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

September 27, 2016

By John Corrado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DVD Review: Labyrinth: 30th Anniversary Edition

September 27, 2016

By John Corrado

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

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

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

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

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

DVD Review: The Shallows

September 27, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Magnificent Seven

September 23, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

Three Views: Queen of Katwe

September 23, 2016

Queen of Katwe Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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Queen of Katwe Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

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

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

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

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Queen of Katwe Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

Blu-ray Review: Free State of Jones

September 21, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 20, 2016

By John Corrado

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty and the Beast is 85 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Review: Captain America: Civil War

September 20, 2016

By John Corrado

captain-america-civil-war-blu-rayAfter a series of incidents lead to internal conflict between the Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) find themselves pitted against each other in how to best address a threat, with the other members of the team all taking sides.

Although I personally find these superhero teamups have started feeling derivative by this point, and the film juggles a few too many characters, Captain America: Civil War is still a pretty good blockbuster that offers enough fun sequences and character moments to make it worth seeing.  Its legions of fans are sure to delighted by the Blu-ray presentation, and our three views of the film can be found right here.

The Blu-ray includes a commentary track with directors Anthony and Joe Russo and the writers, deleted and extended scenes, and a gag reel.  There’s also a pair of promotional featurettes, the first one focusing on Captain America and the second looking at Iron Man, as well as the extended feature United We Stand, Divided We Fall, which offers a nearly hour-long look behind the scenes presented in two parts.  An exclusive sneak peak at Marvel’s upcoming film Doctor Strange is also included.

Captain America: Civil War is 148 minutes and rated PG.

#TIFF16 Reviews: Voyage of Time, Certain Women, Jackie, Bleed for This, The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!, The Edge of Seventeen

September 19, 2016

By John Corrado

the-edge-of-seventeen-posterThis year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival has now come to a close, with La La Land taking home the People’s Choice award, to the shock of literally no one.

But before we officially close the door on the 2016 festival, below are my thoughts on the final seven films that I got to see over the weekend, including the excellent closing night film The Edge of Seventeen.  Enjoy!

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Special Presentations): A years in the making passion project for Terrence Malick, expanding upon the creation sequence from his masterpiece The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time offers an expansive and visually stunning look at the life of the entire universe, presented in two different formats.  The longer version, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, is 90 minutes long and features poetic narration by Cate Blanchett, asking meditative questions to a maternal higher power about love and the purpose of life.  Exactly half the length at just 45 minutes, Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience offers a curated selection of images from its longer counterpart, except featuring more factual narration by Brad Pitt that efficiently recounts the story of the universe.

Both films shows the universe from its early origins with the birth of stars and galaxies, to the evolution of bacterial, animal and finally human life on earth.  They both feature spectacular imagery, whether diving us into the cosmos on a grand scale, or showing images of bacteria growing and breaking apart to form early life on a micro level.  We see the volcanic eruptions that happened in the beginning of our planet, followed by the ensuing rainfall that came to cool the earth and make it inhabitable, before the arrival and destruction of the dinosaurs gives way to early human civilization.  Both versions of the film have their own merits.  Where Life’s Journey sets itself up to be more poetic and introspective, and is an artistic achievement that should be lauded, The IMAX Experience is breathtaking in its own right and is awesome as a visual experience, with the majestic images inspiring awe as they tower above us on the giant screen.  I would recommend seeing them both to get the whole picture.

Certain Women (Masters): A trio of stories all focussed on the lives of women in the small town of Livingston, Montana, Certain Women follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) whose life takes a turn with a difficult client (Jared Harris), a mother (Michelle Williams) who is building a house with her husband (James LeGros) and wants to buy sandstone, and a young horse trainer (Lily Gladstone) who ends up drawn to a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a college course.  Directed by Kelly Reichardt, one of the modern masters of quietly understated character studies, Certain Women is a fine expansion of her filmography, even if it doesn’t quite land with the same impact as some of her earlier work, like the low-key gem Old Joy or the searing ecoterrorist thriller Night Moves.  The film often moves at a quiet and almost sleepy pace, but the performances keeps us engaged, and it’s filled with small moments that are all richly observed through Kelly Reichardt’s lens, as she draws us into the world of these characters.

Jackie (Platform): Directed by Pablo Lerraín, Jackie largely eschews the typical biopic formula to offer a complex and nuanced portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, exploring how she meticulously managed her place in the public spotlight, both as First Lady and sudden widow.  The narrative is centred around an interview between Jackie (Natalie Portman) and reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), taking place just a week after the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson).  The film uses flashbacks and jumps around in time to show the shock that was felt on day of JFK’s assassination in Dallas, and the ensuing process of planning the funeral.

Throughout it all, Jackie portrays its title subject as a woman who is in complete control over every aspect of her public image, even in the face of tragedy, insisting upon having final say over what will or won’t make it into the interview.  We also see the intimate conversations she has with her two kids, as well as her measured talks with brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), a kind aide (Greta Gerwig), and an understanding priest (John Hurt).  Natalie Portman doesn’t just portray Jacqueline Kennedy here, she completely embodies her in a performance that is absolutely compelling to watch, capturing every little mannerism and the exact cadences of her accent.  The sequences that recreate Jackie’s famous televised tour of the White House blur the line between actor and historical figure in a fascinating way, with Natalie Portman bearing uncanny resemblance to her real life counterpart.  She gives a sublime performance that makes Jackie thrilling to watch.

Bleed for This (Special Presentations): Based on an incredible true comeback story, Bleed for This recounts the career of boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a world class champion from Rhode Island who is riding high after a win, but suffers a major setback when he breaks his neck in a car crash.  Vinny ends up needing to have his head in a metal halo for six months, and is told that his time as a boxer is over, but he is determined to push himself to the limit and starts secretly training with his coach (Aaron Eckhart) in his family’s basement, so that he can get back into the ring as soon as the cage comes off his head.  Although Bleed for This follows the usual sports movie beats, it’s kept entertaining thanks to some energetic editing in the fight scenes and training montages, and is worth seeing for the incredibly solid performances of Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, who dedicate themselves to their roles.

The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America (Gala): Directed by Paul Dugdale, The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America follows the iconic rock band on their ten-stop tour around Latin America in the spring of 2016, leading up to their landmark concert in Havana, Cuba.  The show was historic because it represented the band’s first time ever performing in Cuba, where strict government censorship never allowed them to play in the past, coming just days after Barack Obama became the first sitting president in nearly a century to visit the country.  Although the film could have used more performance footage from the actual concert, this is still an entertaining look at the people and political climates of these different countries, that offers an inspiring look at just how much the music of The Rolling Stones has meant to them over the years.  For example, who knew that the band had such a huge fan base in Argentina, and the reactions of the locals encountering their idols are genuinely delightful.  The film also features some wonderfully candid moments with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who appear completely comfortable before the camera.

The Edge of Seventeen (Gala): Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a self-deprecating high schooler who doesn’t have many friends, often eating lunch in the classroom with her sardonic teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).  But when her sole bestie Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) hooks up with her popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine’s whole world is thrown out of whack as she tries desperately to get attention, leading to even more problems at school and testing the patience of her harried mother (Kyra Sedgwick).  Nadine is a protagonist who is both believable and relatable in all her awkward glory, and Hailee Steinfeld embodies her perfectly, handling both the comedic and dramatic beats of her character with aplomb.  Woody Harrelson delivers standout supporting work, and Hayden Szeto is immensely charming as a fellow classmate who harbours a not so secret crush on Nadine, but is instantly put in the friend zone.  Emulating the spirit of high school classics from John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, with a screenplay by writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig that instantly cements her as a fresh new voice, The Edge of Seventeen is a modern teen film that is funny, smart and heartfelt.

#TIFF16 Reviews: A Monster Calls, Lion, Katie Says Goodbye, Boys in the Trees and Manchester By the Sea

September 17, 2016

By John Corrado

manchester-by-the-sea-posterWe have finally reached the end of the Toronto International Film Festival, and below are my thoughts on five more films that I got to see over the last few days.  Please come back tomorrow for my final set of reviews, and you can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

A Monster Calls (Gala Presentations): Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) keeps having a terrifying nightmare where his mother (Felicity Jones), who is dying of cancer, is falling into a sinkhole at the cemetery, and he is barely able to hold on to her hand.  Bullied at school, and being sent to live with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor is lonely and struggling to cope with the imminent death of his beloved mother.  Then he gets a midnight visit from a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who vows to tell him three stories, if Conor promises to tell the fourth story once he is done.  The monster’s visits bring about increasing destruction, which spills over into the real world, forcing Conor to finally confront his deep emotional pain.

With undertones of an Amblin production from the 1980s, A Monster Calls is the rarest of things nowadays, a family film that is as much for older kids as it is for adults, and is unafraid of going dark and exploring sensitive themes involving death and grief.  Adapting the bestselling young adult novel of the same name, director J.A. Bayona has delivered a beautifully made and often thrilling film that hits with deep emotion and unfolds with arresting visual style.  The titular monster is impressively brought to life, with his branches and fiery eyes making him a striking big screen wonder that is impossible to look away from.  The stories that the monster tells all hold deeper allegorical meaning, and unfold through several beautifully rendered animated sequences that provide some of the most visually stunning moments in the film.  Also excellent are the performances.  Lewis MacDougal carries it all with an emotional maturity that seems beyond his years, and Liam Neeson’s gravelly voice work strikes the perfect balance between tough and melancholic, adding another layer of depth to his character.  Felicity Jones delivers a moving supporting role.  This is a haunting and deeply moving film, that uses its fantastical elements to bravely address grief head on.

Lion (Special Presentations): Based on the true story of Saroo Brierly’s journey to reconnect with his birth family after getting lost on the streets of India over twenty years earlier, Lion is a moving and inspiring family drama.  The first half of the film follows him as a young boy (Sunny Pawar), who gets separated from his older brother (Abhishek Bharate) and ends up on a train for several days that takes him to Calcutta, where he doesn’t speak the language and is largely ignored like the rest of the street kids, until he gets taken to an orphanage and is adopted by a couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) in Australia.  The second half takes place over two decades later, with Saroo as a young adult (Dev Patel) who has settled into a comfortable life, having a girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and getting a college degree.  But he is still searching for unanswered questions about his past, and with the help of Google Earth, he starts mapping out every train station that he possibly could have gotten on, despite barely remembering the name of the small village where he lived, meticulously retracing the journey he took as a child to reconnect with the family that he lost.

Although a few elements of Saroo’s early life in India have been glossed over here from his excellent book A Long Way Home, which can make the beginning of the film feel a bit rushed, Lion is an engaging and often stirring retelling of this incredible true story.  The film is carried on the shoulders of both Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel, who deliver a pair of excellent performances that compliment each other quite nicely.  Sunny Pawar perfectly portrays both the wide-eyed innocence and terror of being lost that was felt by Saroo as a young boy, and Dev Patel brilliantly depicts him as a young man haunted by his past, struggling to reconcile the love he has for his adoptive parents with his intense need to reconnect with his birth family.  It’s his best work since Slumdog Millionaire.  Nicole Kidman is also strong in her emotional supporting role.  Directed by Garth Brooks, Lion is a powerful and well acted drama, that offers many emotional scenes as it builds towards the moving and ultimately uplifting final moments.

Katie Says Goodbye (Discovery): Katie (Olivia Cooke) works at a truck stop diner in a tiny New Mexico town, using her paycheques to support her single mother (Mireille Enos) and pay the rent on their trailer, and making extra money by selling her body for sex.  When she falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), a dimwitted ex-convict who works at the local garage, Katie believes that her life is getting better, but tensions unexpectedly start to rise around her small community, leaving her shockingly violated.  Although Olivia Cooke gives a very good performance in Katie Says Goodbye, writer-director Wayne Roberts lets her down somewhat by writing her character in a way that makes her seem far too simplistic and naive.  There’s also just never any compelling reason to believe why she is even in a relationship with Bruno, and he’s so thinly written that it’s hard to know what she even sees in him, leaving promising young actor Christopher Abbott to seem utterly lost in the role.  Although Mary Steenburgen and Jim Belushi provide bright spots in fine supporting roles, Katie Says Goodbye is a clichéd piece of poverty porn that treads a familiar path in its depiction of broken small town lives, and its treatment of disturbing subject matter involving rape and sexual assault is largely mishandled and feels unintentionally exploitive.

Boys in the Trees (Discovery): Taking place on Halloween in 1997, the last day of school in Australia, Boys in the Trees follows Corey (Toby Wallace) and Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a pair of teenagers who used to be friends but have drifted apart, as Jonah is now severely bullied by the gang of skater punks that Corey hangs out with.  When Corey and Jonah end up alone, Jonah convinces him to revive an old game they used to play together as kids back when they were friends, leading them on a dark and mythical odyssey through the streets of trick-or-treaters that is equal parts fairy tale and nightmare.

An ambitious mix of fantasy, horror, angsty coming of age drama and haunting anti-bullying parable, Boys in the Trees is a unique film that provides an impressive feature debut for young director Nicholas Verso.  The film instantly draws us in with its moody visual style, and the atmospheric and perfectly realized Halloween setting adds a spooky vibe to the story that really helps it get under our skin, all set to a solid soundtrack of dark ’90s songs.  Although it does run a bit long and could have been tightened up a little to have an even greater impact, there are a lot of interesting ideas and elements on display here that stick with us and deserve attention.  The screenplay thoughtfully touches on ideas of adolescent masculinity and how many boys find themselves scared to grow up, weaving these themes organically into its elements of horror and dark fantasy.

Manchester By the Sea (Special Presentations): Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a working class janitor in Boston, spending his days doing odd jobs for people in the apartment buildings where he works, and his nights at the bar drinking and sometimes getting into fights.  But when he gets the call that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from cardiac arrest, Lee goes back to his seaside Massachusetts hometown to plan the funeral.  What he discovers is that he has been appointed legal guardian to his teenaged nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a popular high schooler who acts upbeat and busies himself with hockey practise and his two girlfriends as a way to mask the pain of losing his father.  Being back in his old town, and going through the arduous process of estate planning, Lee is forced to confront the pain of his past and the ex-wife (Michelle Williams) he left behind.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, only his third film in sixteen years, Manchester By The Sea is a masterful and beautifully written look at how grief affects different people.  The story is seamlessly told in a dual narrative, between flashbacks and current day, allowing the past and present to flow freely into each other as we slowly uncover Lee’s backstory and how it has effected him.  The film is centred around Casey Affleck’s haunted and deeply moving performance as a broken man trying to reconcile his tragic past with his new role as a guardian, and it’s nuanced and brilliantly understated work that pushes the actor to a whole new level.  Lucas Hedges is also excellent, developing a great rapport with Casey Affleck and making the familial bond between their characters compelling to watch.  This is an absorbing and richly textured character drama, that mixes scenes of devastating emotion with instances of tension-breaking humour, finding its rich nuances and most powerful moments through the way it so beautifully observes the interactions between its characters.

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