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Blu-ray Review: Tomb Raider

June 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Seven years after losing her father (Dominic West), Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) discovers the many puzzles that he left behind in his work as an archaeologist, and sets out to solve the mystery behind his disappearance.

Teaming up with Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), who is captaining his own father’s ship, Lara travels to an island off the coast of Japan in search of the tomb of the mythical Queen Himiko, but finds herself in direct conflict with the brutal Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and his team of mercenaries, who are also trying to uncover the tomb.

Lara Croft first made her debut in a series of video games that started over two decades ago, and Tomb Raider serves as a new take on the classic character.  Because I have never played the games, and I admittedly also haven’t seen the original movies starring Angelina Jolie that came out in the early 2000s, I don’t really have anything to compare this new version to.  But taken on its own terms, Tomb Raider is an enjoyable enough action adventure that is fine for what it is.

No, it’s not a great film – as is probably to be expected from a video game adaptation, the characters are not that well fleshed out, the plot sort of jumps around, and the dialogue is often wooden – but it’s also not a bad one, either.  Director Roar Uthaug competently directs the film, staging some decent set-pieces, and it’s carried by a fine performance from Alicia Vikander, who delivers a more grounded and realistic take on Lara Croft, as opposed to the more sexed up portrayals of the character in the past.

While the film often comes across as a bargain basement version of Indiana Jones, I can’t say that I minded watching it.  If you are in the mood for this sort of thing, and all that you’re looking for is two hours of mindless entertainment, then Tomb Raider gets the job done just well enough.

The Blu-ray also includes the four featurettes Tomb Raider: Uncovered, Croft Training, Breaking Down the Rapids, and Lara Croft: Evolution of An Icon.

Tomb Raider is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release.  It’s 118 minutes and rated PG.

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Blu-ray Review: Sherlock Gnomes

June 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

A belated sequel to the 2011 film Gnomeo & Juliet, Sherlock Gnomes finds star-crossed lovers Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) being moved to London, where their owners now share a garden.

But when their fellow lawn decorations mysteriously go missing, they must enlist the help of the famous gnome detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his partner Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), in order to track them down and return them safely to the garden.

Where as Gnomeo & Juliet was a charming enough spin on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Sherlock Gnomes is less cohesive and also less successful.  This is not to say there aren’t still some mildly enjoyable moments scattered here, because there are a few.  The title character himself is a fairly amusing creation, and the sequences where he enters his “Mind Palace” are nicely done using black and white 2D animation, in the film’s best and most creative touch.

The brightly coloured computer animation is generally decent, the all-star voice cast does fine work and, like its predecessor, the film features a buoyant selection of Elton John songs.  But as a whole, Sherlock Gnomes is a thoroughly mediocre affair, and it’s further bogged down by having an annoying villain in Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), who has been reimagined here as a crazy pie shop mascot and starts to grate on the nerves right from when he first appears.  It’s fine for kids, but that’s about it.

The Blu-ray also includes the featurettes Gnome is Where the Heart Is, All Roads Lead to Gnome: London Locations in Sherlock Gnomes, Gnome Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Design and Art of Sherlock Gnomes, as well as Miss Gnomer: Mary J. Blige and the Music of Sherlock Gnomes and the music video for her new song “Stronger Than I Ever Was.”  There’s also the short piece Animating Sherlock Gnomes and instructions on how to draw four of the main characters.

Sherlock Gnomes is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  It’s 86 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Reviews: Trading Places: 30th Anniversary Edition and Coming to America: 35th Anniversary Edition

June 12, 2018

By John Corrado

A pair of classic comedies from the 1980s that share the same director in John Landis and the same star in Eddie Murphy, Trading Places and Coming to America are both celebrating anniversaries this year, and are getting brand new Blu-ray releases to honour the occasion.

Released to wild success in 1983, Trading Places tells the story of two insider traders Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) who make a bet about nature versus nurture, and enact a cruel social experiment in which they fire their top broker Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) and hire the homeless grifter Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) in his place.

With a clever script, and standout performances from the ensemble cast which also includes Jamie Lee Curtis as a street-smart prostitute, Trading Places remains a bonafide comedic classic that unfolds with shades of Frank Capra.  The film also functions as a pointed and still relevant social satire, using its rags to riches and riches to rags story to touch on bigger themes of race and class, and how the same person is treated differently when their socioeconomic status changes.  It’s a wildly entertaining film that still holds up, bolstered by one of Eddie Murphy’s finest roles.

The Blu-ray also includes the featurettes Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places, Trading Stories, Dressing the Part, and The Trade in Trading Places, as well as a deleted scene, an industry promotional piece, and trivia pop-ups.

Released five years later, Coming to America in a lot of ways served to capitalize on the critical and commercial success of the earlier collaboration between its director and star, and became one of the highest grossing movies of 1988.

This time around, Eddie Murphy takes on the role of Prince Akeem, who hails from a fictional African nation called Zamunda, and doesn’t want to marry the bride that his parents (James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair) have chosen for him.  So on his 21st birthday, he travels to Queens, New York with his servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), to pose as a regular man and find his own true love.

While Coming to America isn’t quite as good as Trading Places – the characters aren’t as well defined, and the screenplay feels looser – it’s still an amusing comedy that explores similar themes about how people are treated differently depending on if they are seen as rich or poor.  The film delivers several classic scenes, and features cameos by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche reprising their roles from Trading Places, allowing it to serve as a followup of sorts.  It’s also notable for starting the trend of Eddie Murphy playing multiple characters, with him and Arsenio Hall utilizing Rick Baker’s Oscar-nominated makeup work to show up in different roles throughout the film, including as the hilarious denizens of a local barbershop.

The Blu-ray also includes the featurettes Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America, Fit for Akeem: The Costumes of Coming to America, Character Building: The Many of Faces of Rick Baker, Composing America: The Musical Talents of Nile Rodgers, as well as A Vintage Sit-Down With Eddie and Arsenio, and a photo gallery.

Trading Places: 35th Anniversary Edition and Coming to America: 30th Anniversary Edition are Paramount Home Media Distribution releases.  They are both 116 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Review: Jerry Lewis: 10 Film Collection

June 12, 2018

By John Corrado

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the classic 1963 comedy The Nutty Professor, and in honour of this occasion, Paramount is releasing it as part of the Jerry Lewis: 10 Film Collection, a DVD set that comes highly recommended for fans of his work.

The set features a solid selection of the comedian’s films from the height of his career in the 1950s and ’60s, including The Stooge (1951), The Delicate Delinquent (1956), The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Errand Boy (1961), The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963), The Disorderly Orderly (1964), The Patsy (1964), and The Family Jewels (1965).

While some of these films are better than others, with The Nutty Professor remaining arguably his finest work, the set provides a good overview of his film career as both an actor and director, showing off both his talents for physical comedy and his innate ability to inhabit multiple different characters.  The only thing that would have made this set even better is if it had included The Day the Clown Cried, his infamous 1972 concentration camp dramedy that has still never been released.

Each of the films are housed on their own individual discs, and the 10-disc set comes securely packaged in a plastic clamshell case with a cardboard slipcover.  If you’re a fan of his work, the Jerry Lewis: 10 Film Collection is an attractive and economical way to collect a good number of his films.

Jerry Lewis: 10 Film Collection is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.

Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

June 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Morgan Neville, following his Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom and the excellent Best of EnemiesWon’t You Be My Neighbor? looks at the life and career of Fred Rogers, the unlikely star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

With his soft voice and gentle way of speaking, Fred Rogers had a true knack for understanding children that allowed him to really connect with his young viewers, and he was able to touch many adults as well with his message of treating others with kindness.

Beginning in 1968, his show was also much more sophisticated than a lot of people realize, as he tackled topics ranging from racial discrimination, divorce, and even death, helping children understand their feelings and subtly changing the way people talked about these complex social issues.

An ordained minister and lifelong Republican, Fred Rogers also made no secret of his Christian beliefs and core values, and saw his program as a way to counter a lot of the other stuff that was being put out for kids on TV at the time.  The film touches on some of the many highlights from his long life and career, including when he famously went before Congress in 1969 and successfully convinced Senator Pastore to continue publicly funding PBS, saving both his show and the entire network in the process.

I used to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood quite a lot as a kid, so watching this film obviously made me very emotional.  Through interviews with many of the surviving people who worked on his show, including François Clemmons whose story adds an even deeper layer of meaning to it, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves as a touching and very powerful portrait of what Fred Rogers stood for as a person, and the call for love and kindness that he exuded through his work.  It’s wonderful.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

Review: The Accountant of Auschwitz

June 8, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Focusing on the 2015 trial of Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard who served as a bookkeeper at Auschwitz and was put on trial in Germany at 94 years old for his involvement in the Holocaust, The Accountant of Auschwitz is a fascinating and multilayered documentary.

Facing charges for the murder of 300,000 Jewish people, Gröning’s trial attracted widespread media attention, as Holocaust survivors were brought in to testify against him, and others argued that there was no reason to prosecute such an old man, especially so long after the fact.

But despite the fact that Gröning never personally killed anyone, he was still complicit in the extermination at Auschwitz, tasked with going through and registering the possessions left behind by the prisoners and becoming a first-hand witness to the mass killing going on around him.

The trial also served as a way to silence the erroneous claims of Holocaust deniers, who nevertheless protested outside of the courthouse, with Gröning not only confirming the atrocities that took place at the concentration camps, but also openly admitting to his involvement in them.  Through interviews with historians, Holocaust survivors, and also Benjamin Ferencz who served as the lead prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials, director Matthew Shoychet has delivered a complex and thought provoking exploration of whether the statute of limitations should apply to war crimes.

Not only is this an interesting look at the challenges and moral implications behind trying to charge somebody for their involvement in crimes decades after the fact, but it’s also a sobering exploration of how the majority of the people responsible for one of the most horrific events in human history were never actually punished for it.

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

Review: Hereditary

June 8, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The first thing we see onscreen in Hereditary is a newspaper obituary for the elderly matriarch of the Graham family, telling us she is survived by her daughter Annie (Toni Collete), son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and grandchildren Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

This nicely sets the tone for the eeriness of everything that follows, as the family slowly unravels following her death.  This is one of those horror movies where we know things are off right from the opening scenes, but it takes its time to reveal exactly what is happening, slowly building tension along the way.

We know something deeper is going on with this family when Annie delivers an icy eulogy at her mother’s funeral, seemingly struggling to find enough nice things to say about the woman who raised her.  It quickly becomes apparent that the whole family was somewhat estranged from the dearly departed, save for little Charlie, who seems to have shared a special bond with her.  After the funeral, Charlie’s morbid fascination with death become cause for concern, with her behaviour growing increasingly weird both at home and school.

It’s revealed early on that Annie has a history of severe mental illness in her family, which leads to some question of whether this is all part of her own mental breakdown, but it quickly becomes apparent that there are also dark forces at work trying to sink their claws into the entire family.  So when Annie meets a charismatic older woman named Joan (Ann Dowd) at a local grief support group, who encourages her to try a seance in order to get back in touch with the deceased, all hell starts to break loose.

The film begins as an unsettling family drama that provides an eery study of the grieving process, before blossoming into a full-fledged supernatural horror movie that has heavy undertones of Rosemary’s Baby, and for the most part it’s a smooth ride.  There is a truly shocking event that happens about forty minutes in – which I wouldn’t dare think of spoiling here – that completely upends where we think the story is going, and it’s this bait and switch that provides one of the most interesting aspects of Hereditary.

First off, it has to be said that this is a supremely accomplished debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster, who crafts a tense horror experience that takes several risks while also wearing its cinematic influences proudly on its sleeve.  The film not only shares DNA with Rosemary’s Baby, but also calls to mind other classic possessions films like The Exorcist and The Omen as well.  Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography really helps set the tone, often slowly panning around different rooms in order to build tension, and the sound work is equally effective at helping the film get under our skin.  The production design is also impressive, with the miniature models that Annie makes and sells as an artist providing micro versions of the full-scale sets, which are used as a cool narrative device.

Toni Collette commits herself fully to the role and delivers some of her finest work, tearing up the screen as a woman being pushed increasingly over the edge as she tries desperately to keep both her family and her sanity together.  I was also really impressed with Alex Wolff’s performance, as he shows off some serious acting chops here as a teenager being thoroughly put through the ringer both by his family and forces beyond his control.  The young stage actress Milly Shapiro manages to deliver an impressively unsettling performance in her first onscreen role, providing a memorable addition to the long list of creepy kids in horror movies.

My one complaint about Hereditary comes from the fact that, since it premiered at Sundance, the film has been heavily hyped as one of the scariest movies ever made, and I think that’s overselling it by a pretty wide margin.  While the film is suspenseful and unsettling to be sure, I also wasn’t really scared by it, and once we realize where it is going, it turns into a pretty typical horror movie that is easy to predict where it will end up.  Maybe I just have a higher tolerance for these sorts of things.

Still, Hereditary is a very confidently made slow-burn horror movie that focuses much more on setting a tone then it does on delivering constant jump scares, and is all the stronger for it.  The film is carried by several standout performances from its cast, features arresting cinematography, and unfolds with a creeping sense of dread throughout much of its running time.

Blu-ray Review: Gringo

June 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is a Nigerian immigrant working for a pharmaceutical company in Chicago.  But when things go wrong on a routine trip to Mexico to visit their supplier, he ends up in way over his head.  This is the basic set-up for Gringo, which plays like a mix between action film and dark comedy.

With his sleazy supervisors Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) looking for a way to stiff him, Harold is left to deal with local drug cartels and hit men who are after him for money, while also crossing paths with Richard’s mercenary brother (Sharlto Copley), and an American tourist (Harry Treadaway) who is visiting Mexico with his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), but has his own ulterior motives.

Directed by Nash Edgerton, who has worked steadily as a stunt man over the years and also happens to be Joel Edgerton’s brother, Gringo is a consistently entertaining film with a darkly comic energy to it that I found enjoyable to watch.  The script by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone keeps things moving at a quick clip, and the whole thing unfolds with an air of unpredictability, filled with double crossings and multiple interconnecting storylines that keep the characters constantly on their feet.

While there are a few things to nitpick about Gringo, and there are certainly elements that are copied from other action films and strain credibility, it’s also fun to watch.  The film is bolstered by the best efforts of the ensemble cast, carried by an expectedly solid turn from David Oyelowo, who gets to show off a more comedic side while also bringing a really genuine quality to the main character.  This is a decent piece of entertainment overall, nothing more and nothing less, and I found it to be a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

The Blu-ray also includes the four featurettes The Making of Gringo, The Stunts of Gringo, Filming in Mexico and Who is Harold.

Gringo is a VVS Films release.  It’s 111 minutes and rated 14A.

Blu-ray Review: I Kill Giants

June 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s popular graphic novel of the same name, I Kill Giants is the story of Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe), a teenaged outsider who escapes from relentless bullying at school and problems at home by immersing herself in an elaborate fantasy world.

Barbara behaves oddly, often wears a pair of bunny ears, and doesn’t make friends easily, save for a new girl (Sydney Wade) who starts reaching out to her.  She prefers to spend her time setting traps for giants, and sees herself as the protector of her small town from monstrous forces, using this as a way to cope with her mother’s ailing health.

But this makes life even harder for her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots), who is acting as her caregiver, and her odd behaviour also quickly gains her the attention of the school shrink Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), separating her even more from the other girls.  Though as the film progresses, the question becomes whether Barbara’s delusions are helping her better navigate the real world, putting her even further out of touch from it, or if the giants in her mind are actually real.

The feature directorial debut of Anders Walters, I Kill Giants is a fine fable for older kids that uses the fantasical elements of its story to deal with some pretty heavy themes of bullying, confronting a parent’s death, and how the grieving process affects a child who is already neurologically different.  No, the film isn’t as strong as the 2016 standout A Monster Calls or the underrated 2007 film adaptation of Bridge to Terebithia, to which it shares many thematic and stylistic similarities.  The script’s dialogue is also sometimes a little too on the nose, clearly being crafted for younger audiences.

But I Kill Giants is still a fairly engaging and emotional live action fairy tale, that features solid special effects for something done on a limited budget, and is carried by a fine performance from its young star Madison Wolfe.  It’s being released straight to video after having its world premiere at TIFF last year, and it’s worth checking out, especially for fans of the graphic novel.

The Blu-ray also includes the short featurette Anatomy of a Scene, which shows how they filmed one of the big special effects sequences using green screens on a soundstage.

I Kill Giants is a VVS Films release.  It’s 106 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Peter Pan: The Signature Collection

June 5, 2018

By John Corrado

The latest addition to Disney’s Signature Collection is their 1953 animated classic Peter Pan, which also happens to be celebrating it’s 65th anniversary this year.

A spirited take on J.M. Barrie’s classic novel and stage play, which Walt Disney savvily acquired the rights to in 1938 with the full intention of turning it into a movie, the film remains the most iconic onscreen rendering of the story, and one of the shining jewels of Disney’s 1950s output.

This is not to say that elements of it don’t feel dated.  The film’s heavily stereotyped depiction of Native American characters, including the song “What Made the Red Man Red?” which is easily the most dated aspect of the film, are very much a product of its time, to put it mildly.

But the fact that the story of Peter Pan, with its themes of not wanting to grow up and the importance of retaining the magic of your childhood, continues to delight new generations is a true testament to the film’s staying power.  The animation is beautifully drawn, the characters are memorable – Tinkerbell’s pantomime antics remain iconic – and it’s filled with delightful moments.  I have fond memories of watching it as a kid, and I’m happy to say it’s a film that I still enjoy to this day.

The Blu-ray comes with several new bonus features.  Stories From Walt’s Office: Walt & Flight is a short featurette that focuses on Disney’s lifelong fascination with airplanes and how this inspired the flying scenes in the film; and A Darling Conversation With Wendy & John is an interview with voice actors Kathryn Beaumont and Paul Collins reminiscing on their experience working on the film as kids.  There are also new sing-along versions of the songs “You Can Fly” and “Never Smile At a Crocodile,” the latter of which only appears as an instrumental in the film but became a beloved hit when it was released as a promotional single to go along with the release.

The Blu-ray also comes with a selection of archival bonus features from the 2013 Diamond Edition release, including a commentary track with Roy Disney, a handful of deleted songs and deleted scenes, and the featurettes Growing Up With Nine Old MenYou Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell: A Fairy’s Tale, The Peter Pan That Almost Was, The Peter Pan Story, and In Walt’s Words: “Why I Made Peter Pan”, among other things.

While more casual consumers who already got the Diamond Edition five years ago might not want to spring for a new version of the film so soon after, and there are only a few new bonus features to separate out this edition, this Signature Collection release comes easily recommended for fans and collectors, and especially those who never got a copy in the first place.

Peter Pan: The Signature Collection is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 77 minutes and rated G.

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