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Blu-ray Review: The Meg

November 13, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A surprise box office hit when it was released over the summer, The Meg could be best described as that movie where Jason Statham does battle with a big ass shark. If that’s all you’re looking for, and you don’t care about the fact that this is essentially a cheesy B-movie, then The Meg might just be the film for you.

Five years after losing his job when he failed to bring back the full crew of a nuclear submarine, and was deemed crazy for claiming to have seen a giant shark, rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Statham) is recruited by oceanographer Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing) to rescue the crew of a submersible that has become trapped at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

But the researchers have accidentally uncovered an ancient 75-foot shark known as the Megalodon, a massive creature that is capable of biting killer whales in half with its powerful jaws, and is thought to have gone extinct millions of years ago. Now it has returned to wreak havoc upon the crew of the Mana One, an underwater research facility. Trapped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and having to deal with the meddling of incompetent billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), who is funding the whole expedition, Taylor must help them find a way to stop the creature before it reaches the populated beaches off the coast of the Sanya Bay.

First off, it’s hard to describe The Meg as anything other than a mediocre monster movie. Directed by Jon Turtletaub of National Treasure fame, and based on Steve Alten’s 1997 novel, which different studios have been trying to adapt into a movie for years with it having been stuck in development hell for the longest time, in a sense the film actually seems a bit dated. It almost feels like something that could have just as easily been made back in the ’90s or early 2000s, and the jokey tone that pervades most of it keeps the film from being consistently effective as an actual thriller.

The characters are mostly cardboard cutouts, the one-liners are pretty corny, and the story itself is very predictable. The film also takes a bit too long with its setup before we get to the good bits, namely the sight of this giant shark attacking everything that crosses its path. But once the film does hit its stride, The Meg is bolstered by fairly decent special effects, and some of the set-pieces are admittedly kind of fun to watch as it goes along, including a well done sequence involving a diving cage.

It’s no Jaws, but if all you’re looking for is a straight forward and unpretentious giant shark movie that never really takes itself too seriously, then The Meg is a mildly entertaining blockbuster that modestly delivers on those very narrow terms.

The Blu-ray also includes the two production featurettes Chomp on This: The Making of The Meg and Creating the Beast, as well as a brief piece about shooting in New Zealand.

The Meg is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 113 minutes and rated 14A.

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Blu-ray Review: Mile 22

November 13, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Peter Berg, in his fourth collaboration with Mark Wahlberg following their trio of true life dramas Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor, Mile 22 is a generic action thriller that presents a real step down for both the filmmaker and star.

The film opens with a team of agents including James Silva (Wahlberg), Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), William Douglas (Carlo Alban) and Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey), who work for an elite paramilitary ground unit of the CIA known as Overwatch, infiltrating a safe house for Russian FSB agents that they believe is being used to store large quantities of the chemical element caesium.

When the operation goes awry due to a bad lead, they move their operations to Indonesia. Cut to sixteen months later, and a local police officer named Li Noor (Iko Uwais) surrenders himself at the United States Embassy with a disc that includes crucial information regarding the location of the caesium. But the disc is locked, and he agrees to only give up the password in exchange for asylum in the United States. The Overwatch agents proceed to organize a way to smuggle him out of the country and get him safely to an airbase 22 miles away, but it’s a risky operation with other government agents hot on their trail.

If it wasn’t for the theatrical run that Mile 22 received back in August, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a straight-to-DVD movie. Despite the presence of a genuine movie star like Wahlberg in the lead, this is an incredibly mediocre film that has been edited within an inch of its life, with action scenes that are often hard to follow because of the choppy cuts, and underdeveloped characters that are hard to really care about, let alone become invested in.

It’s revealed in the opening credits sequence, which offers an overly rushed backstory, that Wahlberg’s character is neurologically different, and he keeps a rubber band around his wrist that he pulls back and snaps to stop his mind from racing. But the film doesn’t give him enough room to properly develop this trait, and the script seems disinterested in offering a deeper exploration of what could have been a really fascinating character. The plot is muddled, only offering the bare minimum amount of explanation that is needed to string the various set-pieces together, which makes it hard to keep up with what is even going on at certain points.

There are flashes here of what could have been a more interesting movie, and Iko Uwais does get to show off his impressive fighting skills at certain points, but Mile 22 is ultimately too disjointed and poorly assembled for it to work. It clocks in at just under ninety minutes to credits, and while I respect the choice to keep it short, the film also feels like it has been hacked down from a longer cut with little thought for continuity or character development, and it just sort of careens between action sequences without any real flow or connective tissue to make any of it really stick.

The Blu-ray also includes the six brief featurettes Overwatch, Groundbranch, Introducing Iko Uwais, Stunts, Iko Fight and Modern Combat, as well as cast interviews from the film’s Los Angeles premiere, a selection of soundbites, and some B-roll footage from the various fight scenes.

Mile 22 is a VVS Films release. It’s 94 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Boy Erased

November 10, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name, which documented his experience of being sent to a program meant to “fix him” for being gay, Boy Erased is an emotional and at times harrowing drama about the horrors of conversion therapy that provides a powerful showcase for Lucas Hedges.

The film focuses on Jared Eamons (Hedges), a young gay man who feels forced to stay in the closet due to the religious beliefs of his family, but gets outed at college after becoming the victim of a serious sexual assault, and is sent by his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) to a gay conversion camp run by the “ex-gay” councillor Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton).

The program blames being gay on problems in the family, and the participants are subjected to invasive psychological exams and different therapy methods built around a system of punishments and rewards meant to change their same-sex attraction. Although his well-meaning but misguided mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) initially goes along with it, she starts to realize that maybe her son doesn’t need to be “cured,” and becomes a fierce champion for him.

Directed by Joel Edgerton, making his second feature following his twisty stalker thriller The Gift, Boy Erased smartly keeps the focus on its actors first and foremost, and is built around another moving and nuanced performance from Hedges. With his deeply sensitive eyes, the exceptionally expressive young actor becomes a powerful conduit for the audience, taking us on this emotional journey right alongside his character. There are obvious similarities to the closeted teen that he portrayed in Lady Bird, and he is also able to approach the role from a personal place, with Hedges himself recently coming out as being sexually attracted to both women and men.

Kidman does strong supporting work, offering a touching portrayal of a mother learning to accept that the unconditional love she will always have for her son includes accepting him for who he is, delivering several powerhouse scenes throughout the film. Crowe has his share of moving scenes as well, taking on the challenging role of a pastor and father who seems sincere in his belief that being gay is a sin yet still wants the best for his son, despite being unable to fully accept him and ultimately making choices that are very damaging to him.

Edgerton nails his portrayal of a charismatic, salesman-type leader who walks the fine line between assertive and abusive, with something deeper going on beneath the surface that causes us to question if he even believes what he is preaching, or if he has just gotten caught up in the act and is still trying to convince himself that he has been “cured” of his own homosexuality. The film also features memorable supporting roles for Xavier Dolan as a member of the program who desperately wants the therapy to work, as well as Troye Sivan as an openly gay artist that Jared meets at college who helps him start to open up. Sivan also performs the moving original song “Revelation” on the film’s soundtrack.

The film depicts the emotional toll that conversion therapy has upon the participants, and the often abusive methods that are used, including a genuinely disturbing scene that shows a mock funeral for one of the clients. While Boy Erased is obviously critical of conversion therapy, and challenges the outdated belief that homosexuality is an “illness” in need of treatment, which continues to fuel enrolment in these programs, it is also careful not to be overly critical of religion itself, showing the intentions of Jared’s parents as more misguided than truly bad. They honestly view being gay as a problem that needs to be fixed, and this idea – not their belief in God – is what needs to be changed.

If I had one criticism of Boy Erased, it would be that the film is at times assembled in a way that makes it feel more like a collection of scenes, giving us the feeling that the overall finished product is very good where it could have been great. But even if the film itself never quite adds up to more than the sum of its parts, there are still a lot of very powerful scenes here, and Boy Erased is a moving, well acted and very topical story that can do a lot of good just by being out in the world. Edgerton has said that he wanted to make the film to help end conversion therapy once and for all, and that’s a very noble goal indeed.

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

Review: The Grinch

November 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

First published by Dr. Seuss in 1957, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has become a beloved staple of the holiday season, with its rhyming story and heartfelt message about rediscovering the true meaning of Christmas. The book has been adapted multiple times over the years, furthering the prevalence of the story.

First there was the beloved 1966 TV special, which still holds up beautifully year after year with its gorgeous hand-drawn animation and iconic songs. It was followed by Ron Howard’s feature length, live action rendering of the story starring Jim Carrey in 2000, which is remembered by some as being a garish mess and viewed by others as a misunderstood childhood classic.

This was followed by a stage show, which incorporated elements from both the animated special and the live action movie. Now Illumination has brought the story to the screen once again, this time as an animated feature simply titled The Grinch. Yes, it takes some liberties with the original story, but the film really won me over with its beautiful animation and huge amount of heart. It works because it mostly stays true to the spirit of Dr. Seuss’ book, while expanding it in some heartfelt ways.

The basic story remains the same. The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) lives alone in a mansion atop a mountain that overlooks Whoville, and every Christmas he gets irritated by the increasingly elaborate holiday displays that are put on by the Whos, from their brightly coloured decorations to their constant singing. It’s the seeming frivolousness with which the Whos celebrate Christmas that the Grinch resents, so he hatches a plan to steal Christmas, with help from his faithful dog Max, an obese reindeer named Fred, and a collection of elaborate gadgets.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a great vocal performance in the title role, not only using an American accent but also doing a thoroughly convincing Grinch voice as well, capturing both the annoyance and emotion of the character perfectly. This version of the Grinch is more lonely and sad than he is truly bad, and while he still has moments of meanness, like during an early trip down to Whoville to get his groceries, he is also presented here as a hugely sympathetic protagonist. This just makes his awakening at the end all the more heartwarming and bittersweet.

While some might say that the point of the original story is that nobody really knows why the Grinch hates Christmas – it’s literally right there in the rhyming text that “no one quite knows the reason” – I think this choice actually works quite well in how it gives a slightly new angle to this retelling. This story is as much about “why” the Grinch stole Christmas as it is about “how” he does it, and the moments that show the Grinch’s loneliness, including a few heartbreaking flashbacks to his childhood in an orphanage, are some of the best scenes in the film.

The film’s secondary storyline focusing on Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), a precocious kid who in this version is far more than two and has an overworked single mother (Rashida Jones), isn’t quite as well fleshed out and feels somewhat more derivative. It’s still charming stuff, but the scenes focusing on the Grinch himself are naturally the strongest parts of the film. The subplot with Cindy and her friends hatching a plan to capture Santa Claus at times feels like it was added to pad out the story to feature length, but it is still sweet to watch and does tie in quite nicely to the main story by the end.

The film itself looks great, with Illumination’s bright and colourful animation style being a good fit to bring this world to life. The narration by Pharrell Williams is, of course, written in rhyming verse, lifting many quotes directly from the page while also fleshing out the story and going in its own direction at certain points. There are a few moments from the original text that I wish the filmmakers had kept in, but overall The Grinch does a pretty wonderful job of paying tribute to the classic story while also feeling like its own thing, setting a new high bar for Dr. Seuss adaptations.

I found the film to be very entertaining to watch, and also genuinely touching at certain points. It not only has the potential to make your own heart grow three sizes by the end, but it might just make you tear up as well, as it did for me. It’s ultimately the beating heart at the centre of it all that makes this version succeed, and The Grinch is a delightful movie to watch as we head into the Christmas season, especially when paired with the 1966 classic.

Review: Bodied

November 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Adam (Calum Worthy) is a nerdy graduate student at Berkeley who is fascinated by battle rap. Writing his thesis paper on the use of the “N-word” in hip-hop culture, despite not saying it himself, he is the epitome of a young, white progressive trying to balance being seen as “woke” while also getting sucked into a racially charged and decidedly anti-PC world.

Adam is the main character in Bodied, a thrilling satire that takes us on a wild ride through the increasingly polarized worlds of identity politics, campus censorship and modern outrage culture, at a time when “words are weapons” has become a popular mantra that is being used to “deplatform” certain speakers.

When Adam accidentally falls into battle with another rapper after a competition, and comes out on top with his mad rhyming skills, he gets taken under the wing of fellow battle rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). He becomes fiercely competitive in the underground world, but his increasing immersion into battle rap culture, and all of the racially charged and offensive content that comes with it, comes to threaten his academic career, and also alienates him from his radical feminist, social justice warrior girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), who views battle rap as inherently sexist.

Not only is this a wildly entertaining battle rap movie, but it also tackles vital themes of free speech, and if there are any lines you shouldn’t cross. There are so many things in the film that carry allusions to what is really happening on so many college and university campuses in this era of increasing political correctness, not only at Berkeley, but also here in Toronto. The film pokes fun at the hypocrisies of the regressive left, brilliantly satirizing things like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” showing how they have actually made people more intolerant to different experiences and ideas.

For example, Maya is a far-left vegan who is trying to square her own self-satisfied “wokeness” with the fact that she is a white girl criticizing predominantly black culture. The film also cleverly explores ideas of cultural appropriation through the theme of Adam being a white kid who is obsessed with rap, a big part of which includes using racial slurs. But at the same time, Bodied also explores the outer boundaries of free speech and how one can quickly go too far in the other direction in terms of rejecting PC culture, with Adam ultimately crossing a line from artfully transgressive to overly personal. While pretty much anything goes in battle rap, there are still some things you shouldn’t say.

The screenplay by Toronto battle rapper Alex Larsen (aka Kid Twist) is filled with clever wordplay, taking a no holds barred approach to its material, and never holding back from even the most offensive and politically incorrect content. Director Joseph Kahn, who is perhaps best known for his Taylor Swift music videos, imbues the film with cool stylistic touches, especially when visually illustrating Adam’s mental process of developing rhymes in his mind during a battle.

The whole last act of the film is insane, becoming an intensely thrilling rap battle that comes at us from all sides and stuns not just because of the ferocity of the rhymes, but also because of what is really being said underneath it all. While Bodied works on the surface as a slick and stylish immersion into the battle rap scene, complete with some killer rhymes and a producer credit for Eminem, the film also tackles deeper themes underneath, and that’s what makes it so compelling to watch.

The film is finally arriving in theatres now after making its world premiere at TIFF in 2017, where it picked up the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award, in a true testament to how well it plays with a crowd. It’s a blast through and through, and if you get the chance, I would recommend watching it in a packed theatre with an appreciative audience to get the full experience.

Bodied is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man

November 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

From ending up in someone’s engagement photos, to serving drinks at a bar, and even doing the dishes at a random house party, there are a lot of urban legends that exist on the internet about encounters that random people have had with Bill Murray.

Colloquially known as the “Bill Murray stories,” these encounters usually end with the comedy icon reportedly saying some form of the phrase “no one will ever believe you,” before walking away.

Documentary filmmaker Tommy Avallone became obsessed with reports of these unlikely and larger than life celebrity encounters, and wanted to know the validity of them, so he decided to track down some of the people involved so that they could corroborate their tales on camera.

The result is The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man, a highly enjoyable look at the many random encounters that people have had with the beloved actor. The film explores the spontaneous nature behind many of these interactions, and how they correspond with the zen philosophies about going with the flow and embracing life as it comes at you that are present in so many of Murray’s films.

This is best explained in the film by author Gavin Edwards, who explored these same themes in his 2016 book The Tao of Bill Murray. You see, Groundhog Day is about bettering yourself by helping others and learning to accept the things you cannot change, Lost in Translation is about chance encounters and living in the moment, and even his famous mantra in Meatballs of “it just doesn’t matter” is about letting go and just accepting things as they are.

The randomness of these encounters is the very reason why Murray does them, because he likes to just do things spontaneously, and wants to remind others to do so as well. I’m a Bill Murray fan, so obviously I really liked this film. It ultimately serves an inspiring reminder for us to just live in the moment, and stay through the end credits for one final Bill Murray story that is absolutely wonderful.

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: Christopher Robin

November 7, 2018

By John Corrado

One of the nicest surprises of the year, Disney’s Christopher Robin finds the titular character as an adult (played by Ewan McGregor), who gets reunited with Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), and the rest of his childhood friends from the Hundred Acre Wood, in order to help him rediscover what is important in his life.

While Christopher Robin didn’t perform that well at the box office, somewhat understandably so as it got overshadowed by bigger summer blockbusters, this is a lovely and very charming film that absolutely deserves to find more of an audience now that it’s available on Blu-ray. If you’re a Pooh fan, it will warm your heart, and you can read my full review of the film right here.

The Blu-ray also includes four short featurettes. A Movie is Made for Pooh focuses on the decision to use classic designs for all of the characters, and how they made the actual stuffed toys to be used on set; Pooh Finds His Voice is a short piece about Jim Cummings, who has been voicing Pooh since 1987; Pooh and Walt Become Friends provides a brief overview of how Walt Disney first came to be introduced to these stories through his daughter, and optioned the rights to A.A. Milne’s characters in 1938; and Pooh and Friends Come to Life has young actress Bronte Carmicheal offering a look at the seamless mix of practical and digital effects used in the film.

Christopher Robin is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release. It’s 104 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Review: Incredibles 2

November 7, 2018

By John Corrado

A sequel fourteen years in the making, and one of the biggest box office hits of the year, Incredibles 2 is arriving on Blu-ray this week. I found this to be an incredibly entertaining animated sequel, and for more on the film itself, you can read my full review of Pixar’s latest right here.

The Blu-ray comes with a very generous amount of bonus features, spread over two discs. Along with the film itself, the first disc includes the unique short film Bao, which played with the film in theatres and is directed by Toronto’s own Domee Shi; as well as the new short film Auntie Edna, a delightful piece focusing on Edna Mode babysitting Jack-Jack that feels like it could have easily been an extended sequence in the film itself.

Next is the excellent featurette Strong Coffee: A Lesson in Animation With Brad Bird, which functions as both an in-depth look at the production of Incredibles 2 from the perspective of the acclaimed writer-director, as well as an overview of Bird’s early career as an animator being mentored by the old masters at Walt Disney Studios. There is also a commentary track featuring several of the animators who worked on the film.

The second disc is devoted entirely to bonus stuff, starting off with five featurettes. Super Stuff looks at the rich design of the film’s world, from the retro futuristic set design to diverse background characters; Paths to Pixar: Everyday Heroes features members of the cast and crew talking about their own kids and how they see their own families reflected in the film; Superbaby of course focuses on Jack-Jack, with Frankie and Paige of Bizaardvark acting as incredibly annoying hosts; Ralph Egglestein: Production Designer is a brief look at what the job of a production designer entails; and Making Bao offers a good look behind the scenes of the short film, and how personal the production was for Shi.

Next up, under a tab entitled “Heroes & Villains,” we get brief introductions to the many characters in the film and their various powers and personalities, including Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, The Parr Kids, Frozone, Edna Mode, Winston Deavor, Evelyn Deavor, and the Wannabes, a selection of new superhero characters. Next up we have a trio of fake, vintage toy commercials for Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone, as well as theme songs for each of these three characters.

Finally, the disc includes the ten deleted scenes Suburban Escape, Kari Revisited, Return of the Supers, Chewed Out, Late Audition, Slow Day, Frozone and Honey, Restaurant Robbery, Fashion Show and Secuirity Breakdown, which are preceded by a short introduction from Bird. There are also several trailers for the film, including the global teaser and trailer for the film, the Japanese theatrical trailer, and a montage of different TV promos for the film. It’s an excellent set all around.

Incredibles 2 is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release. It’s 118 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Mandy

November 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A nightmarish, heavy metal-inspired revenge fantasy that stars Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged and plays like a demented, hallucinatory fever dream, Mandy is one of the more unique films to be released this year.

It’s set in 1983, and follows Red Miller (Cage), a lumberjack who lives in a cabin in the woods with his fantasy-obsessed girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). But their world takes a dark turn when Mandy is taken by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the twisted leader of a religious cult.

This prompts Red to seek his vengeance against the cult, which includes taking on the Black Skulls, a brutal gang of demonic bikers that do their dirty work, and are summoned by the mystical Horn of Abraxas.

Directed by Panos Cosmatos, following up his 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is one of those films that plays with a clear vision on behalf of its filmmaker, and even if it doesn’t all work equally well, you can’t say it isn’t unique. The film tries to subvert the typical three act structure by dividing itself into chapters, and isn’t quite successful at doing so, which makes the pacing feel somewhat off. But this arguably adds to the general feeling of unease that permeates throughout.

The film starts off as a deliberately paced mood piece, establishing the relationship between Red and Mandy, before morphing into a whacked out revenge fantasy in the second half. It plays with a sort of hazy, dream logic to it, mixing elements of the occult with a straight-forward quest for vengeance that explodes with sequences of over the top gore and B-movie violence, as Red uses chainsaws and a special battle axe that he crafts himself to tear his way through this hellish landscape.

The lighting and cinematography give the film the feel of a fever dream, and the action scenes have a grungy quality to them that pays tribute to the slasher movies of the 1970s and ’80s. It takes a bit long to get to the good stuff, but once the action really kicks in, Mandy offers a stylish mix of extreme violence and crazy Nicolas Cage moments. It feels like a ready-made cult classic.

The Blu-ray also includes a well made behind the scenes featurette that features members of the cast and crew talking in voiceover about the story and what went into the production as concept art and on-set footage play on screen, as well as a selection of deleted and extended scenes.

Mandy is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 121 minutes and rated 18A.

DVD Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

November 6, 2018

By John Corrado

A biopic of controversial, alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), who became a quadriplegic after surviving a drunk driving accident, Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a powerful film about overcoming adversity that has stuck with me since I watched it over the summer.

Much of the film focuses on his journey to get sober, with the help of his eccentric AA sponsor (Jonah Hill), leading to some powerful and darkly funny scenes. As I wrote in my original review of the film, this is “a compelling biopic that’s inspiring without being treacly, and genuinely moving without veering into sentimentality.” It’s worth seeking out, and you can read my full review of the film right here.

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

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 114 minutes and rated 14A.

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