Friday, October 31, 2014

Ranking the Halloween Series

Happy Halloween everyone! This is always the best time of the year. World Series baseball is wrapping up, the NFL season is in full swing and horror movies are running rampant. Oh how I wish October would never end. Scary movies were my introduction to film. At an early age I developed an obsession with feeling frightened thanks to classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. However, nothing quite left its mark like Michael Myers and the Halloween franchise. As a loyal fan and someone who has seen each film of the series, through the good times and the bad, I've decided to devote October's Movie List of the Month to ranking each Halloween film from best to worst (click here for September's List). I hope you enjoy.

#10. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Following an unforgettable hospital scene at the conclusion of the original Halloween II where Dr. Loomis blows the building to smithereens, the powers that be hoped to take the franchise in a new Michael Myers-less direction. The result was a horrendous tale of a Halloween mask-making company with evil plans of killing as many people as possible during the holiday. I mean seriously, what's a Halloween movie without Michael Myers?

#9. Halloween II (2009)

I was as upset as anyone at news that Rob Zombie was planning on re-inventing my beloved horror franchise. But in all fairness, I didn't hate his first installment (I did have my issues with it, though). However, when Zombie released his sequel in 2009, the finished product was absolutely terrible. Michael returns to Haddonfield to find his sister and the deadly slashing continues, but what was with all the imagery  and that white horse? Absolutely ridiculous and unforgivable on Rob Zombie's part.

#8. Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

After decades of chasing his baby sister, Laurie Strode, in 2002's Halloween: Resurrection Michael Myers finally kills her off and then puts down his knife to return home for a peaceful retirement. Yet, upon his arrival back to Haddonfield he finds a reality television crew taping a haunted online episode in his home. Michael isn't too happy with this and once again goes on a murderous killing spree in the house he knows best. This 8th installment to the franchise ignored Myers' previously revealed curse and goes in its own direction, making it one of the weaker films in the series.

#7. Halloween 5 (1989)

Taking place only one year after the fourth film, Halloween 5 features Michael Myers quickly returning home to take care of his niece Jamie Lloyd (Laurie Strode's daughter who was later adopted) once and for all. Unlike any other movies in the franchise, Halloween 5 attempts to implement a small amount of comedy with its dopey police officer characters, like many other horror movies of the late 80s, but to no avail. The story takes a wild path with almost a telepathic connection between niece and murderous uncle, but Halloween 5 is still a decent watch.

#6. Halloween (2007)

In 2007 Rob Zombie completed a lifelong dream of bringing his own re-imagining of the beloved horror franchise to life. Zombie's goal was to show Michael Myers from a young age being the "perfect storm" of sorts, growing up with both internal and external forces that drive him to murdering his sister on Halloween night. While the film as a whole was solid and terrifying, Rob Zombie's Halloween was a huge deviation from John Carpenter's originally crafted tale. I never liked how Zombie felt the need to generate reasons for Michael's villainous origins. Sometimes it's just scarier to think that people are capable of such actions without any explanation at all.

#5. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Although you may have never known this, the 6th installment of the franchise starred a young Paul Rudd in one of his first feature films ever. Six years has passed since Halloween 5's cliffhanger conclusion that left audiences and fanboys scrambling to make sense of the finale. All those questions were answered in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers where the franchise labeled Michael Myers' desire to murder his family members as an ancient curse of Thorn marked by the symbol on his wrist. Despite a semi-ludicrous storyline, the film delivered enough legitimate scares and murder sequences to appease its loyal audiences.

#4. Halloween H20 (1998)

Paying homage to the franchise's origin and making some beaucoup bucks in the process, a 20 year anniversary film pitted Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode against her murderer brother once again. Halloween H20 also included performances from many young stars including Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in a brief death scene). While Halloween: Resurrection was a laughable continuation with how it altered this film's intended ending, at the time H20 was a very strong addition to this classic horror franchise.

#3. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

After a disappointing 3rd installment that alienated fans of the series. 1988 re-introduced the "Boogeyman" to audiences. As one of the strongest features in the franchise Halloween 4 watched Michael Myers return to Haddonfield to kill his niece, Jamie Lloyd. Unaware of the serial killer's presence in their small town, Myers disposes of almost the entire police department and forces the sheriff to safely board up Jamie and a bunch of others in his house. With just about no way in or out of the home, their safety is compromised since they unknowingly locked Michael inside with them. Overlooking a head-scratching finale that was initially intended to redirect the franchise yet again, Halloween 4 proves to be a fantastic scare-fest.

#2. Halloween II (1981)

Part of me feels that it's unfair to make a distinction between the two initial Halloween films. Being born in 1983 the first two features always felt like one long combined story. Seeing that the take place on the exact same night, Halloween II watches as its villain hunts Laurie Strode all the way to the hospital where she is being treated for her wounds. SPOILER ALERT: It's also this film where the audience finally discovers that Laurie is Michael's sister, a huge revelation to the story that ultimately sets up the entire franchise. Halloween II is a non-stop slasher pursuit bombarded with amazing kill scenes and an equally eerie tone as the original. 

#1. Halloween (1978)

Greatness can almost always be traced back to its origins, and the same logic applies to this iconic series of film. John Carpenter's Halloween set the slasher-movie bar and still remains as one of the most profitable features ever released ($300,000 budget and $47 million box office). We witness the transformation of a young six year-old boy into a murderer after brutally stabbing his sister to death with a kitchen knife. Then, after 15 years institutionalized by the courts, a 21 year-old Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield and terrorizes a local babysitting on Halloween night. Halloween changed the landscape of horror films and remains as a classic piece of cinema to this day. If you want to experience a spine-chilling birth of evil, than look no further than John Carpenter's Halloween

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Film: Nightcrawler

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) and Rene Russo (Thor)

Director: Dan Gilroy

U.S. Release: October 31st, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Thriller

Runtime: 117 minutes

*** Guest Review by Greg Rouleau

There’s something remarkably intriguing about Los Angeles at night.  From the beautiful skyscrapers of the downtown area, the Hollywood hills overlooking a sea of illumination, the vastness of the valley and the Pacific coast - cinematically, the “City of Angels” is a perfect backdrop for the genre of crime-thrillers.  As seen in Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral, to the recent indie Drive, there’s a pulse from the urban setting that is unmistakable.  There’s no doubt that long-time writer, Dan Gilroy, with his first foray into the directing chair, was inspired by this locale for his new film, Nightcrawler.  Gilroy’s directorial debut is a wildly entertaining thrill ride that takes its time building up to a fantastic climax in the streets of downtown LA, but the payoff is worth the price of admission alone.

Louis Bloom is a drifter trying to earn a few bucks by pawning some stolen fencing and manhole covers during a late night excursion.  During his night out he stumbles upon a freeway accident where a couple of brave cops are attempting to rescue a woman from a burning car.  Like most of us would, he can’t turn away from the gruesome scene and investigates further, but what ultimately fascinates him is the guerrilla videographer who shows up at the right time to grab some footage to sell to the morning news.  “If it bleeds – it leads”, says the journalist, played with the perfect combination of charisma and sleaze by Bill Paxton.  From that moment, Bloom becomes a dedicated “nightcrawler”, purchasing a video camera and learning the tricks of the trade as he goes, it then becomes a question of how far is he willing to go in order to get a jump on his competition? 

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, and it’s not hyperbole to say that even with an already impressive résumé, Nightcrawler is his best performance to date.  Credit Gilroy, too, for crafting such a character on the page.  A role like this in the wrong hands can easily become clichéd.  There’s an eerie calm to the way Lou operates, and conviction behind his every word.  He’s so convincing that you can imagine trusting him one moment, and the next, fearing that he may be criminally deranged.  Gyllenhaal is entering a period in his career where he could’ve succumbed to leading roles in more mainstream films, but it’s characters like this that seem to catch his eye and we’re all the better for it.

Gyllenhaal isn’t alone in the captivating performances, however, Rene Russo – wife of Gilroy - who has largely been absent for a decade now, aside from a small role in the Thor franchise – is outstanding as Nina, the editor who desperately needs a boost to her station’s ratings, and builds a relationship with the enigmatic Bloom.  Then there’s Riz Ahmed, who is a breath of fresh air and delivers an outstanding turn as Rick, Bloom’s intern.  The scenes between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are often the film’s lightest moments.

Surprisingly, with a title like Nightcrawler and a premise that deals with underground crime journalism, there are quite a few laughs throughout.  Even if it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, humor seems to find its way into many scenes.  Although the occasional laugh is welcome, you wonder if Gilroy could’ve pushed the envelope a little more when it came to the disturbing subject matter.  Without spoiling anything, there’s a pivotal scene late in the film that you have to wonder if it was altered because it may have been a little too unsettling for some.  Then there’s light media satire that presents itself, when Nina pushes the ethics of her staff to show footage that flirts with breaking the law.

Despite Dan Gilroy not being a household name, there’s plenty of impressive direction on display here.  The performances across the board are impressive and his ability to build tension throughout is quite admirable.  He also handles the few action sequences with grace.  You can color me intrigued as to what his next project may be.  It’s that time of the year when movies helmed by prestigious filmmakers start making their way into theaters to generate Oscar buzz, but it’s also a period where moviegoers are in search of some thrills because of the Halloween season.  While Nightcrawler may be flying under the radar for some, it’s absolutely the perfect marriage of the two thanks to some dazzling direction and a steady stream of thrills.

Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: A-

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2014 Philadelphia Film Festival Recap Part 2

Yesterday kicked off my first of a two-part series recapping each and every film I managed to catch at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival (click here for Part 1). Here's a look at the final eight titles that I ended up viewing.

Imperial Dreams

2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

Malik Vitthal's Imperial Dreams stood out as one of the most powerful dramas of the festival. Leading actor John Boyega gives a towering performance as Bambi, a young aspiring writer recently released from prison who's set on taking care of him son and making it out of the dangerous projects in Watts, Los Angeles. Imperial Dreams does a remarkable job of capturing the turmoil that people endure while living in poverty and trying to branch out from a criminal lifestyle. 

Teacher of the Year

2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

Matt Letscher and Keegan-Michael Key star in the laugh-filled mockumentary, Teacher of the Year. After beloved teacher Mitch Carter (Letscher) wins the California Teacher of the Year award, he's immediately confronted with a lucrative offer that could pry him away from his one true passion. The film chronicles Carter and the rest of his wacky, off-beat faculty members who offer an interesting and hilarious perspective on the current state of public education.

Wild Canaries

2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

As both the director and leading actor, Lawrence Michael Levine's caper comedy, Wild Canaries, proved to be a fun little affair. Despite a periodically irritating lead role from Sophia Takal, the film delivers laughs and intrigue. I previously enjoyed Levine's work in an old Philadelphia Film Festival selection, Detonator, and the multi-talented performer shows he can handle comedy with ease. After their elderly neighbor ends up dying mysteriously, Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine) begin to suspect foul play and put their inexperienced detective skills to work.

The Guest

2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

In the vein of absurd and off-the-wall 80s B-movies, the team behind the horror sensation You're Next returns with The Guest. If you can look past its plot holes and head-scratching story, the film is actually quite a fun thrill ride. Dan Stevens stars as David, a former soldier who ends up on the doorstep of one his fallen friend's family. Still grieving from their son's passing, the family welcomes David into their home as the mysterious stranger's back-story slowly begins to unfold.

The Last 5 Years

2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

Anna Kendrick continues to show off her pipes in the upcoming off-broadway musical adaptation from Richard LaGravenese, The Last 5 Years. The film examines all of the details surrounding the deteriorated relationship between a blossoming writer named Jamie (played by Jeremy Jordan) and his struggling actress wife, Catchy (Kendrick), in a unique fashion. Almost told entirely through song, this non-chronological story features Cathy's perspective from the end of the relationship towards the beginning, and Jamie's interpretation from the start of their romance to the conclusion, where the interweaving meets in the middle to a bitter revelation.

It Follows

2 stars out of 4 - C+

As a huge fan of scary movies (especially this time of year), I was really looking forward to the originaly premised horror tale, It Follows. The film follows a 19 year old young woman named Jay (played by Maika Monroe) who engages in an innocent sexual encounter that delivers fatal consequences. After the seemingly romantic incident, Jay awakens tied up by her captor and he reveals the shocking details that he's passed a haunting presence onto her. This presence is a slow-walking apparition that will never stop following her until she sleeps with someone else and passes it on to them. The idea is completely terrifying and translates well to the big screen, but I just wish It Follows would have taken the story to a more expansive level.

Glass Chin

1 and a half stars out of 4 - C-

Noah Buschel's non-traditional boxing tale, Glass Chin, stars Corey Stoll as a former rising boxing star named Bud Gordon whose life has been whittled done to the bare minimum. Desperate for a way back into the New York limelight, Bud takes a job with a ruthless schemer (played by Billy Crudup) who quickly turns the tables on the former boxer. Unraveling at a crawling pace and insufficiently supported by a paper-thin story, Glass Chin can't even be saved by eerily effective supporting turns from Yul Vazquez and Billy Crudup.

Big Significant Things

1 star out of 4 - D

Although the praises had been high for the self-discovery comedy, Big Significant Things, albeit from a limited number of sources, I found Bryan Reisberg's debut feature to be a hollow story with only sporadic laughs. I have no criticisms of Harry Lloyd's performance as Craig, a man who lies to his girlfriend and takes a solo road trip down south while she's on the west coast scouting out homes for their upcoming cross-country move. However, Lloyd isn't given much substance to work with and despite his grandest efforts, Big Significant Things trudges along towards a pointless conclusion to a boring story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014 Philadelphia Film Festival Recap Part 1

After outlining my Best of the Festival Picks yesterday, I thought I'd give a brief recap of all the films I had a chance to enjoy over the past 2 weeks of movie watching. First, I already reviewed a few festival selections like LaggiesBirdman, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, Wild, Escobar: Paradise Lost and The Good Lie. Here's a look at some other films I caught at the Philadelphia Film Festival:

The Mule

3 stars out of 4 - B

One of the most bizarre and incredible stories at this year's festival comes from the Aussie film, The Mule. Terrific performances from Angus Sampson (who also co-directs) and Hugo Weaving anchor a captivating movie experience. The Mule follows Ray Jenkins, a shy television repairman who agrees to help a friend smuggle heroin into Australia from Thailand. However, after acting suspicious at the airport, Ray is taken into police custody where he can be held for seven days. In a battle of wits and bodily control, Ray tries to refrain from having a bowel movement so he can avoid going to jail.


3 stars out of 4 - B

Unwavering intensity could be found at this year's festival with Yann Demange's '71. Jack O'Connell continues his breakout year with another dominating turn as a soldier trapped beyond enemy lines. O'Connell captured the attention of moviegoers with the summer indie release, Starred Up, and many are forecasting him as a Best Actor contender as the star in Angelina Jolie's Christmas release, Unbroken. However, in this latest film O'Connell plays a British soldier left to fend for himself on the violent streets of Belfast in 1971. The tension is constant and the thrills are plentiful in a fine example of action-packed filmmaking.


3 stars out of 4 - B

One of the pleasant surprises was the debut feature from filmmaker Riley Stearns entitled Faults. Stearns tells a carefully crafted story about Ansel (played convincingly by character actor Leland Orser), a down on his luck self-labeled "expert on cults". But after Leland is approached by a set of parents who claim their daughter Claire is being brainwashed by a cult, his financial predicaments force him to accept the job of deprogramming the young woman. Equal parts dark comedy and intense thriller, Mary Elizabeth Winstead carries Faults to a beautifully executed finale. While the story unravels in a quasi-predictable fashion, nothing can prepare you for the tension-filled third act that Stearns is able to capture on screen. 

Clouds of Sils Maria

3 stars out of 4 - B

More so than ever before, this year's Philadelphia Film Festival delivered an inordinate amount of female-centered films. And while I was awfully skeptical of the aging-woman drama, Clouds of Sils Maria, I can say in all honesty that I was rather impressed by wonderful performances and a strong screenplay. Juliette Binoche stars as famed actress, Maria Enders, who is asked to perform in a modern-day revival of the play that ultimately sparked her career. Yet, as 20 years have passed since then, Maria is expected to take the role of the older and more vulnerable female character. Kristen Stewart gives a career best performance alongside the always talented Juliette Binoche in an extremely honest story. 


3 stars out of 4 - B

My movie-watching concluded on Saturday October 25th with Rory Culkin's exceptional performance in the unsettling drama, Gabriel (but don't call him that). Culkin stars in the title role as a recently-released mental illness patient desperate to reconnect with his first love. The audience is forced to sit idly by as the main character gradually drifts further and further from reality. Gabriel is an uneasy and fantastic examination of mental illness and its ability to control individuals.

Love, Rosie

2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

One obvious crowd-pleaser from this year's festival was the romantic comedy, Love, Rosie. Lily Collins proves an adorable lead in the occasionally irritating story of lifelong best friends, Rosie and Alex, who have never acted on their impulses to take their relationship to the next level. While the story is delivered in a comical and charming way, Love, Rosie is a worthwhile rom-com that thankfully calls it quits before the audience decides to turn on the film.


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

As a huge fan of Mark Duplass as both an actor and filmmaker, I was very excited to catch his new horror comedy at the festival. Representing one of the finer found-footage horror stories I've seen, Creep revolves around a videographer named Aaron (played by director Patrick Brice) and the client who recruits him through a craigslist ad (Duplass). As the skin-crawling events unfold and the client's unorthodox behavior becomes unbearable, Creep begins to escalate to a whole other level. Duplass is spectacular and the finale is simply unforgettable. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Best of the Philadelphia Film Festival 2014

Now that the 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival has come and gone, I've decided to reflect on the 21 new films I watched (I saw Lynn Shelton's Laggies for a second time) and break down the best movies and performances that I experienced. Sadly, this was my first festival that didn't produce an "A" movie. However, that doesn't mean the lineup they assembled was awful because there was really only one "clunker" in all of the 21 new films I witnessed. So here they are, my selections for the Best of the Fest (not including Laggies, which ranks on my Best of Sundance list):

Best Supporting Actress

Honorable Mention: Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) and Naomi Watts (Birdman)

#3. Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

#2. Laura Dern (Wild)

and the winner is ...

Emma Stone (Birdman)

Best Supporting Actor

Honorable Mention: Yul Vazquez (Glass Chin), Karl T. Wright (Teacher of the Year) and Mark Duplass (Creep)

#3. Hugo Weaving (The Mule)

#2. Benicio Del Toro (Escobar: Paradise Lost)

and the winner is ...

Edward Norton (Birdman)

Best Actress

Honorable Mention: Lily Collins (Love, Rosie) and Anna Kendrick (The Last 5 Years)

#3. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Faults)

#2. Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria)

and the winner is ...

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Best Actor

Honorable Mention: Rory Culkin (Gabriel), John Boyega (Imperial Dreams) and Angus Sampson (The Mule)

#3. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

#2. Bill Murray (St. Vincent)

and the winner is ...

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Best Director

Honorable Mention: Yann Demange ('71), Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson (The Mule)

#3. Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

#2. Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild)

and the winner is ...

Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman)

Best Picture

Honorable Mention: Wild, Escobar: Paradise Lost, Clouds of Sils Maria'71 and Faults

#3. The Mule

and the winner is ...

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Film: Wild

Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Mud) and Laura Dern (The Fault in Our Stars)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club)

U.S. Release: December 5th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 115 minutes

This year's Closing Night selection at the Philadelphia Film Festival was Jean-Marc Vallee's latest effort, Wild. Vallee has quickly climbed the ranks as a premier filmmaker thanks to the overwhelming success of last year's Dallas Buyers Club, which went on to collect 3 Academy Awards during its memorable run. While Wild clearly doesn't have the same impact and staying-power as his previous work, Vallee once again delivers a soulful true story that stands tall enough on its own.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a divorcee whose life begins to spiral out of control following the loss of her best friend and mother (played by Laura Dern). Unable to regain her composure, Cheryl embarks on an 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail in order to confront her demons and correct her path. Yet, nothing can prepared her for the mental and physical anguish she's set to endure along the way.

It's become abundantly clear that Jean-Marc Vallee has a unique way of drawing the best possible performances out of his actors. After leading both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to their first Oscars, Vallee evokes yet another transcending performance from his leading star, Reese Witherspoon. And although she's already earned a Best Actress statue with 2005's Walk the Line, Witherspoon has never been better than she is right now, which should be enough to land her in Oscar contention once again. Wild is brilliantly acted on all accounts and supporting star Laura Dern is deserving of a mention as well. While Dern's chances at seeing some awards season recognition seem less likely, you can no longer count out a big-time performance in a Vallee picture. And speaking of the director, praises are due for the humble manor in which he approaches the subject matter. While Vallee has demonstrated that he's capable of tackling difficult directorial feats, he refuses to stroke his ego with flashy filming techniques and allows his talented cast to bring this tender true story to life.

Like the film's lead character, Cheryl Strayed, Wild is saddled with flaws as well. For a film dead-set on telling a heart-breaking story of a woman who falls into the darkest depths of despair and commits various unspeakable acts, Vallee only scratches the surface of these atrocities. Cheryl is clearly broken, but to make her pilgrimage of self-worth more effective the film would have been better suited addressing her origins in a more detailed way than the occasional flashback. Furthermore, there are a few artificial moments in Wild where the film is desperate to draw pity and sadness from the viewer rather than working hard enough to earn such feelings.

The fall and winter months always become infested with superbly acted roles in middling movies. While I feel Wild is a clear step above such a label, it certainly isn't the Oscar-level film many were hoping. Through Vallee's direction, Witherspoon gives a gutsy and authentic performance that allows this powerful story to push along through every step of her journey.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Gambler (Red Band) and Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailers

December release The Gambler, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, has debuted its first Red Band teaser trailer. The remake of Karel Reisz's 1974 film of the same name stars Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor whose gambling addiction puts him in serious danger with some ruthless gangsters. Boasting a lengthy cast of prominent talents such as John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson, there are plenty of reason for optimism with this Oscar-hopeful reboot.

The world held its collective breath at the first word of the Avengers: Age of Ultron teaser trailer. Following a stunning initial installment to the franchise, which grossed north of $1.5 billion worldwide, a darker and grittier sequel appears to be on the horizon. The team of superheroes will seemingly be divided by the ramifications of Ultron, a Tony Stark creation (in the movie not the comics) sporting advanced and evolving Artificial Intelligence that allows him to turn on these superheroes and become a menacing force. All of this could potentially pave the way for the "Civil War" storyline which has become the hottest rumor in geek-dom after word that Iron Man will be appearing in 2016's Captain America 3. No matter what the future holds, James Spader sounds freakishly intimidating as Ultron and excitement for the May 2015 release should continue to soar.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rapid Reviews: Escobar: Paradise Lost and The Good Lie

With The Philadelphia Film Festival in full swing and over a dozen new films behind me, Tuesday delivered one of the clear festival highlights, Italian-native Andrea Di Stefano's Escobar: Paradise Lost. As Stefano's directorial debut, the actor-turned-filmmaker conjures up a well-crafted fictitious tale of a Canadian-born surfing instructor named Nick (played by The Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson) who ventures to Colombia and falls in love with the niece of notorious cocaine-kingpin, Pablo Escobar.

Escobar: Paradise Lost does a wonderful job of gradually escalating the tension and sealing the deal with a gripping third act. Hutcherson solidifies himself as a formidable lead, but it's Academy Award winner Benecio del Toro who lights up the screen with a devilish-arrogance in a role that's eerily flawless. There are certainly moments when the film feels a bit too ordinary and formulaic, but Escobar: Paradise Lost soars past mediocrity thanks to a convincing cast and an intense finale.

Andrea Di Stefano's fictional biopic of sorts is set against the backdrop of landmark events in Escobar's life. And filmed in nearby Panama, the setting definitely looks the part. Arriving in select theatres on November 26th, Escobar: Paradise Lost makes for a solid movie selection.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Truth be told, I had my reservations after a first glimpse at the trailer for Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie. What appeared to be a suffocating sentimental piece headed by the queen of schmaltzy dramas, Reese Witherspoon, actually turned out to be much more than that. As a Centerpiece selection at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, The Good Lie played surprisingly well to a large crowd of attendees.

Despite the way the film has been marketed - which isn't very much, due to a newly revealed condensed release - Reese Witherspoon is by no means the central force behind The Good Lie. Instead, Falardeau makes the valiant decision of placing the focus on the lives and struggles of the movie's Sudanese refugees, simply referred to as "The Lost Boys", and utilizes Witherspoon's presence as a lighthearted balancing tool to counteract such a powerful and moving story. Witherspoon fades into the background as a reliable complement in the role of an employment agent tasked with finding jobs for these three young men who journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America in hopes of achieving a rewarding future.

Much of the film focuses on the childhoods of these Sudanese natives and the war-torn conditions that they and millions of other refugees have been forced to confront. The Good Lie directs its attention to all of the right places and ultimately tells a valuable story that tugs at the heartstrings, but by no means in excess. The Huffington Post has even labeled Falardeau's effort as "The Best Film of 2014 that you probably havent seen". While I'm not willing to go quite that far, I can confidently say that The Good Lie is worthy of a watch and a suitable choice for anyone seeking out a well-intended feel-good flick.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Imitation Game

Film: The Imitation Game

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice) and Matthew Goode (Watchmen)

Director: Morten Tyldum

U.S. Release: November 21st, 2014 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 113 minutes

Every year an unexpected film rises out of nowhere and makes its mark on the awards season race. While Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game hung quietly on prognosticators' radars, none expected it to capture the highly coveted People's Choice Award at TIFF, a recognition that instantly catapults the film into the heart of the Best Picture race. Previous winners of the award include powerhouse titles such as Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech, Silver Linings Playbook and 12 Years a Slave, so it's easy to understand the significance of such an achievement. But a larger and more important question continues loom over The Imitation Game, can the film hold off a barrage of Oscar-worthy competitors that are still awaiting their releases?

Brilliant mathematician Dr. Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is summoned to interview with military officials during the German expansion of World War II. Alan is selected as part of a secretive unit tasked with one important mission, to break the most sophisticated encryption machine the world has ever seen. Understanding that human trial and error has no chance of breaking Germany's Enigma code, Dr. Turing develops an advanced computing machine that helps the allied forces defeat the Nazis and changes the world forever.

The Imitation Game has all the makings of an Oscar-caliber film. Director Morten Tyldum brings to life an amazing true story filled with obstacles and complexities that briskly carry the feature from start to finish. And at its core rests a worthy lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, whose intricacies perfectly capture the mind of a mathematician. As a professor of mathematics at a state university in Pennsylvania, I have a first-hand view into such thinkers and Cumberbatch sells the role extremely well. Everything from Alan Turing's difficulties handling social settings to his full-fledged cognitive arrogance. Although I personally felt some of the moments were slightly overacted, Cumberbatch undoubtedly gives an accomplished performance alongside other stellar turns from castmates Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode. With yet another beautiful score from Alexandre Desplat and solid direction from Tyldum, The Imitation Game is an all-around formidable piece of cinema that will certainly find its way into many Oscar discussions.

Although The Imitation Game is a strong piece of filmmaking on various levels, one unfair criticism would be that the feature never really amazes in any particular area. Actually, the movie feels like a bit of a conundrum. For example, I commend the uptempo pacing of Tyldum's work, yet more interesting ideas and controversies surrounding Alan Turing's personal life become glossed over in order to achieve a more fluid viewing experience. While such decisions unarguably ease the responsibilities of both the filmmaker and the screenwriter, The Imitation Game becomes merely a partially told story that feels like a slight disservice to such a marvelous and significant man who has left his impression on the modern technological world.

All in all The Imitation Game is an unquestionable crowd-pleaser filled with humor, drama and everything in between. Dr. Alan Turing was a pioneer in the world of technology and a mathematical genius who helped defeat the Nazis. His story of heroics is one that is told very well throughout the film and one that everyone should know, so do yourself a favor and seek out The Imitation Game when it reaches theatres in late-November.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rapid Reviews: St. Vincent and Men, Women & Children

The Philadelphia Film Festival delivered a special treat on its Opening Night. With Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman as the main attraction, the evening also featured a viewing of Theodore Melfi's directorial debut, St. Vincent, starring the legendary comedic performer Bill Murray.

St. Vincent is a charming little film that's rough around the edges thanks to Murray's wonderful title-character turn as a grouchy Vietnam War veteran who's cornered into taking his new neighbor's son under his wing. Broke and desperate for a steady source of income, Vin becomes an unconventional babysitter of sorts as he leads young Oliver on trips to the race track and teaches the boy how to defend himself. This appealing tale transforms the typical anti-hero into a special kind of role model on the backbone of Murray's innate ability to muster up the laughs. In addition to Murray, comedic forces such as Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd offer their own bright spots to St. Vincent and the overall effect is a winning effort for the film's first-time director.

Although St. Vincent is nothing groundbreaking or exceptional, it's a solid film that's destined to please the mass audiences. Fans of Murray will not be disappointed, as the actor gives the level of performance that has an outside chance of earning him the type of awards season recognition he hasn't seen since in nearly a decade.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Just prior to the onset of the Philadelphia Film Festival, I was able to catch a screening of Jason Reitman's technology centered drama, Men, Women & Children. Reitman's career got off to a brilliant start with adored titles such as Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air, all of which represent a caliber of filmmaking that catches people's attention. However, Reitnman's more recent work has fizzles into mediocre lately with last year's Labor Day and now his newest release.

Weaving together multiple interconnected stories between local families in a small community and the effects that technology has on their lives, good or bad, Men, Women & Children is an ambitious attempt that never feels as grand as its obvious intention. Adam Sandler embraces a return to dramatic acting and performs well in his role as the husband of a distanced couple who both test the extramarital affair waters. Yet, the most intriguing story of the bunch comes from two phenomenal young talents, Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12 and Laggies), who most effectively capture the emotions of the audience. However, their gripping love story can only take the film so far and Men, Women & Children is otherwise bogged down by multiple hollow stories.

Reitman's ambition is certainly commendable, yet his final result never quite stacks up. 2013 delivered a similar themed film called Disconnect that also shed light on technology's powerful force on human life and interaction, but did so in a much more impressive fashion. While I would suggest skipping on Men, Women & Children, I highly recommend seeking out Disconnect for anyone interested in the film's subject matter.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Friday, October 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Starring: Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Emma Stone (The Help) and Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom)

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (Babel)

U.S. Release: October 17th, 2014 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 119 minutes

The 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off last night in a less than grand fashion. After an unexpected last-minute issue with the projector, a venue change was quickly arranged and delayed the evening by nearly an hour and a half. Set to jump-start the festival was Alejandro G. Inarritu's latest cinematic achievement, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Inarritu has taken the industry by storm with prior successes such as 21 Grams, Babel and the foreign hit Biutiful, so needless to say the buzz was swirling for his upcoming release. Unfortunately, for me, the expectations soared high above the finished product.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor who once ruled the entertainment world as the lead man behind the iconic superhero franchise, Birdman. Since his time atop the proverbial mountain, Riggan has faded from the limelight but is making one final attempt to reclaim past glory with the premier of his Broadway play. However, Riggan struggles to balance his overwhelming ego with a volatile new castmate (played by Edward Norton) and a crumbling family life.

Films like Birdman make for easy critiques. Guaranteed to be a polarizing watch, one that my gut believes the general public will find disappointing on many levels, Alejandro G. Inarritu's new title leaves the door open for massive amounts of discussion. On one hand, the technical accomplishments surrounding Birdman are nothing short of immaculate. Intended to feel like an uncut and unedited film, which is by no means an easy task, Inarritu's effort requires fully committed performances from all of its actors. And believe me, there is no shortage of brilliant tour de force performances here. It all begins with the feature's leading star, Michael Keaton, who shines brightest. Keaton feels like an all-around perfect fit for the role, only to be complemented by other towering performances from co-stars Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. Thankfully, each and every character is delivered with a soulful turn that ultimately keeps an otherwise damaged film afloat.

For all of Birdman's technical conquests and wonderfully acted efforts, Inarritu's film is a falsely advertised and tiresome tale. Being pitched as a dark comedy, the laughs are far too sparse to justify such a label. And for anyone expecting an action-fueled superhero-eque type of movie, you couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, Birdman straddles the line of surrealism in order to tell the unoriginal story of a man's obsession with reclaiming the spotlight and, more importantly, leaving behind a legacy. After nearly two hours of the same old song and dance, the film blows past a golden opportunity to gift wrap its message and regrettably overextends its finale in an irritating fashion.

Birdman is well deserving of its praises as a spectacular piece of filmmaking, further elevated by grand performances from a long list of gifted actors. However, Inarritu's common history of poor pacing and prolonged endings leaves a bitter mark on the film. While I entered the Philadelphia Film Festival with the belief that Birdman was a viable contender for Best Picture, I certainly have my doubts now.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A November to Remember

While I was running over my tentative movie-watching schedule for the 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow night with two high profiles films, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's powerhouse Oscar-contender, Birdman, and newcomer Theordore Melfi's St. Vincent, I began to think about the huge slate of titles coming to theatres this November. Whether you're in the mood for highly-touted festival darlings with Academy Awards aspirations or new installments to blockbuster franchises, November is sure to offer a little something for everybody.

On November 7th the wait is finally over for Christopher Nolan's long-awaited epic sci-fi drama, Interstellar. With a slow but steady stream of new footage constantly being released in all of its many theatrical trailers, moviegoers are beginning to formulate what the film's about and it could be downright spectacular.

Then, just one week later in a limited capacity, Bennett Miller's gripping dark drama, Foxcatcher, will finally arrive in theatres. As someone who's been waiting desperately for the film ever since it dropped out of last year's awards season contention, I couldn't be more excited. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo all appear to give knockout performances as a mentally ill multi-millionaire and the pair of Olympic-wrestling siblings he paid to train at his Foxcatcher Farms facility. We've officially been given our first in-depth look at Foxcatcher with the release of its newest trailer (below), and it looks to have all the makings of a major Oscar-contender.

There are plenty of other festival-circuit films coming to the big screen this November that could make a splash at the Academy Awards. First up is Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, a Centerpiece selection at this month's Philadelphia Film Festival which comes out in limited release on November 21st. The World War II drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch won the highly-regarded Audience Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Almost all of the recent winners have gone on to have successful awards season runs.

Two other Oscar-hopefuls include Jon Stewart's Rosewater (11/14 limited), which tells the story of a journalist who was unjustly imprisoned in Iran for over 100 days, and the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything (11/7 limited). Both have played marginally well on the festival circuit and have moderate to outside chances at receiving some recognition from the Academy.

And finally, if the Oscar talk is not really your "thing", there are plenty of blockbuster options coming to theatres this November as well. First up is the long-awaited sequel Dumb and Dumber To (11/14 nationwide). While I've openly denounced the idea of a follow-up feature, especially after 20 years since its initial debut, there's still no doubt that I'll venture to the movies to catch what happens next with Harry and Lloyd.

With a brand new official trailer for the comedy sequel Horrible Bosses 2 (11/26 nationwide) that's featured above, fans of the off and running franchise can look forward to its trio of imbeciles getting caught up in all crazy kinds of shenanigans once again. The last, but not least, title finding the big screen in November is the action blockbuster, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (11/21 nationwide). Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss in the first of two parts for the franchise's final story.

There will be something for everyone to enjoy this November. Make sure you take advantage of the fantastic slate of features and savor the movie-theatre experience on a big screen ... the way movies were meant to be watched.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Imitation Game and Focus Trailers

After taking home the highly coveted Audience Award from the Toronto International Film Festival, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game instantly became an early front-runner in the Best Picture race. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as English mathematician Alan Turing who built a machine that helped crack the Nazi's Enigma code and change the course of World War II. As a Centerpiece selection at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival later this month, The Imitation Game hits theatres everywhere in late-November.

In 2015, directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa return to the con-man comedy genre with Focus. After a successful indie debut with I Love You Phillip Morris, the pair of filmmakers hit it big with 2011's beloved comedy, Crazy, Stupid, Love. Their upcoming release finds Will Smith as a brilliant con artist who takes a beautiful seductress (The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie) under his wing. Things really get difficult, however, once these two untrustworthy criminals get romantically involved. Focus finds its way to the big screen in late February, 2015.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

DVD Outlook: October 2014

October has arrived and theatres everywhere are starting to fill with worthwhile options such as Gone Girl and this weekend's newcomer, Kill the Messenger. But if you've already muscled through all of September's exceptional DVD selections, this month also has plenty of stellar titles to choose from. Here are a few films definitely worth checking out on DVD throughout October.

Million Dollar Arm - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

I know what you're thinking. Here's another hokey and overly sentimental sports story from the Disney collection, but you couldn't be further from the truth. Million Dollar Arm tells an interesting true story of a financially strapped sports agent (played by Jon Hamm) who takes one last shot at tapping into the Indian market for the next wave of MLB pitching prospects. While there, he discovers two talented young men desperate to try anything in order to turn their fortunes around. Outside of a remarkable true tale, Million Dollar Arm boasts a plethora of fun and lovable characters that add an enormous amount of charm to the feature. It's in no way one of the greatest sports movies of all-time, but the film does stand out as a worthy viewing option. (October 7th)

Begin Again - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my condensed review here)

Best known for his 2006 romantic Irish movie musical, Once, director John Carney continues to embrace the music theme in this year's film, Begin Again. Mark Ruffalo stars as Dan, a binge-drinking record executive who's fired from the same company he helped build. Across the city Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a talented musician whose boyfriend (played by Maroon 5's Adam Levine) is becoming a huge star. After he breaks off their relationship, Gretta performs an original song at a small bar in the city where Dan catches the performance and it ignites a desire to make a record. Together they embark on a journey of rediscovery and musical passion. Begin Again is full of laughs, emotion and redemption. Begin Again tells a simple, yet tender, story that's delivered well thanks to strong performances from its leading duo. (October 28th)

The Grand Seduction - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (No review available)

One of the finest goofball comedies of the year was Don McKellar's, The Grand Seduction. A personal favorite of mine, the underrated Brendan Gleeson, stars as Murray French, an aging and unemployed resident of a tiny fishing village called Tickle Cove. When Murray discovers that his village needs a doctor in order to secure a local contract for a factory that will help save Tickle Cove from financial disaster, the community bands together to lure a young physician (Taylor Kitsch) into sticking around. The Grand Seduction is full of legitimate laughs that help ease an otherwise long-winded affair. Gleeson, Kitsch and company all play their parts very well and help elevate The Grand Seduction into a well-made crowd-pleaser. (October 7th)

Honorable Mention: Two major titles I haven't seen but keep hearing rave reviews about are X-Men: Days of Future Past (10/14) and the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer (10/21). At Sundance I enjoyed the George Takei documentary To Be Takei (10/7) and the indie comedy Obvious Child (10/7) proved to be a breakout for its female lead, Jenny Slate. Mediocre efforts like Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow (10/7) and the horror sequel The Purge: Anarchy (10/21) find their way to DVD this month as well. And finally, I recommend staying away from the new Seth MacFarlane comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West (10/7) and the indie zombie comedy Life After Beth (10/21) but both films are also available in October.

Monday, October 6, 2014

American Sniper and Interstellar (NEW) Trailers

Clint Eastwood's directing career has been on a bit of a down swing lately after misfires such as Jersey Boys, J. Edgar and Hereafter. But Eastwood's at it again this year with American Sniper, a Navy SEAL's (Bradley Cooper) account of the 150+ confirmed kills during his military career. And as this debut teaser trailer confirms, the situations and intensity turn American Sniper into an eye-opening examination of an usual and sometimes difficult career path.

We're only about a month out from Christopher Nolan's latest work, Interstellar. A more dramatic and ambitious effort finds Matthew McConaughey as a masterful pilot who joins a team of explorers on a mission to the far reaches of outer space in order to discover a new world capable of sustaining human life after Earth's resources begin to dwindle. Nolan put his stamp on the superhero genre with his The Dark Knight trilogy, and this November he hopes to do the same with an epic sci-fi adventure like nothing we've ever scene. Be sure to check out the newest Interstellar trailer below.