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Blu-ray Review: Heaven is for Real

July 22, 2014

Heaven is for Real Blu-ray

Heaven is for Real – A Sony Pictures Release

http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/heavenisforreal/
Blu-ray Release Date: July 22nd, 2014
Rated PG for thematic material
Running time: 99 minutes

Randall Wallace (dir.)

Randall Wallace (screenplay)
Christopher Parker (screenplay)

Based on the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent

Nick Glennie-Smith (music)

Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo
Connor Corum as Colton Burpo
Kelly Reilly as Sonja Burpo
Thomas Haden Church as Jay Wilkins
Lane Styles as Cassie Burpo
Margo Martindale as Nancy Rawling

Our reviews below:

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Heaven is for Real Blu-ray Review By John Corrado

**1/2 (out of 4)

After Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) goes to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy and nearly doesn’t make it through the surgery, the young boy starts claiming to have visited Heaven during the operation.  Although his father Todd (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of their local church, and his mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and older sister Cassie (Lane Styles) are also very religious, they aren’t prepared for the fantastical visions that Colton starts to describe, and the controversy that his experience ignites throughout their town.

Based on a true story, Heaven is for Real was the subject of a bestselling book.  I don’t fault audiences for finding joy and even profound inspiration in Colton’s story, and it’s easy to take comfort in the more intimate details of his experience.  I just wish this was a more even film.  Directed by Randall Wallace, who last helmed the great Secretariat, Heaven is for Real had the potential to be something more than just another religious melodrama.  But the production is too glossy, the screenwriting just okay, and the overly sappy tone often overshadows the more dramatic elements.  Although with fine performances and a well intentioned story, faithful audiences should at least find lots to enjoy.

The Blu-ray also has deleted scenes and a couple of featurettes, including one with the Burpo family.

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Heaven is for Real Blu-ray Review By Erin V.

**1/2 (out of 4)

Based on the true story and best-selling book by Todd Burpo (played here by Greg Kinnear), Heaven Is For Real is about a family in Nebraska whose son after getting emergency surgery told them he went to Heaven during the procedure.  Young Colton Burpo (newcomer Connor Corum) is just four years old, and lives in a home where faith is strong (his father is the local pastor).  Predictably, some people are uncomfortable with the family talking about what Colton explains he experiences.

The film has its problems in its set-up, and structure.  We get an extended first act before the inciting incident of Colton’s surgery even happens.  A lot focuses on the father near the beginning and since the story really revolves around what Colton says (“Heaven is for real”) it doesn’t make sense that we don’t get to that part until almost a third of the way through the film.  Most of the set-up seems to be trying to establish how religious the family is, but that was clear within the first five minutes.

Once the inciting incident does happen, things pick up a bit, then stall out again.  The second and third act are almost indistinguishable from each other, with no really amping up of any stakes or real buildup to the climax and resolution.  The fact is, tonally we get almost complacent and never move past this, which takes us out of the film.  I get that it’s based on a true story – but these are structuring issues that with a few scene adjustments can be dealt with without compromising the story they have decided to tell.

For those who loved the book, I’m sure they will enjoy seeing the story brought to screen.  Unfortunately this is a film that could have been done better.  Still, for a rental if you’re interested, it’s easy enough to check out for yourself now that it’s on DVD.

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Heaven is for Real Blu-ray Review By Nicole

**1/2 (out of 4)

Based on the true story of the same name, Heaven is for Real is a harmless Christian movie for families.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a small town pastor who is struggling with his faith.  But when his four year old son Colton (newcomer Connor Corum) gets appendicitis, he experiences a powerful out of body experience during his surgery.

Colton did not have a near death experience, since he didn’t go into cardiac arrest, or lose any brain function.  It should be emphasized to young viewers that Colton never died.  Some children associate being “put to sleep” for surgery with death.  Children may also be confused into thinking Heaven is somewhere to go on vacation, as opposed to an afterlife.  Colton’s experience was a mystic, prophetic and spiritual vision, but his soul likely never actually left his body.  Simply experiencing a spiritual vision would have still been a miracle.

Todd is unaware of Colton’s vision, until he mentions visiting Jesus, angels, his late great granddad whom he never met, and an older sister who died as a miscarriage.  Colton couldn’t have seen these people unless he really did go on a mental trip to Heaven.  Colton’s parents desperately want their son to be “normal,” but eventually realize his unique experience maybe what our increasingly secular world needs to gain enlightenment.  I would love to see a film about the young mystic artist Akiane Kramarik who is briefly mentioned in the film.  Her Prince of Peace painting is absolutely haunting.

Heaven is for Real is not that great in terms of filmmaking.  While the acting is fine, the Heaven scenes are laughably cheesy and silly looking.  The movie also seems a little long.  But its message is really good.  One thing I loved was the mention of animals in Heaven, including Jesus’ “Horse of a Different Colour.”  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t show the heavenly animals.  However, their mention subtly proves animals do have souls, a notion that many people sadly disregard.

I also like that they showed a Middle Eastern Jesus, a subtle message that Jesus is universal, not just a saviour for the Western world.  We need more people to help bring Christianity back to its universal, multicultural and animal friendly roots.  Heaven is for Real is a gentle film that sparks important discussions about how we can bring heavenly qualities back to Earth.

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Heaven is for Real Blu-ray Review By Maureen

**1/2 (out of 4)

Now that Heaven is for Real is available on the home entertainment market, a lot of Christian families will want to add this film to their personal library.  Based on a true story and adapted from the New York Times bestseller with the same title, Heaven is for Real touched a lot of people and sparked discussions about the existence of heaven.

Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) was four years old when he had a near death experience while undergoing an emergency appendectomy.  During that time, Colton said he saw angels, met Jesus and relatives whom he had never met.  Colton’s father Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) was a Nebraskan pastor whose Christian faith was challenged by the extraordinary things his son was sharing with him.

This movie version of the Burpo family’s story will appeal to Christian believers looking for a sentimental film that the whole family can sit together to watch.  The acting is decent, with Greg Kinnear giving a good performance and young Connor Corum lighting up the screen with his adorably innocent face.  The storyline is a little on the melodramatic side at times, and drags in more than one scene.  As for the special effects in the heavenly visions, I sincerely hope things won’t look that cheesy when I finally go through the pearly gates.

If you liked the book and are a believer, then Heaven is for Real is worth checking out on disc.  Church groups and Christian families will be the main audience for this movie.

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Heaven is for Real Blu-ray Review By Tony

**1/2 (out of 4)

Heaven is for Real is based on a recent best selling book by Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) about apparitions of Heaven related by his four year old son Colton (Connor Corum) in 2003. Todd is a small town Nebraska preacher who also volunteers as a firefighter and high school coach, struggling to make ends meet as an installer of garage doors in a depressed economy, particularly once the hospital bills come due.

Colton’s near death and out of body experiences during an emergency appendectomy included vivid visions of Heaven, Jesus and some dead people that he couldn’t have known about otherwise. When Todd shares his son’s story with the congregation the response is mixed between inspiration and skepticism, and church elders Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church) and Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) are afraid he may have to be replaced. Even Todd’s wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is troubled, but remains loyal and loving throughout.

Heaven is for Real is a decent American Protestant counterpart to apparition accounts from Lourdes, Fatima and more recently Medjugorje that have provided inspiration for many Catholics. Written and directed by Randall Wallace, it is anything but subtle, much more like a Hallmark or Christian film than would be expected from its Sony TriStar studios. The heavenly visions are particularly weird, with strange lighting and colours and angels that reminded me of a blurred vision of TriStar’s flying horse logo.

However, Todd’s thoughtful responses to his son’s experience, with excellent performances from Greg Kinnear and Connor Corum, make the film worth seeing beyond its target churchgoing audience.

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Consensus: Although the visuals sometimes falter and the story can feel melodramatic, Heaven is for Real is a decent film for Christian families, with fine performances from Greg Kinnear and newcomer Connor Corum. **1/2 (out of 4)

Digital Release: Made in America

July 22, 2014

Made in America Poster

After premiering at TIFF last year, Phase 4 Films is releasing Made in America on all home entertainment platforms today, including video on demand.

Directed by Ron Howard, the documentary follows the staging of the Made in America music festival in Philadelphia, a massive outdoor concert masterminded by iconic rapper Jay Z.  The idea is to bring together and showcase different kinds of music, uniting people and lifting them up from the hardships that we all face.

As a fan of many of the performers involved, I really enjoyed this film.  Mixing engaging interviews with vibrant performance footage of everyone from Jay Z and soul singer Janelle Monae to blues man Gary Clark Jr. and rock band Pearl Jam, Made in America is an entertaining and inspirational concert film that celebrates the power of music to pull people together.

Made in America is 93 minutes and unrated.

-John Corrado

Review: Snowpiercer

July 21, 2014

By John Corrado

**** (out of 4)

Snowpiercer Poster

When talking about the the sheer spectacle and mayhem on display in Snowpiercer, someone describes it as “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot,” and late in the game this becomes the perfect description of South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s latest epic.

After months of anticipation, Snowpiercer finally opened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox over the weekend, and I’m pleased to announce that it’s one of the best movies of the year.  This is a fascinating and exhilarating piece of visionary science fiction filmmaking that provokes thought and keeps us glued to the edge of our seats, right up to the breathtaking final scene.

The year is 2031, and most of the human population is extinct due to a failed experiment to reverse global warming.  Temperatures have dropped so low that the entire Earth has frozen and become uninhabitable, with the remaining human population circling the planet onboard a massive train.  The rich ones live at the front controlling the engine, with the poorest people being relegated to the back where they are treated like dirt, under the stern watch of Mason (Tilda Swinton).

But a group of revolutionaries from the final car, including leader Curtis (Chris Evans), his young friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), fiercely protective mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and their unofficial patriarch Gilliam (John Hurt), have plans to take over the train.  This means fighting their way to the front and facing new adversaries in every car, relying on security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) to open the doors, who seek only hallucinogenic drugs made from industrial waste in return.

The use of this train to introduce metaphors of classism and the rift between the rich and the poor, who are world’s apart but often only steps away, is simply ingenious.  Every section has its own unique visual style, from the carefully detailed steampunk look of the final car, to the garish affluence of the other passengers that is revealed as they get farther along the train.  These scenes sometimes resemble what The Hunger Games might look like on acid, and both in style and themes, Snowpiercer also has shades of everything from The Cabin in the Woods to the work of Terry Gilliam.

But Snowpierecer still manages to feel blindingly unique, surprising us at every turn.  From the darkly beautiful cinematography, to the expertly choreographed action sequences and propulsive editing that ties everything together, this is one of the most spectacular and brilliantly realized science fiction films in recent memory.  There are countless scenes here that reach a level of visual poetry, including a fight with axes that is seen through night vision goggles as the train rockets through a tunnel and is plunged into darkness, before a live flame is introduced to give us fiery flashes of the carnage on display.

Although distributor Harvey Weinstein controversially planned to cut his standard twenty minutes from Snowpiercer for this theatrical release, we should all be thankful that director Bong Joon Ho’s vision ultimately won out in the end.  This is just such a tightly wound experience that I honestly don’t know what scenes could have been left out, as every little element and detail ties together, with a nonstop sense of tension coursing through its veins.

The uniformly excellent performances are also a big part of this success, and Chris Evans is simply stunning in the leading role.  As we already know from his work as Captain America, he really rocks the scenes of fighting and hand to hand combat, and Snowpiercer incidentally features some of the best action sequences since The Winter Soldier earlier this year.  But the actor also excels during the quieter character moments, and the way his performance changes with a story that he tells near the end of the film really blew me away, as we watch this action star become deeply bruised and broken.

This all adds up to something mesmerizing, a mix of seamless choreography and haunting imagery, all underscored by powerful allegories on humanity and where we could be headed as a civilization.  But it’s the train itself that becomes the perfect analogy for the constant forward momentum of Snowpiercer, an across the board triumph that manages to be disturbing, wildly entertaining and impressive on every imaginable technical level.  I already can’t wait to watch this one again.

Movie Review: Planes: Fire & Rescue

July 18, 2014

Fire & Rescue Poster

Planes: Fire & Rescue – A Walt Disney Pictures Release

http://movies.disney.com/planes-fire-and-rescue
Release Date: July 18th, 2014
Rated G for action and some peril
Running time: 84 minutes

Roberts Gannaway (dir.)

Jeffrey M. Howard (characters)

Mark Mancina (music)

Dane Cook as Dusty Crophopper (voice)
Ed Harris as Blade Ranger (voice)
Julie Bowen as Lil’ Dipper (voice)
Curtis Armstrong as Maru (voice)
John Michael Higgins as Cad (voice)
Hal Holbrook as Mayday (voice)
Wes Studi as Windlifter (voice)
Brad Garrett as Chug (voice)
Teri Hatcher as Dottie (voice)
Stacy Keach as Skipper (voice)
Cedric the Entertainer as Leadbottom (voice)
Danny Mann as Sparky (voice)

Fire & Rescue

©Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) in Planes: Fire & Rescue.

Our reviews below:

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Planes: Fire & Rescue Review By John Corrado

**1/2 (out of 4)

This might sound like faint praise, but Planes: Fire & Rescue is actually a better movie than Disney’s financially successful but thoroughly middle of the road Pixar spinoff from last year.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still a film made squarely to entertain kids young enough to tug on the arms of their parents to take them to the toy store afterwards.  But this sequel at least works better at what it sets out to do, providing harmless entertainment and even excitement to the youngest of moviegoers.

After fulfilling his dreams of becoming a racer, modest crop duster Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is feeling the wear and tear of flying fast on his gear box.  When he burns out and accidentally causes a fire that gets their town of Propwash Junction shut down, he decides to get outfitted with water tanks and become a firefighter.  Stationed near Piston Peaks National Park, home to a popular tourist resort run by the sleazy Cad (John Michael Higgins) who cares more about making money than keeping vehicles safe, Dusty finds his true purpose dousing forest fires and protecting campers.

Making money was obviously a driving factor behind the choice to start this franchise in the first place, and in a summer strapped for children’s entertainment, Disney will surely reap the financial rewards of Planes: Fire & Rescue from both the box office and inevitable toy sales.  The sometimes stereotyped characters are still pretty derivative with few plot points that we don’t see coming, and adults will likely find their attention wandering throughout the simplistic and largely predictable story.

But Planes: Fire & Rescue is also a step up from the first film in pretty much every way, and we can at least be thankful for that.  The animation is better, the set pieces are more engaging, and the story does get points for providing a heartfelt tribute to real life firefighters, with some authentic and even stirring scenes amidst the blazes.  As a whole, this sequel is more well intentioned in a way that the first film wasn’t, which is certainly a step in the right direction for the inevitable third instalment.

Sitting near me at the screening of Planes: Fire & Rescue, there was a little boy clutching a flashing and talking toy airplane, that kept going off during the movie.  This is the age Planes: Fire & Rescue is made for, and anyone who is too old to bring toys to the theatre might not be equally engaged.  But kids who still carry around their plastic counterparts of the characters are guaranteed to love the film, and I can’t really argue with that.

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Planes: Fire & Rescue Review By Erin V.

**1/2 (out of 4)

A sequel to the 2013 film Planes (itself a Disney-made spinoff of Pixar’s Cars world), Planes: Fire & Rescue tells the story of Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), who after winning a huge around the world race in the first film now is becoming certified as a fire-fighting plane in order to meet a requirement to have an extra firefighter at his own local Propwash Junction airport.  The opening scenes of the film feel really ordinary and very pedestrian – it seems like they are trying to do their own Radiator Springs thing with Propwash Junction, but it falls way short.

Once the film gets to the firefighting training base though, things pick up.  The rest of the film is focused on fighting forest fires and Dusty’s journey to become a firefighter.  Real firefighters were used as consultants on the film and the forest fire scenes are quite well done, with good animation and the planes using real techniques to fight the flames.  There is a real sense of peril here – if you are under 10.  The kids in the theatre seemed genuinely invested at the scary moments, although for the adults in the audience, it is very clear exactly where the film is going to end up.

I’ll be honest.  At times, I was bored, especially early on.  As an adult I recognize that I am not the target demographic for this film.  It is predictable to the level that it seems practically written with each beat obviously falling precisely where it should be and stereotyped one-note characters.

In particular I found the characters of Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen) and Windlifter (Wes Studi) to be extremely one-note.  While all the characters fulfill a stereotype/archetype, they seemed to fulfill more positive ones (hero, mentor, etc.) than these two.  Sure Dipper is starstruck by Dusty at the beginning, but as a professional working with him as a firefighter she honestly never moves beyond squealing at him every time he appears?  And does Windlifter really have to only speak in hard to understand quotes?  It’s screenwriting shortcuts to creating characters like these that never allow the film to become more interesting – because we can’t really relate to these one-note characters.

Overall, for a summer film, I’d rather see parents bring little kids to this than anything else out in theatres right now.  Certainly for the under 6-8 crowd, this is really the only film that is completely appropriate for them.  But for older audiences looking for flying scenes in 3D, find a theatre playing HTTYD 2Planes: Fire & Rescue is an improvement on the first instalment, but is consistently afraid to take the risk and push the engine into the red.

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Planes: Fire & Rescue Review By Nicole

**1/2 (out of 4)

Families will remember the first Planes movie, where Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) beat the odds to become a race plane.  In this adventure, Dusty breaks his gear box, and no replacement can be found.  It seems like the end of racing for him.  Things get worse when a small fire breaks out in his airpark.  They only have an old firetruck, not enough for a big emergency.  To save the airpark, Dusty sets off to train with the forest fire fighting planes at Piston Peaks National Park.  There he makes new friends, and must work together to save the tourists.

Planes: Fire & Rescue adds a new element to the vehicular Cars and Planes worlds.  The animation is sharper than the first film, and the storyline is a bit stronger too.  There are many fun firefighting sequences, some of which may frighten very small children.  Parents may also be aware of Windlifter (Wes Studi), who perpetuates First Nation stereotypes.  But overall, Planes: Fire & Rescue will appeal to the 6-10 range, and is entertaining enough for adults too.  I especially liked the deer trucks and balsa wood birdplanes.  Airplane and firefighting fans of all ages will really enjoy this film.

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Planes: Fire & Rescue Review By Maureen

**1/2 (out of 4)

Last summer, DisneyToon Studios released Planes, a followup of sorts to the popular Disney/Pixar Cars franchise.  Younger children in particular took to Planes in a big way, so for those who can’t get enough of talking airplanes, Planes: Fire & Rescue is here to save the summer and give young ones a movie they can call their own.

Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is still every planes idol back in Propwash Junction, as he continues to win flying races.  But all that changes in an instant when his mechanic Dottie (Teri hatcher) diagnoses a failing gearbox after Dusty crashes into a building and starts a fire at the airpark.  Propwash’s firetruck Mayday (Hal Holbrook) realizes their little airpark is ill-equipped to handle bigger fires.  When the TMST (Transportation Safety) threatens to shut them down until they meet fire safety regulations, Dusty does the honourable thing and wings up to become an aerial firefighter.

Dusty flies off to Piston Peaks National Park to train with the experienced helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), and his dedicated team of forest firefighters including Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen) and obviously Native ‘copter Windlifter (Wes Studi).  Dusty’s flying skills are put into use right away, as forest fires are only a lightning strike or unattended campfire away.

It’s the forest fire sequences that makes this Planes sequel a couple of notches above the original.  Fire fighting techniques and the perils involved are shown realistically.  The fire scenes rise above the cuteness of the rest of the film and show enough action and good animation to keep older kids and adults engaged.  There is one nighttime fire sequence that is particularly well done.

Overall, Planes: Fire & Rescue pays fine tribute to the firefighting teams across North America who protect our beautiful forests.  Children who love airplanes will love this film.  There is an inherent cute factor to the talking vehicle that appeals to a lot of kids, and one little guy at the screening I attended sat clutching his toy Dusty airplane as he watched.  The under-fives were predictably talking through the movie with cries of “oh no!” when scarier things were happening onscreen suggesting they were following the story.

Planes: Fire & Rescue is a good choice for families wanting something younger children can appreciate.  Yes, it will play just as well on disc at home, but sometimes an outing at the movies with a bucket of popcorn is just what a family needs.  That’s what summer memories are made of.

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Planes: Fire & Rescue Review By Tony

**1/2 (out of 4)

Planes: Fire & Rescue is a sequel to last year’s Planes, in which the crop-dusting plane Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) became a famous long distance racer.  This has placed too much strain on his engine, and with replacement parts unavailable, he pursues a new career fighting forest fires at Piston Peak Park under the training of chief helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris). The team also includes the flirtatious water bomber Dipper (Julie Bowen), resourceful forklift mechanic Maru (Curtis Armstrong) and spiritual native copter Windlifter (Wes Studi). The good voice cast is rounded out by the old fire truck Mayday (Hal Holbrook), sleazy park superintendent Cad (John Michael Higgins), cabinet minister (Fred Willard), and a sweet old camper van couple, Harvey and Winnie (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara).

The Planes films come from DisneyToon Studios, with the bulk of the visuals outsourced to India’s Prana Studios, using Maya animation software developed here in Toronto. Though not in the same league as Pixar features, they are produced by John Lasseter and inspired by his own Cars films in their creation of vehicle characters. I found the original Cars brilliant and even liked Cars 2, though most critics have dismissed them as blatant toy generators.

Of course, the same criticism faces the Planes films even more. Though they are clearly aimed at children with simpler stories and broader humour, the aerial sequences are well done and the fires here provide added excitement. Adults may also be amused by the typical punning references to popular culture including a 70s/80s cop show, but I am not sure the native character was as favourably depicted as its distinguished Cherokee voice actor hoped.

In summary, Planes: Fire & Rescue is a good choice for families with young children. For those on a budget, the 2D version will be just fine. In most cases where I have seen both, the differences between 2D and 3D have little impact on the overall enjoyment of a film, particularly for little kids. At any rate, in either format it will be a good choice for the home market, where it can be repeatedly enjoyed by all ages.
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Consensus: Although the simplistic story is predictable and geared towards the youngest members of the audience, Planes: Fire & Rescue improves on the first film, with better animation and some more engaging firefighting sequences. **1/2 (out of 4)

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 16, 2014

By John Corrado

***1/2 (out of 4)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Poster

A few years back in the summer of 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes practically came out of nowhere to become one of the best moviegoing surprises in recent memory, a briskly paced franchise reboot that was as exciting as it was smart.

Now comes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a rare sequel that lives up to the potential of the already great first film, expanding the characters and story in sometimes shocking ways.  Opening atop the box office last weekend, this is the smartest and most genuinely disturbing blockbuster of the summer so far, an exhilarating and fascinating film that left me shaken.

The story picks up ten years after the events of the first film.  Many of the humans have fallen victim to a deadly virus unleashed by the failed cure for Alzheimer’s that brought heightened intelligence to the apes, and the ensuing government and nuclear fallout that the epidemic caused.  Under the leadership of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes have built up their own civilization just outside of San Francisco, living peacefully away from people and communicating through sign language and basic speech.

But then a group of survivors, including architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and former nurse Ellie (Keri Russell), stumble upon their habitat looking for access to the dam located deep in the woods that could restore their power.  Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is the leader of the remaining humans, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to regain their power, even leading them into battle against the apes.  Likewise, tortured bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell) is immediately distrustful of the people, doing whatever he can to keep them away.

The apes have become increasingly intelligent, but Caesar has gone beyond that and developed empathy, a trait which not even all of the humans share.  Although now a father who wants the best for his two sons, he also still feels kinship with the humans who raised him, and because of this reaches a treaty with Malcolm that allows the people to work on their land.  But when the apes and humans come together, they ultimately clash in ways that inevitably won’t end peacefully.

Things escalate and quickly turn violent from both sides, revealing that in moments of conflict, humans and apes really aren’t that different.  Both human and animal bodies pile up, as machine guns often fire directly towards the camera, and if this visceral intensity and violence makes you uncomfortable, then I think that’s the point.  Although packing the multiplexes as a huge summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is actually a sobering sequel that ends on a sombre note, with a haunting final scene that sticks with us long after leaving the theatre.

The screenplay challenges the audience with intelligent and very real allegories of senseless gun violence and what leads to war, which are pretty fearless messages for a big budget film.  Director Matt Reeves does great work behind the camera, staging several knockout action sequences, as well as some quieter character moments that are equally mesmerizing to watch.  There are long stretches free of conventional dialogue, as the apes talk to each other through subtitled sign language.

The artists at WETA have truly taken the motion capture technology to the next level, seamlessly mixing the animated animals with their live action counterparts and gorgeously photographed backgrounds.  But the real star here is Andy Serkis, delivering a stunning and complex performance behind the digital mask of Caesar.  It’s hard to tell where the actor ends and the character begins, and he deserves serious awards recognition, with a role that should make the Academy rethink their past decisions not to honour motion capture performances.

Neither the humans or the apes are painted as the clear cut heroes of the story, but rather there are good and bad of both species.  The true heroes are the ones like Caesar and Malcolm, who understand each other’s needs, looking for peaceful solutions in a world trying to settle things through conflict.  The villains are Dreyfus and Koba, who feel there is only room for one or the other.  All of their actions are driven by the most basic needs for survival.  The humans need power and shelter, living in fear of the apes.  The apes need their own home and natural habitat, contrarily living in fear of the humans.

It’s these shades of grey that are evident throughout the storytelling and visually arresting production design that make Dawn of the Planet of the Apes so impressive.  This is one of the best and most thought provoking films of the year so far, a disturbing and stunningly realized sequel that expands the now famous mythology in some surprisingly intelligent ways, leaving us shaken and anxiously awaiting the next instalment.

Blu-ray Release: Rio 2

July 15, 2014

Rio 2 Blu-ray

Today, 20th Century Fox is releasing Rio 2 on Blu-ray & DVD.  Continuing the charming adventures of Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), this is a harmless and entertaining enough animated sequel that kids are going to love.  We reviewed Rio 2 when the film was in theatres back in April, and our overall consensus was:

“Although Rio 2 isn’t as fresh as the wonderful first film, this is still a cute and brightly animated sequel that family audiences are sure to enjoy, with appealing characters and a good environmental message for those of all ages. *** (out of 4)”

The Blu-ray includes a deleted scene, several featurettes, a lyric video for the catchy Janelle Monae song “What is Love,” and the Almost Home teaser short.

Rio 2 is 101 minutes and rated G.

-John Corrado

Review: Boyhood

July 14, 2014

By John Corrado

**** (out of 4)

Boyhood Poster

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is lying in the grass and staring up at the blue sky, the distinctive sound of Coldplay’s “Yellow” playing on the soundtrack, as his single mother (Patricia Arquette) arrives and picks him up from school.  This is the already iconic opening scene of Boyhood, a moment so beautifully captured that it evokes any number of memories from our own childhood.

It’s impossible to preface a review of Boyhood without first talking about the filmmaking process.  Director Richard Linklater started the production way back in 2002, filming about fifteen minutes of footage over a few weeks every summer until 2013, using the same dedicated actors to craft a tightly scripted narrative film that unfolds almost like a documentary.

But perhaps even more impressive than this groundbreaking twelve year approach, is just how beautifully and seamlessly the finished project has come together.  I first saw Boyhood exactly a month ago when the film premiered through NXNE, and certain scenes and little things keep coming back to me, as if they are my own memories of growing up.  Already doing very well in limited release stateside, Boyhood opens in Toronto on Friday.

Mason lives with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), the two of them fighting and also looking out for each other, just like any siblings would.  It’s not long before their mother announces they are moving so that she can further her studies, and they end up sharing a house with her divorced professor (Marco Perella) and his two kids, which starts a series of unfortunate relationships.  This is all captured through a compassionate lens, often contemplating why some people get caught in the trap of making the same mistakes all over again.

Even as they move around Texas, Mason and Samantha still spend weekends hanging out with their father (Ethan Hawke), a lovable slacker who is going through his own growing process, taking them to baseball games and on camping trips where he sometimes seems more like best friend than parent.  With these characters providing a compelling backdrop, we watch Mason mature from the first grade to his first day of college, developing his own political ideas and sense of identity along the way.

As one character finally hits their stride, another feels their regrets building up, and I’ve never seen the passage of time captured in quite this way before.  Even for those of us who haven’t gone through all of the rocky family situations and revolving stepfathers that are such a part of Mason’s life, it’s impossible not to find relatable moments throughout the film.  Because what Boyhood captures so beautifully is all of the emotions that come with growing up, from heartbreak and drama, to the moments of exhilaration and joy that also happen along the way.

Although running for 166 minutes, Boyhood moves surprisingly quickly, just like real life.  The film begins and ends at just the right moments, filled with plenty of perfect little scenes that often feel like memories from our own experience, the things that we remember as the defining moments that helped shape who we are.  The years are sometimes marked by historical references, and other times just by slight changes in appearance, all seamlessly edited together to create a singular work of art that washes over us and demands to be experienced more than once.

From the perfect song choices and evolving Apple products, as well as references to the aftermath of 9/11 and the historic 2008 presidential election, Boyhood serves as a mesmerizing time capsule of the first part of the 21st century.  Subtle clues are given as to what year we are in through pop culture references that are woven organically into the story, including a Harry Potter launch party and Samantha driving her brother crazy by singing a High School Musical song.  A brief conversation about possible Star Wars sequels seems almost prophetic in hindsight.

Recalling both the independent spirit of his early films like Slacker and Dazed and Confused, as well as the impressive scope of his masterful Before trilogy, Boyhood is almost like an encapsulation of Richard Linklater’s entire career so far.  He has proven himself time and again as one of the most original and unique filmmakers currently working, and it’s clear that he has a gift for capturing the little moments that ultimately become most important in our lives, and how people change over time.  These are characters who breathe and grow, and it takes a high calibre of actors to dedicate themselves to such a project.

Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances, with an engaging character arc that is allowed to develop over the course of the film.  Patricia Arquette is stunning throughout, carrying some of the heaviest dramatic moments, with a knockout scene at the end that allows us to see Mason’s growing up from the perspective of motherhood.  It’s mesmerizing to watch Ellar Coltrane essentially mature before our eyes, and he gives a performance of uncommon depth for a young actor, perfect throughout every frame from the opening shots to the profoundly affecting final scene.

This is a film that speaks to the universal truth that we all grow up, gaining experiences and memories that stick with us and ultimately shape who we become.  Richard Linklater captures so many of these moments, that the film becomes a timeless portrait of life in all of its glory, from the joyful memories to the moments of heartbreak that can make us stronger.  Because of this, Boyhood could have easily been called Life Itself, if that name wasn’t already taken by another one of the most profoundly moving and inspiring films in recent memory.

Especially for those of us below a certain age, the unforgettable final few scenes of Boyhood pack a similar emotional punch to the ending of Toy Story 3, signifying the moments that come at the end of childhood, with the promise of a new life just around the corner.  Both in scope and lasting impact, the film also recalls Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life.  These characters become a part of our lives, like people who we crossed paths with growing up and keep thinking about, wanting to get back in touch and hoping they are going to turn out okay.

“Let me go, I don’t want to be your hero.”  These are the opening lyrics of the Family of the Year song “Hero” which plays beautifully near the end of the film, a bittersweet track that is matched by a hopeful melody.  “I don’t want to be your big man, just want to fight with everyone else.”  And through the words of this song, I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Boyhood.  This is a moving and transportive celebration of people who become heroes simply by going forward in their lives, a collection of memories that could belong to anyone, and in turn belong to all of us.

Boyhood is a one of a kind filmmaking experiment that has paid off in a big way for all involved.  The result is a unique cinematic experience that is as quietly profound as watching life evolve and change before our eyes, and is undoubtedly one of the best and most important films of the year.

Review: Life Itself

July 11, 2014

By John Corrado

**** (out of 4)

Life Itself Poster

Roger Ebert is one of the main reasons why I became a writer, and like so many of us in this field, his reviews are the sole inspiration behind my choice to become a film critic.  Because of this, Life Itself is somewhat ironically hard for me to write about.

Considering my personal connection to the main subject, I find myself struggling with whether to keep this as strictly a review of the movie, or allow this article to become yet another remembrance of Roger Ebert.  Do I synopsize the story by recounting the details of his life, or write about the film purely as an emotional experience?

Both seem like valid ways to discuss Life Itself, a documentary inspired by Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, but words still fail me to describe the sheer power of seeing his life unfold onscreen.  I grew up watching his reviews and looked forward to them every week, and as I got older became fascinated with his life story as well, parts of which were revealed throughout his writing and blog posts, especially in his later years.

Roger Ebert was arguably the most important and easily the most famous film critic of all time, and when he passed away last year, I was heartbroken and found myself mourning the loss. But this deeply personal element is precisely what makes Life Itself so powerful, an extremely well made film that doesn’t shy away from the heartbreaking details of his untimely death, but also serves as a celebration of his life and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity.  This is exactly what the title suggests; a film about being alive in all its pain and glory.

Through excerpts from his memoirs and interviews with his friends and colleagues, the film beautifully brings to screen the story of Roger Ebert’s life, beginning with his young start as a traditional reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, which led to his work reviewing movies.  This paved the way for his starring role on TV alongside Gene Siskel, his rival from the Chicago Tribune across the street, which rocketed them to fame, both for their easily accessible forms of film criticism and their infamous arguments.  But when their opinions aligned and they both loved a movie, their shared passion could barely be contained.

Roger Ebert revolutionized the craft of criticism, understanding the importance of writing to heighten our appreciation and understanding of filmmaking, but also the need to distill these opinions into a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, which is exactly what made him and Gene Siskel so legendary.  They were larger than life personalities who became celebrities, and some of the funniest moments in Life Itself come from the juxtaposition that Roger Ebert was the screenwriter behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the revelation that Gene Siskel used to hang out with Hugh Hefner.

The narration is nicely edited together over priceless archival footage and invaluable clips from classic episodes of At the Movies, providing an entertaining time capsule of this bygone era when people still relied on newspapers, and film critics could become famous.  But Life Itself also never shies away from the darker elements of their story, including Gene Siskel’s heartbreakingly sudden death that drastically altered the course of the show, and the unfortunate details of Roger Ebert’s own struggles with cancer that claimed his ability to eat and speak.

But the loss of his voice and ability to appear on television in some ways made Roger Ebert an even more prolific writer, starting a blog where he candidly and eloquently spoke about topics ranging from ideas on philosophy to the everyday challenges of living with an acquired disability.  I often still visit his website, which is in good hands with a fine selection of new writers, just to read his old articles and reviews.  He also appreciated good music, and because of this the film is appropriately set to a perfect jazz soundtrack, including unforgettable uses of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

Through deeply moving interviews with his widow Chaz Ebert, whom he met through AA meetings and was the love of his life in every sense, as well as footage of them together in his final weeks, Life Itself introduces us to a different side of Roger Ebert.  A caring and sensitive side that made him so passionate about the movies he loved, to the point of mercilessly defending them against Gene Siskel.  Roger Ebert’s words could make or break a director and he understood this power, elevating the careers of filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani and even Martin Scorsese with his early appreciation of their work.

There is a beautiful serendipity then to the fact that Martin Scorsese produced Life Itself and the film is directed by Steve James, whose own career took off after Roger Ebert named his landmark documentary Hoop Dreams as the best movie of 1994.  The fact that Life Itself leaves us wanting to revisit the many films that Roger Ebert loved and championed over the years, including classics like Bonnie and Clyde and Raging Bull as well as independent pictures like Man Push Cart, is one of the things that I’m sure would have made him most proud.

Watching Life Itself is an inspiring and profoundly moving experience, and those are similar words that I would use to describe Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  Although that film is a work of fiction shot over an expanse of years that concerns itself with a life that is just beginning, and Life Itself is a documentary about a life well lived that is reaching its natural end, both films capture something very deep about the human condition.  Roger Ebert knew better than anyone that these are equally important moments in life, the beginning and end of a circular journey, and I’m certain he would have loved both films.

Filming started just five months before Roger Ebert passed away, and it’s hard not to wonder how things might have turned out had he lived to the end of the production, and to see the finished project.  But this is a film that takes us through every emotion, confronting death with the same clearheaded honesty and even optimism that Roger Ebert exhibited, and I think it’s safe to say that Life Itself would have gotten two thumbs up.  There are just so many powerful and unforgettable scenes throughout the film, that it’s impossible not to offer my highest recommendation.

Because Life Itself is simply one of the most important films of the year.  This is a work of astonishing empathy that pays moving tribute to Roger Ebert, and leaves us with an even deeper appreciation of the amazing body of work that he left behind.  It’s also an entertaining film that helps us further understand the lasting importance of cinema as an art form.  But most importantly, Life Itself is a heartfelt look at love and how one life can touch so many other lives, even when such things seem impossible, which are the reasons why we even go to movies in the first place.

Blu-ray Review: The Lunchbox

July 8, 2014

The Lunchbox Blu-ray

The Lunchbox – A Sony Pictures Classics Release

http://sonyclassics.com/thelunchbox/
Blu-ray Release Date: July 8th, 2014
Rated PG for thematic material
Running time: 105 minutes

Ritesh Batra (dir.)

Ritesh Batra (screenplay)

Max Richter (music)

Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes
Nimrat Kaur as Ila
Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh
Nakul Vaid as Rajeev

Our reviews below:

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The Lunchbox Blu-ray Review By John Corrado

***1/2 (out of 4)

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a lonely housewife who spends her days cooking homemade lunches for her often absent husband (Nakul Vaid), which are then sent to his work through Mumbai’s largely foolproof lunchbox delivery system.  But when one of the lunches is accidentally delivered to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a depressed office worker nearing retirement, the two form a bond through her cooking and the notes that they start sending back and forth, helping them come to terms with their fears and dreams for the future.

We really come to care about these two strangers through the letters and stories that they share, and watching their worlds come together is both charming and incredibly touching, as they find solace in revealing their hopes and regrets to each other.  With beautifully understated performances from Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, The Lunchbox is a powerfully written and profoundly affecting story of chance encounters and new beginnings, that is universally relatable.

The Blu-ray includes commentary with writer/director Ritesh Batra.

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The Lunchbox Blu-ray Review By Erin V.

**** (out of 4)

The Lunchbox – originally titled “Dabba” – is a quiet film that takes place in India.  The film focuses its premise on the lunchbox delivery system in Mumbai where couriers pick up thousands of lunch boxes each day from wives and caterers and deliver them to offices.

When Ila (Nimrat Kaur) makes a special meal for her husband, the lunchbox accidentally goes to another man instead, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan).  When she realizes the mistake, she puts a note inside the lunchbox the next day to see if it goes to the wrong place again.  It does, and Fernandes writes back.  Rather than tell the delivery service their error, from then on, a correspondence starts between Ila and Fernandes, each using it as an opportunity to talk about things in their lives that are hard to discuss face to face.  At first the anonymity feels safe, but soon they are curious to know who their pen pal actually is.

The film is beautifully made, and feels very real as it addresses the issues of two people at different points in their lives trying to come to terms with what their life has become and where it can go from here.  At times it has a melancholy reflectiveness, but also a very meditative view on the connections that come in and out of our lives.  Winning countless film festival awards, The Lunchbox is a beautiful little film that deserves to be seen now that it is on DVD.  The film is in Hindi and English, with English subtitles.

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The Lunchbox Blu-ray Review By Nicole

**** (out of 4)

“Sometimes the wrong train can get you to the right station.”  That line from The Lunchbox reflects the simple and very moving story of two needy people, who connect through a “mistake.”  When Ila (Nimrat Kaur) decides to send a special home cooked lunch through courier service to her increasingly distant husband, the lunchbox winds up going to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) instead, a lonely man nearing retirement.  A note carefully placed with the lunch cheers him up, and an exchange of notes get sent back and forth, helping them both.

The Lunchbox is a subtle, quiet film that captures the beauty of simple human connection.  The acting is perfect, beautifully underplayed and filled with emotion.  The slightly hazy, subdued lighting captures the loneliness and disconnect found in modern major cities.  The Lunchbox takes a critical look at the serious mental health toll of this increasing disconnect.  But this is also a dramedy, and has many funny moments.  One of the funniest characters is Auntie (Bharati Achreker), who is heard from above Ila’s apartment, but never seen.

The Lunchbox is a wonderful, universal story about the unseen positive affect of connecting with someone, even a complete stranger.

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The Lunchbox Blu-ray Review By Maureen

***1/2 (out of 4)

Life is full of unexpected little treats.  A note from a friend, a delicious homemade lunch, and writer/director Ritesh Batra’s delightful film The Lunchbox.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a stay at home wife and mother in Mumbai.  She starts her days getting daughter Yashvi (Yashvi Puneet Nager) off to school, and preparing a lovingly made lunchbox meal for her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), to be delivered to his workplace by a lunchbox delivery service.  Her hope is that the delicious lunches will get the attention of her often distracted and inattentive husband.

When the lunchbox is mistakenly delivered to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a lonely businessman near retirement, the mixup leads to an unexpected pen pal type friendship after Saajan includes a note commenting on the cooking with the returned empty lunchbox.  Egged on by her unseen but heard through the open window of the flat upstairs Auntie (Bharati Achreker), Ila responds back with a note of her own.  Soon Ila and Saajan are corresponding daily with the notes becoming increasingly personal, each sharing their fears, regrets, hopes and dreams.  The notes change them both in ways neither of them expected.

The Lunchbox is incredibly touching and sweet.  The quiet friendship between Ila and Saajan against the backdrop of busy, noisy Mumbai speaks volumes about the need for connection between people.  Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan give wonderfully subtle performances, making the connection between these two strangers completely believable.  This is also a charming and often funny film, with some of the funniest moments coming from Ila’s conversations with her unseen Auntie upstairs.

After making the 2013 film festival circuit, The Lunchbox is finally available on disc to anyone looking for a charming and touching story of two lonely people finding comfort in the discovery that someone else, even in a place as busy as Mumbai, India might actually enjoy sharing their thoughts and feelings, even if only through a series of lunchbox notes.

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The Lunchbox Blu-ray Review By Tony

***1/2 (out of 4)

The Lunchbox is set in Mumbai, where for over a century home-cooked or catered lunches have been delivered to Indian workers in stacked tin-plated steel containers (called tiffin boxes or Dabba–the Indian film title) kept warm in insulated bags. The thousands of typically illiterate dabbawalas pride themselves in the efficiency and near-perfect accuracy of their delivery system from kitchen to desk. This film deals with the one dabba in a million that goes astray.

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young mother trying to rekindle her husband’s love through really nice lunches prepared with helpful advice from her “auntie” (voice of Bharati Achrekar) in the flat above. Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a world weary widower accountant about to retire, not too thrilled about having to train his overeager replacement Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

When he gets Ila’s dabba by mistake he assumes it came from the caterer. Meanwhile, when her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) is not impressed with the catered lunch he got, Ila realizes the mixup but continues to send lunches including messages packed with the flatbread. Fernandes replies at first with comments on the food, but the correspondence quickly becomes more personal, as the two share and help each other cope with their problems. Whether they should ever meet in person is another question.

The first feature from director Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox is a delightful film with universal appeal, mainly carried by the two leads in their individual scenes. As a realistic portrait of middle class Indian life, it is a nice departure from flashy musicals and earlier films about poverty. Its quiet intensity reminded me of the recent Saudi film Wadjda, and interestingly both films have musical scores by Max Richter reverse outsourced to Germany.

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Consensus: Carried by wonderful performances from Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, The Lunchbox is a charming and beautifully written film about the profound power of human connection, that is touching and universally relatable. ***3/4 (out of 4)

DVD Release: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa .5

July 8, 2014

Bad Grandpa .5 DVD

Today, Paramount is releasing Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa .5 on DVD & Blu-ray.  A companion to last year’s admittedly amusing Bad Grandpa, this new feature takes us behind the scenes of the impressive makeup which got the film an Oscar nomination, edited together with some very funny interviews and outtakes involving Ellie (Catherine Keener) and Gloria (Spike Jonze).

Although being advertised as a sequel of sorts to the story of Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville), Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa .5 is essentially an extended making of featurette that might have been more at home as a bonus feature with the original release.  But it’s still fun to hear the actors talk about pranking real people, and this is an entertaining glimpse at their comedic process with lots of new footage, that is worth a look for anyone who enjoyed the first film.

The DVD includes no bonus features.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa .5 is 86 minutes and rated 14A.

-John Corrado

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