The Little Things – After testing out their new model of release in this pandemic era of big films, Warner Brothers rolls out the next film on their big slate for this year and it stars the money make and reliable face of one of the greatest actors today, Denzel Washington. The film comes from director John Lee Hancock, known for the popular Sandra Bullock film The Blind Side and the Ray Kroc story The Founder, who gets dark and gritty here with this crime thriller about a burnt-out Californian deputy sheriff who teams up with a crack LASD detective, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek, to nab a serial killer. The veteran law man’s nose for the “little things” proves eerily accurate, but his willingness to circumvent the rules embroils his young partner in an existential dilemma. As I said at the top, Denzel always delivers and Malek’s performances are so compelling every time, and this should tide us over from not seeing him take on James Bond in the now delayed again No Time To Die.
Palmer – Justin Timberlake makes his return to acting four years after his last time out for Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel and he brings the big emotion in a beautifully understated performance in this character-driven film. Directed by actor turned director Fisher Stevens in just his third narrative feature, the film has the mega popstar playing former high-school football star Eddie Palmer who went from hometown hero to convicted felon, earning himself twelve years in a state penitentiary. He returns home to Louisiana, where he moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, trying to keep his head down and rebuild a quiet life for himself but haunted by memories of his glory days and the suspicious eyes of his small-town community. Things become more complicated when she passes away and her hard-living neighbour disappears on a prolonged bender, leaving her precocious and unique 7-year-old son behind, often the target of bullying for his gender issues, and in Palmer’s reluctant care. This is a beautiful story of redemption and life rebirth that really puts Timberlake back on the map with a strong performance to start the year.
Penguin Bloom – Going into this based on a true story drama, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder because the premise felt really reminiscent of a mid-nineties family film like the Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin one Fly Away Home. I now will say that I was wrong and thoroughly enjoyed this film that stars Naomi Watts in her native Australia alongside former Walking Dead leading man Andrew Lincoln. The film tells the story of Sam Bloom, a mother whose world is turned upside down after a shocking, near-fatal accident leaves her paralyzed. She, her husband and their three young boys and her mother struggle to adjust to their new situation when an unlikely ally enters their world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin. The bird’s arrival is a welcome distraction for the Bloom family, eventually making a profound difference in Sam’s life, teaching her how to live again. The performances from Watts and Lincoln are fantastic but it’s this bird that makes the film absolutely must see and completely captivating. Is it weird that I want to nominate the bird for acting awards?
The Dig – Within minutes of this new British melodrama and I was totally hooked, a film that boasts fantastic performances from Carey Mulligan, to continue her roll off of Promising Young Woman, the always great Ralph Fiennes and the lovely Lily James. The cinematography is the second star of this movie, with its breathtaking scope, continuous movement and sun-streaked beauty, an accomplishment that I will probably bring up again and again throughout 2021. The underlying story is fascinating, based on a true story, about an English landowner in 1938 who hires an excavator and his team who discover a wooden ship from the Anglo Saxon era while digging up a burial ground on her estate. This is easily my number one movie this year and, yes, I’m aware of the hype I’m setting.
Lennox Lewis: The Untold Story – We’ve got a pretty comprehensive documentary about boxing great Mike Tyson but, for the life of me, I can’t really think about any other high profile ones until this new film rolled around, outlining the life and career of Canadian and English legend Lennox Lewis, a three-time world heavyweight champion, a two-time lineal champion, and a total machine that remains the last heavyweight to hold the undisputed championship. Coming from the rookie directing duo of G.S. Koch and Rick Lazes, this is an inside look at the career of Lennox Lewis from his rough upbringing to the Olympics and the professional ranks where he established himself as one of the greats in the history of the sport. This film plumbs the depths of Lewis in both his professional life and personal life, a lot of which felt so unexpectedly intimate. This is really how you do a good portrait piece in documentary form.
Phobic – Everything you have irrational fears about is at the heart of this new indie mystery that completely caught me off guard and totally transfixed me for its entire eighty minute duration. Featuring a cast of actors that you won’t recognize and created by writer and director Bryce Clark, a filmmaker just landing now in his first feature film after making a cheesy romantic film with Mischa Barton nine years ago, everything about this was a surprise. The film follows Riley Sanders, a second-generation Salt Lake PD Homicide detective who strives to live up to her father’s reputation. A chance encounter with a masked man who uses a strobe light effect on her renders her catatonic and when she is revived, she is immediately put on leave but when she returns to work she starts to have a deep connection to the victims of a serial killer who is killing clinical phobics by restraining them and exposing them to their fears. As I said, this one was a surprise, very idiosyncratic in its approach and it does huge swerves to avoid the police procedural cliches. This one may fast rise as one of the top indie films of the first quarter of 2021.
The Queen of Black Magic – Shudder is bringing the newest of the streaming horror this week which must be a bummer for Shane. Sorry, my friend, with me in this seat we’ll always have a film of this genre to discuss. This film comes from Indonesia, an unexpected little hub of thrills and chills and seriously effective horror, this one delving into voodoo, witchcraft and the dark arts. This film is set at an orphanage and follows a series of different families who are tormented and tortured by an entity that has a grudge and was also born because of the sins of the orphans, known only as the Queen Of Black Magic. Her goal is their immediate demise in a film that is a plethora of stylish blood and gore with some well crafted moments of true chilling supernatural horror. This one might catch on, much like Host and Daniel Isn’t Real did for Shudder last year.
Come Play – On the outside of this movie it may look like another creepy kid horror film but this one only features a kid as the main character but is more about a malevolent creature looking to steal said kid. The story follows Oliver, a lonely young boy who feels different from everyone else who’s only way to speak is through his smartphone. Desperate for a friend, he seeks solace and refuge in his ever-present cell phone and tablet but when a mysterious creature uses Oliver’s devices against him to break into our world, Oliver’s parents must fight to save their son from the monster beyond the screen. The story seems a bit hokey, based on a short film for the director Jacob Chase, but had the potential to be a really great thriller and makes pretty effective use of its material early on but a terrible script and, therefore, really bad acting constantly serve to take you completely out of the movie time and time again. I love both Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr. but can’t muster up a good thing to say about either of them in this, they’re just terrible.
Jiu-Jitsu – I can’t lie about this one because when I saw Nicolas Cage’s name attached to this, I got pretty excited in an ashamedly nerdy sort of way and it also has Ong Bak’s Tony Jaa, Frank Grillo in it. The secondary thing that got me is that Cage is a trained fighter who really doesn’t show off his moves too often unless it’s pacifying Vince Neil on the Vegas strip. The story sets up the cheese right away, following an ancient order of jiu-jitsu fighters who join forces to battle a vicious race of alien invaders against all the odds when their celebrated war hero goes down in defeat causing the fate of the planet and mankind to hang in the balance. That’s as far as my excitement went as this movie is purely just awful in every regard. The action is hokey, the story is horrendous and Cage plays a weird blend of the sage wisdom of Yoda and Dennis Hopper’s photographer character in Apocalypse Now. I couldn’t wait to shut off this movie but, for the good of you, my faithful viewer, I persevered until the end credits. My brain probably bled.
Batman: Soul Of The Dragon – For a few movies now the DC animated universe has matured into the R-rated landscape and has been telling stories for a more mature crowd, which makes sense because, well, we all grew up with the comics and need something a little more. This one is cool because it brings the character we know and love, the Caped Crusader and the world’s greatest detective and kind of throws him into some familiar tropes, especially if you love seventies kung fu movies. The story follows Batman, Bronze Tiger, Lady Shiva, and Richard Dragon as they are forced to join forces when they come to realize that they share a common acquaintance, a martial arts master that trained them who has been missing for many years and under mysterious circumstances. When a cursed relic resurfaces, the mystery of their presumed dead master re-opens and Batman and his former classmates must face-off in the ultimate test of their martial arts skills to gain control of this dangerous relic in a very Enter The Dragon sort of way. As a total nerd, I loved this. It’s Batman, there’s a crazy tournament and it has a classic style all over it. Enough said.
Born A Champion – Let’s get some action into this list for the week as this film throws away the guns and explosives of the genre and goes into the vein of mixed martial arts competition-style story which plays into my childhood of dedicating my eyes to the Best Of The Best movies. Starring former Young Indiana Jones and Boondock Saint Sean Patrick Flannery and Dennis Quaid, the story follows Mickey Kelley, a former Marine and one of the first American black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who gets pulled away from everything he loves and into an unsanctioned mixed martial arts tournament. This movie has Bloodsport written all over it but nixes the corny nature that that movie is famous for an earnest underdog movie that does not skimp on the violence for a second. The battle damage of this movie is felt with every bruise, lump and laceration in a final result that won’t wow you but will entertain you.
The Ascent – Are you ready for me to geek out on my new Criterion Collection edition? Sorry, I’m not giving you a chance to answer because I just assume you said yes and this one is another intriguing selection that I had never heard of before. The film is Russian, made in 1977 by writer and director Larisa Shepitko in what would tragically be her final film and follows two Soviet partisans on a mission to gather food while contending with the winter cold, the occupying Germans, and their own psyches driving them mad. This film, with its harrowing nature, would pair brilliantly with the Russian war stunner Come And See which was just released on Criterion just a handful of months ago. This is another astounding film that this wonderful distributor has introduced me to and now I want to see all of Sheptiko’s other works.
The Pajama Game – Let’s go from the desolation of the war-stricken Russian landscape of film seen above and get into the light and fun titles of Warner Archive which, this week, has a bunch of new ones to share, starting with this sweetheart collaboration between star Doris Day and celebrated director Stanley Donen. The story follows an Iowa pajama factory worker who falls in love with an affable superintendent that had been hired by the factory’s boss to help oppose the workers’ demand for a pay raise which was a whole whopping seven and a half cents. Those were the days, right? The film was made in 1957 which was just three years after the main Broadway show debuted starring Carol Haney who featured in the adaptation as well, the only film where she actually spoke in it and didn’t just dance. It was also reported that Marlon Brando was wanted for this one but declined because, well, he was Brando. It was also the year he did Sayonara, which won four Oscars but not one for him.
Room For One More – Now let’s dial the clock back five years and throw the incredibly likeable star Cary Grant into a classic comedy, a genre that he excelled at. The film came from Academy Award-winning Skippy director Norman Taurog and has Grant and co-star Betty Drake as New Jersey couple Anna and Poppy Rose who adopt several kids born into less fortunate circumstances, including a desperately unhappy 13-year-old girl and a physically handicapped boy with a penchant for getting into serious trouble. Grant and Drake were married to each other when they made this film and their chemistry really shows through in this and really made me think about the recent Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne comedy Instant Family which seemed like a modern version of it.
After The Thin Man – New on Blu-ray this week for Warner Archive is this kicking off of a franchise way back in the mid-thirties as William Powell and Myrna Loy returned for the first of five follow-ups to the massively popular murder caper comedy The Thin Man. The film has the duo heading back to their San Francisco home after the events of the first film only to have themselves thrown right back into business with Nick investigating the case of a missing man and later a murder that is connected to Nora’s family. This is widely regarded to be the best film of all of the Thin Man follow-ups and is pretty slickly written and was nominated for an Academy Award, ultimately losing to The Story of Louis Pasteur which took three Oscars that year.
Good News – Let’s speed a decade later for this blu-ray update of a romantic comedy musical classic starring June Allyson, an American leading lady whose sweet smile and sunny disposition made her the prototypical girl-next-door of American movies of the 1940s. This one plays into her strengths as she steps into the role of co-ed and school librarian Connie Lane who falls for football hero Tommy Marlowe but, unfortunately, he has his eye on a gold-digging vamp named Pat McClellan. Tommy’s grades then start to slip, which keeps him from playing in the big game, and Connie eventually finds out Tommy really loves her and devises a plan to win him back and to get him back on the field. Lots of spoiler territory there, which is weird for me to divulge, but I feel like the statute of limitations is up on this one and you need all of that preamble for the setup. It should be noted that Allyson had always considered this film one of her three favourites in her career and it was a sizable box office hit at the time too.
Southland Tales – I feel like I’ve been waiting since the mid-2000s for a definitive version of this Richard Kelly science fiction mind twister that I absolutely consider a total masterpiece and now Arrow Video has completely answered my dreams. Featuring a phenomenal ensemble which included Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Jon Lovitz and a small but pivotal cameo from Kevin Smith, this movie was everything to me when it came out. In as compact a nutshell as I can get it, the film is set during a three-day heatwave just before a huge Fourth of July celebration and follows an action star stricken with amnesia who meets up with a porn star who is developing her own reality TV project, and a policeman who holds the key to a vast conspiracy and complete world-ending chaos ensues with doppelgangers, gratuitous murder and more insanity than you knew was possible. This edition features multiple cuts of the film and behind the scenes of a film that never got it’s due with the man himself to explain his vision. This blu-ray is amazing.
You: Season 2 – This creeper thriller gets a new entry as Penn Badgley reprises his role as Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager who you hate but can’t keep your eye off of. Now the question of season two is “How much further can Joe go for his version of love?” and according to the star, this season was tough to pull off without repeating themselves, and it’s a character he really has a hard time playing as he is so massively unlikeable. Who knows? Maybe this is the season that fails to connect with the massive audience the first pulled in. I love that they added a new foil to offset Joe’s proclivities and challenge him at every step and she’s played brilliantly by Victoria Pedretti who totally broke my heart in The Haunting Of Hill House. How and why? Those are spoilers, my friend!
Steve’s Blu-Ray Geek Outs:
Black Gravel – Thanks to great people at Kino Lorber, I was introduced to this German drama from the early sixties that delved into a horrible history the country has to live with and most notably in the time after the war that they lost. In this gripping Cold War noir, tensions boil over between residents of a small German village and the soldiers of a U.S. military base as postwar economic hardship has turned the town of Sohnen into a vice district where the women serve as entertainment for the GIs and the men struggle for survival in the black market, a complete turning of the tide from when Germany thought the had the upper hand in the war. The film is deeply engrossing and equally affecting which begs the question of why it was so buried and only getting a release now. It’s such a dark depiction of the US soldiers, largely thought of as heroes when the war was won to become monsters themselves in their victory. Some very interesting history on film here.
Mister Roberts – A late arrival on my doorstep from last month, I knew this would be perfect for my geek outs because it features four golden era film actors who had a command of the era and were names that drew box office no matter what the genre was and those heavyweights were Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon. Made in 1955, the story is set in the waning days of World War II and follows the United States Navy cargo ship Reluctant and her crew who are stationed in the “backwater” areas of the Pacific Ocean and trouble and complete hijinks ensue when the crew members are granted liberty in what is kind of considered a screwball comedy, which is tonally weird given that its kind of a war story. The film was a huge hit and even earned an Academy Award for Best Actor Jack Lemmon but lost out on Best Picture. It should also be noted that three different directors worked on this, the legendary John Ford after The Long Gray Line, Mervyn LeRoy after Strange Lady in Town and an uncredited Joshua Logan after his debut I Met My Love Again. To me, that’s almost an embarrassment of riches.
The Curse Of Frankenstein – I absolutely love original monster horror and this one checks all the right boxes, starting with Peter Cushing absolutely delivering as the infamous Victor Frankenstein and a cinema god among men, Christopher Lee as his monster, which adds another notch of status because he played Dracula as well. The film has Baron Victor Frankenstein awaiting his appointment with the executioner and, to pass the time, spinning the yarn of a creature he built and brought to life, only for it to behave not as he intended, a story we know all too well. The friendship that was formed between Cushing and Lee is my favourite thing to come from this because, although they had appeared in Hamlet in 1948 and Moulin Rouge in 1952, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing met on the set of this film for the very first time. They would pass the time between shots by exchanging Looney Tunes phrases and quickly developed a fast friendship, which lasted until Cushing died in 1994. I adore the stories of old Hollywood horror and this one hits that spot beautifully.
Cinema Paradiso 4K – Largely regarded as one of the best pieces of international cinema in the last thirty-five years, it has been a long time coming for this late eighties Italian film to get a high def update and Arrow Academy is giving it the best treatment possible with a 4K edition. A very autobiographical story from writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, the film centers around a story from a filmmaker who recalls his childhood when falling in love with the pictures at the cinema of his home village, forming a deep friendship with the cinema’s projectionist. I didn’t really discover this one for myself until I started working at a video store and started going through all the films in the foreign section and found myself renting and watching this movie over and over again, pulling something new from it every time and with this brand new 4K transition and all-new special features, Arrow has given a new treasure trove for cinephiles to paw through.
Snowpiercer: Season 2 (Netflix) – Adapted from Academy Award winner Bong Joon-Ho’s mind-boggling sci-fi thriller, his English language debut, I would usually start my write up on this by saying how disappointing it is that Americans have to pounce on popular foreign properties but this one is different and the first season immediately put my foot in my mouth where it belonged. With Bong on board as executive producer along with fellow Korean film master Park Chan Wook and horror director Scott Derrickson, this show has the immediate source material love and care I wanted for it and it shines, especially with Blindspotting’s Daveed Diggs as the lead, one of the best actors working today. For those who don’t know, the show is a post-fall of humanity story about a divided remainder of people, either the poor or the elite, that live on a train that constantly zooms around the frozen landscape of Earth. With Jennifer Connolly playing the opposition in this show, it can only get better. Like last season, the show will be updated weekly by Netflix every week much as they did with The 100 and currently do with Riverdale.
Red Dwarf (BritBox) – Being a kid that was raised on British comedies, the fact that it has taken this long for one of the funniest science fiction series ever made to make it to a streaming service for the binge is flabbergasting but Lister, Rimmer, Kryton, Cat and Holly are available thanks to the niche service of BritBox. If you know about this series, you are a fan but for those who don’t, it follows an unambitious slob from Liverpool who has been awakened from a high-tech stasis chamber three million years in the future to find he may be one of the last humans alive. Hopelessly lost in space, this crew of mostly sad-act bachelors kill time and share adventure aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf and it is glorious every episode and, yes, I have my favourite episodes that we can trade lines from to an annoying degree on Twitter.
Resident Alien (CTV Sci-Fi) – Being a big comic nerd, I’ve been following this Dark Horse comic book ever since it started in April of 2012 from creators Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse, the writer and artist respectively. The story follows a crash-landed alien named Harry who takes on the identity of a small-town Colorado doctor and slowly begins to wrestle with the moral dilemma of his secret mission on Earth, a delightful and quirky tale that hinges on the perfect person to play the lead role and they found it with former Firefly star and hysterically funny actor Alan Tudyk, which immediately makes this comedy a must-see endeavour. There is so much source material to pull from and I hope that Syfy has managed to net itself another hit series on par with Eureka, Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse. My fingers are crossed for season two and I haven’t even seen episode one yet.