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Blu-ray Review: Friday the 13th: 40th Anniversary Edition Steelbook

June 16, 2020

By John Corrado

The 1980 slasher movie Friday the 13th, which spawned a long-running franchise and has become a staple of the horror genre, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. In honour of the occasion, Paramount is reissuing the uncut version of the film on Blu-ray in a nice new Steelbook edition.

Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, the film follows a group of teenaged camp counsellors who are trying to re-open the long shuttered Camp Crystal Lake, which was abandoned after a drowning and double murder there years before. They ignore the warnings of local townsfolk who try to tell them that the place is cursed, and reap the consequences as they start getting picked off one by one by a mysterious killer during a raging thunderstorm, over the course of one horrifying night.

The film was made for cheap to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s breakout hit Halloween, which came out two years earlier in 1978 and set the stage for slashers to follow, on a budget of just over half a million dollars. Paramount secured the distribution rights following a bidding war, and Friday the 13th became a major success at the box office upon its release in May of 1980. The film spawned nine direct sequels starting with Friday the 13th Part 2 in 1981, as well as the 2003 crossover movie Freddy vs. Jason, which connected it to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and a 2009 remake.

The longevity of this franchise is part of what has made Friday the 13th so iconic, and it’s not a bad legacy to have for what is essentially a low budget formula picture that follows to a tee the pretty basic template of watching sexually active teenagers being chased and murdered by an insane killer. This is not to diminish its enjoyableness, but the film is pretty campy, especially by current standards, and its forefather Halloween remains a superior entry into the slasher genre.

But Cunningham’s film still provides solid entertainment in its own right, punctuated by some gory kills, a couple of solid jump scares (that one at the end still got me), and a pretty decent last act twist that is to be elaborated on in future instalments. It’s inarguably an ’80s classic, that has gained status over the years as good sleepover horror movie for teenagers looking to get scared.

The Blu-ray also comes with the same bonus features that were on the 2009 release, including a commentary track with director Cunningham joined by other members of the cast and crew. This is followed by the featurettes Friday the 13th Reunion, Fresh Cuts: New Tales from Friday the 13th, The Man Behind the Legacy: Sean S. Cunningham, The Friday the 13th Chronicles, and Secrets Galore Behind the Gore. The short film Lost Tales from Camp Blood – Part 1 is also included.

The package also comes with a code for a digital copy of the film’s theatrical cut, and the Steelbook packaging itself is pretty nice; a black case featuring the original poster artwork on the front, and the classic quote “kill her mommy, kill her” on the back.

Friday the 13th: 40th Anniversary Edition is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 95 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: June 16th, 2020

Blu-ray Review: The Hunt

June 16, 2020

By John Corrado

½ (out of 4)

There are some movies that just can’t seem to catch a break, and The Hunt, director Craig Zobel’s mix of political satire and ultra-violent action thriller which imagines a scenario where “elites” are hunting “deplorables” for sport, seems to be one of them.

The film was meant to open in theatres last September, but a series of mass shootings the month before forced distributor Universal and production company Blumhouse to rethink their marketing for the film, with the trailer having just been released.

Then President Donald Trump took to twitter to suggest that releasing the film would incite further violence, picking up on the not so subtle allegory of the film’s “elites” representing rich Hollywood liberals with the “deplorables” meant to be stand-ins for his own supporters, leading to the studio’s decision to pull the film from its calendar. The film finally opened in theatres on March 13th of this year, only to be met with more bad luck; a few days later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced theatres to close their doors, pushing it to an early digital release.

Now the film is being released on Blu-ray, and the timing still feels off; it’s arriving in the midst of mass protests against police brutality in the United States, making the film’s jokey graphic violence seem even more insensitive. Like I said, The Hunt just can’t seem to catch a break. This is all pretty fascinating in terms of a backstory for the film, and I will admit that it made me intrigued to see it for myself. But with all of this hullabaloo surrounding The Hunt, and the appearance of it being censored by the president no less, it’s frustrating that the film itself isn’t better.

I finally had a chance to watch The Hunt last week and, well, it’s not really good at all. The film, which could be sold as sort of like a mix between The Purge, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, opens with a group of people being taken to a place called The Manor, where they wake up with gags in their mouths in the middle of the sprawling estate. They are supplied with an arsenal of weapons, and it’s not long before they find themselves being shot at, hit with arrows, and facing various other death traps.

This is all part of a twisted game designed to give rich liberals the chance to pick off poor Red State conservatives, who are hunting them to let off steam. The game, which serves as a literal example of class warfare, is being masterminded by Athena (Hillary Swank), a shadowy figure pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Athena meets her match in Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a tough as nails participant who decides to fight back, and a lot of grisly violence ensues as she punches, kicks, stabs and shoots her way out of this sadistic playground.

Some of Trump’s supporters took his side in protesting against the film, but The Hunt could actually be seen as being on the side of the MAGA crowd. It’s damn near impossible to discern whose side the film is supposed to be on or what it’s even trying to say, and while I understand that this ambiguity was fully intended by screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the film is not smart or clever enough to pull it off. What we are left with is an almost incomprehensible jumble of ideas, (there is a pig named Orwell, a blaringly obvious nod to Animal Farm), that thinks it’s saying more than it actually is.

While The Hunt seeks to provide some commentary on our deeply polarized political environment, and the blinding partisanship of both leftists and right-wingers, the script is clunky and obvious. The film often feels like it is going after low hanging fruit with its uses of insults like “libtard” and “snowflake,” while making vague attempts at calling out things like fake news, online conspiracy theories and cancel culture. Gilpin is probably the best thing about the film, and she does make for a decent working class action hero, but the movie around her is too messy to really recommend.

While The Hunt certainly had enough pre-release buzz to pique the interest of potential viewers, and this could certainly help turn it into somewhat of a cult favourite, the story of how it came to be released is ultimately the most interesting thing about it. This is a schlocky, politically charged B-movie that made a lot of noise, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say at all.

The Blu-ray also includes the three featurettes Crafting The Hunt, Death Scene Breakdowns and Athena vs. Crystal: Hunter or Hunted?, which are all quite short.

The Hunt is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 90 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: June 9th, 2020

VOD Review: The King of Staten Island

June 12, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Pete Davidson, the heavily tattooed Saturday Night Live star who has attracted his share of both controversy and dedicated fans over the years for his unique brand of stand-up comedy, takes centre stage in The King of Staten Island, which he co-wrote and based on his own life.

The film is directed by Judd Apatow, who previously helped turn Steve Carell and Seth Rogen into leading men in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, respectively. It also happens to be Apatow’s best film since Funny People over a decade ago, and like that 2009 Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen dramedy, The King of Staten Island offers a satisfying mix of humour and heart.

The film centres around Scott Carlin (Davidson), an aspiring tattoo artist in his mid-twenties who lives in his mom’s basement and spends his time smoking weed and hanging out with his deadbeat buddies. Scott has been drifting through life ever since his firefighter father died in the line of duty when he was seven, an event directly inspired by Davidson’s own life, who lost his firefighter father in 9/11.

Scott’s younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is heading off to college, and is already starting to surpass him in life. He’s sleeping with his childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), but doesn’t want to label their relationship, afraid of committing to anything serious. A loose plot emerges in the film when, through an odd series of circumstances, Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) meets and starts dating a local firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr). Feeling like his mother is trying to replace his dad, with another firefighter no less, Scott becomes jealous and starts trying to intervene in the relationship.

Over the course of the film, Scott must take the first steps towards growing up, and a big part of his character arc involves finally coming to terms with the loss of his father. Davidson is playing a version of himself, and he brings a raw vulnerability to the role, portraying a character who uses sardonic humour to mask his pain. Davidson has made no secret of his substance use and struggles with mental health in real life, and these are openly talked about in the film as well.

Where as Apatow’s Funny People was about confronting mortality, and revealed fresh sides of Adam Sandler’s acting range, The King of Staten Island is, on a deeper level, a film about overcoming trauma and grief, and reveals new shades of what Davidson is capable of. It’s a very strong performance that was presumably quite therapeutic for him to perform and write, (he shares screenplay credits with Apatow and SNL writer Dave Sirus), and he is equally good in the film’s comedic and dramatic scenes, especially in moments when Scott is struggling with his self-worth, beats that he performs quite well.

In terms of the supporting cast, Steve Buscemi does wonderful work as Papa, an older firefighter who knew Scott’s father and takes on a sort of mentor role. Buscemi’s biggest moment is a beautifully written scene in the second half that serves as one of the film’s best moments, as it walks a knife’s edge between being tender, touching and hilarious. Burr has some very funny moments where he spars with Davidson, and it’s also worth singling out Powley, who makes the most of her supporting role and brings a nice sense of depth to her character.

Like all of Apatow’s films, The King of Staten Island at times has the feel of a sprawling, free-wheeling hangout movie, and there are various subplots and story threads which don’t all get resolved. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an even longer cut floating around somewhere, and as it is, the film runs for a whopping 137 minutes long. But this running time also helps us get to know the characters, and by the end of it, I was actually enjoying the film so much that I didn’t really want it to end. There are several truly wonderful moments sprinkled throughout, and it all builds to a few final scenes that are actually quite sweet.

Like its central star, The King of Staten Island is a little rough around the edges, but it’s got a rugged charm to it that I found compelling. The film is often very funny, with Davidson capable of delivering some killer punchlines, but it’s the emotional undercurrent of the film that strings it all together. As a comedy with something deeper and more dramatic going on underneath, and as an excellent showcase for Davidson’s unique talents, The King of Staten Island emerges triumphant.

The King of Staten Island is now available to rent on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, for the premium price of $19.99.

Hot Docs Online Review: Breaking the Silence

June 12, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

A selection of films from this year’s online edition of Hot Docs continue to be available to stream on their website. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with screenings geo-blocked to Ontario. The full lineup can be found here.

“If we have a husband, we won’t have a clitoris. And if we have a clitoris, we won’t have a husband.” This quote, which is spoken partway through the film Breaking the Silence and is as eloquently stated as it is disheartening, really gets to the heart of the issue at the centre of this documentary, which was recently voted as one of the top twenty finalists for the Hot Docs Audience Award during the online festival, coming in at number seven.

Directed by Priscila Padilla, Breaking the Silence takes us into the Emberá Chamí Indigenous community in Colombia, where the brutal practise of female genital mutilation, which was introduced to them through colonialism, has been widely adopted as tradition. Spoken of in vague terms as a “cure” to remove the “thingy,” newborns are secretly taken into the mountain, where the clitoris is either cut out with a knife or burned off with a hot nail, with great risk of further injury or death from blood loss.

This cruel, disturbing procedure is done due to the unfounded belief that the clitoris must be removed from baby girls or else it will grow into a penis and no man will want them, which leads to feelings of shame around their bodies and painful sexual experiences. In this community, women are also taught not to move during sex and not to look at themselves naked, let alone touch themselves, with many of them expressing embarrassment around being seen naked by their husbands.

The film’s narrative centres around two women; Luz, an Emberá woman who left her family as a young adult over thirty years ago after realizing that she was a victim of female genital mutilation, and fled to the capitol city of Bogotá where she sells her traditional beadwork in the street; and Claudia, an activist and fellow Emberá woman who is trying to raise awareness and end the practice of genital ablation.

Claudia returns to Luz’s village to create a community garden that serves as a space for women to be together and openly talk about their bodies, while reaffirming traditional beliefs about the connection between their bodies and the land. As the women sow seeds and work on crafts, we listen in as they talk candidly about their marriages and sex lives, in a place where they are denied both sexual pleasure and equal status. Padilla makes the decision to keep men almost entirely in the background of the film.

The cinematography by Viviana Gomez and Yvette Paz is one of the most impressive aspects of the film, taking us into this community in a way that feels vibrant and artistic while still respecting the privacy and integrity of these women. In fact, Luz doesn’t like her face to be seen, which the film tastefully gets around through artfully composed shots. Traditional chants and songs sung by the women provide a powerful soundtrack to the film, giving it a haunting, ethereal quality. This is an emotionally raw but beautifully crafted film about bodily autonomy and female empowerment.

Breaking the Silence is available to stream until June 24th.

Hot Docs Online Review: Mein Vietnam

June 11, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A selection of films from this year’s online edition of Hot Docs continue to be available to stream on their website. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with screenings geo-blocked to Ontario. The full lineup can be found here.

Tam and Bay have been living in Germany for the past thirty years. The husband and wife, who moved there from Vietnam for the chance of a better life, put in hard work as cleaners in an office building at night. They spend the rest of their time at home in their apartment, where they are mostly disconnected from German society at large, and instead interact with family members back home through Skype, unable to physically be with them.

This married couple are the subjects of Mein Vietnam, an observational documentary which was made by the couple’s daughter Thi Hien Mai, who co-directs with German filmmaker Tim Ellrich. The film was recently selected by viewers as one of the top twenty finalists for the Hot Docs Audience Award during the online festival, coming in at number seventeen.

Ellrich serves as the film’s cinematographer, and his camera draws us in to this world. We watch through long takes, the camera often locked in place, as Bay tries to learn German with her daughter, coming to terms with the fact that her future is in Germany. Meanwhile, Tam remains somewhat stuck in the past. He hangs out in online karaoke chat rooms and spends his time drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, lamenting the fact that they might never return to live in Vietnam, which they had always planned to do.

Their dreams are further dashed by a major storm that ravages their house back home, leading Tam to become increasingly frustrated as he tries to direct family members through the internet to complete the renovations. It’s in these personal, specific details of this couple’s life, which are so nicely captured in the film, that the richness of the story it is telling is revealed.

Unfolding purely in a cinéma vérité style, Mein Vietnam evocatively captures the monotony, loneliness and boredom of living in a society that you don’t really feel like a part of. What unfolds over the course of the film’s seventy minute running time is a lovingly observed portrait of the immigrant experience, that is at times quite touching.

Mein Vietnam is available to stream until June 24th.

4K Ultra HD Review: Birds of Prey

June 9, 2020

By John Corrado

Last month, director Cathy Yan’s action comedy Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was released on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray. The latest entry into the DC Extended Universe, the film mainly serves as a fun showcase for Margot Robbie’s gleefully unhinged portrayal of Harley Quinn.

Robbie is joined by a fine supporting cast that brings the rest of the titular girl group to life, but this really is her show, with her colourful portrayal of Quinn bursting off the screen. The film itself is fast-paced and quite entertaining to watch, unfolding through a clever fractured narrative and featuring some very well choreographed fight scenes set to music. My full review of Birds of Prey, which you can tell I enjoyed, can be found right here.

The 4K set comes with a regular Blu-ray disc that includes a variety of bonus features, starting with Birds Eye View Mode, which lets you watch the film with picture-in-picture trivia, interviews, and behind the scenes footage. This is followed by six featurettes, which add up to about forty minutes of material in total. First up is Birds of Prey: Birds of a Feather, which offers a general look at the film’s production, from Christina Hodson’s screenplay, to Robbie’s involvement and Matthew Libatique’s cinematography.

The other five are Romanesque, which focuses specifically on Ewan McGregor’s villain Roman Sionis; A Love, Skate Relationship, which focuses on Harley’s rollerskating in the film; Grime and Crime, which looks at the work of production designer K.K. Barrett; Sanity is Sooo Last Season, featuring costume designer Erin Benach talking about the outfits the characters wear in the film and how she chose their specific looks; and Wild Nerds, which offers an overview of the film’s visual effects. Finally, the disc has a two minute gag reel.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 109 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: May 12th, 2020

Hot Docs Festival Online Audience Award Winners

June 7, 2020

By John Corrado

This year’s special online edition of Hot Docs officially came to a close last night, and tonight the winners of the festival’s coveted Audience Award were announced during a live stream, which you can revisit on YouTube.

The first place finisher was The Walrus and the Whistleblower, director Nathalie Bibeau’s film about former Marineland trainer turned animal rights activist Phil Demers, which had actually premiered on CBC TV a few weeks ago as part of the Hot Docs At Home series. Bibeau’s film was also the top ranked Canadian documentary, as well as the overall winner. New this year, the winner is automatically eligible for consideration at the Academy Awards.

Also new this year, the top five ranking Canadian films are each taking home a $10,000 cash prize, generously sponsored by the Rogers Group of Funds. The lucky cash prize winners are The Walrus and the Whistleblower, 9/11 Kids, The Forbidden Reel, First We Eat, and There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace. A huge round of applause and congratulations are in place for these five very fine films. I really liked all five of them, so I’m glad they resonated with general audiences, as they were definitely highlights of the festival for me as well.

A full list of the winners, including the top twenty finalists is below. A large selection of festival titles are still available to stream until June 24th, the full lineup can be found here.

Rogers Audience Award Winners:

#1: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

#2: 9/11 Kids

#3: The Forbidden Reel

#4: First We Eat

#5: There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace

Top 20:

#1: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

#2: 9/11 Kids

#3: Welcome to Chechnya

#4: The Forbidden Reel

#5: The 8th

#6: Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story

#7: Breaking the Silence

#8: Transhood

#9: Coded Bias

#10: Green Blood

#11: If It Were Love (tie)

#11: Love and Fury (tie)

#13: First We Eat

#14: Sanmao. The Desert Bride

#15: There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace

#16: The Reason I Jump

#17: Mein Vietnam

#18: Softie

#19: The Last Archer

#20: Dope Is Death

Top 5 Short Films:

#1: Nancy’s Workshop

#2: Gun Killers

#3: The Lost Astronaut

#4: êmîcêtôcêt: Many Bloodlines

#5: Welcome Strangers

Top Mid-Length Films:

#1: Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story

#2: The Song of the Butterflies

#3: Dark City Beneath the Beat

#4: Mother-Child

#5: Daddy

Top Film by Program:

Artscapes: The Forbidden Reel

Canadian Spectrum: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Deep Dive: Green Blood

International Spectrum: All That I Am

Made In Northern Ireland: The Dakota Entrapment Tapes

Markers: If It Were Love

Nightvision: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

Persister: The 8th

Revisionaries: Finding Sally

Special Presentations: Welcome to Chechnya

The Changing Face of Europe: Reunited

To Conserve & Protect: First We Eat

World Showcase: 9/11 Kids

Hot Docs Festival Online Reviews (Part 3)

June 6, 2020

By John Corrado

While the in-person edition of Hot Docs was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, roughly 140 films that were set to screen at the festival were selected to stream online during a digital festival from May 28th to June 6th, with many titles being available for even longer until June 24th. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with select screenings featuring pre-recorded Q&As. The screenings are geo-blocked to Ontario, and the full lineup can be found here.

I have been streaming documentaries all week through the festival’s online platform, and below are my thoughts on six films that I watched over the past few days, arranged in alphabetical order. My first and second sets of reviews can be found here and here.

The 8th – ★★★ (out of 4)

In 1983, Ireland passed the 8th amendment to their constitution, making abortion illegal in the country, leading women to head to England and technically break the law in order to access the procedure. This led to several tragic cases, including that of a 14-year-old in 1992 who was raped and impregnated by her friend’s father. But in 2018, the Irish people got the chance to cast the deciding votes in a referendum on whether or not to repeal this amendment, and change the law to allow abortions up to twelve weeks of pregnancy.

Directed by the filmmaking trio of Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle and Lucy Kennedy, The 8th is a very well put together film that follows the grassroots political campaign to get the Irish people to vote “yes” and overturn this restrictive law. The main subjects are Ailbhe Smith, a veteran pro-choice activist who has spent years fighting for reproductive rights in Ireland, and Andrea Horan, a local manicurist who never really considered herself that politically active before joining this fight.

We already know how the referendum turned out and that these women were successful, but The 8th is mostly compelling to watch to see the inner-workings of the well-oiled campaign that helped deliver this result. What’s most interesting to see is how these women took a slow and steady approach, knowing that their path to victory involved appealing to those in the middle and winning over undecided voters through their messaging. While remaining firmly on the pro-choice side, the directors also get added points for allowing reasonable pro-life advocates on the “no” side to make their voices heard.

While the result of the referendum was ultimately pretty overwhelmingly in favour of abortion rights, the vote still revealed deep divides in the historically Catholic country, as opinion was split among young versus old, rural versus urban, and religious versus secular. With The 8th, Kane, O’Boyle and Kennedy have crafted a very balanced discussion piece on the issue of abortion, while also offering an engaging document of this historic vote.

Available until June 6th

Coded Bias – ★★★ (out of 4)

Joy Buolamwini is a computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL), who discovered that facial recognition technology has trouble recognizing Black faces when she was doing a project and realized that the camera would only see her when she put on a white mask. Buolamwini is the main subject of director Shalini Kantayya’s documentary Coded Bias, which explores biases in machine learning, and the increasing prevalence of facial recognition technology in daily life.

The film mainly focuses on Buolamwini’s research into the historic racial and gender biases that are built into facial recognition technology, and Kantayya follows her as she tries to get the use of such technology regulated in the United States. The other central subject is the mathematician and author Cathy O’Neil, whose book Weapons of Math Destruction helped ring the alarm bells about algorithmic biases. We also hear from Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch UK, who is warning against the police force’s use of facial recognition cameras in London, England.

Because these programs are very poor at recognizing facial differences between people of colour, this leads to false identification and arrest. Through this, Coded Bias explores pressing issues of how this technology is being used for increased surveillance, including at an apartment building in a largely African-American part of Brooklyn that wanted to put facial recognition cameras on the door. The film also touches on China’s constant monitoring of citizens to uphold their draconian social credit system which, in one memorable sequence, a Chinese resident defends for its “convenience.”

Available until June 24th

The Earth is Blue as an Orange – ★★★ (out of 4)

As shells explode outside their house in the city of Krasnohorivka during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that started in 2014, Anna Trofymchuk and her four kids cope with the war by making films, reenacting their nights spent huddled together in the cellar in front of a camera. The kids and cats become actors, with tanks and soldiers providing production value. Fact and fiction blur together, as the filmmaking process becomes as much a part of life for this cinema-loving family as the conflicts raging outside.

Director Irina Tsilyk offers a vivid portrait of this family in The Earth is Blue as an Orange, a nicely done vérité documentary that showcases both their independent filmmaking as well as their day to day lives that inspire it. Over the course of the film, the eldest daughter Myroslava gets accepted into film school so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a professional cinematographer, spurred on by her family’s love of cinema. This is a touching look at the unique ability that film has to help us heal from trauma, and how one family is using it to process and document life during wartime.

Available until June 24th

The Forbidden Reel – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Director Ariel Nasr explores the untold story of Afghanistan’s cinematic legacy in his documentary The Forbidden Reel, which digs deep into the fascinating story of Afghan Film, a national archive housing the country’s entire cinematic history that was ordered to be destroyed by the Taliban. But the films were saved from being burned by brave workers who hid the film reels, and now they are in the process of being digitized for preservation, with help from the National Film Board of Canada.

At two hours long, Nasr’s film offers a dense, comprehensive history of Afghan Film and the country’s surprisingly rich cinematic landscape. Nasr compellingly tells the story through interviews with the filmmakers themselves, including Engineer Latif, who was able to continue making films in Kabul after the communist coup and Soviet invasion in the 1970s.

We see snippets of these works throughout, which are not only impressive for their technical proficiency, but also serve as fascinating snapshots of Afghanistan itself, and the many changes that the country has gone through over the years. What The Forbidden Reel offers is a powerful testament to the importance of preserving cinematic history, because it often times represents the history of a culture as well.

Available until June 24th

iHuman – ★★★ (out of 4)

Director Tonje Hessen Schei, who previously explored the implications of drone warfare in her 2014 documentary Drone, returns to explore the rising tide of artificial intelligence in her new film iHuman, which looks at many aspects of the oncoming AI revolution. Topics range from the implications that AI has for surveillance purposes, to the increasing reality that machines are taking jobs away from humans.

Many factory jobs have already been automated away, with experts predicting that AI will eventually render much of the human workforce obsolete, from driverless vehicles taking jobs away from truckers to computer algorithms replacing a lot of desk work. The security and privacy concerns are equally pressing. Michal Kosinski, one of the subjects in the film, discusses the ability to use algorithms and facial recognition technology to figure out someone’s sexual orientation and political leanings with a startling degree of accuracy, which would have disastrous consequences if used by authoritarian regimes.

These tools are already being employed by advertisers and social media companies to map out people’s habits and interests. The film is equally focused on the race by scientists to invent a form of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which would keep educating itself at a speed unknown to man, and rapidly outpace the smartest humans. It’s worth noting that China has plans to become the world leader in AI by 2030, which should make all of us worried.

Even Stephen Hawking, whose quote opens the film, warned us before his death that inventing AI might be the last thing humans ever do. For some, iHuman will be an exciting glimpse at where we are headed, and for others, like me, the film serves as a terrifying dystopic nightmare, complete with futuristic graphics that unfurl onscreen during chilling interludes that play between interviews and provide a strong visual component to the film.

Available until May 31st

Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Named after his 1986 album, Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story introduces us to the music and life of Glenn Copeland. Born in Philadelphia of West African descent, Copeland came to Canada in 1961 to study music at McGill University, and was the only Black student in class. Copeland lived as a lesbian and openly dated women, nearly a decade before homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, and would later realize his true identity as a trans man.

Despite cutting an early album of folk songs in 1970, Copeland never found mainstream success, and moved to a small town in Ontario to live a quiet life. It’s here that he recorded Keyboard Fantasies, a groundbreaking electronic album that he made on an old Atari computer and self-released on cassette tape. Copeland and the album faded into obscurity, until being rediscovered by a Japanese record store owner many years later, who offered to reissue Keyboard Fantasies and turned it into a cult classic.

Director Posy Dixon follows Copeland as he embarks on his first international tour in his seventies, playing with a band of young musicians who embrace his experimental style. The film is built around an intimate interview with Copeland that was shot at his home in Canada, while also featuring some great performance footage. Copeland is an inspiring, remarkably open subject, especially in moments when talking about discovering his queer identity.

There is a thrilling feeling of discovery when we first hear Copeland’s music, and the film seems poised to turn more people into fans of his. At just over an hour long, Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story serves as a lovely portrait of Glenn Copeland, that plays out against a wonderful aural landscape of his gorgeous, haunting music.

Available until June 6th

Hot Docs Festival Online Reviews (Part 2)

June 5, 2020

By John Corrado

While the in-person edition of Hot Docs was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, roughly 140 films that were set to screen at the festival were selected to stream online during a digital festival from May 28th to June 6th, with many titles being available for even longer until June 24th. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with select screenings featuring pre-recorded Q&As. The screenings are geo-blocked to Ontario, and the full lineup can be found here.

I have been watching films all week, and below are my brief thoughts on six very good ones, arranged in alphabetical order. My first set of reviews from last week can be found here.

Hong Kong Moments – ★★★½ (out of 4)

In 2019, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong, with citizens uprising against Beijing’s new extradition laws and increased surveillance from China. They were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests by a militarized police force. Director Zhou Bing follows several subjects over three specific days of last year’s conflict in his remarkably nuanced documentary Hong Kong Moments, allowing us to hear from those who are on the side of Hong Kong as well as others who express deep pro-Beijing sentiments.

The subjects include a cab driver who informs us in the opening scene that his teenaged son has joined the protest; a police officer whose hands are essentially tied to do what he is told; and a paramedic preparing to treat injured protesters. The two most opposing subjects are a young activist playing an active role in the protests who appears masked in the film so as not to reveal their identity, and a pro-China teashop owner who starts receiving online pushback when she expresses support for the police.

The film also follows the pro-democracy political candidate Jocelyn Chau, who is running against pro-China incumbent Benny Yeung in a District Council election. Culminating on October 1st, the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong Moments featuring some stirring footage of the city-wide demonstrations, as protesters take to the streets and clash with police. This is a fascinating, on the ground portrait of the pro-democracy protests, and those who find themselves caught up in the middle of the conflict.

Available until June 24th

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Adapting his friend William Blatty’s book for the screen, director William Friedkin delivered one of the greatest horror films of all time with The Exorcist, and nearly fifty years after the film was first released in 1973, it remains a shocking, brilliantly crafted work with an incredible legacy behind it. Director Alexandre O. Philippe, who previously explored the Psycho shower scene in 78/52 and the sci-fi classic Alien in last year’s Memory – The Origins of Alien, sits down with Friedkin in his latest cinematic deep dive Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.

The film is built entirely around a long-form conversation between the two filmmakers, that was shot over six day at Friedkin’s home, and has been edited together into an absorbing feature. Framed off-centre in his living room, his fireplace in soft focus in the background, Friedkin tells stories about the production and his approach to working with the actors, while also discussing his own faith and the deeper themes of the story.

Friedkin is a gifted storyteller who makes for an engaging subject, drawing us in as he recounts how the lighting and certain shots in The Exorcist were inspired by classic works of art, and how he encouraged his cinematographer Owen Roizman to aim for realism and shoot the film in a documentary style. He waxes poetic on his preference for fewer takes, which set him apart from his contemporaries like Stanley Kubrick. “I’m more interested in spontaneity than perfection,” he says at one point, “and you don’t get spontaneity on take ninety.”

Like Noah Baumbach’s De Palma, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is a compelling cinematic documentary that offers the chance to hear a filmmaker discuss his work purely in his own words. Philippe does a nice job of incorporating clips from The Exorcist into the edit along with excerpts from Friedkin’s other works and cinematic influences, including Citizen Kane and Ordet. The film ends on a note that is actually quite moving, a testament to both Friedkin’s gifts as a storyteller and Philippe’s ability to craft compelling narratives through his explorations of different aspects of cinematic history.

Available until June 24th

Merry Christmas, Yiwu – ★★★ (out of 4)

The majority of the world’s Christmas decorations that adorn homes and lawns for a few weeks every year are made in Yiwu, a city in China with over six hundred factories manufacturing a variety of holiday decorations for sale around the world. Serbian director Mladen Kovacevic trains his camera on some of the workers in Merry Christmas, Yiwu, offering an artistic and at times meditative portrait of what goes into making these decorations.

The film unfolds mostly through long static shots of the workers doing menial tasks such as sprinkling glitter on ornaments and gluing pompoms on Santa hats, breathing in chemicals and getting covered in sparkly glitter dust. The repetition of the work the employees are doing blends into the mundanity of their daily lives, as they talk about their families, relationships, and debate whether or not to get an education.

We spend some time with these workers away from the factory, including one strangely moving scene at a karaoke bar, and find that many of them are lonely, having left their families in rural areas to live and work in the city for better pay. On a deeper level, Merry Christmas, Yiwu serves as a low-key reflection on how the communist country of China has become a bastion of capitalism and consumerism, that examines the human cost of providing cheaply made goods for the world.

Available until June 24th

The Reason I Jump – ★★★ (out of 4)

At thirteen years old, Naoki Higashida published the bestselling book The Reason I Jump, offering groundbreaking insight into his world as a non-speaking autistic person. Director Jerry Rothwell offers a unique and unconventional adaptation of this book in his documentary The Reason I Jump, which uses Higashida’s work as the jumping off point for an impressionistic, multi-sensory portrait of how five other non-speaking autistic individuals view the world.

The subjects include Joss, a young autistic man in England and the son of the film’s producers Jeremy Dear and Stevie Lee; Amrit, a young woman in India who expresses herself through art; Ben and Emma, two best friends in Virginia who share a bond deeper than words, and have both started to communicate through alphabet boards that offer fascinating insight into their worlds; and Jestina, a girl in Sierra Leone whose mother opened a school for kids with disabilities to help challenge traditional beliefs that they were possessed. The film also includes appearances by author David Mitchell, who himself has an autistic son and helped translate the original Japanese text of The Reason I Jump into English.

Excerpts from Naoki Higashida’s book are read aloud in voiceover by the film’s narrator Jordan O’Donegan during interludes showing a young, non-speaking Japanese boy (Jim Fujiwara), a stand-in for the author, exploring the world around him. The fact that Naoki himself chose not to be directly involved in the film is another one of the things that makes this such a unique adaptation. Rothwell employs artistic cinematography and immersive sound design to help us experience how his subjects process the world. It’s an interesting and very well done film, and one of the more inventive book adaptations I have seen.

Available until June 24th

Transhood – ★★★ (out of 4)

In Transhood, director Sharon Liese follows several transgender and gender non-conforming kids growing up in her hometown of Kansas City, documenting how them and their families evolve and change over the course of several years, as they come of age in a place that isn’t exactly known to be accepting of transgender rights.

The film tells four stories filmed over five years. Avery, who is nine years old when filming starts, is the most well known of the subjects, having appeared on the cover of National Geographic and thrust into the spotlight as an activist. But she is growing tired of the public spotlight, and would rather just be a regular kid. Jay, a trans boy taking hormone blockers, is twelve when we first meet him. He is going stealth at school, concealing his identity from everyone including his girlfriend, which his single mother warns him could lead to more problems.

Leena, who is fifteen at the start of the film, is a transgender girl who is pursuing a modelling career while also planning for reassignment surgery, supported every step of the way by her parents. The film’s youngest and most perplexing subject is Phoenix, a child who, at four years old, declares themselves to be a “boygirl.” Assigned male at birth, Phoenix likes to wear dresses and engages in gender expansive play, but their journey is far from over, and the child’s needs put increasing strain on their family.

Liese’s camera captures candid and moving moments across all four stories, as well as some unexpected revelations and a surprising change in opinion in the last act that leads to more questions than we will perhaps ever get answers to. She has crafted a nuanced portrait of these children’s lives, as well as the discrimination and lack of acceptance that they are faced with on their journeys of transition. Unfolding over a period of years that covers Trump’s 2016 election, the political fight for increased LGBTQ rights plays out mostly in the background but bleeds into the foreground at key points, including tense debate over the so-called Bathroom Bill, which is clearly impacting the kids.

Available until June 6th

Welcome to Chechnya – ★★★½ (out of 4)

In Chechnya, under the tyrannical leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, LGBTQ individuals have started being rounded up and detained, where they are tortured and in many cases executed. It’s all part of Kadyrov’s plan to “cleanse” the country of its LGBTQ citizens, who are also at risk of being killed by their own families, and the purge is being met with indifference by Russian leader Vladmir Putin.

In response, a group of brave activists have set up an underground network to rescue queer citizens, giving them refuge at a secretly located safe house before helping them escape from Chechnya, a process that involves going undercover to sneak them out of the country and trying to repatriate them in more welcoming places. We follow several of them on this journey in Welcome to Chechnya, which at times plays out like a real life thriller.

Directed by David France, who shot the film on the fly with smart phones and a prosumer camera and took great lengths to ensure that the footage remained secret, this is an example of fearless documentary filmmaking. There was obviously great risk involved for all of the participants, and the film uses digital face replacement tools similar to Deep Fakes in order to conceal the identities of the subjects. The faces we see are those of activists who allowed their likenesses to be used, which lets these brave individuals remain hidden while still allowing us to become emotionally connected to them by seeing their facial expressions. It’s an incredibly powerful experience.

Available until June 6th

Blu-ray Review: Urban Cowboy: 40th Anniversary Edition

June 3, 2020

By John Corrado

Three years after delivering his iconic, Oscar-nominated performance as a young, working class Italian-American guy drifting through New York’s nightlife in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta traded the white suit for a Stetson hat in Urban Cowboy, and went from disco dancing to doing the Texas two-step.

Based on Aaron Latham’s 1978 magazine article The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit, this 1980 drama, which was released exactly forty years ago this month and has just been put on Blu-ray for the first time, focuses on the Texas nightlife of Travolta’s Bud.

Bud is a young, working class guy who moves to Houston for work, and gets a job on an oil rig with his Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin). While spending his days in the oil fields, Bud spends his nights at Gilley’s Nightclub, and the famous honky-tonk bar – along with some of the musical acts that played there including owner Mickey Gilley, Bonnie Raitt, and The Charlie Daniels Band, who all add songs to the film’s hit soundtrack – provides much of the backdrop for Urban Cowboy.

It’s here that Bud meets Sissy (Debra Winger, excellent in her breakout role), and marries her almost immediately. When a mechanical bull is installed at Gilley’s, Bud becomes obsessed with riding it, and forbids Sissy from having a turn; “no girls allowed” as the saying goes. Sissy rides it anyway in secret, which pushes her away from Bud and towards Wes (Scott Glenn), an ex-convict who appears at the bar at the same time as the mechanical bull, and becomes another obstacle for Bud to tackle.

Similar to Saturday Night Fever, which is far darker and bleaker than many remember it to be, Urban Cowboy is an often gritty drama. Bud is an abrasive character and his relationship with Sissy is often toxic, with him being verbally and even physically aggressive towards her. The entire rivalry between them starts because he doesn’t believe women should be riding the mechanical bull, which might sound trite but is indicative of his patriarchal views towards women.

Because of this, elements of Urban Cowboy do feel dated, and the film never fully rises to the level of the superior Saturday Night Fever, despite thematically and narratively sharing much in common. But it still very much serves as an interesting time capsule of a different time and place. While he is playing a character who is less sympathetic than his counterpart in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta is very good in the role of a hard-headed blue collar worker, and grounds the film with his authentic performance.

Directed by James Bridges, from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Latham, Urban Cowboy still functions as a well acted and mostly engaging character drama that holds our attention across an over two hour running time, as it delivers a series of entertaining and dramatic moments. The film is perhaps best remembered for its solid soundtrack of country tunes and for sparking a cowboy-inspired fashion trend, and it represents a solid entry into Travolta’s filmography, nestled in between his more iconic roles in Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Pulp Fiction.

The Blu-ray also includes the new featurette Good Times With Gilley: Looking Back at Urban Cowboy, which features the Texas honky-tonk’s owner Mickey Gilley reflecting on his business and looking back fondly at the film’s legacy, which was shot on location at his bar. This is followed by a selection of four deleted scenes (Your Folks Didn’t Like Me, Did They?; Rent’s Free, Can’t Beat That; I Guess I Better Find Myself Another Job; and How Come I Ain’t Seen Ya at Gilley’s?), which are presented in a square aspect ratio and are all interesting to watch, despite being of somewhat poor video quality.

Finally, the disc has two outtakes (John Travolta and Debra Winger Dancing and John Travolta Dancing) as well as several minutes of rehearsal footage (Debra Winger on Mechanical Bull, John Travolta on Mechanical Bull, and Travolta and Winger on Mechanical Bull).

Urban Cowboy: 40th Anniversary Edition is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 134 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: June 2nd, 2020

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