Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Best Films of 2016 (so far) - Part II

Earlier this week I unveiled the first half of my list highlighting the best movies so far this year. If you haven't seen or read PART I, I recommend doing so before you go continue on. Now, if you're caught up with all of my films #6 through #10 and honorable mentions, then here they are, my top five movies so far this year:

If you're seeking one of the most fun and entertaining crime-comedies of the year, look no further than Shane Black's The Nice Guys. As the director of the cash-printing superhero success Iron Man 3, Black trades his Marvel credentials for a return to his buddy-comedy roots. His career in the industry launched with writing credits on the first and second Lethal Weapon films only to earn his directorial debut with 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Needless to say, Black's return to his roots goes very well as Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling star as a misfit pair who team up to solve the mystery of a missing girl and her connection to the apparent suicide of a porn star. The most surprising attribute of the film is its non-stop hilarity that helps guide the audience through its slightly prolonged story. The Nice Guys is a wildly engaging ride that's most likely destined for a sequel. 

#4. The BFG

While I openly admit that I'm not the kindest of critics when it comes to children's flicks, even I was surprised by how captivated I was by Steven Spielberg's The BFG. Being familiar with the story, Spielberg doesn't only capture the essence of Roald Dahl's classic children's tale, he also brings it to life with his singular filmmaking vision. The visuals are spectacular and even newcomer Ruby Barnhill gives a fine performance as Sophie. The BFG struggled throughout its theatrical run, but don't be fooled. Steven Spielberg has a wonderful track record of delivering exceptional youth-based stories and that trend continues here. The film had me completely entranced with its stunning CGI, blissful familiarity and wholesome humor. In my opinion, The BFG was even better than advertised.

One of 2016's most impressive films also happens to an overlooked diamond in the rough. I had the distinct pleasure of catching Atom Egoyan's indie revenge drama, Remember, at the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival. And even with all of the festival's many Oscar recognized features, Remember was one of the few that left a lasting impression. Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer stars as Zev Guttman, an elderly widower experiencing the beginning stages of dementia. And when he's reminded by a fellow wheel-chair bound resident (Martin Landau) at the retirement home of their days together in Auschwitz, Zev escapes the building and seeks to find the prison guard who murdered both of their families. Even through Remember's minimal 95 minute running time there are a few brief lulls. However, an unforgettable finale makes the entire viewing experience more than worth it. Remember is one marvelously acted and brilliantly written indie film that you shouldn't miss!

As a longtime and vocal fan of director David Mackenzie, I was anxious to see his Cannes film festival selection, Hell or High Water. And after finally having a chance to view the film, I highly recommend that you catch it before its current theatrical run comes to an end. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as a pair of bank robbing brothers set to hold possession of their deceased mother's land in Texas. But as a nearly-retired sheriff (Jeff Bridges) closes in on the siblings, something has to give. This modern day western offers a nostalgic feel, fully equipped with well developed characters and perfect amounts of humor and action. Hell or High Water unravels beautifully and even a bit unconventionally. Quite a bit of the story remains to be told even after the film's climax. Yet, its all necessary and its all worthwhile. Any fans of the western genre are guaranteed to love the film, but I personally believe Hell or High Water can be enjoyed by just about anyone. See it while it's still in theaters, if you can.

And finally, my top film so far in 2016 belongs to the brilliant indie and Sundance selected feature, Captain Fantastic. Matt Ross delivers an unbelievably artistic and touching story of a mother and father (Viggo Mortensen) who are fed up with the way of the modern world. As a result, the highly independent couple ventures deep into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest and build their own paradise where they live off the grid and provide a self sufficient lifestyle where they raise their six children. Not only is the film's main story gripping and insightful, all of the film's many subplots tackle interesting perspectives on the social consequences of this family's decision to raise their children in this environment. Captain Fantastic succeeds by forming a unique bond between the audience and the entire family. Humor and emotions run rampant throughout the film and mold together perfectly to create a mesmerizing journey of self discovery. Captain Fantastic is the type of movie that makes you feel a wide assortment of emotions, and those films are the best kind.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Best Films of 2016 (so far) - Part I

2016 is reaching that transitional period where the cinematic year navigates from early year and blockbuster releases to the Oscar-destined features. It's at this time where I like to look back over the past eight months and highlight my favorites of the year, so far. Here they are, the best film I've witnessed up to this point:

Honorable Mention: Cafe Society, Eddie the EagleKeanu and Loving

Back in 2008 Marvel Studios kicked off Phase One of their ever-expanding film universe. It's been a long time coming and Phase Three finally arrived with the epic showdown between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in 2016's Civil War. Now I'm no comic geek or Marvel enthusiasts, but I have seen all of their films except one (Thor: The Dark World). And with the countless titles in their catalog, Civil War hovers confidently near the top of the totem pole. Boasting immaculate special effects, especially those during the Avenger vs Avenger fight scene, and a gripping next chapter in the universe's evolution, Captain America's third installment in definitely on of 2016's best.

With all of the mystery surrounding 10 Cloverfield Lane and its connection to the 2008 found footage film, let me preface by saying that it's completely overblown and mainly responsible for the biggest blemish within Dan Trachtenberg's debut motion picture. The film moonlight's as another entry in the Cloverfield universe, but its finest aspects reside in the psychological thriller that leads to a forced and unnecessary "bridge" of a finale. John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. all capture our attention on this gripping and tense story of a woman behind held captive in a bomb shelter, because something catastrophic lurks outside the doors. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid watch for any thriller fans, but consider yourself warned, the ending completely spoils an otherwise wonderful movie experience.

2016's cinematic year couldn't have started off any better. Marvel's first dip into the R-rated game also provided a box office record of its own. And as Deadpool-mania swept across the country, I experienced the laugh-out-loud funny thrill ride for myself. Deadpool is a highly self aware and self-proclaimed anti-superhero flick that follows that follows a terminally ill patient (Ryan Reynolds) who withstands some experimental treatments that ultimately give him insane special abilities. One thing Deadpool does far better than most of the Marvel entries is develop a worthwhile villain. And by effectively telling the story in a non-chronological fashion, the film captures the audience and takes them on an unforgettable ride.

You can actually catch one 2016's top films in theaters. Sausage Party is the hilarious new animated comedy from the minds of Superbad and This Is the End. The movie tackles the perspective of food and various other items within a grocery store. Stacked to the brim with sexual innuendo and racist metaphors, Sausage Party is without a doubt the edgiest comedy of the year. But while its humor is certainly of the raunchy variety, there's a deeper story and clever elements surrounding a large portion of its jokes. You're guaranteed to laugh and laugh some more, so give the comedy a chance if you can withstand its crude nature.

Gavin Hood's tense military drama, Eye in the Sky, was another early-year release that caught me by surprise. Exploring the highly controversial topic of drone warfare, this exceptional film turns a simple story into a morally complicated puzzle that will leave you questioning your own opinions. Helen Mirren is spectacular as British Colonel Katherine Powell, a committed military officer who's heading a mission to capture three of the most-wanted terrorists in the world. But when things beyond their control compromise the mission, they must decide whether or not to remove these threats with a drone strike that will kill innocent people, including a little girl, with its collateral damage. Although Eye in the Sky will always be remembered as the late Alan Rickman's final film, the entire product is far more than that sadly simplistic label suggests.

*** Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II featuring 2016's Top 5 films so far

Monday, August 22, 2016

Rapid Reviews: The Light Between Oceans and Hell or High Water

August is coming to a close and that means the summer blockbuster lineup will begin to give way to fall and winter's slate of starry-eyed Oscar hopefuls. One such film comes from ambitious auteur, Derek Cianfrance, an indie success story whose 2010 film, Blue Valentine, landed Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination. a pair of years later the director returned with The Place Beyond the Pines, a lengthy three-act effort that examines the effects of a parental tragedy on their children many years later. The arduous attempt failed to resonate with Academy voters, but was still well received by critics and viewers alike. And, unfortunately, Cianfrance's new bold effort, The Light Between Oceans, once again represents a challenging tale that should fall shy of Oscar contention.

Adapted from M.L. Stedman's novel of the same name, Michael Fassbander stars as Tom Sherbourne, a war veteran who returns and finds work as a lighthouse keeper on a secluded island off the coast of Australia. After falling in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the couple try desperately to have a baby but Isabel's body won't comply. Therefore, they end up living a lie once they decide to raise an infant rescued from a small boat floating adrift in the ocean.

The Light Between Oceans is a heavy-themed drama that tells a massive story. Derek Cianfrance's unsurprisingly ambitious effort offers picturesque cinematography and a gripping plot that's constantly evolving. Yet, the enormity of the story proves to be better suited for a novel as the film's third act is terribly rushed. Cianfrance uses the majority of the film to build his characters and develop their relationship. Leading stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander give wonderful performances that stand out, but not quite at an Academy Awards type of level. Then, suddenly, this slow building and character-driven tale races off course by speeding through its finale. While pacing certainly would have been a larger issue, especially by adding another half hour or so to the running time, The Light Between Oceans never feels as all-encompassing as it should. Cianfrance's latest work definitely isn't a miss, but over-ambition gets the best of the filmmaker once again.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

After debuting at the Cannes Film Festival in May, early reviews for David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water were strong, but nothing over-the-top. I've been an outspoken fan of the filmmaker for a long time after catching my attention with strong and artistic indie hits such as Perfect Sense and Starred Up. Therefore, I'm confident in declaring Mackenzie's latest modern-day western as one of the year's finest pieces of filmmaking.

Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) are a pair of poor Texan brothers who have taken to robbing a vulnerable bank chain in their home state. And after the nearly-retired sheriff, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), jumps on the case and finds himself right on their heels, these loyal siblings must balance accumulating the funds they need with the likelihood of getting caught by the police.

Fans of the western genre, like myself, are guaranteed to enjoy Mackenzie slow-classic touch. Hell or High Water adequately blends together timely humor, suspenseful action and exceptional characters. A stark contrast exists between these onscreen siblings. Ben Foster is unforgettable as an impulsive and edgier released felon, while Chris Pine shines as a more timid and smarter counterpart. Despite their many differences, connections are easily formed with both characters. Hell or Highwater reveals its intriguing secrets slow enough to let Foster and Pine hook the audience, but quick enough to never keep them waiting. And outside of a minimally prolonged finale, Hell or Highwater flows without a hitch, leaving Mackenzie's film as one of 2016's most impressive offerings.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Friday, August 19, 2016

Arrival and Allied Trailers

Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has been on a successful run of late with films such as Sicario and Prisoners. He returns once again in 2016 with the intriguing new sci-fi drama, Arrival. Amy Adams stars as a linguistics expert who is summoned by the U.S. government to join a team of specialists after a mysterious spacecraft arrives on Earth. She must try to communicate with these alien lifeforms and discover their overall intentions. Arrival appears to have all the makings of a late year Oscar contender and its worth keeping an eye out for the film's November 11th release

Robert Zemeckis gave us one of the greatest films in cinematic history, Best Picture winner Forrest Gump. The brilliant visionary is also responsible for hits such as the Back to the Future trilogy, Contact and Flight. Zemeckis delivers his latest effort, the World War II action drama Allied, later this year. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard co-star as an intelligence officer and a resistance fighter who cross paths for a mission behind enemy lines. Even with this debut teaser trailer, the remainder of the plot seems fairly mysterious. Either way, with this A-list cast and Zemeckis at the helm, Allied could be a legitimate awards season player.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Suicide Squad and Pete's Dragon (2016)

One of this summer's most hyped blockbuster releases surrounded David Ayer's super-villain action comedy, Suicide Squad. Despite overwhelmingly harsh reviews, the film opened to a record-breaking $133.6 million dollar weekend. Clearly audiences weren't initially deterred by what the critics had to say, but which is it? Is Suicide Squad an over-analyzed summer sensation or another dud from the DC Comics film universe?

When a dire threat unveils itself, the U.S. Government is forced to assemble a specially selected team on super-villains to restore order. With promises of reduced sentences looming over their heads upon the completion of their mission, all eyes shift to these worst of the worst who must decide whether or not to do something for the greater good.

As someone eager and motivated to rush out and catch Suicide Squad on Friday morning of its debut weekend, I had high hopes for this massively marketed DC Comics flick. However, a punishingly poor screenplay destroys any chance of a redeeming feature. Suicide Squad's progression is riddled with untimely and ineffective flashback sequences that spoil the entire essence of Jared Leto's Joker character and more. Furthermore, the film's lopsided amounts of screen-time for its many characters creates a highly uneven playing field. Margot Robbie shines as the most memorable performance, followed by Will Smith. Not surprisingly, both are awarded ample face-time while the rest of their bad-guy crew just goes along for the ride. Consequently, when the stakes are raised and the audience is required to make a connection with these ancillary characters, Suicide Squad falls regrettably flat.
Drowned by preachy and elementary dialogue that refuses to allow the viewer to ever forget that these are "bad guys", Suicide Squad culminates as another wildly mediocre inclusion in the ever-expanding DC Comics universe.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Full disclosure, I have always held a special place in my heart for the 1977 semi-animated Disney film, Pete's Dragon. And after learning that the artistic eye of indie writer/director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) would be in charge of this summer's remake, I became extremely critical of the release. Make no mistake about it, this new adaptation of Pete's Dragon deviates from the original and serves as its own film experience. Sadly, though, it loses a bit of the fun and flair that the 1977 delivered so well.

Following a tragic traffic accident that sends Pete (Oakes Fegley) off into the deep and desolate wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, he encounters a magnificent dragon named Elliot who helps provide a watchful eye over the orphaned child. Years pass and a state forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers Pete and takes him back to the nearest town. But as she learns about his sidekick dragon, they venture back into the woods so she can meet Elliot herself.

Pete's Dragon is an overly safe effort from an artistic visionary such as David Lowery. While his direction is fine, the script revolves around a simplistic story that fails to generate the same depth as its predecessor. Buying into the film's rapidly developed family dynamic is essential, yet one dimensional characters generate more of a question mark than a connection. Moreover, the CGI dragon provides some visual spectacles that truly catch the eye. However, it was much more difficult to identify Elliot's facial expressions than the animated format which was used in the original. Also, a weak antagonist to the story leaves a gaping void in the plot that screams as the film's overall ineffectiveness. There are a few genuinely nice moments and I appreciate Lowery's bravery in taking this new version of the film in a completely different direction, but Pete's Dragon leaves a little to be desired.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Friday, August 12, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (NEW) and Bad Santa 2 (Red-Band) Trailers

Following the massive success of last year's Star Wars The Force Awakens, it opened up the floodgates for franchise spin-offs to dominate box offices for years to come. First up is Gareth Edwards' upcoming film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope in the scope of the series' timeline, this new effort centers around a rebellion criminal named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who's freed to embark on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star. Early footage has looked amazing and this new trailer divulges even more about the story. James Earl Jones also offers his voice for the iconic villain, Darth Vader, once again. Check out the second trailer for Rogue One, which opens on December 16th, below.

Comedy sequels have become as common as the sunrise, even if they take over a decade to happen. I absolutely loved the 2003 hit, Bad Santa, therefore you can count me all in for its long-awaited sequel this November. In the latest chapter Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) re-teams with his "little" sidekick, Marcus (Tony Cox), to do what they do best, execute a plan to rob a Chicago charity on Christmas Eve. While sequels tend to be a step down from their original source material, if Bad Santa 2 comes anywhere close to the original, it could be the best comedy of the year. You can catch the first official red-band trailer below.