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Blu-ray Review: Old

October 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker whose rises and falls over the years have been well documented. And, while he hasn’t quite regained the early highs of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, he has rebounded quite nicely in the past few years following a string of disappointments.

Now we have Shyamalan’s latest, Old, which takes place on a beach that, well, makes you old. In the vein of the director’s other high concept thrillers, it’s an intriguing premise that, despite some bumps along the way, the filmmaker embraces to deliver a mostly entertaining if uneven film.

The film follows the Cappa family, parents Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their two kids Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River). They are on an idyllic tropical vacation at a high end resort, but marriage and health problems loom large in the background. And when they are taken (by Shyamalan himself, as it were, in his obligatory cameo as a driver) to a secluded beach, strange events start to happen.

The beach is surrounded by a wall of rock, and if they stray too far from the sand, they start to feel dizzy and pass out. There are others on the beach. There’s Charles (Rufus Sewell), a paranoid doctor who is there with his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and their young daughter Kara (Kylie Begley); another married couple, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird); and a rapper who goes by the name Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). A dead body washes up on shore, causing suspicion amongst the group.

Soon, Prisca notices that her children have started to rapidly age. All of the sudden, Maddox, Trent and Kara are all adolescents (played by the trio of very fine young actors Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen, respectively). They surmise that time is moving rapidly for some reason due to the beach’s environment, with roughly two years passing every hour, leaving them desperately trying to find a way out before they die and decay.

From here, Old plays out like a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, and, in true Shyamalan fashion, we are kept on edge waiting for the big reveal to pull the curtain back. While I didn’t mind where the film ends up in the last act (which I won’t spoil here), the final scenes are also somewhat predictable and provide a bit too much exposition, when a more ambiguous ending might have helped the film linger more afterwards.

The biggest drawback is the screenplay, which was adapted by Shyamalan from the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. There are a few plot holes that become more apparent when thinking back on the film, and the overall tone is somewhat uneven. The dialogue is often clunky, and the characters talk in a way that doesn’t feel entirely natural or believable, making the acting at times feel stilted despite the very talented cast. But this also adds to the uneasy feel of the film.

With the story mostly confined to a single location and taking place over about a day, Shyamalan is able to build suspense, and there are effective moments here. While admittedly heavy-handed at times, Old works as a sort of fable about time slipping through our fingers, playing into parental fears of children growing up too fast, and kids being forced to confront the mortality of their parents. The PG-13 rating keeps it from being the truly gruesome body horror that it could have been, but the unsettling nature of being unable to prevent the body’s accelerated aging process is milked for a sense of creeping dread in the film’s best moments.

The film also looks great with its picturesque, slightly ominous locales. Shot on location in the Dominican Republic, cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (reuniting with Shyamalan following Split and Glass) makes good use of the scenic vistas provided by this island. His camerawork is kinetic, with long takes that spin the camera around to show multiple characters at different spots on the beach, and some interesting camera placements that offer unique vantage points (a shot looking out from a skeleton’s ribcage seems like a first).

This is a mostly midlevel film from Shyamalan. While it frustratingly has some of the flaws found in his weaker works, it also has flashes of his undeniable talents behind the camera, and shows that he is still able to take an ambitious setup and spin it into an entertaining and mostly satisfying genre film.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a selection of ten short deleted scenes, as well as four featurettes. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package, which comes with a slipcover.

Deleted Scenes (8 minutes, 16 seconds)

Cold Open (49 seconds)

Maddox Overlooked (45 seconds)

Guy and Prisca Have a Moment (19 seconds)

Spa Options (30 seconds)

Trent’s Trunks (1 minute, 9 seconds)

Mirror Mirror (40 seconds)

Despair (56 seconds)

Maybe They’re On Their Way? (1 minute, 1 second)

Patricia’s Loss (1 minutes, 33 seconds)

Birthday Party (43 seconds)

Shyamalan Family Business (8 minutes, 5 seconds): Shyamalan talks about the themes of family in the film, as well as working with his own daughter Ishana for the first time as 2nd unit director, and having his other daughter Saleka write an emotional song that is featured prominently in the film.

All the Beach is a Stage (9 minutes, 37 seconds): Shyamalan talks about his influences on the film, and his approach to shooting it almost like a stage play with sweeping wide shots, minimal takes, and the beach serving almost as a stage.

Nightmares in Paradise (7 minutes, 27 seconds): Shyamalan talks about the unique challenges that his crew faced shooting the film on location in the Dominican, during the pandemic no less.

A Family in the Moment (6 minutes, 18 seconds): Shyamalan and the cast talk about shooting a very emotional scene late in the film, and how they all bonded as a family.

Old is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 109 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 19th, 2021

Review: Mass

October 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Mass, the feature directorial debut of actor turned filmmaker Fran Kranz, is a film that explores a hot button topic (in this case mass shootings and gun control), and manages to do so in a way that feels honest instead of exploiting it for easy melodrama.

The film is set in the aftermath of a horrific high school shooting, and instead of trying to depict the event itself, Kranz’s screenplay is simply about having some of the parents of those involved talking to each other several years after the fact. It’s an approach that allows Mass to probe questions of grief, how trauma impacts those on different sides of such an event, and if healing is truly possible after a tragedy like this.

The setup is pretty straightforward; Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), the parents of one of the victims, are meeting for the first time with Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), the parents of the shooter. The meeting is taking place around a table in the backroom of a church, with a therapist (Michelle N. Carter) on hand to ensure things go smoothly.

The first twenty minutes of the film provide setup for the meeting, as the church’s caretaker (Breeda Wool) obsesses over getting things ready for the arrival of the two couples, her nerves providing a sense of unease. Once the four main players settle into the room, Kranz’s film becomes a chamber piece built around its four-person ensemble. The meeting starts off with pleasantries. But it’s undercut by tension and things soon become heated, as Jay asks Linda and Richard piercing questions about the guilt they feel for their son’s actions, and if they take responsibility for ignoring the warning signs.

Despite almost the entire movie being limited to a single, plainly dressed room, cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy manages to do some interesting things with the camera. The images start off very still and stately, maintaining a distance through wide shots. But as tensions and emotions rise in the room, the camerawork becomes handheld and slightly shaky, moving in for closeups around the table that always work to compliment each of the performances.

While the film features an original screenplay by Kranz, Mass feels like something that could have originated on the stage. It essentially plays out as an intense and emotional conversation between its four leads, and the success of Mass absolutely lies in the incredible and believable performances of Plimpton, Isaacs, Dowd and Birney. Likely because he is an actor himself, Kranz gives each of his four main players a chance to shine and does a very good job of directing them, letting the camera linger on their faces to capture the emotion of their big moments.

Isaacs is excellent as a father who has turned his grief into advocating for social change, as the actor brilliantly allows his character’s simmering rage to slowly boil over as he starts to cross-examine the other parents. The intensity of his performance plays well off of Birney, who does fine work as the most buttoned up and pragmatic of the group. While Richard is not indifferent to what happened, he is the one most willing to accept that several years have passed, and his almost preternatural calmness causes Isaacs’ Jay to push back even further.

Plimpton delivers a very moving portrayal of a grieving mother, with her gutting facial expressions shown in closeups revealing that Gail’s grief is still very much an open wound that has been unable to heal. Finally, Dowd is devastating as a mother still struggling to accept the atrocities committed by her son, while also trying to come to terms with the fact that she is still grieving his loss despite what he did in the end. There is a real pain and honesty behind her performance, and Dowd’s final moments in the film are gut-wrenching.

Kranz’s film doesn’t lay blame, but it does question how much responsibility parents have for the actions of a child. It doesn’t really go that deep into the actual psychology behind a school shooter, and the bits we do learn about the perpetrator of this heinous crime offer the somewhat expected portrait of a bullied loner with mental health issues and too-easy access to guns. But the parents in question have seemingly come to this conclusion, and don’t pretend to have all the answers, either.

More so than being a political film (the party affiliations of the characters are never explicitly discussed, though we can somewhat surmise), Mass is a film about empathy. It’s a film about trying to find healing and common ground in the face of an unspeakable tragedy that has obviously impacted two families equally but differently. And, as cliched as that may sound, Kranz largely avoids cliches in Mass, going beyond simple platitudes or easy resolutions to ignite a conversation that cuts much deeper.

It’s not always an easy film to get through, and one that left me quite emotionally exhausted. But the strength of the writing and performances make it an experience worth having, and the conversations that Mass ignites will keep playing out in your head for days and weeks afterwards.

Mass is now playing in select theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by MK2 | Mile End.

Review: Dear Future Children

October 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Dear Future Children, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Hot Docs, is a documentary that focuses on a trio of young female activists fighting for their futures in different parts of the world.

Director Franz Böhm introduces us to Rayen in Chile, Pepper in Hong Kong and Hilda in Uganda. They are all in their twenties, and have each taken up the mantle of a different cause, with the film following them as they struggle to enact meaningful change in the face of older adult indifference and government opposition.

Rayen is fighting against inflation, low pensions for the working class and the rising cost of living in Chile, which has led to tense street protests in Santiago, with the government all but declaring war on the activists and using the full force of the police to crack down on them.

Pepper is similarly on the frontlines battling a militarized police force in Hong Kong, taking to the streets during the 2019 protests to fight for democracy and independence against the encroachments of Beijing. Meanwhile, Hilda is leading a Fridays for Future movement in Uganda, having seen the impacts of climate change on her family’s crops. She is trying to enact change in her local village by organizing marches and fishing thousands of plastic bottles out of the river, and the film follows her as she speaks in front of world leaders at a climate conference in Copenhagen.

While Dear Future Children is set up as an inspiring look at young people trying to change the world, Böhm’s film is actually at its most interesting when showing the frustrating setbacks that come with activism work and how these women respond to it. Rayen is following in her father’s activist footsteps, and fully understands the risks she is taking on by getting involved. Over the course of the film, she is faced with the death of a young activist, as the protesters are blasted by water from firehoses and hit with a barrage of rubber bullets, which have taken the eyes of several hundred people.

In some of the film’s most revealing moments, Pepper talks about the personal sacrifices she has made to fight for Hong Kong’s future. She has to conceal her identity, and is essentially forced to live a double life, having to separate out her social life and activism work and being careful not to mix the two. In the later scenes, she grapples with the feeling of defeat after China forces through the extradition law under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving her questioning if her actions have been in vain.

The well-edited film brings together dramatic footage of the protests in Chile and Hong Kong (some of which has been seen in other documentaries), which gives added heft to Rayen and Pepper’s sequences. While Hilda’s story is maybe the most hopeful of the three, it also ends up feeling a bit secondary within the film, which I think partially has to do with to the fact that her activism work doesn’t involve the same type of street protests that are harrowing to see unfold onscreen.

The film also loses its focus a bit with the triptych structure, and at times it feels like more context is needed behind the Santiago protests in particular. Rayen briefly touches on how they date back to the privatization of the country’s services (including water) under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but this could have been elaborated on further.

But, by splitting its time fairly evenly between them, Dear Future Children offers a decent portrait of these three young activists, while serving as a fine introduction to the different causes they are each fighting for. The film opens with Rayen saying that “when you fucking lie to the young people, you will find our answer on the streets,” and it’s a powerful message that rings throughout this documentary.

Dear Future Children is now playing in select theatres, and will be available on Digital and VOD platforms as of October 29th. It’s being distributed in Canada by Photon Films.

Blu-ray Review: Another 48 Hrs. (1990)

October 13, 2021

By John Corrado

In 1982, Eddie Murphy made his big screen debut in director Walter Hill’s buddy cop movie 48 Hrs., playing smooth-talking convict Reggie Hammond to Nick Nolte’s gruff cop Jack Cates.

It was well received by critics and became a box office hit, prompting Hill to reunite with Murphy and Nolte eight years later for Another 48 Hrs., which has just gotten a new Blu-ray release from Paramount. While this 1990 sequel has its moments, it is also a case of diminishing returns, as it only partially recaptures the success of Murphy and Nolte’s first go-around.

The film is set seven years after the events of the first one, and finds Nolte’s Jack and Murphy’s Reggie being forced to work together again to stop another crime spree. Jack has spent several years tracking a mysterious drug kingpin known as “The Iceman,” and Reggie, who is about to be released from prison, is his best lead. They are also being pursued by a motorcycle gang led by Richard Ganz (Andrew Divoff), the brother of the first film’s villain, which already feels like a more clichéd and less original place to start.

The first film was released a full two years before Murphy took on the role of a police officer himself in Beverly Hills Cop, a massive hit in 1984 that cemented his status as a movie star, and Another 48 Hrs. feels like it was largely made to capitalize on his bankability as a leading man after a string of hits for Paramount. It’s not a terrible film on its own terms, and is mildly entertaining to watch. But it pales in comparison to the original, and fails to deliver the same number of genuine laughs or thrills.

The original cut of this sequel reportedly came in well over two hours (145 minutes to be precise), but the studio cut it down to a scant 95 minutes for the theatrical release, putting the focus more simply on action and humour at the expense of plot and character development. This not only removes a lot of the intricacies from the film’s central mystery, but also makes the story feel disjointed and slapdash in its assembly, with some plot holes and pacing issues that are quite evident in the final product.

The first film was a surprisingly gritty movie that had a live-wire energy to it and found the right balance between action and humour, where as Another 48 Hrs. delivers the bare minimum in terms of the buddy cop formula. It feels like a more generic action movie. Still, while it’s not as memorable as it was the first time around, Nolte and Murphy do have decent interplay together, and there are entertaining moments sprinkled throughout this sequel. The film also looks quite pristine on Blu-ray, remastered from a 4K film transfer.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a new featurette and an archival trailer for the film. There is no digital copy included in the package.

NEW – Filmmaker Focus: Director Walter Hill on Another 48 Hrs. (14 minutes, 35 seconds): Hill candidly reflects on making the film, including how Murphy initially approached him about doing a sequel, as well as the film’s tight shooting schedule, the criticisms that it received, and the success it enjoyed at the worldwide box office.

Theatrical Trailer (1 minute, 31 seconds)

Another 48 Hrs. is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 95 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: October 12th, 2021

4K Ultra HD Review: Space Jam: A New Legacy

October 12, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Arriving a full two-and-a-half decades after the original Space Jam, which fused live action and animation to bring together the worlds of professional basketball and Looney Tunes, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a sequel built squarely around nostalgia. And not just nostalgia for the 1996 film, but nostalgia for a variety of other films from the Warner Bros. vault as well.

Because, in addition to being another mashup between basketball and classic cartoon characters, this sequel also serves as a chance for the studio to revisit a number of their other characters and properties. While not without some amusing moments, this gives Space Jam: A New Legacy a distinctly cash-grab feel (not to mention feeling like a copy of WB’s own Ready Player One from a few years ago).

Where as the first one featured Michael Jordan alongside a gaggle of cartoon characters, this sequel (reboot?) stars LeBron James, who also produced the film as well. LeBron plays a loose version of himself, a family man struggling to relate to his adolescent son Dominic (Cedric Joe), who has designed his own basketball video game that he would rather work on instead of following his father’s footsteps on the actual court.

The plot finds LeBron and his son going to the Warner Bros. studio lot for a pitch meeting about a new partnership called Warner 3000, that would put a digitized version of the star player in a variety of the studio’s properties. LeBron is unimpressed, but before he can leave, him and his son end up getting sucked into the Serververse by a conniving algorithm named Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), where all of the classic Warner Bros. properties are stored. In order to get his son back, LeBron must play a game of basketball against the sentient algorithm.

At this point, the star player is dropped into Tune World, where he encounters Bugs Bunny and must compile a team of Looney Tunes characters to play against Al G.’s “Goon Squad” in a version of his son’s video game. Aside from LeBron James (whose acting range seems limited at first, but somewhat evens out as the film goes on) and a variety of other professional NBA players, Space Jam: A New Legacy has a lot of star power behind it.

It’s directed by Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man Holiday and Girls Trip), and produced by Creed and Black Panther filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who helped get the project off the ground due to his childhood love of the original. A lot of work clearly went into the film, not least of which from the animators and visual effects artists who worked on it. But the problem with Space Jam: A New Legacy is that it exists almost solely to capitalize on audience nostalgia for a variety of pre-existing intellectual properties, from both the Looney Tunes universe and broader Warner Bros. canon as well.

It’s been accused of essentially being a commercial for the studio’s fairly new streaming service HBO Max, and this isn’t an unfair accusation. The Tunes not only jump through scenes from a number of the studio’s films from Casablanca to The Matrix, but the crowd of spectators at the big basketball game is filled with iconic Warner characters, including the likes of the Iron Giant, King Kong, Pennywise, and even the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange (a strange addition to the film that calls its target audience into question).

I did enjoy some of the animated moments. It’s fun to see the classic 2D characters back onscreen, before they are converted into fuzzy, upgraded 3D designs for the big game. A sequence where Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) hops through a Wonder Woman comic is nicely animated in a classic comic book style, and there is admittedly some amusement to be had in seeing Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote placed into a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. But these cross-references can only take this bloated and overcrowded film so far in terms of entertainment.

At its heart, the film offers a story about a father learning to reconnect with his son and respect his own life goals, but this gets somewhat buried in the hyper pace and non-stop action of the nearly two-hour Space Jam: A New Legacy. It’s an overstuffed film, packed to the gills with cameos, some moments of cringey humour (Porky Pig raps at one point), and constant visual stimuli, almost to the point that it’s hard to keep up with it all.

Watching Space Jam: A New Legacy feels like binging on candy. It’s not entirely unenjoyable while it’s on, and there are some flashes of fun, but it leaves you feeling somewhat empty and with a bit of a sugar rush headache. I can’t say that I hated watching it, but I can’t say that it doesn’t feel like a pretty shameless cash grab, either.

Bonus Features (4K Ultra HD):

The 4K Ultra HD set, which I was sent for review, comes with a regular Blu-ray disc as well. There are no bonuses on the 4K disc, but four featurettes and a handful of deleted scenes can be found on the Blu-ray. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package, which ships with a shiny slipcover.

First Quarter: Game On (7 minutes, 36 seconds): LeBron James, Ryan Coogler and other members of the cast and crew talk about what attracted them to the project and their love of the first film.

Second Quarter: Teamwork (7 minutes, 49 seconds): Looks at how the filmmakers inserted all of the background Warner Bros. characters and other star athletes into the film.

Third Quarter: Out of This World (8 minutes, 9 seconds): This third chapter looks at designing the computer world of the film, as well as the CG character designs.

Fourth Quarter: The Looniest (7 minutes, 8 seconds): This last piece primarily focuses on the sound effects and music in the film, which builds on the classic soundtrack from the first one.

Deleted Scenes (7 minutes, 38 seconds)

Deleted Scene 1 – Next Level (4 minutes, 8 seconds)

Deleted Scene 2 – In Cleveland (44 seconds)

Deleted Scene 3 – Timeout (50 seconds)

Deleted Scene 4 – Are You With Us? (42 seconds)

Deleted Scene 5 – No More Secrets (1 minute, 25 seconds)

Space Jam: A New Legacy is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 115 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: October 5th, 2021

VOD Review: Defining Moments

October 8, 2021

By John Corrado

★ (out of 4)

Defining Moments, which has been in the can for a little while now and is finally getting a VOD release this week, marks the final film role of Burt Reynolds, who passed away three years ago. But this is likely all it will be remembered for, if at all.

Shot in Unionville, Ontario, and vaguely set there too, this soppy, misguided multi-character dramedy from Canadian writer/director Stephen Wallis isn’t just bad, it’s bafflingly so. The film plays out with such clichéd storylines and some shockingly atrocious dialogue that it almost works as an unintentional comedy, but is ultimately too much of a chore to sit through.

The film opens with an elderly man, Chester (Reynolds), telling his daughter Marina (Polly Shannon) that he will die once he turns eighty, giving him only nine months left to live. The same time a baby takes to be born, he is taking to say goodbye. Meanwhile, Laurel (Tammy Blanchard) finds out from her own father Edward (Eric Peterson), a doctor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, that she is pregnant, a real surprise since she is in her early forties.

These hokey themes of life and death continue throughout the film, which follows a random assortment of other characters as well. There’s Jack (Shawn Roberts), who breaks up with his girlfriend Terri (Kelly Van Der Burg) after telling her he doesn’t want kids, which happens through a truly bizarre conversation about reindeer testicles (the dialogue in general is strangely sexual, with a lot of weird euphemisms). He spends most of the movie doggedly trying to win her back, while getting sage life advice from his sister Lisa (Sienna Guillory), who keeps reminding us that she is dying of Multiple Sclerosis.

And then there’s Dave (Dillon Casey), an American who is on a Canadian road trip with his friends and they just so happen to be passing through Unionville. When we first meet him in the film, he is trying to blow his brains out with a pistol but ends up shooting his ear off instead. Thankfully, Edward is there to stitch it back on, and he ends up in an odd sort of treatment centre run by the overly cheerful Dr. Kelly (Graham Greene).

It’s here that Edward befriends a perpetually horny, sex-obsessed fellow patient named Geoff (Jamie Spilchuk). Geoff is the sort of quirky, mentally ill character who appears fun-loving and likes to give hugs, but you just know that he has a tragic past he is unable to come to terms with. I’m honestly not sure which character, Dave or Edward, is worse in terms of poorly portraying mental health issues.

Dave’s trio of backpacking friends need a place to stay while their suicidal friend recovers (this will magically also take about nine months, or, you know, the same time as a baby’s gestation). So they go to stay with Edward and his pregnant daughter, because this is the sort of contrivance that Wallis mistakes for believable plotting. This includes Suzie (Lara Jean Chorostecki), who announces that she is lesbian, and Laurel soon discovers this about herself, too.

This attempt at showing sexual fluidity might have seemed progressive, if it wasn’t written in such a convenient, overly obvious way and didn’t keep being brought up through ham-fisted dialogue and a slew of dated lesbian jokes. This includes one ill-begotten scene where an increasingly confused Edward accidentally walks in on them in bed when he is looking for his tie, and can’t remember the right word so he just keeps saying lesbian instead.

The entire film unfolds in this sort of awkward, haphazard way, as everything comes together exactly as you expect it will over the saccharine Christmastime finale. The story is broken up into different chapters that are all named after a different “defining moment,” and it feels like a collection of poorly written interludes that have been loosely strung together. There are ten chapters to be precise, followed by an epilogue, which is far too many for a scant 88 minute film.

Despite the best efforts of old veterans like Reynolds and Greene, the performances are mediocre at best, and Wallis’s script does the actors no favours. The characters are forced to speak in clunky dialogue, as they dole out cheesy Hallmark card wisdom about embracing life as it comes at you and that everything happens for a reason.

The film feels like a bad Lifetime TV movie, right down to the garish, overlit cinematography. But it’s the screenplay’s sugarcoated, borderline offensive treatment of mental illness and dementia that truly sinks it. Put simply, Defining Moments is a dud, and it ultimately feels like little more than a collection of ill-defined moments instead.

Defining Moments is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

Blu-ray Review: Mommie Dearest (1981)

October 6, 2021

By John Corrado

The legacy of Mommie Dearest, and Faye Dunaway’s performance at the centre of it, encompasses the film’s rise from critical flop to commercial success and inadvertent camp classic. And it continues to exist as all three things at once.

A modern reevaluation of Mommie Dearest, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary and has been restored from a 4K film transfer for this Blu-ray release, doesn’t necessarily deem it “good,” as the objective quality of the movie itself and its central performance is much more complicated than that.

But it does show Mommie Dearest to be an interesting cinematic artifact, one that has left a lasting, complex cultural impact and continues to hold an understandable appeal with certain audiences in particular.

The film is director Frank Perry’s adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir about growing up as the adopted daughter of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford. Crawford, of course, is played by Dunaway, in a high-camp, go big or go home performance that has inspired both mockery and sincere imitation. The film dramatizes the abuse that Christina (played as a child by Mara Hobel, and as a teen and young adult by Diana Scarwid) suffered at the hands of her volatile mother, whose narcissistic personality traits grew more pronounced as her studio relationships soured and her Hollywood star faded.

It’s interesting watching Mommie Dearest for the first time now (I had previously only seen a few of the most infamous clips), because I have always known it as a so-bad-it’s-good sort of film, which obviously colours perceptions of it. The film was lambasted by most critics upon its release in 1981, but it went on to strike a chord with audiences who turned it into a box office hit, with Paramount embracing its growing cult status in subsequent marketing materials (the studio even put out new ads for the film highlighting the notorious “wire hangers” scene).

Many of the criticisms have focused on the acting choices that Dunaway makes in the leading role, which won her a Razzie award (one of five the film won, including Worst Picture) and has caused the actress to disassociate herself from the film. While Dunaway is over the top, operatically so in the film’s best-worst moments, it’s still a somewhat interesting performance. Yes, her portrayal teeters on the edge of being a caricature throughout with her exaggerated, almost pantomime facial expressions, and it fully descends into one at key points.

The film is largely remembered for the campiness of its most extreme moments, including that infamous sequence where Dunaway attacks the rose bushes with garden sheers while screaming about being called “box office poison” by Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva). Then there’s the wire hangers freakout (“no wire hangers…EVER!”), an oft-quoted tirade delivered with her face covered in white cream. It’s bizarre, ripe for parody, and a moment of unhinged, full-bodied acting by Dunaway that toes the line between hilarious and terrifying. It’s scenes like these that have become the point of mockery and still induce unintentional laughter (a strange feeling for a film about child abuse).

Dunaway goes so big in these moments that they overshadow the movie around them. But if you look at it another way, Dunaway is playing Crawford as Crawford herself might have played her, with all of her harsh looks and pronounced line readings suggesting a larger than life figure consumed by her own image. She is playing the real life actress as if she is doing a meta impersonation of a character being played by the actress, and these multiple layers of artifice behind her performance are a good indicator why it has become a favourite among drag queens.

The stature of Mommie Dearest as a queer camp classic can’t be denied. Aside from the inherent appeal of copying Dunaway’s showy performance onstage, I think the film’s appeal with drag performers is in many ways due to the fact that it is about performative femininity. The opening scene shows Crawford’s morning beauty routine (like a precursor to American Psycho) as she literally puts on a face to present to the world, the film hiding the reveal of her fully made up visage until several minutes in. Through this, Mommie Dearest also scratches at the surface of deeper themes about impossible Hollywood beauty standards and ageism in a world obsessed with image.

It isn’t entirely successful as a whole. Structurally, Perry’s film is flawed. It jumps ahead in time in some jarring ways, and at times feels like a collection of individual scenes strung together. The film at once occupies the space of being tawdry silver screen melodrama and somewhat bland biopic, and it starts to drag slightly at the end of the 128 minute running time. But Dunaway’s perversely compelling, scenery-chewing performance, and a handful of iconic moments, make Mommie Dearest mostly involving to watch as a piece of campy entertainment.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks (one old, one new) along with four featurettes (three old, one new). There is no digital copy included in the package.

Commentary by John Waters

NEW – Commentary by American Drag Queen Hedda Lettuce

NEW – Filmmaker Focus: Biographer Justin Bozung on Director Frank Perry (7 minutes, 1 seconds): This new featurette allows Perry’s official biographer Justin Bozung to shed some light on the production of the film, including how they initially wanted Anne Bancroft for the role, but Dunaway won the part after showing up to a dinner party dressed as Crawford.

The Revival of Joan (14 minutes, 15 seconds): Producer and co-writer Frank Yablans reflects on the making of the film and the experience of working with Dunaway in this first of three archival featurettes, which also feature actors Diana Scarwid and Rutanya Alda (who plays housekeeper Carol Ann).

Life With Joan (13 minutes, 44 seconds): A continuation of the previous featurette, which focuses more exclusively on the film’s most infamous scenes, with Yablans admitting that perhaps Perry should have helped Dunaway reign in her performance just a bit.

Joan Lives On (16 minutes, 5 seconds): Finally, this third featurette in the series looks more specifically at the legacy of the film within the gay community, and features appearances by drag queen John Epperson (aka Lypsinka) and notorious filmmaker John Waters who both share their views on the film and their favourite moments.

Photo Gallery (2 minutes, 50 seconds)

Original Theatrical Trailer (4 minutes, 10 seconds)

Mommie Dearest is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 128 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 5th, 2021

Disney+ Review: Muppets Haunted Mansion

October 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The first ever Halloween special featuring the Muppets, Muppets Haunted Mansion is a pretty irresistible crossover event that serves as both a return to form for Jim Henson’s creations, and also a fine tribute to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

The special is set in a Muppet version of the Haunted Mansion, where The Great Gonzo has accepted a challenge to spend the entirety of Halloween night. Joined by Pepe the King Prawn, Gonzo is eager to show his friends that he is truly fearless by surviving the night amongst the “grim grinning ghosts” that inhabit the place.

This simple but enjoyable setup allows the special to pay tribute to the Haunted Mansion (and its different iterations at other Disney Parks outside of the original in California). The production design itself is pretty eye-catching, with Muppet characters replacing the busts and portraits of the iconic Disneyland location, and tons of little easter eggs for fans to spot. The special is at its best when Gonzo and Pepe are exploring the mansion’s different rooms (the stretching room, etc.), mirroring the experience of visitors touring the real life attraction.

While Gonzo and Pepe are very much the main characters here (there are a couple of meta jokes about some of the others not getting much screen time), we do get fun appearances from Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie in different roles. They are joined by a human cast that includes Will Arnett serving as a tour guide and “Ghost Host,” Darren Criss as a singing groundskeeper tasked with engraving the tombstones, and Yvette Nicole Brown as the driver. There is also a plum role for Taraji P. Henson as the Bride, and a host of other celebrity cameos throughout.

The special is directed by Kirk R. Thatcher, who has a long history with the Muppets that includes co-writing the screenplay for Muppet Treasure Island, directing the TV movies It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, and helming the previous holiday special A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. So it’s really no surprise that Muppets Haunted Mansion occupies classic Muppet territory.

The screenplay (which is credited to Thatcher alongside Pepe performer Bill Barretta and writer Kelly Younger) features all of the puns and plays on words that you would expect from the Muppets, with a story that also works in a moral or two about facing your fears. The special strikes a good balance between comedy and also some moments of spookiness that are befitting of the setting. It’s kept mostly humorous and family friendly, of course, but there is a definite Halloween vibe to it that I found quite appealing.

Thatcher packs a lot into the special’s fifty minute running time, keeping things moving at a good pace and always offering something to either catch our eye or tickle the funny bone. As is to be expected with a Muppets presentation, music also plays a key role in Muppets Haunted Mansion. We are treated to some lively musical numbers that will leave you humming along, including the three very enjoyable new songs “Rest In Peace,” “Life Hereafter” and “Tie The Knot Tango,” as well as a jaunty cover of old classic “Dancing in the Moonlight” that bookends the special.

This truly is a special made for fans of the Muppets, and as a lifelong fan, I found it to be a delight from start to finish. It does an excellent job of working in elements of the Disneyland attraction (the Haunted Mansion episode of the Disney+ series Behind the Attraction would be a good companion piece), while offering appearances from a variety of beloved Muppet characters. It also simply works on its own terms as a very entertaining Halloween special that can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages. Put simply, Muppets Haunted Mansion is a lot of fun.

Muppets Haunted Mansion will be available to stream exclusively on Disney+ as of October 8th.

VOD Review: Adventures of a Mathematician

October 1, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Written and directed by German filmmaker Thor Klein, Adventures of a Mathematician is a biopic of Stanislaw Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), a Polish-Jewish immigrant who worked on the Manhattan Project and was one of the scientists who helped develop the hydrogen bomb.

Klein’s screenplay details how Ulam, who fled Europe and came to America with his younger brother Adam (Mateusz Wieclawek) in the 1930s, went from a career in academia to a job in Los Alamos, New Mexico working on a secret project for the U.S. government, trying to beat the Germans to create the first atomic bombs.

The film also covers his marriage to French student Francoise (Esther Garrel); his friendship with fellow Manhattan Project scientist John von Neumann (Fabian Kociecki), with whom he would go on to help develop important advancements in computer technology; as well as his professional rivalry with Edward Teller (Joel Basman), whose vociferous drive to create nuclear weapons conflicts with Ulam’s more trepidatious moral questioning.

While J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Ryan Gage in a brief role) is the more famous person behind these experiments, Ulam himself is an interesting dramatic figure due to his internal conflicts. Named after his autobiography, Adventures of a Mathematician presents him as neither hero nor villain, but rather as a brilliant but conflicted man tasked with helping create something that could potentially end the world. In its strongest moments, the film grapples with the philosophical question of whether it was right for Ulam to use his intellect to help perfect a weapon that would be used to kill countless people in Japan, while acknowledging that if he didn’t do the calculations, someone else surely would have.

The biggest flaw in Klein’s film, as intriguing as it is at times, is that it feels like somewhat of an underdeveloped template overall. The story keeps jumping forward in time by months and even years, and without the dates onscreen telling us where we are at, we would be completely lost. The film is only about a hundred minutes long, and this bare bones structure keeps it from being an even more complex portrait of its subject. A side plot involving Ulam trying to help his sister and parents flee Poland feels particularly underdeveloped, as does the characterization of his brother Adam.

This is a film that spans historic events such as World War II, the Holocaust, the Trinity bomb tests and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but they are all kept offscreen. The film instead unfolds mainly as a series of conversations about these topics, which isn’t a bad approach in and of itself. The dialogue is a bit on the nose at times, but other scenes are quite effective, as Klein does a good job of staging some engaging moral conversations around the use of the bombs these men helped create.

Some of the relationships and other figures depicted in the film could have been more fleshed out, and elements of the story feel rushed. But Adventures of a Mathematician still functions as a decent biopic that grapples with some weighty historical topics that continue to have modern relevance. It features a fine performance by Tlokinski, who is complimented by handsome production design that captures the time period well, and some surprisingly good cinematography by Tudor Vladimir Panduru.

As a side note, it was recently announced that Christopher Nolan’s next film will be a biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and knowing this makes Adventures of a Mathematician feel like a good appetizer to what will surely be a fuller meal.

Adventures of a Mathematician is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

Blu-ray Review: The Forever Purge

September 29, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The tagline for The Forever Purge, the somewhat mediocre fifth film in the horror franchise that started in 2013, might as well be “the purge in daylight.”

The film’s main selling point (and the point that is brought up in the bonus features) is the opportunity to see the grisly violence and creative kills that make up the series being carried out during the day, with the annual government-sanctioned killing spree being pushed beyond the designated twelve hours overnight.

Following the pretty good 2018 prequel The First Purge, The Forever Purge is a direct sequel to the 2016 instalment The Purge: Election Year. The New Founding Fathers of America have come back into power, ushering in a renewed sense of nationalism to fuel the yearly bloodbath.

This instalment is set in a Texas border town, and focuses on Juan (Tenoch Huerta) and Adela (Ana de la Reguera), a Mexican immigrant couple who made the dangerous trek across the border to escape cartel violence. Juan works as a farmhand for a wealthy white ranching family, while Adela works in a meat-packing plant, and they are about to experience their first Purge in America.

Juan and Adela survive the night locked down in a guarded facility for immigrants. But the violence doesn’t stop at sunrise, and a white nationalist group calling themselves the Purge Purification Force decides to keep the Purge going indefinitely as a way to racially purify the country, by killing everyone who isn’t an American. The ranch is attacked, forcing Juan and Adela to team up with rancher Dylan Tucker (Josh Lucas) and his pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) to survive as the country collapses and descends into chaos around them.

The first Purge film was essentially a high concept, low budget home invasion thriller, and by now the series has settled into its niche of mixing social commentary, political satire and torture porn (a bit here involving a goat cage rivals Saw for the latter category) to mixed effect. This film takes the franchise’s premise of a night when all crime is legal and expands it to its logical conclusion of the Purge eventually exacerbating a complete social collapse in America, instead of restoring order as the New Founding Fathers initially intended.

Director Everardo Valerio Gout (series creator James DeMonaco stays on as screenwriter) does stage some decent action set-pieces in The Forever Purge, and the film has a sort of neo-Western vibe to it that does differentiate it from the others in the series. The daylight setting also allows us to really see the creepy costumes (designed by Leah Butler) that have become a staple of the franchise. There are some interesting score elements by The Newton Brothers as well, including a sequence where a side character calls out the sounds of different gunshots as if they are part of an orchestra.

All that said, there is a sense of the concept behind the series being stretched thin in The Forever Purge, and despite the new elements, there is a largely formulaic feel to most of it. While the film does deserve some props for introducing timely themes of bigotry and racism towards Mexican immigrants, the social commentary is heavy-handed, and the extreme violence becomes numbing after a certain point. More hardcore fans of the series might get what they want out of it, but The Forever Purge ultimately can’t help but feel like a somewhat needless spinoff.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a small but decent selection of bonus material. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package.

Alternate Storyboard Opening (1 minute, 40 seconds)

Deleted Scene (1 minute, 36 seconds)

Collapsing the System: Behind The Forever Purge (8 minutes, 0 seconds): A broad look behind the scenes of the film, offering a deeper look at a few of the set-pieces and the stylistic choices made by Mexican-American director Everardo Valerio Gout and his crew.

Creeptastic Wardrobe (2 minutes, 6 seconds): Costume designer Leah Butler discusses designing the costumes for the film (including those creepy butcher bunnies), and taking advantage of the daylight setting and Western-inspired themes.

Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes, 30 seconds)

The Forever Purge is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 104 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: September 28th, 2021

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