Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Stronger and Mother!

Less than a year ago Peter Berg, a director increasingly known for tackling events from recent history, delivered a tense and thrilling recreation of 2013's Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent days-long manhunt for the suspects at large with Patriot's Day. The film was effective but lacked a subtle and more personal feel to the Boston-Strong tragedy that rocked the world. Yet, nearly nine months later we're given just that perspective from a mildly unexpected source. David Gordon Green, an indie filmmaker who finally broke through with his 2008's stoner-comedy Pineapple Express, finally returns to his dramatic roots. Stronger tells the emotional true story of Jeff Bauman, a bombing victim who struggles to come to grips with the debilitating results of this tragic event.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unreliable and immature jokester living in the Boston suburb of Chelmsford. And when he runs into his long-time on-and-off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) at a local bar trying to raise money for the marathon, he promises to be there at the finish line to cheer her on as she finishes the race. But Jeff's decision to finally come through on his promise leads to the greatest struggle of his life when he losses both of his legs in the bombing and reluctantly becomes a hero to the entire city of Boston.

David Gordon Green's Stronger grips its audience with a compelling character-driven story that's eloquently brought to the screen by Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor's storied career adds another shining inclusion to his already long list of achievements as Gyllenhaal delivers the year's most notable performance to date. But for as masterful as Gyllenhaal is on screen, co-star Tatiana Maslany complements his work with an earnest and skillful turn of her own. Stronger tells a nuanced story that's thin on memorable scenes but effective because of its refusal to cater the the heart-tugging backdrop of its over-arcing tale. The film's undeniable dramatic moments are supported by laugh-out-loud humor courtesy of Jeff Bauman's family members, which add a layer of depth to the entire experience. Stronger isn't anything exceptional, and it may not even end up in the Best Picture field, but David Gordon Green shows why he's a capable storyteller and exemplary filmmaker.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to crafting polarizing pieces of film. As the visionary behind works like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and even Noah, Aronofsky has a profound way of both dazzling and alienating select audiences. But perhaps none of his oeuvre has divided critics and moviegoers quite like his latest ambitious feat, Mother!, a dark and spiraling journey into madness and creation.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as the wife of a world renowned writer (Javier Bardem). But as she works tirelessly to restore his childhood home to the exact proportions from before it tragically burned to the ground, her husband can't seem to find the inspiration he needs to create his next great masterpiece. However, when a strange cast of unexpected visitors (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive at their home, the ensuing chaos leads to a chain of events that send the writer's career to even greater heights, which begin to threaten the sanctity of their marriage.

Equal parts bold and absurd, Aronsky's Mother! rings familiar to the recent adapted work of another ambitious filmmaker, Ben Wheatley. Wheatley's High-Rise serves as a metaphor for societal breakdown and anarchy in a lawless skyscraper where the higher the floor, the more power and wealth. Similarly, Mother! has much to say about the deterioration of society and structure. But where Wheatley's effort unapologetically prides itself on the foolish lunacy of its story, Mother! half-heartedly masks the same goal with mystery and intrigue. And when Aronofsky finally reveals his hand, the bravado has already begun to wear thin. Mother! stands as a periodically gripping tale with committed performances from a rangy and impressive cast. Yet, much like the chintzy exclamation point thrown at the end of the film's title, Mother! is as subtle as a sledge-hammer, mercilessly dragging the viewer to a far-off finish line that provides very little in terms of a reward when all is said and done.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade C

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Shape of Water (RED BAND) and The Disaster Artist (NEW) Trailers

The Venice Film Festival came and went, debuting some of the fall's most notable titles. But no film could match adoration of the Gold Lion award winner from Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water. This sci-fi fantasy is set in 1962 during a tense period of the Cold War where a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works in a government laboratory. Everything changes when her and a co-worker (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret experiment. The Shape of Water's tantalizing debut trailer has officially been backed up by this brand new Red Band sneak peek. Catch the latest footage from Venice's big winner below.

At SXSW this year James Franco premiered an unfinished "work-in-progress" cut of his upcoming comedic gem, The Disaster Artist. The film centers around the unskilled actor and director Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) as he conjures up the idea to create "The Room", an effort that's widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Fans of Wiseau's cult classic film are sure to love The Disaster Artist, but Franco's latest trailer illustrates a high dose of clever comedy that's guaranteed to please even the unfamiliar moviegoer. Check out the new extended look into The Disaster Artist below.

It (2017)

Stephen King's high profile work is no stranger to the Hollywood adaptation. Having been the genesis behind iconic tales like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery and Carrie, just to name a few, King's stories always provide a unique tone that make for a memorable experience. Back in 1990, Stephen King's It was developed into a two-part miniseries that introduced mainstream audiences to Pennywise the clown. But 27 years later, in conjunction with Pennywise's incremental return to the town of Derry, Maine, Andy Muschietti reintroduces the world to Hollywood's creepiest clown.

In the small town of Derry, Maine locals have been disappearing at an alarming rate, especially children. And when a group of bullied kids known as "The Losers Club" each encounter the terrorizing clown figure known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), they must band together to fight back against whatever "it" is.

Nostalgic and compelling, Andy Muschietti's It marks a triumphant return to Stephen King's source material. An exceptionally creepy vibe and the Losers Club's non-stop comically immature banter help mask a few deficiencies, mainly a miscasting of the lead character Bill and some noticeable changes between this adaptation story and the original. Despite Jaeden Lieberher's strong accumulation of career performances (namely St. Vincent and Midnight Special), the youngster misses the mark with his latest role. Furthermore, Chase Palmer and company develop a screenplay that weakens the core of the film. By swapping trademark qualities among members of the Losers Club, It offers a clear distinction between which characters are more vital to the story and which ones aren't, thus losing a bit of the original's collective charm.

Although Andy Muschietti's reboot is far from perfect, the film possesses many fine components as well. I have heard rumblings regarding It's lack of legitimate scares, yet the mild frights arrive in high frequency and do just enough to carry the movie through an otherwise exhausting 135-minute running time. The film also delivers the goods on many of the original's iconic scenes, molding both reminiscence and a fresh new perspective into a winning remake of the classic miniseries. It focuses solely on the children's perspective and face-to-face encounters with Pennywise, whose essence is wonderfully captured by Bill Skarsgard, paving the way for an adult-centric sequel that's already in the works. It stands as a satisfying return to the town of Derry and makes the most out of its iconic lead villain.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Downsizing and Mother! (NEW) Trailers

The Venice Film Festival has become a launching point for major fall releases and Oscar hopefuls, and this year's impressive lineup is no exception. One such film debuting at Venice was acclaimed director Alexander Payne's fresh and original idea, Downsizing. When overpopulation begins to plague the world, a new scientific breakthrough shrinks the human body down to a minuscule size, prompting an Occupational Therapist (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig) to undergo the surgery and chip in to help save the planet. Payne's trademark deadpan humor should complement this satire well, especially considering the film's strong critical reception. Check out the first official trailer for Downsizing below.

Darren Aronofsky has proven to be a master of the psychological thriller thanks to accomplished and adored titles such as Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky also debuted his latest work at this year's Venice Festival, where Mother! played to many polarizing reviews. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple whose marriage quickly becomes tested following the arrival of some uninvited guests. Mother! finds a theatrical release in the upcoming weeks, so fans of Aronofsky and the horror/thriller genres may want to consider taking flyer on his new release. Check out the latest trailer for Mother! below.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Top Ten Films of the Year (So Far) - Part II

Yesterday I discussed the bottom half of my Top 10 Films of 2017 so far (Part I), and today I will continue on with the 5 best that I've seen this year. In fact, some of these titles may even find their way onto my end-of-the-year list when all is said and done. So here they are, the Top 5 films of 2017's early-year and summer releases.

As a lover of the original and an outspoken fanboy of director Danny Boyle, learning that T2 Trainspotting was the "secret screening" at this year's SXSW Film Festival was huge for me. Perhaps the most impressive quality surrounding Danny Boyle's long-awaited sequel is how well is plays as both a stand-alone film and how smoothly it carries over from its predecessor. This ensures that T2 can be enjoyed by any moviegoer. Ewan McGregor reprises his role as Renton, who returns to Edinburgh two decades after screwing over his closest friends and associates by running off with their money in an attempt to relocate and break free from his heroin addiction. But as Renton soon discovers, trying to correct all of his past wrongs isn't as easy as it's cracked up to be. Riotous laughs and a compelling story make T2 a worthwhile sequel, even 20 years later. 

While I thoroughly enjoyed Danny Boyle's Trainspotting sequel, it was sibling directors Eshom and Ian Nelms' Small Town Crime that stood out as the finest entry from this year's SXSW lineup. The great John Hawkes, a vastly under-appreciated talent in the industry, stars as a former cop who begins his own investigation after he drunkenly stumbles across a dead body. Yet, in doing so, he puts himself and all of his loved ones in grave danger. Small Town Crime delivers a Coen brothers-esque vibe with impressionable elements of dark humor, murder and exquisite performances. Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson and Clifton Collins Jr. all shine in their supporting work, which completely round out this stellar crime comedy. Small Town Crime hasn't garnered an official release date yet, but it's a film to certainly keep in the back of your mind.

#3. Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is without question one of Hollywood's most prolific contemporary filmmakers. With hits like Memento, The Prestige, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy as just the beginnings of his storied filmography, Nolan clearly wanted to venture into new territory with his World War II action-drama, Dunkirk. Hans Zimmer's relentless score paves the way for non-stop intensity that demonstrates how everything must work together on the land, in the air and in the sea, in order to rescue countless stranded Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Despite the film's lack of attention to character development, an insanely realistic depiction of war and all of its horrors make Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk an absolute must-see experience. If you haven't seen it on the big screen, hurry up and do it before the film exits theaters in the near future.

It feels like Judd Apatow has his hands in just about every cookie jar nowadays as both a filmmaker and producer. The latest effort bearing his trademark Apatow-stamp is Michael Showalter's humbling dramedy, The Big Sick. Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani stars as an amateur comedian who falls head over heels for Emily (Zoe Kazan) despite his Pakistani family's plans for his arranged marriage. While Apatow's trademark has evolved into overly dramatizing a story, The Big Sick keeps a comedy-first approach that makes for a far more enjoyable movie experience. Don't get me wrong, the dramatics are effective, thanks to a less-is-more handling, but these elements blend together masterfully in one of the year's most notable efforts. The Big Sick is still playing in select theaters and it makes a fantastic choice for all types of audiences.

#1. Get Out

And here we have it, the best film so far in 2017 comes from debut director Jordan Peele. The former Key & Peele standout trades laughs for thrills in the clever early-year horror mystery, Get Out. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, an African American boyfriend who takes a trip to the rural upstate to meet his Caucasian girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents for the first time. While visiting their impressively large estate he begins to notice that all the other African Americans he encounters are acting very strange, forcing Chris to determine whether all of this is just in his head, or if there's something more sinister at work. Get Out's rare creativity shines through in an unpredictable manner as it gently toes the line between horror and psychological thriller. The film is a remarkable debut for Jordan Peele, who quickly becomes a director worth watching in the future. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Top Ten Films of the Year (So Far) - Part I

As the Fall season crashes upon us and the cinematic year begins to unveil its prized possessions leading up to the Academy Awards, I'm going to take a look back at the early-year and summer releases that stand firmly as my Top Ten Films of 2017 so far. Many have been released on DVD and are available for streaming, so I recommend taking a chance on any of these strong entries from 2017.

Honorable Mention: Alien: Covenant, Beauty and the BeastGemini and Like Me

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues its expansion with Peter Parker's (Tom Holland) own film. Spider-Man: Homecoming delves into the teenage life of a nerdy kid with super powers who wants nothing more than to join Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and The Avengers, as well as taking his high school crush to the homecoming dance. But when a former contractor (Michael Keaton) who's stumbled on hard economic times gets his hands on some powerful alien weapons, Spider-Man struggles to balance both his social and extracurricular lives. Sticking to the typical Marvel script with a barrage of jokes and intense action sequences, Homecoming stands as another strong inclusion to the MCU.

Still currently playing in select movie theaters in Taylor Sheridan's gripping new crime drama, Wind River. The Hell or High Water and Sicario scribe takes a seat in the director's chair for this grim tale of a local Game Tracker (Jeremy Renner) who helps assist an inexperienced FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) in the investigation of a brutal murder and rape of a young woman found on a Native American reservation. Wind River is short on mystery but heavy on dramatics and suspense. The film takes a little to get going but as Sheridan's work begins to hit its stride, there's no turning away from this hypnotic thrill ride.

While Marvel's enormous head-start has placed their cinematic universe light-years ahead of their rival, DC's less-than-impactful first few entries only added insult to injury. Until, however, Patty Jenkins got the ball rolling with her winning origins saga, Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot stars as the Amazon princess warrior Diana who aids a stranded pilot (Chris Pine) and ventures into the middle of the first World War in order to save the world from a dastardly German plot. Surprisingly humorous and exceptionally acted by both Gadot and Chris Pine, Wonder Woman deeply develops its lead character and single-handedly rejuvenates the DC film universe.

#7. War for the Planet of the Apes

In what's become an unexpected and formidable prequel trilogy, Matt Reeves delivers another stellar inclusion into the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise. This third endeavor follows Caesar (Andy Serkis) on a quest to confront a rogue Army Colonel (Woody Harrelson) dead set on eliminating the advanced ape species. War for the Planet of the Apes tackles deeper and more personal themes that make for a falsely titled film. But despite the movie's lack of action and full fledged battle sequences, Reeves paints an unpredictable and valiant portrait of family, survival and sacrifice. 

Much like the previous entry, Trey Edward Schults offers a wildly mis-marketed feature that satisfies on many unexpected levels with the indie hit It Comes at Night. Joel Edgerton takes center stage as a former history teacher whose only mission is to keep his family alive while a mysterious and fatal illness sweeps across the world. But when he discovers a trespasser (Christopher Abbott) on his property and their families decide to shack up together into order to combine valuable resources, tensions mount as these fathers must first and foremost protect their loved ones. Exploring elements of fear and paranoia, It Comes at Night stands as a wonderfully filmed and superbly acted psychological thriller. Trey Edward Schults' effort is short on scares and by no means a horror entry. But as long as you know what you're getting into, It Comes at Night serves as a psychologically haunting and brisk 90-minute ride.

*** Stay tuned for Part II which will look at the Top 5 Films of 2017 so far. ***