Sunday, June 29, 2014

What Happened to Clint Eastwood?

Having seen just about everything I wanted to currently in theatres, I sat around this morning pondering a topic for discussion. Then, I got to thinking about my most recent trip to the movies and how disappointed I was in Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys. I began wondering to myself, what happened to Clint Eastwood? Trapped in a five-year lull, the once heralded actor/director has simply lost his edge.

I wasn't an outspoken fan of Eastwood's 2009 effort, Invictus, but I enjoyed the film enough to chalk it up in the "win" column. However, since that slightly above average feature five years ago, he's directed a trio of forgettable pieces of work that began with 2010's ambitious search for the answers to the after-life, Hereafter. While the title attempted to raise purposeful discussion surrounding the "meaning of life", Eastwood's slow-moving flick instead induced yawns and became an instant cure for insomnia.

Then, all everyone talked about the following year was Eastwood's wildly anticipated biopic, J. Edgar. It was suppose to manhandle the awards season and deliver Leonardo DiCaprio his first much-deserved Oscar win. Yet, the lifeless account of the highly controversial head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, immediately fell out of contention after its opening weekend. As a result, Leo still remains winless in his pursuit and J. Edgar marked another step in the wrong direction for Eastwood.

After a three year hiatus from the director's chair and a cheap PG-13 Gran Torino imitation in the mediocre baseball drama Trouble With the Curve, the filmmaker returned with Jersey Boys. A fantastic Broadway musical crumbled under the care of Eastwood as his career continued on a steep downward spiral. And where does that leave the legend of Hollywood? No longer is the visionary behind hits such as Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven (just to name a few) a shoe-in for the Academy Awards.

Everyone's time comes to an end. We may be caught in the middle of Eastwood's unspectacular third act to his illustrious career. As a lifelong fan of the macho actor's brilliant work, it's saddening to witness such a brutal display of normality. Who doesn't root for onscreen heroes and star athletes to walk off into the sunset still at the top of their game? Unfortunately, for Eastwood, that ship may have sailed.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Fury and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Trailers

This week premiered the trailers for two potential Oscar contenders. The first one is David Ayer's (End of Watch) World War II army drama Fury. Brad Pitt stars as Wardaddy, the commander of a five man tanking crew forced to fend off the German army in the latter stages of the war. Fury finds its ways to theatres in November, the heart of awards season.

The second possible Oscar contender is Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a two-part movie spliced together into one feature film. Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy star in this drama about a couple attempting to reclaim past love. Finding its way to select theatres in September, be sure to catch the trailer for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rapid Reviews: 22 Jump Street and Jersey Boys

Last week I unveiled friend and guest writer Greg Rouleau's opinion on 22 Jump Street. He gave a ringing endorsement for co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's return to the franchise. Since my recent wedding and honeymoon have delayed my movie-watching schedule, I spent the last 24 hours catching up on a few major titles. And unlike Greg, I found 22 Jump Street to be a misguided follow-up to its successful first installment.

While I enjoyed the feature's plot lines regarding Jenko's new BFF "Zook" and the back-story regarding Schmidt's latest love interest, 22 Jump Street is an otherwise laugh-less and self mocking farce. Channing Tatum's dimwitted character generated memorable bone-headed laughs in the last movie, however, his idiocy reaches annoying heights with massive frequency. Furthermore, as for the latest effort's fascination with addressing the makings of a franchise, the straightforward manor in which the directors broach this topic is tasteless and ineffective.

As a fan of its predecessor, 22 Jump Street unfolded in disappointing fashion. What was clearly one of 2014's most anticipated features ends up being just another flat and hollow sequel. There are plenty of other options worth checking out in theatres, I suggest choosing them.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Another film recently reviewed by Greg Rouleau was Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys. While he tabbed the Broadway musical turned a major motion picture as a hard-fought "B-", I found it a little less amusing. Perhaps my admiration for the musical is what spawns an elevated level of disappointment. Fans of the show are guaranteed to be let down by Eastwood's stamp on the story.

With outstretched first and third acts that incorporate a minimal amount of musical performances from The Four Seasons, Eastwood lets it be known that he's making a film. Unlike Tom Hooper's Oscar Nominated Les Miserables and other modern musical adaptations that operate closely to their originals, Jersey Boys picks and chooses its similarities with the Broadway show. Therefore, the overbearing background which consumes the feature's first hour and creates an excruciating opening portion. Once The Four Seasons finally get into the swing of things and the on-stage performances remind us of everything we loved about the musical, it's too late to salvage.

I was disappointed in much of the acting, especially from newbies John Lloyd Young (as Frankie Valli) and Erich Bergen (as Bob Gaudio). It's always a risky decision to cast unknowns in vital roles and, unfortunately for Eastwood, the choice proves to be detrimental to the final product. Fans of the musical should be warned that, with Jersey Boys, an unsatisfying experience lies ahead.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NEW) and Felony Trailers

Growing up in the 90s the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action franchise holds a special place in my heart. This summer Jonathan Liebesman attempts to restore past glory with the highly anticipated reboot starring Megan Fox as April O'Neil. As expect, the lovable quartet of overgrown turtles match martial art skills with the evil Foot Clan led by their nemesis, Shredder. Arriving in theatres everywhere on August 8th, check out the latest and most in-depth trailer yet for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I've always been a fan of Australian cinema and another intriguing title from the continent, Felony, may find its way over to the states this fall. Warrior's Joel Edgerton stars as a police officer who dozes off at the wheel and regrettably strikes a young boy who remains comatose. He calls for help and with the assistance of his police force led by the superior officer (Tom Wilkinson), they attempt to cover up the truth. Felony's first trailer gives an inside look into the suspense drama, so make sure you check it out.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jersey Boys

Film: Jersey Boys

Starring: John Lloyd Young and Erich Bergen

Director: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)

U.S. Release: June 20th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Musical

Runtime: 134 minutes

*** Featuring a guest review by Reel True owner Greg Rouleau

A quick glance at the directorial resumé of Clint Eastwood shows the Hollywood legend making an attempt to tackle a diversity of projects in his latter years.   While not all of them have been home runs, including a couple whiffs such as Hereafter and J. Edgar, Clint has continuously displayed an adept ability behind the camera.  Always working with top talent, and pulling out consistently strong performances, Eastwood seemed poised for a challenge.  In Jersey Boys, the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway play, the director cast relative unknowns for the key roles of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.   With a somber look at the trials and tribulations of the famed group, the film offers just enough for hardcore fans to enjoy, but the end result doesn’t quite reach the heights of Eastwood’s best projects.

With a 134-minute running time that overstays its welcome by about 20-minutes, Jersey Boys feels like West Side Story meets Goodfellas as the story begins.  A group of young singers, who make regular trips to local jail and have connections with organized crime, are trying to get their music act off the ground.  The connections are mostly through Tommy DeVito, played by Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire.  Piazza, arguably the most recognizable face of the group, exudes plenty of machismo for the smooth-talking Tommy.  Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) has a voice that makes the girls swoon.  The trio, is completed by Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), but the group doesn’t see much success until songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) joins and lands them a deal recording with producer, Bob Crewe, as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  

Like most of Eastwood’s latest efforts, there’s a sullen tone throughout the film.  While there is inevitably some darkness behind the fame and glory of any major music act, it can be argued that a movie like this would’ve been aided by a little more optimism and energy.  Seeing the stories behind the popular songs of the Four Seasons is a treat, but the amount of time the audience is able to revel in the glory of the group’s success is brief, as major issues continue to plague its members.  There’s also the issue of Eastwood’s style, most notably his continued use of the desaturated color pallette that he’s seemed to favor since his 2006 war-epic, Flags of Our Fathers.  Perhaps suitable to a film of that bleak nature, Jersey Boys would’ve benefitted from a little pop of color.  

Despite the unknown talent, Clint still manages to pull great performances out of the entire cast.  There’s also a nice chemistry between the four main actors, who recorded their songs live, according to the director, and each one also gets a turn with their fourth-wall breaking narration.  Piazza shines early on where he is mostly the focus, and there are some great turns by Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarlo and Mike Doyle as Bob Crewe.  Even Renee Marino as Frankie’s first wife, Mary Delgado, shines in a few key scenes, despite having a character that is completely under-developed.  By the time the credits role, there’s a sense of satisfaction with the story told, but there’s also a feeling that we've been robbed of a more enjoyable movie experience.   

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Judge and The Wedding Ringer Trailers

This October Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star in David Dobkin's The Judge. The films follows a big city lawyer (Downey Jr.) who returns home where his father (Duvall), the town's judge, is suspected of murder. With a very intriguing premise and a highly talented cast, check out the debut trailer for The Judge.

We've been given our first look into the January 2015 comedy, The Wedding Ringer, featuring one of the fastest rising comedians, Kevin Hart, and the always wonderful Josh Gad. Gad stars as a loner who develops an unusual friendship with the man he hired to pose as his best man at his wedding (Hart). Sure to deliver plenty of laughs and perhaps even some tender moments, be sure to catch the trailer for The Wedding Ringer.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

22 Jump Street

Film: 22 Jump Street

Starring: Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Channing Tatum (Magic Mike)

Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street)

U.S. Release: June 13th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Action

Runtime: 112 minutes

*** 22 Jump Street features a guest review from Reel True owner, Greg Rouleau

As the summer movie season continues to produce an endless supply of sequels, prequels, reboots, etc., here is something totally refreshing: a sequel to a movie that was based on a TV show.  How so? Because the film, from the opening scene to a wonderfully produced, cameo-filled end credits sequence, is fully aware of the problems that plague sequels and plays that to maximum effect.  A meta examination of how a second film always feels slightly familiar, and more effort goes into the budget/CGI than the story.  The only thing left for the actors to break the fourth wall would have been to physically turn to the camera and start speaking to the audience.

As the film opens, Jenko and Schmidt are on an undercover operation to bust a group of drug dealers associated with the Mexican cartel.  Schmidt hilariously portrays an undercover drug lord that requires him several minutes of silence to slip into character, perhaps a nod to the serious thespian behind our protagonist, two-time Oscar nominee, Jonah Hill.  His ability to improvise is far superior to Jenko, played astutely by Channing Tatum, and we see here and throughout the film that, to the surprise of no one, Jenko is the gifted one athletically.  Eventually the bust fails and the Chief forces the two to do the “same thing as last time”, infiltrating a school to discover the supplier of a new drug called “WhyPhy”.   

Because of their aged appearance, the two are sent to MC State, where they find themselves fitting in with new and different crowds.  Jenko discovers his natural talent for football, as well as becoming a superstar with the party-hard jock clique.  He even develops a bro-mance with a fellow frat brother/QB, named Zook, who threatens the bond between Jenko and his police partner.  Schmidt, not one for doing keg stands until 4am, feels more at home with the artsy folk, who sit around and drink “good” wine.  Seeing the two in their separate environments is a treat; each reluctant at first, but fully embracing by the finale. 

While there are plenty of laughs to go around, the film is not without some high spots of action.  A pet peeve of mine, lately it seems many movies find it necessary to fill the third act with wall-to-wall explosions and destruction, and here, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller give us just enough to remind us that this is an action-comedy.   Never does any set piece feel like it overstays it’s welcome.   An added bonus is how the laughs never stop once the intensity gets turned up, including an uncomfortable “fist fight” with Schmidt during the climax of the film.  

Perhaps some of the jokes are revisited one too many times, such as the duo’s age, or Jenko’s boneheadedness, but they rarely fail to register in the laugh column.  There’s also a twist about midway through the film that feels slightly contrived, but it does produce quite possibly the funniest sequence of the movie.  It’s difficult to find any true flaws in a film as enjoyable as this one.  I suspect if there is another sequel, something that’s hinted at in a tongue-in-cheek manor, the writers will continue with the self-aware approach and address how some trilogies often miss the mark with the third entry.  It's also easy to imagine the franchise evolving into a self-aware spoof of other types of films.  But whichever way they choose to go, you can count me in.  

Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: A-

The Equalizer and Birdman Trailers

Denzel Washington re-teams with his Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua, in the upcoming 2014 action thriller The Equalizer. After a former black ops commando fakes his own death to pursue a normal life, he finds himself back on the war path against violent Russian gangsters. The film's first-look is pretty impressive and one you should definitely check out. The Equalizer arrives in theatres everywhere on September 26th.

Many insiders have listed Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman as a possible Oscar contender this awards season. The unconventional comedy stars Michael Keaton as a forgotten actor who once played an iconic superhero that attempts to mount a comeback on the heals of a Broadway play. I've always been a huge fan of the vastly underrated Michael Keaton and a lot of people are speculating this role could jump-start his career, but only time will tell. Primed for an October 17th release, be sure to catch the debut trailer for Birdman.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Film: The Fault in Our Stars

Starring: Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Ansel Elgort (Carrie)

Director: Josh Boone (Stuck in Love)

U.S. Release: June 6th, 2014 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 125 minutes

Prior to the release of this year's arguably successful franchise origin, Divergent, many likened the career paths of Shailene Woodley and superstar Jennifer Lawrence. Almost indistinguishable from the result of Lawrence's breakthrough role in the dark indie drama Winter's Bone, Woodley burst onto the scene with a nominated Oscar performance in Alexander Payne's The Descendants. And much like the way Lawrence followed up a well-received introduction to the industry by locking down the lead in a blockbuster franchise, Woodley signed on for Divergent. But the similarities don't end there, both are versatile actresses with the ability to sway the audience into making a connection with their characters. This certainly holds true in Woodley's newest effort, The Fault in Our Stars.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is an understandably cynical teenage girl suffering from a form of cancer that makes it difficult for her lungs to function. With almost no chance of living a long and fruitful life, she clings to her favorite novel, "An Imperial Affliction", and socializes with almost no one outside of her loving parents. But everything changes the day she reluctantly goes to a support group and meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an exuberant and confident young man who fails to mask an immediate attraction when he literally bumps into Hazel for the first time. Together the star-crossed young lovers struggle to endure their illnesses and teach one another about the beauties of companionship.

Director Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars finds a reasonable comparison with the recent Best Picture Nominee, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Not only are both titles a mouthful, but each of these delicate films use a difficult subject matter as a way to tell an enormously important story, even if it's both life-affirming and heartbreaking all at the same time. The Fault in Our Stars never wavers from the sentiment but amazing chemistry and towering performances from its pair of youthful leads, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, carry the audience through a passionate tale of living and dying. With Woodley, many of us would expect such a performance. However, Elgort proves to be the dark horse with an almost equally effective turn that brings balance and credibility to the feature. I remember when I first spotted Elgort in the less-than-memorable Carrie reboot and, even then, he made his presence known. The up-and-coming actor knows how to command a scene and I look forward to wherever the future takes him.

Although The Fault in Our Stars conveys a cherished love story, it does so in an imperfect fashion. There are numerous moments that feel repeated throughout an almost exhausting running time north of two hours. A slightly more condensed version would've provided a sturdier base for the film. Pacing doesn't become an issue until the third act of the movie, but it's still a problem. Furthermore, a final product intended to elicit tears of sadness is never a sought out experience. Therefore, its taboo focus on mortality and the afterlife fails to shed new light on the topic and simply manipulates the idea for an emotional gain. A tactic that I refuse to embrace. But despite all of its bitter deficiencies, The Fault in Our Stars soars above its shortcomings and stands as a beautiful reminder of life's most important purposes.

Obviously targeted for a female audience, evident by the fact that my male comrades were nowhere to be found in the theatre, Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars manages to work for moviegoers of all genders. Woodley and Elgort are worth the price of admission and their convincing account of a budding romance between two cancer-stricken adolescents deserves both adoration and respect. With a beautifully written and thoughtful screenplay, I give The Fault in Our Stars my full stamp of approval.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To and The Giver (NEW) Trailers

It isn't often you find a sequel 20 years in the making, but this November we'll be given just that as the Farrelly brothers return with Dumb and Dumber To. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reprise their roles as dimwits Lloyd and Harry, as they set out on a journey to find one of their long lost children. This long-awaited trailer has a few moments, but I'm a little skeptical it can withstand all the hype. Check out the first official look at Dumb and Dumber To.

A few months ago we were given an initial glimpse into the Lois Lowry adapted film, The Giver. The futuristic blockbuster examines a harmonious world known as a community, where there exists no pain or suffering. But when a 12 year old boy is chosen to learn about the old "real world" from an elderly wise man known as "The Giver" (played by Jeff Bridges), he begins to question the seemingly perfect community where he lives. Jeff Bridges has been trying to get this project off the ground for years and it finally arrives in theatres in August. Check out the newest trailer for The Giver.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tom Cruise's Greatest Films

Having spent my youth and adolescence during much of the 90s, Tom Cruise has always been one of my favorite actors. Please don't misinterpret my remarks. I said one of my favorite actors, not one of the most talented. However, that doesn't mean that Cruise hasn't delivered a long list of fantastic roles in even greater films, because he has. Cruise's filmography flourishes with some of the most notable drama and action titles in cinematic history.

In honor of his newest release, Edge of Tomorrow, and a mammoth career in the industry, I've decided to devote June's Movie List of the Month (click here for May's List) to Tom Cruise's greatest films. With so many spectacular features to choose from, this was clearly a daunting task. Another key criteria was that Cruise had to possess a major role in the movie. That means The Outsiders and Tropic Thunder were deemed ineligible.

Honorable Mention: Interview with the Vampire, Mission: Impossible, Minority Report, Born on the Fourth of July and Top Gun (yes, I went there).

#5. Magnolia (1999)

Back on Super Bowl Sunday, February 2nd, we lost a great American icon when Philip Seymour Hoffman tragically passed. I devoted that month's list to The Greatest Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances. Upon looking back on Hoffman's illustrious career, I was forced to rediscover the compelling magic surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar-Nominated film, Magnolia. Bombarded with a star-studded cast, only one performance was recognized by the Academy Awards and it was Tom Cruise's. In the film he plays Frank Mackey, a narcissist offering an ever-growing self-help course for men. Magnolia helped spawn the recent outburst of Hyperlink Cinema, a phrase used to describe the interconnection of multiple seemingly disjoint stories (for example Crash and Traffic). With a hefty three hour running time that whisks by surprisingly quick, Magnolia is a must-see feature on all accounts. 

#4. Jerry Maguire (1996)

"Show me the money" and "You complete me", Jerry Maguire is an extremely quotable Best Picture Nominee starring Tom Cruise in the title role. After a sleepless night sparks a moral epiphany in a sports agent, Maguire is fired from his powerhouse company. Left with only one remaining client, the vocal diva Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in an Oscar-Winning role), Maguire tries desperately to secure a new lucrative contract for the NFL wide receiver. After turning a reasonable $50 million budget into a world-wide gross of around $270 million, Jerry Maguire is a premier example of top-flight filmmaking. And although Cuba Gooding Jr. walked away from the final product as the most decorated cast member, let's not forget that Cruise was just as spectacular in an Oscar-Nominated role himself.

#3. The Last Samurai (2003)

I've always felt that Edward Zwick's epic tale, The Last Samurai, has become a forgotten and overlooked masterpiece. Cruise stars as a drunken Civil War hero named Nathan Algren who accepts a profitable deal to venture to Japan and train the Emperor's newly formed army about military tactics and how to use firearms. While overseas, Algren is captured by a band of samurai warriors during a battle with Japan's new armed forces. As a prisoner to these loyal sword-yielding combatants, Algren learns and gains a deep-rooted respect for the samurai way. After the turn of the millennium, Cruise tried his hand at an epic war film and, although he never garnered any awards season recognition himself, The Last Samurai went on to capture 4 Academy Award Nominations and the hearts of many. Beautifully shot and what the late Roger Ebert described as "an uncommonly thoughtful epic", The Last Samurai is a beyond-worthwhile and underrated feature.

#2. Rain Man (1988)

With the inclusion of Barry Levinson's Best Picture Winner, Rain Man, Cruise's list has now spanned three different decades. While such an accomplishment is rare and deserving of praise, you're probably asking yourself, "how is Rain Man not the #1 movie on the list"? It's certainly a fair question. Winner of 4 Oscars and nominated for an astounding 8 in total, Rain Man is an undeniable American classic. Cruise stars as Charlie Babbitt, a financially strapped luxury car dealer who receives word that his wealthy estranged father has passed away. Charlie and his girlfriend travel to Ohio to settle the estate and learn that $3 million has been entrusted to an unnamed source. Through social engineering Charlie discovers that he has an autistic brother named Raymond who is the beneficiary of his father's fortune. With an unforgettable and compassionate character arc delivered by Cruise in an overlooked performance, Rain Man will always be an American masterpiece.

#1. A Few Good Men (1992)

If you've had the opportunity to really sit down and discuss movies with me, chances are I've pronounced Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men as my favorite film of all-time. This captivating courtroom drama finds Tom Cruise in the role of military lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee. After two marines accidentally kill a fellow officer during a late night prank, they receive a court-martial and stand trial for their actions. Always quick to reach a plea bargain, Kaffee is assigned to their case and discovers that there's more than meets the eye. But rather than have his clients admit to murder, Kaffee takes the case to trial and challenges many high-ranking officers in the process. A Few Good Men has it all, a stellar script, a brilliant cast and enough thrills to keep the entire two-plus hours engaging for the audience. With no shortage of quotable moments and a charismatic Cruise in one of the finest roles of his career, A Few Good Men takes the top spot on this month's list.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Film: Edge of Tomorrow

Starring: Tom Cruise (Oblivion) and Emily Blunt (Looper)

Director: Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity)

U.S. Release: June 6th, 2014 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Action

Runtime: 113 minutes

Make no mistake about it, the hype surrounding Edge of Tomorrow, from both critics and moviegoers alike, continues to grow throughout the film's opening weekend. With an estimated $30 million in box-office revenue in the works and nearly 9 out of 10 critics voicing their approval, Tom Cruise proves he is still a major attraction. But is the megastar's latest blockbuster collaboration with The Bourne Identity director, Doug Liman, worthy of all this adoration? Absolutely not!

Tom Cruise stars as Cage, a marketer-turned-Army Recruiter after an unexplained alien invasion threatens the survival of humankind. However, Cage has zero interest in actually setting foot on the battlefield. That is, until his commanding officer orders the under-qualified and cowardly soldier to attack the enemy with the first wave of fighters. Caught in the midst of war, Cage becomes trapped in a time-loop and uses the opportunity to team up with a Special Forces warrior named Rita (Emily Blunt) who transforms him into a killing machine determined to destroy the opposing forces.

Allow me to precede my arguments with a declaration that the latest sci-fi blockbuster, Edge of Tommorow, is a well-crafted and highly rationalized idea. Yet, Doug Liman's action adventure is over-pursued and misguided. The whole "time travel" or "time loop" idea is by no means uncharted territory. Somewhat recent comparables such as Duncan Jones' Source Code or Rian Johnson's Looper use this scientific anomaly as a far more impressive backdrop to their better executed stories. With Edge of Tomorrow, the audience is asked to buy into an often-used, but convincing, character arc surrounding Tom Cruise's onscreen personae, Cage. But to the film's detriment, an unjust finale sells that transformation short and tears down the flimsy foundation it spends nearly two hours building.

Although Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow contains a mediocre plot and a collection of performances that neither benefit nor detract from the final product, the blockbuster delivers an abundance of remarkably-shot scenes. The camera work and editing are superb enough to satisfy any action junkie imaginable, further demonstrating a need to applaud Liman's effort for the movie's sound technical achievements. However, at the end of the day, there's no escaping a long list of basic fundamental blunders that ultimately confine Edge of Tomorrow to being a run-of-the-mill feature.

Sporting a balanced sheet of pros and cons, the latest sci-fi tale, Edge of Tomorrow, fails to stand out among a long list of similarly-molded films. Its "groundhog day" approach feels long-winded through a moderately engaging story. And although the special effects and captured shots are likely to be marveled at, there isn't much else elevating Edge of Tomorrow to mainstream blockbuster glory.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Friday, June 6, 2014

Obvious Child

Film: Obvious Child

Starring: Jenny Slate (HBO's Girls) and Jake Lacy

Director: Gillian Robespierre

U.S. Release: June 6th, 2014 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 83 minutes

It's become a bit of the norm lately, a blueprint for young aspiring filmmakers to follow. Many recent debut features out of the Sundance Film Festival, including one of 2013's Top Ten MoviesShort Term 12, and 2014 Grand Jury Prize Winner, Whiplash, represent successful full-length projects that have been adapted from short films. It's time to add another well-regarded festival darling to that list, writer/director Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child.

Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate) is a twenty-something small-time comedienne whose life is turned upside-down after being dumped by her boyfriend and discovering that the bookstore where she works is closing. The hard-hitting realities of life bombard her all at once, leading to a horrendous performance on stage and an evening of binge-drinking. But during this moment of self deprecation, she meets a genuinely nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy) which leads to a one night stand. A few weeks later Donna learns that she's pregnant and decides to have an abortion, all while Max tries to reconnect her.

The taboo label of an "abortion comedy" is somewhat unjust, mainly because Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child lacks the uproarious hilarity one might expect. Instead, the indie darling relies on sincere and honest performances from its leading pair to help guide this peculiar film to attainable heights. Although I'm uncertain of Jenny Slate's ability as a stand-up comic, her acting chops are certainly on display with a wide array of emotions. Her onscreen counterpart, performed admirably by Jake Lacy, completes an endearing 1-2 punch that breeds a tremendous amount of life to the feature. Convincing acting paired with a tender and soulful screenplay proves to be all that's needed with Robespierre's winning directorial debut.

Despite being an earnest effort, Obvious Child misses the mark with under-achieving humor and a thinly written story. While the characters all feel authentic, a simple plotline requires that the jokes carry you along from scene to scene. However, the self-mocking Jewish punchlines and cringe-worthy onstage misfires during painful stand-up comedy routines result in bumpy transitions throughout the film. Thankfully, Robespierre refuses to prolong the experience and wraps up her female-agenda tale in a reasonable 83 minutes. Therefore, Obvious Child resides as another serviceable and heartwarming indie drama from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival class.

Modern times have not been kind to the young-adults in the United States. Difficulties finding employment, purpose and sustainability have been recent trends that our country is yet to escape. Gillian Robespierre's passion-fueled project, Obvious Child, uses these components as a backdrop to a larger self-discovery story. And although the film clearly targets a female audience, there's still more than enough for everyone to enjoy.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

DVD Outlook: June 2014

As we cross over from the Spring to Summer season, we're given a stellar crop of DVD releases this month. Normally, once May rolls around, no distribution company is looking to compete for money with the big blockbusters that arrive in theatres every weekend. However, this June we're given  some fine titles to choose from, including my number one choice from 2013's Top Ten Films.

Lone Survivor - 4 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

As a college instructor and a movie critic, people who know me are aware that I'm far from an "easy A". While many moviegoers and cinephiles labeled 2013 as an amazing year for movies, I'll agree that there were an enormous amount of strong titles, but very few moved me and stirred my passion. Enter the late-year release, Lone Survivor, from director Peter Berg. Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch star as members of a Navy Seal team sent into the mountains of Afghanistan on a mission to kill a high ranking Taliban leader. While doing their reconnaissance work the mission becomes compromised and the choices the soldiers make will effect whether they live or die, in this retelling of the true story behind Operation Red Wings. Lone Survivor is more than just a shoot-em-up war movie, it tells a truly amazing story that goes well beyond the battlefields. You definitely shouldn't pass up on 2013's most inspiring film. (June 3rd)

The Grand Budapest Hotel - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Wes Anderson, the acclaimed director of hits such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, returned in 2014 with the early-year release, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ralph Fiennes gives his finest performance in years as hotel concierge M. Gustave, a charasmatic fellow who takes a young lobby boy named Zero Moustafa under his wing. Their relationship takes a unique turn after one of the hotel's most wealthy guests passes away and leaves a priceless painting to Gustave. The concierge becomes the focus of the old woman's murder and hilarity ensues. Flooded with high-profile cameos and the typical stylistic approach we've grown to love and admire from director, Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is yet another winning effort from the filmmaker. (June 17th)

Alan Partridge - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (No Review Available)

Although actor/writer Steve Coogan broke onto the scene in a big way throughout 2013, thanks to his writing and supporting turn in the Best Picture Nominee, Philomena, the comedy performer's return to a regularly assumed role as radio host, Alan Partridge, generated laughter world-wide. Named for its title character, Alan Partridge finally made its way to the states in late February. However, I had the pleasure of catching this little British comedy gem at the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. Partridge stars as a egotistical disc jockey who learns that new management is coming to the radio station and planning to make some changes. Rather than risk his own job, Partridge desperately lobbies for upper management to terminate his colleague, Pat Farrell. The higher-ups follow Partridge's suggestion and a disgruntled Farrell takes matters into his own hands by holding the entire radio station at gunpoint. Leaving only the dim-witted Partridge to save the day. Alan Partridge is an "out-there" British comedy filled with plenty of humor and outlandishness. If you have a sweet tooth for such films, it's worth giving Alan Partridge a try. (June 10th)

Honorable Mention: My secondary choices are mostly filled with titles I haven't seen myself, but ones that I've heard mixed-reviews about from friends of mine. The Robocop reboot (6/3) finds its way to DVD this month as well as other action titles such as Non-Stop (6/10) starring Liam Neeson and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (6/10) starring Chris Pine. The raved about family film The Lego Movie (6/17) also arrives this month, as well as the festival darling Joe (6/17) starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. Fans of premium channel shows may also want to check out Showtime's Ray Donovan (6/10) and HBO's True Detective (6/10) which are both new to DVD this month as well.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Film: Borgman

Starring: Jan Bijvoet and Hadewych Minis

Director: Alex van Warmerdam

U.S. Release: June 6th, 2014 (Limited Release - Not Yet Rated)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 113 minutes

As a Spotlight Circle member of the Philadelphia Film Society, the same group responsible for running the city's annual film festival, I've had many opportunities to discuss the selection process with various board members. They literally search the globe for the most enticing and unforgettable films, in hopes of compiling the strongest collection of movies possible. Last year, the Philadelphia Film Festival selected a dark and disturbing feature out of the Netherlands called Borgman. Although I missed a chance to view the movie last October, Borgman's finally making its way to the art-house circuit in limited release.

Jan Bijvoet stars as the title character, Borgman, a vagrant chased from his crafty underground dwelling by a priest and a team of hunters. The homeless man wanders off to the lavish residence of a wealthy family asking to use their bathing facilities in order to freshen up. This leads to a severe altercation between a battered Borgman and the patriarch of the family. Feeling guilty for her husband's actions, Marina (played by Hadewych Minis) secretly provides food for the vagrant and allows him to take shelter in their unused guest house.

Director Alex van Warmerdam creates a surreal examination of evil in an innocent suburban setting. By allowing this drifter into her home, Marina and her family begin to experience dark psychological nightmares that drive them to the brink of madness. Somewhat reminiscent of a recent foreign film out of Greece called, Dogtooth (which is far more over the top and bizarre than this newer title), Borgman delivers a captivating and haunting experience through a crawling 113 minute journey into the face of evil. Although it becomes virtually impossible to turn away or lose interest in Borgman, its greatest disappointment lies the fact that this slow-building film culminates in anti-climactic fashion. With this self-motivated and demonic figure tearing apart a seemingly perfect suburban family scene after scene, an unsatisfying resolve remains as the feature's lasting impression.

Don't be fooled, however, because Borgman has many redeeming qualities that make it a sure-fire successful indie art-house film. Wonderfully shot and edited, Alex van Warmerdam's effort is fundamentally sound. And on top of being a well-made movie, Borgman benefits from a wide collection of prominently-acted roles. Both Jan Bijvoet and Hadewych Minis give worthwhile character-defining performances that add to the feature's escalating tension. But all in all, no matter how sturdy a foundation, Borgman is unable to escape an undeniably flat finale.

Eerie, creepy, peculiar and off-beat, there's no shortage of words to describe the latest Drafthouse Films release, Borgman. A niche audience of cinephiles will certainly rejoice over this fine-tuned example of modest filmmaking. Yet, based on story and poor pacing alone, the average movie-goer should probably look elsewhere.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Film: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Starring: Seth MacFarlane and Charlize Theron (Prometheus)

Director: Seth MacFarlane (Ted)

U.S. Release: May 30th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 116 minutes

I want to preface this review by saying I've thoroughly enjoyed the previous work of writer/director and star, Seth MacFarlane. However, such a warning is about as pointless as someone who begins a rant by clarifying, "No offense, but ... ", because what's sure to follow any such introduction is clearly an offensive remark. And by now I'm sure you can rationalize exactly where I stand on A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane's anticipated follow-up to the 2012 comedy hit, Ted. Simply stated, it's an excruciating two-hour experience.

Albert (MacFarlane) is a cowardly sheep farmer who falls into depression after his long-time girlfriend dumps him for a wealthier and more courageous man. But once the druthers of frontier living in 1882 push him to the brink of trekking to California in search of a new life, a mysterious woman named Anna (Chalize Theron) arrives in town. The head-scratching duo form an unlikely bond as Anna helps Albert overcome his cowardly ways.

Seth MacFarlane has never been one for tasteful humor, and the trend continues with his latest work. In fact, with A Million Ways to Die in the West, you begin to wonder if MacFarlane has any sense of humor at all. I've been a lifelong fan of his hit animated show, Family Guy, and a supporter of the computer-generated comedy, Ted. That's why, even after witnessing the awful theatrical trailer for his newest release, I still ventured off to the movie theatre to give his film a fair assessment. If only I could turn back time, keep my $10.50 and relive those precious 2 hours of my life that I sadly lost.

My first general assumption was a cloudy skepticism that MacFarlane might not be able to act. Sure he's had an illustrious career as a comedic writer, but taking center stage is a completely different animal. But to his credit, MacFarlane actually performed quite well in the feature alongside the extremely talented and always stunning, Charlize Theron. Surprisingly, the biggest issues with A Million Ways to Die in the West revolve around a generic, overused template of a love story and a lack of substantial laughs. The film's first joke also happens to be its funniest, which remains all too fitting for a comedic blunder such as this.

As if misguided humor and a regurgitated story aren't bad enough, MacFarlane then decides to outstretch his laugh-less farce of a film to nearly two full hours. And what begins as a summer comedy flop, turns into an unbearable never-ending plea for the feature's closing credits. Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West was supposed to be one of this blockbuster season's biggest hopefuls, unfortunately it's one you'll want to avoid at all costs.

Stars: 1 star out of 4

Grade: D+