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Review: Little Women

December 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a semi autobiographical book about four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War, was initially published in the late 1860s, and it has been adapted for the screen multiple times since then.

Perhaps the most famous of these adaptations include George Cukor’s version in 1933 with Katherine Hepburn in the leading role of the tomboyish Jo March, and Gillian Armstrong’s fan favourite 1994 adaptation starring a young Winona Ryder in the role, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal.

Now the classic book has gotten a fresh adaptation courtesy of multihyphenate filmmaker Greta Gerwig, who is riding high after her critically acclaimed solo directorial debut Lady Bird. The film reunites Gerwig with her Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan, who does an excellent job of taking on the role of Jo, and the result is a wonderful film that works as both a sincere adaptation and a deconstruction of Louisa May Alcott’s book. Gerwig manages to remain true to the source material while also bringing her own distinctive voice as an artist to it, which is no small feat.

Right off the bat, one of the most radical choices that Gerwig has made is to assemble the film out of order, taking a fractured narrative approach to telling this story by starting it with the sisters as adults having all gone their separate ways and showing their coming of age in flashbacks. The film opens with Jo March (Ronan) already living in New York, trying to sell short stories to a publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), who is reluctant to publish the work of a young lady. Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Europe with their rich aunt (Meryl Streep), Meg (Emma Watson) stayed in town to get married and have a family, and youngest sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is still at home, her fragile health waning.

Through Jo’s memories to seven years earlier, we see the March sisters being raised by their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), with their father, Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk), off volunteering for the Union Army. Despite not having much money of their own, their mother instills in them the importance of doing kind things for others, including giving their Christmas breakfast to a poor family who live near them in a shack in the woods, in one touching sequence. It’s here that we get to see the sisters getting into mischief, putting on plays, and becoming friends with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), the fun-loving grandson of their rich neighbour Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper).

We also get to see the clashes between the independent Jo and the more dependent Amy. Jo likes to do things for herself and has no real desire to get married, even voicing her displeasure at one point about having been born a girl because it means that she can’t fight in the war, where as Amy is honest about her hopes to marry a rich man who can support her. Despite Laurie’s romantic interest in her, and the fact that they get along incredibly well, Jo views him as simply her best friend. These themes about women wanting to make their own way in the world and not have to rely upon men, which were groundbreaking for the 1800s, retain their relevance now.

This is a period piece that feels at once true to its time as well as distinctly modern. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux works with a lot of natural light, modelling the look of the film after paintings from the era, and it has a visual brightness that makes it stand out from other period pieces. The production design, sets and costumes are all exceptional, and composer Alexandre Desplat contributes a lovely musical score to the film that is classical with a slight contemporary flair. The film is also impeccably well cast, with a great ensemble of actors who all fill out these roles perfectly.

Ronan continues to show off her impressive range and versatility as an actress, and she is brilliant in both the dramatic and more playful moments that the film offers her. Chalamet delivers a charming portrayal of Laurie, and him and Ronan have wonderful chemistry together, as we already know from Lady Bird. Pugh continues to dominate following her powerhouse performance in Midsommar earlier this year, bringing a sympathetic edge to her portrayal of Amy, whose immaturity causes her to do some unlikeable things, and imbuing the character with a good deal of depth and nuance.

One of the best surprises about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is how delightful the film often is, and I was smiling throughout much of it. There is a buoyancy to the film, which is elevated by the great and often playful chemistry between the actors, but Gerwig also ensures that the emotional weight of the story is still very much present in this version. Entertaining, deeply felt, and engaging throughout its over two hour running time, Gerwig has made something that should please both those who are looking for a new version of this classic story as well as fans of her work.

Little Women opens today in theatres across Canada.

Review: Spies in Disguise

December 23, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest film from Blue Sky Studios, and the first to be released by Disney following the Fox merger, the long-delayed flick Spies in Disguise is an animated action comedy that follows the adventures of Lance Sterling (Will Smith), a superstar spy who gets turned into a pigeon by whizz kid scientist Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) and, well, it’s a bit of an odd bird.

The film stars the voices of two major actors who have already appeared in some of Disney’s biggest hits of the year – Smith as the Genie in the Aladdin remake, and Holland as Spider-Man in Avengers: Endgame – and the studio is releasing it on Christmas Day, a week after their own ready made blockbuster Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is sure to beat it at the box office.

While Disney has been marketing it extensively, there is still a bit of a feeling like the Mouse House isn’t quite sure to do with this animated movie that doesn’t come from their own animation division or from the folks at Pixar, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at times, either. The film offers an agreeable if ultimately fairly forgettable mix of action sequences, slapstick humour and bird jokes that at times hints at something darker and more emotional while never really going there. But it does have much more talk about cloacas and bird anatomy than I was ever expecting, so that’s something, I guess.

The story begins with the cocky Lance Streling being framed by a weapons dealer (Ben Mendelsohn) who has stolen his identity, and getting fired by the agency where he works. With a warrent out for his arrest, the disgraced spy escapes to the home of Walter Beckett, a young outcast who tinkers away at inventing the gadgets that Sterling uses in the field, and is trying to find a kinder and gentler way of doing business, creating things such as “inflatable hugs” and glitter bombs that project cat videos.

Walter’s latest invention that he is working on is a serum that can turn people into pigeons as a form of disguise, since the birds reside in all of the major cities around the world and are able to easily blend in, being mostly ignored as pests. When Sterling accidentally drinks the potion, he transforms into a bird, leaving him racing against time to prove his innocence and thwart a major global attack, as Walter tries to invent something that will turn him back into a human.

A week after seeing Spies in Disguise, I was reminded of its existence when I saw an ad for the film and remarked to someone “oh yeah, I did see that movie,” having barely given it a second thought since the screening. This is not to say that the film is entirely forgettable, but it didn’t exactly stick in my mind for very long, either. It’s completely undemanding, thoroughly predictable, and totally safe. But none of these things make it bad, mind you, and when I was nine years old and obsessed with spies, I probably would have loved this movie. Which I guess sort of counts as a recommendation.

There are some fun action sequences here, and the animation is technically strong throughout. Smith and Holland bring enough of their own personalities to their vocal performances, with the former oozing his signature charisma and the latter being right at home playing a goodhearted, pacifistic nerd, to make their characters appealing. It’s far from the best animated movie of the year, and isn’t even in the upper tier of Blue Sky’s own output, but Spies in Disguise is still mildly entertaining, and if all you’re looking for is something fast-paced and action packed to watch with the family, it does the job.

Spies in Disguise opens on Wednesday in theatres across Canada.

Review: A Hidden Life

December 20, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Terrence Malick used to take long hiatuses between his films, but the reclusive director has become quite prolific in the years since his 2011 magnum opus The Tree of Life, having released multiple films since then.

Since The Tree of Life at the start of this decade, the filmmaker went into overdrive, putting out the films To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, as well as two versions of his ambitious documentary passion project Voyage of Time, which offered a deep dive into the entire life cycle of the universe.

Now Malick returns once again with A Hidden Life, a World War II drama that is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a humble Austrian farmer who shares a quiet life tending to the land with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their daughters. With the war ravaging Europe, and Nazi ideology spreading to even those in the faith community, Franz undergoes military training but risks his life when he refuses to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler, becoming a conscientious objector.

It’s fitting that Malick is closing out this decade of previously uncommon creative activity for himself with A Hidden Life, since it feels like a companion piece of sorts to The Tree of Life, at least from a spiritual sense. While A Hidden Life follows more of a traditional narrative than Malick’s other recent works, it’s still a film that is distinctly his, unfolding through sweeping scenes of characters existing in nature, matched by the director’s signature use of hushed, prayerful voiceover.

This is an approach that allows for reflection upon those who, in their own quiet ways, gave up everything to resist taking part in the evils of the world. Throughout the film, we watch as Jägerstätter is punished harshly and finally imprisoned for his peaceful acts of protest against Hitler’s fascist regime, and Diehl delivers a dedicated and moving performance as a man standing by his principles, even at the expense of his own life and wellbeing. Malick intends to help us realize this man’s largely unrecognized sacrifices and feel the full weight of them over the course of the film, and he has succeeded.

The film is filled with spectacular and haunting images courtesy of cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who steps up to the plate after working as a camera operator on several of Malick’s recent films. The visuals are matched beautifully by James Newton Howard’s musical score. While the film does feel a bit long at almost three hours, when some trimming might have brought elements of the story into sharper focus, A Hidden Life is a beautiful, poetic and spiritual work about standing firm in your beliefs. A must see for admirers of Malick.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

A Hidden Life is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

2019 Holiday Gift Guide

December 19, 2019

By John Corrado

Christmas is just under a week away. Hanukkah starts on December 22nd. It’s gift giving season, and here is my holiday gift guide, featuring a selection of recent movies, TV shows, books and even a board game that I can personally recommend. There’s something for everyone on this list, and all of the items below should be widely available either in stores or online for last minute purchases.

Movies

Mission: Impossible 6-Movie Collection (4K Ultra HD): Tom Cruise’s awesome and increasingly insane stunts in 4K? The Mission: Impossible 6-Movie Collection has it all. This compact set includes every single one of the Mission: Impossible films released so far in 4K Ultra HD, from Brian DePalma’s 1996 film to Christopher McQuarrie’s 2018 instalment Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and to sweeten the deal, the whopping 13-disc set also comes with all six films on Blu-ray, housed in their own plastic snapcase within the cardboard outer box.

The set even includes an extra Blu-ray disc of bonus features for Fallout, and is also packaged with Ethan Hunt’s Case File, a nifty little booklet featuring information about the character and his missions in the different films. This is one of the greatest and most purely entertaining franchises currently going, and the Mission: Impossible 6-Movie Collection is is the perfect gift for any action movie fans on your list, especially for those itching to watch or rewatch all of these films in order. This is something that actually came out last year in December, but it would still make a great gift.

It’s a Wonderful Life (4K Ultra HD): Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, starring James Stewart in one of the finest performances of his career as a depressed man learning how his life has touched so many others, is not only one of my favourite Christmas movies of all time, but also one of my favourite films, period. I went to see it last week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and it still holds up beautifully, with a script that brilliantly moves between flashbacks, present day scenes and chilling fantasy to offer a complete portrait of one man’s life and all the joy and regret that comes with it. You simply can’t go wrong with a timeless classic like this, and now it’s been beautifully restored in 4K for this new edition.

The disc comes with a selection of new bonus features as well, including the three featurettes The Making of a Beloved Classic in 4K, Scenes From the Vault: It’s a Wonderful Life, and It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party. The set also includes a regular Blu-ray, which unfortunately only has the colourized version on it, so if you’re looking for the film in its original black and white glory on Blu-ray, I would recommend going with the 70th anniversary edition that was released in 2016. But for those with a 4K system in place who are looking to upgrade, this set would make a great gift.

Anna and the Apocalypse (Blu-ray): Here’s something for you; a Christmas zombie musical! If that doesn’t get you interested in this small gem from 2018, which was recently released on Blu-ray, then I don’t know what will. This amusing, gory and surprisingly heartfelt film is a good choice for any genre fans on your list who are wanting to watch something that will get them in the spirit of the season, but aren’t necessarily looking for traditional holiday fare. The disc also includes a brief featurette that is much too short but does offer some cool “behind the scenes” footage of the makeup and practical gore effects, which is fun to see if you’re into that sort of thing. I recently rewatched my copy of the film, (which I reviewed when it came out last year), and it still holds up. Pair it with a copy of the movie’s incredibly catchy soundtrack for an especially great gift.

Downton Abbey (Blu-ray): Based on the popular TV series of the same name, which ran for six seasons from 2010 to 2015, the movie Downton Abbey continues the saga of the Crawley family and finds them preparing for a visit from the Royals. Bringing back the same cast as the TV series, including great character actors Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, the film proved to be hugely popular with fans of the show, and did decent business at the box office this fall. While familiarity with the show is practically a must to properly follow the story, I imagine many viewers would be delighted to find a copy of this handsomely made and well acted period piece underneath their trees. The disc also features a commentary track by director Michael Engler, and boasts over thirty minutes of bonus content, including a selection of deleted scenes and featurettes.

More Suggestions: Abominable (Blu-ray), Blinded by the Light (Blu-ray), The Farewell (Blu-ray), It: Chapter Two (Blu-ray), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Blu-ray).

Television

Game of Thrones: The Complete Eighth Season (Blu-ray): Whether you loved it, hated it or liked it with reservations but thought it needed a few more episodes, now you can watch and argue about the final season of the acclaimed and wildly popular HBO series all over again! This nicely packaged set features all six episodes from the eighth season of Game of Thrones spread over three discs, as well as recaps and previews, commentary tracks on each of the episodes, and in-episode guides that offer pop up text to help viewers keep track of the complex mythology. The third disc also holds three “making of” documentaries which range in length from half an hour to nearly two hours, as well as several animated background pieces and some deleted scenes. It’s a solid gift for fans of the show, especially those who already have the other seasons in their collection.

Chernobyl (Blu-ray): This critically acclaimed 5-part HBO miniseries, which recently received four Golden Globe nominations, dramatizes the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union and its fallout, documenting political corruption and how government officials tried to keep the severity of the disaster hidden, leading to an increase in radiation poisoning. Led by a stellar cast including Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, this harrowing and disturbing docudrama has already been celebrated as one of the greatest series of all time, and the 2-disc set also includes a good selection of bonus featurettes. It’s not exactly cheery viewing, but it is an important and finely crafted piece of television.

The Loudest Voice (DVD): Russell Crowe stars in this 7-part Showtime miniseries as Roger Ailes, the disgraced former head of Fox News who stepped down amidst multiple allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Spanning from 1995 to 2016, the series documents how Ailes built an empire that would not only change TV news, but would shake up the political landscape as well. Covering similar ground as the upcoming film Bombshell, this timely series received two Golden Globe nominations, including for Crowe’s performance. It’s the sort of thing that seems worthy of binge-watching over the holidays for those interested in media and politics, and the 3-disc set also includes a bonus featurette.

More Suggestions: Catch-22 (DVD).

Books

Rotten Movies We Love (Running Press Adult, 2019): This book, written by the editors of Rotten Tomatoes and featuring a forward by filmmaker Paul Feig, focuses on a selection of movies that have received a “rotten” score from critics of 59% or less on the review aggregator website, but have still managed to connect with audiences for one reason or another.

The book aims to shine a spotlight on films that received negative reviews from critics but are generally liked by a lot of audiences, from comedies that are now considered genuine classics like Twins, Billy Madison, Wet Hot American Summer and Step Brothers, to nostalgic childhood favourites like Hocus Pocus and Space Jam, and modern box office hits like Maleficent and The Greatest Showman, all of which are below 60%. It’s divided into different sections, including ones devoted to movies that are considered to be so bad they’re good, as well as others that were simply misunderstood upon their release but have since been reevaluated, like The Cable Guy and Jennifer’s Body.

Editor-in-Chief Joel Meares even acknowledges the problem with a site like Rotten Tomatoes in his introduction, recognizing how assigning a score that many see as a reflection of whether a film is worth seeing or not can in some cases be more hurtful than helpful. Some of the movies that got the green splat are generally considered to be legitimately good in hindsight, even if they didn’t attract positive reviews from the majority of critics when they were first released. For example, Wes Anderson’s fourth film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which is profiled, surprisingly only sits at 56% on the Tomatometer. And Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, a Christmas favourite of mine with immense replay value that in my humble opinion is on par with the first film, is at a shockingly low 32%.

Other titles in the book have understandably been panned, but still have great entertainment value, and others still, dare I say, deserve their low scores. But as Feig, no stranger to bad reviews, eloquently talks about in his foreward, all of this is subjective and our perception of movies often changes depending when we see them, which is kind of the beauty of cinema. There are also longer essays by film critics that appear throughout, which offer more in-depth analysis of some of these titles. Whether you agree with all of these picks or not, this well written and nicely assembled book is a lot of fun to look through, offering plenty of things to mull over and add to your watch list.

Christmas in the Movies (Running Press Adult, 2018): The latest by film historian and Turner Classic Movies commentator Jeremy Arnold, this hardcover book focuses on thirty Christmas movies, ranging from well established classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life to more modern favourites such as Elf and Love Actually, as well as some more obscure picks like Miracle on Main Street, Remember the Night, 3 Godfathers and Trail of Robin Hood. Arnold also broadens his definition to include films that aren’t entirely set at the holidays but feature Christmas prominently within them, like Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn.

The book itself is attractively put together, filled with pictures from these films to accompany Arnold’s essays for each of the titles, in which he explains why he chose to include them as well as talks about how they relate to the season and offers background information on their production. Arnold also gets extra points for reaffirming Die Hard‘s rightful place as a Christmas classic. Each film entry is accompanied by a list of credits, which is a very handy resource to have included, and the book serves as a great guide of what to watch over the holidays from old favourites to new discoveries. Smaller than your standard coffee table book, it’s the perfect size to curl up with and flip through, and makes a great display item.

Games

Blockbuster Party Game: Nostalgia for video stores is a very real thing, and the Blockbuster Party Game, made by the indie board game company Big Potato Games based in London, England, capitalizes on this perfectly. First off, the presentation of the game is one of my favourite things about it. The game itself comes in what looks like an oversized VHS case, and when you first open it up, the game board is folded in half to look like a cassette tape. When unfolded, the board looks like a parking lot, complete with a little plastic Blockbuster sign that stands in the middle of it. I’m honestly tempted to just keep it open as a display item, you know?

The game itself is sort of like a mix between Scene It? and charades, with players having to shout out the names of movies that fit into different categories in the first round, before selecting cards for the second round that offer players the chance to quote and act out scenes from classic movies, with the goal being to collect as many movie titles as possible. The cards that you collect look like cute little VHS tapes, and the first team to collect at least one title from all eight genres wins the game. The package also comes with a blue buzzer that is used in gameplay. Made for four or more players, the Blockbuster Party Game is perfect for playing with friends, and serves as the perfect crossover between movie night and game night, if those are the sort of things you do in your household.

Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

December 18, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Following the detour that was Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi in 2017, J.J. Abrams returns to the director’s chair with frustratingly mixed results in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the third and final piece of the new trilogy that he started for Disney with The Force Awakens in 2015.

This ninth film in the epic space opera promises the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga that George Lucas started all the way back in 1977, but Abrams is forced to play it safe, and one of the main problems with The Rise of Skywalker stems from the fact that this trilogy’s new characters have simply never been as interesting or compelling as their older counterparts.

Because the proper groundwork for the magically powerful “Last Jedi” Rey (Daisy Ridley), cocky fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) was never laid from the get go when they were first introduced in The Force Awakens, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the conclusion of their respective story arcs now. Who are these characters? Their story is ending, and yet it still feels like we are just getting to know them, almost as if the writers never really knew what to do with them at all.

The major problem with this final chapter is that it just isn’t very well written, and feels more like a slapdash collection of scenes meant to tie up loose ends rather than a coherent whole. Despite its flaws, The Force Awakens was at least a very enjoyable film, and for all the questionable choices that it made, The Last Jedi also did some things very well. I sadly can’t say the same about The Rise of Skywalker, a film that gives the distinct feeling of just going through the motions. It’s not exactly a chore to watch, and there are certainly enough fun moments throughout to make it still worth seeing, but it also feels like a disappointing end to a story that has been over four decades in the making.

The film’s opening scroll informs us that “the dead speak,” and Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is somehow still alive, having sent a signal out into the galaxy. Palpatine wants to rebuild the Empire by bringing back the Sith and establishing something called the Final Order, and he has sent orders to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to kill Rey. Rey is still at the forefront of fighting in the dwindling Resistance against his First Order, which is on shaky ground with a spy in their ranks, and Kylo continues to try and pull her over to the Dark Side.

While I am under orders to not spoil any specific plot details, I can say without giving anything more away that Abrams packs a lot of plot into this movie, and a lot of time is spent on exposition. It’s often needlessly convoluted, with the first half sending Rey, Finn and Poe, along with old friends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who at least are given some wonderful moments here, out on mini, macguffin-filled quests in search of the hidden Sith base. This is all in preparation for the film’s grand finale, which is suitably action-packed.

It’s worth noting that Disney’s initial goal was to pump out a new Star Wars every year, alternating between proper saga films and offshoot stories like Solo and Rogue One, a plan that was always overly ambitious. They ended up saturating the market so much that these plans were abandoned, but the rushed production schedule is still felt in The Rise of Skywalker. The film often feels like a product that has been pushed out to meet a deadline, and at times gives the impression that the filmmakers are just making it up as they go along. Characters make crucial decisions at the drop of a hat, backed up by some blatantly expository lines of dialogue meant to explain away any plot holes.

At times it feels like The Rise of Skywalker is trying to course correct and reverse some of the decisions that Johnson made in The Last Jedi – a film that was overpraised by many critics but irrationally hated by a lot of fans, and is either the best or the worst movie in the series depending upon which side of Twitter you end up on – which feels a bit odd for what is supposed to be a direct follow up. For example, that film’s divisive new character Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) also appears here, yet she is relegated to a small supporting role and barely registers within the plot, which means that the large swaths of The Last Jedi that were spent introducing her character were all for naught.

This third instalment was initially meant to focus on General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), much in the same way that The Force Awakens focused on Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and The Last Jedi made Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) the centre of attention. But the unexpected death of Fisher in 2016, coupled with the angry fan response to The Last Jedi, led Disney to fire Colin Trevorrow, who had been brought on to direct this film, and rehire Abrams, who has taken it in a much safer direction. Leia’s story arc is completed through spare footage of Fisher that is woven into the film with the help of body doubles and visual effects, but there is a hollowness to this approach and her presence is greatly missed.

Throughout it all, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is the conclusion to a story about characters who were never properly developed in the first place. Rey simply isn’t a very interesting character, and Finn and Poe remain severely underdeveloped. Kylo Ren has always been the most intriguing of these new characters, helped by the fact that Driver is such a compelling actor, and yet his story arc here feels both rushed and somewhat forced. Yes, we get answers to some of the lingering questions from the previous two films pertaining to Rey’s origins, as well as some intriguing moments hinting at Poe’s backstory, but it often feels like too little too late.

It’s Star Wars, so of course there are still fun and enjoyable sequences here. The set-pieces are decent, including some well staged chase scenes and visually pleasing lightsaber battles, and there are moments of fan service that are fairly satisfying. But for the conclusion to a saga that has been over forty years in the making, The Rise of Skywalker disappointingly ends things with more of a whimper than a bang.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens tomorrow night in theatres across Canada.

Blu-ray Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

December 17, 2019

By John Corrado

Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a magnificent love letter to Los Angeles in 1969, following faded TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), reimagining real life events to reclaim the mythos of that crucial year. The film was released on Blu-ray last week.

Beautifully shot on 35mm film by Bob Richardson, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the most gorgeously crafted movies of the year, a film that is both incredibly entertaining and wistfully nostalgic. It’s Tarantino’s most purely moving work, and one of his best as well, elevated by brilliant performances from the sterling cast. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray comes with an excellent selection of bonus material, starting with seven additional scenes (Old Chattanooga Beer Commercial, Circa 1969; Red Apple Commercial, Circa 1969; Hullabaloo – Rick Dalton Sings “Green Door”; Bounty Law; Lancer – The Meeting of Two Brothers; Charlie Talks to Paul Barabuta and Waves to Cliff; and Rick Dalton and Sam Wanamaker Talk On Set), a fun mix of vintage ads, fuller clips from the fake shows that were created for the film, as well as a few traditional deleted scenes, totalling 25 minutes in all.

Next up are the five featurettes Quentin Tarantino’s Love Letter to Hollywood, Bob Richardson – For the Love of Film, Shop Talk – The Cars of 1969, Restoring Hollywood – The Production Design of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Fashion of 1969, which together offer a compelling and also highly enjoyable look at the incredible amount of work that went into recreating the Hollywood of 1969, down to the smallest of details. The Blu-ray and DVD discs included in the case are also printed to look like old film canisters, which is a nice little touch, and the cardboard o-sleeve features different artwork on the front and back.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 161 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 10th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Abominable

December 17, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A co-production between DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio, the American animation company’s outpost in China, Abominable is the story of a girl and her yeti that plays like a minor response to the success of their How to Train Your Dragon films.

Directed by Jill Culton, who has both exited and circled back to this long-gestating project over the years, Abominable is set in China and follows Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teen girl who lives with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tsai Chin) in Shanghai. She spends her days doing odd jobs around the city in order to make earn a little money, and also to fill the void left in her life by the death of her father.

But Yi’s life changes when she encounters a young and scared Yeti on the roof of her apartment building, who escaped from a secure holding facility. She forms a bond with the creature and calls him Everest, a name inspired by the mountain which is pictured on a billboard that she finds him gazing upon from her roof. Joined by her friends Peng (Albert Tsai) and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), Yi sets out on a journey to return Everest to his home in the Himalayas, but they are being pursued by Burnish (Eddie Izzard), a wealthy collector who seeks the fame of being the first one to present yetis to the world, and Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), a zoologist who works with him.

While Abominable bears some similarities to the How to Train Your Dragon series in its story of the bond between a teenager and a misunderstood creature, it also lacks the depth and genuine emotional connection of those films. The screenplay is somewhat bland, telling a story that feels completely safe and is predictable to a fault, and the characters aren’t exactly memorable. It’s derivative of countless other films and lacks any real originality, at times playing more like an extended tourist promo for China, with little in the way of content to offend the censors.

With that said, Abominable is far from a bad movie. There is some visually pleasing animation on display, with appealing background vistas and a few more imaginative scenes showcasing Everest’s magical ability to make plants grow to enormous size, including gigantic blueberries. There are also a few nicely handled character moments peppered throughout, and the film does inject some heart into the proceedings, mainly through a sweet story thread involving Yi’s violin, an instrument that belonged to her late father.

While Abominable isn’t unwatchable, and the animation is technically strong enough so as not to be written off completely, it’s also largely unremarkable and not exactly the strongest of DreamWorks Animation’s offerings. It’s often a pleasant enough film to watch in the moment, and one that I would recommend if all you’re looking for is a pleasingly diverting animated adventure, but it doesn’t prove to be overly memorable beyond that.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of bonus features, starting with the two short films Marooned and Show & Tell, the latter a brief 2D animated piece featuring characters from the movie. They are followed by four deleted scenes which feature an intro by Culton and co-director Todd Wilderman, as well as the featurettes Making a Myth (Movie), Animating Abominable, Meet the Cast, Your Yeti Care Guide, Courage to Dream, An Abominable Tour With Chloe Bennet, Everest’s Talk Box, Cooking With Nai Nai, How To… Abominable, You Can Speak Yeti-Ese, and Nai Nai Says. Finally, there is a commentary track with the filmmakers.

Abominable is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 97 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: December 17th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Hustlers

December 17, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

One of the most surprising things to happen this year at TIFF was the amount of praise that Hustlers received following its gala premiere. I saw the film about a week before the festival and thought it was a mildly entertaining but thoroughly unremarkable piece of disposable entertainment.

I moved on from it rather quickly, to be perfectly honest, banking a middling review to be published after the embargo date and not really thinking about it much beyond that. So I was genuinely surprised when the film premiered to mostly rave reviews and a semi-serious campaign to get Jennifer Lopez, who is fine here but not exactly Oscar-worthy, a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Based on a true story that was documented in a 2015 article published in New York magazine, Hustlers centres around Destiny (Constance Wu), a young stripper in New York City who becomes the protege of Ramona (Lopez), the de facto queen of the strip club. When the club starts losing business during the 2008 recession, Ramona hatches a plan to make money by drugging their rich Wall Street clients and stealing and maxing out their credit cards. Destiny gets roped in to Ramona’s scheme, but they can only live large for so long before getting the attention of the feds.

Directed by Lorene Scafaria, following up her wonderful dramedy The Meddler which premiered at TIFF back in 2015, Hustlers is the filmmaker’s glossiest and most mainstream movie yet. The film is mildly enjoyable to watch at times, anchored by a pair of decent performances from Wu and Lopez, and it’s set to a solid soundtrack of pop songs. But it’s also inconsistent, overlong, and tonally confused. While it’s understandable why the film would have a certain level of sympathy for some of these characters, at times it feels like a straight up glorification of their behaviour, an approach that feels problematic.

For the most part, Scafaria’s screenplay takes a fairly simplistic approach to telling a story that needed a good deal more nuance. The characters lack necessary depth, and should have been presented more in shades of grey, with their crimes instead being retooled into a sort of quasi empowerment fable in a way that didn’t really work for me. While some of the money they steal is going to supporting themselves and their families, they are also using it to fund their lavish, consumerist lifestyles, which doesn’t exactly make them heroes. The film often seems to be making light of them drugging and robbing people, something that Cardi B, who has a small supporting role here, has bragged about doing in real life.

This is a somewhat serious true story, and yet the film aims to be more frothy entertainment than gritty crime drama, with an at times awkward tone that mixes campiness, more sitcomish humour, and darker moments. Cinematographer Todd Benhazi brings some vibrancy to the strip club scenes, but the rest of the film has a flat, grey scale colour grade that gives it the look of a TV movie. The film’s pacing also feels off at times, with some details and characters being glossed over and other scenes that go on much too long, including an extended sequence set at Christmas that feels like a detour from the rest of the movie and throws off any sense of momentum or suspense.

While Hustlers tries hard to be Scorsese, it’s no Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street, and is ultimately an okay but forgettable piece of pop entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t discourage any curious first time viewers from checking it out on Blu-ray, and the film has attracted a dedicated fan base that you might very well find yourself a part of, but this is also a flawed work that feels like it is being oversold. For my money, Hustlers is a mediocre film that has been overhyped as something more than it is.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track by Scafaria, as well as a digital copy of the film.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Hustlers is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 110 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 10th, 2019

DVD Review: Light of My Life

December 17, 2019

By John Corrado

Directed by Casey Affleck from his own screenplay, Light of My Life is a quietly effective survival drama set in a post-apocalyptic future world where a mysterious illness wiped out the female half of the population, leaving a father (Affleck) struggling to keep his preteen daughter (Anna Pniowsky) hidden from other men. The film was released on DVD last month.

This is a small film that flew mostly under the radar during its brief release in theatres and on demand this summer, and I think it deserves more attention. It’s an understated and beautifully filmed drama that explores an interesting high concept premise, which has been brought to life through wonderful performances by Affleck and Pniowsky. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review of it right here.

The DVD includes no bonus features, but the package does come with a digital copy.

Light of My Life is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 120 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: November 5th, 2019

Review: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

December 13, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A chance encounter between two Indigenous women in Vancouver leads to an emotional study of abuse and trauma in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a drama that unfolds almost entirely in real time and explores how hard it can be to help someone who is reluctant to accept support.

Àila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) has just left a doctor’s appointment when she encounters Rosie (Violet Nelson) standing barefoot at a bus stop in the rain. Rosie is visibly pregnant and has just run off from her abusive boyfriend, who is still yelling at her from across the street.

Àila asks her if she wants to call the police, but Rosie says no, so instead Àila brings her back to her home, giving her a change of clothes and something to eat. She tries to get her to open up, and they share a few details about what First Nations communities they are from, but Rosie remains closed off and defensive. Àila tries to gently push her in the direction of going to a safe house or a shelter for help, but Rosie expresses her desire to just go back home, which would allow the cycle of abuse to continue.

Directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who also co-wrote the screenplay together based on a real life experience that Tailfeathers had, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open unfolds with a sense of urgency and is told from an entirely female point of view. Not only are the male characters kept in the background, but men rarely appear onscreen at all, and are only seen fleetingly throughout the film.

Shot on 16mm, the cinematography by Norm Li is undeniably impressive. Aside from the first couple of scenes which introduce these two characters separately, the majority of the film unfolds in one single take, with the camera never stopping once after both women meet each other. This adds a sense of both immediacy and intimacy to the proceedings, with the camera following them in and out of cabs and even into the bathroom. It’s a claustrophobic approach, heightening the feeling that there is no real way out for these characters.

One of the biggest themes of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is how hard it is to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Because of this, the film is almost uncompromisingly bleak, but if the story had tried to be inspiring or offer a pat happy ending, it likely would have rang false. The two leads carry the film with a pair of moving performances, made all the more impressive by the single take approach, which forced them to stay in character for long stretches of time. The result is an emotional and technically impressive Canadian drama that is as timely as it is deeply sad.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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