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Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

January 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Whether you agreed with her or not, there’s simply no denying that Pauline Kael was one of the most influential film critics of the 20th century, a writer whose often controversial opinions were sometimes hurtful and sometimes helpful, but always uniquely hers.

Even when her contrarian views put her in the critical minority – which was often, with her trashing such widely acclaimed films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy and West Side Story, to name but a few of the classics that she struck down with her pen – Kael’s razor-tongued writing style gained her a dedicated following of cinephiles as well as a good deal of detractors.

Kael gets the glowing biographical treatment in director Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a crowdfunded documentary that is made up of interviews with a litany of people who admired her work, ranging from other critics to filmmakers like Paul Schrader, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino, as well as a constant stream of movie clips, and excerpts from her reviews read in voiceover by Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s fairly entertaining to watch, but also feels a bit vapid.

The documentary recounts how Kael’s first review was of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, a piece that she was invited to write for City Lights magazine after the editor heard her arguing about film in a coffee shop. She hated the film and critiqued it harshly, which helped establish her reputation as someone who was unafraid of criticizing works that others adored. Kael’s work appeared in a variety of outlets before she was hired part-time by The New Yorker magazine – the outlet that she was famous for – in 1968, and she would write for them until 1991.

We learn that before she was brought on as their full time movie critic in 1980, Kael split the gig with Penelope Gilliatt, with them each being allotted six months of the year, which meant that for the first stretch of her career, she wasn’t earning a living wage from The New Yorker. Throughout this time, Kael sought other jobs and went after book deals in order to support herself and her daughter Gina – whom she eventually recruited as her typist, preferring to write all of her reviews by hand – and even briefly took a job for a few months at Paramount Pictures in 1979, after being hired by Warren Beatty as a consultant.

There is some interesting background here on Kael’s life and career. But all of the interviewees in What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael express pretty much nothing but glowing admiration for her, and the biggest problem with Garver’s approach is the fact that he doesn’t really counter this praise or balance it out in any substantial way. The whole thing feels rushed, and at times his film ends up seeming more like hagiography instead of a more fleshed out biography.

Renatta Adler’s not entirely unwarranted criticisms of Kael’s writing in an infamous review of her 1980 book When the Lights Go Down are mostly brushed aside, and the allegations of plagiarism against Kael for her 1971 essay Raising Kane are all but ignored. Kael could also be incredibly and needlessly cruel in how she cut people down with her words, and the film recounts a time when she ripped into and berated David Lean at a dinner party, having considered his Lawrence of Arabia to be an inferior adaptation of T.E. Lawrence’s writing. Lean talks in a surprisingly sad archival interview about how this encounter with her greatly impacted his sense of self-worth, and caused him to stop working for years.

The documentary also makes an all too brief mention of Kael’s attempts to influence the opinions of other writers, with a small coterie of critics dubbed the “Paulettes” whom she expected to fall in line with her in terms of what movies to recommend. While Garver doesn’t entirely shy away from these things, he also doesn’t exactly allow for the most nuanced portrait of her more complicated place in the cinematic landscape or the more challenging aspects of her legacy.

It’s a widely established fact that Kael’s praise of controversial and misunderstood movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris helped bring in audiences to those films and keep them in the conversation, when they might have disappeared otherwise. But the film also seems to over inflate Kael’s importance in advancing the career’s of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg with her positive reviews of Mean Streets and The Sugarland Express, when those filmmakers were on an upward trajectory anyways.

The film also makes zero mention of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, contemporaries of Kael who were equally as influential as her in terms of film criticism, and their curious omission from the film feels like a major oversight. Despite its shortcomings as a complete biography of its central figure, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is still a fairly enjoyable introduction to her life and career. I just wish it had gone a lot deeper.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.

Review: Les Misérables

January 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Symbolically named after Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel about poverty and injustice, and the beloved musical that it subsequently inspired, director Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is a modern day fable about racial tensions and police brutality in contemporary France that explores how a series of events can bubble over into chaos.

The film was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes and also just received an Oscar nomination in the newly renamed category of Best International Film, having been France’s official submission over the critical darling Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and its social and political relevance – not to mention quality – likely helped it secure a spot.

Like Hugo’s story, this film is also set in Montfermeil, a suburb of Paris that has become a cultural melting pot. At the start of the film, France has just won the World Cup, leading to celebrations in the streets that we observe in the opening scenes, but tensions are rising between different groups in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. We follow three plainclothes officers working for the police department’s anti-crime brigade who are sent out to patrol the area.

There’s Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti), both veterans of the force, as well as new recruit Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), who has just been picked up for his first day on these streets and is given the nickname “Greaser.” Chris walks around with the cockiness of someone who believes that he is the law, where as Stéphane doesn’t believe that he is above the law and is used to following rules that this unit has decided don’t apply to them.

A series of escalating events get set in motion when Issa (Issa Perica), an adolescent boy who has a history of getting in trouble with the law and has positioned himself as the leader of a gang of kids, steals a lion cub from a travelling circus troupe, as another local boy (Al-Hassan Ly) films everything with his drone. These disparate elements slowly but surely come together throughout the deliberately paced first half, coming to a boil with a shocking scene about halfway through that sets the stage for the finale.

The result is an explosive drama that builds with simmering tension towards the literal fireworks of its climax, ending with an intense fadeout that wisely ensures the discussion will keep going long after the credits roll. It’s a daring choice that Ladj Ly has made, and some audiences might find it frustrating, but I think it’s the perfect way to end such a potent film, symbolizing that these issues are ongoing. Through this stylistic choice, Ly seems to be acknowledging that these often volatile interactions between police and marginalized communities, which fuel the anger within his film, keep building and seem incapable of being properly defused, unless somebody makes the choice first to lay down their weapon.

It’s a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself, emblematized by the film’s slow-burning plot where one thing keeps leading to another and snowballing further and further out of control. This is a challenging film that seems intended to provoke. Ly does a good job of maintaining interest and tension throughout Les Misérables, crafting a film that seems as inspired by its namesake novel as it does by Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing, even following a similar template of unfolding over a single, blisteringly hot summer day.

The screenplay, which was co-written by Ly and Manenti along with Giordano Gederlini, touches upon themes of nationalism, citizenship, and how police overreach can fuel distrust in the law. It’s written in shades of grey, with characters who don’t necessarily perform as stereotypical heroes or villains, and filled with some surprising moments of both insight and humanity as we observe a day unfold in this community. The acting is uniformly strong, particularly from the three adult leads and promising newcomer Perica. What we are left with is an engaging and timely snapshot of modern day Paris.

Les Misérables is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Blu-ray Review: Beverly Hills Cop 3-Movie Collection

January 15, 2020

By John Corrado

Eddie Murphy has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence lately, from his explosive comeback performance in Dolemite Is My Name to the upcoming Coming to America sequel set to arrive at the end of the year.

Now one of Murphy’s most famous characters, the street-smart Detroit cop Axel Foley who ends up bringing his own way of doing things to California, is back in the spotlight as the Beverly Hills 3-Movie Collection arrives on Blu-ray, which was just released in honour of the first film’s 35th anniversary last year.

Released in 1984, and directed by Martin Brest, Beverly Hills Cop finds Axel Foley travelling to Beverly Hills to investigate the murder of his friend, Michael Tandino (James Russo), who has just gotten out of jail. Foley gets a rude awakening when he discovers that the cops in Beverly Hills are more straight-laced and do things strictly by the books, a far cry from how he’s used to operating in Detroit.

Foley finds himself butting heads with the Beverly Hills police department, before teaming up with the mismatched pair of Sergeant Taggart (John Ashton) and Detective Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), who are a great buddy cop duo. Released three years later in 1987, with Tony Scott taking over directing duties, Beverly Hills Cop II finds Foley returning to Beverly Hills, and re-teaming with Taggart and Rosewood, to investigate a munitions smuggling ring. The trilogy was completed with the release of Beverly Hills Cop III in 1994, which was directed by John Landis and resets the action mainly at an amusement park that is heavily inspired by Disneyland.

A mix of fish-out-of-water comedy and satisfying action movie, with as many car chases and shootouts as laugh out loud scenarios and a great soundtrack of technopop and funk music that matches the action perfectly, Beverly Hills Cop remains a classic for a reason. It’s interesting to note that Sylvester Stallone was initially attached to star in the film, but he ballooned the budget when he rewrote parts of the script to bring it in a more action-oriented direction, and was subsequently let go in favour of Murphy, who puts his own unique stamp on the role and brings so much energy to it.

This is one of the roles that really solidified the comedic actor as a bona fide movie star, and in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Murphy playing the part and it certainly would have been a very different movie if that were the case. It’s filled with so many classic moments and great, quotable lines, with some of the best ones being improvised. In addition to Murphy’s dynamite turn in the leading role, Ashton and Reinhold also have great chemistry together, memorably embracing their roles as a sort of Laurel & Hardy tag team. Bronson Pinchot also shines in a memorably hilarious bit part.

While the first film is easily the best of the trilogy, parts two and three are entertaining as well, and I would say that all three films are fun to watch in their own ways. The second film becomes more of a straight action movie, and really embraces the buddy cop element, moving at a brisk pace. The third one certainly follows the law of diminishing returns, and received an extreme critical drubbing at the time of its release, but I think it’s still fairly enjoyable to watch and has some moments, including a really solid opening action sequence at a chop shop.

I watched all three films over the weekend, and had a really good time doing so. Featuring Eddie Murphy at the top of his game, Beverly Hills Cop is a genuine classic that still holds up really well. The second film is also quite a bit of fun in its own right, and even the third one offers a fairly enjoyable if admittedly weaker outing for Axel Foley. Whether you are new to this series or already an established fan, this is a solid set that provides a good deal of entertainment value and comes recommended.

The Blu-ray set comes with a good deal of bonus features on disc one to back up the first film, including a commentary track by director Brest, two deleted scenes (You Might Be on the Right Track and Axel Gets Ready for Beverly Hills), and a collection of four short “behind the scenes” interviews from 1984 (Axel’s Wild Ride, Detroit Cops vs. Beverly Hills Cops, Eddie’s Impromptu Lines, and Taggart and Rosewood) featuring Brest, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and members of the cast.

These are followed by the very solid half-hour featurette Beverly Hills Cop – The Phenomenon Begins, which provides really good background info on the film’s production, and the two shorter but equally worthwhile pieces A Glimpse Inside the Casting Process and The Music of Beverly Hills Cop. Finally, the disc has an interactive location map, the original theatrical trailer for the film, and a mixtape feature that lets you watch the music sequences separately. There are no bonus features on discs two and three.

Beverly Hills Cop 3-Movie Collection is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. Beverly Hills Cop is 105 minutes and rated 18A, Beverly Hills Cop II is 100 minutes and rated 14A, and Beverly Hills Cop III is 104 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 14th, 2020

4K Ultra HD Review: Gemini Man

January 14, 2020

By John Corrado

Ang Lee’s Gemini Man was one of the more curious big budget films to be released last year, and it’s arriving on 4K Ultra HD this week in a set that also includes a regular Blu-ray of the film.

The film offers the Oscar-winning director a chance to play around with new technologies including higher frame rates and digital de-aging through the story of Henry Brogan (Will Smith), a hitman who confronts a younger clone of himself named Junior, who is played by a de-aged, entirely digital version of Smith.

While Lee shot Gemini Man in 3D at 120 frames per second, the UHD disc presents the film in 2D at 60 FPS, which is the frame rate that I saw it presented at in theatres. This really is the way to watch it if you have the right equipment, with the higher frame rate providing an odd, hyperreal look that is interesting to watch. While the film itself is somewhat mediocre, this is still a mildly entertaining action flick that is mainly worth checking out for its cutting edge visual effects. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The 4K UHD disc also includes a visual effects scene breakdown, which is presented at 60 FPS. The majority of the bonus features, about an hour in total, are housed on the regular Blu-ray disc that is also included in the black case, starting with an alternate opening and two deleted scenes (I Found a Plane for Us and Original Yuri Scene). These are followed by six in-depth featurettes that delve deep into the making of the film and the technologies used to bring it to life.

The Genesis of Gemini Man is a short piece featuring Lee and producer Jerry Bruckheimer talking about the origins of the long-gestating project; Facing Your Younger Self focuses on the characters of Henry and Junior; The Future is Now offers a deep-dive into how the visual effects team at Weta created an entirely digital human character, and allowed Smith to act alongside himself; Setting the Action looks at several of the film’s big set-pieces, including that insane motorcycle chase; Next Level Detail explores the production design of the catacombs used in one of the big fight scenes; and The Vision of Ang Lee talks about the filmmaker’s process and what it’s like to work with him.

While Gemini Man is somewhat more successful as a highlight reel of what is possible through digital effects than it is as an actual movie, and it’s far from Lee’s best work, the film still offers some cool action sequences and the groundbreaking visual effects coupled with the higher frame rate do make it worth a look for curious viewers. I would also recommend watching the bonus features afterwards to get a better sense of how they pulled it all off.

Gemini Man is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 117 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: January 14th, 2020

Blu-ray Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

January 14, 2020

By John Corrado

A sequel to the 2014 film, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil finds Aurora (Elle Fanning) preparing to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson), leading to increasing tensions between her stepmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and the human world, with Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) waging an all-out war against the magical realm. The film is arriving on Blu-ray this week.

While Maleficent: Mistress of Evil feels somewhat needless, and it’s not as good as the first film, this is still a fine enough sequel to check out on Blu-ray. It’s worth mentioning that the film just received an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, which is understandable considering the work on Jolie alone. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review of it right here.

The Blu-ray comes with a small selection of bonus features, starting with the three short but worthwhile featurettes Origins of the Fey, which talks about Maleficent’s species of fairy known as the Dark Fey and the many different cultures that exist within the race; Aurora’s Wedding, which features Fanning talking mainly about her character’s bridal gown; and If You Had Wings, which offers a fun look at how they did the flying scenes in the film.

This is followed by Maleficent: Mistress of Evil VFX Reel, which shows the progression of the film’s visual effects, most of which were done using a mix of blue and green screens on practical sets. Finally, we get two extended scenes (The Queen Comforts Aurora and Philip and Aurora Dance), two minutes of outtakes, and a music video for “You Can’t Stop the Girl” by Bebe Rexha.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release. It’s 118 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: January 14th, 2020

Blu-ray Review: Joker

January 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

There were few films in 2019 that made as much pre-release noise as Joker did. Directed by Todd Phillips, in a radical change of pace from comedies like The Hangover and Old School, the R-rated film offers a dark and gritty take on the Batman villain’s origin story that is different from any other comic book movie.

The film made headlines when it premiered in competition at Venice and went on to win the Golden Lion, an award that, in the past few years alone, has been bestowed upon the likes of Roma and The Shape of Water. The win shocked many, and set the stage for the often tense discourse around the film, which continued through TIFF.

Then there was the media, which spent the weeks leading up to the film’s theatrical release warning that it would surely cause real world violence with its eerily believable portrayal of a mentally ill loner turning to crime, to the degree that it almost seemed like they were hoping a mass shooting or some other egregious act of violence would happen at one of the screenings so as to discredit the film’s message.

Thankfully, nothing happened, and instead Joker went on to gross a billion dollars worldwide and the film became a genuine cultural phenomenon, both in spite of and perhaps precisely because of all this controversy surrounding it. One of the aspects of the film that did spill over into the real world is the clown mask and makeup, which is used in the film to stand up against rich elites who look down upon the lower classes of society, and has now been taken as a symbol of fighting back against government oppression, including being used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The film is set in a darkened version of Gotham City in 1981, and at the start of it there is a garbage strike going on that has already plunged the city into near-crisis. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire, working for a company that rents out clowns for different purposes, and his current gig involves waving a sign outside of a store that is closing down. But then his sign is stolen by a group of kids in the film’s opening sequence, who subsequently smash it to pieces over his head and beat the shit out of him in an alley. He lies there in pain, and we get the sense this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened to him. Cue the title card.

Arthur lives in an old, rundown apartment, and is attracted to his neighbour, a single mother named Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), who lives in the building with her young daughter. He spends his nights taking care of his sick, elderly mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), who obsessively writes letters to her old boss, businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is readying a run for mayor. But Arthur’s real dream is to pursue a career in standup comedy, and he fantasizes about being noticed by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who hosts a late night talk show that he watches with his mother. He has been raised to believe that it’s his job to bring laughter to the world, but he struggles to be funny.

Arthur has an unnamed neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate situations. Not only is he a standup comic who isn’t funny but, in the ultimate tragedy, it’s also physically painful for him to laugh. When Arthur, wearing full clown makeup, snaps and has a violent altercation with three young businessmen who are harassing him for laughing on the subway, he inadvertently inspires a populist uprising against the rich of Gotham City, with working class citizens donning clown masks to protest against the elites. Things quickly start to spiral out of control, fuelling his ascension into becoming the Clown Prince of Crime.

At the heart of Joker is Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a stunning, transformative performance as the iconic villain, dropping over fifty pounds to take on the part. Phoenix shows a level of commitment to his role here that is mesmerizing to watch, and there is a real physicality to his performance. Arthur often dances around, almost as if, in his own mind, he is living in a musical. Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir contributes an incredible musical score to the film that she wrote based on the script, so Phoenix could listen to it on set and act to her music.

What instantly stands out about Joker is how accomplished the film is on a technical level. Phillips has crafted a very well made film that is heavily inspired by the work of Martin Scorsese, namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which are clear influences on the plot. It’s worth noting Scorsese was initially going to produce the film before dropping out. The production design is exceptional, transporting us to the rundown streets of Gotham, which is heavily inspired by New York in the 1970s before it got cleaned up. Lawrence Asher’s gritty cinematography perfectly recalls the look and feel of films from the era.

This is one of the darkest and most controversial big studio movies in quite some time, and as much as I want to commend Warner Bros. for putting it out, I also understand why some have reacted negatively to it. Phillips has made an angry and reactionary movie, which is fitting because we are living in angry, reactionary times. But what some seem to be missing when criticizing the movie’s anger is that art is allowed to be provocative and transgressive, because art is meant to help us process things that are happening in the real world. Yes, some will surely misinterpret the film’s message, as is the case with some art, but artists don’t really have control over what individual viewers take from their work.

One of the criticisms levelled against Joker is that the film is too sympathetic towards Arthur, but I would counter that by arguing that the film understands that you can have sympathy for someone and feel sorry for them without agreeing with their actions or liking what they do. Arthur is a very troubled character, and the tragedy of the film is that he is stuck in an uncaring world that either acts like he doesn’t exist or kicks him when he’s down, and he is ultimately failed by a system that allows him to become the Joker. Arthur has access to a therapist (Sharon Washington), but when funding gets cut by the city, he stops being able to see her and loses access to his medication as well.

This is primarily a film about the people who fall through the cracks of society, and if Joker has any one political message, it’s about the need for better funding for mental health services. This is a disturbing and extremely unsettling character study of a broken, bullied and abused man reaching his breaking point. The film shocks us with moments of grotesque violence, and has a deep, nihilistic dread running through it that permeates every frame. No, Joker is not always pleasant or easy to watch, but it’s a work that is meant to challenge us, and Phoenix’s performance in the title role is never less than gripping.

The Blu-ray includes a small selection of bonus features, the best of which is the 22 minute featurette Joker: Vision & Fury, which offers a solid look at the production of the film and original genesis for the story. Rounding out the supplemental package are Becoming Joker, a short piece showing early camera tests of Phoenix getting into character; Please Welcome…Joker!, which compiles a collection of alternate takes from Arthur’s entrance onto Murray’s show; and Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos, which is a collection of film stills arranged in chronological order and set to music.

Joker is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 122 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 7th, 2020

The Best Movies of 2019

January 3, 2020

By John Corrado

With 2019 officially in the rearview mirror, and 2020 already a few days in, it’s time for my countdown of the best movies of last year. It was a year that saw the release of some great movies, and also closed out a decade of moviegoing that saw the release of some all-time favourites for me such as Inside Out, Moonlight, Silver Linings Playbook, The Tree of Life, Mad Max: Fury Road, Paddington 2, The Florida Project, Toy Story 3, Boyhood and Gravity, which would roughly round out my top ten of the 2010s.

For my 2019 top ten list, I’m happy with the amount of diversity on it. Four of these films were directed by women. Three of them are foreign films. Two of them are Netflix movies. And one is animated. This is not even mentioning the incredible range of over twenty films that I have also included as honourable mentions. As always, deciding on the final order took some time, and there were a couple of titles that I would have liked to have found spots for on my actual list. But alas, ten has always been a pretty fixed number, and I don’t want to break with tradition.

#10: Little Women

Greta Gerwig follows up her beloved 2017 film Lady Bird with her take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, and the result is a non-linear adaptation that has enough of a modern edge to make it feel fresh, while also remaining completely true to its time. The film is carried by another excellent performance from Saoirse Ronan as Jo March, one of the four sisters who dominate the story, and she is supported by an excellent ensemble that also includes standout work by Florence Pugh as Amy. This is an entertaining, often delightful, and emotionally resonant take on a book that has already been adapted for the screen multiple times, with Gerwig finding new ways to make it her own.

#9: The Farewell

Awkwafina stole the show with her supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians, cementing herself as a comedic firebrand. While that was in many ways her breakout role, her revelatory performance in The Farewell provides a different kind of breakout for the actress, proving that she is equally adept at drama. She delivers a moving, naturalistic performance in the film as a young woman who returns home to China to say good bye to her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) who is dying of cancer, with the twist being that her family has given her explicit instructions not to tell her she is dying. Beautifully written and directed by Lulu Wang, who based the story on events in her own life, The Farewell is a moving dramedy that is built around the fascinating and challenging moral dilemma of whether or not you should tell someone that they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

#8: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The latest from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunningly gorgeous period piece that captures the burgeoning romance between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an 18th century artist, and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a reclusive young woman whom she is commissioned to paint a portrait of prior to her arranged marriage. Rich with longing glances and simmering romantic tension, every frame of this film is like a painting, with Claire Mathon’s immaculate cinematography easily ranking among the best of last year. Merlant and Haenel are both excellent, and their palpable chemistry ignites the screen, as Sciamma builds towards a breathtaking final scene.

#7: Blinded by the Light

I’m a big Bruce Springsteen fan, so that’s probably why this film about a British-Pakistani teenager named Javed (Viveik Kalra) who has his life changed by the music of The Boss, resonated with me so much. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, working in a similar key to her 2002 breakout film Bend It Like Beckham, and set in the late 1980s, Blinded by the Light is a major feel good film that also touches on serious issues about racism and identity, all set to an incredible soundtrack of Springsteen songs that take on deeper meaning with how they are used within the film. The lyrics flash across the screen at key moments, a creative touch that works surprisingly well, and the film ultimately serves as a moving tribute to his music.

#6: Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory tells the story of a fading filmmaker named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) living with chronic pain, who is searching for his comeback while sorting through memories and figures from his past. Built around a career-defining performance by Banderas, and vibrantly shot by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, this is a richly rewarding film that also reveals itself to be a powerful story about repression, and how the things that we bury deep inside of us eventually burst forward through our art. It’s a moving film that, in a long career of celebrated work, ranks as one of Almodovar’s best and most personal movies.

#5: The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated return to the gangster genre, The Irishman in many ways feels like a late-career callback to his seminal classic Goodfellas from almost thirty years ago. Yes, this epic drama which was released in theatres and on Netflix is three and a half hours long, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now. But the film uses this running time to explore the passage of time in a really resonant way, showing how the pursuit of power at all costs ultimately leads to loneliness and isolation in the end.

Based on a true story, The Irishman is a surprisingly moving, character-focused mob movie about how the choices we make have a cumulative effect on our lives. The film features excellent performances from its large ensemble cast, which brings together acting legends Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for the three central roles of Philadelphia truck driver Frank Sheeran, union leader Jimmy Hoffa and mob boss Russell Buffalino, respectively. It astounds on a technical level, from the production design and surprisingly seamless de-aging effects used on the actors to Thelma Schoonmaker’s masterful editing, proving that Scorsese is still one of the best filmmakers we have.

 #4: Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s latest and arguably greatest film, Marriage Story, offers a searing portrait of a relationship falling apart that is remarkably balanced in its approach. While audience members will inevitably react differently in terms of which side they relate to more, neither Charlie (Adam Driver) or Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), the couple at the centre of the story whose marriage is crumbling, are bad people. Actually quite the contrary. They are both thoroughly decent humans, who are just no longer right for each other, and Baumbach’s ability to portray this is one of the most impactful things about Marriage Story. It’s carried by Baumbach’s brilliant script, and features a career-best performance from Driver, who is matched beat-for-beat by a top-notch Johansson. The film reaches its crescendo with a stunningly performed shouting match between the two.

#3: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the filmmaker’s brilliantly written and performed tribute to the year 1969 fifty years after the fact, is a film that ingeniously melds fact, fiction and memory together in its storytelling. The nearly three hour movie follows a fading Western movie star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and young up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whom we all know was murdered by the Manson Family in real life.

While the film often works as a wildly entertaining ’60s hangout movie, that builds towards a much talked about sequence of insane violence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also Tarantino’s most melancholy and moving film, seeped in a nostalgic light that I found both intoxicating and deeply poignant. Tarantino has crafted a bittersweet “what if?” fairy tale that becomes about reclaiming the mythos of 1969, imagining a world where the events of one fateful night ended with a glimpse of light instead of darkness, powerfully reminding us how different things might have been if only the movies were real life.

#2: Toy Story 4

Sequels are hard to pull off. Threequels are even harder, and fourth instalments are harder, still. This is what makes Pixar’s consistent defying of expectations with their Toy Story series so impressive. This decade began with the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010, a film that exceeded all possible expectations to offer a heartbreaking conclusion to the series that began in 1995, and has popped up on several “best of the decade” lists. So it’s only fitting that the decade has ended with the release of Toy Story 4, a follow up that few initially thought was needed but turned out to be essential in its own right. It’s not only my favourite animated movie of 2019, but one of the best movies, period.

This film centres around Woody (Tom Hanks), and offers a mature and moving continuation of his journey that explores deep themes about what to do when your purpose in life, which for a toy means to look after a child and make sure they are happy, has been fulfilled. At what point do you prioritize your own happiness? The wonderful new addition to the cast is Forky (Tony Hale), a craft project turned sentient play thing who considers himself trash. Yes, Toy Story 4 is a film that asks existential questions through the story of a personified spork sprung to life who doesn’t want to be alive, but the geniuses at Pixar have pulled it off brilliantly in this entertaining and moving film.

#1: Parasite

The moment that I keep coming back to in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the South Korean filmmaker’s brilliant, genre-defying social satire that takes us on a wild ride by continuously going in unexpected directions, is when Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the father of a grifter family, is told that poor people have a certain “smell” that differentiates them from the more privileged. It’s a small but crucial moment in this searing look at how those at the top look down upon those at the bottom, reminding him – and us – that there will always be invisible things that separate you from the upper classes, and eventually you reach a point when you just can’t take it anymore.

I kept telling people to watch Parasite knowing as little about the story as possible, and this is still the best way to experience the film. Bong Joon-ho has delivered a gloriously unpredictable film that is rich with simmering social commentary, and explodes with unexpected twists and turns, managing to be at once darkly funny, terrifying and moving. The film boasts incredible production design and brilliantly staged set-pieces, as well as excellent performances, all adding up to one of the most perfectly crafted films of 2019 which, for my money, was the best movie of the year.

Honourable Mentions:

1917

Ad Astra

Avengers: Endgame

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Frozen II

A Hidden Life

Honey Boy

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

I Lost My Body

Joker

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Lighthouse

Midsommar

Missing Link

Motherless Brooklyn

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Rocketman

Uncut Gems

Under the Silver Lake

Us

Waves

Yesterday

The Best Documentaries of 2019

January 2, 2020

By John Corrado

The calendars have already turned over to 2020, but 2019 would not be complete without my annual countdowns of the best movies and documentaries of the previous year. Per tradition, I have once again broken up these lists, because I want to pay tribute to as many of these films as possible. My list of the best narrative films of 2019 will be coming tomorrow, but first here’s my countdown of the ten best documentaries of last year, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

There were a lot of great non-fiction works released in 2019, so narrowing down this list and deciding on the final order was especially hard this time around, and a few of my honourable mentions could have easily made the actual list. What I have finally settled on is a diverse cross-section of social, political and human interest films, including two made up of archival footage (Amazing Grace and Apollo 11) and one real life conspiracy thriller (Cold Case Hammarskjöld). I unfortunately haven’t seen Leaving Neverland, so if you’re wondering why I haven’t included it here, that’s why.

#10: The Cave

Following up his Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary Last Men in Aleppo, director Feras Fayyad returns to his war-torn country of Syria in The Cave, introducing us to a team of female doctors who work in an underground hospital, accessible through tunnels that were dug by rebels under the bombed out city of Ghouta. Led by the quietly heroic Dr. Amani, they tirelessly work treating victims of bombings and airstrikes while also dealing with rampant sexism, such as a shocking moment early on when a male patient won’t accept the fact that they have run out of prescriptions and blames it on the fact that the hospital has a female supervisor. Fayyad goes to great lengths to ensure that the film is incredibly well shot, and at times it has the look and feel of a narrative feature.

This is one of the many things that makes The Cave, which picked up the Grolsch People’s Choice Award for Documentary at TIFF, stand out as a superior piece of non-fiction filmmaking. The film finds great humanity in the little moments that it captures so well, such as when several doctors genially complain about the meal of rice that has been prepared for them out of meagre rations while still eating spoonfuls of it, or when we observe the surgeon listening to classical music concerts on his phone while operating on patients. A scene in which Dr. Amani treats a young girl while asking her what she wants to do when she grows up is remarkably moving. This is a harrowing and powerful portrait of those doing the best they can to save lives young and old, with strong women leading the charge.

#9: Amazing Grace

Shot over two nights in 1972, Amazing Grace documents the recording of the late Aretha Franklin’s classic gospel album of the same name, which was recorded in front of a live audience at a Baptist church in Los Angeles under the guidance of the late director Sydney Pollack. The release of this film has been held up for various reasons ranging from sound problems to legal troubles, leading to the footage sitting dormant for over forty years. So the fact that it has finally been completed and released now, in the wake of the death of both its director and subject no less, is worth celebrating. This is a great time capsule of a film, that provides an incredible snapshot of Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers.

#8: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

This lovely documentary chronicles the over fifty year friendship between Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and the Norwegian woman Marianne Ihlen, who died within three months of each other in 2016. The two never got married or had children together, but they shared a deep bond, with Ihlen becoming Cohen’s muse and inspiring at least two of his songs. Directed by Nick Broomfield, himself a contemporary of the two, there is a sense of poetry to Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love that I found captivating and rather moving. As I wrote in my review, “it’s ultimately a story that is as poignant and twinged with sadness as one of Cohen’s songs.”

#7: nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up

Colton Boushie was a young man from the Red Pheasent Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who was shot to death by a white farmer in 2016, who was subsequently acquitted by an all-white jury. The story made headlines throughout Canada, and director Tasha Hubbard uses it to explore how our country’s justice system is still stacked against Indigenous peoples in her powerful documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up. The film features moving interviews with members of Boushie’s family, following them as they seek justice for Colton’s death, and builds towards a remarkable conversation near the end with Hubbard’s white adoptive father that shows the complexity of different perspectives. This is one of the most important Canadian films of last year.

#6: On the President’s Orders

Rodrigo Duterte promised to clean up the streets when he was elected president of the Philippines in 2016, which included giving the militarized police department permission to shoot people on site if they were found to be in possession of drugs. This bloody crusade against drug dealers and users ravaged poor communities and led to over three thousand deaths in its first year alone, and directors James Jones and Olivier Sarbill capture what Duterte’s literal “War on Drugs” looked like on the ground in their searing and extremely well shot documentary On the President’s Orders. At a compact 72 minutes long, this is a shocking and powerful film that unfolds like a real life thriller.

#5: Apollo 11

Assembled entirely out of archival material that has held up extremely well, including a wealth of newly discovered 65mm footage, Apollo 11 makes the 1969 moon landing feel up close and personal for those of us who weren’t alive at the time to watch it live on TV. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, who also took on the gargantuan task of editing the film, assembling countless hours of footage together into a linear narrative, Apollo 11 is a remarkable achievement from a technical standpoint, and a documentary that often feels surprisingly cinematic.

#4: Coppers

Alan Zweig is one of Canada’s best documentary filmmakers, and Coppers is arguably his finest work yet. It’s a work of remarkable empathy, forcing us to watch and listen for roughly eighty minutes as former police officers in Ontario talk about their experiences in the force and struggles with PTSD, all done in Zweig’s signature style of having his subjects talk directly to the camera with him as a very active interviewer behind it. This is a challenging film that isn’t always easy or comfortable to watch, but it’s also necessary, essential, and moving viewing.

#3: Honeyland

The last of the wild bee keepers in Macedonia, Haditze Muratova lives in a hut in the Balkan mountains with her elderly mother, and spends her time tending to a colony of wild bees. But her way of life, and harmonious relationship with the bees who supply her with honey, is threatened when a new family moves onto the property next to her, and starts trying to mass produce honey. Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, Honeyland is a beautifully shot and remarkably captured portrait of a dying way of life, and a fascinating glimpse into a corner of the world rarely, if ever, seen on screen.

#2: American Factory

Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert capture what happens when an auto manufacturing plant in Dayton, Ohio gets taken over by a Chinese company in their gripping vérité documentary American Factory, which powerfully documents a phenomenon that is happening all across America. The workers are suddenly being paid much less per hour, workplace injuries go up, and the employees aren’t allowed to unionize. The result is an incredible, almost real-time snapshot of the American working class getting overtaken by the corporate greed of foreign interests. It’s also interesting that this film was backed by Barack and Michelle Obama through their company Higher Ground Productions, because it explores a lot of the same problems and Rust Belt discontent that ironically went on to help get Trump elected.

#1: Cold Case Hammarskjöld

I love documentaries that show how truth is often stranger than fiction, and Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a great example of one. It all begins with the question of whether or not the 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was openly pushing for decolonization of the African continent at the time, was accidental or intentional. Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist and filmmaker, sets out to answer this question, and what begins as a wild goose chase built around an old conspiracy theory takes him to much more sinister places, which are documented with brilliant fervor in this by turns quirky, shocking, wildly entertaining, and ultimately disturbing film.

I saw Cold Case Hammarskjöld at a late night screening right in the middle of Hot Docs. It was my fourth film that day. And yet, I was completely gripped throughout every moment of this 128 minute film and my attention never flagged once, which is a true testament to how engaging this film is. It’s a wild, bizarre, conspiracy-fuelled ride that is filled with “holy shit” moments, and watching it unfold was one of the best experiences I had in a theatre last year. For that I’m calling it the best documentary of 2019.

Honourable Mentions: Ask Dr. Ruth, Carmine Street Guitars, The Edge of Democracy, For Sama, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Killing Patient Zero, Maiden, Midnight Family, One Child Nation, Prey, Seahorse, The Seer and the Unseen, There Are No Fakes, Western Stars, Who Let the Dogs Out.

Review: Uncut Gems

January 1, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Some movies get better the second time you watch them and, for me at least, Uncut Gems, the latest film from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie following up their brilliant, live-wire 2017 thriller Good Time, is absolutely one of them. In fact, my rating jumped up by a full star upon my second viewing.

I was exhausted when I first saw the film on the final weekend of TIFF, and didn’t have the best experience with it. I was seated way up near the top of the balcony at the Ryerson Theatre, a spot from which the screen looks small and the heads of tall people have a tendency to block your view, forcing you to crane your neck in uncomfortable positions.

Add in the fact that I already had a headache, the by-product of over a week spent getting little sleep and seeing multiple movies a day, and watching the film honestly just felt like being pounded over the head for more than two hours. To be fair, watching Uncut Gems again under more ideal circumstances and in a much better setting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, still sort of feels like being pounded over the head. But now I can fully appreciate that this is exactly what the Safdie Brothers were going for with this sustained anxiety attack of a movie, which straps us in for the wild rollercoaster ride of watching a man experiencing the worst few days of his life.

The film is set in the spring of 2012, and all unfolds during Passover. The story follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jeweller in New York City’s diamond district, who sells to high-end clients but has the scrappy sensibility of a hustler, and is always looking for his next big score. Howard has just imported a chunk of rock from a mine in Ethiopa that is studded with rare black opals, which he intends to sell it at an auction, hoping to get at least a million for it. But Howard ends up getting talked into lending the rock to Boston Celtics basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who wants it as a good luck charm, and takes his NBA championship ring as collateral.

Howard brings the ring to a pawn shop, and takes the money that he gets for it to bet on the Celtics game, intending to buy back the ring using the money that he makes off the bet, and return it to Garnett in exchange for the gem-studded rock. But things inevitably don’t go as smoothly as he plans, and with debt collectors already chasing after him, Howard ends up having to navigate not only the expectations of his wealthy clients, but also his family. Howard’s wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), is pushing for a divorce, and he is also juggling a second life with the girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox), that he has on the side.

In my TIFF review of Uncut Gems, I called the film a “stylish comedic thriller that is infused with a frantic, frazzled energy,” but also said that it “lacks the precision and tightness” of Good Time. While I still think Good Time is a notch above, watching Uncut Gems again revealed to me how carefully plotted the film actually is, with a lot of pieces that all fall into place perfectly. The loose, shambling feel of it is intentional, and the 134 minute running time that I initially found somewhat bloated is crucial to setting up a series of cascading actions that all ricochet off each other and start to topple like dominoes. Yes, it’s exhausting to watch, but that’s also the entire point.

At the centre of it all is a fully committed dramatic performance by Sandler, who acts the hell out of every scene. While primarily known for comedic roles, Sandler has also proven his dramatic abilities with excellent turns in films like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Funny People and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and this might just be the best work of his career. While Howard is a loud mouth and a perpetual screw-up who brings a good deal of his bad fortune upon himself with these overly risky bets, Sandler ensures that we still sort of like the guy, and feel genuinely bad for him as everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

We are essentially watching a high-stakes gambler make a series of risky bets, and the Safdie Brothers build and build the tension throughout the film, leading towards an explosive, suspenseful climax, with a moment that still shocks upon second viewing. The film is further heightened by Darius Khondji’s gritty cinematography, as well as brilliant, at times purposefully disorienting sound design, with the characters often talking and yelling over each other. This is topped off with another great electronic score by Daniel Lopatin, who also provided the propulsive music for Good Time.

Martin Scorsese has an executive producer credit on Uncut Gems, and the film has a pace that is reminiscent of his energized gangster classics like Goodfellas. This is a chaotic and often overbearing movie, and one that frequently overwhelms the senses as we are brought in to the sleazy and unpleasant world that Howard inhabits, but the Safdie Brothers deserve praise for pulling it off so well. Even if you find it off-putting at first, I would recommend giving this entertaining and at times exhilarating film a second chance. I’m glad that I did.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Uncut Gems is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to watch on Netflix as of January 31st.

Review: 1917

December 27, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Despite the fact that it takes place over a hundred years ago, 1917 is a World War I drama that has an immediacy to it, heightened by the fact that the film is presented entirely in the form of one single take, shot with stunning dynamism by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.

This approach not only stuns on a technical level, but also works from a dramatic standpoint to put us right on the ground and in the trenches with these men. The result is an immersive piece of filmmaking that is pulled off very well by director Sam Mendes, who co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and based the story on his grandfather’s experiences in the First World War.

The story unfolds over a single day and follows two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are stationed on the edge of No Man’s Land in northern France. They are given orders by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message calling off an attack the next morning that will needlessly threaten the lives of roughly sixteen hundred soldiers, including Blake’s own brother (Richard Madden), but to do so they must risk their own lives by venturing far across enemy lines.

First and foremost, 1917 is an impressive technical achievement. The camerawork is simply incredible throughout, and Deakins is coming right for that second Oscar, having finally won his first trophy two years ago for Blade Runner 2049 after many nominations. There were multiple moments where I was left wondering exactly how he got a specific shot or was able to keep the camera running for so long without stopping. While there are clearly a few cuts throughout the roughly two hour running time, which are all seamlessly hidden, there are also long stretches of the film with no cuts at all.

In any given sequence, Deakins shifts between wide shots, mediums and closeups, utilizing a mix of dollies, cranes and even handheld steadicams to keep the camera rolling as he follows the actors across a range of locations, giving the film a thrilling, real time feel. This approach also required Deakins to shoot with natural light, while having to contend with special effects such as gunfire, explosions, and even a dogfight in the sky at one point. The visuals are matched by great sound design, and a brilliant musical score by Thomas Newman.

The film is carried by a pair of physically and emotionally demanding performances by MacKay and Chapman, who do an excellent job of keeping up with the demands of the long takes, which require them to shift between a variety of emotions with the camera continuously rolling. These two actors are tasked with carrying the entirety of the film on their shoulders, and they are compelling to watch. Along with the aforementioned Firth and Madden, the ensemble cast is rounded out by appearances from fellow British actors Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch. Despite the fact that these four recognizable actors each only appear briefly, they all make the most of their single scenes in the film.

While the plot itself is fairly straight forward, there is a filmmaking prowess to 1917 that simply can’t be denied. The characters are in constant danger, and the brilliantly pulled off single take illusion ensures that we as an audience are kept in suspense throughout. At its best, 1917 offers an exciting example of images, sound, music and performances all coming together in a way that adds up to a unique cinema experience, and one that I look forward to experiencing again in IMAX.

1917 is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto, and will be expanding to more theatres on January 10th.

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