Monday, December 31, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Film: Zero Dark Thirty

Starring: Jessica Chastain (The Help), Jason Clarke (Lawless) and Jennifer Ehle (The Ides of March)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)

U.S. Release: December 19th, 2012 (Limited - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 157 minutes

Academy Award Winning director Kathryn Bigelow's brand new film, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a disclosure stating the the movie is based on first-hand accounts of actual events. This sets the stage for one of the most authentic and realistic motion pictures in recent memory. Politically unbiased and emotionally charged, Zero Dark Thirty completely delivers on its marketing tagline: "The greatest manhunt in history".

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a fiery young CIA Analyst who, in some ways, believes she's destined to find the United States' Most Wanted Fugitive, Osama Bin Laden. Hired by the U.S. government fresh out of High School, Maya is sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan to take part in detainee interrogations and gather vital intelligence after the tragic events of September 11th. Throughout a tireless decade long search for the fugitive, Maya follows a seemingly unlikely lead that ultimately results in the May 2nd, 2011 execution of Osama Bin Laden.

Gripping and relentless, Zero Dark Thirty is the epitome of top-flight modern day filmmaking. Bigelow's follow up to her 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, faces its critics and audiences with a humble sense of entitlement that whispers "repeat" for the director and film. One of the most commendable aspects of Bigelow's work is Zero Dark Thirty's ability to slowly shift the picture's focus from start to finish. What begins as a nation's quest for justice, filters itself down to one woman's unyielding battle for resolution, and that woman is brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Chastain. The 2012 Academy Award Nominee's towering performance is unrivaled by any other lead female's work over the past calendar year. Therefore, I would expect to hear Chastain's name called in late February when they hand out the Oscar for Best Actress. Screenwriter Mark Boal's well-crafted character development is brilliantly executed by Chastain and it adds an enormous dimension to film. Alongside Maya, the audience grinds through the highs and lows of a ten year search. For as exhausting and intense as the ride is, the night-visioned finale provides a gratifying and tempered conclusion. By demonstrating admirable restraint, Bigelow's respectful and never overly-patriotic ending packs an even bigger punch. With an unfathomable amount of decisions to be made, Bigelow seems to make all of the right ones and the final product is one of 2012's greatest achievements.

Back in the Fall of 2012, Zero Dark Thirty was nothing more than a quiet dark horse on the road to the Oscars. But now that the feature has finally reached theatres in Los Angeles and New York City, it's clearer than ever that Kathryn Bigelow's masterpiece is a force to be reckoned with. The only minor flaw with the film appears during a short lull in the third act. As a movie where the end result is predetermined, the whole "Maya vs. the world"  subplot is taken the smallest bit too far. The entire audience already knows that President Obama eventually gives the green light on the raid but after investing over two hours into the film, Bigelow continues to harp on the notion that many higher ups involved questioned Maya's certainty. Just as the feature begins a slight decline, Zero Dark Thirty abruptly refocuses and gets back on course with an edge-of-your-seat finale.

While some will inevitably rummage through Zero Dark Thirty in hopes of finding a political agenda, the truth is one doesn't exist. Yes, the movie touches on the idea that enhanced interrogation techniques were used in order to obtain valuable intelligence, but who can argue the greater effectiveness of such actions? Yet, Zero Dark Thirty mindfully avoids addressing the even bigger question, is it worth it? Acknowledging some Hollywood dramatization, it's important to view the film in an entertainment-only context. Although we will never know the whole truth behind the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty gives us a captivating and realistic story to cling to. Due out in theatres all across the country on January 11th, 2013, this is one Oscar contender you won't want to miss.

Stars: 4 stars out of 4

Grade: A

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Miserables

Film: Les Miserables

Starring: Hugh Jackman (Real Steel), Russell Crowe (Robin Hood) and Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises)

Director: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2012 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Musical/Drama

Runtime: 158 minutes

The last time director Tom Hooper gave us an Oscar contender, he ended up winning Best Director and Best Picture for 2010's The King Speech. This year, Hooper returns with a slightly more difficult task with his adaption of the Broadway musical Les Miserables. Attempting to revolutionize the way musicals are transformed into major motion pictures by filming the actors singing live on set, Hooper finds staunch competition from other major contenders such as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Now, having had a chance to finally see Les Miserables for myself, I sense its Oscar hopes dwindling.

Set throughout 19th-century France, Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) is a former prisoner who decides to break his parole in hopes of creating a new identity and devoting his life to god. Hunted for over a decade by an officer of the law named Javert (played by Russell Crowe), Valjean agrees to care for the child of a deathly-ill former factory worker named Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway). Desperate to put his past behind him, Valjean raises the young girl in seclusion and fear that Javert will eventually find him and reveal his true identity.

Rather than delivering a truly great film, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables feels more like a sporadic collection of great moments. As a longtime admitted fan of the Broadway musical, my anticipation for Hooper's interpretation of Victor Hugo's groundbreaking story couldn't be put into words. For starters, the director should be commended for his casting decisions of Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and Hugh Jackman. Without this heavily talented trio, Les Miserables could have been a huge disaster. Jackman serves as the film's leading star and performs the role of Jean Valjean admirably. Furthermore, fast-rising star Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) astonishes and becomes a major saving grace in the second half of the feature. But when you hear about performances from Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, the most talked about role has been Anne Hathway's turn as Fantine. Many have declared Hathaway the frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress race and, truth be told, she's every bit as good as advertised. In many ways, her character's onscreen death begins a steady decline in the overall project. In addition to Hooper's cast, the director gives a praiseworthy effort himself. Much different from seeing the musical on a stage, Hooper's in-your-face camera work allows the audience to experience the story in a completely original style. Through the inclusion of a stellar cast, innovative direction and convincing costumes and makeup, Les Miserables serves an enjoyable adaptation of the legendary Broadway musical.

Although Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is guaranteed to satisfy its hardcore fan-base, there are many obvious flaws in the film. First, the movie feels every bit as long as its two hour and 38 minute running time suggests. While viewing the feature, you begin to appreciate the lengthy intermission given to the Broadway musical. Never having an opportunity to break up the film, Les Miserables becomes a slow-paced affair that noticeably weakens in its second half. Furthermore, many questions should be raised about Hooper's decision to cast both Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried. Crowe never really fits the role of Javert, and such an integral character demands a better performance. As for Seyfried's turn as Cosette, she makes it difficult to buy into the love at first sight romance between her and Eddie Redmayne's Marius. A crawling journey to the film's finale and some vital casting decisions prove that Les Miserables is nowhere near the Best Picture Oscar contender that many, including myself, envisioned.

I expect non-fans of musicals to find very little satisfaction in Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. The feature is intended to appease its already biased fan-base more so than the average moviegoer. Unless you are familiar with the musical or thoroughly motivated to see the movie, I would recommend taking a pass on Les Miserables.  And while Anne Hathaway should be reason enough to take a chance on the movie, her minimal amount of face time makes it a difficult argument to stand behind. With countless big time releases set to ring in the new year, you're better served checking out other films like The Impossible and Django Unchained.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained

Film: Django Unchained

Starring: Jamie Foxx (Horrible Bosses), Christoph Waltz (Water for Elephants) and Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar)

Director: Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2012 (Rated R)

Genre: Action/Western

Runtime: 166 minutes

Having won an Oscar for his Pulp Fiction screenplay in 1995, most people recognize Quentin Tarantino for his rare style of direction. Although the Academy has yet to reward him for any of his countless directorial highlights, Tarantino has become an undoubted legend in the eyes of many moviegoers. Some wonder if Tarantino's newest release, Django Unchained, will be the one to finally get him over the hump. Despite the film's unique tone and unbridled sense of originality, unfortunately, I don't see Tarantino walking away with the golden statue.

Two years before the start of the Civil War, a German-born bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) is fresh on the trail of his latest target, the Brittle brothers. Unaware of what they look like, Schultz tracks down a slave named Django (played by Jamie Foxx) to help identify the fugitives. In return, Schultz promises to help Django find and rescue his enslaved wife from the Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation.

As an outspoken voice against a fair share of director Quentin Tarantino's earlier films, I must admit that his latest work, Django Unchained, is about as fun and entertaining as cinema gets. Tarantino's stylish vision comes to life and transcends the norm in modern day filmmaking. Through the use of a fantastic score, skilled acting and stunning cinematography, Django Unchained becomes the perfect stage for the director to stamp his place in history. In fact, for such an impressive collection of cast members, the performances actually take a back seat to Tarantino's exemplary work. In addition to his direction, Tarantino also delivers a well-rounded script. Solid dialogue, witty circumstance and an evolving plot allow for Django Unchained to never lose its flare. Well paced and surprisingly hilarious, the film's fine cast is simply the icing on the cake. Without a doubt, Christoph Waltz gives the feature's most significant performance. It's interesting to recall that the last time Waltz teamed up with Quentin Tarantino, it resulted in a Best Supporting Actor win for the performer. Perhaps history will repeat itself? If not, a nomination for the same category is completely warranted. Therefore, it's clear to see that, from top to bottom, Django Unchained is an outstanding movie.

For as spectacular of a feat as Quentin Tarantino's most recent film is, Django Unchained still has two distinct areas of concern. First, the over-extended conclusion quickly turns on itself and ends up feeling slightly anti-climactic. As a two hour and 46 minute affair, Django Unchained proves to be a little too long for its own good. Tarantino decides to stretch the finale in order to cater to his self-proclaimed Spaghetti Western genre. With enough blood and violence to make a slasher film jealous, Django Unchained's brutally disgusting third act becomes way too overbearing. You know it's troubling when even I think that the gore-fest is completely unnecessary and over-the-top. Although Tarantino's style and vision is phenomenal, the cavalier manner in which he concludes his film is clearly a deterrent to the entire project.

In the works since 2009, coincidentally Django Unchained is very similar to Tarantino's earlier picture Inglourious Basterds. With clear overlapping ideas of revenge and social prejudice, the director's newest release is far superior than its predecessor. Tarantino improves on past mistakes and gives us Django Unchained, an energetic and spellbinding adventure that doesn't disappoint. Staking its claim as a legitimate Oscar contender, Django Unchained is one of 2012's "can't miss" films. Assuming you can stomach the violence, rush to theatres to check out Tarantino's latest masterpiece.

Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012's Most Underrated Performances

Many of us have skimmed over the SAG, Critics' Choice and Golden Globe Nominations, so we know who is most likely to take home the big-time Oscar Nominations. But having seen nearly 100 films released in 2012 alone, I can vouch for so many great performances that will most likely go unrecognized. Here's my collection on 2012's ten most underrated performances:

#10  Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

As a film about a quirky group of senior citizens who travel to India to spend their retirement in a less-than-impressive establishment, most will remember The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the onscreen work of it's elderly cast. However, Dev Patel gives a heartwarming performance as Sonny Kapoor, a love-stricken hotel manager desperate to make it as a businessman. Completely under-appreciated, Patel is one of the film's most glowing characters. 

#9  Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed)

One of the year's finest offerings was the indie sci-fi comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. At the center of the rare gem was its leading lady Aubrey Plaza. Plaza stars as Darius, a Seattle Magazine intern who weasels her way into the "mission" of a supposed whack-o looking for a partner for time travel. Plaza proves to be a gifted actress who elevates Safety Not Guaranteed into a top tier film with her fine acting chops. Basically a non-factor in the Best Actress race, I'm sure that Plaza will eventually find the appropriate role to land her in that type of stratosphere.

#8  Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks)

There have been two big underdog movies that I've pushed for this year. One was the aforementioned Safety Not Guaranteed, and the other was writer Zoe Kazan's Ruby Sparks. From the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, Kazan not only wrote the feature, she starred in it as well. Playing an imagined literary character named Ruby Sparks who magically comes to life, Kazan's film proved to be one of the year's most creative and well crafted releases. The talented young actress gave a glaring performance as the vulnerable and naive title character. 

#7  Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises)

Another female finding her way onto my list of the year's most underrated performances is Anne Hathaway. Ironically, Hathaway is already in line to win the Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. Yet, Hathaway's dynamic and impressive role in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises deserves its fair share of praise as well. For the amount of screen time given to Hathaway's character, Selina Kyle, the effectiveness of The Dark Knight Rises truly hinged on her performance ... and she knocks it out of the park.

#6  Frank Langella (Robot & Frank)

In one of the year's most surprisingly lovable movies, Robot & Frank, long-time actor Frank Langella serves up another remarkable performance. Playing an aging ex-con in the twilight of his life, early stages of dementia force Frank's son to get him the latest in modern technology, a robot servant. But rather than use this hunk of metal to cook and clean like it was intended to, Frank teaches his new robot friend how to crack a safe. Then, the duo decide to steal some valuables, all while become the main target of the local authority's investigation. Langella's acting is, once again, superb and the movie's charm benefits greatly from his role.

#5  Pauline Collins (Quartet)

Years from now, many will remember 2012's Quartet for one main reason, it's the directorial debut of Academy Award Winner Dustin Hoffman. On the other hand, I will remember the official Philadelphia Film Festival selection for the efforts given by its supporting star Pauline Collins. Centering around an upscale retirement home for renowned musicians, Pauline Collins keeps the laughs coming with her role as Cissy. Occasionally senile and off her rocker, Cissy's wild antics keep Quartet feeling fresh and energetic throughout its otherwise average storyline.   

#4  Michael Fassbender (Prometheus)

For as much flack as I've given Ridley Scott's Prometheus, I'll also be the first to mention how phenomenal of a job Michael Fassbender did as the robot David. By far the most intriguing character of the film, David mystifies the audience and becomes the center of many of the movie's debates. Fassbender steals the show and serves as the saving grace to a rather frustrating piece of filmmaking by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Damon Lindelof.

#3  Benicio Del Tor (Savages)

With a cringe-worthy finale that will irritate just about anybody, Oliver Stone's Savages needed a big helping hand. Lucky for Stone, Benicio Del Toro's amazing performance did just that. Starring as the Mexican cartel's muscle, Lado, Del Toro's despicable on screen behavior results in a collection of memorable scenes. By giving a villain that matches up with some of the best in recent memory, Del Toro does his best to salvage Savages.

#2  Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths)

The picture above just about says it all. Martin McDonagh's second effort, Seven Psychopaths, was clearly one of 2012's wildest rides. Rockwell gives an unforgettable supporting role that continually raises the absurdity bar. Starring as Billy, the psychopathic best friend of a struggling screenwriter, Rockwell plays the part to perfection. Deserving of a better awards' season fate than he's sure to receive, Rockwell is definitely the strongest character in one of the year's funniest and most notable pictures.

#1  Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)

At the top of 2012's list of the most underrated performances is Ezra Miller for his work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Miller, who also landed on 2011's list as well, continues to elevate his level and delivers another unbelievable performance as Patrick in Stephen Chbosky's film. Displaying his versatility as an eccentric homosexual high school student, Miller shows another dimension to his acting ability. Previously shining as a troubled high school teen in last year's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miller's range only widens with his efforts here. Ezra Miller is an ever-growing talent and I recommend checking out his work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower to get ahead of the curve.

Monday, December 24, 2012

2012's Most Overrated Films

Looking back over the past 12 months, I can say with all sincerity that 2012 was a great year for movies. But despite each and every excellent film we had the pleasure of enjoying this year, there were still a few disappointments that stood out. Here's a look back at some of 2012's most overrated films.

#5  Prometheus

Many critics and hardcore fans of the Alien franchise battled the course of logic and praised Ridley Scott's return to the universe with Prometheus. The Summer blockbuster managed to gross an astounding $126.5 million in box office revenue, but somehow it still ended up feeling a bit overrated and over-hyped. Scott and writer Damon Lindelof wanted Prometheus to serve as an uninformative platform of discussion for avid fans of the series to try and piece together the puzzle. That's something that I would rather not have a part in.

#4  Hitchcock

Earlier in the year, Fox Searchlight Pictures truly believed they had an Oscar contender with Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock. So convinced, in fact, that they pushed up its release date months ahead to November in order to maximize the Oscar buzz surrounding the film. Outside of Helen Mirren, who is clearly a legitimate Oscar contender in the Best Actress category, Hitchcock is an oversold and uninspiring piece of work. Nothing more than a drama about a self-conscious genius' struggling marriage, Hitchcock is far from what we had hoped it would be.

#3  Pitch Perfect

Many may be surprised to know that the Glee-style film Pitch Perfect scored an impressive Rotten Tomatoes rating of 80% and tallied $65 million in box office sales. Even some misguided critics are trying to sell the movie as one of the year's best. To be honest, Pitch Perfect is everything you'd expect it to be. The movie does offer the occasional laugh and some rather enjoyable musical sequences but, on the other hand, Pitch Perfect is a paper-thin plot that tries a little too hard. 

#2  The Grey

Taking in over $50 million in ticket sales and receiving a 79% approval rate from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, The Grey had moviegoers everywhere very intrigued. The idea of Liam Neeson surviving a plane crash and fighting wolves for two hours seemed like a pretty good time. Truth be told, The Grey is a slow moving drama packed with too much dialogue and not enough wolf punching. To make matters worse, even the movie's finale is anti-climactic. Disappointing and lacking the true action it deserves, The Grey is clearly one of 2012's most overrated features.

#1  Life of Pi

For all of the overrated films of the year, none have the Oscar expectations of Ang Lee's Best Picture contender Life of Pi. Favored by 89% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes and already grossing north of $75 million in box office revenue, Life of Pi seems to have been lauded by just about everyone other than me. However, I found the movie to be an imposing and lifeless tale of survival. Life of Pi's hollow story and over-extended run time can't be salvaged by Ang Lee's amazing visual mastery. But outside of being a spectacular visionary feat, Life of Pi is very mediocre at best. Therefore, this undeserving Oscar contender is 2012's most overrated film.

2012's Most Underrated Films

As the year closes, you can expect to see all different kinds of "lists" concerning this year's cinematic offerings. To kick off my year-end frenzy, I'll begin with 2012's most underrated releases. My main criteria for this list looked at the box office totals for my favorite films of the year. My list includes five of 2012's best movies that never even reached $5 million at the box office. Enjoy.

#5  Goon ($4.2 million box office)

We all remember Seann William Scott as American Pie's Stifler, but in 2012 he gave us another memorable character as Goon's Doug Glatt. Working as a bouncer at a bar and looking for his niche in life, Doug Glatt's best skill is his ability to give beat-downs. Therefore, when Glatt finds his way into the amateur hockey circuit as a goon and an enforcer, he finally finds his life's purpose. Hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt, Goon offers everything you could ask for in a satisfying sports comedy.

#4  Robot & Frank ($3.3 million box office)

The extensive career of Frank Langella pressed on in 2012 with his fine work in the semi-futuristic comedy Robot & Frank. Langella stars Frank, an aging ex-con with a knack for cracking safes. As his dementia continues to worsen, Frank's son surprises him with the latest in modern technology ... a robot servant. Rather than use the robot for its intended purposes, Frank teaches the machine the art of robbery. Building a special friendship in the process, Frank and his robot pull off a heist and attempt to thwart local law enforcement.

#3  Ruby Sparks ($2.5 million box office)

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris followed up their 2006 major motion picture debut, Little Miss Sunshine, with an even better sophomore effort. Ruby Sparks follows Calvin (played by Paul Dano), a young struggling novelist who keeps failing to reach the same masterful heights as his first literary work. When Calvin dreams up a new female character for his novel named Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan), he begins to fall in love with her. Things take an even stranger turn when Calvin awakes one morning to find Ruby living inside of him house ... in the flesh. A fantastic and imaginative comedy, Ruby Sparks is a thought-provoking and realistic examination of human relationships.

#2  Safety Not Guaranteed ($4 million box office)

Aubrey Plaza has officially placed herself on the map with her fantastic role in the sci-fi drama Safety Not Guaranteed. Plaza stars as a magazine intern named Darius who is asked to infiltrate the life of a supposed nut-case who placed an advertisement looking for a partner for time travel. The deeper Darius gets pulled into the story, the more she begins to think that he isn't so crazy. With glaring performances, a strong story and no shortage of laughs, Safety Not Guaranteed is clearly one of 2012's rare gems.

#1  Perfect Sense (less that $1 million box office)

My list of the year's most underrated films is topped by a small BBC indie film called Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. A chef (McGregor) and an Epidemiologist (Green) begin to fall in love as an unknown illness sweeps across the entire globe, affecting the rich and poor alike. Unable to escape it, the illness slowly destroys everyone's senses one at a time. An apocalyptic romance like no other, Perfect Sense is an eye-opening journey that serves as a much needed reminder that love is the greatest sense of all.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

New Trailers

There once was a time when their loyal female fan-bases bickered over who was really the "Sexiest Man Alive". Now, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper face off in Derek Cianfrance's (Blue Valentine) latest crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling stars as Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver who decides to use his skill set in order to rob a bank and provide for his family. As Luke continues to push his boundaries, he also becomes the focal point of an ambitious police officer named Avery Cross (played by Cooper) who intends on bringing him to justice.

Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin round out an oddball cast in the upcoming comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Over the years, lifelong magician Burt Wonderstone (played by Carell) and his partner Anton Lovecraft (played by Buscemi) have let their routine lose its flavor. Instead, up-and-comer Steve Gray (played by Carrey) has taken everyone by storm, staking his claim as the world's latest and greatest magician. Broke and desperate to restore his glory, Wonderstone turns to his childhood mentor Rance Hanson (played by Alan Arkin) to see the error of his ways and return the passion and zest to his routine.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Impossible

Film: The Impossible

Starring: Ewan McGregor (Beginners), Naomi Watts (J. Edgar) and Tom Holland

Director: J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage)

U.S. Release: September 21st, 2012 (Limited - Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 114 minutes

Many people believe that the Best Picture race for the 2013 Oscars has been narrowed down to three films: Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Les Miserables. But after seeing J.A. Bayona's The Impossible, it's clear that even the Academy doesn't get it right every time. Based on a remarkable true story of survival, The Impossible follows a family separated by the 2004 tsunami that rocked Thailand, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Henry (played by Ewan McGregor), his wife Maria (played by Naomi Watts) and their three young sons all travel to Thailand for a winter vacation to celebrate the Christmas holiday. While experiencing the beauty and paradise of their beachfront resort, the family finds itself forever affected by one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of the world. Divided by a tsunami that killed north of 200,000 people, the family struggles to reconnect and defy the greatest of odds.

J.A. Bayona's The Impossible is a game-changing drama characterized by artistic direction and unparalleled acting. The young, but mightily-gifted, director uses the camera to perfection and places the moviegoer in the center of this horrific tragedy. By literally filming on top of the characters, The Impossible forces the audience to join its subjects on their unfathomable journey. In doing so, the strong bond formed between the viewers and the onscreen family becomes the foundation of the feature. This connection demands a variety of energy and emotions, making The Impossible a true testament of humanity. Even through all of the destruction and despair caused by this devastating tsunami, Bayona effectively illustrates the power of human compassion. And while sentiment can become a difficult sell, Bayona's once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it feel effortless. Naomi Watts steals the show and stakes her claim as a legitimate Best Actress contender. Right on her heels is youngster Tom Holland who portrays the family's eldest son Lucas. His character commands an enormous amount of screen time and Holland makes the most of every moment. It's shocking to discover that this is Holland's first motion picture, but the future is clearly bright for this budding star. Backed by strong direction and extraordinary performances, The Impossible stands out as one of 2012's most compelling and moving dramas.

To be perfectly honest, there are no detrimental faults with J.A. Bayona's latest masterpiece. One minor blemish resides in what some will call an "average" screenplay. The dialogue is adequate but nothing exemplary, and various other areas of the script mirror the same level of mediocre acceptance. However, the emotional force of the feature is carried out through Bayona's original sense of direction and a well rounded cast. By simply serving its purpose, a less than glaring script appropriately allows for the fascinating true story to take control of the film. Playing more as a complementary figure, the screenplay never diminishes this unbelievably amazing account of survival. Even at its weakest points, The Impossible is nothing shy of cinematic euphoria. 

Throughout the course of time, meaningful movies have slipped through the cracks of a blockbuster-driven society. Thankfully, I expect the Academy to find some way to acknowledge the profound work of director J.A. Bayona and his entire team. Filled with amazing visual sequences, top flight acting and a beautiful score, The Impossible is an iconic feature that should be savored by everyone. Currently playing in select theatres, make it a point to seek out The Impossible. You won't want to miss one of 2012's finest features.

Stars: 4 stars out of 4

Grade: A+

Thursday, December 20, 2012

DVD Outlook: December 2012

With Christmas less than a week away and the weekend right around the corner, chances are you'll have enough extra time to check out a new movie. Here's a look at the best rental options that will be available to you, so listen closely.

The Dark Knight Rises - 3.5 stars out of 4 (Read my review here)

Is there anyone who still hasn't seen the epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy? If so (or if you just need to see it again), The Dark Knight Rises is an action-packed thrill ride that wraps up Batman's story in appropriate fashion. Watch as Bruce Wayne returns to superhero form after the destructive villain Bane creates absolute chaos throughout Gotham. Wayne must be tested mentally and physically in order to match the power and brains of his evil nemesis and restore order to Gotham. Although there's plenty of noticeable flaws in the film, they become easy to overlook and ignore as you quickly realize that you're witnessing something great. Therefore, spend your holiday sitting back and enjoying a top-ten finalist on my 2012 list of the year's best movies.

Ted - 3 stars out of 4 (read my review here)

Writer, creator and director Seth MacFarlane attempts to bring his line-crossing brand of humor to the big screen with Ted. When John Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) makes a childhood wish that his best friend and teddy bear would come to life, the entire world is turned upside down when the wish actually comes true. As the years pass and John gets older, his relationship with the love of his life Lori (played by Mila Kunis) becomes tested by John's inability to move on from his lifelong friend Ted. Hysterical beyond belief, there's no joke too shallow or too politically incorrect for MacFarlane. If raunchy and vulgar humor tops your wish list, then look no further than Ted.

Arbitrage - 3 stars out of 4 (read my shortened review here)

Perhaps a foul-mouthed talking bear and a superhero action movie don't appeal to your interests. If you're looking for a well-paced thriller, then Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage should top your list. Receiving a Golden Globe Nomination for his role, Richard Gere stars as a hedge fund magnate and family man named Robert Miller who gets caught up in a scandalous ordeal. When Miller becomes involved in a terrible car accident with the potential to unravel a shocking discovery of infidelity, the businessman makes some questionable decisions and turns to an unlikely person for help. In a race against time, Richard Gere gives a knockout performance and helps elevate Arbitrage to one of 2012's best thrillers. Arbitrage will be available for rental on Friday December 21st.

Honorable Mention: Another politically incorrect comedy starring Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell called Butter, a creepy and skin-crawling drama starring Orlando Bloom called The Good Doctor and a potential Oscar Nominee called Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Oscar Outlook: December 2012

With awards season getting into full swing and early precursor winners and nominees being announced every couple of hours, many of the major Oscar races are starting to take shape. The Golden Globes, Critics' Choice and SAG nominations have also been handed out, which helps paint a clearer picture of who to expect in the acting categories. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) won't announce their nominees until Tuesday January 8th, therefore, my confidence in the Best Director category remains limited. Here's how the six major races appear to shaping up:

Best Picture

Zero Dark Thirty claims the lead in the Best Picture race with only Lincoln and Les Miserables as potential spoilers. Since Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables are still awaiting nationwide releases, this mess could remain up in the air until late January. However, all three of these movies are as close to stone-cold-locks as you can have and each of them should find their way to a nomination.

Other expected nominees: Silver Linings Playbook, Argo and Life of Pi.

Long-shot nominees: The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour.

Best Director

In 2010 director Kathryn Bigelow rode a tidal wave of acclaim en route to Best Picture and Best Director victories for her film The Hurt Locker. The honor made her the first female to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director. All early indicators point to her as a strong candidate to repeat her 2010 success for 2012's Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow finds staunch competition from fellow directors Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Ben Affleck (Argo), both of whom should find their way into the final five.

Other expected nominees: At this juncture, you can expect to see Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) and Ang Lee (Life of Pi) closing out the group of nominees.

Long-shot nominees: Even though the odds are clearly against them at this point, it's still too early to count out David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master).

Best Actor

Perhaps the safest bet of any resides in the Best Actor race where Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) has all but given his award-winning speech. In fact, I wouldn't call anyone else in the crowded group a "safe" nominee. Hence, only the biggest of upsets would change this otherwise universally accepted Oscar race.

Other expected nominees: While there's no other "sure-thing" nominees in the collection of actors, I think we'll see John Hawkes (The Sessions) in the final five alongside Daniel Day-Lewis.

Long-shot nominees: I would refrain from calling these men "long-shots", it's more so a crowded six man showdown in the Best Actor category. Therefore, any combination of Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Denzel Washington (Flight), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) should be expected.

Best Actress

The Best Actress race has dwindled down to a head to head match-up between Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Since I am still yet to see the latter film, I am going to default to Lawrence who gave the most notable performance in her entire star-studded feature. 

Other expected nominees: At this stage of the game, it's fair to expect the often-snubbed Naomi Watts (The Impossible) and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) in the final mix as well.

Long-shot nominees: The fifth nominee should come from the collection of Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) and Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), with the other two being left out.

Best Supporting Actor

Much like the Best Actress race, Best Supporting Actor has turned into a two man slug-fest between Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master). I am forced to give the slight advantage to Tommy Lee Jones based on the outspoken love for Spielberg's film and the fact that any glory for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master seems to be fading away ... and quickly.

Other expected nominees: Despite Robert De Niro's (Silver Linings Playbook) exclusion from the Golden Globes, I still expect him and Alan Arkin (Argo) to land two of the three remaining nominations.

Long-shot nominees: The Globes showed an outpouring of support for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, but it remains to be seen if voters end up splitting between Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz. This means a dark horse contender like Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike) could be a potential spoiler and benefactor from any split voters.

Best Supporting Actress

Much like Daniel Day-Lewis in the Best Actor category, Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) feels like a mortal lock to win this race. Clearly a step down but still expected nominees, Sally Field (Lincoln) and Helen Hunt (The Sessions) are as safe a bet as any to make the final cut. While I was shocked by Amy Adams (The Master) getting the SAG subbing,  I'd still bet on her being the fourth nominee. 

Other expected nominees: Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy) came out of left field and was catapulted into the race after major precursor nominations from both the SAG and Golden Globes. Therefore, she has to be the frontrunner for that highly coveted fifth and final spot.

Long-shot nominees: Far from safe, both Kidman and Adams should be concerned about some possible spoilers. The most likely candidates to up and steal either of their nominations would have be the beloved SAG Nominee Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) or Ann Dowd (Compliance). 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dissecting the Golden Globes

Earlier this week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced its annual Golden Globe Award Nominations. The Globes, which will air on Sunday January 13th, always seem to play the peacekeeping mother role on the long road to the Oscars. Offering five Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress Nominations in both the drama and comedy/musical genres, the Globes make sure that just about everyone gets a little recognition. For a full and lengthy list of nominees in both television and film, click here (courtesy of IMDB). While we still have a month until the winners are announced, let's take a moment to dissect these nominations and ponder their effect on the mighty Oscar races. Here's four eye-opening revelations from the Hollywood Foreign Press and their Golden Globe Nominations:

1. Django Unchained is a REAL contender

After receiving an astounding five nominations including Best Picture (Drama), Best Director (Quentin Tarantino), Best Screenplay and two for Best Supporting Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz), Django Unchained has claimed itself a legitimate contender for the Oscars. Although the Academy is very unpredictable when it comes to Quentin Tarantino, strong critic reviews and a hearty box office could propel Django Unchained deep into the Best Picture race.

2. Best Director is an overly crowded race

This year's Best Director field is huge and, unfortunately, a few big-name filmmakers will have to be left out of the top five. With the way the precursors have been shaping up, it appears as though Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) is the first major contender to fall from the pack. Keeping in mind that it's always too early to talk Best Director before the Directors Guild of America makes their selections, Anderson couldn't find his way into the Critics' Choice Award's top six or the Golden Globe's top five. 

3. Nicole Kidman isn't going away

I was completely blown away when I heard about Nicole Kidman's SAG Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Not because of her talent, but because of the lack of enthusiasm for the film The Paperboy. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, Lee Daniels' follow up to the 2010 Best Picture Nominee Precious left critics and audiences craving a better result. Although I haven't seen The Paperboy, it's becoming evident that Kidman is a strong candidate for Best Supporting Actress. However, we said the same thing after Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) received nominations from the SAG and Golden Globes last year, only to be left out of the Best Actress category by the Academy. 

4. De Niro may not be a "sure thing" nominee

Being from the Philadelphia area, it's a given that I loved David O. Russell's mental illness comedy Silver Linings Playbook. The laugh out loud affair had its moment in the spotlight and is all but assured a Best Picture nomination from the Academy (but a win is very unlikely at this point). Outside of its leading pair, Robert De Niro garnered massive amounts of praise for his heartfelt supporting role. Therefore, I was shocked to see him miss out on a Golden Globe nomination for his onscreen work. This omission left me thinking about the Best Supporting Actor race and wondering if there's a possibility that the category could be crowded enough to dismiss De Niro. With a highly valuable SAG Nomination in his grasp, I find his exclusion from the Oscars to be unlikely. Yet this Golden Globe snub is surprising enough to throw caution to the wind and make me think twice about where De Niro actually stands in the race. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Promised Land

Film: Promised Land

Starring: Matt Damon (We Bought a Zoo), John Krasinski (It's Complicated) and Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom)

Director: Gus Van Sant (Milk)

U.S. Release: January 4th, 2013 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

Whenever Academy Award winning screenwriter Matt Damon develops a script, there's only one director he's taking it to, Gus Van Sant. The pair first matched wits with the 1998 Best Picture Nominee Good Will Hunting. In 2002 the duo teamed up for a second effort, Gerry, that turned out to be an under-seen and admirable piece of work. A decade later and Damon is at it again, partnering with actor John Krasinski and penning another screenplay. This time, the result is a highly controversial drama called Promised Land. Expecting to make his directorial debut but forced to step down, Damon went to none other than Gus Van Sant to helm the feature.

Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a fast-rising corporate salesman who visits a rural town facing a huge economic decline. Butler and his sales partner Sue Thomason (played by Frances McDormand) seek drilling rights from local farmers in order to drill for natural gas, a safe and clean energy source of the future. Promising lucrative returns to the entire town, the corporate team's plans are threatened when an environmentalist named Dustin Noble (played by John Krasinski) shows up to educate the locals on the dangers of such drilling (AKA "fracking").

Promised Land is an agenda-motivated drama that glimmers rather than shines. Capped off by a strong third act, director Gus Van Sant's latest project is a rewarding piece of filmmaking no matter what debatable topic serves as its primary back-story. While Krasinski and Damon demonstrate almost no difficulty in conjuring up a collection of affable characters, the writers ride the wave of an adequate opening and barely survive a lifeless mid-section to the feature. But in typical Matt Damon-style, a closing series of personal reflection and self betterment leads to a familiar, yet never diluted, finale of redemption. Even more so than the script itself, Damon's strongest collaborative efforts to the film come in the form of his perfectly executed acting chops. Although Damon's only Academy Award comes from the writing side of his career, he continually delivers strong performance after strong performance to reiterate where his greatest talents truly reside. As for his sales partner in crime, they couldn't have cast anyone better than Frances McDormand. Never overbearing or too flashy, McDormand has benefited from a lengthy career of genuine and honest portrayals. In Promised Land, she once again sticks to the game plan and gives a quietly effective performance. Beyond its talented cast and satisfying conclusion, Promised Land emerges from a weak second act with a surprising turn of events. Without this carefully calculated and imperative "twist" to the story, Promised Land would never recover from an otherwise pedestrian script.

During Gus Van Sant's newest feature, there's a pivotal moment where the audience is on the fringe of closing the door on Promised Land. While any truly "great" piece of filmmaking clearly avoids such crossroads, Damon's and Krasinski's paper-thin plot holds the movie hostage and creates a lengthy standstill that inevitably tests the patience of the audience. Caught in a downturn and desperate to go anywhere, Promised Land eventually takes a drastic 180-degree turn that sets the film on a new course and salvages the final project. Even the slightest change to this vital new direction that the feature takes could have proved fatal, but Damon and Krasinski come through when they are most needed. In addition to a mostly bland script, Promised Land becomes a combative source for political debate. While I attempt to view any film with a clean and unbiased slate, many moviegoers don't. Therefore, movie's centering around controversial issues such as fracking tend to polarize and turn off a wide spectrum of audiences. Hence, Promised Land is a faulty release that is undoubtedly open to a multitude of criticisms.

For as objective as Promised Land attempts to be, unfortunately the film is forced to take a side on the highly debated issue of fracking. However, by simply labeling Promised Land as "anti-fracking" propaganda, you're missing a more prominent message. Bigger topics such as corporate foul play and personal ethics become the resonating themes throughout the picture. No matter what side of the issue you stand on, Promised Land is a film that should be savored for its character development and gratifying resolution. We should all aim to become better people by continually doing what's right. Promised Land gives us a lead character who constantly claims "I'm not a bad guy" and, by the end of the film, he proves it. For that alone, we should all be grateful for Matt Damon, John Krasinski and Gus Van Sant's latest collaboration, Promised Land.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2013 SAG Nominations

Just like yesterday's Critics' Choice Award Nominations, today's Screen Actors Guild Nominees tipped in favor of three Oscar frontrunners. Once again, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables and David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook walked away with the 4 nominations apiece. Set to air on Sunday January 27th, the 2013 SAG nominations offered a few startling twists with their announcements.

(above: Maggie Smith and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel recognized by SAG)

The most shocking surprises were nominations for Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy) and Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) in the Best Supporting Actress category and Javier Bardem (Skyfall) who finds himself in the middle of the Best Supporting Actor race. The most notable snubs from the SAG appear to be believed Oscar contenders such as The Master's own Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams who were widely speculated as "shoe-ins" for the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories. In another surprising revelation, there were zero nominations for dark horse contenders from the lesser known films Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild as well as the more popular Django Unchained. Unlike other precursor awards, SAG sees a larger overlap in its membership with the Academy and, more often than not, becomes the strongest indicator of Oscar Nominees (i.e. 2012's surprising Best Actor Nominee Demian Bichir). Here's a full list of SAG's film nominations:

Best Acting Ensemble

Argo, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook, Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln, John Hawkes - The Sessions, Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables and Denzel Washington - Flight

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty, Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone, Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook, Helen Mirren - Hitchcock and Naomi Watts - The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin - Argo, Javier Bardem - Skyfall, Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master and Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Field - Lincoln, Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables, Helen Hunt - The Sessions, Nicole Kidman - The Paperboy and Maggie Smith - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2013 Critics' Choice Nominations

The 18th Annual Critics' Choice Awards announced their nominations today. Although headlines all across the internet world will talk about how Steven Spielberg's Lincoln garnered a record-setting 13 nominations, allow me to clarify the gray area to this "achievement". In recent years (this one included), the Broadcast Film Critics Association has added more and more categories to the event, making Lincoln's 13 nominations a gaudy, yet somewhat less impressive, honor.

Following Lincoln with 11 nominations of its own was Tom Hooper's Christmas release Les Miserables, and rounding out the top three was David O. Russell's comedy Silver Linings Playbook (9 nominations). Here's a list of the finalists in the six major categories:

Best Picture

Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi,
Lincoln, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director

Ben Affleck - Argo, Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper - Les Miserables, Ang Lee - Life of Pi, David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook and Steven Spielberg - Lincoln

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook, Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln, John Hawkes - The Sessions, Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables, Joaquin Phoenix - The Master and Denzel Washington - Flight

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty, Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone, Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva - Amour, Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild and Naomi Watts - The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin - Argo, Javier Bardem - Skyfall, Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master, Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln and Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams - The Master, Judi Dench - Skyfall, Ann Dowd - Compliance, Sally Field - Lincoln, Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables and Helen Hunt - The Sessions

Man of Steel Trailer

Now that Christopher Nolan's Batman universe has left us for good, fans of DC Comics hopes that Zack Snyder's Man of Steel fills those Shaq-sized shoes. Months ago we were given a teaser trailer, but today we receive the first official look into Snyder's vision of the Superman legacy. I think it looks like it could be fantastic, but why don't you check out the trailer below and decide for yourself.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Early Precursor Awards News

With the announcement of a few early precursor awards dished out by the Boston Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Online and Los Angeles Film Critics, we're officially on the road to February 24th's Academy Awards. While these winners and losers have only the tiniest bit of influence on the actual Oscar races, the results are at least interesting to recognize. The biggest winner appears to be the virtually unseen Best Picture contender from Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty. Taking home the Best Picture title from both Boston and New York's online circuit, Zero Dark Thirty clearly moves into the front of a crowded three headed monster which also includes Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Tom Hooper's Christmas release of Les Miserables.

(above: Jessica Chastain, star of Zero Dark Thirty)

Another less surprising, but still notable, winner happens to be the always great Daniel Day-Lewis who topped the Best Actor category with both the Boston and New York Online groups. Day-Lewis gave a daring and utterly speechless performance starring as our nation's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln soars on the shoulders of its leading star and stands as a formidable Best Picture contender on its own. 

(above: Daniel Day-Lewis as the historic icon Abraham Lincoln)

On a more shocking note, I was thrilled to see a high level of praise and recognition for a rather ignored supporting performance given by the young and talented Ezra Miller in this year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Miller shows his range as an eccentric homosexual high school student who helps befriend a shy and friendless loner. Miller first opened eyes with his gut-wrenching role in 2011's psychological drainer We Need to Talk About Kevin, where he portrayed a monster who (SPOILER ALERT) inexplicably murders many of his classmates. Ezra Miller claimed the Best Supporting Actor title from the Boston Society of Film Critics and continues to prove that he is an immensely talented actor who is shaping up to be a budding star.

(above: Ezra Miller in The Perks of Being a Wallflower)

Finally, the Los Angeles Film Critics went in a much different direction with its awards than both Boston and New York. L.A. selected the foreign film Amour as its Best Picture winner and displayed an outpouring of love for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Anderson claimed the group's Best Director title as well as performance wins given to Joaquin Phoenix (Best Actor) and Amy Adams (Best Supporting Actress). For a full list of winners from all three precursors, click here (courtesy of