Skip to content

Blu-ray Review: Spirit Untamed

September 28, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Spirit Untamed, one of the latest animated offerings from DreamWorks, is a spinoff of both their 2002 film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the Netflix series Spirit Riding Free, and it’s the very definition of generic entertainment made to capitalize on an existing IP.

The film mainly follows the template of the show, expanding the adventures of Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced), Abigail Stone (Mckenna Grace) and Prudence Granger (Marsai Martin), a trio of equestrian girls who dub themselves the PALs based around their initials. For obvious reasons, the characters have been given celebrity voices for the movie.

The prologue shows us that Lucky’s mother (Eiza González), who performed stunts on horseback, died in a riding accident when she was young, leaving her to be raised mainly by her aunt Cora (Julianne Moore). A decade later, the adolescent Lucky goes back to live with her estranged father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the Wild West town of Miradero.

At first she resents the move to a small town, until she befriends a wild stallion. While her father forbids her from riding the horse due to her mother’s accident, Lucky tames him using apples and names him Spirit, forming a bond with the animal. But when a band of horse wranglers led by Hendricks (Walton Goggins) plot to steal the wild horses, Lucky sets out with her new friends from town, Abigail and Prudence, to rescue them.

This is an example of a movie that isn’t actively bad, just bland and uninspired. The characters are generic and reduced to one or two traits (Lucky is adventurous and a bit rebellious, while Abigail is quirky and likes to sing songs and play the ukelele!), and the simplistic story lacks much excitement for all but the youngest audiences, with a number of expected messages about bravery, courage and being yourself.

The animation itself, which was outsourced to Jellyfish Pictures to cut costs, also looks surprisingly cheap. The studio goes for soft, pastel backgrounds that just end up appearing sort of flat and don’t always match the 3D character designs. The production was completed remotely during the pandemic, but this is no excuse considering the other films made under these circumstances.

Despite being a quasi-sequel or reboot, Spirit Untamed actually has very little in common with the traditionally animated 2002 film, which was one of DreamWorks’ more subdued early offerings. While it is far from a bad choice for its target audience of mostly young girls (and boys) who love horses, it’s hard to see Spirit Untamed gaining much of an audience outside of this narrow demographic, and it is pretty mediocre for an offering from one of the major animation studios.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The disc comes with over an hour of bonus material, including your standard featurettes, as well as sing-alongs, crafting tutorials, and the obligatory “how to draw” pieces that are aimed squarely at the kids. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package.

Finding Your Spirit (9 minutes, 20 seconds): Members of the cast and crew talk about the characters and themes of the film.

Home on the Range (3 minutes, 20 seconds): Mckenna Grace sings a movie-specific version of the song, with lyrics on screen.

Snack Time – S’Mores (2 minutes, 18 seconds): Instructions on how to make the campfire snack at home in the oven.

Deleted/Extended Scenes (7 minutes, 3 seconds): Presented with intros by director Elaine Bogan, co-director Ennio Torresan Jr., producer Karen Foster and storyboard artist Daniel Tal.

Campaign Launch – Extended (1 minute, 46 seconds)

Bubbles (1 minute, 25 seconds)

Elk Stampede (3 minutes, 49 seconds)

Behind the Voices – The Cast (9 minutes, 59 seconds): The voice actors briefly talk about their characters in the film.

Isabela Merced – Lucky Prescott (1 minute, 9 seconds)

Marsai Martin – Prudence Granger (1 minute, 12 seconds)

Mckenna Grace – Abigail Stone (1 minute, 10 seconds)

Walton Goggins – Hendricks (1 minute, 13 seconds)

Andre Braugher – Al Granger (1 minute, 18 seconds)

Eiza Gonzalex – Milagro Navarro Prescott (1 minute, 10 seconds)

Julianne Moore – Cora Prescott (1 minute, 22 seconds)

Jake Gyllenhall – Jim Prescott  (1 minute, 25 seconds)

Cowgirls Rule (4 minutes, 16 seconds): The predominantly female cast and crew discuss the girl power messages of the film.

Drawing Spirit – Spirit Untamed (15 minutes, 38 seconds): Story artist Wendy Sullivan teaches us how to draw some of the human and animal characters.

Lucky (2 minutes, 31 seconds)

Spirit (2 minutes, 37 seconds

Pru (2 minutes, 41 seconds)

Chica Linda (2 minutes, 33 seconds)

Abigail (2 minutes, 18 seconds)

Boomerang (2 minutes, 40 seconds)

How To…

Create Your Own Indoor ‘Campfire’ (2 minutes, 11 seconds)

How to Ukelele (2 minutes, 20 seconds)

Snack Time – S’Mores (2 minutes, 18 seconds):

Abigail’s Hand Shadow Secrets (2 minutes 42 seconds)

How to Zoetrope (6 minutes, 0 seconds)


Home on the Range (3 minutes, 20 seconds)

Fearless (English Version) (4 minutes, 16 seconds)

Fearless (Valiente Duet) (1 minute, 59 seconds)

You Belong (3 minutes, 30 seconds)

Feature Commentary with director Elaine Bogan, co-director Ennio Torresan, and producer Karen Foster

Spirit Untamed is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 88 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: August 31st, 2021

Review: Saint-Narcisse

September 25, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest provocation by Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, who is known for exploring various taboos and sexual fetishes across his body of work, Saint-Narcisse is a film that deals in themes of self-infatuation, repression, scrupulosity and, well, incest.

Set in Quebec in 1972 (FLQ graffiti is seen on a brick wall at one point), LaBruce’s film follows Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval), a young man who is quite literally in love with himself. Dominic was raised by his grandmother (Angèle Coutu) and grew up being made to believe that his mother died when he was a baby.

But when he discovers through a series of hidden letters that his mother, Beatrice (Tania Kontoyanni), is actually still alive and living in the village of Saint-Narcisse, he sets off on his motorcycle to meet her for the first time. Dominic finds his mother living as a hippie in a secluded cabin in the middle of the woods with a young woman named Irene (Alexandra Petrachuk), with the locals believing that she is a witch and that Irene never ages.

Dominic also discovers that he has a twin named Daniel (also played by Duval), a perfect doppelgänger of himself who happens to be a young monk living at a nearby monastery. Daniel is kept as the play thing of the domineering Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis), who believes him to be the reincarnation of Saint Sebastian. Dominic and Daniel start a sexual relationship together, prompted by Dominic’s quite literal fetishization of his own image. From here, the film becomes an incestuous, autoerotic love story that is punctuated by generous flashes of male nudity.

As you can tell, there is a lot going on in Saint-Narcisse. LaBruce’s film is intended as a reimagining of the Greek myth of Narcissus that pokes fun at 1970s subcultures, while also drawing obvious parallels to millennial self-absorption. Dominic has a penchant for taking polaroid photos of himself (“who does that?” Irene questions after finding one), a not so subtle dig at modern selfie culture. This commentary on self-obsession could have gone slightly deeper, but leads to the “twin-cest” (which was apparently LaBruce’s working title for the film) that comes to define the story.

LaBruce has crafted a transgressive and slightly trashy throwback to 1970s exploitation cinema, freely mixing eroticism and religious imagery. The film seems to be intended as a somewhat satirical take on B-movies from the era, with elements of Gothic horror in the scenes at the monastery. With that said, Saint-Narcisse is sometimes a bit too po-faced in its presentation to fully work as satire. The story also gets a bit messy as it goes along and ends up feeling overlong in places, before a conclusion that comes across as a little too tidy.

But Saint-Narcisse features a good duel performance by Duval, who does a fine job of creating two separate characters whose images and personalities start to converge, and the film works well enough as a piece of intentionally provocative entertainment. While mainstream audiences will likely find it all a bit much, fans of LaBruce’s particular proclivities as a filmmaker should find plenty to enjoy here.

Saint-Narcisse is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Northern Banner Releasing.

Review: The Guilty

September 24, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Twenty years after the release of his breakout film Training Day, director Antoine Fuqua has crafted a different type of cop thriller in The Guilty, a Netflix film that is being given a short theatrical run before its streaming release.

The film is actually a remake of director Gustav Möller’s 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, which has been Americanized by screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, who sets this version amidst the blazing forest fires in California (which are shown in an opening helicopter shot). But the basic plot remains the same.

Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a short-tempered police officer who has been put on desk duty, and is working the night shift answering calls in a 911 dispatch centre. When we first see him in the film, he is coughing over the sink having an asthma attack, fumbling to take a puff of his ventolin inhaler, which he clutches in his hand throughout the film like a stress ball. The stress of the job is getting to him, but there is also something else going on in his life that will be revealed as the story goes on.

The night takes a turn for the worse when he answers a call from a frantic woman (Riley Keough), who has been abducted and is trapped a van travelling down the highway. She acts as if she is speaking to her young daughter, as a man’s voice in the background tells her to hang up, and Joe tries to keep her on the line long enough to get information. Joe starts playing detective over the phone to piece together what is going on, putting in calls to hurried highway patrol officers who are busy dealing with the wildfires, and calling in favours from other officers.

Gyllenhaal is the only person we see onscreen for much of the film’s running time, and it’s a pretty raw performance. The camera often lingers in closeups on his face, as he mainly acts off of voices on the phone, with his character spending most of the film sitting at a desk in front of computer screens. It’s an interesting acting exercise for Gyllenhaal, who is instantly compelling as a bleary-eyed 911 dispatcher working the night shift, while also portraying the character arc of an officer coming to terms with his own moral failings and desperately trying to rectify them.

Like in the original, Fuqua keeps the story mostly contained to a single location and, more specifically, locked in on Joe’s perspective, allowing us to experience every emotion and twist in the story alongside him. When new details emerge, we are learning them with him over the phone. It’s an interesting sort of theatre of the mind effect, with the film relying mainly on audio and our perceptions of the situation with the limited information we are given to keep us engaged. The one downside of this approach is obviously that there is only so much visual interest they can bring to the material.

But cinematographer Maz Makhani shoots the film with a sort of glossy coldness that is appropriate, offering many insert shots of Joe’s earpiece, the light above the desk signifying when a caller has hung up, and some closeups on the computer screen for editor Jason Ballantine to quickly cut between. The confined setting also makes it an ideal film for Netflix, as well as an ideal project to have been shot during the pandemic, with Gyllenhaal mostly acting alone on set to voices being recorded in other locations, and Fuqua able to direct him remotely from a van following a COVID scare.

While The Guilty lacks the big action of Fuqua’s other films, it’s an engaging, stripped down thriller that does a fine job putting us in the headspace of its main character. At the centre of it all is Gyllenhaal, who serves as a powerful conduit for the audience, the camera allowing us to intimately see every flash of anger, panic, relief and resignation that flashes across his face over the course of the film.

The Guilty is being released in select theatres across Canada this, and will be available to stream on Netflix as of October 1st.

Blu-ray Review: Hardball (2001)

September 23, 2021

By John Corrado

This week, Paramount is releasing the 2001 sports drama Hardball for the first time ever on Blu-ray, in honour of the film’s 20th anniversary this month.

Directed by Brian Robbins, who was hired off the success of his football drama Varsity Blues two years earlier, the film stars Keanu Reeves in the role of Conor O’Neil. Conor is a Chicago grifter who is aimlessly trying to earn enough cash to get by through gambling and scalping tickets, spending many nights drunk at the sports bar.

When he is left with several thousands of dollars in new debt, and local bookies coming after him for the money, Conor goes begging his businessman friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone) for another loan.

Jimmy gives him another proposition; he will pay Conor five hundred dollars a week to coach a Little League baseball team in the Cabrini-Green projects for ten weeks, which he reluctantly agrees to as a way to pay off his debts. Conor’s attempts to coach the team make up the bulk of the story. The team is made up of a group of African-American kids from the inner city, and Conor starts off indifferent to their needs, putting in the bare minimum amount of coaching work in order to earn the cash.

But, in true sports movie fashion, Conor forms a bond with the boys and becomes like a father figure as he guides their team the Kekambas (named after a tribe in Africa) to growing success. The biggest thing that can be said about Hardball is that the film follows a number of sports movie clichés, and Conor’s character also falls pretty heavily into the stereotypical “white saviour” trope, which many audiences will be more acutely aware of now than they probably were twenty years ago.

While Reeves is sometimes wooden, the actor still manages to have a charismatic screen presence in this post-Matrix dramatic role, as the screenplay requires him to show a range of emotions. The supporting cast also includes Diane Lane as a school teacher and love interest; John Hawkes as Conor’s gambling partner; and a young Michael B. Jordan in one of his first roles as the oldest kid on the team.

The film, which was incidentally released only a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, debuted atop the box office despite receiving lukewarm reviews, making this an example of a movie that did better with audiences than with critics. The story is undeniably manipulative in places, but Hardball is still pretty entertaining as a mostly predictable early-2000s sports movie, punctuated by a few admittedly effective dramatic scenes and some more genuine moments of uplift.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a number of previously released bonus features. There is no digital copy included in the package.

Commentary by director Brian Robbins and writer John Gatins

The Making of Hardball (12 minutes, 25 seconds): This archival piece features interviews with the cast and looks at the production of the film, including the bond that Reeves, fresh off of his success in The Matrix, formed with the child actors, many of whom were on set for the first time.

Deleted Scenes (7 minutes, 7 seconds)

Duffy’s Tavern (3 minutes, 58 seconds)

The Funeral Parlor (1 minute, 27 seconds)

Talking to the Kids (1 minute, 41 seconds)

Music Video – “Hardball” by Lil’ Bow Wow, Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ Zane and Sammie (4 minutes, 9 seconds)


Andre/Baseball Star (27 seconds)

Andre/Bling, Bling (27 seconds)

Kofi (22 seconds)

Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes, 8 seconds)

Hardball is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 106 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: September 21st, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Breakdown (1997)

September 22, 2021

By John Corrado

This week, Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing the 1997 thriller Breakdown for the first time on Blu-ray, newly remastered from a 4K film scan.

The film follows Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). They are in the process of moving to California, when their car breaks down on a stretch of desert highway. A trucker (J.T. Walsh, in one of his final film roles) offers to give Amy a ride to the nearest town to call for help, and from here things take a turn for the worse.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow, Breakdown still mostly works as a solid mid-budget studio thriller. Mostow makes the most of the film’s roughly ninety minute running time, building suspense through the relatively simple premise and offering a few twists and turns.

The tagline is “it could happen to you,” and the first stretch of Breakdown does have an eerily grounded quality to it, as Mostow builds on the idea of road rage and being isolated in the middle of nowhere with no way of getting out. While it becomes more of a typical action picture in the last act, the film still very much retains its entertainment value through to the big finale.

It’s a solid and tightly made late-1990s thriller that features Kurt Russell in entertaining action hero mode, with the actor doing all of his own stunts. The film’s practical effects also still hold up, and the 35mm cinematography has a nice granular, filmic look to it on the remastered Blu-ray.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes a number of new bonus features, including a commentary track, isolated score track, and several featurettes. There is no digital copy included in the package.

Commentary by director Jonathan Mostow and Kurt Russell

Filmmaker Focus: Director Jonathan Mostow on Breakdown (10 minutes, 46 seconds): This new featurette finds Mostow reflecting on the making of the film, which actually started as a Stephen King story set in the desert that he was making with producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis, before morphing into this original script when they lost the rights to King’s name. He also talks about working with Russell, using practical effects at a time when CGI was starting to take over, and the surprising success of the film with critics and audiences.

Victory is Hers – Kathleen Quinlan on Breakdown (4 minutes, 22 seconds): Quinlan reflects on her role in the film, including working with the producers, director, and her co-star Russell.

A Brilliant Partnership – Martha De Laurentiis on Breakdown (8 minutes, 8 seconds): De Laurentiis offers her own reflections on producing the film and working with the director and actors, nicely complimenting the first two featurettes.

Alternate Opening (11 minutes, 40 seconds): A deleted prologue for the film detailing the backstory of Russell’s character as a photographer in a war zone. Mostow introduces the sequence, explaining how the studio insisted on shooting it, and reluctantly agreed to test screen the movie with and without it, before finally agreeing that it played better without it. It’s not bad on its own terms, but is completely needless and definitely would have thrown off the tight pace of the film.

Alternate Opening with commentary by Jonathan Mostow (11 minutes, 54 seconds): The same sequence, but presented with Mostow providing audio commentary.

Theatrical Trailers (6 minutes, 51 seconds)

Breakdown (2 minutes, 10 seconds)

Kiss the Girls (2 minutes, 17 seconds)

Hard Rain (2 minutes, 23 seconds)

Isolate Score

Breakdown is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 93 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: September 21st, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Bugsy Malone (1976)

September 21, 2021

By John Corrado

Last month, Paramount released a new Blu-ray edition of director Alan Parker’s 1976 film Bugsy Malone, an homage to classic Prohibition-era gangster movies that casts kids in all the roles and replaces bullets with whipped cream.

The film is set in New York City circa 1929, and follows Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio), a child gangster working for Fat Sam (John Cassisi), owner of the Grand Slam Speakeasy whose turf is being encroached upon by rival mobster Dandy Dan (Martin Lev).

When Bugsy learns that the rival gang has gotten their hands on new “splurge guns” that fire off mounds of whipped cream with the speed of machine guns, while Fat Sam’s boys are still working with throwing pies, he hatches a plan to to steal the weapons.

The story also involves a pair of love interests; Fat Sam’s main girl and star performer Tallulah (Jodie Foster, whose breakout role in Taxi Driver also graced screens in 1976), who also has a thing for Bugsy, and aspiring actress Blousey Brown (Florrie Duggar), who comes to audition for a singing position at Fat Sam’s joint but ends up falling for Bugsy.

Parker’s film could be considered a spoof, but would more correctly be classified as an homage to the genre and era that it emulates. The most notable aspect of Bugsy Malone is the very unique vibe of the film, which authentically captures the feel of an old 1930s gangster movie, complete with some lovely old school production design. The only difference is that children fill all the roles, but the young actors treat their characters as seriously as if they were being played by actors several times their age, giving the film a charming school play feel.

The film is also a musical, with a number of original songs by Paul Williams that are expectedly catchy and upbeat. Some elements of the film do feel dated, and the effect of having the kids’ singing voices being dubbed over by adults doesn’t quite work, especially in hindsight. But Bugsy Malone remains a minor classic that has gained itself a dedicated following over the years, especially with those who grew up with the film.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a pair of new featurettes, as well as a selection of trailers. There is no digital copy included in the package.

Give a Little Love: Paul Williams on Bugsy Malone (6 minutes, 13 seconds): Williams reflects on how he was approached for the project, writing the songs for the film, and his one main regret of not having the kids do their own singing.

Filmmaker Focus: Executive Producer David Puttnam on Bugsy Malone (5 minutes, 27 seconds): Puttnam reflects on working with Parker, who apparently somewhat disassociated himself from the project until realizing its staying power with audiences in the years after its release. Puttnam also talks a bit about the production of the film (he says the splurge guns never properly worked), which wasn’t as much of a success in America as it was overseas, and its legacy as a royalty-free staple of school productions.

Theatrical Trailers

Bugsy Malone (2 minutes, 11 seconds)

Paper Moon (3 minutes, 55 seconds)

Grease (2 minutes, 3 seconds)

Black Beauty (1971) (1 minute, 1 second)

Bugsy Malone is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 93 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: August 31st, 2021

#TIFF21 Review: One Second (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, One Second is a pretty wonderful love letter to cinema itself and the travelling picture shows of his youth. Set in China in the 1970s, the engaging plot of One Second follows three people who are all after a reel of film belonging to the 1964 propaganda picture Heroic Sons and Daughters.

Our hero is an unnamed escaped convict from a prison camp (Zhang Yi) who wants to get his hands on the propagandistic newsreel attached to the feature, in hopes that it might contain some footage of his estranged daughter. This puts him in conflict with an orphan girl named Liu (Liu Haocun) who wants the physical celluloid for her own reasons, and a travelling projectionist affectionately called Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), who travels from town to town showing films to the locals and needs the reel for his latest presentation.

There are some nice bits of screwball comedy in the first act as the escapee and Liu keep stealing the film canister from each other. But the film takes on a more poignant quality as it goes along. The centrepiece sequence finds them having to clean the reels of film when they get tangled up together after being dragged through the dirt, and the images of strips of celluloid being tenderly cleaned, and strung through projectors, are shot with nothing but love for the medium.

Yimou’s film was initially supposed to premiere at Berlinale in 2019, but, in a twist of fate, was pulled from the competition, with Chinese censors forcing the filmmaker to re-edit and reshoot parts of his work to appease their sensibilities. Knowing this, it’s easy to wonder how the subtle commentary on Mao’s Cultural Revolution might have played in an unedited version. The film also has a slightly awkward epilogue that feels somewhat tacked on and undercuts a bit of the story’s impact.

But these things aside, One Second still plays quite well in its current form, telling an entertaining, involving and even genuinely touching story about the literal power of film to connect people from different backgrounds. As such, it provided a very fitting closing night film for this year’s festival.

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 18th – 4:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Saturday, September 18th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 18th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Silent Night (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The feature directorial debut of writer-director Camille Griffin, Silent Night is a dark but compelling holiday twist on the “last night of the world” premise, that takes a bold, eerily believable high concept setup and applies it to a stripped down character dramedy set at Christmas.

The film follows Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode), who are hosting Christmas dinner for their privileged family and friends at a large house in the English countryside. But there is a poisonous cloud sweeping over the world caused by pollution and climate change, that will kill everything it touches. From here, Silent Night takes a very dark turn that raises some intriguing moral questions, especially with it being released in the midst of a global pandemic.

Griffin wrote the screenplay before COVID-19 hit, and the film finished shooting just before lockdown started in the UK. But the climate disaster storyline, and the film’s commentary on class and collective responsibility, play very differently in the face of the pandemic. It’s hard not to view the film as an accidental COVID allegory now, with allusions to lockdowns, vaccine hesitancy, and government compliance in the face of impending doom.

The emotional anchor of the film is Nell and Simon’s socially conscious oldest son Art (played by the writer-director’s real life son, Roman Griffin Davis), who questions the government protocols that have been put in place. Davis does very strong work as a free-thinking kid who challenges everything that the adults are saying, showing that his breakout performance as the lead in Jojo Rabbit was no fluke.

The film is incredibly bleak, especially as a Christmas movie, and the mix of very dark humour and disturbing subject matter won’t be for everyone. Some of the comic moments maybe feel a bit too macabre, and not all of the characters are equally well fleshed out. But Griffin for the most part does a good job of balancing the film’s juxtaposition between cheery Christmas movie (they even got Canadian crooner Micheal Bublé to sing a delightful new song about Christmas sweaters that could easily get radio play) and apocalyptic drama.

Griffin’s film builds up to a haunting and unsettling finale that is still somehow laced with pitch black humour. At just ninety minutes, Silent Night is engaging from start to finish, built around a thought provoking moral dilemma about how much responsibility we have to help ease the suffering of others that will keep playing out in your head afterwards.

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 16th – 7:00 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Friday, September 17th – 5:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Saturday, September 18th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Wolf (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

George MacKay plays a young man who believes he’s actually a wolf trapped in a human body in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri’s new film Wolf, which explores the concept of “species dysphoria.” And the film is fine. Neither the total mess nor the instant cult classic that it could have been, Wolf instead is a pretty good if uneven indie drama that is carried by committed performances, with a premise that is just absurd enough to attract curious viewers.

With his parents worried about how he’s been acting too much like a wolf, Jacob (MacKay) gets sent to a clinic that claims to cure people of the belief that they have been born in the wrong body, i.e., a human one. There’s a teen boy who thinks he’s a squirrel, and a girl who wears feathers and a beak and repeats everything back like a parrot. You get the idea.

The clinic is run by a cruel psychiatrist who is known as “The Zookeeper” (played by a terrifying Paddy Considine), who believes in physical punishment, and that the feelings his patients are experiencing can be trained out of them through conversion therapy techniques. It’s here that Jacob meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a feline-identifying patient who bonds with Jacob, despite their natural differences in species identity.

Biancheri was inspired to write the screenplay after reading an article about the real phenomenon of “species dysphoria,” but the story of Wolf could also be read as an allegory of gender identity, racism, speciesism, and gay conversion therapy. I’m not sure if the central metaphor always works. The abject cruelty on display in terms of the torture that these kids are forced to go through also makes the film somewhat tough to watch.

But Wolf features a very committed performance by MacKay, who immerses himself in the role right from the opening scene of him writhing around naked on the forest floor. There are some memorable moments of wolf acting throughout, like when he scurries through the hallways of the clinic shirtless and on all fours, eventually coming to a kitchen window so he can howl at the moon. MacKay keeps Jacob’s emotions very internalized, but comes alive in these scenes.

Depp also commits herself to the strangeness of her role, including a scene where her and MacKay crawl around on the roof sniffing each other, him growling and her purring. Finally, Fionn O’Shea shines in a weirdly compelling supporting role as a boy who believes he is a German Shepherd, and befriends Jacob like a playful puppy. There are moments of absurd humour, sure, but Biancheri also strives for empathy with what her characters are going through.

The film feels a bit too slow in parts, and some of the scenes showing the characters getting in touch with their animal sides can feel like watching acting exercises in a theatre class. The characters in general can seem somewhat thin and are not always that well fleshed out. But Biancheri’s film builds to an engaging finale that includes a stirring sequence that is memorably set to the song “Gloria.” Go for the weirdness of the premise, stay for the full-bodied acting of the leads.

Public Screenings:

Friday, September 17th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Friday, September 17h – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Belfast (Gala Presentations)

September 18, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is the filmmaker’s bittersweet cinematic memoir of growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The story begins in the year 1969, and follows a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill), a stand-in for Branagh, who lives on a mostly Protestant street in Belfast where the few Catholic families are being violently targeted.

The street will soon be barricaded off, with checkpoints for coming and going. This provides a tense backdrop for Buddy’s more typical boyhood problems, as he pines after a classmate and tries to do better in school, but gets caught up in trouble. The story itself might feel a bit slight in parts, but Branagh’s film is packed with heart and features a number of finely textured performances.

Jamie Dornan has never been better as Pa, Buddy’s father who is often away for work in England and is struggling to support his family, but manages to put on a brave face without being overly stoic. Caitriona Balfe is quietly heartbreaking as Ma, who is trying her best to make do with what they’ve got, but has her hands full trying to hold the family together. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds also deliver charming and moving performance as Granny and Pop, Buddy’s grandparents who often watch him in the afternoon and offer sage advice on life and relationships.

At the centre of it all is newcomer Jude Hill, offering a captivating portrayal of a boy unwittingly growing up in the middle of a Civil War who would rather be escaping into the fantasy of TV Westerns and much anticipated trips to the movie theatre. Drawn from memories, Branagh’s screenplay strikes a good balance between gentle humour and piercing human drama, with some commentary on religion and sectarian differences. The film functions as a sort of child’s eye view of The Troubles in this way, with Buddy questioning what the difference even is between a Protestant and a Catholic.

The film is gorgeously captured in black-and-white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, with a few magical splashes of colour. This includes the opening shots flying over modern day Belfast, which then seamlessly transition into the black and white of the past. It’s a sort of reverse Wizard of Oz effect that works beautifully, matched quite nicely by one of the very good Van Morrison songs that provide the backdrop for the film. We then go into an incredibly well shot sequence that follows Buddy running through the street as violence erupts, the camera spinning 360 degrees around him.

Branagh’s Belfast ultimately works as a good, old fashioned family drama that tells a simple yet effective story, brought to life through excellent performances and some lovely images. The story ends on a very poignant note, resonating with the bittersweet sense of nostalgia that comes to define the film, which I’m sure will only grow on repeat viewings.

Public Screenings:

Sunday, September 12th – 5:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Monday, September 13th – 3:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Thursday, September 16th – 12:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

%d bloggers like this: