Saturday, October 22, 2016

La La Land

Film: La La Land

Starring: Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys) and Emma Stone (Birdman)

Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)

U.S. Release: December 16th, 2016 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Musical

Runtime: 128 minutes

This year's Philadelphia Film Festival captured a gem for its 25th anniversary Opening Night selection. Damien Chazelle follows up his highly regarded Best Picture Nominee, Whiplash, with his dazzling sophomore effort, La La Land. Nostalgic and full of passion, the film pays its respects to old Hollywood all while providing a fresh vibe that will be difficult for any competitor to topple during the upcoming awards season. So if you're in search of an early Best Picture frontrunner, look no further than La La Land.

Mia (Emma Stone) has had a lifelong dream of being a respected actress in Hollywood. But as the Nevada native experiences the ego-crushing defeat of Los Angeles' cutthroat audition process, she falls for a Jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who hopes of one-day running a club of his own. And while the pair of starry-eyed romantics fall madly in love with one another, they struggle to balance their relationship and staying committed to their dreams.

From the opening number up until its monumental finale, La La Land consumes its viewers with an extraordinary combination of wonderfully composed musical numbers, intricate choreography, towering performances and tastefully advanced direction. Damien Chazelle feels like an absolute shoo-in for a Best Director nod as his immaculate vision reveals itself before your very eyes. Six years in the making, Chazelle and his composer, Justin Hurwitz, used this abundance of time to hone the story and fine-tune their music. This dedicated attention to detail spills through each and every scene as La La Land is a testament to originality and a shining example of its own greatest storyline, devoted passion to achieving your dreams.

Not only are the film's direction and all-encompassing score worth marveling at, La La Land's leading co-stars are enchanting in their own right. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling offer a unique chemistry that breathes authenticity into their onscreen romance. The film can't capture all of its engaging essence without a sharply convincing love story, and boy do they deliver! This magical romance is reminiscent of legendary cinematic duos such as Bogart and Bacall or Tracy and Hepburn, and they naturally fall in line as a contemporary equivalence. And although Emma Stone's character is written with slightly more depth and layers to it, enough to give her a legitimate chance at conquering this year's Best Actress race, it wouldn't be a surprise to hear both her and Gosling's names called as Oscar finalists.

Hollywood adores movies about itself and La La Land uses this cachet to mold together the aura of classic film with a vibrant and updated appeal. Without a single glaring weakness this film is destined for a wildly successful awards season run, and one that would be completely satisfying and justified on all levels. I understand that musicals aren't for everyone, but La La Land's overlying message stirs up a passion for the arts that makes you wish you could create something as everlasting as itself. Therefore, La La Land is undeniably one of 2016's finest offerings and a film you shouldn't dare to miss when it reaches theaters this December.

Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: A-

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Rogue One (NEW) Trailers

James Gunn's wildly successful 2014 origins story, Guardians of the Galaxy, delivered an engaging story and laugh-out-loud humor, making it my favorite film from the expansive Marvel universe. Therefore, the franchise's anticipated sequel is guaranteed to be one of next year's biggest summer blockbusters. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 unveiled its premiere teaser trailer yesterday and while its tight-lipped regarding any specific plot points, we do know the film will address the mystery surrounding Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) father. Check out the debut teaser below.

While we have already witnessed some impressive footage surrounding Gareth Edwards' Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, can we ever really get enough? A new trailer for the December 16th release has dropped and it only elevates excitement to a whole new level. Academy Award Nominee Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a Rebellion soldier tasked with the mission of stealing the plans for the Death Star. James Earl Jones returns as the voice of Darth Vader and Rogue One should be one of the biggest releases in a busy month of December. You can catch the film's newest trailer below.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ben Affleck's Finest Works

The Accountant is the number one film in America and its leading star, Ben Affleck, is a two-time Oscar winner (neither of which were for acting, oddly). Therefore, this month felt like as good a time as any to recognize the writer, director and actor's most notable career achievements (September's list). So here they are, the finest films either written by, directed by, or starring Ben Affleck:

Honorable Mention: Chasing Amy, Dazed and Confused and Mallrats.

#5. Gone Girl (2014)

David Fincher's no holds barred mystery-thriller, Gone Girl, also happens to be the only film in the top 5 in which Affleck's only connection is as an actor. Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a disgruntled husband whose wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing and all signs quickly point to him as the main suspect. There are twists, turns, gore, and so much more that help transform this brilliantly acted film into a thriller classic. And although Affleck's performance never quite resonated with the awards season voting bodies, co-star Rosamund Pike earned herself an Oscar Nomination.

#4. The Town (2010)

As Affleck's second directorial effort, The Town also represents the first time the actor starred in his own film. This gripping crime-drama follows Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his lifelong friends who execute masterfully crafted bank robberies. But when MacRay becomes too closely entangled with a witness (Rebecca Hall), it puts their entire operation in jeopardy. The Town was regrettably ignored as a Best Picture selection during the Oscar season, yet co-star Jeremy Renner managed to walk away with an Oscar Nomination for his fabulous role in Affleck's exceptional film.

#3. Argo (2012)

The top three selections on this list are so difficult for me to rank, but earning the bronze is Affleck's most accomplished work and most recent film, Argo. In a strange Oscar twist, Affleck failed to earn a Best Director Nomination despite his film earning the Best Picture crown (in which Affleck earned his second statue as a producer). This intense historical-drama centers around the CIA's covert extraction mission to rescue 6 Americans in a hostile Iran after their embassy was invaded by militants. The only minor flaw in the film is its middling character development. However, Argo's thrilling story, perfectly-timed humor and superb acting solidify Affleck's film as a worthy Best Picture winner.

#2. Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Affleck's phenomenal directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, also stands as the only film on the list in which he wasn't an actor. This vastly under-seen and roller-coaster ride of a mystery-drama demonstrates just how impressive of a filmmaker Affleck truly is. His brother, Casey Affleck, stars as a private investigator who's brought int o investigate the disappearance of a little girl, but the truth proves to be more than he ever bargained for. The film's elements of mystery are masterful and Casey Affleck's performance is something to be treasured. Gone Baby Gone transports you inside of a deeply controversial story that will leave you discussing the finale long after its credits roll. I recognize this film wasn't quite the Oscar juggernaut that Argo was, but's it's an absolute must-see film that deserves to be savored.

#1. Good Will Hunting (1997)

As I mentioned before, my top three picks were insanely difficult to rank. Yet, I'm going with the classic, Good Will Hunting, as my choice for Affleck's best career work. Co-writer and leading star Matt Damon plays Will, a remarkably intelligent janitor who was raised through the state's foster care system. After landing in a bit of trouble with the law, Will is required to meet with a psychiatrist (Robin Williams) in exchange for an early release into the custody of a Mathematician who hopes to groom him. Damon and Robin Williams give career-defining performances in this beautifully complex story of overcoming your past and facing your demons. Good Will Hunting not only landed the late-great Robin Williams in Oscar immortality with a win, it also handed Damon and Affleck Oscar statues of their own (Best Screenplay). Clearly, Affleck is an immensely talented individual both on the screen and behind the camera. Here's to many more magnificent films!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Rapid Reviews: The Accountant and Queen of Katwe

After a recent string of successful releases, one of which earned a Best Picture Oscar, Ben Affleck has proven to be a far more accomplished director than actor. However, Affleck puts his acting chops on display in Warrior director, Gavin O'Connor's, new action-drama, The Accountant.

As a socially inept mathematical savant, Christian Wolff (Affleck) is raised by his military father and trained by martial arts experts to become a human weapon. As the years pass Christian works as a freelance accountant for some of the world's most dangerous criminals. But as the U.S. Treasury department closes in on Christian's identity, the accountant is left to solve the mystery surrounding his latest client.

The Accountant opens with a very strong first act that sadly crumbles throughout the rest of its more than two-hour running time. As the plot thickens and smaller storylines continue to form, the film reveals countless inadequacies. Surprisingly, The Accountant effectively uses comedic dialogue to its advantage, something that was rather unexpected, but it also serves as a reminder of the cloudy direction and undetectable tone missing from the film. Lately, leading star Ben Affleck has displayed a preference for roles in which his character is devoid of emotion (Gone Girl and Batman v Superman), something that rings true in this performance as well. That openness to social interaction does evolve into one of Christian Wolff's character arcs, thanks to a usual and type-casted supporting turn from Anna Kendrick. Yet, O'Connor's desire to put a nice bow on every little detail of the film actually backfires and transforms The Accountant into an over-filled and muddled mess of a story.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

When you hear the phrase "a Disney film", immediately there's an expectation of unrestrained sentiment. Most of the time this desperation for striking up emotions leaves a film feeling flat and undeserving, but sometimes these stories are handled earnestly and told with conviction. Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe is certainly the latter, making it a worthwhile true story painted on a Disney canvas.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a poor girl living in Katwe, the slums of Uganda. She spends her days selling vegetables with her siblings trying to help their mother pay the rent for their tiny and feeble shack which houses them. But after Phiona is introduced to the game of chess by a missionary (David Oyelowo) for the local ministry, her nature ability proves to be extraordinary as she works to transform her family's lives by achieving greatness on a global stage.

There's a natural appeal to the underdog story, something that's clearly the backbone of Queen of Katwe. You're transported into Phiona's undesirable third-world lifestyle, where she somehow finds content in her menial life. An interesting dynamic to the film occurs when she begins to find nationwide success in the game of chess and finally experiences the types of things we all take for granted in life. Upon her return to the tiny village of Katwe, seeing the other side of things broadens her perspective of the world and we watch as the young woman's content fades to resentment. Queen of Katwe tells a deep and insightful story that never feels predictable. Its talented pair of leading stars, Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, are almost upstaged by the outstanding work of newcomer Madina Nalwanga. But despite these fine performances and this intriguing story, Queen of Katwe is slightly hampered by an anti-climactic finale and small doses of the stereotypical Disney sentiment.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Allied (NEW) and Patriots Day Trailers

Another potential Oscar contender from the heralded filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump and Back to the Future), makes its way into theaters at the end of November. Allied features Brad Pitt as an intelligence officer in North Africa during World War II who crosses paths with a French Resistance fighter (Marion Cotillard), and their developing relationship becomes complicated by the challenges of the war. Boasting a high-profile pair of leads and a renowned director, Allied becomes an intriguing fall prospect that could impact the awards season.

Peter Berg recently unveiled his latest true-story drama, Deepwater Horizon, which happened to be accompanied by a sneak peek into Berg's next project, Patriots Day. Slated for an early release in January of 2017, the film centers around an officer (Mark Wahlberg) and various others involved with the horrific Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt which followed in 2013. Berg has certainly followed a formulaic approach to his true-story works lately, and Patriots Day is sure to be another effort programmed to tug at the heartstrings of its viewers. Check out the first look into Patriots Day below.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

2016 Philadelphia Film Festival Preview

Nearly a week ago the Philadelphia Film Festival announced the lineup for its 25th anniversary of bringing Oscar-caliber films to the City of Brotherly Love. I was very pleased as they were able to secure the vast majority of the titles atop my wish-list. The event kicks off of on Thursday October 20th and runs through Sunday October 30th. For more information regarding the full film schedule or how to purchase tickets to this monumental event, you can visit the festival's website. Now, let's take a look at the most notable films appearing at this year's event.

Honorable Mention: Bleed for This, Blue Jay, I, Daniel Blake, Jackie, Lion and Moonlight

Since I have a soft-spot for coming-of-age comedies, Kelly Fremon Craig's The Edge of Seventeen already felt like an intriguing prospect. Yet, after a wildly successful premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival a couple weeks ago, this late entry into the Philadelphia Film Festival (playing Thursday night October 27th only) quickly propelled into my "must-see" list. Woody Harrelson is always brilliant and Hailee Steinfeld has all the makings of a competent leading star, making The Edge of Seventeen a film worth keeping on your radar.

I've always been attracted to dark psychological dramas, especially of the true-story variety. Therefore, Antonio Campos' eerie upcoming release, Christine, is a festival entry I don't plan on missing. The film has enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit after a debut at Sundance and a strong showing at TIFF. Now, Philadelphia gets to experience the true story of Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a 1970s Florida news reporter who spiraled into madness and made television history. As a Spotlight selection at the festival, you'll have two opportunities to catch Christine (either Saturday October 22nd or Wednesday October 26th), so keep your eyes peeled.

After the overwhelming success of last year's thrilling action title, Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve returns in 2016 with a cerebral sci-fi entry that has everyone talking. Amy Adams is primed for a big year and one major contributor is her role as a linguistics expert in Arrival. When a mysterious spacecraft arrives on Earth, the military summons the assistance of Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) to devise a method of communicating with these alien beings in order to prevent a global war The trailer for Arrival reeled me in hook, line and sinker and this Closing Night selection can be viewed one time only on Friday October 28th before its nationwide release this November.

I have a unique way of being consumed by effective emotional dramas. One of the year's most dramatic stories exists in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. Set in the Northeast, Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, an uncle forced to become the legal guardian of his nephew after the untimely death of his brother. Affleck and co-star Michelle Williams headline a stellar cast that's poised to deliver one of the year's most touching films. Manchester by the Sea has enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit and it could very well be an Oscar player this year. If you're interested in catching the film at this year's festival, you'll have to purchase tickets for it's lone showing on Saturday night October 22nd.

Finally, the easy choice for the most anticipated film at this year's festival is Damien Chazelle's La La Land. After winning over audiences and the Academy with his debut feature, Whiplash, Chazelle returns with an original musical that's been described by early viewers as whimsical and magical. La La Land follows a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) who fall in love while struggling to find success in Los Angeles. The Oscars tend to fawn over musicals, especially if their "that" good. Early word is La La Land could be an early frontrunner for Best Picture and it represents the perfect choice for this year's Philadelphia Film Festival's Opening Night selection (Thursday October 20th).