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Three Views: Coco

November 22, 2017

Coco Review By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

At this point, Pixar has a pretty stellar track record of delivering films that draw us in with their dazzling animation, and keep us hooked with precision storytelling, memorable characters, and powerfully moving scenes.  And Coco, the studio’s latest – which I have been anticipating for several years now since it was first announced as an untitled movie about Día de los Muertos – is no exception to this rule.  It’s a knockout.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy in Mexico who dreams of singing and playing guitar, just like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a beloved singer who is remembered in their village long after his untimely death.  But since a musician abandoned them to go perform, his family has a generations old ban on music, enforced by his strict Abuelita (Renée Victor), and he is expected to follow in their shoemaking business instead.

It’s the Day of the Dead, and Miguel wants to perform in the village’s local talent show, but his family forbids it.  When he finds an old picture that reveals he is actually related to his musician idol, Miguel abandons his family and tries to steal the guitar from de la Cruz’s tomb, which transports him to the Land of the Dead.  Here he meets his long deceased relatives, including his great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), and he teams up with a skeleton named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a charming grifter who claims to know de la Cruz, and only asks that Miguel bring his picture back to the land of the living.  But Miguel needs a family member’s blessing in order to return before sunrise, or else he will turn into a skeleton, and he hopes that de la Cruz will be able to give it to him.

The film is named for Miguel’s great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), who is growing increasingly forgetful, and spends her days in an old rocking chair pushed into the corner.  Through this, Coco comes to explore the importance of remembrance, and how memories are what allow our loved ones to live on after they pass away.  If you have no one left to remember you in the living world, then you are eventually forgotten in the Land of the Dead as well.  This is the fate that will befall Héctor if Miguel doesn’t get his picture back in time, because spirits can only cross back over if their pictures have been placed on an Ofrenda, the shrine-like displays where family members put photos and offerings for their deceased loved ones.  This is a very moving idea, and one of the most haunting elements of the film.

The film spans two worlds and several generations, while exploring fundamental questions of life and death.  There is an ambitiousness to the storytelling here that makes Coco thrilling to watch, recalling the maturity and sophistication of Ratatouille.  The story moves at a good pace, setting up the world and characters in the first act, and perfectly building towards the emotional payoff of the film’s stunning second half.  There is a great twist partway through, which I wouldn’t think of spoiling here, but it takes the story in a deeper and darker direction that leads to some of the studio’s most heart-wrenching scenes since Toy Story 3 and Inside Out.  I was moved to tears multiple times throughout the film.

The film does an excellent job of balancing these darker elements with moments of levity, sometimes courtesy of delightful street dog Dante, and it’s a mix that the studio has honed to a tee.  Héctor is the perfect example of a Pixar character who delivers both humour and great pathos, with his disguises and ability to pop his bones apart offering comic relief, as his narrative arc and character motivations also provide the emotional heart and soul of the film, not unlike Inside Out‘s Bing Bong.  The story explores how some people are remembered over others, whether they deserve it or not, and the film has some interesting things to say about celebrity worship, and how sometimes meeting your idol can drastically change your perception of them, a message that is especially resonant right now.

This is also the closest Pixar has ever come to making a musical, even working in a couple of musical numbers, with music playing a big role in the film.  One of Coco‘s most powerful themes is about how music serves as a universal language that bonds us together, which is beautifully conveyed through the song “Remember Me,” a lovely tune that was written by Frozen songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and is poignantly used at several points throughout the film.  The soundtrack also features several other charming songs, and the wonderful Mariachi-flavoured score by Michael Giacchino is another highlight of the film.

The film is directed by Toy Story 3‘s Lee Unkrich, who is no stranger to delivering powerfully moving scenes, and it’s co-directed by Adrian Molina, who pays tribute to his own Mexican heritage through the film.  As such, Coco provides a glorious love letter to Mexican culture and the many Día de los Muertos traditions.  The film even works in the brightly coloured fantastical creatures called Alebrijes, who are a staple of Mexican folk art and act as spirit guides.  The painstaking lengths that the filmmakers took to ensure that the film is culturally accurate have paid off, and it’s already the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico, where it has been playing since last month.

All of the artists who worked on the film have done an exceptional job, and Coco is worth seeing in theatres for their work alone.  The film is visually breathtaking to watch.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous and full of vibrant colours, especially in the Land of the Dead scenes, with a visually striking marigold petal path that acts as a bridge between the worlds.  The lighting alone is absolutely incredible, and the amount of detail is astounding.  The other interesting element of the character designs is that the skeletons have eyes to make their faces more emotive, which serves as a very affective stylistic choice, especially in close ups.  The entire voice cast does great work bringing these characters to life, from promising newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, right up to the veteran members of the ensemble.

The final scenes are as heartbreaking as they are bittersweet, and Coco is especially poignant in its quiet, sombre moments, touching on grand themes of legacy and loss, and how our spirits ultimately live on through the relatives that we leave behind to remember us.  This is a wonderful and profoundly moving exploration of memory, the power of music, and the intergenerational bonds between family.  Like the best of Pixar’s work, Coco sticks with you.

Playing before Coco is Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a brand new Christmas special that follows Disney’s mega hit.  When sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) realize that they don’t have any family traditions of their own with which to celebrate Christmas, Olaf (Josh Gad) and Sven set out to find traditions around the village to bring back to the castle.  The songs are fun, the story is cute, and I found it absolutely delightful.  And it’s a good length at around 22 minutes.

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Héctor (Gael García Bernal) and Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) in Coco

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Coco Review By Erin Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Pixar has a long line of films that have become classics in the repertoire of replayed films by children and adults alike.  Coco deserves to be no exception.

The story of Coco centres around a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who has a passion for music.  His passion is fuelled by his idolation of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer and guitar player from his village who went on to star in movies before his tragic death.  It is from his films that Miguel learns to play guitar, watching and rewatching his old performances.  But unfortunately for Miguel, his family hates music and has dedicated themselves to being shoemakers ever since his great-great-grandfather ran away, leaving his family behind, to go perform.  Miguel’s elderly great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is this musician’s daughter, but unfortunately she has Alzheimer’s and does not remember much of her father who left when she was young.

When Miguel finds an old family photo though and becomes convinced that his idol de la Cruz may actually be his great-great-grandfather, he decides to hide no more and enters a talent competition without his family’s permission.  He never gets there though, when an incident where he tries to take de la Cruz’s old guitar from his tomb to perform launches Miguel into the world of the Afterlife.

The film takes place on Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – when those family members with pictures on a Ofrenda (a sort of altar where gifts are offered to deceased relatives and friends) are able to cross back over into the world of the living and see their families.  Miguel however gets caught going to other way and meets up with his family in the land of the dead, and it is here that the majority of the film takes place as Miguel meets his ancestors and finds out about his family history against music, while all the while trying to figure out a way to get back home before the night is over and the bridge between the two worlds collapses.  Still at odds with even his family over his musical affinity, he gets help from Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) to try to find Ernesto de la Cruz in hopes he can help.

The film is artfully made, with stunning design elements.  The land of the dead is a colourful world filled with skeletons and Alebrijes (spirit creatures that guide the souls between the worlds) and overall is filled with a magical quality.  The design of the characters is appealing, and the voice work by all of the actors involved is spot-on, including the performance from young Anthony Gonzalez who was cast as Miguel after initially providing the scratch voice for the character.

Of course, one thing that must be mentioned is the music – the original songs that appear in de la Cruz’s performances and Miguel’s are well-done and in the case of “Remember Me” in particular, play into the story in a crucial way.  Miguel’s journey and discovery of his family’s history with music is beautifully mastered with all the artistry we have come to expect from Pixar.  The film is equal parts entertaining and moving, with a powerful emotional arc near the end that has the power to move you to tears.  It is in this scene that we know why the film is called ‘Coco’.

I highly recommend seeing Coco in theatres if you can, as the visuals and audio are stunning and deserve to be seen in the large format.  It is also one of the best films of the year.

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Abuelita (Renée Victor) and Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) in Coco

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Coco Review By Tony Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Coco is the first Pixar film to feature an almost all Indigenous cast, like Disney’s recent Moana, in a sincere effort to honour their culture, a welcome change from the Disney of less-enlightened times with its insensitive stereotypes and cultural appropriations. The film is centered around the Día de Muertos, which combines the post-Halloween Christian feast of All Souls with native Mesoamerican traditions of honouring the dead. Family shrines (ofrendas) are set up with likenesses of and treats for ancestors, with Aztec marigold petals strewn to guide the path of their spirits to visit their families on that night.

Coco is the ancient great-grandmother of the 12 year old hero Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Confined to a wicker chair on wheels, she is content as life goes on around her in their little Mexican town even if barely cognizant (or “checked out” as the folks at Pixar say). Believing Coco’s father had abandoned his family to live as a Mariachi musician, Coco’s daughter and Miguel’s Abuelita (Renee Victor) fiercely enforces the renunciation of all music in a family now devoted to the cobbler trade. Miguel, however, loves Mariachi music, idolizing the legendary singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) from his town who died in 1942 and suspecting that he may be related to him.

Desperate to enter a local Mariachi competition, Miguel goes to borrow the guitar in the tomb of de la Cruz, but when he tries to play it, he finds himself in the Land of the Dead. Everyone here is a clothed skeleton with faces like the traditional masks worn on Día de Muertos. Animals appear as multicoloured winged spirit guides that spit fire like dragons. To return to the land of the living before the night is over, Miguel must get permission from a dead ancestor. Since most of them do not approve of his musical ambitions, Miguel goes looking for de la Cruz. He is accompanied by the stray dog Dante from his village and a shady but charming character that he meets named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) who claims to know de la Cruz.

Seven years in the making, Coco is already hailed by many as Pixar’s best film yet, and I can see why. Directed by Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich and co-directed by Adrian Molina, it has been extremely well-received in Mexico where it opened a month before its U.S. premiere. One is immediately dazzled by the rich colours, especially in the Land of the Dead, and the charming Mariachi inspired score by Michael Giacchino. The animation is flawless, not only for the actors but also the wayward-tongued Aztec hairless Xolo dog Dante and other creatures,  with meticulous attention to details such as the fingering on guitars.

As for Moana, the worldwide search for a lead actor came up with the perfect kid right in the U.S.A. Anthony Gonzalez had been busking with his siblings in a L.A. barrio since the age of four and in his interview without being asked he impressed the studio with his singing. Also just like Moana, he has a joyful surprise “You got the Part” video to look back on.

The stories with most universal appeal are often set in specific times and places. One doesn’t have to believe in Mexican traditions or magic realism to share in the celebration of one’s ancestors with feasting and good memories. All this wrapped around a really gripping story with charming music makes Coco a timeless treasure.

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Consensus: Beautifully animated, deeply emotional, and filled with wonderful moments, Coco is a powerfully moving animated film that explores deep themes of memory and family, and ranks alongside Pixar’s best works. ★★★★ (out of 4)


Blu-ray Review: Brigsby Bear

November 21, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

James (Kyle Mooney) is a young man who has lived a sheltered life, still watching and obsessing over his VHS tapes of Brigsby Bear, the endearingly cheesy children’s show that he has grown up with.  But when he discovers that no new episodes of Brigsby Bear have been made, he sets out to continue the series on his own, allowing him to make new friends as he learns how to navigate a real world that he knows virtually nothing about.

The directorial debut of Saturday Night Live writer Dave McCary, with a screenplay co-written by SNL cast member Kyle Mooney who also stars in the film, Brigsby Bear is the sort of film that should be seen knowing as little about it as possible, and there is actually much more going on in the plot than I would ever think of spoiling here.

Despite the fact that Brigsby Bear has been somewhat sold as a quirky comedy, it’s actually much more than that, and it’s worth noting that base of the story is actually quite disturbing, somewhat disarmingly so at first when the film first starts to show its true hand.  The story touches on dark themes of isolation and stunted development, exploring how pop culture sometimes provides the only refuge that kids have from the terror of the world around them.

Although the Brigsby Bear show that James watches is bighearted and teaches him lessons about the world – and it’s worth noting that the film nails the look and feel of a cheesy 1980s kids show in the clips of it that we see, right down to the mascot costume and animatronic head – there is also a darkness to the show that he must confront and come to terms with in order to truly move forward.  Kyle Mooney carries the film with an endearing and textured performance, and he is backed up by a strong supporting cast that includes Mark Hamill and Greg Kinnear, as well as memorable work from young actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as a kind new friend who genuinely wants to help James.

The film pulls off this tricky tonal mix between dark character drama and whimsical comedy, balancing these things with the often disturbing nature of the plot, and for the most part it succeeds in a way that allows all of these elements to play together as a whole, with one never superseding the other.  While Brigsby Bear is amusing as a comedy, it’s also an inventive and highly original look at a character finding a unique way to move past childhood trauma, and is ultimately quite touching to watch.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary by Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary, as well as extended and deleted scenes, a gag reel, and the featurettes The Wisdom of Brigsby Bear, An Evening With Brigsby Bear and Twin Speak: Kyle & Dave.  The disc also comes with Brigsby Bear: The Lost Episode, an extended clip of the show within the movie that is quite amusing to watch after the film.

Brigsby Bear is a Sony Pictures Classics release.  It’s 97 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: The Dark Tower

November 21, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Jake (Tom Taylor) is a teenager in New York who starts having nightmares involving Roland (Idris Elba), a lone Gunslinger who’s mission is to defeat the evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a devilish figure who is trying to topple the Dark Tower, which stands at the centre of the universe and separates good from evil.  When Jake falls through a portal, he joins Roland in an in-between world, and ends up locked in a battle for the universe.

The first of two big screen Stephen King adaptations this year, with the second being the exceptional horror movie It which became a massive hit, The Dark Tower is hardly the best example of a film based on the author’s work.  The film is uneven and feels somewhat rushed, and it’s easy to see why many fans of the book found it disappointing.

While the film does have several easter eggs alluding to some of Stephen King’s other stories, it only scratches the surface of the dense mythology put forth in the Dark Tower book series, which spans eight novels and encompasses grand themes of good versus evil, acting as somewhat of a through line for many of his other works.  But taken on its own terms as a film, The Dark Tower is still a slickly made and mildly entertaining action adventure that features some enjoyable elements along the way.

The film moves at a brisk pace, and Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are suitably well cast in the leading roles.  Idris Elba is easily the best part of the film, reminding us how much of a compelling screen presence he has, and Matthew McConaughey is also fun to watch, with his usual slick charm used here to villainess effect.  It’s by no means great, and hopefully there is still room for a more faithful adaptation of these books in the future, but The Dark Tower is still an entertaining enough film, that provides an easily watchable if somewhat bumpy ride.

The Blu-ray also includes deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and the featurettes Last Time Around, The World has Moved On…, Stephen King: Inspirations, A Look Through the Keyhole, The Man in Black and The Gunslinger in Action.

The Dark Tower is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 95 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: The Emoji Movie

November 21, 2017

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Gene (T.J. Miller) is a “meh” emoji, who lives in the messenger app inside the phone of a constantly texting high schooler named Alex (Jake T. Austin).  The trouble is that Mel has more than one emotion, much to the chagrin of his parents (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge).

On the day of his first job, Gene ends up “glitching” and showing more than just his “meh” face when he is chosen to be used in a text, and is threatened to be deleted by the head of the corporation, Smiler (Maya Rudolph).  He ends up on the run with Hi-Five (James Corden), in search of a hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) who might be able to help him fix his malfunction, and this journey takes them to different apps in the phone.

With my plot summary of The Emoji Movie out of the way, now onto my critical analysis of the film.  So let me just start by saying that, yes, the film is just as bad and ill-conceived as everyone joked it would be.  This is the sort of movie that people went to see just so that they could tweet about it using the prerequisite “poop” emoji, who is given a supporting role here, brought to life thanks to the voice of Patrick Stewart.  If the fact that a pile of shit is one of the characters doesn’t give you a sense of how lowbrow The Emoji Movie really is, then let me just say that the rest of the film is equally content to scrape along the bottom of the barrel.

While the idea of setting a film inside a teen’s smartphone isn’t terrible in and of itself, any flashes of wit that this premise could have allowed for are completely smothered by the overabundance of poop jokes and the lazy excuse for a plot, which borrows liberally from vastly superior animated films like Wreck-It Ralph and Inside Out.  I would even go as far to say that The Emoji Movie is one of the worst and most uninspired animated films from a major studio – Sony Pictures Animation in this case, who have actually made some good films – in recent memory.

The film functions as little more than a feature length commercial for smartphones and any myriad of apps, with set pieces taking place in Candy Crush, Just Dance and YouTube.  The characters even fly away on a literal Twitter bird at one point.  None of this feels clever or inventive, but rather like a soul crushing modern product, that has been designed in a lab as a virtual babysitter for kids who are already suffering from shortened attention spans and addictions to their technological devices.  My extra half-star only goes out to the many animators who worked hard on the film and helped make parts of it look shiny and nice, but had no control over the actual story.

This is nothing more than a lazy cash grab, with a cheap and poorly thought out message about being unique and accepting yourself for who you are tacked on to try and give it some depth.  The film hits us over the head with its predictable and by now entirely overused “be yourself no matter what” message, which at one point might have seemed like a good thing, but has now turned into its own weird sort of conformity in the way it’s so often presented.  This is also one of the strangest takes on gay conversion therapy that I have ever seen, with Gene’s parents wanting him to hide his changing emotions.

It’s hard to wax philosophical about a movie that features a personified talking turd amongst its cast, but The Emoji Movie is indicative of much larger problems in society involving our increasing reliance on technology and lack of human contact, with a superficial and materialistic story that serves as a sort of corporate brainwashing for young audiences.  Who knew that one of the most soulless and existentially troubling films of the year would be an animated movie about emojis, but I guess that kind of weirdly sums up where our culture is at in 2017.  This is one of those shockingly bad movies that is almost worth seeing just to fully appreciate how bad it is, but that’s hardly a recommendation.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track, the production featurettes Jailbreak Decoded: The Untold Story, Express Yourself: Meet the Cast, Girls Can Code!, Choreographing Emoji With Matt Steffanina, Creating the World Inside Your Phone and Bringing Emojis to Life, as well as a tutorials on how to draw the characters Gene and Poop, a Guess the Emoji game, a video of how to make a Candy Crush cake, and a dance along and lyric video for the song “Good Vibrations.”

Finally, the disc also includes a new Hotel Transylvania short entitled Puppy!, which basically serves as an extended preview of the upcoming third film in the series, and is vaguely amusing enough in and of itself, but hardly worth the price of purchase on its own.

The Emoji Movie is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 86 minutes and rated G.

Blu-ray Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

November 21, 2017

By John Corrado

Picking up right after where we first met him in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming brings Peter Parker (Tom Holland) back to being an awkward high schooler, who’s growing restless and is desperate to prove himself as a real hero.  Going against the wishes of his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he sets out to take down the Vulture (Michael Keaton), a working class scrap collector turned weapons dealer.

Working as both an entertaining superhero movie and an enjoyable high school comedy, Spider-Man: Homecoming is simply a ton of fun to watch, and the best outing for the webslinger since Sam Raimi’s first two films.  This is a franchise extension that both stands on its own and fits perfectly into the larger fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, delivering a fresh take on this beloved and iconic character.  It was easily one of my favourite movies of the summer, and you can read our three views of the film right here.

The Blu-ray also includes ten deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel, a pop-up trivia track, and the featurettes A Tangled Web, Searching for Spider-Man, Spidey Stunts, Aftermath, The Vulture Takes Flight, Jon Watts: Head of the Class, Pros and Cons of Spider-Man, as well as Rappin’ With Cap, which combines some of the amusing Captain America PSAs from the film.  For reference, I got the 4K Ultra HD set for review, which also comes with a regular Blu-ray copy of the film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 133 minutes and rated PG.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

November 17, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from writer-director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that plays with a remarkably handled tone, oscillating seamlessly between pitch black comedy and crime drama, and kept grounded by its great screenplay and amazing ensemble cast.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is grieving the rape and murder of her daughter (Kathryn Newton), and disgusted by the local police department’s seeming lack of action.  So she posts damning messages on three billboards just outside of town to put the pressure on them to speed up the investigation, personally naming and blaming Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrellson) for failing to focus more on solving the case.

But the three billboards end up having unexpected ramifications and consequences for the locals, including Mildred’s teenaged son (Lucas Hedges), the young guy at the ad agency who rented them out (Caleb Landry Jones), and second-in-command police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a temperamental and immature cop who is prone to violent outbursts and still lives with his mother (Sandy Martin).

The film is carried by a fiercely compelling performance from Frances McDormand, who manages to convey both sorrow and deep-seated anger, and she finds her match in the ensemble around her.  Sam Rockwell in particular does outstanding work, constantly challenging our perceptions of his character, and brilliantly delivering what is probably the most interesting arc of the film.  Dixon is dimwitted and does some cruel things, but Sam Rockwell ensures that he is never easy to pin down and is much more than just a “bad cop” stereotype, and it’s positively thrilling to watch what he does with the character, especially in the moments when he elicits genuine sympathy.

Martin McDonagh’s multilayered screenplay brilliantly tackles issues of sexual assault, racism and police brutality, never glossing over these themes despite the often darkly comic approach, and the film is equally disinterested in giving us easy answers.  These are major and very serious issues that the film is taking on, so it’s only appropriate that the results challenge us in such a way, with the story not allowing its characters to exist on clear cut lines of right or wrong.  What makes the film such a ride is the way that it manages to provoke a whole myriad of reactions from the audience in any given moment, even forcing us to change our judgements from scene to scene.

The film maintains a constant, unpredictable tension that is punctuated by moments of dark humour, operating in grey areas and never giving us easy answers, while the plot keeps throwing curveballs that constantly upend our initial perceptions of both the characters and the story.  The film is brilliant for the ways that it challenges us to have empathy for its characters, even when they do unlikeable things out of grief and anger, and it also bravely asks if positive outcomes can ever be born out of acts of vengeance, and if revenge can ever be justified when the law isn’t moving fast enough.

The film explores very current themes of corruption within law enforcement agencies and the lack of immediate action on cases of rape or violence against women, approaching these topics from fresh and interesting angles, and taking on even deeper meaning in light of the now seemingly endless news of rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood.  While Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not always comfortable to watch for these reasons, this is also the point.  It’s a film about anger and healing, and whether one can ever truly lead to the other.  The final scene is stunning, leaving us with so many unanswered questions, while still feeling like the perfect place to stop.

The film strikes the right balance between being complex and challenging, but also darkly funny and wildly entertaining, and it’s this perfectly handled tone that makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri such a knockout.  I get why it took home the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.  This is one of the best and most timely movies of the year.

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

Review: Thelma

November 17, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a university student who is trying to get away from her fundamentalist parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Peterson), having moved away from home to live on campus and study in Oslo.

But when she starts having mysterious fainting spells, and also comes to fall in love with fellow female student Anja (Okay Kaya), Thelma starts to explore both her lesbian tendencies and the supernatural abilities that she seemingly possesses.  When her feelings get too intense, she appears to have the ability to control people and things with her mind, leading her to uncover buried secrets from her past.

Directed by Joachim Trier, who walks a careful balance between character drama, psychological thriller and supernatural horror movie, Thelma plays almost like a Norwegian version of Carrie crossed with elements of Black Swan.  Although it largely lacks the same impact or resonance of those films, and offers a somewhat clichéd tale of religious fundamentalism leading to repressed sexuality with extreme psychological side effects, Thelma offers enough suspenseful moments and cool stylistic touches to keep us intrigued from scene to scene.

The film affectively sets the stage with a chilling opening sequence, flashing back to a childhood hunting trip with Thelma and her father, and the ending practically begs for another viewing to properly dissect it all.  The religious metaphors do feel a little heavy handed, like the visual of a temptuous snake sliding into Thelma’s mouth during a sexual fantasy with Anja, or the drips of red blood from her nose that drop into a glass of white milk, meant to symbolize the shattering of her purity.  But there are still enough elements that feel fresh to make this stylized and often intriguing film worth a look.

Thelma is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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

Blu-ray Review: In This Corner of the World

November 14, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Taking place in Japan during World War II, In This Corner of the World follows Suzu (Laura Post), a young woman who leaves her childhood home in Hiroshima to get married, and moves to the nearby city of Kure to live with her husband Shusaku (Todd Haberkorn) and his family.

The film’s ambitious narrative spans from 1933 to 1946, following Suzu from childhood to adulthood and taking place before, during and directly after World War II, as the country comes under siege and then has to begin their long healing process.  The film’s depiction of this part of history is all the more powerful because of how quiet and gentle the story often is, focusing on the little moments in the day to day lives of people living through the war.

The film is about life during wartime in the most literal sense, showing the struggles to get by on limited money and increasingly scarce food supplies, as Suzo is forced to figure out ways to make a bit of rice and a few sardines feed the whole family for several days until their next rations come.  But the threat of violence is also never far behind, as they remain helpless to the threat of air raids and bombs being dropped from overhead.  It’s this juxtaposition between the mundanity of everyday life, and the heartbreaking loss that lurks around the edges, that makes In This Corner of the World an emotionally resonant work.

The beautifully drawn traditional animation has a painterly quality to it that gives a softness to the film, with the lush greens of the Japanese countryside providing a striking backdrop for the film.  Made under the direction of acclaimed anime filmmaker Sunao Katabuchi, In This Corner of the World is a touching and historically relevant dramatic portrait of Japan during World War II, focusing on the people who had to make due living through it and had their lives forever changed.  It’s also among the 26 films on the list of Oscar-qualifying titles for Best Animated Feature.

The Blu-ray also includes interviews with director Sunao Katabuchi and producer Masao Maruyama, the featurettes Hiroshima & Kure: Then & Now and U.S. Tour Highlights, as well as theatrical trailers and TV spots for the film.  The package also comes with a special preview chapter from Fumiyo Kouno’s manga of the same name, which inspired the film.

In This Corner of the World is a Shout! Factory release.  It’s 129 minutes and rated PG.

Review: Lady Bird

November 10, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the impeccable screenplay, Lady Bird is a lovely and deeply poignant coming of age film that finds the perfect balance between being funny, moving, bittersweet and a little edgy, just like its main character.

The film unfolds over the 2002 school year, and follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a rebellious 17-year-old living in the suburbs of Sacramento, California who dreams of moving to the East Coast, and going to college somewhere more cultured.  Preferably New York, but if not then “Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.”

She has pink streaks in her hair, insists on being called Lady Bird, attends a Catholic school with mostly rich kids but pushes back against the religious doctrine she is being taught, and is ashamed of her modest house on “the wrong side of the tracks.”  All of this puts a rift between her and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), whom she is struggling to get along with.  While her supportive father (Tracy Letts) puts on a brave face, he’s also struggling to come to terms with losing his job, making things even tighter for the lower middle class family.  Throughout all this, Lady Bird tries to navigate the usual experiences of being a teenager, like dating and maintaining friendships.

Saoirse Ronan carries the film with a spectacular performance, fully embodying this unique character in a way that lets us both relate to and care for her, even when she does unlikeable things out of teenaged angst.  Laurie Metcalf does beautifully textured work as a mother not ready to let her daughter go, even if her coping mechanisms are causing her to come off as distant.  A scene between them in the kitchen that comes late in the film, with Saoirse Ronan yelling as Laurie Metcalf stays silent, continues to linger in my mind as one of the most powerfully acted scenes of the year.

Tracy Letts does wonderfully understated work as a man trying to hide his own depression for the sake of his daughter, in a moving dramatic arc that the playwright turned actor handles brilliantly.  Helping round out the uniformly excellent ensemble cast are Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, who both shine in memorable roles as the pair of guys who become the object of Lady Bird’s affection at different points in the film.  The former brings nuance to his role as a broadway theatre geek who is undergoing his own awakening while dating her, and the latter is pitch perfect as a brooding wannabe existentialist who reads books, smokes cigarettes and presciently warns about government surveillance.

Greta Gerwig’s writing sparkles with sharp dialogue, and provides many wonderfully observed scenarios for her heroine to navigate, while also offering an intuitive exploration of its characters.  Her screenplay carries with it the same sharp wit that she brought to Frances Ha and Mistress America, which she co-wrote with her frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, and the title character here indeed comes across almost like a younger version of the characters that Greta Gerwig herself portrayed in those films.

But as much as Greta Gerwig’s sublime sense of humour shines through here, Lady Bird also plays with the same sense of underlying poignancy that has become equally emblematic of her work.  The film has been described as being semiautobiographical, loosely inspired by her own teenaged years growing up in Sacramento.  She has clarified these statements by saying that, while the events of the film are fictitious and it’s not an exact replica of her own experiences, the emotion of the film is absolutely real, inspired by the things that she felt as a teenager.  And we can tell, because Lady Bird has a lovingly observed quality to it that feels real.

The film also beautifully shows what’s happening on the peripheries of Lady Bird’s life and in America at the time, with her parents struggling to make ends meet in a changing economy, and news of the Iraq War flickering by on TV.  And in this way, Lady Bird becomes as much a snapshot of America in the early-2000s, a world still recovering from being forever changed by 9/11, as it is a portrait of a teenager becoming an adult, showing both its character and her country in a state of flux.  It’s not dissimilar to Boyhood in this way, and there is also an inherent nostalgia to this pre-iPhone world.

There are so many layers to both the story and characters, and thanks to both Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird is a rich and deeply felt work that should be savoured.  The big dramatic moments all double as quiet character beats, the little things that happen in all our lives and cumulatively help shape us.  The narrative could also be read as subtly telling the story of a teenager losing her religion and rebelling against the church as a way to go against her parents – the very fact that Christine insists on being called Lady Bird clearly represents a rejection of her baptismal name – before slowly finding her faith again in a moment of self doubt.

Greta Gerwig directs this all with just the right touch, delivering one of the most beautifully crafted films of the year.  She displays both a deep understanding of her characters and a sense of clarity for her own vision, while also paying tribute to many great directors before her.  The influences of Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, whom are all artists that she has worked with, are especially felt in the film.  There is a lovely and textured quality to the whole thing, and this is heightened by Sam Levy’s warm cinematography, which has a filmic grain to it that recalls an era before digital fully took over.

The tagline for Lady Bird is “fly away home,” and this is fitting not only because of the childhood rhyme it evokes, but also because the film tells the story of a teenager wanting to leave her family and the place where she grew up in order to find herself, but coming to appreciate her own life in the process.  This is an instant classic in the coming of age genre, offering a uniquely enjoyable and emotional ode to leaving high school and your childhood behind, while also allowing us to reflect upon its deeper themes of home and family.  Put simply, I’m in love with this movie.

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

Blu-ray Review: Cars 3

November 7, 2017

By John Corrado

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is forced to confront the end of his racing career following a terrifying crash in Cars 3.  Wanting to go out as a champion, but realizing that he is struggling to keep up in a world of newer racers, Lightning teams up with a perky young trainer named Cruz Ramírez (Christela Alonzo), who is assigned to help him to get back up to top speeds, but the best shot he has for a comeback actually requires him to go back to his roots.

As a fan of this series, Cars 3 provides a nice close to the Pixar trilogy, using the narrative of a classic comeback tale to offer a briskly entertaining and also poignant story about mentorship and crafting your legacy.  I liked this one a lot, and you can read our three views of the film right here.

The Blu-ray comes with a solid selection of bonus features, spread over two discs.  The first disc includes commentary track by director Brian Fee, producer Kevin Reher, co-producer Andrea Warren and creative director Jay Ward, as well as the theatrically released short film Lou, and the brief new short Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool, which plays as an amusing parody of a motivational commercial.  There are also the two featurettes Ready for the Race, showing a day in the life of young race car driver William Byron as he talks about the accuracy in the film’s depiction of racing, and Cruz Ramirez: The Yellow Car That Could, which offers a nice exploration of what went into writing, designing and voicing the standout new character.

First up on the second disc are five behind the scenes featurettes – Generations: The Story of Cars 3 is a general look at the themes of the film and the challenges that come with crafting a sequel; Let’s. Get. Crazy. delves into the film’s demolition derby sequence and the unique challenges of animating mud; Cars to Die(cast) For is a great look at the hundreds of die cast toy cars that have been inspired by the film; Legendary offers an exploration of the history of racing and how they wove this into the film; and World’s Fastest Billboard focuses on the amount of detail that went into the fake logos and ads that are seen in the background of the film.

The disc also houses a good amount of deleted scenes that have optional introductions by the director, a trio of short animated pieces featuring voice actress Kerry Washington and two of the animators talking about their first cars, as well as fly throughs of three of the film’s stunningly animated backdrops, and a selection of trailers and promos for the film.  As usual, this is another really solid Blu-ray release from Pixar, and a worthwhile set for fans to add to their collections.

Cars 3 is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 103 minutes and rated G.

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