Saturday, December 3, 2016

DVD Outlook: December 2016

Once the calendar switches to December it becomes difficult to convince me to see anything other than the weekly Oscar contending releases that swarm theaters nationwide. Yet, for movie watchers trying to avoid venturing to the big screen and who prefer relaxing and enjoying a new flick in the comfort of their homes, December has some worthwhile options arriving this month (November's suggestions). Here's what's on tap for the upcoming month:

Don't Think Twice - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Mike Birbiglia writes, directs and co-stars in this brilliantly handled indie comedy. It's so rare for a comedic endeavor to combine legitimate laughs with a soulful story, yet Don't Think Twice achieves this and so much more. The film follows a popular New York City improv group called The Commune who aren't just talented performers, they've become so close that they're basically a family. But when scouts from a major sketch comedy show called "Weekend Live" set their focus on the group, bitter competition begins to tear apart the fabric of this on-stage family. Don't Think Twice is emboldened by phenomenal performances that build multi-layered characters. Each member of the improv group becomes developed enough to earn a vested interest from the audience. While an emotional supporting turn is offered by Gillian Jacobs, the rest of the cast also pull you into their competitive world of comedy where not everyone can make it big. (December 6th)

Sully - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read full review here)

It's no easy task releasing a film before all of the other labeled Oscar contenders and remaining in contention as the year comes to a close, but Clint Eastwood has achieved just that with his latest biopic, Sully. Tom Hanks stars as Chelsey Sullenberger, a pilot who became an overnight American hero after successfully executing and emergency landing on the Hudson River and saving the lives of all crew and passengers on board the plane. However, upon an investigation of the flight by the NTSB, Sully is forced to ponder whether or not he responded correctly and if he put all of these lives in an unnecessary danger. The inner turmoil of the title character is captured magnificently by acting legend Tom Hanks. Both he and co-star Aaron Eckhart provide exceptional performances that may (and probably should) be recognized by the Academy Awards. My only issue with Sully, however, is the narrow scope of the film's story. There isn't much meat to it and, consequently, Eastwood consumes his running time with countless perspectives of that fateful plane landing. But either way, the film is an entertaining awards season contender that you should catch if you haven't already. (December 20th)

The Magnificent Seven - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Westerns. And while Antoine Fuqua's remake, The Magnificent Seven, has its fair share of blemishes, it also entertains the audience with an unfettered ease. Industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) overruns the small town of Rose Creek with deadly force and it prompts a widow (Haley Bennett) and other townsfolk to summon the assistant of a bounty hunter (Denzel Washington) who recruits a team of misfits to take on Bogue's militant army. This modern interpretation of a classic story is paced extremely well considering its running time pushes towards 135 minutes. Vincent D'Onofrio and Denzel Washington provide the most notable work, while co-star Chris Pratt feels awfully out of place. Nothing groundbreaking resides in The Magnificent Seven but it's compelling enough to enjoy on a more superficial level. (December 20th)

Honorable Mention: Also arriving to DVD and Blu-Ray this month are action films Suicide Squad (12/13) and the latest franchise installment, Jason Bourne (12/6). Oscar rumblings still follow Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant for their work in the overrated film Florence Foster Jenkins (12/13), and Oliver Stone's long-winded biopic Snowden (12/27) also finds a release this month. Animated films The Secret Life of Pets (12/6) and Storks (12/20) are available, as well as Tim Burton's imaginative new work Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12/13) and rom-com Bridget Jones's Baby (12/13).

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Nocturnal Animals and Jackie

Winning a Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival is a crowning achievement for any filmmaker, let alone one who only has two works to his name. Tom Ford burst onto the scene in 2009 with his warmly received debut, A Single Man. The effort landed lead star Colin Firth an Oscar Nomination and left everyone in the industry wondering what Ford would be doing next. It took quite a while to get here but Ford returns with Nocturnal Animals, a taut thriller that far surpasses his admired debut.

Susan Morrow is an art gallery owner who receives an unexpected package from her ex-husband of many years, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Inside she discovers a manuscript of his new novel which Edward dedicates solely to her. As Susan becomes engrossed in this violent and sinister novel she begins to reflect on the torment she caused her former lover.

Everything from the film's trailer to its detailed premise would lead you to envision Nocturnal Animals as a mind-bending and brutal thrill ride. And although the feature possesses a few grisly moments throughout its story-within-a-story structure, Tom Ford's effective sophomore effort surprisingly stands out for its psychological layering. Immense praise is in order for the entire cast as the film offers exceptional performances from top to bottom. Leading stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver the caliber of work we all have come to expect but, in many ways, supporting stars Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson steal the show. From a filmmaking perspective, Tom Ford also impresses. In many ways Nocturnal Animals conveys a David Lynch kind of vibe, yet it's not quite as cryptic and I mean that as a compliment. Ford has a specific intention in mind and by the closing credits he makes it abundantly clear. Therefore, even if Nocturnal Animals isn't as visceral of a thriller as advertised, its cerebral anguish is by no means a consolation prize.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

One of the Centerpiece selections as this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was Pablo Larrain's historical drama, Jackie. Much has been made of Natalie Portman's portrayal of former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and all of it is warranted. There's an Oscar Nomination in her near future and perhaps even a win. Therefore, Portman alone provides enough reason to witness this upcoming December release.

Upon allowing a face to face interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup), Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman) recounts the horrific events of her husband and former President, John F. Kennedy, as he was assassinated in Dallax, Texas in 1963. She paints a chilling portrait of that fateful day and the moments leading up to his historic funeral in Washington, D.C..

To Larrain's benefit, Jackie feels every bit like a journey back in time. Capturing a nostalgic tone with grainy shots reminiscent of classic reel to reel film, the film transports the audience back to 1963 where you're forced to endure catastrophic heartache that's so beautifully delivered by Natalie Portman. But even beyond the scope of the bloody and untempered account of the assassination, Jackie digs deeper with a broader story of legacy and remembrance. Larrain offers a bitter examination that illustrates the First Lady's fragile psyche as her world was taken from her in a single instance. Greta Gerwig gives a noteworthy supporting turn as Jackie's White House confidant, but I wasn't as fond of Peter Sarsgaard's accent-less portrayal of Robert Kennedy, which has been touted as Oscar-worthy by many. Jackie's heavy content transforms a 95 minute running time into a marathon, but there's depth and commitment worth appreciating by all involved.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Silence and The Comedian Trailers

Martin Scorsese has given us all something to be very thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday. The first official trailer for the legendary filmmaker's upcoming release, Silence, has officially landed and it provides a story and perspective of Scorsese that we haven't seen in quite some time. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver star as a pair of 17th century Jesuit priests who venture to Japan and face persecution as they try to find their religious mentor (Liam Neeson) and restore his faith in God. Word has it we're in for another marathon as Silence pushes towards 160 minutes of screen time, but we should still expect a gripping story and phenomenal direction from this assumed Best Picture contender.

Like many great pairings in this this world, it wouldn't feel right mentioning Martin Scorsese without his long time collaborative partner, Robert De Niro. The all-time great performer has chosen some questionable roles of late, and early word isn't too favorable for his upcoming film, The Comedian. De Niro takes center stage as Jackie, an aging insult comic who's trying to reinvent his career. While it proves to be a daunting task, he finally finds inspiration when he meets the young and rambunctious Harmony (Leslie Mann). The Comedian arrives in January, 2017 and you can catch the film's debut trailer below.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Oscar Talk - 11/22/2016

With Golden Globe nominations less than 3 weeks out, the Awards season is just starting to heat up. Both Ben Affleck's Live by Night and Denzel Washington's Fences have recently screened for the first time while Martin Scorsese's Silence will premiere later this month, leaving the Oscar picture a bit cloudy at the moment. However, there's still enough buzz floating around to mold together an idea of how the major races appear to be shaping up. Let's take a look.

Best Supporting Actress

Likely Nominees: Hindsight is 20/20 and, although I even felt it at the time, it's impossible not to look back and acknowledge that Viola Davis should have won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in 2011's The Help (Meryl Streep won for Iron Lady). Yet, history has a funny way of correcting itself as Davis could be in line for some Oscar glory for her work in Fences. Other safer bets to land in the final five include Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight).

Additional Contenders: Nicole Kidman (Lion), Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women), Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) and Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky) are all viable names that round out the next tier of performances.

Long Shots: The Academy loves Felicity Jones (A Monster Calls), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) and Lupita Nyong'o (Queen of Katwe), so it's never safe to count any of them out of the race.

Best Supporting Actor

Likely Nominees: With all of the backlash surrounding last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy could really make a statement by awarding both Viola Davis and Moonlight's Mahershala Ali. Moonlight certainly has the staying power to fend off newer debuts such as Fences and its fellow Oscar contender, Mykelti Williamson. Hell or Highwater has also been adored by critics and audiences alike, which should provide Jeff Bridges another opportunity for a statue.

Additional Contenders: It pains me to say it but Hugh Grant's name continues to surface around any awards season discussion for his work in Florence Foster Jenkins, while Dev Patel (Lion) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) are also in the mix.

Long Shots: Only a long shot because his film hasn't screened yet, but everyone anticipates a late surge for Liam Neeson's role in Martin Scorsese's Silence. Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures) and Aaron Eckhart (Sully) could also end up making the final cut as well.

Best Actress

Likely Nominees: At this moment most of the major races still feel highly competitive, which is a rarity. The Best Actress race has settled into a trio of ladies with a real shot at winning. Emma Stone feels most deserving for her role in La La Land, especially after missing out for her fine supporting work in Birdman. However, Stone will find stiff competition with another win-less veteran, Annette Bening (20th Century Women), as well as past winner Natalie Portman (Jackie).

Additional Contenders: Ruth Negga (Loving) and Amy Adams (Arrival) remain strong candidates in a deep field of performers, as well as the always dangerous Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane).

Long Shots: Sadly, Rebecca Hall's exceptional work in the darkly twisted character study, Christine, seems unlikely to make the cut. Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Isabelle Huppert (Elle) and Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) are all excepted to be on the outside looking in as well.

Best Actor

Likely Nominees: The Best Actor race doesn't seem as top heavy as years past. In fact, it's looking as though Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) and Denzel Washington (Fences) will battle it out for the highly coveted award. These two feel like the only safe bets at the moment, but the rest of the second tier field is quite crowded.

Additional Contenders: Veteran actor Warren Beatty (Rules Don't Apply) is bound to garner some comeback votes while Ryan Gosling could be the benefactor of a huge evening for La La LandJoel Edgerton (Loving) is well liked by the voting body and his performance certainly warrants recognition. 

Long Shots: It wouldn't be a shock to see Andrew Garfield sneak in for either of his performances in Hacksaw Ridge or Scorcese's Silence, while Tom Hanks (Sully), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) and Michael Keaton (The Founder) all still remain in the hunt.

Best Director

Likely Nominees: Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Fences' director and star, Denzel Washington, appear to be locks, while Moonlight auteur, Barry Jenkins, is quickly solidifying his spot in the final five. Any one of the aforementioned names could end up victorious, which is another testament to how remarkably competitive this year has been.

Additional Contenders: Martin Scorsese (Silence) is always an enormous wild card, while I was also extremely impressed with Denis Villeneuve's work in Arrival. Although I was rather indifferent towards Kenneth Lonergan's direction in Manchester by the Sea, the film is exactly what the Academy's voting body historically adores.

Long Shots: Ben Affleck (Live by Night) was undeniably snubbed for Argo a few years back, so a makeup nomination could be in order. Clint Eastwood (Sully) has displayed staying power, while Jeff Nichols (Loving) and David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) appear less likely to make the cut, but still remain in the discussion.

Best Picture

Likely Nominees: Until I see a better film myself or until I hear that a frontrunner has emerged, I have to believe that La La Land will claim the Best Picture award. While it's virtually a lock to make the final cut, you should also expect Fences, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea to score nominations as well.

Additional Contenders: Arrival has a rarely embraced sci-fi backdrop, but it's artistic enough to sway the voters. Scorsese's Silence has to be viewed as a serious contender until we hear otherwise, and Loving strikes the right chord for members of the Academy.

Long Shots: It's a crowded year so you shouldn't be surprised to find any of Sully, Lion, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Live by Night or 20th Century Women to make the final cut as well. But as nominations are announced in the upcoming weeks leading up to the holidays, all of this races will surely begin to narrow.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and Doctor Strange

A lot can change in the matter of a few months. Prior to its October premiere at the New York Film Festival, many penciled-in Ang Lee's new adapted feature, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, as a viable Best Picture candidate. Lee's well-documented success with the Academy, mixed together with a war-time drama, the film checked-off all the necessary boxes. Yet, now, having watched Billy Lynn for myself, Lee's latest work is far from the Oscar-player we all expected and, sadly, it's one of the year's most disappointing entries.

This non-chronological adaption follows its title character (Joe Alwyn) and the other members of his Bravo squad who are home from Iraq on a victory tour. And as Billy prepares to be honored during the halftime show of an NFL football game for one of the worst days of his life. he recalls the harrowing events of the battle and contemplates his future as a soldier altogether.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk stands as a rare fatally flawed endeavor from Ang Lee. Boasting a muddled screenplay, subpar performances and questionable direction, something of which I was utterly shocked to witness, it's difficult to pinpoint a single redeeming quality from the film. portrayal of Lynn's squad is over-exaggerated beyond belief. Having known many soldiers who experienced the horrors of the Iraq war, most had a smooth re-integration back into everyday life. In addition to under-developed and cartoon-ish characters, the entire ensemble contributes to insufficient dramatics. Billy Lynn falls terribly short of the powerful and moving story Ang Lee intended to tell. With a long list of intriguing options arriving in theaters every week, Billy Lynn is a film you should simply avoid.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

With Phase Three of Marvel's expansive universe in full motion, Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange marks a pivotal moment within the series. Incorporating a whole new element that spans beyond the dimensions of the normal Marvel universe, there was a lot resting on this new release. And after hearing rave reviews about the film, I was eager to experience this ambitious superhero tale for myself.

Skilled neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) sets the bar for his field of medicine. Yet, after a tragic accident leaves him desperate to discover the secrets of regaining full health in his limbs, Stephen learns of a mystical realm accessible through the unique powers of the human mind. This newfound ability pits him in a battle against evildoers set on changing life as we know it.

It's impossible to deny many of the clever ideas floating all throughout the fabric of Doctor Strange. However, a mind-numbing overdose of CGI used to support multiple dimensions becomes a tired routine that inhibits the film's creativity rather than letting it blossom. Benedict Cumberbatch gives an adequate lead performance in a Tony Stark-like role, but the films's recurring attempts at humor fail to land as easily as they once did. Underwhelming jokes and another forgettable villain couple together to reaffirm Doctor Strange's status as a middling rehashing of the prototypical Marvel formula. This added element to the Marvel universe proves unnecessary and leaves plenty to be desired.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Live by Night (NEW) and Hidden Figures (NEW) Trailers

Ben Affleck is quickly climbing the ranks as one of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers. After his last effort, Argo, won Best Picture, all eyes are shifting to Affleck's upcoming release, Live by Night. Affleck stars as a prohibition era gangster who learns that getting out of the racket is far more difficult than it appears. Live by Night will receive a late-year qualifying run, but don't expect to see it in theaters until January. Some things are definitely worth the wait, catch the film's final trailer below and see for yourself.

Theodore Melfi impressed audiences with his 2014 directorial debut, St. Vincent. Melfi returns in 2016 with another crowd-pleasing story, but this one's of the factual variety. Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African American women who were pivotal in launching the United States' first successful space mission during the 1960s. Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer and co-stars Taraji Henson and Janelle Monae help bring this inspiring tale to life. Catch the new trailer for Hidden Figures below.