Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014's Most Underrated Films

Today I'm going to highlight the hidden gems of the year in my Most Underrated Films of 2014 list. Just to be clear, I generally hold specific criteria for a movie's inclusion in the top 5. The two parameters are a film's ridiculously low box office total (hovering around $5 million or less) as well as NOT being a viable awards season contender. In my honorable mention portion below, I open the door to films with slightly bigger name recognition. So here they are, 2014's most overlooked movies.

Honorable Mention: Chef ($31.1 million, but wrongfully omitted from the awards season discussion), Chris Rock's Top Five ($19.1 million and snubbed by the Golden Globes) and finally The Skeleton Twins ($5.3 million).

#5. Cuban Fury ($92k)

Kicking off the top 5 is the vastly under-seen comedy, Cuban Fury, starring two hilarious talents from overseas, Shaun of the Dead's Nick Frost and Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd. After a bullying incident as a young dancing phenom has left Bruce (Frost) shy and frail in his latter years, the introduction of his foxy new boss (Rashida Jones) pits him against an arrogant co-worker named Drew (O'Dowd) in a competition for her affection. But news of her love for Salsa dancing gives Bruce the slight advantage, as the now overweight former dancer attempts to out-dance Drew and sweep his sexy new boss off of her feet. Cuban Fury is a fine comedy selection filled with legitimate laughs and a wholesome story at its core. Ironically, another Chris O'Dowd movie landed in my top 5 of last year's list as well.

#4. Kill the Messenger ($2.4 million)

Yesterday I outlined the Most Underrated Performances of the year, and right at the top of the list was Jeremy Renner's staunch performance in the conspiracy theory drama, Kill the Messenger. Renner stars as news journalist Gary Webb, a reporter guided toward a major government conspiracy from the 1980s. Supposedly, our administration was in support of a group trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. However, since we couldn't help fund their efforts publicly, Webb alleged through his sources that the U.S. government knowingly aided the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept across major cities in the 1980s because those funds were being funneled back to Nicaraguan rebels. Years later and it's still unclear whether Webb's claims were substantiated with legitimate sources, or if he fabricated a majority of the story. Either way, Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger delivers an enthralling conspiracy tale that succeeds on the shoulders of a tremendously talented Jeremy Renner.

#3. The Mule (no box office)

Every year I'm pleasantly surprised by the impressive crop of Australian cinema that I encounter. 2014 was no exception, as one of the rare treats of the year came in the form of the true-story dark comedy, The Mule. With writing and directing credits to the film as well, leading star Angus Sampson plays the timid and unimpressive footballer Ray Jenkins. Still living with his folks and starving for friendship, Ray's coaxed into smuggling heroine into his country by a pseudo "friend". Yet, when he begins to act suspicious in the airport, Ray's taken into custody by the local authorities who are given seven days to supervise their target. Aware of his own guilt, Ray must exhibit physical and psychological restraint as he tries not to defecate for an entire week. It's a bizarre story, I know, but all in all a smattering of exceptional performances carry this highly captivating and often comical tale. And since Australia is struggling to generate box office revenue for ANY film, The Mule was sent immediately to digital platforms for download.

#2. Laggies ($400k)

I was thrilled to be one of the first people in the world to catch a viewing of Lynn Shelton's Laggies at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. While the indie debuted to middling reviews, I felt a strong connection with the central character played earnestly by Keira Knightley. Following a proposal by her long-time boyfriend and high school sweetheart, the twenty-something year old Megan (Knightley) needs some time for personal reflection. Therefore, she conjures up a fake story and treks over to a new high school-aged friend's house (Chloe Grace Moretz) for a week to get away from her normal routine. While shacking up there, her friend's father (Sam Rockwell) helps Megan understand what she truly wants in her life. Nowadays especially, it's a difficult world for those mid-twenties young adults who graduate college and struggle to find work. Not too far removed from those years myself, Laggies became an easy film to connect with and another spectacular performance from supporting star Sam Rockwell simply sealed the deal. 

#1. Cheap Thrills ($60k)

2014's most impressive and underrated indie flick was the shocking dark comedy and psychological drama, Cheap Thrills. Guaranteed to land on my Top 10 Films of the Year list which is coming soon, the movie uses the chief motivator of money to tell an unrelenting story of modern day survival. Pat Healy gives a gutsy turn as Craig, a husband and father who loses his job and receives an eviction notice all on the same day. Attempting to drown his misery at a local bar, Craig reconnects with an old friend (Ethan Embry) and a new wealthy couple that offer a night the two buddies will never forget. With a climbing stakes of "fear factor" challenges, Cheap Thrills shows you just how far people are willing to go for financial stability. There are definitely some squeamish moments throughout the film's brisk 88 minute running time, but if you can stomach it, Cheap Thrills is undoubtedly a twisted good time.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014's Most Underrated Performances

One of my annual year-end staples is to outline the most overlooked performances of the past year. It always begins with a preliminary list that I conjure up after scouring my database for all the films I've seen from that specific year. So far, in 2014, I have 95 films to choose from. And since this list focuses on the "underrated" performances, anything in Oscar contention is automatically nixed. More so than in the past, my preliminary list was quite lengthy this year with 17 exceptional roles that needed to be whittled down to 10. It was a difficult process, but here are my Most Underrated Performances of 2014.

#10. Riz Ahmed - Nightcrawler

Everyone seemed to enjoy Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, and it's leading star, Jake Gyllenhaal, has reaped all of the benefits from the feature's success. However, I took things even further when I proclaimed the film as having one of the best ensembles of the year. One of my biggest reasons for doing so was the breakout performance from Gyllenhaal's onscreen right-hand man, Rick, played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed. As a character essential to the film's success, Ahmed played a wide array of deviating emotions, all of which made him a very noticeable performer in a universally adored film.

#9. Pat Healy - Cheap Thrills

I've devoted plenty of time this year raving about the Drafthouse Films diamond in the rough, Cheap Thrills, and at its center is a knockout performance from the movie's leading star, Pat Healy. In a self-proclaimed game of modern day "fear factor", we watch a loyal and hard working husband engage in unfathomable acts in order to sufficiently provide for his wife and child. Financial fears loom over all of us and Healy is able to capture these psychological burdens with such pinpoint accuracy that everything ends up falling into place brilliantly in one of the year's finest offerings.

#8. Rory Culkin - Gabriel

Although Lou Howe's mentally unstable drama, Gabriel, has only made its way around the festival circuit and bypassed a theatrical release in 2014, Rory Culkin (the youngest of seven siblings) gives too impressive of a performance to overlook. Culkin brings to life a multi-dimensional and troubled character who's begging for acceptance and normalcy in life. That's why after he's released from his psychiatric institution, Gabriel seeks out his first true love in hopes that it will finally bring balance to his world. Culkin is mesmerizing and perfectly unpredictable in a career defining role that truly sets him apart as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood.

#7. Kristen Wiig - The Skeleton Twins

We all know and love Kristen Wiig as the Saturday Night Live alumni who made us laugh hysterically in the female-centric comedy, Bridesmaids. However, 2014 proved to be a huge breakout year for the actress with her dynamic performance in the Sundance dramedy hit, The Skeleton Twins. As the female half of a pair of twins who reconnect under unfortunate circumstances after being estranged for nearly a decade, Wiig's sincere role demonstrates her impressive ability to transcend comedy and deliver in the dramatic ranks. Much like the superb trans-formative talents that came before her, such as Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and many others, Kristen Wiig uses The Skeleton Twins as a platform to bolster her rapidly-rising career.

#6. Angus Sampson - The Mule

I caught one of the most surprising movies of the year at the 2014 Philadelphia Film Festival. The Mule, a "based on a true story" piece of Australian cinema, takes us into the world of drug smuggling, where a timid and friendless Ray Jenkins (Sampson) reluctantly agrees to be a first time drug smuggler in order to gain some semblance of social acceptance. But after he begins to act a little strange in the airport, the authorities take him in for questioning and are granted one week's time to hold the suspect in custody. This week-long showdown pits Ray against the police in a match of psychological and physical restraint as he struggles to hold his bowels for seven days. It's a bizarre concept that translates mightily well to the big screen thanks to a highly committed performance from the film's leading stars and co-director, Angus Sampson.

#5. Juliette Binoche - Clouds of Sils Maria

In an over-extended and undeniably drawn out affair that still manages to resonate well, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche gives another remarkable turn in the drama Clouds of Sils Maria. Binoche stars as an aging actress forced to overcome father time and her ego as she reluctantly accepts a role in the revival of a play that sparked her career. Only, this time, she will be taking on the character of the older manipulated female in the play, something she struggles to come to terms with. Action-less and heavy on dialogue and emotion, Clouds of Sils Maria paints an honest portrait of experiencing the other side of the proverbial "hump". And what could have been an utter disaster and bore-fest, actually unravels as a complex and genuine story thanks to towering performances from Binoche and her onscreen sidekick played by Kristen Stewart.

#4. Tom Hardy - The Drop

In what's become an understandably polarizing film, The Drop is best known as the late James Gandolfini's final feature. And while Gandolfini delivers another fine role in his last go-around, the film is actually an opportunity for Tom Hardy to showcase his talents. Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, a bartender in a rough neighborhood who's robbed at gunpoint while closing up the shop. Through the repercussions of this incident we discover all of the many secrets revolving around people in the neighborhood, including Bob. Hardy offers up a multi-layered character that's utterly fascinating and he dominates every second of screen time he's given. No matter how you felt about the film, you can't deny Hardy's unique ability to perfectly capture his character.

#3. Sam Rockwell - Laggies

Another year and another spot on my Most Underrated Performances list for the great talent, Sam Rockwell (2012 for Seven Psychopaths and 2013 for The Way, Way Back). This time around it's a much smaller role in Lynn Shelton's Laggies, but an almost equally effective result. It's really Keira Knightley's film as a twenty-something woman who's oddly thrown for her loop when her high school sweetheart and long-time boyfriend proposes to her. In an attempt to sneak away during this crucial time in her life, she makes up a lie and spends a week shacking up with a new high school-aged friend she meets on a random evening. This is where Sam Rockwell is introduced and the entire film begins to take off. Laggies is a soul-searching effort that benefits greatly from Rockwell's energy and charisma. He's one of Hollywood's most overlooked actors and his role here is yet another example of just how spectacular he really is.

#2. Ansel Elgort - The Fault in Our Stars

One of 2014's most profitable features was the worldwide phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars. Adapted from a best selling novel of the same name, teenagers flocked to theaters to see what is actually a really impressive film from Josh Boone. At its core are a pair of spectacular lead performances from Shailene Woodley and her lesser known counterpart, Ansel Elgort. While Woodley has the longest of shots at an Oscar Nomination, Elgort's name has been virtually absent from the awards season discussion. Although it's slightly understandable since the Best Actor race is flooded with superb talent, I will admit that I was floored at just how fantastic he is in The Fault of Our Stars. The film follows a pair of unlikely lovers in teenage cancer patients who are unsure of what the future holds for them. Clearly this spells a recipe for sentiment that is handled with extreme care thanks to the onscreen brilliance of Elgort and Woodley, both of which are unquestionably excellent.

#1. Jeremy Renner - Kill the Messenger

Finally, my list concludes with the two-time Oscar Nominated talent, Jeremy Renner. This year Renner captivated audiences with the conspiracy thriller, Kill the Messenger. While I'm not the type of person to fall for a government conspiracy theory, I am always interested in viewing Renner's work. In the film he stars as journalist Gary Webb, who printed a blistering news story that accused the U.S. government on knowingly aiding the crack epidemic that swept across major cities during the 1980s. Afterward, Webb's flip-flopping sources and paper-thin story was ripped to pieces by the news community and a devastating smear campaign ruined Webb's career. But was the story really fabricated, or did the government orchestrate a public destruction of Webb's work? Although the truth will never be known to a certainty, it's a cold-hard fact that Jeremy Renner delivers a fully committed turn as a man with conviction, one that does justice to Webb's legacy. Even though all of the awards season voting blocks managed to completely ignore Renner's unbelievable work in Kill the Messenger, I simply refuse to.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rapid Reviews: Big Eyes and Top Five

As the cinematic year rushes towards its finale, the Oscar buzz surrounding Tim Burton's latest endeavor, Big Eyes, has certainly faded. While Amy Adams, a perennial awards season name, stands as the film's most likely contender, even she finds herself with a bit of a hill to climb now that Jennifer Aniston (Cake) has valiantly postured for that coveted fifth and final spot in the Best Actress race. Although I can't speak on behalf of Aniston's performance, mainly because her festival circuit film has somehow eluded me this year, I will say that Amy Adams gives yet another finely tuned and endearing performance in Burton's new true-story tale.

Big Eyes is a bit of a break from the norm for Tim Burton, It's the director's first live-action film since 2003's under-appreciated release, Big Fish, where he isn't featuring his usual sidekick, superstar Johnny Depp. Instead, Burton relies on the talents of two more than capable replacements, Amy Adams and the always phenomenal two-time Academy Award winner, Christoph Waltz. Together the duo bring to life the incredible true story of painter Margaret Keane (Adams) and her decade long struggle to claim credit for her artwork after her then husband, Walter Keane (Waltz), had assumed public responsibility for her nationally beloved "Big Eyes" paintings.

The naivety of Margaret and the borderline sexist time period of the 1950s through the 1960s is captured extremely well and helps set the table for this intriguing story of manipulation. Waltz also delivers a fabulous turn as the charismatic and attention-craved husband who indirectly forces his wife into an ever-growing web of lies. However, Burton's Big Eyes fumbles along this fairly superficial tale at an irritatingly slow pace. And while the story is interesting enough to carry you to the finish line, the level of enjoyment along the way is certainly capped. Furthermore, much like the eyes in Keane's signature paintings, the dramatics in the film are highly exaggerated. Yet, either way, Big Eyes is still a much better representation of the types of film Burton should continue to make.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Another film sill currently out in theaters is Chris Rock's critically adored comedy, Top Five. Despite its head-scratching snub at the Golden Globes where comedies are given the rare chance to shine, Top Five is a well crafted passion project in which Rock writes, stars in and directs. The comedian's talents are on full display and his creativity proves limitless with a highly insightful and honest depiction of Hollywood stardom.

In what may sound like a semi-autobiographical premise, Chris Rock stars as a revered comedian and actor named Andre Allen who's sobered up and determined to transition to a more "serious" actor. But as he returns to his home town in New York City to promote the release of a new film and hold an interview with writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), Andre begins to open up to the reporter and gain a deeper perspective into his own life. Yet, with a wedding to a reality TV superstar quickly on the horizon and surfacing news of a brutal debut for his film, Andre is forced to make some rash decisions in his life.

As someone who has always had an affection for Chris Rock's stand-up comedy, the mature and sophisticated writing evident throughout Top Five is an absolute game changer. Rock mixes the perfect concoction of comedy and drama to cover all grounds necessary. His feature is guaranteed to elicit laughs as well as demonstrate some sincere vulnerability to the superstars we constantly place in the spotlight. But if I had to highlight a particular issue with the movie, it would definitely focus on the contrived subplot of Andre Allen's alcoholism. However, no blemish is large enough to derail Top Five, as it remains a huge step for Rock's filmmaking career and we can only wish for more of the same in the future.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Friday, December 26, 2014


Film: Unbroken

Starring: Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) and Domhnall Gleeson (About Time)

Director: Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2014 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 137 minutes

Perception and reality are two completely different things. And unfortunately for Angelina Jolie's once-upon-a-time Oscar frontrunner, Unbroken, reality has officially set in. Based on the remarkable true story of an Olympic runner turned prisoner of war during the course of World War II, an adapted screenplay by the Coen brothers had all of Hollywood buzzing about the film's potential. Sadly, though, Unbroken culminates as little more than a "what could have been" experience.

Growing up as a trouble-making youth in California, Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell) is recruited to join his school's track team by his brother Pete. Louis goes on to compete in the Olympics as a distance runner and breaks the official record for the fastest final lap time. Years later he ends up as a member of the U.S. Air Force, where a failed recovery mission lands the soldier and a few of his crewmates lost at sea for a nearly month an a half. After being spotted by a Japanese vessel in the middle of the ocean, Louis is transferred to a brutal internment camp where he's pushed to physical and psychological limits by the prison overseer Watanabe (Miyavi).

I've heard countless recollections of the impressive story told throughout Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Louis Zamperini. What's more surprising, however, is how empty Angelina Jolie's sophomore effort, Unbroken, feels. After a rapid introduction that never adequately develops the constantly harped-on relationship between Louis and his brother Pete, it becomes quickly apparent that almost all subplots will be ignored. Instead, Jolie takes the audience on an abusive-centric ride battered with religious undertones. In a Christ-like manner, Louis welcomes the punishment on such a regular basis that you almost become desensitized by the beatings, and unphased when the prisoner is able to withstand more torture than his villainous nemesis, Wanatabe, can physically offer. And throughout this unnecessary and visceral brutality, a depth-less screenplay by the usually reliable Joel and Ethan Coen submits to this unjustifiable mishandling of a truly heroic tale.

Of all the clear blemishes made visible throughout Unbroken, one bright spot does reside in the film's leading star. Newcomer Jack O'Connell gives a fully committed performance and does the best he can with what he's been given. Yet, rudimentary dialogue and a one-dimensional vision from the movie's high-profile director overshadow an otherwise valiant portrayal from O'Connell, leaving Unbroken as a hollow and unworthy potential Oscar contender.

It's generally a curse being thrusted into the early spotlight of awards season, and Jolie's latest effort is no exception. Elevated expectations only make matters worse for this devastatingly run-of-the-mill film. Yes, you'll witness the heroism and struggles that Zamperini is forced to endure, but you'll leave the theater far more curious about the ramifications of his experiences and what happens next in his life. I guess I'll have to turn to Hillenbrand's biography for those answers.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview

Film: The Interview

Starring: James Franco (This Is the End), Seth Rogen (Neighbors) and Randall Park (HBO's Veep)

Directors: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (This Is the End)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2014 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 112 minutes

By now the enormous controversy surrounding the Sony hack and the theatrical release of The Interview is old news, therefore, catching the latest effort from the team that brought us This Is the End was right at the top of my Christmas morning wish list. Yet, rather than mocking themselves like they did in their 2013 end of the world comedy hit, the trio of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg set this new film's focus on North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. The rest is about as crazy and ridiculous as one might expect.

When producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) decides that he wants the face of his news show, David Skylark (Franco), to deliver more respectable news stories, the duo end up landing a coveted face-to-face interview with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park). After news of the upcoming interview begins to spread, Aaron and David are approached by the CIA to assassinate the U.S. enemy. However, with these two dimwits as the mission's only hope of success, a disaster is all but inevitable.

After the entire circus surrounding The Interview's release, needless to say, Sony Pictures must be thrilled over the publicity its film has received. And now that I've finally viewed the highly anticipated comedy with my own two eyes, this cash cow is a major letdown on just about every level imaginable. Outside of a sluggish second half that's beyond far-fetched and over the top, The Interview is barely anything more than a tiresome compilation of "dick" jokes and Lord of the Rings references. The film's R-rating is earned solely through raunchy humor that is neither clever nor developed. James Franco constantly spews such ridiculous nonsense, hence,  those rare instances where he actually makes a comical retort are quickly squandered by his next rapid fire of  clear "misses". Randall Park has a few shining moments as Kim Jong-un, but still he and Seth Rogen are hardly bright spots to the film, making The Interview one of 2014's biggest comedy duds.

In fairness, The Interview is a tale of two halves. The first is an engaging precursor which does a commendable job of setting up an abomination of a second portion. And since this Christmas movie theaters are packed with plenty of other prominent titles to choose from, I highly suggest picking something different. But if you're desperately seeking a legitimate source of laughs, then Chris Rock's Top Five would be a much better option. Or if an Oscar-bound drama could do the trick, then I'd highly recommend checking out either Wild or The Imitation Game.

There's no doubt that the media hype circulating The Interview will drive audiences to the limited number of theaters releasing the film as well as the streaming options all over the internet. Sony Pictures is in for a huge payday with this one. However, you'd be better served skipping on this over-extended and minimally funny effort from a usually reliable team of comedians and looking elsewhere for your holiday cheer.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

True Story and In the Heart of the Sea Trailers

In 2015 This Is the End stars Jonah Hill and James Franco headline the Sundance drama, True Story. Based on the real interconnection between Michael Finkle (played by Hill), a recently fired news journalist, and accused killer Christian Longo (Franco), an FBI's Ten Most Wanted who was found in Mexico living under the alias of Finkle. After Longo was finally captured and brought back to the U.S. to stand trial in the murders of his wife and three children, he met with Finkle and asked the unemployed reporter to tell the world what really happened. True Story appears to be a chilling drama we may want to keep an eye on throughout 2015.

Academy Award Winner Ron Howard's 2013 surprising Formula 1 racing hit, Rush, reminded audiences just how spectacular of a filmmaker he can be when working under the right set of circumstances. In 2015 Howard re-teams with his Rush star, Chris Hemsworth, in the story that inspired the literary classic, Moby Dick. Hemsworth stars as a crew member of an 1820s vessel whose encounter with a gigantic sperm whale leaves the surviving members stranded at sea for 90 days. Here's the first extended look into Ron Howard's next release, In the Heart of the Sea.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Knight of Cups and Mad Max: Fury Road Trailers

Filmmaker Terrence Malick possesses a loyal cult following, so the niche crowd clearly rejoiced at a glance into the upcoming 2015 film, Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. There are very few people who view the world and artistic expression like Malick, evident from his mind blowing 2011 Oscar Nominated film, The Tree of Life. But with this latest project, Malick finally appears to be tackling a modern-day setting for once, something which could be a nice change of pace for the director. I'm eager to see how it translates, but if you're looking for a practical plot to the film, odds are you'll never get one. That isn't Malick's style, so you should see it for yourself.

Another cult classic franchise is getting a jump-start in 2015 with the long-awaited prequel, Mad Max: Fury Road. What makes this journey into the futuristic setting of a broken down wasteland so unconventional is original director George Miller returns after a three decade-long absence to revive the story. Move over Mel Gibson, because a superbly talented Tom Hardy takes over the title role of "Road Warrior" and the film, which Miller describes as one long "feature-length chase scene", has loyal fans stoked for its release.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Film: Selma

Starring: David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels' The Butler) and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)

Director: Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2014 (Limited Release - Not Yet Rated)

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 127 minutes

Timing is everything. The current state of racial turmoil in the United States is abundantly clear and, much like the central figure in Ava DuVernay's freight-train of an Oscar contender, Selma, I'm a believer in universal peace and unconditional love. But with relatively recent outcomes in the deaths of unarmed African American individuals such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, where much controversy has been boiling up for some time, DuVernay's timely picture leaves us pondering how far we've really come since the violence-plagued Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

David Oyelowo stars as the charismatic preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during his fearless crusade to the hotbed of racial animosity in Selma, Alabama. After local authorities continue to reject voter registration applications from African Americans trying to exercise their rights, Dr. King shifts the focus of the Civil Rights Movement to the heart of the south where he's greeted by hate-fueled law enforcement and state politicians. Desperately seeking the support of a reluctant President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Dr. King decides to lead a peaceful 54-mile march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery in hopes of achieving legislation granting African American's the uninhibited right to vote.

Analyzing the latest emotional Civil Rights drama, Selma, purely on its qualities as a film, there are many aspects that are worthy of fair criticism. Many strong performances aside (I will touch on each of them later), DuVernay's breakthrough feature is hampered by a noticeably weak first-time screenwriter, Paul Webb, and some serious issues with pacing. While Webb's screenplay has been lauded by many in the early going of the year-end awards run, the writing is actually bogged down with mild cliches and very little depth. What you see is what you get and, outside of a few justly included facts surrounding Dr. King's known infidelity, most of the film's characters and situations are quite superficial and without complexity. As for the movie's long-winded and repetitive feel, I understand that the entire production team stays true to the historical timeline and the three marching attempts needed to achieve their goal, but the manner in which the story unravels is punishingly slow. These mitigating factors place Ava DeVernay's Selma much closer to Lee Daniels' The Butler than last year's gut-wrenching Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.

Despite over-extending itself and merely scratching the surface with a majority of its characters, Selma offers many exceptional performances. While David Oyelowo's courageous turn as Dr. King will almost assuredly land him an Oscar Nomination in the Best Actor category, I was most impressed by supporting stars Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson. Ejogo is given the most multi-dimensional character as Coretta Scott King and she handles the role mightily well. Roth is convincingly despicable as segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and Wilkinson walks on egg shells adequately as President Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, DuVernay gives a superb directorial effort in her own right. The auteur's whole-hearted devotion is evident as she truly captures the essence of these iconic moments in U.S. history. Some naysayers will declare DuVernay's assumed Oscar Nomination for Best Director as nothing more than a flashy headline, as she'd be the first female of color to ever be nominated. Yet, truth be told, she does a remarkable job and would be worthy of any such recognition.

I will close by stating that I typically try to avoid political discussion because of the insensitivity it generally promotes, but Selma makes it difficult to ignore. And while I certainly understand the authenticity dedicated to showing physical brutality and visceral images that undoubtedly occurred during this real-life struggle for freedom, however, putting such a large focus of the film on the unforgivable rage that transpired in Selma is the wrong message to send to audiences. Although I will not speak on DuVernay's behalf and claim this as her intention, I can guarantee that there will be factions of viewers who leave the movie theater feeling bitter and enraged by the story. For example, at last night's screening in the city of Philadelphia, a select few clapped and cheered during the final moments when screen text revealed that racist politician George Wallace was left paralyzed by an assassination attempt in 1972. This is by no means the message of peace that the great Dr. King lived and died for, and that's the message our country needs right now.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Best Seth Rogen & James Franco Films

November examined The Greatest Comedy Sequels and, in some ways, December's Movie List of the Month boasts a similar theme. Despite the middling reaction from early reviews, Seth Rogen and James Franco's controversy-stirring comedy, The Interview, is a must-see on my year-end checklist. Therefore, this month I'm ranking the best Seth Rogen and James Franco top-billed films.

Honorable Mention: This Is the End, Neighbors and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

#5. Milk

James Franco wasn't a driving force behind Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic, Milk, but he offered a compelling side character that helped bring some authenticity to his skills. All in all, though, a fantastic ensemble headed by an Oscar-winning performance from Sean Penn helped earn the film 8 Academy Award Nominations.

#4. Superbad

While Jonah Hill and Michael Cera were clearly the main attractions in the 2007 comedy hit, Superbad, some of the film's funniest moments were delivered by the wacky cop duo featuring Seth Rogen. Enjoying a wild night on the town with their nerdy sidekick, McLovin, Rogen's beer chugging and gun-firing officer supported Greg Mottola's instant comedy classic.

#3. 127 Hours

When I first started brainstorming the idea for this list, I immediately expected Danny Boyle's emotional true story of survival, 127 Hours, to finish at the top. Surprisingly, James Franco's unforgettable Oscar-nominated turn as an outdoor enthusiast who goes to unspeakable lengths to survive a canyoneering accident in the mountains of Utah somehow finds itself in third place. That's a true testament to quality of films on this list.

#2. The 40 Year-Old Virgin

For as much as I loved 127 Hours, I must admit that Judd Apatow's undisputed funniest feature, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, is one of my favorite comedies ever. Steve Carell stars as Andy, an aging virgin who's coerced into getting back in the game by a trio of oddball co-workers. All of the supporting characters are great but Seth Rogen gets entangled with Paul Rudd in the hilarious "You know how I know you're gay?" joke, and it's still quotable to this day. 

#1. 50/50

Seth Rogen takes back to back #1 and #2 spots with the amazing cancer drama, 50/50. Featuring a perfect balance of both humor and earnest sentiment, Jonathan Levine's emotional tale also headlined my Best Films of 2011 list as well. And although its most outspoken fans demanded Oscar recognition for a brilliant lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I clamored for Seth Rogen's supporting role as the hysterical lighter side of 50/50

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rapid Reviews: Inherent Vice and The Babadook

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's well-established career can be described as somewhat of a Jekyl & Hyde scenario. On one hand, Anderson has been the creative catalyst and visionary for highly regarded Oscar contenders of the past like There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, each of which represent a truly impeccable level of filmmaking and storytelling. On the other hand, three of the director's last four features haven't quite lived up to the superior quality of his more prominent work. Yet, while the auteur's latest attempt, Inherent Vice, is a big step down from Anderson's trio of brilliant titles, the quirky crime comedy is a tolerable watch that gives a refreshing new vantage point for Anderson's abilities.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a clumsy, drug-loving (especially reefer) private investigator in 1970s Los Angeles who's given a tip by his former ex-girlfriend about a wealthy real estate mogul's impending disappearance. And shortly after both his ex-girlfriend and the wealthy man go missing, Doc uses his unorthodox methods to crack the case. Ultimately, its Joaquin Phoenix's wonderfully peculiar performance and plenty of adequately-timed situational humor that helps ease the audience through an otherwise unfathomable two and a half hour affair.

Inherent Vice is without a doubt a second straight muddled feature from Paul Thomas Anderson (including 2012's The Master) that's weak on mystery and substance. However, rich in style and easily-earned laughs, you're better off just welcoming the off-kilter and mindless entertainment than bogging yourself down with its lack of intrigue. Much like the drug-users of its time would say, "just enjoy the ride, man", no matter how nonsensical and pointless it may seem.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Another recent release I've had the pleasure of viewing was the widely buzzed Australian horror film, The Babadook. Before I begin my praises for the feature, because I definitely thought it was an extremely well-developed horror idea, let me first give the disclaimer that The Babadook is nowhere near a conventional scary movie. In fact, Exorcist director William Friedkin's recent remark, in which he said, "I've never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook", is wildly excessive.

The movie follows a widowed single mother named Amelia (played by Essie Davis) who's still struggling to cope with the fact that she lost her husband in a car accident the same day she gave birth to their son, Samuel, nearly 7 years prior. Then, one evening before bed time, Samuel picks a book off the shelf for his mother to read to him called "The Babadook". Despite their greatest efforts, the mother and son can't seem to get rid of the frightening short story and its evil character.

More in tune with the psychological thriller genre, The Babadook plays off of human fears and weaknesses beautifully. William Friedkin was correct in stating that the film is a terrifying experience, just not in the traditional sense. You won't jump and you won't look away from the screen, instead you'll marvel at the perfectly nuanced storytelling brought to life by filmmaker Jennifer Kent. She does a spectacular job of turning the horror genre into a mirror of our own human insecurities and demons. And although the finale is extremely strange (and I do mean "extremely), allowing the necessary time for its message to sink in will certainly enhance the effect. Because you must always remember one important fact, "you can never get rid of The Babadook".

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Golden Globe Nominations: What They Mean

Hollywood listened closely this morning as the Hollywood Foreign Press released their annual Golden Globe Nominations. Unlike the Academy Awards, the Globes divide their Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress nominations separately into both comedy and drama categories, meaning there aren't many major performances and films getting left out of the awards show. Here's a look at the motion picture nominees and what we can take away from the crops of finalists.

Best Picture - Drama

Nominees are: Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Selma and The Theory of Everything

Best Picture - Musical or Comedy

Nominees are: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods, Pride, St. Vincent

The Scoop: It's surprising to see Angelina Jolie's prisoner of war drama, Unbroken, completely ignored, especially in this race. After walking away with only one SAG nomination (Stunt Ensemble), this sluggish first step into the awards season could spell trouble for Unbroken. While the overlap in voting body between the Globes and Oscars is insignificant, perception definitely holds some clout. Also, omissions for Gone GirlA Most Violent Year and American Sniper will effect each film differently. I sense very little impact for the missing wife drama (especially since it received plenty of individual nominations), but this could end up being a big blow to Eastwood's American Sniper.

Best Actor - Drama

Nominees are: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actor - Musical or Comedy

Nominees are: Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) and Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes)

The Scoop: While Jake Gyllenhaal has had himself a fantastic week with recognition from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Globes, and believe me it's well deserved, the same old suspects are hurt by these nominations. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Jack O'Connell (Unbroken) have both been fringe players up to this point, but striking out in both big competitions this week will only distance them further from the pack. Finally, Oscar Issac (A Most Violent Year) missed out on a SAG (which is a more important precursor) because of screening issues, so this omission isn't as crushing to his chances.

Best Actress - Drama

Nominees are: Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Best Actress - Musical or Comedy

Nominees are: Amy Adams (Big Eyes), Emily Blunt (Into the Woods), Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Julianne Moore (Map to the Stars) and Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie)

The Scoop: The "big four" landed  Drama nominations like everyone expected. Jennifer Aniston takes another small but important step to securing the first Oscar recognition of her career, which may require me to start calling them the "big five". Emily Blunt is one of Aniston's main competitors, so her inclusion keeps things interesting for that fifth and final spot moving forward.

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees are: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees are: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman) and Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

The Scoop: For the men, this class appears to be holding steady and it's becoming less likely to see anyone else in the final mix. Similarly, everyone was surprised by Naomi Watts' Supporting Actress SAG nomination for her "lady of the night" role in the comedy, St. Vincent, but it seemed fairly obvious that Jessica Chastain was the safe bet to round out the top five for the Oscars. It will be difficult to supplant any one of these women.

Best Director

Nominees are: Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Ava DuVernay (Selma), David Fincher (Gone Girl), Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) and Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Screenplay

Nominees are: Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game

The Scoop: In the director race there are so many worthy contenders this year, but Wes Anderson's shocking inclusion must come with a disclaimer ... Warning: This probably won't happen with the Oscars. DuVernay has quickly become a trendy riser as she's seemingly destined to become the first woman of color to ever be nominated for Best Director. Linklater and Inarittu feel like locks too, but seeing Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) lose out to Fincher is a very interesting turn of events. I think Tyldum is also safe bet for the Oscars. Lastly, the Academy Awards separate their screenplays by original and adapted, so each nominated script here will probably be a finalist when it really counts. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dissecting the 2015 SAG Nominations

After sizing up the current state of the 6 major Oscar races with yesterday's Oscar Talk, we've been graced with the first "real" precursor awards this morning. The important Screen Actors Guild Nominations have officially been announced and, as usual, there are plenty of surprises in the acting categories.

Let's begin with the Best Ensemble category. Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel receives a big boost with its inclusion in the top five. Many have given Ralph Fiennes a fighter's chance in the Best Actor race, but no one else from the film had been mentioned. Foxcatcher is the film taking the biggest hit here. As an outspoken fan of Bennett Miller's latest work, I thought Foxcatcher would receive its best showing from the Screen Actors Guild. However, Oscar hopes for the creepy crime drama are slowly fading away.

Next, I'll set my focus on the Best Actor field. Steve Carell has kept his Oscar hopes alive with an inclusion on the list, but the biggest surprise has to be Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal's performance was certainly worthy of recognition, but with a crowded competition many expected him to miss the cut. As for this outcome's Oscar effect, we need to keep in mind that many voters may not have had an opportunity to see the latest top-tier contender, Selma, which means David Oyelowo will most likely find his way into the final mix.

As expected in the Best Actress race, the top four contenders were basically set in stone and Jennifer Aniston (Cake) can breathe a sigh of relief as the fifth and final member of the field. Her Oscar hopes have been solidified and there's not much else to report from this competition.

With the Best Supporting Actor category there were also very few surprises. Similar to the Best Actress field, the top four were pretty much assumed. The last opening had a couple different names attached to it, but Robert Duvall (The Judge) took control of the position which will help his Oscar chances significantly.

Finally, in the Best Supporting Actress competition Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) proved to be the biggest surprise (and perhaps the biggest of all nominations). Barely anyone had Watts on their radar as a "serious" contender, but she still managed to sneak in. While this would normally help her odds at securing an Oscar nomination as well, it appears as though A Most Violent Year (much like Selma) hadn't been screened enough, meaning Jessica Chastain may have her number by the time the Academy Awards roll around.

Full List of Nominees

Best Ensemble
Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything

Best Actor

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress

Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Best Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Oscar Talk - Part 2

A lot has changed with respect to the Oscar landscape since my Oscar Talk - Part 1 back on November 10th. Although I still haven't had the opportunity to see all of the awards season contenders yet, nearly every movie in the race has screened for some audience and, from those viewings, many assertions can be made. However, tomorrow will be the first true Oscar indicator with the Screen Actors Guild Nominations being announced, so you'll want to listen closely for which names are called. But before we get our first real look into the acting competitions with tomorrow's announcement, here's a glance into where the 6 major categories stand.

Best Picture

Best Bets

What once looked like a three-headed monster with critical darlings Boyhood, Birdman and The Imitation Game, has morphed into a four-horse race with the latest mammoth contender, Selma. With our nation in the midst of recent police brutality stories that have elevated racial tension to its highest levels since the Civil Rights Movement, Selma's "Bloody Sunday" focal point appears to be mirroring contemporary issues facing our country. But one question still remains, can Selma ride this recent parallel all the way to a Best Picture title in February?

Next Tier

There are almost a dozen other legitimate films vying for the remaining spot(s) in the Best Picture race. Recent rules allow for the Oscars to recognize anywhere from one to ten films in the Best Picture category, depending upon voting outcomes. With these one to six remaining slots, I envision the Christmas release Unbroken, Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, missing wife drama Gone Girl, and the indie sensation Whiplash as the most likely finalists.

Fringe Players

Finally there are a bunch of films that could play spoiler to the ones above. The crime drama Foxcatcher has its loyal supporters and A Most Violent Year was recently named the National Board of Review's film of the year, making both intriguing options for Academy Voters. Into the Woods is Disney's big live-action musical with Meryl Streep in a major role, and the soldier drama American Sniper could make a major late season splash as well. Surprisingly, the critical darling and Oscar baity Mr. Turner plans to make a strong push to compete and the early year release, The Grand Budapest Hotel, still hasn't faded away from contention. Any of these third tier films could sneak their way into the mix. 

Best Director

Best Bets

No folks, that isn't a Kevin Nealon look-alike pictured above. That's the new leader in the clubhouse for Best Director, Boyhood's Richard Linklater, albeit by a small margin. I'm of the belief that if Boyhood is still this big of a player well into December, then it must hold a special place in nearly everyone's heart. But as we've seen in the past, Best Director has a strong likelihood of matching the Best Picture race, which means any of Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) could capture the statue. It's also important to note that DuVernay would be the first woman of color to be nominated for the category (let alone win), and we know how much the Academy Awards love a good story.

Next Tier

Likewise with the Best Picture contenders, their filmmakers will earn a big boost if nominated. That's why I picture Angelina Jolie (Unbroken), James Marsh (The Theory of Everything), David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) as the next crop of directors fighting for that fifth and final spot.

Fringe Players

Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) each have strong histories with the Academy, leaving them as viable dark-horse players in the race. J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) is a major up and coming filmmaker and Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) is ... well, Clint Eastwood. 

Best Actor

Best Bets

It's remarkable how many serious candidates there are for the Best Actor race this year, but I'd continue to give the early edge to Birdman's star, Michael Keaton. Yet, no one would be surprised to see any of the almost assured nominees Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) or David Oyelowo (Selma) to walk away victorious on Oscar night.

Next Tier

While the top four spots seem pretty solidified, that leaves one final opening for a multitude of worthy performances. My heart lies with Steve Carell, who gives a creepy and devilish turn in Foxcatcher, yet I expect any of Oscar Issac (A Most Violent Year), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) or Jack O'Connell (Unbroken) as the likeliest to steal Carell's thunder. 

Fringe Players

In the wake of Clint Eastwood's recent decline, I'm holding off on getting too excited about everything that is American Sniper. Yet, Bradley Cooper is said to be exceptional in the film and he along with any of Miles Teller (Whiplash) or Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane could shockingly slip into that final spot.

Best Actress

Best Bets

If you've got some extra income floating around, you could safely wager it on Julianne Moore (Still Alice) to not only make the final cut, but to walk home with her first Academy Award in February. Joining her in the final showdown will most likely be a trio of other exceptional performers including Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl).

Next Tier

Although much hasn't changed at the top of this category, some middling contenders have been shuffling around of late. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) has really worked her way into the favorite to land the fifth and final spot. Her biggest competitors appear to be Hilary Swank (The Homesman), Amy Adams (Big Eyes) and Emily Blunt (Into the Woods).

Fringe Players

Outside of long-shots Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), it appears there's very little competition remaining in this category. 

Best Supporting Actor

Best Bets

The Best Supporting Actor race is appearing to be a neck and neck battle between the slight favorite, J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and the always impressive Edward Norton (Birdman). There are two other fine performances from Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcather) that hold the smallest chances of winning, but are almost assured to help fill out the final five.

Next Tier

In yet another category where the top four are assumed and one spot remains up for grabs, any of Robert Duvall (The Judge), Tom Wilkinson (Selma), Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) and Miyavi (Unbroken) seem likeliest to close out the group. 

Fringe Players

The supporting actor competition is surprisingly thin this year, so these are much deeper reaches but very dark-horses would include Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes), John Goodman (The Gambler) and Alec Baldwin (Still Alice).

Best Supporting Actress

Best Bets

While Best Picture winners historically find one of their performers capturing a statue as well, that trend has somewhat changed in recent years. As Birdman and The Imitation Game hold their breath in certain key races and steam builds for Selma and all of its performers, the supporting actress battle appears to be the only serious option for Boyhood to snag an acting award. Patricia Arquette stands as a serious frontrunner, yet Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) and Emma Stone (Birdman) feel like formidable foes.

Next Tier

When it comes to female performers, Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) can never be counted out as a threat to take the category. Jessica Chastain continues to gain recognition for her role in the crime drama A Most Violent Year, and both Wild's Laura Dern and Selma's Carmen Ejogo could just as easily land in the top five. 

Fringe Players

Scouring a little further down the list of worthy performances, Carrie Coon certainly offers an exceptional supporting turn in Gone Girl. Furthermore, Nightcrawler's Rene Russo was superb and rumor has it Kristen Stewart delivers her best work to date in Still Alice. While these three are all on the outside looking in, when it comes to the Oscars, you can never be certain.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Terminator Genisys and Cake Trailers

Franchise star Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, "I'll be back", and he wasn't kidding around. Terminator Genisys arrives in 2015 and Arnold makes his long awaited return to the series that he helped build. This time, however, Alan Taylor has been given the keys to direct. And if you aren't familiar with the name, Taylor has dabbled in the premium television ranks having directed a small number of episodes for shows such as Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and The Sopranos, all before tackling the 2013 blockbuster Thor: The Dark World. Check out the debut trailer for Terminator Genisys below.

Megastar Jennifer Aniston could be in line for the first Oscar Nomination of her career with what many have labeled as a "brilliant" performance in the festival circuit hit, Cake. Aniston stars as Claire, a woman fascinated by the suicide of a fellow member (Anna Kendrick) of the chronic pain support group she attends. Her curiosity leads her to the deceased woman's home, where Claire meets the widower (Terminator Salvation alumni Sam Worthington) and develops a relationship with him. In limited release this December and expanding in January, check out the trailer for Cake below.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Gambler (2014)

Film: The Gambler (2014)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor), Brie Larson (Short Term 12) and John Goodman (Argo)

Director: Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

U.S. Release: December 19th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 111 minutes

Many aspects of life operate in cycles and Hollywood is no exception. The latest Tinseltown remake comes from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director, Rupert Wyatt, who teams up with Mark Wahlberg in the slightly re-imagined version of 1974's The Gambler. When Paramount originally announced the remake in the summer of 2011, it was believed that visionary Martin Scorcese and his loyal leading star, Leonardo DiCaprio, were in line take on the project. But after viewing Wyatt's unnecessary adaptation, I'm left to ponder what could have been.

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a high stakes gambler who falls further and further into debt in an underground casino ring with his risky and careless betting habits. But after the self-destructive English professor borrows from a second loan shark and offers his life as collateral, his addiction continues to place him on a very dangerous path. And in Jim's mind, his only way out of this mess is to go all-in one final time.

For a brief moment before the film had ever been screened, some insiders gave The Gambler an outside chance at making an awards season splash. However, Rupert Wyatt's effort is far from Oscar contention. Boasting a constrained and soulless script that's drowned in timely cynicism and betting cliches, you can only watch a blackjack dealer flip over cards for so long before you start tuning out, and that limit is reached very early on. Simply put, The Gambler would rather show its protagonist losing than have the audience experience the feeling through a clever and well-crafted character-driven screenplay. As for the film's leading star, Wahlberg's performance is by no means a burden to the overall product, but he isn't a bright spot either. Unlike the 1974 original where James Caan delivers a character that viewers can connect with, it's difficult to tell whether Jim Bennett's lack of allure is a product of Wahlberg's acting, or the result of poor writing and development on the part of Academy Award winning screenwriter William Monahan. Odds are, it's a combination of both.

Thankfully, though, The Gambler offers a saving grace with its long list of exceptional supporting roles from John Goodman, Brie Larson and Jessica Lange. Each do their part to successfully transition Bennett's collapse from scene to scene, and some of the film's finest moments occur when John Goodman takes command of the screen. In fact, the movie would have been much better served opening the door a little wider for these vastly under-utilized characters. Brie Larson is such an emerging talent in Hollywood and, unfortunately, she isn't given the proper platform to work with in the film.

No matter how hard Rupert and his team attempt to offer a slick and cool tale of underground gambling, the final product fails to resonate. The Gambler's biggest detractor is an unlikable protagonist who becomes impossible to connect with for a multitude of reasons. For example, if you're trying to sell a story about an unlikely gambling addict, you should make the character significantly more endearing and vulnerable. Instead, all we're given are Wahlberg's frequent "woe-is-me" rants followed by a careless and unforgiving attitude that repels the audience almost immediately. There's no rooting interest here, so I suggest spending your time elsewhere.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+