Saturday, September 24, 2016

Rapid Reviews: The Magnificent Seven and Undocumented Executive





Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua go together like peanut butter and jelly. The collaborative duo have a history dating back 15 years to the filmmaker's undeniable finest work, Training Day. It also happened to be the same film that handed Denzel Washington his second Academy Award. And although I wasn't too impressed by their 2014 joint effort, The Equalizer, the pair's latest endeavor and Western reboot, The Magnificent Seven, proves to be a solid entry.

Industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) will do whatever's necessary to overtake the small town of Rose Creek for his financial gain. And after a strong-willed widow (Haley Bennett) loses her husband to Bogue's violent actions, she and the rest of the town's inhabitants offer everything they have in exchange for protection via a bounty hunter named Chisolm (Denzel Washington). The bounty hunter accepts their offer and summons a ragtag group of gunslingers to help fight alongside the townsfolk against Bogue's army of combatants.

I've always gravitated towards the Western genre. And while The Magnificent Seven is far from an exceptional film, it provides adequate entertainment and checks off many boxes from the genre's list. It's the little things like an excellent score from James Horner and Simon Franglen and solid direction that help combat a few writing and acting deficiencies evident throughout the film. Chris Pratt is a bona fide Hollywood star, yet his performance feels wildly out of place. Furthermore, the script fails to sufficiently develop quite a few key characters. However, despite these structural shortcomings, Antoine Fuqua still manages to produce a fun and enjoyable western reboot that's definitely beyond much of his recent work.


Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-





Writer and director Brian Kosisky reached out to me regarding his timely indie comedy, Undocumented Executive, which is now available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. Kosisky's debut feature won't offer any familiar names or faces, but he still manages to accomplish a great deal with such an economical budget.

Tony Guerrero stars as Jesus Gutierrez, an illegal immigrant who crosses the border to live with his sister Rosa (Doris Morgado). She's able to land Jesus a job interview at the company where she cleans the building, but the ambitious day laborer spills paint on his only casual outfit and shows up in a nice suit. A mix-up ensues and Jesus ends up interviewing for an executive position where he ultimately lands the job and discovers some dirty antics going on within the company.

Undocumented Executive benefits greatly from clever comedic writing that includes various recurring jokes and hilarious twists of words thanks to the lead character's limited ability to only speak broken English (i.e. he went to "jail", not "Yale"). Although Kosisky displays a knack for crafting humor, the film suffers from middling performances and a few writing deficiencies. The movie's main antagonists are too animated and the romance that develops between Jesus and Anita (Melissa Ponzio), the female co-worker overlooked for the executive position, never feels natural. However, kudos are in order for Kosisky who overcomes countless low-budget limitations to offer a laugh-filled debut effort. Once again, Undocumented Executive is available for streaming on the platforms listed above.


Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Snowden and Don't Think Twice





Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from a controversial biopic. As the directing force behind W. and Nixon, it's evident that politically motivated dramatizations are his bread and butter. Enter the publicized actions of whistleblower Edward Snowden who leaked classified information to the press in 2013 revealing the depths of the National Security Agency's global surveillance. Some have lauded the international fugitive as a hero, while others demonize Snowden as a traitor to our country. And if there's a political conundrum in the works, you better believe that Oliver Stone wants in on the action.

As a loyal patriot to the United States, a young Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives an untimely discharge from the armed services following an injury to his leg. Desperate to discover another way to serve his country, Snowden uses his tech savviness to join the CIA and eventually become a contractor for the NSA. Yet, Snowden's blind loyalty to his government becomes tested when he learns of their unrestricted surveillancing on American citizens and foreign governments.

Sluggish in tempo and detailed to a fault, the natural flow of Oliver Stone's Snowden proves to be an unwelcome experience. However, a fully committed and mirror-like performance from the film's leading star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, eases the audience through an otherwise bitter journey from patriot to global fugitive. One of Stone's trademark qualities is his ability to elicit transcending performances from his actors and actresses. The trend continues here as Gordon-Levitt helps transform a muddled piece of work into a tolerable watch. As expected, Snowden gives an Oliver Stone trademark slant to the politically debated figure and suffers greatly from an anti-climactic third act. Stone pushes hard to generate tense and suspenseful moments, but they never fully develop as intended. Consequently, Snowden comes and goes as yet another mediocre effort from the industry icon.


Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+





I know I sound like an ancient buffoon declaring that everything was better years ago, but I've been very displeased by the recent big budget comedy titles since the turn of the decade. The days of genius writing have been replaced with shock value and vulgarity. Thankfully though, a refreshing new indie dramedy from writer, director and co-star Mike Birbiglia has given me a sense of optimism.

The Commune isn't only a fresh and popular improv comedy group generating laughs in the New York City underground scene, they're a family of diverse and eclectic individuals who are truly greater than the sum of their parts. However, when big wigs from show biz's most notable sketch comedy program arrive at their performance in search of some new talent, a sense of competition overcomes the group and begins tearing them apart.

Don't Think Twice isn't just this year's best comedy entry to date, it's so much more. Through conflicting themes of chasing your dreams verses finding a suitable level of content, we examine these six genuine characters. The laughs interweave their way through a deeper dynamic that effortlessly forms a bond between the characters and audience. To single out any individual performance feels like a disservice to the rest of these fine performers. Rarely does a comedy capture such an authentic and human tone that resonates. Don't Think Twice is a luring tale of the fine line between success and failure and how on you and your perspective can determine which is which. Mike Birbiglia delivers one of the year's finest and most overlooked films. Although you may not have even known the movie existed, but Don't Think Twice is a magnificent and brisk hour and a half of humor and emotion.


Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Nocturnal Animals and Christine Trailers


Tom Ford's mind-bending thriller, Nocturnal Animals, is enjoying a successful run on the festival circuit in hopes of some awards season glory. The film stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who receives the manuscript for a book written by her ex-husband and it rehashes dark memories from their past. Nocturnal Animals uses the story-inside-of-a-story structure to tell a seemingly gripping psychological tale. Slated for a December 9th release, check out the film's wildly entertaining debut trailer below.





Another recent trailer to drop also highlights a festival circuit film telling a dark psychological story, but this time it's true. Christine stars Rebecca Hall (The Town and The Gift) as 1970s TV reporter Christine Chubbuck whose documented depression took a stranglehold over her life as the pressures of work and the rejection of a love interest become too much to handle, forcing Christine to do the unthinkable. Based on a shocking true story, Hall's performance has been lauded and fans of dark themed character studies will certainly have something to look forward to this October. You can catch the first-look trailer of Christine below.




Thursday, September 15, 2016

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Finest Performances


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has always been a favorite of mine. And not just as an actor, but as an artist who's genuinely passionate about the creative process. Despite a lifelong career in the industry starting out as a child actor in 90s classics like Angels in the Outfield, Gordon-Levitt has yet to garner an Oscar Nomination. But don't be fooled, JGL has spent many years delivering awards-worthy performances that have helped transform him into a household name. And with the actor's upcoming weekend release, Snowden, I have decided to use September's movie list of the month to recognize Joseph Gordon-Levitt's most notable roles (August's list).

Honorable Mention: 10 Things I Hate About You, Looper, Mysterious Skin and The Walk.


#5. The Lookout (2007)


One of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's best performances comes in Scott Grant's vastly under-seen directorial debut, The Lookout. JGL stars as a former high school star athlete who experiences a tragic accident that leaves him unable to make new memories. Four years later he works as a late-night cleaner at a small town bank and crosses paths with some new acquaintances who demand that he use his connections to help them rob his place of employment. It's a challenging role that Gordon-Levitt commands with ease, and the result is a finely-tuned and suspenseful crime-drama that leaves a lasting memory.


#4. Brick (2005)


One of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's films that I thoroughly enjoyed was Rian Johnson's modern noir, Brick. A lonely teenager (JGL) discovers his ex-girlfriend's dead body and slowly retraces her steps to solve the murder. Gordon-Levitt delivers another fine performance that perfectly complements Johnson's gripping story and refined direction. His role in Brick proved to be a career-defining choice that helped propel JGL into the spotlight and on a fast-track to stardom.


#3. Hesher (2010)


I've long admired Gordon-Levitt's attraction to diverse roles. Unfortunately, many of them have flown under-the-radar like his unforgettable 2010 performance in Hesher. The title character is a vulgar metal-head squatter who weasels his way into the dysfunctional household of a high school freshman whose mother died in a fatal car accident two months earlier. JGL shines in his twisted story-telling scenes where he delivers meaningful, albeit it off-the-wall, parables that help this troubled teen cope with his tragic loss. It's an absolutely captivating performance that helps mold an off-kilter tale into an extremely effect drama.


#2. (500) Days of Summer (2009)


I once argued Marc Webb's magnificent comedy, (500) Days of Summer, as one of the greatest love stories of this millennium. There's a bit of irony considering the film follows Tom (JGL) on a non-chronological recollection of his recent break-up with Summer, the girl he believed was his soul mate. (500) Days of Summer proves to be a refreshingly original rom-com that finds Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a naturally perfect role. He flawlessly captures the essence of the affable nice-guy and takes the audience on a memorable journey of love lost. The performance landed Gordon-Levitt his first of two Golden Globe Nominations, and rightfully so.


#1. 50/50 (2011)


I've been overly vocal about my affinity for Jonathan Levine's brilliant Oscar-snubbed dramedy, 50/50. The film landed atop by Best Films of 2011 list thanks to career-best work from leading star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He stars as Adam, a 27 year-old who becomes diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. Boasting 50/50 odds of survival, the audience follows Adam on his bumpy road to acceptance. Tender, genuine, hysterical and completely unblemished, 50/50 is an absolute must-see film that wouldn't be nearly as effective as it is without the transcending work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He approaches the role with deep emotion that pours onto the screen in the film's most unforgettable scenes. And although his performance never received the Oscar recognition it deserved, JGL did earn his second Golden Globe Nomination. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Live by Night and Gold Trailers


Ben Affleck's directing career has gotten off to a phenomenal start, one so impressive that it dwarfs his acting achievements by comparison. Having delivered quality entertaining works such as Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Best Picture winner, Argo, it's impossible not to get excited for his upcoming end-of-the-year release, Live By Night. The prohibition era gangster flick follows Josh Coughlin (Affleck), the son of a police captain who ditches his law-abiding upbringing for a luxurious and lucrative life of crime, all until he realizes that no one can be trusted. Affleck's track record speaks for itself, yet I wasn't overly thrilled by this latest film's debut trailer. Either way, Live by Night will probably end up in this year's Oscar discussion so be sure to catch a first glimpse of the film below.





Another late-year trailer to debut comes from the Oscar winning writer of Traffic and the director of Syriana, Stephen Gaghan. Gold stars Matthew McConaughey as a big dreamer who's desperate for a little luck. And when a vivid dream sets him on an excursion to Indonesia, he convinces a business partner that a piece of land houses enormous amounts of gold. Based on a wild true story, Gold appears to have all the makings of an emotional roller coaster. Slated for a Christmas Day release, I'm sure Gaghan and McConaughey are hoping for a viable awards season contender. Check out the first trailer for Gold below.




Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sully




Film: Sully

Starring: Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies) and Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight)

Director: Clint Eastwood (American Sniper)

U.S. Release: September 9th, 2016 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 96 minutes


Although it will most likely come away empty handed at the Academy Awards, Clint Eastwood's Sully justifiably kicks off the fall Oscar season with a thunderous crash. And considering the Hollywood icon's previous three films have centered around sharpshooter Chris Kyle (American Sniper), musical group The Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) and the most controversial FBI Director in U.S. history (J. Edgar), another biopic only seems fitting for Eastwood's latest work. By keeping things short and to the point, Sully resides as another strong effort from an industy legend.

On the fateful morning of January 15th, 2009, nothing could have prepared pilots Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) for their career-defining flight. Shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport in New York, their plane encounters a vicious bird-strike that results in the loss of both their engines. And despite air traffic controls' repeated suggestions to return to a nearby airport, Sully diverts the plane for a forced water landing on the Hudson River. Yet, following his heroic split-second decision and skillful landing that saves the lives of everyone on board the plane, the NTSB valiantly attempts to tarnish the pilots action's with their investigation of the incident.


Sully is an intense spectacle that begs to be witnessed on the big screen. Eastwood has the audience holding its breath and bracing for impact as Flight 1549 rapidly loses altitude and makes a b-line for the Hudson River. The film captures the fear and anxiety of that brief moment phenomenally. However, Eastwood's primary focus is on the days following the incident, where the lead pilot struggles with the inner turmoil of second guessing whether or not he acted in the safest way possible. It's here where Tom Hanks delivers another fine performance that doesn't quite stand up against his career best, but one that certainly keeps the film intact. Co-star Aaron Eckhart provides ample comic relief throughout a rather emotional and intense ride. Eckhart's work proves to be one of the finest supporting turns I've witnessed this year and should land him in the Oscar discussion. From start to finish, Sully is a well-executed and brisk birds-eye view of the behind-the-scene struggles facing these media-driven national heroes.


Despite the film's visual prowess and strong acting, Sully displays weaknesses in a few obvious areas. The dialogue is a bit preachy as it constantly tells the audience how dangerously and quickly the entire ordeal went down. These constant verbal reminders are completely unnecessary as the perfectly captured descending airplane scenes already make those points abundantly clear. Furthermore, the scope of the story is so narrow that Eastwood somewhat overuses the plane "crash" as a means to consume screen time. All together you witness the "crash" from the perspective of the passengers and flight attendants, as well as the pilots, in scattered fragments throughout the first two acts. Finally, in a suspenseful finale, the audience relives the moment in its entirety once again. In fairness to the film the intensity never wavers, even after a third go-around. Yet, the continual reliance of this narrative device becomes telling of the shortcomings surrounding the film's intended focus.

I never lose sight of the remarkable ability for humans to come together in moments of distress. Sully addresses this beauty of the human spirit and it makes for an emotionally uplifting resolution to the film. Couple that with Sully's stunning visual representation of the ordeal and the performances of Hanks and Eckhart, and this film concludes as another winning biopic from director Clint Eastwood. It's not quite at the caliber of American Sniper, but Sully is definitely a strong film all in its own right.


Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B