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Blu-ray Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

February 20, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

At the start of Roman J. Isreal, Esq., the title character (Denzel Washington) is drafting a criminal case against himself that would have him disbarred from practising law, which he plans on defending and prosecuting himself.  The film then jumps back in time to show us the series of events that led to him making this decision.

Roman J. Israel is a brilliant but socially awkward defence attorney and civil rights activist in Los Angeles, who has spent several decades working mostly behind the scenes at the same firm, but is left out in the cold after his partner has a heart attack.  Roman ends up being brought in by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick and ruthless lawyer who puts him on a criminal case, that leads him down a path that threatens to derail his entire career.

The second film directed by screenwriter Dan Gilroy, following his stunning 2014 debut Nightcrawler, Roman J. Isreal, Esq. is a gripping legal thriller, that keeps us engaged thanks to a fine script and an excellent lead performance.  Denzel Washington is mesmerizing to watch in the title role, brilliantly portraying a character who appears to be on the autism spectrum, often embarrassing himself in social situations while also maintaining a sort of stringent idealism in the work that he does.  It’s no surprise that the actor got his eighth Oscar nomination for his work here.

The film has a somewhat offbeat tone, oscillating between legal drama, crime thriller, and even having moments of eccentric character comedy.  But this constantly shifting tone matches the title character himself, who is constantly at odds with the world around him.  Although set in modern times, the film has a 1970s look and feel to it, emboldened by Roman’s out of date three-piece suits and his oversized glasses, instantly showing us that this character is averse, or maybe clueless, to change.  It’s literally like he is stuck in a different era, unsure of how to adapt to the modern world.

​I actually liked this film quite a bit more than I expected to, especially after the disappointing reception that it initially got at TIFF.  It’s an intriguing work that is bolstered by one of the best performances of last year.  Roman himself is a fascinating figure, a man with no apparent family who has chosen to forgo interpersonal relationships in favour of his career, and now risks having it all fall apart due to a single bad decision.  The story keeps us intrigued to see where it will go next, but Denzel Washington is the real reason to see this film.  It’s his film through and through, and he is gripping to watch.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of deleted scenes and the three featurettes Denzel Washington: Becoming Roman, The Making of Roman J. Isreal, Esq., and Colin Farrel: Discovering George.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 122 minutes and rated PG.

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Blu-ray Review: Marshall

February 20, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Taking place thirteen years before he would become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1954, Marshall focuses on a court case from earlier on in the career of famed civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman).

The year is 1940, and Marshall is working for the NAACP in Baltimore, when he is sent to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a young black chauffeur who is accused of raping and attempting to murder his wealthy employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), but insists that he is innocent and has been falsely accused.

Marshall’s partner on the case is the young Jewish lawyer Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), an insurance attorney who has never argued in a criminal court, and together they mount a defence of Spell, but the odds are stacked against them.  The two lawyers have to go up against a jury that sympathizes with Strubing merely for the fact that she is white, and they face a tough prosecutor in Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), who makes no secret of his racial bias, while also having to contend with racist and anti-Semitic attacks due to their public involvement in the case.

Thurgood Marshall is of course famous for his work on Brown v. the Board of Education, a landmark case which in itself would have made for a gripping film.  But by focusing on a lesser known case from earlier in his career, Marshall is able to unfold with a certain level of mystery, while also working as a character study of him as a person.  Chadwick Boseman – who is currently riding high after a mammoth opening weekend for Black Panther – brings texture to his portrayal of this historical giant, imbuing him with a level of quiet confidence behind his determination to preserve justice.  Josh Gad also shines in a rare dramatic performance, and they are backed up by solid performances from the supporting cast.

The flashbacks showing what happened on the night in question feel somewhat cheesy, and the film doesn’t flesh out all of its supporting characters as well as it perhaps could have, at times feeling more like the first episode of a mini-series.  But Marshall functions as a fairly engaging and well acted legal drama, that finds its rhythm in the courtroom scenes.  The film is able to maintain interest in the proceedings, unfolding with the feel of a good old fashioned procedural.

The film also takes on added relevance now in the midst of the #MeToo movement, where the court of public opinion reigns supreme, reminding us of the importance of due process, even in cases of sexual assault where the media has already decided the guilt of the accused.  This is altogether a decent legal drama, that is worth seeing for another magnetic performance by Chadwick Boseman.  The film also received an Oscar nomination for the song “Stand Up for Something,” which plays over the end credits and is performance by Common and Diane Warren.

The Blu-ray includes no bonus features.

Marshall is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 118 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Only the Brave

February 20, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, Only the Brave is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a group of local firefighters in Prescott, Arizona led by team captain Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin).  Tired of being outranked by the California Hot Shots, Marsh works closely with Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) and the town’s mayor (Forrest Fyre) to elevate their division to Type 1 status.

The film also focuses on the friendship that forms between Marsh and new recruit Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug addict who joins the firefighters after getting his girlfriend (Natalie Hall) pregnant, so that he can help support their child.  McDonough is out of shape and is at first treated like an outcast, but he rigorously trains with them to become an invaluable part of the team.

The film does a good job of balancing the human drama elements of the story – including a subplot involving Marsh’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connely), who’s coming to regret their choice not to start a family – with the excitement of the forest fire scenes.  The excellent ensemble cast does fine work portraying the camaraderie that forms between these men, which adds to the suspense felt during the intense fire sequences, and allows us to become even more emotionally invested in their plight.

The Granite Mountain Hot Shots are best known for their involvement in fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, and those who remember the true story will already know the tragic outcome of the film.  The final few scenes are handled respectfully and in a very moving way, showing the bravery and sacrifice of these men, and paying tribute to the real people behind the story over the closing credits.  Bolstered by solid performances, and featuring some immersive and impressively shot scenes in the midst of the forest fires, this is an engaging and emotionally resonant drama.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with director Joseph Kosinski and Josh Brolin, a selection of deleted scenes, the featurettes Honouring the Heroes: The True Stories, Behind the Brotherhood: The Characters and Boot Camp: Becoming a Hotshot, as well as the Dierks Bentley music video “Hold the Light” and a featurette on the video.

Only the Brave is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 134 minutes and rated PG.

Review: Early Man

February 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest claymation feature from Aardman, and the first directed by Nick Park since helming the animation studio’s Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, Early Man is a delightful caveman comedy that boasts their trademark mix of clever visual humour and witty one-liners.

Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the members of an unadvanced Stone Age tribe, who are presided over by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), and struggle to even complete their simple tasks of hunting rabbits.  They are simple cavemen, after all.

But when their valley is invaded by the pompous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who hails from the Bronze Age and wants to mine it for resources, they end up having to compete in a football match in order to get their land back.  Along the way, Dug also meets Goona (Maisie Williams), a young woman who becomes an invaluable companion as his tribe trains to defeat the more sophisticated Bronze Agers on the football field.  What follows is essentially an underdog sports movie, playing out in Aardman’s signature claymation style.

While this might not be Aardman’s most sophisticated work – the plot is fairly simplistic, and it’s pretty predictable how things are going to turn out – the film more than makes up for this with a fast pace and a great sense of humour.  The look of Early Man will be immediately familiar to all fans of Aardman’s playful stop-motion animation and stylized character designs, from the wide mouths and exaggerated noses on the humans, to the buck-toothed bunnies that look like they hopped right out of Curse of the Were-Rabbit.  Even Dug’s animal companion Hognob, a pig whose grunts are provided by Nick Park himself, recalls Gromit in both his look and behaviour.

The whole cast seems to be having a lot of fun with their roles, right down to Rob Brydon’s animated equivalent of a scene-stealing performance as the Message Bird, a delightful avian character who flies about delivering messages and mimicking an answering machine.  The film is chock full of Aardman’s unique brand of inventive sight gags and punny lines, and it’s an amusing delight to watch.  I had a smile on my face throughout, and found myself chuckling constantly.  It’s simply a lot of fun.

Three Views: Black Panther

February 16, 2018

Black Panther Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Picking up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, when Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) witnessed his father King T’Chaka (John Kani) get killed in an explosion in Vienna, forcing him to assume the role of Black Panther, Black Panther offers a standalone adventure for the title superhero that injects fresh blood into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The much hyped release is the studio’s first film helmed by a black director, Creed and Fruitvale Station filmmaker Ryan Coogler, and also their first film with a predominantly black cast.  Propped up by the excellent cast and solid direction, Black Panther serves as both a celebration of African culture, and also a solid action movie that feels a little grittier than the other films in the MCU.

Near the beginning of the film, we get a visually arresting prologue that takes us through the history of Wakanda, an isolated African nation built on a rich supply of the powerful metal vibranium, which has allowed them to become highly technologically advanced.  This is where much of the film takes place.  T’Challa returns to his birth place of Wakanda to assume the role of king, in a ritualistic ceremony lorded over by the elder Zuri (Forest Whitaker) where he is challenged for his spot on the throne.

When Wakanda is threatened by a powerful adversary, King T’Challa must don the suit and claws of the Black Panther, and work alongside the powerful warrior women of the Dora Milaje led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), to protect their nation.  The villain is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former black-ops soldier gone rogue who teams up with South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to steal a piece of vibranium from a British museum’s display of African artifacts, and plans to take over Wakanda and have the nation rule the world.

Killmonger is a tortured figure who has taken identity politics to their natural limits, and his extremist ideologies about race have led him down a dark path, wanting to use the powerful weapons of Wakanda to start an uprising and get revenge on Western civilization for current and past oppressions against his people.  The fact that the villain is given such depth is a big part of what makes Black Panther work as well as it does, and Killmonger is fascinatingly portrayed as a broken young man who sees his natural place as being a king, but is too damaged to know what this really means.​  T’Challa and Killmonger are like mirror images of each other, and this is one of the most compelling aspects of the film.

Wakanda is an interesting place in that the lack of outside interference has allowed its citizens to flourish on their own.  Because the nation was never colonized, it was allowed to prosper and function entirely of its own accord, and they have closed themselves off from the rest of the world, lest their vast natural resources be taken from them.  They don’t want to bring in any immigrants, and are reluctant to use their highly advanced technology to help the rest of the world, for fear that it will be stolen from them and their carefully maintained order will be disrupted.  But Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy and close ally of T’Challa, sees the nation as having a responsibility to share their resources and help those in need, and wants them to change their isolationist policies.

The appeal of Black Panther lies in the fact that it offers something a bit different and more grounded than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with car chases and hand to hand combat that could have come out of a James Bond movie.  There’s even a fun sequence where T’Challa’s tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) shows all of the new gadgets that she has invented for him.  Ryan Coogler directs the film with confidence, showing a strong ability to deliver memorable set-pieces, a talent that was also on display in the fight sequences of his Rocky spinoff Creed.  An impressively choreographed fight in a casino that is made to look like a single take is an especially cool example of his directing prowess, and it’s followed by a tense high speed chase through the streets of Busan.

As we already know from his excellent portrayals of Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up, Chadwick Boseman is a magnetic performer.  The actor ably carries much of Black Panther on his shoulders, and he ensures that T’Challa is a hero worth rooting for, while also portraying him with a sense of vulnerability and humanity that makes him relatable.  Michael B. Jordan does standout work as the film’s main villain, brilliantly portraying the tragic underpinnings and conflicted motivations of his character in a way that even evokes moments of sympathy, and continuing to impress after his previous collaborations with Ryan Coogler in Creed and Fruitvale Station.

The costumes and production design offer a colourful feast for the eyes, and Rachel Morrison’s vibrant cinematography makes it all pop.  The film does lose some of its steam at points, and there are moments when we start to feel the effects of the 135 minute running time.  I found my attention drifting at times, and the film can get bogged down by spending a little too much time with scenes in the council chamber discussing Wakandan politics.  But slight bumps aside, Black Panther is still easily worth seeing, and has plenty of elements to like and even admire about it.  It’s well acted, solidly directed, has some cool action sequences, and a villain who is far more interesting than the typical bad guy.

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Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) in Black Panther

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Black Panther Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

At the beginning of Black Panther, T’Challa is dealing with his father’s death and being handed down the keys to the kingdom, having to prove his worth for the throne by fighting any challenger before being crowned king.  As King of Wakanda, T’Challa becomes in charge of the most powerful nation in the world, that the rest of the world doesn’t know about.  Their wealth and technology – which is far more advanced than anything else on Earth – comes from an ancient meteorite crash that gave them riches of Vibranium, (same element Captain America’s shield is made of), which has extreme properties of strength and use for medical and technological marvels.

The character of the Black Panther/T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War, a film I would highly recommend checking out before this one if you get a chance, as a lot of what T’Challa is dealing with comes directly from the events of that film.  This time around in his standalone film, Black Panther plays as both an origin story, and also a sequel to previous events.

The majority of the film takes place within Wakanda and with the Wakandan’s own people, however influences from the outside world threaten to reveal them and/or send the planet into chaos.  A few outside people do know of the wealth of Vibranium from Wakanda and want it for themselves, including Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who also believes he should have a claim to the Wakandan throne himself.  In addition, CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) also gets mixed up in the fight.

Black Panther is a visually arresting film, from the set design, to the costumes.  The world of Wakanda is an immersive mix of natural formations and technology, and the blend is both unique and reminiscent of the blend of metal and rock in Asgaard.  In a way, Black Panther reminded me a bit of Thor, if to be compared to another of the Marvel outings, in that it becomes very much a family and ‘power for the throne’ based fight within its own nation.

The characters are what make the film so interesting though.  Both within Wakanda and outside of it, we get many different viewpoints on what a nation should do with its resources and place in the world.  T’Challa as a young king is often trying to figure out where he falls on all this, listening often to his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who is quite dismissive of the rest of the world, his friend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who believes Wakanda with its resources has a responsibility to become more involved in humanitarian efforts, and his father’s old confidant Zuri (Forest Whitaker) who knows more about Klaue than he initially reveals.  Meanwhile, other tribes within Wakanda have different views and lust for power as well, including the more traditional M’Baku (Winston Duke).

From the outside world, we get a complete outsider’s view through Everett K. Ross’ eyes, and also the outside view of Wakanda and the outside world that Killmonger brings in with him.  Throughout a film that is very action-set-piece driven – and often hand-to-hand combat – topics on how we should use the past to treat the future, and what right that gives us to make decisions, is an interesting one that we hear from more than one side on.  And in Killmonger we get an antagonist who we can easily believe believes he is doing what needs to be done, which provides an interesting look at how people like T’Challa can oppose something that may have been sparked from the idea of an ideal or righting past wrongs, but has been taken too far.

Overall, Black Panther is another solid outing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, far above films like Ultron.  For the music, visuals, and scope of the film, it is well-worth checking out in a theatre, providing an entertaining time that delivers on all fronts of story, characters, and action.

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Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Black Panther

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Black Panther Review By Tony Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The latest Marvel film Black Panther has T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) taking the throne of the African country Wakanda upon the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in an explosion. Wakanda is a federation of five tribes. The Jabari tribe choose to live traditionally while the other four tribes have used the vast reserves of vibranium from a huge ancient meteorite to develop the world’s most technologically advanced nation cloaked to appear to the outside world as just another backward African country. Vibranium is not only a super strong metal but also a near infinite energy source.

Women play a strong role in Wakanda, including T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) – the best Black technology genius since Barney (Greg Morris, and his son in the remake) a half century back in Mission: Impossible, and the fierce palace guards led by General Okoye (Danae Gurira). The returning expat spy Nakia (Lukita Nyong’o) is obviously a very close friend. Before taking the throne, T’Challa must defeat any challenger in hand-to-hand fighting, overseen by the court elder Zuri (Forest Whitaker). The Jabari chief M’Baku (Winston Duke) takes the challenge.

Based on a flashback early in the film, another expat with a grudge against the T’Chaka dynasty has grown up in the west as a special ops commando aptly named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), whose upper body is covered with scars marking his kills. He has teamed up with the South African thug Klaue (Andy Serkis), whose left arm hacked off in a previous comic had been replaced with an awesome alien weapon. They hope to take control of Wakanda and change its isolationist policy into worldwide Black domination.

As a Disney property, Marvel has followed other Disney-owned studios in recent films like Moana and Coco by using indigenous talent in appreciation rather than appropriation of their cultures, a welcome step away from earlier stereotypes, e.g. Pocahontas. The brilliant young African American director Ryan Coogler has also used women extensively behind the camera, including his usual cinematographer Rachel Morrison and African American production and costume designers Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter respectively, who sampled the best of various African styles in their designs.

As a person with a good ear for dialects, I was particularly impressed with how well nearly every actor spoke with an accent that was not their own, from Martin Freeman as an earnest but relatively clueless CIA agent, to the Afrikaans accent of Andy Serkis and the Wakanda accent based on native speakers of the southern African click (!) language !Khosa. To accompany the dialogue and action sounds, the soundtrack assembled by Kendrick Lamar stands alone as a fine collection of urban music.

Black Panther has been widely anticipated as a celebration of people of African heritage taking major roles in the world of superheroes. With a more plausible story requiring real acting from the fine cast, and reliance on action scenes with real fighting rather than comic book fantasy, it is a refreshing change from some of the other Avenger films, not to be missed.

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Consensus:​ Boasting solid direction by Ryan Coogler, exciting action sequences, and an excellent cast led by Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan who bring depth to both the hero and villain, Black Panther is an entertaining and very well made action movie that injects fresh blood into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. ★★★½ (out of 4)

Review: Poop Talk

February 16, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The title of Poop Talk provides the most apt description of what this documentary is about.  Directed by Aaron N. Feldman, who closely collaborated with brothers Randy and Jason Sklar on the project, the film features a bunch of stand up comics talking about, you guessed it, poop.

The subjects include a range of familiar names and faces – Eric Stonestreet, Nick Swarsdon, Kumail Nanjiani and Rob Corddry, to name but a few – and the topics they discuss include their daily habits, their bathroom horror stories, as well as their general thoughts on doing their business and whether or not it’s appropriate to talk about it as part of their act.

There are some amusing anecdotes, and a few funny moments here and there, mainly because the majority of the people being interviewed are naturally humorous people.  But the film as a whole feels scattershot, and it strains our interest, even at a mercilessly short 69 minutes.  The film lacks much of a focus besides just being a bunch of conversations built around scatological humour, which can get tiresome after a while.

What more can I really say about this film?  It’s called Poop Talk, and is literally exactly what it sounds like.  That’s all you really need to know.  If the title amuses you enough to want to see the film, then you might get some giggles out of it.  But if that title makes you roll your eyes, then you probably don’t really need to waste your time actually watching it.

Poop Talk is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto, and is also being released simultaneously on digital platforms today.

Blu-ray Review: Suburbicon

February 14, 2018

By John Corrado

Directed by George Clooney, working from a decades old script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Suburbicon takes place in a seemingly idyllic 1950s community made up of white families and cookie cutter houses, that is rocked not only by a brutal invasion at the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), but also by the arrival of the neighbourhood’s first black family.

Like many critics, I had a lot of problems with Suburbicon, starting with the fact that it feels like two different movies that never really come together.  The film as a whole is kind of a hot mess, but it has some moments, and is somewhat of an interesting misfire that is mildly worth a look for curious viewers, if only to try and parse out what went wrong.  You can read my full review of the film right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with George Clooney and co-writer/producer Grant Heslov, as well as three featurettes.  Welcome to Suburbicon is a half-hour piece that covers a wide range of topics, not only discussing the film’s 1950s production design and tricky tonal balance, but also the real life inspiration behind the story and how they wove in actual archival footage of white residents reacting adversely to their neighbourhood becoming integrated from the documentary Crisis in Levittown; The Unusual Suspects: Casting focuses on the film’s all-star cast; and Scoring Suburbicon features composer Alexandre Desplat discussing his music for the film.

These featurettes – especially the first one – offer an interesting look at how the film came together, shedding some more light on the production and why George Clooney chose to tell this story.  They actually made me wish that the film itself had been better.  So if you do watch Suburbicon, it’s worth sticking around for the bonus features afterwards.

Suburbicon is an Elevation Pictures release.  It’s 105 minutes and rated 14A.

Blu-ray Review: The Deuce: The Complete First Season

February 13, 2018

By John Corrado

Titled after the nickname given to the area of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, back when New York was still a grimy hotbed of sex and drugs before it got cleaned up in the 1980s, The Deuce is an HBO series that takes place in 1971 and focuses on the early days of the porn industry.  The complete first season is now available on Blu-ray.

Created by David Simon, a former police reporter who is best known for being the creative force behind The Wire, The Deuce tells a dramatized account of how New York City’s prostitution rings and adult movie houses helped the porn industry rise to prominence throughout the 1970s.

The show follows a cast of hookers, pimps, bartenders and police officers, and it’s carried by an excellent ensemble, with James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal – who also both serve as producers – at the centre of it all.  James Franco impresses in a dual role as twins Vinnie and Frankie Martino, the former a bartender who purchases a failing gay bar and transforms it into a booming hot spot, and the latter a grifter who convinces his brother to get into the sex trade by signing the lease on a brothel.​  The actor also serves as director on two of the episodes.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is equally excellent as Candy, a single mother who sells her body for money, but keeps a greater level of autonomy by insisting on working for herself and refusing to have a pimp.  As the show goes on, Candy enters into an unlikely partnership with Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz), a porno filmmaker who is breaking new ground by pushing the boundaries of the decency laws, which made it illegal to show certain acts in pornography at the time.

The show deals with a lot of heavy topics including the exploitation of women that exist in these industries, and The Deuce doesn’t shy away from showing the dark realities of sex work, with several shocking moments when these sexual encounters turn disturbingly violent.   The series also shines a light on the experimentation with heavy drugs that was prevalent at the time, as well as the slow but steady progress being made by the gay rights movement two years after the Stonewall riots.

This is a lot of ground to cover, but The Deuce does an excellent job of juggling these multiple characters and storylines, building upon them throughout each of the eight episodes.  By taking the time to develop all of its players equally,​ instead of relying on subplots that go nowhere, the show successfully avoids falling into the same trap as some multi character dramas, with little in the way of filler.

​The production design does an excellent job of capturing the seediness of New York circa the 1970s, when Times Square was still an epicentre of depravity and not the brightly coloured tourist hub that it is today.  This is an entertaining and involving series, that maintains a high level of quality throughout all eight episodes, and it’s worth seeing for the engaging characters and excellent performances.

The 3-disc Blu-ray set also includes a brief featurette to accompany each of the eight episodes, as well as commentary tracks on the first and last episodes, and the two featurettes The Wild West: New York in the Early ’70’s and The Deuce in Focus on the last disc.

The Deuce: The Complete First Season is an HBO release.  It’s 500 minutes and rated 18A.

Review: Wonder

February 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The first time we see August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) in Wonder, he is jumping on the bed, with his head floating up and down in slow motion in front of the stars painted on his wall, and his face obscured by a plastic astronaut helmet.  Auggie is a lot like other kids his age in that he loves learning about space and science, spends his free time playing Minecraft, and is obsessed with Star Wars.

The only thing separating him from the other kids is that he was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that has caused him to undergo countless surgeries, and has left him with extreme craniofacial deformities.  But Auggie wants nothing more than to be able to fit in, and we soon find out that he prefers to cover his head with an astronaut helmet so that people won’t be able stare at his face, as they are apt to do.

Based on R.J. Palacio’s bestselling children’s novel of the same name, Wonder is an enjoyable feel good film that carries with it a positive message about acceptance and inclusion.   Auggie lives in an upper middle class neighbourhood in Manhattan with his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), father Nate (Owen Wilson) and his teenaged sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  The story unfolds over an academic year, and begins with Auggie about to start school for the first time, after years of being homeschooled by his mother, who sacrificed her own career in order to take care of him.

Auggie not only finds himself dealing with the usual middle school struggles of trying to make friends and being the new kid in class, but also has to face the added hurdles of getting mercilessly bullied and being inundated with a barrage of cruel comments about his appearance.  The film also branches off to show us what’s happening in the lives of those around him, even sometimes showing the same events from a different viewpoint, and this gives added perspective to the story as a whole.

We see how Via struggles for parental attention alongside her high needs sibling, while also coping with her own drama involving a falling out with her former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and falling for a guy named Justin (Nadji Jeter) who encourages her to join the school theatre club.  This Rashomon-like structure also allows for greater insight into Auggie’s classmate Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who starts off as his friend, before Auggie overhears a mean conversation while he is hidden behind a mask on Halloween that leaves him feeling betrayed.

I read the book a few years ago when it first came out, and for the most part I think the film does justice to the source material.  Directed by Stephen Chbosky, delivering his first film since making waves with an exceptional adaptation of his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012, Wonder handles its sensitive subject matter very well.  Yes, the story is fictitious, but Treacher Collins is a real disorder, so obviously great pains had to be taken to depict it respectfully.  Auggie’s facial differences are tastefully achieved through Oscar-nominated makeup and prosthetics, and his features are pronounced enough to be jarring at first, but also subtle enough so that we get used to the them as the film goes on.

The film is carried by a likeable performance from Jacob Tremblay, whose bright screen presence shines through from under the layers of makeup and prosthetics, and the young actor is backed up by nice work from the supporting cast.  Julia Roberts wonderfully portrays the maternal love of her character, able to show how much she cares for her son with merely a look or a tight embrace.  Owen Wilson provides some warm comic relief in another one of his charming dad roles, and Izabela Vidovic brings some nice shades to her role as the older sister.

Last but certainly not least, Mandy Patinkin helps round out the adult cast with an excellent supporting role as the school principal Mr. Tushman, with one of the film’s best scenes being when he confronts the school bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), a snotty rich kid who sucks up to adults while acting cruelly around the other kids.  The way that Patinkin’s brow furrows, as profound disappointment and even sympathy subtly flash across his face, really helps to elevate this scene.

A few of the film’s more whimsical stylistic touches, like when Auggie imagines being accompanied to school by Chewbacca, don’t quite work, and the film does feel a bit saccharine at times.  But there’s also an earnestness to Wonder that actually makes it refreshing to watch.  This is a film that’s completely free of cynicism, and it’s also very much made for an all ages audience, meaning that pretty much everyone who sees it can get something out of it.  It’s a nice movie, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The film works because its main characters are kind and decent people, and not only do we genuinely want the best for them, but we also don’t mind spending time with them for a few hours.  This is a sweet and charming film that generates compassion and empathy, gently reminding us to treat others with kindness and respect.  The book succeeded by asking its readers to “choose kind,” and Wonder succeeds as a movie by asking the audience to do the same thing.

Wonder is being released on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow.

Review: Fake Blood

February 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Rob Grant and Mike Kovac are a pair of friends and independent filmmakers from Vancouver, and at the beginning of their documentary project Fake Blood, Rob tells us in voiceover that they are no longer on speaking terms.

The film then goes back to tell us what happened to sever their friendship.  After releasing their film Mon Ami in 2012, a darkly comedic thriller about two friends who accidentally kill their boss’s daughter after kidnapping her and find gruesome ways to dispose of the body, they received a disturbing fan video from a man musing about what tools he would use to dismember a corpse.

This leaves them questioning if the gore they are putting onscreen is potentially inspiring real life violence, and they start asking themselves if they have an obligation to present violent acts in a more realistic and less appealing way.  The genesis of Fake Blood sees the two filmmakers exploring violence in real life versus how it is depicted in popular culture.  They visit a shooting range so that they can try their hand at firing real guns, and go to a dojo to see what it’s like to get punched.  But things take a dark turn when they reach out to a real life criminal in order to get his take on movie violence, pushing the film in a shocking direction.

Watching Fake Blood, which is presented in the form of a documentary and keeps twisting in on itself in increasingly meta ways, it’s impossible to tell where the line between reality and fiction ends, or if there even is a line at all.  The film leaves us wondering how much of this is real, or if some of the details have been exaggerated to make for a better story, and it’s a conceit that the film handles exceptionally well.  If this is a mockumentary, then it’s a damn fine one at that, and if this is all real then it becomes all the more terrifying.  Like Catfish and Kung Fu Elliot before it, the film does remarkable things with the nonfiction format.

Even if the facts here have been embellished, and it’s left up to the viewer to decide, Fake Blood still functions as a wholly fascinating and thought provoking exploration of how violence is depicted in the media.  Does movie violence cause real life violence?  Well, it certainly desensitizes us to it, or at the very least causes us to have unrealistic ideas about the impact of it, especially when shootouts are shown with no actual blood as they often are in Hollywood blockbusters.  As we’re told in the film, movie violence isn’t likely to cause real life violence in people who otherwise aren’t prone to it, but it certainly has the power to change the way people who are committing violent acts might behave.

This is an incredible exercise in horror filmmaking, delivering something that’s inventive, unpredictable, and even truly terrifying.  For a tight, nerve-wracking 81 minutes, Fake Blood keeps us in utter suspense, never sure of what is going to happen next.  It’s a positively gripping film, and one that should be seen knowing as little about the outcome as possible.

Fake Blood is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto, and will be released digitally on February 13th.

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