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Disney+ Review: Us Again

March 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

An elderly couple gets a chance to relive their youth over one magical night in Us Again, a charming and poignant new short film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. It will be playing in theatres in front of Raya and the Last Dragon starting this weekend, before being released on Disney Plus in June.

Written and directed by Disney animator Zach Parrish, Us Again is set in a bustling city that recalls a musical version of New York, where everyone dances through the streets. In an apartment, an elderly man sits in his chair not wanting to move, until his wife convinces him to get up and they are transported back to their youth through the power of dance.

One of the main selling points of this wordless, beautifully animated short is the dance choreography by World of Dance champions Keone and Mari Madrid, and it is quite impressive to watch their movements be translated into animation. It’s all set to the energetic, toe-tapping beat of composer Pinar Toprak’s musical score, which shifts from upbeat to slightly melancholy depending on the moment.

On a visual level, Us Again is quite eye-popping, with the neon lights of this fully realized city popping in the background. The latter part of the short film takes place at night in the rain, and the water droplets and puddles on the street look amazing. Parrish is able to pack an impressive amount of feeling into a mere seven minutes, and the short will no doubt leave a lot of viewers feeling a bit choked up. With a tone that is both joyous and touching, Us Again is an absolute delight to watch.

Us Again will be playing in theatres before Raya and the Last Dragon as of March 5th, and will be available to stream on Disney+ in June.

Disney+ Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

March 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s 59th official animated film, has some of the hallmarks of a Disney Princess movie, while also feeling like somewhat of a departure for the studio. Not only is this their first film to feature a Southeast Asian Princess, there are also no musical numbers here, no male love interests, and a more muted colour palate.

The film, which is co-directed by the unlikely duo of Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), instead plays out as a fast-paced mix of action, adventure, and fantasy set in the fictional land of Kumandra. And the Princess at the centre of it, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), gives off more of a lone warrior vibe than a traditionally regal one.

As the legend goes, five hundred years ago, Kumandra was one land that formed the shape of a dragon, where people lived in harmony with the creatures. Then a dark, monstrous force known as the Druun came and ravaged the land, turning people into statues. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save the humans, with the mighty dragon Sisu concentrating all of her powers into a magical gem. This caused Kumandra to break into five warring clans (Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail), as they all fought for control of the gem.

Heart has been guarding the dragon’s gem ever since, causing the other tribes to become jealous, seeing it as the source of their prosperity. This backstory is nicely laid out in a stylized sequence at the start of the film, which is narrated by our protagonist Raya. Raya was raised in Heart by her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who dreams of bringing the different clans together and reuniting Kumandra. But when the gem breaks and each clans take a piece, the world is once again plunged into darkness. Raya must set out on a journey across the different lands to awaken Sisu (Awkwafina) and find all the pieces, in order to restore balance.

The jaded Raya and the easygoing Sisu, who has the power to take human form, provide great foils for each other, and their personality differences provide the basis for the film’s main message about trusting one another. Sisu is very trusting of people, where as Raya goes by the mantra of “trust no one,” and the biggest life lesson is about finding a balance between the two. I really enjoyed the interplay between the two characters, and both voice actors do a very good bringing them to life. Tran’s portrayal of Raya feels fully fleshed out, and Awkwafina, who has a great voice for animation, does really enjoyable work here as well. Sisu is a really fun and appealing character, and Awkwafina’s voice matches her perfectly.

The animation itself is quite impressive, including some gorgeous landscapes of the different lands that make up Kumandra. The action sequences, which are one of the standout elements of the film, are quite well choreographed, offering a solid mix of martial arts, swordplay, and hand-to-hand combat. The film also blends in Indiana Jones-style adventure sequences and heist movie elements, including a cool opening that involves Raya infiltrating a cave. The action is all accompanied by a sweeping, Asian-influenced musical score by James Newton Howard.

One of the film’s most engaging subplots involves a bitter rivalry between Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan), a warrior from Fang and the daughter of Chief Virana (Sandra Oh), who started off as friends, before an act of betrayal turned them into enemies. Raya’s journey also allows her to interact with a variety of supporting characters, including Boun (Izaac Wang), an entrepreneurial boy from Tail who lives on a boat selling shrimp; Tong (Benedict Wong), a lone warrior from Spine; and Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a “con baby” from Talon who steals things with her band of monkeys. These side character aren’t quite as fleshed out as they could have been, and Little Noi feels a bit out of place.

There are also a few bits of humour in Raya and the Last Dragon don’t quite land, including a scene involving farting beetles, which leads to some odd tonal shifts. And the story, for all of the lore that it lays out in the opening scenes, feels slightly underdeveloped. The plot itself is somewhat familiar and predictable, and seems a bit cobbled together from different sources. For example, the quest for the gem pieces heavily recalls the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter franchise.

The film also doesn’t go as deep as it could have into exploring the disparity between the different lands that make up Kumandra, whose people have been left wanting while Heart has thrived, and the choice to cast a character from the most privileged nation as the protagonist feels somewhat simplistic. There was an opportunity to do something more interesting here, like how Frozen II tackled colonialism, but the film doesn’t really go into deeper messages.

All in all, Raya and the Last Dragon is a good movie, not a great one, and the fact that this will be read as criticism shows just how spoiled we have become with the high quality of the output from Walt Disney Animation Studios. For me, it lacked a bit of the spark that gives many other Disney movies their staying power, but it still offers a solid mix of adventure and fantasy that I thoroughly enjoyed watching. It’s a fast-moving and consistently engaging film that audiences both young and old can find enjoyment in.

And in an age of blind partisanship, when people would rather feel they are right rather than turn around and work with someone from a warring tribe, Raya and the Last Dragon does hold a valuable message about trust and how important a force it can be in order to truly bring about healing. It’s a good life lesson to go along with the film’s entertaining action sequences and character moments.

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available to rent for $34.99 on Disney+ with Premier Access as of March 5th, and is also being released in selected theatres where they are open.

The very charming and poignant new animated short film Us Again will be playing before the film in theatres, before being released on Disney+ in June.

VOD Review: The World to Come

March 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The World to Come, the latest in a string of period piece lesbian romances, is a film that suffers in comparison to Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But even if it hadn’t been released in such close proximity to those better, thematically similar films, this painfully slow-moving forbidden love story from director Mona Fastvold still would have been a relative bore.

The story is set in 1856 on the American East Coast. The main character is Abigail (Katherine Waterston), who narrates the film through diary entries. She lives on a farm with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), and the two of them are still mourning the death of their young daughter from diphtheria.

The woman that Abigail falls in love with is named Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who is renting a nearby farm with her emotionally abusive husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). Abigail and Tallie start spending more and more time together, eventually becoming lovers, leading Abigail’s husband to become more distant as Tallie’s husband becomes increasingly possessive of his wife.

With its breathy voiceover narration and lingering shots, The World to Come aspires to be a Terrence Malick film, but it feels like a poor copy of his work. The film is based on a short story by Jim Shepard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ron Hansen, and the drama feels stretched thin at a glacially paced 105 minutes. It’s not the slow pace that bothered me, mind you, but rather how it’s paced, and the lack of general interest that I had in these thinly written, two-dimensional characters.

Waterston and Kirby do fine work with what they are given, and their mostly understated performances are probably the best part of The World to Come. But even they struggle to breathe genuine life into this mostly listless film, and the chemistry between them lacks the necessary spark to hook us in. For his part, Affleck is a predictably solid presence, and is given perhaps the most interesting character arc of a husband slowly coming to the realization that his wife is in love with another woman, but choosing to leave it mostly unsaid. Meanwhile, Abbott delivers all of his lines in a very measured way, an acting choice that I found distracting and didn’t really work for me.

The film ends up feeling like little more than a mid-19th century soap opera. The dialogue is often mundane in its attempts to capture the day-to-day conversations of the time period, and certain lines sound like self-parody. The production values are also hit and miss, including some daytime scenes that light and frame the actors in a way that makes it look like they are in a dated TV movie.

Watching The World to Come just made me appreciate the quiet but compelling pace of a frontier drama like Kelly Reichardt’s recent First Cow even more. There is no real passion or chemistry that leaps off the screen here, and the predictable dramatic story plays out in a way that feels like air being slowly let out of a balloon. It’s all kept very mannered and stilted, to an absolute fault, and I truthfully found it kind of a slog to get through.

The World to Come is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

VOD Review: The Mauritanian

March 2, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Mauritanian, a new legal thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald and featuring a starry cast, dramatizes the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi and the years he spent awaiting a trial at Guantanamo Bay, where he was kept imprisoned with no formal charges laid against him.

Slahi is portrayed by French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, and the film opens with him being detained in Mauritania, on suspicion that he served as a top recruiter for Al-Qaeda and recruited the nineteen terrorists who hijacked the planes that flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Jodie Foster takes on the juicy part of Nancy Hollander, the high profile defence attorney who took on Slahi’s case. As is laid out in the film, Hollander chooses to defend him not necessarily because she believes he is innocent, but rather because she views his case as a fight for everyone’s right to a fair trial. Foster, (who just pulled off a surprise upset at the Golden Globes by winning Best Supporting Actress for the role), is very good here in the way that we expect a veteran actress of her calibre to be, but her decidedly no-nonsense portrayal stops short of being outright memorable or revelatory.

Shailene Woodley portrays Teri Duncan, a young lawyer who becomes Hollander’s assistant on the case, and has her own sense of right and wrong challenged by the proceedings. Finally, Benedict Cumberbatch (with a spotty American accent) plays the role of Stuart Couch, a lawyer and Marine Corps veteran who is brought on to prosecute Slahi’s case and is seeking the death penalty, wanting justice for his friend who was killed in 9/11. Couch’s crisis of faith as he learns more about Slahi’s treatment at Guantanamo Bay becomes the dramatic focus of the film’s second half.

This is all very interesting material, inspired by Slahi’s own memoir Guantanamo Diary. But the film’s approach to telling this story is also somewhat heavy-handed, and at times The Mauritanian seems overly focused on delivering showy Oscar moments for its stars. The under-developed characterizations of some of the real life subjects feel paper thin at times, including Woodley’s Duncan, who is given a moral dilemma partway through that seems to come out of nowhere.

As a whole, the film ends up feeling somewhat stuck between a gritty inside look at Guantanamo Bay and an indictment of the political system that allows it to operate, as well as a more generic and familiar courtroom drama. But there are still some moments of raw power within The Mauritanian. The film’s best scenes, and also the most disturbing, come from its depiction of the torture that Slahi faced at the hands of the United States government while being detained.

Macdonald doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific methods that were used to force information out of him, including sleep deprivation, water boarding, and sexual assault. These scenes employ a strobe light effect, which works to disorient the audience, and also squish the screen down to a boxed in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is a noticeable shift from the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio that the rest of the film is presented in. Rahim, who is best known for his role in the French crime drama A Prophet, also delivers the finest performance in the film as Slahi, imbuing his portrayal of the real life subject with the right mix of confidence and abject fear in a way that makes him magnetic to watch.

The screenplay by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani also does a fairly decent job of raising questions about whether he was guilty or not, while making a strong case against the “enhanced interrogation measures” that were used on him. The film ultimately offers a pretty good if at times simplistic overview of Slahi’s case, with a decidedly anti-torture message.

The Mauritanian is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

February 27, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

There are some films that leave me scratching my head as to why they have been so acclaimed. And Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a belated sequel to the 2006 film which finds actor Sacha Baron Cohen reprising his role as fictional Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, is one of them.

The film, which was shot in secret last year during the pandemic, sold to Amazon, and released on Prime Video in October just before the American presidential election, has attracted all sorts of praise for its core message and supposed daringness. Only the film I saw, which is up for three Golden Globes including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, wasn’t very good.

Watching Borat Subsequent Moviefilm feels like watching a comedian trying to revive their old shtick. There is a nostalgic appeal to it, sure, but it also feels stale. And nostalgia for the first film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is a big selling point for this sequel. The film literally opens with Borat saying some variation of “this my wiiife, she niiice…. NOT!” within the first few minutes, words that have been quoted and referenced to death in the decade-and-a-half since the release of the first one.

As it turns out, Borat has been put into exile in Kazakhstan after bringing back the first film, and has spent the past fourteen years in the gulag, being blamed for the country’s financial collapse. In order to get Kazakhstan back in good standing with US of A under the leadership of “McDonald” Trump, Borat is sent back to America so he can present famous porn star Jonny the Monkey as a gift to “Vice Premier” Mike Pence. But these plans are disrupted by Borat’s discovery that he has a teenaged daughter named Tutar (Maria Bakalova) that he never knew about, who is kept in a shed and treated like a farm animal.

When Tutar sneaks away with her father to America, in hopes of meeting her idol Melania Trump, Borat decides to gift her to Pence instead, following a mishap with Jonny the Monkey. Raised in a society that doesn’t treat women as equal, and taught by her father that women are incapable of driving or reading and that their “vagines” are like Chinese finger traps, Tutar is confused by the sight of women moving around freely in America, and goes on a journey of self-discovery.

Because the first film was a literal pop culture phenomenon and everyone in America now recognizes Borat, he must adopt a number of other disguises, which is really just an excuse for Baron Cohen to play dress up and create new characters. It’s a conceit that doesn’t really work, though, because it requires us to believe that Borat, the character not the actor who plays him, is himself a strong enough actor to pull this off. But maybe I’m just overthinking things here.

From a storytelling perspective alone, this sequel makes little sense. The arc of the film comes from Borat having his bigoted views challenged and learning that women are not second-class citizens who should be treated like farm animals. Except, didn’t this already happen in the first movie? One of the main messages of the original was about Borat discovering that women are seen as equal in America and bringing this message back to Kazakhstan. Now this message seems to have been unlearned just so that his character can complete a similar arc in this film involving his daughter.

It’s also not quite clear who exactly is supposed to be filming all of this, which ruins the illusion that we are watching real interactions and not staged scenes. In the first one, Borat’s assistant Azamat (who has now apparently been turned into a chair, in one of this film’s weirder and more random gags), played a key role and was shown to be orchestrating the filming and arranging interviews. Because there is no one here to play that role, the mockumentary conceit that made the first film feel unique falls apart in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

In 2006, the idea of going up to random people in character and capturing their reactions also felt somewhat fresh and new. Nobody in America knew who Baron Cohen was back then, and the reactions, for the most part, felt genuine. Now pretty much everyone has a camera on their phone, and anyone with a YouTube channel can attempt these sort of pranks. In the age of social media and viral videos, it’s hard to imagine most of the people here not realizing they are being set up, and some of the supposedly “real” interactions feel like people playing along with what is obviously a joke being filmed by a camera crew.

And the few people who really were duped into believing it call into question the ethics of the whole thing. Like the case of Jeanise Jones, a kind grandmother that Borat hires to babysit Tutar, handing her a chain and water bowl to keep his daughter tied up like a dog. Jones, who plays a fairly pivotal role in the film, has gone on record to say that she believed she was taking part in a documentary and thought that this girl was really being abused.

The genuine concern that Jones has for Tutar’s well-being is felt in the film, including a moment between them in a car, and it is somewhat poignant to see the way that she tries to empower her. But it also feels kind of gross and exploitative when thinking about the circumstances behind how these scenes were filmed. They essentially tricked Jones into appearing in the film, though she has said that it’s partially her fault for not fully reading the contract.

In another sequence, Borat shows up to a Synagogue dressed in a grotesque “Jewish” disguise that isn’t even funny on the grounds of satire, complete with claws and an elongated fake nose. The character is crushed because he has just been introduced to Holocaust denialism and told that this historical event, which is celebrated in his country, didn’t actually happen. Inside, he meets two older Jewish women, including Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans, who passed away shortly after filming.

Instead of throwing him out, they comfort him and share soup with him. Evans patiently listens to his bullshit, while constantly challenging him and confirming that, yes, the Holocaust did happen. Baron Cohen, who is himself Jewish, reportedly did break character afterwards to explain who he was, and the film is dedicated to her memory. But Evans was reportedly distraught by the encounter, and her estate filed a lawsuit against the film, saying that she never would have agreed to participate had she known they were filming a satirical comedy.

It shows how shameless Baron Cohen is in terms of trying to get a laugh, but the whole scene just made me feel sad and I found it very hard to find humour in it. The deeper problem is that Borat’s shocking anti-Semitism, rooted in garish stereotypes of Jewish people, simple isn’t that funny anymore, especially when he is subjecting an unwilling participant to it. Baron Cohen’s entire schtick is about trying to expose people’s hidden bigotry by capturing them on camera at their worst, but in these key moments with Jones and Evans, he actually ends up showing people’s inherent kindness instead.

In other scenes, the reactions feel manipulated by staging and careful editing. Take, for example, an elaborate sequence in which Borat crashes Mike Pence’s speech at CPAC, dressed in a full Trump costume complete with a mask and fat suit, and is quickly escorted out by security. The film makes it seem as if the former Vice President takes note of him during his speech, but these reaction shots were clearly edited together in post. You can watch live coverage from the event online, and it’s not clear from any of it that Pence could actually see what’s going on at the back of the auditorium from his place on stage. The prank falls flat.

In another scene that fell flat for me, Bakalova’s character tells a group of Republican women about masturbating for the first time. I’m sure Baron Cohen staged this sequence assuming he would get more of a reaction from these conservative women, but they don’t seem particularly scandalized, and react more in an underwhelming “that’s great, but we don’t need to hear about it” sort of way. Because of this, the joke doesn’t land, but Bakalova keeps going anyway, which is the equivalent of hearing crickets at the comedy club. It’s a scene that would have needed more of a reaction for it to be funny, because without one, what’s the point?

The film’s most talked about sequence happens when Bakalova’s Tutar, posing as a right-wing journalist, nets an interview with Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor proceeds to hit on her in his hotel room, leading to the much discussed moment when he puts his hand down his pants after she removes his mic pack. It’s an incredibly awkward and embarrassing scene for Guiliani, to be sure. But, to play devil’s advocate, he is pretty clearly tucking his shirt back in, and there is no indication that he thought she was underaged. Still, it did take balls to pull off a scene like that, even if it does feel like a clear set up, so I will give them that.

The bulk of the praise around the film has been directed towards Bakalova’s performance as Borat’s daughter, and the Bulgarian actress does commit herself to playing the role. But the characterization also gets a bit tiresome after a while, and I really don’t think her performance is worthy of the awards attention it has been getting. Much of the praise seems to focus on how “fearless” her work is for staying in character and pranking people. But this makes it no more worthy of awards attention than, say, Johnny Knoxville in Bad Grandpa, or even Baron Cohen himself for his role. Giving her an Oscar nomination would feel like a major stretch.

The other now-infamous moment is the scene where Borat, dressed as a hillbilly, performs the disturbingly catchy “Wuhan Flu” song at a far-right protest against the lockdown. The song is supposed to be written by two “real” guys that Borat ends up quarantining with in the film, a pair of wacky QAnon conspiracy theorists who invite him into their home during the pandemic. The crowd starts singing along with the offensive song, which includes lyrics about injecting Obama “with the Wuhan flu” and chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do.”

The film cuts before showing the crowd start to turn on him, which is reportedly what actually happened on the day. This sequence was quite literally staged, with Baron Cohen performing on a separate stage from the main event, which was set up for the film. But it’s still one of the better scenes in this mediocre sequel, getting closer to the more live-wire energy of the first one.

At best, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will be remembered as a strange time capsule of the very weird year that was 2020, but I can’t really imagine it holding up as anything more than that. It’s an obvious, disjointed sketch comedy that has been wildly overhyped for political reasons. The illusion of the film simply never really worked for me. It feels too controlled and too manipulated to seem completely spontaneous, and several of the real moments left a bad taste in my mouth. Your mileage will vary, of course, but I found much of the film to be more tiring than entertaining.

The anarchic spirit of the original has been replaced by a sense of self-righteousness, but Baron Cohen’s message isn’t anywhere near as deep as he seems to think it is. I’m also not really sure what minds he is trying to change, since it feels like he is preaching solely to the choir. It’s hard to imagine the handful of people on the fringes of Western society who actually hold ludicrous beliefs that the Holocaust never happened, or that women should be treated as inferior, having their small minds changed by a Borat film. And there is plenty of bigotry that is already on full display on the internet, so Baron Cohen’s attempts to expose it here simply isn’t as shocking as it was in 2006.

The film was released in the days leading up to the American election as a sort of indictment of the whole Trump era, and it ends with a reminder to vote. Not only does this call to the polls make it feel instantly dated when watching it after the election of Joe Biden, but it also makes it feel less like a movie and more like a strange sort of PSA. The trouble is that I didn’t find it particularly funny or insightful. It’s an obvious comedy that hits easy targets, and one that, more importantly, didn’t make me laugh sufficiently enough to see the point of it.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in Canada.

VOD Review: Minari

February 26, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

A Korean-American family in the 1980s moves to Arkansas in search of a better life in filmmaker Lee Issac Chung’s deeply personal yet universally relatable Minari.

The father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), moves his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and their two kids Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim) into a mobile home on a chunk of land that he has purchased. He has big dreams of operating a farm, but natural circumstances, from draughts to being unable to afford water, get in the way, which leads to increased tensions within his marriage.

Much of this is seen through the eyes of their young son David, and the heart of Minari comes from the relationship between the boy and his grandma (Yuh-jung Youn), who moves into the mobile home with them. David clashes with her at first, accusing her of not being a “real grandma,” before the two of them start to form a special bond.

First off, Minari is a really touching film, filled with small moments that resonate in a big way. Every little detail of the movie feels so beautifully and lovingly observed by Chung who, through a mix of gentle humour and great sensitivity, does a wonderful job capturing the feeling of being an outsider trying to fit in. Take, for example, a scene where the family goes to church for the first time in an attempt to blend into traditional American life. The white families view them with a sort of curiosity, the camera lingering on the face of a young boy (Jacob Wade) as he stares at them. This boy will nonetheless become a friend for David, schooling him in the uniquely American ways of childhood debauchery.

The performances are all wonderful, with every member of the ensemble cast believably developing and portraying the bond between this family. Yeun, the breakout star of the South Korean film Burning, does excellent and beautifully understated work as a father trying desperately to provide for his family, his pride bruised when he is unable to. Yuh-jung Youn steals every scene as the feisty grandma, delivering a marvellously funny and warm performance that deserves awards recognition. And at the centre of it all is the young actor Kim, who is the true breakout star of the film, delivering one of those completely naturalistic performances by a child actor that feels like a major discovery.

Chung, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, based the story on his own experiences growing up, and it’s in the specificity of Minari that it feels so universal. While some awards groups have incorrectly placed Minari as a “foreign” film, it’s as American as they come. This is an immigrant story, yes, but it’s also a timeless working class story about the American Dream, and a family trying to make it on their own in the land of opportunity at the height of capitalism’s heyday during the Reagan era. It offers a poignant mix of emotion and humour that is positively rich with feeling.

Minari is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Review: Palm Springs

February 25, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Palm Springs, the new time loop romantic comedy from the Lonely Island guys, is a film that takes many of its cues from the 1993 classic Groundhog Day, a work so iconic that it’s title has become shorthand for every other story of this type.

Andy Samberg, who also produced the film with fellow Lonely Island members Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, stars in Palm Springs as Nyles, a cynical man who finds himself forced to repeat the same day over and over again. Except instead of February 2nd à la Bill Murray, the date Nyles is doomed to repeat is November 9th, and the setting is a soul-crushing wedding in Palm Springs.

The film, which was a big hit at Sundance last year and is now up for two Golden Globes including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, opens with Nyles waking up in a hotel next to his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner). It’s her friend Tala’s (Camila Mendes) wedding, and Nyles is just going through the motions, having already lived this day many times before. He has entered the phase of just having fun with his unusual predicament, using his chance at seemingly infinite do-overs to make baller wedding speeches, get drunk, and hook up with different guests.

On this particular night, Nyles tries to hook up with the sister of the bride, Sarah Wilder (Cristin Milioti), a free-spirit who is the black sheep of her family. When their night gets interrupted by a madman (J.K. Simmons) shooting bows and arrows, Nyles escapes into a glowing cave. Sarah follows him in, and wakes up the next morning aware of the fact the she is reliving the same day over again, suddenly cognizant of the time loop. As Nyles and Sarah start to fall in love, she becomes desperate to stop the loop in order to spend more than just one day together.

Directed by Max Barbakow, working from a screenplay by Andy Siara that makes the clever choice to have two people aware they are trapped in a time loop instead of just one, Palm Springs is a film that works because it mainly just tries to have fun with its tried and true premise. Somewhat interestingly, the film also chooses to just drop us right into the time loop without showing us when it began, which, incidentally, is how the script for Groundhog Day originally opened before they decided to change it for the film. It’s a choice that works here, allowing us to get right down to business.

The film is simply very entertaining to watch, and it plays with a unique brand of humour that will be familiar to Lonely Island fans. Yes, there is some talk of philosophy and quantum physics, but Siara’s script strikes a good balance between giving us just enough in terms of the sci-fi mechanics, without getting too bogged down in the details. On a slightly deeper level, it also functions as an allegory of depression or anxiety, and how it sucks you into feeling like nothing will ever change.

Samberg is quite good here as a man who has become cynical from his situation, but probably wasn’t that different before, with his droll comic delivery being put to great use. But it’s Milioti who feels like the breakout star, portraying a love interest who is quirky without coming across like a subservient manic pixie dream girl. Sarah pulls her weight alongside Nyles, and will think nothing of ripping into him, which makes their relationship highly satisfying to watch develop. Samberg and Milioti also have great chemistry together, which is one of the biggest strengths of the film.

Simmons rounds out the cast with his memorable supporting role as this grizzled older man that Nyles keeps encountering who is out for blood. He also delivers one of the film’s most oddly poignant scenes in the second half. While Palm Springs doesn’t quite reach the heights of Groundhog Day, it’s still one of the better movies to utilize the time loop formula. The film keeps it fresh with some clever riffs on the genre and a very specific brand of dark humour, which feels well suited to its high concept setup.

Palm Springs is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in Canada.

Blu-ray Review: John Hughes 5-Movie Collection

February 24, 2021

By John Corrado

This week, Paramount is releasing the John Hughes 5-Movie Collection on Blu-ray, a five disc set that includes two of his best films (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles), two of his most underrated (Some Kind of Wonderful and She’s Having a Baby), and one of his most popular (Pretty in Pink).

I’m a huge fan of the writer-director’s work, and this set includes a good cross-section of some of his teen and adult films. This is also the first time that Some Kind of Wonderful and She’s Having a Baby are available on Blu-ray, so that’s nice as well since I previously only had them on DVD.

Below is a brief rundown of all five films included in the set, which are compactly packaged in a single case.

Pretty in Pink (1986): This classic high school romantic comedy, which was written by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch and is celebrating it’s 35th anniversary this year, remains an enduring staple of the teen film genre. The film stars Hughes’s frequent muse Molly Ringwald in a likeable performance as Andie, a poor girl who falls for a rich guy named Blane (Andrew McCarthy), causing her friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) to become jealous. I’ve seen Pretty in Pink a couple of times, and it has good replay value, showcasing Hughes’s ear for teenage dialogue, while also featuring a great soundtrack.

This is the same disc that was released as a standalone edition last year, which you can read my full review of right here.

Pretty in Pink is 96 minutes and rated PG.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986): The title character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a loveable slacker played by Matthew Broderick, is surely one of the most iconic teen characters ever put on screen. The film, of course, follows Ferris over a single day as he goes to elaborate lengths to skip school and spend the day living it up in Chicago, roping his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his depressive best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) into the plan as well. At the same time, we delight in watching Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) have one of the worst days of his life as he tries to catch Ferris playing hooky, in a great example of schadenfreude.

I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off again for the first time in ages the other night, and it’s still one of the greatest teen comedies of all time. Watching it as an adult also really makes you appreciate how much of a “righteous dude” Ferris really is, planning this whole day off just to pull his best friend out of a depressive funk. Between the comic hijinks and parade singalong (a sequence that remains incredibly joyous), lies some of Hughes’ wisest and most perceptive observations on life and growing up. It’s a wildly enjoyable ode to living in the moment and embracing life as it comes at you.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is 102 minutes and rated PG.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987): What more can I really say about Planes, Trains and Automobiles that hasn’t already been said? It’s the best film Hughes made for adults, and one of his best movies, period. Steve Martin and John Candy deliver two of the finest comic performances of all time as uptight ad executive Neal Page and loveable if overbearing shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith, who get stuck travelling together in a snowstorm, trying to get home for Thanksgiving.

Hughes has crafted a very funny film that has stood the test of time, and those dramatic moments (including that bittersweet ending), which are brilliantly allowed to play off of Candy’s deeply expressive face, still get me choked up every time I watch it. It’s a great buddy comedy, a great holiday movie, and a very touching and poignant film as well.

This is the same disc that was released for the film’s 30th anniversary in 2017, which you can read my full review of right here.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is 92 minutes and rated PG.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987): A year after Pretty in Pink, Hughes collaborated again with director Deutch on Some Kind of Wonderful, which takes the basic love triangle setup to even deeper places. The film plays out like a gender-swapped version of Pretty in Pink, and in some ways it’s the more grounded of the two. Keith (Eric Stoltz) is an artsy kid who falls head over heals for popular girl Amanda (Lea Thompson), leaving his tomboyish best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) on the sidelines, as she pines after her friend while also helping him get the girl.

While Pretty in Pink is probably the more famous of the two, Some Kind of Wonderful has held up quite well. It’s heightened by strong character work and a more dramatic story, which partially seems crafted as a response to the studio interference on Pretty in Pink. It boasts good performances from its cast, including John Ashton as Keith’s stern but caring father. Masterson does particularly memorable work as drummer girl Watts, whose short hair and punk rock attire have made her a queer icon.

Some Kind of Wonderful is 94 minutes and rated PG.

She’s Having a Baby (1988): The second-last film that Hughes himself directed, She’s Having a Baby follows Planes, Trains and Automobiles as another one of his films about adults. The film charts several years in the life of a young couple, Jake (Kevin Bacon) and Kristi (Elizabeth McGovern), as they go through the life stages of getting married, buying a house and, yes, having a baby. While the film is literally called She’s Having a Baby, the pregnancy plot itself doesn’t come in until the film’s second half. Prior to that, the film functions as many things, including a satire of 1980s suburban life, and sly commentary on corporate drudgery.

While She’s Having a Baby has never enjoyed the same level of praise as many of the other films that Hughes put out in the ’80s, and does has a few tonal inconsistencies, it’s still a good movie and one that I think is worth seeing. It offers a fine look at growing up without really knowing what the hell you’re doing, and a touching look at the trials and tribulations on the way to parenthood. I had seen the film before, and the poignant ending still hit me pretty hard on second viewing. This is also one of Hughes’s most personal films. Bacon’s character, an ad executive and aspiring novelist, seems inspired by the writer-director himself, and the film is dedicated to Nancy Hughes, his wife of many years.

She’s Having a Baby is 105 minutes and rated 14A.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

Each of the five individual discs in this set include a selection of previously released bonus features, along with the new featurette Back to Wonderful: A Conversation with Howard Deutch on Some Kind of Wonderful. Digital copy codes for all five movies are also included in the package, which increases its value significantly.

Pretty in Pink

• Filmmaker Focus: Pretty in Pink (7 minutes, 38 seconds)

• The Lost Dance: The Original Ending (12 minutes, 15 seconds)

• Original Theatrical Trailer (1 minute, 27 seconds)

• Isolated Score Track

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Getting the Class Together – The Cast of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (27 minutes, 45 seconds)

The Making of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (15 minutes, 29 seconds)

Who is Ferris Bueller? (9 minutes, 12 seconds)

The World According to Ben Stein (10 minutes, 51 seconds)

Vintage Ferris Bueller: The Lost Tapes (10 minutes, 16 seconds)

Class Album

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles (16 minutes, 38 seconds)

John Hughes: The Voice of a Generation (27 minutes, 39 seconds)

Heartbreak and Triumph: The Legacy of John Hughes (25 minutes, 52 seconds)

John Hughes for Adults (4 minutes, 2 seconds)

A Tribute to John Candy (3 minutes, 1 second)

Deleted Scene – “Airplane Food” (3 minutes, 24 seconds)

Some Kind of Wonderful

Back to Wonderful: A Conversation with Howard Deutch (6 minutes, 46 seconds)

The Making of Some Kind of Wonderful (7 minutes, 46 seconds)

Meet the Cast of Some Kind of Wonderful (13 minutes, 27 seconds)

John Hughes Time Capsule (10 minutes, 50 seconds)

She’s Having a Baby

From the Archives: Kevin Bacon Interviews John Hughes (24 minutes, 10 seconds)

Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes, 14 seconds)

The John Hughes 5-Movie Collection is a Paramount Home Entertainment release.

Street Date: February 23rd, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Lady Sings the Blues

February 23, 2021

By John Corrado

In 1972, Toronto-born director Sidney J. Furie made a biopic of Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross in an Oscar-nominated debut performance as the legendary singer.

That film, Lady Sings the Blues, is being released for the first time ever on Blu-ray this week from Paramount, a release that is timed to coincide with the arrival of the new biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Named after Holiday’s own 1956 autobiography of the same name, upon which the film is loosely based, Lady Sings the Blues opens with Holiday (Ross), who was born Eleanora Fagan, being arrested and detained on drug charges. We then cut back to her as a teen girl, being forced to work in brothels in order to make ends meet.

When Eleanora impresses the manager (Sid Melton) of a local club with her soulful singing voice, she is given a job as a performer and adopts the stage name Billie Holiday. She is noticed by the wealthy Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), who encourages her to pursue a career as a singer, and eventually becomes her husband. From here, Furie’s film charts Holiday’s rise and fall, as she goes on the road with a white band led by Reg Hanley (James Callahan), taking her through the heart of segregated America, and falls under the sway of drugs as a way to cope with the pressure.

The historical accuracy of Lady Sings the Blues has been called into question over the years. While I can’t really speak to that, I would say that the film works as more of a melodrama about drug addiction than it does a proper biopic of Holiday. The film feels somewhat stagey at times, both in its construction and visual aesthetic, and the screenplay by Terrence McCloy, Chris Clark and Suzanne de Passe focuses too much on certain elements and not enough on others.

For example, Holiday’s performance of the song “Strange Fruit” is relegated to one sequence in the middle, and the fact that the FBI came after her for singing it (which provides the basis for The United States vs. Billie Holiday) isn’t mentioned at all. It does serve as one of the most stirring sequences in the film, but it also feels somewhat clouded by the rest of the movie.

With that said, Ross is quite good in the role of Holiday, and she is given the opportunity to cover several of the songs that made her famous on the film’s soundtrack. Even in hindsight, it’s really not surprising that Ross got a Best Actress Oscar nomination (one of five nominations that the film received) for her performance. Williams also does strong work here, five years before taking on his most famous role as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars. Finally, the cast includes fine work from Richard Pryor as Piano Man, who first accompanies Holiday at the club.

Watching Lady Sings the Blues for the first time now, I found it to be a mostly well acted but also slightly stilted biopic, that is mostly engaging in fits and starts. Still, the film does still hold some cultural relevance, not least of which for its strong performances and song numbers, and the Blu-ray offers a fine presentation of it for future reference.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with several previously released bonus features, including a commentary track, a featurette, and seven deleted scenes.

Commentary by Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Director Sidney Furie and Artist Manager Shelly Berger

Behind the Blues: Lady Sings the Blues (23 minutes, 6 seconds): This archival piece features interviews with Ross, Williams, and co-writer de Passe, as well as John M. Forbes and Sandra Evers-Manly of the Black Hollywood Education & Resource Centre, reflecting on the production of the film and also its cultural impact. Ross talks about being offered the role by producer Berry Gordy right after The Supremes broke up, and the daunting task of taking on the role of Billie Holiday.

Deleted Scenes (21 minutes, 3 seconds): A selection of seven surprisingly lengthy scenes that were cut from the film. The video and audio quality on them is quite poor.

Billie’s Party (1 minute. 59 seconds)

Billie and Louis Come Home (6 minutes, 17 seconds)

Billie and Harry (1 minute, 28 seconds)

Louis Threatens Harry (1 minute, 53 seconds)

‘Just Get Some Sleep’ (1 minute, 31 seconds)

Billie Visits Mama (4 minutes, 49 seconds)

Billie Goes to Jail (2 minutes, 12 seconds)

Lady Sings the Blues is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 143 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: February 23rd, 2021

Blu-ray Review: The Croods: A New Age

February 23, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

DreamWorks Animation returns to prehistoric times in The Croods: A New Age, the long-in-development sequel to their 2013 box office hit The Croods.

This follow-up film, which is arriving on Blu-ray this week following a limited release in theatres and on PVOD, pretty much offers more of the same as the first one. It simply gives us another chance to hang out with this wild family of cave people, and if you enjoyed their company the first time, odds are you will probably enjoy this sequel as well.

The change-averse father Grug (Nicolas Cage) is still preoccupied with keeping his pack together, including his wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), dimwitted son Thunk (Clark Duke), and teenaged daughter Eep (Emma Stone), who has brought her boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds) into the family.

After coming to terms in the first movie with the fact that Eep and Guy are together, Grug now wants to keep the pair in the pack. When he hears them talking about wanting more privacy and independence away from the family unit, he goes out looking for a new place for his family to settle, and comes across a walled paradise that is filled with food and free from outside dangers. As it turns out, this is the home of an annoyingly perfect modern family named the Bettermans (Better Man, get it?), made up of Phil (Peter Dinklage), Hope (Leslie Mann) and their teenage daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The interactions between the original caveman family and the more “civilized” Bettermans, who look down upon the Croods as dirty and unevolved, make up the bulk of the film, as rivalries form between Grug and Phil, as well as Ugga and Hope. The two families clash over the old versus new way of doing things, and tensions come from the Bettermans belief that Guy should stay with them as a companion for their daughter. Meanwhile, a genuine friendship forms between Eep and Dawn, who are both delighted by the discovery of another teenage girl.

This is the sort of sequel that mainly just exists to let us spend some more time with these characters, while also introducing some new ones and expanding the world a little bit. It’s basically an animated hangout movie in this regard. The plot is pretty basic and mostly predictable, and has a sort of sitcom feel to it. But for a film that is all about offering easy laughs with a few life lessons, The Croods: A New Age is still pretty good, and has enough in the way of humour and heart to win us over in the end.

The returning voice actors once again do enjoyable work, while Dinklage, Mann and Tran are all fun additions to the cast, with the animated characters, who don’t necessarily look anything like them, still recognizably sharing some of their mannerisms. On a visual level, The Croods: A New Age features stylized character designs and some vibrant colours, all presented in widescreen. The film offers plenty of cartoony action, as well as a variety of fun new hybrid creatures, from chicken seals to spider wolves and punch monkeys, whose language consists of hits and slaps.

The film is directed by Joel Crawford, making his feature directorial debut, and it had to be completed by the animators from their homes in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, following its on-again, off-again production since the release of the first film. This rocky, troubled production history isn’t really felt in the final product, which comes together pretty smoothly in the end. It’s not the best or deepest animated film, but The Croods: A New Age is still a pretty enjoyable one that boasts a sweet message about family and how it’s okay to let your circle expand.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a fine selection of bonus features. A regular DVD and a code for a digital copy are also included in the package, which comes with a cardboard slipcover.

Dear Diary: World’s First Pranks (2 minutes, 54 seconds): This simple, 2D animated short finds Eep and Dawn pulling pranks on Guy.

Family Movie Night: Little Red Bronana Bread (3 minutes, 39 seconds): This short, done in an interesting paper cutout animation style, finds Dawn telling a version of the classic fairy tale.

Gag Reel (1 minute, 51 seconds): This short gag reel offers a fun opportunity to see how the facial expressions of the actors are mirrored by their characters in the film.

To: Gerard (7 minutes, 32 seconds): An original short film from DreamWorks Animation, that tells the story of an old man and a young girl who bond through magic. It’s pretty sweet and a nice discovery on the disc.

Deleted Scenes (23 minutes, 7 seconds): Eight scenes that were cut from the film, presented in storyboard form with introductions by director Joel Crawford.

Thunk’s Mirror (51 seconds)

Grug’s Stakeout (2 minutes, 9 seconds)

Mancave V1 (4 minutes, 46 seconds)

Mancave V2 (5 minutes, 11 seconds)

Parrotclam Forest (2 minutes, 37 seconds)

Phil Fails (2 minutes, 4 seconds)

Guy Gets Mad (2 minutes, 13 seconds)

Supercut Thunk and Douglas (2 minutes, 20 seconds)

The Croods’ Family Album (8 minutes, 24 seconds): This featurette focuses on the film’s cast of characters and the actors who voice them.

The Evolution of… (10 minutes, 17 seconds): This second featurette offers a broader look at the production of the film.

How to Draw: Caveman Style (29 minutes, 5 seconds): Story artist Heidi Jo GIlbert teaches us how to draw eight of the film’s characters.

Eep (4 minutes, 49 seconds)

Dawn (3 minutes, 34 seconds)

Guy (3 minutes, 41 seconds)

Grug (3 minutes, 19 seconds)

Phil (3 minutes, 53 seconds)

Gran (3 minutes, 22 seconds)

Belt (3 minutes, 26 seconds)

Sash (2 minutes, 42 seconds)

Famileaf Album (2 minutes, 58 seconds): Instructions on how to make a craft like the family album seen in the film.

Stone Age Snack Attack (5 minutes, 52 seconds): Instructions on how to make three different snacks inspired by the film.

Fancy Fruit Leathers (2 minutes, 17 seconds)

Shark Milk Smoothies (1 minute, 22 seconds)

Supersized Surprise (2 minutes, 11 seconds)

Feature Commentary with director Joel Crawford, producer Mark Swift, head of story Januel Mercado and editor Jim Ryan

The Croods: A New Age is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 96 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: February 23rd, 2021

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