‘Cruella’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Cruella is one of the best Disney live-action films to date. It has beautiful costume design, great camerawork, career-defining performances and a wicked soundtrack. This prequel is the one we didn’t know we needed. It is a bit darker than other Disney live-actions, but it’s so much fun to watch Stone dive into this character. The story is about young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) who aspires to be a fashion designer. We see young Estella struggle with her identity, as she has a bit of a wild side that she doesn’t have control over. Estella has a tragic past and we get to see how she becomes Cruella.

Going into this film, I had very low expectations and I was pleasantly surprised with how much fun this film was. Cruella will have you hooked within the first ten minutes because of how fast-paced it is. We get a voiceover narration from Emma Stone and it sets the tone for the rest of Estella’s adulthood. The story was well-written and it worked for who Estella would grow into. Estella being a fashion designer worked perfectly and the wardrobe is absolutely stunning. We have Estella working for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), who takes her under her wing and uses majority of her designs.

The film unfolds quite nicely and the twists are perfectly placed. They aren’t over the top, or completely random, they really do work for the story and there are moments that will shock you. The cast is wonderful, Stone and Thompson are incredible together, their chemistry carried the film. It was so fun to watch them go back-and-forth and they give iconic performances. This is truly Stone’s best performance to date and she blew me away. Having two women on-screen, pull these performances out of each other was pure magic.

Craig Gillespie’s Cruella is one of the best films of the year! The London punk aesthetic works extremely well to give the visual edge to Estella and her world. What I found really interesting, is that the exterior world is so loud in its production design, that it feels like the characteristics of Estella’s alter ego, fills the screen, pulling her into this other world. The soundtrack works so well and some songs were reworked to fit certain scenes. The only issue is that it did run a bit long but this was such a treat. And make sure to stay for the post-credit scene, it will make you want a sequel even more!

Make sure to catch Cruella Friday, May 21st on Disney Premier Access or, if you’re lucky, on the big screen.

‘Army of the Dead’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

What do you get when you combine Zack Snyder, zombies and a heist? You get one of the most entertaining films of the year! If you are a Snyder fan, this one sure caters to the fanbase. You are in for a fun ride through a zombie wasteland in Las Vegas. It is larger than life, loud and action-packed with stunning visuals, courtesy of the man himself. Snyder knows how to create tension quite effortlessly, and more importantly, he knows how to mix in a wicked soundtrack that juxtaposes certain scenes. From the very beginning, as Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ plays, while newlyweds are on a joyride, the lyrics, ‘we’re caught in a trap, we can’t walk out…’ sets the tone for the entire film.

We get a typical Snyder opening credit sequence detailing what happened to the Las Vegas strip, while a slow version of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ plays out. It is one of his strongest opening title sequences, and I won’t lie, I had a gigantic smile on my face. At the start of any Snyder movie, we all think to ourselves, ‘What does he have in store for us this time?” and majority of the time he exceeds expectations. Snyder went back to his zombie roots with this film. It wasn’t that gory, or overstuffed with kills, it just flowed really well. It didn’t rely on the zombie conventions, that we are used to because that part was sidelined. This was a heist film straight through and it had great balance combining both genres.

This film wouldn’t have been as entertaining without its cast of characters. First and foremost, Dave Bautista needs to be recognized as the lead in this film. Bautista has been sidelined for majority of his film career and hasn’t been taken seriously as an actor (until Blade Runner 2049), Snyder put him at the forefront and he carried the film quite well. His character Scott had to endure some traumatic moments when the zombies tore up his town and has been trying to reconcile with his daughter. Bautista nailed the emotional moments and left me impressed. The other standouts were Marianne (Tig Notaro), Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick), Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and Lily (Nora Arnezeder), they each had their time to shine and brought so much to their characters.

Army of the Dead is filled with great action sequences, fun character banter, and plenty of zombies. The film did suffer at the end because even though the runtime went a bit long, the ending still felt rushed. Did I enjoy the ending? No. It left such a bitter taste in my mouth. But don’t worry, there is another ending, that will also leave you questioning what the point was. At the end, it was all about the journey and it sure was a wild ride. I can’t forget to mention the Junkie XL score because he keeps putting out such great pieces to accompany action scenes. If you love Snyder, you’ll set aside the small issues with the film and enjoy the zombie spectacle for two hours and twenty-eight minutes.

‘Spiral: From The Book Of Saw’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

After the success of other instalments in the Saw franchise, it’s only fair to keep making them. This franchise has a massive fanbase and I can see why. After watching all eight films ahead of Spiral: From the Book of Saw – for the very first time I might add – I already felt some fatigue. While watching this instalment, the fatigue continued. As a new horror fan, the first three Saw films had so much style to them that made them unique. It set them apart from other horror films. But as the franchise went on, the further the filmmakers distanced themselves from the original vision from Leigh Whannell and James Wan.

Did Spiral: From the Book of Saw follow similar tropes? Of course it did. But they wanted to focus more on the detective story than the actual link to Jigsaw and the traps. The main issue with this franchise is that the story does not need to flow from movie to movie. Seriously, trying to connect the dots over nine films is ridiculous and it’s never clear. I know what you’re thinking, “But no one cares about the story,” and I get that but if you don’t have a strong script then at least make the traps memorable. The traps in this instalment were set up for shock value and there was no struggle to get out of them.

What has happened to the Saw franchise is that it has become too polished and clean cut for the movie they’re trying to make. Give us that grimey, sketchy warehouse feel with the traps that have high stakes. Bring back that graphic, bloody, almost naseautic visuals that made the first half of this franchise shine. Making it more cinematic and clean does not help the franchise after the seventh instalment. It just strays so far away from its original style that made it work in the first place. Unfortunately, with the story not being that strong, the performances also fell flat for me. So this was a total chore for me to sit through.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is enjoyable if you are a diehard Saw fan and that is what is important here. This film caters to the fanbase that has stayed with the franchise over nine films. Seriously, NINE FILMS, that’s pretty amazing. This is a franchise that tries to reinvent itself because of the horror climate constantly changing. The Saw franchise just isn’t for me anymore but I do hope the fans enjoy their franchise and this ninth film. Will there be a Saw X? Go big or go home, Jigsaw, let’s play another game.

‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead is an interesting story about survival. There are those who have experienced some sort of trauma and have tried to move past it or those who are the ones trying to better themselves in a negative environment. We see two very different versions of what surviving is and it doesn’t necessarily needs to come from surviving a forest fire. We meet Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) who is struggling to work after losing three lives in a forest fire. Hannah is a smoke jumper who’s perched in a watchtower high above the Montana wilderness. She soon encounters Connor (Finn Little), a young boy who’s bloodied, traumatized and on the run in the remote forest.

It may sound like a generic storyline but it also feels like something we haven’t seen before because of the exploration of a smoke jumper. Yes, we have seen forest fires and firefighters on-screen before but this felt like a more contained storyline. Not only do we understand the trauma that Hannah experienced on an assignment before but we get to see the aftermath and how it has affected her mentally in her career. The best part of this film was seeing Angelina Jolie on the big screen again. I didn’t realize how much I missed her presence on-screen. Jolie was great in this and the rest of the cast, consisted of Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen and Jon Bernthal who all really shined.

Like many films that are adapted from novels, the pacing is the major issue that holds the film back. The beginning was set up quite nicely but it lost its footing towards the middle. The story was interesting but I wish there was more depth to Hannah’s character because of what she went through. It was all building towards the third act payoff, which worked extremely well. The cinematography and the execution of the action made the ending worthwhile. Sheridan focused in on nature while Hannah and Connor navigated through the forest. The lightning strikes and the detailed pathway they needed to take all made for an intense finale.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is an interesting watch because of its cast of characters, the execution of this simple storyline and the grand third act. Jolie and Bernthal are standouts in this film. I just wish we got to see more of their dynamic considering their characters past. There are really strong, emotional moments between Jolie and Little and they really carry this film to the final act. Each character individually brought so much to the table but then when they came together the film was elevated. The film is out on HBO Max and in theatres right now, if you miss Jolie on-screen then this film will definitely fill that void.

The Canadian Comedy Series ‘Ghost BFF’ Tackles Important Social Issues With Humour

By: Amanda Guarragi

When we consume media, we usually gravitate towards series or films that we can hopefully relate to. If we are lucky, we can find a show or film with characters who speak to us on a different level. That is why representation on-screen is important, whether there is a diverse cast, or stories that highlight different social issues. There are creators who highlight issues such as mental health, suicide, and depression. Not only do these conversations need to be had among friends or family, but it is important to show these conversations on-screen. The Canadian comedy series Ghost BFF tackles all this effortlessly and is nominated for four performance Canadian Screen Awards for stars Vanessa Matsui, Kaniehtiio Horn, Jean Yoon, and Angela Asher. 

Ghost BFF is a dark comedy about depression, following two women, Tara (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Amy (Vanessa Matsui) – one alive, one dead – as they struggle to find themselves and right past wrongs following a suicide. The series shines a light on mental health, highlighting tough topics like depression and anxiety, suicide, treatment, and mindfulness, while adding some well-needed humour. Kaniehtiio Horn and Vanessa Matsui have incredible chemistry on and off-screen, they both understood the material and they created a very honest space, to explore their characters mental struggles. Matsui, who is also the showrunner, really wanted to bring these social issues to the forefront because of her personal connection to the subject matter.

Web series Ghost BFF puts the focus on mental health via two friends. And  one of them is dead. | TV, eh?
Courtesy of Babe Nation Creations

Matsui wanted to make sure people, especially women, feel represented on-screen. She could see all these young women suffering and no one was talking about mental health,

“I wanted to make a show that used comedy as a bridge, to talk about something that at the time, was pretty taboo and arguably still is. At the same time, I wanted the series to make you laugh, so it’s not so heavy or difficult. And if you are suffering, that hopefully you feel a little less alone, after watching this show.”

– Vanessa Matsui, Ghost BFF

The reason why many can connect to this show is because of the humour that is added to painful, emotional moments when discussing these difficult subjects. Not everything has to be grim and dark; humour is sometimes the best release and as Kaniehtiio Horn said, it’s a way to cope during hard times. When asked about her connection to this character and to Matsui, she said that after knowing her for 15 years or so, that it was a collaboration in the making. Horn said that one evening, during TIFF, they connected and Horn wanted to audition for the project. Sometimes projects can choose the person, and in this case, Horn didn’t know how much she needed the character of Tara in her life, “It gave me confidence to start working on my own things. Just seeing my peers, these women who are my age making things happen and that really lit a fire under me.” The way Horn and Matsui came together and supported each other through this process is truly inspiring.

Vanessa Matsui on Twitter: "… "
via Vanessa Matsui on Twitter

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, it is always important to shed light on these issues because these conversations need to be presented on-screen. Media has a wide reach, no matter what form it takes, and it is important that it connects with people. Whether it is because of diversity in its cast or social issues, these stories are important in order for everyone to feel seen. Matsui and Horn are both on the same page when it comes to representation in the media, “I think you realize once you start talking about it, or see what you might be doing, that it might be reflected back to you in the content that you’re consuming, you feel a little less alone.” Horn went on to say that she even started going to therapy and that working on this project allowed her to explore her own mind, while diving into the character of Tara.

The reason why diverse stories matter is because everyone can be going through something different. In one way or another, someone is struggling in their own way and it would benefit them, if there was an atmosphere to help them through. When making Ghost BFF it was important for Matsui to be inclusive and have a diverse cast. The industry has definitely shifted and as Horn put it, diversity is hot right now, which can also be a long-term issue. Matsui and Horn are both weary about what the future holds for the industry but they see the shift as a positive change,

“I used to feel so little and meek and just be thankful that I got the job. That’s how I used to feel. But now with all of these initiatives, I feel a bit more confident to say things and yes there’s a shift, and it’s amazing to see and I guess I feel like I’m a part of it in terms, on the Indigenous side of filmmaking and television and it’s exciting. But again there’s this underlining thing.” 

– Kaniehtiio Horn, Ghost BFF
Ghost BFF
Courtesy of Babe Nation Creations

Matsui and Horn remain hopeful moving forward because there are still so many stories left to tell. And the push to have different stories in the Canadian film industry will always be relevant,

“My Japanese family has been here since the 1800s that’s a lot longer than a lot of white people who have been here and yet I’m always asked ‘Where do you come from?’ Why is that question even being asked to me when I’m from here? I think part of it is that we are not represented in the media, people have this really narrow version of what a Canadian looks like.”

– Vanessa Matsui, Ghost BFF

The most important thing that Matsui wants audiences to takeaway from this series is that hopefully people will feel a little less alone. That if you are going through a rough time, this show will bring you some laughter. Matsui went on to say, “If you are a young woman, or woman of colour and you might not fit into the perfect casting, I hope this inspires people to create their own work, especially young women.” Horn and Matsui have put so much of themselves in Ghost BFF and you can see the love for their characters on-screen.

Matsui is slated to make her directorial feature film debut very soon and she is currently working on the show Hot Zone. Horn has also been busy with guest starring on an American television show called, Reservation Dogs and will be turning her podcast, Coffee With My Ma, into an animated series!

If you want to check out Ghost BFF the first two seasons are online. And if you want to cheer them on during the Canadian Screen Awards it will be streaming live on academy.ca from May 17th – 20th.