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Bloor Cinema Release: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

May 29, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

I Am Big Bird PosterWho knew that the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch has such an interesting life?  But this is one of the biggest takeaways of the charming I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which premiered at Hot Docs in 2014, and is finally opening at the Bloor Cinema this weekend.  Tickets and showtimes are right here.

Through archival footage and revealing interviews, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story introduces us to a more personal side of the iconic puppeteer, from his abusive childhood to his emotional struggles throughout his legendary career on Sesame Street.

We also get moving insight into how fate kept him from boarding the doomed Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986, and a touching segment involving the classic special, Big Bird in China.  The story does lose focus for a few minutes in the last act with the needless mention of a murdered woman’s body being found on his property, a disturbingly abrupt tonal shift that just doesn’t work.

But directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker have still managed to craft a heartfelt film, that is refreshingly more mature than audiences might expect.  While offering a fascinating look at the history of the classic show and what goes into bringing these beloved Muppets to life, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a mostly inspiring and often unexpectedly emotional look at the man underneath two of the most iconic Sesame Street characters of all time.

Criterion Release: Limelight

May 26, 2015

By John Corrado

Limelight Blu-rayLast week, Charles Chaplin’s Limelight was released on Blu-ray, as part of the Criterion Collection.  Through one of his most personal and emotional screenplays, the 1952 classic shows the bond that forms between Calvero (Charles Chaplin), a fading clown who is struggling to remain relevant, and Thereza (Claire Bloom), a depressed young ballet dancer whom he rescues from suicide.

Largely boycotted in the United States upon its initial release because of the bad press surrounding Charlie Chaplin’s vocally left wing political views, Limelight has quite the storied history behind it.  The film was only theatrically released in Los Angeles twenty years later in 1972, going on to win a much deserved Oscar for Best Score.

The film itself remains an important and beautifully crafted work, that ranks as one of the former silent star’s finest films of the sound era.  There is a poetic quality to the narrative in the ways that Calvero and Thereza come together, with one falling down just as the other starts to get back on their feet, with destiny bringing them together to find meaning in their lives through each other.  There is also great symmetry to the fact that the film includes an extended cameo from Buster Keaton, the only time these two legendary performers appeared onscreen together.

Although there are some nicely staged musical and comedic sequences, this is a poignant human drama first and foremost, the work of a filmmaker coming to terms with his own mortality as a celebrity.  Both an inspiring reminder of the importance of living, and a moving reconciliation of the waning nature of fame, Limelight features some of Charles Chaplin’s most beautifully written passages, including moments of profoundly affective wisdom that still feel just as relevant.

The Blu-ray includes an outtake from the film, two extended featurettes on the production, and interviews with Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd.  There’s also an archival recording of Charlie Chaplin reading from his novella Footlights, which inspired the film, and his two shorts A Night in the Snow (1915) and The Professor (1919).  Also included is a forty page booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Von Bagh.

Limelight is 137 minutes and unrated.

Three Views: Tomorrowland

May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland Poster

Tomorrowland – A Walt Disney Studios Release

http://movies.disney.com/tomorrowland/

Release Date: May 22nd, 2015
Rated PG for violence
Running Time: 130 minutes

Brad Bird (director)

Damon Lindelof (screenplay)
Brad Bird (screenplay)

Michael Giacchino (music)

George Clooney as Frank Walker
Hugh Laurie as Nix
Britt Robertson as Casey Newton
Raffey Cassidy as Athena
Tim McGraw as Eddie Newton
Kathryn Hahn as Ursula
Keegan-Michael Key as Hugo
Thomas Robinson as Young Frank Walker
Pierce Gagnon as Nate Newton
Matthew MacCaull as Dave Clark

Tomorrowland

Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) in Tomorrowland.

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Tomorrowland Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

When you look at the filmography of Brad Bird, it’s easy to see why he’s considered one of the best directors currently working, having delivered three of the greatest animated films of all time with his wonderful debut The Iron Giant in 1999, followed by the two Pixar masterpieces The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  Even his switch to live action in 2011 with the surprisingly successful franchise reboot Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, felt like a seamless transition for him.

These are all reasons why expectations are so high for Tomorrowland, his latest project which has been shrouded in secrecy since the beginning.  As expected, there are a lot of interesting ideas behind the story, and some wonderfully imaginative sequences here, a celebration of dreamers that feels refreshingly optimistic.  And if the film itself can’t quite live up to the potential of what it’s trying to say, this is partially because Brad Bird’s track record is so strong, that his latest work was always going to be judged against these lofty comparisons.  But some of the parts here are so good, that even if they don’t quite add up to a completely cohesive whole, it’s still a solidly entertaining effort overall.

The story opens with a nicely done prologue that drums up intrigue while introducing us to grizzled inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) and young dreamer Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who are talking about a mysterious project involving the future, before the narrative jumps back to show us how the two came to be working together.  After being sent to jail for trying to disrupt the demolition of a NASA launching site where her father (Tim McGraw) works, Casey finds a mysterious pin amongst her stuff, that seemingly transports her to a futuristic world every time she touches it.  The pin brings her into contact with Frank Walker, the only person who understands what these visions actually represent.

The 1964 New York World’s Fair, where the charming early flashbacks take place, is a great jumping off point for any story, a point in time when people looked to the future with promise instead of despair.  I’ve always been fascinated by how the original Tomorrowland attraction offered a representation of Walt Disney’s own dreams for a brighter future possible through science, and there are some great conspiracy theories suggesting that his theme parks were attempts to build a perfect utopian society, with secret passageways and hidden spaces where some of the world’s greatest minds could converge.  Because of this, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that Tomorrowland doesn’t delve even deeper into these ideas, or the rich history behind the studio, with nary a mention of Walt Disney himself.

At times, the film even feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for these reasons, focusing too much on explaining some things, and not spending enough time exploring others, rarely going as deep as the story could have gone.  The first half plays almost like a mystery and asks a lot of questions, which is understandable for a film about the importance of wonder and imagination.  But the buildup can’t quite match the potential of the payoff, taking a little too long to get the titular place, and not spending nearly enough time there once we do.  The whole finale feels a touch rushed, and they could have easily spent more time developing the mysterious villain known only as Nix (Hugh Laurie), whose nicely written monologue near the end provides one of the best and most genuinely thought provoking moments.

Things do kick up a notch when George Clooney reappears almost exactly halfway through the 130 minutes, and his charming presence helps elevate the material.  The film is filled with inventive images and visual flair, and there are some very well done sequences here, showcasing Brad Bird’s ingenuity as a filmmaker, allowing him to let loose and fire on all cylinders.  This includes an exciting home invasion scene that finds inventive ways to dispense of humanoid robots, and an action set piece in a memorabilia shop that is filled with delightfully geeky references.  A sequence involving the Eiffel Tower is one of the best explorations of the film’s backstory, about a secret society known as Plus Ultra.

Sometimes it feels like this vision is being stretched between Brad Bird, screenwriter Damon Lindelof, and the studio, who all bring unique ideas to the table, but sometimes seem to be pulling the film in slightly different directions.  I think it would be fascinating to read an early draft of the screenplay, which was initially titled 1952, or see a director’s cut that restores the gorgeous animated sequences involving Nikola Tesla, which have already been released online.  At the very least, the conversation we are left with about the perfectly enjoyable family adventure that is, versus the high minded science fiction knockout that could have been, is a fascinating one to have.

Because even if all of these ideas aren’t fully explored in the actual narrative, there is still a lot of great mythology behind Tomorrowland, and the film does get extra points for having more on its mind than the majority of summer entertainment.  The screenplay introduces some pretty big ideas about how many of us have become so numb to images of catastrophe and environmental ruin, that we have given up on hope and instead just accepted our fate.  And in its best moments, the film offers an inspiring celebration of those optimistic enough to actually dream up ways to make tomorrow a better place.

So if the film itself can’t quite deliver on the promise of the early expectations, and doesn’t entirely live up to the genuine potential of this admittedly great premise, Tomorrowland is still an ambitious and worthwhile piece of work from a major filmmaker, with a lot of intriguing ideas behind it.  This is a fun and thoroughly enjoyable ride, with an optimistic message that pays loving tribute to Walt Disney’s original ideas and values, and deserves to find an audience because of that.

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Tomorrowland Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on an original story by Brad Bird, Tomorrowland tells of a secret world tied to Disney’s Tomorrowland ride and the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York.  We are first introduced to Frank Walker (George Clooney) as an adult, where he is in a mysterious room with screens showing news clips of destruction around the world.  We then flashback to Frank as a kid (played by Thomas Robinson), where he enters a rocket pack he has designed into an inventor’s competition.  It is here that he first meets Nix (Hugh Laurie), who dismisses Frank’s invention and tells him to come back when he has something more worthwhile.  The young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) takes a liking to Frank though, and gives him a special pin that lets him follow her, Nix, and the other selected inventors into the secret world of Tomorrowland.

We then cut back to almost present time, where we meet up with Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), daughter of a NASA engineer, and trying to prevent the demolition of one of the launch pads at Cape Canaveral.  A dreamer and optimist who is always shooting for the stars, she is determined to follow through on what she believes in.  Unfortunately, her sabotage of the construction site leads to her arrest.  When she is bailed out of prison, she finds a mysterious pin (like Frank was given as a child) with her personal effects, and discovers that when she touches it she is able to see the world of Tomorrowland.

This leads to her becoming obsessed with finding out how to actually get to this world and through internet searches she ends up on a path that leads her to Frank, now in exile and locked in a prison of his own creation.  With Casey’s ‘interference,’ the plans and situations connecting Frank to Tomorrowland that were set in motion around 50 years prior finally are forced to be confronted.  And her optimism just might change the course of the regular world as well.

Tomorrowland centres around an interesting concept, and one that takes a very careful execution.  This is certainly an ambitious film and in a era of sequels, it is nice to see an original concept on screens instead.  That being said, the film and script does suffer from some pacing problems and both feels overly explanatory at times while also not delving as deep into other elements of the story.  But even so, the film does pick up as it goes along and is a fun fantasy-action film for the summer months.  The cast play their roles well, and the design of the world of Tomorrowland is visually interesting.  Coming in at 2 hours, 10 minutes, it feels a little long, but for families with kids around 10+, this film is worth checking out.

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Tomorrowland Review By Tony Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Tomorrowland is the latest Disney feature that deals with his utopian vision without ever mentioning Disney by name. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is the teenage daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw) who is using her technical skills to sabotage the dismantling of the Florida space center. She is caught and taken to jail, and upon release discovers a T pin in her bag. As a boy, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) had brought his home made jet pack to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Though it did not win a prize from the judge named Nix (Hugh Laurie), the young girl with Nix called Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gave Frank a special T pin and invited him to follow them.  Both Casey and Frank found the T pin took them to another dimension and the futuristic city of Tomorrowland. After a brief visit, Casey is taken by Athena to meet a now middle aged and cynical Frank (George Clooney). In a world racing toward destruction on many fronts, Casey’s optimism must overcome Frank’s pessimism to save Tomorrowland.

Co-written with Damon Lindelof and directed by Brad Bird, Tomorrowland is a bit uneven but carries an important if simplistic message that young viewers should find inspiring. Though the scenes in Tomorrowland itself are unfortunately brief, the film moves along with a nice balance of script and action and the cast, special effects and symphonic Michael Giaccino score are all as good as one could expect from the Disney studio.

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Consensus: Even if Tomorrowland can’t quite live up to the great potential of its premise, this is a still a fun adventure film from director Brad Bird, that boasts plenty of intriguing ideas and has a refreshingly optimistic message about the future. ★★★ (out of 4)

Previewing the 2015 Inside Out Film Festival

May 20, 2015

By John Corrado

GrandmaThe 25th edition of the Inside Out Film Festival starts tonight, and will be going strong at TIFF Bell Lightbox until May 31st, celebrating LGBT cinema from around the world.

Audiences are in for a real treat tonight with the Canadian premiere of the Sundance hit Grandma, which isn’t even opening in theatres here until September 25th.  The film features Lily Tomlin in top form, and also happens to be writer-director Paul Weitz’s best work since About a Boy in 2002, making it a natural fit for the opening night slot that should get things off to a great start.

Along with Grandma, below are my thoughts on four more films playing over the next eleven days, including the closing night selection, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist, and three documentaries that all explore different LGBT issues, which should hopefully give you a small taste of what to expect.  More information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Grandma: Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) is an aging feminist and misanthropic poet, still grieving the death of her longtime partner, and struggling to reconcile with her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden).  But when she breaks up with her girlfriend (Judy Greer), Elle is launched headlong into one of the most eventful days of her life.  Shortly after, her estranged granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up, needing to borrow over six hundred dollars for an abortion already scheduled that afternoon, sending them both on a journey of old friends and past regrets, desperately trying to track down enough money to terminate the unwanted teen pregnancy.  For a progressive minded and refreshingly character driven dramedy, that offsets the laughs with some genuinely moving twinges of bittersweetness, Grandma is surprisingly balanced and often quietly remarkable in its approach to this tricky subject matter.  Julia Garner shines brightly as the young charge, more than holding her own onscreen, and the rest of the ensemble cast is equally solid.  Nat Wolff is amusing as the obligatory loser boyfriend, Laverne Cox leaves her mark as a sympathetic tattoo artist, and Sam Elliot brings fascinating depth to his few minutes of screen time as a surprising old flame, proving that sometimes all you need is a single scene to craft a memorable character.  But Lily Tomlin is the real star here, bringing biting humour and emotional nuance to the memorable title relation, delivering one of the best performances of her career.

Transfixed: Martine Stonehouse is a celebrated transgendered activist living on the autism spectrum in Toronto, who is struggling to complete her gender reassignment surgery before marrying her longtime partner John Gelman, a straight man who is also on the autism spectrum, and wants to have a partner with female genitalia.  Because of her weight problem, there are greater risks involved in the surgery, and in order for Martine to “get a vagina” as John so bluntly puts it, they are left battling the Canadian healthcare system and facing financial troubles that could prevent them from having the wedding of their dreams.  Both unflinchingly honest and often disarmingly entertaining, the title of Transfixed perfectly describes how I felt watching the film, which blasts down stereotypes in all the best ways.  Martine Stonehouse makes for an inspiring and truly remarkable subject, and director Alon Kol has crafted an intimate and incredibly engaging portrait of her life, built around a moving and completely charming romance that’s as unconventional as it is universally relatable.

The Amina Profile: 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.

A Sinner in Mecca: An openly gay man living in New York, Parvez Sharma has always struggled to balance his devout Muslim beliefs, with the fact that his religion doesn’t accept homosexuality.  Turning the camera on himself, the filmmaker goes to complete his pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where being gay is considered a crime punishable by death, sneaking along his iPhone to capture the ancient rituals, despite all filming being strictly forbidden.  Because Parvez Sharma isn’t overly critical of religion in general, A Sinner in Mecca feels slightly less challenging than it perhaps should have been, but the fact that he captured this journey at all is pretty remarkable.  There are many revelations here, like how the holy city has fallen victim to consumerism with a shopping mall right next door, and is literally drowning in trash dropped on the ground by the millions of visitors.  The images of people being shoved around and left without water for hours at a time, and the barbaric slaughtering of goats that end the pilgrimage, are disturbing and speak for themselves.  This is a thought provoking and bravely assembled film, that offers an engaging look at one man’s personal journey to find acceptance both within himself and his culture, raising some important questions about the thin line between religion and control.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist: After dumping her longtime girlfriend (Carolyn Taylor), seasoned breakup artist Elsie Neufeld (Diane Flacks) makes a bet to stay single for five months, to prove that she can handle being out of a relationship for once in her life.  But as she tries to pursue a younger local DJ (Vanessa Dunn), she can’t seems to shake the nagging feeling that she just broke up with the love of her life.  There are some clever fourth wall breaking moments here, and a few adept observations about life in a city like Toronto, but for all of these progressive tricks, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist can’t help going down a predictable path.  The film also has some trouble nailing down a consistent tone between scenes, like during a needless subplot about the selling out of the trendy TV station where Elsie works, and a random cat funeral near the end.  But this is still an okay modern romantic comedy that can be pleasant to watch, featuring some nicely written scenes and plenty of uniquely Toronto moments.

Bill Plympton’s Cheatin’ screens tonight only at the Royal Cinema in Toronto

May 20, 2015

By John Corrado

Cheatin' PosterThe latest from acclaimed animator Bill Plympton, levelFILM is hosting a special one night only screening of Cheatin’ tonight at the Royal Cinema in Toronto.  The film starts at 9:30 PM, and more information can be found right here.

Free of dialogue, Cheatin’ recounts the whirlwind romance between Ella and Jake, two animated creations who meet at a bumper car track, and how their relationship changes when one finds out that the other is cheating on them.

I enjoyed this one.  The story is simple but captivating, proving that animation can be just as valid and mature as any other filmmaking technique.  And if the film runs a little long at 76 minutes, the visuals of Cheatin’ are always engaging to watch.

The detailed and highly stylized images are impressive throughout, even more so because they are completely drawn by hand, with captivating sequences that range from delightfully cartoony to emotionally expressive, often taking turns into imaginative fantasy.  Nominated for three Annie Awards, including Best Animated Feature, animation enthusiasts are going to want to check this one out, and tonight’s the perfect opportunity for Toronto audiences to do just that.

Blu-ray Release: Leviathan

May 19, 2015

By John Corrado

Leviathan Blu-rayToday, Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the acclaimed Russian drama Leviathan on Blu-ray.  The film takes place in a small coastal town, where Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) are fighting to save their property from the corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov), but the arrival of his lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) leads to a whole new set of troubles for the family.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and winning at the Golden Globes, Leviathan is a lengthy but thoroughly engaging and intelligently written social drama.  With a tremendous amount of rich symbolism, and superb cinematography, the narrative is almost like a tryptych, brilliantly building upon itself throughout every act of this surprising and emotional story.

The Blu-ray includes audio commentary with director Andrey Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky, deleted scenes, a making of featurette, and a Q&A from TIFF.

Leviathan is 140 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Release: Strange Magic

May 19, 2015

By John Corrado

Strange Magic DVDToday, Touchstone Pictures is releasing Strange Magic on DVD.  The animated musical follows fairy sisters Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), who get involved with the jilted Bog King (Alan Cumming), when lovestruck elf Sunny (Elijah Kelley) unleashes a love potion.

Dumped into theatres back in January, I wasn’t really a fan of Strange Magic, and honestly expected more from director Gary Rystrom and executive producer George Lucas.  There isn’t much here to engage anyone above a certain age, and the film does grow tedious, but younger kids might still get something out of it on DVD.  My full review is right here.

The DVD also includes two featurettes.

Strange Magic is 99 minutes and rated PG.

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

May 17, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Fury Road PosterGeorge Miller is seventy years old, but Mad Max: Fury Road feels like the work of a director half that age.  The Australian filmmaker has raised the bar so high with this exhilarating continuation of his now legendary original trilogy, that that he’s created a whole new level for summer blockbusters and action movies in general, that won’t likely be topped anytime soon.  It’s absolutely epic.

This story takes place in a stark desert wasteland, where people have become broken in the wake of environmental ruin.  Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a mysterious drifter of few words and intense survival instincts, who becomes an unlikely ally to rebel warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is being chased across the sand.  She is leading a group of five enslaved women to safety in the back of an oil rig, hoping to reach her homeland, and escape their deranged leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).

George Miller has always been a visually adventurous filmmaker, even in his more family friendly Babe and Happy Feet films, but when he’s working on a canvas this big, the results are pretty much unprecedented.  And on a purely technical level, Mad Max: Fury Road is an absolute triumph, a blast of great filmmaking from a veteran director determined to prove what he’s still capable of, while also just having fun.  Every sequence here is like a work of art in its own right, leaving us genuinely excited to see where the film will take us next, building upon itself in thrilling and often ingenious ways.

As the characters fight atop and jump between the elaborately created vehicles moving at incredible speeds, with the camera smoothly capturing every stunt for maximum impact, we become completely immersed in this world through a beautifully captured mix of mostly practical effects and mesmerizing cinematography.  There are images here unlike anything that’s ever been captured on screen before, managing to be both wildly imaginative and grounded in a palpable sort of gritty realism, with the constant car chases and vehicular mayhem becoming almost visually poetic.  An arresting sequence in the midst of a sandstorm immediately springs to mind, like an epic painting come roaring to life.

The mix of orchestral and electric music by Junkie XL provides a fitting accompaniment to the action, exemplified by an awesome truck adorned with blaring speakers and a mysterious figure playing licks on a flaming double necked guitar, that leads the enemies into battle.  The film is filled with these sort of insane and often downright brilliant little touches, and many of the images take on an almost dreamlike quality, haunting futuristic visions that drift by and linger in the mind.  It’s this mix of terrifying and playful, fantastical and eerily believable, that makes this such a spectacular experience.

But there are also plenty of deeper ideas beneath the hood that further elevate Mad Max: Fury Road above the level of most summer blockbusters, with the film introducing rich symbolism through its allegories of post-apocalyptic future.  It’s also got a surprising feminist kick that feels refreshing and is absolutely welcome in this sort of movie.  The women of this world have essentially been objectified into literal breeding machines for the dominant men, with their milk being harvested and sold, and Imperator Furiousa the closest thing they have to a saviour leading them into freedom.  “We are not things” is their often repeated mantra, and it’s a bold statement that resonates throughout.

The story fascinatingly explores real world themes of how dictatorial governments essentially own their citizens through controlling the oil and water supplies, using rebel fighters as literal blood bags to fuel their own soldiers.  The oppressed army of white painted War Boys are representative of child soldiers and slave labourers, deluded into blindly following their cult-like leader through the promise of reaching a better life after death.  “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on fury road,” tortured young soldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult) hollers as he attempts to plunge himself into martyrdom through a suicide mission desperately trying to belong, becoming a tragically conflicted presence who gains our sympathy.

The male and female characters are treated as equals, able to stand just as strongly together or apart, and the reasons behind both of their journeys are treated with the same importance.  Max is just trying to survive, Imperator Furiosa seeks a better life that may or may not still exist.  Tom Hardy brings a sort of quiet ferocity to the iconic title character, not needing many words to leave an impact, seamlessly fitting into and even expanding upon this role originally played by Mel Gibson.  Charlize Theron is ferociously good, undergoing an impressive physical transformation to deliver a quietly intense action performance, with pain and hurt simmering just beneath the surface.  This is some of her best work.

The film stops just long enough for a few quiet and unshakeably poignant character moments that bring deeper meaning to their actions, perhaps most notably during a blue-tinted nighttime sequence.  But this is a chase movie first and foremost, and the absence of expository dialogue or over explanation is actually quite affective.  The fact that many details of this world are kept intriguingly vague in some ways makes the story even more resonant and haunting, leaving plenty of room for interpretation and conversation.

Equal parts brilliantly orchestrated action movie opera, and deliriously realized post-apocalyptic fever dream, Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic and visionary thrill ride, that runs like hell on blood and gasoline to race across the finish line.  See this one on the biggest screen possible.

Review: Ben’s At Home

May 15, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Ben's At Home PosterMaybe it’s just that I have a soft spot for movies about film critics, or can admittedly somewhat relate to the title character, but I really enjoyed Ben’s At Home, a micro budget picture that offers big rewards.  After winning the award for Best Feature at the Canadian Film Fest, it’s opening at the Carlton Cinema this weekend.

After a bad break up, thirty year old Ben (Dan Abramovici) makes the decision to not leave the house again, spending his days reviewing movies and hanging out with various internet dates and anyone willing to come over.  But a cute grocery delivery girl (Jessica Embro) might just force him to rethink his plans, and pull him out of the house once and for all.

Director Mars Horodyski does a pretty remarkable job of keeping things interesting, helped along greatly by Dan Abramovici, who co-wrote the excellent screenplay with her and makes for an effortlessly charming lead.  Together they have crafted a film that is chalk full of delightful moments, and should make an easy transition to the web series that is already set to premiere later this year.

Making the most of the perfectly timed 70 minute running time, which manages to be compelling despite being pretty much confined to a single location, Ben’s At Home is a winning and incredibly likeable indie comedy, that succeeds thanks to a sharp script and naturalistic performances.  This is solid proof that you can make something completely entertaining, even with the simplest of resources.

Review: Good Kill

May 15, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Good Kill PosterWhat exactly constitutes a “good kill?”  And is there even such a thing as one, or are these two fundamentally different words just put together to try and justify war and conflict?  With drone warfare becoming an increasingly more common tactic in the arsenal of tools used by the American military, these are some of the most pressing moral and political questions of our time.

And these are the exact same questions posed in the appropriately titled Good Kill, a thought provoking modern war film, where the most thrilling sequences take place behind controllers and video monitors, in a trailer-sized bunker in the middle of the Nevada desert.  After premiering at TIFF, the film finally opens today, and it’s got a rock solid performance from Ethan Hawke, to boot.

Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is an Air Force officer who now works as a drone pilot, locked in a bunker all day under the command of Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), 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 and take their toll on his personal life.

The film becomes a sobering character study, as he comes to question his actions in a war seemingly without end, where killings are carried out from behind screens that dull the affects of the actual violence, and innocent lives are inevitably affected by the remote controlled explosions.  Director Andrew Niccol, who explored similar themes in Lord of War, stages some suspenseful and exciting sequences in the control room, forcing the characters to confront the shaky morals of their actions, as his screenplay draws strong comparisons between video games and real life violence.

The most engaging subplot involves a poor woman whom they witness being raped every day in her garden, with her attacker unaware that he is being filmed by the always monitoring eyes in the sky.  They are physically unable to rescue her and stop the abuse, and they aren’t allowed to use their overriding power to stop him, because he’s not the designated target.  They are forced to just helplessly watch, unwillingly becoming witnesses to an assault that they can’t do a damn thing about, and it’s in setting up these impossible to solve moral mind games that Good Kill is at its strongest.

The domestic scenes unfortunately aren’t quite as gripping, with the subplot involving his increasingly estranged wife sometimes veering into melodrama, especially at the end.  Thankfully, Ethan Hawke sells the role every step of the way, turning in a compelling and nuanced performance that brings fascinating complexity and genuine emotional depth to his character.  His performance, and the morally ambiguous questions posed even just in the title, are what make Good Kill especially worth seeing.

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