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Review: Deepwater Horizon

September 30, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Deepwater Horizon PosterDramatizing the events of April 20th, 2010, when an offshore oil drilling rig owned by British Petroleum exploded off the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the worst oil spill in United States history, Deepwater Horizon is a piece of sturdy blockbuster filmmaking.

The first half of the film sets up its characters.  This includes hardworking engineer and family man Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), who is leaving behind his wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter (Stella Allen) to work on the rig, young crew member Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a seasoned veteran employee affectionately named Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell), and the villainous BP executive (John Malkovich) trying to save a few bucks by skipping crucial pressure tests.

After the character development and technical jargon that the script packs into its first stretch, the second half of Deepwater Horizon shows the disaster unfold in gripping and realistic detail.  Director Peter Berg depicts it all in admirably authentic and often stirring ways, shooting much of the film on a near-scale recreation of the oil rig, which was built on a soundstage at an abandoned Six Flags in Louisiana, and using practical effects whenever possible.  Mark Wahlberg does a good job of carrying the film and continues to prove himself as a dependable and eminently likeable action star in the leading role, backed up by a fine supporting cast that helps flesh out the real human element behind the special effects.

The film could have put a bit more focus on the irreversible environmental damage of this disaster, with the fact that an estimated 210 million gallons of oil was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico being saved for a postscript at the end.  But the images of billowing smoke and flames rising up into the atmosphere, and a bird drenched in oil flying disoriented onto the rig and dying onboard, speak for themselves in showing the devastating impact the explosion had upon wildlife and the environment.

As a whole, Deepwater Horizon delivers pretty much exactly what you would expect from a big budget dramatization of this devastating man-made disaster.  Expertly crafted on a technical scale, this is an engaging and well-acted action drama, that celebrates the people whose lives were affected by this disaster and their heroism amidst harrowing events, and serves as an emotional tribute to the eleven workers who sadly didn’t make it through.

Blu-ray Review: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

September 28, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

mike-and-dave-need-wedding-dates-blu-rayWhen their parents tell them they have to bring respectable dates to their sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding in Hawaii, party-loving brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave Stangle (Zac Efron) place an ad on Craigslist to try and find the perfect girls.  Enter Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), a pair of hard-partying best friends who pass themselves off as career women to get a free vacation, a lie that can only last so long as the whole wedding starts going to hell in a hand basket.

Loosely inspired by a true story of two guys who placed an online ad looking for wedding dates, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates goes wild with this premise, delivering a raunchy and almost screwball comedy that pays its debt to Wedding Crashers.  Although much of the humour is of the lowbrow variety, that’s not to say it isn’t funny, sometimes very much so.  Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza all have an easy rapport together that is a lot of fun to watch, and the film is often enjoyable in a mindless sort of way, delivering enough laughs to make it worth a look.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary by director Jake Syzmansi, a gag reel, three brief Funny Or Die shorts with the cast, and over an hour of deleted and extended scenes that mainly show versions of jokes that often aren’t as funny as the ones that actually made the cut in the movie.  There’s also an alternate storyline involving a roasted pig that is pretty cringe-inducing and was thankfully cut from the film, and short featurettes entitled Bits on Bits on Bits and Line-O-Rama, which are montages of improv lines that feel largely recycled from the deleted scenes.

Although there are some amusing moments with the cast buried throughout these bonus features, for the most part there is a lot of crossover content and riffing on the same material, which can make them feel repetitive to watch all at once.  Still, the film itself is worth checking out.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is a 20th Century Fox release.  It’s 99 minutes and rated 14A.

Blu-ray Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows 3D

September 28, 2016

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

out-of-the-shadows-blu-rayWhen notorious supervillian Shredder (Brian Tee) escapes from custody and teams up with mutant henchmen Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Sheamus), it’s up to the sewar-dwelling turtles Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) to take them down and save New York from an otherworldly threat, with help from reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and hockey-playing vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Amell).

Although by no means great – the alien villain Krang (Brad Garrett) is grotesquely designed, visualized as a disembodied brain, and Megan Fox’s character still often feels overly sexualized in her appearance – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is actually a slight step up from its 2014 predecessor.  This sequel is passable for what it is, a hyperactive and relatively harmless action film that will play especially well to its target audience of easily satisfied kids.  The 3D presentation actually ups the minor entertainment value of the film, displaying a nice sense of depth and allowing objects to pop off the screen during the countless set-pieces.

The Blu-ray also includes three deleted scenes, the four featurettes We Are Family, Whoa! Expanding the Turtleverse, House Party and It’s Tricky: Inside the Van, as well as a brief highlight reel showing the progression of the visual effects and a look at some of the easter eggs hidden in the film.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is 111 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Twin Peaks: The Original Series, Fire Walk With Me & The Missing Pieces

September 27, 2016

By John Corrado

twin-peaks-blu-rayWhen the dead body of local high schooler Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is found wrapped in plastic in the small logging town of Twin Peaks, FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is tasked with investigating the murder, unravelling an increasingly strange mystery that enwraps the denizens of the eccentric American border town.

This is the setup for Twin Peaks, a series that continues to both entertain and fascinate in equal measure.  Featuring all thirty episodes from both seasons of the show that ran between 1990 and 1991, as well as the divisive 1992 prequel film Fire Walk With Me, and the 2014 feature Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, which edits together deleted scenes from the film, this new Blu-ray set offers the perfect chance to revisit the series in all its glory.

Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, Twin Peaks is still a fascinating work to explore, offering up ample mysteries, and all the more intriguing for the fact that it doesn’t set out to solve them all.  Cited by the Duffer Brothers as one of the big influences behind their modern hit Stranger Things, and being revived for a third season next year on Showtime, the pop cultural influence of Twin Peaks can still be felt, and the series is undoubtedly responsible for helping usher in television’s current golden age.

The expertly crafted pilot episode, appearing here in both its highly recommended original form and the extended international version which was released theatrically in Europe, does an excellent job of setting up this highly unique world and the equally memorable characters that inhabit it.  Because of the show’s immense popularity and cliffhanger ending after the eight episode first season, the station renewed it for another 22 episodes, but was insistent that the central murder mystery be solved partway through the second season.  The series ended up cut short after only two seasons, which gave way to Fire Walk With Me, a box office dud upon its release that is now rightfully recognized as a misunderstood cult classic.

From Kyle MacLachlan’s perfectly pitched performance as the idealistic and pie-loving special agent, to the iconic theme music and obsessions with food, Twin Peaks still envelopes us in its atmospheric mix of mystery and pitch black humour, crafting a world filled with strange characters that is equal parts dream and nightmare.  It’s mesmerizing and addictive stuff that is as good as anything being put out nowadays, remaining one of the most challenging, artistically creative and all around best TV series of all time.

Bonus features on the nine-disc Blu-ray set include optional introductions by the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) on every episode, which were added when the series was syndicated on Bravo, as well as promo videos, image galleries, deleted scenes and other featurettes spread across the discs.  Although the show itself is highly recommended in any form, this release comes on the heels of the Entire Mystery box set from 2014, removing a disc of extras and repackaging it in a fairly cheap plastic case to make it more affordable, so fans will have to decide which one to invest in.

Twin Peaks: The Original Series, Fire Walk With Me & The Missing Pieces is a Paramount release.  The Original Series is rated 14A, and Fire Walk With Me is 134 minutes and rated 18A.

DVD Review: Labyrinth: 30th Anniversary Edition

September 27, 2016

By John Corrado

labyrinth-dvdCelebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Jim Henson’s classic 1986 fantasy Labyrinth follows a teen girl (Jennifer Connelly) who is annoyed with having to babysit her little brother, and wishes for him to get taken away.  When her wish is granted by the Goblin King (David Bowie), she gets sucked into a fairy tale world and is given thirteen hours to traverse a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother.

Boasting a fantastic eye for production design, and a host of supporting characters courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop that range from grotesque to oddly cute, Labyrinth remains an entertaining visual treat.  Thirty years on, the puppetry and special effects are still the main standouts of the film, indicative of Jim Henson’s highly imaginative vision as an artist.

Produced by George Lucas, and bringing to life a screenplay credited to Terry Jones, Labyrinth is also notable for being the final feature directed by Jim Henson before his untimely death in 1990.  The nostalgic appeal of the film is heightened even more now by the presence of the late David Bowie, appearing at his charismatic best in one of his most famous onscreen roles, and providing the songs for the film.  Especially for those who grew up with it, the Labyrinth: 30th Anniversary Edition is a worthwhile release that allows us to revisit this fantasy classic.

The DVD includes commentary by conceptual designer Brian Froud, the hour-long documentary Inside the Labyrinth, as well as a pair of nicely done featurettes that focus on the legacies of Jim Henson and David Bowie.  There’s also a more decked out Blu-ray edition, which I didn’t get for review.

Labyrinth is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 101 minutes and rated PG.

DVD Review: The Shallows

September 27, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

the-shallows-dvdWhen Nancy (Blake Lively) goes surfing on a secluded beach in Mexico, she finds herself circled by a great white shark, after cutting her leg and spilling blood into the water.  Stranded on a large rock a couple hundred metres from the shore, and trying to nurse her wounds while keeping the predator at bay, Nancy has to make due with her limited resources and find a way to survive with what she’s got.

This is pretty much the entire plot of The Shallows, and what little backstory we do get feels thoroughly clichéd.  But the film modestly delivers in terms of stripped down thrills, offering ample suspense throughout its surprisingly scant running time, with set-pieces that are staged with resourcefulness on the part of director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Grounded by a fine performance from Blake Lively, capably carrying the film on her shoulders, and featuring some clever little touches that are nicely woven into the storytelling, including a seagull that provides her company and the pretty ingenious use of a GoPro, The Shallows is a fairly decent film that offers enough small thrills to make it mildly worth a look at home.

The DVD also includes deleted scenes as well as four featurettes on the production.

The Shallows is a Columbia Pictures release.  It’s 86 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: The Magnificent Seven

September 23, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

the-magnificent-seven-posterA remake of the classic 1960 western, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is a new take on a well-worn tale from director Antoine Fuqua, that feels fresh and entertaining thanks to its kick-ass and refreshingly diverse cast.

After her husband is killed by capitalist land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgard), who wants to buy up the small town of Rose Creek, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) enlists bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) to help her both get vengeance and protect their land.

Sam rounds up a motley crew of men to help, including gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the hard-drinking sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-throwing sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), grizzled mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Commanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), to prepare the town for the coming showdown.

Although The Magnificent Seven takes a bit of time to get going in the first hour, it’s kept enjoyable by the interplay between the cast, and once it really kicks into high gear in the second half, the film delivers thrilling entertainment.  Boasting epic cinematography and a great score by the late James Horner, it all builds towards a showdown that offers pretty much wall-to-wall action, delivering the wild shootout that we are promised from the buildup, with violence that pushes right to the edges of its PG-13 rating.

There isn’t a weak link in terms of the ensemble cast, with Denzel Washington bringing his signature coolness under pressure persona to the leading role, and the rest of the actors doing fun variations on their usual characters.  Essentially playing Star-Lord as a cowboy, Chris Pratt steals the show as he spouts wisecracks that do a good job of lightening the mood.  The racial diversity of the main characters also adds a new layer of depth to the story here, with a personal vendetta between Sam Chisholm and Bartholomew Boque that gives added weight to the finale.

Three Views: Queen of Katwe

September 23, 2016

Queen of Katwe Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Queen of Katwe PosterProduced by Disney under their based on a true story banner, Queen of Katwe follows Phiona Mutesi (Madine Nalwanga), a girl living in the slums of Uganda with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings.  When Phiona is taken under the wing of kind coach Robert Ketende (David Oyelowo), he helps her foster the innate talent she has for chess to become a world champion.

The second place runner-up for the People’s Choice award at TIFF where it premiered two weeks ago, Queen of Katwe is made to be a crowdpleaser, no doubt about it.  And while the film mostly follows the usual feel good beats, and feels overlong at over two hours especially for the family audiences that its clearly targeted towards, for the most part it works for what it is.

Director Mira Nair does a fine job of staging her retelling of this true story, and the film does deliver its share of genuinely uplifting and inspiring scenes, with an emotionally connecting hook.  We watch as Phiona starts to gain confidence through the chess matches, but the trade-off is that it becomes harder and harder for her to return to her life of poverty the more she travels around to compete.  It’s all held together by a trio of excellent performances by Madine Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who keep us engaged and make the film enjoyable to watch.  And stay through the end credits for a charming look at the real people behind the story alongside their onscreen counterparts.

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Robert Ketende (David Oyelowo) and Phiona Mutesi (Madine Nalwanga) in Queen of Katwe

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Queen of Katwe Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on a true story, Queen of Katwe takes place in the small village of Katwe, Uganda.  When a local ministry program introduces Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) and her brother to the game of chess, her life in the poor village begins to take a change.  Young Phiona is a prodigy at the game, able to quickly see eight moves ahead, putting her in a position to possibly become a master.  As her coach realizes this, he begins getting her and some of his other talented students into tournaments across Africa.  As Phiona moves up the ranks, she gains the opportunity to attend school, but also begins to become unhappy with her life in the poor village as she sees the opportunity of a better life.  The film is a story of finding a way to surpass what you were born into, but also to reconcile your roots as well.  It is a inspiring story, that is made all the more so by the fact is is true.  Over the end credits we see the real people matched up with their actor counterparts which is great to see.

Queen of Katwe features strong performances from its cast, and while slightly long (just over two hours), it is an entertaining ‘sports’ biopic of sorts (with the sport being chess).  The chess matches are very well filmed with the right level of suspense, and for anyone who knows the game will be fun to watch.  The film will be good for audiences 10+ and viewers may be inspired to learn chess, or look up the true story of Phiona which this is based on.  Just coming off a premiere at TIFF, Queen of Katwe is worth checking out now that it is in mainstream theatres – judging by audience reactions, this one is poised to be a crowd pleaser.

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Phiona Mutesi (Madine Nalwanga) and her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) in Queen of Katwe

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Queen of Katwe Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from the Katwe slum of Kampala Uganda who in 2007 joined a chess club set up by the missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). As an illiterate widow, Phiona’s mother (Lupita Nyong’o) barely survived selling baskets of corn and other produce to support Phiona and her two younger brothers, but had too much pride and integrity to make easier money on the streets, a temptation to which Phiona’s older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) would fall.

The Pioneers chess club provided a meal and opportunity for intellectual development. Katende was soon confident enough to get them into a local tournament where they were at first dismissed as feral by the posh uniformed school kids but emerged as winners. Phiona showed particular genius for the game which led by 2011 to national championship and international competition, as well as an education and hopeful future for her family.

With a distinguished body of work in many cultural settings including East Africa, Indian-born Mira Nair was an ideal director for this project. Despite its Disney banner, it makes no effort to clean up the poverty in which Phiona’s family finds itself. Except for a handful of international competitors, the locations and entire cast and crew are African (at least by heritage). Though some references and the accents may be challenging at times and at just over two hours it is a bit long, the feel-good story with an excellent cast and lots of charming detail will appeal to children as well as adults. Stay for the closing credits with individual curtain calls for the cast alongside their real-life counterparts, and a final hip-hop production number.

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Consensus: Based on an inspiring true story, Queen of Katwe offers an uplifting if slightly overlong drama for family audiences, carried by excellent performances from Madine Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. ★★★ (out of 4)

Blu-ray Review: Free State of Jones

September 21, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

free-state-of-jones-blu-rayBased on true events, Free State of Jones recounts the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a disillusioned medic in the Confederate army who deserts the Civil War and returns to Mississippi, leading a rebel militia of poor farmers and runaway slaves in an armed uprising against the corrupt government.  Their rebellion led Jones County to secede from the Confederacy, thus creating the Free State of Jones.

The film also follows Moses (Mahershala Ali), an escaped slave who becomes an equally important part of the rebellion, especially during the Reconstruction Era that is chronicled in the last act, and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young slave fleeing abuse who Newton falls in love with and teaches how to read.

Directed by Gary Ross, Free State of Jones does have some fairly major pacing issues, with the narrative often lurching forward years at a time, and somewhat awkwardly mixing in the story of Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), a descendent of Newton and Rachel’s interracial relationship who is in court many decades later for marrying a white woman.  But there is a gritty authenticity to the production design that draws us into its time period, and the film is often stirring on a scene by scene basis, including a funeral shootout that leads to an act of revenge in a church house.

If you can look past the film’s share of pacing problems, Free State of Jones is a decent historical drama that recounts an interesting true story, and is worth seeing for the rock solid performances of Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and especially Mahershala Ali in a powerhouse role, who all dedicate themselves to portraying these historical figures and breathe life into the film.

The Blu-ray also includes an interesting featurette on the history of Jones County, featuring interviews with real life descendants of Newton Knight.

Free State of Jones is an Elevation Pictures release.  It’s 140 minutes and rated 14A.

Blu-ray Review: Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition

September 20, 2016

By John Corrado

beauty-and-the-beast-25th-anniversary-edition-blu-rayCelebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Disney’s beloved animated classic Beauty and the Beast arrives in a brand new Blu-ray edition, as part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection.

Notably the first animated film to ever receive a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, and in my humble opinion it should have won, Beauty and the Beast firmly established the fabled Disney Renaissance that began two years earlier with The Little Mermaid.  It remains one of the studio’s best productions.

This is an iconic film that is still just as rewarding and emotionally resonant a quarter-century after it was first released, boasting richly drawn characters, gorgeously rendered animation, and a wealth of classic songs courtesy of composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that still hold up.  It’s a timeless classic, and the animation of the ballroom dance sequence, groundbreaking for its time, is still breathtaking.

The Blu-ray features three versions of the film, including the original theatrical version from 1991, the 2002 special edition, and a brand new sing-along version.  Although none of the extra material from the prievious Diamond Edition release have been transferred over, bonus features on this edition include commentary on the extended cut with directors Gary Trousedale and Kirk Wise joined by producer Dan Hahn and composer Alan Menken, as well as five brand new featurettes.

These include Always Belle, a charming piece that features Paige O’Hara reflecting on voicing the main character and being crowned a Walt Disney Legend, and #1074: Walt, Fairy Tales & Beauty and the Beast, which offers a look at the early development of the film under Walt Disney, who was interested in the original story but never got it produced in his own time.  Then there’s The Recording Sessions, which assembles a selection of brief videos from the cast performing their lines in the booth, and 25 Fun Facts About Beauty and the Beast, a short puff piece hosted by a pair of Disney Channel stars.

The longest and most delightful of these featurettes is Menken & Friends: 25 Years of Music, which sees Alan Menken sitting at a piano engaged in an enjoyable and illuminating round table discussion with fellow Disney composers Stephen Schwartz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  It’s a blast to listen in to their conversation, especially when they start a sing-along.  There’s also a very brief preview included for next year’s highly anticipated live action version of Beauty and the Beast, which doesn’t come out until the spring but already looks splendid.

Beauty and the Beast is 85 minutes and rated G.

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