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Blu-ray Review: I Kill Giants

June 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s popular graphic novel of the same name, I Kill Giants is the story of Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe), a teenaged outsider who escapes from relentless bullying at school and problems at home by immersing herself in an elaborate fantasy world.

Barbara behaves oddly, often wears a pair of bunny ears, and doesn’t make friends easily, save for a new girl (Sydney Wade) who starts reaching out to her.  She prefers to spend her time setting traps for giants, and sees herself as the protector of her small town from monstrous forces, using this as a way to cope with her mother’s ailing health.

But this makes life even harder for her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots), who is acting as her caregiver, and her odd behaviour also quickly gains her the attention of the school shrink Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), separating her even more from the other girls.  Though as the film progresses, the question becomes whether Barbara’s delusions are helping her better navigate the real world, putting her even further out of touch from it, or if the giants in her mind are actually real.

The feature directorial debut of Anders Walters, I Kill Giants is a fine fable for older kids that uses the fantasical elements of its story to deal with some pretty heavy themes of bullying, confronting a parent’s death, and how the grieving process affects a child who is already neurologically different.  No, the film isn’t as strong as the 2016 standout A Monster Calls or the underrated 2007 film adaptation of Bridge to Terebithia, to which it shares many thematic and stylistic similarities.  The script’s dialogue is also sometimes a little too on the nose, clearly being crafted for younger audiences.

But I Kill Giants is still a fairly engaging and emotional live action fairy tale, that features solid special effects for something done on a limited budget, and is carried by a fine performance from its young star Madison Wolfe.  It’s being released straight to video after having its world premiere at TIFF last year, and it’s worth checking out, especially for fans of the graphic novel.

The Blu-ray also includes the short featurette Anatomy of a Scene, which shows how they filmed one of the big special effects sequences using green screens on a soundstage.

I Kill Giants is a VVS Films release.  It’s 106 minutes and rated PG.

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Blu-ray Review: Peter Pan: The Signature Collection

June 5, 2018

By John Corrado

The latest addition to Disney’s Signature Collection is their 1953 animated classic Peter Pan, which also happens to be celebrating it’s 65th anniversary this year.

A spirited take on J.M. Barrie’s classic novel and stage play, which Walt Disney savvily acquired the rights to in 1938 with the full intention of turning it into a movie, the film remains the most iconic onscreen rendering of the story, and one of the shining jewels of Disney’s 1950s output.

This is not to say that elements of it don’t feel dated.  The film’s heavily stereotyped depiction of Native American characters, including the song “What Made the Red Man Red?” which is easily the most dated aspect of the film, are very much a product of its time, to put it mildly.

But the fact that the story of Peter Pan, with its themes of not wanting to grow up and the importance of retaining the magic of your childhood, continues to delight new generations is a true testament to the film’s staying power.  The animation is beautifully drawn, the characters are memorable – Tinkerbell’s pantomime antics remain iconic – and it’s filled with delightful moments.  I have fond memories of watching it as a kid, and I’m happy to say it’s a film that I still enjoy to this day.

The Blu-ray comes with several new bonus features.  Stories From Walt’s Office: Walt & Flight is a short featurette that focuses on Disney’s lifelong fascination with airplanes and how this inspired the flying scenes in the film; and A Darling Conversation With Wendy & John is an interview with voice actors Kathryn Beaumont and Paul Collins reminiscing on their experience working on the film as kids.  There are also new sing-along versions of the songs “You Can Fly” and “Never Smile At a Crocodile,” the latter of which only appears as an instrumental in the film but became a beloved hit when it was released as a promotional single to go along with the release.

The Blu-ray also comes with a selection of archival bonus features from the 2013 Diamond Edition release, including a commentary track with Roy Disney, a handful of deleted songs and deleted scenes, and the featurettes Growing Up With Nine Old MenYou Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell: A Fairy’s Tale, The Peter Pan That Almost Was, The Peter Pan Story, and In Walt’s Words: “Why I Made Peter Pan”, among other things.

While more casual consumers who already got the Diamond Edition five years ago might not want to spring for a new version of the film so soon after, and there are only a few new bonus features to separate out this edition, this Signature Collection release comes easily recommended for fans and collectors, and especially those who never got a copy in the first place.

Peter Pan: The Signature Collection is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 77 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Review: A Wrinkle in Time

June 5, 2018

By John Corrado

Based on Madeline L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel of the same name, which has been brought to the screen by director Ava DuVernay, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time follows Meg Murry (Storm Reid), an adolescent girl who has to travel across the universe in order to rescue her physicist father (Chris Pine).

Although it didn’t do that well at the box office, and was met with a mixed response, I think A Wrinkle in Time actually deserves better than the treatment it got.  Carried by solid performances from the young leads, this is an entertaining and even heartfelt film, that was clearly a passion project for Ava DuVernay.  It’s not perfect, but it’s an enjoyable and mostly faithful adaptation of the book, that is worth giving a first (or second) look on Blu-ray.  For more on the film itself, you can read our three reviews right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a fine selection of bonus material, starting with a commentary track featuring Ava DuVernay, producer Jim Whitaker, co-writer Jennifer Lee and other members of the crew.  There’s also a half-hour featurette entitled A Journey Through Time that features interviews with the cast and crew and offers a wide-ranging look at different aspects of the production; a short blooper reel; and the two music videos “I Believe” by DJ Khalid and Demi Lovato, and “Warrior” by Chlose x Halle.

The disc notably also comes with the four deleted scenes Ant on a String, Aunt Beast, Meg Learns About Calvin’s Dad, and Paper Girl, which show some classic moments from the book – some of which were glimpsed in the trailers – that were cut from the final film, but help flesh out parts of the story and would make an interesting addition to a director’s cut sometime down the road.

A Wrinkle in Time is a Walt Disney Home Entertainment release.  It’s 115 minutes and rated PG.

Review: First Reformed

June 2, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

To watch First Reformed is to wrestle with the same questions that are plaguing the main character Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a tormented priest who is going through a profound crisis of faith, as he struggles to reconcile himself to the fact that human beings are desecrating the Earth, and wondering if God can ever forgive us for destroying His creation.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, who famously wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver over forty years ago, First Reformed is a stunning dramatic thriller that unfolds with simmering tension, and in many ways serves as a modern day response to that definitive 1976 classic.  Both films are seminal works of their time, and are centred around men unravelling, as they struggle to contain the darkness within themselves that emerges as a response to the evils of the world.

Reverend Toller is an ex-military chaplain, whose life and marriage unravelled after his son was killed in Iraq.  He runs a small Christian Calvinist Reformed Church in Upstate New York, but is struggling to keep it going with a dwindling congregation, as the historic church is now seen as more of a heritage site than an active parish.  But things take a turn when Toller is visited by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman who wants him to help counsel her depressed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist with extremist leanings who served prison time in Canada for protesting, and is reluctant to bring a child into this changing world.

During a striking dialogue-driven scene early on in the film, Michael talks solemnly but articulately and convincingly about the devastating impacts of climate change and what our planet could look like in 2050, and we can tell that Toller is internalizing it, like these words are giving voice to his own deep-rooted existential fears.  But when Mary makes a dark discovery, that raises alarm bells and calls into question Michael’s capacity for violence, Toller also finds himself being brought further away from the path of salvation, and becomes haunted by questions of self-sacrifice and whether the church is doing enough to address the issue of climate change.

The events of this first act send shockwaves through the rest of First Reformed, underscoring everything that follows with a sort of pressure cooker suspense.  It’s set against the backdrop of the First Reformed Church preparing for their 250th anniversary, with a celebration that is being largely spearheaded by the gregarious pastor (Cedric Kyles) of a corporatized megachurch that sits nearby.  But as the event inches closer, Reverend Toller becomes engulfed by an increasing sense of hopelessness.  He is not only faced with a fraying mental state that threatens to push him catastrophically over the edge, but also struggling to take control of his ailing physical health, with him urinating blood and turning to alcohol as a way to quell his increasingly severe stomach pain.

The comparisons to Taxi Driver are apparent throughout the film, and there are elements of Travis Bickle in Reverend Toller’s unravelling, starting with the fact that they are both veterans struggling to make sense of the world following their service.  But First Reformed also has shades of another film that Paul Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese; The Last Temptation of Christ.  There is a biblical element to how Toller is being tested, and I was reminded of Willem Dafoe’s brilliant portrayal of Jesus as a conflicted Son of God.  He is a man who is trying to carry the weight and suffering of the world on his shoulders, but becoming tempted by the darkness, not unlike Christ’s forty days in the desert.

This is a spiritually challenging work, yet the most interesting thing about Toller’s crisis of faith is that he is not so much going through a crisis of whether or not he believes in God, but rather struggling with the question of how God wants him to act in response to helping save the environment.  It’s set up in the opening scene that Toller has decided to keep a handwritten journal, and these entries provide voiceover for the film, like how Travis Bickle’s writings gave us the unforgettable narration in Taxi Driver.  The voiceover in First Reformed often feels like a desperate prayer or a cry out in the darkness, giving us a sense of the internal conversations that our protagonist is constantly having with God.

Drawing upon his own lifelong fascination with religious belief, Ethan Hawke delivers one of the best performances of his career here, brilliantly realizing Reverend Toller’s internal struggle between hope and despair.  Through his expressive blue eyes and the deep lines on his forehead, the actor is able to masterfully portray his character’s increasing depression and anxiety, as he tries to keep hidden the full extent of his physical and mental anguish.  Donning stately black clerical robes that give him an orderly appearance, and carrying himself with an air of stoicism, Toller’s constant internal struggle is revealed almost entirely through his facial expressions.  It’s a stunning performance.

Paul Schrader directs this all with a sure touch, crafting what is easily one of the most powerful works of his career.  The film owes a stylistic debt to European art house cinema, being heavily influenced by the work of masters like Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, and the choice to utilize a square aspect ratio was inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.  But while the film has a multitude of recognizable cinematic influences, First Reformed is no mere pastiche, and also manages to feel both original and completely vital to this particular moment in America.

The film has an austere quality to it, unfolding with focus and precision, and not wasting a single frame or moment of its screen time.  There is a haunting sparseness to Alexander Dynan’s cinematography, with characters often framed in the centre of the screen, and the 4:3 aspect ratio giving them the feeling of being boxed in.  The sets are minimally decorated, giving an almost elegiac feel to the film.  The film doesn’t have a traditional musical score, yet it features several powerful uses of music, including the presence of a church choir that delivers haunting renditions of Neil Young’s environmental anthem “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” and Alan Jackson’s country hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood.”

While First Reformed functions as an introspective and deeply spiritual character study, it also works as a tense thriller that has been stripped down to the basics to offer a masterclass in crafting suspense with limited resources, built around a character who is being slowly pushed towards the breaking point.  The film builds with a sense of existential dread, unfolding with an atmosphere that is at once haunting and intense, and culminating in a breathless and stunningly pulled off final scene that takes on different meaning depending on if you interpret it literally or metaphorically.

This is a major work from Paul Schrader.  It’s a film that is as gripping as it is challenging, forcing us to wrestle with profound spiritual questions about what God wants from us and how far human beings should go to protect the environment.  We not only watch Reverend Toller struggle through this crisis of faith, but we become actively involved in it as well.  He’s a depressed man who is losing his trust in God, but he might still have a chance for salvation, and in the hands of Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke, watching him get taken on this journey becomes a transcendent experience.

First Reformed is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

Blu-ray Review: Annihilation

May 29, 2018

By John Corrado

One of the more interesting films to come out so far this year, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is being released on Blu-ray today.  The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-soldier turned biology professor who, after her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns permanently changed, goes to explore a strange phenomenon called The Shimmer, a quarantined area where genomes are rapidly mutating.

Following his provocative directorial debut Ex Machina in 2015, Annihilation is another unique work of science fiction from Alex Garland, that challenges us with its heady themes and ever shifting tone.  While it’s a shame that more people didn’t see this one in theatres, it will hopefully be able to attract more of an audience on Blu-ray.  For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of six featurettes divided into three segments; Part 1 – Southern Reach, Part 2 – Area X, and Part 3 – To the Lighthouse.  There’s over an hour of bonus material in total, and together these featurettes provide a thorough overview of the entire production, from adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s novel for the screen, to the strong female cast and characters, and finally the film’s impressive and sometimes terrifying visual effects.

Annihilation is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  It’s 115 minutes and rated 18A.

Blu-ray Review: A Fantastic Woman

May 29, 2018

By John Corrado

After winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film a few months back, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is now available on Blu-ray.  The Chilean drama follows Marina (Daniela Vega), a transwoman who struggles to grieve when her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) drops dead and his family doesn’t want her to attend the funeral, blaming her for his death.

While I personally found A Fantastic Woman to be a bit overrated, and the film has some odd tonal shifts and a few stylistic choices that don’t work equally well, this is still a well acted and well shot character study that is worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s performance.  For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with Sebastián Lelio and the featurette The Making of A Fantastic Woman, a 33 minute piece that features interviews with members of the cast and crew taking us through multiple different aspects of the film’s production, and talking about the characters and deeper themes of the story.  It’s an above average supplemental piece that is well worth watching after the film.

A Fantastic Woman is a Sony Pictures Classics release.  It’s 104 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: On Chesil Beach

May 25, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Based on Ian McEwan’s bestselling novella, which the author himself adapted into a screenplay, and beautifully brought to the screen by first time director Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach is a classic romantic drama that engages simply because of the strength of its characters and storytelling.

The year is 1962, and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are a young couple who have just gotten married and are spending the first night of their honeymoon at a guest house by the English seaside.  Edward has natural hopes for what the night will entail, but when things move into more sexual territory, Florence grows increasingly uncomfortable with exploring this aspect of their relationship.

As flashbacks reveal more of Florence and Edward’s differing backstories, we come to understand both what drew them together and the chasm that is slowly forming between them.  Florence is an accomplished violinist who comes from a well-off but somewhat distant family, raised by professional, upper-class parents (Samuel West and Emily Watson).  This is a very different life from Edward’s more rural upbringing with a working class father (Adrian Scarborough), and a free-spirited artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who needs constant supervision after suffering a brain injury.

The film is compelling in the moments when it is a chamber piece between the two central characters, as it slowly becomes evident that there is an imbalance between what they both want from the relationship, leaving a void that might never be able to be filled.  When Florence’s deep reluctance to expressions of sexuality comes to the forefront, the story takes some genuinely interesting turns in the last act.  At this point, On Chesil Beach reveals itself to be a fascinating look at intimacy within marriage, that challenges traditional perceptions of repressed sexuality and what constitutes love.  This leads to a standout and brilliantly acted scene between the young couple that unfolds on the beach.

Both Billy Howle and Saorise Ronan deliver quietly remarkable performances, playing off each other with chemistry and simmering tension, making us feel every glance, every carefully mannered conversation and finally every argument that comes between them.  The film builds towards a real tearjerker of an epilogue, culminating in a beautifully composed and quietly heartbreaking final shot that lingers long afterwards.

On Chesil Beach is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

Three Views: Solo: A Star Wars Story

May 25, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story Review By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The latest entry into Disney’s rapidly expanding Star Wars universe, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a prequel to the original film that seeks to explore the origins of everyone’s favourite scoundrel and rogue pilot Han Solo, and does so with fairly entertaining but also somewhat mixed results.

The film opens with a young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) working as a slave labourer on Corellia, and trying to escape the planet with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).  When he gets separated from her, Han signs up to become a fighter pilot, and ends up working for the crime leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who is hatching a plan to steal a shipment of the fuel coaxium.

The film mainly serves to answer questions such as where Han got the last name Solo, how he came to meet his trusty Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and how he got the Millennium Falcon from the playboyish gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).  Han’s claims of “completing the Kessell run in under 12 parsecs” also provide the basis for one of the big set-pieces.  This does allow for several fun moments of backstory that Star Wars fans in particular are sure to appreciate, but not all of these questions needed answering, which is one of the main challenges of the film.

This is the second offshoot of the saga following Rogue One in 2016, but Solo: A Star Wars Story lacks the same sense of purpose that made that spinoff so thrilling.  It’s easily the most straight-forward film in the series, and the fairly basic heist plot can feel stretched thin at over two hours.  Because Han Solo was already so well developed in the original trilogy, it’s not like this film needs to spend time allowing us to get to know him, and if anything seeing a new actor trying to take on Harrison Ford’s iconic role can be somewhat distracting.  The aesthetic of the film is also overly dark at times, with the murky and washed out colour grading sometimes making it seem far too serious, when a more lighthearted touch likely would have served the story and the wisecracking central character much better.

By this point, the production troubles behind Solo: A Star Wars Story have been well documented, so it’s hard to really talk about the film without bringing them up.  When the film was in the midst of production just under a year ago, the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired from the project, with producer Kathleen Kennedy citing “creative differences,” and saying that their style was much too comedic.  Ron Howard was brought in to complete the film and he reshot much of the footage, and while he has done a thoroughly competent job of assembling the finished product, it’s also hard to ignore the lingering question of how it might have turned out if Lord and Miller had remained on the project.

There were also rumours of an acting coach needing to be brought in.  While Alden Ehrenreich delivers a fine performance as a cocky young pilot, I also never really believed him as Han Solo.  The main problem is that he doesn’t look or sound that much like Harrison Ford.  His voice is a different pitch.  He has a different hairline, with deep widow’s peaks.  His jaw is squarer and his face less round, and he doesn’t have that iconic half-smile.  Based on looks, they actually would have been wiser to go with Anthony Ingruber, who played a younger version of Harrison Ford’s character in The Age of Adaline, and bares much more of a resemblance.  Ehrenreich does deserve props for trying to make the role his own, and he does bring a certain charm to the character, but it’s just not the same.

This basically confirms my belief that much of what we came to know and love about Han Solo has to do solely with how Harrison Ford played him.  The original character’s flippant and cynical “don’t give a damn” attitude was likely due to Ford’s own indifference on set, and that’s a hard thing for anyone else to properly replicate.  While Solo: A Star Wars Story is an often entertaining film overall, and many of the individual set-pieces are quite well staged, I ultimately found myself wanting more from it.  It’s a fine summer blockbuster, that works well enough for what it is, but I just wish that I could give it more of a passionate endorsement.  It’s still worth seeing, of course, just temper your expectations.

Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

In the new lineup of Star Wars films, which Disney has been cranking out yearly, comes Solo.  A much anticipated look at the character of Han Solo in his younger years and how he became the pilot of the Millennium Falcon, a character that we all met and became intrigued by in Star Wars: A New Hope.

The film opens with Han Solo (played here by Alden Ehrenreich), on a slave-worker planet being forced to work in factories and scrounge for things to sell, along with his friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).  When Solo escapes the planet but Qi’ra is forcibly left behind, he joins up with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot, earn enough money to get his own ship, and go back to rescue her.  Along the way he gets drawn into a smuggling scheme run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Co., and teams up with the young gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) who is the current captain of the Millennium Falcon.

While there is a lot of action, the issue here is that part of what makes the character of Han Solo so interesting are the little bits of his backstory that are suggested by off-hand comments that he makes.  One example is his famous brag of being able to “complete the Kessel run in 12 parsecs*” (when no one thinks it can be made in under 20).  Here we get to actually see how Solo did it, but the question is, do we really need to know the ‘how’ for this line to work, or even actually know for sure that what Han says is true?  Sometimes showing us everything takes away a bit of the intrigue, and on the flip side knowing that he has done it (from A New Hope) takes away some of the suspense watching the character attempt it here.  The film is also well over 2 hours long and felt it could have been cut by 20 minutes without losing anything.

Finally, that brings me to my last issue with the film.  Don’t get me wrong – I was entertained throughout and overall can say it was enjoyable enough to watch – but I never saw the character as Han Solo.  I was watching some space story about a cocky young pilot, but it wasn’t Han Solo.  Unfortunately, Ehrenreich just doesn’t look enough like a young Harrison Ford, nor embody his movements and mannerisms consistently enough to create that leap for me to believe they are the same character.  So, if you are looking for a way to see Han Solo back on screen and enjoy the famous character in new stories, this is not quite it.  It’s something, but it’s not like watching the character again and I think on that front the mark was missed quite a bit here.

In conclusion, Solo is an entertaining summer blockbuster but it misses some of the oomph of previous outings.  While at times the colour-grade (use of grey-scale washes) seems to try to emulate Rogue One, neither the characters nor story have the same uniqueness that that film managed to capture (and another colour-grade may have actually matched this story better).  Another important note is even if you haven’t seen any of the new Star Wars films (The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi), you can still watch Solo and won’t be a bit lost.  On the other hand, if you have been keeping up with all of the new stories in the Star Wars set, you are likely going to want to check this one out – and it delivers enough for the price of the ticket.  Still, I almost wish it had delivered a little bit more.

*A parsec (pc) is a unit of measurement and not time, as the suffix ‘sec’ leads one to believe.  The word comes from ‘parallax’ and ‘arcsecond’.  When the distance between two locations of observation looking at a third location is 1 Astronomical Unit (AU), and the parallax angle is one arcsecond (1”), the distance to that third location is 1 pc.  One parsec is approximately 3.26 LY long.  Thus, as shown in this film, Han can make the Kessel run on a route with a distance 26.08 LY shorter than normally thought (and not because of time-dilation/length-contraction or relative observation).

Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story Review By Tony Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Solo: a Star Wars Story (outside the trilogies) tells the early life of Han (Alden Ehrenreich), a petty criminal aiming to become the best pilot in the galaxy. We first meet him stealing a levitating speeder in a chase through the dark streets of his home planet to get to his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Later, after a stint in the imperial forces he falls in with a gang led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). We see how he meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), whose Millennium Falcon spaceship also plays a starring role. Han has to survive in a cutthroat underworld where no one can be trusted.

Although The Force is not a factor here, Solo has a compelling story with an often witty script and interesting characters that fit well within the Star Wars saga. As Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich is not as cynical as Harrison Ford but believable enough in his youthful confidence. In addition to Qi’ra, there are good female roles here, including Han’s first crime boss (voiced by Linda Hunt), Tobias’s partner Val (Thandie Newton), Lando’s droid rights activist partner L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and the rebel Lexi (Lily Newmark). Paul Bettany is chilling as the evil crime boss Dryden Vos in his tall art deco flying yacht. Beckett’s multi-armed pilot with attitude Rio is voiced by Jon Favreau. As usual, director Ron Howard has given a cameo role to his little brother Clint, being dragged out of a droid cage match.

As in the other Star Wars films, Solo includes lots of interesting critters and great action scenes relying less on CGI than real sets and ILM miniatures, including a heist in the (Italian) mountains on a theme park inspired twisting monorail train, and an uprising of enslaved droids and Wookiees incited by L3-37 and Chewbacca. Though it doesn’t include the iconic title music, the fine score by John Powell has some input from the original Star Wars composer John Williams.

To sum up, Solo: a Star Wars Story is an entertaining addition to the franchise.

– – – –

Consensus:​ Although there are some problems with the film, and Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t quite live up to Harrison Ford’s iconic performance despite doing fairly well in the role on his own terms, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a mostly entertaining look at the character’s younger years, that delivers a series of well staged set-pieces and offers a fairly fun addition to the franchise. ★★★ (out of 4)

Blu-ray Review: The 15:17 to Paris

May 23, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from director Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris recounts the true story of how Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler fearlessly stopped Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani), who was armed with guns, knives and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, from carrying out a terrorist attack onboard a train bound for Paris on August 21st, 2015.

The twist here is that the three men play themselves, and they are joined in the cast by many of the passengers who were really on that train, leading to a dramatic recreation of the stunning moments when Stone ran towards the barrel of El Khazzani’s AK-47, and the three of them successfully disarmed him.

The film follows them from their childhood in Sacramento, showing Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler as three restless kids (played by William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mikél Williams, respectively) who first bonded over their shared trips to the principal’s office for being troublemakers.  Stone and Skarlatos decided to pursue careers in the military, before finally reuniting for a summer backpacking trip through Europe, that put them on the train to Paris.

A good chunk of the film’s second half depicts this trip through Europe, and these scenes play with a fascinating neorealist quality to them, building up quiet suspense as their trip progresses and they talk about whether or not they should even go to Paris, following a wild night in Amsterdam.  The attempted terror attack is shown in flash-forwards throughout the film, before it finally unfolds in full, presented in harrowing detail that doesn’t embellish for cinematic effect and merely allows it to play out as close to how it really happened as possible.

I had heard some mixed things about The 15:17 to Paris before watching it, but I actually found myself quite taken by the film.  This is not only a stirring recreation of what unfolded on that train, but also a moving and inspiring look at real people who were put in an impossible situation and were able to spring into action and do the right thing, making a split second decision to risk their own lives in order to save countless others.  It’s a unique film in its approach, taking risks that I think deserve to be applauded, and made all the more powerful by the fact that the real people are playing themselves.  Despite the fact that the three leads are inexperienced actors, they do a good job of carrying the film, and bring a naturalistic quality to it.

The film has an experimental feel to it, and often unfolds with a minimalistic quality that I wasn’t quite expecting.  The most interesting thing about the film is how low-key much of the drama is, which really helps drive home the fact that these were just ordinary people who, as fate would have it, ended up being put in the right place at the right time and did an extraordinary thing when in a situation that called for it.  It’s a fascinating approach to telling this sort of story, as much a quiet character drama about three friends growing up together as it is a portrait of real life heroism.

Spencer Stone talks about having this feeling like they were put on this earth to serve a higher purpose, and that God was leading them towards this moment.  If they hadn’t been on that train, and if they hadn’t been sitting where they were seated, hundreds of people could have died.  But spurred on by their religious faith and a strong drive to help those in need, they were able to miraculously thwart this terrorist attack and minimize the injuries.  As a celebration of human bravery in the face of unspeakable terror, The 15:17 to Paris is an engaging and very effective film.

The Blu-ray also includes the two featurettes Making Every Second Count, which features the real life subjects recounting what happened on the train alongside clips from the film; and Portrait of Courage, which looks at the making of the film and Clint Eastwood’s decision to have the real people portray themselves, a gutsy choice that paid off really well.

The 15:17 to Paris is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release.  It’s 94 minutes and rated 14A.

Blu-ray Review: Game Night

May 23, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a naturally competitive married couple who host a weekly game night at their house with a group of friends.

Then Max’s hotshot brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes over and decides to kick things up a notch by taking game night into his own hands, staging an interactive murder mystery game complete with hired actors.  When Brooks gets kidnapped, Max and Annie initially assume that it is just part of the game, but they quickly come to realize that they are embroiled in a real life ransom plot, unaware of what is real and what is fake.

Along with the two other couples who are joining them for game night – Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his older date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) – Max and Annie have to contend with real life criminals and navigate a series of increasingly dangerous scenarios, while also coming to terms with the longtime sibling rivalry that exists between Max and Brooks.

This is the premise behind Game Night, a piece of surprisingly solid Friday night entertainment that strikes a good balance between delivering action and humour, built around a sharp script by Mark Perez that is full of fun twists.  Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein nicely pull off the darkly comic tone, keeping us guessing where things will go next and juggling the multiple pieces that are put in play throughout the film, before seamlessly bringing them all together at the end.

The film is bolstered by a typically sardonic performance from Jason Bateman, and he is nicely matched by Rachel McAdams, who reminds us just how funny she can be.  Kyle Chandler once again impresses as an initially charismatic figure who is also much deeper and darker than he initially lets on.  The film also features some wonderfully offbeat supporting work by Jesse Plemons as Max and Annie’s overbearing police officer neighbour Gary, who just wants to be invited over for game night.

It’s refreshing to see this sort of high concept ensemble comedy being put out by a major studio, and Game Night works almost shockingly well as a piece of escapist entertainment.  The plot is clever, the entire cast does great work, and there are a lot of fun surprises along the way.  It’s a wild ride, and an entertaining good time all around.

The Blu-ray also includes the short featurette An Unforgettable Evening: Making Game Night, as well as a gag reel.

Game Night is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release.  It’s 100 minutes and rated 14A.

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