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Review: The November Man

August 27, 2014

By John Corrado

*1/2 (out of 4)

The November Man Poster

The return of Pierce Brosnan as an action star, in a spy movie no less, could have been reason for excitement.  But unfortunately one merely has to look at the late August release date to judge the overall quality of The November Man, a film that left me more tired than entertained.

This simply isn’t a very good movie, a routine and plodding thriller that uses the old cliche of a retired agent’s “one last mission” to tell a bleak and sometimes disturbingly violent story that boarders on exploitative.  For those still interested, The November Man opens today, courtesy of VVS Films.

I screened The November Man about three weeks ago, and still for the life of me can’t put together a coherent description of the plot, so I will just stick to the absolute basics.  Peter Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan) is a retired agent who gets back into the game when he becomes the target of David Mason (Luke Bracey), a newbie who used to be his protégé.  This involves protecting vulnerable witness Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), and something to do with the Russian government.

By this point I think it’s already clear that I wasn’t a fan of The November Man.  But there is a lot more to talk about than just the knee-jerk reaction of my star rating, like why I don’t think the film works and for precisely what reasons.  The character development is barely surface deep, with the dialogue serviceable at best and the most memorable lines being of the unintentionally laughable variety.  The camerawork is also nothing special, often framed at odd angles with some tacky slow motion bits to accentuate the gory sprays of bright red blood.

This is nothing we haven’t seen before, and The November Man feels like a thoroughly by the numbers affair, as if this was a series of scenes strung together through a checklist.  We get the usual images of agents sharing information and graphic evidence photos while sitting at cafes where they are shocked when someone else is watching them, and people sitting in dark rooms using advanced computers to get a visual on the suspect.  This is all matched by a typically overbearing musical score.

Director Roger Donaldson awkwardly seems to end the film after barely ninety minutes, only to tack on an extra fifteen that feel like an attempt to copy Liam Neeson’s Taken with the pointless introduction of Devereaux’s daughter, before resolving the initial conflict in the few seconds before the credits.  Although Pierce Brosnan proves that he can still handle action scenes with a certain calculated coolness, and Olga Kurylenko is a fine supporting player, the rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to just plain campy.

The editing feels choppy and rote, and when the story tries to be politically relevant by using the human trafficking of young girls into the sex trade as a major plot point, things start to feel exploitive.  There is a physically uncomfortable flashback to a scene of abuse and rape, that is awkwardly framed in a way that feels like trashy pulp.  I have no problem with a thriller that introduces real issues, but everything else about The November Man feels like dumb throwaway entertainment, that these shifts into brutality just seem really off.

This is a film with an identity crisis, on the one hand trying to be another mindless action flick, while on the other trying hard to be politically relevant.  But The November Man isn’t having enough fun to work as the former, while at the same time not being serious enough to really succeed as the latter.  This is a film that kills a kid within the opening minutes and casually uses rape as a plot point, while still trying to provide late summer entertainment, and something about that just didn’t sit right with me.

Criterion Release: All That Jazz

August 26, 2014

All That Jazz Criterion Blu-ray

The 1979 classic All That Jazz is coming to Blu-ray for the first time today, as part of the Criterion Collection.  Based on director Bob Fosse’s own life, the film follows Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a film editor and dance choreographer struggling to mount his latest Broadway production, as the abundance of drugs and sex in his life threaten to finally take their toll on his health.

Winning four Oscars and nominated for five more including Best Picture, All That Jazz is a stunning mix of gorgeously captured musical numbers and deeply affective character drama about an artist facing his mortality.  With hypnotic editing and striking camerawork, matched by a positively breathtaking performance from Roy Scheider, All That Jazz looks spectacular on Blu-ray, and this new edition couldn’t come more highly recommended.

The Blu-ray includes commentary with editor Alan Heim, multiple interviews, an episode of the talk show Tomorrow featuring Bob Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille, the 2007 documentaries Portrait of a Choreographer and The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards, and more.  Also included is an essay by critic Hilton Als.

All That Jazz is 123 minutes and rated R.

-John Corrado

Blu-ray Release: Brick Mansions

August 26, 2014

Brick Mansions Blu-ray

Today, VVS Films is releasing the recent action film Brick Mansions on Blu-ray.  The film is set in a futuristic Detroit that is surrounded by a containment wall, where undercover cop Damien (Paul Walker) finds himself working with ex-con Lino (David Belle), to take down a vicious crime lord (RZA) who plans on blowing up the city.

Although the plot is often stupid and filled with countless cliches, the jumpily edited Brick Mansions is also kind of fun.  Moving at a quick pace, the film is serviceable as a piece of brainless entertainment, offering some admittedly cool action and stunts along the way.  Fans of Paul Walker will also want to check out Brick Mansions for one of the late actor’s final roles.

The Blu-ray includes three featurettes as well as cast and crew interviews.

Brick Mansions is 90 minutes and rated 14A.

-John Corrado

TIFF Bell Lightbox Release: To Be Takei

August 22, 2014

By John Corrado

To Be Takei Poster

After premiering to a standing ovation at Hot Docs, To Be Takei is circling back to Toronto this weekend for a limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Showtimes and tickets are right here.

First gaining fame as Sulu on Star Trek, George Takei has found a dedicated and enduring fanbase over the years.  Still making money signing autographs at conventions and being recognized for his voice, the iconic and eminently likeable actor also does inspiring work as an activist, which provides the heart of To Be Takei.

This includes working on a musical that raises awareness of the many Japanese-Americans who were wrongly sent to internment camps during World War II, based around his own childhood experiences.  Directors Jennifer Kroot and Bill Weber also show us his charming private life with husband Brad, leading to his work as an outspoken gay rights advocate after officially coming out in 2005.

I had a lot of fun seeing this one at Hot Docs, where George Takei and his husband were generous enough to answer questions for a good thirty minutes after the screening, allowing the audience to witness their charming chemistry together.  With some priceless scenes that show the homosexual overtones of Star Trek, To Be Takei is an incredibly entertaining and also touching film that plays as a true crowdpleaser.

Bloor Cinema Release: Rich Hill

August 22, 2014

By John Corrado

Rich Hill Poster

After winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance, and premiering in Toronto during Hot Docs, Rich Hill is opening at the Bloor Cinema today.  The critically acclaimed film will run until August 28th, tickets and showtimes are right here.

Andrew is very close to his family, but lives with the stress of constantly moving because of his father’s job, and a mother who rarely leaves the house.  Harley is living with his grandma while his mother is in jail, and Appachey has severe behavioural issues that are aggravated by his often volatile household.  All three boys hail from the small Missouri town of Rich Hill, quietly coming of age against a backdrop of extreme poverty.

Although not much happens in a classic narrative sense, Rich Hill is always beautifully shot, as filmmaking cousins Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos follow the three young teenagers through a vérité lens.

This is an honest and often very sad observational portrait of poverty and youth in small town America, that allows for some starkly touching and memorable scenes.

Blu-ray Release: Toy Story of Terror!

August 19, 2014

Toy Story of Terror! Blu-ray

Today, Disney and Pixar are releasing last year’s TV special Toy Story of Terror! on Blu-ray.  When the toys get stranded at a spooky roadside motel where Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) mysteriously goes missing, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Rex (Wallace Shawn) are forced to confront their fears and find him, with a little help from Combat Carl (Carl Weathers).

Despite the short running time, Toy Story of Terror! packs every second with smart humour and even a few twists, as the beautifully animated backgrounds add a nice sense of atmosphere.  With great characters and a sharp screenplay, this is a perfectly plotted and breathlessly entertaining riff on classic horror films, that provides excellent Halloween fun and is well worth adding to your collection.

The Blu-ray includes commentary, deleted scenes, a featurete on the production and several vintage toy commercials.  Also included are three Toy Story Toons (Small Fry, Hawaiian Vacation and Partysaurus Rex).

Toy Story of Terror! is 22 minutes and rated G.

-John Corrado

Blu-ray Release: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

August 19, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Blu-ray

Sony Pictures is releasing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on Blu-ray today, a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster that nicely follows the first instalment and does a fine job of setting things up for the next chapter of the franchise.  We reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 back when the film opened atop the box office earlier this summer, and our overall consensus was:

“Although not quite as strong as previous franchise instalments, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a good sequel that consistently entertains with exciting action sequences and solid performances from both the heroes and villains. *** (out of 4)”

The Blu-ray includes filmmaker commentary, numerous deleted scenes, over a hundred minutes of featurettes, and the Alicia Keys music video “It’s On Again.”

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is 142 minutes and rated PG.

-John Corrado

Blu-ray Release: Only Lovers Left Alive

August 19, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive Blu-ray

Today, Sony Pictures Classics is releasing Only Lovers Left Alive on Blu-ray, after premiering at TIFF last year.  Directed by Jim Jarmusch, the film follows depressed musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton), a pair of lonely vampires drifting through the nightlife of Detroit.

Although the wryly mannered stylings of the film are a little too offbeat for my taste, and the lengthy running time can feel self indulgent, Only Lovers Left Alive certainly has a lot of fans who are going to be delighted to revisit the film on Blu-ray.  But even if we are left a little cold, the rest of us can at least admire the ambient sounds, stylish cinematography and good performances that make the film unique.

The Blu-ray includes the production documentary Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch, deleted and extended scenes, and the Yasmine Hamden music video “Hal.”

Only Lovers Left Alive is 123 minutes and rated 14A.

-John Corrado

Review: The Giver

August 18, 2014

By John Corrado

*** (out of 4)

The Giver Poster

It’s interesting that a story about memories evokes such clear ones within myself.  When I think about The Giver, Lois Lowry’s classic 1993 novel which has been a staple of young adult literature for about two decades now, I remember being 11 years old and getting up early on a Saturday morning in October, just so that I could finish reading the book.

I went outside where things were quiet and found myself completely captivated by the story, left fascinated with the implications of that perfect final chapter.  Reading The Giver again after all these years, the novel remains a haunting and beautifully written allegory of a seeming utopia that is quickly revealed to be shockingly dystopic.

My fond memories of reading the book are why I was trepidatious going into The Giver, the long gestating big screen adaptation that finally opened over the weekend, after twenty years of attempts to bring the story to the screen.  But that trepidation was washed away as I watched the film unfold, an adaptation that makes some changes from the source material, but also remains surprisingly faithful to the integrity and emotional weight of the novel.

Taking place in a world drained of memories and emotion where everyone is bound by the same rigid order, the story begins when Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) turns eighteen, the age when everyone in their community is assigned jobs by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep).  Jonas is chosen as the new Receiver of Memory, being transferred memories from The Giver (Jeff Bridges), a mysterious elderly man who is haunted by these flashes of how things used to be before “Sameness” took over.

Through receiving these memories, Jonas starts to realize the coldness of his Mother (Katie Holmes) and Father (Alexander Skarsgård), as well as the naiveté of his sister Lilly (Emma Tremblay) and friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush).  New urges become him, like the desire for actual romance, as he starts to discover the feelings within himself that have long been blocked by their daily injections.  Although this world has successfully done away with hunger and war, they have also been stripped of colour and anything deeper than superficial feelings.

This is one of those times where it’s practically a requirement that audiences have read the book before seeing the movie, both to experience the story for the first time exactly as it was written by Lois Lowry, and also to come away with a larger understanding of this world.  The film gets off to a bit of a rushed start, distilling several chapters worth of exposition into a few minutes.  The choice to cast Taylor Swift in a brief but pivotal role is distracting and just seems like an excuse to put her name in the credits.

The story has also undergone some changes on its way to the screen.  The most obvious one is that the characters were twelve in the book, where as here they are eighteen.  The structure of the last act has also been changed, naturally showing us the action from the perspective of the supporting characters, and becoming more of a chase sequence on screen.  But for the most part these things feel more like natural updates than outright deviations, and they don’t take away from the overall messages of the story.

Director Phillip Noyce thankfully hasn’t sacrificed the themes that made The Giver so fascinating in the first place.  There are a lot of interesting ideas at play about how true compassion comes from our ability to understand and therefore empathize with the pain and suffering of others, and how this world has eliminated conflict at the expense of true emotion.  The look of the film is also commendable, with the cinematography switching from black and white, to orange tinted sepia and finally crisp colour images, representing the main character’s expanding knowledge of the world around him.

As a movie, The Giver really finds its footing when Jeff Bridges enters the picture, and his unwavering dedication to the source material is apparent throughout every scene of his quietly powerful and heartfelt performance.  His scenes are some of the best in the film, and the sequences where Jonas receives the memories are beautifully done.  Shown through montages of clips taken from YouTube videos and iconic footage of real conflict, these memorably evocative images stick with us as if we are also seeing them for the first time and produce genuine emotion.

Although a lot of people have been critical, I truly believe in a few years The Giver will be remembered as one of the more interesting studio pictures of 2014, a mainstream film that is stylistically unique and has something to say.  This is a film more thoughtful than the usual summer fare, introducing the powerful story to a new generation, while offering provocative ideas about society through an empathetic and even inspirational lens.  Put simply, The Giver is a great book that has become a good movie.

Bloor Cinema Release: The Dog

August 15, 2014

By John Corrado

The Dog Poster

After premiering at TIFF last year, and coming back to the city for Inside Out, The Dog is opening at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this weekend and will be playing until August 21st.  Showtimes and tickets are right here.

After holding up a bank to try and fund his partner’s sex change operation, John Wojtowicz became a celebrity in his own right, and was unforgettably portrayed by Al Pacino in the 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon.

Through interviews with the man himself and those closest to him, The Dog documents the events around that fateful day in New York, from his spot at the forefront of the gay rights movement, to the aftermath of his attempted robbery that became the point of media fixation.

Directors Allison Berg and François Keraudren have put together a remarkable account of this fascinating true story, and The Dog is a compelling and wildly entertaining documentary that packs a surprising emotional punch.  This is one of the best documentaries you will see this year, and the Bloor Cinema will also be holding a special screening of Dog Day Afternoon tomorrow night, which would make for a perfect double bill.

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