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Review: The Green Knight

July 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

David Lowery’s The Green Knight, the always interesting filmmaker’s bold reimagining of an Arthurian legend, is a film for audiences to luxuriate in. It’s a fantasy epic, sure, but unlike any other film bearing that description.

This is not a swords-and-sorcery movie in the classic sense. There is actually very little action in Lowery’s film, which instead unfolds with slow-burning suspense, intoxicating visuals, and an odd eroticism at times. It often plays out like a visual tone poem that allows us to reflect upon its themes of chivalry, mortality, power dynamics and accepting death as destiny.

This is all to say that The Green Knight is more of a meditation than an action movie, which is befitting of a film bearing the A24 logo. To draw a comparison, Lowery’s film is to fantasy epics what an elevated horror movie like the beloved indie distributor’s New England folktale The Witch was to its own genre. While The Green Knight is admittedly a lot to take in, and I actually feel like I need another viewing to fully unpack what I saw, Lowery has crafted a visually magnificent minimalist fantasy epic that demands attention.

The film serves as a reimagining of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and centres around Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Katie Dickie). Gawain is seen as a bit of a rebel around town, creating a stir by spending nights with a prostitute, Essel (Alicia Vikander), instead of going to church. But it’s Christmas time, and Gawain is invited to celebrate with the King and Queen, and is honoured to be seated beside them.

It’s here that young Gawain accepts a challenge put forth by the tree-like Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who rides in during the banquet and dares one of Arthur’s knights to strike him. He who beheads the knight will receive his imposing axe in exchange, but must also return a year later to the Green Chapel and give up his own head. Gawain lands the decapitating blow, the Green Knight picks up his head and rides off, thus sealing his fate.

The majority of the 130 minute running time follows Gawain on this at times exciting and other times mournful journey to the Green Chapel, a quest that is as much physical as it is emotional. In a series of intriguing and often haunting interludes, he encounters and is tested by tricksters, giants, ghosts and even a talking fox. Patel is a powerful guiding force throughout it all, delivering one of his very finest performances in a commanding leading role that is befitting of his talents, revealing so much of his character’s internal journey through his face and body language.

The supporting cast includes memorable turns by Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman and Joel Edgerton as figures who come to define Gawain’s journey. The film unfolds with a dreamlike tone, matched by some subtly powerful visual effects and incredible production design. The excellent, moody cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo transports us into this world right from the opening scenes, which show lightly falling snow that we can almost feel landing on our faces. The film’s stunning visuals are matched by Daniel Hart’s mesmerizing score that mixes in traditional elements.

The film moves at a slow, simmering pace that does require a good deal of investment from the audience, but this patience pays off with an incredible last act that crescendos with a sequence that will surely go down as one of the finest cinematic interludes of the year. Lowery doesn’t spell everything out for the audience, embedding The Green Knight with symbolism and spirituality as he embraces a sort of heightened surrealism. The result is a transporting, beautifully crafted journey that challenges and mesmerizes us in equal measure, and should only grow richer on subsequent viewings.

The Green Knight is now playing in theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Review: Stillwater

July 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Tom McCarthy has had a very interesting career as a filmmaker, starting out with small indie films like The Station Agent and The Visitor, before moving on to receive a story credit on Pixar’s Up, and to direct the Oscar-winning Spotlight.

McCarthy followed that movie up with the quirky and surprisingly endearing Disney Plus Original Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made just last year, which isn’t half as strange as the movie he made right before Spotlight; the poorly received Adam Sandler shoe fantasy The Cobbler. Put simply, to call his filmography eclectic would be a massive understatement.

Now McCarthy returns to the world of prestige filmmaking with his latest, Stillwater, which is fresh off of a splashy premiere at Cannes. The film is a decent mix of crime thriller and family drama that is a bit overlong and uneven in parts, but also well acted and mostly engaging. It’s the sort of meaty adult drama with complex moral themes that offers a fine change of pace from more action-oriented summer blockbusters, and is worth seeing on that front.

The film follows Bill (Matt Damon), a rough and tumble working class guy from Stillwater, Oklahoma who goes to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) in Marseilles, France. But, through a fine bit of show don’t tell filmmaking, it soon becomes clear that she is in prison. Allison is incarcerated for the death of her girlfriend, an Arab immigrant, a murder that she insists she did not commit. But when she presents her dad with a new lead on the potential killer, Bill becomes determined to prove that his daughter is innocent and wrongly imprisoned.

At the hotel where he is staying, Bill befriends a young French girl named Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) and her stage actress mother Virginie (Camille Cottin), and this relationship comes to make up the bulk of the film’s second half. It’s here that Stillwater deviates from the expected path. While the trailers suggest that it might be something more akin to a high-brow take on Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, this is actually a slight misdirection, and the film is more of a simmering family drama than an all-out thriller or action movie.

McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with three other writers, ensures that the film’s morals are anything but black and white, with the racist and xenophobic attitudes that Bill encounters from the locals when digging around about the case adding new wrinkles to his quest for justice. Even as the film becomes somewhat heavy-handed and starts to strain some credibility in its last act, the story is kept engaging thanks to strong performances.

Damon does solid and nicely understated work as a sort of all-American everyman struggling to navigate the European justice system, providing a compelling anchor for the film throughout its twists and turns. Breslin also does solid work in a comeback performance of sorts that builds upon the early promise that she showed as a child actor in Little Miss Sunshine. And, speaking of child actors, newcomer Siauvaud really shines as Maya, building a strong onscreen bond with Damon’s Bill despite the language barrier between their two characters.

The somewhat morally ambiguous nature of the ending does seem destined to divide audiences. The 138 minute running time is also felt during the midsection, which branches off into a few subplots including one about French theatre, though I will admit that a shorter running time likely would have made the characters feel underdeveloped. What Stillwater succeeds at offering is a dramatic thriller that is meant to challenge audiences in more ways than one, with a few moments that continue to linger.

Stillwater is now playing in theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

Review: Jungle Cruise

July 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Disney’s Jungle Cruise isn’t the first movie to be based on one of their theme park attractions, with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise being the most famous example, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, either.

What it is, though, is a pleasingly diverting film that seems intent to capture the feel of the real life Jungle Cruise attraction, right down to those corny “dad jokes” (“the backside of water!”) that are a known staple of the ride.

Directed by genre filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, Jungle Cruise plays out like a mix of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone by way of Pirates of the Caribbean, but with an even lighter touch to it. The real key to the film’s success is the chemistry between its appealing stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, who have an easy rapport together that makes the film a delight to watch.

Blunt stars as Lily Houghton, a female adventurer and map collector in 1916, London. She isn’t allowed full membership into the elite explorer’s society due to her gender, with her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) having to present on her behalf. The opening sequence finds MacGregor begging the society for funding for their latest expedition, while Lily sneaks off to steal an ancient arrowhead from under their noses.

This arrowhead is needed to help them find the Tears of the Moon, a rare petal from a tree that grows deep in the Amazon that has magical healing properties. Enter Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a skipper with a penchant for cheesy puns who ferries overpriced tourist cruises along the Amazon River. In desperate need of transport, Lily hires the debt-ridden Frank to bring them to their destination, but the two butt heads right from the start.

Collet-Serra succeeds at crafting a family blockbuster that holds broad appeal for both younger and older audience members, delivering an easily entertaining fantasy adventure complete with booby traps, river chases, magical flowers and moments of peril. The chief villain of the film is German explorer Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, doing a good job hamming it up and showing a sly comic side), who wants the Tears of the Moon for his own nefarious purposes. He is in hot pursuit of our protagonists, who also face a cursed conquistador (Édgar Ramírez), leading to some PotC-inspired fantasy moments.

The film has the throwback feel of an old fashioned Disney adventure, while still finding ways to make it fresh. Not only is Jungle Cruise centred around a female hero whose love of wearing pants makes her stand out in society circa 1916 (a running gag), there is also a sweet “coming out” scene for Whitehall’s Winston. While the scene stops short of using the word gay, which will seem like a missed opportunity to some, I liked the way it was written and performed and found it to be a surprisingly tender moment.

The film does feel a bit long at over two hours. The actual story beats are mostly predictable, despite a few obligatory twists and turns, and all you will likely be thinking about afterwards is how much fun you had. But this hardly takes away from my recommendation, because Jungle Cruise is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be. There is some character drama and a bit of romance that is easy to root for, but the film mostly keeps the tone light through the silly one-liners and slapstick humour, including a classic bit with ladders in the farcical opening sequence.

The feel of Jungle Cruise is light and airy, and this ability to not take itself too seriously is one of its greatest strengths. This isn’t trying to be a message movie, it simply wants to offer two hours of escapist entertainment, perfect for a summer evening with the family. It’s a movie that is simply happy to show us the backside of water, nothing more and nothing less. And it’s on these terms that Jungle Cruise modestly but pleasingly succeeds. It’s a fun ride, which is fitting for a movie based on one.

Jungle Cruise is now playing in theatres, and is also available to rent for $34.99 on Disney+ with Premier Access.

Review: For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

July 29, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Del Close himself may have never achieved household name status, but odds are you’ve heard of Bill Murray, John Candy, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and any number of the other Saturday Night Live and SCTV stars who were trained in his school of long-form improvisational comedy.

Close is the subject of director Heather Ross’s new documentary For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close, which explores both his troubled life and the immeasurable impact he had in shaping many of the most beloved comic voices of the past few decades.

The film uses Wasteland, a semi-autobiographical comic book that Close was writing for DC Comics in the 1980s, as the entry point to exploring his life, and features reenacted scenes of Close (played by James Urbaniak) working on the comic, with dialogue lifted directly from actual recordings. Like Close’s style of improv comedy, For Madmen Only is somewhat freeform in its construction, mixing these reenactments with panels from his comic book, alongside the expected archival footage and new interviews.

The result is a somewhat unpredictable and always engaging documentary that does a good job showing how Close created a comedy pipeline that flowed directly to Saturday Night Live, while also not shying away from the darkness of Close’s life. Despite being a giant in the world of comedy, his own personal life was a mess, as he struggled with drug addiction and bouts of mental illness that put him in and out of the hospital. His dark sensibilities are best emphasized in a story he often told about his father’s grotesque, traumatic suicide that became one of his go-to bits.

Close pioneered a form of improv comedy dubbed Harold, which Ike Barinholtz describes in the film as “performance art meets improv,” getting a troupe of actors to perform onstage completely unscripted, sometimes for a couple of hours at a time. But, as Close’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, and many of his apprentices moved on to SNL, there was some question of whether his comedy empire could survive without the likes of stars such as Murray and John Belushi in his roster.

This was eventually proven wrong when he co-founded and started running ImprovOlympic in Chicago with his partner, comedian Charna Halpern who is prominently featured as one of the film’s subjects, attracting a slate of new talent like Fey and Poehler. This would also give way to the formation of the offshoot group the Upright Citizens Brigade. We hear testimonies from other alumni like Bob Odenkirk and Adam McKay as well, with McKay talking about how Close’s Howard discipline directly inspired Anchorman, with the actors doing hours of riffing for each scene.

The film also notably focuses on Close’s time teaching at The Second City in Toronto, working with great Canadian talent like Candy, Rick Moranis, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, before his abrasiveness proved too much. Despite his volatility at times, and the fact that many of his students surpassed him in fame and recognition, Close was still a beloved figurehead in the comedy world, which is exemplified by a touching story told in the film about how Halpern and Bill Murray helped stage a farewell party for him at the end of his life.

If you are a fan of these comedians and improv comedy in general like I am, then you are bound to find the anecdotes, stories and psychological portrait of Close offered in For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close to be pretty compelling and entertaining stuff.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close is now available to stream via the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

VOD Review: North Hollywood

July 23, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

An 18-year-old kid named Michael (Ryder McLaughlin) has ambitions of becoming a pro skateboarder in skater and filmmaker Mikey Alfred’s feature directorial debut North Hollywood, which shares some common DNA with Jonah Hill’s 2018 gem Mid90s.

Alfred served as a producer on that film, which also featured McLaughlin, who has now been upgraded to lead, as part of its ensemble cast. The young star of Mid90s, Sunny Suljic, even has a couple of scenes here as another skater. This is all to say that North Hollywood feels like a spiritual successor to Hill’s film, and while it ultimately doesn’t hit quite as hard, it is still mostly enjoyable in its own low-stakes kind of way.

The loose, semi-autobiographical story follows Michael as he tries to realize his dreams of turning his post-high school days at the skate park into a career. This causes tensions with his working class father (Vince Vaughn, in an effective dramatic role) who wants him to go to college, or at the very least follow in his footsteps and get an honest job working in construction.

The main conflict of the plot comes from the strain that is put on Michael’s friendship with his childhood buddies Jay (Nico Hiraga) and Adolf (Aramis Hudson), who have formed a skating trio together defined by their matching Converse sneakers, when he starts excluding them to hang out with a couple of pro skaters. Michael is afraid his ride-or-die friends will cramp his style with the “cool kids” and hurt his chances of being noticed by sponsors. Another hitch in their friendship is Michael’s pursuit of his crush Rachel (Miranda Cosgrove), who is going away to university at the end of the summer.

North Hollywood is consistently enjoyable, even if, like its protagonist, its own ambitions as a film feel somewhat low. It’s often just about the vibe, and for the most part that’s fine, but there are some aspects of the story and certain relationships that I wish had been explored more. The strained friendship between Michael and Adolf in particular, which comes to define the film’s last act, feels like it should have come into sharper focus earlier on, and the rivalry between the two needed more development.

The film follows the pretty standard beats of a coming of age story, but the naturalistic performances, and some resonant themes, carry it through. In its best moments, North Hollywood does an effective job of exploring relatable themes about rivalries forming between childhood friends, the emotional process of coming to terms with them surpassing you and moving on without you, and not being able to let go of your childhood dreams.

Many of these themes are solidified in a poignant interaction between McLaughlin and Vaughn, that offers a moment of raw emotion and comes to define the picture. Alfred does a fine job of giving the film a sort of hazy retro vibe that is evocative of the California skater culture it aims to represent, matched by a solid soundtrack that mixes cuts of both classic Doo-wop and hip-hop. For fans of the film Mid90s in particular, North Hollywood warrants a recommendation, and it’s fun to spend a bit more time in a similar world.

North Hollywood is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

4K Ultra HD Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and G.I. Joe: Retaliation

July 22, 2021

By John Corrado

This week, Paramount is releasing both the 2009 film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and its 2013 sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation for the first time on 4K Ultra HD, in a pair of separately released combo packs that include the films on Blu-ray as well. They are arriving to coincide with the theatrical release of Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, a solo film that finds Henry Golding taking over from Ray Park in the role of Snake Eyes.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra 

The first live action film based on the popular Habro toys, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra stars Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans as Duke and Ripcord, a pair of American soldiers who are hired as part of the elite G.I. Joe strike force to retrieve a nanotechnology weapon that has been stolen by a shadowy organization known as Cobra.

To be perfectly blunt, this is not a great movie. Not only is it surprisingly violent for a movie based on toys, it also features a nonsensical plot, cheesy dialogue, stiff performances and some cheap-looking CGI. While the film does pick up slightly once the action gets transported to the streets of Paris, with a glossy set-piece that is easily the most (only?) fun thing in the movie, the messy first half feels like a pilot for a bad TV series and the finale is both overly bombastic and forgettable. It’s not very good overall, but fans who do want to purchase will be pleased by the 4K presentation.

Bonus Features (4K Ultra HD):

The film is presented with Dolby Vision and HDR-10 on the 4K disc, and the set comes with a standard Blu-ray as well. There is a previously released commentary track on each disc. The package also comes with a code for a digital copy.

4K and Blu-ray:

• Commentary by director Stephen Sommer and producer Bob Ducsay

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

While this might not be saying much, the 2013 sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation is actually a slight step up from its predecessor. The film sees the return of Tatum’s Duke, while also adding Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis to its cast as fellow members of the G.I. Joe team. When most of their team is wiped out in an attack, it’s up to Johnson’s Roadblock and the others to deal with Cobra’s infiltration of the White House and attempts at world domination.

The dialogue is still cheesy and the plot itself is still ridiculous and hard to take seriously, but Retaliation is easily the more fun of the two. Directed by Jon M. Chu, who has gone on to make Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, it features better and brighter action sequences, and Johnson’s charisma also helps sell the film. It’s fully mediocre, but for a relatively harmless action movie based on toys, Retaliation is at least watchable, and the 4K edition provides a fine upgrade for fans.

Bonus Features (4K Ultra HD):

The film is presented with Dolby Vision and HDR-10 on the 4K disc, and the set comes with a standard Blu-ray as well. There is a previously released commentary track on each disc, and a selection of archival bonus features on the Blu-ray. The package also comes with a code for a digital copy.

4K and Blu-ray:

• Commentary by director Jon M. Chu and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura

Blu-ray Only:

G.I. Joe: Declassified (1 hour, 13 minutes)

Mission Briefing (10 minutes, 5 seconds)

Deployment (8 minutes, 8 seconds)

Two Ninjas (7 minutes, 35 seconds)

The Desert Attack (8 minutes, 26 seconds)

COBRA Strikes (8 minutes, 58 seconds)

The Lone Soldiers (7 minutes, 46 seconds)

The Monastery (9 minutes, 59 seconds)

Fort Sumter (12 minutes, 12 seconds)

Deleted Scenes (4 minutes, 14 seconds)

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is 117 minutes and rated 14A, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation is 110 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: July 20th, 2021

Disney+ Review: Behind the Attraction (First Five Episodes)

July 21, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The latest Disney+ show, Behind the Attraction, is a very good ten-part docuseries that sheds light on some of the famous attractions at Disney Parks and Resorts around the world.

Five of the ten episodes in the series, which features Dwayne Johnson as one of its executive producers and ties into his upcoming Disney movie Jungle Cruise, are dropping today in Canada, with the other five set to premiere later this year.

I really enjoyed watching through these five episodes. They do a good job of exploring the history and engineering behind these rides in an entertaining and informative way, and are populated by a wealth of archival images and first-hand accounts from many famous Imagineers.

Paget Brewster provides inquisitive if at times obstructive narration that gives the series an upbeat, easily accessible tone, and the show is simply filled with enjoyable anecdotes and fun tidbits for Disney fans. Below is a rundown of all five episodes being released today, along with some brief thoughts on each of them.

Jungle Cruise: This episode most closely ties into the new film, with Johnson appearing onscreen to reflect on what the ride means to him. It looks at the unique challenges that the Imagineers faced in order to realize Walt Disney’s grand vision of building a river in the middle of the Southern California desert, and how they designed animatronic animals, with real ones not being a feasible option.

The episode also highlights how the skippers are an integral part of the experience, including their many corny but iconic jokes (“the backside of water”) that guests go to hear. We find out that Jungle Cruise was initially a more serious ride, before the addition of these “dad jokes” made it even more of a hit with families.

Haunted Mansion: This was one of my most anticipated episodes due to always having a soft spot for the Haunted Mansion, and it did not disappoint. The episode offers a good history of the attraction, and the impressive special effects within, which was inspired by Disney’s own assertion that “children like to be scared.” We see how the Imagineers went about finding the right mix of scary and fun, a balance that is represented in how the ride transitions from its spooky first half to the amusing singing busts that appear later on.

The episode also features a nice history of the Hatbox Ghost, an animatronic figure that Walt had removed from the ride shortly after it opened due to it not working properly, who was finally fixed and reintroduced in 2015. Furthermore, we are also given an intriguing glimpse at how the attraction has been reimagined for other parks, including as Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris and Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland. It will put “Grim Grinning Ghosts” in your head in the best way.

Star Tours: Long before Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, the studio created Star Tours, a ride based around the iconic film franchise that was inspired by flight simulators to give audiences the feel of being in one of the movies. The episode offers a good history of the ride, from the logistics of creating the hydraulics, to coming up with a storyline guided along by a nervous robot named RX-24 voiced by Paul Reubens. It also explores how the ride changed with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, and how it gave way to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, an entire new land devoted to the franchise. We also get anecdotes about how a young George Lucas was at Disneyland on opening day with his family in 1955.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: This episode takes us behind the scenes of the groundbreaking drop ride, which was inspired by the facade of an old hotel and the popularity of Rod Serling’s TV series The Twilight Zone. It looks at the unique challenges of consulting with actual elevator engineers to develop a system that would allow the ride to safely free drop and go side to side, as well as digitally recreating Rod Serling to serve as host.

The Imagineers also had to strategically build the setting for the ride, the fictional Hollywood Tower Hotel, to be 199 feet, to get around air traffic requirements that buildings above 200 feet need to have a flashing light on top. Lastly, the episode also explores how the original ride in Anaheim, California was reimagined as Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! in 2017, to capitalize on the success of the Marvel movie and tie in with the new Avengers Campus.

Space Mountain: The fifth episode focuses on the iconic Space Mountain, a ride that was born out of Walt’s desire to simulate the experience of space travel, and designed by the late John Hench. Working from a building concept that had its roots at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, an event that comes up quite a bit throughout the series, the Imagineers had their work cut out for them in figuring out how to get thousands of feet of track for the ride to stretch around an enclosed space.

The episode does a good job of showing us how ingenious this design really is from an engineering perspective, giving us newfound appreciation for the ride. The last part focuses on how the design of Space Mountain provided the inspiration for the TRON Lightcycle Power Run ride at Shanghai Disney Resort, which quite frankly looks awesome.

All in all, these five episodes will leave you eagerly anticipating the next five (The Castles, Disneyland Hotel, “it’s a small world”, Trains, Trams and Monorails and Hall of Presidents) later this year.

The first five episodes of Behind the Attraction are now available to stream on Disney+ in Canada.

Review: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

July 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Morgan Neville’s new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is as much about the life of the celebrity chef and TV personality as it is about his death. But the question of why Bourdain ended up killing himself in a hotel room in France in 2018 looms large over the film.

It’s hard to imagine anyone going into the film who isn’t aware of how Bourdain died and the salacious rumours around his death, and Neville doesn’t reach for easy answers. But he does explore the question in this involving and emotionally exhaustive film, reaching a sort of catharsis for those impacted by his death.

The film opens with Bourdain talking about what he hopes will happen to his body after he dies, centring the narrative around his mortality. From here, Roadrunner moves breathlessly through his career highlights, showing a man who is very much alive. Piecing together archival footage and interviews, Neville charts his rise from being a chef to bestselling author of the memoir Kitchen Confidential, and finally gaining fame as a television star travelling the globe and trying exotic foods on camera.

But there are glimpses of the darkness to come, with flashes of the genuine suffering in the world that he witnessed first hand on his travels to places like Vietnam and Haiti, and the impact that it had on his mental health. Neville doesn’t shy away from hinting at Bourdain’s dark side, from a macabre sense of humour to his perfectionism and anger, as well as his past as a heroin addict. Emotions run hot in the film’s last act as Bourdain’s friends talk with a mix of grief and, well, anger, about his suicide and the times that he hurt them emotionally.

One of the areas where the film holds back a bit is in exploring Bourdain’s relationship to Harvey Weinstein accuser Asia Argento, whom Neville declined to interview. Bourdain’s role in the #MeToo movement is brought up, with the film noting how he became a merciless champion of it to the point of cutting people out of his own life. But Neville leaves out the fact that Argento herself became a disgraced figure in the movement when she was accused of sleeping with child actor Jimmy Bennett when he was 17, and that Bourdain reportedly helped pay off Bennett to the tune of $380,000 to keep him quiet.

This would have made Roadrunner a much thornier portrait of its central figure, and the omission is somewhat noticeable. The film also seems to strongly suggest that Argento’s infidelity led to Bourdain’s depression at the time of his death, which some claim to be an unfair accusation. The film’s most controversial element is Neville’s choice to use A.I. to recreate Bourdain’s voice to read an excerpt from a private email that he sent to his friend, artist David Choe. The ethics of the choice are up for debate, and it adds another layer to the film’s deeper discussion of how we memorialize the dead.

But these things don’t stop Roadrunner from being a compelling and moving documentary portrait of celebrity burnout. The film seems more focused on capturing the essence of Bourdain’s life, and Neville succeeds in exploring his immense curiosity for trying new things, and also the elusive, unknowable parts of himself that often remained hidden. The last act becomes about the heartbreak, grief, and unanswered questions that he left in his wake, with the final few scenes poignantly focusing on how Bourdain would want to be remembered.

This sparks a complex conversation about how we immortalize celebrities who kill themselves, and if it is right to turn them into martyrs. Neville holds our interest throughout the nearly two hour running time, delivering a fast-paced and well edited film that serves as both a solid introduction to Bourdain’s work and a bittersweet farewell for his fans. Part travelogue and part psychological portrait, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain serves as a moving look at a man who ran so fast that perhaps it was inevitable he was going to burn out, offering an exciting glimpse into his unique life.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now playing in select theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

Review: Pig

July 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

When you hear the basic outline for the plot of Pig, and that it stars Nicholas Cage as a lonesome truffle hunter living in the woods who has his beloved pig stolen, you would be forgiven for assuming that it was another one of Cage’s gonzo action roles, like a sort of riff on John Wick with a pig instead of a dog.

But Pig, director Michael Sarnoski’s surprisingly subdued debut feature, actually finds Cage in sombre, melancholic mode. Buried under long hair, a scruffy beard, and the weight of the world on his shoulders, Cage has many scenes of minimal dialogue, punctuated by a few strangely moving monologues. This is some of his finest, most restrained onscreen work, reminding us what he can be capable of as an actor when given the right role.

Cage stars in the film as Rob, whom we we first meet living alone in a cabin in the woods of Oregon. He forages for truffles with his pig, who serves as his pet and closest companion. His only human interaction is with his buyer Amir (Alex Wolff), who comes around weekly to collect truffles from him that he sells to high-end restaurants in Portland. When Rob’s cabin is broken into one night by masked assailants, who leave him bloodied and kidnap his pig, he travels into the city with Amir, in search of his animal friend.

This sounds like the setup for a revenge movie, and Pig sort of is that, I guess. But the film also becomes a journey through the past for Rob, as he is forced to reconcile with the life he left behind in Portland. At the same time, it’s a deconstruction and critique of the restaurant business, as well as an exploration of the relationships we have with food. And, somehow, it all works, at times beautifully so. It’s a strange movie in this regard, and one that holds back from going where you might expect it to, but is ultimately all the stronger for it.

The story is broken up into three chapters, and it does have an episodic feel to it, at times playing like a collection of strung together scenes that build upon each to create a complete whole. Elements of the characters and plot are kept somewhat vague, but this vagueness also feels intentional. Sarnoski does an impressive job establishing a strange, almost dreamlike atmosphere that makes us lean in right from the start. The tone of the piece feels singular, at times darkly funny and other times achingly bittersweet, matched by Patrick Scola’s moody cinematography.

At the centre of it all is Cage, whose haunted performance as a man burdened by his past has a surprising sense of sadness to it that permeates every frame. Those who doubt his acting abilities will find his work in Pig to be a revelation, while those already in tune with him will find it an affirmation of his talents. Where as in other roles Cage seems to delight in going wild and over the top, here he seems to take pleasure in holding back, defying our expectations by keeping things quiet and internal.

The result is a surprisingly poignant look at grief and loss, told through the eyes of a man who has long since turned his back on the world slowly realizing that he has nothing left to go back to. All this from a movie starring Nicholas Cage about a man and his pig. What an unexpected film this is in every way.

Pig is now playing in select theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

VOD Review: The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

July 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Joshua Zemen sets out in search of the “52 Hertz Whale” in his documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, which follows Zemen and a team of marine biologists as they try to track the elusive whale’s signal across the Pacific Ocean.

Because this specific creature vocalizes at a different frequency from other whales, scientists have theorized that it is alone in the wild, separated from other pods. The whale, who came to simply be known by the name 52, was first discovered by the US Navy in 1989, who at first believed the signal to be coming from a Soviet submarine.

Dr. William Watkins, a pioneer in the field of marine mammal bioacoustics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was the first to determine that the sound was actually coming from a whale trying to communicate at 52 hertz, and tracked the whale until his death in 2004. While the animal has never actually been seen by people, 52 started to receive an online following of people who projected their own feelings of loneliness onto him, with Zemen’s team hoping to catch the first visual documentation of the creature.

With Leonardo DiCaprio serving as executive producer, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 seems intended to reach the widest possible audience with its ecological message,  but Zemen’s journey doesn’t always maintain full audience interest. The film itself drags a bit, and is somewhat messily assembled, with a few interludes that aren’t properly woven into the narrative. Moments where the film ponders the sentience of 52, and whether or not he is experiencing the feelings of loneliness that we humans have ascribed to him, are interesting, but feel under explored and could have been better incorporated.

One of the most interesting parts of the film examines how whales used to be killed by the thousands for their oil, a practise that fell widely out of favour with the release of biologist Roger Payne’s 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale, with the public turning against the whaling industry when people heard them singing. It’s an interesting interlude, but again feels separate from the rest of the movie.

The film also touches on how the sounds from container ships passing through the paths of the whales are causing audio pollution that drowns out their sounds, which provides an interesting suggestion of the effects that global trade are having on the environment. But, again, this theme feels somewhat underdeveloped. We also get random moments like actress and musician Kate Micucci singing a song she wrote inspired by 52, which comes out of nowhere and doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.

Zemen works in references to Moby Dick that seem intended to provide subtext to his own increasingly elusive search for the so-called great white whale, but these themes are never quite as fleshed out as they could have been. While there are certainly interesting elements in The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, and some moments of intrigue, the film as a whole feels a bit unfocused and is not as compelling as it could have been.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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