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Blu-ray Review: Freaks

December 11, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Chloe (Lexy Kolker) is a seven year old girl who isn’t allowed to leave the house, kept locked inside by her father (Emile Hirsch), who teaches her survival skills and instills in her that the outside world is a dangerous place. This is the basic setup for Freaks, an entertaining indie genre mashup that makes the most of a modest budget.

The film is set in a near-future world where people live in fear of “abnormals” or “freaks” as they’re often derogatorily called, and covert government agents roam the streets tracking them down. As Chloe becomes increasingly curious about the outside world, and starts tempting fate by trying to leave the house, we are left questioning whether her father is protecting her or keeping her overly sheltered.

Directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, who also co-wrote the screenplay together, Freaks is the sort of film that I can’t really say much more about without spoiling some of the experience. What I can say is that the film branches off from its dramatic premise to offer a good mix of sci-fi, fantasy, action, thriller and horror, playing like a cross between 10 Cloverfield Lane, Room and X-Men.

Told almost entirely through Chloe’s perspective, the film allows us to discover its secrets as she does, revealing new information to her and us at roughly the same time. Hirsch grounds the film, dedicating himself to playing an overprotective father, and Freaks also boasts an impressive performance from the young Kolker, who throws herself into the emotionally and physically demanding role. Additionally, Bruce Dern does strong work in a pivotal supporting role as a mysterious old man who drives an ice cream truck that tempts Chloe by parking outside her house.

The film’s reach does sometimes exceed its grasp, and a few aspects of it do feel a bit underdeveloped, but Freaks still does a good job overall of keeping us both intrigued and entertained. This is an inventive and consistently suspenseful film that features some decent special effects, and is made all the more impressive for what the filmmakers are able to accomplish on a limited budget.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with the directors, a fifteen minute “behind the scenes” featurette, as well as the teaser trailer and trailer for the film.

Freaks is a Well Go USA release. It’s 105 minutes and rated R.

Street Date: December 10th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: It: Chapter Two

December 10, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The choice to adapt Stephen King’s massive 1986 book It, which was already made into a miniseries in 1990, into two movies was always going to be a gargantuan undertaking, and after the first film was released in 2017 to strong reviews and huge success at the box office, the pressure to craft a worthy follow up became even more daunting.

Director Andy Muschietti, returning for this sequel along with his sister Barbara Muschietti who once again serves as producer, had his work cut out for him with It: Chapter Two, and while this second instalment can’t quite reach the highs of the first film, it’s still a well crafted dramatic horror movie that features some great moments.

As children, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Martell), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) dubbed themselves the Losers Club, and banded together to defeat Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), an evil clown terrorizing their town of Derry, Maine. Now, 27 years later, Pennywise has returned, and Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the one member of the original group who stayed in town and became the local librarian, reaches out to the rest of the Losers Club to fulfill their blood pact of reuniting as adults to defeat the demonic clown.

Bill (James McAvoy) is now a successful horror writer, Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer trapped in an abusive relationship, Richie (Bill Hader) has found a career as a standup comedian, Eddie (James Ransone) is now working in risk assessment, and the once chubby Ben (Jay Ryan) is now a slimmed down architect. While they have mostly forgotten the specifics of what happened that summer, the trauma still haunts them, and ultimately proves too much for Stanley (Andy Bean), now a married accountant, who takes his own life shortly after receiving Mike’s phone call. The six reunite in Derry, where they reaffirm their bond and confront their fears in order to defeat Pennywise once and for all.

While the film does feature a few jump moments and has several effectively staged horror set-pieces, including a sequence in a house of mirrors, It: Chapter Two is also content being more of a slow burn that takes its time to reestablish these characters. It’s far removed from the immediate, more youthful thrills of the first film, with long stretches just focusing on the characters and showing where they have ended up in their lives, and that’s not a bad thing.

What It: Chapter Two gets right, and why I ultimately think the choice to divide the book into two halves works in the long run, is that this sequel is able to dig deep into its exploration of childhood trauma, and how even the things from our past that we bury deep inside continue to haunt us. The film is extraordinarily well cast, with the adult cast not only bearing great resemblance to the child actors who portrayed these characters in the first film and reprise their roles here in flashbacks, but also building upon the foundations laid by their younger counterparts.

This is a sprawling film that doesn’t hit every single mark – the already infamous “Angel of the Morning” music cue does come out of nowhere – and at times it does feel bloated and overlong, running close to three hours. But it’s also a very well acted film that features a selection of compelling moments, allowing time for its characters to breathe between the scares, and Skarsgård once again delivers a brilliantly unsettling performance as the evil entity that gives the film its title.

Xavier Dolan also makes the most of his brief but memorable role as a young gay man in Derry who becomes the victim of a homophobic attack in the film’s opening prologue, which is one of the most genuinely upsetting sequences in the film. While It: Chapter Two meanders more and isn’t quite as strong overall as the first film, it’s still a worthy follow up that does a good job of completing this two part adaptation of the book. I look forward to watching it again, along with its predecessor.

The Blu-ray comes with a second disc devoted to bonus features, starting with the two featurettes The Summers of It Chapter One: You’ll Float Too and The Summers of It Chapter Two: It Ends, which are over half an hour each. They are followed by the three equally worthwhile featurettes Pennywise Lives Again, This Meeting of the Losers’ Club Has Officially Begun, and Finding the Deadlights.

It: Chapter Two is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 169 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 10th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: The Goldfinch

December 9, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

One of the first films to crash and burn this awards season was The Goldfinch, director John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s massive, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel of the same name.

When the film premiered at TIFF a few days prior to its theatrical release this September, it fizzled rather quickly, with poor word of mouth and even poorer reviews emerging immediately following its world premiere. The film was declared to be a muddled, tonally confused bore, sinking pretty much any hopes it had at the box office.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that, while certainly flawed in a lot of ways, The Goldfinch is also an ambitious melodrama that is somewhat better than many have given it credit for. This is not to say that it hits every mark, either as an adaptation or on its own terms, but I also don’t think that the film should be written off completely, and it’s actually somewhat refreshing to see a studio like Warner Bros. taking a chance on putting out a big, messy, character-driven adult drama such as this.

The story unfolds over roughly a decade and connects multiple characters, opening with Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort) as a young man in a hotel room in Amsterdam. As a boy, Theo (Oakes Fegley) lost his mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and got taken in by Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), the matriarch of a rich family in New York’s Upper East Side. One of the few things to survive the bombing was The Goldfinch, a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, that Theo stashed in his bag and took with him as he exited the building.

Throughout it all, this painting serves as the through-line to Theo’s story, and he brings it with him as he moves to Nevada to live with his father Larry (Luke Wilson), a recovering alcoholic and faded actor who has now shacked up with a woman named Xandra (Sarah Paulson). It’s here that Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Russian boy who becomes a close friend to him that he will later reunite with as an adult (Aneurin Barnard). Theo is also connected to an antiques dealer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) back in New York, whose business partner was killed in the bombing.

It’s not a perfect adaptation. The story has clearly been condensed, and parts of it do feel rushed, which can lead to it feeling like a few separate movies rolled into one. While I admittedly haven’t read the book, so I can’t say how it compares, I do understand why some fans of Tartt’s novel will be disappointed by Crowley’s film. But viewed on its own terms, The Goldfinch boasts some solid performances from its ensemble cast and attractive cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins, and I was kept suitably engaged throughout the lengthy 149 minute running time.

Elgort and Fegley are impeccably well cast, and do a good job of playing younger and older versions of the same character, carrying the film with a pair of fine performances. Overall, The Goldfinch is a decent drama that I suspect time, and a possible critical reappraisal at some point, will be kinder to. It’s flawed, sure, but I also think curious viewers should give it a look.

The Blu-ray also includes the two solid featurettes The Goldfinch Unbound and The Real Goldfinch, which provide insight into the challenges of adapting the novel for the screen and the real painting behind the story, as well as a selection of deleted scenes that are edited together with introductions by Crowley explaining why they were cut from the film.

The Goldfinch is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 149 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 3rd, 2019

DVD Review: Buttons: A Christmas Tale

December 9, 2019

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

There is something inherently appealing about the idea of seeing Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke, both legends in their own right, back on screen, and I will admit that their presence is what peaked my interest in Buttons: A Christmas Tale. But aside from the fact that they both retain the ability to light up the screen, the film itself disappointingly can’t live up to their stature.

Directed by Tim Janis, Buttons: A Christmas Tale is a period musical that flew under the radar during its limited one-day theatrical release last year. The film has now arrived on DVD, and despite the number of recognizable names in the cast, it’s not hard to see why this often poorly made movie has gotten the short end of the stick in terms of distribution.

Opening with narration by Kate Winslet and Robert Redford, the film’s story centres around an orphaned young girl named Emily (Noelle Parker) in the early 1900s, who dreams of having a home for Christmas. Emily gets taken to the hospital by a kind nun (Roma Downey) to treat her fever, where she is visited by a guardian angel named Rose (Angela Lansbury), who tells her a story about another orphaned girl, Annabelle (Alivia Clark), who loses her parents (Ioan Gruffudd and Julia Burrows) and is sent to work in a factory sewing buttons onto clothes, but is helped by her own guardian angel (Dick Van Dyke).

While Buttons: A Christmas Tale is not without a few charms, it’s also quite amateurish on a technical level. The film’s sound design is surprisingly bad, and the soundtrack rarely matches up with the mouth movements during the song numbers. While many musicals are lip-synced, the sound here is not synced properly at all to the degree that it is often distracting, with the songs noticeably sounding like they were recorded in an entirely different location. The camerawork and lighting is mediocre at best, and the film often has the feel of a low-budget theatre production that has been filmed and put on screen.

These inferior production values are ultimately the film’s biggest downfall, and it’s somewhat surprising that something as poorly made as this was even able to bring so many talented people on board. What Buttons: A Christmas Tale ultimately feels like is a subpar TV movie made for undemanding religious audiences, and while there is undoubtedly a market for this sort of thing, I also can’t really recommend the film on its own merits. Don’t let the star power of the cast trick you into a purchase.

The DVD also includes the two additional musical scenes “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Two By Two,” as well as a music video for “The Miracle” by Rita Wilson.

Buttons: A Christmas Tale is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 87 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: December 3rd, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Angel Has Fallen

December 3, 2019

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The third film in the Has Fallen series, following 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen and its 2016 sequel London Has Fallen, Angel Has Fallen finds Secret Service officer Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) being framed for an assassination attempt against President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), and racing against time to prove his innocence.

Like the first two films in the series, Angel Has Fallen is a B-movie action thriller that is riddled with clichés. At the start of the film, Banning is broken down and bruised after years of service, and is contemplating retiring from active duty and taking a desk job as director of security for the White House, which would allow him to spend more time with his wife (Piper Parabo) and their young daughter.

But this is an action movie after all, so his retirement plans are inevitably interrupted. When the president becomes the subject of a missile attack during a fishing trip with Banning, which puts the commander in chief in a coma and kills every single member of his security detail save for Banning, the FBI blames the attack on him and believes him to be acting with orders from the Russians. Banning goes on the run, and a massive manhunt is put in place to track him down, as he goes rogue to find out who is actually responsible for the attack.

This is not a great movie. It’s easy to see where it’s going right from the start, and even the film’s few twists are predictable. But it’s not a terrible one, either. The action scenes are fine if not overly inspired, and the film does have some moments, most of which involve Nick Nolte, who appears as a hermit in the woods that Banning finds living off grid without the interference of “Big Brother.” Nolte has a lot of fun in the role, delivering a scene-stealing performance that almost makes the movie.

At the end of the day, Angel Has Fallen is simply a very mediocre popcorn flick, which I guess is fine, because I don’t think anyone was really expecting anything more than that from the third film in a lower tier action franchise like this anyways. It’s the sort of thing that those who saw or enjoyed the first two will likely want to check out, so if you fall into that camp, then I suppose it’s mildly worth a rental.

The Blu-ray also includes six featurettes (Even Heroes Fall: The Story, Someone to Watch Over Me: New Blood, Calling All Angels: Casting, True Faith: Authenticity, Fight for You: Stunts and Action, and Earth Angel: Recreating DC), as well as a trio of scenes (Drone Attack, Truck Chase and Zero Gravity) broken down with commentary by director Ric Roman Waugh.

Angel Has Fallen is a VVS Films release. It’s 121 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: November 26th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: The Farewell

December 3, 2019

By John Corrado

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which is now available on Blu-ray, still ranks as one of the finer movies of the year. Based on Wang’s own life, the film follows Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American woman who returns home for a family wedding that serves as a way to secretly say goodbye to her beloved grandma, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who is being kept in the dark about the fact that she is dying of cancer.

Blending elements of comedy and drama, The Farewell is a beautifully handled tragicomedy that has a fascinating and complex moral dilemma at its centre. Awkwafina, starring in her first dramatic role, carries the film with a splendid performance, doing an incredible job of handling the many nuances of the story. It’s worth seeking out, and for more on the film, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with director Lulu Wang and director of photography Anna Franquesa Solano, as well as the two featurettes Going Home: A Conversation With Awkwafina and Nothing But the Truth: Confession of a Writer/Director, which present one-on-one interviews with the film’s star and director cut together with clips from the movie. They are followed by a pair of deleted scenes that are presented back-to-back, three minutes in total.

The Farewell is a VVS Films release. It’s 100 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: November 12th, 2019

Review: The Two Popes

November 29, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world in 2013 when he stepped down as head of the Catholic Church, becoming the first pope to resign since the 1400s.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as the successor to Pope John Paul II in 2005, and was chosen by the church due to his standing as a staunch conservative who would stop the Vatican from moving in a more progressive direction, beating out Jorge Bergoglio, a more forward-thinking cardinal from Buenos Aires who sought to make reforms within the church.

But as fate would have it, Bergoglio would be elected Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, shortly after his resignation. This story is recounted in the Netflix film The Two Popes, a dialogue-heavy drama from director Fernando Meirelles which imagines a series of engaging conversations between the two men.

The film unfolds as Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) makes his plans to step down amidst a growing scandal revealing the extent of clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) comes to terms with the fact that he will likely be chosen to replace him. Bergoglio has travelled to Vatican City to personally hand in his resignation as cardinal, becoming disenfranchised with the direction that the church is going in, but he is viewed by many as next in line for the papacy, prompting him to rethink his own retirement plans.

When Pope Benedict confides him in that he wants to leave the Throne of St. Peter, Bergoglio ends up trying to convince him not to step down, worried that the break from hundreds of years of tradition will further damage the church. Benedict’s main concern is that the church will move too hastily away from the dogmatic traditions of the past, and asserts at one point that he has made his decision to leave the papacy final now that he thinks Bergoglio will no longer be in the running as his replacement.

Throughout the film, we watch as these two faith leaders eat pizza, drink Fanta, and argue about and discuss the best way forward for the church. Hopkins and Pryce deliver uncanny portrayals of Benedict and Francis, and their respectful and finely tuned performances perfectly capture the differences in both ideology and temperament between the two men. The former is a stern, almost paternalistic figure who is unshaken in his drive to maintain order within the ranks of the church, and the latter is laid-back and down to earth, often speaking with a twinkle in his eye as he lightly challenges the more rigid elements of the church’s teachings.

The film features a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who has become the go-to writer for biopics over the past few years, having received a trio of Oscar nominations for his scripts behind The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. McCarten’s screenplay here avoids many of the usual biopic tropes by playing out mainly as a chamber piece, the majority of which revolves around private conversations between the two figures at its centre. The back-and-forth banter between them offers plenty of room for serious discussion, along with a surprising amount of humorous moments.

Due to the intimate camerawork, use of actual news clips to add historical context to the proceedings, and the close proximity between the actors and their real life counterparts, at times it feels like we are watching a fly on the wall documentary, an illusion that makes The Two Popes compelling viewing. It’s respectful of the Catholic faith, while also being critical of the Vatican’s move to cover-up sexual abuse within its ranks, and acknowledging the need for the church to move forward somewhat on social issues in order to retain its relevance in the modern world.

For example, Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge?” stance on homosexuality, while not outright acceptance and a far cry from the Vatican recognizing same-sex marriages, is still a step forward for the Catholic Church, and an improvement upon Pope Benedict’s refusal to budge on this issue. Filled with wonderful and challenging moments between these two differing thought leaders as they strive to find common ground, as well as an amusing witty streak that adds some levity to it, The Two Popes is both enjoyable and thought provoking, carried by excellent performances from Hopkins and Pryce.

The Two Popes is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to watch on Netflix as of December 20th.

Review: The Irishman

November 27, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a return to the mob movies that have defined his career, opens with a steadicam tracking shot that calls to mind the one from his 1990 classic Goodfellas.

Only his camera here moves at a slower pace, taking us through the halls of a retirement home instead of the Copacabana night club, and this scene is quite appropriately set to “In the Still of the Night” instead of the more upbeat “Then He Kissed Me,” which provided the soundtrack for its earlier counterpart.

Everything here is more relaxed than it was before, and this scene perfectly sets the stage for what is to come. While The Irishman is a longer and more laid-back film than Goodfellas, as evidenced immediately by the different energies of their impressive tracking shots, it very much feels like a counterpart to that earlier Scorsese classic. Think of it as a late-career callback to it, if you will.

Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, which has been adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish truck driver and union worker in Pennsylvania in the 1950s, who becomes connected to the Italian mob boss Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), and starts taking jobs as a hitman for the Mafia. Through Buffalino, Sheeran also gets to know and starts working for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the powerful head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who served as president of the union and famously disappeared in 1975.

This is a dense work that unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards and is rich with interactions between these men, drawing connections between the Mafia, the unions and the political world. The film documents a variety of historical events, including the 1963 assassination of President John F, Kennedy, who was elected with the help of the mob in 1960, only to have them turn on him after he appointed his brother Robert Kennedy attorney general, who started cracking down on the Mafia and appointed a special team to take down Hoffa. The film doesn’t directly go into “who killed Kennedy?” conspiracy theories, but the connections are there to be made.

Right off the bat, there is something instantly appealing about seeing De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, each acting legends in their own right, onscreen together. While De Niro and Pesci have great histories with Scorsese through their previous collaborations with the director, this is Pacino’s first time working with the legendary filmmaker. Each of the men deliver some of their finest work. De Niro is able to show the full range of what he is capable of as an actor; Pesci steals every scene, reminding us what a charismatic screen presence he can be; and Pacino, coming out of retirement at Scorsese’s request to take on the role of Hoffa, delivers a towering performance befitting of his status as one of the greats.

De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are also able to play themselves throughout the different eras depicted in the film thanks to digital de-aging, which was done by Industrial Light & Magic, and this extensive visual effects work mostly fades into the background so as not to distract from the story. Through the help of computers, the three actors – who are all in their seventies – are able to appear as if they are once again middle-aged, and they also physically adjusted their postures on set to move as younger men.

The film’s large supporting cast also includes, among others, Harvey Keitel as Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno; Ray Romano as Russell’s cousin, union lawyer Bill Buffalino; Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien; and Anna Paquin as the adult version of Sheeran’s oldest daughter Peggy, whose presence is felt in the film despite the fact that she only has a few minutes of screen time and six words of dialogue in total. While The Irishman might not be what we are conditioned to think of as a blockbuster, make no mistakes that this is a massive film, and a huge undertaking for all involved.

The mammoth production unfolded over 108 days in 117 different locations, and had a reported $159 million price tag that only Netflix was willing to back. The fact that the streaming service was the only company willing to take a risk on financing a new Scorsese picture speaks volumes, with the trade off being that many audiences will only be able to watch the film at home instead of in a theatre. I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the film is having an exclusive theatrical run in Toronto, but I also understand why many will prefer to watch this lengthy, epic drama in the comfort of their own homes.

Robbie Robertson adds some new music to the film, to help flesh out an excellent soundtrack that is filled with songs from the era. Scorsese reteams with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who previously shot the two very different films Silence and The Wolf of Wall Street for him, to capture some beautiful 35mm images, and Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly handles the film’s multiple different story threads and keeps it moving at a good pace despite the elongated running time. 

Yes, The Irishman is a long movie, as you’ve probably heard. It’s 209 minutes, to be precise. But the film justifies this massive three-and-a-half-hour running time because it is about the passage of time. This is a gangster movie, sure, with several shocking and graphic killings. But it’s also a surprisingly melancholy film about aging and getting older, with the lives of these men (and in a few cases, women) advancing right before our eyes through mostly seamless digital trickery. The narrative is framed with Sheeran in a nursing home looking back on his life, and the final few scenes, which are beautifully acted by De Niro, have a deep poignancy to them.

The film captures the weight of time passing in an incredible way, and by the end of it we feel like we have been told a complete story. Where as Scorsese’s electric 2013 masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street felt like the work of a man at least half his age, The Irishman is the sort of film that could only really be made by a man in his seventies, and I mean that as a compliment. This feels like the work of someone who has seen a lot of time go by, and that is one of the most enthralling aspects of the film.

Always engaging from a narrative standpoint and beautifully crafted on a technical level, The Irishman is immersive dramatic storytelling from a true master of his craft, a film that not only fits in perfectly with Scorsese’s previous oeuvre but also deepens the themes of his earlier works to provide a perfect capper on his legendary career.

The Irishman is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and is also available to stream on Netflix as of today.

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

November 22, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

There has been a bit of a Mister Rogers revival going on over the past few years, thanks in part to the release of Morgan Neville’s lovely documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which was my pick for the best non-fiction film of last year.

But I think another reason for this Fred Rogers revival has to do with the fact that, in this time of great uncertainty, people crave the calming presence of the late children’s television host now more than ever. This Mister Rogers resurgence continues with the wonderful A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which makes the perfect choice to cast Tom Hanks in the role of the beloved figure, and the results are, for lack of a better word, magical.

The film follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist who is assigned to write a short magazine profile of the star of the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. While Lloyd initially scoffs at having to interview a children’s entertainer, he forms a bond with Mister Rogers that helps him reconnect with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), with whom he shares a young son, as well as his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper).

Inspired by the true story of Tom Junod, who profiled Fred Rogers in an acclaimed 1998 Esquire article and formed a bond with him in real life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a lovely portrait of the beloved television host that stays true to his values of treating everyone with kindness. Rhys carries the film with a moving performance as a broken man reconnecting with his family and learning to forgive his dying father, and he is perfectly complimented by Hanks, who is absolutely wonderful in the role of Fred Rogers. It’s only fitting to have one beloved American performer portraying another, and this is the sort of supporting role that takes centre stage, being the reason why many will see this movie.

Yes, Mister Rogers is a supporting character in his own movie, but I don’t think Rogers would have minded being portrayed as the guiding force in someone else’s story, as he was for so many of us, and Hanks brings great humility and patience to his characterization. While their physical characteristics are not exactly alike, Rogers was skinnier for example, Hanks is able to subtly transform into him much in the same way that he was able to so effectively portray Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. He captures the essence of Mister Rogers in a way that is truly special, including a moment where he sings with Fred’s beloved puppet Daniel Tiger that is sure to get you choked up.

Director Marielle Heller finds a really clever way to get around usual biopic formula by structuring the film like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, complete with the classic songs, miniatures to transition between scenes, and even a trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The attention to detail is impressive, and anyone who grew up watching the show will be delighted by A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This is a moving and magical film that is filled with compassion, offering a touching tribute to Fred Rogers and the impact that he was able to have upon so many others.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing in select theatres across Canada.

Review: Marriage Story

November 22, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, crafting a companion piece of sorts to his acclaimed 2005 breakout film The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story is an incredibly powerful, brilliantly written and extremely well acted film that is both believable and incisive in its wrenching portrait of a marriage breaking up.

The trio of characters at its centre are Charlie (Adam Driver), a theatre director; his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who performs in his plays; and their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), who all live together in New York.

When they start to drift apart, Charlie and Nicole decide to split up their marriage, with her moving to Los Angeles to be closer to her family, and taking Henry with her. While they initially want to separate amicably without legal aid, Nicole ends up consulting ruthless lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), forcing Charlie to consult with a pair of lawyers, one who is kinder and gentler (Alan Alda) and another who is essentially a street fighter (Ray Liotta). This causes a nasty custody battle for Henry to ensue.

Charlie and Nicole are both sympathetic characters in their own ways, but I have a feeling that audience members will differ on which one they side with more. A big theme of Marriage Story is how the court system often treats one of the sides in a divorce proceeding like a criminal, and Driver’s character even echoes this sentiment at one point in the film. Charlie is simply a father fighting for custody of his son, not necessarily because he has the best resources to take care of him full time, but because he doesn’t want him to grow up thinking that he didn’t try.

The film features a career-best performance from Driver, who brings a mix of raw emotion, sensitivity and indignant pride to his portrayal of Charlie. His performance of a Sondheim song late in the film will rip your heart out. Johansson is also at the top of her game here, and the film builds towards a stunning climactic shouting match between the two leads that provides a gripping masterclass in showy yet still piercingly honest dramatic acting. The young Robertson is also excellent as the child caught in between the two, and the power trio of Dern, Alda and Liotta all deliver memorable supporting turns.

This is an involving and richly rewarding character drama that harkens back to films of the 1970s like Scenes from a Marriage and Kramer vs. Kramer. In true Baumbach fashion, the film is deeply moving as a drama, while also delivering some extremely funny moments that originate naturally, a tricky tonal balance that is perfectly pulled off and recalls the best work of David O. Russell. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and set to a wonderful score by Randy Newman that recalls his work in the Toy Story films, Marriage Story is one of the best movies of the year.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Marriage Story is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to watch on Netflix as of December 6th.

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