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Top 10 DVD Sleeper Flicks for 2014

With each passing year, the film industry continues to evolve with the digital age, resulting in a loss of middle ground when it comes to movie releases.  Many of the classics on Back Lot’s shelves boasted modest to middling budgets at the time of release, only to achieve their iconic status the hard way: through word of mouth and buzz that continued to build long after their initial run.  Films used to arrive in theatres with very little advance advertising.  Indeed, most of the kids in my neighborhood went to Alien in 1979 simply because of a 30 second teaser ad and rumors that you get to see a creature explode out of a guy’s stomach.  Now, even watching trailers seems like a landmine, with most of them offering what amounts to a Coles’ Notes version of the film, complete with major plot points.

It’s disheartening to see how few films get studio backing if they’re not already based on an existing franchise.  Look at any list of the top grossing films of the year, and you’ll see mostly, if not all, remakes, sequels, prequels, book adaptations, and comic/videogame adaptations.  And while they aren’t all bad movies, I find myself missing the films that were low-tech projects which succeeded because of strong writing and acting, or even an innovative hook.

I’m selecting 10 films from *2014 that I felt succeeded because they were were built on the basic components of a good film, and had great stories to tell.  They aren’t particularly flashy, but they made me care about the people on screen, which is really all I want.  In no particular order, these are my sleeper picks for the year.  Some get panned by critics, yet are loved by viewers, and vice versa.  You may not like all of them, but I believe you’ll find at least a couple of gems here that you may recommend to friends.

*These films are not selected based on their theatrical release date, but on the time frame in which we offered them new in our store.

MV5BMjA1Nzk0OTM2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU2NjEwMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_  If you have to pigeonhole a movie like Her, it would likely go into the Sci-Fi category.  In many ways, the film is a throwback to old Sci-Fi movies which represented more of a catch-all of society’s “big ideas”.  It begins with a premise, that of a man developing a relationship with and falling in love with a female A.I. (artificial intelligence), and explores some questions about the nature of love and human relationships.  In much the same way Lars and The Real Girl did a few years ago, Her’s writers ask some tough questions about society and the way we connect in the digital age.  Viewers may find themselves looking in the mirror, and not liking the face that stares back at them.  The best works of art always look for ways to explore the human experience and to give it form and substance.  Films as good as Her find unique ways to dissect the most universal themes in a way that makes them relevant in the context of our own trends and cultural norms.  It may end up being one of the defining films of this decade.

Pride  Pride is based on the true story of a group of members from London’s gay and lesbian community who chose to throw their support behind a Welsh mining town during the 1984 British mineworkers strike.  It’s a film that explores an obscure bit of modern history, with themes of tolerance that still cause a ripple today, thirty years later. The premise is one that, not treated properly, had the potential to turn into a parade of cringe-inducing jokes about effeminate men mixing it up with burly miners.  Pride avoids these cliches mostly by creating characters that audiences can relate to; people who have their own strengths and weaknesses rather than just acting like cardboard cutouts.  At times I couldn’t help feeling the content was sugar coated a bit too much, but for the most part I found the film to be a convincing glimpse into the potential human beings have to lay down their prejudices when facing a common source of oppression. Featuring excellent performances by Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, Pride is a near perfect mix of comedy and drama that is sure to win over a lot of fans who may not have even heard of the movie.  If you watch it on DVD, be sure to take in the special feature documentary on the actual people involved.  It’s a great supplement to the film.

Still Mine  Still Mine is a Canadian film that will appeal to just about anyone who has ever had to endure Kafkaesque levels of absurdity when it comes to government bureaucracy.  Based on the true story of Craig Morrison, an elderly carpenter from St. Martin’s, New Brunswick, whose wife Irene is suffering from the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  The couple live in the same run-down house they’ve spent most of their lives in, and Morrison decides he is finally going to fulfill one final wish for his ailing wife: to build her a dream home overlooking the water.  When he attempts to do this without jumping through all the legal hoops set down by the government, regarding permits and licences, he wages an escalating war with low level civil servants.  At this point you may be yawning just from the premise of the film, assuming it’s has all the entertainment value of an old CBC “Hinterland” video.  You’d be wrong. James Cromwell, playing Craig Morrison, elevates the film with his portrayal of a man nearing the end of his life, haunted by regrets and wrong turns.  His struggle to bring one last bit of joy to the woman he loves, as she fades away in front of him, is heartbreaking.  Canadians should be proud that, in a year when the most talked about movies are mostly theatrical theme park rides, our country put out one of the most moving character driven films in years.

Book Thief  Despite my opening rant against movies based on existing properties, I’m including The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zusak, in my list anyway due mainly to the strength of the film.  It is the story of a childless German couple who shelter a young Jewish girl in the early days of the Second World War.  As audiences show increasing preference for escapism, movies like this often get ignored, which is a shame.  The Holocaust was one of the most shameful periods in human history, and these stories need to be revisited regularly in films and books.  There were mixed reactions to the film after it made some major structural departures from the book, which used the personified figure of Death as narrator.  The film downplays Death as a central figure in the story mostly to accommodate differences in the two mediums.  Fans were highly critical of this creative decision, when viewed as an isolated work, it is a powerful story. The performances of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Hans and Rosa Huberman are the driving force behind the movie, one representing the moral center and the other a kind of shifting moral compass.  Watson’s character, in particular, makes one of the most complex transformations in recent memory, and I believe she should have received an Oscar nomination for the role.  Even though it can be a heartbreaking film, it’s one I think everyone should watch.

Words and Pictures  Words & Pictures was a movie that sat on my shelves for quite some time before I had an opportunity to take it in, after a customer told me I should watch it, saying they were sure it would be one of my picks.  They were correct.  In the film, Clive Owen plays an alcoholic English teacher at a prep school, and is struggling with the regrets of being a once promising writer who is drifting into obsolescence.  Juliette Binoche plays a former world-reknowned artist who has taken a job teaching art at the same school after her career is sidetracked by rheumatoid arthritis.  These two characters dislike one another instantly, and what begins as a friendly debate over which is a more important form of human expression, literature or art (words or pictures), escalates to a kind of war between students of both disciplines.  As the two character face both their demons and limitations, their disengaged students finally have a reason to search for meaning in what they are being taught, and transform the two main characters in ways they never expected.  Teachers and ex-teachers, especially, will find this to be a moving film.

100 Foot Journey  Lasse Halstrom’s latest film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, plays out almost like a fable based on the clash of cultures.  When a fire destroys their business in India, the Kadam family moves to mainland Europe, where an act of fate (failing brakes) lands them in a small French village.  In an attempt to put down roots, the family opens their own restaurant across the road from another run by Madame Mallory, played by Helen Mirren.  This is a film that quietly explores the nature of prejudice, and the ways in which it can be driven by feelings of competition.  It also tells a nice little love story involving Kadam’s eldest son, Hassan, and one of the employees of Madame Mallory.  In some ways, it is an odd spin on the themes of Romeo and Juliet, but without all the, y’know, suicide.  Although it can be a bit saccharine due to some Bollywood influence, the film is a nice bit of escapist comedy/drama for when you’re in the mood to just kick back with something not too challenging.  It’s the kind of movie that will also have special appeal to foodies, who will revel in all the scenes involving exotic cooking.

Railway Man  Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, an aging veteran of the Second World War who was a British army engineer in Hong Kong when it fell to the Japanese.  Now haunted by memories of his treatment while in captivity, Lomax finds himself with an opportunity to face one of the men who tortured him and his fellow soldiers.  But what begins as a seemingly routine “revenge” movie abruptly veers in a different direction, posing subtle questions about the personal cost of clinging to hatred.  Firth, who is more well known for his roles in comedy films, delivers an incredible performance as Lomax.  The best war films always seem to rise above the chaos of grand events, letting audiences see the human side of conflict, especially from the point of view of both sides.  War is never is simple as good vs evil, and this film reminds audiences that the best parts of humanity sometimes emerge during the most unlikely circumstances.  For fans of history and war films, this is one not to be missed.

Million Dollar Arm  Against my better judgement, I’m including a Disney film on my list.  This one caught me by surprise, and if not for the fact that I’m a sucker for underdog sports movies, I doubt I would have given it a second glance.  I also like Jon Hamm as an actor, and wondered what he might bring to a movie like this.  Turns out, he was an example of near perfect casting.  Letting Disney handle a story that requires racial sensitivity and an awareness of cultures outside of American borders seems like a bad idea on paper, but the studio suits must have let this film get made without interference. Million Dollar Arm is based on the true story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two “nobodies” from India who are recruited as part of a publicity stunt in 2008 to find major league baseball players using a reality show format.  In the hands of lesser writers and directors, this could have been an embarrassing parade of jokes at the expense of another culture.  But I was amazed at the level of maturity this story took on, paying both respect and, at times, reverence, to the way of life both of these young men came from.  Disney won’t let their films get too edgy, so some elements of the story feel a bit too sugary in order to make it family friendly, but the creative crew was not afraid to inject some biting criticism of western values.

Begin Again  Although Begin Again comes off a bit rough around the edges, it’s a great little character-driven movie that will appeal to anyone who believes there hasn’t been a good music album made in the last two decades.  Mark Ruffalo is well cast as a burned out record producer who is deeply embittered over the transformation of modern music into a commodity, then discovers an unpolished songwriter in Keira Knightly.  Her performance is a bit more uneven, especially during the musical performances, but she fares well enough to keep the flick on track.  One of the film’s strengths is the way it avoids cliches that were just screaming to be exploited.  Even the ending resolves itself in ways that were unexpected.  This a nice little sleeper for music fans.

Labor Day  Labor Day is a story about a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) living with her son Henry on an isolated country farmstead who unwittingly ends up being held captive by an escaped convict played by Josh Brolin.  In the days and weeks that follow, the two strangers begin to feel a strong attraction to each other.  Although it was based on a novel, usually a sign of strong source material, I had my doubts that they could make what amounts to a Stockholm Syndrome plot work.  But the two actors surprised me with believable performances, creating on-screen tension and passion.  And while the story premise is one that has some mileage on it, I thought that it was kept fresh enough to deserve a look.  Labor Day was the last movie to make my cut this year, and may not be as strong as some of the other picks, but I do feel it’s a decent film.


Closed For Canada Day

Please note, we will be closed all day (July 1st) for the holiday.

We will re-open on July 2 at 1:00 pm.

Have a great holiday!

Donald Ritchie dies at the age of 88

Although he wasn’t a recognizable face in Hollywood, fans of Japanese cinema knew his writing well.  Often credited with introducing generations of fans to Japanese films they might not otherwise have seen, Ritchie’s death will come as big news to cinephiles.  He was 88.

In this photo, Ritchie is on the left, with Akira Kurosawa (middle) and Toshiro Mifune (right).

kurosawa_richieExcerpt taken from his NYT obituary:

Mr. Richie wrote prolifically, not just on film and culture in Japan but also on his own travels and experiences there. He won recognition for his soul-baring descriptions of a Westerner’s life in an impenetrable but permissive society that held him politely at arm’s length while allowing him to explore it nonetheless, from its classical arts to its seedy demimonde.

Openly bisexual, Mr. Richie also wrote frankly about his lovers, both male and female, saying Japan’s greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s, relative to that in the United States, was one reason he returned to the country after graduating from Columbia University in 1953. Mr. Richie first saw Tokyo as a bombed-out ruin, arriving in 1947 as a 22-year-old typist with the Allied Occupation forces after serving on transport ships during the war. He spent most of the next 66 years in Tokyo, gaining a following among Western readers for textured descriptions of Japan and its people that transcended Western stereotypes.

Dragon’s Dogma is a fresh spin on RPG genre

ImageSome of my Dark Souls acquaintances recommended Dragon’s Dogma to me (and it takes a lot for them to remove Dark Souls from the tray).  I decided to drop $30 and give it a shot.  While it’s not on par with Dark Souls, there’s a lot of cool concepts in the game.  I’ve only just started getting into the main quest, but here are the highlights:

The Pawn system.  Easily, the most unique element of the game.  At the start of the the game, you create your main Pawn in the same way you create your own character (even choosing the face, hairstyle, etc).  You also give your pawn a class.  It’s best to create a pawn that occupies a class you think you’re least likely to use.  If you normally like to beat the snot out of enemies with a two-handed sword, then create a Mage or a Strider (ranger), and if you normally like being a squishy mage, then create a Warrior to be your tank.  This pawn remains with you for the entire game (you even name it), and cannot die permanently.  You set your Pawn tendencies to dictate how you want it to behave in battle.  These are more like general inclinations, rather than in-depth battle tactics like the ones found in Dragon Age: Origins.

What makes the pawn system even more unique is that your created pawn is registered online through a place called the Rift.  The rift is a kind of ethereal-looking place you enter through riftstones, and browse the pawns other people have created in their games.  All their skills, stats and gear accompanies them.  You can hire up to two more of these pawns to accompany you.  If they are your level, they are free.  If they are higher level than you, it costs money to hire them (the exception to this is, if a higher level pawn belongs to someone on your FL, it costs nothing – many people who play this game put other people on their FL just for this reason).  When you dismiss the pawn later, you must give it a gift in the form of weapons, rings, or other gear.  This gift remains with the pawn the next time its owner goes online.  So if you keep a pawn stocked with good gear, and upgrade it with awesome skills, it will get hired more.

It’s a little strange when you go into places where Pawns gather, since walking up and talking to them sort of feels like you’re in a 70’s swingers party.  They kind of greet you with this sultry “hello” and then wait to see if you’re interested.  Pawns can be found in places outside the Rift, like in cities or encampments.  My only beef with the Pawns is that they never shut up.  Their purpose, in addition to giving support in battle, is to suggest tactics and comment on options.  Three of them all nattering away gets a little annoying at times, but its a minor thing.

Aside from the pawn system, the game plays like a lot of other RPG’s.  The combat tends to be faster than Skyrim, but much more polished.  You are able to lock-on to targets when fighting, and can grapple things as well.  I had one of my biggest LOL moments, one that actually brought me to tears, when I accidentally grabbed a boar, then hit a button to “throw” it.  One of my pawns caught it, and tossed it to another pawn, who did the same.  This went on for a few tosses, and looked like a game of hot-potato fused with a rugby match.  If you ever try the game, I recommend boar-tossing.

Boss fights also take a unique approach.   If you play as anything melee based, your strategy in boss fights actually incorporates a bit of platforming as you grapple the boss and begin climbing it’s body, looking for weak spots.  This can burn stamina.  I have to admit, although I was a bit dubious of this at first, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as making your way to the top of a Cyclops and plunging a sword into its head.

For anyone who likes Crafting systems, DD is a dream come true.  This useable material scattered around the environment is endless, and you can collect all of it.  Everything from plants to kindling for arrows, to shrouds taken from slaughtered zombies.  Each town has an inn where you can store items you don’t need at the moment (everything has weight).  I’ve only done a bit of crafting, but I’ve seen the list of items you can create on the wiki, and it’s huge.

There are nine different classes called “vocations”.  You start by choosing one of three basic ones (fighter, mage, strider).  As the game progresses, you get the ability to switch vocations for a cost.  You can either pick a deeper variation of the basic (Fighter becomes Warrior, Mage becomes Sorcerer, and Strider becomes Ranger), or you can create a hybrid (Assassin, Magick Archer, Mystic Knight).  If you want to spend the coin, you can unlock all nine and switch back and forth between them to take advantage of strengths.  Although, you only level up each one as long as you are playing it, so in general, some will always be stronger than others.

Leveling up gives you Discipline Points (basically, skill points).  You don’t level individual skills like strength, dexterity, magic, etc.  Instead, these points can be spent on unlocking special attacks and skills for each vocation.  Example, I spent 200 points on my Strider early on and unlocked a Three Arrow Volley, which maps to my controller buttons.  You can also change vocations, and you’ll still have access to your points that were acquired with your first vocation, if you want to unlock some skills for a different class (but those points will be used up if you switch back to your original vocation).  It’s simply a central pool of XP and you can use them on whichever class you want.

No game is perfect, and Dragon’s Dogma has a few flaws.  The graphics seem a bit sub-par, in my opinion, and the voice acting can be a bit stilted at times.  Everyone talks in what seems like Olde English a lot of the time, and this definitely creates a bit of cheese factor.  And although I haven’t run into this yet, I’ve heard other people say that the lack of any real fast travel system makes moving from place to place seem like a chore.

But other than that, the game has been a refreshing spin on the genre.  Combat is a lot of fun, and opportunities to obsess over loot stats abound.  The pawn system and the boss fights alone should be enough to hook most people who liked either Dragon Age, Dark Souls, or the Elder Scrolls series.

Far Cry 3 – First Impressions

farcry3First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to state that this is not a full review of the new Far Cry 3 game.  It’s based on playing through the tutorial and the missions from the first two map areas I opened.  I’m also not going to waste time rehashing the premise of the story, which you can find anywhere online.

I was a huge fan of the original Far Cry game on PC (not console).  In my mind, it still stands as a benchmark game with graphics and lighting that still measure up to current console games.  When it was ported, the results were mediocre at best.  The follow up game, which made some decent improvements, was a navigational mess that I gave up on without finishing it.

The new Far Cry game shocked me when reviews started to pour in that seemed to put it on par with Skyrim (a game it was compared to on certain levels).  I dove in with high hopes.

After 10 hours or so, I would absolutely agree that this is the best version of the game to be released since that fantastic PC original.  An excellent fast travel system has made it much easier to get around.  The controls are tight, and a day-night system creates a nice atmosphere.  Graphics are good, but not mind-blowing.  The developers have obviously paid attention to successful elements of other great games in the last few years, incorporating many of those mechanics into Far Cry 3.  And that’s exactly what derails it in the end.

Huge, sprawling, beautiful world like the one in Skyrim: check.  Hunting and crafting system from Fallout Vegas and Red Dead Redemption: check.  Enemy-tagging from Splinter Cell Conviction (and, coincidentally, many other Ubisoft titles): check.  Jungle atmosphere of Crysis: check (but in fairness, Crysis was build on the template of the original Far Cry).  The list actually goes on.  The game is a virtual hodge-podge of these elements, and they all work fairly well.

Yet I found myself, after 4 or 5 hours in, starting to get the “mehs”.  The lack of anything truly original in this game, despite the solid framework, will get under the skin of most seasoned gamers before long.  If you’ve never played any of the games I mentioned above, then Far Cry 3 will feel like a masterpiece.  And hey, if some as-yet-unseen, cutting edge new gaming element is revealed later in the game, I’ll take all this back.  But I have no reason to think this will be anything more than a series of cookie-cutting quests that give the game more meat to surround a core story (which seems pretty good so far).

Average scores on metacritic were rolling in around the mid-90’s.  I’d be more inclined to give it something between the 75 and 80 range.

August 21st New Releases

August 14th New Releases

July 17 New Releases

My sleeper pick this week would have to be “Lockout”.  From the cover it looked like a throwaway action flick, but it turned out to be a gem.  Produced and conceived by Luc Besson, it had just enough of an offbeat tone to make it feel fresh.  Combining some rapid fire humor by Guy Pearce and some quirky characters, this one is well-worth a watch.

Friends With Kids was another one that really caught me by surprise.  I was expecting another cookie cutter rom-com, but this had a decently written script and was very watchable.  Although there was some comedy in the film, much of it took on a pretty serious tone when progressing the story.

Three Stooges…what can you say.  Much of whether you like this or not depends on your tolerance for slapstick humor.  The Farrelly brothers capture the spirit of the Stooges perfectly.  They stay true to form, giving the trio a stage to play their antics against a fairly light-hearted story.  The good news is, much of this stuff appeals to kids, and they made sure to retain a family friendly rating.  Good pick if you need something for the whole family.

July 3rd New Releases

Seeking Justice was an above-average thriller about a man who gets roped into joining a vigilante group after the rape of his wife.  The plot actually turned out to be quite a bit more complex than expected, and the movie delivers some decent tension.

Jesus Henry Christ was a neat little indie flick that blends some coming-of-age themes with the “who’s my biological dad” trope, and sprinkles in a bit of magic realism.  The result is a refreshing and heartwarming story about a boy genius who just wants a normal family.  The story actually might appeal to younger viewers, but parents should be aware of the “spicy” language at times.

God Bless America was my favorite movie this week.  It’s a scathing parody of just about everything that is wrong with modern Western culture, especially what it calls “entertainment”.  The movie bounces back and forth between scenes that are played for self-referential absurdity, and straight faced attacks on the dumbing down of just about everyone in society.  The monologues by lead actor Joel Murray are some of the best I’ve heard in a long time.  It may not be for everyone’s taste, but those who like it are going to like it a lot.  Great flick.

January 3rd New Releases

Contagion:  A pretty tight medical thriller from Steven Soderberg (Traffic) with an ensemble cast.  Takes a look at the breakdown of society in the face of the worst epidemic in history.  Scary stuff.  Makes you worry more about the behavior of your neighbors than the prospect of getting a disease.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark:  Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) wrote and produced this remake of the 1973 film (which scared the crap out of me as a kid).  It’s a pretty stylish film, laced with all the opulent dread he usually delivers.  Biggest issue with the film is that the director ditches any sense of build-up and starts showing us the creatures within the first 30 minutes.  By that point a lot of the wind had come out of the sails, leaving a pretty rote horror movie.  Still, it’s worth a watch for fans of either del Toro, or the original.

The Guard:  Fantastic Irish/UK fim starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle.  Gleeson plays a beat cop who stumbles into a murder which is part of a huge drug shipment, and has to work with Cheadle, as the American FBI agent tasked with solving the crime.  If you think this sounds like a typical fish-out-of-water buddy cop movie, you couldn’t be more wrong.  The movie takes just about every cliche from this genre and turns it on its head.  Lots of subtle, witty jokes in typical Brit style.

Shark Night:  Possibly one of the goofiest shark movies I’ve ever seen.  There’s actually a scene where one of the characters, after having his arm chewed off, decides to avenge his girlfriend (who was killed by a shark) by wading into the shallow water with a spear and screaming at the shark to bring it on.  Seeing this guy flailing away at a hammerhead with one arm is worth the price of a rental.