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Review: The Lost City of Z

April 21, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Based on the fascinating true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), The Lost City of Z compellingly centres its narrative around the three expeditions that the British army colonel turned explorer took into the Amazon between 1906 and 1925.

Although the expeditions were initially being funded for colonialist purposes involving the rubber trade, Percy Fawcett brought back valuable evidence of a lost civilization in the region known as Amazonia, that was way more advanced than anyone deemed possible at the time.

This discovery was initially met with reluctance and ridicule from the scientific communities, who viewed indigenous populations as “savages” and seem terrified of having their beliefs proven wrong, prompting him to become increasingly determined to complete his research into finding the remnants of this lost city, despite increasing dangers posed by the trips.

Directed by indie auteur James Gray, working on an impressively larger scale than ever before, The Lost City of Z does an excellent job of recreating its world of a century ago, with a style that also calls to mind the great American films of the 1960s and ’70s, with some echoes of classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now.  Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography further draws us in, giving the film the feeling of an epic, even in more intimate character moments.

Charlie Hunnam impressively carries the film with one of his best performances, embracing the role of a man increasingly consumed by the idea of finding this lost city, even at the expense of everything else in his life.  Sienna Miller does fine work as the wife who wants to join him on the expeditions, but is told that a woman wouldn’t be able to handle it, and is left to raise the kids at home.

Tom Holland is also excellent, entering the picture partway through as their teenage son who initially resents the fact that his father is always away but comes to share his thirst for adventure, delivering several standout scenes.  The cast is rounded out by Robert Pattinson, who delivers a solid and nicely understated supporting role as a fellow explorer.

This is a piece of classical filmmaking, steeped in the grandeur of exploring uncharted territories, but also grounded in its exploration of the characters and what their discoveries mean for the world as a whole.  This is an absorbing, beautifully filmed and sometimes haunting piece of work that will surely stand the test of time, and one that I already look forward to revisiting.

Review: Free Fire

April 21, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Playing like an extended and impressively choreographed shootout that unfolds pretty much in real time, Free Fire could be accused of delivering style over substance, but it’s hard to really care when the style is this polished and well presented.

Taking place in 1978, the film follows Justine (Brie Larson), who is organizing a weapons sale between the IRA’s Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and gun dealers Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vernon (Sharlto Copley).

They are selling a shipment of automatic rifles in an abandoned Boston warehouse, but when physical fights start to break out between the men, things quickly escalate into an increasingly bloody and relentless shootout.

Although Free Fire doesn’t have a ton in terms of plot, aside from some question of where allegiances lie, this is a well executed action thriller that gets the job done with style to spare.  Directed by Ben Wheatley, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the film is carried by a screenplay chock full of quippy one-liners, and has a fun ’70s vibe conveyed through the bad hair and pale coloured suits.  The whole thing moves fast at ninety minutes, with nary a dull moment.

It’s all delivered by a game ensemble cast, including standout work from Brie Larson, a great supporting role for an almost unrecognizable Jack Reynor, and memorable turns from Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley.  Altogether, Free Fire is a lean and entertaining action thriller, that delivers ample suspense, some thrilling set-pieces and a pretty killer soundtrack.  It’s grisly fun, and the unexpected but oddly fitting use of John Denver is inspired.

Three Views: Born in China

April 21, 2017

Born in China Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest Earth Day release from Disneynature, after taking a break last year, Born in China is another beautifully filmed and often lovely entry into the studio’s growing roster of modern day True Life Adventures.

This time around, we are given a rare glimpse into the wilds and mountainous regions of China, and the many animals that inhabit them.  The film follows a mother snow leopard trying to protect and provide for her two young cubs, an adolescent golden monkey who is jealous of the affection his parents are paying to his new little sister and falls in with a group of “lost boys,” and finally a panda mother affectionately caring for her baby.

Director Chuan Lu and his camera crew get up close and personal with the wildlife, capturing some wonderful images of the animals and their natural landscapes, and Born in China is just as visually pleasing as we have come to expect from Disneynature.  The animal characters are of course given names, this time guided along by John Krasinski’s gentle narration, and the story works in the usual themes of parents providing for their young, and the circle of life between both predator and prey and life and death.  This allows the film to touch on traditional Chinese beliefs about reincarnation, and that cranes transport souls after death.  The idea that pandas are a living embodiment of the yin and yang philosophy, represented by their black and white fur, is also brought up in the narration.

The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous franchise entry Monkey Kingdom, which was released two years ago and remains a particular high point for the series.  But Born in China is a lovely film to look at, that is sweet and cute enough for young audiences, while also offering enough gorgeous visuals to be worthy of being seen on the big screen for adults as well.  The images of an adorable baby panda tumbling over itself while trying to climb a tree, are worth the price of admission alone.

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Born in China Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Following Disneynature’s series of Earth Day films, they are now releasing Born in China, a docu-style nature film that follows several animal families in rural China – snow leopards, golden snub-nosed monkeys, chirus, and of course, pandas.  As we watch each of these families over the course of one year, we see the struggles and joys of growing up wild.  While still showing nature taking its toll at times, this is a pretty tame introduction to wildlife that youngsters can enjoy.

Overall, the narration is geared fairly young, but John Krasinski makes it work.  It’s also impossible to deny that the imagery is beautiful, which is really what makes the film worth checking out on the big screen.  There is the added bonus that a portion of ticket sales on opening weekend will go to World Wildlife Fund to protect wildlife in China, like the families we see in the film.

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Born in China Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Born in China is the latest Disneynature feature released for Earth Day 2017. Though we often see China as teeming with people, they are concentrated in cities lit up in the film’s opening nighttime satellite image. China has vast and beautiful areas of various wilderness. In the barren western mountains, a mother snow leopard struggles to survive with her two cubs on a diet of mountain sheep and sometimes yaks led out to graze, while fending off a rival leopard family. In the Sichuan region we meet a troop of golden monkeys and a mother panda with her cub, both living relatively peaceful lives with the only threat coming from a goshawk waiting to snatch away any unattended babies. Some other species are featured less personally. A flock of cranes flying in slow motion and honking like geese is an iconic linking device. The life cycle of a herd of antelope and the wolves that prey on them are also shown.

Like the other films in this series, Born in China is visually stunning, aimed at families with names given to characters in the three main groups and clever editing coupled with breezy narration from John Krasinski that emphasize the relationships between them in a slightly anthromorphic way while reasonably demonstrating their natural behaviour–a Disney trademark that goes back to the days of the founder’s True Life Adventures. Also as in the other films, we are treated in the closing credits to come of the challenges faced by the largely Chinese crews led by veteran nature cameramen directed by Chuan Lu. Finally, a decent package of elementary educational support materials is available free online.

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Consensus: The latest release from Disneynature, Born in China is another beautifully filmed offering from the studio, matching its many lovely images of animals and nature with gentle narration by John Krasinski. ★★★ (out of 4)

DVD Review: Toni Erdmann

April 18, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is a workaholic, who doesn’t really have much time to spend with her practical joking father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) in Germany.  So Winfried travels to Bucharest, where his daughter is working with a consulting firm that is looking at downsizing the amount of workers in the oil field, and assumes the role of an over the top life coach who goes by the name of Toni Erdmann, in an attempt to reconnect and spend more time with her.

Receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and picking up a plethora of other accolades since it premiered at Cannes last year, Toni Erdmann is easily one of the most praised international releases in recent memory and, even though it has admittedly been a tad overhyped, for the most part the film earns this recognition.

The running time does feel a bit bloated, with some scenes seeming like they could have been pruned back, and the look of the film itself is pretty flat, due to largely pedestrian camerawork that can make it feel a little stagey.  But it’s in the little character moments, including a showstopping Whitney Houston cover and a gleefully awkward naked party, that Toni Erdmann really succeeds.

Director Maren Ade nimbly allows the film to walk an almost nonexistent line between humour and pathos in its shaggy exploration of the touchy and unique relationship between this eccentric father and his more buttoned up daughter, while also subtextually addressing social issues about how women are treated in the workplace, and the ways that corporate culture can rob people of their humanity.

Anchored by a nicely textured performance by Peter Simonischek, who excels at showing the heartache and humanity behind his character’s many goofy actions, Toni Erdmann is an often enjoyable film that offers a lot of small delights along the way, before reaching a heartfelt conclusion.  It’s already set for an English-language remake starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig, which I actually do have solid hopes for, but I would highly recommend checking out the original first.

The DVD also includes a commentary track with the two leads Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller joined by producer Janine Jackowski, as well as footage of the Q&A from the AFI Fest.

Toni Erdmann is a Sony Pictures Classics release.  It’s 162 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Their Finest

April 14, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

It’s fitting that Their Finest, a movie about a British film crew in 1940 trying to craft a hit that will raise the spirits of audiences during World War II, should be released now as we inch ever closer into another era of historic uncertainty.

The film actually premiered at TIFF last year, where it somewhat surprisingly failed to make much of a splash, yet audiences are embracing it now in limited release, perhaps because the need for this sort of affirmative escapism has risen even more in the last seven months.  I like to think that it’s also because people are catching onto the fact that the film itself is quite good, offering a nicely handled mix of optimism and emotion.

The film follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a Welsh writer who is hired by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to help craft a propaganda film that serves not only to boost the morale of British audiences experiencing the war firsthand, but also to help convince American forces to join the fight.  She is teamed up with a more cynical co-writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), to work on a loosely fact-based story of twin sisters who steal their drunkard uncle’s boat to sail to the Battle of Dunkirk and rescue a soldier, perfect fodder for a dramatic but inspiring feel good film.

Catrin is initially brought in to write the female dialogue, which the studio heads crudely refer to as the “slop,” but her talents are recognized almost immediately and she ends up becoming an invaluable part of the project, not least of which for her unique abilities to ease tensions on set when it comes time to shoot.  Despite being paid less than the men, Catrin is also increasingly reliant on the pay checks from the studio to support herself, living with an artist partner (Jack Huston) who was injured in combat and can’t really provide for her.

Gemma Arterton effortlessly carries the film with an effervescent performance, and she is supported by an immensely charming turn by Sam Claflin.  The two share great chemistry in their scenes together, and the ensemble cast around them is also uniformly solid.  This includes a perfectly cast Bill Nighy as an aging thespian who is struggling to accept that his best roles might be behind him, and delightful work from Jake Lacey as an earnest American soldier who is given a role to appease international audiences, despite not really being able to act.

Directed by Lone Scherfig, delivering her best film since An Education in 2009, Their Finest is a consistently well crafted period piece that skillfully blends self-aware humour with the real drama of World War II.  Although the war is mostly pushed to the background of this story, which unfolds mainly in the writing room and on film sets, the violence of it threatens to disrupt at any moment, with frequent airstrikes leaving the streets littered with rubble, giving added relevance and a sense of urgency to their work.  The film also fittingly serves as a celebration of the importance of having a strong female voice involved in the filmmaking process.

This is, after all, a movie about the connective power of cinema to bring people together and raise our spirits in tough times, and Their Finest successfully manages to deliver the sort of slightly melancholic but also uplifting and optimistic picture that would have done well during the war.  This is a piece of lovingly crafted and often delightful escapism that is grounded enough in reality to keep us engaged, but also celebrates the importance of film to offer a break from the real world for a couple of hours, which is exactly what this film succeeds so wonderfully at doing.

Blu-ray Review: Monster Trucks

April 11, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

After a sleazy small town oil drilling operation accidentally shakes a trio of ancient sea creatures back to the surface from an ecosystem deep underground, the unscrupulous boss (Rob Lowe) convinces his geologist (Thomas Lennon) to keep the discovery hidden.  But one of the tentacled beings ends up finding his way to town, and hides out in the mechanic’s shop where teenager Tripp (Lucas Till) spends his time tinkering around with the engines.

When Tripp discovers that the oil-guzzling creature, who he affectionately dubs Creech, makes a mean engine for his scrapped together old pickup truck, Tripp and his biology tutor Meredith (Jane Levy) go to great lengths to protect Creech from the authorities, who want to hide any trace of the creature’s existence so as not to threaten their drilling.

Directed by Chris Wedges, making his live action debut after doing the animated films Ice Age, Robots and Epic for Blue Sky Studios, Monster Trucks has a premise that sounds ludicrous on paper, and has been relentlessly mocked in some circles because of it.  But the film is actually thoroughly decent for what it is, and is better than expected considering its status as a notorious box office flop that had been sitting on the studio shelf for a couple of years and kept having its release date pushed back, before finally being unceremoniously dumped into theatres this past January.

For a completely unpretentious, turn your brain off for two hours type of film, Monster Trucks delivers on the sheer absurdity of its premise to deliver something that is actually surprisingly enjoyable.  It’s by no means groundbreaking, but Lucas Till and Jane Levy make for likeable leads, Creech is cute enough to be appealing, and the film has a good heart about it that feels refreshingly pure.  The child in me was able to just power down and have some fun with the film.

The Blu-ray also includes several deleted scenes, the featurettes Who’s Driving the Monster Trucks?, The Monster in the Truck and Creating the Monster Truck which show how they mixed digital and practical effects in the film, as well as a collection of short Production Diaries and a gag reel.

Monster Truck is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  It’s 104 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Lion

April 11, 2017

By John Corrado

Directed by Garth Brooks, Lion recounts the true story of Saroo Brierly’s journey to reconnect with his birth family after getting lost on the crowded streets of India.  The first half focuses on Saroo as a young boy (Sunny Pawar) who gets lost in Calcutta, and is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).  The second half follows Saroo as an adult (Dev Patel) using the internet to track down his birthplace.

Nominated for a total of six Oscars, including Best Picture as well as Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress for the powerful performances from Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, Lion is a moving and ultimately uplifting drama that is carried by solid acting.  I really liked this one, and for more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a trio of deleted scenes, as well as five worthwhile “behind the scenes” featurettes that individually focus on the real life Saroo Brierley, actors Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, director Garth Davis, and finally the film’s Oscar-nominated score.  The lyric video for Sia’s end credits song “Never Give Up” is also included to round out the bonus features.

Lion is an eOne Home Entertainment release.  It’s 118 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Your Name

April 7, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Already the highest grossing anime film of all-time, and a giant blockbuster hit in its native Japan, Your Name is finally arriving in North American theatres, and I’m happy to report that the film deserves every bit of the hype that has been surrounding it for months now.  This is a beautifully animated and intricately plotted anime knockout, that keeps us hooked with engaging characters and a narrative full of surprises.

The film follows Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), a teenage girl who lives with her grandmother and younger sister in a small mountain town in Japan where her father is the mayor, and Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), a teen boy who goes to high school in Tokyo and works at a fancy Italian restaurant.

The two lead very different lives, separated by lifestyle, location and gender, until one morning when they start waking up in each other’s bodies, allowing them to glimpse the ways that the other one lives.  Through this, Mitsuha and Taki start to develop feelings for each other, but there are mysterious circumstances involving a passing comet linking them together that they must overcome in order to stay connected.

This is the basic setup for Your Name, and I wouldn’t think of revealing any more of the plot, because this is a film that continuously finds new ways to engage, surprise and move us, right through to the perfectly staged final scene.  Directed by Makoto Shinkai, adapting his own novel of the same name, this is the sort of film that should be experienced knowing as little as possible about the plot the first time around, and practically begs for multiple viewings afterwards.

The animation is consistently beautiful, and the film is often breathtaking on a visual level, especially during several lyrical montages.  But Your Name is equally impressive on a thematic level, seamlessly weaving together a complex narrative that skips around and plays out on different timelines.  The film is completely confident in its staging and also refreshingly presumes the intellect of its audience, allowing viewers to work out the mechanics of its plot at the same time as the characters.

There is a twist partway through that takes the story in an exciting new direction, giving added dramatic weight to the plot and allowing Your Name to become deeply moving.  The rest of the film plays out in exhilarating, almost breathless fashion, as we barrel towards the unforgettable climactic moments.  The story masterfully draws us into its two main characters and allows us to deeply care about them as we discover the ways they are closely interconnected, which makes the film’s eventual payoff all the more poignant and bittersweet.

The film explores heady and thought provoking themes of identity and the convergences of time and fate, but it also operates on a purely emotional level that makes it universally accessible.  Richly layered both narratively and visually, Your Name is a brilliant work of art that should be savoured, and is right up there with the best of Studio Ghibli as one of the greatest anime films of all time.

Your Name is now playing in limited release at selected Cineplex Cinemas in Toronto.

Blu-ray Review: Office Christmas Party

April 4, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) is the chief technical officer at the Chicago branch of a struggling tech firm, working for the well-meaning but somewhat irresponsible department head Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), who inherited the position from his late father.

They are in the process of planning a “non-denominational holiday mixer.”  But when the uptight CEO of the company (Jennifer Aniston) – who just so happens to be Clay’s jaded sister – enters the scene, she decides to cancel the party and also threatens to shut down the floundering branch, which would put their employees out of work.

So Josh and Clay decide to throw an even bigger and more wild Christmas party in the office, with the goal being to try and raise the spirits of their co-workers, and hopefully save their jobs by impressing potential client Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance).  But the party inevitably gets way out of hand, as the employees descend into drunken debauchery.  There are a lot of moving pieces at play in Office Christmas Party, including a subplot involving tech developer Tracey (Olivia Munn) who has romantic feelings for Josh, and numerous side characters like the quirky human resources director Mary (Kate McKinnon), but the all-star cast keeps things moving at a good pace.

This is as much a holiday movie as it is a wild party comedy, and there are laughs to be had throughout, as the shenanigans grow increasingly wild and the skilled cast tries to outdo each other with improvised one-liners.  The screenplay also works in a fair bit of heart, with the central premise built around how far the department heads will go to in order to save the jobs of their employees.  While not as good overall as some other seasonal comedies, namely The Night Before and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas which also mostly unfolded over a single night, Office Christmas Party is still an entertaining and frequently enjoyable film that is kept fun to watch thanks to the likeable actors.

Along with both the theatrical and extended editions of the film, the Blu-ray also includes commentary with directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, the pretty decent production featurette Throwing An Office Christmas Party, and some outtakes and deleted scenes from the film.

Office Christmas Party is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  The theatrical version is 105 minutes and rated 14A, and the extended cut runs for 110 minutes and is unrated.

Blu-ray Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

April 4, 2017

By John Corrado

Focusing on the events of the rebellion that was hinted at in the opening crawl of the original 1977 film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is recruited by a group of rebel soldiers to help steal the plans for the Death Star, a super weapon that her father (Mads Mikkelson) helped build.

For a prequel to an iconic film that’s going to be forty years old next month, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is pretty spectacular.  This is a dark and thrilling blockbuster that is rich with excellent performances and engaging characters, and provides an entertaining and emotionally resonant bridge between the series.  For more on the film itself, you can read our three views right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a second disc featuring over an hour of bonus material.  These include the short but worthwhile Rogue Connections, which shares some of the hidden references in the film, and a piece entitled The Stories that is really ten featurettes that can be watched together or on their own.  These featurettes start with A Rogue Idea, which focuses on John Knoll’s initial pitch for the film, and continue with indepth looks at the film’s protagonists in Jyn: The Rebel, Cassian: The Spy, K-2SO: The Droid, Baze & Chirrut: Guardians of the Whills, Bodhi & Saw: The Pilot & The Revolutionary and The Empire, which focuses on the Imperial characters in the film.

Next up are Visions of Hope: The Look of Rogue One, which shows the lengths they went to in crafting a world that both felt unique and matched the original film, The Princess & The Governor focuses on how they were able to digitally recreate both Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, and Epilogue: The Story Continues shows footage from the premiere with fans talking about what the increased diversity of the franchise means to them.  Although it’s very easy to foresee a more decked out special edition coming somewhere down the line, like what happened after the initial release of The Force Awakens last year, these bonus features are solid and this is a worthwhile release for fans of the film.

Rogue One is a Walt Disney Home Entertainment release.  It’s 134 minutes and rated PG.

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