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Blu-ray Review: The Addams Family 2

January 25, 2022

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The Addams Family 2 is a sequel to the 2019 animated movie, which attempted to revamp the classic characters for a new generation. But the film was somewhat of a forgettable disappointment, especially considering the potential behind doing an animated version of the original Charles Addams comic strips that inspired the 1960s TV series.

This sequel, once again directed by animation veterans Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, continues in a similar vein. It’s not actively bad, just kind of forgettable, and can’t hold a candle to the two perfectly good live action films from the 1990s that preceded it.

The film unfolds as a family road trip, with the Addams leaving their gothic mansion and visiting a number of American landmarks. Spurred on by the fear that his daughter Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) is growing detached from the family, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) tries to set things right by heading across the country with his wife Morticia (Charlize Theron), son Pugsley (Javon Walton) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) for some good old family bonding time.

Playing into Wednesday’s search for belonging is the question of whether or not she is their real daughter, which provides the backbone for the film’s plot. The family is being pursued by a shifty lawyer (Wallace Shawn) who is after a DNA test, having been hired by someone who claims that Wednesday is not an Addams and actually their long lost daughter who got switched at birth. Oh, and there is also a strange body horror subplot involving human-animal chimeras and Uncle Fester turning into an octopus.

Without the need to spend time reintroducing its characters, The Addams Family 2 is a zanier and more fast-paced film than the first one, which is to this sequel’s benefit. There are some enjoyable moments of weirdness befitting of the franchise, but the film is held back by a thoroughly predictable plot. It builds to an overly busy climax, with a lacklustre script that is littered with awkward pop culture references (Gomez admits to being a Billie Eilish stan, because of course), and some cringey dialogue that tries too hard to sound hip.

There is some decent animation, including stylized character designs that closely match the original drawings in the comics, and the all-star voice cast does do fine work bringing them to life (though it is hard to overlook the missed opportunity of Isaac and Theron not taking on these roles in a live action film). It’s passable entertainment for the younger set, with a handful of mildly amusing moments for everyone else, but hardly the most memorable outing for this creepy and kooky family.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes three short bonus featurettes. A regular DVD is also included in the package, which ships with an embossed slipcover.

We’re Altogether Addams (8 minutes, 51 seconds): The cast members talk about their characters, and what drew them to the roles.

Courage to Be Kooky (2 minutes, 41 seconds): Director Vernon and members of the cast talk about how the themes of family and accepting differences drew them to these characters.

The Addams Family Road Trip Checklist (4 minutes, 4 seconds): A film-themed checklist of how to plan a road trip, from what to pack to snacks to make and games to play.

The Addams Family 2 is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 93 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: January 18th, 2022

The Best Movies of 2021

January 22, 2022

By John Corrado

I’m going to keep the preamble to this list short. As we all know, 2021 wasn’t exactly a great year, with the COVID-19 pandemic still with us and a return to “normal” (whatever the heck that word even means anymore) seeming like a goal that keeps getting pushed further down the road roughly two years after this all began. It was, quite simply, a frustrating year on every single level.

But I saw a lot of movies that I liked in 2021. And now, after catching up on several that I missed over the last little bit and doing some deliberating over the final order, I am finally ready to share my list of the best ones, three weeks into 2022. As a side note, I was also able to see seven of my top ten films in theatres (several them during TIFF), which I could only say about one of the films on my list last year, which I am pretty happy about.

So, without further ado, here’s my list of what were, in my opinion, the ten best movies of 2021. It’s followed by a selection of honourable mentions given to films that I liked quite a bit, but in some cases fell just outside the top ten (tick, tick…BOOM!). Oh, and my list of the best documentaries of 2021 will be up next week, so if you’re wondering why films like Flee don’t appear here, that’s why.

#10: Luca

Pixar’s Luca has been accused by some of being a “minor” effort from the studio, but it’s a film that captured my heart. Following two fish boys who find themselves on land in an Italian seaside town, the film uses a high concept premise to tell a charming story that functions as a stealth queer allegory, with the beauty of the film resting in the fact that it is only that if you choose to see it that way. Inspired by Enrico Casarosa’s own childhood in Italy, it’s an animated version of the type of movie I love; a coming of age hangout movie that lets us just exist in this world with these characters for ninety minutes as they go on a series of adventures. The warmth of the summer setting emanates off the screen, the ending is wonderfully bittersweet in true Pixar fashion, and it’s all set to a lovely Dan Romer score. (Review)

#9: Belfast

Like Luca, Belfast is also a film that is inspired by the director’s own childhood. Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film could best be described as a child’s eye view of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969, examining the religious conflict through the viewpoint of Buddy (promising newcomer Jude Hill), a boy trying to make sense of it all. The beautifully shot black-and-white film comes to life thanks to wonderful performances by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s parents, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as his grandparents, and a wonderful soundtrack of Van Morrison songs. I liked Belfast when I first saw it during TIFF, but it took a second viewing at the end of the festival for the film to fully click for me and to realize exactly what Branagh was going for with the film’s structure, which is meant to emulate a collection of childhood memories. It’s a film that has stuck with me. (Review)

#8: C’mon C’mon

Magical. That’s the word I used to describe Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon after I first saw it, and it remains one of my favourite viewing experiences of the year. The film is carried by the wonderful performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman as uncle and nephew, forming an onscreen bond that is simply enchanting to watch as they both teach each other to see the world in new ways. It’s just such a warm, wise and quietly perceptive film that I found enchanting to watch, elevated by Robbie Ryan’s lovely black-and-white cinematography. (Review)

#7: Pig

The premise for Pig, which follows a former chef played by Nicolas Cage as he tries to get back his stolen truffle pig, suggests a revenge movie akin to John Wick, and the reputation of its lead actor might cause you to assume it would be somewhat over the top. What we got instead was a stone-sober look at grief through the eyes of a man who has long given up on the outside world, venturing back into it against his will and rediscovering all the ways it is no longer for him. One of the most humbling, moving films of the year, with an incredible, subdued performance by Cage that reminds us just how good of an actor he can be. It might just be his finest work ever, with one of the most haunting final scenes of the year. This is simply an incredible feature debut for writer-director Michael Sarnosky. (Review)

#6: Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a breezy coming of age hangout movie that transports us back to San Fernando Valley in 1973, and lets us tag along with a cocky teen boy (Cooper Hoffman) and an immature young woman (Alana Haim) who find friendship and get into mischief. And that’s basically the plot of Licorice Pizza, one of the most effervescent movies of last year. Right from the opening tracking shot, we know we are in the hands of a master with PTA, and he honestly just does such a good job of capturing a laid-back ’70s vibe, with free-flowing long takes and naturalistic performances that make it a joy to watch. I just liked living with this movie for a couple of hours. (Review)

#5: Red Rocket

The title of Sean Baker’s latest, Red Rocket, serves as both a cheeky double entendre and a perfect metaphor of the film’s propulsive energy. It’s built around a magnetic performance by Simon Rex as a cash-strapped porn star tearing through his Texas hometown. Yes, the film makes us uncomfortable, and that’s the point, showing how easy it is to fall under the sway of its con man protagonist. Baker’s The Florida Project was my favourite movie of 2017, and this is another slam-dunk portrait of America’s “forgotten people” and the working poor from the filmmaker, who has quickly established himself as one of our most empathetic purveyors of the underbelly of Americana. It’s also entertaining as hell, including the inspired use of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” (Review)

#4: Drive My Car

Drive My Car, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s brilliant adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, might be long at three hours (the title card only drops forty minutes in). But it’s the sort of film that uses its running time to take us on a complete emotional journey, slowly but surely revealing itself to be a profoundly moving study of grief, survivor’s guilt and emotional healing. The film follows Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a grieving theatre actor who has been hired to stage a production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, and the bond that he forms with Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), who has been hired to drive him to rehearsals.

Hamaguchi’s film flows beautifully between sequences and, in its best moments, features some of the finest writing and acting of the year, including several powerfully delivered monologues that will stop you in your tracks. One of the best things about Drive My Car is the feeling a few weeks after seeing it of having the film still playing out in your mind. I knew it was one of the best movies of the year when I left the theatre, but it was in the days and weeks that followed when it clicked for me just how high it deserved to be on this list. (No review at this time)

#3: The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s powerful Western The Power of the Dog is a simmering, brilliantly acted film about repression, shifting power dynamics and cycles of abuse. Benedict Cumberbatch does gripping work playing against type as a ranch hand who emotionally tortures his sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and her young adult son. The son is played by Kodi Smitt-McPhee, in one of the most fascinating, multilayered and unforgettable supporting performances of the year. It builds to one of the best endings of the year, with a chilling climax that allows all the pieces of the film to click into place like a puzzle and will be discussed and dissected for years to come. (Review)

#2: Titane

Julia Ducournau’s shock Palme d’Or winner Titane is a visionary film that can’t really be described in words. Known colloquially as the “car sex movie,” it’s a thrilling piece that defies easy categorization, morphing between genres and offering sneaky commentary on gender roles, father figures, and the concept of found family. It’s carried by an incredible, physically demanding performance from Agathe Rousselle, matched by the surprisingly tender supporting work of Vincent Lindon, who together deliver two of the best performances of the year. Ducournau’s film so high on this list partially because of how singular and well crafted it is, and partially because I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it. A movie of insane style that, in its own deranged way, builds to something weirdly moving as well. (Review)

#1: Spencer

Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was one of my favourites of 2016, and his latest, Spencer, is a perfect companion piece that does for Princess Diana what that film did for Jackie Kennedy. More psychological portrait than traditional biopic, Spencer hones in on three crucial days in Diana’s life to offer a deep dive into her mental state, turning Sandringham Estate into the Overlook Hotel. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is gorgeous, and Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy score provides perfect accompaniment.

And at the centre of it all is Kristen Stewart, who transforms into the role of Diana, delivering a career-defining performance that blew me away. At one point, Titane could have been number one on this list, and you could certainly make a case for why The Power of the Dog or Drive My Car would deserve this spot as well. But no film in 2021 moved me to tears more than the final moments of Spencer, with Larraín offering a cathartic, symbolic release for both Diana and the audience, and that’s a big part of why it has stayed in my number one spot ever since I first saw it in September. (Review)

Honourable Mentions (Alphabetical Order): The Green KnightThe Killing of Two Lovers, Last Night in Soho, Mass, Nightmare Alley, Petite Maman, The Souvenir Part II, Spider-Man: No Way Home, tick, tick…BOOM!West Side Story, The Worst Person in the World, Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

VOD Review: Marionette

January 21, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Schrödinger’s Cat is a paradoxical thought experiment that involves a hypothetical cat in a box with a vile of poison, and asks if the cat is alive or dead. As the thought experiment goes, it’s both and neither. Either outcome remains possible until we open the box to find out, or is it the act of opening the box that decides the cat’s fate?

This theory in quantum mechanics, named for Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger who thought it up, is the underpinning of Marionette, a pretty good psychological thriller from director Elbert van Strien that is expanded from his 1993 short film.

The film follows Dr. Marianne Winter (Thekla Reuten), a psychiatrist from upstate New York who moves to Scotland following a tragic event. Marianne is taking over for another psychiatrist (Peter Mullan) who suffered a breakdown, and one of his patients that she inherits is a 10-year-old boy named Manny (Elijah Wolf), whose angry black drawings seem to coincide with real world disasters that have yet to occur.

Marianne starts to have her own grasp on reality threatened when Manny informs her that he can control the future and make things happen with his mind. He tells her there is a gun in her office drawer, and when she opens it up, lo and behold there is one. Did Manny put it in there, or is the gun only there because she opened the drawer? Schrödinger’s Cat, and so on and so forth. The film continues on in this way, introducing ideas about predestination versus free will, and questioning if we are in control of our destinies or just puppets on strings. And, if so, who is pulling the strings?

This central mystery is set up in an involving way, and there is entertainment value to be had in the way Marionette plays around with these ideas, though it does occasionally get bogged down by them. Despite this high concept premise, there is an air of familiarity to the film, with elements that feel borrowed from other “creepy kid” movies like The Ring and The Sixth Sense (though, to be fair, I have not seen the original short that predates both of them, so I can’t say how much is lifted from that).

The film is also very much a slow burn at nearly two hours, and I think there are ways that it could have been tightened up a bit. The screenplay (co-written by Strien and Ben Hopkins) has some inconsistent uses of voiceover, as well as a romantic subplot that feels slightly undercooked, and it can’t quite sustain itself through the last act with a final ending that may strike some as a bit of a cop out.

But Marionette is carried by a pair of decent performances from Reuten and Wolf, and there are some fine editing choices that weave in flashes of Marianne’s backstory. The film poses enough interesting philosophical ideas to make it work as an intriguing and mostly entertaining little head scratcher, that is able to hold our attention for the most part and keep us guessing.

Marionette is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

Review: The Tender Bar

January 20, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Tender Bar, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, is an adaptation of writer J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name about growing up on Long Island and hanging out at his uncle’s bar. The result is a pretty standard coming of age movie that still has a decent amount of warmth to it, including a nice Ben Affleck performance.

The first half of the film focuses on JR as a young boy (played by Daniel Ranieri) being raised by his single mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe). He is estranged from his deadbeat radio DJ dad (Max Martini) in New York, who is known simply as “The Voice.” JR is named after him, but this becomes a source of embarrassment, so he starts refusing to tell people what his initials stand for.

At the start of the film, Dorothy and JR are going back to live with his codgerly grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), whose house has become a revolving door of cousins and relatives. One of these relatives is Dorothy’s sister, Uncle Charlie (Affleck), who still lives at home and doesn’t have kids of his own, but treats JR like a son.

Uncle Charlie is a self-educated man who operates a bar called The Dickens, that serves as the local watering hole for a number of regular patrons. He’s the prototypical “cool uncle,” the guy who treats you with maturity while still serving as a parental figure, offering sage life advice on the responsibilities of being a man. Recognizing that his nephew isn’t very good at sports, he instead provides him with stacks of books to read, and encourages him to become a writer.

The second half focuses on JR (played as a young adult by Tye Sheridan) pursuing his mother’s dreams of him going to Yale, and it follows all the beats that we expect from this type of film as the working class kid falls for a rich girl (Briana Middleton). The biggest downfall of The Tender Bar is that we have seen variations of this story before, and done better. Recently, C’mon C’mon did a better job of probing an uncle-nephew relationship, and The Spectacular Now was a more impactful portrait of a young man reconciling with an alcoholic, absentee father.

It’s cliched in both narrative and construction, including sentimental voiceover narration provided by Ron Livingston as the adult version of JR looking back on his youth. But none of these things make The Tender Bar a bad movie, or even an unenjoyable one. Clooney’s direction might lack character, but it is competent, and he does a serviceable job of shepherding this story to the screen. Affleck’s very good performance further elevates it. He really is the film’s main anchor, with his warm, slightly weathered presence adding a great deal of heart to the story.

This is not the best film of its ilk, but it works on its own terms as cinematic comfort food that wraps around us like a blanket. This might sound like I am damning it with faint praise, but I will leave you with this; if The Tender Bar had been a film from the 1990s that I stumbled across on TV in my own adolescence, it probably would have had a big impact on me. It’s a warm and familiar film, and while that doesn’t make it a great one, it does make it a pretty enjoyable one to watch.

The Tender Bar is now available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

Blu-ray Review: Last Night in Soho

January 19, 2022

By John Corrado

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, which is being released on Blu-ray this week, finds the British filmmaker, who is best known for his genre mashups, playing around in the sandbox of psychological thriller.

The film follows Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who is obsessed with the culture of the 1960s. She finds her dreams coming true when she starts being transported back to London in the 1960s, becoming entangled with an aspiring singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). But all is not as it seems.

Wright uses this premise to explore the dark side of nostalgia, crafting an ultra-stylish, neon-soaked tribute to Giallo films and London in the Swinging Sixties. The film proved to be somewhat divisive with viewers, especially the sinister turns that it takes in the second half. But I actually enjoyed the slightly off the rails, funhouse ride feel of the last act, as Wright and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns allow the story’s elements of murder mystery and ghost story to collide in a visceral way.

I greatly enjoyed Last Night in Soho. It’s a film that hit all the right buttons for me, from the excellent dual performances of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, to Chung-hoon Chung’s hypnotizing cinematography, and the truly impressive production and costume design elements. The film didn’t bring in enough of an audience in theatres, with disappointing box office returns that can partially be blamed on the ongoing pandemic, but it’s one that deserves to find a second life on Blu-ray.

For more on the film itself, you can read my original review from TIFF right here.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes packed with over ninety minutes of bonus material, including five very substantial featurettes, deleted scenes, and various other goodies. A regular DVD and code for a digital copy are also included in the package, which ships with a sleek black slipcover.

Meet Eloise (10 minutes, 5 seconds): Wright, Wilson-Cairns and McKenzie discuss the character of Eloise, and the performance given by the young New Zealand actress who, like the character, was 18 at the time of filming.

Dreaming of Sandie (9 minutes, 5 seconds): Like the previous featurette, this one offers a deeper look at the character of Sandie. Wright discusses how he initially thought of casting Taylor-Joy as Eloise before realizing she was perfect for this role, as well as the choice to have her sing that haunting cover of “Downtown.”

Smoke and Mirrors (12 minutes, 36 seconds): Wright and members of the crew break down the film’s extensive use of makeup, special effects and clever camera moves, exploring how they did the mirror shots using double sets, and how they pulled off that incredible switcheroo dance scene entirely in-camera through carefully orchestrated choreography. The “witness cam” footage of the dance scene from above is referenced, which is included in full as its own bonus feature.

On the Streets of Soho (8 minutes, 36 seconds): A look at the importance of shooting on-location in Soho, and how the production design team recreated the look of the 1960s.

Time Travelling (10 minutes, 45 seconds): A deeper look at recreating the look and feel of the 1960s, through the song choices, costumes and sets. Wright talks about balancing his own nostalgia for the decade with the acknowledgement that it wasn’t all good.

Deleted Scenes (9 minutes, 16 seconds)

Ellie Gets Conned (1 minute, 4 seconds)

Hidden Nightmares (1 minute, 3 seconds)

The Bridge (2 minutes, 22 seconds)

Alleys and Shadows (3 minutes, 28 seconds)

You Know Where to Find Me (47 seconds)

Extended Chase (30 seconds)

Animatics (13 minutes, 6 seconds)

First Dream (7 minutes)

Shadow Men (1 minute, 40 seconds)

Murder (3 minutes, 11 seconds)

Final Confrontation (1 minute, 12 seconds)

Hair & Makeup Tests (7 minutes, 26 seconds)

Lighting & VFX Tests (6 minutes, 20 seconds)

Wide Angle Witness Cam (1 minute, 54 seconds)

Acton Town Hall Steadicam Rehearsal (1 minute, 24 seconds)

Steadicam Alternative Take (1 minute, 45 seconds)

“Downtown” Music Video (5 minutes, 27 seconds)

Trailers (4 minutes, 48 seconds)

Domestic Trailer 1 (2 minutes, 13 seconds)

International Trailer (2 minutes, 29 seconds)

Feature Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Edgar Wright, Editor Paul Machliss and Composer Steve Price

Feature Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Edgar Wright and Co-Writer Krysty Wilson Cairns

Last Night in Soho is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 117 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: January 18th, 2022

Blu-ray Review: No Time to Die

January 18, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

No Time to Die is the 25th film in the James Bond franchise, and the fifth one starring Daniel Craig, ending his tenure as Ian Fleming’s iconic character and completing a story arc that began with Craig’s first appearance as Bond in Casino Royale way back in 2006.

The Craig Bond films presented new territory for the spy franchise, building a continuous narrative that unfolded over the five films, instead of just serving as a series of one-off adventures. As such, No Time to Die has a lot of loose ends to tie up, something that director Cary Joji Fukunaga (a newbie to the series) handles with aplomb.

The story begins right after the end of Spectre. Bond is trying to live a quiet life with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), but things don’t go according to plan. He retires to Jamaica, with another MI6 agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), taking over his 007 number. But Bond gets pulled back into the game by CIA officer Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who enlists his help to rescue kidnapped scientist (David Dencik), who has invented a bioweapon using nanobots that become encoded with a target’s DNA. This gets them entangled with terrorist leader Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a formidable and chilling Bond villain who has a vendetta.

Despite running for 163 minutes, No Time to Die offers a mostly well-paced action film that delivers basically everything you want from a globe-trotting Bond adventure, with some deeper emotional payoffs. The film features solid cinematography by Linus Sandgren (a shot of agents scaling down the side of a building with them being reflected in the glass is particularly striking), and some interesting production design elements, including Safin’s Brutalist-influenced concrete lair.

There is a grounded, visceral quality to the film’s various action sequences and car chases that feels refreshing in a landscape of CGI-laden blockbusters. Fukunaga does an excellent job of staging a number of exciting set-pieces, from a chilling opening flashback in Norway, to a chase through the streets of Matera, and a sequence in Cuba that allows Ana de Armas to kick ass in a brief but satisfying supporting role as young CIA agent Paloma.

Flashback to before the release of Casino Royale when Craig’s casting was first announced, and people questioned the prospect of having a blonde, blue-eyed Bond. Now it’s safe to say that Craig has cemented himself in the upper echelon of actors to take on the role, and the choice to have him be a grittier Bond who has been allowed to bleed and age over the course of these five films really pays off here.

While No Time to Die can’t quite reach the heights of series standout Skyfall, it rectifies the mistakes of Spectre, and ends up ranking right in the middle of Craig’s five films. It’s an entertaining, exciting and emotionally satisfying sendoff for Craig’s Bond, that doubles as an all-around well crafted piece of blockbuster filmmaking.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

I was sent the Blu-ray for review, which comes with a second disc holding about 35 minutes of bonus material. A regular DVD is also included in the 3-disc set, which ships with a slipcover.

Anatomy of a Scene: Matera (11 minutes, 32 seconds): An in-depth look behind the scenes of the set-piece in Matera, from jumping motorcycles to setting explosive charges in the side of the buildings timed to the spinning Aston Martin.

Keeping It Real: The Action of No Time to Die (6 minutes, 15 seconds): Looks at several of the film’s set-pieces, and how the production team pulled them off using practical effects.

A Global Journey (7 minutes, 50 seconds): Looks at different filming locations around the world from Norway to Matera, including returning Bond to Jamaica where original author Ian Fleming lived.

Designing Bond (11 minutes, 4 seconds): A look at the film’s costumes and production design, including building the entire Cuba set in Jamaica, and designing Safin’s lair.

No Time to Die is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 163 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: December 21st, 2021

Review: Being the Ricardos

January 17, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, following his Oscar-nominated courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, Being the Ricardos is a surprisingly enjoyable biopic of actress Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her real life husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), who starred alongside her as Ricky Ricardo in the classic sitcom I Love Lucy.

Sorkin’s film takes place over a particularly fraught week in the show’s production history in 1952, as the two stars face growing scandals in the media. Lucy’s past membership in the communist party has been made public by journalist Walter Winchell. Despite her being privately cleared by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the accusations threaten to destroy her position as America’s most beloved TV star if the public turns on her.

Desi assures worried producers that his wife simply “checked the wrong box” on her voter registration years earlier. After all, how could a woman married to a man who escaped the Bolsheviks in Cuba be a supporter of communism? Lucy insists that she joined the party in the 1930s as a way to honour her grandfather’s involvement in the labour movement, but has no current allegiance to them. She is more concerned by growing tabloid reports of her husband’s infidelity, with stories of his rumoured dalliances becoming front page news.

Sorkin’s screenplay counts down the days to a live taping of I Love Lucy on Friday night, that will make or break the show. To top it all off, Lucy announces that she is pregnant, putting her and Desi in a heated battle with the network to let them write her pregnancy into the story instead of hiding it. The film itself is structured around fake “interviews” with show runner Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein) and lead writers Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin) and Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox), who reflect on the events of this one week. It’s meant to give the film a sort of documentary feel, but all three figures are deceased, so it’s a choice that feels slightly manipulative.

It’s in the flashbacks to the show’s production (where Oppenheimer, Pugh, and Carroll are portrayed by Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy, respectively) that the film really comes alive. The “behind the scenes” drama also extends to growing tension between co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play Lucy and Ricky’s neighbours Fred and Ethel Mertz, but don’t get along in real life. The film shows Frawley’s drinking and Vance’s dieting becoming a concern on set, with Ball having to act as mediator. Despite his own personal dislike of communism, the gruff Frawley has her back (as he informs Arnaz, he hates communists, but hates the committee even more).

Sorkin is primarily known for his writing, and Being the Ricardos does have his usual rat-a-tat dialogue, with some of the best moments coming during the table reads and rehearsals for the show. But I still think he is a better writer than director, and the best films that have his name on them are the ones directed by other people like David Fincher (The Social Network) and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs). While there are some handsome production design elements of the old TV studio, the film itself is not the most visually dynamic, and has somewhat of a cable movie look to it (the same could be said of Netflix movie The Trial of the Chicago 7).

The film at times feels like a miniseries squashed into a roughly two hour running time, with Sorkin also working in flashbacks to Lucy’s early career as a contract actor for RKO Radio Pictures, and how she first met Desi on set. But, some structural issues aside, Being the Ricardos is carried by its solid dialogue and performances. Kidman is good here. She is basically playing two versions of Lucille Ball, both the real person and her onscreen character, and it’s in the scenes recreating classic moments from the show that her impression becomes almost uncanny.

Bardem is an example of an actor who bears little resemblance to his real life counterpart (the Spanish actor isn’t even of the same ethnic background as the Cuban Arnaz, and is much older than he was when he played Ricky on the show), but still manages to give an interesting performance that includes singing and playing the bongo drums. Simmons and Arianda are also both standouts of the supporting cast, with their spot-on portrayals of Frawley and Vance.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the film’s trailers, but I actually enjoyed Being the Ricardos more than I thought I would. Yes it’s Oscarbait, but I found the performances engaging and there are rousing moments throughout. I used to watch old re-runs of I Love Lucy as a kid, so I was able to pick up on the references (at times it’s almost like fan service for a decades old sitcom), and I think it does a decent and entertaining job of shedding light on these behind the scenes aspects of the show’s production.

Being the Ricardos is now available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

January 14, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Denzel Washington doing Shakespeare. That’s the pitch for The Tragedy of Macbeth, which finds the actor returning to the pool of William Shakespeare following his supporting turn in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, to take on the plum leading role of Macbeth.

Washington’s charismatic screen presence has made him one of our most compelling performers over the past few decades, from his Oscar-winning role as a crooked cop in Training Day (“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”) to his delivery of the monologues in his August Wilson adaptation Fences.

These things make him a natural fit for the words of the Bard, especially the soliloquies of the Scottish Play, and the film itself is a unique adaptation that places the performances front and centre. Directed by Joel Coen (working solo for the first time without his brother Ethan), The Tragedy of Macbeth is perched somewhere between cinema and theatre, with the film having been shot entirely on sound stages on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California.

The sparse, minimalistic sets, with their imposingly high walls and foreboding passageways, aren’t supposed to capture the look of 16th century Scotland, but rather provide an impressionistic backdrop for the performances. The end result feels like something between a movie and a filmed version of a stage play, captured by Bruno Delbonnel’s striking black-and-white cinematography. Delbonnel frames everything in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, allowing the actors to come into the centre of the frame for vivid closeups.

Coen’s directorial choices allow the performers to remain at the forefront of his film, as they would on stage. There are ways this role could be overplayed, but Washington imbues his portrayal of Macbeth with a simmering rage and a fierceness to his line deliveries, despite barely raising his voice. Frances McDormand breathes new life into the role of his ambitious wife Lady Macbeth, delivering an older variation on the character who has been unable to give her husband an heir, with an “out damn spot” sleepwalking monologue that is one for the ages.

The cast is rounded out by Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, and, in a stroke of casting genius, British theatre actress Kathryn Hunter as all three of the witches. Hunter’s introduction comes with the camera swooping down on her curled up like a rock, her double-jointed limbs unfurling from behind her. It’s an incredibly physical performance that has the power of being both mesmerizing and genuinely unnerving, and is absolutely captivating to watch.

I’ve watched the film twice now (the first time in IMAX at one of the free Shakespeare at the Cinema event screenings and the second time streaming on my 4K TV), and both times found it to be a unique viewing experience. The film almost defiantly exists as more of an artistic achievement than mainstream entertainment, but serves as an undeniably impressive feat of directing, acting, cinematography and production design.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+.

Review: Licorice Pizza

January 13, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza opens with a tracking shot through a high school that introduces us to its two protagonists; the 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim).

It’s picture day. Gary is a child actor who is there to get his photo taken. Alana is helping with the photoshoot. He asks her out to dinner at the establishment that he frequents. She tells him he’s a kid. They banter back and forth like this for a couple of minutes, and the film’s two leads, a pair of screen newcomers who both deliver star-making turns, make it a joy to watch.

This is the setup for Licorice Pizza, a delightful coming of age story that takes us back to California’s San Fernando Valley in the year 1973, and could best be described as a hangout movie in the same vein as American Graffiti or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (and its “spiritual sequel” Everybody Wants Some!!). It doesn’t have much of a plot, per se, but that’s okay, especially since we are in the hands of a master like Anderson behind the camera, and in the company of two effervescent leads.

Gary is a cocky, over-confident kid who oscillates between seeming like a naive teen boy and a thirty year old car salesman who is always after his next business venture. Alana is a wayward, immature adult who is weirdly flattered by his attention, and starts hanging out with him against her better judgement. Gary discovers waterbeds and strikes a deal to start selling them to celebrities, hooking Alana into his latest get rich quick scheme. The film unfolds through a series of vignettes like this that range from comic to serious, as Gary and Alana’s misadventures allow them to bump into a variety of real life figures and characters inspired by real people.

Gary’s claim to fame is his supporting role in a fictitious family comedy called Under One Roof. In one early sequence, Gary travels to New York with Alana as his chaperone so that he can perform on an Ed Sullivan-inspired variety show with the lead actress Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), an obvious stand-in for Lucille Ball. It’s worth noting that Licorice Pizza is loosely based on the life of producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman, who starred with Ball in Yours, Mine and Ours, which also happens to be the name of the song the Lucy stand-in performs in the film.

Goetzman, a friend of Anderson’s, really did have his own waterbed business, and even sold one to film producer Jon Peters. An extreme version of Peters is portrayed here by Bradley Cooper, who damn near steals the movie with his brief but memorable supporting role. The cast is rounded out by appearances from a number of familiar faces, including Sean Penn as a movie star inspired by William Holden, and Tom Waits as a film director. One of the film’s most thematically rich subplots involves the mayoral run of closeted councilman Joel Wachs, a real life politician portrayed here by Benny Safdie, who shares a devastating scene with actor Joseph Cross.

Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whom Anderson directed to some of his best performances, has a major screen presence in what is remarkably his first onscreen role, bringing the right mix of swagger and boyish charm to his portrayal of Gary. Alana Haim, youngest of the three sisters who make up the indie rock band HAIM (who all have cameos here, along with their real life parents), is a complete natural onscreen, effortlessly making the switch from singer to actress.

I do feel compelled to address the elephant in the room, which is the social media controversy that has blown up over the sizeable age gap between the film’s two leads. Yes, it would clearly be inappropriate for a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old to be together in real life. But Gary and Alana’s relationship (if you can even call it that) in the movie is not sexual, and what happens is honestly pretty chaste.

I can respect that the age gap might make some viewers uncomfortable. But the feverish discourse around the film is a bit much, especially considering that it’s basically about a precocious teen with a crush on an immature older woman, who is kinda flattered by the attention and becomes friends with him. It feels Rushmore-esque, with Gary reminiscent of a more grounded version of that film’s wiser than his years protagonist Max Fisher. Anything that happens here seems purely like wish-fulfillment fantasy shown from the perspective of a teenager.

What works so well about Licorice Pizza is the vibe that Anderson captures. The film unfolds through free-flowing long takes starting with that wonderful opening tracking shot, with Anderson once again acting as his own director of photography following Phantom Thread (this time sharing the credit with Michael Bauman). The camerawork is matched by an excellent soundtrack of classic songs from the era that provide an evocative backdrop to the film, tied together by Jonny Greenwood’s wistful score.

I don’t really know how else to say it, but there is a floaty, walking on a cloud feeling that I got from watching Licorice Pizza. I loved the laid back ‘70s vibe of the piece, which not only captures a youthful sense of adventure and endless possibilities, but also a bittersweet nostalgia for the past. The film clocks in at a breezy 133 minutes, and it’s just so enjoyable getting to exist in this world for a couple of hours that I honestly could have watched it for even longer than that.

Licorice Pizza is now playing in theatres where they are open. I was lucky enough to see it at in 70mm at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto just before the current theatre shutdown in Ontario.

Blu-ray Review: Halloween Kills

January 12, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Halloween Kills is technically the twelfth film in the slasher movie franchise (counting the two Rob Zombie remakes), but chronologically it follows the surprisingly good 2018 legacy sequel Halloween, which was itself a direct continuation of John Carpenter’s 1978 original.

Like the 2018 film, Halloween Kills is once again directed by David Gordon Green, and it has a lot to live up to in terms of continuing the new story set up in that decades later sequel, which ignored plot details from the other franchise entries in order to forge its own path forward. As such, Halloween Kills is only mildly successful.

It functions as an okay (and very bloody) slasher, but doesn’t reach the heights of either of its direct predecessors, with the story beginning right where the 2018 film ended. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is en route to the hospital with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), having survived the latest Halloween night killing spree of Michael Myers, with the masked assailant now burning to a crisp in her basement. Or is he?

As Laurie is being taken to the hospital, Michael escapes from the burning house to continue his massacre, determined to tie up loose ends. Through this, Green (who co-wrote the script with Danny McBride and Scott Teems) brings back a variety of characters from the 1978 original, including the kids that Laurie was babysitting, Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), and Michael’s old nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), to explore how the town of Haddonfield is facing their collective trauma from that night forty years earlier.

This is not a bad premise and, at its basest level, Halloween Kills does deliver the gory kills that the series is known for, with a visceral brutality to much of it. If gnarly kills are all you are looking for, this movie delivers. But it’s not as solid overall as the 2018 film. The plot feels messier and less focused as it branches off into a number of subplots involving thinly written side characters, with inconsistent dialogue and Laurie frustratingly confined to the hospital for much of it.

The film also bites off a bit more than it can chew when trying to introduce some deeper themes about mass hysteria, the formation of mobs, and how mob rule can cause good people to do evil things. With Michael on the loose, the public panics, allowing Tommy to form a violent mob whose rallying cry of “evil dies tonight” signifies their salacious bloodlust. This leads to a very unsettling sequence at the hospital, but Green stops short of truly grappling with these ideas.

The film does deliver some impressively staged flashbacks to 1978 featuring Jim Cummings and Thomas Mann as cops, which retcon a few elements but are pulled off with a great eye for detail by Green and his production team. There is some decent cinematography by Michael Simmonds, and we also get another unsettling synth score by John Carpenter, his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, that builds upon and reworks the iconic original theme.

But the film as a whole ends up feeling a bit basic, playing out more like a collection of fan service moments and brutal kills one after another. Which is fine, in theory, but I wanted more. Halloween Kills ultimately feels very much like a middle chapter, simply designed to keep the momentum going from the first film and set things up for the big finale. It doesn’t all work on its own, but is also the sort of film that will likely need to be reevaluated as part of the whole trilogy when Halloween Ends gets released later this year, which I’m still hoping will be a banger.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray includes both the theatrical version of the film and an “extended cut” that adds an extra scene at the end, which isn’t entirely needed but provides a nice little coda to lead into the final movie. It’s backed up by a decent assortment of bonus material. A regular DVD and code for a digital copy are also included in the package, which ships with an embossed slipcover.

Gag Reel (3 minutes, 12 seconds): Typical footage of the cast goofing off and messing up their lines. Your enjoyment will depend on how much you enjoy gag reels.

Deleted and Extended Scenes (3 minutes, 21 seconds)

Allyson Meets Brackett (31 seconds)

Sondra’s Drone Finds The Shape (1 minute, 48 seconds)

Protestors Rock Outside Hospital (1 minute)

Haddonfield’s Open Wounds (7 minutes, 15 seconds): Looks at building upon the first film, and bringing back a variety of old characters from the town.

The Kill Team (11 minutes, 2 seconds): Looks at what went into bringing several of the film’s set-pieces to the screen, and the practical gore effects that were used for some of the most brutal kills.

Strode Family Values (3 minutes, 37 seconds): Explores the three generations of Strode women, and how the film continues their story.

1978 Transformations (5 minutes, 50 seconds): A fascinating look at how they faithfully recreated elements of the 1978 film for the flashback sequence, including bringing back one iconic character using makeup and the set’s construction manager.

The Power of Fear (4 minutes, 28 seconds): A brief overview of the themes of mob rule and mass hysteria in the film.

Kill Count (53 seconds): A highlight reel of all the brutal kills in the film, with an onscreen counter.

Feature Commentary by Director/Co-Writer David Gordon Green and Stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer

Halloween Kills is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 105 minutes and rated 18A.

Street Date: January 11th, 2022

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