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Blu-ray Review: Venom

January 21, 2019

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The character of Venom was initially meant to be an adversary to Spider-Man. Now the popular Marvel Comics villain – who was played by Topher Grace in Sam Raimi’s 2007 blockbuster Spider-Man 3 – takes centre stage in the aptly titled Venom, and I’m honestly not exactly sure what to make of the results.

Part of Sony’s latest attempt at building their own shared superhero universe, Venom has gotten a bit of a reputation as a campy, so bad it’s good sort of film since its release in October. And it is mildly entertaining to watch at times, but it’s also a noisy, mindless mess that struggles to nail down a consistent tone throughout.

The film follows Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a guerrilla reporter who hosts a popular web series and seemingly has it all, living in San Francisco with his fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), a powerful attorney in her own right. But his life and career are destroyed when he goes up against Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of a bioengineering corporation called the Life Foundation that Anne’s firm is representing, and confronts him about the company’s unethical research practices during an on-camera interview.

Six months later, Brock is contacted by Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who works at the Life Foundation and wants him to do a followup story exposing the fact that Drake is currently in the process of trying to morph alien symbiotes with human hosts, and using homeless participants for these experiments. When Brock goes to the lab to gather evidence, he gets infected by one of the symbiotes, a shapeless black blob that needs to morph with a living being in order to take form and survive. And thus, Venom is born, giving Brock a powerful alter-ego with a penchant for biting off human heads.

Working from a script by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel, director Ruben Fleischer mixes elements of action, comedy and body horror, while never quite fully embracing any one of these things. The film isn’t deep enough to work as a character study, so it almost entirely misses its mark in terms of presenting its central character as a nuanced anti-hero, and there is no hero for him to play off of in order to make him a compelling villain. While Carlton Drake could have made for an interesting adversary, he is instead presented as a slithering, one-note bad guy who is evil right from the start.

The main selling point of Venom is Tom Hardy’s gonzo, over the top performance, and it is a sight to behold. The actor throws himself into the role in a way that is often amusing to watch, channelling the sort of character that Jim Carrey would have played in the 1990s. As Venom takes over, Eddie is left talking to himself while conversing with the thundering voice in his head – which makes increasingly ridiculous demands – and Hardy embraces the physical aspects of the role, whether throwing himself around his apartment or climbing into the lobster tank at a restaurant.

It’s a performance that hails from the Nicolas Cage school of acting, and there is some fun to be had in seeing an actor of Hardy’s caliber taking on a role like this, making it possible to enjoy Venom in an ironic sort of way. The romantic scenes between Eddie and Anne are cheesy and laughable, the dialogue is clunky, and the special effects often look dated, adding to the campy feel of it all. At times it does seem like the filmmakers were going for a self-parodying tone, à la Deadpool, but it doesn’t always work.

The film often falls into the curious middle ground of not being good enough to warrant a serious recommendation, while also not quite being bad enough to enter so bad it’s good territory. What we are left with is a mildly amusing time waster, with a handful of meme-worthy scenes here and there, that overall feels like little more than a hot mess. The film also makes the altogether odd choice of gong to credits a full twenty minutes from the end of its close to two hour running time, culminating with an extended clip from Sony’s far superior animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The Blu-ray also includes the option to watch the film in Venom Mode, featuring pop-up trivia, as well as a trio of deleted & extended scenes (Ride to Hospital, Car Alarm and San Quentin Extended), and the six surprisingly informative featurettes From Symbiote to ScreenThe Anti-HeroThe Lethal Protector in ActionVenom VisionDesigning Venom and Symbiote Secrets. There are also animated storyboards for several of the set-pieces.

Finally, the disc includes the music videos for “Venom” by Eminem and “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as well as the option to watch the extended Spider-Verse clip from the end credits on its own.

Venom is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 112 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 15th, 2019

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DVD Review: Elliot the Littlest Reindeer

January 21, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Elliot (Josh Hutcherson) is a miniature horse who has always dreamed of flying with the reindeer, and when Blitzen (Martin Short) announces his retirement right before Christmas, leaving Santa (George Buza) scrambling to find a replacement to fill his spot on the sleigh team, he sees an opportunity to finally realize this dream.

This is the basic plot of Elliot the Littlest Reindeer, a Canadian animated film from writer-director Jennifer Westcott. It serves as a largely mediocre holiday adventure that doesn’t have enough going for it to be remembered as a classic, but it will still pass the time well enough for kids come next Christmas.

Elliot lives at the Witty Bitty Farm in North Dakota, a reindeer farm and petting zoo run by Walter (Rob Tinkler), who inherited the property and is struggling to keep it running, in one of the film’s subplots. Helped by his scrappy goat friend Hazel (Samantha Bee), Elliot sneaks away to the North Pole to compete in the reindeer games, going up against DJ (Christopher Jacot), the reindeer equivalent of a dumb jock, whose father Donner (John Cleese) is determined to help him win at all costs.

The story is predictable, and offers a fairly generic “follow your dreams” message, but Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is also a film that, among other things, includes subplots involving a conspiracy to modernize the North Pole and replace the flying reindeer with a fleet of techno sleighs; an evil woman named Miss Ludzinka (Martin Short) who wants to buy the animals from the farm and turn them into jerky; and a doping scandal involving magic cookies baked by Mrs. Claus (Angela Fusco) that give the reindeer the power to fly. This all manages to be both more and less weird than it sounds.

This isn’t a great movie, but it’s by no means a bad one either, despite its obvious flaws. The animation by the Toronto-based Awesometown Entertainment is somewhat technically limited, but is still fine for something done on a smaller budget, and the film does feature some more interesting design elements of the North Pole. It’s mostly forgettable stuff, but Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is still an alright film that is helped along by its celebrity voice cast, and will provide passable entertainment for its target audience.

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

Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 89 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: December 4th, 2018

Review: Vice

January 17, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning 2015 film The Big Short was no typical financial drama. The film instead broke the fourth wall and used meta humour and a variety of other stylistic touches to offer a powerful examination of the 2008 economic crisis that was as compelling and informative as it was entertaining.

McKay strives to do something similar and mostly succeeds with Vice, an examination of Dick Cheney’s political career and how he rose to become the most powerful vice president in history, that blows up the usual biopic formula to offer a deeply subversive film that is a lot more transgressive and opinionated than your typical political or historical drama.

The film opens on the morning of 9/11, with Vice President Cheney (Christian Bale) taking over the phone lines in the situation room, and laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq. We then flash back to see his early life as a drunken college student who drops out of Yale due to bad grades and goes to work on the power lines in Wyoming, before being pushed by his then-fiancée Lynne (Amy Adams) to actually make something of his life.

From here, Vice shows us how Cheney cut his teeth in Washington during the Nixon years, working alongside Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) – promoted to Secretary of Defence in the Ford administration – who teaches him how to play the political long game and slowly inch his way into the upper echelons of power. After spending a decade as a congressman himself during the Reagan era, and being selected to serve as Secretary of Defence under George H.W. Bush (John Hilner), Cheney would leave politics altogether to become the CEO of the oil company Halliburton in the 1990s.

This could have been “happily ever after” for him and his family – and the film even gives us a clever false ending – but Cheney is pulled back into the game when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) decides to run for president and selects him as his running mate. Cheney only agrees if he is given unprecedented amounts of power within the administration, and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s here that Vice starts to reveal its most pointed moments, and the film’s last section focuses on how the Bush administration used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq, mostly under false pretences.

Working alongside Rumsfeld, who is brought in to once again serve as Secretary of Defence, Cheney lays the groundwork for the war through a misinformation campaign relying upon links that were tenuous at best to convince the public that the al-Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for orchestrating 9/11 had connections to Iraq. Bolstered by highly sketchy intel claiming that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction, the administration successfully pushed through the war which, at the time, the majority of Republicans and Democrats almost unanimously supported.

McKay reveals the full extent of his rage as a filmmaker when pulling back the curtain to show the untold damage that was done by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was mainly lobbied for by private companies who wanted to take over the country’s vast oil fields. Yes, the tone of Vice is often irreverent and at times downright flippant, but it also serves as a sobering reminder that the death toll of the Iraq War was in the thousands, costing the lives of both US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, and serving to destabilize the region in a way that allowed the militant organization known as ISIL (or ISIS) to form.

The film serves as a collage of several decades worth of American political history, and the supporting cast features a veritable who’s who of Washington power players then and now, as familiar faces like Henry Kissinger (Kirk Bovill), Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) keep popping up throughout. These “cameos”, if you will, actually make the film sort of fun to watch for anyone who follows American politics, even just passively.

Cheney and many of the people around him are presented as lusting for maximum power no matter what the cost, relying upon the unitary executive theory – an interpretation of the Constitution stating that the president has the power to control the entire executive branch, in theory allowing a leader to act without impunity under the belief that if the president does something than therefore it is not illegal, as explained in the film by a young Antonin Scalia (Sam Massaro) – to push things through.

While McKay makes no secret of the fact that he views his central subject as an almost Shakespearian villain – as evidenced by the heightened nature of a scene where Dick and Lynne literally converse as if they are in a Shakespeare play – Vice also manages to show Cheney in a surprisingly sympathetic light at times. This is most true in moments with his wife and their two children, including a tender scene when his teenaged daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as lesbian and he vows to support her, even though that revelation could have derailed his political career at the time.

The one aspect of Vice that has been drawing the most praise is Christian Bale’s performance, and understandably so. Bale’s chameleon-like qualities as a performer are what has always made him so exciting to watch, and the actor transforms himself into the role of Dick Cheney, having gained forty pounds to take on the part. Aided by a seamless use of makeup and prosthetics, Bale offers a compelling and eerily believable portrayal, right down to his hand gestures and mannerisms which the actor studied closely as part of his character research.

The film is peppered with memorable supporting turns from its ensemble cast. Lynne Cheney is shown to be the woman behind the curtain, so to speak, and Adams portrays her in a quietly powerful way. The film shows her as someone who sought the sort of roles that wouldn’t have been afforded to a woman at the time, so she used her husband as her conduit for obtaining power, and remained in lockstep with him through every stage of his career. Adams is excellent in the role, and serves as a similarly driving force within the movie, making her the perfect counterpart to Bale’s commanding leading work.

George W. Bush is presented here as an easily manipulated buffoon who desperately wants to appear powerful and in charge, as those around him pull the strings, and Rockwell leans into this portrayal, stealing every moment. Carell plays Rumsfeld almost like an outlandish villain – he constantly makes inappropriate comments and literally laughs out loud when Cheney asks him early on what it is that they actually believe in – but it’s a portrayal that, in the world of McKay’s film, works quite well. I’m actually curious to see the musical number that was reportedly cut from the film, featuring Rumsfeld showing Cheney the ropes through a full-scale song and dance production.

Even with the absence of this sequence, Vice is still filled with stylistic flourishes, and also has a few surprises up its sleeve, including the identity of its mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons), who appears onscreen at several key points to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. The presence of this character, and how he ties into the main story, is ultimately one of the film’s boldest and most interesting narrative choices.

I will admit that McKay’s approach can be heavy-handed at times, and it’s easy to understand why some viewers have been put off by the film’s freewheeling, almost cavalier tone. The film functions as a biopic, yes, but it’s also somewhat of a satire. At times it feels like a “greatest hits” of Cheney’s career, while at other times there is a sketch comedy feel to it, showing the inner workings of Washington in an absurdly humorous light. The film is funny, but it also sets itself up as a sad and angry drama about what drives people to want power, and the degradation of democracy by those who seek to undermine it for their own personal gain.

The film ends with a highly meta mid-credits scene featuring a focus group of stereotypical liberals and conservatives arguing over the movie that we just saw. It pokes fun at the “left vs. right” dichotomy that has come to plague so many of our political discussions these days, but it also feels somewhat cynical, and it’s one of the few moments when it feels like McKay is taking cheap shots at his subjects. The real purpose of this scene is to criticize audience members themselves for not being more involved in the political process while these things were actually happening.

The scene itself lacks nuance and feels on the nose, but then again, maybe that’s the point. The majority of people just want entertainment, and aren’t interested in a deeper, more contextualized conversation, which kind of makes the fact that McKay ultimately reduces this conversation to what is essentially a glorified punchline all the more ironic. It’s also more than a little amusing that the same filmmaker who cut his teeth making classic comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers is now chastising people for not being more engaged with politics.

At times we can tell that McKay struggled to nail down the tone of Vice throughout the post-production process, whittling it down to 132 minutes from a much longer initial cut, and the film ultimately doesn’t hit as hard as The Big Short did a few years ago. And yet, despite all these things, Vice still worked for me. This is a sprawling, occasionally messy film that is both quite entertaining to watch and also has a righteous fire burning underneath that makes it sting, bolstered by excellent performances.

Blu-ray Review: Halloween

January 15, 2019

By John Corrado

David Gordon Green’s Halloween, which saw the return of Michael Myers forty years after John Carpenter’s iconic 1978 film, was one of the most anticipated movies of last fall, and it’s now arriving on Blu-ray.

Serving as a direct followup to the original, this film finds Michael coming back to Haddonfield, Illinois to once again terrorize Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has spent the past several decades of her life preparing for his return so she can finally kill him.

This is a great setup for a belated sequel, and Halloween is a hugely entertaining return to form for the franchise, built around a kickass performance from Curtis. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of seven deleted/extended scenes, as well as five short promotional featurettes. First up is Back in Haddonfield: Making Halloween, which offers a general overview of the production, and features members of the cast and crew reflecting upon their memories of seeing the original for the first time; and The Original Scream Queen is an enjoyable but far too brief piece focusing on Curtis and the legacy of her character.

Next up, The Sound of Fear offers some insight into the music behind the film, with John Carpenter working alongside his son Cody and composer Daniel A. Davies to reimagine his iconic 5/4 time theme from the original; Journey of the Mask focuses on the iconic mask, and how they recreated it for this film; and The Legacy of Halloween features Curtis, Carpenter, Green and producer Jason Blum talking about the impact of the original, while hinting at the possibility of another instalment. The film comes packaged with a slipcover that features some nicely understated embossing on the mask.

Halloween is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 106 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: January 15th, 2019

The Best Movies of 2018

January 13, 2019

By John Corrado

Another year has come and gone. While 2018 officially ended nearly two weeks ago now, I wouldn’t be able to officially say goodbye to the year without first counting down my picks for the best films that were released within that timeframe. My list of the best documentaries of 2018 already dropped yesterday, so below are my choices for the best movies that I saw last year.

While I had a good deal of trouble putting this list together, and there are a few films that I missed and would’ve liked to have seen in time for consideration (Burning, Cold War, Shoplifters, etc.), doing a top ten list is also a tradition that I don’t see fit to break. Some of these films are more idiosyncratic choices, while others are consensus picks that have already shown up on many other lists and deserve all the praise they have gotten.

Because year-end top ten lists are very much in the moment things, you can feel free to think of this list as somewhat fluid. These are simply the films from 2018 that, as of now, have stuck with me for one reason or another, followed by a bunch of honourable mentions.

#10: Beautiful Boy

Timothée Chalamet, fresh off an Oscar nomination for his breakout role in Call Me By Your Name, delivers his best performance yet as a young drug addict in Beautiful Boy, which harrowingly depicts the struggles that writer David Sheff (Steve Carell) faced trying to help his young adult son Nic (Chalamet) get clean. Working as both a compelling father-son drama, and a powerful look at how addiction effects both the user and their family, this is one of the most moving films that I saw last year, anchored by the superb work of Carell and Chalamet. This one really stuck with me, and I also want to give a special mention to Ben is Back, another powerful film dealing with opioid addiction that starred Hollywood’s fellow hot young actor (and Lady Bird’s other ex-boyfriend) Lucas Hedges.

#9: Ready Player One

Like so many other film lovers, I used to be obsessed with the work of Steven Spielberg as a kid. The director’s latest film, Ready Player One, is a visually dazzling thrill ride that pays tribute to countless cinematic classics, including several that he had a hand in making. While the film makes a lot of changes to Ernest Cline’s book, the overall story of a Willy Wonka-inspired hunt for three virtual Easter eggs, with whoever finds them gaining control of the digital world known as the Oasis, where in the dystopia of 2045 most people live out their lives, remains similar. The result is a wildly entertaining blockbuster that features an abundance of ’80s pop culture references, while also offering a surprisingly poignant story about nostalgia and being stuck in the past, with Mark Rylance delivering a touching performance as the creator of the Oasis. It astounds on a visual level, but it’s that classic Spielberg heart that caused Ready Player One to stick with me throughout the year.

#8: Mary Poppins Returns

A belated sequel to the 1964 classic, Mary Poppins Returns serves as over two hours of pure Disney magic. The film finds Emily Blunt taking over for Julie Andrews, and she is practically perfect in every way in the titular role of the magical nanny, as director Rob Marshall fills the screen with countless delights. The new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman are joyful, the musical numbers are a lot of fun with “A Cover is Not the Book” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” being the main showstoppers, and the film’s impeccable production design and costumes offer a glorious feast for the eyes. This is a feel good movie in every sense of the term, and sometimes that’s just what we need. I left the theatre happy and with a smile on my face.

#7: Mid90s

For his directorial debut, Jonah Hill has crafted a funny and bittersweet ode to 1990s skater culture that itself feels like a lost classic from the decade. Featuring exceptional performances from its young cast, Mid90s is a scrappy and incredibly enjoyable coming of age film that follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a kid in 1995 who finds his tribe when he starts hanging out with an inner city Los Angeles skater crew. While Mid90s is a small film that got somewhat lost in the shuffle, Hill has crafted something that already feels like it will stand the test of time, with echoes of early Richard Linklater. The film perfectly captures the specifics of its time and place, heightened by the fact that it’s shot on Super 16 film and framed in a square aspect ratio, taking us on a glorious nostalgia trip that is by turns hilarious and heartfelt.

#6: The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos upends the usual costume drama formula with The Favourite, which reimagines the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as a pitch black comedy in which Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and her estranged cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) use seduction to jockey for control of wartime England, with whoever is in the Queen’s bed essentially holding the balance of power. The production design of the film is extraordinary, and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is frequently astounding, making memorable use of fisheye lenses. Lanthimos keeps the tone of the piece perched precipitously between comedy and tragedy, helped along by a trio of marvellous performances from Colman, Weisz and Stone, who are all unforgettable in their own unique ways.

#5: Roma

Alfonso Cauron’s Roma, the director’s expansive, black and white homage to the Mexico of his youth and the women who raised him, has gotten near unanimous praise from critics, and deservedly so. Cauron’s cinematography is spectacular, with many sequences unfolding through single takes and panoramic shots, the attention to detail throughout every frame is incredible, and the film is carried by a moving performance from first time actress Yalitza Aparicio as the nanny that the story unfolds around. After the first hour takes its time to immerse us in this world, the second half of Roma features some of the most intensely emotional sequences of any film last year. This is a technical masterpiece, and a film that will be remembered as a classic for years to come.

#4: A Star is Born

Much has already been written about Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born, the fourth retelling of this story that charts one star rising as another one fades away, and that’s because it’s an absolute knockout of a musical drama. The film is anchored every step of the way by Cooper’s assured direction and transformative performance as a depressed country rocker in the throes of alcoholism, and Lady Gaga really impresses in her breakout leading role as the young singer that he falls in love with and helps turn into a pop star. This was not only one of the most entertaining movies of last year, but also one of the most emotionally powerful as well, building towards the deeply moving final few scenes. The soundtrack is incredible, with the instantly iconic power ballad “Shallow” having not left my head since seeing the film.

#3: Leave No Trace

Director Debra Granik follows up her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, which presented a bleak view of backwoods life, with the masterful drama Leave No Trace, a serene and deeply moving meditation on the healing power of solitude. Ben Foster and newcomer Thomason MacKenzie carry the film with a pair of deeply felt performances as a father and daughter trying to live off grid, as society keeps intruding upon them. I saw this film over the summer, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since then. There’s just something about Leave No Trace that has made it stick with me in a profound way, and the film has steadily moved up my list throughout the year, until finally settling in third place.

#2: First Reformed

Will God forgive us for destroying His creation, and is an otherwise morally reprehensible act ever justifiable if it has the potential to save many more people? These are the questions at the centre of Paul Schrader’s haunting masterpiece First Reformed, one of the most complex and spiritually challenging works that we have gotten in quite some time. Ethan Hawke delivers the best performance of the year, and maybe of his career, as a Calvinist preacher suffering a crisis of faith and a dwindling congregation as he grapples with the question of how far God wants us to go in terms of saving the environment.

There is a sense of despair running through First Reformed that is impossible to shake. The square aspect ratio and stately composition of many of the shots recalls works like Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and the ending, which carries with it multiple interpretations that vary depending on whether you are agnostic or a believer, will be debated and talked about for years to come. This is a major work, and not to be missed.

#1: Paddington 2

When I saw Paddington 2 on a Saturday morning nearly a year ago, I had a feeling that it would remain atop my list as the best movie of 2018, and here we are. The first film landed right in the middle of my top ten list in 2015, and I think this sequel even surpasses it, offering a miracle of a movie that comes together perfectly in every single way.

I love everything about Paddington 2, from Hugh Grant’s wonderfully campy performance as the thespian turned scoundrel Phoenix Buchanan, to Brendan Gleeson’s supporting role as a hardened prison chef embracing his sensitive side and learning to make marmalade, in one of the most joyous sequences of any film last year. And I especially love Paddington himself, the cheerful and impeccably mannered bear from Darkest Peru, who is brought to life through seamless visual effects and is voiced perfectly by Ben Whishaw.

Paddington is a kind-hearted and optimistic character who not only sees the best in everyone, but also manages to bring out the best in others, spurred on by the belief that “if we’re kind and polite the world will be right.” Put simply, no film brought me more joy last year than Paddington 2, and for that I’m calling it the best movie of 2018.

Honourable Mentions:

Avengers: Infinity War

Ben is Back

BlacKkKlansman

Black Panther

Blaze

Bodied

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Christopher Robin

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Eighth Grade

Green Book

The Grinch

The Hate U Give

If Beale Street Could Talk

Incredibles 2

Isle of Dogs

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Love, Simon

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The Old Man & The Gun

On Chesil Beach

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Vox Lux

Wildlife

The Best Documentaries of 2018

January 12, 2019

By John Corrado

We have already officially closed the door on 2018, but before we entirely leave the year in the past, I would be remiss not to highlight the many wonderful films that I saw last year. My list of the best movies of 2018 will be dropping shortly, but first I would like to start by counting down my picks for the best documentaries, something that I have greatly enjoyed doing over the past several years.

Now I don’t separate out these lists because I view documentaries to be somehow inferior or lesser. It’s actually quite the contrary. I generally see so many exceptional documentaries throughout the year that it only seems fair to highlight as many of them as possible, and the best way to do that is by offering a separate list where these achievements can be celebrated entirely on their own. And 2018 was indeed a great year for non-fiction filmmaking, with films like RBG, Free Solo, Three Identical Strangers and  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? not only attracting critical acclaim, but also doing quite well at the box office, all things considered.

Before we get started on the official countdown, I also want to give a special shout out to American Animals and Fake Blood, a pair of ingeniously assembled films that don’t necessarily strictly qualify as documentaries, at least not in the classic sense, but do extremely inventive things with the format and are worth seeking out. Now without further ado, here are my picks for the ten best documentaries of 2018, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

#10: RBG

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or the “Notorious RBG” as she’s affectionately come to be known as, has become somewhat of an internet icon over the past several years. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West offer an overview of her career in their polished and enjoyable documentary RBG. The film celebrates her legacy of fighting against sex-based discrimination throughout her legal career as a Harvard-educated lawyer, attending the prestigious university at a time when many women weren’t accepted in law school, before becoming only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, where she still serves to this day.

The film shows Ginsburg to be a fighter in both her public and private life, still keeping up a fitness routine in her eighties that some people half her age would struggle through. But it also takes on a bittersweet quality, especially when showcasing the very sweet relationship that she had with her late husband Martin Ginsburg, who was one of her strongest champions and supporters, even meeting with President Bill Clinton to help secure his wife a spot on the Supreme Court. It’s a glossy portrait, to be sure, and a bit overly fawning at times. But RBG still functions as an engaging, inspiring, and very well assembled introduction to a true icon of our times.

#9: McQueen

Alexander McQueen was both a London fashion designer with a style all his own and a shock art provocateur with a penchant for bringing themes of sex and violence to the runway, and the ups and downs of his career and personal life are detailed in the compelling documentary McQueen, co-directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui.

The film compiles a mix of archival footage and interviews with those who knew him personally to show McQueen’s meteoric rise during the 1990s – from his early start apprenticing with Savile Row tailors to his tenure at Givenchy – while also exploring the internal battles he was fighting that led him to take his own life in 2010. This is not only an engaging overview of Alexander McQueen’s career, but also a fascinating and disturbing look inside the tortured mind of a brilliant artist. The film maintains interest throughout its nearly two hour running time, exploring the thin line between genius and madness, and how mental illness and addiction often plagues the most creative of minds.

#8: Love, Gilda

A portrait of the late, great comedian Gilda Radner, Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda is the sort of film that will make you laugh before it makes you cry. The film details Radner’s rise to fame on Saturday Night Live, where she became a beloved member of the cast and created several iconic characters, while also sensitively exploring her personal struggles with eating disorders and documenting her battle with ovarian cancer, which ultimately took her from us far too soon. Watching it is an experience that is just as funny and ultimately moving as you would expect, especially when the film is focusing on her relationship with Gene Wilder.

#7: Believer

The frontman for the mega band Imagine Dragons, Dan Reynolds is on a mission to get the Mormon church that he grew up in to be more accepting of LGBT youth. While Reynolds himself is not gay, he is moved to act by the letters he receives from young LGBT fans who are struggling to find acceptance within their religion, and director Dan Argott follows him as he organizes an inclusive music festival to be held just a few blocks from the Mormon Temple in Park City, Utah. While Believer is a crowdpleaser through and through, and often a very effective one at that, the film also probes deeper questions about balancing sexuality and religious belief. It’s inspiring and also moving to watch.

#6: Free Solo

At a time when many documentaries only get released through streaming services, there are still some that benefit from being seen on the big screen, and Free Solo is one of them. The film documents rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempts to become the first person ever to free solo climb the 3,000 foot high El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park without the aid of any harnesses or ropes, meaning that a single misstep or a slight slip of the hand could cost him his life.

Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow him as he prepares to ascend the wall, documenting his setbacks and triumphs in the lead up to this incredible feat. They use a mix of cameras and drones to capture the climb itself, providing a climactic sequence that unfolds with an incredible amount of suspense, as Honnold must rely solely on his own personal strength and endurance in order to stay alive. It sounds crazy, but there is a compelling philosophy behind the art of free soloing that has to do with putting yourself in danger in a way that you are in control of in order to work through your fear, so that you can ultimately emerge stronger at the end.

Honnold himself is a fascinating subject. He is likely on the autism spectrum, and views the life or death stakes of what he is doing in a very matter of fact way. The film is also incidentally one of my favourite romances of last year, documenting Honnold’s very charming relationship with his girlfriend Sandi McCandless, and the tensions that mount between them as she expresses concerns over his safety. At its heart, Free Solo is a compelling film about confronting your fear in order to overcome it, and you will be on the edge of your seat while watching it.

#5: The King

Did the life and death of Elvis Presley represent the rise and fall of the American Dream? That’s the main thesis behind The King, Eugene Jarecki’s stunning documentary that finds the filmmaker driving across America in a Rolls Royce that belonged to Presley himself, using this road trip to examine both the life of Elvis and how the country itself has changed from the post-war boom of the mid-20th Century to where it is now. As the film leads up to the earth-shattering results of the 2016 election, the question that we are left with as an audience is whether the country is in the midst of staging a comeback, or if it is at risk of facing the same fate as the King. This is a thought provoking and deeply powerful film.

#4: Shirkers

A film that never was becomes the basis for one of the best documentaries of the year in Shirkers. When Sandi Tan was a young adult back in the ’90s in Singapore, her and her cinephile friends made an avant-garde art film called Shirkers that would have seriously shaken up Singapore’s non-existent film scene at the time, had their American collaborator Georges Cardona not disappeared with all the footage before they had a chance to complete it. This is a powerful look at memory and cinema, and a moving portrait of an artist finally reclaiming a deeply personal work that was stolen from her. It’s available to watch on Netflix, so check it out.

#3: Three Identical Strangers

There was a part of me that couldn’t resist putting Three Identical Strangers in third place just because there is a nice symmetry to it, but the film also really is good enough to deserve such a high placement on my list. While some will already know the true story before seeing it, it’s best not to spoil the many twists and turns of the film, which uses a brilliantly edited mix of interviews and reenactments to tell the stranger than fiction tale of three adopted men who had no idea they were actually triplets raised by drastically different families. This is a gripping real life thriller, that asks essential questions of nature versus nurture, and sparks a compelling ethical debate.

#2: Minding the Gap

Filmmaker Bing Liu returns to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois and turns the camera on himself and his friends Zack and Kiere, who all grew up together skateboarding around the city. Touching on themes of poverty, the effects of absentee fathers, and how cycles of abuse are allowed to continue, Minding the Gap becomes an extremely powerful portrait of young men who are struggling with the transition into adulthood, and use skateboarding as a way to escape the pain and trauma of their own lives. Providing a moving and at times deeply challenging viewing experience, this is a sensitive and beautifully shot film that will surely be remembered as one of the finest documentaries ever made.

#1: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, so it’s been heartening to see Fred Rogers, the always calm and gentle host of the beloved PBS show who passed away in 2003, have a resurgence in popularity over the past year. This revival is thanks in part to Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which I’ve chosen to place atop this list. The film provides a snapshot of the warmth and kindness that Fred Rogers always brought to his work, while also detailing how his show was quietly revelatory in terms of breaking down barriers. This is a moving and beautifully made film that not only offers an engaging overview of his singular life and career, but also serves as a powerful reminder to treat others with kindness, which is a message that we could all use right now.

Honourable Mentions: The Accountant of Auschwitz; Bachman; Bathtubs Over Broadway; Bisbee ’17; The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man; The Game Changers; The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid; Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.; Pick of the Litter; Transformer.

Review: Destroyer

January 11, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Director Karyn Kusama’s latest film Destroyer opens with rogue LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) waking up in her car, which is parked under an overpass. She appears weary and beaten down – we will find out that she has succumbed to drinking as a way to quell her pain – and she stumbles onto an active murder scene that her colleagues are investigating.

A man lies dead in a pool of blood, with several notes of dye-stained bills floating around him, three distinctive gang markings tattooed on the back of his neck, and a ghost gun thrown beside his body. Bell claims to know who did it, and that she will be able to solve the case.

The film is told through a dual narrative. In present day, Bell starts investigating the reemergence of Silas (Toby Kebbell), the leader of a brutal gang of bank robbers in California. This leads her to reconnect with figures that she encountered during an undercover assignment almost two decades earlier, forcing her to finally confront the past trauma of a sting operation gone wrong that involved her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), which is shown in flashbacks.

Kusama manages to bring a strong enough sense of style to the action scenes here, including a pair of well staged bank robberies that serve as the high points of the film. But for the most part, Destroyer is a pretty standard and somewhat bland crooked cop drama, that takes a while to get where we pretty much already know it will end up. The script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi leans a little too hard into cliché and melodrama, bringing together a bunch of disparate elements, most of which we have seen before.

Bell’s alcoholism hardly feels like a new or particularly original trope, neither does the fact that she has an estranged teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) who has gotten caught up with an older boyfriend (Beau Knapp), who is at risk of dragging her into the same seedy underworld. The film strives to do something structurally unique through its convoluted mix of flashbacks and present day scenes, but I’ve watched it twice now, and I’m still not sure if the circular narrative quite adds up, let alone has the impact that the filmmakers intended it to have. It’s actually more frustrating than effective at certain points.

The film is anchored by a fine if somewhat overhyped performance from Kidman, who appears buried under prosthetics to make her face look haggard and worn. Kidman does have some showcase scenes here – including an extended dialogue sequence with Pettyjohn that comes near the end of the film and allows her to show a more vulnerable side – but she is stuck playing a one-note character who doesn’t really have much of a compelling arc, and the heavy makeup is distracting at times.

The film is not without its technical merits, and the strong ensemble cast ensures that there are several well acted scenes along the way, including an expectedly solid supporting turn from Tatiana Maslaney, who is underused as Silas’s girlfriend. But the moments of Destroyer that work play better in isolation than the film does as a whole, and the overall experience can be a bit frustrating and disappointing.

Destroyer is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto, and will be expanding to more cities across Canada on January 25th.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: When Harry Met Sally…: 30th Anniversary Edition

January 9, 2019

By John Corrado

Watching When Harry Met Sally… again, which I had the pleasure of doing the other night thanks to the new 30th anniversary edition that Shout Select just put out on Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why the film is still regarded as one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.

Directed by Rob Reiner, and featuring a great screenplay by Nora Ephron that is filled with extremely quotable dialogue and sharp observations on relationships that are as witty as they are wise, When Harry Met Sally… is one of those films that manages to be highly enjoyable on the surface while also satisfying on a deeper level.

The film details the years-long friendship between Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) who, after sharing a fateful drive from Chicago to New York together after college, end up running into each other over the next decade. Harry and Sally are both quirky and neurotic in their own unique ways, but as time passes by, they go from clashing with each other to realizing that their differences are also what makes them the perfect match.

There is a buoyancy to the film, as the characters banter back and forth over extended dialogue scenes, with the two central characters often playfully arguing with each other as they strive to find common ground. The central question being asked by Ephron’s screenplay is whether men and women can really be friends, or if sexual feelings will always get in the way, and her writing is both honest and remarkably balanced, believably showing things from both the female and male perspective.

The film is often extremely funny – the faked orgasm in Katz’s Deli is still incredibly amusing, and has become an iconic moment for a reason – but there is a great deal of poignancy to it as well, framed by scenes of older couples sitting on a couch talking about how they met. Ephron’s sparkling and insightful script is matched perfectly by Reiner’s classy direction, as the lovely soundtrack of piano and jazz music gives a mature and sophisticated feel to the film, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography beautifully captures the sights of New York throughout the changing seasons.

Ephron would of course go on to direct her own films, even teaming up again with Meg Ryan for the fellow classics Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, but When Harry Met Sally… is probably her crowning achievement. There are so many little things that make the film great that it’s hard to list them all. It’s a great New York movie, perfectly capturing the inherent romanticism of the city, at least how it was in the 1980s, and it’s a great holiday movie as well, with key moments taking place at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve.

The film is brought to life by the extremely likeable performances of Crystal and Ryan, who deliver inarguably the most iconic roles of their respective careers. They are matched by delightful supporting work from Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher, who share their own story arc as the best friends of these titular characters. This is a film that feels both timeless and entirely of its time, and it’s a true classic in every sense of the word.

The Blu-ray features a new 4K scan of the original camera negative that looks gorgeous, along with a new long-form interview with Crystal and Reiner entitled Scenes from a Friendship. A selection of archival featurettes from previous releases (How Harry Met Sally; It All Started Like This; What Harry Meeting Sally Meant; I Love New York; So, Can Men and Women Really Be Friends?; Creating Harry; Stories of Love; When Rob Met Billy) are also included, along with several deleted scenes, a music video by Harry Connick Jr., and the film’s theatrical trailer.

When Harry Met Sally…: 30th Anniversary Edition is a Shout! Factory release. It’s 96 minutes and rated R.

Street Date: January 8th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition

January 9, 2019

By John Corrado

Carl Reiner’s classic 1979 comedy The Jerk is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, an occasion that was marked by this new Blu-ray edition that was put out by Shout Select last month.

The film stars Steve Martin in his breakout movie role as Navin R. Johnson, a charming simpleton who was raised as a “poor black child” by his adoptive family of African-American sharecroppers in Mississippi. When he finds out that he’s not their “natural born child”, much to his shock, Navin decides to venture out into the world on his own for the first time.

Navin goes to work at a gas station under the guidance of his boss Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason), gets chased by a murderous madman (M. Emmet Walsh) who happens to find his name in the phone book, takes a job at the carnival where a female biker (Catlin Adams) helps him discover his “special purpose”, and falls in love with the girl of his dreams, Marie (Bernadette Peters), while striking it rich entirely by accident.

This is the sort of film that would never get made now for obvious reasons, at a time when comedy is increasingly under attack by the more politically correct factions of our society, and it’s easy to imagine some modern audiences who choose not to view things through the time and place of when they were released taking issue with the film and writing it off as being “outdated” and “offensive.” But The Jerk really doesn’t have a mean bone in its body, and there is a certain level of innocence to the film that allows it to get away with a lot.

Watching The Jerk now, it’s striking how enjoyable the film still manages to be. With a screenplay by Martin and screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias that was written with the goal of having a joke on every page, the film often has an off the wall feel to it, unfolding through a series of over the top and sometimes absurd comic scenarios. But it’s also oddly kind of sweet, and Navin Johnson remains one of Martin’s most iconic and fully realized characters, as the comic drew upon his wildly popular standup act to successfully make the transition into being a movie star.

Reiner, who would team up with Martin for three more movies, keeps the film moving at a good pace, telling a complete story but also never staying in any one place for too long so as not to overstay its welcome. The film unfolds over about an hour and a half, and there is enjoyment to be found in almost every moment, no matter how ridiculous. Finally, The Jerk is also partially responsible for helping usher in a type of screen comedy that’s so dumb it’s actually smart, inspiring countless others and making it a classic for a reason.

The Blu-ray offers a restored version of the film remastered from a 2K transfer, and the disc features a pair of new sitdown conversations with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner and co-writers Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, which are both very enjoyable to watch. The archival bonus features Learn How to Play “Tonight You Belong to Me” and The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova, as well as a selection of old trailers and radio spots, are also included.

The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition is a Shout! Factory release. It’s 94 minutes and rated R.

Street Date: December 18th, 2018

Blu-ray Review: White Boy Rick

January 8, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Ronald Reagan is never actually mentioned by name in White Boy Rick, but his figures often looms large behind the story, which details the human impact that the 40th President’s so-called “War on Drugs” had upon poor and minority communities.

The film is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), a poor teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1980s, with a grifter father (Matthew McConaughey) who buys firearms at gun shows to modify and sell to the local gangs, and a sister (Bel Powley) who is addicted to the drugs these gangs are selling.

At the age of fourteen, Wershe Jr. gets recruited by FBI agents Alex Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Frank Byrd (Rory Cochrane), who are working alongside undercover cop Mel Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry), to act as an informant. Rick’s job is to infiltrate and gain the trust of the Curry Boyz, a gang made up of brothers Rudell (RJ Cyler), Johnny (Jonathan Majors) and Leo (YG), with the trade off being that he gets to keep the money he makes supplying them with cocaine.

When Rick is dropped by the FBI and decides to start dealing on his own, desperately needing money to support his family, this leads to his downfall. The tragedy of Wershe Jr.’s story is that he only got into drug dealing as a sort of plea deal with the FBI, who were after his father at the time. He was essentially used by them as the fall guy for their own sting operation so the bureau wouldn’t have to take all the heat, resulting in a grossly unjust life sentence being handed to him when he was seventeen.

The film paints Rick Wershe Jr. as neither hero nor villain, instead depicting him through shades of grey. Yes, he did fall in with the wrong crowd, and White Boy Rick doesn’t gloss over the fact that he was guilty of these crimes, but the film also shows that he was faced with systemic poverty and acting out of desperation and perhaps youthful naiveté, with the sentence he received being wildly disproportional compared to what he did.

The film is particularly fascinating in this current landscape of ’80s nostalgia, because it dares to show the dark side of the decade. Yes, the governance of Reagan led to a rebirth of the American Dream for some through his optimistic style and certain economic policies, but it also led to the downfall of it for others, with the mandatory minimum sentences that were brought in for many drug offences largely targeting underprivileged communities and having untold consequences.

The hair, the clothes and the music that continue to define the ’80s are on display in White Boy Rick, but there is also a grittiness and sadness to how the decade is portrayed here. This is heightened by the film’s backdrop of a rapidly decaying Detroit, a once-booming manufacturing town that got left behind when the auto industry started moving overseas and was already deep in decline at the time.

Director Yann Damange, following his intense Northern Ireland thriller ’71 which kinetically unfolded over a single night, employs a more low-key tone throughout White Boy Rick. While the subject matter of a young man becoming a drug kingpin is vaguely similar to classic crime sagas like Goodfellas and Scarface, the film plays more as a quiet character drama than it does a thriller. It’s an approach that I think works thanks to the finely etched screenplay co-written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, and the excellent performances of its ensemble cast.

Merritt, a high schooler from Baltimore who had never acted before being cast, does an excellent job of carrying the film, more than holding his own alongside the screen veterans that he is partnered with, including McConaughey, who is in top form here. The final few scenes of White Boy Rick take on an emotional quality as the walls close in on Rick Wershe Jr., ending the film on a moving and deeply sad note. The result is an engaging and often enraging look at the human cost of the War on Drugs, and how these unjust mandatory minimum sentences have effectively taken so many lives.

The Blu-ray also includes an optional trivia track that plays during the film, six deleted scenes (She’ll Be Back, Got a Slice for Me?, I Seen You Around, You Don’t Know Your Place, I Was Hoping and Bring Him to Come See Me), as well as the three worthwhile featurettes The Unknown True Story of Rick Wershr Jr., The Making of White Boy Rick, and The Three Tribes of Detroit: The Cast.

White Boy Rick is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 111 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 26th, 2018

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