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VOD Review: The Climb

January 20, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino’s bittersweet comedy about male friendship, opens with the camera following two friends cycling up a hill in France. It’s an incredible long take that goes on for nearly nine whole minutes, moving seamlessly between wide shots and medium closeups, only getting more impressive as it goes along.

At one point, a team of cyclists come up from behind. There is some action with a car. In its own low-key way, it’s an astounding feat of filmmaking, brilliantly setting the stage for everything that follows. From here, The Climb unfolds mostly through a series of long, unbroken single takes that are pulled off incredibly well, giving the film a really unique and inventive feel as it charts the ups and downs of a friendship over several years.

Serving as the film’s director, producer, co-writer and co-star, Covino acts in the film alongside his real life friend Kyle Marvin, who also co-wrote the script. They play characters named Mike and Kyle, who have been friends since childhood. At the start of the film, Kyle is about to get married in France, and the opening bike ride gives way to the revelation that Mike has slept with the bride-to-be (Judith Godrèche). This causes a rift in their friendship, which continues to ebb and flow as Mike struggles with alcoholism and Kyle enters into a new relationship.

I don’t want to say much more about the story, because I really enjoyed the experience of watching the film completely cold without knowing what to expect. The film’s screenplay is incredibly sharp, including several fiery dialogue exchanges, as Covino and Marvin capture the unique textures of a platonic male friendship through their believable writing and performances. But, as I mentioned earlier, the inventive camerawork really is the glue that holds all of this together.

Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography feels like one of the main stars here, and the ways that the camera moves to capture the action within the film’s extended scenes is what makes the whole thing pop. In addition to that captivating opening scene, Kuperstein also stages an exhilarating sequence set at a family Thanksgiving gathering that moves from the basement of a house to upstairs and outside. The film then outdoes itself in the very next moment as it segues into a Christmas party that is shown first from outside the same house, the camera tracking from window to window to capture snippets of conversation, before moving inside in one fell swoop.

Put simply, the camerawork in this thing is insanely good. The blocking is also extremely fluid. For these long takes to work, the actors all have to hit their marks at the precise moments, and everyone from the two leads to the supporting players handle this with aplomb. The way that Covino transitions between scenes, finding inventive ways to reveal the passage of time and parse out new information through a limited number of actual scenes, is equally impressive.

The film itself functions as a very entertaining buddy comedy, with Covino using moments of absurd humour to reach some deeper emotional truths about the bonds between these two men, charting how their friendship changes and evolves in response to life circumstances. It’s an engaging, easily relatable story, and the visual inventiveness with which it is told makes it come alive.

The Climb is now available to watch on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, and is being released on DVD this week by Sony Pictures Classics.

Blu-ray Review: Dreamland

January 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) is a teenager in 1935, who lives on a Texas farm in a dustbowl town that has been hit hard by the Great Depression and never recovered. He finds his escape through stories of outlaws on the run from the law, fuelling his dream to live a life of adventure.

The boy gets his chance when he discovers Allison Wells (Margot Robbie), a bank robber with a bounty on her head following a botched job that left several people dead, hiding in his family’s barn with an injured leg. As Eugene starts to develop feelings for the fugitive young woman, he is torn between turning her in and accepting the cash reward for her capture, or helping her escape to Mexico.

Directed with a sure hand by young filmmaker Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, Dreamland is crafted with a clear nostalgia for its time period and the old genre films that were born out of it. Working from a nicely textured script by Nicolaas Zwart, who finds some fresh nuances in the otherwise well-worn story that he is telling, Joris-Peyrafitte has made something that feels like a sort of gender-swapped Bonnie and Clyde, and serves as a fitting homage to that classic picture.

At the heart of the film is Robbie, who does a very good job of adding depth to a character who could have felt like a one-note creation. Allison is leveraging her sensuality and taking advantage of Eugene’s naïveté in order to survive, and Robbie is smart for not trying to turn her into a simplistic anti-hero or even a completely sympathetic character. But she still allows fear and vulnerability to peek through at key moments, giving her portrayal an understated complexity, especially when she starts to reciprocate Eugene’s feelings towards her.

This is also very much a coming of age story, and Cole does a fine job of showing Eugene’s childlike innocence slipping away as he goes through a series of life experiences that force him to become more hardened. The cast is rounded out by Kerry Condon as Eugene’s mother; Travis Fimmel as his tough stepfather, a local law enforcement officer who is leading the charge in the search for Allison Wells; and Darby Camp as his precocious younger half-sister Phoebe, whose character narrates the film as an adult (voice of Lola Kirke).

Finally, the film features some lovely Magic Hour cinematography by Lyle Vincent, as well as a good piano and strings score by Patrick Higgins, which adds to the overall nostalgic mood of the piece and feels authentic to the time period. While the plot itself isn’t terribly original and covers some well-worn territory, Dreamland is a well acted and beautifully shot piece of throwback entertainment that does a good job of keeping us engaged in its story while also gently tugging at our heartstrings.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Dreamland is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 100 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 19th, 2021

DVD Review: Wander

January 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

In Wander, the latest film from Canadian director April Mullen, a paranoid private investigator named Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart) is hired to investigate the mysterious death of a young woman in an American small town called Wander.

Arthur is a former cop who worked in the homicide division, until a family tragedy derailed his career. Now he lives in the desert and hosts a conspiracy-fuelled radio show with his friend Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones), where they bring attention to underground human experiments and rail against government control.

He is brought to Wander to investigate the strange case of a young woman whose chest literally exploded when she tried to flee. Arthur starts to believe that the town is ground zero for a vast conspiracy network with ties to his own past, or is it? You see, Arthur is on a cocktail of medications and is prone to hallucinations, including vivid flashbacks to the accident that claimed the life of his young daughter, and there is a chance this is all in his head.

This undefined mental illness that Arthur is living with feels like one of the more underdeveloped parts of writer Tom Doiron’s screenplay, and is used almost exclusively as a plot device to cast doubt in the audience’s mind over what is really happening. Eckhart overplays much of this, delivering a far from subtle performance that relies heavily upon “crazy eyes” and frantic movements. It’s an acting choice that he fully commits to, but it’s also sort of questionable at times.

Then again, the film around him also feels overly frantic in its assembly, with its dizzying camera movements and quick jump cuts between moments in time often making it hard to focus on what is happening. I also think that the reliance upon Arthur being an unreliable narrator actually undermines some of what Mullen is trying to do here, which is namely to offer an indictment of extreme border control practices and the surveillance state.

I do think that the storytelling is overly murky, and the film is often unnecessarily convoluted in its execution, but there are still some interesting ideas here, and I can’t say that Wander didn’t hold my attention while it was on. For his part, Jones embraces the kookiness of his character and has fun hamming it up as a sort of Alex Jones stand-in. The cast is rounded out by Heather Graham as Arthur’s lawyer and friend, as well as Katheryn Winnick as a mysterious woman in a black hat and sunglasses who is hot on his trail.

It’s a little too flawed to offer a full-fledged recommendation, and despite any number of twists and red herrings, the film also ends up feeling sort of predictable. But Wander still has enough going on to make it mildly worth a look, especially if you generally enjoy conspiracy thrillers.

Bonus Features (DVD):

The DVD includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Wander is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 92 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 19th, 2021

DVD Review: Jungleland

January 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Kaminski brothers, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell), are working class guys struggling to make ends meet in the gritty drama Jungleland. Stanley acts as a promoter for his brother’s career as a bare-knuckle boxer, booking him scrappy local fights in order to earn some cash.

When Stanley is unable to pay back his debt to a ruthless crime boss (Jonathan Majors), he is asked to transport a young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden) to Reno, Nevada in exchange. Stanley and Lion are travelling across the country for a fight in California that comes with a one hundred thousand dollar prize, and Stanley agrees to drop her off along the way.

This leads to tensions between the two brothers, as family bonds are tested and new ones forged along the way. The film’s director and co-writer Max Winkler embraces a classic road trip structure to tell this story, and it’s a pretty engaging narrative choice. The boxing itself doesn’t exactly play second fiddle in Jungleland, as it remains an integral part of the story. But Winkler is certainly more interested in crafting a stripped down character drama than he is a more conventional feel good sports movie, and the film is all the better for it.

This is the latest feature from Winkler following his disappointing 2017 film Flower, and it’s the young filmmaker’s strongest, most mature work yet. It has the melancholic feel of a Bruce Springsteen song, with its scrappy depiction of working class struggles in decaying small towns recalling the bittersweet rock ballads that the American singer is known for. In light of this, it’s quite fitting that Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” has been chosen to play over the film’s powerful climactic sequence, which is compelling for both its themes of family sacrifice and how it upends sports movie cliches.

The film is centred around Hunnam’s charismatic performance, which is among the finest the actor has ever given, with him bringing a magnetic intensity to the role that is hard to look away from. O’Connell compliments him quite well, bringing a quiet power to his performance as someone trying to both please and step out from under the shadow of an older sibling. Finally, Barden really feels like a discovery here, as the young actress allows innocence and vulnerability to show through her character’s tough exterior in a way that is quite effective.

The film has an underlying sadness to it that I found to be very compelling, and it ends up leaving quite an impact. With a trio of excellent performances from Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden, Jungleland is a gritty and low-key mix of boxing movie and crime drama that is well worth seeing.

Bonus Features (DVD):

The DVD includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Jungleland is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 89 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 12th, 2021

VOD Review: Promising Young Woman

January 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is the titular “promising young woman” in director Emerald Fennell’s ultra stylish and unforgettable feature debut of the same name.

Cassie used to be in med school and was on her way to becoming a doctor, until a shocking and traumatic incident forced her to drop out of university. Now she works in a coffee shop during the day, and pretends to be blackout drunk in clubs at night, tricking opportunistic men into taking her home so that she can teach them a lesson when they try to take advantage of her.

This is how we first meet her in the film; faking inebriation at a night club as Charli XCX’s “Boys” blares on the soundtrack. A man (Adam Brody) takes the bait, and non-consensually makes moves on her while she appears to be near the point of passing out, at which time she reveals her sobriety for the ultimate shock.

We then cut to her adding another strike in red pen to her notebook. It’s a solid opening that is both unsettling and atmospheric, while also maintaining some mystery as to what is actually going on, and instantly gripping us with its strong sense of style. We soon learn that Cassie has dedicated herself to getting revenge on the sort of creepy dudes who get away with it by passing themselves off as nice guys in order to justify taking advantage of women, which makes up the story of Promising Young Woman.

Cassie is forced to confront the trauma of her med school days in a more concrete way when one of her former classmates, Ryan (Bo Burnham), walks into the coffee shop, and she tentatively lets him into her life. Now an established pediatric surgeon, Ryan seems to be a changed man, and is successful in the way that she wasn’t able to be. Burnham, a standup comedian, is an inspired casting choice, as he perfectly balances his charming and easily likeable screen presence with lingering questions of whether his character is actually a nice guy or a secret douchebag like the rest of them.

Fennell, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, does an excellent job of blending genres. Her film oscillates wildly but seamlessly from dark comedy to searing revenge fantasy and powerful character drama, while also pointedly tackling themes like sexual assault, victim blaming and survivor guilt. She keeps her cards close to the chest for a good portion of the running time, keeping us guessing as to her protagonist’s true intentions. Benjamin Kracun’s vibrant and colourful cinematography adds to the tone, and is evocative of the film’s sickly sweet, candy-coloured world where nobody but Cassie wants to confront the darkness lurking underneath the surface.

Mulligan is incredible in the leading role, delivering a performance that feels like a career reinvention, especially when compared to her breakout role in An Education over a decade ago. Mulligan’s work in that film was also compelling, but for entirely different reasons, and it’s actually fascinating to view Cassie as a sort of flip side to Jenny in An Education. Where as that character was a naive teenage girl being taken advantage of by an older man, in Promising Young Woman, she is fully grown and figuring out how to gain the upper hand.

Here, Mulligan fully immerses herself in the role of someone whose behaviour is as cunning as it is unpredictable. She does an excellent job of portraying Cassie’s PTSD, showing how her erratic actions are informed by deep, unresolved trauma. The supporting cast features some inspired casting choices, including Laverne Cox as Cassie’s friend and co-worker at the coffee shop; Jennifer Coolidge as her kind but dimwitted mother; and Alfred Molina (in a perfect An Education reunion) as a lawyer. Meanwhile, other familiar faces like Allison Brie, Molly Shannon and Max Greenfield pop up throughout, and it’s compelling to watch how these comedic actors subvert our perceptions of them.

I must also give a mention to the great soundtrack of pop songs that help set the tone for many of the film’s scenes. The needle drops here are incredible, with a handful of perfect song choices including Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” which provides the backdrop for a giddy drug store dance between Cassie and Ryan. Performed with gleeful abandon by Burnham, it’s a wonderfully staged and knowingly cheesy sequence that feels like it could have been the centrepiece of a sincere rom-com, had it not been placed ironically in the middle of a much darker movie. I will also never hear “Angel of the Morning” the same way ever again, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m not sure if every single scene in the first half of the film works equally well, including an awkwardly long encounter with a man played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and a road rage incident that almost feels like it’s out of a different movie. This isn’t really a criticism, mind you, it’s more of an observation, and there is so much else to praise about the film that I’m not holding this against it. These scenes also add to the unpredictable tone of the piece, and do help throw us off the scent of where it is headed.

This is one of those films that I can’t say much more about, because it keeps shifting and subverting our expectations. Yes, it’s a revenge thriller, like the trailers promised. But it’s also a surprisingly moving drama about how people process trauma, especially when the perpetrators have moved on while the victim wasn’t able to. Something quite unexpected happened to me while I was watching the film; at the end of it, I spontaneously started crying. I think it was partially a direct response to what was happening onscreen, and also a cathartic release from everything that came before.

With a gripping performance by Mulligan, and an intoxicating sense of style, watching Promising Young Woman is an experience that I won’t soon forget. It will make you deeply uncomfortable and then very angry, but that’s the whole point. This is a blistering film, building towards a positively stunning final sequence that ranks as one of the best endings of any film in recent memory. See this movie, and leave plenty of time to think and talk about it afterwards.

Promising Young Woman is available to watch on demand for a 48-hour rental period as of today, more information can be found right here. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

Blu-ray Review: Spell

January 12, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Mixing elements of a kidnapping thriller with dark Hoodoo magic, Spell is a B-grade horror movie that had the potential to bring something unique to the genre with its almost entirely African-American cast and folklore, but ends up feeling derivative of better films.

Marquis T. Woods (Omari Hardwick) is a big city lawyer who is flying his family to rural Appalachia for his father’s funeral. When a storm hits and the plane crashes, Marquis wakes up in a strange attic belonging to an old lady named Ms. Eloise (Loretta Devine), with his family nowhere to be found.

This is a horror movie after all, so Eloise’s intentions are far from pure, and Marquis quickly discovers that something much more sinister is going on at her family’s farm. Eloise is a Hoodoo practitioner who claims to be able to cure him with the use of a Boogity, an effigy made from his blood and skin. But when he witnesses her family doing archaic animal sacrifices, Marquis realizes that Eloise might have a different use for his body in mind, and he must escape before the blood moon rises and he becomes part of a ritual.

Directed by Mark Tonderai, from a script by Kurt Wimmer, Spell is a film that never really rises above a subpar level. Tonderai does embrace the foreboding Appalachian atmosphere of the story’s setting, and there are a few moments of tension, including the obligatory scenes of Marquis trying to sneak back into the attic before anyone realizes he is gone. But it mostly feels clichéd and unoriginal. The film was shot in South Africa, presumably on a limited budget, and the production itself ranges from feeling moody to looking somewhat cheap.

The film borrows equally from Misery and Get Out, but it lacks the strong characterizations of the former and the sharp social commentary of the latter, and constantly pales in comparison to both. This is also a film that revels in the gross, including a puking scene directed towards the camera and a bit of absurd body horror involving a long nail, with little payoff for having to sit through it. While this might be enough to please some genre enthusiasts, I just wish that it felt like there was more of a point to it.

Hardwick gives an alright performance in the lead, and Devine embraces the campiness of her role in a way that makes her somewhat entertaining to watch as an over the top villain. But they struggle to rise above the movie itself, which feels very derivative and also struck me as kind of stereotyped. It’s a movie that, while not without a few creepy moments, is also somewhat frustrating to watch, and one that I can’t really recommend beyond a rental for curious horror fans.

Special Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with about an hour of bonus material in total. Almost half of this is in the form of deleted scenes, which are followed by three featurettes. A digital copy is also included.

Deleted Scenes (26 minutes, 51 seconds): A total of fifteen moments that were cut from the finished film, including an alternate opening and alternate ending.

The Nightmare Spell (3 minutes, 10 seconds): A brief run through of the film’s backwoods locations, often shown from a first-person perspective.

Rootwork: The Conjuring Spell (17 minutes, 54 seconds): A standard behind the scenes featurette, that features the cast and crew talking about the story, characters, and production of the film.

The Art of Hoodoo (12 minutes, 49 seconds): I expected this to focus on the real life mythology behind the story, but it’s more of an in-depth look at the film’s production design and costume design.

Spell is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 91 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 12th, 2021

DVD Review: The Twilight Zone (2019): Season Two

January 12, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Over the past few years, Jordan Peele has gone from comedy star to one of our finest horror filmmakers, an unexpected but genuinely exciting career reinvention.

In 2019, Peele leveraged his power to get a reboot of Rod Serling’s classic show The Twilight Zone on the air, updating it for modern sensibilities with more diverse casts and a diverse slate of guest directors. The second season of the show is being released on DVD this week, in a three disc set that includes all ten episodes from season two.

Peele serves as executive producer of the series and once again takes over from Serling as host, appearing at the beginning and ending of each episode. The first episode of season two, Meet in the Middle (dir. Mathias Herndl), follows a lonely man (Jimmi Simpson) who begins to fall in love with the voice of a woman (Gillian Jacobs) that he starts to hear in his head. It’s sort of like a riff on Her with a telepathic twist, and I found the story to be engaging right up to the final reveal.

The second, Downtime (dir. J.D. Dillard), switches gears from psychological thriller to science fiction. It follows a woman (Morena Baccarin) who gets promoted to manager at the hotel where she works, only to discover that her reality is not what it seems. It’s one of the shorter episodes, but still a fun little mind-bender, that includes a fine appearance from Tony Hale.

The third episode, The Who of You (dir. Peter Atencio), follows a struggling actor (Ethan Embry) who is in dire straits and decides to rob a bank in order to pay the bills, but ends up switching bodies in the process. With plenty of action and a constantly moving plot, this is a very entertaining and fast-paced take on the body swap genre. Embry gets to show his range in the leading role, and the episode includes a memorable supporting turn by Billy Porter.

The fourth episode, Ovation (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour), tells the story of a busker (Jurnee Smollett) whose chance encounter with an influential pop star (Sky Ferreira) right before her untimely death leads her to receive applause every time she starts performing, to the point of drowning her out. Amirpour helmed the best episode of season one (A Traveller), but this season two entry feels somewhat underdeveloped, despite a decent performance by Smollett.

Things are back on track with the fifth episode, Among the Untrodden (dir. Tayarisha Poe), which is set entirely at an all-girls boarding school, where transfer student Irene (Sophia Macy) becomes convinced that popular girl Madison (Abbie Hern) possesses psychic abilities. I really enjoyed the whole vibe of this one, like a mix between Carrie and The Craft, and it’s one of the best episodes overall.

The sixth episode, 8 (dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead), is set at the edge of the world, where a team of scientists led by Orson Rudd (Joel McHale) is searching for new forms of life, and discovers a new, highly intelligent species of octopus. Taking its cues from monster movies like Alien and The Thing, this is the episode that feels most like an outlier. While it works as a decent enough chamber piece, the roughly half-hour running time also isn’t long enough to fully flesh it out.

The seventh, A Human Face (dir. Christina Choe), is one of the more dramatic episodes. It focuses on a couple (Christopher Meloni and Jenna Elfman) who are in the midst of moving, only to be visited by an alien creature that bears a striking resemblance to their deceased daughter (Tavi Gevinson). It’s a decent mix of sci-fi and character drama that is intriguing and fairly well acted, if a little uneven in its overall execution.

The eighth episode, A Small Town (dir. Alonso Alvarez-Barreda), follows a man named Jason (Damon Wayans Jr.) who discovers a scale model of his town in the church attic. The model allows him to make real life changes, putting him at odds with the town’s slick mayor (David Krumholtz), who takes credit for the work. Alvarez-Barreda does a good job of nailing the episode’s fantastical tone, and it has an Amazing Stories vibe to it that I really enjoyed.

The ninth episode, Try, Try (dir. Jennifer McGowan), follows Claudia (Kylie Bunbury), a graduate student who nearly steps in front of a truck but is saved by Marc (Topher Grace). The two of them spend the day together getting to know each other at the museum, but the fast-talking Marc holds secrets that lead to several dark turns. It’s a pretty good if slightly predictable two-hander that is well performed by Bunbury and Grace, who shows range as he goes from charming to creepy.

The tenth and final episode, You Might Also Like (dir. Osgood Perkins), focuses on Mrs. Warren (Gretchen Mol), a housewife whose day has come to pick up her “egg,” a secretive device that the ads promise will make everyone’s lives better. This is probably the most out there of the episodes, with a tone that varies wildly from suburban satire to science fiction. The makeup and special effects are cheesy, but this is clearly an aesthetic choice to pay homage to the original series. It’s ambitious and bites off more than it can chew, but the weirdness of it keeps us watching through all the odd twists.

The first season of this rebooted series was a pretty good if somewhat uneven affair, with the episodes ranging from very good to just okay. This is mostly true of the second season as well, but this one has less variance between the episodes. I don’t think this really makes it a better set of stories overall, but it does make it a slightly more consistent one. While the highs in season two aren’t quite as high as they were in season one, the lows aren’t quite as low, either.

The best episodes (Meet in the Middle, The Who of You, Among the Untrodden and A Small Town) are quite engaging, and the rest of the season is never less than watchable. All in all, this is a decent set of genre tales that I enjoyed watching, and it warrants a recommendation as a whole.

Bonus Features (DVD):

I do wish that The Twilight Zone: Season Two had gotten a Blu-ray release, to match the one that the first season received last year, but the DVD set comes recommended in absence of an HD version. There are a few short bonus features spread across the three discs, which are housed in a clear plastic case that is complimented by a sleek white slipcover.

Disc One:

Downtime – Deleted Scene (18 seconds)

Ovation – Deleted/Extended Scenes (2 minutes, 49 seconds)

Disc Two:

8 – Extended Scene (55 seconds)

A Small Town – Deleted Scenes (2 minutes, 13 seconds)

Disc Three:

Gag Reel (4 minutes, 12 seconds)

The Twilight Zone: Season Two is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 6 hours and 25 minutes, and rated PG.

Street Date: January 12th, 2020

DVD Review: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Twelfth Season

January 12, 2021

By John Corrado

SpongeBob SquarePants has been on the air for over two decades now, and the complete twelfth season of the Nickelodeon cartoon is being released on DVD this week. The set comes with all 25 episodes from the season spread across three discs, and the Bikini Bottom adventures included herein serve as familiar comfort food for fans of the characters.

I mean, not much has changed in the over twenty years since the show began in 1999. The cranky Squidward (Roger Bumpass) is still getting annoyed by his jubilant neighbours SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), and the evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) is still trying to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula from rival restaurateur Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown).

Not every episode here is equally memorable, and some of them do feel more like filler to pad out a full season. But there are still some definite highlights, including SpongeBob becoming a cool jazz crooner after Squidward fixes the gap between his teeth so he will stop whistling (Mind the Gap); the return of the Dirty Bubble who tries to stay “clean” after going to jail (Dirty Bubble Returns); and Patrick getting a job at the Goofy Goober to take advantage of the free ice cream perk (The Goofy Newbie).

Some other season twelve highlights include SpongeBob and Squidward taking part in a live action role-playing game to get Bubble Bass to pay his tab (Bubblebass’s Tab), and the two of them trying to cook a nice meal for Mr. Krabs’s date with Mrs. Puff (Kooky Cooks). The season ends on a high note with the amusing double episode Escape From Beneath Glove World, followed by SpongeBob trying to distribute Krabby Patties at a concert (Krusty Koncessionaries), before drifting off into a wordless, jazz-infused dreamscape (Dream Hoppers).

The set also includes the special extended episode SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout, which aired for the show’s twentieth anniversary in 2019. The special got a standalone DVD release a few months ago that I reviewed here, and it’s nice to have it included in the set as well.

Episodes:

Disc One:

• FarmerBob/Gary & Spot

• The Nitwitting/The Ballad of Filthy Muck

• The Krusty Slammer/Pineapple RV

• Gary’s Got Legs/King Plankton

• Plankton’s Old Chum/Stormy Weather

• Swamp Mates/One Trick Sponge

• The Krusty Bucket/Squid’s on a Bus

• Sandy’s Nutty Nieces/Insecurity Guards

• Broken Alarm/Karen’s Baby

Disc Two:

• Shell Games/Senior Discount

• Mind the Gap/Dirty Bubble Returns

• Jolly Lodgers/Biddy Sitting

• SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout

• SpongeBob in Randomland/Spongebob’s Bad Habit

• Handemonium/Breakin’

• Boss for a Day/The Goofy Newbie

• The Ghost of Plankton/My Two Krabses

Disc Three:

• Knock, Knock Who’s There?/Pat Hearts Squid

• Lighthouse Louie/Hiccup Plague

• A Cabin in the Kelp/The Hankering

• Who R Zoo?

• Plankton’s Intern/ Patrick’s Tantrum

• BubbleBass’s Tab/Kooky Cooks

• Escape From Beneath Glove World

• Krusty Koncessionaries/Dream Hoppers

Special Features (DVD):

SpongeBob Appreciation Day: Patchy’s Beach Bash! (21 minutes, 50 seconds): This recent live action special finds Patchy the Pirate (Tom Kenny) stranded on the island above Bikini Bottom to celebrate SpongeBob Appreciation Day. He is joined by special guests, and we are treated to clips from classic episodes of the show.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Twelfth Season is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 576 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: January 12th, 2021

VOD Review: Yellow Rose

January 5, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A Filipino girl, who is living in Texas as an undocumented immigrant, dreams of being a country music star. This simple logline, which could have easily been the premise behind an exploitive movie of the week, instead provides the basis for the often touching Yellow Rose.

Directed, produced and co-written by Diane Paragas, Yellow Rose works as both an immigration drama and a music film, blending timely themes with an unexpected but very good country music soundtrack. The film is often equally effective on both fronts, offering something that feels both real and somewhat hopeful.

The main character is Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada), a seventeen year old living in a Texas motel with her mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalan). In the opening scenes, we see Rose listening to Loretta Lynn and wearing a red cowboy hat, very much wanting to fit in with the dominant culture around her. One of her prized possessions is a guitar that was left behind by her late father, using it to compose country songs informed by her unique experience.

When Elliot (Liam Booth), the teen boy who works the counter at the music store where she buys her guitar strings, invites her to catch a show at the classic country music hall The Broken Spoke in Austin, her world opens up, only to come crashing down shortly after. Rose returns to a raid on the motel, and her mother being taken into custody by ICE. The trouble is that they are both undocumented, putting her mother at risk of being deported to the Philippines, and sending Rose on the run.

Rose goes to live with her Tita Gail (Lea Salonga), but soon decides to strike out and find her own way in the world. Setting out with her guitar case in hand and her belongings in a garbage bag slung over her shoulder, Rose finds refuge at The Broken Spoke, thanks to the kindness of the manager Jolene (Libby Villari). It’s here that she catches the attention of country singer Dale Watson (playing himself), who becomes a mentor to her, and helps her hone her songwriting skills. But the threat of being captured by ICE hangs over her head.

Yes, some of the story beats here are cliched, but there is also a hardscrabble quality to Rose’s story that makes it feel more authentic. Noblezada, a stage actress who starred in the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, does good work in the role, very capably doing her own singing as well. Instead of turning her into a victim of anything other than the immigration system, Paragas presents Rose as a young woman who is determined to forge her own path in the world, despite not “looking like” other country music fans and being considered illegal by the country she has spent years living in.

It’s a somewhat refreshing approach to an immigration story, allowing for some more normal teenage drama to seep in as well, and making the moments when ICE agents do come knocking feel even more jarring and upsetting within the film. Rose’s unlikely journey to become a country singer, despite her atypical background for the profession, is engaging enough in its own right, with the threat of being detained and deported adding an interesting obstacle to her pursuit of the American Dream.

The soundtrack features a number of original songs co-written by Watson that help propel the story forward and are quite appealing in their own right. At 94 minutes long, the film itself is a well-paced crowdpleaser with enough broad cross-cultural and cross-political appeal to reach a wider audience, giving it the ability to inspire more compassion in people regarding undocumented immigrants.

Yellow Rose is now available to watch on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, and is being released on DVD this week by Sony Pictures Classics.

Netflix Review: The Boys in the Band (2020)

January 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

I will never forget the first time that I watched the original film version of The Boys in the Band. Directed by William Friedkin, and adapted from the late Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play of the same name, the 1970 film details the lives of a group of gay men in New York City circa 1968, offering a still potent mix of wit, humour, anger and heartbreak.

Set at a birthday party made up of seven gay men, a suspected “closet queen” and a “midnight cowboy” callboy, Crowley’s Off-Broadway play was the first to focus exclusively on the lives of openly gay men. Friedkin’s film subsequently became one of the first movies to do so as well, making it a seminal piece within the canon of queer cinema.

Director Joe Mantello and producer Ryan Murphy remade the film for Netflix on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary in 2020, and the result is a remake that, while not quite as impactful as the original, is still very good in its own right. This is essentially a film version of the play’s 2018 Broadway revival, which was notable for having a cast made up entirely of openly gay actors, who all reprise their roles here. It’s a commendable casting choice that also helps the film stand apart from the original.

The story takes place over one night, and unfolds almost entirely at an apartment belonging to Michael (Jim Parsons). Michael is hosting a birthday party for self-described “pock-marked Jew fairy” Harold (Zachary Quinto), who is fashionably late, and the guests includes a variety of mutual friends. There’s Donald (Matt Bomer), the sometimes bed partner of Michael’s; Hank (Tuc Watkins), who is in the process of divorcing his wife and arrives with his new partner Larry (Andrew Rannells); Emory (Robin de Jesús), who is the most flamboyant of them; and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the only Black man, making him further marginalized within the group.

Michael’s plans for a fun evening of food and dancing are upended when he gets a phone call from his old college roommate Alan McCarthy (Brian Hutchison), who announces that he is in New York on business. Alan breaks down crying on the phone and asks to see him, but Michael tells him it’s not a good idea for him to come to the party. Alan shows up anyways, leading to tensions within the group.

Alan claims to be straight, and is married to a woman, but his repression is apparent right from the moment he walks through the door. He’s visibly uncomfortable in the presence of gay men, and his sexuality becomes one of the great question marks of the story. The ninth guest is a pretty but not too bright hustler (Charlie Carver) that Emory brings as a birthday present for Harold, who observes the goings-on around him with a sort of simple bemusement.

The second half of the film focuses on a telephone game that Michael drunkenly forces the guests to play, in which every participant must call up someone they love and tell them how they really feel. It’s here that the interactions between the characters reach a boiling point, and the actors are really able to show their range. There are some amazing acting moments courtesy of de Jesús and Washington, in particular, who both offer a masterclass in allowing the emotion of a scene to play solely off of their faces, as their characters call up unrequited loves from their past.

Taking over for the late Kenneth Nelson, who starred in the original film, Parsons delivers the best performance that he has ever given in the role of Michael. As the story progresses, Michael becomes increasingly nasty and antagonistic towards those around him, and Parsons does a brilliant job of portraying his neurosis and insecurities. The character’s own self-hatred comes to the forefront as the film goes on, with his practising Catholicism and talk about psychoanalysis suggesting that he has internalized a message of being “intrinsically disordered.”

While the “self-hating homosexual” is seen by many to be a stereotype, and I do understand why it’s a characterization that continues to make viewers uncomfortable, I think Crowley tapped into something more real with the character than a lot of people would like to admit. I am fascinated by the way that Crowley’s script so frankly explores things like the closet and internalized homophobia. Michael dubs it “Christ, was I drunk last night syndrome,” a phenomenon of men sleeping with each other under the guise of inebriation, only to deny it the next day, something that very clearly still exists.

The way that Crowley wrote the character of Alan also remains fascinating, as he maintains a certain ambiguity to the question of whether or not he is actually gay. One of the most powerful parts of the story for me is the realization that you can’t force someone out of the closet, and some people aren’t ready to accept it and will continue to deny this part of themselves. Whether or not the pressure that Michael puts upon Alan to come out in the last act sends him spiralling even further into despair is one of the most interesting, lingering questions that the script leaves us with.

The material itself has been accused of being a dated byproduct of its time, but I actually think that Crowley’s text maintains much of its relevance, not least of which as a portrait of the confusion around being gay in the late 1960s. The gay and racial slurs that are used freely throughout do shock, especially in a film made nowadays. But without them, The Boys in the Band would lose some of its impact, not to mention its authenticity to the time period, as ugly as that may sometimes be.

I don’t know if Mantello, who also directed these actors in the Broadway production, really improves upon Friedkin’s film, but him and his cast certainly do justice to the material. Mantello also brings some of his own touches to it, including adding some brief, artsy flashbacks during the telephone game to give it a more cinematic flair, and also extending the ending to offer a few more scenes.

This is ultimately a good movie because the material itself is so good, and Mantello and Murphy have assembled a dream cast to once again bring it to life. The entire ensemble does excellent work in their respective roles, and there really isn’t a weak link among them. While I think I still prefer the original, primarily for its slightly grittier aesthetic and closer proximity to the time period that it depicts, The Boys in the Band is a solid remake that deserves to be seen in its own right.

The Boys in the Band is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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