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VOD Review: The Assistant

May 6, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

One of the first clues we get that something is very off in The Assistant comes within the opening few minutes of the film when Jane (Julia Garner) puts on rubber gloves and gets down on her knees to scrub a stubborn stain off the couch in her boss’s office, a couch that clients will later jokingly be told not to sit on.

Jane is a junior assistant to a high level film producer, and The Assistant, writer/director Kitty Green’s dramatic thriller for the #MeToo era which was partially inspired by Harvey Weinstein and reports of what it was like to work for him, charts a day in her life, following her from morning to night in her thankless job working for an abusive man.

At the start of the film, we observe Jane heading to the office at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning to get things ready for the day, including printing out the box office numbers to be distributed around to the different desks. She does a quick tidying up of her boss’s office – a job that should be left to the janitorial department – including picking up a lost earring off the floor, which gets stashed in a drawer.

Jane’s boss exists as a faceless, nameless figure in the film who is referred to simply and ominously as “he” and “him,” but his presence dominates the picture, a threat lurking in the shadows. He is heard whispering harshly on the phone, admonishing Jane for “crossing him” in minor ways. We find out that Jane is a new hire, and has only been on the job for five weeks. She has aspirations of becoming a film producer, so is reluctant to speak up about the way she is being treated and the sexual misconduct that she knows is happening behind her back, lest she get blacklisted in this hostile industry.

One of the film’s tensest and most infuriating scenes comes when Jane decides to bring some of her concerns to the company’s human relations director (Matthew Macfadyan, leaving his mark on the film in a brilliant, quietly unnerving single-scene performance), giving her a harsh reality check about how deeply entrenched this culture of abuse is at the company. Garner carries the film with her remarkably restrained performance, keeping every one of Jane’s emotions from embarrassment to simmering rage bottled up inside, to be revealed only in closeups through a slight flutter of the eye or a downward curl of her lip. It’s a masterclass in subtlety.

This is the very definition of a slow burn. The film unfolds over a single day, and almost the entirety of it is confined to a drab office. Much of what happens in the film is only alluded to, and the majority of the impropriety happens offscreen. Jane knows damn well what is going on behind the door of her boss’s office, but she is kept in the dark enough so that others can gaslight her into doubting her intuitions, in an insidious example of the ways in which she is being systematically silenced.

Despite the film’s limited settings, cinematographer Michael Latham finds some interesting ways to frame the scenes, including moments of centre framing with the camera placed in the air above Jane’s desk, in a way that makes even the most mundane of tasks, like cutting open boxes, seem ominous. The film has the steely grey look of a thriller, with a foreboding tone that increasingly builds throughout the taught 85 minute running time.

I found The Assistant both gripping and disturbing to watch. It’s a superbly crafted and extremely well acted film that really got under my skin, showing the subtle and overt ways that a woman is subjugated and abused in her place of work, essentially powerless against a powerful man who doesn’t even need to be named in order to take control of her life. It’s a chilling, eerily believable film, made all the more so by the fact that we know damn well this sort of stuff continues to happen every day.

The Assistant is now available to purchase and rent on a variety of VOD platforms, including iTunes.

VOD Release: Extra Ordinary

May 6, 2020

By John Corrado

The Irish ghost comedy Extra Ordinary, which screened as the opening night film at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival last October, is being released for rent and purchase this week on a variety of VOD platforms, including iTunes.

The film had the misfortune of being released theatrically on March 13th for a limited run at the Carlton in Toronto, the same weekend that the theatres announced they were being shut down to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

I had a blast watching this film in a packed theatre at Toronto After Dark, and erroneously suggested others should try to see it with an enthusiastic crowd in my review, but oh how times have changed. Now your best and only real option is to watch Extra Ordinary at home, and I’m sure you’ll have a good time if you’re in the mood for an amusing supernatural comedy. You can read my full review of the film right here.

Film Rating: ★★★ (out of 4)

Release Date: March 13th, 2020 (Theatrical); May 5th, 2020 (VOD)

VOD Release: Ordinary Love

May 6, 2020

By John Corrado

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville deliver a pair of moving performances in Ordinary Love, a quiet, emotionally raw drama that charts the ups and downs of a husband and wife in Ireland dealing with her breast cancer diagnosis.

The film, which had its world premiere at TIFF last year and enjoyed a limited run in theatres back in February, is being released for rent and purchase this week on a variety of VOD platforms, including iTunes.

When I reviewed Ordinary Love back in February, I praised the performances and concluded my review by saying that this is “ultimately a film about the importance of time, and about the importance of spending quiet and, yes, ordinary moments with the ones you love.”

This obviously takes on deeper meaning now in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that has forced us to stay at home, something that I couldn’t have foreseen when I wrote my review. While it is a tough film to watch at times, I would recommend watching Ordinary Love at home if you are looking for a draining but emotionally cathartic experience. You can read my full review of the film right here.

Film Rating: ★★★ (out of 4)

Release Date: February 21st, 2020 (Theatrical); May 5th, 2020 (VOD)

Blu-ray Review: Dolittle

May 5, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The character of Dr. John Dolittle, a veterinarian with the magic ability to talk to animals who first appeared in stories by English author Hugh Lofting roughly a century ago, has in the past been played on the big screen by Rex Harrison in the Oscar-winning 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, and by Eddie Murphy in the 1998 comedy of the same name.

Now Robert Downey Jr., fresh off of completing his arc as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, takes a swipe at playing the role in the plainly titled Dolittle, an expensive talking animal comedy that is nowhere near as good as it could have been, but also not the worst thing, either. It’s simply mindless, mediocre entertainment aimed at kids.

The film opens with a nicely done animated prologue that shows Dolittle’s past as a world-renowned veterinarian who used to travel the globe treating animals in need of help. But the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) has caused the eccentric, wild-haired doctor to become a recluse in his gated mansion in England that functions as a wildlife sanctuary for a variety of creatures great and small.

Dolittle’s solitude is shattered one day when he is visited by two human kids. The first is a boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a sensitive kid who accidentally injures a squirrel during a hunting trip with his uncle (Ralph Ineson) when he is trying to avoid firing at ducks. Tommy is led to Dolittle’s estate by his talking parrot Poly (Emma Thompson), in hopes that the doctor will be able to save the poor little creature’s life. The second is a girl, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has travelled from Buckingham Palace to deliver the message that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is sick, and in need of his help.

In order to save the queen, Dolittle sets out on a voyage at sea in search of a healing plant that only grows on a mysterious island, and he is joined on this journey by Tommy, who gives himself the role of Dolittle’s apprentice. They are faced with adversarial forces in the form of Dolittle’s old medical school nemesis, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), as well as a pirate, King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who wants vengeance for personal reasons.

There are a few things to like about Dolittle, starting with the choice to do the film as a period piece, which keeps it more in line with Lofting’s original stories. The period production design is attractive, and the film features some strong special effects work, with the CGI animals convincingly interacting with the human cast. But Dolittle is also marred by a rushed and curiously uninvolving adventure story, as well as an uninspired script that often aims low with its humour.

In theory, the role of Dr. Dolittle is a natural fit for Downey Jr., who has previously portrayed eccentric geniuses Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. But he brings the bare minimum level of commitment to the role, including a highly questionable Scottish accent, and there is so much more that he could have done with the character. The film features a stacked voice cast to bring the animals to life, including Tom Holland as a dog, Rami Malek as a gorilla, John Cena as a polar bear, Ralph Fiennes as a tiger, Kumail Nanjiani as an ostrich, Octavia Spencer as a duck, Selena Gomez as a giraffe, Marion Cotillard as a fox, and Craig Robinson as the aforementioned squirrel.

The film is directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer behind Traffic and Syriana, and it actually ends up feeling overly ambitious. There are a lot of ideas thrown at the screen, and some of them are good, but the film feels slapdash in its construction and never quite coalesces together into a fully engaging whole. There are some enjoyable moments here, but Dolittle ends up feeling like less than the sum of its mildly entertaining parts.

With the high level of talent involved in Dolittle, there was reason to hope that this might have been the definitive version of the story, which does make the messiness of the final product feel like somewhat of a missed opportunity. But taken purely at face value, you could do a lot worse than Dolittle in terms of harmless family entertainment.

The Blu-ray also includes the six featurettes Talk to the Animals, RDJ & Harry: Mentor and Mentee, Becoming the Good Doctor, Antonio Banderas: Pirate King, The Wicked Dr. Müdfly, and A Most Unusual House.

Dolittle is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 101 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: April 7th, 2020

The Last Porno Show is Available to Stream for Free on Vimeo This Weekend

May 1, 2020

By John Corrado

Nathaniel Chadwick in The Last Porno Show

Kire Paputts’ The Last Porno Show was set to open in theatres for a limited run at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto at the end of March. But mere weeks before that could happen, all of the theatres were shut down due to COVID-19 and the release was cancelled, throwing the film’s distribution plans into disarray.

The film is now set to receive a proper VOD release in a few weeks. But before that happens, writer/director Papputs has decided to make his film available to stream for free on Vimeo this weekend from May 1st to 3rd (the link is embedded below), and I admire his reasoning that he laid out to me in an email regarding the decision; people are stuck at home now anyways looking for things to watch, and getting his film seen is the most important thing at this point.

I reviewed The Last Porno Show during TIFF last year, where the film had its world premiere, and liked it a lot. The film follows a struggling actor, Wayne (Nathanael Chadwick), who inherits a rundown porno theatre after his estranged father Al (Christian Aldo) dies. Wayne initially plans to sell the property, but starts to morph into a version of his father the more time that he spends in the building, as he comes to terms with his unusual upbringing. It goes without saying that the film features some extremely mature sexual content and won’t be for everyone. You can read my full review from the festival here.

This is a small Canadian film, the sort that usually benefits from the publicity that comes with a theatrical release, but making it available online in this circumstance is the right thing to do. Check it out, give it a chance. It’s free this weekend, after all.

Review: Tammy’s Always Dying

May 1, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

In the opening scene of the dark Canadian dramedy Tammy’s Always Dying, we cut back and forth between a pair of legs wearing torn stockings and high heels walking along a bridge over the train tracks, as a woman drives frantically through the streets of Hamilton before coming to confront her.

The woman on the bridge is Tammy MacDonald (Felicity Huffman), and the woman in the car is her adult daughter, Catherine (Anastasia Phillips), and we soon find out that the situation we are witnessing is a monthly occurrence.

You see, on the 29th of every month, when the money from her welfare cheque runs out, the alcoholic Tammy attempts to throw herself off of the same bridge and end her life once and for all, sending her daughter on a mad dash to rescue her. This toxic, co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter provides the driving force of Tammy’s Always Dying, the second feature from actor turned filmmaker Amy Jo Johnson, which is being released digitally today after premiering at TIFF last year.

Neither Tammy nor Catherine have ended where they wanted to be in life. Tammy is an impoverished drunk who never moved past her freewheeling party girl faze to make anything of her life. Meanwhile, Catherine is stuck working a dead end job in a bar, her only refuge being the weekend trips to Toronto that she takes with the bar’s manager, Doug (Clark Johnson), her mother’s gay best friend from back in the day who acts like a surrogate father figure to her.

But things take a turn when Tammy is diagnosed with terminal cancer and refuses treatment, and Catherine is suddenly faced with the imminent demise of the woman that she pulls off the bridge once a month. Deeper still is Catherine’s sense of guilt that comes from realizing that her mother is the one who has made her life so difficult, and that maybe things will be easier once she is no longer around, a hard, bitter truth that isn’t lost on Tammy.

There is a subplot involving Catherine trying to get on a daytime television show hosted by a Dr. Phil-type man named Gordon Baker (Ali Hassan) that feels somewhat rushed and underdeveloped, and the film sometimes struggles to find the right tonal balance between dark comedy and sincere character drama. But Joanne Sarazin’s script does have the guts if you will to go to some uncomfortable emotional places in a way that feels stripped bare and unsentimental, as it confronts the often painful fact that you can’t help someone unless they want to be helped.

While Tammy’s Always Dying has a sort of griminess to it that isn’t always pleasant to watch, and the story features a number of clichés, the film gets by thanks to its strong acting. Huffman and Phillips are both very good here in emotionally raw performances, as are Johnson and Canadian actor Kristian Bruun, in a small role as the server at a high-end hotel bar. Their work is what collectively makes this small dramedy worth checking out.

Tammy’s Always Dying is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and Video On Demand platforms across Canada.

Hot Docs At Home Review: Finding Sally

April 30, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

With this year’s edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series.

The starting point of director Tamara Mariam Dawit’s documentary Finding Sally is a beautiful black and white portrait of a woman on her grandmother’s mantle that the filmmaker didn’t recognize as part of her extended family. The woman is named Selamawit, Sally for short, a fifth aunt that, until she was an adult, Dawit never even knew existed.

Armed with a camera, the filmmaker leaves her home in Canada and returns to her family’s roots in Ethiopia to uncover the life of this aunt that she never knew she had, and the resulting documentary explores how her personal family history played out within a much larger sociopolitical context. Dawit reunites with her other four aunts to piece together the story of Sally, a woman whose father – Dawit’s grandfather – was a high-ranking official in the government of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Dawit discovers that, despite her father’s placement in the country, Sally was an active part of the student-led protests against Selassie, seeking to topple the monarchy. The country’s famine in 1973 led to a revolution that forced the downfall of Selassie and the installation of a military dictatorship in his place, putting Ethiopia under the authoritarian leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Sally’s close ties to the communist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) forced her to go into hiding, alienating her from her family.

Dawit structures the film as a bit of a mystery, uncovering new bits of information about her aunt and figuring out how they piece into the tense political happenings in the country at the time. Dawit not only tells this story from a personal perspective, but also from a female one. The filmmaker’s aunts are the driving force of the film, and they are all engaging storytellers as they recount memories of their lost sister. Archival footage and old family photos help their interviews come alive on screen, and we follow them as Dawit helps them find some closure.

While watching Finding Sally, I was reminded of the old feminist saying popularized in the 1960s that the personal is political. Dawit’s own family story is interesting on its own, and she is able to weave it into the compelling history of uprising and political unrest in Ethiopia over the past half-century, as she uncovers her family’s close ties to the country’s former leaders. It’s an interesting exploration of personal and political histories colliding, told from the perspectives of women, whose voices all too often get left out of historical narratives.

Finding Sally premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel. The next Hot Docs At Home screening is Meat the Future, premiering on May 7th.

VOD Release: Nose to Tail

April 29, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Director Jesse Zigelstein’s Canadian chef drama Nose to Tail, which had screened at the Canadian Film Fest in 2019, is being released on VOD this week. This at-home release follows the film’s limited theatrical run back in February, a month before the theatre shutdowns started.

The film centres around Daniel (Aaron Abrams), a brilliant but arrogant chef who owns and operates a high-end restaurant in Toronto, and is struggling to save his business from bankruptcy and other turmoil, as a series of personal struggles collide with his business.

The story unfolds over a single day and night, as Daniel clashes with his staff, fires his sous chef (Brandon McKnight), makes inappropriate advances towards his front of house manager (Lara Jean Chorostecki), and tries to pick a fight with the trendy food truck across the street, all while preparing for the dinner time arrival of an old friend (Ennis Esmer), whom he he has invited for a lavish meal in hopes that he will invest in the restaurant.

Zigelstein, making his feature film debut, keeps Nose to Tail moving full speed ahead at a brisk and engaging pace, and there is not an ounce of fat to be found throughout the film’s lean eighty minute running time. Abrams matches this energy beat for beat, and does an excellent job of carrying the film with an intense and extremely watchable performance as an increasingly unhinged chef getting what he has coming to him as he experiences probably the worst day of his life.

Make no mistakes, Abrams is the main attraction of Nose to Tail, and he kills it in the role, offering a gripping portrayal of a character whose unbridled hubris is rapidly accelerating his downfall. It’s not always pretty to watch, but we can’t take our eyes off of him. The end result is an incredibly entertaining portrait of a raging narcissist who uses has own talents as an excuse for treating others badly, even as the walls close in around him, and it provides a great showcase for its leading actor.

Nose to Tail is now available to purchase and rent on a variety of VOD platforms, including iTunes.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Canadian Film Festival.

DVD Review: SpongeBob SquarePants: Bikini Bottom Bash

April 28, 2020

By John Corrado

It’s SpongeBob’s birthday and we’re all invited to the party in the 2019 special SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout, which is being released on DVD today in a new compilation entitled SpongeBob SquarePants: Bikini Bottom Bash.

The main attraction of this release is the extended episode SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout, which finds Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) taking his buddy SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) up to the surface world on his birthday, to distract him while their friends plan his surprise party.

This fairly amusing 44 minute special aired on Nickelodeon last summer as part of the 12th season of SpongeBob SquarePants, and mixes animation and live action, with a number of surprise cameos. It was created to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the cartoon, which premiered in 1999, and is dedicated to the show’s late creator, Stephen Hillenburg.

The DVD also includes the party-themed bonus episodes SpongeBob’s House Party (Season 3), Sun Bleached (Season 6) and The Slumber Party (Season 6), as well as the 2009 special Truth or Square, which was previously released on a 2015 DVD set. It’s a decent release for SpongeBob fans, and would make a good birthday gift for kids.

SpongeBob SquarePants: Bikini Bottom Bash is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 134 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: April 28th, 2020

DVD Review: Looking for Alaska

April 28, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, is a modern classic that would easily deserve a spot on a list of the greatest young adult novels of all time. That’s high praise, I know, (especially from me, a self-avowed fan of YA literature), but I still contend that it is Green’s best work.

This is why I was nervous before diving into the new miniseries adaptation of Looking for Alaska, which premiered on Hulu last October and is now available on DVD. You see, it’s very easy to mess up adapting a book like this. It could have been watered down, the controversial and edgier elements taken out, and the core of the characters lost in translation from page to screen.

Plus, I have been waiting ages for a proper movie adaptation of the book, which has been stuck in development hell for years, with Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley at one time attached to direct the project. I will admit that I am still curious what Polley would have done with the material in a film version, but I digress, because any doubts that I had about this adaptation were pleasingly assuaged within the first couple of episodes.

And by the time I was partway through this beautifully produced and brilliantly acted eight episode miniseries, I knew that I was witnessing something special. Around episode four, the benefit of doing this story as a miniseries becomes really apparent. The serialized storytelling format allows each of the characters to feel fully fleshed out and three dimensional, and for the devastation of the story to build and build as the series progresses, slowly but surely ripping our hearts out before documenting the healing that comes afterward. This is, quite simply, an exceptional adaptation.

The story begins with Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer), a shy teenager obsessed with the “last words” of historical figures, being dropped off at Culver Creek Academy, a boarding school in Alabama. Miles is searching for something deeper in his life, a “great perhaps” as he calls it, that he hopes to find away from his sterile upbringing in Florida. The first person that he befriends at the school is his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love), who ironically gives Miles the nickname Pudge, because he is so skinny. Being African-American and coming from a poor home, Chip is automatically an outsider at this elite, predominantly white school.

Chip takes it upon himself to show Miles the ropes, and brings him into his oddball group of friends, including Takumi Hikihito (Jay Lee), a bright and mischievous Japanese student, and Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), an outgoing, wise beyond her years teenager whose free-spirited nature belies a troubled past and deep emotional issues. Miles instantly falls head over heals for Alaska, whom much of the story will come to revolve around. But she remains just out of reach, already attached to a college guy, Jake (Henry Zaga), and encouraging Miles to instead go out with her friend Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), a sweet Romanian girl who has a crush on him.

The plot escalates as the kids find themselves locked into an ongoing and increasingly extreme prank war with the “Weekday Warriors,” a group of rich, white jocks so named by Chip for the fact that they have opulent homes to go back to on the weekends. This all happens under the nose of the strict dean Mr. Starnes (Timothy Simons), whom the kids have dubbed The Eagle for his eagle-eyed nature and disciplinary actions, with the threat of expulsion hanging over their heads.

The whole series is just over seven hours in total, and the extra length provided by this format allows the show to really develop each of the characters, even the supporting ones. There is a lovely subplot with their teacher, Dr. Hyde (beautifully portrayed by Ron Cephas Jones in one of the show’s most touching performances), who is able to take on new life here. The show retains the book’s narrative structure of counting down the days “before” and “after” a tragic event that will alter the lives of all involved.

The pranks that the kids pull off are often very funny, but one of the most enduring aspects of Green’s novel is how the author explored themes of grief and depression in a way that respected the emotional maturity of his teenaged characters and readers. This is one of the defining features of this adaptation as well. The show is heartbreaking when it needs to be, and doesn’t shy away from having the characters endure trauma and emotional pain for long stretches of time, taking us through the grieving and healing process in a way that feels real and honest.

The pitch perfect casting is the biggest key to the success of this miniseries, and the book’s main foursome are extremely well cast. Plummer, a very expressive young actor, does an excellent job of carrying the series on his shoulders, delivering a nuanced and nicely understated performance. Love delivers standout work as The Colonel, both charismatic and emotionally raw with anger broiling just below the surface, and Lee is a real scene-stealer.

Froseth, a Norwegian model and actress, is exceptional in the title role, which was the hardest of them all to properly cast. She is extremely close to how I pictured Alaska when reading the book; a magnetic, highly articulate presence who puts others under her spell, while struggling to contain her own inner suffering that she keeps hidden from the world. Froseth is positively captivating to watch as Alaska, while brilliantly hinting at the pain that the character is experiencing underneath.

The series also smartly sets the story in 2005, the same year that the book came out, which allows the characters to exist in their own insular world, free from the outside influences of smartphones and social media. The show does a very fine job of transporting us back to that time through its set decoration and costume design, and it’s accompanied by an excellent soundtrack of mid-2000s indie rock songs, which provide instant nostalgia for adult viewers above a certain age.

Created by Josh Schwartz, who previously produced the teen TV dramas The O.C. and Gossip Girl and purchased the rights to Green’s book while it was still in manuscript form and has been trying to get a film of it made for nearly fifteen years, Looking for Alaska is an extremely well realized adaptation that not only does justice to the book but also compliments it perfectly. I say that as a fan of the book, but also as an objective viewer. This is a superb miniseries that serves as an immersive character-based drama, as wildly entertaining and incredibly moving as Green’s book deserves.

The three-disc DVD set also includes eighteen deleted scenes to accompany several of the episodes, which provide some good additional moments with the characters, as well as the two featurettes Finding Your Tribe and In Search of a Great Perhaps: Taking Alaska From Page to Screen on the third disc.

Looking for Alaska is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s approximately seven hours, five minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: April 21st, 2020

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