Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (VOD) - Dec 25, 2019
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Main Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell

Rating: 4/5

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a TV star in the twilight of his career in 1960's Hollywood. Commiserating with his stunt double (Pitt) he struggles to keep it together in the face of this harsh reality. He also happens to live next door to new neighbors Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and is thus uniquely situated to bear witness to one of the most horrific crimes of the era.

Here we have the ninth film and latest testament to director Tarantino's self declared genius. I'll admit for most of movie I was thinking 'here we go again' with his known penchant for self indulgence. I knew (or thought I knew) what the ending would bring and I just couldn't reconcile it with the rest of the story. The Manson murders seemed a macabre subplot that was distracting from everything else. But then the end scene came and everything came together in glorious fashion and I loved every minute of it. Let's just say that much like he did in Inglorious Basterds, he takes liberties with history. Of course the hint is in the title of the film. It's a fairy tale at heart.

Much has been made of Tarantino's obsessive recreation of the time period and I'm guessing it's great, but for me not having lived during that time it didn't have the nostalgic appeal that say an 80's setting would. Of course there's the music, clothes, and cars all accurately represented - but I suspect a lot of attention to detail went into the Hollywood back lot recreations. Considering the director's love for the industry itself I'm sure a lot of insiders appreciated the most. While some of the scenes portraying DiCaprio's character on set could have been cut to trim the typically long run time, one scene in particular involving a young actress discussing her method acting at the ripe age of Eight is quite endearing.

I'm not sure who technically gets top billing in this, but I thought Brad Pitt stole the show and gave a terrific performance. For me DiCaprio seemed a bit cheesy and over the top, but it's also entirely possible he was asked to be that way. The ever lovely Robbie isn't really given much to work with other than to, well, appear lovely and that's a shame. However again, she's not the focus of the story. Tarantino regulars Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen are present although in minor roles and Tim Roth is listed in the credits with a (cut) next to his name as his short scene sadly got dropped.

Unlike the huge disappointment of his last film, this one is much more restrained and refined. While it's a slow burn of a movie that takes it's meandering time, the patient viewer is rewarded with an ending that harkens back to the days of the director's best efforts.

Life Of Pi (Blu-Ray) - Nov 25, 2019
Life Of Pi

Director: Ang Lee

Main Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu

Rating: 5/5

A Canadian writer spending time in Pondicherry, India in a futile attempt to find the creative spark for his next novel is told by a local to track down a former resident now living ironically back in Canada. The writer is assured that after hearing his story that it will make him believe in God. I bought this a few years ago on Blu-ray but never got around to watching it. Recently I happened to end up with the novel and having just finished it decided to check out it's cinematic version. Normally when I read a book I'll end up putting it in the neighborhood 'leave a book, take a book' repository, but this one was special enough that I decided to keep it.

Thankfully the movie is a faithful adaptation of what was considered to be unfilmable - and was almost never made having previously drifted through multiple studios and directors. Let's face it, how would you convincingly pull it off when the two main characters spend almost the entire time stranded on the ocean in a lifeboat - and one of the characters is a Bengal tiger! But somehow Director Ang Lee manages to do it.

As the now older Pi regales the writer with how it all began we see young Pi growing up, visting his father's zoo, mercilessly teased about his real name and how he ended up with his nickname. We then see him exasperate his parents with his foray into religion - all religions - before finally becoming enamoured with a girl. This beginning part is charming enough and on it's own would make a great coming of age or boy meets girl story. But the story really picks up once Pi and his family pack everything up, including all the animals for a new life across the ocean. This is where the movie hits it's stride and takes the viewer on a journey equal parts amazing, scary, and heartbreaking.

The visuals are outstanding and far exceed what my imagination was able to produce while reading the novel. The special effects are top notch and for the most part you'll have trouble distinguishing the CGI tiger from a real one. Like the source material things take a dramatically dark turn near the end and you're left pondering ideas such as the role of religion, man's place in nature, and escapism vs reality. Heady concepts and stunning visuals make for a truly masterful film.

Chernobyl (VOD) - Oct 20, 2019
Capricorn One

Director: Johan Renck

Main Stars: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley, Paul Ritter

Rating: 5/5

Nuclear scientist Valery Legasov is called in to assist in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. Not only must he come up with ways - in many cases brutal - to try and contain the ever expanding radiation, but he must do so while navigating the minefield of Soviet bureaucracy and ever watching KGB handlers. Certain events are always seared into ones memories growing up - for me those are the Challenger disaster, 9/11, and the Chernobyl explosion. I remember as an young teen watching the story on the news, barely able to comprehend the horrors unfolding a continent away.

Co-produced by HBO and British company Sky, I'm not sure where this mini-series was filmed, but they do a stellar job of making you feel like you're back in the Soviet Union of the mid-80's. From the mass produced aparment blocks, to the dated clothing, to the suprisingly accurate Soviet vehicles. Thankfully they don't attempt to do Russian accents but instead just go with the native accents of the mostly British actors. To do otherwise I'm sure would have been a distraction. The two main actors, Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard, are favourites of mine and have appeared in such shows as The Terror and The Expanse and films such as Melancholia and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. They are simply terrific, they own the screen, and I could watch them all day long. Emily Watson plays the scientist Ulana Khomyuk who ultimately convinces Valery to put his own safety at risk and tell the truth of what happened. She acts as a representation of all the other scientists involved in trying to shutdown the disaster.

As such, there's obviously some artistic license taken, and I know that if you search the Internet there's all kinds of sites keen to point out how they think the story presented is incorrect. But that's irrelevant. The core message is what matters and is what's presented in a brutal unflinching manner. There are a few snippets of actual recordings, but it never feels like a documentary - instead it puts the viewer right in the middle of the disaster and as such is all the more powerful to behold.

Despite already knowing the tragic outcome, this is still gripping, yet hugely depressing viewing. However I think it's important this story is told again and presented to a new generation who likely aren't even aware of the horror of that day. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima - the places change, but the results are the same. Humans playing God. But unlike Gods humans are inherantly flawed. The hubris to think we can control such forces is absolute madness.

Currently available to watch via HBO's streaming service, Apple TV, Amazon Prime (via Hulu subscription), or Blu-ray.

Capricorn One (Laserdisc) - Sep 5, 2019
Capricorn One

Director: Peter Hyams

Main Stars: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Sam Waterston, O.J Simpson, Hal Holbrook

Rating: 4/5

Three brave astronauts are set to attempt the first manned landing on Mars. You'd think such an achievement would capture the attention of the nation, but Joe Sixpack seemingly has other concerns. Even the President can't be bothered to attend the launch, sending the Vice President instead. Regardless, this launch has to be a success as it's been made abundantly clear to Nasa's project director (Holbrook) that another screwup will mean cancellation of the entire space program.

Unfortunately shortly before the launch it becomes apparent that a failed life support system would mean certain death for the crew. So a scheme is divised to spirit them away just prior to lift off and move them to an impromptu sound stage and fake the entire thing - from journey to landing and back. The deception works until a nosy engineer notices something odd about the broadcasts and a pesky reporter (Gould) starts asking questions.

I imagine this film caused quite the stir back in the day, coming only a couple years after the last (supposed) manned landing on the moon. While Mars is the destination here, it's immediately obvious the film is really echoing the long standing belief by some that the moon landings never actually happened.

The cast is stellar and is a who's who of 70's talent - but even with such a plethora of talent, the film is really carried by both Brolin and Gould. As with any thriller type movie there's always certain things which happen that you could nitpick as being unlikely, but where's the fun in that? Best to just go with the flow. And while I may be looking at things through nostalgia coloured glasses, I've found that movies from the 70's have a defined look, a certain narrative flow, and a grittiness that seems to have been lost in later decades. Director Hyams, who went on to helm the excellent Sean Connery sci-fi flick Outland manages to slowly build the tension and suspense throughout until the frenetic conclusion.

Capricorn One is what I would consider a hidden gem and a perfect encapsulation of 70's filmmaking.  And as for the premise, in today's world of pervasive Governmental control coupled with technical advances where you can't really even tell what's real or what's fake anymore the message is more relevant than ever before. While I spun this one up on Laserdisc, it's thankfully available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming (Apple TV) as well. Recommended.

Yesterday (Theatre) - Jul 12, 2019

Director: Danny Boyle

Main Stars: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sophia Di Martino, Kate McKinnon, Ellise Chappell

Rating: 3/5

Jack Malik (Patel) is a struggling musician and the only person who seems to believe in him is his part time manager (James) a person who he grew up with but despite an obvious attraction she is never able to leave the friend zone. One day everything changes when a global power outage hits. After the lights come back, to his astonishment he discovers that for some reason no one has ever heard of one of his favourite bands - The Beatles. They've seemingly been erased from history. Armed with that knowledge he decides to strike out in a new direction using their songs to propel him to musical stardom. Now he just needs the remember the damn lyrics to Eleanor Rigby.

When I saw the trailer for this I instantly knew I wanted to see it as it was different and it was obviously a feel good movie. Something I was definitely in the mood for. In that respect it didn't disappoint. But while good, I was hoping it'd be one of those movies that achieved greatness and sadly it falls a bit short.

You don't have to be a Beatles fan to enjoy the story as anyone with a passing knowledge of the band and their biggest hits will be humming along and tapping their toes. SNL's Kate McKinnon has an amusing role as the music industry shark ready to discover the next big thing and then promptly devour them while extracting every dollar possible before disposing of them when someone else comes along. While the overall tone of the film is breezy, they do make several digs at the music business - but part of me wishes they would have skewered it a bit more. Ed Sheeran plays himself in a self deprecating role - I'm guessing that's a big deal that he's in it? Who knows as I'm not up on the latest 'artists'. There's an interesting side plot involving a couple of people at his concerts who'd look at him really oddly while he was playing. I thought I knew where that was going to go but they surprised me and I honestly got a good laugh out of it. There's also a cameo from the past which is a bit jaw dropping and it took me awhile to figure out who the actor was. Finally while fairly long at 2 hours the ending felt rushed and tacked on which was a letdown.

A pleasant surprise and mad props for originality in an era of endless remakes and comic book movies that while enjoyable left me wanting more.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (VOD) - Jun 5, 2019
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Director: David Yates

Main Stars: Johnny Depp, Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Zoe Kravitz, Wolf Roth

Rating: 2/5

The dastardly Wizard Grindelwald (Depp) escapes from prison in New York City and flees to Paris!

Back in jolly 'ol England, ever awkward but lovable Newt (Redmayne) is tasked with thwarting his evil plans and um...something or other. What were his evil plans again?

Hmmm. According to IMDB's summary the whole plot point of the bad guy in this film is he's trying to raise an army of pure-blood wizards to rule over non-magical people. After well over 2 hours I had no idea that's what he was trying to do. And here we have my biggest issue with the sequel to Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. My previous review of the first film was generally favourable. Not having read any of the books and not having even seen all the Harry Potter films, I was judging it simply on its entertainment value and not as a convert.

It was different enough and had a plethora of fun CGI'd creatures plus a turn of the century New York City backdrop that I enjoyed it overall.

But with the follow up they dispense with the cute creatures (for the most part) and instead focus on building the story for the presumed third film. And that's always the problem with the middle films in trilogies (which I'm assuming is the plan), you always get that feeling like they exist only to usher in the big climactic final act. There was also casting overload with way to many new people taking away screen time from the main characters from the previous movie. About the only redeeming feature was that Depp toned down his performance for once. Instead of the usual quirky schtick that he does so effortlessly in all of Tim Burton's efforts here he's more subdued and actually fairly effective as as the quiet but menacing villian. Sadly his efforts are wasted.

I suppose people familiar with the source material might be enthralled, but when I found out Grindelwald was the cousin of so and so which I'm sure was super shocking I was like 'ya, so?'. Glad this was just a rental.

For fans only...

Prospect (VOD) - Apr 21, 2019

Directors: Christopher Caldwell, Zeek Earl

Main Stars: Sophie Thatcher, Jay Duplass, Pedro Pascal

Rating: 3.5/5

Cee (Thatcher) spends her days reciting her favourite book from memory while her father chastises her for her lack of focus on the task at hand. That task being prospecting - retrieving valuable fossils? from the goopy innards of an alien species buried in the ground on the moon below them. The task being made all the more challenging as they must also survive the moon's toxic green forest. Her father has the coordinates to the big score and promises her they just need to do this one last job and then they can leave this life behind them. Unfortunately the orbiting space station has informed them that they are leaving shortly for new locales. Will they be able to harvest the goods and make it into orbit again before they are permanently left behind?

I happened to be flipping through the movie trailers on my Apple TV and came across this little Indie offering. It looked different so I decided to give it a watch.

Here we have a great example of not needing a large budget and lots of special effects to craft a decent and engaging sci-fi entry. To be honest there's not a lot of dialog or different sets - everything either taking place in the interior of their drop ship or on the moon's forest. And yet I was surprised when the credits rolled at how fast the movie seemed to fly by. It obviously kept me engaged throughout. If I had anything negative to say it would be that at times the dialog was a bit muddled - not really surprising considering everyone spends almost all their time with helmets on their heads. I'll have to look up the one actor - Pedro Pascal to see what else he has done as I found him to have a commanding screen presence. The girl who plays Cee was equally effective especially considering it was her film debut.

Visually competent although again, there's not a lot of different scenery to be had. The forest manages to look other worldly enough via a constant and dreamy looking colourful dust floating around in the air. I also liked how the story kind of just throws the viewer into the middle of things with barely any exposition and you're left on your own to figure out what's going on. To be honest I was shocked to find that this was an American production as it definitely had a Euro vibe to it. A decent and gritty genre film that while not groundbreaking manages to do a lot with only a little.

Overlord (Blu-Ray) - Mar 25, 2019

Director: Julius Avery

Main Stars: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbaek, John Magaro, Jacob Anderson

Rating: 3.5/5

On the evening before D-Day a group of American paratroopers is tasked with dropping behind enemy lines to destroy a key radio tower, thus helping to ensure success for the coming attack. Thinks quickly go awry when their plane is shot up all to hell, and the survivors scattered all over the French countryside. Private Ed Boyce (Adepo) eventually links up with some members of his squad and they proceed with their mission. However once inside the bunker at the base of the tower they soon encounter something much worse than just enemy troops.

Nazi zombies. I'm not sure why, but combine those two words and you're sure to peak my cinematic interest. For me, the high water mark of this particular sub-genre was the 2009 film Dead Snow. That said, it was your typical low budget indie offering. However, when news broke of Overlord, there was excitement in the air as this was going to be a big budget effort associated with non-other than JJ Abrams. The guy behind the latest Star Wars movies was producing a Nazi zombie movie! So does having gobs of money guarantee a classic? Not really. Another reviewer probably summed it up best - "This is a B-budget movie, with A-budget production values." The opening scenes are stellar. A visual and sonic onslaught leaving you on the edge of your seat. I thought at one point my subwoofer was going to explode. But by the mid-point the film reasserts its horror origins and while never quite descending into camp territory, there were some scenes that looked right out of Re-Animator. I kept expecting Herbert West to make an appearance.

Despite the middling lull, things wrap up nicely with a frenetic finale. While I appreciate the attempts to elevate the story into something more, they perhaps did too good a job at the start as it was a bit of a letdown when things transitioned from war flick to horror flick. And without giving anything away, the whole zombie aspect wasn't quite what I was expecting and as such was a bit disappointing. An interesting effort that doesn't quite achieve its lofty goals, but for fans at least is still worth watching.

Mortal Engines (VOD) - Mar 20, 2019
Mortal Engines

Director: Christian Rivers

Main Stars: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery

Rating: 1/5

Tom Natsworthy spends his uneventful days working at the museum on the tracked city of London hunting down examples of ‘ancient tech’. One day his whole world is turned upside down when he instinctively attempts to catch a would be female assassin who just narrowly missed killing London's de facto leader and champion. Eventually Tom and the girl both end up tumbling to the earth as the city leaves them behind. Will he ever return home and will the mysterious assassin ever avenge the death of her mother?

I'll say up front that I've read the book, and while I wouldn't say I'm a 'fan', I obviously like it enough that I'm currently reading the 4th entry in the series. I knew going in that this didn't have great reviews, but again, having read the book I wanted to see what someone else's vision of the material would look like. And visually, it doesn't disappoint. I wasn't entirely sure how they'd be able to pull off the vast scale of the cities involved but they managed to do a great job. It's worth a rent for this alone. Unfortunately by the end I was furious as they changed several aspects of the story and fates of certain key characters. I hate, hate, hate when studios do that! It's one thing to take a story and base a film on it which expands upon the scope or the characters (think Blade Runner), or even when introducing new characters to advance the plot for various reasons (think Lord of the Rings), but to do so for no apparent reason drives me crazy. What? Idiots they pulled off the street for a test screening couldn't grasp the concept of someone doing something under protest and eventually redeeming themselves - so instead some pinhead exec decided to make them a one dimensional bad guy? I'm itching to go off on a rant about what a joke Hollywood is, but I'll abstain for now.

If you want to see a grand visual spectacle and haven't read it then it's worth a look, however if you even remotely enjoy the book stay far, far away from this travesty.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (VOD) - Dec 3, 2018
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates

Main Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler

Rating: 3.5/5

Newt Salamander (Redmayne), a young English wizard, is fresh off the boat having newly arrived in 1920's New York City. He has with him just his suitcase inside of which is an entire world of rare magical creatures. After accidentally misplacing it they are released into the city causing untold mayhem. The timing is not great as the city is in the midst of an anti-magic movement and even amongst wizards his beasts are outlawed. To recover his precious animals he must enlist the help of a bumbling No-Maj named Jacob (Fogler) and a perpetually in trouble agent (Waterson) of the Ministry of Magic. Can he recover them all before the quarreling parties turn their attentions toward him?

Not knowing much about this other than it was a sort of prequel to the Harry Potter films I didn't really have any preconceived notions about it. I haven't even finished all the Potter films so I'm obviously not a 'fan'. That said, I found them to be enjoyable enough fare. Thankfully not being familiar with the source I'm spared the inevitable moaning as to how true it is to the books. I really liked the 20's setting and found it to be refreshing. But what really made the film enjoyable was the cast. I especially liked the actress who played Queenie, a mind reading flapper. Her flirtation with Jacob helped ground the film. All of the actors managed to elevate what easily could have been just another CGI crap-fest. As for the CGI it was neither jaw dropping nor was it distractingly bad. Overall it was effective. And one little guy in particular - a kleptomaniac platypus type thing with an affinity for shiny things - is simply adorable to behold.

I can't say how fans will react, although I suspect they'd eagerly gobble up anything related to author Rowling, but even to the casual viewer it's an entertaining first entry to the planned quadrilogy.