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Blu-ray Review: Captain Marvel

June 11, 2019

By John Corrado

Released in theatres earlier this spring as a prelude to the massive blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, the prequel Captain Marvel arrives on Blu-ray this week. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the film serves as an origin story for Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), taking her on a solo adventure in the 1990s that also features a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

This is essentially two hours of filler that exists to fill in some blanks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I don’t think Carol is really given enough of an interesting character arc. It’s still fairly entertaining, but also one of the more minor entries into the franchise, and it’s a bit disappointing compared to much of what has come before and after. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray includes a selection of bonus features, starting with a commentary track featuring Boden and Fleck, and a two minute intro that you have the option of watching before the film. Next up we get six featurettes that are viewable together or on their own. Becoming a Super Hero focuses on Larson’s starring role; Big Hero Moment goes more in-depth on her character; The Origin of Nick Fury focuses on his major role within the MCU; The Dream Team looks at the film’s co-directors Boden and Fleck; The Skrulls and the Kree explores the two warring races of aliens in the film; and Hiss-Sterical Cat-titude is done in a retro style and focuses on the film’s scene-stealing orange cat, Goose.

These are followed by the five deleted scenes “Who Do You Admire Above All Others?”; Starforce Recruits; Heading to Torfa; “What, No Smile?”; Black Box; and Rookie Mistake. It’s worth noting that one of these scenes (“What, No Smile?”) caused a bit of a stir when it was released online recently and received some backlash from fanboys, prompting debates about Carol’s choice to crush the hand of a male giving her unwanted attention before stealing his jacket and motorcycle. I will admit that the scene feels heavy-handed, (he introduces himself as “the Don” and gee, I wonder why?), but we don’t see her take his jacket and helmet in the film which felt like a bit of a loose end, so it clears that up at least.

The bonus features are rounded out by a brief gag reel set to music, which isn’t as much fun to watch as the actors seemed to have making it. I would have liked some more technical behind the scenes stuff beyond the mostly EPK-style featurettes, and a piece exploring the eery de-aging technology that was used to make actors Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg appear a few decades younger would have been welcome. As is, this is a fine but somewhat thin selection of supplemental material to back up a fine but somewhat underwhelming entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Captain Marvel is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release. It’s 124 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: June 11th, 2019

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Review: The Tomorrow Man

June 8, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) is a doomsday prepper in small town America who stockpiles supplies for an apocalypse that he believes is coming. When he spots Ronnie Meisner (Blythe Danner) in the grocery store buying the same brand of canned tuna, he mistakes her for a fellow survivalist and starts to pursue her.

A relationship starts to form between the two seniors, but they both have their own unique challenges, with Ed spending his days worrying about the future – hence the film’s title The Tomorrow Man – and her remaining stuck in the past, working at an antique shop and collecting knick knacks.

The feature debut of filmmaker Noble Jones, who wrote and directed the film and also served as the cinematographer, The Tomorrow Man falls into that very specific subgenre of romantic dramedies that chart the relationship between two quirky and slightly eccentric people. Lithgow and Danner both deliver likeable performances, but the trouble is that the film ends up feeling derivative of other better works.

This is not even to mention the fact that the story essentially treats mental illness as a character quirk. Lithgow recently described it in an interview as Silver Linings Playbook “if they were both old folks,” which gives you a sense of what tone they were going for, but that comparison is overly lofty and quite a bit of an exaggeration in terms of quality. The senior romance angle was also done better in films like The Meddler and the Blyther Danner-starring I’ll See You in My Dreams.

The film also tries too hard to be quirky and cute at times, including the entirely questionable use of the Captain & Tennille song “Muskrat Love” as a musical motif that brings our two characters together. But there are still a few sweet moments peppered throughout, and the final scene is intriguing in a way that I wish the rest of the film had done a better job of building towards. If you are looking for a certain type of midlevel Sundance dramedy, The Tomorrow Man is an alright option, but it somewhat frustratingly never really rises above this humdrum, mediocre level.

The Tomorrow Man is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

Review: Mouthpiece

June 7, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The general idea behind Mouthpiece, the latest film from Canadian director Patricia Rozema, is to show the many different sides of a character by having them literally be portrayed by two separate actors.

Listed in the credits as Tall Cassandra (Amy Nostbakken) and Short Cassandra (Norah Sadava), Mouthpiece uses this dual performance to show us what the character is internalizing or externalizing in any given moment, depending upon which one engages with the world. The rest of the cast only ever interacts with one of them at a time.

Cassandra is a thirty-something writer living in Toronto, leading a fairly typical millennial life. The film opens with her getting drunk at the bar and ignoring her phone, before waking up hungover the next day to a bunch of messages informing her that her mother Elaine (Maev Beaty) has passed away.

This plunges her into a whirlwind few days, as she prepares for the funeral and struggles to write a eulogy, despite the best wishes of her family who want her brother Danny (Jake Epstein) to give the speech. This process allows Cassandra to reflect upon her mother’s life and contributions to the world, with her main struggle stemming from the fact that she is having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that Elaine gave up so much of her life in order to raise her.

The film is based on an award-winning stage play by Nostbakken and Sadava, who reprise their roles here. Where as the stage show functioned mainly as a performance piece that unfolded between the two women around a bathtub, Rozema has helped flesh out the story to unfold over about two days. The film expands the world beyond the simple stage setup, following Cassandra as she shops for new clothes at the Eaton Centre and travels around the city, while intercutting this with flashbacks to her childhood.

The approach works well enough, but beyond the general conceit of the main character being played by two different people which does open up unique possibilities from a narrative standpoint, Mouthpiece is a fairly standard portrait of someone facing the death of a parent. The story itself doesn’t really have all that much new to say about grief, and at times it feels a bit stuck between stage and screen. But this is still a well acted character study that works as an interesting exploration of the different choices women make, and what sides of themselves people choose to outwardly present to the world.

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

Review: Framing John DeLorean

June 7, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce explore the rise and fall of infamous automobile mogul John DeLorean in Framing John DeLorean, a hybrid of documentary and narrative film that shifts between interviews and dramatic reenactments featuring Alec Baldwin wearing prosthetics and a wig to portray DeLorean.

The film details how DeLorean initially rose to fame at General Motors, before leaving the company at the height of his career and breaking out on his own to start the DeLorean Motor Company, creating his own line of gull-winged cars that would become the stuff of legend.

The cars were manufactured in Ireland, bringing much needed jobs to the country at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s policies were hindering their economy. But production problems and poor sales left DeLorean desperate for money, and his entire life and career that he had worked so hard to build came crashing down around him when he was arrested in 1982 as part of an FBI sting operation involving international cocaine smuggling, resulting in a widely publicized trial that sullied his name.

This ironically all happened just before the car became immortalized through its use in Back to the Future in 1985. While the film within a film approach adds an interesting angle to this documentary and the reenactments can be entertaining on their own, I’m also not sure if they were entirely needed, as the story is already being compellingly told through the interviews and archival footage. It also runs long at 109 minutes. But Framing John DeLorean is still an entertaining portrait of the man behind the car, that does a good job of showing how his hubris ultimately led to his downfall.

Framing John DeLorean is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto, and in other cities across Canada.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: A Star is Born Encore

June 4, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

After becoming a hit in theatres, and winning the Best Original Song Oscar for “Shallow,” A Star is Born was re-released in theatres earlier this spring following its initial Blu-ray release, to include about twelve minutes of added footage. This “encore edition” of the film is now available on Blu-ray.

While the original cut was one of my favourite movies of last year, I really enjoyed this version as well. The added footage is actually quite good and doesn’t disrupt the already seamless flow of the movie, and it’s nice to see some extra moments here and there, with the changes ranging from certain scenes being extended by a few beats, to entirely new sequences that have been put back in.

While the twelve minutes of new footage wasn’t really needed in the original release, it does add a bit more breathing room to some of the scenes, particularly an extended sequence showing more of Jackson Maine’s (Bradley Cooper) rehearsal for the Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammys. We get an entirely new conversation between him and the young singer Marlon Williams, who is brought in at the last minute to replace him as the lead vocalist, and I think this scene really gives us a good idea of his headspace at the moment and makes us understand why he goes backstage and gets wasted before going on stage.

Several of the film’s musical numbers are also extended, and a few musical moments have been added back in. For example, the blazing opening performance of “Black Eyes” is now longer. We also get to hear Ally (Lady Gaga) performing the song “Is That Alright?” during the wedding sequence, which was already included on the film’s soundtrack release. The parking lot scene is a bit extended to show Ally singing more of “Shallow” for the first time. This is a moment that doesn’t really need to be extended, as it suggests that she has already written most of the song which downplays Jackson’s contributions to it, but the scene still works well either way.

An impromptu performance of “Midnight Special” that is sung on the tour bus, which was included on the original Blu-ray release as a bonus feature, is added back in. We get footage of Jackson performing “Too Far Gone,” another song that was included on the soundtrack, in the studio. There’s also a new scene, which was seen in the trailers, where Jackson and Ally write a new song called “Clover” on an empty stage during their first tour. It’s a nice moment between them, and I would love to hear a full version of the song. The zipline scene that was glimpsed in the trailer is also added back in here, and it’s a really cute moment that shows more of a sweet, playful side to their relationship.

Furthermore, Dave Chapelle gets a few more lines, and there is also a nice new scene with Jackson’s counsellor (Ron Rifkin) in rehab. While it’s a lot of little moments that have been added in, by and large I think they actually work quite well. When I saw the encore version of A Star is Born in theatres, it was my third viewing of the film after seeing it at TIFF and then again during its short release in IMAX, and I was still just as enthralled and moved by the story and performances. More casual viewers might not feel the need to double dip if they already purchased a copy, but the encore version is worth seeing for fans, and offers a more complete way to own one of the best movies of last year.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of musical moments, which are essentially isolated versions of the performances from the film, as well as the original theatrical version. This special edition was inevitable considering the lack of deleted scenes on the original Blu-ray release and the amount of footage that was reportedly shot and ended up on the cutting room floor, but it’s a bit disappointing that the other bonus features from that release, which I reviewed right here, aren’t included on this disc. So there is still a chance for another special edition release in the future that includes both versions of the film as well as the bonus features. The set also comes with a regular DVD that houses just the theatrical cut.

A Star is Born: Special Encore Edition is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. The encore version is 147 minutes and the theatrical version is 136 minutes, both are rated 14A.

Street Date: June 4th, 2019

Review: Rocketman

June 1, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Dexter Fletcher, the director who was brought on to patch up last year’s massively popular Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired from the project, reinvigorates the usual biopic formula by turning Elton John’s life into a full-on musical in Rocketman.

Tonally, the film is similar to Bill Condon’s fictitious Motown biopic Dreamgirls or Julie Taymor’s oft-maligned Beatles musical Across the Universe, fashioning huge production numbers out of Elton John’s classic songs. This saves the film from feeling like a typical biopic, even if the usual story beats are there. In short, this is the film that I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had been.

The film opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton), dressed in a sparkly red costume complete with horns, bursting through the door and walking in slow motion down a hallway, before settling into a group therapy session. This is a startling, almost ironic way to open the film, at first tricking us into thinking he will walk out onto a stage for a grand performance, before taking us somewhere far more sobering and grounded, as if the “rocket man” is coming crashing back down to earth.

This provides the main narrative through line for the film, and it’s an excellent example of how Fletcher balances the fun and the seriousness of Elton John’s story. As he reflects upon the ups and downs of his life while in rehab for his drug and alcohol addictions, the film jumps between flashbacks and song and dance numbers to offer a highly stylized portrait of the musician, from his early years as a child prodigy in England named Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley) learning to play the piano, to his transformation into the flamboyant pop star Elton John.

The film explores his relationships with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who wrote the lyrics to most of his hits and is a close platonic friend; his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), who starts as loving and supportive before becoming consumed by her son’s fame; his distant, unaffectionate father (Steven Mackintosh) who never hugged him as a child; as well as his manager and partner John Reid (Richard Madden). But as his musical career takes off, his addictions and self-destructive behaviours start to accelerate. The rise, downfall and redemption arc of Elton John’s story is handled quite nicely, and while there are many emotionally taxing moments throughout, the film is also an uplifting one.

Where as Bohemian Rhapsody followed the predictable biopic formula beat for beat, Rocketman feels fresh because it doesn’t try to merely give us a “greatest hits” look at Elton John’s life, but rather uses it as the jumping off point for a jukebox musical that tells his story mainly through his songs. The straight forward, apparently fact-based approach of Bohemian Rhapsody also made the film’s many historical inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb. Even if Rocketman does play around with its timeline or brush past certain events, it’s understandable and easily forgiven because the film is so stylized and at times fantastical anyways.

With Rocketman, Fletcher has crafted an often impressionistic portrait of Elton John’s life, including several scenes where the singer literally interacts with his childhood self. Through this, the film becomes a metaphorical and often moving story about learning to accept who you were in the past before being able to move forward and love yourself now. The screenplay by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall strikes a good balance between the dramatic moments and musical numbers, with the two often coinciding.

Taron Egerton does great in the role, delivering a show stopping performance that works as both an uncanny impersonation of the iconic performer he is portraying, as well as a bravura, star-making turn for the young actor. Egerton really nails the flamboyancy of Elton John’s performances, but he is also able to convey the hurt and pain lingering underneath, in a way that makes this simply a great piece of acting. The moments when he is broken down and abusing drugs in the dressing room, before forcing a smile on his face and bursting out onto the stage, recall Roy Scheider’s “it’s showtime, folks” routine in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. A scene where he comes out to his mother over the phone is one of the most heartbreaking and brilliantly acted moments in the film, playing off the emotions on his face.

We already know that Egerton can sing from his vocal performance in the 2016 animated movie Sing, where he actually sang a cover of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” which he performs again here, and the fact that he does all of his own singing here adds another layer to his performance. This is Egerton’s show and he kills it in the role, but the supporting cast also deserves much credit for helping flesh out the film. Bell is excellent as Bernie Taupin, bringing nuance and emotional weight to the role in a career-best performance; Howard does memorable work buried under makeup and dyed brown as his mother; and Madden finds the right balance between sexy and cutthroat.

The film’s renditions of the classic songs are great, from the first production number of “The Bitch is Back” performed partially by young actor Matthew Illesley, to moving performances of “Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer” that both take on deeper meaning through how they are used in the film. Finally, there is the title track “Rocketman,” which actually provides the backdrop for one of the film’s most emotionally gutting sequences. In total, the film includes around twenty of his songs.

The film also doesn’t shy away from his sexuality, and actually embraces its R rating. Elton John is a gay man, which won’t be a shock to literally anyone seeing this film, and it’s not a fact that the filmmakers try to hide. There is even a brief sex scene between Egerton and Madden, that the studio was rumoured to be trying to get cut from the film prior to its release to get a lower rating. While the camera pulls up in a way that it might not have if this had been a straight scene, the film is still significant for being one of the first major studio films to actually show gay sex. It’s also a huge step up from Bohemian Rhapsody, which weirdly felt like it was shaming Freddie Mercury for his open sexuality at times.

While Bohemian Rhapsody was mildly entertaining to watch, it was also a very flawed and problematic film for a variety of reasons. On the flip side, Rocketman is a legitimately good and well made movie. It’s very entertaining, but also doesn’t shy away from showing the darker moments, offering a warts and all look at Elton John’s life that is both moving and a lot of fun to watch.

Rocketman is now playing in theatres across Canada.

Review: nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up

May 31, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Tasha Hubbard uses the tragic case of Colton Boushie, a young man from the Red Pheasent Cree Nation who was shot to death by white farmer Gerald Stanley on his Saskatchewan farm back in 2016, to explore how Canada’s legal system is still stacked against Indigenous peoples in her powerful documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up. The film recently made history when it opened the Hot Docs Film Festival last month, with Hubbard being the first ever Indigenous filmmaker to be given that honour.

Boushie was asleep in the backseat of an SUV when his friends drove onto Stanley’s farm and jumped on his ATV, leading the farmer to start chasing after them with a gun to stop them from trespassing, firing two warning shots into the air. While his friends ran off, Boushie got into the front seat and tried to drive away, which is when he was shot point blank in the back of the head, with Stanley claiming that the handgun he was holding accidentally went off due to a hang fire when he reached in to try and turn the engine off. The investigation was allegedly poorly handled, with police not properly covering the vehicle or Colten’s body for hours afterward, as rain washed away some of the blood evidence.

Stanley was arrested on second-degree murder charges, and the ensuing trial sparked protests across the country when he was acquitted by an all-white jury, despite the fact that many believed he should have at least been charged with manslaughter. Through heartbreaking interviews with Colten’s family and supporters, we get a sense of what he was like as a person, and how hard it was for his loved ones to go through the trial, having to face the man who killed him in court and even being shown graphic images of the crime scene without warning. The last act follows them as they travel to Ottawa and meet with different politicians, hoping that some changes to the judicial system will come out of his death.

The film also takes on a personal side for Hubbard, as she teaches her son and nephew about the history of their culture, and how to navigate the world as young Indigenous men. Hubbard does an excellent job of tying in Colten’s story with Canada’s historic mistreatment of First Nations people, from the breaking of treaties in the 1800s and the creation of the Indian Act. She illustrates how the public’s perception of the case was biased by people who viewed Boushie through the racist stereotype of a “drunk, thieving Indian” and saw Stanley as merely defending his property.

A remarkable moment near the end of the film with Hubbard’s white adoptive father really puts the complexity of the different feelings people had towards the case into perspective. It’s hard to watch at times, but nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is a challenging, moving and important film for Canadians to see.

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Review: Booksmart

May 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A lot of actors have successfully made the jump to directing over the past few years. In no short order, it’s a list that includes Jordan Peele (Get Out), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, her solo debut), Jonah Hill (Mid90s), and Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born).

Now we can add Olivia Wilde to that list with her first feature Booksmart. The actress has delivered a winning directorial debut with this progressive high school comedy, crafting a film that pays tribute to the countless teen party movies that came before it while also putting a new spin on the formula.

The film follows Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), two best friends who are set to graduate high school, having spent the past four years studying hard and keeping their grades up in order to get into good universities, and sacrificing their social lives in the process.

But when they discover that the “cool kids” who partied their ways through high school also got in to good universities, Molly and Amy become determined to get into a party and spend the night before graduation catching up on what they missed. They engage in the usual shenanigans and debauchery along the way, over a night that ultimately tests the limits of their friendship, with Amy planning on leaving to help women in Africa just after graduation.

The actual beats of the plot are generally predictable and follow the path laid out by many a teen comedy before it, including last decade’s modern classic Superbad. But Wilde finds ways to make the material feel mostly fresh, despite a familiar formula. The screenplay credited to the four writers Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman – which originates from an unproduced script by Halpern and Haskins that appeared on the Black List in 2009 and has spent a decade waiting to get made, with Silberman eventually taking over to polish it up – is authentic in the way that it probes the intricacies of female friendship.

The film mainly works thanks to the chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, who believably portray the friendship between their characters in a way that feels very natural and real. Feldstein, who burst onto the scene with her memorable supporting role in Lady Bird, delivers a breakout performance here that reaffirms her status as a natural comic talent. She portrays Molly as a ball of energy who is often the one dragging her friend into things. Dever, who has been on my radar as one to watch since her stellar work in Short Term 12 and also really impressed in films like Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children and Lynn Shelton’s Outside In, delivers another very fine performance here as the shyer Amy, who pines after a skater girl (Victoria Ruesgo).

One of the most commendable aspects of Booksmart is that the film handles its queer subject matter in a really great way. This isn’t a coming out story for Amy, she just happens to be attracted to girls. The film strives to be diverse and inclusive with its wide array of supporting characters, trying hard not to reduce any of them to one trait, as some teen comedies are apt to do. Molly and Amy actually come to realize as the film goes on that their stereotyped perceptions of the other students are often wrong, and that the majority of people have more layers to them than what’s on the surface. This includes Jared (Skyler Gisondo), a rich kid who acts cool and tries to buy affection from other kids, but is also a lot more sensitive than his fake Jersey Shore persona would suggest.

Wilde does an excellent job of directing her actors, but she has also crafted a film that looks stylish, proving that she has a strong visual eye behind the camera. The cinematography by Jason McCormick has a pleasing filmic look to it that feels like an homage to the teen movies of the 1970s and ’80s. Editor Jamie Gross, who also cut last year’s unexpectedly solid comedy Game Night, keeps the film moving at a quick pace. The musical score by Dan the Automator also helps keep the energy levels pumped up.

The film works as a teen comedy that is at times laugh out loud funny, a riotous party movie, as well as a bittersweet look at friendship that is hip to the times with its progressive ideals. It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of Booksmart becoming somewhat of a touchstone film for this generation of teenagers, who will hopefully seek it out.

Booksmart is now playing in select theatres across Canada.

Review: Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

May 24, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a documentary about the beloved Canadian folk musician co-directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe, opens with Lightfoot watching old footage of himself performing his classic song “For Loving You,” and commenting on how he wishes he hadn’t written something so chauvinistic and has stopped playing it for that very reason.

At 81 years old, Lightfoot appears similarly open and reflective throughout the film, a career retrospective that pays tribute to his music and sheds more light on some of his most famous songs, including the titular track “If You Could Read My Mind” which became his first big hit, while showcasing a wealth of invaluable archival footage.

Lightfoot is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most prolific singer-songwriters, with a library of classic songs that are instantly recognizable, all of which he wrote on his own. A good part of the film actually serves as a way for other musicians including Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan and Geddy Lee, as well as the actor Alec Baldwin whose presence in the film oddly makes sense when you hear the passion with which he speaks about Lightfoot’s music, to talk about how his music has effected them.

At one point, Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings reflect upon how they were inspired to start writing their own songs for the Guess Who after going to an early Gordon Lightfoot concert without really having any idea who he was, and leaving blown away. These testimonials make up much of the middle stretch of Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, and it becomes clear that Tosoni and Kehoe intended their film to first and foremost serve as a celebration of his music.

Like many Canadians, I grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s music, so of course I enjoyed this film. I do feel like the filmmakers could have gone a bit deeper into more aspects of his personal life, as they do gloss over some of the darker stuff. Lightfoot’s struggles with alcoholism are addressed, and his failed marriages and sometimes troubled relationships with women are briefly alluded to. But this stuff is never fully brought to the surface, which makes the film feel a bit incomplete as a biography.

But purely as a tribute to his music, and how much his songs have been shaped by and helped shape the Canadian landscape, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is often quite lovely to watch. And if you are a Gordon Lightfoot fan, it’s hard not to be moved by the final moments, cutting back and forth between performances then and now.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Review: Aladdin

May 24, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s new live action take on their 1992 animated classic Aladdin opens with Will Smith as a mariner out in the middle of the sea. His two kids ask him to tell them a story, and Smith starts flatly singing an updated version of “Arabian Nights,” recounting the tale of a street urchin, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), who ends up capturing the heart of a princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott).

It’s a curious starting point for this remake, and it provides a mostly needless new framing device for this updated retelling of the old story. It’s just one of the choices made by the filmmakers behind this live action reimagining that serves little purpose. What we are left with is a film that proves bigger and longer isn’t always better, and sometimes animation is a stronger medium to tell certain stories.

No, Aladdin is not the total dumpster fire that some fans were expecting it to be. It’s not unwatchable. In fact, this brightly coloured, seemingly Bollywood-inspired musical is at times even mildly enjoyable in its own over the top sort of way, with director Guy Ritchie bringing just enough of his usual kinetic energy to the screen. But it also feels overlong – Will Smith doesn’t appear in blue makeup as the Genie until forty minutes into the film’s over two hour running time – and dare I say needless, especially when the animated one still holds up so well.

The story remains basically the same. Aladdin is a “street rat” who steals what he needs to survive with his monkey Abu, and meets Jasmine when she sneaks out of her castle to explore the village. He ends up acquiring a magic lamp that unleashes an all-powerful Genie, who grants him three wishes, one of which he uses to become a prince so that he can be with Jasmine, who is only allowed to marry royalty. But Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a close advisor to Jasmine’s royal father the Sultan (Navid Negahban), wants the lamp for himself so that he can gain ultimate power and take over the kingdom of Agrabah.

This film does deviate from the original in a few ways, starting with the fact that this version is two hours and eight minutes long, where as the original was an hour and a half. There are some new things added, including a character named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), who is a chambermaid and friend to Jasmine. While she is mostly used for comic relief, she also gives Jasmine someone to interact with, which helps flesh out her character. But for the most part, Aladdin tries to copy the original beat for beat, including live action recreations of the animated film’s most famous moments, with varying degrees of success.

The musical numbers, which remain one of the most well known and beloved parts of the original, have been translated into live action in ways that range from decent to somewhat lacklustre. The film kicks into high gear early on with “One Jump,” which Ritchie brings to the screen with his usual hyperactive camerawork. The filmmakers throw everything at the screen for Smith’s hip hop-flavoured rendition of “Friend Like Me” with mildly successful results, but it’s simply impossible to match the sheer manic energy of the animated version. The same goes for “Prince Ali,” which is actually a bit underwhelming here, with Smith drawing out the song in a way that doesn’t quite work.

Then we have “A Whole New World,” which finally arrives well after this film’s halfway point. It’s arguably the most famous song from the original, and Ritchie and company have done a decent job of copying the classic sequence and bringing it to screen with real live actors, but it’s hard to match the wonder and enchantment that this magic carpet ride had in its animated form. The film also includes a new song, a girl power pop anthem called “Speechless,” which was penned by original songwriter Alan Menken along with La La Land lyricists Benji Pasek and Justin Paul. It’s performed in the film by Naomi Scott, and is positioned as her big showstopper moment, but it honestly feels out of place and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the soundtrack.

The Genie’s growing and shrinking CGI body, which felt fluid and natural in the 2D film, falls into the uncanny valley and feels a bit odd in a live action world. The special effects in general are somewhat cheesy and dated looking, and the sets and costumes have a bit of a Broadway feel to them. This might have been a stylistic choice, but it makes the film look somewhat fake and stagey. I will admit that the CGI Abu is pretty adorable though, and the film’s human performances do liven it up somewhat. Mena Massoud has a likeable and charming enough screen presence to make him work in the leading role, even if he is a bit stiff at times, and Naomi Scott makes for an appealing princess.

Then there’s Will Smith as the Genie, a performance that many have already judged quite harshly based on the trailers alone, and it was obviously a daunting task for the actor to take on this role considering how beloved Robin Williams was in the original. When Smith puts his own spin on the character, his portrayal sort of works and he brings his own brand of charisma to the role, but it also feels like he hues a little too closely to Williams.

It feels strange to hear some of the original film’s iconic lines, many of which were probably ad-libs to begin with, being repeated by anyone other than Williams, and I kept wishing that Smith wasn’t trying to copy the late actor. I don’t think Smith is bad as the Genie, but his role also takes some getting used to, and I was constantly reminded of the fact that Robin Williams is simply irreplaceable. The heart of the film remains Genie’s wish to go free, but it doesn’t have quite the same poignancy here as it did in the original.

If Disney had decided to go in an entirely different direction with this remake, rather than just trying to copy the animated version, then I think it might have worked better. Much of this remake is fine, and it’s bright and colourful enough to keep us watching, but it also left me asking why at certain points. It’s often still mildly entertaining, despite its shortcomings, but a superior version of this story already exists, and that’s the 1992 animated film.

Aladdin is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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