basic empathy, both in his personal relationships and business practises.  We are shown evidence of his inwardly pointing moral compass, which allowed him to commit transgressions ranging from driving alone in carpool lanes and parking in handicapped spots, to financial fraud benefitting only himself and overlooking the environmental impact and horrible working conditions of the Chinese manufacturers actually creating his products.

The film aims to dig deeper into all of the bad blood behind the company, including the fact that many of the original circuit boards were actually invented by his friend Steve Wozniak, with the more charismatic Steve Jobs merely acting as marketer and figurehead at the startup company, despite willfully accepting most of the financial benefits and public recognition.  It’s also fascinating to hear insights from the monk who convinced him not to join the monastery, doubtful of whether the enlightenment he claimed to reach through technology ever truly came.

The film sets out to take a man who many still consider to be visionary, and undeniably helped bring the world an important legacy of work, and suggest that he may have actually been sociopathically seeking personal gain, manipulating his supporters into seeing him as a sort of false deity.  No matter how your view of the man himself does or doesn’t change after seeing Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, the evidence that Alex Gibney presents to try and convince of us these facts is incredibly compelling.

The final moments suggest that these computers and iPhones, which were supposedly created to bring us closer together, have actually brought us farther apart.  And in purpose of full journalistic discretion, I streamed the film off my well-used MacBook Air and wrote this review on an Apple computer, so I guess these products, and the legacy of Steve Jobs, really do control our lives, whether we like it or not.

Bloor Cinema Release: The Amina Profile

August 21, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Amina Profile PosterAfter picking up the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary at Hot Docs earlier this year, the real life mystery The Amina Profile opens at the Bloor Cinema today, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

When Montrealer Sandra Bagaria started an online relationship with Amina Arraf, the author of the popular blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, charting the dangers of being openly gay amidst political turmoil in Syria, she unwittingly became involved in a media sensation after news came out that Amina had been kidnapped.

Director Sophie Deraspe recounts the full story through interviews and reenactments in this intriguing documentary, revealing all the pieces of the ensuing investigation that quickly proved everything was not as it seemed.

Without giving too much away, The Amina Profile is an interesting look at the real life ramifications behind internet lies, that often unfolds like a mystery and engagingly explores how fiction can overshadow and change our perception of actual events.

Review: American Ultra

August 21, 2015

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

American Ultra PosterJason Bourne on drugs was probably the original log line that screenwriter Max Landis sent to the studio for American Ultra, and what little plot this late summer action comedy does have is pretty basic and also kind of stupid.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a well meaning but constantly anxious rural convenience store clerk, who lives a mundane and frequently stoned life with his girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), waiting for the perfect moment to propose.

But when he suddenly discovers his ability to kill armed attackers with only found objects and his bare hands, Mike and Phoebe end up on the run from the government, discovering the truth that he’s actually a highly trained agent who had his memory wiped and went rogue, and is now in threat of being eliminated.

This relatively simplistic plot is pretty much all about waiting for the next hit from a bong or a bullet, and that’s fine if all you’re looking for is a mindless stoner action comedy.  But American Ultra ultimately can’t live up to its lofty but inevitable comparisons to The Pineapple Express, and Jesse Eisenberg’s own superior work in the equally gory but much funnier and more original Zombieland.  The film does have a few enjoyable moments here and there, mainly courtesy of some likeable chemistry between the two capable leads, but they were also better together in the superior Adventureland.

With the presence of these actors, we are sometimes left wishing American Ultra was actually trying harder to rise about its modest B-movie ambitions, and the almost cartoonishly over the top bloodshed sometimes crosses the line from feeling jokey, to just plain dull and ugly.  Director Nima Nourizadeh’s previous film, the found footage party flick Project X, was equally built around flashy editing and pretty brainless plotting, but was also a small margin more enjoyable for these reasons.

There is inevitably an audience that will take to this cult classic wannabe, and American Ultra isn’t a complete failure at what it sets out to do.  It’s also digestibly brief at only 94 minutes.  But this subgroup of curious viewers can probably save their money until the film is available on demand and viewable from the comfort of their own couches, with whatever enhancements deemed necessary.

Blu-ray Release: Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection

August 18, 2015

By John Corrado

Disney Short Films Collection Blu-rayToday, the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection is being released on Blu-ray.  The excellent set features a selection of twelve short films that the studio has produced over the past fifteen years, all boasting unique visual styles and worth seeing for their own reasons.

First up is John Henry (2000), a gospel-infused folk tale, with beautifully stylized animation and some great quilt-like visuals.  The Oscar-nominated Lorenzo (2004) offers a captivating tango between a pampered cat and his cursed tail, that looks like a series of illustrations come to life.  Also Oscar-nominated, The Little Matchgirl (2006) is a gorgeous and beautifully rendered retelling of the classic story, that is both haunting and heartbreaking to watch.

Playing like a classic Goofy short, but with a technologically advanced twist, How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre (2007) is an amusing old fashioned cartoon.  Tick Tock Tale (2010) is a simplistic but nicely animated story of anthropomorphized clocks fending for themselves in an old shop.  Prep & Landing – Operation: Secret Santa (2010) provides a great little standalone mission for the adorable elves.  The Ballad of Nessie (2011) is an incredibly cute storybook-style fairy tale, told in captivating rhyme and boasting a good environmental message.

The fast paced and nicely done Tangled Ever After (2012) offers the sort of madcap invention that can only be found in animation, and provides a great Royal Wedding-inspired companion piece to the feature film.  The Oscar-nominated Get a Horse! (2013) offers a gleefully manic and decidedly modern adventure for Mickey Mouse.  There are also a couple of highly deserving Oscar winners in the form of excellent standouts Paperman (2012) and Feast (2014), a pair of mini masterpieces that tell charming wordless stories, gorgeously rendered in lush and eye catching style.

Finally, there’s the recent spinoff short Frozen Fever (2015), a cute and enjoyable little musical, that makes the most of its simple story with a catchy tune and enough delightful character moments to tide us fans over until the sequel.  Although at least half of these titles have already been released on other discs, this feature length collection comes highly recommended for both animation enthusiasts and Disney fans, a nicely put together set that is simply a joy to watch from beginning to end.

The Blu-ray also includes brief introductions from the filmmakers on all the shorts, and a fun but all too brief look at the history of these shorts, hosted by T.J. Miller.

Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection is 79 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Release: Lambert and Stamp

August 18, 2015

By John Corrado

Lambert and Stamp Blu-rayToday, Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the recent rock documentary Lambert and Stamp on Blu-ray.  The film tells the story of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, a pair of aspiring filmmakers who wanted to direct a movie about a rock band and ended up mentoring and managing The Who in the process, helping craft the rebellious British group into the legendary musical act they would ultimately become.

Although running long at nearly two hours, Lambert and Stamp is filled with a wealth of archival footage, and some engaging stories about The Who.  Told through intimate interviews with the remaining members, director James D. Cooper has assembled a worthwhile doc that affectively paints a portrait of the era, revealing the fascinating and sometimes dramatic story of these clever managers who were key to helping build the band’s success.

The Blu-ray includes commentary with James D. Cooper, a Q&A with the director and Henry Rollins, as well as rarely seen archival footage of The Who at the height of their fame.

Lambert and Stamp is 117 minutes and rated 14A.

 

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