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Hot Docs Festival Online Reviews

May 28, 2020

By John Corrado

While the in-person edition of Hot Docs was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, roughly 140 films that were set to screen at the festival will be streamed online instead from May 28th to June 6th, with some being available for even longer. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with select screenings featuring pre-recorded Q&As. The screenings are geo-blocked to Ontario, and the full lineup can be found here.

Below are my brief thoughts on seven of these films that I had the chance to screen in advance, arranged in alphabetical order. The seven films that were shown on CBC as part of the Hot Docs At Home series, (which I reviewed over the past several weeks), are also included in the online festival’s lineup, as is the new release The Painter and the Thief, which was incidentally just made available on VOD platforms last week. I have included links to all of those reviews at the bottom.

#BLESSED – ★★★ (out of 4)

How do you get millennials interested in going to church on Sundays? You follow the example of C3, the Australian church franchise that has set up two parishes in Toronto. Run by the charismatic Pastor Sam, a service at the Evangelical Christian church is more like an inspirational rock concert, and the crowd is made up of young people sporting tattoos, skinny jeans and sneakers.

Director Ali Weinstein’s aptly titled documentary #BLESSED follows Pastor Sam and his team as they try to set up a third location in the city to further spread their message, while also introducing us to several young parishioners. Aimee has a history of drug abuse and addiction but was “saved” by the church; David is preparing to go away for a year to Australia on a scholarship to C3 College so that he can become a pastor, having met his girlfriend Mona, with whom he is in a celibate relationship, at the church; and Conan is becoming increasingly involved at C3 despite struggling with his faith and what he believes.

The film also prominently features Galen Watts, a university student who is studying the tactics used by C3 to make religion appealing to young people, and raises some interesting but more troubling questions about how they are using slick marketing techniques to hide less progressive viewpoints on same-sex relationships and other social issues. While the film feels like it is glossing over some stuff, and what is below the surface can be more interesting, #BLESSED still provides a slickly made and mostly engaging look at how younger generations are choosing to worship.

Daddy – ★★★ (out of 4)

Brendan Cooney is an American anthropologist who moved to Copenhagen to start a family after falling in love with and marrying a Danish woman. Because he didn’t fluently speak the language, making it hard to find a job, Brendan instead made the choice to stay at home and raise his daughter, while his wife continued going to work, flipping the script on traditional gender roles. After his mother abandoned him as a child, Cooney vowed to never leave his own children, but finds himself tested by the trials and tribulations of parenthood.

Co-directed by Cooney and filmmaker Lars Emil Leonhardt, and shot over the course of six years, Daddy serves as an unfiltered look at fatherhood that shows the joys that come with raising a child, without shying away from the equal number of stressful parts. The film is made up of intimate, professionally shot home video footage, as Cooney provides constant voiceover reflecting on the unique emotions that come with child rearing. At roughly fifty minutes long, Daddy at times seems somewhat slight, but it’s an often charming film that does reach some greater truths about raising children.

Dope is Death – ★★★ (out of 4)

In her documentary Dope is Death, Canadian filmmaker Mia Donovan explores the long history of how the use of acupuncture to treat recovering drug addicts was brought to America by radical political groups in the 1970s. The film takes us back to the day in 1970 when the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Black Panthers staged a well organized occupation of New York’s Lincoln Hospital, taking over Lincoln Detox to better serve their community at a time when minority populations in the South Bronx were being ravaged by heroin addiction.

The clinic was run by Dr. Mutulu Shakur (Tupac’s stepfather), who was trained in the practise by Montreal doctor Mario Wexu, who had studied Eastern medicine. The technique was pioneered as a way to avoid the highly addictive methadone that the Nixon government was pushing to try and deal with drug problems in the community. By inserting acupuncture needles into specific pressure points in the ear, they were able to help addicts get off drugs while avoiding the painful side effects of detox.

Through a mix of interviews and some great archival footage, Dope is Death basically tells two stories; the history of AcuDetox and that of Shakur’s arrest in connection to a deadly bank robbery. While I wish it had gone a bit more in-depth on both, and there are a few loose ends, this is still an interesting film that recounts the fascinating history of this groundbreaking medical practise.

First We Eat – ★★★ (out of 4)

In 2015, filmmaker Suzanne Crocker brought the film All the Time in the World to Hot Docs, which documented the nine months that she spent with her husband Gerard Parsons and their three kids living in a wood cabin in the remote wilderness of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Now Crocker returns with First We Eat, a followup of sorts which finds the family attempting a new experiment; to eat only locally sourced food in their community of Dawson City, Yukon for an entire year by hunting, fishing and foraging.

There are challenges that arise, such as trying to find sources of salt and sugar, as well as the question of whether or not they will be able to capture a moose to fill their freezer with meat for the winter. But they are helped by local farmers, getting meat from chickens and pigs that are raised in the community, (be warned that there is some graphic footage of animals being butchered), and produce that is grown in the warmer months or in greenhouses and stored in cold cellars.

I was quite charmed by All the Time in the World five years ago, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of First We Eat is getting to revisit this family. Through this new experiment, Crocker raises a lot of timely questions about food security and sustainability, offering an interesting exploration of how hard it is to eat locally, especially way up North. She proves that it can be done, it just takes a lot of extra time and work.

Her Mothers – ★★★ (out of 4)

Virág and Nora are a lesbian couple in Hungary going through the process of adopting a child. While they are eventually successful, and bring home a young daughter, they are faced with an increasingly polarized political climate as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán threatens to strip away rights from same-sex couples, forcing them to grapple with whether to stay in the country, or move elsewhere for the safety of their family.

On the home front, Virág bonds with the child and adjusts well to her new role as mother, but Nora struggles to find her place as the second mother, facing rejection from their daughter. The fact that their daughter is of Roma origin will add another barrier for her when she enters school. Directors Asia Dér and Sára Haragonics gain intimate access to the family in Her Mothers, a low-key documentary that works as both an interesting study of the challenges of motherhood in a non-traditional family unit, as well as a personal, humanizing look at the impact that anti-LGBTQ policies have on people’s lives.

Softie – ★★★ (out of 4)

Boniface Mwangi is a photographer and grassroots political activist in Kenya who sets out to win an MP seat in an upcoming regional election. Growing up poor and with a single mother, Mwangi gained the nickname “Softie” as a child, and is hoping to overcome deep-rooted tribalism and widespread political corruption by becoming an elected official.

But there are unique challenges that come with trying to fairly win an election in what is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where the voters don’t trust politicians and fully expect to be bought, (people mob his campaign van at one point hoping for free t-shirts, and lineups start in the wee hours of the morning on election day with voters hoping for bribes), and Mwangi is also going up against a wildly popular opponent in the form of a local musician named Jaguar.

Directed by Sam Soko, Softie offers an on the ground look at his campaign that shows how hard it is for a grassroots idealist to actually break through and change the system. One of the most interesting aspects of Soko’s film is seeing the effect that Mwangi’s campaign has on his wife Njeri and their three kids, who come to fear for his safety as he faces death threats and comes to terms with potentially giving up his life to help save his country.

There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Honest Ed’s, the bargain shop at Bloor and Bathurst that Ed Mirvish opened in 1948 and ran for almost sixty years until his death in 2007, was a cultural institution in Toronto. It was a place for the city’s working class to get groceries and other basic needs, with many immigrants using it as an unofficial landing spot when they first came to the city. In 2013, David Mirvish, who acquired the property after his father’s death, sold it to Westbank, a luxury condo developer from Vancouver, and on December 31st, 2016 the store closed its doors for the last time. I was there. I went on the final day.

Filmmaker Lulu Wei memorializes Honest Ed’s in her lovely documentary There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, which focuses on the legacy of the store and the nearby Mirvish Village. Wei has a personal connection to the area, having lived on the same block as Honest Ed’s in an apartment that happened to be the first one that she shared with her girlfriend Kathleen, who is an equal presence in the film. The film explores themes of gentrification, the need for affordable housing in the downtown core, and how much is lost in the name of “progress.”

Watching the film, and the heartbreaking footage spread throughout of the building being ripped apart, I couldn’t help but feel like we as a city are going to look back in many years and wonder what the heck we did by tearing down this landmark. The film made me sad and mournful, both for the loss of Honest Ed’s, and for the fact that I wasn’t able to experience it for the first time with a Toronto audience down the street from where the store used to be at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, which would have been the perfect place for its premiere. This is a beautifully crafted and bittersweet love letter to Honest Ed’s and a rapidly changing city that will never be the same.

More Reviews:

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art – ★★½ (out of 4)

9/11 Kids – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Finding Sally – ★★★ (out of 4)

Meat the Future – ★★★ (out of 4)

They Call Me Dr. Miami – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Influence – ★★★ (out of 4)

The Walrus and the Whistleblower – ★★★½ (out of 4)

The Painter and the Thief – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Hot Docs At Home Review: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

May 28, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

With this year’s in-person edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series. Tonight is the final instalment.

Phil Demers began working in 2000 as a trainer at Marineland, the Niagara Falls, Ontario amusement park and tourist trap that keeps marine mammals in captivity for entertainment. He first gained media attention in 2007 for the bond that formed between him and a walrus, one of five such creatures at the facility, that he affectionately named Smooshi for the way that she would “smoosh” up against him. The animal imprinted on him, and seemed to view him as a mother figure.

But what was initially presented by the media as a feel good story became much darker and turned into a fierce legal battle when, in 2012, Demers quit working at Marineland in protest over the poor conditions that the walruses and other animals were being kept in. He joined other former employees – including his partner Christine Santos, whom he met and fall in love with while working together at the park – to become a whistleblower, helping expose the horrific treatment of animals behind the scenes at the park, as press coverage of Marineland started to take a negative turn.

Demers gained notoriety when he utilized his twitter account (@walruswhisperer) to try and get his beloved Smooshi freed from the facility, which led to Marineland suing him for “plotting to steal a walrus.” This led to appearances on Joe Rogan’s hugely popular and influential podcast, as he gained incredible support for his cause. Demers is the subject of director Nathalie Bibeau’s very engaging documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which could be viewed as a companion piece to filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 SeaWorld exposé Blackfish.

Bibeau has made a captivating, often upsetting film that follows the Niagara resident over a couple of years as he embarks on an embattled quest to #SaveSmooshi, joining forces with local animal rights activists who have a long history of protesting outside the gates of Marineland, trying to get the place shut down. These are the same protestors that he used to brush off on his way into the park, but now he finds himself on the other side, becoming a fierce advocate for animal justice causes despite the fact that he still eats meat, (which he fully admits the hypocrisy of during a long scene where he cooks steaks on the barbecue).

This film comes fresh off the heals of the Netflix documentary series Tiger King, which became a viral sensation for its wacky cast of characters, but also drew attention to the plight of animals being kept in captivity and exploited for entertainment, as well as the narcissistic men who hoard them as symbols of status and power. Marineland had its own larger than life figure running the show in the form of its late owner John Holer, the so-called “King of Niagara Falls” who passed away in 2018, and whose ownership over a large swath of land gave him incredible political sway in the area.

Holer, an admirer of Walt Disney who came to Canada as an immigrant and got his start training circus animals in Slovenia, opened Marineland in 1961, and turned it into one of the most ubiquitous tourist spots in Niagara Falls, aside from the falls themselves. Holer allegedly carried a gun and would threaten people who crossed him, and there are allegations that he buried dead animals in mass graves on the park’s property. But after Holer’s death, the film finds Demers unexpectedly grieving and grappling with his complicated legacy, including the friendship that he had with his former boss’s son.

In these moments, Bibeau allows for more emotional complexity in the film than I was expecting. Holer was ruthless, but so is Demers, and it’s his refusal to give up or quit, even in the face of rising legal bills, that provides the driving force of the film. He just wants “the fucking walrus” as he says at one point, but also won’t settle for being silenced in exchange. With his beard, shaved head, and weed-smoking habits, Demers has all the earmarks of a Canadian folk hero. The film also documents his active role in pushing for the passage of Bill S-203 in the Senate, making it illegal to keep whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity in Canada.

At the beginning of The Walrus and the Whistleblower, Demers recounts in voiceover that he was initially called a “whistleblower” by investigative journalists, before musing that he “blew whistles for years at Marineland, but it was to tell the dolphins to come back to the stage to get their fish.” This sums it up quite nicely. The film is as as much about his activist work as it is about a man being thrust into the role of whistleblower when he could no longer tolerate being part of an abusive system, spurred on by the need to rescue and be reunited with his beloved walrus.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel.

Blu-ray Review: The Invisible Man

May 26, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Written and directed by Australian horror filmmaker Leigh Whannell, The Invisible Man is a modern reimagining of the classic H.G. Wells novel and 1933 film of the same name, this time told from the perspective of a domestic abuse victim who makes her escape but continues to be haunted by her abuser.

Produced by hitmaker Jason Blum, Whannell’s Invisible Man works as a gripping suspense thriller with a dramatic character-focused story at its core, and serves as an excellent showcase for Elisabeth Moss, who delivers an awards-worthy performance in the lead.

The film begins with a tense opening sequence that finds Cecilia Kass (Moss) fleeing the home of her abusive partner Adrien Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the dead of night, with help from her younger sister Emily (Harriet Dyer). Cecilia then goes to live with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenaged daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), taking up residence at their home until she can get back on her feet.

Cecilia is struck with PTSD and can barely leave the house, but then she gets the news that Adrien has killed himself, which brings some semblance of relief that she has finally been freed from his abusive clutches. But Cecilia continues to sense his presence, and as mysterious things start happening to her, she comes to believe that the rich, tech genius Adrian is still alive, having found a way to make himself invisible in order to keep his hold over her. From here, The Invisible Man builds with several twists and turns, while serving up moments of sudden, shocking violence.

What Whannell has crafted is a superior genre exercise that is grounded in the very real trauma of a woman struggling to escape an abusive relationship, and fighting to be believed when others discount what she is experiencing. The film unfolds with a strong sense of tension, delivering a mix of effective jump scares and some thrilling fight scenes, which are bolstered by strong special effects work. Even in the film’s pulpiest moments, it’s perfectly calibrated to get under our skin and make us feel unsettled.

Moss, an actor with the unique ability to go both big and small in any given moment depending on whatever the scene calls for, really is the star attraction in The Invisible Man. She delivers a powerful performance here that takes us through a woman’s journey of trauma and finally justifiable rage as she tries desperately to take back her life, with the range of emotions that she portrays running the gamut from subtle to extreme. This is some of her best work to date.

What works about The Invisible Man is that the film doesn’t merely try to redo earlier versions of the story, but instead forges its own path, offering an original, 21st century reimagining of this character that has long been a part of horror lore through his inclusion in the classic Universal Monsters lineup. This a gripping and well crafted thriller, carried every step of the way by Moss’s exceptional performance.

The Blu-ray also includes nine deleted scenes (Annie, Changing Room Montage, Blow it Up. Make it Rain. Out to Sea., Daisies, Where’s My Phone?, Butt Chug, There’s Someone Sitting in That Chair, I Can Do This, and Insanity Defence), which offer too much in the way of exposition. These are followed by the four worthwhile featurettes Moss Manifested, Director’s Journey With Leigh Whannell, The Players, and Timeless Terror, as well as a commentary track with Whannell.

The Invisible Man is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 124 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: May 26th, 2020

Blu-ray Review: The Way Back

May 26, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is an alcoholic. He works in construction during the day and spends his nights at the local bar, getting drunk to the point of needing to be helped home. In the morning, he sips a beer while in the shower, and starts the whole process all over again.

But Jack has the chance for redemption when he is given the opportunity to start coaching basketball at his old alma matter, Bishop Hayes High School, where he was once a star player on the Catholic school’s team. After some thought, Jack takes over the struggling team, and helps the students unleash their true potential, but his own personal demons continue to haunt him.

Jack is the main character in The Way Back, and throughout the film, we pull back layers from him to understand how he has gotten to this point. The film plays as a mix of inspiring sports movie and gritty addiction drama, charting Jack’s healing process and various relapses as he wrestles with painful events from his past that are only hinted at at the beginning, but come into sharper focus as the film goes on.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor, who previously made the sports drama Warrior and worked with Affleck in the underrated and supremely entertaining thriller The Accountant, The Way Back serves as a gripping showcase for its star. Affleck draws from his own personal experiences as a recovering alcoholic, and it’s the specificity of his performance that is so compelling to watch, as he meticulously portrays the small patterns and daily habits of a seasoned drinker.

The actor is tasked with seeing his character through a wide range of emotions. On the basketball court, Jack is able to become a charismatic, foul-mouthed champion for this group of boys from various ethnic and financial backgrounds, taking on a sort of strict father figure role in their lives. But his own life is filled with grief and despair, only muted by his excessive drinking. Affleck is brilliant at portraying both the inward and outward sides of this character, subtly revealing the emotions that Jack has internalized over the course of the film.

The film also boasts rousing basketball scenes, with the game scores appearing on screen over freeze frames in what is a nice stylistic touch. While the actual story beats of The Way Back are somewhat predictable – the film does try to be a few too many things at once, and can come off as formulaic and clichéd at times – it’s carried by a rock solid performance that keeps it engaging to watch. At its best, The Way Back explores grief, addiction and recovery in an unvarnished way, built around one of the finest performances of Ben Affleck’s career.

The Blu-ray also includes the two featurettes The Way Back: This Sporting Life and Every Loss is Another Fight: The Road to Redemption, which feature Affleck and O’Connor talking about the character of Jack and the story of the film.

The Way Back is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 108 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: May 19th, 2020

VOD Review: The Painter and the Thief

May 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree’s excellent documentary about friendship and the healing power of art, documents a coming together of two people that is so remarkable and interesting that if it had been fiction, it likely would have been accused of being contrived.

The painter of the title is Barbora Kysilkova, an artist in Norway, and the thief is Karl Bertil-Nordland, a drug addict and gang member who stole two of her paintings from the gallery where they were being displayed. Karl would go to jail for the crime, but when he was in court, Barbora approached him and asked if she could paint him. He agreed, and from this act of humanity, an unlikely friendship between them was born.

Ree’s documentary follows them as this friendship develops and morphs into something deeper, as she becomes a caretaker to him and he allows himself to become her muse and the subject of several beautifully painted portraits. A moment when Karl spontaneously starts crying upon seeing how Barbora has captured his essence on the canvass is one of the most touching scenes in the film.

Over the course of The Painter and the Thief, which was shot over several years, layers are pulled back from the subjects to reveal how Barbora uses her often darkly beautiful art to deal with and process the abuse that she has escaped from in her past. We discover that Karl has past trauma of his own, which is what sent him down this path of crime and drug addiction that inexplicably would cause their paths to cross when he happened to be involved in the theft of her paintings.

It’s an event that Karl claims to have little recollection of due to his intoxicated state at the time, but Barbora questions him about the theft, including the location of the paintings which hold great personal significance for her, hoping to find a way to get them back. It’s a testament to the power of the friendship that forms between them that the mystery of whether or not the artist will be reunited with her paintings doesn’t entirely take over The Painter and the Thief.

It’s instead a moving look at how two people from different backgrounds through two radically different acts – the act of painting and the act of theft – which served as the catalyst for their coming together, are able to find a shared humanity, helping and healing each other in surprising ways.

The Painter and the Thief is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms.

VOD Review: The Trip to Greece

May 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back at it again in The Trip to Greece, the fourth instalment in this series that finds the two comic actors playing versions of themselves enjoying good food, having great conversations, and arguing over who does the better celebrity impressions.

It all started with The Trip in 2011, a feature film stitched together from a six part BBC miniseries which followed the British actors on a road trip through the English countryside. This latest film finds the duo in Greece, trying to retrace the steps that Odysseus took on his ten year journey from Troy to Ithaca in just six days.

We follow along as they visit landmarks, quiz each on Greek mythology and history, and argue over the distinctions between comedy and tragedy as they reflect upon their own careers. This all happens as they move through a variety of beautiful locales, while enjoying the aforementioned meals and verbal jousts over who does the better Marlon Brando or Dustin Hoffman impersonation.

Like the other three films in the series, including the second and third instalments The Trip to Spain and The Trip to Italy, The Trip to Greece is directed by Michael Winterbottom, who adopts an unobtrusive approach that allows Coogan and Brydon to do their thing. This includes moments of meta humour, as Coogan reminds us that he played a Greek god in Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and also talks about the reviews that he got for his portrayal of Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie, arguing that he has moved on from just being defined as a “comic actor.”

Coogan and Brydon are quite amusing to watch as they bounce off each other in moments like these, with their perfectly calibrated “odd couple” chemistry providing the backbone of the film. But as their trip reaches its conclusion, The Trip to Greece actually becomes something quite poignant as well, as the two men look to the past as a way to come to terms with where they are in their own lives. If this is the final chapter in the series, then it’s an entertaining and bittersweet end to this saga of friendship and duelling celebrity impressions.

The Trip to Greece is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms.

VOD Review: Military Wives

May 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The poster for Military Wives boasts that the film comes to us “from the director of The Full Monty,” and this really is a case of there being truth in advertising. The director is Peter Cattaneo, and like his surprise Oscar nominee from 1997, this film also functions as a feel-good crowdpleaser about a group of people coming together against all odds and stepping out of their comfort zones in preparation for a performance.

The setting for Military Wives is the fictional Flitcroft Barracks in rural England, where a group of women are left to stay when their partners leave for a six month tour in Afghanistan. Holed up at the base with little to do, the women are left looking for activities to take their minds off things so as not to spend the entire time worrying about the safety of their overseas partners.

As the wife of the high-ranking Richard (Greg Wise), the prim and proper Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) has always been given the duty of planning formal activities for the other wives. It’s a duty that she now shares with Lisa (Sharon Horgan), who has a very different idea of fun. A group brainstorming session leads to the creation of a choir, causing the uptight Kate and the free-spirited Lisa to butt heads over how to run it.

The former wants to lead a proper choir and sing old hymns using sheet music, whereas the latter wants to perform more contemporary pop songs without putting too much focus on proper arrangements and trying instead to just have fun. But when they are given the opportunity to perform publicly, the group must figure out a way to pull together, putting aside their differences in the face of adversity and great personal loss.

The story is predictable to a tee, and everything that you think will happen eventually happens, but it’s no matter. Cattaneo keeps the film so buoyant and enjoyable that, even if the journey we are being taken on is familiar at times, it’s hard to really mind. The film does a fine job of mixing comedy and drama, and the emotional beats are largely effective, as the screenplay by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard introduces poignant themes about processing grief and how different people deal with loss.

The film is elevated by the work of Kristen Scott Thomas, who does a good job of portraying the pain beneath Kate’s buttoned up exterior, nicely contrasted by Sharon Horgan’s appealing performance as the more freewheeling Lisa. Kate’s way of coping is to take charge in hopes of exerting some control over her life, where as Lisa would rather push aside the potential pain by drinking and having a good time. The two leads have an odd couple dynamic that works to both comedic and dramatic ends.

They are backed up by a good ensemble cast, which includes nice supporting turns from Amy James-Kelly as one of the younger members of the group whose high school sweetheart is off fighting in the war, and Gaby French as a young Welsh mother whose shyness over performing publicly is in stark contrast to her powerful singing voice. Inspired by the real formation of a choir made up of the spouses of service members, which paved the way for other such groups to spring up across England, Military Wives is an enjoyable crowdpleaser that delivers the right mix of laughs and tears.

Military Wives is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms.

Hot Docs At Home Review: Influence

May 21, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

With this year’s edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series.

Lord Tim Bell, the co-founder of the highly influential London, England public relations firm Bell Pottinger who passed away last year, had his hand in getting controversial leaders elected and helping dictators hone their images to be more palatable. Lord Bell is the subject of the documentary Influence, which is co-directed by South African journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille, and features extensive interviews with him that were shot before his death.

A spin doctor extraordinaire, Lord Bell cut his teeth working for Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1970s, creating snappy ad campaigns that were ahead of their time to help sell products. But his most prominent client was Margaret Thatcher, helping the Conservative leader secure three back to back victories as British Prime Minister, with his famous “Labour isn’t working” ad campaign setting the stage for her first election victory in 1979.

More damningly, Lord Bell’s legacy also includes being paid untold amounts of money to try and shape public opinion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by producing manipulative TV ads and soap operas to help sell the idea of regime change to the Iraqi people. But it was his more recent work in South Africa, trying to ignite racial tensions in order to coverup corruption on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma, after already meddling in the country in the 1990s to help the former leaders maintain relevance post-apartheid, that led to his fall from grace and the shuttering of his company.

The film’s other central subject is Phumzile van Damme, an Opposition politician in South Africa who helped expose Lord Bell’s involvement in her country, leading to the downfall of Bell Pottinger. On a larger level, filmmakers Poplak and Neille use Influence to offer a broader exploration of how democracy is on sale to the highest bidder, and politics in general has essentially become about who has the biggest advertising budget to get themselves elected.

When the question of morality arises, Bell makes the distinction at one point near the end that, while many claim his work wasn’t moral, it wasn’t “immoral,” either. He concedes that he might have done things that are “amoral,” but not “immoral,” with his justification seeming to be that everyone now uses PR firms to help secure election victories. He was just one of the first to successfully figure out how to do it, and didn’t discriminate against who his clients were.

The film packs a lot of information into its ninety minute running time, almost too much at times to the point of feeling overstuffed, and it can feel like the material might have deserved an even deeper dive, perhaps in the form of a longer miniseries. But with polished cinematography by Glauco Bermudez and Mark Ó Fearghail, and some decent graphics, Influence provides a fairly interesting and moderately engaging overview of Tim Bell’s complicated legacy.

Influence premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel. The next and final Hot Docs At Home screening is The Walrus and the Whistleblower, premiering on May 28th.

4K Ultra HD Reviews: Top Gun, Days of Thunder and War of the Worlds (2005)

May 19, 2020

By John Corrado

This week, Paramount is giving the 4K Ultra HD treatment to a trio of their catalogue titles; Top GunDays of Thunder, and War of the Worlds (2005). What all three of these films have in common, aside from them being extremely well suited to being watching in high definition, is that they all star Tom Cruise, one of our last remaining movie stars.

Top Gun

First up is the 1986 classic Top Gun, directed by the late Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise in what remains one of his most iconic roles as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a cocky fighter pilot known for his daring maneuvers, who is sent to the Navy’s elite “Top Gun” flight school with his partner Goose (Anthony Edwards), where he falls for the instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis), competes with his rival Iceman (Val Kilmer), and tries to learn from the veteran pilot Viper (Tom Skerritt).

The film’s souped up machismo (almost to the point of homoerotica), great synth-pop soundtrack (including the Oscar-winning Berlin song “Take My Breath Away” and the Kenny Loggins classic “Danger Zone” which sets the mood over that exciting opening set-piece), and great cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball (which combines impressively shot flight sequences and orange-hued “magic hour” shots to intoxicating and incredibly cinematic effect), have made it iconic.

The film was a blockbuster success when it was first released in May of ’86, playing in theatres for months and going on to become not only the highest grossing film of that year, but also an enduring, highly quotable pop culture staple. This new edition had initially been timed to coincide with the release of director Joseph Kosinski’s long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick, which was supposed to open this summer before getting pushed back to December due to the COVID-19 theatre shutdowns.

The 4K Ultra HD disc is complimented by a selection of new bonus features, including The Legacy of Top Gun, a short featurette that features the original actors talking about their roles joined by cast members from the sequel, and On Your Six – Thirty Years of Top Gun, a half-hour piece divided into six chapters (Looking BackAmerica’s BestInto the Danger ZoneGoing Ballistic, and Narrow Targets and the Future) that prominently features Cruise and legendary producer Jerry Bruckheimer reflecting on the film. This is followed by a previously released commentary track featuring Bruckheimer, Scott and co-writer Jake Epps joined by Naval experts.

The set also comes with a regular Blu-ray disc that includes these bonus features, along with the previously released six part “behind the scenes” documentary Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun, two multi-angle storyboards with optional commentary by Scott, the extended featurette Best of the Best: Inside the Real Top Gun, four music videos (Kenny Loggins – “Danger Zone,” Berlin – “Take My Breath Away,” Loverboy – “Heaven in Your Eyes,” Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens – “Top Gun Anthem”), and some original theatrical promotional materials.

Top Gun is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 109 minutes and rated PG.

Days of Thunder

Four years later in 1990, Scott and Cruise teamed up again for Days of Thunder, which is essentially Top Gun with race cars. The film stars Cruise as Cole Trickle, a cocky stock car driver who is given the chance to compete in the Daytona 500 when businessman Tim Dalend (Randy Quaid) brings him on as a driver, and convinces retired Nascar crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to get back in the game and build him a car. The friend here is Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), the rival is Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), and the love interest is Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), who treats Cole after a crash.

While Days of Thunder doesn’t quite reach the heights (pun intended) of Top Gun, and its plot is largely derivative of that film, this is still a thoroughly fun and enjoyable popcorn flick that is solidly directed by Scott and features some exciting racing scenes. The film boasts strong cinematography by Ward Russell, who served as the chief lighting technician on Top Gun, and does an excellent job of shooting the race track set-pieces in a way that recalls Kimball’s aerial stuff in Top Gun.

The 4K Ultra HD disc also includes the featurette Filmmaker Focus: Days of Thunder as well as an isolated score track. The set lacks a regular Blu-ray of the film, but a digital copy is included.

Days of Thunder is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 107 minutes and rated PG.

War of the Worlds (2005)

Finally, we have a new 15th anniversary edition of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 science fiction blockbuster War of the Worlds, which offers a dark reimagining of the classic H.G. Wells story and its previous adaptations. The film stars Cruise as Ray Ferrier, a construction worker and estranged father to two kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), whom he is looking after when tripod-like alien creatures come down from the sky and start taking over our world. The film was nominated for a trio of technical Oscars (Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects), and deservingly so.

Spielberg’s film offers a bleak, nightmarish vision of an alien invasion that has more in common with the director’s war movies than his previous alien films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a blockbuster made for post-9/11 anxieties, offering a chilling, on the ground look at a major disaster from the perspective of those trying to survive it. The special effects are still quite strong after fifteen years, and the excellent sound work helps provide an immersive experience, including another fine score by composer John Williams.

Spielberg delivers a series of gripping and at times genuinely terrifying set-pieces that are masterfully shot by his frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski, whose perfectly choreographed camera glides around to reveal visual information and action. The film is very well acted by Cruise, who gets to show off both his dramatic and action capabilities, and Tim Robbins brings much to War of the Worlds through his supporting role as an unstable survivalist, and the film reaches its apex with a haunting basement sequence involving his character that ratchets up both suspense and despair.

There are no bonus features on the 4K Ultra HD disc, but the set comes with a regular Blu-ray that holds a selection of previously released bonus features, including the featurettes Revisiting the InvasionThe H.G. Wells LegacySteven Spielberg and the Original War of the WorldsCharacters: The Family Unit, PrevisualizationProduction DiariesDesigning the Enemy: Tripods and AliensScoring War of the WorldsWe Are Not Alone, as well as galleries and the theatrical teaser trailer for the film.

War of the Worlds is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 116 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: May 19th, 2020

Blu-ray Review: Emma.

May 19, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A beautifully crafted and dryly humorous adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel of the same name, Emma. is a very enjoyable period piece that finds the perfect sweet spot between feeling sparkling and fresh while also remaining true to its 1815 setting.

The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role of Emma Woodhouse, a young woman who lives with her father (Bill Nighy) at a sprawling estate in the English countryside, and fancies herself as a matchmaker to those around her after marrying off her former governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan).

The story’s cast of characters includes Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young woman of unknown parentage whom Emma has taken under her wing, and is trying to set her up with the pompous vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). But matters become complicated by the fact that Emma’s interference causes Mr. Elton to fall for her instead of Harriet, while Harriet is tempted by the advances of a local farmer, Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), whom Emma deems beneath her.

Emma expresses interest in remaining unattached and merely coupling up those around her, but she is nonetheless intrigued by the prospect of a wealthy man named Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who remains off-screen for the first stretch of the movie. But the ideal romantic partner might just be right in front of her in the form of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a childhood friend who is unafraid of taking on Emma’s pettiness, and in fact seems to delight in calling her bluff. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of a local busybody (Miranda Hart), whom Emma views as a natural rival due to her ability to take attention away from her.

The film marks the feature directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde, a music video director who brings her great sense of colour and style to the screen. One of the first things that needs to be said about Emma. is that the film looks marvellous, with a lovely pastel colour palate made up of pink, lilac and yellow. The sets almost look like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, and provide an irresistible backdrop for the story. The costumes by Alexandra Byrne are colourful and vibrant. The sumptuous visuals are matched by a wonderful score from composers David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge, as well as some very nice uses of traditional folk tunes.

Taylor-Joy, complimented here by her natural blonde hair after gaining notoriety through her much darker roles in horror movies like The Witch and Split, is perfectly cast as Emma, a young woman attempting to pull the strings of everyone around her. Austen herself described Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” but many readers have felt differently over the past two centuries, and Taylor-Joy ensures that she maintains an air of likeableness without taming her selfish edges. Flynn serves as an appealing romantic lead, sharing great chemistry with Taylor-Joy as the two verbally bounce off of each other.

Nighy is a highlight of the supporting cast, delivering a wonderfully understated comic performance made up of amusing mannerisms and pitch perfect line deliveries. Gorgeously crafted on a technical level from its production design to costumes, Emma. is a light and airy period piece that finds humour in the social interactions of its time, gently poking fun at class systems and offering a delightful world for viewers to inhabit for a couple of hours.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of ten deleted scenes, a surprisingly hefty eleven minute gag reel, and the three featurettes A Playful Tease, The Autumn Gaze, and Crafting a Colourful World. These are followed by a commentary track featuring de Wilde joined by screenwriter Eleanor Catton and director of photography Christopher Blauvelt.

Emma. is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 124 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: May 19th, 2020

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