Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Odd Thomas

Odd is his actual name, and according to townspeople, he lives up to it each and every day. If they knew he had powers that justified what they called him, they’d REALLY be upset. Odd (Anton Yelchin) is a short-order cook who can see the dead. They can’t speak but they are often frantic to impart a last message, sometimes about how they died, and who might be responsible. Thank goodness for Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who pursues Odd’s leads and doesn’t ask too many questions that can’t be comfortably answered.

“Wheel of Misfortune”

But there’s something more sinister than usual hanging around this California desert town. Dark and threatening forces (seen only by Odd of course) are clustering around a mysterious man, and Odd has a very bad feeling that something very serious and very deadly is about to go down.

The movie is pretty wobbly as far as tone goes: romance, tragedy, comedy, supernatural thriller. It’s scary, witty, goofy, silly, and yes – odd. And while some may find it tough to breach the ever-changing landscape, Anton Yelchin is just the man to incorporate all of these facets into something that makes sense. While Yelchin’s loss is still keenly felt, it’s a little more palpable when he’s addressing a child’s ghost and offering condolences for a life cut short.

Odd Thomas is a quirky comedy-horror if ever there was one, but I couldn’t help but like it. It is oddly entertaining; Odd has the makings of a paranormal investigator that I could watch again and again – I kind of wish it was a series and not a film so that I could. Writer-director Stephen Sommers adapts from a Dean Koontz novel which I have not read but imagine the film manages to capture a good bit of the source material’s spirit. It’s an engaging deviance from the usual approach, a more whimsical, almost quaint approach to horror, quite a feat for something involving satanic cults and mass murder.

Doctor Sleep

You remember Danny Torrence, right? Loved to ride his Big Wheel down quiet, carpeted hallways. Called his index finger Tony and spoke for him in a creepy voice? Avoided being chopped up into tiny pieces by his father by outsmarting him in a hedge maze?

Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining you didn’t know you’d been waiting 40 years to see, starring survivor Danny Torrence, now all grown up and going by Dan (Ewan McGregor). Dan is an alcoholic, struggling to beat the disease that claimed his father. He’s alone in the world, nothing but a string of bad decisions behind him, not to mention some haunting memories which he tries to repress. He’s trying for a peaceful life these days but when teenager Abra (Kyliegh Curran) reaches out to him via their mutual power (we’re still calling it the shining), he can hardly ignore her, especially because she’s in danger. Her powers are pretty significant and she can feel other kids like her getting brutally murdered. A mysterious cult known as The True Knot, led by Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), preys on children with powers, drinking their pain and eating their fear to remain immortal.

Of course this struggle will ultimately end up at the Overlook Hotel, where the final showdown takes place. It’s been abandoned literally since the last time Danny was there, and it’s got plenty of trauma triggers just waiting to trip him up. The hotel itself is not unlike the True Knot, sucking at whatever shining powers it can get, and Dan’s presence certainly revives this.

The film has a great supporting cast including Emily Alyn Lind, Zackary Momoh, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, and especially Carl Lumbly, Jacob Tremblay, and Cliff Curtis. Director Mike Flanagan knows how powerful it is to situate us back into the setting of one of the most famous and successful modern horror movies ever, but he wisely uses it sparingly, creating his own almost separate story that merely feels adjacent to the great Stanley Kubrick oeuvre. Likewise, he doesn’t seek to recreate Kubrick’s style, though the temptation must be great. Doctor Sleep takes a more brooding, almost meditative approach, which might be a nice way of saying slow. It is a bit slow because we take the time to get reacquainted with Dan Torrence and incorporating his infamous past with what we know of him today, because those events have certainly shaped him. There has always been a reason to revisit The Shining; in the first film, Danny’s special powers are relegated to subplot and never get fully addressed. The Shining seems like it’s named after Danny but it’s his father’s story; Jack’s writer’s block and cabin fever and alcoholism and isolation culminate in a rather explosive way. The fact that his son is ‘weird’ is a relatively minor factor in his downward spiral. Finally with Doctor Sleep we get some answers – what is it more than why is it, but it’s still satisfying to tie up some long-nagging loose ends. Of course, it also opens up its own universe of terror and intrigue.

Mike Flanagan’s film hits different notes than Kubrick’s did, though, apart from the synth ones in the score that inspire instant dread. It’s respectful of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but draws a lot on the book by Stephen King, and winds up forging its own identity. To be honest, I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. Flanagan is smart to build his sequel on familiar bones but not to make the film in Kubrick’s image. It helps that they’re very different stories about very different family members. Rebecca Ferguson is a lot of fun as Rose The Hat, and Kyliegh Curran is clearly going to be a huge star. It takes a while to get them together but not only is it worth the wait, it doesn’t feel like a wait, it’s a genuine pleasure to have this creep up on you on all sides until you’re surrounded and the only thing to do is to surrender.

Over The Moon

When Fei Fei is a little girl, her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) tells her about the moon goddess Chang’e. The popular myth says that many, many years ago, ten suns rose in the sky together, scorching the Earth. The archer Houyi shot down nine of them, and was rewarded an elixir for immortality. He did not take it as he did not wish to become immortal without his beloved wife Chang’e. But one day his apprentice broke into his house to steal it, and to prevent him gaining it, Chang’e drank it herself. She ascended to the heavens, choosing the moon as her residence, where she mourns her husband to this day, because true love lasts forever.

Fei Fei’s mother passed away, and every year when her family gathers for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, there’s an extra reason to remember her mother. But this year she is surprised to learn that her father (John Cho) has invited an unexpected guest: his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, Chin. Upset by this sudden turn of events, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) decides to build a rocket ship to the moon so she can enlist Chang’e’s help to remind her father that true love (ie, his first love, ie, Fei Fei’s mother) is forever. She and bunny Bungee (plus stowaway Chin) are surprisingly successful, but the moon isn’t exactly what she’d anticipated. Her first friend is Gobi (Ken Jeong), a pangolin former royal advisor who was exiled 1000 years ago; he has some important wisdom to impart about loneliness, if only Fei Fei would listen. But she’s still determined to enlist Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), a goddess in the form of a rock star, and every bit as demanding and self-interested as one.

Over The Moon is a new offering from Netflix, an animated musical film appropriate for the whole family. It’s more in the style of Laika films than Disney or Pixar, but unfortunately doesn’t reach the heights of any of these. Although it does use one of Disney’s favourite tropes, the dead mom, it teaches a lesson about a different kind of grief. The visuals are stunning and the moon adventure is sure to please any young child, with rap-battle ping pong games and softly glowing creatures, it’s hard to deny. But the moon adventure is book-ended with family scenes reminiscent of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, another movie that used food as an excuse to gather and grieve. These scenes are tinged with loss but also hint that life can move on. It is heartfelt but not emotionally manipulative. Some of the feelings are nuanced enough that they may be complicated for very young audience members to understand, but anyone who has loved and lost will feel something familiar here, and that’s a pretty good reason to watch.

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Devour! is our bucket list film festival. When we cover a big film festival like TIFF, we often go hungry, meals replaced by the crumbly remains of a granola bar fishes out of the bottom of my tote. So imagine our delight when we heard about Devour!, a festival that pairs food and film. As lovers of both, we have resolved to one day travel to beautiful Wolfville, Nova Scotia to partake in what I’m sure can’t help but be a joyous event. However, since that wasn’t in the cards this year, the lovely people of the Devour! film festival have provided us with a virtual hybrid, so that for the first time ever, those of us even outside of Nova Scotia can indulge in a unique festival with strong programming.

Feast of the Seven Fishes is about a big Italian family preparing – guess what – a traditional Feast of Seven Fishes. It’s Christmas Eve and the whole family gathers to participate and partake. This year’s a little special because young Tony (Skyler Gisondo) is bringing a date – a non-Italian date.

Almost every culture celebrates holidays with food and feasts (or, conversely, with a lack of them). Family recipes are passed down from generation to generation to preserve culture and tradition. I remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen, learning how to make her perfect, flaky pie crust, used for any number of recipes including French-Canadian recipes for tourtière and straight-up sugar pie (incidentally, my grandmother also gave out sucre à la Crème for Halloween, a maple-flavoured, crumbly fudge). At Christmas a Bûche de Noël would always be the centrepiece of our table, even if everyone preferred my grandmother’s flawless apple pie for dessert. And even my mother, an avowed non-baker, would whip up gateau chomeur, a humble dessert, once in a while, and for dinner, a pâté chinois that still haunts me.

Food is an opportunity to gather. In Tony’s family, it is largely the men who prepare fish on Christmas Eve. They start days in advance, soaking and resoaking the fish though inevitably someone will always complain that it wasn’t soaked enough. Food is an excuse to reminisce. Mom usually made it best, and her way is still the only way. Food is a tool for teaching each other about what we value and what we believe. Some observe special diets, or stay away from meat on Fridays. Some people eat ham on Christmas instead of turkey, others roast suckling pig or goose. And food says something about us, about our family. On the holidays, I usually bring dessert, because I like to make things as pretty as they are delicious. One of my sisters brings an appetizer, because we like to snack. And another brings the cheese plate, because she can’t cook and we all know it.

Tony’s dad is busy working in the butcher shop, but his uncle Carmine (Ray Abruzzo) and uncle Frankie (Joe Pantoliano) introduce the new non-Italian girlfriend Beth (Madison Iseman) to their culture and their family by telling her all the stories of past Christmas Eves. No family member is spared embarrassment when the uncles are drinking and reminiscing. When finally it’s time to eat, the whole family gathers around a table groaning with food and stretched to its limit and possibly even extended with other tables and mismatched chairs to accommodate one and all. There is not a grandmother on earth who’s most fervent wish isn’t to have her whole family gathered around a single table. Food is passed, wine is shared, conversation shouted across the table. Perhaps a toast is made, an absent loved one remembered, a prayer given, or a moment of gratitude observed. Several generations of family members young and old sit elbow to elbow, the lefties always throwing a wrench into things.

Tony’s family has specific customs and unique recipes, but changes are you’ll find something to relate to in a film like this, a film about family and holidays and time spent together. Writer-director Robert Tinnell shares a piece of himself with this film, but he also uses food as a universal symbol for how and why and when we gather. Tinnel draws uniformly wonderful performances out of a stacked cast including Paul Ben-Victor and Lynn Cohen. The film does indeed feel like a boisterous family gathering, and we feel welcome at their table. There’s an air of bonhomie and contagious conviviality. But what makes it special is that it captures the spirit in such a real and recognizable way. They aren’t your family, but they could be.

Check out the Devour! website to learn how to watch this and other movies, including that documentary everyone’s talking about, My Octopus Teacher.

Black Box

Nolan (Black Box) just suffered a devastating car accident that took his memory and his wife’s life. Trying to piece his life back together after the trauma, Nolan’s amnesia would seem particularly problematic since he is now a single father to Ava (Amanda Christine), is far too little to have such an unreliable caregiver, never mind doing most of the caring herself.

Nolan is desperate, so he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment, the eponymous black box, which wears and looks like a VR helmet and seems to almost hypnotize patients back into their subconscious minds where Dr. Lillian (Phylicia Rashad) attempts to guide them into recovering their inaccessible memories. The process is agonizing, and while some progress is being made, it’s also further confusing Nolan, who finds that his memories aren’t quite matching up to what he’s come to expect. Thank goodness for Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) who not only provides priceless babysitting duty, but also serves as a touchstone, the only one who can confirm or deny the memories that Nolan seems to be recovering.

While I wouldn’t classify the film as a horror movie (though Amazon Prime sure does, including it in its “Welcome to the Blumhouse series), it is creepy in a way that’s hard to shake. Nolan’s memories remind me a bit of Inception in that sometimes they are hostile toward him, which doesn’t exactly do any favours to his healing. I’ve been a fan of Athie for many years now, and it’s always exciting to see Rashad pop up in things; the two together make for a well-acted and interesting film. I enjoyed the story, and the frantic search for identity, and I’ve appreciated how many of these Blumhouse films have considered parenthood from different aspects. Black Box doesn’t deliver my scares, but it’s chilling like an extended episode of Black Mirror, slightly sci-fi-ish, exploring the unintended consequences of new technologies.

See our other Blumhouse reviews here.

The Lie

I watched this movie several years ago, when it was called We Monsters, and starred German people. Then some American saw it and thought: I bet we can make this worse! And they were right. They always can.

Which is not a total write-off of The Lie. It’s got pretty middling reviews from other critics and I should say right upfront that I disagree with its ‘horror’ classification though it is 1 of 4 ‘Welcome To The Blumhouse’ supposed horror films released as a block to Amazon Prime for your Spooktober viewing pleasure. It’s a thriller. The horror is not so much in what happens but that it COULD happen – perhaps to you.

Pop quiz for parents: what wouldn’t you do to protect your child? If your kid, no longer a child but not yet an adult, made a mistake, a very bad mistake, would you urge them to confess? Force them to confess? What if the very bad mistake could ruin their lives? Would you turn them in? Or help them hide it? Would you lie to save your son or daughter prison?

Kayla (Joey King) did a very bad thing. She argued with her best friend and shoved her, out of anger. Intentionally or not, the friend fell to her death. As Kayla shakily confesses to dad Jay (Peter Sarsgaard), he drops his search and rescue attempt, he does not summon help. He immediately, without qualm or question, starts to cover up her crime. The first lie is told. When they bring Kayla’s mother Rebecca (Mireille Enos) into the fold, the cover up expands, the lies multiply. You tell lies to prop up the first lie, to divert attention, to plug up holes in the story, to improve plausibility, to create alibis, to misdirect, to suggest alternate theories, to feign innocence, to smooth out wrinkles, to put out fires, to gaslight cynics, to reframe the narrative, to deny knowledge – it’s an unending cesspool where one lie only and always begets another and another. And then even if you think better of the first lie, it’s too late, because you’ve already told so many more, and lots of those are illegal too.

This complicated spiral of causation has popularly been referred to as a web of lies, which in this case, almost sounds like a euphemism. This is an avalanche of lies. Cataclysmic. The parents have now implicated themselves, and yet neither hesitates. It’s for their daughter, so of course. Director Veena Sud does an excellent job of seeing this through to its ugliest conclusion. It is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, even if you don’t disagree with Jay and Rebecca’s actions. If the question is one of ethics, there is a right answer, and then there is the way you’d actually handle it, and the discrepancy between those two disparate answers creates a pit of dread inside your stomach that only grows as the film pushes forward.

The Lie is far from perfect, but I do think it’s worth a watch. We could all use an exercise in theoretical morals and their practical applications once in a while. To keep us sharp. Because you’ll never know when a sticky situation may be just around the corner, or one frustrated shove away. This movie exists for one reason, really: to ask “What would you do?” and then to leave you to sit with your answer, which may in fact be your first lie, and let the horror seep in.

Join our discussion on Youtube.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The trial (little t = not the movie, the trial itself) of the Chicago 7 was a clusterfuck from the start. From before the start. From before the trial, from before the election, from before the protest, from before the war…injustice is as American as apple pie and is baked right into the constitution. To say it wasn’t a fair trial assumes it was ever even a trial. By its very definition, a trial is an examination of evidence in order to determine guilt. Although the trial of the Chicago 7 was by jury, the judge on the case made it clear the evidence didn’t matter and wouldn’t be heard because their guilt was presumptive and anyone who disagreed was an idiot. Of course, not only was the trial of the Chicago 7 not a trial, there weren’t technically 7 of them either. We start with 8 and end up with 5, but more on that later.

A quick pre-trial bit history: it’s 1968. American is gearing up for a tough election amid a lot of unrest. MLK has been assassinated, and civil rights has become more dominated by the Black Panthers than by peaceful protest. The Vietnam war is increasingly unpopular but still racking up a disturbing daily body count. And so a bunch of different protest groups are descending upon Chicago, which is hosting the Democratic National Convention. Though there are many different organizations with different goals and methods of exacting them, they all pretty much agree that change starts with electing the right kind of leader. But the convention becomes secondary news to the riots and bloodshed that surrounds it. When the dust clears, “seven” men have been arrested for conspiring to start a riot. They did no such thing – some had never even met before being indicted for the crime, but like I said earlier, this was never about justice or truth. It was about politics.

The five men who wind up on trial are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). The bonus 8th is Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was only passing through Chicago at the time but got lumped in because a group that includes an angry black man looks 90% guiltier to any jury of “their: peers. As you can see, this is already a fantastic cast and I haven’t even told you about Mark Rylance, who plays a defense attorney, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays the lead prosecutor. But the man who steals the show (and this is indeed an undeniable sausage fest) is Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, a man so inept at his job, so obviously biased and painstakingly obstructive in his own courtroom that he appears to be mentally incompetent. The trial is a circus, the truth is irrelevant, the law has no part to play, and the whole thing gets so wildly out of control you simply won’t believe what is allowed to happen in a court of law. And yet it did, it’s all true.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin is absurdly good at sifting through months worth of testimony to find the perfect exchanges to illustrate this absurd miscarriage of justice and a mind-boggling waste of resources. He’s also deft enough (un oeuf) to point us toward the inevitable conclusion; this was train wreck of a trial but an excellent diversion that dominated the news cycle, elbowing things like an unpopular war and an unpopular president off the newspaper’s front page. Sorkin’s direction keeps things simple. History has provided some outsized personalities and a court transcript so outlandish you couldn’t make it up. It’s not a flashy film but it is a memorable one.

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is a 2003 film by recent Oscar darling Bong Joon Ho. A remastered version is coming out this month, a perfect excuse to revisit this remarkable classic.

In 1986, Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) are two humble detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in their small South Korean province, already an unusual occurrence. But when the murderer strikes several more times with the same pattern, the inexperienced detectives realize that they are chasing the country’s first documented serial killer. Their skills and gear are rudimentary, so it’s good old fashioned detecting for these two, piecing together the clues in an attempt to solve this important case.

Bong Joon Ho has a unique and inimitable cinematic voice. The film starts out almost bumbling, with a tendency toward slapstick. His signature satire is ever-present, nuanced and cleverly hidden in plain sight underneath broad comedy. Genres blend and tone veers wildly from the expected course, but neither undermines what is ultimately a serious theme. Bong Joon Ho is slowly building to some very real thrills not to mention one hell of a climax.

The detectives’ increasing desperation is well played by a talented cast, including BJH’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang Ho, reflecting tragedy, futility, and humanity. It’s a complex and gripping story about the people tortured by a case well after the victims’ suffering has ended, with consequences that leak beyond professional borders.

Bong Joon Ho takes the time to find beauty, even amid such a brutal emotional and political landscape. The way he juxtaposes images can be as startling as it is brilliant, the effect culminating in a truly unusual film that transcends genre and communicates a fragile and subtle sympathy.

Memories of Murder is a modern masterpiece; look for the remastered release in select theatres beginning this weekend.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

Kelly (Tamara Smart) opts out of the class-wide Halloween party but isn’t exactly thrilled when her mother books her a babysitting gig instead. Five year old Jacob (Ian Ho) is a bit high maintenance, with his 3-hour bedtime routine, but Kelly would likely have preferred a 5 hour routine, even a 10 hour one, compared to what she got. Which was a visit from the Boogey Man himself, the actual Boogey Man, and his trollies, who’ve come to kidnap Jacob, who has the ability to make nightmares come true.

Thankfully Liz (Oona Laurence) shows up, chapter vice president of the Order of Babysitters, charged with protecting special dreamers like Jacob against the Boogey Man (aka Guignol, played by Tom Felton), and his little monsters. The Order of Babysitters is James Bond lite – all the cool tech, fun gadgets, and special ops, but none of the booze or women. In fact, now that I’m hearing myself say it, scratch that, the Order of Babysitters is like James Bond 2.0: all the spy stuff without the misogeny.

The film looks slick and is packed with action-adventure, although when a battle of sorts is taking place at a children’s indoor playground, the worst part is just imagining the gallons of COVID-19 that probably lurks in your average ball pit. Ew. What I’m saying is, the peril is never too overwhelming, and the monsters are, with a few exceptions, actually pretty cute, endearing enough you have to struggle to remember they’re bad guys. Kelly is a great protagonist and well portrayed by leading lady Tamara Smart. Liz is a little more mysterious, having just been dropped into the action from literally out of nowhere. The Order of Babysitters headquarters is production design eye candy, and introduces us to some fun supporting characters, as every secret service needs an M and a Q, and whatever other alphabet R&D people are necessary to keep their organization running smoothly.

The Grand Guignol’s lair is where the real work goes down. Guignol is trying to extract something from Jacob’s dreams, but I guess someone didn’t hear about that infamous 3 hour bedtime ritual. I don’t know much about Tom Felton, and I’d wager he’s all but unrecognizable in this, but he is clearly enjoying the eccentricities of the role, he’s playing and flexing and savouring being larger than life. He’s generous enough as an actor no to steal the scene from our teenage protagonists but he is a true source of animation and energy.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting is half Babysitter’s Club and half Artemis Fowl, the best of both, an entertaining watch fit for the whole family.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky

BLACKPINK doesn’t like to be thought of as “just K-pop” and while you can quibble about the “just” part, the “K-pop” is hard to argue.

South Korea’s government rather brilliantly decided to really invest in its arts some years ago, knowing that they could be the nation’s most important exports. With considerable funding and a business approach, today its video games, television series, and movies have global appeal and success; last year Parasite took home the top Oscar, the first time ever for a foreign-language film. However, one could argue that music, namely K-pop, is South Korea’s greatest triumph, and I’m not just talking Gagnam Style. BTS fever has replicated the same fervour as Beatlemania once did. BLACKPINK became the first K-pop group to play Coachella. South Korea has a well-oiled machine churning out pop acts, and Blackpink may be more than K-pop, but they’re certainly also representative of it.

Children as young as 11 may enter this special training academy of song and dance and while most will eventually be asked to leave for failing to make the grade, others may last as long as a decade in the system, honing the skills and the look for eventual distribution into a group. Nothing left to chance, nothing unorchestrated, individuals are evaluated on a weekly basis, and asked to perform as a group in a rotating roster until something gels and a foursome such as Blackpink is plucked from obscurity for pop superstardom.

This documentary weaves in home videos of each of the girls, audition reels, practice footage, and video from their massive world tour to recreate the massive few years they’ve just had. And of course, hearing from Jennie, Lisa, Jisoo, and Rosé, we get to know a little bit about the personalities behind the carefully curated personas. It’s nothing that YG Entertainment (the parent company that recruited, trained, and launched the group, among others) doesn’t want you to know, but if it’s not quite as “all-access” as billed, it’s still plenty informative and loaded with charm.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky will give K-pop novices a look behind the scenes at the grueling selection process of putting together a group, and will please fans with previously unseen footage and personal interviews with each member. You can watch it now on Netflix.

Hungry for more? Check out BLACKPINK review and music on Youtube.