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Blu-ray Review: The Equalizer 2

December 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Denzel Washington once again teams up with director Antoine Fuqua for The Equalizer 2, a surprisingly solid followup to their 2014 action film that marks the first sequel of their respective careers.

Retired CIA operative Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is now working as a Lyft driver, while still moonlighting as a vigilante who mainly rescues women from abusive and exploitative situations.

When his longtime friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) is killed while investigating a mob hit in Brussels that was staged to look like a murder-suicide, Robert takes it upon himself to both solve her murder and avenge her death.

While The Equalizer 2 is somewhat of a generic revenge movie in terms of plot, and the story is often predictable, the film is also consistently entertaining to watch. There are several exciting and well choreographed action scenes that give us our money’s worth, right from the brutal opening fight on a train, once again showing off Robert’s signature ability to take stock of his surroundings so that he can strike quickly and efficiently, always timed by his stopwatch.

But this sequel also offers an engaging and surprisingly character-driven story to go along with the action sequences. The film’s best subplot finds Robert becoming somewhat of a mentor and father figure to Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders), a young artist who lives in the same apartment complex, whom he takes under his wing when the high schooler agrees to help paint over some racist graffiti on the side of the building. Robert is determined to save Miles from being sucked into a life of gang crime, but his own line of work could end up putting the young man’s life in danger.

Washington once again kicks ass in the leading role, still proving himself to be a formidable and effortlessly cool action star despite being in his sixties, and he brings extra weight and gravitas to the dramatic moments as well. The scenes between Washington and Sanders are some of the best in the film, with the young actor, who is best known for playing the teenaged Chiron in Moonlight, bringing some unexpected depth to both his character and the movie around him.

While I don’t know if The Equalizer 2 is a better overall movie than the first one, in some ways I found it to be a leaner and more enjoyable one, even if it still has a few bumps along the way. The film moves at a good pace, the action scenes are stylishly executed, and it offers the opportunity to watch one of our finest movie stars do his thing for two hours. It’s worth a look for action fans.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of deleted and extended scenes, the three featurettes Denzel as McCall: Round Two, Seconds Till Death: Action Breakdown, and Through Antoine’s Lens: The Cast, as well as a TV promo for the film and a pop-up trivia track. The disc also features the option to watch the film in Retribution Mode, which offers commentary and behind the scenes footage during the movie.

The Equalizer 2 is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 121 minutes and rated 14A.

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Blu-ray Review: Searching

December 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The choice to make a film that unfolds entirely on computer screens could seem like a gimmick, but the device is used to riveting effect in Searching, a very well executed missing person thriller that offers a hundred minutes of nerve-rattling suspense.

The film opens with a heart-wrenching and impressively edited montage made up solely of family photos, home movies and online messages stored on a family’s laptop, that introduces us to David Kim (John Cho), and shows his daughter Margot (Michelle La) growing up as his wife Pam (Sara Sohn) succumbs to terminal cancer.

When the 16-year-old Margot doesn’t come home one night, and stops responding to his messages, David desperately tries to find her, and starts searching through her hard drive and online accounts for clues. He reaches out to the police, and Detective Vick (Debra Messing) is brought on to investigate, but as the days go on, the circumstances surrounding Margot’s disappearance grow increasingly strange, and finding her seems more and more unlikely.

Did she run away? Was she abducted? Or was she involved in something far more sinister? There are clues on her computer that could suggest any combination of those options, which the film meticulously lays out for us, utilizing an inventive mix of iPhone footage, webcams, online news reports and security cameras to tell its story. The film is chock full of twists and turns, with plenty of red herrings and little clues sprinkled in along the way that serve to both deepen the mystery and to paint a compelling picture of how much of ourselves exists online.

Serving as the directorial debut of young filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, who quit his job at Google prior to making the film and is well versed in modern technology and how people interact in the digital world, Searching is most impressive for the way that it is able to build suspense through seemingly mundane things like a hovering cursor or the act of scrolling down a webpage. The filmmakers had to write every bit of text that we see onscreen as well as create all of the footage that is presented in various formats throughout the film, and it’s a wholly impressive feat, even just from a technical standpoint.

John Cho grounds the film with an excellent dramatic performance, delivering a moving portrayal of a father both trying to find his daughter while also coming to terms with the fact that maybe he didn’t really know her as well as he thought that he did. The format of the film forces Cho to do most of his acting in close ups as he peers into a webcam, which allows the actor to make full use of his facial expressions to portray the emotional arc of the character.

The film pulls the rug out from under us with a major twist right near the end, which I’m obviously not going to spoil here. While the twist does work, it’s also somewhat far-fetched and undercuts a bit of the emotional impact and gritty believability of everything that came before. Still, Searching is an incredibly effective and unique film. It works as a panic-inducing thriller that holds us in tight suspense for the entire running time, while constantly finding new and inventive ways to frame its story.

The Blu-ray also includes a filmmaker commentary track, and the three well done featurettes Searching for Easter Eggs, Changing the Language of Film, and Update Username: Cast and Characters.

Searching is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 102 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Smallfoot

December 11, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Migo (Channing Tatum) is a yeti who lives in a complex Bigfoot community atop a mountain in the Himalayas, where they are raised to believe that their world is being held up on the backs of giant mammoths and there is nothing below the clouds.

Migo’s father (Danny DeVito) has the job of banging a gong with his head every morning to wake up the giant snail that they are made to believe lights up the sky. The villagers are forced to follow the rules that have been laid out for them on a collection of stones that are worn like a shall by the Stonekeeper (Common), and one of these stones dictates that the “smallfoot” doesn’t exist.

The “smallfoot” is, of course, what they call humans. When Migo discovers one of us, and decides to tell the village what he saw, they are reluctant to believe him and he is promptly banished by the Stonekeeper, who fears what will happen to the natural order if the villagers discover that the stones can, in fact, be wrong.

Teaming up with Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper’s daughter who is secretly part of the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society and has been trying to find proof of this mythical creature for years, Migo decides to venture below the mountain, in an attempt to bring back proof. This is where he meets Percy (James Corden), a TV host with failing ratings who sees yeti footage as his ticket back to the top, but when Migo brings the human back to the mountain, they are forced to reevaluate everything they believe.

On the one hand, Smallfoot is a cute animated musical from Warner Animation Group that treads a fairly predictable narrative path and seems geared towards younger kids with its broad use of slapstick humour. But on the other hand, it’s a transgressive takedown of overly dogmatic religious beliefs that also explores the residual fallout from colonialism and genocide, with a message about division and the dangers of fearing those that are different from us. It’s not exactly deep, but it is heavier than expected for a film about yetis who believe humans don’t exist that has a groaningly obvious pun in its title.

While some of these themes will likely fly over the heads of kids, and the execution conversely feels a bit too simplistic for adults, the fact that Smallfoot has more going for it than initially meets the eye does count for something. The decent animation and appealing character designs keep the film pleasing to look at on a visual level, and it’s entertaining enough while watching it to make it worth a look.

The Blu-ray also includes a sing-along version of the movie, as well as the new mini-movie Super Soozie, the short film Migo in the Secret of the Yeti Stones, a “making of” featurette entitled Yeti or Not, Here They Come! Imagining Smallfoot, and the music videos for “Finally Free” by Niall Horan, “Moment of Truth” by CYN, and a compilation of the song “Wonderful Life” in 28 different languages.

Smallfoot is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 96 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Review: The Nun

December 11, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest entry into James Wan’s Conjuring franchise, The Nun is a prequel that takes place in 1952, and focuses on the origins of the creepy, demonic nun (Bonnie Aarons) that first appeared in The Conjuring 2.

The film opens with a young nun (Charlotte Hope) hanging herself at a cloistered convent in Romania after coming into contact with a demonic spirit. When the Vatican gets wind of this grave sin, they send Father Burke (Demián Bichir), who has some experience with possession, to investigate.

Joined by the young novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who has yet to complete her vows, and a French-Canadian delivery man nicknamed Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who discovered the body and is acting as their local tour guide, Father Burke must determine if the site of the convent can still be considered holy. What they discover is a powerful, demonic force that has invaded the abbey, and can only be stopped by an ancient relic.

Directed by Corin Hardy, who is new to the series, The Nun is a passably entertaining prequel, but it’s also a bit of a disappointment compared to the high bar set by other entries in the franchise. The film itself looks great, with the production design and cinematography being appropriately atmospheric, and the three leads deliver decent performances. But The Nun suffers from having a somewhat cheesy script that doesn’t delve deep enough into its grander themes of good versus evil, and the characters aren’t as well defined as they were in the other films.

The film is overly reliant on horror movie clichés and jump scares, but the slow-paced and predictable story isn’t really able to build up enough organic tension for them to work as anything deeper than brief, in the moment jolts. It’s ok, and has some decent scenes here and there, but The Nun is also never really that scary and is easily the weakest film in The Conjuring series so far.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of deleted scenes, and the three short featurettes A New Horror Icon, The Conjuring Chronology, and Gruesome Planet.

The Nun is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 96 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Review: Dog Days

December 10, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

With a title like Dog Days, which is the the name of this new ensemble romantic comedy that weaves together the stories of multiple characters and the dogs that they love, you just know you are in for something sappy and predictable.

So the most unexpected thing about this film is that, despite the fact that the rambling and bloated script can be saccharine to the point of being sickly sweet and the outcomes are never in doubt, it’s actually kind of charming to watch.

The film follows a group of people in Los Angeles and the dogs in their lives. Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) is a barista at a coffee shop who discovers an adorable stray chihuahua behind the dumpster, and finds herself romantically torn between a hot but shallow vet (Michael Cassidy) and her frequent customer Garrett (Jon Bass), who runs a local dog rescue and has a crush on her.

Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) is a morning TV host who initially clashes with her new co-host Jimmy (Tone Bell), but ends up bonding with him when their beloved dogs meet each other at the park. Dax (Adam Pally) is a young slacker in a band who has to watch his sister’s (Jessica St. Clair) hyper Labradoodle after she gives birth to twins, and ends up bonding with the misbehaved pooch.

Finally, Grace (Eva Longoria) and Kurt (Rob Corddry) are a married couple who have just adopted a shy little girl named Amelia (Elizabeth Phoenix Caro), who only starts opening up to them after she finds a lost pug. But the dog just so happens to be the beloved lost pet of a widower named Walter (Ron Cephas Jones), who has enlisted the help of a young pizza delivery boy (Finn Wolfhard) to help him find her, in the film’s best subplot.

Like most films that weave together multiple plot lines, some of these stories work better than others, and there is a sitcomish quality to much of Dog Days that keeps it moving along at a sort of agreeably mediocre level. But there are so many ways that the film could have been insufferable, and director Ken Marino has actually managed to turn it into something that is both surprisingly tolerable and at times even enjoyable to watch, which makes it a mild success in my book.

Sure, it’s cheesy and overstuffed, but there is also a pleasant quality to it. The dogs are cute and the characters are mostly likeable, making this is a decent romantic comedy that is mildly worth a look if all you’re looking for is something light and breezy and filled with canines. And what else would you expect or want from something called Dog Days?

The DVD includes no bonus features, but comes with a digital copy of the film.

Dog Days is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 113 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Papillon

December 10, 2018

By John Corrado

Based on a true story, Papillon follows Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), a safecracker in Paris who is falsely accused of murder and sent to prison in the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he teams up with the eccentric counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek) to craft an escape plan.

With the story having already been adapted for the screen in 1973, this new version of Papillon doesn’t always do enough to distinguish its own identity, but it’s still a technically well made prison drama, carried by fine work from Hunnam and Malek. Their performances make it mildly worth a look now that it’s available on Blu-ray, and for a bit more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a full half-hour of deleted scenes, which are presented in chronological order, as well as a digital copy of the film.

Papillon is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 133 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Anna and the Apocalypse

December 8, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

There have been some great examples over the years of movies that blend Christmas cheer with horror elements. Bob Clark’s iconic slasher Black Christmas certainly springs to mind as one of the darkest examples, as does Joe Dante’s holiday monster movie Gremlins, and Michael Dougherty’s more recent Krampus.

Now we have another film to add to that list with Anna and the Apocalypse, a Christmas zombie movie that also happens to be a full-on musical. Yes, you read that right. It’s a Christmas zombie musical. Think High School Musical meets Zombieland, but set during the holiday season, and you get the idea.

There are song and dance numbers to go along with all of the blood and guts on display, and the resulting film works as a surprisingly delightful and heartfelt crowdpleaser. The story follows Anna (Ella Hunt), a high schooler in the drab Scottish town of Little Haven, who wants to take a gap year and go to Australia after the holidays, something that her charming best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), who harbours a not so secret crush on her, finds himself struggling to accept.

When the zombie apocalypse hits on the day of the school’s Christmas pageant, Anna and John must fight their way across town so she can rescue her father (Mark Benton), a custodian who is trapped at the high school, where half the town is holed up for the pageant and being kept there by the maniacal headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye). They are joined by Steph (Sarah Swire), an American expat with absentee parents, the wannabe filmmaker Chris (Christophr Leveaux), who wants to get back to his girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu), who is performing in the pageant, as well as the school bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), a brutish jerk who is having a blast killing zombies.

Director John McPhail, working from a script by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry, whose short film has been posthumously adapted to feature length, does a fine job of balancing the mix of genres present throughout Anna and the Apocalypse. The film starts off as a high school dramedy that recalls the work of John Hughes, before becoming a zombie slasher with lots of bloody gore that would make George A. Romero proud, without losing sight of its tongue-in-cheek tone and genuine heart.

The success of any musical clearly rests in the strengths of its songs, and the musical numbers in Anna and the Apocalypse are all quite well done, with several highlights throughout that are done in a variety of different musical styles. Early on in the film, we get the song “Break Away”, which is a surprisingly emotional track that would be the equivalent of an “I Want” song if this were a Disney movie. “Turning My Life Around” is a joyful and upbeat number that is hilariously staged with Anna and John dancing through the streets, oblivious to the undead hordes ravaging people behind them.

The ensemble number “Hollywood Ending” is a High School Musical type performance staged in the school cafeteria that spoofs feel good Disney musicals while also paying homage to them. “It’s That Time of Year” is a suggestive Christmas number that rivals the one in Mean Girls, and “The Fish Wrap” is a fun bit of wordplay that will get caught in your head. Nick’s big number “Soldier At War” resembles what might happen if the gang from Grease got together to bash zombies while also singing and strutting their stuff, with its rock & roll riffs and hooky lyrics making it one of the film’s most insanely catchy songs.

So the humour is sharp, the songs are infectious, and there are some delightfully gory zombie kills, but the story also has an unexpected sense of sadness to it that adds a surprising amount of pathos to Anna and the Apocalypse as it goes along. It’s the more melancholy nature of the story that ultimately makes the film work as well as it does, especially as we reach the surprisingly somber finale. There are real stakes here for the characters, and the fact that we care so much about their fates is a real testament to both the strength of the story and the immensely likeable performances of its leads.

As a Christmas zombie musical, Anna and the Apocalypse is a lot of fun to watch, offering a weirdly delightful genre mashup of holiday spirit and zombie gore that works thanks to endearing characters and toe-tapping song numbers, with an emotional core that allows it to really stick with us. All of these elements combined elevate Anna and the Apocalypse to the level of a potential new Christmas classic, and it seems primed and ready for a Broadway adaptation sometime down the road.

Review: The Go-Getters

December 7, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from Canadian director Jeremy LaLonde, The Go-Getters is a dirty and raunchy low-budget comedy that follows Owen (Aaron Abrams) and Lacie (Tommie-Amber Pirie).

The former is a drunkard living in the boiler room of his brother’s (Kristian Bruun) bar, and the latter a drug-addicted hooker whom he first encounters passed out on the bathroom floor. Despite butting heads, Owen and Lacie are spurred on by their shared hatred of Toronto, and hatch a plan to go live at her grandma’s rundown home in Brockville, which they plan to fix up.

But they don’t have any money between them, so they start coming up with a variety of hair-brained schemes in an attempt to make some quick cash, desperately trying to track down the $98 that they need for bus tickets.

The result is a wild, ribald, and often unpredictable mismatched buddy comedy, that I found quite entertaining to watch unfold. The simplistic nature of the plot allows for plenty of hijinks throughout the brisk eighty minute running time, and the film plays with a mix of quirky character humour and cringe comedy, including a gross but shockingly hilarious scene involving a DIY glory hole.

It’s carried by a pair of go-for-broke performances from Aaron Abrams and Tommie-Amber Pirie, who throw themselves into the premise and completely run with it. Also watch out for brief cameos from other Canadian indie stars, including Jonas Chernick and Ennis Esmer.

The Go-Getters is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Canadian Film Fest.

Review: Searching for Ingmar Bergman

December 7, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta turns her attention to another director in Searching for Ingmar Bergman, offering an engaging and often insightful portrait of the late Swedish master as a filmmaker, an artist and a father.

An accomplished auteur in her own right, who was inspired by Bergman’s work and became a contemporary of his throughout the second half of his filmmaking career, von Trotta shares a personal connection to Bergman that provides the basis of this documentary.

It’s this personal connection that sees her through as she travels to locations throughout Europe that defined his life, and interviews some of the people who were closest to him, including actress and frequent collaborator Liv Ullman, with whom he also shared a daughter through an extramarital affair, and his son Daniel Bergman who took up his father’s mantle as a filmmaker.

On the one hand, Searching for Ingmar Bergman functions as a retrospective of his career, showing a selection of clips from his many iconic films as modern filmmakers like Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve and Ruben Östlund are brought in to discuss his work and dissect the recurring themes found in the stories. But as much as the documentary works as a cinematic essay on his work, it also serves as a biography of sorts that provides insight into who he was as a person.

The film explores how the elements of his personality that made him brilliant as an artist didn’t really translate into his home life as a husband and father, having had five wives, nine children and multiple other affairs throughout his life. His son Daniel attributes the almost childlike sense of exploration that his father always had to what kept him from being a better and more present father, as if he was closer to his own childhood memories than his own children.

The result is a deeply personal work from von Trotta that provides insight into the flawed genius of Ingmar Bergman, and the film will play equally well with both cinephiles as well as newcomers to Bergman’s work who are looking for an overview of his career before delving into his expansive filmography. It will make you want to watch a Bergman movie, and that’s a good thing.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Review: Almost Almost Famous

December 7, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Being a tribute artist can be a lucrative and demanding business, even if your fame largely comes from pretending to be someone else. That’s the main takeaway of Almost Almost Famous, a fairly entertaining documentary that follows a group of classic rock impersonators who are on tour together as the Class of ’59, giving audiences the chance to see a show featuring the likes of Jackie Wilson Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper.

The film mainly focuses on three of these tribute artists. There’s Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator Lance Lipinsky, a somewhat arrogant but phenomenally skilled Texas musician with incredible boogie woogie piano skills, who is also trying to make a name for himself outside of just being a tribute artist; award-winning Elvis impersonator Ted Torres Martin, whose laid back personality in real life gives way to a major stage presence when he’s in character; and Bobby Brooks, who does an incredible impersonation of Jackie Wilson, and we find out has surprising connections to the artist himself.

They are under the management of Marty Kramer, a seasoned veteran of the music industry who cut his teeth working as a roadie for bands like the Guess Who and Led Zeppelin, and is tasked with keeping both their schedules and egos in check. The performers deal with the usual challenges of life on the road, including the unglamorous realities of spending most of your time being holed up in tour buses, cheap motels and crappy dressing rooms, save for the few hours when on stage, and the loneliness that comes with it. But they are also navigating the unique hurdles that come from being sort of famous, but having most of your fame come from pretending to be other people who have long since died.

Director Barry Lank follows the group as they are on tour across Ontario, plunging us into this unique world of tribute artists through a good mix of concert footage and talking head interviews, and ensuring that the three main subjects are each given enough time to tell their own stories. The performances that we see here are top notch, with all of the men doing a fine job of channelling their rock star counterparts, and putting on one heck of a show that might not be quite as good as the real thing but is absolutely good enough for the people who keep coming to see them.

There is a real sense of joy to be found in watching the reactions of those who come to their shows, with the audiences mostly made up of seniors who are nostalgically reliving their own younger days through these impersonators. These fan interactions and the way they handle them tell us all we need to know about why these tribute artists keep doing what they do, and Almost Almost Famous serves as an enjoyable and even fun look at people who make their living impersonating others.

Almost Almost Famous is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto, and will be playing for two nights only at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on December 14th and 17th.

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