Thursday, November 16, 2017

Oscar Talk - November 16th, 2017

In my first Oscar discussion of the season I will take an inside look at all of the major categories. I've had the opportunity to catch many of this year's biggest awards season players, but there are still quite a few I'm waiting to catch. Some of the contenders I'm still yet to see include The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, Molly's Game, as well as unseen works Phantom Thread and The Post. I'll catch all of them at some point, but in the meantime let's break down this year's upcoming Oscar contests.

Best Picture

Safe Bets: There are a few films that feel like guaranteed nominees for Best Picture even this early in the game. Martin McDonagh's dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water lead the pack as early head-to-head frontrunners. Following closely behind and rising is Greta Gerwig's critically adored debut, Lady Bird, along with Joe Wright's Lincoln-esque examination of Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour.

Other Potential Nominees: Outside of the four films listed above, anywhere from 1 to 6 more entries could sneak into the final vote. While the Academy has a history of turning their nose of to Christopher Nolan's work, Dunkirk has held firm as a viable option for Best Picture. Festival darling Call Me By Your Name continues to surface in conversations and I can personally vouch for the strength of Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya. And although The Post hasn't screened yet, you can never count out a film from the beloved Steven Spielberg.

Dark Horses: With the not-so distant memory of #OscarsSoWhite still looming over them, the Academy may feel hard-pressed to include a film with ties to the African American community. While Jordan Peele's Get Out is the strongest option, the content isn't quite up to Oscar standards. Therefore, Netflix film Mudbound may be a surprise inclusion, as could any of Blade Runner 2049, Last Flag Flying, Phantom Thread, Molly's Game and even The Florida Project.

Best Director

Safe Bets: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) continues to widen his lead over the rest of the field, while Atonement snub, Joe Wright (Darkest Hour), feels like a safe redemption pick. Finally, I'd be very surprised if Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) gets omitted for what's clearly his strongest directorial work to date. 

Other Potential Nominees: If Three Billboards continues to hold strong as one of two or three possible Best Picture winners, then Martin McDonagh should also find his way into the mix for directing. Steven Spielberg (The Post) is always a potential spoiler in this race, as well as newcomer Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) and regular fixture Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049).

Dark Horses: Other long-shots to steal a nomination include Dee Rees (Mudbound), Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), Richard Linklater (Last Flag Flying) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread).

Best Actor

Safe Bets: The universe could be aligning for veteran performer Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) as his epic portrayal of Winston Churchill stacks up very well in an unusually weak year for the Best Actor category. Oldman's staunchest competition will come from three-time Academy Award Winner, Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread), who always delivers an exceptional performance.

Other Potential Nominees: Jake Gyllenhaal's valiant work in Stronger shouldn't be ignored, and Andrew Garfield certainly carries the surprisingly worthwhile film, Breathe. Steve Carell continues to offer stellar onscreen work, and his quiet and subtle turn in Last Flag Flying is no exception. James Franco's work in The Disaster Artist has been lauded by the critics, while Tom Hanks (The Post) is always a threat to snag a nomination as well.

Dark Horses: Other potential spoilers include Jeremy Renner (Wind River), Christian Bale (Hostiles) and Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name).

Best Actress

Safe Bets: Much like last year, the Best Actress field is flooded with supreme talent and for that reason no one feels particularly "safe" (do we remember what happened to Arrival's Amy Adams last year?). However, for the sake of argument I, Tonya's Margot Robbie, The Shape of Water's Sally Hawkins, Three Billboards' Frances McDormand and Lady Bird's Saoirse Ronan feel like the strongest four contenders at this early stage of the game.

Other Potential Nominees: While the aforementioned women above all deliver superb performances, it's still not out of the possibility for any of them to relinquish their spot for the also impressive work of fellow competitors Jessica Chastain (Molly's Game), Meryl Streep (The Post), last year's winner Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes) and Kate Winslet (Wonder Wheel).

Dark Horses: With eight elite ladies listed above it will be hard for any of these long-shots to find a way into the final mix, but it's worth noting performances from the Dame Judi Dench (Victoria and Abdul), Diane Kruger (In the Fade), Annette Bening (Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool), Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and youngster Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project).

Best Supporting Actor

Safe Bets: My love and affinity for Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) can't be overstated, so rarely am I in an actor's corner like I am for Rockwell. He's the most formidable character in one of the year's finest films, but he still finds staunch competition at the pinnacle of the Best Supporting Actor race with veteran Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) and rising star Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name).

Other Potential Nominees: Bryan Cranston is not only the comedic energy throughout Last Flag Flying, he's also the film's heart and soul. In fact, Cranston and Carell almost feel misplaced in their respective categories. Woody Harrelson offers a quality turn in Three Billboards and could ultimately steal support from Rockwell. But if both make it into the final five, it will be the first time that's happened since Barry Levinson's 1991 film Bugsy. Richard Jenkins and co-star Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) also prove to be a fearsome pair that could sneak into the mix.

Dark Horses: It seems odd that Dunkirk could draw a Best Picture Nomination without a single performance, so recent Oscar Winner Mark Rylance could play the spoiler role in this race. Mudbound's Jason Mitchell has an outside chance to muscle past the competition as well.

Best Supporting Actress

Safe Bets: With the meteoric climb of Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, which still holds an astounding 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the Academy often times tries to find a way to reward a multitude of strong films and perhaps Laurie Metcalf will be the biggest beneficiary. However, it won't be an easy task supplanting the vulgar and hilarious work of I, Tonya co-star, Allison Janney, who gives one of the year's finest performances. 

Other Potential Nominees: Kristin Scott Thomas possesses a quietly effective role in Darkest Hour but the film's strong standing could help propel her into the final five. Grammy winner Mary J. Blige received high praises out of Sundance for her work in Mudbound and deep down I'm sure the Oscars fear another year without an African American nominated in an acting category. Similarly, previous Academy Award Winner and the always-great Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) may find herself in the final running as well. Furthermore, Melissa Leo's role in Novitiate is said to be exceptional (I haven't seen it), but it's also rumored to be more of a lead performance that could either push her into the other, more competitive category, or alienate some of the voting body.

Dark Horses: Sadly, it appears that the Academy may be sleeping on one of my favorite supporting turns of the year, Tatiana Maslany's heartbreaking performance in Stronger where she stands toe-to-toe with Jake Gyllenhaal. I was also extremely impressed with Claire Foy's work in Breathe and stand firmly in her corner, despite being a huge long-shot in the race. Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) was a bit of a pleasant surprise and Hong Chau (Downsizing) has garnered some rumblings for a nomination as well. 

*** Stay tuned throughout the next few months as the road to the Oscars continues ***

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Post and Phantom Thread Trailers

With the start of the awards season right around the corner, the biggest question mark that could shake up the entire Best Picture race is Steven Spielberg's The Post. The mammoth duo of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star as the nation's first female newspaper publisher and the editor The Washington Post, respectively, who go to war with the government after printing classified information detailing deep-rooted lies that spanned four U.S. presidencies. With Spielberg in the driver's seat of a timely "people vs the government" biographical drama, The Post could be a big-time player at the end of the year, despite rumblings that the film has had its issues in the editing room. Check out the first-look trailer for The Post below.

The once untouchable career of acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has slowly transformed into a downward trajectory that he'll try to save with the upcoming release Phanton Thread, but it may be a bit of a tough sell. Three-time Academy Award Winner Daniel Day-Lewis takes center stage as a renowned dressmaker who falls for a strong-willed woman (Vicky Krieps) in 1950s London, and their romance throws his once perfectly-planned life into a tailspin. PTA has a knack for crafting bold and multi-dimensional characters through painfully detailed storytelling, and we should expect more of the same with one of the greatest acting talents of all-time. You can catch the debut trailer for Phantom Thread below.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

DVD Outlook: November 2017

As some major Oscar players begin to find limited and nationwide releases this month, there are also some intriguing titles arriving on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming devices (October's suggestions). November's newest viewing options include a long list of strong films, including an Australian indie gem that I enjoyed at the 2014 Philadelphia Film Festival, despite lacking anything that's an absolute "must-watch". Either way there's definitely something for everyone, so here's a look at what's available this month:

Wind River - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Hell or High Water and Sicario scribe, Oscar Nominee Taylor Sheridan, takes a seat in the director's chair for the 2017 film Wind River, which earned him a Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Jeremy Renner stars as a veteran tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Services who stumbles across the frozen dead body of a young Native American woman. The FBI sends in a rookie agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to assist him in the investigation, where they battle that harsh wintry elements in the mountains of Wyoming. Wind River starts with a sputter but improves mightily as the minutes mount, and culminates with a rewarding resolve that makes the entire journey worthwhile. (November 14th)

The Mule - 3 stars out of 4 - (No review available)

I was shocked to discover that Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson's The Mule was finally earning an official DVD and Blu-Ray release, years after I had the pleasure of catching this oddly-premised, albeit it captivating, Aussie title. Sampson also stars in the film as Ray Jenkins, a social outcast who's set up by his teammates as "Clubman of the year" where he's awarded a trip to Bangkok and coerced into smuggling heroin back into Australia via his rectum. But as airport security finds his actions to be rather suspicious, Ray becomes held up in a hotel by local authorities where he finds himself matched in a battle of wits and bodily control as defecating would mean serious jail time. The Mule is jam-packed with deadpan humor, suspenseful intrigue and some gross scenes as well. But all in all, Mahony and Sampson unleash a gripping dark comedy that certainly brings the goods. (November 21st)

Logan Lucky - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Oceans Eleven and Traffic) announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2013, only to make a return this year with the heist-comedy Logan Lucky. Set in a small backwoods town, brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, respectively), plot to rob a Nascar raceway on race day. These redneck nitwits enlist the aide of incarcerated specialist Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) in order to pull off the job successfully and get away from the authorities scot-free. Logan Lucky's most notable aspect is its finely-timed humor and detailed creativity surrounding the heist itself. While the film isn't necessarily strong enough to warrant a comeback from a heralded filmmaker such as Soderbergh, Logan Lucky still manages to win its audience over with engaging characters and a decent story. (November 28th)

Honorable Mention: A trio of decent releases also make their way to DVD and Blu-Ray this month, Brie Larson in The Glass Castle (11/7), Charlize Theron's action thriller Atomic Blonde (11/14), and a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson in the indie drama Good Time (11/21). Other films available this month include action-comedy The Hitman's Bodyguard (11/21), sci-fi adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (11/21), indies Ingrid Goes West (11/7) with Aubrey Plaza and the peculiar comedy Brigsby Bear (11/14). Finally, kid flick sequel Cars 3 (11/4) also finds a release this November.

Friday, November 3, 2017

I, Tonya (RED BAND) and The Disaster Artist (NEW) Trailers

One of the most memorable movies from this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was Craig Gillespie's Opening Night selection I, Tonya. Margot Robbie stars as controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, whose blistering redneck upbringing at the hands of her physically and emotionally abusive mother (Allison Janney), as well as her failed marriage to the buffoonish Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), all lead to her ultimate demise. In an ultra-self-aware and surprisingly edgy fashion we relive the news story that took America by storm in the early 1990s. The film is bound to land in the Oscar discussion and you can check out the official red band trailer for I, Tonya below.

Another possible late-year awards contender comes from the unlikely comedic duo of James Franco and Seth Rogen. Franco directs and stars as Tommy Wiseau, the talent-less "artist" who went on to create "The Room" in 2003, a film widely regarded as the worst movie ever made. The Disaster Artist's debut trailer a few month back depicted a comedy-infused affair, while this new footage illustrates a more dramatic endeavor. My guess is everyone involved wanted to deliver a more Oscar-friendly trailer as the awards season begins to heat up. But no matter the rationale, it's worth catching the latest trailer for The Disaster Artist below.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Borg vs McEnroe

Martin McDonagh has captured the attention of critics and movie lovers alike, despite a relatively brief stint within the industry. McDonagh burst onto the scene with his eloquently-constructed 2008 hitman comedy, In Bruges, only to follow it up with the equally impressive and wacky dog-napping comedy, Seven Psychopaths. But in a wide open year such as this, McDonagh's latest small-town crime comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, may be his ticket to the awards season's biggest dance.

It's been seven months since Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has heard from police regarding the violent rape and murder of her daughter. Desperate to keep the story relevant and with hopes that the attention will lead to an arrest of her daughter's killer, Mildred rents a trio of billboards alongside a small-town road that question the efforts of local law enforcement and their superior officer, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). But when a volatile mama's boy, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), loses his cool over the billboards, tensions escalate quickly in the town of Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards thrives on explosive humor and a timely examination of local law enforcement officers all across the country. And rather than crumbling to the divisive politicizing of speaking in false extremes, McDonagh accurately depicts the wide spectrum of policing, addressing both respectable and deplorable behaviors, as well as the stunningly beautiful ability to change. Therein lies the film's greatest strength. And as the year's end creeps closer and closer, most of the industry's attention will be placed on the sorrowfully-effective performance from lead actress Frances McDormand. Even in a crowded year for female roles, she should certainly land a nomination and quite possibly an Oscar win as well. Yet, it's supporting star Sam Rockwell who leaves a lasting impression beyond compare. While the brilliant performer has somehow managed to avoid singular recognition from any of the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and the Academy Awards, that's all about to change. Measuring up to and surpassing anything you've enjoyed him in before, Rockwell's portrayal of a short-tempered and unethical small-town cop who backlashes against the woman responsible for these unfair billboards is something to savor. All of these wonderful performances are born from a hilariously amusing screenplay and superb direction that help solidify Three Billboards as one of 2017's strongest films.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

One surprisingly strong Spotlight selection from this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was Janus Metz's sports drama, Borg vs McEnroe. We're all aware of actor Shia LaBeouf's peculiar social behavior, but the man can surely act. And although the film forcibly has his portrayal of outspoken tennis star John McEnroe take a backseat to the immense depth of on-court rival Bjorn Borg, the spectacular sports history of 1980's Wimbledon tournament is captured with such mastery.

Swedish world tennis champion Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is widely regarded as a machine on the court due to his lack of emotion throughout matches. On the other hand, American up-and-comer John McEnroe (LaBeouf) has built a reputation as a fiery competitor who's quick to call out a line judge and feud with people in the crowd. Polar opposites on the court but surprisingly similar in psyche, these two legends of the sport collide in a Wimbledon final that's often referred to as "the greatest match ever played".

The finest achievement from Janus Metz's immersive sports drama is its ability to mold such a deep character. The inner demons of consecutive 4-time Wimbledon champion, Bjorn Borg, on his quest to capture a record-setting 5th straight title is shockingly hypnotic. Sverrir Gudnason delivers a phenomenal performance that illustrates the psychologically painful nature of mounting pressure. There's an impactful exchange between Borg and his lifelong coach Lennart Bergelin, who's played wonderfully by acting veteran Stellan Skarsgard, and Bergelin says something to the tune of, "winning and losing are like life and death" for Borg. This bit of dialogue perfectly sums up the film and, more importantly, the athlete. Consequently, the audience is given far less attention to John McEnroe, yet Shia LaBeouf wastes no time making the most of every opportunity. Borg vs McEnroe stands as both a worthwhile sports film and a valiant piece of dramatic art. Despite an over-extended final showdown that makes a regrettably anti-climactic finish, something that can prove detrimental in the sports film genre, Borg vs McEnroe overcomes this fatal flaw with a deeply personal story depicted exceptionally by its entire cast.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Best of the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival

The 26th Philadelphia Film Festival came and went like a flash in the night. Eleven days of cinema bulldozed across the City of Brotherly Love filled with Oscar contenders, festival winners and gripping 2018 titles. All in all I was able to catch 18 films, less than I would have liked but still enough to offer an in-depth look at the best this annual event has to offer. Just to be clear, two notable titles I failed to catch include Cannes Palm d'Or winning comedy, The Square, and another highly touted Cannes selection, In the Fade. Otherwise, here they are, the best from this year's Philadelphia Film Festival.

Best Screenplay

Honorable Mention: BreatheGolden Exits, Lady Bird, Princess Cyd and Thoroughbreds

#3. Last Flag Flying

#2. I, Tonya

And the winner is ...

#1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh is no stranger to phenomenal stories thanks to strong previous efforts like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. He continues the trend with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a relentlessly hysterical crime-comedy that specializes in fantastic dialonge and offers an entertaining small-town story.

Best Supporting Actress

Honorable Mention: Olivia Cook (Thoroughbreds), Claire Foy (Breathe), Mary-Louise Parker (Golden Exits), Chloe Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Quinn Shephard (Blame)

#3. Rebecca Spence - Princess Cyd

#2. Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird

And the winner is ...

#1. Allison Janney - I, Tonya

The Best Supporting Actress field from this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was flooded with exceptional work. Any of the honorable mention selections would easily land in the "Top 3" most other years. That being said, I went with Allison Janney in a narrow victory over Lady Bird's Laurie Metcalf. Janney delivers in a beautifully-vulgar supporting turn as Tonya Harding's repugnantly motivational mother.

Best Supporting Actor

Honorable Mention: Bryan Brown (Sweet Country)Ed Helms (Chappaquiddick), Adam Horovitz (Golden Exits), Shia LaBeouf (Borg vs McEnroe) and Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya)

#3. Bryan Cranston - Last Flag Flying

#2. Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project

And the winner is ...

It seems like Sam Rockwell produces iconic supporting performances every other year. Rockwell's work in Three Bilboards stacks up against anything else he's ever done, which says a lot about the role. Rockwell shines as an unethical small-town officer who somehow steals the show despite a constant barrage of deplorable actions.

Best Actress

Honorable Mention: Anya Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds), Michelle Pfeiffer (Where is Kyra?), Jessie Pinnick (Princess Cyd) and Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project)

#3. Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird

And the winner is ...

#1. Margot Robbie - I, Tonya

I was stunned by the Opening Night selection's brilliant cast. Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya possesses no shortage of impressive acting, but the film's leading star, Margot Robbie, stands out above the rest. In a career best performance as infamous Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding, Robbie offers such a surprising and complex character in one of the year's best films.

Best Actor

Honorable Mention: Steve Carell (Last Flag Flying)Jason Clarke (Chappaquiddick) and Chris Messina (Blame)

#3. Sverrir Gudnason - Borg vs McEnroe

#2. Andrew Garfield - Breathe

And the winner is ...

#1. Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour

The stars appear to be aligning for Oscar-starved veteran, Gary Oldman. But despite his widely acknowledged frontrunner status for this year's big award, Oldman's unrecognizable portrayal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is an absolute marvel. Darkest Hour's dialogue-heavy screenplay demands excellence from its leading star and Oldman certainly delivers an amazing performance..

Best Director

Honorable Mention: Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Richard Linklater (Last Flag Flying), Janus Metz (Borg vs McEnroe) and Andy Serkis (Breathe)

#3. Craig Gillespie - I, Tonya

#2. Sean Baker - The Florida Project

And the winner is ...

#1. Martin McDonagh - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

None of the direction I encountered at this year's festival proved to be groundbreaking. Yet, there were plenty of strong showings from many accomplished filmmakers. One such auteur is Martin McDonagh, who not only deserves the outspoken praise he's received for Three Billboards, but who also displays sharp direction in a packed field.

Best Picture

Honorable Mention: Borg vs McEnroe, Breathe and Princess Cyd

#5. Thoroughbreds

And the winner is ...

While 2017 has been anything but a standout year for film, Three Billboards cements itself as a truly worthwhile endeavor. The film obviously comes with its flaws, but Three Billboards also provides enough riotous humor and superb acting to solidify itself as the year's strongest effort so far.