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Review: A Ghost Story

October 9, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The image of a person dressed as a ghost wearing a white bed sheet with cutout holes for eyes could easily be fodder for laughs or cheap scares, recalling a child’s simple Halloween costume.  But this image is used in ways much more sombre and sorrowful than that in A Ghost Story, a unique and quietly devastating film that explores universal themes of grief and the passage of time.

The film tells the story of C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a young couple who are living in an old house on a quiet suburban street.  When C dies, he returns to the house as a ghost, clad in a white sheet.  He watches over M as she mourns him and then eventually sells the house, and he stays there as other people move in, forced into passive observance and helpless to stop time from moving forward right in front of his eyes.

Directed by David Lowery, who shot the film under the radar last year after finishing his work on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story is a quiet and contemplative film that feels entirely personal to the filmmaker.  The special effects were done in camera, with the help of a magician on set, and the film has a home movie quality that makes it feel intimate and personal.  The film is framed in a square with rounded corners, to give it the look of an old polaroid photograph, with the sparse compositions of many of the scenes taking on a haunting quality as the ghost lingers silently in the background or at the corners of the frame.

Some scenes stretch on for minutes at a time – like an almost uncomfortably languid single take where M stress eats an entire pie as C watches over her – while others go by in a flash, meant to symbolize the way that time moves slower when we are young, before speeding up as we get older.  Through this, A Ghost Story becomes a moving look at the passage of time, the evolving repercussions of the connections we make, and the memories that are made and the things that are forgotten along the way.

Despite being covered by a sheet for much of the running time and portraying a character who is unable to speak, Casey Affleck is able to affectively convey his character’s grief, through his hunched shoulders or a slow turn of his head, with the deep black eye holes of his costume suggesting a constantly longing stare.  It’s a fascinating performance, and Casey Affleck is able to express so much feeling through his body language, without the aid of facial expressions or dialogue.  Much of the film unfolds quietly and wordlessly, carried by Daniel Hart’s ethereal music and soundscapes.

This approach makes a several minute monologue that is delivered by a party guest (Will Oldham) partway through the film stand out even more.  Lasting for several minutes, it’s an enthralling, moving and beautifully written extended scene that is powerfully performed by Will Oldham, touching on the immensity of the universe, how time passes us by and the legacies that we leave behind after death, both through our children and the art that we create.  This influx of dialogue after so many wordless scenes is almost startling, which allows the monologue to leave a lasting impact, giving voice to the themes that are being conveyed visually in the film.

This is a film that forces us to confront painful emotions, with an almost unbearable sadness to it that can be depressing, but it’s also a wholly unique work that, at its best, is able to powerfully convey the feeling of watching life go by.  This is an existential journey as much as it is an emotional one, that is carried by the lingering power of its simple but haunting images, and it’s hard to stop thinking about for days after watching it.

A Ghost Story is now available on iTunes, and was released on Blu-ray and DVD last week.

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Review: Loving Vincent

October 7, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

At the start of Loving Vincent, a title card tells us that we are about to see the first ever fully hand painted feature film, crafted by a team of a hundred dedicated artists, many of whom spent years working on the film.

The result is an astonishing artistic achievement, an animated film that has the appearance of a living, breathing oil painting and pays tribute to the distinctive style of Vincent Van Gogh, with characters and landscapes modelled after his classic works.

The story takes place a year after the suicide of Vincent Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk), and follows Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of a postman (Chris O’Dowd), who is tasked with delivering a lost letter that the Dutch artist had written to his brother Theo.

When Armand discovers that Theo has also died, he journeys to Auvers-sur-Oise in France, where Vincent spent his final months as he struggled with mental illness, in hopes of delivering the letter to his psychiatrist Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn).  While there, Armand comes into contact with people who encountered Vincent and all have stories to tell, including Gachet’s groundskeeper (Helen McRory) and his young adult daughter (Saoirse Ronan), an innkeeper (Eleanor Tomlinson) at the place where he stayed, and a man (Aidan Turner) who lent him a boat, leaving him struggling to piece together why the artist would suddenly take his own life.

The film is made up of a whopping 65,000 oil paintings, all done by hand, with twelve per second to give the illusion of motion.  We see slight imperfections and the changes in brush strokes between the frames, which really gives the images the feeling of coming alive.  They appear to breathe.  The film was first shot with the actors, and these scenes were projected onto the work surfaces, so the painters could use them as a guide.  They used oil paints, which take longer to dry, so that the parts of the image being animated could constantly be wiped away and repainted.  At the end of the film, they were left with a thousand finished paintings.

This is a remarkable undertaking by any account, and the rich colour palates and impressionistic style of the film are complimented by some gorgeously done black and white flashbacks that embrace a haunting and more photorealistic style.  Although the story itself follows a pretty standard biopic approach, and can feel a bit slow moving, the real reason to see Loving Vincent is for the visuals.  This is surely one of the most ambitious animated films you are going to see, and it offers a spectacular feast for the eyes.

Loving Vincent is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Review: School Life

October 6, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

John and Amanda Leyden are an older married couple who have spent over forty years working together and teaching students at the Headfort School, the last remaining preparatory boarding school in Ireland for elementary school kids aged 7 to 13.

John and Amanda are the subjects of School Life, an engaging fly on the wall documentary from co-directors Neasa Ní Bguanáin and David Rane that takes us into the classrooms, school halls and dormitories to show the lives of a group of students over their last year at Headfort.

The school itself was converted from a gorgeous old mansion that is tucked away in the rolling hills of County Meath, and it provides a wondrous playground for the kids to come of age in.  We follow the students as John helps them rehearse for their rock band, and as Amanda instills in them a love of reading and prepares them for the school play, seeing firsthand how these activities help them overcome struggles with shyness and self-esteem in an environment where everyone is given equal opportunity.  The school acts “In Loco Parentis,” with the teachers not only helping their students in the classrooms, but also guiding them along in other areas of their young lives, with many of them being far away from their parents.

While they do focus on teaching the required curriculum, the school also gives the kids a healthy amount of freedom, allowing them to help set the path for their own education and generally just be kids, giving them free reign to hang out with each other and play around on the vast forest property surrounding the school.  The film is engaging in the little moments that reveal how well the non-denominational school is doing to help shape these young minds, like a surprisingly nuanced classroom discussion about gay marriage, which was undergoing a referendum in Ireland at the time.

The film falls into a rhythm of showing the lives of the students and their daily routines at the school, with the camera never interfering in the action and merely just observing things as they happen.  The results are charming and engaging to watch, showing a group of students who are allowed to blossom through learning, and the inspiring teachers who are helping guide them.

School Life is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Review: Unarmed Verses

October 6, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Francine is a young black girl living in North York’s Villaways neighbourhood.  But the affordable housing units where she lives with her father, grandmother and two autistic brothers are facing a forced revitalization project set forth by the city, meaning that the residents will have to leave their homes as the buildings are knocked down and redeveloped into condos.

While struggling with having her entire life upheaved at the hands of the city, Francine finds an outlet for her self-expression through an afternoon arts program.  The students are encouraged to write poetry, and given an opportunity to set their words to music and have their songs recorded in a professional studio.  It’s here that the kids from this disadvantaged neighbourhood are allowed to explore themselves and come into their own.

Filmmaker Charles Officer follows these subjects with an artistic and observational eye in Unarmed Verses, which took home the Best Canadian Documentary prize at Hot Docs.  This is an important work for the way that it shines a spotlight on poverty here in Toronto, showing how these populations are largely kept out of the public eye.  The film questions whether the affordable housing units are truly being redeveloped for the inhabitants, or to make them more visually appealing to the richer neighbours around them.  The condo spaces are also being assigned through a lottery system, which means there is no guarantee that the original families will even be able to move back into the new buildings, leading to charged encounters with indifferent city councillors.

At the centre of it all is Francine, who makes for a bright and engaging subject who puts a human face on these struggles.  Francine is thoughtful and sensitive tweenager and an avid reader who has a knack for interpreting literary works, and when we first meet her in the film, she is gracefully evaluating the work of Edgar Allen Poe.  The moments in the recording studio are equally compelling, as Francine struggles to find the courage to overcome her stage fright over singing out loud, and there is some major rap talent on display as the students spout rhymes that poetically reveal their life experiences.

The film offers a compelling study of race, class and the increasing gentrification of poor areas in major cities, and Unarmed Verses is filled with vérité moments that won’t soon be forgotten.  It’s moving and also inspiring to watch these teens sort themselves out and come into their own through the artistic process, and the film is equally powerful for the way it puts a distinctly human face on the affordable housing crisis, offering a compelling glimpse into a side of this city that we too rarely see.

Unarmed Verses is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review originally appeared during the 2017 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

October 3, 2017

By John Corrado

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is a young sailor whose father Will (Orlando Bloom) is doomed to a life underseas on the Flying Dutchman.  The Trident of Poseidon is the only thing that can break his curse, and Henry’s best hope of finding it is to be guided by the generally inebriated Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), but they also have to contend with the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).

The fifth film in Disney’s blockbuster franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a decent entry into the series.  Although this is by no means the best of these films – that distinction falls upon the first one – it still ranks as a pretty good sequel that is fairly entertaining to watch, thanks to some cool special effects and a couple of solid set pieces.  You can read our three views of the film right here.

The Blu-ray also includes several short deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and a photo diary of pictures that Jerry Bruckheimer took on set, as well as the seven-part “behind the scenes” feature Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Making of a New Adventure, which is made up of the featurettes A Return to the Sea, Telling Tales: A Sit-Down With Brenton & Kaya, The Matador & The Bull: Secrets of Salazar and the Silent Mary, First Mate Confidential, Deconstructing the Ghost Sharks, Wings Over the Caribbean and An Enduring Legacy.  It’s a fine selection of bonus material, and the Blu-ray is worth getting for fans who have the other films and want to complete their collections.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 129 minutes and rated PG.

Review: It

September 30, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Stephen King’s 1986 novel It is a mammoth text that has become a definitive classic of the horror genre, following a group of friends in the small town of Derry, Maine who have to band together to defeat a terrifying demonic figure who takes the form of a clown named Pennywise.

The book was turned into a two-part miniseries in 1990, with Tim Curry delivering an iconic performance as the killer clown.  Now It has gotten a proper big screen adaptation, and the wait was well worth it.  This is a film that’s just as scary, intense, entertaining and surprisingly emotional as you want it to be, offering a non-stop thrill ride that is a total blast to watch.

The film opens with Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) making a newspaper boat for his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott).  When Georgie floats the boat down a puddle in a rainstorm and it ends up going down a sewer, the menacing face of the shape-shifting Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) pops up offering him a red balloon, and the young boy gruesomely meets his fate.  Cut to a few months later, and Bill is still grieving the loss of his little brother, insistent that he is only missing since no body was ever found.

When more kids go missing and strange things start happening around town, Bill enlists the help of his friends – the wisecracking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard); nervous germophobe Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); nerdy rabbi’s son Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff); chubby new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor); lone female Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis); and butcher’s helper Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who has a fascination with the town’s dark history – to get to the bottom of things.  The kids are outcasts who all face threats from a gang of bullies led by the psychopathic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and they band together to form the Losers Club, determined to stand up to their fears and take down Pennywise, who emerges from the sewers every 27 years to wreak havoc on their town.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, and produced by his sister Barbara Muschietti – the same team behind the underrated 2013 horror film Mama – It is an adaptation that does justice to the source material, while also delivering a thrilling and wildly entertaining horror movie that stands on its own.  The production design is across the board excellent, nailing the look and feel of the 1980s, mainly utilizing locations in Toronto and Oshawa.  Tinged with autumn colours and utilizing low-angles, Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography recalls the Steven Spielberg classics from the decade in which the film is set, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s atmospheric musical score ups the tension at every turn.

The film earns its R rating and doesn’t shy away from grotesque images or bloody violence, but I’m also willing to bet that It will be a defining film for this generation of teens who are looking to get scared in all the best ways.  The film recalls elements of earlier Stephen King works, and instantly cements itself in the upper echelons of his film adaptations.  There are some changes that have been made from his novel, mainly updating the setting from 1959 to 1989, and foregoing the book’s crisscrossing narrative to only focus on the childhood portions of the story, with the adult side set to be portrayed in the upcoming It: Chapter Two.  But the film remains fundamentally true to the spirit of his work, offering a dark and chilling tale that works precisely because of the fact that it’s grounded around its characters.

The young cast does a great of filling out their roles, having amusing banter between them and playing off each other extremely well, while also delivering their own dramatic arcs.  Jaeden Lieberher continues to prove himself as one of our best child actors with a completely natural screen presence, and Sophia Lillis emerges like a breakout star, with the perfect mix of confidence and vulnerability.  Finn Wolfhard, who is easily recognizable from the stylistically similar Stranger Things, steals every scene and gets most of the best lines, delivering crude zingers with aplomb.  While he has some pretty big clown shoes to fill, Bill Skarsgård absolutely makes the role of Pennywise his own, disappearing behind the makeup and wig to deliver a menacing performance that carries with it an unpredictable energy.

Pennywise is a menacing figure, a monstrous being that feeds on fear and is able to attracts its victims by preying on their weakest points.  But equally terrifying are the bullies and abusive parents that the kids have to confront, and the clown becomes a physical representation of their collective fears, that they can only battle when banded together.  The film taps into something universal about the fear of being an adolescent, trapped somewhere between childhood and adulthood, when you’re just starting to see the world for what it is and learning how to navigate it on your own, but you’re also somewhat paralyzed from doing anything about it.

Fear is a powerful thing, and It is precisely so effective because it explores this emotion in all its many forms.  Fear of growing up, fear of being bullied or abused, and fear of being killed by the monster who lives in the sewers.  This is why It works so well, not only offering a terrifying monster movie but also an affecting coming of age tale, almost like Stand By Me crossed with a killer clown.  The film plays like a relentless haunted house, breathlessly offering jump scares and an assortment of various terrors that chase the kids, but it’s the relatable character drama that keeps us equally gripped.

Review: Do Donkeys Act?

September 29, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmed over five years at four different donkey sanctuaries in the UK, Ireland, New York State and Guelph, Ontario, Do Donkeys Act? is an experimental art documentary that offers a quiet yet often profound exploration of animal sentience, guided along by Willem Dafoe’s poetic narration.

These sanctuaries provide refuge for donkeys that have been abused or abandoned, and Do Donkeys Act? takes us into their world.  The patient and observant footage that has been captured by filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin helps us to view them with both compassion and emotional clarity, while allowing us to contemplate the human-animal bond.

We see the interactions that the donkeys have with each other as they eat, sleep and roam around, communicating through a language of whinnies and brays that carry their own complex set of rhythms and mannerisms, despite being unintelligible to us.  The humans that we see in the film, who range from sanctuary staff to veterinarians, aren’t interviewed and almost never speak, keeping the focus on the animals and the wordless interactions they have with the people caring for them.

The film mesmerizes not only by exploring fundamental questions of the emotion, intelligence and sentience of animals, but also with its beautifully composed images and scenes that find their own rhythm by stretching on for minutes at a time.  The result is a film that plays like a nature documentary by way of Werner Herzog, while still delivering its own unique viewing experience.  What really makes the film stand out is Willem Dafoe’s droll and existentially inquisitive narration, poetically giving voice to the thoughts that we might have watching these images.

The narration is sometimes playful – “pleasurable palettes stimulate dancing ears,” his voice intones over an oddly captivating long shot of donkeys eating in unison from their freshly filled troughs – and quite often profound.  Animal life is described as “an innate choreography” as we watch a young foal be born into the world, still attached to the mother by an umbilical chord, and struggling to stand up for the first time.  It’s in moments like these, coupled with the changing seasons that provide the backdrop of the film’s deceptively simple narrative, that Do Donkeys Act? reveals itself to be about nothing less than the circle of life, and the bonds that tie all living creatures together.

The film somewhat playfully asks if donkeys act, but it’s really a look at the rhythms of their lives and, yes, even their humanity.  This is a gorgeously filmed and thought provoking study of sentience, allowing us to look deeper into the eyes of these “beasts of burden” and see the life staring back at us, as Willem Dafoe’s narration enhances and never overshadows what we see.  And what we see is that these donkeys – who are always present for the camera regardless of whether or not they are fully aware of it – are alive, and fully capable of feeling both pain and contentment.

Do Donkeys Act? is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Blu-ray 3D Review: Transformers: The Last Knight

September 27, 2017

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The fifth film in Michael Bay’s blockbuster franchise that started a decade ago, Transformers: The Last Knight finds our world facing a devastating war between Autobots and Decepticons.  Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has been made to turn against his human allies, determined to save his home planet Cybertron, even at the expense of Earth.

When struggling inventor and junk yard scavenger Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is bestowed with an artifact that links him to a prophecy dating back to the Dark Ages, he has to work with young professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) and old historian Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) to save the planet from destruction at the hands of the Decepticons.

This is a series where every subsequent entry has neither delivered the same dumb fun as the first film, nor been as bad as the trainwreck that was the second.  So continuing in this pattern, Transformers: The Last Knight brings nothing new the series, with another muddled and convoluted plot that serves merely as a backdrop for the clanging metal set pieces, yet it also delivers exactly what any remaining fans of this series would want.  There are some fun moments and cool visuals here, and the 3D presentation is solid, still offering a bright enough image and making the action pop a little more.  If you’re going to watch it, this is probably the way to go.

Everything about this film is the very definition of mediocre and mindless, clearly crafted by a talented team of visual effects artists, but not offering much of anything substantial beyond that, and running way longer than it needs to.  If you are a fan of the series, Transformers: The Last Knight offers more of the same, and if you hate these films, then I doubt this is going to be the one to convert you.  It’s that simple, but still mildly worth a look on Blu-ray if all you want is some 3D eye candy.

The 3D Blu-ray set also includes a whole extra disc of bonus material, including the featurettes Merging Mythologies, Climbing the Ranks, The Royal Treatment: Transformers in the UK, Motors and Magic, Alien Landscape: Cybertron and One More Giant Effin’ Movie.

Transformers: The Last Knight is a Paramount release.  It’s 154 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

September 26, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) is a science journalist who becomes fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a Baltimore woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, and had her cells harvested while she was being treated at Johns Hopkins.  Known as Hela, her cells were used for groundbreaking biomedical research, helping pave the way for the polio vaccine, AIDS medication and cancer treatments.

But Henrietta’s cells were taken without her permission, something that her children still struggle to accept.  First reaching out to Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey), Rebecca gets to know her family, determined to tell the story of the woman that few people knew behind the cells that had become famous.

Based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book of the same name, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an engaging and well acted HBO production that does a fine job of recounting this true story that raises some fascinating ethical questions.  The film’s emotional arc comes from watching Henrietta’s children come to realize how many millions of people have been helped by their mother’s cells, while also coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t consent to having her cells used for research, and their family was never financially compensated.

The story itself is by turns devastating, infuriating and inspiring, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is carried by good performances from its cast.  Rose Byrne does fine work here, flexing more of her dramatic muscle after making a name for herself in many comedies.  But the standout of the film is Oprah Winfrey, who commands the screen, giving a phenomenal performance as a woman determined to bring her late mother’s legacy to light, while also struggling with mental breakdowns.  The instantly notable jazz score by Brantford Marsalis is another high point of the film.

The narrative can feel a bit rushed at times, relying on a few too many flashbacks, and the film does have a bit of that limited “Made for TV” look.  But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks more than makes up for this by the purely compelling nature of the story it is telling.  This is an emotionally affecting drama that recounts a fascinating true story wrought with moral dilemmas, and it provides a powerful reminder that Oprah Winfrey is the real deal in terms of acting.

The Blu-ray also includes the two short bonuses Family Featurette and Filming in Georgia.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an HBO release.  It’s 92 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Stronger

September 22, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Adapted from his memoir of the same name, Stronger recounts the true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was standing near the finish line at the Boston Marathon in 2013 to cheer for his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslaney), when two terrorists set off a homemade pressure cooker bomb.

Jeff lost both his legs in the explosion, and came to be celebrated as a hero by people around the world, after the photo of him being helped by a man wearing a cowboy hat went viral, and he was able to aid in the investigation by identifying the bombers to police while in the hospital.

While the bombing itself and the gripping manhunt that ensued loom heavy over this story, and are shown in the background mainly on television screens, Stronger largely focuses on Jeff’s internal struggle with being hailed as a hero merely for surviving the worst event of his life.  Although his downtrodden mother (Miranda Richardson), whom he still lives with, and the rest of his working class family encourage him to capitalize on the newfound fame, Jeff finds himself struggling to adapt to his new life and patch up his relationship with Erin, having to reconcile himself to the fact that he was only at the finish line to cheer her on.

Directed by David Gordon Green, making a departure from both his early indies and his later studio comedies, Stronger is a true story character drama done right, and the film is elevated every step of the way by its great cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives an absolute powerhouse performance here, whether in moments when he is trying with quiet desperation to do things for himself like use the toilet and take a bath, or the scenes where he completely breaks down.  The camera lingers on the expressiveness of his face, and he is able to say so much through a hint of sadness in his eyes or a slight quiver of his jaw.

It’s a performance as courageous as it is devastating, and Jake Gyllenhaal throws himself into the intense physical demands of the role, serving to further cement him as one of the greatest actors of this generation.  Tatiana Maslaney also does excellent work, showing quiet strength as the on-again-off-again girlfriend who has to balance caring for Jeff with looking after her own emotional and physical wellbeing.  The last act builds with scene after scene of quietly gutting moments, before ending on an inspiring and bittersweet note, making Stronger a moving drama that sticks with us.

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

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