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Review: Almost Almost Famous

December 7, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Being a tribute artist can be a lucrative and demanding business, even if your fame largely comes from pretending to be someone else. That’s the main takeaway of Almost Almost Famous, a fairly entertaining documentary that follows a group of classic rock impersonators who are on tour together as the Class of ’59, giving audiences the chance to see a show featuring the likes of Jackie Wilson Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper.

The film mainly focuses on three of these tribute artists. There’s Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator Lance Lipinsky, a somewhat arrogant but phenomenally skilled Texas musician with incredible boogie woogie piano skills, who is also trying to make a name for himself outside of just being a tribute artist; award-winning Elvis impersonator Ted Torres Martin, whose laid back personality in real life gives way to a major stage presence when he’s in character; and Bobby Brooks, who does an incredible impersonation of Jackie Wilson, and we find out has surprising connections to the artist himself.

They are under the management of Marty Kramer, a seasoned veteran of the music industry who cut his teeth working as a roadie for bands like the Guess Who and Led Zeppelin, and is tasked with keeping both their schedules and egos in check. The performers deal with the usual challenges of life on the road, including the unglamorous realities of spending most of your time being holed up in tour buses, cheap motels and crappy dressing rooms, save for the few hours when on stage, and the loneliness that comes with it. But they are also navigating the unique hurdles that come from being sort of famous, but having most of your fame come from pretending to be other people who have long since died.

Director Barry Lank follows the group as they are on tour across Ontario, plunging us into this unique world of tribute artists through a good mix of concert footage and talking head interviews, and ensuring that the three main subjects are each given enough time to tell their own stories. The performances that we see here are top notch, with all of the men doing a fine job of channelling their rock star counterparts, and putting on one heck of a show that might not be quite as good as the real thing but is absolutely good enough for the people who keep coming to see them.

There is a real sense of joy to be found in watching the reactions of those who come to their shows, with the audiences mostly made up of seniors who are nostalgically reliving their own younger days through these impersonators. These fan interactions and the way they handle them tell us all we need to know about why these tribute artists keep doing what they do, and Almost Almost Famous serves as an enjoyable and even fun look at people who make their living impersonating others.

Almost Almost Famous is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto, and will be playing for two nights only at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on December 14th and 17th.

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Review: Roma

December 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

A black and white homage to the Mexico of his youth and the women who raised him, Alfonso Caurón’s Roma is a beautiful and haunting work of art, that serves as the filmmaker’s first Spanish language film since Y Tu Mamá También in 2001.

The film unfolds through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young housekeeper and nanny working for a family in Mexico City’s Roma district in the early 1970s. When the father of the house (Fernando Grediaga) goes away on an extended business trip, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is left to raise their four children, with Cleo taking over many of the parenting duties.

While she is raising a family that isn’t her own, Cleo shares a close bond with the children she is hired to look after, and they view her as a surrogate parent. Meanwhile, Cleo discovers that she has become pregnant by her unreliable boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and is dealing with other hardships in her life. The film unfolds with a gripping neorealist quality, often putting the focus on feeling and emotion rather than story, showing personal moments in the life of this family that happen against the backdrop of profound social changes in Mexico at the time.

This is the first film that Caurón has made since his stunning 2013 space survival drama Gravity, which was a gripping and spectacular work that practically demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible, yet at the same time served as a deeply personal character study that was intimately focused on the emotional journey of a woman fighting to overcome grief and depression. It’s this sense of intimacy that carries over into the story of Roma, and while the 1970s Mexico City setting couldn’t be more different from the vast expanses of space that provided the backdrop of Gravity, the canvas that this film is painted on is just as visually stunning, and it’s emotional impact just as deep.

Right from the opening shot of soapy water washing over floor tiles, Roma draws us in with an almost hypnotic quality. Many of the sequences unfold in long takes, with the camera locked in a wide master shot, and often slowly panning over the frame to follow the action. Shot on 65mm film and presented in starkly gorgeous black and white, these beautifully composed images are packed with little details that are able to reveal so much about the characters and this world, giving us the feeling of looking at moving photographs taken right out of time.

Throughout the 135 minute running time, Caurón is able to capture a mix of both small, intimate moments and big dramatic events, including an intense sequence depicting the tragic Corpus Christi massacre in 1971, a student demonstration that resulted in over a hundred of the protestors being shot and killed by authorities. Another sequence that unfolds in a hospital is one of the most devastating scenes of any film this year, made all the more so for the way that it unfolds in a single take, with the camera remaining completely still as we observe what is happening within the frame.

With Caurón in full command of his craft, not only directing the film but also acting as both editor and cinematographer as well, Roma fully immerses us in this world for a couple of hours through its mix of gorgeous imagery and naturalistic performances. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio delivers one of the most powerful and authentic turns of the year, beautifully portraying the internal emotions of Cleo as she masks her own pain for the sake of the children she is tasked with raising.

The film is going to be available on Netflix as of December 14th, but it’s worth seeing at least once on the big screen if you get the chance. Even Netflix seems to recognize this, with the streaming service making the choice to finally do away with their usual day-and-date release model and give the film a limited theatrical run before it is available to watch at home. Long live the cinema experience, and may we get more films like Roma to make it worth it.

Roma is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, with daily showings in 4K Dolby Atmos starting today, and selected screenings in 70mm starting on December 14th. Tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Blu-ray Review: The Happytime Murders

December 5, 2018

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Set in an alternate version of Los Angeles where humans and puppets live side by side, but puppets are treated like second class citizens, The Happytime Murders is a film that had potential on paper, but ends up being one of the most disappointing movies of the year.

When somebody starts killing the plushy cast members of the classic children’s show The Happytime Gang, puppet private investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is forced to team up with human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) in order to investigate the murders.

Phil and Connie used to work together on the police force, where Phil was the first puppet cop, before having his badge stripped following a tragic accident, which has caused them to become rivals. But the case takes on a personal bent for Phil when his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), who played a police officer on The Happytime Gang, is brutally killed, and he ends up connecting with his old human flame Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). There’s also the added complication of the puppet temptress Sandra (Dorien Davies), a sex addict who wants him to investigate a possible extortion case.

Directed by Brian Henson, making his first film since The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992 and Muppet Treasure Island in 1996, The Happytime Murders is a very different type of muppet movie. It’s geared squarely at adults, with a ribald sense of humour and plenty of violence. The film is absolutely filthy at times, and while on the one hand it’s easy to admire Henson’s dedication to making a mature movie featuring puppets, it also rarely ever works and is an almost unmitigated misfire.

There is a meanness to the film that keeps us from ever really liking the characters, and the screenplay has a tendency to over explain what is happening in the plot, with a lot of dead air around the jokes that keeps many of them from landing like they should. The fact that the film doesn’t really work at all, save for a few brief moments here and there and some decent puppeteering, is what makes the whole thing such a drag to watch, even with a brief running time of about an hour and a half.

The most frustrating thing about The Happytime Murders is that it actually had some potential and could have been so much better, and it’s especially disappointing as someone who is a lifelong fan of the Henson brand. But the whole thing just feels off, both in terms of rhythm and content, and it ultimately plays like a mildly good idea that has been executed extremely poorly. It’s something alright, but it’s not good, and the film is barely even worth seeing out of mild curiosity.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with Henson and Barretta, six deleted scenes, a gag reel, a Line-O-Rama which features alternate takes of different lines, and the three brief pieces entitled Virtual Environments, Avatar Demo and VFX Breakdown, which offer a look at the progression of the film’s visual effects including the use of green screens on set so the puppeteers could be removed in post-production and the use of motion capture performances to help bring the characters to life.

The Happytime Murders is a VVS Films release. It’s 91 minutes and rated 14A.

Blu-ray Review: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

December 4, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back for his sixth impossible mission in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and the result is the year’s best summer blockbuster, which is just now arriving on Blu-ray.

I saw this one in theatres over the summer, and it’s easily some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. The film more than lives up to the high bar set by the previous entries in the series, delivering more brilliantly conceived set-pieces that allow Cruise to defy both death and gravity.

This time around, Hunt and his usual IMF partners Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are teamed up with CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to track down three stolen plutonium cores that have fallen into the hands of the Apostles, a new radical organization founded by the remaining members of the Syndicate. There is reason to believe they are planning to use the plutonium to create a devastating bomb that could be ready to go off within the next three days.

Hunt must assume the identity of John Lark, the mysterious leader of the Apostles, to meet with a black market weapons dealer known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), but in true Mission: Impossible fashion, there are also plenty of twists and double crossings along the way. Set up like a culmination of the series, director Christopher McQuarrie keeps finding ways to make the action feel fresh and exciting throughout Mission: Impossible – Fallout, from a visceral hand-to-hand fight in a bathroom to the thrilling grandiosity of the finale.

This is the first time a director has ever returned to the series, having also helmed the fifth instalment Rogue Nation, and McQurrie does a bang up job of staging the multiple set-pieces while also navigating the twisty and convoluted story that ties them all together. Cruise, doing all of his own stunts, continues to prove himself as one of our most versatile and daring action stars, even well into his fifties. Whether skydiving from a plane or leaping between buildings, a stunt that resulted in him breaking his ankle in real life, the actor delivers thrilling work here while outdoing many performers half his age.

There are foot chases, motorcycle chases and car chases that serve to quicken our collective pulses, with cinematographer Rob Hardy, who is new to the series, doing a great job of framing the action scenes in a clear and exciting way. The film culminates with a grand finale involving two helicopters and the side of a cliff, backed by the literal ticking clock of a bomb that needs to be defused, in a stunning sequence that feels like a mini masterpiece of suspense cinema in and of itself. It’s brilliantly pulled off and serves as a positively thrilling way to end the film, playing like the Burj Khalifa sequence from Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol cranked up to eleven.

Even if there is rarely any doubt as to whether or not our heroes will make it out alive, the suspense and fun comes from seeing how the heck they are going to do it. It’s as pure a jolt of adrenaline as any that we have gotten at the movies this year, and another excellent entry into a series that has become one of the most reliably thrilling action franchises around, offering a selection of awesome set-pieces that rank among the best in the genre. While it was made to be seen in a theatre, Mission: Impossible – Fallout still thrills at home, especially if you have the right system in place.

The Blu-ray also includes three commentary tracks and an isolated score track on the first disc, as well as a second disc devoted entirely to bonus features. There’s the seven part feature Behind the Fallout, made up of a series of featurettes that take us through various aspects of the production, as well as a deleted scenes montage, the two featurettes Foot Chase Musical Breakdown and The Ultimate Mission, and a selection of storyboards. The package also comes with a small collectible book showcasing some of the stunts in the film through a series of quotes and glossy images.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 147 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Streets of Fire and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey Steelbooks from Shout! Factory

December 4, 2018

By John Corrado

Last month, Shout! Factory released a pair of brand new steelbook editions of the cult classics Streets of Fire and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey on Blu-ray.

It’s worth noting that these are limited edition releases and the packaging is collectible, so I would recommend picking them up if you’re a fan of either film. Both films feature great new cover art by poster illustrator Antonio Stella, and they would also double as great Christmas gifts.

First up is Streets of Fire, Walter Hill’s stylish and entertaining 1984 rock & roll fable, which boasts an awesome soundtrack of original songs written by Jim Steinman, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Ry Cooder, and performed by the bands The Blasters and The Fixx.

When rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped by the Bombers, a 1950s-style motorcycle greaser gang led by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), her ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Michae Paré) teams up with the badass army girl McCoy (Amy Madigan) and Ellen’s skittish manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) in order to rescue her. While Streets of Fire is arguably more style than substance, the style is oh so much fun to watch, with Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography capturing the film’s rain-soaked settings and stylized action scenes in a way that is pure eye candy. This is a B-movie delight, that rocks to a great soundtrack that instantly evokes the 1980s.

The Blu-ray includes a new 2K scan of the original interpositive, as well as a second disc featuring the two feature length documentaries Shotguns and Six Strings: The Making of a Rock N Roll Fable and Rumble on the Lot: Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire Revisitied, as well as music videos, vintage featurettes, and the theatrical trailer for the film. These are the same bonuses that were included on the regular Shout! Factory release from last year, but this one comes with the steelbook packaging and has been branded as a 35th anniversary edition.

Streets of Fire is 93 minutes and rated R.

Next is Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the 1991 sequel to the 1989 time travel classic Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This time around, evil robot versions of Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) have been sent from the future to kill them and take their place at a Battle of the Bands contest, in order to sabotage their chances of winning.

The non-robot Bill and Ted end up dead and taking a journey with the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) to try and stop their bad robot replacements, in time for their band Wyld Stallyns to play in the competition. While I do prefer the first film, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is still an amusing and often entertaining sequel, that embraces its own wacky sense of randomness and has become a cult classic for a reason.

The Blu-ray also includes two commentary tracks, the first with Winter and producer Scott Kroopf and the second with screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, as well as the featurette Bill & Ted Go To Hell – Revisiting A Bogus Journey, and the theatrical trailer for the film. Now it would be nice to get a steelbook edition of the first film from Shout! Factory to match this one on my shelf…

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is 94 minutes and rated PG.

Review: Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back)

November 30, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

William (Aneurin Barnard) is a depressed young writer who has attempted to kill himself seven times, ten if you count the cries for help. He is in the midst of his latest botched attempt when he meets Leslie (Tom Wilkinson), a for-hire assassin who agrees to help him end it all within a week in exchange for money.

But things take a turn when William gets a call from Ellie (Freya Mavor), a young woman who works at a publishing house that is interested in one of his manuscripts, and she also happens to be the girl of his dreams who gives him something to live for.

William tries desperately to get the plans called off, but he is already locked into a contract, and Leslie needs to complete the job in order to meet the mandatory quota that has been put in place by his boss Harvey (Christopher Eccleston), so that he can keep his membership in an elite assassins guild.

This is the gonzo premise of Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back), a pitch black comedy from the UK that presents the feature debut of writer-director Tom Edmunds. While the story uses its serious themes to deliver plenty of dark humour, the film is also largely sensitive in its portrayal of mental illness and depression, and the romance that blossoms between William and Ellie is actually pretty sweet.

This is the sort of dry, pitch black comedy that the British do so well, and the film works thanks to its performances. Barnard makes for a brooding but still somewhat sympathetic lead, Mavor does appealing work as his love interest, and Wilkinson excels at playing a goodnatured and gentlemanly hitman, who is so polite and pleasant about the fact that he kills people for money.

Even if the overall story is a bit predictable, and not every element of the screenplay feels equally well fleshed out, Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back) held my attention and is actually weirdly charming at times. While it certainly won’t be for everyone, I found this to be a mostly enjoyable if admittedly somewhat twisted little film that I would recommend to those looking for a decent dark comedy.

Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back) is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto.

Blu-ray Review: School Daze: 30th Anniversary Edition

November 27, 2018

By John Corrado

Spike Lee’s 1988 college comedy School Daze is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The film is inspired by Lee’s own college experiences in Atlanta, Georgia, and unfolds over the hectic homecoming weekend at the historically black Mission College.

The story focuses on the rivalries between Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne), a young activist who leads anti-apartheid demonstrations on campus and is frustrated by the reluctance of the administration to speak out against South Africa, and Julian Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito), who is better known as “Dean Big Brother Almighty” of the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity.

Much of the conflicts on campus come from the divide between the darker-skinned students, who are called derogatory racial slurs, and the lighter-skinned Gamma students who are dubbed “wannabes,” with some of the sorority girls straightening their hair to appear less black and even wearing contact lenses, causing them to clash with the other women. Caught in the middle is Dap’s younger cousin Half-Pint (Lee), a naive and eager to please student who is desperate to join Gamma Phi Gamma, even if it means humiliating himself in the process.

Released right in between She’s Gotta Have It in 1987 and his iconic classic Do the Right Thing in 1989, School Daze isn’t quite as celebrated as some of Lee’s other films, and it is somewhat of a minor entry into his filmography. The film has a shaggy and loose quality to it that keeps it from having more of an impact, and it’s marked by sharp tonal shifts that make it feel a bit unfocused, with Lee exploring a variety of different styles, including several musical numbers and an ending that doesn’t quite land.

But School Daze is still packed with Lee’s signature social commentary, offering a pointed and often entertaining treatise on racial relations that was very of the moment in the late ’80s and is still relevant to this day. It’s delivered under the guise of a college comedy, and the film features strong performances from its ensemble cast, with Fishburne in particular doing standout work, and Lee really shining in his memorable supporting role. This is at the very least an interesting early film from a director who has continued to deliver relevant work, right up to this year’s BlacKkKlansman.

The Blu-ray also includes a new 30th anniversary Q&A with Lee and members of the cast and crew, a commentary track with the director and another one with the cast, as well as the three featurettes Birth of a Nation, College Daze and Making a Mark, and a trio of music videos.

School Daze: 30th Anniversary Edition is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 120 minutes and rated 18A.

DVD Review: Puzzle

November 27, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a housewife, who has dedicated herself to looking after her husband Louie (David Denman) and their two sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who are now young adults but not quite ready to forge their own paths.

She is bored and wants something more, but seems too nervous and anxious to actually pursue it, instead cocooning herself up in the domestic world she has always known. But when she receives a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift, Agnes finds a new passion in the form of puzzling, and discovers a real talent for assembling the pieces in record time.

Agnes takes a rare trip into New York to buy herself another puzzle at a trendy downtown shop, and stumbles across the number for Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy recluse who is looking for a partner to compete with him in an upcoming puzzle tournament. Through her biweekly trips to New York to meet with him and practise, which she keeps secret from her family, the middle aged Agnes finally starts to discover a part of herself that she has long kept buried.

Built around a wonderful performance by Macdonald, Puzzle is a quiet character drama that draws us into Agnes’s world and allows us to sympathize with her every step of the way. She is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, with her innate talent for putting puzzles together stemming from her love of patterns and math, and watching her finally come into her own and gain newfound independence is bittersweet and often moving. It’s a performance of deceptive simplicity, and Khan is her match, delivering understated work that subverts expectations.

Based on Natalia Smirnoff’s 2009 Argentinian film of the same name, and featuring a nuanced script co-written by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman, Puzzle is a tender and touching film that beautifully tells a simple yet compelling story. This is the sort of low-key drama that takes the time to get to know its characters, and it’s worth seeing for the exceptional work of Macdonald, with her quietly powerful performance offering a masterclass in subtle complexities.

The DVD also includes a commentary track with director Marc Turtletaub, an alternate ending, and the featurette Completing the Puzzle.

Puzzle is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 103 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: The Drawer Boy

November 23, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Taking place in the 1970s, The Drawer Boy unfolds at the Huron County farm shared by old friends Morgan (Richard Clarkin) and Angus (Stuart Hughes), who have their lives changed and old tensions brought back to the surface when a young playwright named Miles (Jakob Ehman) arrives from Toronto.

Miles asks to stay with them in order to write a play about farming, but his presence has unexpected consequences. Angus suffered a brain injury while serving in World War II, and relies on Morgan’s stories to help jog his memory, but Miles being there and prying into their lives threatens his comfortable narrative.

Based on a 1999 play by Michael Healey, this film adaptation of The Drawer Boy retains an intimate, chamber piece feel to it, and is carried by a trio of excellent and nicely textured performances from Richard Clarkin, Stuart Hughes and Jakob Ehman. The story unfolds with some elements of mystery, as the film comes to be a moving look at the fragility of memory, and how the stories we tell can take on a truth of their own and become what we remember.

The Drawer Boy is now playing in limited release at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Canadian Film Fest.

Review: The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret

November 23, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A followup of sorts to his previous documentary Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project, Barry Avrich’s The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret uses the revelations of sexual assault that took down legendary mogul Weinstein last fall as the jumping off point for an exposé on sexual abuse in Hollywood.

Featuring interviews with a wide range of voices, the film sparks a much larger discussion about the structures in place that have allowed people to abuse their power for far too long, and the many others that have enabled this “casting couch” culture either directly or merely by staying silent.

The film takes us through the fallout from the Weinstein scandal, including the allegations that surfaced against other prominent figures like James Toback and Louis C.K., and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have sparked international and wide-ranging conversations over the past year.

The film is also interesting in that it includes more controversial voices like Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente; criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein, who infamously got Jian Ghomeshi acquitted of his sexual assault charges; as well as the outspoken street artist Sabo, who put up the “she knew” posters calling out Meryl Streep and other complicit celebrities. This really helps balance out the larger conversation, and The Reckoning also directly brings up claims that #MeToo has gone too far in some cases and become somewhat puritanical in its approach, and whether you agree with that sentiment or not, the film is all the stronger for addressing it.

The result is an informative and up to the minute overview of the #MeToo movement thus far, that ignites important conversations we all need to be having right now. The only issue that the film doesn’t really address is pedophilia in Hollywood, so I would recommend also watching Amy Berg’s explosive documentary An Open Secret, which is available for free on Vimeo, for an equally important look at that aspect of the ongoing sexual abuse epidemic.

The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret 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 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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