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Blu-ray Review: The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

February 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is the third feature length adventure for the cartoon sea sponge, and also the first fully computer generated one. The result is something that, while far from being the best SpongeBob movie (which is still the 2004 original), still serves as an amusing enough adventure that offers a fairly enjoyable diversion if you like the characters.

The plot revolves around the bond between SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and his beloved pet snail Gary. When Gary is kidnapped by Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) and given to the vain King Poseidon (Matt Berry), who uses snail slime as facial moisturizer, SpongeBob sets out on road trip with his best buddy Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) to rescue his pet from the Lost City of Atlantic City.

This basic road trip structure allows the film to offer constant action, a barrage of gags, as well as the random weirdness that we can expect from SpongeBob. This includes the scene-stealing presence of Keanu Reeves as a wise sage named Sage who appears as a disembodied head in a rolling tumbleweed, and a sequence in a saloon populated by flesh-eating cowboy pirate zombies. We are also treated to some fun cameos, and there is an amusing Vegas-inspired montage in the Lost City of Atlantic City. Much of this is easily entertaining, but the plot itself also feels a little too disjointed at times.

Directed by Tim Hill, one of the developers of the show and a writer on the original movie, Sponge on the Run ends up serving as a prelude to the new spinoff series Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years, which is set to premiere next month. It’s worth noting that, while the film is dedicated to SpongeBob’s late creator Stephen Hillenburg, he was incidentally against the idea of doing a spinoff.

We get several flashbacks to when the characters first met at summer camp as children, and these sequences feel somewhat shoe-horned into the plot, with a tone and feel that doesn’t quite match the rest of it. This causes Sponge on the Run to end up feeling stuck between being a standalone adventure and an unofficial pilot for the new show, and I’m also not sure if these new backstories even fit with the already established canon of the original series.

The animation here is mostly decent and has an interesting depth to it that is somewhere between 2D and 3D, but the visuals also look a bit rushed at times, and the new computer generated designs of some of the characters does take a bit of getting used to. Visually, I would say that the the film actually looks a little closer to the stop-motion holiday specials than it does the 2D show, which does allow it to stand apart from the previous two movies.

While I think the film’s parts are ultimately better than the whole, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is still an enjoyable enough film to watch, despite its shortcomings. The film does do a fairly nice job of paying tribute to the earnest friendship between SpongeBob and Patrick, and the basic heart of the story, about the bond between SpongeBob and his pet Gary, is also pretty sweet.

Finally, it’s also interesting to note that Sponge on the Run is arriving on Blu-ray in Canada this week, a full month before it will premiere in the United States on the Paramount+ streaming service. It already received a limited theatrical run in Canada last year, after the pandemic completely upended its release plans, allowing us to get the film first. The fact that we received a new SpongeBob movie first might not be the biggest thing to brag about, but hey, at least it’s something.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a selection of bonus features, which are divided into sections. A digital copy is also included in the package.

I’m Urchin You to Leave Mini-Movie (4 minutes, 50 seconds): A new short set at Camp Coral with younger versions of SpongeBob, Patrick and Squidward (Rodger Bumpass). Not sure if it will be part of the show, or just something created for the disc.

Campfire Songs (10 minutes, 43 seconds)

“Agua” Music Video by Tainy & J. Balvin (3 minutes, 2 seconds)

“How We Do” Lyric Video by Snoop Dogg and Monsta X (1 minute, 24 seconds)

“Krabby Step” Lyric Video by Tyda, Swae Lee & Lil Mosey (3 minutes, 27 seconds)

“Agua” Lyric Video by Tainy & J. Balvin (2 minutes, 49 seconds)

Campfire Stories (4 minutes, 19 seconds)

Deleted Storyboard: Wake Up (3 minutes, 9 seconds)

Deleted Storyboard: Sumo Ninja (1 minutes, 13 seconds)

Camp Coral Buddies (7 minutes, 29 seconds)

The Ballad of SpongeBob and Patrick! (5 minutes, 1 seconds): The best of the bonus features, this featurette looks at the development of the film and how the friendship between SpongeBob and Patrick informs the series.

I Heart Camp Coral by SpongeBob SquarePants (2 minutes, 28 seconds): SpongeBob narrates this brief look through a scrapbook from his Camp Coral days.

Camp Arts and Crafts (17 minutes, 28 seconds)

Drawing the Cutest Camper Ever (9 minutes, 19 seconds): Artist Perry Maple teaches us how to draw young SpongeBob from the film’s flashbacks.

Drawing the Cutest Snail Ever (6 minutes, 4 seconds): Maple teaches us how to draw young Gary the Snail.

The Amazing Stages of Animation (2 minutes, 12 seconds): Fagerbakke narrates this brief rundown of the different stages of animation (storyboards, layout, animation, texture & lighting).

But Wait… There’s S’mores!

The Wonders of the Patty Mobile (2 minutes, 6 seconds): A fake commercial for the upgraded Patty Wagon, narrated by Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence).

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 91 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: February 2nd, 2021

DVD Review: Breach

February 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Breach, a new sci-fi horror movie that is being sold pretty much solely on the presence of Bruce Willis in its supporting cast, is one of those films that feels like its plot has been copied and pasted from much better sources.

The film is set in the year 2242, and opens with the Earth having been decimated by a plague, putting all of humanity on the brink of extinction. Survivors are boarding a spaceship called the Ark, to take them to a colony that is being established on a planet dubbed New Earth.

Noah (Cody Kearsley) is one of the poor people who didn’t get a ticket, but sneaks his way onto the ship to be with his pregnant girlfriend (Kassandra Clementi), who happens to be the Admiral’s (Thomas Jane) daughter.

While the passengers are in hypersleep, Noah passes himself off as a janitor so as not to be discovered and thrown off the ship as a stowaway. He starts working alongside a gruff engineer named Clay (Willis) as part of the crew. But things start to go horrifically wrong when one of the crew members (Johnny Messner) accidentally ingests a parasitic alien that is determined to wipe out the remainder of the human race. You see where this is going?

The most that can be said about Breach , the latest low budget science fiction film from director John Suits, is that it simply isn’t very good. The screenplay by Edward Drake and Corey Large features hammy dialogue and tells a highly predictable story that borrows elements from any number of better films, with the most obvious examples being Alien and Elysium. But it lacks much of the originality or deeper social commentary of those films, which also makes its story and characters a whole lot less interesting.

The film ultimately feels like a test pilot for a network TV series. The production design is mediocre at best, and the film’s low grade computer generated effects look quite cheap. The entire thing has a sort of overly murky look to it. If you’re in the mood for a low-rent genre flick that blends sci-fi and horror elements with liberal amounts of gore, then you might find some mild entertainment value in Breach, but I can’t really recommend it.

Bonus Features (DVD):

The DVD includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Breach is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 92 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: February 2nd, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Let Him Go

February 2, 2021

By John Corrado

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are an old married couple who fight to save their grandson when their daughter-in-law (Kayli Carter) marries into a violent hillbilly family. This is the basic premise behind filmmaker Thomas Bezucha’s neo-Western thriller Let Him Go, which is arriving on Blu-ray this week.

This is a prime example of a film that I think is perfectly alright, even though it never really rises above a somewhat heavy-handed, melodramatic level. While playing with an obvious sentimentality, the 1963-set film gets the job done well enough as a piece of throwback entertainment, carried by a pair of good performances from Costner and Lane.

The two are backed up by Lesley Manville’s compellingly unhinged, scenery-chewing performance as the matriarch of the Weboy clan, the violent family that their characters are going up against. Furthermore, Let Him Go features attractive widescreen cinematography courtesy of director of photography Guy Godfree, as well as a fittingly melancholic score by Michael Giacchino. It’s nothing remarkable as a whole, but the film still serves as a fairly sturdy old school drama.

While it received a limited theatrical run last fall, this is one of those films that I actually think plays perfectly fine at home. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review of it right here.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes three featurettes on the production. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package, which comes with a standard slipcover.

The Making of Let Him Go (6 minutes, 23 seconds): Members of the cast and crew reflect on the making of the film, including the impressively designed set for the interior of the Weboy family home that was built on a soundstage.

The Blackledges: Kevin Costner & Diane Lane (4 minutes, 14 seconds): Costner and Lane discuss their characters and how they approached playing them in the film.

Lighting the Way: Thomas Bezucha (3 minutes, 15 seconds): Bezucha reflects on first discovering the novel by Larry Watson upon which the film is based, and how he approached bringing it to screen.

Let Him Go is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 114 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: February 2nd, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Come Play

February 2, 2021

By John Corrado

One of the movies that I really enjoyed last year that seemed to sort of slip through the cracks was the horror film Come Play, which is now available on Blu-ray. The film did receive a limited theatrical release in Canada for Halloween when cinemas were briefly reopen, but the pandemic unfortunately stopped it from becoming the sleeper hit that it might have been in a different year.

Which is a real shame, because this is quite an enjoyable little spookfest, built around a very clever concept. The main character is Oliver (Azhy Robertson), a non-speaking autistic boy who uses his phone as a communication device. Things turn freaky when Oliver starts being visited by Larry, a lonely monster who uses digital screens to connect to our world and is trying to break through.

The film’s writer/director Jacob Chase, who is expanding his own short to feature length, does a fine job of weaving these fantasy elements into an engaging, character-driven dramatic tale. The result is a solid PG-13 horror film that has a nice sense of creepiness to it, while also telling a surprisingly touching story with a good deal of heart. Robertson delivers a believable performance in the main role, and he’s backed up by solid work from Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr. as Oliver’s parents. Finally, Larry himself is impressively brought to life through some excellent practical effects.

This is the sort of movie that deserves to find a bigger audience at home, and for more on the film itself, you can read my full review of it right here.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes no bonus features, which is strange considering that there is a noticeable black bar on the right-hand side of the menu screen where the bonus content would appear on a typical Universal release. A code for a digital copy is included in the package, which comes with a slipcover.

Come Play is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 96 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 26th, 2021

The Best Documentaries of 2020

January 31, 2021

By John Corrado

A month ago, I shared my picks for the best movies of 2020, and now it’s time to make my selections for the best documentaries of last year. This list has been a long time coming, I know, and It took me a while to put it together, from deciding on the order to catching up on several titles that I missed last year. But I think it came together in the end, and hopefully serves as somewhat of an encapsulation of the insane, rollercoaster ride of a year that was 2020.

A few of these titles will hopefully be in the running for Oscar nominations as well. My write-ups are naturally a little longer for the films that I haven’t previously reviewed, which is fully half of these ten titles, so please bear with me here. Now, without further ado, here are my picks for the best non-fiction feature films of 2020, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

#10: Time

Director Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time, a sort of cinematic collage following the life of Sibil Fox Richardson and her six sons as she awaits her husband’s release from prison, opens with a collection of clips from old home movies that signify the passage of time. As this grainy home video footage of her kids growing up gives way to pristine widescreen scenes, all presented in crisp black and white, the film gives us the feeling of watching years pass before our eyes.

Seamlessly mixing old and new footage, Time follows Sibil as she fights for the early release of her husband, Rob Richardson, who is serving time at Louisiana State Penitentiary for an armed bank robbery born out of desperation in which no one was physically hurt. Sibil herself spent several years in prison for her role as the driver, while her husband refused to take a plea bargain and got hit with a sixty year sentence, depriving their sons of a father for much of their formative years.

The film uses Sibil’s story to explore deeper themes linking the prison industrial complex to slavery, and what it means for sons to grow up without a father. But going beyond just being an indictment of the justice system, Bradley’s film functions as a sort of tone poem about the flow of time itself, condensing roughly two decades into about eighty minutes. The result is a film about waiting; waiting for change, waiting for justice, and waiting for the return of a loved one, that powerfully encapsulates these themes through a collection of scenes showing life moving ceaselessly through time itself.

Time is now available to steam exclusively on Prime Video.

#9: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Director Nathalie Bibeau’s engaging documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which won the Audience Award at 2020’s virtual edition of Hot Docs, tells the story of Phil Demers. A former trainer at Ontario’s infamous Marineland, Demers quit working in protest over how poorly the park’s animals were being treated. He became a whistleblower, and embarked on an ongoing legal battle to rescue Smooshi, the walrus that he bonded with at the park. This deep bond between human and animal informs Bibeau’s film, which serves as both a captivating character portrait of Demers and a compelling look at the legal battle to end the practise of keeping marine mammals in captivity. This is one of those documentaries that truly has the power to change things, because I guarantee you that if enough people watch it, attendance at Marineland will drop significantly.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

#8: The Painter and the Thief

The Painter and the Thief tells a story about two people brought together through circumstances so remarkable, that it could easily be mistaken for creative fiction. The painter is Barbora Kysilkova, an artist living in Norway. The thief is Karl Bertil-Nordland, a drug addict who stole two of her paintings from a gallery. When Karl was in court for the crime, Barbora approached him with a simple request to paint his portrait upon his release from jail, and from there a friendship was born. Director Benjamin Ree follows the two subjects over several years with incredible intimacy, as the thief becomes muse for the painter, and layers of trauma from their collective pasts are brought to the surface. From here, the film becomes quite moving to watch, as Barbora and Karl help each other heal in surprising ways.

The Painter and the Thief is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

#7: Miss Americana

When Miss Americana, director Lana Wilson’s portrait of Taylor Swift, premiered on Netflix a year ago, it felt like an up to the minute look at a pop star in the process of reinventing herself and finding her political voice. Looking back on the film now, following a year that saw Miss Swift release not one but two surprise albums (folklore and evermore) that found her pushing herself even further and gaining indie cred by experimenting with an alternative sound, it serves as a compelling portrait of an artist at a turning point, on the cusp of something even greater.

The film mainly follows Swift as she is in the process of recording her 2019 album Lover, a project that was partially born out of the disappointment of having Reputation, the banger 2017 pop album that saw her fiercely shedding her “nice girl” image, unfairly snubbed at the Grammys. We do get the standard bio-doc treatment of her career, as Wilson charts Swift’s rise to fame as a teenage country singer and hones in on key moments, including having the mic snatched from her by Kanye West at the VMAs (though it’s pretty devastating to hear her recount the story in her own words).

But the film also goes deeper into exploring her trouble with body image issues, fuelled by the stress of having her personal life and relationships constantly obsessed over and scrutinized in the media. On a base level, Miss Americana offers an engaging look a woman wrestling to take back control of her own life and image, after years of existing in the public spotlight. Wilson also charts Swift’s path to becoming more politically outspoken, including setting off a Twitter firestorm by going public with her support for the Democrats, after years of people assuming she was conservative.

I will admit that I was already a Taylor Swift fan before watching Miss Americana, and it will hopefully make converts out of more people. It’s compelling enough on its own as a portrait of a pop star evolving, and now serves as a wonderful prelude to the folklore era of Taylor’s career. As an aside, it’s also been nice to see Swift, who has frustratingly never gotten the full credit that she deserves as a songwriter, now basking in the universal praise that has been heaped upon folklore, arguably the best album of 2020.

Miss Americana is now available to steam exclusively on Netflix.

#6: Dick Johnson is Dead

As a way to come to terms with the inevitable death of her aging father Richard Johnson, who is in the early stages of dementia, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson casts him as the lead in a film about his life and, you know, death. The resulting film, Dick Johnson is Dead, is an entirely unique piece of documentary filmmaking, that is by turns funny and absurd as well as moving and bittersweet. You see, Johnson’s way of coping with what is to come involves imagining a series of morbid accidental death scenes involving her father, and bringing them to screen with the help of stunt men and special effects.

The staging of these death scenes provides the basis for the film, and there is a very meta quality to it all, as Richard, a recently retired psychiatrist, playfully goes along with his daughter’s artistic fantasies. But in between these darkly comic death scenes, and the after life fantasy sequences that Johnson films on sound stages, lies an honest meditation on accepting the eventual death of a loved one, especially when that person’s memories are already fading while they are alive.

The project also allows Johnson to reflect on her late mother, Richard’s wife, who succumbed to severe dementia in the final years of her life, and also figured prominently in her previous film Cameraperson. While Johnson’s approach to dealing with her father’s impending demise is unique, to say the least, the story of trying to come to terms with the loss of a loved one is universally relatable. Both morbid and moving, Dick Johnson is Dead is a film that sits on the precipice between darkly comical and deeply emotional, and manages to find a careful balance between the two.

Dick Johnson is Dead is now available to steam exclusively on Netflix.

#5: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

Director William Friedkin reflects on the making of his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. That’s the best logline I can give for Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest documentary, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, which was shot over six days at Friedkin’s home, and centres entirely around an absorbing long-form conversation between the two filmmakers. Friedkin not only goes deep into talking about the making of The Exorcist, but also delves into his own faith, his cinematic influences, and the symbolism behind the film. I simply loved listening to Friedkin speak, and Philippe, following up his documentaries on fellow genre favourites Psycho and Alien, once again does a stellar job of working in movie clips and crafting a surprisingly engaging narrative. If the thought of hearing Friedkin reflect on The Exorcist for roughly a hundred minutes appeals to you, then this movie is for you.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is now available to steam exclusively on Shudder.

#4: Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

“I loved music, I loved life. I wanted to be part of the world, but I didn’t see anyone like me in it.” This quote from co-director and subject James Lebrecht, who was born with spina bifida, comes near the beginning of the wonderful documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. It perfectly sums up both the importance of the film itself, and also the importance of Camp Jened, the unique summer camp for people with disabilities that it documents. As it turns out, the history behind it is a fascinating one that has gone untold for far too long.

Founded in 1951, Jened was a summer camp in the Catskills that allowed teens and young adults with physical disabilities to have the typical youth experiences that were being denied to them. The camp more infamously turned into a freewheeling retreat when it started being run by pot-smoking hippies in the 1960s and ’70s, and it’s this era that Lebrecht, who was one of the attendees of the program during its heyday, looks back on fondly. The first half of the film finds Lebrecht and other former participants nostalgically reflecting on their experiences there, complimented by some invaluable archival footage that is often striking to witness.

The second half of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution expands its reach to explore the larger disability rights movement that was born out of it, spearheaded by fellow camper Judith Heumann. Lebrecht co-directs the film with Nicole Newnham, and their approach is empowering and always respectful, capturing a true sense of liberation in its best moments. The result is an invaluable and moving document of the early disability rights movement.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is now available to steam exclusively on Netflix.

#3: Welcome to Chechnya

With LGBTQ individuals being rounded up and detained in Chechnya in an effort to “cleanse” the country of its queer citizens, a group of brave activists have responded by setting up an underground network to help them escape. We follow these efforts in Welcome to Chechnya, a fearless documentary from director David France, who shot the film on the fly and had to make sure the footage was kept secret, to protect the identities of its subjects. The film is also impressive as a technical achievement, seamlessly using Deep Fake technology to alter the faces of its subjects so they won’t be recognizable, while still allowing us to feel a connection to them. The result is an incredibly powerful and vitally important work of documentary filmmaking that, at times, plays out like a real life thriller.

Welcome to Chechnya is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

#2: Boys State

In a year of fraught political tensions, the documentary Boys State, which is about a group of teenage boys taking part in a Texas competition to form a mock government, is one of the non-fiction films that ended up sticking with me the most. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine offer a compelling vérité portrait of the program, which sees over a thousand kids, broken up into so-called Federalists and Nationalists, learning how to form a representative government, with Governor being the highest office they can seek.

The result is both a crash course in democracy and a fascinating microcosm of the American political system, as the kids learn how to debate policies, run campaigns, and employ attack ads against their opponents. The film mainly focuses on four of the boys, and watching them jockey for power is quite exciting and suspenseful. Yes, the politics may be fake, but there is plenty of real world drama in Boys State. It’s both very interesting and quite entertaining to watch unfold, and I expect to see at least a few of these boys involved in actual politics within the decade.

Boys State is now available to steam exclusively on Apple TV+.

#1: Collective

In 2015, a fire broke out at Collectiv, a night club in Bucharest that didn’t have proper fire escapes. The fire instantly killed 27 people, while injuring another 180, and this regulatory failure led to mass protests and the resignation of Romania’s Social Democratic government. Meanwhile, another 37 burn victims died in hospital from infection over the next four months. This is all revealed within the opening title cards of director Alexander Nanau’s gripping documentary Collective, and the story that follows grows increasingly disturbing.

Nanau, who also shot and edited the film, follows investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team at the sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor as they uncover a massive scandal involving the pharmaceutical company Hexi Pharma. The company’s executives were profiting off of supplying the country’s hospitals with diluted disinfectants that weren’t effective at killing most bacteria, causing the burn victims to die in unsterile environments. The film also follows rookie health minister Vlad Voiculesco, as he tries to get a handle on the crisis, as well as several victims from the fire and their families.

We watch, basically in real time, as the cascading dominoes start to fall as they realize how deep this scandal goes, and the result is a compelling, infuriating work of documentary filmmaking that filled me with a sickening sense of dread. The film is not only about exposing the shocking corruption within the ranks of the Romanian healthcare system, but also about the importance of unbiased investigative journalism and holding all elected officials accountable for their actions. “We have blindly trusted the authorities,” Tolontan says at one point, “myself included, as a journalist. When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens.”

I finally watched Collective the other night after having it on my watchlist for the last little while, and I’m really glad that I held off on publishing this list until I did. The film instantly shot right to the top of my list. It’s simply stunning, building towards a powerful, heartbreaking final scene, and I’m confident in naming this the best documentary of 2020.

Collective is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

Honourable Mentions: 76 Days, 9/11 Kids, Circus of Books, Disclosure, The Forbidden Reel, Hong Kong Moments, The Mole Agent, No Ordinary Man, There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, They Call Me Dr. Miami.

VOD Review: The Climb

January 20, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino’s bittersweet comedy about male friendship, opens with the camera following two friends cycling up a hill in France. It’s an incredible long take that goes on for nearly nine whole minutes, moving seamlessly between wide shots and medium closeups, only getting more impressive as it goes along.

At one point, a team of cyclists come up from behind. There is some action with a car. In its own low-key way, it’s an astounding feat of filmmaking, brilliantly setting the stage for everything that follows. From here, The Climb unfolds mostly through a series of long, unbroken single takes that are pulled off incredibly well, giving the film a really unique and inventive feel as it charts the ups and downs of a friendship over several years.

Serving as the film’s director, producer, co-writer and co-star, Covino acts in the film alongside his real life friend Kyle Marvin, who also co-wrote the script. They play characters named Mike and Kyle, who have been friends since childhood. At the start of the film, Kyle is about to get married in France, and the opening bike ride gives way to the revelation that Mike has slept with the bride-to-be (Judith Godrèche). This causes a rift in their friendship, which continues to ebb and flow as Mike struggles with alcoholism and Kyle enters into a new relationship.

I don’t want to say much more about the story, because I really enjoyed the experience of watching the film completely cold without knowing what to expect. The film’s screenplay is incredibly sharp, including several fiery dialogue exchanges, as Covino and Marvin capture the unique textures of a platonic male friendship through their believable writing and performances. But, as I mentioned earlier, the inventive camerawork really is the glue that holds all of this together.

Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography feels like one of the main stars here, and the ways that the camera moves to capture the action within the film’s extended scenes is what makes the whole thing pop. In addition to that captivating opening scene, Kuperstein also stages an exhilarating sequence set at a family Thanksgiving gathering that moves from the basement of a house to upstairs and outside. The film then outdoes itself in the very next moment as it segues into a Christmas party that is shown first from outside the same house, the camera tracking from window to window to capture snippets of conversation, before moving inside in one fell swoop.

Put simply, the camerawork in this thing is insanely good. The blocking is also extremely fluid. For these long takes to work, the actors all have to hit their marks at the precise moments, and everyone from the two leads to the supporting players handle this with aplomb. The way that Covino transitions between scenes, finding inventive ways to reveal the passage of time and parse out new information through a limited number of actual scenes, is equally impressive.

The film itself functions as a very entertaining buddy comedy, with Covino using moments of absurd humour to reach some deeper emotional truths about the bonds between these two men, charting how their friendship changes and evolves in response to life circumstances. It’s an engaging, easily relatable story, and the visual inventiveness with which it is told makes it come alive.

The Climb is now available to watch on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, and is being released on DVD this week by Sony Pictures Classics.

Blu-ray Review: Dreamland

January 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) is a teenager in 1935, who lives on a Texas farm in a dustbowl town that has been hit hard by the Great Depression and never recovered. He finds his escape through stories of outlaws on the run from the law, fuelling his dream to live a life of adventure.

The boy gets his chance when he discovers Allison Wells (Margot Robbie), a bank robber with a bounty on her head following a botched job that left several people dead, hiding in his family’s barn with an injured leg. As Eugene starts to develop feelings for the fugitive young woman, he is torn between turning her in and accepting the cash reward for her capture, or helping her escape to Mexico.

Directed with a sure hand by young filmmaker Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, Dreamland is crafted with a clear nostalgia for its time period and the old genre films that were born out of it. Working from a nicely textured script by Nicolaas Zwart, who finds some fresh nuances in the otherwise well-worn story that he is telling, Joris-Peyrafitte has made something that feels like a sort of gender-swapped Bonnie and Clyde, and serves as a fitting homage to that classic picture.

At the heart of the film is Robbie, who does a very good job of adding depth to a character who could have felt like a one-note creation. Allison is leveraging her sensuality and taking advantage of Eugene’s naïveté in order to survive, and Robbie is smart for not trying to turn her into a simplistic anti-hero or even a completely sympathetic character. But she still allows fear and vulnerability to peek through at key moments, giving her portrayal an understated complexity, especially when she starts to reciprocate Eugene’s feelings towards her.

This is also very much a coming of age story, and Cole does a fine job of showing Eugene’s childlike innocence slipping away as he goes through a series of life experiences that force him to become more hardened. The cast is rounded out by Kerry Condon as Eugene’s mother; Travis Fimmel as his tough stepfather, a local law enforcement officer who is leading the charge in the search for Allison Wells; and Darby Camp as his precocious younger half-sister Phoebe, whose character narrates the film as an adult (voice of Lola Kirke).

Finally, the film features some lovely Magic Hour cinematography by Lyle Vincent, as well as a good piano and strings score by Patrick Higgins, which adds to the overall nostalgic mood of the piece and feels authentic to the time period. While the plot itself isn’t terribly original and covers some well-worn territory, Dreamland is a well acted and beautifully shot piece of throwback entertainment that does a good job of keeping us engaged in its story while also gently tugging at our heartstrings.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Dreamland is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 100 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 19th, 2021

DVD Review: Wander

January 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

In Wander, the latest film from Canadian director April Mullen, a paranoid private investigator named Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart) is hired to investigate the mysterious death of a young woman in an American small town called Wander.

Arthur is a former cop who worked in the homicide division, until a family tragedy derailed his career. Now he lives in the desert and hosts a conspiracy-fuelled radio show with his friend Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones), where they bring attention to underground human experiments and rail against government control.

He is brought to Wander to investigate the strange case of a young woman whose chest literally exploded when she tried to flee. Arthur starts to believe that the town is ground zero for a vast conspiracy network with ties to his own past, or is it? You see, Arthur is on a cocktail of medications and is prone to hallucinations, including vivid flashbacks to the accident that claimed the life of his young daughter, and there is a chance this is all in his head.

This undefined mental illness that Arthur is living with feels like one of the more underdeveloped parts of writer Tom Doiron’s screenplay, and is used almost exclusively as a plot device to cast doubt in the audience’s mind over what is really happening. Eckhart overplays much of this, delivering a far from subtle performance that relies heavily upon “crazy eyes” and frantic movements. It’s an acting choice that he fully commits to, but it’s also sort of questionable at times.

Then again, the film around him also feels overly frantic in its assembly, with its dizzying camera movements and quick jump cuts between moments in time often making it hard to focus on what is happening. I also think that the reliance upon Arthur being an unreliable narrator actually undermines some of what Mullen is trying to do here, which is namely to offer an indictment of extreme border control practices and the surveillance state.

I do think that the storytelling is overly murky, and the film is often unnecessarily convoluted in its execution, but there are still some interesting ideas here, and I can’t say that Wander didn’t hold my attention while it was on. For his part, Jones embraces the kookiness of his character and has fun hamming it up as a sort of Alex Jones stand-in. The cast is rounded out by Heather Graham as Arthur’s lawyer and friend, as well as Katheryn Winnick as a mysterious woman in a black hat and sunglasses who is hot on his trail.

It’s a little too flawed to offer a full-fledged recommendation, and despite any number of twists and red herrings, the film also ends up feeling sort of predictable. But Wander still has enough going on to make it mildly worth a look, especially if you generally enjoy conspiracy thrillers.

Bonus Features (DVD):

The DVD includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Wander is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 92 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 19th, 2021

DVD Review: Jungleland

January 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Kaminski brothers, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell), are working class guys struggling to make ends meet in the gritty drama Jungleland. Stanley acts as a promoter for his brother’s career as a bare-knuckle boxer, booking him scrappy local fights in order to earn some cash.

When Stanley is unable to pay back his debt to a ruthless crime boss (Jonathan Majors), he is asked to transport a young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden) to Reno, Nevada in exchange. Stanley and Lion are travelling across the country for a fight in California that comes with a one hundred thousand dollar prize, and Stanley agrees to drop her off along the way.

This leads to tensions between the two brothers, as family bonds are tested and new ones forged along the way. The film’s director and co-writer Max Winkler embraces a classic road trip structure to tell this story, and it’s a pretty engaging narrative choice. The boxing itself doesn’t exactly play second fiddle in Jungleland, as it remains an integral part of the story. But Winkler is certainly more interested in crafting a stripped down character drama than he is a more conventional feel good sports movie, and the film is all the better for it.

This is the latest feature from Winkler following his disappointing 2017 film Flower, and it’s the young filmmaker’s strongest, most mature work yet. It has the melancholic feel of a Bruce Springsteen song, with its scrappy depiction of working class struggles in decaying small towns recalling the bittersweet rock ballads that the American singer is known for. In light of this, it’s quite fitting that Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” has been chosen to play over the film’s powerful climactic sequence, which is compelling for both its themes of family sacrifice and how it upends sports movie cliches.

The film is centred around Hunnam’s charismatic performance, which is among the finest the actor has ever given, with him bringing a magnetic intensity to the role that is hard to look away from. O’Connell compliments him quite well, bringing a quiet power to his performance as someone trying to both please and step out from under the shadow of an older sibling. Finally, Barden really feels like a discovery here, as the young actress allows innocence and vulnerability to show through her character’s tough exterior in a way that is quite effective.

The film has an underlying sadness to it that I found to be very compelling, and it ends up leaving quite an impact. With a trio of excellent performances from Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden, Jungleland is a gritty and low-key mix of boxing movie and crime drama that is well worth seeing.

Bonus Features (DVD):

The DVD includes no bonus features. A code for a digital copy is included in the package.

Jungleland is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 89 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 12th, 2021

VOD Review: Promising Young Woman

January 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is the titular “promising young woman” in director Emerald Fennell’s ultra stylish and unforgettable feature debut of the same name.

Cassie used to be in med school and was on her way to becoming a doctor, until a shocking and traumatic incident forced her to drop out of university. Now she works in a coffee shop during the day, and pretends to be blackout drunk in clubs at night, tricking opportunistic men into taking her home so that she can teach them a lesson when they try to take advantage of her.

This is how we first meet her in the film; faking inebriation at a night club as Charli XCX’s “Boys” blares on the soundtrack. A man (Adam Brody) takes the bait, and non-consensually makes moves on her while she appears to be near the point of passing out, at which time she reveals her sobriety for the ultimate shock.

We then cut to her adding another strike in red pen to her notebook. It’s a solid opening that is both unsettling and atmospheric, while also maintaining some mystery as to what is actually going on, and instantly gripping us with its strong sense of style. We soon learn that Cassie has dedicated herself to getting revenge on the sort of creepy dudes who get away with it by passing themselves off as nice guys in order to justify taking advantage of women, which makes up the story of Promising Young Woman.

Cassie is forced to confront the trauma of her med school days in a more concrete way when one of her former classmates, Ryan (Bo Burnham), walks into the coffee shop, and she tentatively lets him into her life. Now an established pediatric surgeon, Ryan seems to be a changed man, and is successful in the way that she wasn’t able to be. Burnham, a standup comedian, is an inspired casting choice, as he perfectly balances his charming and easily likeable screen presence with lingering questions of whether his character is actually a nice guy or a secret douchebag like the rest of them.

Fennell, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, does an excellent job of blending genres. Her film oscillates wildly but seamlessly from dark comedy to searing revenge fantasy and powerful character drama, while also pointedly tackling themes like sexual assault, victim blaming and survivor guilt. She keeps her cards close to the chest for a good portion of the running time, keeping us guessing as to her protagonist’s true intentions. Benjamin Kracun’s vibrant and colourful cinematography adds to the tone, and is evocative of the film’s sickly sweet, candy-coloured world where nobody but Cassie wants to confront the darkness lurking underneath the surface.

Mulligan is incredible in the leading role, delivering a performance that feels like a career reinvention, especially when compared to her breakout role in An Education over a decade ago. Mulligan’s work in that film was also compelling, but for entirely different reasons, and it’s actually fascinating to view Cassie as a sort of flip side to Jenny in An Education. Where as that character was a naive teenage girl being taken advantage of by an older man, in Promising Young Woman, she is fully grown and figuring out how to gain the upper hand.

Here, Mulligan fully immerses herself in the role of someone whose behaviour is as cunning as it is unpredictable. She does an excellent job of portraying Cassie’s PTSD, showing how her erratic actions are informed by deep, unresolved trauma. The supporting cast features some inspired casting choices, including Laverne Cox as Cassie’s friend and co-worker at the coffee shop; Jennifer Coolidge as her kind but dimwitted mother; and Alfred Molina (in a perfect An Education reunion) as a lawyer. Meanwhile, other familiar faces like Allison Brie, Molly Shannon and Max Greenfield pop up throughout, and it’s compelling to watch how these comedic actors subvert our perceptions of them.

I must also give a mention to the great soundtrack of pop songs that help set the tone for many of the film’s scenes. The needle drops here are incredible, with a handful of perfect song choices including Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” which provides the backdrop for a giddy drug store dance between Cassie and Ryan. Performed with gleeful abandon by Burnham, it’s a wonderfully staged and knowingly cheesy sequence that feels like it could have been the centrepiece of a sincere rom-com, had it not been placed ironically in the middle of a much darker movie. I will also never hear “Angel of the Morning” the same way ever again, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m not sure if every single scene in the first half of the film works equally well, including an awkwardly long encounter with a man played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and a road rage incident that almost feels like it’s out of a different movie. This isn’t really a criticism, mind you, it’s more of an observation, and there is so much else to praise about the film that I’m not holding this against it. These scenes also add to the unpredictable tone of the piece, and do help throw us off the scent of where it is headed.

This is one of those films that I can’t say much more about, because it keeps shifting and subverting our expectations. Yes, it’s a revenge thriller, like the trailers promised. But it’s also a surprisingly moving drama about how people process trauma, especially when the perpetrators have moved on while the victim wasn’t able to. Something quite unexpected happened to me while I was watching the film; at the end of it, I spontaneously started crying. I think it was partially a direct response to what was happening onscreen, and also a cathartic release from everything that came before.

With a gripping performance by Mulligan, and an intoxicating sense of style, watching Promising Young Woman is an experience that I won’t soon forget. It will make you deeply uncomfortable and then very angry, but that’s the whole point. This is a blistering film, building towards a positively stunning final sequence that ranks as one of the best endings of any film in recent memory. See this movie, and leave plenty of time to think and talk about it afterwards.

Promising Young Woman is available to watch on demand for a 48-hour rental period as of today, more information can be found right here. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

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