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DVD Review: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Tenth Season

October 16, 2019

By John Corrado

The Nickelodeon animated series SpongeBob SquarePants has been on the air since 1999, and it’s still going strong after twenty years. While the show is currently in its twelfth season on TV, the complete tenth season of the series has just been released on DVD this week.

Spread over two discs, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Tenth Season features eleven full-length episodes, (22 if you count the segments individually), all of which originally aired between 2016 and 2017.

The first disc has the seven episodes Whirly Brains/Mermaid Pants; Unreal Estate/Code Yellow; Mimic Madness/House Worming; Snooze You Lose/Krusty Katering; SpongeBob’s Place/Plankton Gets the Boot; Life Insurance/Burst Your Bubble; and Plankton Retires/Trident Trouble. On the second disc are the four episodes The Incredible Shrinking Sponge/Sportz?; The Getaway/Lost and Found; Patrick’s Coupon/Out of the Picture; and Feral Friends/Don’t Wake Patrick.

I grew up watching the first few seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants on TV, so it’s fun to catch up with these characters again now. While you can’t beat those vintage episodes, there are still a lot of wacky and amusing moments in the show’s tenth season, including brief guest appearances from Ed Asner (Whirly Brains) and J.K. Simmons (Snooze You Lose), and it’s easy to binge-watch your way through these discs if you are so inclined.

It’s also somewhat bittersweet now to see creator Stephen Hillenburg’s name in the credits, who is listed as executive producer on all of the episodes, as he sadly passed away last year after being diagnosed with ALS. But I’m happy to say that his legacy still lives on, and this is a solid set for fans of the show, offering a selection of entertaining and easily digestible episodes for both old and new SpongeBob fanatics.

The DVD set includes no additional bonus features.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Tenth Season is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 250 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

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DVD Review: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

October 16, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen died within three months of each other in 2016. The two never got married or had children together, but they shared a deep bond, with her directly inspiring at least two of Cohen’s classic songs (“So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire”).

Ihlen, a young mother from Norway, became the Montreal singer-songwriter’s muse when the two first met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, where there was a thriving community of writers and other artists. Cohen was a poet, struggling novelist and avid drug user at the time, having yet to start his celebrated musical career, and Ihlen was raising the son she shared with Norwegian author Axel Jensen, when they started their love affair.

As Cohen rose to prominence as a performer, and had many other affairs, he would spend less and less time in Hydra. At first he would split his time evenly between there and Montreal, living six months out of a year in each place, before spending almost no time on the island. Ihlen would also go on to have another, more stable relationship, beginning to view Cohen as a figure from her past who remained just out of reach, but the two kept connecting over the years until their deaths a few months apart.

The over fifty year friendship and romantic entanglement between Ihlen and Cohen is documented in director Nick Broomfield’s often lovely documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Broomfield was a contemporary of theirs who also met Marianne in Hydra in the 1960s, becoming a longtime friend to her, and his personal connection to the story is felt throughout the film. Through an abundance of archival footage, and new interviews with others who were in their circles, what emerges is a bittersweet portrait of both the free-loving 1960s and the meteoric rise of an artist as one of the figures who inspired him faded into the background of his life but continued to influence his work.

As others have pointed out, Leonard Cohen is more the focus here than Marianne Ihlen, which perhaps could be seen as a statement on how an artist’s “muse,” despite being an integral part of their mythos as Ihlen was to Cohen’s, is often seen through the lens of the work they inspired rather than on their own terms. In its last act, the film provides an overview of Cohen’s late career financial troubles following the several years that he spent at a monastery in the 1990s, leading to him going back on tour for a series of triumphant concerts in the last few years of his life. He gave Ihlen a front row seat at one of his shows, and the footage of her singing along is one of the most touching moments in the film.

Is this a love story? I’m not so sure, as the relationship at the centre of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is much more complex than that, with one figure often overshadowing the other, both in this film and in real life. What the film ultimately becomes is a moving look at how artists remain elusive figures in relationships, present but often just out of reach in terms of truly giving themselves over to another person. It’s ultimately a story that is as poignant and twinged with sadness as one of Cohen’s songs.

The DVD includes no bonus features, but the package does come with a digital copy of the film.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 102 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Crawl

October 15, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

When a massive, Category 5 hurricane hits off the coast of Florida, Hayley (Kaya Scodelario) goes to check in on her father (Barry Pepper), and ends up trapped in the crawl space under his house with a massive alligator that has made its way down through a drainage pipe.

With the storm raging outside, and floodwaters rapidly rising, Hayley and her injured father do everything they can to survive and avoid being ripped apart by gators. This is the basic premise of Crawl, a simple but fairly well executed survival thriller directed by Alexandre Aja and produced by Sam Raimi that delivers exactly what you expect from this setup, nothing more and nothing less.

The plot itself is simplistic, and the character development that we do get feels pretty basic, never really going beyond rudimentary elements in terms of sketching out its main players. Haley is a professional swimmer, and the film opens with a brief introduction to her at a swim meet, intercut with flashbacks to her as a kid (Tina Pribicevic), when her father used to coach her and was her biggest champion. The two have now grown somewhat estranged, and are forced to reconnect over the course of the film due to the extreme circumstances that they find themselves in.

The entire point of Crawl is to put these characters in impossible situations so we can watch as they try to escape, and on these modest terms, the film’s stripped down approach largely works. As a series of suspenseful and well staged set-pieces, Crawl provides decent entertainment, offering plenty of moments of both tension and gore. It won’t exactly stick with you afterwards, but it works in the moment as a lean, mean creature feature that wastes no time and offers a taut thrill ride.

The Blu-ray also includes an alternate opening that is presented in the form of an animated motion comic, which is preceded by a short intro from the director. This is followed by a trio of deleted and extended scenes (I Guess I’m Off the Team, You Were Never Going to Evacuate, and Don’t Quit on Me), a nearly half-hour “behind the scenes” featurette entitled Beneath Crawl, an in-depth look at the visual effects in the featurette Category 5 Gators: The VFX of Crawl, and a piece called Alligator Attacks which offers a highlight reel of the film’s carnage.

Crawl is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 87 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Midsommar

October 15, 2019

By John Corrado

The sophomore feature from Ari Aster, following up last year’s breakout hit Hereditary, Midsommar is an entirely unique folk horror movie set in broad daylight that offers further proof that the young director is a force to be reckoned with in terms of genre filmmaking. It’s now available on Blu-ray as of last week.

I was a fan of the film when I saw it in theatres, describing it as “a pagan cult breakup horror movie like no other,” and it’s carried by great performances from Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor. In addition, the film features great cinematography courtesy of Pawel Pogorzelski. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes the featurette Let the Festivities Begin: Manifesting Midsommar, which features interviews with Aster as well as different members of the cast and crew, offering a broad overview of the film’s characters, production design, cinematography, costumes, and the themes of co-dependency in Aster’s screenplay. One of the most interesting asides is that the film was actually shot in Budapest, standing in for Sweden. This is followed by the short promo video Bear in a Cage, which was released online this summer to advertise the sale of a novelty item on A24’s online shop. A digital copy of the film is also included in the package.

It’s worth noting that this release only includes the theatrical cut of Midsommar, and the director’s cut of the film, which was released in theatres later on in the summer, is not included on this release, which suggests that another edition will likely be coming somewhere down the line. While I do wish this disc had included the director’s cut as well, so some fans might want to hold out on a purchase, the film itself is still worth it on its own merits.

Midsommar is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 147 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: October 8th, 2019

Review: Gemini Man

October 14, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The one thing you can’t accuse the esteemed, Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee of is repeating himself or making the same movie twice. All it takes is a precursory glance at his incredibly diverse filmography to know that he hasn’t repeated himself.

This is, after all, a filmmaker who followed up his Oscar-winning martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the 2003 comic book movie Hulk, and then switched gears again to deliver the tender and moving romantic drama Brokeback Mountain two years later, for which he won his first Oscar for Best Director.

The second trophy came for his acclaimed 2012 adaptation of Yann Mattel’s supposedly unfilmable novel Life of Pi, which started his fascination with using 3D and cutting edge visual effects to enhance his storytelling. Lee’s use of groundbreaking visual effects continues with his latest film, Gemini Man.

The film is being presented in 3D and was shot in 4K at 120 frames per second. It’s being screened this way in a select few theatres that are equipped to handle it, and this isn’t Lee’s first time shooting at a higher frame rate, either. The director also utilized the format for his previous film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was actually somewhat underrated in my opinion. The difference is that film was a drama, where as Gemini Man is a straight up action movie and, well, to say that it doesn’t feel like the work of a two time Oscar-winning director would be an understatement. Because aside from the visuals, which I’ll talk about more later on, it’s just not very good.

The main character is Henry Brogan (Will Smith), an assassin nearing retirement. The film opens with him taking out a hit on someone who is on a moving train, laying low in a faraway field with his sniper rifle locked in place, and firing a bullet at the exact second that the train window passes him by. This also happens to be one of the best scenes in the movie. When Brogan is told that the hit was carried out with false intel, his government handlers decide that they want him dead, and bring in a ruthless new soldier from the mysterious Gemini project, headed by Clay Verris (Clive Owen), to take him out.

Brogan goes on the run with undercover agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was hired to surveil him at his waterfront hideout, and his former partner Baron (Benedict Wong). But it’s not long before Brogan realizes that the man pursuing him is actually a much younger clone of himself, who is nicknamed Junior and was created in a lab from his DNA over twenty years ago. Junior is played by a digital version of Smith, and the fact that this character is an entirely computer-generated creation, like the tiger in Life of Pi, is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Gemini Man.

Junior is a sort of super soldier who knows Brogan’s every move, and the film offers plenty of moments for the older and younger versions of Will Smith to fight each other, which is what the movie is being sold on. Through advanced digital trickery, Smith is able to appear both de-aged by several decades and act in scenes alongside himself, and the actor does deserve credit for crafting two distinct characters, bringing different shades to both Henry and Junior. There are a few uncanny valley moments, but for the most part the visual effects are persuasive.

I saw the film at a special screening that presented it at 60 frames per second, which is half of what Lee intended, but still noticeably different than the standard 24 frames per second of most movies. For those who are able to see it this way, the higher frame rate gives it a super smooth and hyperrealistic look, with an incredible amount of detail and definition in every frame, so much so that it can be jarring at first. It’s almost too much at times, and ironically makes things appear sort of fake. The visuals are enhanced by some good if at times gimmicky uses of 3D. Lee stages some eye-popping action sequences that are fun to watch, including a motorcycle chase set on the cobblestone streets of Cartagena, Colombia that looks great in 3D, and provides the centrepiece of the film.

This sequence alone will no doubt be used as an example of how to utilize 3D and higher frame rate technologies going forward, and the possibilities that they hold to create an immersive experience. The trouble is that digital trickery is the only real selling point of Gemini Man, and everything else seems to have taken a backseat. The screenplay by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, working from an outline that has been shopped around Hollywood for two decades waiting for the technology to catch up to its vision, is mediocre at best. It’s riddled with cliches, many elements of the plot feel underdeveloped, and the dialogue is often cheesy.

The film ultimately feels like a mediocre 1990s action movie dressed up in modern, technologically advanced clothing. Still, at its best, Gemini Man functions as a pretty cool highlight reel of what is possible to achieve through technology, that finds Lee playing around with new filmmaking tools. It’s no Life of Pi, and I sort of wish that the filmmaker would deliver another film with the human touch of his character dramas like Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm. But if you are going to see Gemini Man, you should see it in 3D HFR on a giant screen to at least get the full experience that Lee intended.

Gemini Man is now playing in theatres across Canada.

Review: Dolemite Is My Name

October 11, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Rudy Ray Moore was a self-described entrepreneur and fledgling musician who worked in a record shop in the 1970s, when he decided to branch out into doing comedy records.

Creating a flamboyant alter-ego named Dolemite, a foul-mouthed pimp who speaks in verse, Moore ended up becoming a massively successful comedian, paving the way for the production of his first film, a Blaxploitation movie called Dolemite, which was released in 1975 and became a sleeper hit.

Moore’s story is told in Dolemite Is My Name, a biopic done right that stars a perfectly cast Eddie Murphy, and mainly focuses on the ramshackle production of the film Dolemite, which was made on a shoestring budget, delivering a mix of over the top action, humour and lots of sex, catered specifically to black audiences.

Moore hires pretentious playwright Jerry Jones (Keegen-Michael Key) to help craft the screenplay, conceded background actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) to act as the director, and a white college kid named Nick (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) to serve as cinematographer, shooting the film in an abandoned, rundown motel that they get for cheap. A starring role in the film is given to Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a headstrong single mother that he meets after one of his shows, who becomes an integral part of his musical act.

Directed by Craig Brewer, working from a screenplay by Ed Wood writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, Dolemite Is My Name is a hilarious and wildly entertaining movie that features a bravura performance from Murphy, delivering one hell of a comeback. I grew up watching (and hearing) him in films like Trading Places, The Nutty Professor and Shrek, so I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see him back in the spotlight delivering a powerhouse performance like this.

First off, Murphy is hilarious in Dolemite Is My Name, reminding us how great a comic talent he is, with an energy that is almost unmatched. Dolemite’s rhythmic delivery in his standup routines is credited with helping pave the way for rap music, and Murphy does a brilliant job of copying the cadence of his delivery. But he also succeeds at bringing a level of pathos to this role, reminding us how nuanced he can be as a performer. This is the actor’s best work since his Oscar-nominated dramatic role in Dreamgirls back in 2006, and one of the finest performances of his career.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, including breakout work from Da’Vine Joy Randolph. The film also boasts solid work by cinematographer Eric Steelberg, who does a good job of capturing the look and feel of the ’70s, and appealing costumes designed by the great Ruth E. Carter, who is fresh off winning an Oscar for Black Panther. Moreover, Dolemite Is My Name functions as an inspiring ode to never giving up on your dreams and creating opportunities for yourself when others don’t give you a chance.

In addition to the apt Ed Wood comparisons, the film also has clear shades of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s equally hilarious biopic of The Room filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, and anyone who appreciates stories about gonzo, outsider artists are sure to find enjoyment in Dolemite Is My Name. It’s a blast to watch, and when I saw the film at TIFF, the whole audience laughed and clapped throughout.

Dolemite Is My Name is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here. It will be available to watch on Netflix as of October 25th.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: Lucy in the Sky

October 11, 2019

By John Corrado

★ (out of 4)

There are some movies that simply don’t work, and others that are such creative misfires that they almost become fascinating case studies in what not to do. The keyword is “almost.” The bafflingly bad space drama Lucy in the Sky is one such example, a film that swings for the fences in terms of bold creative choices, but misses pretty much every time.

The film serves as the feature directorial debut of Noah Hawley, who is best known for his work on the shows Fargo and Legion, and it’s a complete creative misfire that doesn’t work on almost any level. Watching it feels like being trapped in space.

The film follows astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) who, after returning from two weeks in space, struggles to readjust to her life back on earth, and starts cheating on her earnest but sort of bland husband Drew (Dan Stevens) with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). Determined to get back into space, Lucy starts obsessively training, but her fraying mental state, and her suspicion that Mark is also sleeping with another astronaut (Zazie Beetz), causes her to quickly unravel.

The film is loosely inspired by the true story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove non-stop from Houston, Texas to Orlando, Florida in 2007 to confront a co-worker over an affair. Nowak became infamous for the fact that she wore an adult diaper to cut down on the need for stops along the way, a detail that this film omits, but including it honestly could have only improved the final product. The film disappoints on a psychological level, with it being far too thinly written and underdeveloped to work as a character study, and what we are left with is a listless and at times pretentiously overstylized domestic drama that completely squanders the potential of its intriguing premise.

I’m all for changing aspect ratios, but they also need to have a point, and this film overdoes it, switching between full screen and different widescreen formats in the middle of scenes for no discernible rhyme or reason. Like J.J. Abrams’s infamous lens flares, it’s a stylistic choice that looks cool in moderation, but grows tiring when used to this degree. I would recommend seeing the recent film Waves, or the Xaiver Dolan films Tom at the Farm and Mommy, for a lesson in how changing aspect ratios can be used well and in service of the actual story.

The film’s title is, of course, taken from the classic Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” A moody, drawn out cover of the song, arranged by composer Jeff Russo and sung by singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, plays over a trippy sequence in the middle that features Portman’s character seemingly floating through a variety of sets, which seems to be an approximation of what a Spike Lee double-dolly shot might look like if the filmmaker were on acid.

This is an overlong, unfocused, melodramatic mess, with an uncharacteristically campy and over the top lead performance from Portman, who chews increasing amounts of the scenery as the character of Lucy grows more unhinged. By the time she is donning a cheap blonde wig for the film’s finale, Portman’s performance approaches levels of camp that would make Nicholas Cage proud. It was by far one of the worst and most disappointing film that I saw at TIFF this year, so feel free to save your money.

Lucy in the Sky is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: Annabelle Comes Home

October 8, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest entry into the Conjuring franchise, and the third spinoff film focusing on the doll Annabelle who serves as the through line of the series, Annabelle Comes Home is a solid and entertaining sequel that does a good job of expanding upon the mythology of this cinematic universe.

The film opens with paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) acquiring the Annabelle doll, which has a history of being used as a conduit for evil spirits, and bringing her back to the artifact room in their basement, where she is put in a locked cabinet for safekeeping.

The focus then shifts to Ed and Lorraine’s adolescent daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), who is being bullied at school because word has gotten out about what her parents do, and she is starting to experience her mother’s visions. Judy’s parents are going away for the night, leaving her in the care of teenaged babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). When Mary Ellen’s friend, Daniela Rios (Katie Sarife), who is fascinated by the Warrens and interested in the supernatural, comes over to the house, it’s not long before she sneaks down to the artifact room. Annabelle is inevitably taken out of her glass case, and a variety of malevolent spirits begin to wreak havoc upon the girls.

The film serves as the directorial debut of screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who is no stranger to the horror genre or this series, having also written the screenplays for the first two films Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation, as well as fellow Conjuring spinoff The Nun and both It films. What works about Annabelle Comes Home is that Dauberman takes time to develop these characters, allowing us to hang out with and get to know Judy, Mary Ellen and Daniela before it turns into a full-on horror show. This approach allows the tension to build organically throughout the film, and actually somewhat harkens back to John Carpenter’s original Halloween, right down to the plot involving babysitters.

The Warrens’ artifact room provides one of the main focal points, and serves as an impressive feat of production design. There are throwbacks to other films in the series and presumably some teasers for things to come, as we are introduced to several creepy new antagonists which are designed to terrorize our main characters and could provide the basis for future spinoff films. These include The Ferryman (Alexander Ward), a Grim Reaper-like spirit in a long, dark cloak who has coins over his eyes and is inspired by Charon, a figure from Greek mythology who collects coins in exchange for guiding souls across the river Styx; as well as the Bloody Bride (Natalia Safran), who dons a haunted wedding dress that turns the wearer into a homicidal maniac.

There’s even a werewolf, which provides a nice throwback to one of the Warren’s most famous real life cases, which has yet to be adapted to film but will hopefully provide the basis for an upcoming entry into the series. While Annabelle Comes Home is not overly scary, and I’m actually surprised that it even got an R rating to match the other films in the series as it feels more like a hard PG-13, this is a thoroughly enjoyable entry into the franchise that delivers exactly what you want it to. The film offers a few jumps matched by a nicely established sense of atmosphere, and it’s overall well paced, solidly crafted, and carried by likeable performances from its young cast.

The Blu-ray also includes a decent selection of bonus features, starting with a trio of behind the scenes featurettes (The Ferryman/Demon, The Bloody Bride, and The Werewolf) which reveal how these evil characters were brought to the screen through a mix of makeup and practical effects. These are followed by two featurettes entitled The Artifact Room and the Occult and The Light and the Love, as well as a selection of seven deleted scenes (Roller Skate, Kitchen, Birthday Cake, Daniela and the Bride, Search for Annabelle, Alternative Ending, and Talk About the Werewolf).

Annabelle Comes Home is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 106 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 8th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Toy Story 4

October 8, 2019

By John Corrado

It was always a risk for Pixar to make a fourth Toy Story movie. The original trilogy, which concluded at the start of this decade with Toy Story 3 in 2010, is undoubtedly one of the greatest film trilogies of all time, leading to questions of where the story could possibly go from there.

Now we have Toy Story 4 to answer that question, and the geniuses at Pixar have done an incredible job of continuing the journey of these beloved characters, while introducing new ones and building upon the emotional depth of the series. Not only is Toy Story 4 delightful and a joy to watch, it’s also powerfully moving, satisfying on a deep thematic level. For my full thoughts on the film itself, you can read my original review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a variety of bonus features spread over two discs. The first disc has a commentary track featuring director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen, as well as the two featurettes Bo Rebooted, which focuses on how the character Bo Peep (Annie Potts) has evolved over the course of the series, and Toy Stories, which features different cast and crew members reflecting upon their favourite toys as children and, in the case of many Pixar employees, the toys that they still keep with them now. We are told that toys and collectibles are a big part of the culture at Pixar, and I had to keep pausing it to look at all of the things on display in the different offices.

The second disc starts off with a selection of featurettes. Let’s Ride With Ally Maki is a jokey but informative piece that features Maki, who voices tiny “Pet Patrol Officer” Giggle McDimples, taking us through the multiple different stages of the recording process; Woody & Buzz offers a nice overview of the journey that the two characters have been taken on over the course of the three films; and Anatomy of a Scene: Playground offers a fascinating and in-depth look at the amount of detail in the playground sequence. This is followed by the short pieces Carnival Run and View From the Roof, which are under a tab labelled Toy Views, and show run-throughs of two of the film’s sets from different vantage points.

Next up is a section called Toy Box, which is made up of the five segments Gabby Gabby & Her Gang, Forky, Duke Caboom, Ducky & Bunny, and Giggle McDimples, offering brief explorations of all these new characters and the actors who voice them. This is followed by seven deleted scenes (Introduction, Scamming Playtime, Bo Knows Hippos, Desperate Toys, Knock-Offs, Recruit Duke, and She’s the One), which are presented in rough storyboard form and feature introductions by Cooley explaining why these moments were cut from the finished film. The last scene (She’s the One) serves as an alternate ending, which is interesting to see but not quite as focused or impactful as what made it into the film.

Finally, the disc includes a selection of five trailers and promos for the film (Carnival Prizes, Booth – Global Teaser in Spanish, Playtime – Global Trailer in English, Freedom – Global Trailer in Russian, and Pixar Pedigree – Exclusive for China). This is altogether a fine supplemental package to back up what is not only so far the year’s best animated movie, but also one of the absolute best movies of the year in general.

Toy Story 4 is a Walt Disney Home Entertainment release. It’s 100 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: October 8th, 2019

Review: Human Nature

October 4, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The possibilities of human genome editing through the discovery of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a specific family of DNA sequences, are explored in director Adam Bolt’s documentary Human Nature, which looks at the possibilities of a future where diseases or even certain traits could be cut out of our genetic code by literally altering our DNA.

Through interviews with a variety of scientists and researchers who are looking at using the protein Cas9, an enzyme that can alter DNA sequences, to perform gene editing therapies, as well as some of the individuals who would be most impacted by these discoveries, the film looks at this issue from multiple perspectives and angles.

The most well known of the academic subjects is probably the geneticist George Church, who has gotten media attention for wanting to clone and bring back wooly mammoths. On the personal side of things, we are introduced to David Sanchez, a boy with sickle cell anemia who has learned to live with the blood disorder, but could potentially be cured in the future through gene editing; as well as parents Ethan and Ruthie Weiss, who have a daughter with albinism and impaired vision who they have come to accept and love, but fear they would have chosen to abort her if they had found out about her disorder in utero.

The ethics of using genetically altered pigs to grow human organs and tissue for transplants is also brought up, as well as the particular risks of germline editing, that is to alter someone’s genetic code so that any changes will be passed down to their biological children as well. While there are some positive implications for all of this research, including the potential to cure cancer and other deadly diseases, the technology is also quite scary when it comes to the possibility of creating “designer babies” with parents being able to choose what traits they want for their kids while editing out anything that they consider abnormal, in a way that is eerily similar to eugenics.

Physicist and researcher Stephen Hsu is interviewed in the film, and he talks in a really chilling way about the economic potential of increasing productivity by raising the collective IQ through eliminating things like Down syndrome, either through gene editing or early testing so parents can abort. Bolt makes the very interesting cinematic choice to play part of an old Nazi propaganda film about eugenics during his interview, and the similarities are striking. Hsu of course denies this charge, but it’s hard not to see the comparisons between what he is saying and Adolf Hitler’s goal of creating a “master race.”

It’s this important moral debate about the ethics of removing things seen as “defects” from our DNA sequences that ultimately provides the most engaging and challenging part of Human Nature. The film offers a lot of science, but it’s done in a very engaging way, providing a fascinating and also somewhat terrifying glimpse into what the future could hold in terms of gene editing.

Human Nature is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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