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Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness

August 26, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A Tale of Love and Darkness PosterAn accomplished feature directorial debut for Natalie Portman, A Tale of Love and Darkness is a beautifully crafted adaptation of acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz’s autobiography of the same name, that provides a way for the Oscar-winning actress to explore her own Jewish heritage.

The film follows Amos (Amir Tessler) as a young boy growing up in Jerusalem at the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in the 1940s, with a father (Gilad Kahana) who instills in him a love of words, and a mother (Natalie Portman) with whom he shares a profound connection, even as political uncertainty and shattered dreams take their toll on her through deep-rooted depression.

The multilayered narrative depicts the history of the time and place in authentic detail, showing the increasing tension that preceded the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.  But A Tale of Love and Darkness is also an incredibly touching story about the undying love between a mother and son, and the stories they share between them.  It’s in these moments that Natalie Portman, herself the mother of a young boy, reveals another side of her deeply personal connection to the material, especially in the highly emotional final few scenes.

The film is carried by solid acting from newcomers Amir Tessler and Gilad Kahana, as well as moving supporting work from Natalie Portman herself, who believably and emotionally conveys her character’s descent into the depths of depression.  Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Slawomir Idziak, A Tale of Love and Darkness is a moving and beautifully written period piece about dreams dashed amidst cultural turmoil, that is at once lyrical and heartbreaking.

A Tale of Love and Darkness opens today in limited release at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto.

DVD Review: Maggie’s Plan

August 23, 2016

By John Corrado

Maggie's Plan DVDMaggie (Greta Gerwig) is single but wants to have a baby, and is all set to go through with artificial insemination, when she meets the attractive professor John Harding (Ethan Hawke).  Although John is married to the icy Georgette (Julianne Moore), Maggie becomes captivated by him, and the two embark on an affair.  Fade through to three years later, and things aren’t going as well as she hoped, forcing Maggie to concoct a new plan.

Although the comedy is sometimes a little broad, Maggie’s Plan is an entertaining romp through love triangles and relationship problems.  It’s worth checking out for the likeable performances from its excellent cast, including standout supporting work from Ethan Hawke, who injects genuine depth into his role.  You can read my full review right here.

The DVD also includes a commentary track with writer-director Rebecca Miller, a Q&A from the Sundance Film Festival, a “making of” featurettes and outtakes.

Maggie’s Plan is a Sony Pictures Classics release.  It’s 99 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Review: Dark Horse

August 23, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Dark Horse DVDDespite horse racing mainly being known as a rich elitist sport, the people in a small, working class mining town in Wales had the dream of raising their own racehorse.  So they pooled their resources together and bred themselves a colt, who came to be known as Dream of Lions, and beat the odds in a series of prestigious competitions.

Directed by Louise Osmond, and utilizing a mix of interviews with the townspeople, archival footage and reenactments, the story of this underdog champion is recounted in the feel good documentary Dark Horse.  Although the film will be best enjoyed if you have a prior interest in equestrian sports, this is a charming real life crowdpleaser, that offers an inspiring story about following your dreams, chock full of quirky characters.

The DVD also includes a photo gallery.

Dark Horse is a Sony Pictures Classics release.  It’s 86 minutes and rated PG.

Review: Unlocking the Cage

August 19, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Unlocking the Cage PosterRobert Wise is an accomplished lawyer who has dedicated his practise to protecting non-human rights, having spent over thirty years defending animals in court who can’t physically speak for themselves.  And now he is the subject of the thought provoking documentary Unlocking the Cage.

Legendary documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker follow him as he mounts a landmark court case trying to grant personhood to other highly intelligent animals, like great apes, elephants and dolphins, who all have a sense of autonomy similar to that of people.

Much of the film revolves around his fight to have chimps rescued from roadside zoos and transferred to sanctuaries, where they can lead more fulfilling lives, and it’s interesting to watch how these cases unfold in court.  Robert Wise makes compelling arguments throughout, and Unlocking the Cage provides an engaging introduction to his work that gives us a lot to think about, even if you are already more or less swayed by his cause.

Unlocking the Cage opens today in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Blu-ray Review: The Angry Birds Movie

August 16, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Angry Birds Movie Blu-rayAdapting the popular game to the screen, The Angry Birds Movie centres on Red (Jason Sudeikas), an ornery avian who lives on an island where everyone is supposed to be happy, and is sentenced to anger management classes after having a tantrum.  There, Red meets the hyperactive Chuck (Josh Gad) and the explosive Bomb (Danny McBride), who also have trouble controlling themselves.

When a ship filled with green pigs shows up, led by the bearded Leonard (Bill Hader), many of the birds naively welcome the visitors, but Red is instantly suspicious of the brash new arrivals.  When the swines start stealing their precious eggs, Red and his fellow “angry birds” are the only ones who can save the island.

Considering The Angry Birds Movie is based on a mobile game that reached its peak popularity several years ago, the film actually does a surprisingly good job of providing a backstory for the iconic Red, and giving him a reason for his righteous anger that stems from being bullied over his eyebrows.  Although the plot itself is a bit thin, the film offers more than enough amusing moments, and an incredibly appealing protagonist in Red, to make it an entertaining diversion, chock full of colourful visuals and slapstick humour.  This is a slight but fun animated film, that will appeal to audiences of all ages.

The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes, several featurettes with the cast and crew, an option to watch the film with an isolated score, a music video for Blake Shelton’s “Friends,” and more.  The package also boasts having four Hatchlings Shorts, three of which are previously released advertising videos centred around various holidays, and the brand new The Early Hatchling Gets the Worm, a brief short about the friendship between a baby bird and a disturbingly phallic worm that feels kinda misguided.

The Angry Birds Movie is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 97 minutes and rated PG.

DVD Review: Almost Holy

August 16, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Almost Holy DVDGennadiy Mokhneneko is a pastor who roams the poverty-stricken streets of Ukraine at night, rescuing children from drug addictions and abuse, using whatever force necessary to bring them to his shelter, and not above vigilante justice to rip them from the grips of crime.

Directed by Steve Hoover, who also gave us Blood Brother, Almost Holy follows the enigmatic and controversial pastor over multiple years, putting us on the front lines as he cracks down on abusive homes and saves kids from drug use.  It’s set against the backdrop of the increasing tension between Russia and Ukraine, which threatens to undo his work.

Although Gennadiy Mokhneneko makes for an interesting subject, we also get the sense that there are elements to these stories that the filmmakers have chosen not to show.  The choice to edit in scenes form an ancient-looking animated children’s show about a crocodile named Gennadiy, which the pastor takes as his namesake, also serves as a distraction within the film.  But the cinematography allows the suffering on display to be framed in a way that keeps us watching, and there are enough interesting moments on a humanitarian level, to make Almost Holy mildly worth a look for avid documentary viewers.

The DVD also includes filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, a featurette showing what the crew went through to get the footage, and a visual montage.

Almost Holy is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 97 minutes and rated 14A.

Three Views: Pete’s Dragon

August 12, 2016

Pete’s Dragon Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Pete's Dragon PosterAn update of the 1977 Disney film, Pete’s Dragon is a remake pretty much in name only, which in this case turns out to be a good thing.  Taking versions of the original’s two main characters and forging a new path for them, this is a charming adventure that packs a lot of heart into its fleet 100 minutes.

Although the original live action and animation hybrid holds nostalgic appeal for some, it’s also a dated product from a more troubled chapter in Disney’s history, making it a welcome choice for an update.  Where the first film was bloated and all over the place in terms of tone, this new version feels streamlined, doing away with the musical numbers to become more of a quiet drama that fits with the studio’s current winning streak.

After a devastating accident left him orphaned as a toddler, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the woods for several years, with a friendly green dragon named Elliot to both protect and raise him.  Then Pete is discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her boyfriend’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), whose father Jack (Wes Bentley) works for a logging operation in the area overseen by his brother Gavin (Karl Urban).  Their small town is shaken by the boy’s mysterious reappearance, and it’s not long before word gets out about the dragon.  Although Grace’s elderly father (Robert Redford) tells tales of having seen the infamous dragon himself years earlier, and is one of the few townspeople who wants to protect him, Gavin becomes determined to hunt the creature.

Pete becomes desperate to save his friend Elliot, who is threatened by human fear, and the greed that is driving the increased logging of his supposedly protected forest.  Directed by David Lowery, a Sundance favourite who also made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and edited Upstream Color, Pete’s Dragon is an all too rare live action family film that feels totally genuine.  Although made within a studio system, the film retains the director’s more indie sensibilities, especially in the surprising opening scene.  The focus is kept on the characters first and foremost, drawing fine performances out of its cast of both established adults and young newcomers.  Shot in New Zealand, it features lovely cinematography, yielding results that are visually sumptuous to watch.

The special effects that bring the titular dragon to life are also excellent.  Elliot is a beautifully animated creature, interacting seamlessly with his live action surroundings, while still retaining a dog-like and adorably anthropomorphic look.  There are a lot of themes about belief and childhood magic, and Pete’s Dragon indeed feels like a throwback to a time when things were simpler, and to a type of film that doesn’t really get made for kids anymore.  Set in an indeterminate time period that could very well be the 1980s, it captures the tone and feel of those classic kid pic adventures, even if it doesn’t quite scale the heights of E.T., which it takes much inspiration from.

I liked Pete’s Dragon.  This is a rare remake that improves upon the original, and in a summer movie season that has had a lot of loud and cynical stuff, the film’s quiet and bittersweet charms feel like a refreshing change of pace.  Although the fairly simplistic narrative skews a little young, Pete’s Dragon has its heart squarely in the right place in its story of both the deep bonds between a boy and his dragon, as well as parents and children.  This is an enjoyable, all ages adventure that is pleasing to look at and offers plenty of heartfelt moments for viewers both young and old.

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Pete's Dragon Picture 1

Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete’s Dragon

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Pete’s Dragon Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Pete’s Dragon is a story of a boy who after losing his parents in a horrific car crash on a backwoods road, befriends a dragon named Elliot, who helps him survive in the woods for 6 years before he is spotted by a group of forestry workers.  Once in the town, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is desparate to return home to the woods, but as the townsfolk find out about Elliot, Pete has to help protect his dragon, while also learning how to deal with the first people he has seen in years.  The film is based on the old cartoon from 1977, something I’d forgotten while watching this new adaptation (which is way better in my book).

The film takes a refreshing slower pacing for family fare, and makes for a great film to take the whole family to for the end of Summer.  It is well cast and acted, and for those interested in the 3D, it is well used for the dragon flight scenes.  Elliot the Dragon himself is also well animated, with just the right level of cuteness to appeal to audiences.

While the script does gear younger, I really did enjoy this film.  The forest backdrop makes for good cinematic scenery and the story, while predictable, has a nice level of tension and emotion.  It is also worth noting that the other members of the audience I saw it with (many children included) seemed engaged throughout and that is the important thing especially with a family-geared film.  Overall, Pete’s Dragon is an enjoyable film that I would recommend checking out.

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Elliot and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete’s Dragon

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Pete’s Dragon Review By Tony Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Pete’s Dragon has nothing in common with that other Disney film from almost 40 years back, and that’s a good thing.  Five year old Pete finds himself stranded in the woods after losing his parents in a car accident. He is taken in by the dog-faced dragon he calls Elliot and over the next six years lives the feral jungle boy dream with a comfy treehouse and cave.

Now about 11, Pete (Oakes Fegley) observes forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose father (Robert Redford) likes to tell stories about dragons he may or may not have really seen. Her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Carl Urban) are loggers. Without official approval, Gavin’s operation is encroaching on Elliot’s territory. When Jack drops by the logging site with his young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), she sees Pete and chases him up a tree. The prospect of Pete going back among humans and the fate of Elliot hunted by Jack and his boys provide lots of excitement.

Filmed in New Zealand standing in for a northwest forest, Pete’s Dragon will appeal to a younger audience with its simple sweet story and good action scenes, though it is not in the same league as other films to which it might be compared, such as E.T. or Jungle Book.

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Consensus: A remake of the 1977 Disney film pretty much in name only, Pete’s Dragon is an enjoyable if somewhat narratively simple family adventure, that is beautifully filmed and offers plenty of heartfelt moments for audiences of all ages. ★★★ (out of 4)

Review: Zoom

August 10, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Zoom PosterBlending animation and live action across a mix of genres and styles, Zoom weaves together the interconnecting stories of three different artists, to offer a film that’s both entertaining and totally unique.

The live action scenes focus on an aspiring comic book artist (Allison Pill) who works in a factory making realistic sex dolls, saving up to get breast implants, and a model (Mariana Ximenis) who dreams of writing a novel.  The animated sequences follow an indie film director (Gael García Bernal) struggling to regain creative control over his arthouse project from a money-hungry producer (Don McKellar).

Although Zoom sometimes bites off a little more than it can chew, the sheer ballsiness of this project, a crowdfunded co-production between Canada and Brazil, deserves to be applauded.  The film is bursting with style, both in the pop art inspired look of the live action scenes and the sharp lined sketches of the animated sequences.  The screenplay is also full of heady ideas about the intersecting lines between sex and art, and who controls the destiny of the ones controlling our destiny.

As director Pedro Morelli and writer Matt Henson pretty seamlessly weave together all of these different characters and narrative strands, colliding them in the endlessly inventive last act, there is no doubt that they are in complete control over their own material.  As a trippy and captivatingly absurd high concept comedy, Zoom is an admirably ambitious independent film that provides a unique viewing experience, and could easily find a cult following.

Zoom is opening in limited release in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Friday.  It’s expanding to Ottawa on August 24th, and is also available on demand.

Review: Little Men

August 5, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Little Men PosterFollowing the moving old age romance Love is Strange, director Ira Sachs returns with Little Men, another beautifully observed character study set against the backdrop of New York City, only this time focused on adolescents instead of seniors.

The film follows Jake (Theo Taplitz), a sensitive kid who spends his time painting and drawing, and has just moved with his struggling stage actor father (Greg Kinnear) and psychotherapist mother (Jennifer Ehle) from Manhattan to Brooklyn.  You see, Jake’s grandfather has recently passed away and left them his apartment in the will.

The apartment happens to be above a dress shop run by Leonor (Pauline Garcia), a Chilean immigrant whose outgoing son Tony (Michael Berbieri) instantly starts hanging out with Jake.  But their friendship is complicated by the fact that Jake’s parents have inherited her shop and want to triple the rent, which puts the adults in bitter dispute.  Because it’s her only source of income, Tony’s mother is reluctant to give up the shop, but can’t afford the increased price they are asking.  At first, the two boys are able to pretty much ignore their parents business dealings as they zip around the city, Tony on a kick scooter and Jake wearing roller skates, but the tension between the adults threatens to take its toll on their close bond.

The screenplay is so acutely and almost painfully aware of the challenges faced by real, working class people living in a city, and the increasing gentrification of New York, that every little moment of Little Men rings true.  It’s a touching drama that is quietly devastating in the way it shows a young friendship being threatened by the problems of the adults around them, in a world where the kids, try as they might, just can’t break free from their parents fighting.  Theo Taplitz and Michael Berbieri deliver a pair of engaging performances that carry the film.  The adults around them are equally solid, with wonderful work from Greg Kinnear and Pauline Garcia, who bring nuance to their clashing characters.

Like Sleeping Giant, Little Men also has subtly handled hints of burgeoning homosexual attraction in the way Jake sometimes looks at Tony, a theme that is rarely directly addressed, but provides powerful subtext to the story.  This is a film that is compelling for the little moments that it captures, be it a look or conversation between characters, that cuts deep emotionally and ends up revealing so much about these people.  This is a beautifully made drama that lingers in the mind, a film that understands adult troubles, and the effects they can have on kids who end up getting caught in the crossfire.

Little Men is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Review: Indignation

August 5, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Indignation PosterThe year is 1951, and Marcus Mesner (Logan Lerman) works at his family’s butcher shop in New Jersey.  At the beginning of Indignation, he is going away to a prestigious college in Ohio, partially to avoid being drafted into the ongoing Korean War, which has claimed the lives of many family and friends.

Detaching himself from his clingy father (Danny Burstein) and caring mother (Linda Emond), Marcus is the first one in his family to seek higher education, with aspirations to become a lawyer.  But when he starts dating Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a young woman who has mental health challenges and is more sexually experienced than him, he is taken unwittingly into a culture clash between his socialist ideals and the old fashioned values of the college.

Although shy and having lived a sheltered life, Marcus is an idealist who comes out of his shell when he is forced to defend his principles, becoming a sort of conscientious objector to the social order.  Raised in Judaism, but now an atheist, he is one of only a handful of Jewish students at the college, and takes issue with the school’s obligation to attend a weekly Christian service in the chapel, a requirement in order to graduate.  One of the film’s best scenes finds him going up against the very conservative Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) in his office, a thrilling and brilliantly acted war of words that is only cut short when Marcus falls physically ill.

We watch as Marcus gains the confidence to stand by his beliefs over the course of Indignation, and Logan Lerman does an exceptional job of carrying the film, keeping us emotionally involved with a quietly powerful intensity beneath the surface of his character.  It’s one of his finest performances since The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and he shares simmering chemistry with Sarah Gadon.  The entire ensemble cast is also excellent, with particularly memorable supporting work from Linda Emond and Tracy Letts, who both get a couple of key scenes to shine.

Adapting Philip Roth’s novel to the screen, longtime producer and first time director James Schamus allows the film to have a very literary feel, mostly driven by dialogue and having extended sequences unfold in single locations.  The cinematography does a lovely job of evoking the time period, as do the sweaters and autumn-toned production design.  The camera also does excellent work subtly revealing power shifts between the characters during many of the two-hander scenes that make up the film, through the actors carefully staged movements within a frame.

Although Indignation is a quiet film, it’s an evocative and haunting work with many moments that continue to linger.  This is a period drama that utilizes its brilliant performances to draw us deeper and deeper into the involving story of a student slowly unravelled by his strong ideals and objections to the social norms of the day, before reaching a heartbreaking denouement.

Indignation is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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