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Review: Fahrenheit 11/9

September 21, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

How did America get to the point in 2016 where the ubiquitous businessman turned realty show star Donald Trump was able to win the presidency?

This is the basic question fuelling Michael Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, a sometimes engaging but mostly frustrating and ultimately overly simplistic and wholly unfocused screed against the problems plaguing the United States today.

Named for the day after the 2016 election when Trump was confirmed as the next president in the wee hours of the morning, beating the establishment favourite Hillary Clinton in a shocking upset that led to the total meltdown of the media, the title of Fahrenheit 11/9 also positions the film as a sequel of sorts to Moore’s 2004 Iraq War documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

While this title works as a clever inverse of that earlier film’s moniker, it also seems more than a little sensationalistic, and the suggestion that Trump’s election was a national tragedy near the same level as the 9/11 terrorist attacks seems like a gross exaggeration. The actual content of the film offers a mixed bag of pointed social commentary and opinion piece, with Moore’s usual heavy handed, preaching to the choir style being sometimes effective, and other times eye-rollingly manipulative. Read more…

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Review: Assassination Nation

September 21, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, which is opening in theatres today fresh off of playing as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness, is the first movie I have ever seen that opens with a series of “trigger warnings.”

These warnings, which are presented in a firmly tongue-in-cheek way and are ironically blasted on screen over brief flashes of some of the film’s most shocking images, foretell of the potentially “triggering” content we are about to see, ranging from “bullying” and “transphobia” to “toxic masculinity” and “fragile male egos.”

The obvious joke is that these trigger warnings are just as jarring as some of the actual content they are warning us about, not least of which because of the unavoidable and in-your-face way they are presented. For those that aren’t as up on the modern campus politics that define “generation snowflake”, trigger warnings have become ubiquitous at colleges and universities, and are actually backfiring in that they are making people more easily offended, and less equipped to deal with the actual issues.

Which is why they are such an appropriate way to kick off Assassination Nation, an entertaining if somewhat unwieldy film that swings a hammer at the easy target of modern outrage culture, where being offended is seen as trendy and virtue signalling is used as a form of social currency. The film takes place in the appropriately named town of Salem, and our narrator is Lily (Odessa Young), a teen girl who is seen as a bit of a pariah at home and school for her very liberal views on sexuality.

The story begins when an anonymous hacker leaks salacious photos and videos revealing that the “family values” mayor (Cullen Moss) is actually a cross-dresser who is having affairs with other men, rocking the town to its core. When the same hacker starts targeting other residents of Salem, including Lily and her trio of friends Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), they end up having their worlds upended when their photos and texts are made public, leading to complete and utter chaos in the town. And then all hell breaks loose.

Directed with an up the minute sense of style by Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation is a somewhat over the top social satire that explores a lot of relevant themes, sexism and privacy in the digital age being chief among them. The film also shows how the mob mentality that has taken root in modern culture can lead people to carry out literal witch hunts, and how dangerous this can be when certain individuals – especially minorities – are falsely accused of crimes and become the subject upon which for people to project their misplaced anger.

The film blasts the hypocrisy of people who publicly preach about morality without even practising these values in their private lives, as well as the SJWs who claim to be compassionate, yet have no sympathy for those with whom they disagree. One of the film’s most interesting moments comes when Lily points out the ironic fact that the very same people who claim to care about LGBT issues, namely her friend Bex who also happens to be transgender, have no compassion for the mayor when he gets outed as gay and hung out to dry, simply because of his very conservative policies.

There are a lot of layers to the story, also touching on themes of bullying, abusive relationships, and the internet trolls who put people in their crosshairs and do it simply “for the lulz”, and at times it seems like the film is biting off a bit more than it can chew. The film has a lot on its mind, but I’m not entirely sure it all works, and some of the messages threaten to get lost in the literal bloodbath of the last act, when it becomes a slickly made but somewhat standard slasher movie.

Although it ultimately isn’t quite as deep as it seems to think it is, and could probably be best described as Mean Girls meets The PurgeAssassination Nation is still a fairly entertaining ride that is sure to resonate in these unusual times.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: Life Itself

September 21, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest film from Dan Fogelman, best known as the creator of the hit TV show This Is Us, Life Itself is a film that has inspired a myriad of reactions since it premiered at TIFF. I spoke to a lot of people at the festival who loved the film, but most critics have mocked it mercilessly. I was somewhere in the middle. I get the appeal of this drama, but I also see the problems with it.

The film follows a collection of characters who are all connected in various ways, with the through line being Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a New York couple who are expecting their first child. The all-star cast also includes plum roles for Olivia Cooke, Mandy Patinkon, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, among others.

I got to see Life Itself at a special screening prior to TIFF, and it actually took me a while to really make up my mind on what I even thought about it. I mean, on the one hand, the film is so nakedly melodramatic, and some of the choices that it makes are so baffling, that it’s almost fascinating to watch. The sheer amount of clichés and contrived plot points that Fogelman is able to work into the jam-packed two hour running time, while tying it all together through a ton of voiceover narration and pseudo-philosophical monologues, is almost impressive.

The film sort of plays like an example of what would happen if someone decided to employ every single screenwriting trick in the book, unfolding with one hard-hitting plot device after another, to the point of exhaustion. It’s cloying and shamelessly manipulative, and often far-fetched in terms of how everyone is connected, but it’s also admittedly effective at certain points, and after a while it kind of started getting to me. We know we are being manipulated, but I’ll be damned if there weren’t moments when I was sort of touched by this unruly beast of a melodrama to end all melodramas.

It’s designed to tug on your heartstrings at every chance it gets, and is the sort of film that will leave you either cringing or sobbing, as evidenced by some of the reactions around me in the theatre. All I can say is that I was somewhere in the middle, and even if Life Itself is a creative misfire, it’s still a somewhat interesting one to watch unfold. So in other words, it’s this year’s Collateral Beauty, and I actually kind of mean that as a compliment.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: Love, Gilda

September 21, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

An excellent portrait of the late comic superstar Gilda Radner, Love, Gilda is a documentary that strikes just the right balance between being funny and moving.

The film takes us through the entirety of her career, from her early start in the star-studded Toronto production of Godspell, to her big break on Saturday Night Live, the failed relationships that she had with many of her co-stars, and finally her marriage to Gene Wilder.

The footage that we see of her material is still just as hilarious all these years later, but the film also doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker elements of her life, including her struggles with eating disorders and finally ovarian cancer.

The most interesting thing about Love, Gilda is that most of the film unfolds through her own words, with old audio recordings serving as narration and passages from her diaries being read aloud by several modern Saturday Night Live stars who were heavily inspired by her work, including Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy.

The result is a wonderful and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a brilliant comic whose life and career ended far too soon, and the fact that it features appearances from some of my favourite funny people is an added bonus.

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

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: Ocean’s 8

September 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

A female-driven spinoff of Steven Soderbergh’s slickly entertaining Ocean’s trilogy, Ocean’s 8 focuses on Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of George Clooney’s title character, and the results are very mixed.

The story here begins as Debbie is just getting out of jail after five years, with her brother having passed away while she was locked up. Needing money to get her life back on track, she puts together a crew to help her pull off a major jewellery heist.

Debbie’s crew includes a fellow crook (Cate Blanchett), a semi-retired thief (Sarah Paulson) who steals shipments of big box goods to resell, a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter) hoping to get back in the spotlight, a jeweller (Mindy Kaling), a street grifter (Awkwafina), and a computer hacker (Rihanna). Their mark is a diamond necklace that has been locked away in a safe for decades and is valued at 150 million dollars, which they plan to sell for parts in order to make them all rich.

Debbie plans to steal the necklace by getting it around the neck of a movie star named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), and replacing it with a fake while she is in attendance at the prestigious Met Gala, but there are inevitably unexpected complications. With the story here only being tangentially connected to the other films, and not really building upon them in any sort of meaningful way, Ocean’s 8 feels like an entirely needless spinoff that could have just as easily been its own property, instead of somewhat shamelessly capitalizing on the name recognition of this preexisting franchise.

Director Gary Ross keeps things running fairly smoothly, but Ocean’s 8 lacks the more sophisticated air that Soderbergh – who is still credited here as a producer – brought to the other films, and the story also has much lower stakes. While the cast has some fine interplay together, the characters simply aren’t very interesting on their own terms, not because they are women, but simply because they are thinly written and never really come together or clash in ways that would make them compelling to watch.

The result is an entirely inconsequential film that serves as a lightweight and star-studded diversion, and there are moments when it is passably enjoyable on these very narrow terms. If that’s all you’re looking for, it sort of gets the job done, but Ocean’s 8 is ultimately a misfire in that it doesn’t really carve out enough of its own reasons to even exist in the first place.

The Blu-ray also includes a couple of short deleted scenes, as well as the three featurettes A Heist in Heels, Ocean’s Team 3.0 and Reimagining the Met Gala.

Ocean’s 8 is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 110 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Review: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom

September 18, 2018

By John Corrado

A Halloween special done in the same stop-motion style as the delightful Christmas special It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! from a few years back, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom is now available on DVD after making its broadcast premiere last year.

The story centres around SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), who doesn’t want to be spooked on Halloween and takes to heart Patrick’s (Bill Fagerbakke) motto that “scary equals funny,” until an encounter with the Flying Dutchman (Brian Doyle-Murray) that puts his friends in danger proves him wrong.

The stop-motion animation, which is once again overseen by co-directors Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, is well done, and gives the episode an appealing tactical feel. For fans of SpongeBob, The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom works as an amusing and offbeat Halloween special that has some fun reimagining the 2D characters in a different way, and for everyone else it’s an odd little curiosity that is worth checking out.

The DVD also includes the two very short featurettes Behind the Scenes: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom and The Art of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 23 minutes and rated PG.

#TIFF18 Review: Roma

September 17, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

A black and white homage to the Mexico of his youth and the women who raised him, Alfonso Caurón’s Roma is a beautiful and haunting work of art that unfolds through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young housekeeper and nanny working for a family in Mexico City in the 1970s.

The film unfolds with a gripping neorealist quality, putting the focus on feeling and emotion rather than story, showing personal moments in the life of this family that happen against the backdrop of profound social changes in Mexico at the time. Many of the sequences unfold in long takes, with the camera locked in a wide master shot, slowly panning over the frame to follow the action. These beautifully composed images are packed with little details that are able to reveal so much about the characters and this world, giving us the feeling of looking at moving photographs taken right out of time.

With Caurón in full command of his craft, acting as both editor and cinematographer as well, Roma fully immerses us in this world for a couple of hours through its mix of gorgeous imagery and naturalistic performances, with newcomer Yalitza Aparicio delivering one of the most powerful and authentic turns of the year. The film is going to be available on Netflix in December, but it’s worth seeing at least once on the big screen if you get the chance.

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 10th – 5:30 PM at Princess of Wales Theatre

Tuesday, September 11th – 8:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Wednesday, September 12th – 12:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Thursday, September 13th – 11:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Friday, September 14th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Saturday, September 15th – 8:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, September 16th – 2:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th.

#TIFF18 Review: Widows

September 17, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

When her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is killed during a heist gone wrong, Veronica (Viola Davis) enlists the help of the widows of the other men involved in the job – Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) – to finish the job and pay off a debt.

The latest from director Steve McQueen, following up his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, Widows is a twisty and often entertaining crime thriller that is carried by an all-star cast, even if it doesn’t land every moment. The screenplay, co-written by Gillian Flynn and based on a British TV series from the 1980s, is a dense work that is somewhat impressive for the way it weaves together so many different story strands, but the film also juggles a few too many characters. Some of them end up feeling underdeveloped, and the plot is contrived at times, revealing the pulpier impulses of Flynn’s other work.

The film has shades of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Brian DePalma without ever quite reaching those heights, but it’s still slickly directed by McQueen, who brings a strong sense of style to the action scenes. Bolstered by its thrillingly diverse ensemble cast, many of whom all get their moments to shine, Widows is a fun ride that delivers some kickass moments and a few unexpected if far-fetched turns.

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 8th – 9:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Sunday, September 9th – 10:30 AM at Princess of Wales Theatre

Thursday, September 13th – 9:15 PM at Princess of Wales Theatre

Sunday, September 16th – 6:00 PM at Elgin Theatre

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th.

#TIFF18 Review: Girl

September 17, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Lara (Victor Polster) is a teen girl in Belgium who is working hard to realize her dreams of becoming a ballerina, having been accepted into a prestigious ballet academy. She also happens to be transgender, having been born in a male body, and is in the process of chemically and surgically transitioning into a body that matches how she identifies.

There aren’t a lot of huge plot developments in Girl, with director Lukas Dhont instead employing a very observational approach to the way that he follows the characters, showing the struggles that Lara faces as she tries to find her place in the world. This also means that the film shows some incredibly intimate and uncomfortable personal moments, even depicting how Lara binds her genitals before practise, but it’s done in a respectful way that thankfully doesn’t feel exploitative.

Although there has been some criticism over the fact that a non-trans actor was cast in the role, Victor Polster delivers a respectful and believable portrayal, while also impressively taking on the physical challenges that come with the character. A trained dancer himself, he is well equipped to bring the dancing sequences to the screen with at times gruelling authenticity.

The film is especially touching in the way that it portrays Lara’s relationship with her single dad (Arieh Worthalter), who is depicted as a very supportive presence in her life, even if he naturally worries for her well-being and if she is moving too quickly to pursue surgery. This is an engaging drama that sensitively explores issues of gender identity and belonging in a way that feels real.

Victor Polster in Girl

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 8th – 3:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, September 9th – 6:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Sunday, September 16th – 12:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th.

#TIFF18 Review: Teen Spirit

September 17, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The directorial debut of actor Max Minghella, Teen Spirit follows Violet (Elle Fanning), a 17-year-old in a small town in the Isle of Wight who dreams of becoming a pop star. Despite her mother’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) best wishes, who would rather that her daughter just remain singing in the church choir, Violet enters a singing competition, bringing along Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an alcoholic former opera singer who hears her sing at a local karaoke bar and recognizes her raw talent, as her guardian and manager.

This is a pretty standard and fairly predictable story of a young singer trying to make it big. The film is uneven, and clearly inferior to the similarly music-themed festival favourites A Star is Born and Vox Lux. But Elle Fanning is good in the lead, and Teen Spirit is kinda enjoyable in fits and starts, even if it does feel more like an extended music video at times. The musical numbers, featuring both original songs and recognizable modern pop numbers, are flashy and entertaining enough to watch.

Elle Fanning in Teen Spirit

Public Screenings:

Friday, September 7th – 2:30 PM at Ryerson Theatre

Sunday, September 9th – 7:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Saturday, September 15th – 9:15 PM at Ryerson Theatre

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th.

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