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Review: Don’t Worry Darling

September 23, 2022

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Neither good nor bad enough to fully justify its widely publicized behind the scenes drama, Olivia Wilde’s overly ambitious second feature Don’t Worry Darling is instead a thoroughly mediocre and undercooked effort that tries to be a lot of things, but doesn’t really do any of them particularly well.

Florence Pugh stars in the film as Alice, a young woman who is living in a seemingly utopian 1950s suburban community with her husband Jack Chambers (Harry Styles). It’s a community where, almost like clockwork, the men all drive to work in the morning to go to their secretive jobs, while the wives stay at home to cook and clean and look after the kids.

They are part of something called the Victory Project, a housing development in the middle of the desert run by a man named Frank (Chris Pine), a shadowy figure whom all the men work for and desperately try to impress. But everything is not as it seems. While many residents, like Alice’s friend and neighbour Bunny (Wilde, in a campy supporting role) seem perfectly happy fulfilling the stereotypical gender roles, Alice starts to feel a discontent that leads to her asking questions about the true nature of her idyllic world.

Before I go any further, it’s worth noting that Pugh is very good here. She acts her ass off (for lack of a better phrase) as she tries to hold up the entire movie around her. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is also quite solid, capturing the pastel colours of this 1950s suburbia (a fine feat of production design), with his camera swirling above for bird’s eye view shots. But the best efforts of Pugh and Libatique can’t fully save the film from sort of crumbling apart as it goes along.

Not to dump on Styles or anything – I do like him as a performer and he is okay in a few scenes – but he also doesn’t really have the range yet to pull off the nuances of this character, and his acting often feels amateurish. There are moments (such as a scene when he attempts to prepare dinner by hammering a bowl of uncooked potatoes with a whisky bottle) where his performance just doesn’t land. I don’t really know if he would have been given this role had he not already been famous. The other issue is that it still feels like we are supposed to like Styles, when his character requires someone who can grapple with the underlying darkness.

Which brings us to the behind the scenes drama. Shia LaBeouf was originally cast as Jack, but dropped out. Wilde then claimed she fired him due to his behaviour, which was put to rest when LaBeouf released a video message of her begging him to come back, and condescending Pugh (“Miss Flo”). Wilde, who was married to Jason Sudeikis at the time, also infamously had an on-set affair with Styles, which drew the ire of Pugh, who had a falling out with the director. This was evidenced by the dynamics at the Venice Film Festival. Now how frustrating it must be for Wilde that Pugh, who basically recused herself from the publicity tour, has taken the lion’s share of praise for her film.

The trouble is that Wilde, whose only previous film was the enjoyable if overpraised 2019 comedy Booksmart, seems to think she is making a cross between The Stepford Wives, A Clockwork Orange, Blue Velvet, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Get Out and Us (both Jordan Peele movies feel like pretty big influences), and simply isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to really pull it off. Even as a pastiche of cinematic references, this might have worked better if it had been guided by more confident hands, but the film’s trendy, TikTok-level politics end up feeling plasticy and surface deep.

Yes, there was darkness hidden behind the seemingly perfect facade of 1950s suburbia, but this is hardly a new idea, and the film is never as deep as it seems to think it is in addressing it. The screenplay by Booksmart scribe Katie Silberman (who overhauled a spec script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke that made the 2019 Black List) introduces some vaguely interesting ideas, but doesn’t do the adequate follow up work to really address them, and ultimately leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions in the last act. And not in an intriguing way, mind you, but in a frustrating way that makes the film feel almost wholly underdeveloped and not fully fleshed out.

The other problem is that the story requires it to go some very dark places, but Don’t Worry Darling still feels like it is trying to be a piece of glossy, easily digestible entertainment. An early moment when Alice starts to notice something is off is when she cracks an egg in her hand and realizes it is just an empty shell. This serves as a pretty nifty metaphor for the film itself; an empty vessel that looks smooth and perfect on the outside, but with none of the required ingredients on the inside.

Why, then, if the reach of Don’t Worry Darling so clearly supersedes its grasp, am I not completely writing off the film? It’s simply because I was rarely bored during it. For all of the story problems and messiness, Pugh does keep us watching, and there is a “fascinating misfire” feel to the entire thing that has been fuelled by the gossip of what transpired on-set. I just wish there was more beneath the surface of a story that demands more depth that what it has been given. But see it if you’re curious what all of the fuss is about.

Don’t Worry Darling is now playing exclusively in theatres.

New This Week (09/23/2022): Don’t Worry Darling, Eternal Spring, Blonde, & More!

September 23, 2022

By John Corrado

New releases for the week of September 23rd, 2022.

Theatrical Releases:

Avatar (Theatrical Re-Release): Disney is re-releasing James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar back into theatres today, in 3D and IMAX, leading up to the release of the long-awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water in December.

Don’t Worry Darling (Wide Release): After a lot of early buzz and behind the scenes drama that has trickled out into the open, Olivia Wilde’s ambitious second feature starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles is finally opening this weekend. I saw it at one of the early shows yesterday, and it’s neither as good nor as bad as it could have been, and ultimately a thoroughly mediocre, undercooked affair that should still draw an audience for its stars. (Full Review)

Eternal Spring (Limited Release): Director Jason Loftus’s documentary Eternal Spring won both the Audience Award and Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary at this year’s Hot Docs. The film uses vivid animation to recount the story of a group of activists who hijacked a Chinese state TV broadcast to challenge propaganda about the persecuted religious group Falun Gong. It’s very well done, and also Canada’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature, so worth checking out. (Hot Docs 2022 Review)

Blonde (Limited Release): There is a ton of controversy surrounding Andrew Dominik’s NC-17 biopic of Marilyn Monroe, which stars Ana de Armas in the iconic role. I’m incredibly curious to check it out for myself in the next little bit. It’s opening today in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, before coming to Netflix on September 28th. (Review coming soon!)

More Releases: Bandit (Limited), Clerks III (Limited), Catherine Called Birdy (TIFF Bell Lightbox), God’s Country (TIFF Bell Lightbox)

Streaming Releases:

On the Come Up (Paramount+): I was not a fan of this one at TIFF. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Angie Thomas (who also wrote The Hate U Give), and follows an aspiring battle rapper. I found it to be heavy-handed, cliched, and not particularly well made. But younger audiences and fans of the book may beg to differ. (TIFF 2022 Review)

More Releases: Sidney (Apple TV+), A Jazzman’s Blues (Netflix), Athena (Netflix), Blank (VOD)

Blu-ray Review: The Black Phone (Collector’s Edition)

September 21, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Black Phone is a Blumhouse-produced thriller that finds director Scott Derrickson reuniting with Ethan Hawke, the star of his 2012 film Sinister (which is still one of the most genuinely disturbing modern horror movies).

This time around, Hawke takes on the villainous role of The Grabber, a masked creep snatching children off the streets of North Denver in 1978, and loading them into his black van to be taken back to his basement. The community has been rocked by these abductions, with newspaper headlines and missing person posters greeting the local kids on the way to school.

The protagonist of the film is Finney Blake (Mason Thames), a young teenager who gets taken by The Grabber, and held captive in his basement. Much of the film takes place in this barren basement, which has a mysterious black phone on the wall. The wire has been cut, but it keeps ringing, connecting Finney to previous victims.

Based on a short story by Joe Hill, which has been adapted for the screen by Derrickson (who stepped away from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in order to make this) and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, The Black Phone mixes the tropes of a coming-of-age movie with elements of child abduction thriller and supernatural horror. The heart of the story comes from the close bond between Finney and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who is having omniscient dreams.

Right from the opening sequence of the local kids playing baseball, Derrickson’s film does a good job of transporting us back to the late-1970s, with the director setting it in the time and place where he grew up. This period setting is one of the main strengths of The Black Phone, giving the otherwise fairly straight-forward story a nostalgic, old school feel that really helps carry it. The film is elevated by the very good work of cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, who captures the look and texture of the 1970s using anamorphic lenses and even mixing in some Super 8 elements.

If The Black Phone isn’t as outright scary as something like Sinister, and certain characters and plot elements don’t feel as fleshed out as they could have been, Derrickson brings a disturbing, unsettling atmosphere to the film, and crafts moments of suspense. At the centre of it is a very creepy turn from Hawke, whose face is at least partially obscured by a mask for much of his screen time, but manages to do some very unnerving things with his voice and gestures. It’s a pretty effective little mystery that is completely evocative of its time period, and all the better for it.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray includes a handful of bonus features. A regular DVD and code for a digital copy are also included in the package, which ships with a slipcover.

Deleted Scenes (Play All – 1 minute, 21 seconds): Two brief moments clipped from the film, which feel more like extended scenes.

Is This America Now? (49 seconds)

No Dreams (29 seconds)

Ethan Hawke’s Evil Turn (4 minutes, 25 seconds): Hawke talks about taking on such a dark role for really the first time in his career, and having to act with mainly his voice from behind the mask.

Answering the Call: Behind the Scenes of The Black Phone (10 minutes, 40seconds): Looks at the themes of the story, and working with the child actors.

Devil in the Design (5 minutes, 15 seconds): The crew discusses the period details of the film, from production design to costumes and makeup and hairstyling. Also looks at the design of The Grabber’s unnerving mask.

Super 8 Set (1 minute, 48 seconds): Cinematographer Jutkiewicz discusses using anamorphic lenses and shooting sequences on 8mm film to evoke the time period.

Shadowprowler (11 minutes, 57 seconds): A pretty good short film centred around a home invasion, directed by Derrickson and starring his two sons.

Feature Commentary by Producer/Co-Writer/Director Scott Derickson

The Black Phone is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 103 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: September 20th, 2022

4K Ultra HD Review: Elvis

September 20, 2022

By John Corrado

Please note that this is a review of the 4K Ultra HD release of Elvis. For my full thoughts on the film itself, you can read my original theatrical review right here.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis became one of the biggest box office success stories of the summer when it was released earlier this year, and Warner Bros. has now put out the film on home media platforms, including 4K Ultra HD last week.

I was a big fan of this one when I saw it in theatres. Austin Butler delivers an incredible, transformative performance as Elvis Presley, as the film charts his rise to stardom and complicated relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).

It’s a big, bold vision from Luhrmann, with his usual kinetic editing and visual style turning Elvis into a true cinematic spectacle that delivers in terms of both the entertainment value and emotion that you can expect from a story about Presley’s life.

The film kept me engaged throughout the entire 159 minute running time, as it builds to an incredibly powerful final few moments. It’s a vibrant, beautifully crafted film in terms of its period costumes and production design, and the 4K Ultra HD presentation is able to really highlight this. This is a chance to get what is, at least for my money, one of the year’s best movies in the finest available format, backed up with a pretty decent selection of bonus material.

Bonus Features (4K Ultra HD):

The 4K set comes with a regular Blu-ray that contains a number of featurettes, though some deleted scenes would have been nice considering reports of an initial four-hour cut of the film. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package, which ships with a shiny slipcover.

Bigger Than Life: The Making of Elvis (22 minutes, 23 seconds): This wide-ranging featurette opens with Luhrmann talking about portraying Elvis as a metaphor for America in the 20th century. It features Butler talking about taking on the iconic role; the hair and makeup work in the film, including the prosthetics that Hanks wore to portray the Colonel; and Mandy Walker’s cinematography. It’s a good overview of the production’s attention to detail, that doubles as a nice For Your Considering ad for multiple Oscar categories.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty: The Music & Artists Behind Elvis (7 minutes, 33 seconds): Looks at recording the music for the film, including using real musicians to portray the gospel and blues singers, with Butler learning to copy Presley’s voice to recreate his early recordings.

Fit for a King: The Style of Elvis (8 minutes, 2 seconds): Catherine Martin (who happens to be Luhrmann’s wife) discusses designing the film’s impressive costumes and recreating various classic looks, with a distinct colour palate for each of the three decades (1950s, 1960s and 1970s) seen in the film. In addition to dressing Butler and Olivia DeJonge, who portrays style icon Priscilla Presley, Martin also oversaw providing period-authentic costumes for thousands of extras.

Viva Australia: Recreating Iconic Locations for Elvis (7 minutes, 26 seconds): Luhrmann, Martin (who also served as production designer), and set decorator Bev Dunn discuss shooting the film on stunning sets built in Australia, including incredible recreations of Beale Street, Graceland, and the International performance hall.

“Trouble” Lyric Video (2 minutes, 15 seconds): A lyric video of Butler performing “Trouble,” set to various clips from the film.

Musical Moments (46 minutes, 19 seconds): Isolated versions of nineteen musical moments from the film, viewable together or on their own. The one bonus that is available on the 4K disc as well.

Elvis is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 159 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: September 13th, 2022

#TIFF22 Review: Moonage Daydream (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8th to 18th.

In Moonage Daydream, documentary filmmaker Brett Morgan weaves an exciting and highly cinematic portrait of late music and queer icon David Bowie. The film blends concert footage with old interviews to offer a compelling window into Bowie’s mind and genius as a songwriter and performer, from his more experimental early music, to his more mainstream forays, and darkly spiritual later work.

As such, Moonage Daydream offers scenes of Bowie performing iconic songs like “All the Young Dudes,” “Starman,” “Heroes” and of course the title track – footage that is still just as thrilling as it ever was – with curated clips from past interviews in which he talks about his life and philosophies. Bowie discusses a belief in a sort of love and energy that he won’t classify as God, as well cavalier attitudes towards bisexuality and cross-dressing that were radically upfront for the 1970s.

Like how Morgan’s previous music documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck compellingly took us inside the tortured mind of its main subject, Moonage Daydream offers a riveting look at Bowie in all of his brilliance and complexity. This is not your standard bio-doc, but rather a powerful visual symphony (optimized for IMAX theatres, no less, with special screenings in the format), and the experience is all the better for it. Bowie fans are in for a real treat.

#TIFF22 Review: Hunt (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8th to 18th.

The directorial debut of Korean actor Lee Jung-jae (the Emmy-winning star of Squid Game), Hunt is a political thriller set at the height of tensions between North and South Korea in the 1980s. Lee stars in the film as KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho, who is working with Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung) to investigate a mole within the agency.

As they search for the identity of a North Korean spy who goes by the codename Donglim, both men begin to suspect each other, with the clock running out as they try to thwart an assassination attempt against the South Korean president. What unfolds is very much in the vein of a classic espionage thriller built around a game of cat and mouse. The film is slickly made, with Lee staging several decent action sequences ranging from brutal fights to flashy shootouts and car chases.

But the screenplay, co-written by Lee and Jo Seung-hee, feels overly convoluted and the characters aren’t developed well enough to really ground the narrative. Sure, Hunt has some intriguing politics involving attempts at reunification between the North and South, and it is often entertaining enough for its set-pieces and technical craftsmanship, with Lee and Jung both showing off their decent chops as international action stars. But I found it hard to really connect to the film on a deeper emotional level, making the whole thing feel like a bit of an empty spectacle by the end.

#TIFF22 Review: The Eternal Daughter (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8th to 18th.

British writer-director Joanna Hogg follows up her one-two punch of The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II with The Eternal Daughter, a simmering, haunting mother-daughter story that is infused with elements of Gothic Horror.

The film stars Tilda Swinton in a captivating dual role as both mother and daughter. Julie is a middle-aged filmmaker who wants to write a screenplay based on her elderly mother’s life, with the two deciding to spend some time together at an old, seemingly deserted manor around her mother’s birthday. The two settle into a mundane daily routine that mainly involves eating, sleeping, and going for walks. But Julie starts to grow frustrated as she struggles to write, trying to get her mother to open up more about her memories of the manor as she prepares her Christmas cards, and we sense a distance between them.

The film opens with them being driven to the manor by a cab driver (August Joshi) who recounts the story of a woman’s ghostly face appearing in one of his wedding photos taken at the place, and this sets the stage for the film. We get the sense that something is off almost immediately. The manor itself is a mysterious space right out of a classic ghost story, filled with a sense of romance as well as dark secrets, where winds howl and strange noises wake them up at night.

The wintery, Christmastime setting adds to the evocative feel of Hogg’s film, as does the gorgeous 35mm cinematography, which heightens both the foggy exteriors and faded interiors. Hogg also makes the artistic choice to mostly frame her characters in separate shots, cutting back and forth between them during dialogue scenes. This provides a fascinating acting exercise for Swinton, who has to play two separate characters while imbuing them with eerily similar qualities. The film also plays with time in some interesting ways, making it feel as if they stuck in a sort of endless loop.

If The Eternal Daughter often moves slowly and doesn’t necessarily have the same immediate impact as either of the Souvenir films, it’s a work that I imagine will linger and grow over time. It’s a moody drama about the power of memory and how certain spaces can retain these memories, that plays out beautifully onscreen.

#TIFF22 Review: Joyland (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8th to 18th.

Pakistani filmmaker Saim Sadiq makes his feature debut with Joyland, firmly establishing himself as a very exciting new voice in international cinema. Adapted from his 2019 short film Darling, Sadiq’s film, which was awarded the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes as well as the Queer Palm, explores gender roles and sexual identity in modern Pakistan.

Haider Rana (Ali Junejo) is a married but unemployed man whose wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) has a job, which is a sore point with his father (Salmaan Peerzada), who wants Haider to be more like his older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer). Instead, Haider is a stay-at-home husband who has taken on the more stereotypically feminine roles of cooking, cleaning, and helping care for his brother and sister-in-law’s (Sarwat Gilani) two young daughters.

In one upsetting but powerful scene, Haider’s father asks him to slaughter a goat by slitting its throat, which he can’t bring himself to do, so his wife takes the knife and does it herself, to the disdain of his father. Pressed to find a job to get out of the house and earn money, Haider gets work as part of a dance troupe, and becomes a backup dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman. He keeps his involvement with the troupe a secret from his family, and ends up emotionally torn when he starts to develop feelings for Biba.

Sadiq, who co-wrote the nuanced screenplay with Maggie Briggs, does a good job of building up to the emotional ending, showing the cascading effects of homophobia, transphobia and sexual repression in a traditional society. He lays the groundwork to ensure that we are engaged enough in the characters to be involved in their story, with Haider serving as a refreshingly complex protagonist who is believably portrayed by Junejo.

One of the most impressive aspect of Joyland, aside from the naturalistic performances of its cast, is the cinematography by Joe Saade, with a visual language to the film that is quite compelling and really sets it apart. Saade not only does an excellent job of shooting the film’s vibrant dance sequences, but finds interesting framing choices that enrich the dialogue scenes as well. The result is a visually dynamic and highly promising debut from Sadiq.

#TIFF22 Reviews: No Bears (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8th to 18th.

The latest film from the currently imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, No Bears is a work of meta filmmaking that weaves together two narratives. Panahi casts himself as a filmmaker who is directing his latest work remotely from a small village just over the Turkish border, with his assistant director Reza (Reza Heydari) clandestinely delivering him hard drives containing the footage in the dead of night.

In the film-within-a-film that Panahi is directing over video calls through a spotty internet connection, a couple (played by Mina Kavani and Bakhtiyar Panjeei) are trying to secure fake passports to escape to France. The film takes on yet another level and becomes even more of an exercise in meta storytelling, as Panahi’s character gets bombarded by the local villagers for a photo of a young couple that they believe he has taken.

The film takes on a farcical quality at this point as the various locals confront him, with Panahi – as both filmmaker and character – playfully challenging the village’s adherence to traditional religious customs that subjugate women. If No Bears takes a little while to reveal itself, the film works as an entertaining and at times powerful semi-autobiographical work from Panahi. It constantly blurs the line between fact and fiction, in its own way becoming a statement on his arrest and how he has been judged for his boundary-pushing art.

In its best moments, such as a powerful nighttime meeting between Panahi and his AD at the amorphous land border where human smugglers carry people across, and an equally memorable scene later on that gives the film its amusing yet haunting title, No Bears subtly presents itself as a statement on how superstition and stories are used to keep us in fear. What a message from a filmmaker who has been unfairly locked up by his country’s government for his art.

#TIFF22 Review: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (TIFF Docs)

September 19, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8th to 18th.

Nan Goldin is an artist and photographer who has set her sights on holding Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family to account for creating and pushing the drug OxyContin, and fuelling the opioid crisis ravaging America. Goldin’s story’s is told in the poetically titled documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, with director Laura Poitras (the fearless filmmaker behind Citizenfour) weaving together thrilling footage of Goldin’s art protests in the wings of museums bearing the Sackler name, with an engaging biography of her life and career told through a selection of images from her body of work.

Through her activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which she founded after battling her own addiction to the painkillers, Goldin is determined to expose the Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid crisis and continuing to profit off of it. The family has positioned themselves as philanthropists by donating money and lending their name to museums, including ones displaying Goldin’s work. It’s the naming rights that Goldin is protesting when she stages “die-ins” at museums like The Met, as captured in the documentary’s thrillingly on-the-fly opening scene, that include unfurling banners and dropping leaflets and empty pill bottles before lying down on the ground.

Through interviews with Goldin and archival footage, Poitras takes us back in time to show how Goldin was at the forefront of New York’s underground art scene in the 1970s and ’80s, including her radical and controversial photo collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency that made waves when it was first published. Poitras explores Goldin’s close connections to the queer community, and how government inaction on the AIDS epidemic ties into what is happening now in regards to the opioid crisis, with P.A.I.N.’s demonstrations being inspired by those of the gay activist group ACT UP.

It’s a testament to both the filmmaking and Goldin as a subject that the two halves of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed are nearly equally compelling, with Poitras doing an excellent job of weaving the different story threads together into a single compelling narrative. The emotional centre of the film is the story of Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was institutionalized and died by suicide, with the artist unpacking a history of family trauma and how it has influenced her work as both artist and activist.

Right before it screened at TIFF, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed was announced as the winner of the prestigious Golden Lion at Venice, making it only the second documentary to be awarded that festival’s top prize (following Sacro GRA in 2013). After seeing the film, it’s easy to see why it won. This is a powerful documentary that easily ranks among the best of the year.

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