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Review: Memories of Murder (Theatrical Re-Release)

October 23, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Bong Joon-ho made history earlier this year when his movie Parasite became the first ever international film to take home the Oscar for Best Picture, a stunning win that was complimented by the South Korean filmmaker also winning the award for Best Director.

It was a deserved victory for Parasite, which I also ranked as my personal favourite of last year, and a wonderful capper on Bong Joon-ho’s relatively short but mighty filmmaking career, which has seen him deftly move between different genres across seven features over the past two decades.

Now the director’s excellent second feature, the 2003 serial killer film Memories of Murder, is being re-released in selected theatres across Canada today, prior to its digital release on November 3rd. The remastered film is also set for a physical release as part of the Criterion Collection sometime in the future. Timed to capitalize on the recent awards success of Parasite, this splashy re-release offers the perfect opportunity for many of us to finally see the film, which premiered at Cannes and TIFF back in 2003, but has been quite hard to access since then.

I had admittedly never seen Memories of Murder before receiving a screener link for review, and I found it to be a masterclass in filmmaking. In the years following this film, Bong Joon-ho would of course go on to make the critically acclaimed Korean films The Host and Mother, before breaking more into the mainstream with Snowpiercer and Okja, and I must say that it’s fascinating to observe how much of a sure hand the director had right from the start.

The story, which was inspired by the real life events behind the first serial murders in Korea’s history, is set in the 1980s in Gyeonggi Province, and follows a trio of detectives who are brought in to investigate when several young woman are found raped and murdered. As disturbing commonalities emerge between the victims and their deaths, the detectives, including local investigators Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha), who are joined by Seoul big shot Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), soon realize that they are dealing with a serial killer.

Blending elements of crime thriller, police procedural, and dark comedy, the film reveals a somewhat satirical edge in how it depicts the various failings of the police department and the often bumbling actions of the local detectives. Their methods and morals vary wildly, and they are so desperate to pin the crimes on someone to calm the fears of the public, that they engage in torture and other unethical methods to try and force a confession out of the random suspects that they bring in.

This includes arresting a young developmentally disabled man (Park No-shik) and roughing him up in an attempt to coax him into confessing to the murders. This particular story thread feels very similar to the themes explored in Bong Joon-ho’s equally excellent 2009 film Mother, also about a disabled man accused of murder. On that note, one of the most interesting things about watching Memories of Murder for the first time now, after having seen almost all of the director’s other films, is seeing how it connects to the his future body of work.

Bong Joon-ho’s mastery as a storyteller is especially apparent in the film’s haunting final scene, which brings deeper meaning to the title Memories of Murder, and ends the film on a surprisingly poignant note. With a sharp screenplay co-written by the director and Shim Sung-bo, crisp cinematography by Kim Hyung-koo, and finely etched performances from its cast, this is an excellent film that retains a startling freshness and relevance seventeen years after it was first released. Admirers of Bong Joon-ho’s other works should jump at the chance to check it out.

Memories of Murder is now playing in selected theatres across Canada, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Disney+ Review: Once Upon a Snowman

October 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Did you ever wonder what that loveable snowman sidekick Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) was doing in the movie Frozen between the time when Elsa (Idina Menzel) brought him to life while belting out “Let It Go” on the side of a snowy mountain, but before he met up with Anna (Kristen Bell) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and joined them on their journey?

Well, now we have an answer to this very question. Directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, the new eight minute short film Once Upon a Snowman, which debuts on Disney+ this weekend, is a “midquel” that does a sweet and satisfying job of exploring Olaf’s backstory.

The short film opens with Elsa in the midst of singing her Oscar-winning power ballad, and bringing the talking snowman to life with a swirl of her hands. Olaf then gets knocked off the mountain by Elsa’s cloak when she lets it fly off into the wind, sending him tumbling out into the world for the first time in search of a name, an identity, and most importantly a nose.

This is technically the fifth official entry into Disney’s incredibly successful Frozen franchise, following the 2013 movie and its 2019 sequel, as well as the two prior short films Frozen Fever and Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, and it’s a brief but welcome addition to the series. We see moments from Frozen playing out in the background, and one of the most fun and inventive aspects of Once Upon a Snowman is how it lets us revisit certain scenes in the film from a different vantage point.

There are a lot of fun callbacks to the first movie and answers to some lingering questions about the snowman’s origins, including where his love of summer comes from. Gad once again does appealing voice work as Olaf, who appears here at his most innocent and inquisitive. As a whole, Once Upon a Snowman is a delightful and very cute little short that ties in quite nicely to the first film.

Once Upon a Snowman will be available to stream exclusively on Disney+ as of October 23rd.

imagineNATIVE 2020 Review: Shadow of Dumont

October 20, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Growing up, writer/director Trevor Cameron was always fascinated by stories of his great-great-great-uncle, Gabriel Dumont. A Métis leader and lieutenant to Louis Riel, Dumont is a legendary figure for his involvement in the North-West Rebellions of 1885, gaining him the nickname the “Métis Braveheart.” Wanting to learn more about Dumont’s rich legacy, and his own Métis roots, Cameron sets out on a road trip in an old 1980s camper van, which he has painted with Métis imagery. He documents this journey in his enjoyable and informative documentary Shadow of Dumont.

It’s a journey that takes him from his home in Toronto, where he lives with his wife and daughter, to a series of places across North America that have ties to Dumont. The film follows Cameron as he travels to the communities of Batoche, Fish Creek and Duck Lake in Saskatchewan, where a trio of famous battles took place, while also making stops in British Columbia and Manitoba. Cameron then follows Dumont’s footsteps across the border to the United States, where Dumont fled to in the late 1800s and toured as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West travelling show, making stops in North Dakota, Wyoming and Staten Island. 

Through interviews with family, community members, and local historians, Cameron does a fine job of recounting Dumont’s story, including some nicely done animated sequences that depict his involvement in the 1885 Métis uprising. Cameron serves as a fun tour guide who doesn’t take himself too seriously, including traipsing through New York City dressed as Dumont, a costume that he wears throughout the film. Playing out as a mix of entertaining history lesson and enjoyable road movie, Shadow of Dumont serves as a good introduction to an important figure in Canadian and Métis history.

Shadow of Dumont is screening online from October 21st to 23rd as part of the 2020 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, and there will be a live Q&A on October 21st at 2:00 PM. Tickets and more information can be found right here.

The 2020 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival runs online from October 20th to 25th.

Blu-ray Review: The Haunting (1999)

October 20, 2020

By John Corrado

Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 horror novel The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted for the screen a few times over the years, starting with Robert Wise’s faithful 1963 film adaptation The Haunting. More recently, Jackson’s novel provided the inspiration for Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix series of the same name, which was more of an homage than a faithful retelling of the book.

Nestled in between these two different versions was the 1999 film The Haunting, which Paramount is releasing for the first time on Blu-ray today, right in time for Halloween. A loose adaptation of Jackson’s book, this version updates the story and uses it as the basis for a fairly effective, big budget haunted house movie.

The film centres around Nell (Lili Taylor), Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson), three insomniacs who are selected by psychologist Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) and brought to Hill House under the false pretences of being involved in a study on sleep. But Marrow is actually conducting a study on fear, and is using the unwitting participants as rats in a maze to study how people respond to being spooked.

While having them stay overnight in the ornate mansion, the three participants are fed a steady stream of ghost stories that Marrow believes are fake to get their heart rates up. But they soon find out that the ghosts of Hill House, which once belonged to a wealthy industrialist named Hugh Crane and has a dark history behind it that is known only to the old groundskeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes), who refuse to stay there at night, are very real.

Directed by Jan de Bont, following up his ’90s hits Twister and Speed, and featuring a screenplay by David Self who takes some dramatic licenses with Jackson’s novel, The Haunting is a decent if mildly uneven thriller that is better than many people gave it credit for back in 1999. The film received mostly negative reviews upon its release, and was nominated for five Razzies including Worst Picture. But time has shown it to be something that, while not entirely living up to its potential, is still a fine entry into the haunted house subgenre.

While somewhat constrained by a PG-13 rating, de Bont smartly keeps the focus on his characters and focuses more on building a sense of atmosphere rather than delivering an all-out fright fest. The film boasts impressive production design by Eugenio Zanetti, and Hill House itself is a visual wonder, with captivating full-scale sets having been constructed for the shoot that allow for some solid, practically done set-pieces. The film has been newly remastered from a 4K film transfer for this release, under the supervision of de Bont, and I have to say that it looks splendid on Blu-ray.

Additionally, The Haunting boasts an appropriately eery musical score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, a legend in the horror genre. While some of the film’s CGI visual effects do look dated, The Haunting still holds up pretty well as an entertaining, character-driven haunted house movie, and fans of the film should be pleased by this release.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

Filmmaker Focus: Director Jan de Bont on The Haunting (9 minutes, 14 seconds): This new and surprisingly candid featurette finds the director reflecting on the production of the film, including building the full size set for Hill House and working with practical effects when possible. We also learn that Steven Spielberg was initially attached to the film, with de Bont initially set to direct Minority Report instead, but the two traded scripts on the set of Twister.

Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (27 minutes, 12 seconds): Zeta-Jones hosts this nearly half-hour piece, which was produced back when the film came out. The vintage featurette dives into the different characters and the production of the film, as well as some real life hauntings. It feels like a TV special, and is worth a watch.

Theatrical Teaser Trailer (1 minute, 16 seconds): The initial teaser for the film, which is mainly interesting to see how the studio was trying to sell it as a much more hardcore horror film.

Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes, 23 seconds): Again, the tone of this full trailer is much more extreme than the actual film, and it’s fascinating to see how the studio was trying to sell the finished product.

The Haunting is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 112 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 20th, 2020

Netflix Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

October 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Aaron Sorkin has a way with words and a real knack for writing film dialogue, as we already saw, or rather heard, in his scripts for David Fincher’s brilliant Facebook drama The Social Network and Danny Boyle’s structurally inventive biopic Steve Jobs.

Sorkin’s gift for writing memorable, rapid fire dialogue exchanges makes him a natural fit for courtroom dramas, which is the genre that he tackled in the 1992 classic A Few Good Men, and tackles again in his latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film, which is dropping on Netflix today, marks Sorkin’s second effort as director as well as screenwriter following his 2017 directorial debut Molly’s Game, and it’s compelling to watch.

The film dramatizes the lengthy trial that began in 1969, when a group of political activists were indicted for their involvement in the protests against the Vietnam War that erupted in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The title group of seven includes anti-war activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), co-founder of the group Students for a Democratic Society, and his colleague Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the anarchic “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), both members of the Youth International Party; the peaceful conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); as well as the young activists Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a member of the Black Panther Party, is also put on trial, despite not being involved in the organization of the protests.

The seven are represented by eccentric lawyer William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance), while Seale is denied legal counsel, as his lawyer is out of town. The prosecutors on the case are Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. Mackenzie), both selected by the just elected Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman), and the judge is Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who makes little secret of his contempt for the defendants and keeps getting names wrong. The charges include conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot.

Sorkin does a very good job of honing in on key moments from this widely publicized trial, which stretched on for several months, and distilling them into a compelling portrait of the court hearings and the events surrounding them. The protests themselves are shown in flashbacks during the courtroom scenes, which not only provides direct context to what is being discussed on the stand, but also allows for dramatic revelations along the way as we see exactly what led to the trial.

Rather than presenting these events in a straight-forward fashion; i.e., showing the riots first followed by the trial, this non-linear approach keeps the film moving at a snappier pace and allows Sorkin to parse out information in a way that holds our interest and builds suspense. The protests themselves have been thrillingly recreated, showing the violent clashes that erupted between protestors and law enforcement near the site of the Convention, with flashes of archival footage mixed in alongside the reenactments.

In addition to being tightly scripted, the film is also extremely well edited by Alan Baumgarten, who often cuts to the dialogue and finds a rhythm that matches Sorkin’s writing. This is perhaps most evident in the film’s whirlwind opening sequence where we are introduced to all of the main players, with scenes cutting in the middle of dialogue so that different actors can literally finish each other’s sentences. It’s also worth noting that, at just over two hours long, the film is paced exceptionally well.

The trial itself is rich with dramatic conflict, as Sorkin highlights the clashes between the straight-laced Hayden and the seemingly attention-hungry Hoffman, who keeps disrupting the proceedings with his sarcastic interjections and wild antics, racking up contempt of court charges. The film is extremely well acted by its entire ensemble cast, with the actors doing an across the board great job of finding the cadences of Sorkin’s words.

Cohen is a natural fit for the role of Hoffman, a professional troublemaker whose brand of political activism put a heavy emphasis on disruption, and Strong disappears into the role of Rubin, who is stoned for much of the film. Michael Keaton rounds out the cast in a brief but scene-stealing role as former attorney general Ramsey Clark, who had already decided not to indict the protestors under President Johnson’s administration prior to the 1968 election. This all adds up to a film that is not only dramatically powerful, but also extremely entertaining, taking the politically charged events of the late 1960s and making them resonate in today’s landscape.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix, and is also currently playing in select theatres where open.

Disney+ Review: Clouds

October 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Clouds, a new teen drama that was recently acquired by Disney Plus and is dropping on the streaming service today, is a biopic of Zach Sobiech, the young singer-songwriter with terminal cancer whose bittersweet folk-pop song “Clouds” became a viral hit in 2012 when he was seventeen years old.

Sobiech was dying of osteosarcoma when he wrote and recorded the song as a way to say goodbye, and the film depicts the last few months of his life during his unexpected rise to fame. Directed by Justin Baldoni, who previously made a short web documentary about Sobiech entitled My Last Days, this is a surprisingly good musical drama that packs a genuine emotional punch.

When we first meet Zach (played by Fin Argus) in the film, he is performing a stripped down acoustic version of “Sexy and I Know It” at his high school talent show, playing to the crowd and making light of his bald head from chemo. And it’s a good way to introduce Zach, showing him as a fun-loving kid stuck in a tragic situation.

At the start of the film, Zach is in good spirits and seems to be doing well, with hopes that his most recent round of chemotherapy will finally kill the osteosarcoma he has lived with for a few years. But an emergency surgery for a collapsed lung leads to the discovery that his cancer has spread and is terminal, with the doctors warning him that he has less than a year to live, and might not make it to graduation.

Zach makes the decision to stop chemo, allowing his hair to grow back, and decides to spend the time he has left pursuing a relationship with his classmate Amy (Madison Iseman), and writing songs. Hoping to realize his long-held dream of becoming a professional musician, Zach forms the musical duo A Firm Handshake with his best friend Samantha “Sammy” Brown (Sabrina Carpenter). The two start posting recordings of their songs online, paving the way for the viral hit that gives the film its title.

Yes, Clouds is an unabashed weepie, but it’s also more honest about death and dying than I expected it to be, and is all the better for it. While the film does lean in to an inspirational message about following your dreams and making the best of the time you’ve got, this is also pretty heavy stuff, and Baldoni doesn’t shy away from the reality of a young life being cut short by terminal illness. The film also does a very good job of detailing the different ways that Zach’s parents Laura (Neve Campbell) and Rob (Tom Everett Scott) deal with their son’s pending death, as well as how his siblings respond to his diagnosis.

Argus, in what is surprisingly his first leading role in a feature film, delivers a very good performance as Zach, managing to be charming and likeable as well as heartbreaking. It’s a very demanding role, both physically and emotionally, and Argus, who is also a trained musician, handles it extremely well in what is a star-making turn. The rest of the cast does fine work as well, including a memorable role for Lil Rel Howery as a kind teacher who helps Zach in unexpected ways.

The film is based on Laura Sobiech’s memoir Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way, which has been adapted by screenwriter Kara Holden. While religion is not the explicit focus of this screen version of the story, the film also doesn’t ignore it, including a touching sequence where the family takes a trip to Lourdes in search of a miracle. While the hoped for miracle of Zach being cured doesn’t occur, one could say that he still received a miracle in the form of everything he was able to achieve in his final months. 

In its own way, Clouds does have the feel of a faith-based drama, but the film is designed so that it will be able to reach non-religious audiences as well. Remaining completely sincere in its ambitions, Clouds is an engaging and moving film that serves as a wonderful tribute to Zach Sobiech and his short but impactful time on this earth.

Clouds is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

VOD Review: The Secrets We Keep

October 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A dramatic revenge thriller set in the American suburbia of the 1950s, The Secrets We Keep follows Maja (Noomi Rapace), a Romanian woman who fled her home country following World War II, and has tried her best to forget the past.

Maja has established a quiet life in the United States with her husband Lewis (Chris Messina) and their young son Patrick (Jackson Vincent). But traumatic memories from the war start flooding back when she sees a man (Joel Kinnaman) in her neighbourhood, whom she believes is the Nazi soldier that brutalized her back in Romania fifteen years ago.

Maja knocks him out, puts him in the trunk of her car, and ties him up in her basement. He insists that he is Swiss, not German, and wasn’t even involved in the war, but Maja is convinced that he is lying and changed his identity so as not to be held accountable for his crimes. Maja and Lewis try to get him to admit his true identity through torture, but they run the risk of being caught, especially as the man’s wife (Amy Seimetz) starts looking for her missing husband.

Directed by Yuval Adler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Covington, The Secrets We Keep does do an okay job of keeping us guessing as to the real identity of the man in the basement, but the script is rife with plot holes. The characters often make questionable choices that strain credibility, and they aren’t developed enough for us to get truly invested in their story. Maja’s intention are also somewhat hazy, insisting that she doesn’t want to kill the man, just to get him to confess to his crimes.

Rapace does a decent enough job in the leading role, but she isn’t given enough to really build upon her character, who ends up feeling surface-deep. While The Secrets We Keep is not entirely ineffective as a pulpy thriller, and is not without a few moments of intrigue, it’s also somewhat frustrating and feels mildly exploitative. The film as a whole never really builds to something more interesting and ends up feeling somewhat generic, not hitting hard enough to leave more of an impact.

The Secrets We Keep is being released today on a variety of VOD and digital platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

VOD Review: Totally Under Control

October 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Alex Gibney is an award-winning documentarian whose films have explored hot button topics ranging from the United States government’s use of torture in his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the sleaziness of the Church of Scientology in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and the dark side of the late Apple founder in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

Now Gibney turns his attention to the very timely issue of COVID-19 in Totally Under Control, which covers events from roughly January to September of this year, with the focus mainly being kept on the American federal government’s failure to get a handle on the deadly pandemic under the leadership of President Donald Trump.

Named for Trump’s erroneous early assertions that they had the virus “totally under control,” which we would later find out was a lie meant to assuage the fears of the American people, the documentary offers a comprehensive overview of the federal government’s bungled approach to stopping the spread of the virus. While there isn’t much in the way of new information here, it’s compiled in a clear and concise way that makes it, at the very least, a valuable historical document.

With COVID-19 still very much being a part of our lives, Totally Under Control is also impressive for how it has been pulled together with such a tight turnaround. Seeing as it was assembled entirely in the midst of this ongoing global pandemic, Gibney and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger had to take extra precautions to conduct the talking head interviews that make up the bulk of the film. Some of the subjects are interviewed from behind plastic shower curtains with a hole cut out for the camera, while others were sent a camera on a rig so they could film themselves and be interviewed remotely by the filmmakers, and it’s fascinating to observe this approach.

At the time of this writing, over two hundred thousand Americans have died from the novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which first emerged in Wuhan, China at the end of last year. The United States now has one of the highest reported death tolls in the world, but as Totally Under Control lays out, it didn’t have to be this way. Gibney, who also narrates the film, brings together a slate of doctors and scientists to shine a spotlight on the various policy failures of the Trump administration in handling the pandemic, since the first American case was confirmed in Seattle back in January.

The Trump administration did make the right call in imposing travel restrictions from China at the end of January, which is a move that, it’s worth noting for the sake of full objectivity, was initially opposed by some Democrats as discriminatory. But their actions from that point on were lacking, from ignoring the pandemic playbook that was left to them by the Obama administration, to compiling a heavily partisan pandemic response team headed by Vice President Mike Pence, and frequently ignoring the advise of their own experts. We see at points how the scientists would say one thing, only to be contradicted by members of the administration within the same press conference.

The country was also left with a nationwide shortage of N95 masks, forcing doctors and nurses to reuse their masks, as the government hastily tried to replenish their depleted national stockpile. One of the film’s subjects is Max Kennedy, who was part of a team of inexperienced volunteers that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put in charge of trying to secure crucial PPE. Kennedy was forced to sign an NDA, but broke it to became a whistleblower, laying bare the government’s inaction. Kennedy understandably seems somewhat nervous speaking to the camera.

A more personal perspective on the devastating effects of the virus comes from Taison Bell, an African-American doctor in Virginia who treated patients on the frontlines, and talks about the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on people of colour. Throughout the film, Gibney questions how a country as advanced as the United States did such a poor job of handling this pandemic. He often looks to South Korea as a positive example of how a country was able to leave decision making to the experts and nip the virus in the bud, without hurting their economy too much through a full lockdown.

Aside from this, Totally Under Control doesn’t really go into detail about how COVID-19 was handled in other places around the world, including Europe, which keeps it from offering a more global picture of the pandemic. The film also doesn’t really get into how other branches of the US government handled things, aside from briefly talking about how Governors were left fighting the federal government to secure ventilators for their states. I also wish that more attention had been paid to New York City, an early epicentre of the virus, including Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous executive order forcing nursing homes to accept infected patients, which isn’t mentioned at all.

As much as the inadequate response to the Coronavirus crisis represents a failure of leadership on behalf of the Trump administration, it also represents a failure of messaging. Trump’s continual downplaying of the virus has proved particularly disastrous in terms of sowing public mistrust, with the virus being turned into a political issue. For example, the fact that the wearing of masks, which by all measures is a simple, common sense way of stopping the spread of the virus, has become a left versus right issue, is one of the most frustrating things to come out of this pandemic.

In the final minutes of the film, Gibney addresses the leaked audio that was released last month from an interview with journalist Bob Woodward that proves Trump not only knew the virus was airborne as far back as February 7th, but also that it was far deadlier than the flu. Trump also admits on tape that he was publicly saying the opposite so as not to cause panic. In the more solemn parts of that interview, when discussing the lethality of the virus, Trump actually sounded more serious than he has in almost any of his public addresses concerning COVID-19, and if had struck that tone with the public early on, it could have stopped some of his supporters from acting like it was no big deal.

Ironically, it was Trump’s fears about his re-election prospects that caused him to downplay the virus in the first place, and now this is the very thing that could easily cost him the presidency. Back in January, when the economy was still booming and unemployment was at a record low, it looked like Trump would win a second term. But now, with just a few weeks to go until the election on November 3rd, he could very well be defeated by Joe Biden, and his botched handling of this pandemic will almost single-handedly be his downfall.

The American government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis will be debated and talked about for years to come, and the story is still very much unfolding. A hastily added title card at the end tells us that the film was literally completed a day before Trump himself tested positive for the virus and ended up being hospitalized. While Totally Under Control obviously doesn’t offer a complete picture of the pandemic, it’s still an exhaustive, informative and often infuriating look at the American government’s failures to control a virus that they should have done a better job of reigning in.

Totally Under Control is now available on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Review: The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw

October 9, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The most obvious comparison to The Curse of Audrey Earnsahw, Canadian filmmaker Robert Thomas Lee’s new period horror film which was produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada, would be The Witch.

Like that 2015 film directed by Robert Eggers, Lee’s film is another work of folk horror that takes a slow burn approach to telling its story about famines and suspected witchcraft, and really leans in to establishing a creepy atmosphere through its rural setting.

But instead of being set in the 1800s, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw actually takes place during the 1973 harvest season, in an isolated village of Protestant settlers who have been living the exact same way since establishing their North American settlement a century earlier.

We are told in the film’s opening title crawl that the local farmers have been struck by crop shortages and the death of livestock ever since 1956, when a “pestilence” spread throughout their land, during a mysterious phenomenon dubbed “the eclipse.” The only farm that has continued to flourish is that of Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), a woman “suspected of heresy” whose crops have remained bountiful.

Agatha has a daughter named Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), who was born seventeen years ago during the eclipse. She has kept Audrey hidden from the villagers, and we see early on that they have connections to the occult. Things start to go wrong when Audrey is seen by one of the locals (Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar), and when she witness her mother being mistreated by another villager (Jared Abrahamson), she decides to enact revenge.

In his second feature as writer and director, Lee does a very good job of building a strong sense of atmosphere, heightened by the solid work of cinematographer Nick Thomas. The film has a subdued look to it, with an autumnal colour palate that really sets the tone for a story set at harvest time, and the period setting is established quite well through excellent costumes and production design. The film’s moody atmosphere is further heightened by an appropriately eery musical score courtesy of composers Bryan Buss and Thilo Schaller. The performances by the ensemble cast are also strong.

While the film takes place in the second half of the 20th century, its characters exist in a world that has remained in the past and hasn’t changed since the 1800s in terms of how they live, how they dress, and what they believe. When we see an airplane fly over head at one point, it’s actually quite jarring. This is a very interesting backdrop for the story, with the characters choosing to live as pioneers and refusing outside help.

Aside from the opening title crawl, the film’s mythology isn’t explored as much as it could be, with some aspects of the story feeling somewhat vague. This leads to some confusion at points about how everyone is connected and what is exactly is happening. With that said, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is quite an accomplished film on a technical level, with Lee able to showcase a strong sense of style that makes him a filmmaker who is worth keeping an eye on.

This is an effectively creepy Canadian folk horror film, that succeeds thanks to a well handled sense of atmosphere and some unsettling imagery. It’s a good seasonal offering for genre fans, and the final scene is also quite well done, ending The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw on a nicely disturbing note.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is opening in select theatres today, and will be released across digital and VOD platforms on October 20th. It’s being distributed in Canada by A71.

Inside Out 2020 Review: Sex, Sin & 69

October 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

In 1969, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made crucial changes to the criminal code under Bill C-150, partially decriminalizing homosexuality across the country. It was a historic move that struck down archaic anti-buggery and gross indecency laws, with Trudeau’s famous musing that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” remaining one of the finest arguments for gay rights. The government simply has no business policing what is done in private between consenting adults.

Director Sarah Fodey examines the impact of this historic ruling in her documentary Sex, Sin & 69, which was produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bill C-150’s passage last year. The film provides an informative introduction to the history of LGBTQ rights in Canada, and how Bill C-150 paved the way for more legislation to come, including legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005. But Fodey also crucially explores how, despite being an important stepping stone for gay rights in Canada, many argue that Bill C-150 also didn’t go far enough, with the bill only legalizing homosexual activity in private between two adults over the age of 21.

The film documents how the government continued to find ways to crackdown on homosexuality for years after it was officially decriminalized, including the bathhouse raids in Toronto, which paved the way for the city’s first Pride Parade. The office of the queer magazine The Body Politic was also raided in 1977 under an obscure law forbidding the use of the mail system to distribute indecent materials, in an egregious affront to free speech and freedom of expression that sparked widespread protests.

Narrated by Canadian-Pakistani actress Fawzia Mirza, and featuring interviews with a diverse array of lawyers, activists and academics, Sex, Sin & 69 offers an engaging overview of the gay rights movement in Canada, and how it ties into the fight for lesbian, transgender and intersex rights as well. The film is also quick to point out that, while homosexuality was broadly decriminalized in 1969, it was still very much being pathologized at the time. Even many progressives, including former NDP leader Tommy Douglas, were still of the mindset that same-sex attraction was a mental illness, but simply one that should be treated in a hospital and not in prison.

The film also offers an interesting glimpse into our country’s broader political history, including the interesting fact that Trudeau himself battled rumours in the press that he was gay. It’s also worth noting that Bill C-150 was crafted by Trudeau’s Justice Minister John Turner, who would later briefly serve as prime minister and just passed away at the age of 91. The final minutes of Sex, Sin & 69 focus on what the subjects want the next fifty years to look like in Canada, and in this way the film becomes about looking forwards as much as it is about looking backwards. At just 75 minutes long, this is a brief but important introduction to queer history.

The 30th annual Inside Out LGBT Film Festival runs from October 1st to 11th, with online screenings available to anyone in Ontario, and some special drive-in presentations in Toronto.

Sex, Sin & 69 is screening online until October 11th. Tickets can be purchased right here, and are available for free courtesy of CBC.

More Inside Out Reviews: Monsoon; Spiral; I Am Syd StoneCowboys; Dating Amber; Jump, Darling; Shiva Baby (TIFF 2020)No Ordinary Man (TIFF 2020)Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story (Hot Docs 2020)There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace (Hot Docs 2020)The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (TIFF 2019).

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