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Blu-ray Review: Fist Fight

May 30, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

It’s the last day of classes at an underfunded American high school, and tensions are on the rise amongst the teachers, with the students pulling increasingly extreme pranks, and the board threatening imminent downsizing across all departments.

But when mild mannered English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) accidentally causes tough as nails history teacher Strickland (Ice Cube) to lose his job, Strickland challenges him to a fist fight after school.  The news of the #TeacherFight spreads like wildfire on social media, as Andy goes to extreme heights in his attempts to avoid the beating, while also learning how to stand up for himself.

This is the basic plot behind Fist Fight, a quick moving and surprisingly pretty entertaining comedy, that makes the most of a relatively brief running time as at it builds concisely and efficiently towards the climactic brawl that is hinted at in the title.  Not to oversell it, but it’s helped by the fact that it follows a streamlined and fairly engaging narrative that provides a clear character progression from beginning to end, with nary a wasted scene and many gags that build upon themselves and work in favour of the larger story.

The film is also enlivened by its fine comic cast, including solid leading turns from Charlie Day and Ice Cube, as well as amusing supporting roles for Jillian Bell as a messed up guidance counsellor, Tracy Morgan as a football coach and Kumail Nanjiani as a security guard.  For a raunchy and off the wall comedy that becomes a weirdly timely look at the need for better funding in public schools, Fist Fight is a pretty enjoyable diversion that has enough laughs to make it mildly worth seeing.

The Blu-ray also includes deleted scenes as well as a featurette on filming in Atlanta, Georgia.

Fist Fight is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release.  It’s 91 minutes and rated 14A.

Three Views: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The fifth entry in the blockbuster series, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a sequel that has the distinction of being both not as good as the still-best first film The Curse of the Black Pearl, while also being a big step up from the franchise’s purely forgettable previous instalment On Stranger Tides.

Steered along by co-directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning, who are new to the series but do a fine job of matching its tone, Dead Men Tell No Tales falls somewhere in the middle of the franchise.  It’s by no means the best of the films, but it 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.

The hero of this film is Henry (Brenton Thwaites), a young sailor who happens to be the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley).  With his father doomed to a life underseas on the Flying Dutchman, Henry is determined to find the Trident of Poseidon, which is the only thing that can break the curse, and his best hope of getting there is to be guided by the generally inebriated Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

The villain is the spooky and undead pirate Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who has been released from the Devil’s Triangle with his ghostly crew in tow and seeks vengeance on Captain Jack, killing everyone aboard Henry’s ship but sparing his life in hopes that he can lead him to his rival.  Henry and Jack also find themselves teaming up with Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario), a young female astronomer who escapes charges of being a witch, mainly because it was unheard of for a woman to practise science at the time, and seeks Jack’s compass to help her get to the Trident.  Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is also back sailing the high seas this time around, switching allegiances along the way.

When The Curse of the Black Pearl came out in 2003, helmed by horror filmmaker Gore Verbinski, it instantly became a surprise hit.  The film almost felt like a revelation in terms of how genuinely fresh and entertaining it was, especially for a movie based on a theme park ride.  Gore Verbinski followed it up with the somewhat bloated but still fun sequels Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End in 2006 and ’07, which explored more of the mythology while staging increasingly larger scale action sequences.  Even if it isn’t quite as entertaining or textured as those films, Dead Men Tell No Tales fittingly provides much more of a proper follow up to them, while smartly ignoring the events of Rob Marshall’s lacklustre 2011 franchise extension On Stranger Tides, which served as more a spinoff than anything else.

This film still feels a bit long, despite being the shortest in the series at 129 minutes, and the climactic action does get a little convoluted and hard to follow.  Johnny Depp also doesn’t really bring anything overly new to his character here, which could be seen as both a blessing and a curse.  Although he is still mostly amusing to watch, it can feel like he is now more coasting by in the role of Jack Sparrow, mainly because his Oscar-nominated performance in the first film remains such a tough act to top.  This leaves plenty of room for series newcomers Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario and Javier Bardem, as well as franchise regular Geoffrey Rush, to carry much of the film, and they all do a fine job of it.

The film looks great, with the visuals of Salazar and his ghostly crew being effectively creepy, and there are some solid action sequences especially in the first half.  Some of the best set-pieces are the ones that embrace their own outlandishness, like an over the top bank heist early on that is very well staged and quite fun to watch, and a bit involving a spinning guillotine.  When all is said and done, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is entertaining enough to pass the time for fans of the series.  Don’t go expecting the thrilling highs of the first instalment, but it’s still a decent and fairly fun follow up to the original trilogy, that has enough enjoyable moments to make it worth a look.

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Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Blockbusters nowadays seem to have endless sequels, creating franchise hits that do well with a predetermined fan base coming in.  Even years apart, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has a new instalment – the fifth one in the series that started way back in 2004.  The fourth film from a few years back strayed from the storyline of the first three, and really is not needed to understand the fifth film.  It is the third film that should be watched beforehand, and in particular the scene over the end credits.

Dead Men Tell No Tales takes place about a decade after the end of the third film, and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann’s (Keira Knightley) son has grown up and is trying to break his father’s curse and free him from being captain of The Flying Dutchman.  (Those who didn’t see the end credits scene on three are likely confused already.)  Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is a determined young man who is in a shipwreck caused by a ship of dead pirate hunters, where the ghost captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) lets him live if he will deliver a message to Jack Sparrow for him – that Salazar wants Jack dead.

Henry has his own reasons to find Jack as well though, as he believes that Jack’s compass can help him find the Trident of Poseidon – the only thing that can break every curse in the sea (including his father’s).  Young Turner also teams up with an astronomer named Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) who is about to be hanged, as people believe her to be a witch because of her knowledge of the stars.  She in turn has her own goals relating to a father she never knew, following a star map left by him in a diary.  Of course it is this map that Turner needs as well, as it will lead them both to the Trident.

It wouldn’t really be a Pirates of the Caribbean film without Captain Jack Sparrow, and he is back as well, with his compass a key to finding what they need, and his connection to Salazar a threat to them all.  Reintroduced in a bank theft set piece, Johnny Depp provides the same characterization that made the franchise such a huge hit in the first place.

Quickly on the technical side of things, the score mixes a lot of elements from the first films, as the music of PotC became iconic in its recognizability.  It works well here, although it is almost distracting how familiar it sounds, despite – or perhaps because – I like the score so much.  The visual effects are quite well done, and are fun to watch on the big screen, which is what we hope for in a blockbuster that we are going to pay a premium to go watch in a theatre.

Overall, Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining blockbuster that shows that the Pirates series still has some life left in it.  After the fourth one, the franchise seemed a little stale, but thankfully this one brings us back closer to what really worked about the first ones.  If you can, watch 1, 2, and 3 beforehand, (seeing 4 is fairly unneeded for the plot of the 5th one), and enjoy another trip to the world of Pirates.

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Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review By Tony Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the fifth film in the Disney/Bruckheimer franchise based on the theme park ride, directed by the Danish team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Though shot digitally in Australia and the shortest Pirates film at just under two hours before credits, it has the highest budget so far at over $350M, mainly due to huge practical effects and “talent” demands. The “dead men” line heard in the ride itself refers to the ghost pirate Salazar (Javier Bardem) who spares one person to relate their experience from each ship he plunders. Outside the U.S. and Canada, most other countries (except Portugal and Serbia) use the alternate subtitle: Salazar’s Revenge.

The plot revolves around a search for Neptune’s trident who’s possessor will rule the seas. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) seeks it to free his father Will (Orlando Bloom) from the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), condemned as a witch for her skills in science, was given a book which with her knowledge of astronomy can lead to the trident’s location. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has fallen on hard times once again and his crew is losing faith in him. By pawning his compass for a drink, Jack accidentally releases Salazar’s ship from the Devil’s triangle into which he had led it long ago, and Salazar is out for revenge. Teaming up to find the trident, Jack, Will and Carina must keep both Salazar and the whole British fleet at bay, with the pirate captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) also getting into the action.

Though I now find Depp’s staggering portrayal a bit tiresome, there are enough witty bits and really impressive action scenes to make POTC5 a worthy addition to the series.

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Consensus: Although it doesn’t reach the highs of the first one, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales improves upon the franchise’s previous instalment to offer a fairly entertaining ride, buoyed by some solid action and special effects. ★★★ (out of 4)

Review: Vancouver: No Fixed Address

May 19, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Vancouver housing market has gotten so out of reach that the majority of young people aren’t able to afford properties in the city, and many older retirees can no longer afford to live there.

Coupled with a boom in expensive condo developments that are exploiting the city for commercial interests, and wages that stay the same as housing prices go up, this bubble shows no signs of bursting.  The market has instead opened up to foreign buyers, mainly from China, who are buying up properties in the city as a sort of investment.

These are just some of the complex issues that director Charles Wilkinson, who focused on a different side of British Columbia life in his excellent 2015 film Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World, explores in the informative Vancouver: No Fixed Address.

Through interviews with a variety of subjects ranging from activist and longtime Vancouverite David Suzuki, to real estate agents and the people who have been hit hardest by the stagnant market, the film addresses these problems head on, even though answers or workable solutions still seem frustratingly elusive.  Although the talking head interviews can get a little dry, the film is at its most effective when putting a human face on the housing crisis, and the gross inequality it has left in its wake.

The film works best in moments when we are introduced to individual subjects, including a man who sold his family home after several decades because the money he was offered was too good to pass up, a retired cinema manager who now lives in his Chevy van because he could no longer afford his place on a pension, as well as the young people who are finding their own innovative solutions through building tiny houses and setting up communal living arrangements.  Throughout the film, we see people living on the streets, under the shadow of the looming high rises that are choking out the city.

At 74 minutes, Vancouver: No Fixed Address is an interesting film that provides a thought provoking and informative overview of the city’s housing crisis, while hinting at bigger themes of needing to find more sustainable housing solutions for the sake of the environment, and offering some unsettling allusions to how similar issues are on the rise right here in Toronto.

Vancouver: No Fixed Address opens today in limited release at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Blu-ray Review: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

May 16, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

When Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is taken down, and a satellite-controlling device known as Pandora’s Box is stolen by a rebel group led by Xiang (Donnie Yen), extreme athlete turned special agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is called back into action to work for the government.

Refusing to work with other soldiers, Xander assembles his own team of young thrill seekers to help him out, including sharp shooter Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), martial artist Nicks Zhou (Kris Wu), getaway driver Tennyson (Rory McCann), and gadgets expert Becky Clearidge (Nina Dobrev).

Following the 2002 franchise starter xXx, and the 2005 sequel xXx: State of the Union starring Ice Cube, xXx: Return of Xander Cage delivers pretty much exactly what you expect, which turns out to be a good thing.  The film harkens back to the more lighthearted action movies of the 1990s and early 2000s, to offer a solidly entertaining mix of stunt work, hand to hand combat, car chases and shootouts, along with a healthy dose of tongue in cheek humour to let us know that we shouldn’t be taking any of it too seriously.

The one-liners are often amusing, the diverse cast of both old and new players has good chemistry together, and the action scenes are well staged and a lot of fun to watch.  So if you’re in the mood for an unpretentious and fast moving action film that embraces its own outlandishness and aims merely to entertain, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is an enjoyable ride.

The Blu-ray also includes the four production featurettes Third Time’s the Charm: Xander Returns, Rebels, Tyrants & Ghosts: The Cast, Opening Pandora’s Box: On Location and I Live for This Sh#t!: Stunts, as well as a short gag reel.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a Paramount release.  It’s 106 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Mom & Me

May 12, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

With radio host Joe Cristiano telling stories on air about his own mother and asking other men to call in as the narrative through line, Mom & Me offers an exploration of the bonds between tough guys and their mothers in Oklahoma, which is said to be the “manliest state.”

Some of the many subjects include a young man who has spina bifida and gets support from his mother who is still young in her seventies, an army veteran trying to teach his mom how to shoot for her own protection, a man coming to terms with his mom being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and a recovering drug addict who is in prison.

Although the film doesn’t necessarily reach a deeper epiphany as a whole, and the narrative can feel like a bit of a tapestry, Mom & Me works because of its little moments and is often emotionally affecting.  The stories are frequently sweet and also sometimes quite moving, including the heartbreaking tale of man who plays chess with his frail mother every night, having to communicate through a pen and paper because she is so hard of hearing.

Kept short and sweet at just 76 minutes, this is an enjoyable look at the often complex love between these guys and their mothers, that is as much about the men as it is about the strong women who brought them up.  Arriving just in time for Mother’s Day this weekend, Mom & Me is worth seeing, as it offers some pretty wonderful moments along the way.

Mom & Me opens today in limited release at Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

Blu-ray Review: Saturday Night Fever: 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut

May 10, 2017

By John Corrado

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, director John Badham’s iconic 1977 classic Saturday Night Fever has now gotten a beautifully restored new Blu-ray edition, which includes both the theatrical version and the slightly longer director’s cut of the film.

Tony Manero (John Travolta) is a working class Italian-American teenager in Brooklyn, who works part time at a paint store during the week, and essentially lives for Saturday night when he can hang out with his buddies at the 2001 Odyssey disco club, and find what he sees as his rightful place as king of the dance floor.

The club provides an escape from Tony’s troubled home life, where his parents (Val Bisoglio and Julie Bovasso) see him as a sort of failure, especially compared to his older brother (Martin Shakar) who moved out and became a priest.  But when he starts falling for Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a career girl whom he is mentoring at the dance studio and has higher ambitions than any of his friends, Tony becomes torn between his life of drifting and the potential for a better future.

Even if you have never seen Saturday Night Fever, you are likely familiar with the often imitated opening scene where John Travolta struts down the street to “Stayin’ Alive,” which has itself become a ubiquitous musical cue in literally everything.  But this also means that the film’s reputation somewhat precedes it, and Saturday Night Fever is actually a darker and grittier movie than many people seem to remember or give it credit for.  Although some of the racist, sexist and homophobic comments would likely never make it into a studio picture now, these are precisely the same elements that make the film feel grounded and believable, allowing it to work as a warts and all encapsulation of its time.

The incredible dancing and unforgettable soundtrack are still a blast to watch, reenergizing disco when the fad was already reaching its natural end, but Saturday Night Fever remains equally compelling for its exploration of self-destructive masculinity.  The film provides both an entertaining time capsule of the disco era, and also a compelling portrait of restless young men who are on the brink and searching for something more, that captures the uncertainty and rebellion of the 1970s as a whole.  True to form for the decade, the characters walk around puffing their chests, with their tough guy attitudes juxtaposed by their flamboyant fashion choices of white suits, platform shoes, loud shirts and coiffed hair.

John Travolta carries the film in one of his best performances, not only featuring perhaps the most iconic dance scenes of his career, but also delving deep into the restlessness and simmering anger underneath his character.  The actor went on to receive an Oscar nomination for the role, elevating him into an even higher level of stardom that continued with Grease in 1978.  The film also revitalized the career of the Bee Gees, who provided the songs for the Grammy-winning soundtrack, which became one of the highest selling soundtracks of all time.

The film was so successful that it received a needlessly censored cut a year later so families could go see it, with more than a hundred changes having to be made to reduce the rating from R to PG, and much of the story’s integrity lost in the process.  The film also got the unnecessary and highly inferior sequel Staying Alive in 1983, which saw John Travolta reprise his role and was actually directed by Sylvester Stallone.  It also has the unique distinction of being at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.  But these curveballs to its legacy still haven’t curtailed the lasting impact of the original Saturday Night Fever.

The film is edgier than anything that would likely be put out now aimed at teenaged audiences, but the gritty realism that fuels the need for its characters search for a escapism is a big part of the film’s lasting resonance.  The film also explores themes of innocence lost, both in the casual sexual encounters which lead to some real consequences, and also in the poignant moments when Tony’s brother returns home and tells him that he is quitting the priesthood, much to the dismay of their parents.  He wants to reclaim his own life, not follow the path that his parents envisioned for him since he was young.

“Fuck the future,” Tony tells his boss (Sam Coppola) early in the film, to which the man responds “you can’t fuck the future, the future fucks you.  It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain’t planned for it.”  These lines stood out most to me when watching Saturday Night Fever again, a perfectly scripted dialogue exchange that crystallizes the story’s deeper themes.  The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which becomes the location of the shocking climax, offers a compelling visual metaphor in the film.  The bridge comes to symbolize a gateway out of their rough Brooklyn neighbourhood, if they can reach the point in their lives of actually being able to cross it.

Forty years later, Saturday Night Fever remains a cultural touchstone, a film that instantly calls to mind the era when it was released, but also still holds up as both an emotionally resonant character study of working class malaise and as an incredibly entertaining dance movie.  It’s the sort of film that perfectly meshes its iconic imagery and soundtrack with compellingly flawed characters, a work that continues to be rewarding regardless of whether you are revisiting it or seeing it for the first time.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary by John Badham, a pop-up trivia track, a deleted scene, the five part feature Catching the Fever, as well as the separate featurettes Back to Bay Ridge, which sees actor Joseph Cali revisiting the filming locations, and Dance Like Travolta With John Cassese, which offers a lesson in how to perform the film’s climactic dance, and the Fever Challenge! dance game.  These are the exact same bonus features transferred over from the 30th anniversary edition, so the main draw of this release really is the director’s cut, and the attractive new restoration.

Saturday Night Fever is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  The theatrical version is 118 minutes and the director’s cut is 122 minutes, both are rated R.

Blu-ray Review: Gold

May 9, 2017

By John Corrado

Loosely based on a true story, Gold follows Texas prospector Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) who is desperate for a big break and becomes convinced that he can strike gold in the jungles of Indonesia, teaming up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Remírez) to help him excavate and get their commodity on the stock market.

Although the film itself is somewhat flawed, Gold is still mildly worth seeing for Matthew McConaughey’s expectedly dedicated performance, moving through the scenes with a determined energy as he disappears behind his noticeable weight gain, balding head and fake teeth.  You can read my full review of the film right here.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary by director Stephen Gaghan, a pretty good five minute deleted sequence, as well as three featurettes.  First up is The Origins of Gold, focusing on the film’s lengthy road to production, The Locations of Gold touches on the challenges they faced shooting in the actual jungle, and Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells talks about the actor’s full-bodied transformation into the role.

Gold is an Elevation Pictures release.  It’s 120 minutes and rated 14A.

#HotDocs17: Final Batch of Reviews

May 8, 2017

By John Corrado

The 24th edition of Hot Docs has come to a close, and below are my thoughts on the final few films that I saw at the festival, including Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which took home the $50,000 Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary before an encore screening on Sunday, and was announced as the winner of the general Audience Award as well the next day.  Enjoy!

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World – ★★★★ (out of 4) Named for Link Wray’s highly influential guitar piece “Rumble,” the only instrumental song to be banned for radio play in the United States for fear that the driving chord progressions and percussion might start a riot, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World offers an extensive history of Native American contributions to music.  Touching on every genre from blues, folk, rock, heavy metal and pop, the film focuses on some of the many musicians with indigenous heritage, exploring how artists like influential 1920s blues guitarist Charley Patton initially tried to hide their native roots for fear that it would hinder their music from being played, before artists like Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson and Buffy Saint Marie, and more recently Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas, started to embrace their culture and raise awareness through music.  Directed by Catherine Bainbridge, following her exploration of how aboriginal people have been depicted on film in the 2009 documentary Reel InjunRumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is a compelling and emotionally resonant film that uses music as a way to explore the history of Indigenous culture as a whole, and how it has all too often been suppressed.  And the soundtrack is incredible.

Strad Style – ★★★½ (out of 4) When Daniel Houck, an eccentric violin obsessive living on a rural farm in Ohio, friends Romanian violinist Razvan Stoica on Facebook, he impulsively agrees to make him an exact replica of Il Cannone, a violin that was made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1743 and was played by Niccoló Paganini.  Having never attempted something of this complexity before, Daniel finds himself on a tight deadline to complete the project, believing himself to be guided along by the old masters who he feels are watching over him as he handcrafts the instrument.  But with his somewhat scatterbrained nature, messy and crowded work environment, and his struggles with mental health issues, the odds are seemingly stacked against him to complete the instrument in time for a concert in Europe.  Director Stefan Avalos gains candid access to his subject throughout the process, and Strad Style is the sort of documentary that strikes the perfect balance between being amusing and inspiring.  It’s highly enjoyable to watch Daniel persevere through making the violin, obsessing over every little detail to make it just like the original, as the film builds perfectly towards the highly rewarding payoff.

My Enemy, My Brother – ★★½ (out of 4) Following her 2015 short film of the same name, director Ann Shin expands upon the stories of Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud in My Enemy, My Brother.  The film catches up with the two men, former adversaries from the Iran-Iraq war who first encountered each other in the Battle of Khorramshahr and happened to meet each other again by chance over two decades later in a Vancouver waiting room, as they try to sort through the pieces of the lives their old lives in the Middle East.  Najah left behind a wife and young son in Iraq when he was sent off to fight and is hopeful of being able to finally reunite with them, and Zahed wants to visit his dying father in Iran, but faces a hard time getting back into the country.  This story is a powerful one, but the film seems to have edited out some of the more interesting parts, including DNA tests and bankruptcy which happened during the three or four years of filming and the director brought up in the Q&A, in favour of a simpler narrative that focuses more on crowdpleasing moments rather than the multilayered story as a whole.  Parts of it are emotionally affective, but these subjects deserve a more interesting and nuanced movie.

A Better Man – ★★½ (out of 4) More than two decades after escaping her abusive boyfriend Steve, Attiya Khan sits down with him to start a conversation about their troubled relationship together, which lasted two years and started when they were still in high school, trying to find closure for this chapter of her life.  Through working with a therapist, Steve starts to confront the horrific and shocking violence that he inflicted upon her, and Attiya is able to regain a sense of power over Steve by being able to be in the same room as him, with him no longer posing a threat to her.  Although Steve appears to feel guilty over beating her, we also get the sense that he isn’t quite ready to open up about his own past and whether or not he had been abused as a child, at least not on camera.  Directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman, A Better Man is an often interesting film for the way that it offers a unique look at abusive relationships from both sides, questioning if rehabilitation or forgiveness is possible towards your attacker.  But with the challenging content on display, and the film’s limited production values which essentially confines much of the running time to watching people talk in medium closeups, A Better Man will likely play better and be easier to handle on TV.

Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press – ★★★ (out of 4) When Hulk Hogan sued the online celebrity tabloid Gawker for publishing his sex tape, the wrestling superstar won the case, forcing the website to pay over $140 million in damages and bankrupting them in the process.  Although his lawyers tried to make the case about the privacy rights of celebrities, trying to draw a line between the character of Hulk Hogan and the real man behind the persona, there were ultimately larger forces at play in terms of who benefitted the most from the final verdict.  Director Brian Knappenberger takes us through the case in Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press, exploring how the lawsuit threatened freedom of the press by setting a dangerous precedent, and came at a time in the political climate when distrust of the media was reaching a fever pitch, and becoming a staple of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  It’s fascinating to watch the filmmaker connect the dots from Hulk Hogan all the way to PayPal cofounder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who has a personal vendetta against Gawker.  The film uses the Hulk Hogan trial merely as the jumping off point to explore the real powers behind the case, and the result is a terrifying look at how billionaires are exercising their powers to essentially control the media and the corruption that is running deep through Silicon Valley.

Bring the Jews Home – ★★★ (out of 4) Koen Carlier is a Christian man from Belgium who believes that if he can convince all of the Jewish people of the world to return to Israel, than Jesus will return to the earth.  Travelling through Ukraine with a volunteer from his charity group Christians for Israel, he goes around to different villages to knock on doors, inquiring if there are any Jews there and passing out bags of food as incentive for them to join him.  Although many folks politely brush him aside, Koen seems completely dedicated to this absurd cause which he sees as a divine mission, and he actually has convinced some people to return to the Holy Land.  At just under an hour, Bring the Jews Home is an entertaining little film that provides an interesting look at an odd kind of religious fanaticism, and one man’s dogged dedication to his beliefs.

…when you look away – ★★ (out of 4) After her young daughter sleepily muses that she sometimes feels more like an animal, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo sets out to discover if this is actually possible, and the result is the mixed bag experimental film …when you look away.  She is determined not to follow a set path, instead letting the subjects come to her by chance, leading to interviews with a clairvoyant and a Buddhist monk among others.  For the first part of the film, which features interviews with a string theorist and explores what exactly consciousness is and if it’s possible to exist on different planes of reality simultaneously, I was willing to go along with it.  But then the film essentially becomes an infomercial for the Grander water revitalization unit, a curved metal device that is supposed to change the molecule shape of water or something like that and which a quick Google search afterwards reveals to be a complete sham, and …when you look away goes from being theoretical and turns into a whole lot of bunk pseudoscience.  And when the film’s initial question of whether or not it’s possible for her daughter to actually feel like an animal is resolved in the most obvious and banal way in the last few minutes of the film, it feels like we’ve been had.

#HotDocs17: Fourth Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: Third Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: Second Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: First Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: Fourth Batch of Reviews

May 7, 2017

By John Corrado

We have reached the last day of Hot Docs, and below are my thoughts on five films that I saw over the last few days of the festival.  Please come back tomorrow for my final set of reviews, and you can find more information through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Let There Be Light – ★★½ (out of 4) With the world’s dependence on fossil fuels needing to come to an end for the sake of the planet, a team of scientists see nuclear fusion technology as the next most viable energy source.  Reducing the amount of radioactive waste that is left over as a byproduct of the nuclear fission technology that is currently being used, fusion would essentially harness the same power as the sun, to offer a relatively clean and seemingly endless energy supply.  The only problem is that the complex machines needed to actually generate the energy haven’t been built yet, as they face limited budgets, waning interest from politicians and other technical glitches, which means that actually using it as a source of energy is still many years off.  We follow the team at ITER that is trying to build a version of the Soviet-designed tokamak machine in Southern France, which is the project that is most likely to actually work, as well as an independent scientist who is building his own device in a storage locker with parts from Home Depot, and the team of researchers who see the slightly differently designed stellarator reactor as a more viable option.  Purely as a film, Let There Be Light can feel a bit dry, but it’s still engaging enough to be worth seeing, offering an interesting introduction to the science behind nuclear fusion for those wanting to learn more about the subject.

The Road Forward – ★★★★ (out of 4) Through a mix of interviews with different Indigenous artists, period reenactments and musical sequences, The Road Forward uses the story of The Native Voice, an independent newspaper run by the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia in the 1940s, as a jumping off point to explore the larger history of aboriginal rights in Canada.  The film shows how bad things were under Pierre Trudeau nearly fifty years ago, and how they haven’t really gotten better now under his son, touching on the horrifying history of residential schools, the Constitution Express activist movement to protest restrictive government policy in 1980, the suppression of culture and language that still exists in the education system, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Right from the stunning opening song “Indian Man,” The Road Forward immediately cements itself as an excitingly unique hybrid of documentary and musical.  The result is a frequently stunning collage of the past and present colliding with bittersweet hope for the future, while also becoming a rousing tribute to the unifying power of music.  This is a powerful, thrilling and important film that every Canadian should see, especially as our country’s phony 150th birthday celebrations ramp up.

What Lies Upstream – ★★★ (out of 4) When the residents of Charleston, West Virginia had their drinking water contaminated by the chemical MCHM, which had leaked into the Elk River from a coal processing plant, filmmaker Cullen Hoback went with his camera to investigate, and he reveals his findings in What Lies Upstream.  What he found was a vast coverup involving water companies that are more concerned with making money than public health, with officials unable to provide definitive proof as to the safety of being exposed to MCHM in the water, not to mention the other chemicals leaching in that aren’t even being tested for.  These problems stretch from the state to federal levels and lead him all the way to Flint, Michigan, where the dangerously high levels of lead in the water were being kept from the residents, with the EPA and CDC having fallen so far under the sway of powerful lobbyists and special interest groups who have close ties to the chemical companies that they no longer have the best interests of people or the environment at heart.  The result is a terrifying real life political thriller, that not only shows how much worse things could potentially get under Donald Trump, but also how bad they already were under previous administrations, with the majority of regulations on water purification having been rolled back to the point that they are essentially meaningless.

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower – ★★★ (out of 4) When Hong Kong stopped being a British colony and was officially handed over to the Chinese government in 1997, citizens went from being free to suddenly being part of the communist regime, and an entire generation has grown up never knowing otherwise.  But the skinny and bespectacled teenager Joshua Wong is fearlessly standing up to the communist government, having founded the Scholarism movement in high school to protest forced national education, and staging a protest that saw thousands of other young people take to the streets to join him.  This gave way to the Umbrella Revolution demanding suffrage in Hong Kong, which saw the fight for democracy and the freedom to elect their own governments reaching a fever pitch.  Joshua Wong has become the unlikely face of this cause by suggesting clear solutions to complex problems, and attracting other high schoolers to the movement because of his young age.  Fast moving and informative at just 78 minutes, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is an engaging introduction to these issues, that provides an inspiring look at a teenager taking charge and making a difference.

78/52 – ★★★★ (out of 4) The first feature film ever made about a single scene, 78/52 offers a deep dive into the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a sequence so iconic that it has almost gone beyond the film itself to take on a life of its own.  Director Alexandre O. Philippe has assembled a group of filmmakers, historians, actors and editors, as well as Janet Leigh’s body double, to dissect the scene frame by frame, discussing the amount of symbolism behind every single choice, from the composition of the images to the way that are edited together.  They talk about how the scene is further elevated by Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable shrieking score, and somehow the stabbing sound effects become even more disturbing when we see how they were done using a melon and a slab of steak.  The shower scene is so effective precisely because it broke all the rules, not only blasting through social taboos of the time to lay the groundwork for how violence is depicted and sexulized in the horror genre, but also revolutinizing the filmmaking craft as a whole because of how it was assembled through a series of quick cuts.  The scene also shocked audiences for killing off the main character so early in the film, which was exactly the effect that Alfred Hitchcock wanted, having become largely accepted in America at the time, and looking for new ways to make audiences feel uneasy.  With the interviews done in black and white, and some new exterior footage shot on the Universal soundstage that fits in seamlessly with the images from Psycho, 78/52 reverberates with passion for the filmmaking craft.  It’s an incredible documentary that goes far beyond just being an essay film, not only allowing us to delve deep into perhaps the most famous scene in all of cinema and one of the greatest films of all time, but also becoming a thrilling and beautifully crafted experience in its own right.  I found it utterly enthralling to watch.

Three Views: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

When we first catch up with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, they are getting ready to slay a giant tentacled space monster.

And just like that, Marvel’s ragtag team of cosmic heroes is back in action, playfully trash talking with each other as they find ways to work together, and once again grooving to the same beat.  This is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a sequel that is tons of fun and also surprisingly moving, as it satisfyingly builds upon these now beloved characters in ways that are sure to please fans.  It’s not quite as good as the original, but I still liked it quite a bit.

When the Sovereigns, a race of golden aliens, call upon the Guardians to thank them for their service in slaying the beast, Rocket steals some batteries from them just for the hell of it, and they end up on the run as fugitives.  A mysterious being known as Ego (Kurt Russell) helps rescue them from a spaceship attack, and as it turns out, Ego is Peter Quill’s actual father who is suddenly looking to reconnect with him.  When Yondu (Michael Rooker), who raised Peter after he was abandoned as a child, finds out that Ego has returned, he fears there are ulterior motives behind his reappearance and is determined to get to rescue him, leading to mutiny from his team of Ravagers.

The first film felt a bit tighter and obviously benefitted from the freshness of meeting the team for the first time, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 can feel a bit bloated in terms of the amount of story strands it fits in.  But this sequel works by giving us more of the same humour, heart and pitch perfect music cues, while also delving even deeper into the backstories of its characters.  Director James Gunn appears to be once again having a blast behind the camera, bringing his unfettered imagination to the screen, and the film features plenty of thrilling set pieces and whiz bang special effects, including some more psychedelic moments of visual wonder.  But the film is equally enjoyable in its little character moments, and the filmmaker clearly harbours great affection for these unique heroes.

Much of the story revolves around the reappearance of Ego, and the relationship that he has with Peter Quill, and how this tests his allegiances to the team.  The tension between Gamora and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is also further explored, and the new characters, like Ego’s travelling companion Mantis (Pam Klementieff), who can read feelings and forms a connection with Drax, are nicely woven into the central group.  Yondu, who spends much of the film teamed up with Rocket and Baby Groot, also gets a complete story arc that is beautifully handled here.  Baby Groot is an adorable scene stealer, and if you loved “I’m not a raccoon” Rocket the first time around, you are going to love him even more after watching him struggle to finally work through his emotional issues over being mistreated.

The core cast continues to have great chemistry together both in the comedic and dramatic scenes, led by another movie star turn by Chris Pratt.  I was once again incredibly impressed by Bradley Cooper’s voice work, and Michael Rooker in particular delivers a standout supporting performance that ranks as maybe his best work.  The film also works in a bit part for Sylvester Stallone, who we will hopefully see more of in future instalments, and a memorable onscreen role for Sean Gunn.  The soundtrack offers another nicely curated “Awesome Mix” of old school pop songs, and the film gets extra points in my book for its perfect usages of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” and Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son,” which plays beautifully over the film’s most moving sequence.

Replicating the first film’s successful combination of great characters, a sly sense of humour and a lot of heart, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sequel that delivers exactly what we want, building towards a genuinely emotional final scene.  And in the film’s best moments, like a brilliantly choreographed sequence that sees an entire ship of people being slaughtered with the same arrow to the tune of “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & the Americans, it becomes a piece of perfectly crafted pop entertainment that hums along as enjoyably as the songs on its killer soundtrack.  If you liked the first film, then odds are you will enjoy this one as well, and stick around for a grand total of five scenes during the credits, which amusingly tie up a few loose story strands.

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Mantis (Pam Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Ego (Kurt Russell) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back.  The Guardians have a unique feel outside of the other Marvel heroes – they are almost antiheroes in a way… rebels, outlaws, and criminals, who have banded together to protect the Galaxy that they live in.

While in the first film Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is drawn into saving the Galaxy after trying to steal an Infinity Stone, this time the threat of galactic destruction comes from a more personal place when Star-Lord meets his father who is a galactic force to be reckoned with in the form of the planet Ego (Kurt Russell).  While Star-Lord and his backstory is a central spine to the story, the other characters get a good portion of development as well, and in particular Rocket (Bradley Cooper) again provides voice to some of the feelings that have made them all antiheroes, hardened against rejection and trying to find their place in the family group they’ve become, despite being loners for most of their lives.

The special effects are well done, with the film keeping with the style from the first instalment.  The cast members are all well suited to their roles, and this is one of the things that really makes this series work so well.  And of course, once again we have an awesome mix of music on the soundtrack as Quill’s cassette tapes provide diegetic sound within the fight scenes, a touch that further cements the internal sense of the Guardians, a group that seeks out a good fight or challenge – and will listen to music while doing it.

While overall, the first film in my memory is slightly stronger, Guardians of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 is a fun summer blockbuster that stays true to its characters, expands on the first film, and puts the heroes in a much more personal fight for a change rather than a straight-up call to save the world.  Of course, the world is going to be put in danger and need to be saved due to their personal story and actions, but the setup provides a good character-driven fantasy-action film.

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Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review By Tony Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with Peter (Star-Lord) Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (motion captured by Sean Gunn, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Drax (Dave Bautista) fighting a monster as Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances to the first tune from Awesome Mix Vol. 2. As payment, their pompous golden employer Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) hands over Gamora’s hated sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) as a prisoner. They then have to fend off a remote control drone attack before finding themselves rescued and brought to the beautiful world created by Peter’s long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) who lives there with his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

Meanwhile, the blue-faced ravager (space pirate) Yondu (Michael Rooker) is denounced by the ravager leader (Sylvester Stallone) for having abducted the boy Peter from 1980s, Missouri and keeping him rather than delivering him to his father. Yondu also faces mutiny from his own crew. Between Ego, the Guardians and Yondu, lots of interesting action is assured.

Again co-written and directed by (Sean’s brother) James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the Guardians saga with more fun Marvel comic-book action, sharply-written humour between the characters, and another fine selection of Awesome Mix tunes.

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Consensus: With the same mix of humour, heart and an excellent soundtrack that made the first film such a hit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an entertaining sequel that delivers exactly what we want, while also expanding upon the characters. ★★★ (out of 4)

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