Greenland (VOD) - Feb 21, 2020
Greenland

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Main Stars: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn

Rating: 2.5/5

John is your typical white collar father. He commutes back and forth to work, lives in a large but cookie cutter house, has the hot wife - which of course he cheated on - and is trying to get his relationship back on track. About the only thing going on to break up the monotony of suburban life are news updates of a previously unknown comet that is scheduled to fly past Earth in a couple days. He suddenly realizes everyone is being lied to when he receives a mysterious text advising him to grab his family and head to the nearest military base for evacuation.

Note: Part of me thought I should maybe preface things with a Spoiler alert, but then I thought why? This isn't exactly Citizen Kane we're talking about. Is it really a surprise that the Hollywood star survives? 

Greenland was 2020's big blockbuster movie that got relegated to the 'straight to video' bin due to Covid. To be fair, much better films (if they're ever released) such as Dune or the latest James Bond were likewise sideswiped by the pandemic. Which in a way is kind of ironic considering it's an end of the world genre film. A genre that's always had a particular fascination for me - specifically how fast society can completely break down. And for the first half things reflect this scenario fairly well with scenes of panic, gridlocked highways, looting, and just generally the worst aspects of humanity. However given the PG-13 rating (because God forbid a Blockbuster be rated R) it's not like you need to worry that little Timmy is going to end up seeing his neighbor get raped or something. So the impact of that breakdown isn't the visceral experience it could have been. That said, there are also scenes of the best of humanity - people helping each other and banding together in a time of crisis.

While I appreciate them focusing on the human aspect of tragedy instead of hammering you over the head with idiotic CGI based spectacle, that's sort of where the film lost it's way for me. The scenes with the family back together before parting ways one final time seemed insincere and forced - it's supposed to emotional invest the viewer for the final act and instead it just had me rolling my eyes and looking at the clock. While I normally like Scott Glenn, I just didn't buy him as the gruff, protective Father-in-law. And that was my other issue - the casting just didn't work. Butler's Scottish accent was a distraction and he's way too old to have a 7 year old kid. However the actor who played the kid was excellent. 

And while it's just a stupid popcorn flick, the amount of coincidences and super convenient timing not to mention outright impossibilities (note to the Director, a Twin Otter plane can't fly from Ontario to Greenland. It. Just. Can't.) ramp up to almost farcical levels. I also would have ended it with the fade to black as they are huddled waiting for the inevitable - but no, they have to justify their bloated FX budget with a montage of disaster scenes and being a Hollywood flick cap it off with a happy(ish) ending. I probably wouldn't have reacted so harshly had I not already seen a disaster movie with almost the exact same plot (albeit planetary collision versus comet) that was far superior in absolutely every way and in fact is one of my favourite films of all time. That film is Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. But despite its beauty, emotional resonance, and outright genius - it's also a slow moving experience. So for some maybe this stupid popcorn flick is more their speed.

I guess you could spend worse ways passing the time during the very real disaster we're currently living through. Better than watching socially distanced game shows at least.

Palm Springs (VOD) - Dec 20, 2020
Palm Springs

Director: Max Barbakow

Main Stars: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher

Rating: 5/5

Nyles (Samberg) is stuck at a wedding in Palm Springs. While there he finds himself attracted to the maid of honor (Milioti) and tries to draw her out of her self imposed misery. However all is not what is seems and she soon finds herself trapped in the same endless hell as him. I absolutely love going into a film completley blind and knowing nothing about it and then ending up thoroughly surprised and pleased with the end result. Such is the case here. It was new, there wasn't much else on, so I gave it a shot and am glad I did.

While the gimmick at the heart of the story has been done before in the classic Groundhog Day and more recently in the also excellent Edge of Tomorrow, it doesn't feel derivative and still manages to be fresh. While I'm somewhat neutral on watching Samberg - he's charming, but his shtick can wear old after awhile - here he tones it down somewhat while still being his entertaining self. As I gazed with adoration at his costar's doe-eyed look, it was bugging me where I had seen her before. Finally I remembered that she was in that episode of Black Mirror - USS Callister. As was the case here, I remember being thoroughly enthralled watching her back then. I could watch her all day long.

Unlike the previous films, instead of the characters simply trying to escape the loop, here it raises the question of whether it might be better to resign one's self to that fate and simply make the best of it - it being preferable to the real world with all its dangers and disappointments. Not that this is exactly a heady film, but it adds a nice variation to the concept. Of course at it's heart is the so called love story and most of the movie's charm comes from watching the chemistry between the two stars, but it never feels forced or clich├ęd - there's no swelling music to be found here.

Ultimately that's what I like about it. It does it's thing, does it well, moves along at a good clip and never deviates in tone, or drags with pointless subplots. Premiering at the Sundance Film festival in January, Palm Springs was the standout entry and broke the previous record for the amount spent on securing the distribution rights. Of course then the pandemic came along and sadly outside of a few select theatres it was shelved until being recently released on streaming platforms.

At least people are finally getting to see it. As this crappy year comes to a close this was the perfect bit of escapism that I needed. I suspect anyone else watching will feel the same way.

1917 (Blu-ray) - Dec 6, 2020
1917

Director: Sam Mendes

Main Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Pip Carter

Rating: 4.5/5

Set in the trenches of France during the darkest days of the first World War, two corporals are assigned the dangerous task of being runners to get a message across no man's land to another company set to walk into an ambush laid by the retreating German forces. Failure to get the message through in time will mean the deaths of thousands of soldiers, including the one corporal's own brother.

To commemorate Remembrance Day this year, I decided to watch two recent blockbuster war films released only a few years apart. The first was Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and the second was Sam Mendes' 1917. Rather than review both separately, I'll instead focus on why 1917 is the much superior movie.

Both are visual wonders and both faithfully recreate the era they're in (Dunkirk being set in WWII). Technically Dunkirk is superb with some amazing set pieces. I need to go back and watch the special features to see exactly how they managed to have a set consisting of a sinking destroyer for example. While 1917 doesn't have that degree of wow, it does have what some might consider a gimmick that was hugely discussed leading up to its release. Namely, the implication that the entire film was done in one continuous take. When I heard that, my initial reaction was to cry bullsh*t - there was no way that was possible. However for the first half it honestly looks like it was done in a single continuous take (it actually wasn't). Regardless, it's amazing to witness and draws you thoroughly into the story and the characters.

And that's where the two films diverge. When the credits rolled in Nolan's epic I was left with a profound sense of 'meh'. While full of sound and fury you simply aren't emotionally invested in things. It's a very cold feeling film - you feel like you're watching history unfold, but you are never really drawn into it - precisely because you don't end up caring about any of the characters. Part of that's because you're watching four separate but intertwining stories, but most of it is because that's precisely how the director wanted audiences to experience it.

While the storyline in Mendes' film is fairly simple, at least you care about the people in that story. You become emotionally invested in their fate. And thus 1917 is a much more well rounded film and better overall experience. As an aside, this is the director's second war movie, his first being the hugely underappreciated Jarhead which is one of my favourites of the genre.

The illusion of being shot in one continuous take, a storyline that engages the viewer, and the novelty of being set during the first World War all makes for a terrific and epic war flick. Highly recommended.

Trick 'r Treat (VOD) - Oct 18, 2020
Trick 'r Treat

Director: Michael Dougherty

Main Stars: Anna Paquin, Leslie Bibb, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Quinn Lord, Dylan Baker

Rating: 4/5

This is my Halloween pick for the year.

Normally I'm not a big fan of 'modern' horror films. I think I can count on one hand the number that I have liked from the past two decades. That said, I was flipping channels recently and came across this on AMC's Fear Fest - I had it muted in the background while I was putzing around and occasionally watching it.

It peaked my interest when the main character (Bibb) came to an unfortunate demise in the first few minutes, a gimmick that has previously been done before in Scream. But then you see her again later in the film and it dawned on me that they were telling a bunch of different stories all interwoven together. You'd be focused on one group of characters and see something happen to someone else and then later on they'd tell that person's story. So I thought that was a definite cut above most of the dreck horror flicks released lately - most of which consist of just quick edits and lame jump scares.

So because of that I ended up streaming it and watching it in it's entirety.

In addition to the overlapping story lines - of which there are five of them - you are introduced to what I think is one of the most interesting horror 'villains' in recent memory - Samhain, or Sam for short. A clever take on the name for a real phobia consisting of the fear of Halloween. The little guy is equal parts horrifying and adorable. Once you figure out what his 'issue' is you begin to appreciate him even more. Thankfully he's not just another mindless killing machine. There's also a nice mixture of dark humour, creepiness, gore, and prerequisite eye candy resulting in a well rounded and entertaining experience.

For what it's worth, the wife who's normally not into these movies also really enjoyed it.

A pleasant surprise and a standout entry in the genre. Recommended.

Vivarium (VOD) - Sep 9, 2020
Vivarium

Director: Lorcan Finnegan

Main Stars: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings

Rating: 3/5

Gemma (Poots) and Tom (Eisenberg) are a young couple. Like most young couples they dream of having their own home and living in domestic bliss. In pursuit of that goal they pop into a realtor's office one day. The realtor is only to happy to show them the latest development in suburbia - however there's something extremely 'off' about him. Still, mostly as to not offend they agree to go with him to find their dream house. A decision they soon regret as they become trapped in a nightmarish hell with no escape.

When I watched the trailer for this several months ago I made a mental note to check it out when it was released as it definitely had that 'well this is different' vibe to it.

I believe in one of the promo posters it says something about it being 'straight out of Black Mirror'. Therein lies the problem. I think this probably would have made a better episode in that excellent TV series than as a feature film, albeit one that's only 97 mins long. That said, there's nothing overtly wrong with it as a movie. And days later I find it still echoing around in my head - always the sign of a good flick. And conceptually I think it's great even if the message isn't overly subtle - domesticity and suburbia are living hells. The acting is also fine. I'm somewhat neutral about Eisenberg as an actor, but I really enjoy the lovely Imogen Poots. For one, I just love saying her name, and two she readily worked her way into my heart during her debut in 28 Weeks Later.

So why not rate it higher?

For some reason while watching it just left me feeling somewhat ambivalent about it. Maybe it's the timing. Being isolated during a pandemic makes one less receptive to seeing more of the same on the screen? I don't know. It could also be the monotony of the daily routine which while driving home the overall message doesn't make for overly gripping viewing. Although they do throw in enough sex and outright messed up imagery to pep things up. Maybe they could have spent a bit more time exploring Tom's obsession and mental fragility or Gemma being torn between revulsion and motherly instinct. Or maybe they could have just thrown in more sex - for my benefit at least.

An intriguing, if flawed, premise that may have worked better on television than as a feature film. If you want to watch something different, worth a rental at least.

JoJo Rabbit (Blu-ray) - Aug 1, 2020
JoJo Rabbit

Director: Taika Waititi

Main Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Archie Yates

Rating: 4.5/5

JoJo (Davis) is a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. As his Dad is out of the picture having possibly died fighting in some far off country, his sister recently deceased and his Mom often away, he's quite lonely and frequently bullied by others. He only has his pudgy best friend Yorki (Yates) to commiserate with. Actually that's not true. Yorki is really his 2nd best friend. His best (imaginary) friend is none other than the Fuhrer himself who extols the virtues of National Socialism, how to be a better Aryan, and to always be vigilant for those treacherous Jews with their horned heads.

Having seen the trailer and heard some buzz about the film I kind of knew what to expect going in and I had already figured out where the story was going from the beginning. But still, the first few minutes of the film was a bit jarring and uncomfortable. I kept asking myself where it was going. You'd find yourself laughing at something but then the little voice inside your head would remind you that you really shouldn't be laughing at the subject matter. It's a weird juxtaposition of imagery and content. Another reviewer wrote 'What if Wes Anderson made a Nazi comedy?'. That nicely sums up the movie's quirkiness.

Eventually things become more serious although there's still moments of hilarity sprinkled throughout - a sequence involving a bunch of Gestapo agents Heil Hitler'ing each other is especially humorous - and there's one particularly gut wrenching scene near the end. When the end does come I'm glad they wrapped it up the way they did. Had it gone in the other direction I would have been upset not only because I simply wasn't emotionally prepared for it but it would have done a massive disservice to the tone and spirit of the film.

All the actors give great performances. I love Sam Rockwell in anything he's done and once again he shines here. Rebel Wilson is, well, Rebel Wilson, but thankfully she's used sparingly. Scarlett Johansson is effective as the mom and brings that 'old Hollywood' glamour. However the real stars are the two kids - Davis as JoJo and Yates as his friend. But it is Yates that really steals the show.

There's also lots of well thought out details. You wonder why they keep focusing on his Mom's shoes for instance. There's something more to Rockwell's character than is immediately apparent. The film's colour schemes change from an oversaturated and bright palette in the beginning to dull, grey, and dreary by the end - representing not only Germany's waning fortunes in the war, but also JoJo's eventual rejection of Nazism. And so on.

I rated this movie so highly because in today's era of cancel culture, political correctness, and general outrage I'm amazed that this even got made. The important, touching, and life-affirming meaning at the core of the film notwithstanding. But even more so, because of how the director deftly navigated such a minefield of shifting tonality. In lesser hands this would have been an outright disaster.

A terrifically quirky film with a heartfelt message and surprising emotional heft near the end. Recommended viewing if you can reconcile the subject matter and jarring initial tone.

The Lighthouse (Blu-ray) - Jul 17, 2020
The Lighthouse

Director: Robert Eggers

Main Stars: Robert Pattison, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman

Rating: 3.5/5

Having left the life as a lumberjack behind him, Ephraim Winslow (Pattison) now finds himself isolated on a desolate stretch of rock tending lighthouse with a no-nonsense salty sea-dog (Dafoe). As the new guy he gets all the grunt work and is frustratingly kept away from the top where the light resides. It's back breaking work made worse by a growing dislike of each other. A month later, relief is finally in sight when they are scheduled to be replaced by a new crew. But that crew never arrives and they are suddenly faced with the prospect of being stranded for an unknown period of time. To cope with the stress they increasingly turn to booze fueled nights and their grip on reality begins to slip away.

I'll say up front I enjoyed director Eggers follow up effort to The Witch much more. In his debut a big deal was made out of his obsession with historical accuracy which while impressive, it also meant you were forced to endure the film in olde English which frequently made it hard to understand the dialog and took me out of the movie. This time the setting is late 1800's New England and once again historical accuracy is first and foremost. And while the dialog is again sometimes hard to decipher, it was at least mostly understandable.

With only two characters - three if you count the seagull - to watch, the actors must carry the film. Thankfully they are more than up for the challenge. Pattison shows surprising depth and is able to keep up with the ever enjoyable Dafoe who literally chews up the screen in his many long running soliloquys. In fact, the movie sometimes has the feeling of a play to it. In the hands of anyone else Dafoe's character would come across as camp. But he commits wholly to the role and more than pulls it off.

Shot in Black & White and framed in an ancient 1:19 aspect ratio, the cinematography enhances the sense of isolation and claustrophobia the characters are experiencing. Coupled with an excellent score and ever present cacophony of howling wind and blasting fog horn technical merits are top notch.

Ultimately it comes down to the story and I wish the director had stuck with making this a slow burn psychological horror. Instead he throws in moments of humour which is sometimes effective (painting the lighthouse, bickering about the cooking), but also sometimes jarring (fart jokes? really?). You feel like it goes from The Shining to Family Guy in an instant. Which is a shame as I think if he had resisted his scatological impulses this truly could have been a masterpiece. Most people seem to absolutely love or hate it, but I'm left somewhat in the middle as a result.

As a side note, usually the extras on a disc aren't overally enthralling. But I quite enjoyed them this time.

A frustratingly flawed effort that's worth it for the acting and atmosphere and for those who appreciate the bizarre. However not likely to be to everyone's taste.

A Midnight Clear (Blu-ray) - Jun 21, 2020
A Midnight Clear

Director: Keith Gordon

Main Stars: Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Frank Whaley, Arye Gross

Rating: 4/5

Will Knott (Hawke) leads an intelligence team sent on a mission to setup at an abandoned chateau in the Ardennes and report on German troop movements just prior to their biggest counter attack of the entire war. The army thought they'd get better intelligence if the squad was made up of the smartest people. Unfortunately the smartest people don't necessarily make very good soldiers and their group is soon reduced to only six people. When they finally do encounter the enemy all the rules of warfare are thrown out the window and things take an unexpected turn.

According to the director, this film had the misfortune of being released the weekend of the Rodney King riots and thus came and went without much notice. I myself have this on Laserdisc, but had never gotten around to watching it. There was apparently a release that came out on DVD but the transfer was horrible and it was in a 4:3 aspect ratio. All of which is a shame as I would put this up there with A Thin Red Line and Jarhead as some of the best Anti-war movies - even more so because this was set in WWII which was considered a 'good' war.

Unlike most Hollywood films where the actors are a decade or more older than the characters they're playing, here they all really were just kids - and this was one of the first films for both Ethan Hawke and Gary Sinise. I've always enjoyed Ethan in everything he's done and here he brings a innocence and vulnerability which is just right for the role. The rest of the cast are equally strong. But really it's the story that sets this apart and based on the 1982 novel by William Wharton by all accounts it stays true to the source material.

Sadly I knew where things were headed early on and when it came it was still depressing to watch. However there's enough funny moments, tenderness, and examination of the human spirit to round everything out and prevent it from becoming an overly disheartening experience.

A victim of bad timing and a dearth of quality releases on video - this is a rare gem that deserves to be watched.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Blu-ray) - Apr 4, 2020
Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker

Director: J.J. Abrams

Main Stars: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega

Rating: 3.5/5

The Dead Speak! Wait, what? That's what they chose to start the iconic summary scroll with? Forty Two years since the original film mesmerized us with a rollicking adventure of good versus evil set against the vast backdrop of space we now are presented with the final entry. So is it a fitting conclusion to the series?

You could tell trouble was brewing when the studio fired Colin Trevorrow and instead brought back J.J. Abrams to direct. It's obvious they didn't want another repeat of The Last Jedi (TLJ) which sharply divided fans and instead decided to play it safe. For the record I'm one of the few that actually enjoyed TLJ over The Force Awakens. So what does playing it safe get us? An adequate final film that devotes as much time to fan service as to trying to wrap up the story. And the story was my biggest issue. You get the feeling they simply decided at some hastily scheduled writers meeting how things were going to play out. The first half of the film is like a bad version of Relic Hunter and the last half feels like simply a rehash of Return of the Jedi - even going as far as returning to some of the same locations.

Despite all that, on the whole it's still enjoyable to watch. It's still a Star Wars film. It still has that spectacle of awe and wonder. And the two stars Driver and Ridley do the most with what they're given and frankly are far better actors than anyone in the original trilogy. And while some of the sets are a return to the past they as well as others are some of the best set designs of the entire nine films.

There are also some very poignant moments in the film. I can't believe I got a bit misty eyed over a droid of all things. And naturally, seeing Carrie Fisher again brought a flood of emotions. At one point Chewbacca drops to his knees and gives a heart rending roar of grief - and he is merely vocalizing every single person watching that scene.

I also must mention there is some pretty dark and scary stuff going on. While I was personally surprised by it, as an adult I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I'm not so sure how young kids would fare. When I saw the original Star Wars I was six. If I was six seeing this and the way a certain character is portrayed I'd likely end up with nightmares.

At long last the saga comes to a close. While the story is a mess, technical merits and the spirit of the series are enough to mostly satisfy.

Joker (VOD) - Jan 22, 2020
Joker

Director: Todd Phillips

Main Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen

Rating: 4/5

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) spends his days working as a clown and his nights taking care of his increasingly unwell mother (Conroy). About his only true enjoyment in life comes from watching his favourite late night talk show. He dreams of one day becoming a famous stand up comic and ending up on that very show. Living with a medical condition that leads him to burst out laughing when nervous leads to numerous misunderstandings and even physical abuse. Never the most stable, as he tells his therapist that 'all he has are negative thoughts', he truly becomes unhinged after getting fired from his job and then learning a deep secret from his mother that she's hid from him all these years.

Again, not having the highest regard for comic book movies I wasn't sure what to expect, but it had good buzz and I really like Joaquin Phoenix. Happy to say this is a must see, not only for fans but also for movie lovers in general. Here we have a gritty, realistic portrayal of mental illness that doesn't shy away from graphic violence (unlike most in the genre) combined with social commentary with the Batman mythos as the backdrop. And I truly got a kick out of how it tied into the beginnings of that story. I always wondered why a random stranger would kill Bruce Wayne's parents. Now it all comes together.

As well, you have to mention the amazing physical transformation of Mr. Phoenix. I would easily put this up there with Christian Bale's jaw dropping appearance in The Machinist. And while I didn't quite have the same visceral rush of just wanting to murder someone like when I came out of the theatre having just watched Natural Born Killers, it was pretty close. It's easy to see why the FBI was concerned this movie would incite the unstable amongst us to violence.

One reviewer said something along the lines of 'This is not the movie America needs right now' - implying that all of that nation's woes are because of the sitting President. I think this is exactly the movie they need right now, but instead of highlighting the disparity between rich and poor it would be applicable to today's cancel culture and the sanctimonious mouthpieces lecturing half the country that they voted wrong. The same fate befalling them as with some in this film would equally bring a smile to my face.

The rarest of comic book movies. One that's actually truly enjoyable and far exceeds your typical CGI crap fest on every level.

Level 16 (VOD) - Jan 5, 2020
Level 16

Director: Danishka Esterhazy

Main Stars: Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning, Peter Outerbridge

Rating: 3.5/5

Young Vivien has spent her life growing up at a boarding school with other girls. Because the air outside is poisoned they have never been or even seen the outside world. She spends her days being taught how to be a good girl learning the virtues of patience, cleanliness, and obedience. All so that when she is old enough she'll find a home with a loving set of adoptive parents. One day one of the other girls implores her not to take her vitamins - a daily requirement to keep them being healthy girls. Hesitantly she does so and quickly discovers that all is not what it seems.

Here we have a decent low-budget Canadian entry in the dystopian near-future genre. I believe I caught wind of it reading one of the year end 'obscure films from the past year that you should watch' lists. As such I didn't know anything about it and purposefully kept myself ignorant as to what it was about.

The director manages to do a lot with a little and crafts a thoroughly engaging story that kept me on edge for most of the runtime. With such a claustrophobic and dreary setting it's up to the actors to carry the film and the main star Katie Douglas doesn't disappoint. Her credits show her mostly doing obscure TV shows, but I hope she ends up in more features as she's simply mesmerizing to watch. The rest of the (small) cast are equally effective.

Unfortunately when the twist is revealed it went a bit downhill for me. Not in terms of the story, but more in terms of how it was executed. And the more I thought about it, the more things began to unravel in regards to believability. Which was frustrating considering the slow burn the rest of the movie was in preparing for that moment. These kind of films drive me crazy because you feel that greatness is tantalizingly close, but then they let it slip away from them. You then put on your directors hat imagining how you'd change things for the better.

Still, a rewarding experience overall that while flawed, at least isn't instantly forgettable.