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Review: Beautiful Boy

October 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The English-language debut of Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen, who is best known for his Oscar-nominated 2012 film The Broken Circle BreakdownBeautiful Boy is a heartbreaking and deeply emotional addiction drama, that is anchored by superb performances from Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet.

The film is based on a pair of memoirs that were written by a father and son, and harrowingly depicts the struggles that writer David Sheff (Carell) faced when trying to help his drug-addicted young adult son Nic (Chalamet) get clean, after he started using crystal meth as a teenager.

The film takes a stripped down and grittily authentic approach to telling this story, charting Nic’s ongoing journey into recovery over several years, including his stints in rehab and inevitable relapses, powerfully showing how his drug addiction not only detrimentally impacted his own life, but also the lives of those around him, including his father, mother (Amy Ryan), stepmother (Maura Tierney), and two younger siblings (Christian Convery and Oakley Bull).

Tackling an obviously challenging role, made even more so by the fact that he is portraying a real person, Chalamet gives a quietly devastating performance here, perfectly embodying the tics and mannerisms of someone who is trying to hide the full extent of his addiction from those around him. A year after his breakout roles in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird, this is the young actor’s finest work so far, and his performance becomes even more impressive after watching footage of Nic Sheff in real life.

Then there’s Carell, who gives an understated and subtly moving performance as a father struggling to save his son, while coming to terms with the fact that he no longer recognizes the boy that he raised. It’s maybe his best dramatic work yet, in a widely expansive career that has seen him move effortlessly from comedies to more serious roles. Chalamet and Carell’s scenes together are deeply moving to watch, with them capturing the father-son bond in a way that feels authentic.

Groeningen directs the film in a way that allows the focus to stay on the performances, and the film is, in a sense, edited to the emotional beats of the story, delivering a series of gutting scenes that together pack one heck of an emotional wallop. We focus on intimate character moments, while also pulling back to explore the larger implications of addiction, including a powerful sequence in which a doctor (Timothy Hutton) gravely tells David about the effects that methamphetamines have on the brain, with frequent use leading to reductions of grey matter and ultimately permanent, irreversible brain damage.

The longer you use, the more reliant you become and the harder it is to stop, but each hit does more and more damage, in a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to break, with many users sadly dying before they are able to get clean. The film never shies away from showing the stark realities of addiction, with graphic depictions of drug use and its aftermath, including closeup shots of Nic shooting up and the needles going into his arm. Groeningen also smartly steers away from giving us an overly pat happy ending, instead closing the film on a somewhat hopeful but still somber note that doesn’t undercut the devastating power of what came before, and instead heightens it.

Yes, Nic’s recovery is apparent from the fact that the film is partially based on a memoir that he wrote himself, but Beautiful Boy also shows that recovery is a constant struggle, and the film doesn’t exploit the process for easy inspirational value. Nic survived thanks to the support of his family and his own determination to get clean, but many addicts don’t make it out alive, and this fact weighs heavily on us throughout the film, especially when we are hit with the heartbreaking statistics through a postscript during the end credits.

With the opioid crises fuelling headlines and drug overdoses now being the leading cause of death for people under fifty, it’s near impossible to understate the importance of a film like this. What Beautiful Boy does is offer a harrowing look at how drugs can not only ravage the life of the user but also the lives of their families, and by the end it will rip your heart out. While the film is hard to watch at times due to the subject matter, it’s extremely well acted and very powerful. The last act pretty much wrecked me.

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


Review: Halloween

October 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Forty years after terrorizing the town of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night, the silent killer Michael Myers (Nick Castle) returns to once again wreak havoc on October 31st and hunt down Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who survived his first rampage.

Laurie has spent the past forty years trying to come to terms with what happened to her and her friends at the hands of this masked madman, and she has channelled her trauma into becoming a survivalist, turning her house in the woods into a secure fortress, and stockpiling firearms and training herself to use them. You see, she has been praying for Michael to escape for years, so she can finally get her revenge by killing him.

This is one hell of a hook for a belated sequel, and this premise of a woman getting overdue revenge on the man who attacked her is what fuels this new iteration of Halloween, which hails from director David Gordon Green and producer Jason Blum, who brings the series under his Blumhouse Productions label. The film functions as both a new spin on John Carpenter’s original 1978 classic as well as a direct sequel to it that pretty much sidesteps all of the other additions to the franchise, and the results are a lot of fun to watch.

The screenplay, which was co-written by Green along with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, pays tribute to the mythos of the original, offering a good mix of suspense and character moments, as well as some perfectly timed bits of humour to help break the tension, of which there is plenty. The film begins with a pair of “investigative journalists” (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees), who are doing a true-crime podcast about the “babysitter murders” of forty years ago, paying a visit to Michael Myers in the maximum security psychiatric hospital where he has been held for the past few decades.

But Michael is being moved to another facility, and when the bus that he is travelling on crashes on a backroad, he is able to escape, and starts slicing and dices his way into town and towards the victim who got away. Laurie now has an adult daughter named Karen (Judy Greer) whom she raised from a young age to be paranoid and able to fend for herself, an upbringing that caused them to grow estranged when she lost custody of her at age twelve, as well as a granddaughter named Ally (Andi Matichak), who is in high school and curious to know more about her grandma. The rest of the film focuses on these three generations of women as they are left to fight for their lives.

There is no denying that the original Halloween remains an untouchable masterwork and is a definitive classic of the slasher genre. Carpenter took what could have been a forgettable B-movie and elevated it to the level of art, masterfully building suspense and using the camera to help drum up tension in a way that is comparable to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. While this 2018 version of Halloween doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the 1978 original, it’s absolutely a worthy successor to it, and a superbly well crafted horror movie in its own right.

The film offers plenty of little nods and throwbacks to the original, and while some of this is fan service, it is very well done and finds some intriguing angles from which to approach the story. We get scenes with Ally and her high school friends that playfully recall the stuff with Laurie and the other babysitters in the original film, drawing parallels between the different generations of characters. Jamie Lee Curtis proves that she still has it, returning comfortably to her most iconic role, while bringing some interesting shades to her portrayal of someone who is still haunted by past trauma.

Cinematographer Michael Simmonds does an excellent job of conjuring up some evocative images of his own, while also paying homage to Dean Cundey’s iconic work in the original film, even recreating certain images and framing choices in inventive and fresh new ways. David Gordon Green directs the film with a strong visual sense, crafting several gripping and intense set-pieces, including a brutal encounter in a truck stop restroom, and a chilling sequence on the side of the road following the bus crash that makes appropriately creepy use of the foggy nighttime setting.

The other standout element of the film is, of course, the music. John Carpenter came out of his partial retirement to both executive produce the film and get back behind the synthesizers to help craft the score, and his involvement is crucial to the success of it. Working alongside his son Cody Carpenter and musician Daniel A. Davies, he does a great job of playing around with his iconic theme, building upon the chilling synth and strings arrangement in a lot of really cool ways.

The film also understands that it is the simplicity of Michael Myers, with his worn mechanic uniform and white face mask, which appears appropriately weathered after several decades, that makes him so terrifying. Michael is evil personified, a masked figure who kills with ruthless abandon and never says a word, tearing through everyone who crosses his path. He has no emotions, and no remorse. He is a killing machine, plain and simple, a real life version of the boogeyman if there ever was one.

The kills here are twisted and often brutal, with Michael committing a series of grisly murders as he makes his way towards his main target, his signature head tilt showing the coldness with which he is able to take lives. The film builds with a propulsive drive towards the final showdown between Strode and Myers, at which point it delivers an intense, suspenseful and finally cathartic climax that gives fans exactly what they want and brings the story full circle from the original.

Watching Halloween gives you exactly the rush that you want it to. The music and cinematography are top notch and do a great job of setting the tone, and the film offers a good mix of entertaining moments and jump scares, proving that the wait was indeed worth it for this long overdue sequel.

Review: The Oath

October 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

“I pledge my loyalty to my President and my country and vow to defend them from enemies, both foreign and domestic.”

This is the Patriot’s Oath at the centre of The Oath, an uneven but still topical and often entertaining political satire that marks the directorial debut of comedic actor Ike Barinholtz, who also wrote the script and stars in the film.

The film takes place in an alternate version of America, and begins with the government putting forth a declaration that citizens are expected to sign pledging their allegiance to the president. Signing the Oath is not mandatory, but there are tax benefits for doing so, and repercussions for those who protest too loudly.

The film unfolds over the week of Thanksgiving, showing the effects that the Oath has on a politically divided family. At the centre of it all is Chris (Barinholtz), the sort of white, upper middle class progressive who makes a point of virtue signalling about his “resistance” to the government and especially the Oath, making no secret of his indignation towards anyone who has made the choice to sign it.

Chris and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are hosting Thanksgiving at their place, and it just so happens that the Oath comes into effect on Black Friday. This automatically puts a cloud over their celebrations, especially since his conservative family is visiting, including his parents Hank (Chris Ellis) and Eleanor (Nora Dunn), as well as his brother Pat (Ike’s real life brother, Jon Barinholtz) and his girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner), a pair of young patriots who make no secret of their support for the president.

While Kai advises him to not bring up politics, Chris finds himself unable to resist his urge to discuss the Oath, and eventually he snaps and starts lashing out at those who signed it. While Chris prides himself on being tolerant, he is actually the most intolerant member of his family when it comes to accepting different viewpoints, awarding himself the moral high ground – sometimes justifiably so – but often acting like a humongous jerk to those around him. It’s in these moments when the film is at its most interesting, playing up the heated political arguments that have become all too common nowadays.

At a time when families have actually been broken apart along political divides, this is fertile ground for both comedy and drama, and the early scenes mirror a heightened version of what has surely happened around many dinner tables over the past few years. Then the film takes a turn about halfway through and becomes something much darker in its second half, when a pair of government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) show up at the door to question Chris about his opposition to the Oath.

From here, The Oath starts to resemble more of a darkly comic riff on The Purge then it does the family dramedy that it starts out as in the earlier scenes. Both halves of the film are often entertaining in their own ways, but the more sitcomish quality of the first half doesn’t quite match the violent and more intense second half, and vice versa, which gives a somewhat uneven feel to the film as a whole.

The film also has a tendency to play things a little too broad when a more dialled back approach likely would have allowed for a more nuanced look at a family unravelling due to political differences, and the actual Oath itself functions as more of a plot device rather than a fully developed concept. While there was potential here for something more, The Oath is still fine for what it is, offering a fairly entertaining and at times uncomfortable look at a nation divided.

Review: Transformer

October 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Gaining fame as a champion weightlifter and bodybuilder, and also serving in the US Marines, Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was seen as a symbol of stereotypical masculinity, and came across as a classic “strong man.”

But Matt always felt there was something different about himself, which he tried to keep hidden. After being outed as transgender on the internet in 2015, and subsequently getting dropped by valuable sponsors because of it, Matt decided to stop living a secret life and finally transition to Janae.

Director Michael Del Monte gains intimate access to Kroczaleski’s family life in the documentary Transformer, which took home both the Best Canadian Documentary prize as well as the general Audience Award at Hot Docs earlier this year.

The film shows her at home with her three supportive sons, while also capturing candid moments when she goes to visit her parents, who both initially struggled to come to terms with the transition. Whether applying makeup, picking out feminine outfits, or pumping iron with nail polish on in one of the film’s most memorable images, Kroczaleski is always open with the camera, and constantly challenging traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.

While the bathroom bill and trans military ban likely would have been in the news at the same time as the film was wrapping up, Transformer takes a largely apolitical approach to telling its story, and this is one of the strengths of the piece. It allows us to focus on the human element first and foremost, and the film functions as an engaging character piece that provides a fascinating and compassionate look at body image issues and gender identity.

Transformer is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

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

Contest: Win iTunes Promo Codes of Mary Shelley and The King!

October 18, 2018

To celebrate the digital releases of Mary Shelley and The King this week, levelFILM has provided us with a couple of iTunes promo codes for each film to giveaway to some lucky Canadian readers!

Mary Shelley is a biopic of the iconic Frankenstein author that is carried by a good performance from Elle Fanning in the title role, and The King is one of the year’s absolute best documentaries and a must watch for any Elvis Presley fans. You can read our reviews by clicking on the images below. If selected as a winner, you’ll get digital copies of both films to add to your iTunes library.

To enter, simply send an email to with the subject line “Win iTunes Promo Codes of Mary Shelley and The King”, or just leave us a comment below indicating that you’re interested. Please also note that you will need a Canadian iTunes account in order to redeem the codes, so this contest is open to Canadian residents only.

The contest closes at 11:59 PM on October 31st, and the codes will be sent out as soon as the contest ends and the winners are selected. Good luck!

Blu-ray Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

October 16, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, and the most recent piece of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man and the Wasp opens with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) still under house arrest following the events of Captain America: Civil War. As part of his bail conditions, he is not allowed to wear the shrinking Ant-Man suit or have any contact with his old cohorts.

But Scott is sucked back into working with physicist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), when they discover that Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappeared decades earlier after shrinking down to a molecular level, might still be alive and stuck in the quantum realm.

Dr. Pym has developed technology to enter the quantum realm, and Scott’s experience in the field makes him ideal for the experiment. But several antagonistic forces stand in their way, including Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a mysterious young woman with the ability to walk through walls and fragment herself who wants the technology for her own reasons, and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a sleazy dealer who sells classified technology on the black market and is also trying to steal their equipment.

Director Peyton Reed brings the same lightness of tone to Ant-Man and the Wasp that he brought to the first one, and a big part of why this sequel works is because the interplay between the cast members is just so enjoyable to watch. Paul Rudd is very good at playing a sort of goofy action hero, building upon his prior appearances as Ant-Man and bringing genuine charm and likability to the film that helps it tremendously.

The way he bounces off the other cast members, including Douglas and Lilly, is often delightful, and gives an enjoyably loose quality to the film. Michael Peña reprises his role as Luis, Scott’s hyper-talking sidekick and security expert, and a hilarious rapid fire monologue that he delivers under the influence of “truth serum” is one of the main comic high points in the film. Randall Park is also a delightful addition to the cast as the bemused FBI Agent who is on Scott’s case.

The screenplay, which Rudd has a credit on along with four other writers, doesn’t get too bogged down with the physics talk, and leaves ample room for witty banter and jokes, a surprising amount of which actually land. The action scenes do a good job of playing up the sense of scale, and the ending becomes a wild car chase through the streets of San Francisco that finds a bunch of people all in pursuit of the same object, heightened by the ability of our heroes and their vehicles to shrink and grow in size.

This is not the deepest or most complex film in the MCU, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining diversion that doesn’t overstay its welcome at just under two hours, and provides an enjoyable reprieve from the heaviness of Avengers: Infinity War. As an action comedy that embraces its comic book origins, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a fun and frequently very funny movie that unfolds at a brisk pace and is buoyed along by the often amusing interplay of its ensemble cast.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with Peyton Reed, a couple of brief deleted scenes with optional commentary, as well as outtakes and a gag reel, and the four featurettes Back in the Ant Suit: Scott Lang, A Suit of Her Own: The Wasp, Subatomic Superheros: Hank & Janet, and Quantum Perspective: The VFX and Production Design of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release. It’s 118 minutes and rated PG.

Review: The Hate U Give

October 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

When Tupac Shakur talked about the “THUG LIFE”, he said it stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” This is where the title of The Hate U Give comes from, and the meaning of this quote is discussed throughout the film.

What Tupac was referring to is the idea that if a young kid is born into a poor neighbourhood, and grows up surrounded by violence, then that kid is more likely to turn to violence as a result. If there are no jobs, then people are more likely to turn to drug dealing and crime to make ends meet, and then they end up in prison or worse, which often keeps fathers out of the homes and further destabilizes the family unit, and so on and so forth.

Poverty begets poverty, and violence begets violence, in a vicious cycle that is doomed to just keep repeating itself, unless someone actually steps up to break this cycle, and the idea is that how you do this is by giving love instead of hate. Based on the bestselling young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a gripping and well made big screen adaptation that provides proof of the ability that even the most commercially viable movies can have to tell powerful and relevant stories.

The film follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a 16-year-old black girl who essentially has two versions of herself. When she is just hanging out with her family in their working class neighbourhood of Garden Heights, where her father (Russell Hornsby) owns a convenience store and they have a tight-knit community, she is free to just be herself. But at the rich and predominantly white prep school that she goes to nearby, she is conscious of her speech patterns, so as not to appear too “ghetto” and paint even more of a target on her back.

But things take a horrific turn following a neighbourhood party, when Starr takes a ride back with her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). It’s in this scene that Tupac’s concept of the “THUG LIFE” is first discussed, with the iconic rapper’s music fittingly providing the soundtrack. They get pulled over by a police officer (Drew Starkey) for a traffic stop, and Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot and killed, despite the fact that he is unarmed. It’s one of the most harrowing sequences in the film, and the way that these moments are framed onscreen fills us with a sense of dread. We already know what’s going to happen, and it’s the inevitability of the gunshots that make them so heartbreaking when they come.

As the only witness to the killing, Starr ends up embroiled in a heavily publicized fight for justice that threatens to force both of her worlds to collide, and even brings up divisions in her own community. The situation is complicated by the fact that her uncle (Common) is also a cop, and the area is essentially run by a violent gang known as the King Lords, whose leader (Anthony Mackie) becomes worried that Starr will cross them, especially since her father is a former gang member. Starr struggles to do the right thing, while also trying to stop her older half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and her younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) from getting involved in the conflict.

Brought to the screen by director George Tillman Jr., who does a good job of navigating the many plot threads, The Hate U Give is a multilayered drama that features a rich tapestry of characters, who all bring different perspectives to the complex story. Amandla Stenberg delivers a star turn in the lead, and she is supported by a strong ensemble cast. Algee Smith is able to leave an impact on the entire film in his few crucial scenes, and also watch for Russell Hornsby, who delivers an excellent and multifaceted performance as Starr’s father, bringing fascinating nuance to the role.

As rioters take to the streets and things spiral out of control, the climactic moments of The Hate U Give fill us with a mix of suspense and dread, leaving us waiting to see if this cycle of violence will continue for another generation, or if Starr will be able to finally break it, at least for her own family. This is a top tier YA adaptation, that is unafraid of igniting a complex and timely conversation in a nuanced yet still accessible way. It’s a powerful film that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

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

Review: First Man

October 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Damian Chazelle follows up his Oscar-winning films Whiplash and La La Land with First Man, a space race drama that follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) over seven years as he prepares to become the first man to walk on the moon.

The film charts Armstrong’s journey from his time as a test pilot who, following the tragic death of his young daughter to a brain tumour, decides to join NASA’s Project Gemini, as a way to both conceal and channel his grief into something concrete. This provides the main dramatic backbone of First Man, with Armstrong’s drive to get to the moon being portrayed in the film as an inward journey for him as much as it is an outward one.

Through this, Josh Singer’s script offers a meticulous look at the trials and tribulations that went into actually getting to the moon, and at times this approach feels overly procedural. The film takes us through the Gemini 8 mission, which helped them fine tune the docking technology needed for the Apollo 11 mission, documenting the struggles that the space program faced with malfunctioning equipment, personal setbacks and even losses of life, as well as increasing pressure to beat the Soviet Union, which added to the sense of urgency that underscored the entire process.

Armstrong does everything with a sort of quiet determination, pushing himself forward and becoming singularly obsessed with going to the moon, not for the fame and media attention it will get him, but rather for his own personal sense of accomplishment. We see his somewhat competitive training with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Ed White (Jason Clarke), and also his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their young sons, who miss having their father at home and have to come to terms with the fact that he might not return, building up to the actual moon landing in 1969.

The film zeroes in on specific moments, only rarely pulling back to show the larger scope, and while Chazelle’s choice to reimagine man’s trip to the moon through a series of more intimate character moments is a somewhat interesting one, it also didn’t entirely work for me, and I’m not sure if it was really the right approach to telling this story. For me, the film doesn’t entirely capture the true sense of excitement that must have gripped America and the world as Armstrong walked on the moon. What we get instead is a fairly conventional biopic and somewhat drab family drama, that becomes an overly impressionistic look at the moon landing itself.

The film became the point of controversy following its premiere in Venice a little while ago, when word got out that they chose to forego showing the iconic moments when Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon. Any possible political motivations for this omission aside, the real reason why they don’t show this moment is because First Man isn’t really focused on showing the moon landing as an incredible achievement for America as a whole, but instead about portraying it as a personal and deeply introspective journey for Armstrong himself.

Whether this paired back character drama approach to dramatizing the moon landing works for you or not will likely depend on what sort of film you are hoping to get, but First Man still has enough going for it to make it worth seeing, at least from a technical standpoint. The film is very well acted by Gosling, who is a natural fit for the role of Armstrong, believably portraying him as a quiet, stoic man who doesn’t really view himself as the hero that everybody else sees him as. The rest of the cast does strong work as well, even if all of the supporting roles aren’t equally fleshed out.

The film does have some moments that inspire the appropriate sense of awe, and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is great. Shot using a mix of 16mm, 35mm and 65mm film stock, there is a filmic grain to it that evokes the time period quite well and recalls classics like The Right Stuff. These images make First Man worthy of being seen in IMAX, with the film switching aspect ratios during the climactic moments on the moon to make stunning use of the extra height provided by the giant screen, showing the full grandeur of space itself.

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

Review: The Kindergarten Teacher

October 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a kindergarten teacher in New York going through a bit of a midlife crisis, seemingly unhappy with her family life.

When she overhears one of her young students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), reciting a poem he has written, she is convinced that he is a young prodigy and becomes obsessed with fostering his talent, seeing herself as the only one in his circle who can help him.

At first she starts passing the poems off as her own at the evening poetry classes she is taking, where they are met in earnest by the teacher (Gael García Bernal), but Lisa quickly starts to cross boundaries by meddling in more aspects of Jimmy’s life.

A remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli drama, The Kindergarten Teacher is a compelling film from writer-director Sara Colangelo, that unfolds with a sort of quiet intensity backed by an increasing sense of unease. Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers one of the best performances of her career, keeping us compelled as we try to parse out the true intentions behind her character’s inappropriate obsession with this child. As Lisa keeps blurring more and more boundaries with Jimmy, the film becomes quietly unnerving, building towards a fascinating last act.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and is also available to watch on Netflix.

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

Review: Bigger

October 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Based on the true story of the men who built an entire fitness empire from the ground up, Bigger dramatizes the life of Joe Weider (Tyler Hoechlin) and his younger brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard), a pair of working class Jewish kids from Montreal who founded the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition, and helped turn the profession into a respected sport.

Growing up poor in the 1920s and ’30s, and faced with creeping anti-Semitism boiling over from Europe at the time, Joe initially starts working out as a kid so that he can stand his ground against schoolyard bullies. As a young adult, Joe channels his fascination with the male form into Your Physique, an independent fitness and health magazine for men.

While Joe’s interest in male bodies initially leads many to assume he is gay, with his magazine at first being written off as a work of homoerotica, the success of the publication places the two brothers at the centre of the larger fitness industry. The Weiders are able to move their business to California, where they can be closer to their celebrity clients, and the pinnacle of their careers comes in 1965, when they start Mr. Olympia as a challenger to the already established Mr. Universe competition.

The film takes us through a sort of “greatest hits” of Joe’s life, including his relationship to Hollywood pin-up girl Betty Brosmer (Julianne Hough), who became his wife and confidante for the rest of his life, as well as his discovery of a then-unknown Austrian bodybuilder by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Calum Von Moger), whose career was launched when he won the title of Mr. Olympia in 1970. The film also shows how Joe was unafraid of embracing social change, including putting an African-American model on the cover of his magazine, at a time when that was still unheard of.

Tyler Hoechlin does fine work in the leading role, developing a specific cadence of speech and sticking with it to offer an engaging portrayal of Joe Weider, and Julianne Hough does appealing work alongside him. Newcomer Calum Von Moger bares strong resemblance to Schwarzenegger in terms of physicality, and is able to nail Arnold’s distinctive voice as well, without merely feeling like an impersonator. The film also features another charismatic supporting turn in the form of Kevin Durand, who has a blast chewing up the scenery in the antagonistic role of Bill Hauk, an appallingly racist rival magazine publisher whose raging anti-Semitism fuels his jealous hatred of the Weiders.

The film is structured with Joe as an older man in 2008, played by Robert Forster, attending the funeral of his brother and being interviewed by journalist Michael Steere (DJ Qualls), who went on to write the biographical book Brothers of Iron. It’s not exactly revelatory in its approach, and the storytelling is fairly by the numbers, but Bigger is still a mildly entertaining and fairly well acted biopic that does a decent job of detailing the rags to riches story of its protagonists.

Bigger is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto.

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