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VOD Review: First Cow

July 10, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Acclaimed independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, one of cinema’s finest surveyors of Americana, delivers one of her finest works yet with First Cow, a film that works as both a bracing frontier drama exploring themes of greed and early capitalism, and as a compelling, understated character study.

The film, which had the misfortune of opening back in March just before movie theatres were forced to close and is now being released digitally, is loosely adapted from a 2004 novel called The Half-Life by Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay with her.

The story is set in Oregon Territory in the early 19th century, and follows a mild-mannered cook who goes by the nickname Cookie (John Magaro). Cookie is travelling with a rugged group of fur trappers, but starts to break away from the group when he meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who is on the run. The two of them become close friends, and together they hatch a risky moneymaking scheme that involves stealing milk from the first and only cow in the territory, which belongs to a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones).

The characters of Cookie and King Lu are beautifully performed by Magaro and Lee, with the former able to say so much through few words, and the latter brilliantly portraying the hardscrabble resilience of his immigrant character whose self-sufficient grifter spirit seems indicative of the so-called American Dream. The bond that forms between the two men is tender and touching. A special mention must also be given to the titular cow, a bovine named Eve who provides a calm, steady presence in the film.

The observational qualities of Reichardt’s work that have made her such a unique and vital voice in the indie film world are on full display in First Cow. She is a master at delivering these sorts of understated character studies, but she is also a master at organically building tension, and there is genuine suspense allowed to build up in the film’s second half. Reichardt, who also edited the film herself, finds a very unique rhythm, with a pace that both feels relaxed and steadily builds in tension as it goes along, keeping us fully engaged throughout the two hour running time.

The film itself in many ways feels like a culmination of Reichardt’s style and themes, combining the beautifully observed nuances of male friendship that were also found in her early 2006 masterwork Old Joy, with the period authenticity of her 2014 slow-burn Western Meek’s Cutoff, as well as the simmering suspense of her masterful 2014 eco thriller Night Moves. It’s also worth noting that, on all three of those films, along with her 2008 drama Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt shared writing credits with Raymond.

It’s a testament to Reichardt’s sure touch as a filmmaker that First Cow, which on the surface appears like a quiet period piece, becomes something that feels both moving and relevant. Christopher Blauvelt’s gorgeous cinematography, framed within a square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, helps to capture both the beauty and threat of the untamed Pacific Northwest wilderness that the film almost entirely unfolds in.

The film tells a simple yet powerful allegorical story, that is infused with both great drama and even moments of gentle humour, bookended by stunning opening and closing scenes that take on a haunting quality. This is a completely naturalistic character piece that, while set a couple of centuries ago, will surely be remembered as one of the very best movies of 2020.

First Cow is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, as well as in select theatres where allowed. It’s distributed in Canada by MK2 Mile End.

VOD Review: Guest of Honour

July 10, 2020

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The latest from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Guest of Honour unfortunately follows in the footsteps of several of his other disappointing late career works; it’s a dramatic thriller that takes topical themes and buries them in an overly complicated and melodramatic package.

The film tells the story of a restaurant health inspector named Jim (David Thewlis), and his daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), the former conductor of a high school band. The film actually takes place after Jim’s death, and is built around a conversation that Veronica is having with a priest (Luke Wilson), making arrangements for her father’s funeral.

This is the film’s main narrative through-line, and through it we also discover that Veronica has just gotten out of jail for alleged misconduct involving two of her male students. This part of the story is revealed through flashbacks, as Jim visits his daughter in jail and pieces together the truth of what actually happened with Veronica, who is innocent but chooses to remain in prison anyway.

I don’t really want to say anymore about the plot, which plays out through a fractured narrative that unfolds across several timelines, and does provide some initial intrigue. But as more connections are revealed between the different characters and plot lines, Egoyan’s screenplay becomes convoluted to the point of getting increasingly nonsensical. This is one of those “everything is connected” films that relies upon a lot of contrivances, and it’s hard to buy how it all ties together.

The one saving grace of Guest of Honour is British actor Thewlis, who is often quite good in the film despite the pulpy material, which really speaks to his strengths as a performer. Thewlis ensures that the film is kept watchable, and Egoyan does stage some compelling scenes when it’s just his character going into restaurants and finding health infractions. But the soapy melodrama of everything around these sequences proves rather frustrating.

Guest of Honour is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

VOD Review: Fisherman’s Friends

July 10, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on the true story of the singing group The Fisherman’s Friends, a group of locals from Port Isaac, Cornwall who became unlikely musical stars with their traditional renditions of old sea shanties, Fisherman’s Friends is a British feel-good film in the vein of The Full Monty and the recent Military Wives.

After already proving to be a crowdpleaser in England, the film is now being released on VOD for North American audiences, and I have to say that I was quite charmed by it. This is simply a very enjoyable film to watch, and the soundtrack, which features a mix of original recordings and covers by the film’s very capable cast, is excellent.

The film centres around Danny (Daniel Mays), a cynical music executive from London who finds himself in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with his colleagues, where he discovers a group of ten local men, mostly fishermen, who sing traditional sea shanties together in their spare time. While his boss Troy (Noel Clarke) initially tells him to approach the men about a record deal as a mean practical joke, Danny comes to see promise in the men, and becomes determined to actually get them a record deal and turn them into stars.

During his time in Cornwall, Danny comes to find a newfound respect for the fishermen and their traditional way of life, hearing the centuries of history that are represented in their music. The film does take some dramatic licenses with the story of the real Fisherman’s Friends, namely with the inclusion of a romantic subplot between Danny and Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who happens to be the daughter of Jim (James Purefoy), one of the group’s lead singers. The characters are in fact all amalgamations of real life figures or fictional creations.

But the gist of the story remains the same; The Fisherman’s Friends were actually discovered by a record executive and had a surprise hit album in 2010, no doubt helped by the folk revival that was happening around that time. This story of unlikely stardom is inspiring, and it’s nicely played out in the film by a fine ensemble cast that all puts in solid work.

Directed by Chris Foggin, working from a script credited to Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and James Spring, Fisherman’s Friends offers a nicely handled mix of humour, character drama and romance. It’s a laid-back and very enjoyable film, featuring a cast of characters that are fun to hang out with for a couple of hours. Perhaps not surprisingly, a sequel to the film is already in development.

Fisherman’s Friends is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

VOD Review: Volition

July 10, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

James Odin (Adrian Glynn McMorran), a man with the ability to see glimpses of the future, ends up embroiled in a diamond smuggling ring while trying to stay one step ahead of the visions that he keeps having of his own own murder, in the ambitious indie sci-fi thriller Volition.

James mainly uses his unique gift, which has plagued him since childhood, for petty crime and to bet on sporting events, barely scraping by as it is. But when he’s hired to hand off rare diamonds in exchange for cash, James ends up on the run. Guided by his shadowy, clairvoyant visions, James tries desperately to not only avoid his own death, but also save Angela (Magda Apanowicz), a woman that he meets who has appeared in his visions.

Directed by Tony Dean Smith, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film with his brother Ryan W. Smith, Volition branches out from its fairly basic and clichéd crime thriller plot to explore some pretty big themes. The screenplay uses its main character’s affliction to introduce high concept ideas about time travel paradoxes, and whether events are fated to happen or if we have some free-will over them.

The twisting and turning plot brings in some clever narrative beats as different threads keep coming back in new ways and events are revisited from fresh vantage points, which sets the stage for the film’s multilevel climax. Some thought has clearly gone into the mechanics of the plot to make it all work, and in this regard the up-and-coming filmmaking brothers, who were born in South Africa and raised in Vancouver, do show promise.

The mind-bending sci-fi aspect of Volition is well done, but the film is still plagued with some narrative and character development problems. For example, when we first meet Angela in the film, she is in the midst of being assaulted in an alleyway, and James steps in to intervene, positioning him as a white knight. The film uses this assault merely as a plot point to bring the two together, and then moves on from it pretty quickly. Angela doesn’t even appear to suffer much trauma from the assault throughout the rest of the film. It’s a choice that feels somewhat exploitative and didn’t quite sit right with me.

The execution is sometimes rocky, and the dialogue is cheesy at times, but Volition still has enough cool ideas to make it mildly worth a look. After a somewhat shaky start, the film actually gets better as it goes along, and does build up tension as more pieces of the puzzle are revealed. Aided by some decent special effects, Volition is a flawed but interesting effort, and it becomes something that, shortcomings aside, serves as a solid calling card for the Smith brothers.

Volition is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

Blu-ray Review: Trolls World Tour

July 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The movie that changed the world when it bypassed theatres and went straight to video on demand earlier this year, Trolls World Tour is now arriving on Blu-ray this week in a special Dance Party Edition.

The DreamWorks Animation sequel was all set to have a traditional theatrical rollout in April, but then COVID-19 happened and the theatres closed. So instead of pushing the film to a later release date, distributor Universal made the decision to release it straight to VOD for premium rentals.

The film was massively successful when it was released to homes over Easter weekend, becoming the biggest digital debut of all time and sending shockwaves through a film industry that has held steadfast to the theatrical window of roughly ninety days for ages now.

I say this all not only because it is interesting background information on Trolls World Tour that elevates the animated sequel into being a cool footnote in film history, but because the film’s success is indicative of its power to provide feel good entertainment to people looking for an escape in these trying times. Following in the footsteps of its successful 2016 predecessor, this is a fun, brightly coloured movie that features appealing characters and a good soundtrack, as well as a surprisingly resonant message about the importance of embracing our differences instead of simply trying to ignore them.

The story begins with the peppy and optimistic Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and her more cautious friend Branch (Justin Timberlake) discovering that they are actually part of a much larger kingdom made up of six distinct lands, with each of them having their own unique tribe of trolls and their own music. Each tribe has their own special string representing a different type of music (pop, rock, techno, funk, classical and country), back from when all of the tribes used to live in harmony.

But Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), from the Mad Max-inspired land of the Rock Trolls, wants to control the entire Troll universe by collecting the six strings, putting them together and playing a power chord to abolish all other types of music so hard rock can reign supreme. She has her sights set on conquering the Pop Trolls next, which sends Poppy and Branch out on a journey to save their kingdom. At first, Poppy thinks that Barb simply wants to be friends and have a big party. But as she comes to realize that this isn’t the case, her own view of pop being the only valid type of music also gets challenged.

The main message of Trolls Worlds Tour, which is essentially that different types of music represent different cultures and that it’s important to embrace different kinds of music and not just one because they all influence each other, is an important and actually very clever one. The movie goes way beyond offering a simplistic “differences don’t matter” message, which Poppy asserts early on, to say that, yes, “differences DO matter,” as Branch states later in the film, because they are what make us unique.

“Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are,” a character says at one point, and this is actually a really important message to have right now. This is portrayed quite nicely through the allegory of different musical genres being allowed to exist alongside each other, and beyond the six main tribes, there are also K-Pop Trolls, Reggaeton Trolls and Yodelling Trolls, all of whom are fighting to be recognized with their own land.

On a deeper level, Trolls World Tour is essentially about what happens when one type of music (or culture) tries to suppress and take over all other styles of music (or cultures). The message is not that one is inherently “better,” but rather a powerful rebuttal to this very view, which is initially shared by both its protagonist, who loves pop and sees it as the superior form of music, as well as its antagonist, who views pop music as being inherently inferior to rock.

Barb wants music to sound brooding and angry. In Poppy’s mind, music is supposed to be upbeat and make you want to dance. For example, Poppy is confused when she hears a melancholic song performed by Delta Dawn (Kelly Clarkson) of the Country Trolls. Poppy responds in kind, leading to an amusing sequence wherein she performs a medley of what she considers to be the most important songs of all time, including “Wannabe,” “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Gangnam Style.”

Director Walt Dohrn, co-director on the first film, does a fine job of balancing this message with the sillier and more trippy elements that we can expect from a Trolls movie. Like in the first one, there is a lot of fun interplay between Poppy and Branch, whose own differences nicely play into the plot, with Kendrick and Timberlake once again delivering a pair of very appealing vocal performances. There is a lot of visual appeal in the design of the different Troll worlds, with vibrant backgrounds that look like they were made out of physical materials like yarn, felt and other fabrics.

While Trolls World Tour doesn’t surpass its predecessor, it’s an entertaining sequel that does a fine job of building upon it. The film works as a fun jukebox musical, offering some reimaginings of classic songs (i.e., “Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun”), while also going beyond being a simple celebration of pop to offer a good message about the important role that all types of music play in terms of allowing us to express ourselves. This message, in and of itself, is something worth dancing to.

The Blu-ray also allows you to watch the film in a special Dance Party mode, featuring on-screen lyrics, prompts to get up and dance, and other pop-up surprises. Additionally, the bonus features include the new short Tiny Diamond Goes to School; a Trolls Dance Academy featuring brief video tutorials on six different types of dance (Pop, Waltz, Country, Funk, K-Pop, Reggaeton); and Trolls World Tourist Map, an interactive map of the six different territories.

This is followed by seven deleted scenes (Cooper’s Destiny, Let’s Go Save the World, Bicycle Built for Two, Breaktime, Meet the Bounty Hunters, Making New Friends, and Cloud 9) which feature intros by Dohrn, co-director David P. Smith and producer Gina Shay; Trolls Perfect Harmony, which looks at the film’s special musical guests including Anderson .Paak, Ozzy Osbourne, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige; and the three-part featurette Trolls World Tour Backstage (Opening Act, Headliners, and Encore!). Finally, the disc features a commentary track with Dohrn, Smith and Shay.

Trolls World Tour is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 91 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: July 7th, 2020

Disney+ Review: Hamilton

July 4, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway show Hamilton, a wildly ambitious rap musical based on the life of America’s “ten dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton, is indisputably one of the biggest pop culture sensations of the past decade.

Now those of us who weren’t lucky enough to see the show live finally get to experience it for ourselves with this new filmed version that just dropped on Disney+, which the studio was initially planning to release in theatres in October of 2021.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing swaths of people to be stuck at home hungry for more content, Robert Iger made the last minute decision to drop Hamilton right away on the streaming service instead in a surprise move.

The decision is fitting, not least of which because the pandemic has also forced Broadway to shut down for the remainder of the year, and watching the film reminds us of the magic of the live theatre experience. The film was shot in front of live audiences at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York in June of 2016, right before Miranda left the show. This is Hamilton in all its glory, (the film is 160 minutes with a one minute intermission), the version of it that initially became a sensation featuring the original Broadway cast, now immortalized on film for all to see.

Director Thomas Kail has truly gone above and beyond in his capturing of the show, and watching Hamilton on Disney+ is an experience that blurs the line between viewing a stage production and an actual movie. What sets Hamilton apart from merely being a simple filmed version of the show is that it was shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn in a very cinematic way, using multiple cameras to capture it from different angles, and not just in one or two wide shots showing the whole stage at all times.

It’s a stage show that is shot like a movie. The cameras glide along the front of the stage, while also taking us right up into the faces of the actors at key moments. Editor Jonah Moran does an excellent job of assembling all of this footage, which was captured over three successive performances, often cutting it together like an actual movie, including some traditional shot-reverse-shot scenes. We get wide shots, mediums, and closeups that reveal the sweat on the faces of the actors, cut together in a way that fuels the drama and fits the music.

And yet, as a film, Hamilton doesn’t try to erase the fact it was filmed in front of a live audience. We can see the impressive turntable set moving the actors around the stage during big set-pieces. The entrance to the orchestra pit is visible from certain angles. While there are no direct shots of the audience, we can hear them applauding in the background. This all adds to the magic of the experience, like a front-row ticket to the show with the added bonus of being on stage with the actors.

The fact that this much love and care was put into delivering the Broadway production to audiences at home is not shocking. This is Hamilton, after all, the winner of eleven Tony Awards out of a record sixteen nominations, and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show, first staged in 2015, is set in the late 1700s, and is centred around the key roles that Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) played in fighting for America’s independence from British rule under King George III (Jonathan Groff, offering a campy, comedic take on royalty), and the ratification of the United States constitution.

Told in the form of a completely sung-through musical, the show charts Hamilton’s rise from being a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant arriving on the shores of New York to become the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington (Christopher Jackson). The show also allows us to get caught up in the story of his relationships with Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), whom he marries, and her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and, crucially, Hamilton’s rivalry with the “damn fool who shot him,” Aaron Burr (a brilliant Leslie Odom Jr., who famously beat Miranda for the Best Actor Tony).

A big theme of Hamilton is who gets to tell the story of history, exemplified by the musical’s final number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” with some voices getting elevated as others are left out. Miranda flips the script by casting people of colour in the roles of white historical figures like James Madison (Okierete Onaodowan) and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Diggs, who also plays Marquis de Lafayette in the show’s first act before switching roles for the second, portrays Jefferson as an arrogant, full of himself adversary to Hamilton, and we are really able to appreciate the energy of his charismatic, Tony-winning performance on screen.

Miranda’s ability to make American history come alive through his incredibly clever and catchy rhyming schemes, and a genre-bending musical score that mixes Broadway, hip-hop and other influences, is one of the most impressive things about the show. The music is still the defining element of Hamilton. The film gives us the thrill of experiencing exhilarating musical numbers like “My Shot,” “The Room Where It Happens” and the stage-setting opening number “Alexander Hamilton,” all of which are established parts of the pop cultural lexicon at this point, within the context of the show.

Eliza’s big solo number “Burn” is captured here in a very intimate way, and the emotional gut-punch of “It’s Quiet Uptown” serves as a compelling, heartbreaking dramatic moment on-screen. I actually wish that the original productions of other recent Broadway hits like Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away had been filmed like this as well. This is a brilliantly filmed version of Hamilton, that captures the thrill of live theatre with editing and cinematography that really helps it come alive on screen in a way that feels cinematic.

I never got to see Hamilton on stage. I was hoping to attend a production of it this summer before the show’s recently launched Toronto run got postponed, and it might still be a while before we are able to enjoy the full live theatre experience again. So I’m thankful for the chance to experience Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton on screen, at home, in such a vibrant and vivid way.

Hamilton is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

Review: Cottagers & Indians

July 4, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on his stage play of the same name, writer and director Drew Hayden Taylor’s engaging and informative documentary Cottagers & Indians, which premieres tonight on CBC, explores the fierce battle that is raging in the Kawartha Lakes between a group of mostly white cottagers and members of Curve Lake First Nation.

At the heart of this central Ontario cottage country dispute is wild rice, traditionally called “manoomin” which translates to “the good seed” and is considered a gift from the creator. It has grown naturally in shallow waterways in the area for thousands of years, before settlers came and developed the land. Now James Whetung of Curve Lake First Nation, who happens to be a friend of Hayden Taylor, has taken it upon himself to rejuvenate the crops by cultivating wild rice along the Trent-Severn Waterway.

Helped by his white partner, Whetung goes out on his fanboat planting seeds along Pigeon Lake and harvesting the wild rice, providing Curve Lake with a traditional food source and bringing the product to market. But this has drawn the ire of cottagers who live on the other side of the lake, and representing them is Larry Wood and his wife, local residents who are leading the charge against Whetung and his rice planting endeavours. But Whetung argues that he is merely reseeding the area with plants that used to grow there naturally, and the federal government’s Indian Act allows him to do so.

Because of his background, playwright and filmmaker Hayden Taylor himself brings a very interesting perspective to this ongoing dispute. Born to an Ojibwe mother and a white father, whom he never really knew, he was raised on Curve Lake First Nation by his mother, but also passes as a white man. To his credit, the director does strive for a balanced approach in Cottagers & Indians, offering interviews with the cottagers and listening to their side of the story, while finding obvious sympathies with Whetung.

There are many nuances to this fight. The wild rice plants clog up boat engines and make it harder to even paddle through the water in a canoe, and the cottagers also want the waterways kept clear and pristine so their grandkids can go swimming and waterskiing, like they used to do. This seems somewhat trivial compared to what Whetung wants, which is food sovereignty for his people. With rising rates of diabetes in his community due to an over reliance on processed foods, the wild rice provides a healthy and nutritious local option for sustenance.

But it gets more complicated. We also hear from an Indigenous man who owns a local gas stop and relies on motorboats coming through in need of gas in order to keep his business afloat, putting him somewhat on the side of the cottagers. This local dispute functions as a microcosm of Native land being stolen throughout Canada’s history, raising questions of where the lines are and who owns what.

Throughout his film, Hayden Taylor also touches upon the ongoing land disputes over Sauble Beach in the Bruce Peninsula, and travels to Winnipeg where water for the city was taken from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, leaving them under a boil water advisory for over two decades. He also takes us to a reserve in Osoyoos, British Columbia, home to a thriving vineyard and race track where they have embraced the idea of working alongside settlers, leading to a marked uptick in property value.

Over the course of the film’s fast-paced 44 minute running time, made to be broadcast in an hour-long time slot with commercials, Cottagers & Indians is able to offer a good overview of this complex dispute, with Hayden Taylor’s cameras capturing some tense, heated moments as both sides go head to head. It’s a thought provoking film that is worth watching.

Cottagers & Indians premieres tonight, July 4th, at 8 PM EST on CBC TV and CBC Gem, and is part of the CBC Docs POV series.

VOD Review: The Rest of Us

July 3, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The feature directorial debut of Canadian film producer Aisling Chin-Yee, The Rest of Us is a very solid little film that finds both drama and gentle humour in the interactions between its unique cast of female characters.

The film centres around Cami (Heather Graham), the author and illustrator behind a series of children’s books, who lives with her teenaged daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) in a house that she built in the country outside of Toronto following the breakup of her marriage many years prior.

But things take an unexpected turn when Cami’s ex-husband and Aster’s father dies suddenly. They drag themselves to the funeral, an event that is made more awkward by the presence of his new wife Rachel (Jodi Balfour), with whom he was having an affair while still married to Cami.

Rachel is the mother of a young daughter named Talulah (Abigail Phiowsky), a byproduct of this affair and a half-sister to Aster that she wants nothing to do with. When Rachel discovers that her husband had failed to pay his bills for the last few months of his life, she is left with no way to pay the mortgage, and ends up losing the house that she shared with him and everything in it.

With nowhere else for them to go, Cami invites Rachel and Talulah to stay with her and Aster at their house. This leads to a really interesting dynamic as Cami becomes a secondary mother figure to Talulah, while Rachel somewhat reverts back to her teenaged days, and Aster must learn to come to terms with her late father’s new family, whom she has always resented for tearing her own family apart.

Working from a nicely fleshed out screenplay by Alanna Francis, also making her feature debut, Chin-Yee does a fine job of capturing the small nuances in the relationships between the two mother-daughter duos at the heart of the story, with some twists along the way. It’s quite touching and sweet to watch an odd sort of blended family form between these two women who were ultimately both used by the same man, and their respective daughters who are forced to navigate a newfound relationship as half-sisters.

These four characters all have reasons to resent each other, but must come to forgive each other and learn to get along in order to move forward. A big part of the film’s success of course lies in the strength of the performances from its small but mighty ensemble cast. Graham is quite good here, rejuvenating her career with a solid performance that walks the line between comedy and drama, and feels like a comeback for the former Austin Powers star.

Nélisse, the breakout star of Monsieur Lazhar nearly a decade ago, continues to prove herself as one of the best young actors working in our country, believably portraying a moody teenager who is still very easy for us to sympathize with. Meanwhile, Balfour also finds a great deal of sympathy in her nuanced portrayal of a character who is initially presented as a home-wrecker, and Phiowsky proves herself to be a very promising newcomer with her sincere performance.

There are of course subplots concerning other relationships and affairs, but the focus is wisely kept on these four women and girls. While it is only eighty minutes long, The Rest of Us feels as fleshed out and complete as it needs to be to let us form a genuine connection to these characters. The result is a really enjoyable and sensitively observed character drama, that is carried by a set of four likeable and nicely textured performances from its strong female cast.

The Rest of Us is now available on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, including iTunes.

VOD Review: You Don’t Nomi

July 3, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

When Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who had previously crafted Hollywood hits out of pulpy material with RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, released Showgirls in 1995, it was universally derided and became a massive critical and commercial flop.

It’s not a surprise, since Verhoeven’s NC-17 stripper melodrama is campy, wildly overacted, filled with poorly developed characters, and has atrociously bad dialogue. It’s also been accused of being sexist and misogynistic, with its full-frontal nudity and graphic depiction of sexual assault. The film went on to receive a record thirteen Razzie nominations and seven wins, including for Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Actress.

But there are some who have reclaimed Showgirls as a work of campy entertainment, (which it admittedly is at times), or even, get this, a misbegotten work of art that was judged too harshly upon its release but time has revealed to be something deeper and something better. This debate is the subject of director Jeffrey McHale’s new documentary You Don’t Nomi, which is now available digitally after enjoying a run on the festival circuit last year.

Named for Elizabeth Berkley’s lead character in Showgirls, a young woman named Nomi Malone who settles in Las Vegas to become a stripper, You Don’t Nomi charts the film’s rise from box office bomb to cult classic, and how it got there. McHale explores this complicated legacy through an often entertaining and well edited mix of movie clips and interviews with a variety of critics and scholars, including those who argue that Showgirls is a sly commentary on American culture or even a secret masterpiece.

As it turns out, there is a lot to unpack about Showgirls. There is Berkley’s too-intense performance in the film, which was meant to launch her movie career following her role on the sitcom Saved by the Bell, but instead caused her stardom to fizzle out. And there’s the trashy, heavily clichéd screenplay by Joe Eszterhas, who previously wrote Basic Instinct for Verhoeven, that is wrought with laughably bizarre dialogue and gives us characters who at times barely even register as real people.

There’s also the appeal of Showgirls to queer audiences, with its themes of “chosen family” and owning your sexuality as you seek a new life in the big city striking a chord with the LGBTQ community. This has caused the film to be reclaimed by drag queens like Peaches Christ, one of the film’s subjects, who has started hosting interactive screenings. In this way, Showgirls has come to be embraced as a work of camp akin to Valley of the Dolls, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Mommie Dearest.

McHale foregoes on-screen interviews with his subjects and has them appear solely through voiceover, (a choice that makes it hard to tell who is speaking at times), providing commentary for the assemblage of movie clips and archival footage that make up his film. In a particularly quirky artistic touch, we are shown footage from Verhoeven’s other films with images from Showgirls edited onto screens within these scenes. At times, You Don’t Nomi does feel slightly scattershot in its assembly, and the arguments can get a bit repetitive, but the discussions are kept mostly interesting.

The voices range from David Schmader, who recorded a comedic commentary track for the special edition DVD of Showgirls and is somewhat dismissive of reads of the film that ascribe it more deeper meaning, to film critic Haley Mlotek, who helps provide context for how the film fits into Verhoeven’s oeuvre, and the cynical view of American culture that underpins all of his non-European works. Lines are drawn and comparisons made between his early Dutch films, to his Hollywood movies, and finally his post-Showgirls European works like Elle.

Also among the subjects is Toronto’s own Adam Nayman, who literally wrote a book on the subject of critically reevaluating the film; a small tome entitled It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls. The film even adopts the basic structure of Nayman’s book, breaking it up into three chapters that evaluate the film first as a “piece of shit,” then as a “masterpiece,” and finally as a “masterpiece of shit.” I haven’t read his book, but I must admit that within the film, Nayman often makes a pretty flimsy case for Showgirls being anything other than a guilty pleasure that he has convinced himself has some sort of artistic value.

Nayman, who admits that he first saw Showgirls as a fourteen year old boy when it came out in 1995, often waxes poetic about the visual language of the film and Verhoeven’s use of mirrors. Early on in the documentary, Nayman talks about how good the editing and cinematography is in the film, likening it to a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic. He then arrogantly dismisses viewers who disagree with his assessment of Showgirls being a visually beautiful work as “fucking morons.”

Nayman points to that infamous lunch scene in Showgirls where Berkley and co-star Gina Gershon cross the 180 degree line as an example of the movie’s deeper symbolism, meant to show a shifting power dynamic. But there is little concrete evidence that this crossing of the frame was anything other than an error on behalf of either the cinematographer or editor. Besides, even if it had been a symbolic choice, it’s still heavy-handed and not exactly deep. Not every metaphor is meaningful.

Nayman is countered out by film critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, who does not share his view that Showgirls is secretly brilliant, and is much more critical. Near the end, McHale brings in April Kidwell, star of the off-Broadway production Showgirls! The Musical!, who talks in detail about why she found it so cathartic to play Nomi on stage. This nicely ties into a larger discussion about the film’s treatment of women, including that uncomfortably brutal rape scene. There is interesting debate over whether or not Showgirls is misogynist in and of itself, or if it is a largely misunderstood commentary on misogyny.

The big question here is whether or not Verhoeven knew that he was making something campy, or if he intended to make a serious drama and failed at doing so. Verhoeven has since claimed it was the former, (and was even the first director to actually show up and accept his Razzies, tongue firmly in cheek), but a pretentious “making of” book featuring essays and photos from the production that he published at the time of its release strongly suggests the latter.

Actor Kyle MacLachlan has also gone on record to say that Verhoeven was treating the material with the utmost seriousness while on-set, so who knows? Maybe it’s both. The answer to this question of whether Showgirls is a subversive satire of sex and violence in American culture, through-lines that are found in Verhoeven’s other works, or a clunky and exploitative piece of trash that is meant to celebrate excess without much to actually say, is largely subjective.

I can live with the argument that Showgirls has some value as a work of camp, and there are many scenes that are entertaining in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. But it’s hard to make a case for it being something more than that. There is a world of difference between admiring the film as a piece of great trash, and trying to argue that it is in fact great art.

But it sure is fun to entertain this thought for ninety minutes in You Don’t Nomi, which allows us to experience and enjoy the best-worst moments of Showgirls, (that over the top pool sex scene, that wistful discussion about eating doggy chow, etc.), in a contextualized setting.

You Don’t Nomi is now available on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Review: We Bare Bears: The Movie

June 30, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

I first discovered the Cartoon Network series We Bare Bears last summer when I came across an episode entitled Shush Ninjas in which the show’s three protagonists, a trio of adoptive bear brothers named Grizz (Eric Edelstein), Panda (Bobby Moynihan) and Ice Bear (Demetri Martin), go to a movie theatre and try to quiet unruly patrons disrespecting the movie-going experience.

Needless to say, I was hooked, and started watching more of the show. The characters are very cute and endearing, the stories are charming, the 2D animation is quite appealing, and the series is also filled with movie references that are fun to pick up on. And now, the Bear Bros have a whole movie to call their own.

The feature length We Bare Bears: The Movie, which dropped on digital platforms today, is perfect for fans of the series. Directed by the show’s creator Daniel Chong, this well-paced 69 minute film unfolds as a road trip adventure, offering the same mix of wacky high jinks the bears are known for, as well as a ton of heart and a moving message about acceptance. It’s also adorable, and I kinda loved it.

The movie opens with a flashback to the bears as cubs, with them first meeting on a railway bridge in a sequence that pays homage to the train scene in Stand By Me. From here, we cut to them as adults, well established in their lives in a cave near San Francisco, and getting perhaps a bit too comfortable in the human world they have adapted to. The bears are already on thin ice after wreaking havoc on their way to try out a new poutine food truck, and things get worse when they accidentally cause a massive outage in the city while drawing a huge amount of power trying to go viral on the internet.

Residents quickly turn against them, and at a town hall meeting, the bears are ordered to leave. They become fugitives, and decide to flee to Canada, spurred on by the hope that “Canadians love bears” and that they will be accepted into our country. But they are being pursued by the mean Agent Trout (Marc Evan Jackson) from the Department of Wildlife Control, who views them as a “threat to the natural order” for their ability to talk, walk on two legs, and stack on top of each other. In essence, he doesn’t like them because they are different, and wants to capture them and send them back to the wild.

What worked about the show is that each of the three main characters have such unique, well-defined personalities. Grizz is an outgoing grizzly bear who just wants to fit in and make new friends; Panda is somewhat insecure, seeking popularity and hopefully a girlfriend; and Ice Bear is, well, Ice Bear is a fiercely independent and highly self-sufficient polar bear with a limited vocabulary who always speaks in third person and is, above all else, very loyal to his brothers. The movie does a nice job of building upon this character development, and serves as a fitting finale to the series, which ran for four seasons.

The show is known for having a modern edge to it and being highly internet-literate, and this pop culture savviness carries over to We Bare Bears: The Movie as well, including an amusing sequence where the bears end up at a rave for viral animal stars. There are also appearances from many of the show’s recurring characters, including Charlie the Bigfoot (Jason Lee), the koala Nom Nom (Patton Oswalt), Korean girl Chloe (Charlyne Yi), and Ranger Tabes (Carmon Esposito). There are some funny sight gags sprinkled throughout, as well as plenty of amusing one-liners, many of which come from Martin’s perfectly deadpan, monotoned delivery of Ice Bear’s dialogue.

The show is often quite funny, but also grounded in something real, having been inspired by Chong’s own experience growing up as an Asian-American kid in San Francisco, being largely accepted but also constantly having the feeling of being seen as the “other.” This balance between the amusing and the bittersweet, which makes the show so appealing, is nicely pulled off by Chong and his team of writers and animators in the movie as well. When you get right down to it, this is a film about the immigrant experience, following a group of outsiders being told, essentially, “you are no longer welcome here.”

Even a precursory glance at the plot will tell you that We Bare Bears: The Movie functions as a political allegory, with many powerful allusions to what’s been happening in America over the past few years, and the rising tide of bigotry and discrimination towards immigrants and newcomers to the country. The film also serves as a nice love letter to Canada and what it represents on the world stage, (I like to think the fact that it is being released the day before Canada Day was intentional), while still acknowledging that we, as a country, also have room to do better.

This is in many ways the completion of Grizz’s story arc, with him learning to embrace his role as protector to his brothers. These bears are a family. They are brothers, even though they look different and don’t share parents, and watching their bond be tested and reaffirmed over the course of We Bare Bears: The Movie is quite satisfying, especially for those of us who are fans of the show.

The finale of the film is surprisingly suspenseful and emotional and very well done, culminating with a series of touching images over the credits. This is a wonderful, heartwarming, and inclusive animated film, guided along by a very timely message about acceptance and embracing differences.

We Bare Bears: The Movie is now available to purchase on a variety of digital platforms in the United States and Canada, including iTunes.

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