Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore – I head into this second sequel in the spinoff prequel of the Harry Potter franchise with a few mixed emotions. The first Fantastic Beasts film I found to be really fun with some great characters and storytelling but the second film, The Crimes Of Grindelwald, felt way too much at once being shoved into a single movie which grew tedious as the story moved on. Now we return to the world of wizarding with Dumbledore, played by Jude Law, at its head. With the knowledge that Grindelwald, now played by the great Mads Mikkelsen, is intent on seizing control of both sides of the world, both magic and ordinary, Albus must enlist Magizoologist Newt Scamander to lead an intrepid team of wizards, witches and one brave Muggle baker on a dangerous mission, where they encounter old and new beasts and clash with Grindelwald’s growing legion of followers. The good thing is, from all early reviews of it, we get more of a return to what made the first movie so entertaining and they don’t feel like they cram in and rush little storylines that come to fruition later. I wonder how now they will deal with the problematic casting of Ezra Miller who now seems like more of a PR problem than Johnny Depp ever was.
Father Stu – With the news that Mark Wahlberg may soon be retiring from mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and focusing only on faith-based stories like this one, it adds all that much more disappointment to covering this one which was already at a low with the casting of Mel Gibson. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, n good storytelling has come out of the faith-based market ever and I have suffered through too many of them. This one follows the life of Father Stuart Long, played by Wahlberg, a boxer-turned-priest who inspired countless people during his journey from self-destruction to redemption. Everything about the trailer for this movie feels like a pandering message-driven story that once again focuses on delivering the ideals over being an actually entertaining movie. I don’t need to be preached at about faith and belief but that is all these films seem to do. Seriously, how many people are being converted to Christianity or catholicism during an outing to the movies? Just give it up already.
Choose Or Die – I can’t lie, I had some hopes for this new technology-driven horror movie that played with the trope of being based around an 80s style video game but having lived through 2006’s Stay Alive in theatres, a video game horror slasher film that was terrible, I should have known better. My draw to this, besides what I previously mentioned, is it has Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert England, but the latter was in voice form only and he kind of plays himself. The story follows a broke student who, in pursuit of an unclaimed $100,000 prize, plays an obscure 1980s survival computer game and after a series of unexpectedly terrifying moments, she soon realizes she’s no longer playing for the money, but for her own life. The premise is neat but that’s all there is to this bare-bones horror film that relies on cheap sound drive jump scares and some janky special effects to get its thrills across. Butterfield plays a small supporting role to drive the main character’s narrative and I feel like nothing comes together in any logical sense in the third act. Disappointing all around.
All My Puny Sorrows – I really have a place in my heart for festival darlings and not only does this one hold that title but it won a handful of awards at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival which gives the love that local flavour. Beyond that, the film features leading performances from two favourite Canadian actresses, Alison Pill who I’m currently watching on Picard and Sarah Gadon who I have loved in absolutely everything she has done. The film is based on the international best-selling novel by Miriam Toews and is the poignant story of two sisters, one a concert pianist obsessed with ending her life and the other, a writer, who is wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about her herself. With mental health finally being something discussed more openly, this film is an important narrative to get out to the masses and writer and director Michael McGowan does an incredible job in conveying it. It also adds to a killer list for the filmmaker as his Joshua Jackson drama One Week is a Canadian favourite of mine.
Kicking Blood – Vampire horror is a dicey thing to get into these days, especially with the absolute classics that reside in that side of the genre, so if you’re going to do it, you better expect many people to compare it to things they have already seen before. That is the minefield that Canadian writer and director Blaine Thurier is navigating with his new feature film but he isn’t a stranger to the overarching genre as he is following u his last film, a high school-set dark comedy horror called Teen Lust. This story follows Anna, a centuries-old vampire who spends her nights watching Robbie, a charming but reckless young man that is recovering from his alcoholism. Finding that her possible obsession might be something more deep and human in nature, she decides to quit blood and restore her humanity. The film doesn’t feature any widely recognizable cast but lead actress Alanna Bale is so compelling in her performance that it is hard not to be drawn into the drama of it all. This film played at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year and I heard a bit of buzz about it then but finally seeing it, I was really impressed with how well the story is told against a pretty low budget.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – It was pretty damn cool to head into the end of the year with the biggest Marvel movie of 2021 and a film that changed the landscape of that cinematic universe for the next phase. There was so much speculation heading into this film, one that brings the multiverse into the equation and we knew from the trailers that Alred Molina’s Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Jamie Foxx’s Electro appear but the big question was do Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spideys drop in as well? I think a large number of us know the answer to that now but I’ll still play vaguely on it. The film takes up just after Spider-Man’s identity was revealed, forcing Peter to ask Doctor Strange for help. When a spell goes wrong, dangerous foes from other worlds start to appear, forcing Peter to discover what it truly means to be Spider-Man. Again, I’ll play non-spoiler games here ad not delve in on the secrets revealed in this awesome thrill ride but I will say that it is possibly one of the most entertaining films in the whole Marvel universe and proves not just how great of a Spider-Man Tom Holland is but just how damn good that Willem Dafoe is as well. There’s a reason that he is consistently my favourite actor in everything he does.
Gold – Zac Efron’s most recent adventures were documented in his Netflix docuseries Down To Earth which had him travelling around the world with wellness expert Darin Olien in search of healthy, sustainable ways to live but it must have also been to help prepare him for this new survival thriller because it really seemed to pay off. Interestingly enough, he almost died making the reality show so it’s even more fitting that this film takes place in one of the most deadly places on the planet as well. The film is set in the not-too-distant future and follows Efron as a drifter travelling through the desert who discovers the largest gold nugget ever found with his driver who is reluctantly escorting him through the harsh terrain. While his new business partner treks off to find an excavator to dig up their find, the drifter is left to his own devices to guard it against thieves amid harsh conditions and wild dogs while waiting for his meal ticket to return. Beautifully shot but dour and depressing, this movie is as harsh as they come and shows, without any flinching, a man whose body is torn apart by the elements he faces. Efron is put through the absolute wringer in this film and I felt captivated the whole time. The viewer takes a beat, albeit far less than the character on screen, but it is quite the journey.
Last Looks – Just like anyone else that sees the cover of this new blu-ray, I feel all kinds of weirdness seeing Mel Gibson in any sort of prominent role, a guy that has had no remorse for any of the bad things he has done but still gets rewarded anyways. That said, the film is lead by Charlie Hunnam and I am a huge Sons Of Anarchy fan so I had no choice but to pop it in and press play. The film is based on a novel of the same name by author Howard Michael Gould, who also wrote the screenplay, and follows a disgraced ex-cop named Charlie Waldo who seeks solace by moving to the woods, but finds his quiet life shattered when a studio executive recruits him to investigate the high profile murder of a famous actor’s wife. As against this film as I felt initially, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the storyline as it progressed, filled with intriguing characters and some well-written dialogue. The film isn’t really anything largely special but I do appreciate the private investigator Hollywood noir of it all and I wouldn’t be against seeing more of the Waldo character as Gould already has another novel in this progressing series out.
Spiritwalker – South Korean cinema is still and forever will be my total jam and this new action thriller with a little bit of a sci-fi element filled that bucket for me so well. It doesn’t come from a filmmaker that I’m at all familiar with, Jae-geun Yoon in just his second feature film, but he has quickly been put on my list of people to keep an eye on, especially his last movie Heartbeat which features Lost actress Yunjin Kim. This stylish film kept me on the edge of my seat though, a fantasy action that revolves around a man who loses his memory and subsequently wakes up in a new body every twelve hours. As the reasoning around his predicament becomes increasingly clear, his peril becomes more heightened and Yoon and his cinematography hold his perspective so well. These films are still very niche, no matter what the acclaim that Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite should have done for Korean films after the Oscars, so they all seem like hard sells still but they arguably make better action thrillers than most of the North American productions. If you aren’t going to see the Bay-hem of Ambulance in theatres now, this would be a solid runner-up.
American Flyers -Warner Archive hooked me up with a Kevin Costner double feature this week and it’s pretty cool because the two films occupy certain niches in his career starting with this one, the sports movie. It is the beginning piece to a trend that would encompass a golf movie, a relay racing film, a football draft story and multiple baseball films and I definitely think it was a really solid start. He plays Marcus in this, a sports physician who persuades his unstable brother David to come with him and train for a bicycle race across the Rocky Mountains. Marcus doesn’t tell David that he has a brain aneurysm that could render him paralyzed or dead at any given moment and while his brother powerfully heads for the victory, he has to realize that the contest is now beyond his capabilities and his progressing disabilities. This was just at the beginning of Costner’s leading man career and he hadn’t hit his stride yet as an A-lister but this movie excels on the work of director John Badham, fresh off of WarGames, and writer Steve Tesich who had just earned acclaim for The World According To Garp. The drama is so well told and the chemistry between Costner and his co-stars David Marshall Grant, Rae Dawn Chong and Alexandra Paul is solid and keeps you into it.
Fandango – This is a special film in the career of the great Kevin Costner as it is the first collaboration between him and writer and director Kevin Reynolds with the duo pairing to do two more films afterwards with Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and the unfairly maligned Waterworld, as well as the Hatfields & McCoys series. This film also pushes the great ensemble tendency for Costner again as Judd Nelson and Sam Robards feature alongside him with Suzy Amis and Gleanne Headly in supporting roles. The film is an emotional story of a “last hurrah” and the changing of innocence following five college buddies from the University of Texas circa 1971 who embark on a final road trip odyssey across the Mexican border before facing up to uncertain futures, in Vietnam and otherwise. A cool story about this film, it was the feature-length version of Reynolds’ short student film from when he was in USC film school which was seen by Steven Spielberg who coaxed him into making it a feature film that was definitely underappreciated critically in its time and has found a positive reaction since.
Steve’s Blu-Ray Geekouts:
The Cabin In The Woods – I am fully in the know of how unacceptable it is to praise Joss Whedon as a creator now that the grossness of his past actions has been brought to light but I instead use this film to give accolades to Drew Goddard, the director and co-writer of this brilliant horror-comedy that was shelved by the studio for so long because they didn’t understand where to release it in the year and had no idea how beloved it would become to the fan base. It really took Chris Hemsworth’s success in Thor to give it a new theatrical life. This movie is fantastic in every way but I’ll keep spoiler-free for those who haven’t seen it and just say that it is about five friends who go for a break at a remote cabin, where they get more than they bargained for and discover the sinister and crazy truth behind the cabin in the woods. Featuring Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Fran Kranz and Jesse Williams, this might be one of my favourite horror films of all time and no one at all is prepared for the game-changing twists or that insane third act. True movie magic.
Frailty – This is a great week for the geek-outs as I wasn’t sent anything late so I get to delve into the anniversaries of the week, as that previous entry with its ten-year birthday. This thriller here is turning twenty this week and is one of my all-time favourites as well and was also the directorial debut of the late, not forgotten and sorely missed Bill Paxton. Paxton stars in a major supporting role but the heavy lifting is done by Matthew McCougnahy and Powers Boothe in a story about a mysterious man who arrives at the offices of an FBI agent to recount his childhood and how his religious fanatic father received visions telling him to destroy people who were in fact “demons.” This movie brilliantly plays with your perceptions of what the final truth is and is crafted so masterfully until its sinister final act. There are many fans of this film that wanted a sequel but I’m so happy it was left to breathe on its own because I believe it is a perfect southern gothic tale in every way.
Grosse Pointe Blank – I’m a huge John Cusack fan and have been for a long time and this is a film in his filmography that I will always hold close to my heart, along with High Fidelity, but I assure you the love does come from before this. This one is really special as well because he co-wrote the screenplay for it and it shows off that great dark humour that he wears on his sleeve in so many roles. For those who have never seen this absolute gem that is celebrating twenty-five years, it follows Martin Blank, a professional assassin sent on a mission to a small Detroit suburb, Grosse Pointe, which is also, by coincidence, his hometown and his ten-year high school reunion party is taking place there at the exact same time. All the awkwardness of those reunions is at play at the exact same time that a rival killer is looking to snuff out the competition, played so well by the great Canadian, Dan Aykroyd. With a soundtrack that you can’t help but tap your toe along to and a script that is hilarious and infinitely quotable, there is no wrong time to see this movie for the first time. Trust me, it is a total classic.
Roar (AppleTV+) – I’ve said it many times before but I think AppleTV+ is one of the only streaming services that are taking bold chances with their programming, sometimes picking up other network and studio cast-offs, and this new series fits the niche of original and offbeat shows. What took me in right away about this show was how non-linear it came across in its approach and, aside from the mega-stardom of Nicole Kidman and the always fantastic Betty Gilpin from GLOW, it relies on its writing and focused subject matter to do it. The description feels very vague on the outside but to put it in nutshell it is an insightful, poignant, and sometimes hilarious portrait of what it means to be a woman today featuring a unique blend of magical realism, familiar domestic and professional scenarios, and futuristic worlds. The show actually comes from a novel by author Cecelia Ahern, an Irish writer who gifted the from com audiences with favourites like P.S., I Love You but this one is a totally different sort of beast and offers some gender empowerment that sometimes isn’t present in the mainstream television ideals. It feels very much like a cut and dry single season so I think it’s easy to call this one a limited series.
Anatomy Of A Scandal (Netflix) – Nothing ropes viewers in better than a controversial and maybe seedy storyline and, honestly, no one does it better than the Brits when it comes to depicting it because the BBC has been doing knockout work in this type of show for years. Netflix seems to want their cut of that action as they’ve produced this new series and enlisted a handful of recognizable actors but only if you’re an avid watcher of British television and to be honest most of them are faces that I can’t put immediate names to. The story infiltrates Britain’s elite through personal and political scandal, where the truth lies between justice and privilege following James and Sophie Whitehouse who live in a blissful and rarified world. A Minister in Parliament with a loving family at home, James’ trajectory appears without limits until a scandalous secret suddenly comes to light. Barrister Kate Woodcroft has a trajectory of her own, and her prosecution threatens to tear into Westminster, the Whitehouse marriage, and her own personal esteem. The subject matter and how it is taken on may feel a bit dry to North American viewers who are used to a glossier sort of courtroom procedural but for me, a fan of Broadchurch, Law & Order UK and Vera, all of this plays so well into my wheelhouse. That said, I don’t at all expect this series to be a runaway hit at all, just a pleasant discovery for Netflix subscribers.
Hard Cell (Netflix) – Speaking of British programming, this new comedy series caught my eye because of the lead star Catherine Tate who, for me, is always memorable as one of Doctor Who’s Companions, Donna Noble, but for many she is remembered as one of the many replacements for Michael Scott on The Office when Steve Carrell departed the show. Now she gets to stretch her comedy wings again, something she is incredibly good at, even on Doctor Who, and play around with portraying multiple characters. Taking a bit from The Office’s styling, developed by the great Ricky Gervais of course, the series is a documentary-style show that follows a filmmaking crew filming the inmates and staff of HMP Woldsley while Tate portrays multiple characters to capture the penal system at its brutal humorous best. There is a lot of obviously British-focused lampooning in this but for a guy like me that was raised on this country’s comedy, through the Canadian PBS broadcasting, all of it plays so well with me. Like the previous entry on this list, the series may not appeal to a broader North American audience but I’m sure it will land with a United Kingdom comedy-seeking crowd.
Outer Range (Prime Video) – Josh Brolin is an easy sell for almost everyone as he is guaranteed to have been in a film you love, dating all the way back to The Goonies because, damn, wasn’t Brand the epitome of cool? Well, he heads to the open country but this one isn’t No Country For Old Men or anything Cormac McCarthy but something more mysterious and I’m still trying to figure out what. Co-starring the equally phenomenal Imogen Poots and Lili Taylor, this series centers on Royal Abbott, a rancher fighting for his land and family, who discovers an unfathomable mystery at the edge of Wyoming’s wilderness, delving into some seemingly supernatural mystery. The series was created by Brian Watkins who has no other credits under his name but sometimes that works out in a sort of wunderkind fashion as it did for the Duffer Brothers with Stranger Things. Now, I’m not trying to set up the expectations that that series have levelled with its fans but I am really excited to see an original idea fleshed out with the power of Prime Videos wallet which is immense just based on the budget that The Marvelous Ms. Maisel has.