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New This Week (01/27/2023): Infinity Pool, When You Finish Saving the World, You People, & More!

January 27, 2023

By John Corrado

New releases for the week of January 27th, 2023.

Theatrical Releases:

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in When You Finish Saving the World

Infinity Pool (Wide Release): The latest film from director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David Cronenberg), Infinity Pool is arriving in theatres fresh off of its Sundance premiere. The film stars Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth as a couple on a beach vacation that takes a dark turn. I missed the screening, but am looking forward to checking it out soon. I liked Brandon Cronenberg’s previous film Possessor, so I’m curious to see what twisted vision he has in store this time around.

When You Finish Saving the World (TIFF Bell Lightbox): Jesse Eisenberg’s confident and enjoyable directorial debut is a quirky comedy about a mother and son struggling to reconnect. Finn Wolfhard stars as aspiring teenage singer-songwriter Ziggy Katz, and Julianne Moore is his mother Evelyn, who runs a women’s shelter and finds a stand-in for her own increasingly aloof child when she meets Kyle (Billy Byrk), the sensitive son of one of her clients. It’s buoyed along by good performances and Eisenberg’s often witty writing. Wolfhard and Byrk will be joining for live Q&As after the 3:45 pm and 6:30 pm screenings at Lightbox today. (Full Review)

More Releases: Living (TIFF Bell Lightbox), Loudmouth (Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist (Limited), Fortress of Skulls (Limited)

Streaming Releases:

You People (Netflix): Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill star in this Netflix romantic comedy from director Kenya Barris (co-written by him and Hill) that seems to be like a modern riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Reviews are somewhat mixed, but I’ll be watching it for Murphy, who has long been one of my favourite comedic actors.

Shrinking (Apple TV+): This new comedy series stars Jason Segel as a psychiatrist still grieving the death of his wife, who decides to take a more hands-on approach in the lives of his patients, much to the chagrin of his older supervisor (Harrison Ford). I previewed the first few episodes, and it’s off to a pretty good start. Even if the show feels a little too light to fully grapple with its heavier themes, it still strikes a decent balance between humour and heart. I’ve always liked Segel as an actor, and this series allows him to showcase his innate ability to thread the needle between comedy and drama, while Ford is delightfully grouchy. First two (of ten) episodes premiere today, with new episodes dropping every Friday.

More Releases: Shotgun Wedding (Prime Video), Teen Wolf: The Movie (Paramount+)

Review: When You Finish Saving the World

January 26, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The directorial debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg, When You Finish Saving the World (which had its premiere at Sundance in 2022) is a quirky comedic story about a self-absorbed mother and son who are struggling to reconnect.

The son, Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard), is a budding teenage singer-songwriter who is preoccupied with making money by performing his songs on livestreams for twenty thousand fans around the world (which he brags about constantly).

Ziggy’s mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), runs a shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse. The two have reached somewhat of an impasse in their relationship, with their interactions mostly limited to him yelling at her to stay out of his room while he’s livestreaming.

When Evelyn meets Kyle (Billy Byrk), a sensitive teen boy who comes into the shelter with his mom Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), she is naturally drawn to him. Kyle is everything that Evelyn wished for in a son; kind, caring, and attentive to his mother’s needs. So she starts spending time with him, as a proxy for her own increasingly aloof offspring. Meanwhile, Ziggy is fixated only on gaining the attention of Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically-minded student at his school who he becomes obsessed with trying to impress, but has no real clue about any of the political or world issues that she talks about.

The implied sarcasm of the title is the point; these are deeply self-absorbed people who are so obsessed with their own sense of importance that they think they are saving the world. They are so stuck in their own worlds that Ziggy’s father and Evelyn’s husband, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), who seems to constantly be waiting for them at home with a glass of wine and a newspaper, barely even registers. But, as much as Eisenberg is poking fun at these privileged, upper middle class virtue-signallers, he also recognizes the neurosis and insecurities beneath this mindset.

The film has a satirical bent to it in its portrait of self-aggrandizing liberal do-gooders meddling in the lives of others to feel better about themselves, that is matched by the genuine sweetness of the ending. Eisenberg’s voice rings through in his often witty writing (we can practically hear some of Wolfhard’s line deliveries in his tone), and he also draws clear inspiration from Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, which helped launch his career as a young actor.

Yes, the characters can be mildly insufferable to spend time with, but the crisp writing keeps us engaged, and Eisenberg’s screenplay does reach some deeper truths about the desire for human connection. The dynamic between Evelyn and Kyle in particular, which stems from a well-meaning desire to reconnect with her own son, is a tricky one that Eisenberg handles quite deftly, even as Evelyn starts to overstep some boundaries.

While it could be said that When You Finish Saving the World offers pretty much exactly what you expect as a Sundance dramedy being put out by A24, it’s a confident and easily enjoyable debut film from Eisenberg, that doesn’t overstay its welcome at a well-paced 88 minutes. The performances by Moore and Wolfhard are also solid, as they believably bring these very specific personalities to life.

When You Finish Saving the World opens in limited release on January 27th at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Sphere Films.

Cast members Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk will be joining for two in-person Q&As at the 3:45 pm and 6:30 pm screenings on Friday, January 27th at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Review: To Leslie

January 25, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nod for To Leslie was maybe the biggest surprise of this year’s Oscar nominations. Despite no real studio push behind the indie drama, she got in through a last minute campaign from her industry friends (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Susan Sarandon), who started hosting screenings and posting about it on social media.

It surprised many that this fully grassroots campaigning tactic actually worked. But, after watching the film, Riseborough’s nomination actually makes a lot of sense. She delivers a blazing, emotionally charged performance as an addict in the process of self-destructing, wrestling with whether or not to accept her one last shot at redemption. I get why actors went for this.

Set against the backdrop of seedy bars and motels, and nicely complimented by an excellent country music soundtrack, To Leslie is an engaging, stripped down drama about tough characters living hard lives. Riseborough stars in the titular role of Leslie, a single mother in West Texas who we first meet in an old news clip as she celebrates having just won the lottery. We then cut to six years later, and Leslie is being kicked out of the motel she is staying at for not being able to pay the rent, having drank away all of her savings.

This sends Leslie bouncing between places with her pink suitcase in hand, as she continues to drink away every dollar she can scrounge up. She stumbles into the apartment of her now young adult son James (Owen Teague), but old wounds are opened back up. She goes back to her hometown to stay with old friends Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (Allison Janney), but they are weary and tired after years of cleaning up after her. Leslie is given an opportunity for a second chance when she meets Sweeney (Marc Maron), a motel clerk who tries to break through to her.

Directed by Michael Morris, a TV director making his film debut, To Leslie is an example of a film that tells a somewhat familiar story but finds fresh nuance in its character-focused portrait of addiction and the challenges faced on the road to recovery. A big part of this is due to how well Riseborough embodies the title character. Riseborough’s performance keeps us engaged through the entire thing. We are with Leslie through the pain and struggle, and genuinely root for her to get better. She’s not an easy or even at times particularly likeable character, but we have empathy for her because we recognize her humanity; Riseborough ensures that we do.

With more of a push, I actually think that Maron could have been in the Supporting Actor conversation as well. He’s wonderful as Sweeney, a genuinely kind person extending a helping hand to someone who might not even be able to accept it. This is a small but gripping film that unfolds with the wistful sadness of a country song, guided every step of the way by Riseborough’s exceptional performance. It’s good to see her recognized for her work.

To Leslie is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms.

Nominations for the 95th Academy Awards

January 24, 2023

By John Corrado

The nominations for the 95th Academy Awards were announced this morning, with A24’s beloved Everything Everywhere All at Once – which maxed out with a total of eleven nominations – leading the charge. The Best Picture lineup is rounded out by All Quiet on the Western Front, Avatar: The Way of Water, The Banshees of Inisherin, Elvis, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, TÁR, Top Gun: Maverick, Triangle of Sadness, and Women Talking.

From Top Gun: Maverick in Adapted Screenplay and Ruben Östlund (Triangle of Sadness) in Director, to Judd Hirsch (The Fabelmans) and Brian Tyree Henry (Causeway) in Supporting Actor and Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie) in Best Actress, this was kind of a wild morning in terms of both surprises and snubs.

Both Danielle Deadwyler (Till) and Viola Davis (The Woman King) missing in Best Actress is pretty shocking, since I really thought at least one would get in. Riseborough making the cut instead for the little seen indie film To Leslie has to be the biggest surprise of the morning, and will forever change awards campaigning, with the actress getting in off of a grassroots last minute push from her industry pals that included hosting screenings and posting on social media.

This is also the first year since 1934 that the Best Actor lineup is made up entirely of first time nominees, including Austin Butler (Elvis), Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin), Brendan Fraser (The Whale) and Bill Nighy (Living), with the fifth slot going to Irish actor Paul Mescal, on a much deserved lone nomination for critic’s darling Aftersun. It’s one heck of a good lineup.

Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave was notably and undeservedly snubbed in International Film. I’m also genuinely shocked that Top Gun: Maverick didn’t get in Cinematography, but it is cool to see both Bardo and TÁR recognized in that category. Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale missing Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay is not great, though I am very pleased that Fraser (my own personal frontrunner) and Hong Chau both got nominated.

It’s genuinely cool to see box office smash Top Gun: Maverick as a Best Picture nominee, and I think it’s safe to say that Everything Everywhere All at Once is now officially the Best Picture frontrunner (if it wasn’t already). The film got in basically everywhere it needed to, including four acting nominees (with an all but guaranteed Supporting Actor winner in Ke Huy Quan) as well as surprising in Score and Song, maxing out with the most nominations of any film today. So, yeah, it feels like the one to beat, and will honestly be a pretty cool winner.

The winners will be announced on March 12th at 8PM. The full list of nominees is below. Read more…

#Sundance2023 Review: Iron Butterflies

January 23, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Liubiy, Iron Butterflies is a documentary that sets itself up as an investigation into the downing of Malaysian airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, which was accidentally shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. But Liubiy’s film unfolds more as a somewhat experimental video essay culled together from a variety of sources.

Named for the butterfly-shaped piece of shrapnel that got lodged in the pilot’s body, Iron Butterflies unfolds through a mix of different multimedia sequences, including old military propaganda videos being shown on reels of film, news clips from Russian television offering changing reports, intercepted audio from Russian soldiers, and scenes of Dutch investigators piecing together the strewn debris of the plane to create a 3D model. They are somewhat loosely connected together by more abstract moments, such as a child’s hands playing with bits of iron shrapnel, and staged musical and interpretive dance performances in Ukrainian fields that are presented in black-and-white.

The Russian forces responsible for downing MH17 subsequently covered up their involvement and never faced prosecution for what amounted to a war crime, with the film ending in tribute to the victims. The material itself is important (especially with the ongoing war in Ukraine), and there are some interesting moments including personal testimonies, but the film as a whole is a bit too expressionistic and lacking in overall focus to offer a ton in the way of new insight. But if you are looking for more of an art project than a standard investigative documentary, you’ll probably find something of value here.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19th to 29th in Park City, Utah, with in-person and online screenings. More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

#Sundance2023 Review: Slow

January 22, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Slow, a very good drama from Lithuanian writer-director Marija Kavtaradze, begins with what feels like it could be a classic meet-cute. Elena (Greta Grineviciute) is a contemporary dancer hopping between sexual partners, and Dovydas (Kestutis Cicenas) is a sign language interpreter. They meet when she is teaching a class for Deaf teens, and he comes to translate. The two start spending more time together, and Elena expresses interest in him to her friends. But she is naturally promiscuous, and he soon informs her that he is asexual.

While Dovydas explains to her that he doesn’t desire people sexually, he is still interested in having a relationship, and they tentatively start to pursue one. What works so well about Slow is that Kavtaradze allows the relationship between Elena and Dovydas to develop naturally and believably. The film unfolds as a classic romantic drama, but the character’s asexuality adds an interesting texture to it, as the two try to find a balance between their individual desires that allows them to be together. The totally naturalistic performances by Grineviciute and Cicenas keep us fully engaged.

The two leads share chemistry and tension together, a tender, deftly handled balance that is further complimented by the softness of the film’s 16mm cinematography. While Slow is largely presented from Elena’s perspective, Dovydas’s sexuality is handled in a respectful way, and not as something that he can or should change. At heart, Slow is mainly a film about what constitutes a “normal” relationship, and it’s both refreshing and interesting to see a romantic drama explored from this angle, as Kavtaradze builds to an emotionally resonant ending.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19th to 29th in Park City, Utah, with in-person and online screenings. More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

#Sundance2023 Review: When It Melts

January 21, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The directorial debut of Belgian actress Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown), When It Melts is an adaptation of author Lize Spit’s book Het Smelt that explores childhood trauma through the eyes of a young woman finally confronting her past. Beatens takes an unflinching and provocative approach to bringing the challenging material to the screen, with mostly engaging but also somewhat mixed results.

Eva (played by Charlotte De Bruyne) is a young woman in Belgium who is still struggling to move past the events of the summer when she was thirteen and things spiralled out of control. The film starts with her loading a big block of ice into the back of her car, and driving back to her hometown. We then switch back and forth between present day scenes and flashbacks to that fateful summer, slowly revealing how Eva (played as a child by Rosa Marchant) got sucked into playing an ongoing and highly inappropriate game with her male friends involving local girls and a hard to solve riddle.

With the block of ice as metaphor, When It Melts is somewhat of a slow-burn. It unfolds as a very dark mix of coming-of-age drama that has elements of a revenge thriller, with a bit of a central mystery to it. The film does have a pretty good hook, and Baetens (who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay) does a decent job of keeping us engaged for a good chunk of the running time as more details are revealed and the sense of dread ratchets up. But the bleakness of the material, and the uncompromising depiction of some genuinely disturbing moments involving children, makes it an incredibly tough film to watch.

While in this case depiction very obviously does not equal endorsement, When It Melts also makes the cardinal mistake of showing too much, with one gruelling flashback scene in particular that goes on way longer than it needs to. It was filmed with a therapist on set, but still borders on feeling exploitative. The film features good performances, with Marchant especially leaving her mark in a difficult role, and has a decent sense of tension running through it. But this is an emotionally draining exploration of childhood trauma that also feels like it tips a balance after a certain point and never quite comes back from it, as hard to shake as parts of it are.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19th to 29th in Park City, Utah, with in-person and online screenings. More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

#Sundance2023 Review: The Amazing Maurice

January 21, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A madcap reimagining of the Pied Piper story centred around a swindler cat and his band of talking rats, the European animated film The Amazing Maurice – playing in the Kids section at Sundance – serves as a colourful and often amusing adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s award-winning 2001 book The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.

Maurice (voiced by High Laurie) is an intelligent orange cat who runs a grift involving a group of (very cute) magical talking rats who go around pretending to infest villages, so they will pay his human friend Keith (Himesh Patel) to play the role of pied piper and lead them out of town. But they get more than they bargained for when they stumble upon a town completely devoid of rats, where all of the food has been mysteriously disappearing. It’s here that they meet Malicia (Emilia Clarke), a story-obsessed girl who also serves as the film’s narrator, breaking the fourth wall to talk about narrative structure.

The hyperactive pace and budget animation make this one seem geared more towards kids, but there’s also a clever, meta bent to The Amazing Maurice that keeps it fairly enjoyable to watch for older viewers as well. The screenplay by Terry Rossio (one of the writers on Shrek) also has some more subversive elements that feel true to Pratchett’s work, such as the rats being guided by their quasi-religious belief in the Beatrix Potter-like stories of Mr. Bunsy, promising an island paradise where animals live side by side with humans and there are no traps or poisons.

The result is a wacky adventure that is cheerfully all over the place, deconstructing storytelling tropes and borrowing from a variety of fairy tales one moment, and confronting death the next (including run-ins with the Grim Squeeker). It’s an entertaining fractured fairy tale that is brought to life through some lively and appealing voice work, including strong turns from David Thewlis, Gemma Arterton and David Tennant as some of the main rodents.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19th to 29th in Park City, Utah, with in-person and online screenings. More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

New This Week (01/20/2023): Living, The Son, Saint Omer, & More!

January 20, 2023

By John Corrado

New releases for the week of January 20th, 2023.

Theatrical Releases:

Living (Limited Release): A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru starring Bill Nighy and written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Living is a really lovely and beautifully crafted old school drama that works to compliment the original. It’s a tender and deeply emotional film that is especially worth seeing for the wonderful, remarkably poignant work of Nighy, who seems poised to receive his first ever Oscar nomination for it next week. (Full Review)

The Son (Limited Release): Writer-director Florian Zeller’s much anticipated follow up to his Oscar-winning 2020 film The Father, The Son was sadly one of the most disappointing films to come out of last year’s TIFF. Hugh Jackman (whose early Oscar buzz has precipitously faded into oblivion) stars as a New York businessman who agrees to take in his troubled son (Zen McGrath). The result is a melodrama about teenage depression that falls surprisingly flat with its bland, soapy execution, and is a major step down from Zeller’s absolutely stellar The Father. (TIFF 2022 Review)

Saint Omer (TIFF Bell Lightbox): Documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s narrative debut Saint Omer, a French legal drama and France’s official International Feature Oscar submission, didn’t really work for me despite the acclaim it has largely received. The film, which was inspired by a real 2016 court case, centres around a novelist (Kayije Kagame) who is watching the trial of a young mother (Guslagie Malanda) accused of killing her own daughter. Diop’s direction feels far too sterile and detached for a true story about a mother on trial for infanticide, and the performances are understated to the point of feeling flat. (Full Review)

More Releases: Missing (Wide), You People (Limited), Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (Limited), Ever Deadly (Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), Make Me Famous (Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema)

Streaming Releases:

Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage? (Disney+): This documentary from director Anne McCabe follows singer, Tony Award-winning Broadway performer and Frozen star Idina Menzel as she goes on a sixteen show national tour, and prepares to realize her dream of performing at New York’s Madison Square Garden. A good choice on Disney Plus.

More Releases: Mission Majnu (Netflix)

Review: Saint Omer

January 20, 2023

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, Saint Omer (France’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature) is an extremely understated and slow-moving legal drama that unfolds almost entirely within a French courtroom.

The film centres around Rama (Kayije Kagame), a professor and novelist who travels from Paris to Saint-Omer to watch the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese immigrant who is accused of murdering her fifteen-month-old daughter by leaving the child on the beach to be swept away by the rising tide.

Rama is there because she plans to write a novel about the case, by turning it into a modern retelling of Medea. But questions remain as to why a mother would do such a heinous thing, something that Rama is trying to understand. Laurence speaks calmly on the stand and openly admits to her crime, though also appears paranoid and claims that evil spirits and curses were at work.

The film is based on a real court case that Diop watched unfold; that of Fabienne Kabou, who was convicted in 2016 of killing her daughter, and the screenplay draws from actual court transcripts. This knowledge lands an uncomfortable quality to the extremely detached style with which it is presented on screen. The courtroom scenes are stripped of emotion to the point that we start to wonder if the film is trying to present a sympathetic reason for Laurence’s crime due to her stated feelings of isolation as an African immigrant and new mother.

Diop’s film is a courtroom drama in the literal sense. Structurally, it basically unfolds through a series of overly drawn out extended scenes in court as Laurence is cross-examined on the stand. In this way, Diop takes an almost documentary-like approach to her fiction debut. But these blandly framed, mostly static shots of the trial don’t always make for compelling drama, and often feel overly stagey. Diop’s direction in general feels far too sterile and detached for a true story about a mother on trial for infanticide, and the performances themselves are understated to the point of feeling flat.

There are connecting scenes showing Rama, a Black woman who is pregnant herself, trying to process the proceedings outside the courtroom alone in her hotel, including flashbacks to her own mother. But Rama feels somewhat underdeveloped as a character, a vague stand-in for the director who is mostly shown blankly watching the trial. A prologue, including part of one of her lectures, barely fleshes out her character.

Malanda’s performance is cold, her monotone line deliveries flat and precise. Diop doesn’t so much grapple with the shocking nature of Laurence’s crime, but instead tries to prop her up as a dark mirror for motherhood and the immigrant experience. The trouble is that the nature of her crime – and the fact that the film is rooted in a real case – makes it hard to sympathize with her. The film is meant to become a study in body language, but the performances are too withdrawn to read much into them.

The unusually staid cinematography by Claire Mathon (Spencer, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) keeps us at a respectful distance, with the film’s sparse visual style adding to the overall coldness. We are meant to simply observe the proceedings, and it’s an approach that will work better for some, but I found Saint Omer a bit too ambiguous, and the film’s inherent narrative and moral vagueness keeps it from fully connecting as a deeper character study. It leaves us only with the uncomfortable question of whether Diop intends for us to sympathize with a mother who killed her own child.

Saint Omer is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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