Thursday, January 19, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Split and The Founder

The undulating career of writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has been well documented. A tidal wave of acclaim followed his 1999 title, The Sixth Sense, which went on to earn 6 Oscar Nominations. From there Shyamalan dished out a string of reasonably successful efforts including, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, but he's failed to regain his winning form ever since. Until now, that is, as Shyamalan delivers an imaginative new supernatural thriller with the early year release, Split.

After three teenage girls are kidnapped and held captive in an underground lair by a man (James McAvoy) experiencing multiple personality disorder, they must learn which of these different identities they can use to help them escape. However, as time pushes forward and the wicked plan of the main personalities comes to fruition, there's no telling just how dangerous this situation truly is.

As is the case with almost any M. Night Shyamalan movie, it's imperative to not give away the secrets to his screenplay. As a master of mystery and plot twists, storytelling has always been the filmmaker's strongest attribute. Shyamalan recaptures past magic with a dark and clever tale of the body's remarkable capabilities. Split takes the audience on a thrilling ride that admittedly loses momentum as the minutes pile on, however everything still culminates in a rewarding fashion. While the writer/director (and let's not forget, actor too) slowly reveals these pieces the puzzle, he also manages to tip his hand fairly early in the film. Therefore, the slow building that follows never feels as surprising as it should. There are countless up and down moments all throughout the film, yet Shyamalan's gripping story is perfectly captured by the immense acting talents of James McAvoy. He commands the screen with each distinct personality and the unpredictability of his characters keep the film engaging. Split doesn't quite align with Shyamalan's most notable works, but it marks a successful return to form for the once heralded filmmaker.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

"If my competitor were drowning, I'd stick a hose in his mouth and turn the water on". And that's all you need to know about Ray Kroc and the manner in which he turned McDonald's from a successful family-run restaurant into a global fast-food chain. John Lee Hancock - director of The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks - teams with Michael Keaton to deliver compelling examination of Capitalism's cutthroat nature in The Founder.

Once the struggling salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) learns the ins and outs of the small California-based burger shop, McDonald's, he envisions a golden opportunity for growth and franchising. Not look after, Kroc weasels his way into a limited partnership with sibling owners, Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). But as these trio of partners fail to see eye-to-eye on key issues, Kroc must take any means necessary to make his vision become a reality.

As a ruthless depiction of the American dream modestly tempered by well-scripted moments of humor, John Lee Hancock's The Founder mirrors a hybrid of recent biopics such as The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street. Ray Kroc's character becomes more and more interesting as we see his hunger for success grow wildly out of control, to the point where he gladly takes whatever he wants. Michael Keaton is the main attraction here, as he breathes a sinful likability into the real-life persona of an American entrepreneur. The film's entertaining screenplay, and wonderfully assisted by Keaton's performance, crafts a complex character that the audience hates to love. There are a few deficiencies within the film, like its failure to break any new ground from a cinematic and storytelling standpoint, which creates a rather limited ceiling of achievement. But, if nothing else, The Founder stands as a smoothly-paced and enlightening watch, highlighted by a gifted lead actor and a realistic journey into the world of big business.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Greg's Top 10 Films of 2016

As he does every year, guest-writer and Reel True co-owner, Greg Rouleau, unveils his Top 10 Films of the Year. Generally, Greg offers a detailed write-up explaining his selections. However, this year he lets the movies themselves do the talking, as he puts his editing skills on display with a video recap of 2016's finest films. Enjoy!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dave's Best of 2016

January 24th is right around the corner and Oscar Nominations will be here before we know it. But before the industry's biggest awards ceremony announces its nominees, I'm going to take a moment to reflect on my personal picks for the years best actors, screenplays and directors. Here are the best of the best in 2016:

Best Adapted Screenplay

#5. The BFG

#3. Arrival

And the winner is ...

Barry Jenkins transforms an original story by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney into one of 2016's most well-rounded entries. Moonlight is a shining example of what indie filmmaking is all about and its engrossing story takes you on a memorable journey that's worthy of being labeled as the year's Best Adapted Screenplay.

Best Original Screenplay

And the winner is ...

Kenneth Longergan pens an emotional masterpiece that, despite its slight over-extension, captures the core of the human psyche. Manchester by the Sea takes a familiar theme and molds it into a heartbreaking and original story.

Best Supporting Actress

Honorable Mention: Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky), Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake)

#5. Felicity Jones (A Monster Calls)

#4. Gillian Jacobs (Don't Think Twice)

#3. Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women)

#2. Michelle Williams (Manchester by/ Sea)

And the winner is ...

#1. Viola Davis (Fences)

As the heart and soul of Denzel Washington's adapted film, Fences, Viola Davis is given a much larger platform to display her talents than any other woman in the category. It's almost unfair to classify her role as "supporting", yet I'll measure her by the same standards as the rest of the major awards ceremonies, which clearly makes Davis the Best Supporting Actress of 2016.

Best Supporting Actor

Honorable Mention: Aaron Eckhart (Sully), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen)

#5. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

#4. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)

#3. Ashton Sanders (Moonlight)

#2. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

And the winner is ...

#1. Ben Foster (Hell or High Water)

While co-star Jeff Bridges has enjoyed a busy awards season run, Hell or High Water's Ben Foster delivers the film's most notable performance. In many ways it's a typical role for Foster, arrogant and edgy, character traits he's build a strong career portraying. And while that narrow range may detract from some voting bodies, I feel like it's the perfect way of acknowledging how effective of a performance he can give.

Best Director

Honorable Mention: Peter Berg (Patriots Day), Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic) and Martin Scorsese (Silence)

#5. David MacKenzie (Hell or High Water)

#4. Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals)

#3. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

#2. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

And the winner is ...

#1. Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

If La La Land helmer, Damien Chazelle, takes home the Oscat statue for Best Director, then he'll be the youngest to do so in history. As only Chazelle's second feature film - and Best Picture Nominee Whiplash being the other - it's remarkable to imagine what the future may hold for this rising filmmaker. Whatever it may be, I can't wait to see it.

Best Actress

Honorable Mention: Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane), Ruth Negga (Loving) and Susan Sarandon (The Meddler)

#5. Amy Adams (Arrival) 

#4. Natalie Portman (Jackie)

#3. Annette Bening (20th Century Women)

#2. Rebecca Hall (Christine)

And the winner is ...

#1. Emma Stone (La La Land)

In a year flooded with quality lead actress performances, La La Land's Emma Stone emerges from the crowd as the best of 2016. And not only does she put on a memorable acting display, Stone sings and dancers her way through the year's most diverse role. Her character is the backbone of La La Land and without this exceptional performance, who knows how effective this musical would have been.

Best Actor

Honorable Mention: Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake) Michael Keaton (The Founder) and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)

#5. Tom Hanks (Sully)

#4. Denzel Washington (Fences)

#3. Ryan Gosling (La La Land)

#2. Christopher Plummer (Remember)

And the winner is ...

#1. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

Despite playing a rather quiet character, Casey Affleck's work speaks volume about a man's unfathomable confrontation with past regrets. Affleck offers a subtle and nuanced performance that lets the space between his words breathe life into his character. It's a bitter role and one he executes with remarkable ease. There may not have been a better performance last year.

Best Picture

And the winner is ...

After revealing my Top 10 Films of 2016 nearly two weeks ago, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Damien Chazelle's La La Land secures the biggest prize. In a year full of heavy subject matter and darkly toned narratives, La La Land represents a refreshing and original burst of energy that stands out among the competition. And while the film (being a musical) won't necessarily appeal to everyone's taste, anyone open to the viewing experience and eager to catch the film should definitely give it a chance.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Patriots Day and 20th Century Women

You don't have to look any further than his latest trio of films to recognize that Peter Berg has purposely aimed his filmmaking talents at tackling real-life stories of human struggle. 2013's Lone Survivor stood as a resonating examination of the brotherhood and sacrifice of a stranded Navy Seal team caught under fire by Taliban militants, while Deepwater Horizon centered around the untold story of oil rig workers caught in extreme explosions that resulted in the catastrophic BP oil-spill off the Gulf coast. And as his movie timelines creep closer to present day, Berg's new release, Patriots Day, focuses on the orchestrated manhunt to capture the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombers. Although Berg hasn't announced his next directorial effort and considering his recent string of critical success, it will be interesting to see if Berg sticks to this thematic formula.

Patriots Day is annually celebrated with the long-standing tradition of the Boston Marathon. And in 2013, a day like any other, a pair of radicalized Islamic extremists (played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) detonated two self-made explosives near the marathon's finish-line, killing a trio of civilians and injuring more than 250 others. Boston's police department, headed by Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and with the help of officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), aided the FBI in their search to identify and capture the Tsarnaev brothers.

Some have argued that it's "too soon" for Peter Berg to make such a film. However, to the director's credit, he bridges his Hollywood re-enactment with real-life events by editing a timeline of actual investigative footage into the film. This life-like approach cements a feeling of legitimacy and accuracy that adds a great deal to the movie's dramatic effect. Patriots Day begins by capturing the city's fragile and emotional state following these traumatic events, and quickly morphs into an intense and thrilling game of cat and mouse between the FBI and the Tsarnaev brother. And while Mark Wahlberg has never been lauded as one of Hollywood's most gifted actors, Berg continues to evoke escalating quality of work from him with each subsequent collaboration. In fact, the film's entire cast is remarkably on-point as a long list of strongly-delivered performances support this winning effort. Outside of a few over-dramatized moments of asinine "Boston strong" dialogue that ultimately suggest these events as a city's tragedy rather than a nation's, Patriots Day offers sound technical achievements and an extremely compelling recount of this devastating moment in recent history.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

In my humble opinion, the greatest stories are the ones that build the strongest characters. Writer/director Mike Mills has illustrated an uncanny ability to do just that with interesting works such as Beginners - which earned veteran actor Christopher Plummer his first Academy Award - and the lesser-known, Thumbsucker. But as Mills pushes on with this character-driven approach, his efforts continue to gain notoriety. As is the case with his new Oscar-contending release, 20th Century Women.

Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mother raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in Southern California during the late 70s. And when Dorothea recognizes her inability to properly raise Jamie on her own, she enlists the help of her trusty tenant, a punk-loving twenty-something (Greta Gerwig), as well as Jamie's best friend and teenage crush Julie (Elle Fanning). These trio of women impart their singular wisdom and world views on the impressionable young man as he embarks on adulthood.

20th Century Women represents a hearty and comical coming-of-age story that puts its characters first. Mills doesn't obsess with the progression of the story as much as he finely tunes these multi-layered characters, and the result is a fun-filled depiction of the maturation process. Annette Bening has received (and earned) a large amount of awards season acclaim for her role as Jamie's independent and often cynical mother. She morphs into her character with unfettered ease and as Bening regularly delivers Mills' perfectly-scripted one-line zingers, Dorothea becomes an organic and complex persona that commands the audience's attention. In addition to Bening, supporting stars Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann all offer exceptional turns. Gerwig separates herself from the pack with one of 2016's finest supporting performances. A few moderate issues with pacing haunt this nearly two-hour endeavor, yet 20th Century Women includes enough humor and soul to stand out as another successful film from a rare character-first writer/director.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Thursday, January 12, 2017

2016's Most Underrated Performances

2016 is almost completely behind us now that we're almost two full weeks into January, so I'm releasing another annual list exploring the most underrated acting performances of this past year. There was a long list of options I needed to carefully sift through to compile this list. Also, quite a few "fringe" options tip-toed the line between underrated and modestly recognized. In fact, if a performance drew awards season honors from any notable Critics Groups, then I deemed it ineligible. That's why quality work from talents like Rebecca Hall (Christine), Hayley Squires & Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), Felicity Jones & Lewis MacDougall (A Monster Calls) and Janelle Monae (Moonlight & Hidden Figures) won't be found in my Top 10. Therefore, knowing my criteria for inclusion, here are 2016's most underrated performances:

Honorable Mention: Billy Crudup (20th Century Women), Sarah Paulson (Blue Jay), Kristen Stewart (Cafe Society), Chris Messina (Live by Night) and Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys)

#10. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic)

Much has been made about leading star, Viggo Mortensen's, Best Actor run during the awards season. Yet, arguably Captain Fantastic's most compelling character, the eldest son Bo (played by MacKay), steals the film. MacKay's conflicted character possesses immaculate book-smarts, but has the social skills of a gnat. His awkward relationship with a teenage girl he meets during his travels is absolutely priceless and MacKay even shines in the supporting role with a dramatic Oscar-worthy scene.

#9. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle)

You wouldn't believe me if I told you, but Kingsman's sleek and suave leading man, Taron Egerton, is actually the same person pictured above. But physical transformations aside, Egerton's turn as a physically unfit athlete with Olympic dreams elevates Eddie the Eagle from hokey biopic to meaningful true-story drama. Egerton truly is the soul of the film and, believe me, one exists throughout this often comical examination of the strangest Olympian ever.

#8. Mark Duplass (Blue Jay)

There's an aura of desperation surrounding Alex Lehmann's directorial debut, Blue Jay. Shown strictly in black & white, this emotional and mostly-improvised drama keeps the camera on its sensational leading co-stars, Mark Duplass & Sarah Paulson. Both performances are tender and frail as these former high school sweethearts cross paths years after a devastating break-up. Duplass has long been a phenomenal indie filmmaking voice and his powerful work continues with this shamefully overlooked portrayal.

#7. Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society)

There's always a common feeling behind Woody Allen's career work. And his latest film, Cafe Society, stands on the higher end of that narrow spectrum. Jesse Eisenberg shines in what many would label a typical role for the actor. And while it's difficult to argue against that notion, it's also impossible to deny his charming performance. Eisenberg's character is doe-eyed and naive as he ventures from New York to Los Angeles in order to break into the film industry. As a former Academy Award Nominee, Eisenberg's role in Cafe Society serves as a reminder of his elite abilities.

#6. Susan Sarandon (The Meddler)

True to its name, Susan Sarandon can feel so frustrating, annoying and even endearing in Lorene Scafaria's small-time festival darling, The Meddler. Sarandon stars as a lonely widow who follows her daughter to Los Angeles and weasels her way into the lives of everyone she meets. She achieves the essence of her character so perfectly and it makes for a quality film. But despite all of the character's irritating qualities, Sarandon still comes off as sweet and lovable as she slowly begins to build a life of her own.

#5. Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen)

Woody Harrleson has always been one of those actors who can do no wrong, and he confirms it once again in Kelly Fremon Craig's coming-of-age comedy, The Edge of Seventeen. It came as a pleasant surprise, but Harrelson's role as a teacher-mentor ends up much larger than I ever expected. His natural comedic delivery serves as a wonderful complement to the character's pseudo-careless attitude. Yet, deep down Harrelson is a compassionate and caring figure to this clumsy teenage girl whose life seems to be falling apart.

#4. Gillian Jacobs (Don't Think Twice)

Evident by its strong showing on my Top 10 Films of the Year list, Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice is as genuine and authentic a film as you can make. Outside of its slightly tempered, although immensely plentiful, humor, the movie does an amazing job of examining human behavior, and none was more fascinating than Gillian Jacobs' role as, Samantha. Her subtle performance crafts a layered character that's equal parts perplexing, simplistic and hopeful. Not only does Jacobs possess an innate ability to make the audience laugh, but she also demonstrates the talents to elicit and emotional response as well.

#3. Aaron Eckhart (Sully)

Aaron Eckhart has enjoyed a lengthy career of quality work, but the actor's role in Clint Eastwood's Sully is clearly one of his most memorable. Tom Hanks stars as the film's title character, but Eckhart injects a witty tone that ads levity to this true story of an emergency forced landing on the Hudson River. I was shocked to discover that Eckhart hadn't earned any awards recognition whatsoever for his portrayal of Captain Sully's loyal co-pilot. Yet, no matter what accolades Eckhart misses out on, I'll always admire this performance as one of his finest.

#2. Ashton Sanders (Moonlight)

Going from a familiar face like Aaron Eckhart to the newcomer, Ashton Sanders, it makes you appreciate how much talent is really out there. However, opportunity is everything and Ashton Sanders seizes his in Barry Jenkins' Best Picture contender, Moonlight. This gripping drama follows an impoverished Miami youth struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Told through three distinct chapters, Sanders is masterful during the film's second segment where we witness the character's emotionally-ranging teenage years.Sanders effortlessly navigates through moments of anger, rage, betrayal and lust. Moonlight is a remarkably powerful film and Sanders plays a pivotal part in its overwhelming success.

#1. Christopher Plummer (Remember)

There's a bit of trickiness surrounding my top pick as the year's most underrated performance. Atom Egoyan's Canadian revenge thriller, Remember, hit theaters north of the border in 2015 (where Christopher Plummer, Egoyan and the film itself were recognized by Canadian film critics groups). However, Remember didn't reach U.S. theaters until early in 2016, where it received a limited release. Nonetheless, lead star Christopher Plummer gives a hypnotic performance as Zev, an elderly man who escapes from his retirement home to seek vengeance on the former Nazi prison guard who murdered his family at Auschwitz. The former Academy Award Winner shows he's still got it with a brilliant leading role that ended up completely ignored this year. This 95-minute treat serves up a phenomenal finale that begs to seen, so do yourself a favor and enjoy Christopher Plummer's top-flight acting in Remember.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Live by Night and A Monster Calls

Despite a momentous start to his directing career, one that includes a Best Picture Oscar win for Argo, Ben Affleck's latest film hasn't even made it into the awards season discussion. His new endeavor, Live by Night, a gangster flick predominantly set during the Prohibition Era in Florida, represents a bitter free-fall for the previously unscathed filmmaker. Affleck offers nothing new to the genre and any hope that another adaptation from Dennis Lehane - who also penned the source material for Affleck's phenomenal 2007 debut, Gone Baby Gone - would be a reason for optimism, quickly falls by the wayside during the film's forgettable first act.

After a hidden romance with an Irish Mob boss' mistress (Sienna Miller) nearly end his life, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns and sells his soul the rival Italian Mob in order to exact revenge on his nemesis. Joe ventures to Florida during Prohibition where he monopolizes the Rum industry and falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana), a woman whose inside connections help build the empire. But as Prohibition becomes repealed, Joe's mismanagement of his supreme position makes him a vulnerable man in a dangerous industry.

Live by Night suffers immensely by writer, director and star, Ben Affleck's, arrogance and misguided vision. It's obvious that Affleck desires to deliver an ambitious gangster film reminiscent of classics such as The Godfather and White Heat. However, a bloated story continually introduces a wide assortment of characters without ever fully developing them. Therefore, once these flimsy characters meet their demise, empathy is never appropriately earned. Affleck's screenplay is riddled with flaws, but it still doesn't feel quite as problematic as the director's unforgivable decision to cast himself in the lead role. Either Affleck's perception of Joe Coughlin is remarkably off, or he isn't quite talented enough to pull-off the necessary performance. Whichever way you dissect it, the blame falls squarely on his shoulders. On the other hand, there are a few select moments of captured creativity and originality, yet they're swallowed-whole by an assortment of mightily flawed approaches. Notable supporting turns are offered by Chris Messina, who play's Joe's right hand man, and Zoe Saldana. But by the time the credits finally role - which follow a dull attempt at an emotionally-charged conclusion, Live by Night reveals itself as a sad and rapid decline for a once unblemished filmmaker.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Having given us one of the decades finest films in 2012's The Impossible, it's no exaggeration claiming J.A. Bayona as one of Hollywood's most overlooked filmmakers. Bayona returns in 2016 with the late-year release, A Monster Calls, a touching examination of the grieving process that's gone completely unnoticed during the awards season frenzy. But no matter how often and for how long the Globes and Oscars continue to ignore this man's exceptional work, Bayona continues to represent a unique voice within the industry.

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor, a lonely boy struggling to come to grips with the painful reality of his mother's (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. One night at 12:07pm, the imaginative boy is visited by an enormous tree monster (voice of Liam Neeson) who promises to return on three separate occasions to tell him three different stories. These visits and their messages serve as metaphors to Conor's real-world experiences and help him confront the issues within his own life.

Visually masterful and superbly acted, A Monster Calls stands as another successful dramatic adaption from J.A. Bayona. Youngster Lewis MacDougall does a commendable job of carrying his first feature film, thanks in large part to a wide collection of supporting performances. Yet, it's the always brilliant Felicity Jones who commands the spotlight with her soulful turn as Conor's ill-stricken mother. Her omission from the awards season discussion in the Best Supporting Actress race is simply unfathomable, mainly because her quality of work refuses to go unnoticed. Structurally, there are a few contrived subplots sprinkled throughout the story, some of which unfold more effectively than others, but Bayona overcomes these flaws with sensational direction and eye-popping special effects. A Monster Calls isn't an upper echelon entry like the filmmaker's previous masterpiece, yet a clever and emotional finale allow the movie to stand as another formidable effort from an impressive filmmaker.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B