Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Inherent Vice and The Wedding Ringer (NEW) Trailers

Legendary filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson returns quicker than usual with his latest work, Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry "Doc" Sportello, a quirky L.A. detective who begins to look into the disappearance of his former girlfriend. Adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice is clearly on the awards season radar for just about everyone.

Early in 2015 Kevin Hart will team up with the underrated Josh Gad in The Wedding Ringer. Gad stars as a friendless groom who hires the most impressive "Best Man" that money can buy (Hart) to help create a wonderful wedding experience. The Wedding Ringer has all the makings of a hilarious buddy-buddy comedy and you can catch it's latest trailer below.

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 Philadelphia Film Festival Preview

In about two and a half weeks the City of Brotherly Love will be kicking off its 23rd annual film festival. Bringing hundreds of the finest festival circuit films from all over the world, this year's lineup features everything from lesser known indie movies, to an animated Disney title, to some potential heavyweight Oscar contenders. For more information on the festival visit the Philadelphia Film Society's website and, as this year's tagline reads, "see something you'll never forget". Now, here's a look at the movies I'm most eager to catch during this 11 day film-watching frenzy.

Honorable Mention: Mumblecore legend Mark Duplass stars in the horror-comedy Creep. Benicio Del Toro stars as the drug kingpin in Escobar: Paradise Lost. With a cast of relatively unknowns, I'm excited for the raved about new horror title It Follows. Rory Culkin has been the talk of the festival circuit for his role in the drama Gabriel. Up and comer John Boyega has also been praised for yet another fine turn in the inner city drama Imperial Dreams.

Reese Witherspoon stars in the seemingly sentimental drama The Good Lie. She stars as an employment agency counselor who gets more than she bargains for when a trio of Sudanese refugees resettle in the United States. While I'd normally tread lightly with some skepticism for a potential hokey tale such as this, after the success of a similar story in this year's Million Dollar Arm, I'm willing to allow a little excitement for a more mainstream title such as The Good Lie.

#4. Wild

More so than you might realize, Reese Witherspoon is taking a page of out Matthew McConaughey's "how to have a career resurgence" book. The rom-com queen is even teaming up with last year's Dallas Buyers Club director, Jean-Marc Vallee, in this year's character-driven tale, Wild. Many have lauded Witherspoon's earnest Oscar-caliber performance as a woman embarking on an 1,100 mile hike as a means to recover from a recent tragedy. It will be interesting to see if the actress can find the same kind of results that McConaughey did during an amazing Oscar-winning run last year.

Let's just say, "you had me at Bill Murray". One of the funniest men on earth stars as a grumpy old war vet who's desperate for a paycheck, so he agrees to look after his new next door neighbor and single-mother's son after school. Murray could be in play for the seemingly crowded Best Actor category, but even if not, St. Vincent is guaranteed to muster up some laughs thanks to Murray and co-stars Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd and Naomi Watts. Count me in!

After experiencing the first trailer for Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, I shrugged my shoulders and thought it could go either way. However, at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Tyldum's picture walked away the most-coveted awards season indicator on the festival circuit, the Audience Award. Recent winners of the honor include 12 Years A Slave, Silver Linings Playbook, The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, all of which went on to become major Oscar contenders. The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, an English mathematician who helped crack the Nazi's Enigma code during World War II and altered the course of history. Needless to say, my interest level has spiked and I can't wait to catch this potential big player.

#1. Birdman

The good news is, I won't have to wait very long to catch my most anticipated film of the festival, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman. The Opening Night selection stars Michael Keaton as a former washed up superhero movie star determined to overcome his ego and family problems as he constructs a Broadway play intended to revive his career. Critics and audiences alike have adored Birdman, which appears to be in play for many major awards including Best Actor for Michael Keaton. Joining Keaton to form an unbelievably impressive cast are Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. I am pumped for this dark comedy and all the other titles mentioned above. The only thing left to do is let the countdown to Opening Night begin ... tick tock.

Note: There are a trio of films I viewed at Sundance that are also worthy of mentioning. First there's Laggies, a unique look into the difficulties facing the late-twenties generation and that awkward phase where it's time to move forward with your life. As usual, Sam Rockwell steals the film. Also, Listen Up Philip (starring Jason Schwartzman) and Song One (starring Anne Hathaway) were a pair of titles I enjoyed that will be playing in Philadelphia as well.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Film: Kill the Messenger

Starring: Jeremy Renner (American Hustle) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed)

Director: Michael Cuesta

U.S. Release: October 10th, 2014 (Limited - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 112 minutes

Brace yourself, because we could be in for a fantastic finish to the 2014 cinematic year. With an extensive list of highly anticipated features that begin with next weekend's release, David Fincher's Gone Girl, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. But for me, the first film up is one I highlighted in my Fall Oscar PreviewHomeland director Michael Cuesta's adapted biopic, Kill the Messenger.

Two-time Academy Award Nominee Jeremy Renner stars as San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, an investigative journalist who exposed the CIA and Reagan administration for their voluntary involvement in the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic that swept across the country during the 1980s. However, Webb quickly discovered that publishing such a story and taking on the U.S. government would be an uphill battle. The reporter accused the CIA of using their friends at the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times to question the story's credibility and generate a widespread media-driven smear campaign that ultimately left Webb as a pariah in the journalist community.

In the court of public opinion, everyone deserves a chance to defend themselves and have their side of the story told. For the late Gary Webb, Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger represents that opportunity. While many will argue that Webb's monumental reporting was reckless and lacked professionalism, Jeremy Renner's towering performance convinces modern day audiences of just the opposite. Renner, whose latest work begs for awards season recognition, does an exceptional job in the lead role and single-handedly carries Cuesta's film from start to finish. Unfortunately for the leading star, 2014's Best Actor race appears to be a crowded competition that could find Renner on the outside looking in. Nonetheless, a gutsy and valiant portrayal assists an incredibly entertaining and multi-layered story. As a strong motion picture directorial debut from Michael Cuesta, Kill the Messenger is a compelling and well-made piece of cinema that's guaranteed to satisfy conspiracy-craving audiences and beyond.

Despite the glaring successes from the feature, Kill the Messenger struggles in a few key areas. Its finale is rather anti-climactic, however, the real-life story culminates in the exact same fashion. In addition, the first half of the film paces extremely well and builds nicely, giving the third act a dragging and sluggish feel by comparison. Yet, Kill the Messenger easily hurdles these faults and results in a finely executed and well-rounded film from the entire team involved.

For a cinematic year that could be flooded with copious amounts of superior titles, Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger kicks off the late season run in grand fashion. And if not for an engaging and gripping true story, you'll want to catch this film for Jeremy Renner's wonderful performance. Opening in limited release this October, it's worth checking out Kill the Messenger.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Interview (Red Band) and Men, Women & Children Trailers

After their wildly successful go-around with 2013's This Is the End, James Franco and Seth Rogen return with the insanely premised, The Interview. The duo star as a producer (Rogen) and popular television host (Franco) who are granted an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But when the CIA shows up at their doorstep requesting that they assassinate the U.S. enemy, the unlikely pair of heroes agree to risk their lives and "take out" the threat. The Interview opens on Christmas and appears to have all the makings of another vulgar comedy hit.

On a more serious note, director Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children has also released another extended trailer. Boasting an impressive cast which features Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemary Dewitt, as well as young talent Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, Reitman's latest effort examines the widening effect of living in an internet-driven age. Men, Women & Children blends together dramatic stories with multiple perspectives on how technology influences the lives of adults and teenagers alike. Arriving to theatres in mid-October, check out the trailer below.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Big Eyes and A Most Violent Year Trailers

Love him or hate him, Tim Burton has made plenty of memorable movies throughout the course of his lengthy career. This year, some anticipate that Burton will restore his Oscar-level of filmmaking with the upcoming biopic, Big Eyes. Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane, a timid female artist whose husband (Christoph Waltz) claimed credit for all of her popular paintings during the 1950s and 1960s. Big Eyes appears to have the makings of something special with two perennial Oscar-contending performers (Adams and Waltz), as well as Burton's unique vision to a truly captivating story.

In other potential Oscar news, a first look into J.C. Chandor's crime-fused drama, A Most Violent Year, has been unleashed unto the masses. While some were beginning to think the film might drop from awards season contention, Chandor and company have made it known they're releasing the work in late December. Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain star as a married couple and business owners living in New York City during 1981, what's been widely chronicled as the most violent year in the city's history. With details at a minimum and only a teaser trailer to satisfy our craving, check out a brief look into A Most Violent Year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Best Comedians Turned Dramatic Actors

At this year's Sundance Film Festival one of the most talked-about premiers was Craig Johnson's drama, The Skeleton Twins. Starring a pair of Saturday Night Live alumni in Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, everyone was shockingly impressed with how easily the comedians transitioned to dramatic roles. And while The Skeleton Twins opened in limited release this past week to overwhelmingly positive reviews, I've decided to devote September's Movie List of the Month to the Greatest Comedians Turned Dramatic Actors (click here for August's List).

Honorable Mention: Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me), Will Ferrell (Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go) and Patton Oswalt (Young Adult and Big Fan).

#5. Steve Carell

Between Steve Carell and Adam Sandler, I debated my fifth selection a lot. While Sandler garnered a little more recognition with his Golden Globe Nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, I may be forecasting the huge expectations from Carell's upcoming work in the Oscar contender Foxcatcher. Outside of Carell's highly anticipated sinister performance, his overlooked roles in the indie sensations Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back form a strong foundation for Carell's dramatic flair. After beginning as a side reporter on Jon Stewart's comedy infused news hit, The Daily Show, Carell has branched out well and his upcoming Oscar-level performance as the wealthy murderer John du Pont is guaranteed to boost the actor's career.

#4. Bill Murray

I bet many of you are thinking that ranking the great comedic genius, Bill Murray, in the fourth spot is a slap in the face to the adored actor. Although I am a huge fan of Murray's brilliant comedy work over the years in classics such as Caddyshack, What About Bob? and Groundhog Day (just to name a few), I haven't been enamored with all of his typically-mentioned dramatic performances. The default film would have to be Sofia Coppola's overrated snoozer, Lost in Translation, which landed Murray his one and only Academy Award Nomination. However, I was more impressed with some of his other dramatic roles in films like Get Low (of which I've been a huge outspoken fan) and Hyde Park on Hudson (despite being a weak overall film). The longtime Saturday Night Live cast member has really made a name for himself, but his comedies far outshine his dramas, leaving him a little lower on my list. 

#3. Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx has evolved from a skinny young jokester who broke onto the scene in the short-lived sketch comedy series, In Living Color, into an Oscar-winning and multi-talented celebrity. Foxx has always had a knack for generating laughs, but after a dramatic beginning in Oliver Stone's long-winded football drama, Any Given Sunday, the gifted actor transformed himself into a spitting image of legendary pianist Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic, Ray. Foxx was instantly propelled to stardom and has followed up his Academy Award Winning performance with other dramas such as Collateral (for which he was also nominated), Dreamgirls, The Soloist and Django Unchained. This lengthy and impressive filmography illustrates just how remarkable of a transition Foxx has been able to make over the course of his career.

#2. Jim Carrey

Much like Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey also got his start on the series In Living Color. His goofball characters like Fire Marshall Bill and Vera de Milo helped spark a string of successful comedies such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber and Liar Liar. And then, out of nowhere, Carrey made a 180 with his career and tackled dramatic roles in films like The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and The Majestic. Audiences and critics alike grew fond of his transformation, leading to what many argue as Carrey's peek performance in the 2004 indie classic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All in all, Carrey is yet to receive recognition from the Academy Awards (despite his best efforts as a homosexual con man alongside Ewan McGregor in I Love You Phillip Morris), but a long history of Golden Globe success (including two wins and four other nominations) helps warrant his high ranking on my list.

#1. Robin Williams

While the unexpected loss of Robin Williams still feels like a fresh wound, his legacy will forever remain as the greatest comedian-turned-actor of all time. As such a special and rare funny-man, Williams molded a successful stint as a stand-up comedian into a fantastic film career. By the early 1990s he had secured himself as one of Hollywood's biggest talents after work in films such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. Mainly Williams branded himself as someone capable of blending together the highest levels of both comedy and drama in his roles, something evident in fan favorites like Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire. However, it wasn't until 1997's Good Will Hunting where he finally was able to put that long-awaited exclamation point on his career with an Oscar-winning performance in Gus Van Sant's drama. Williams' towering onscreen work in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's award-winning screenplay was simply unforgettable. It takes a remarkably talented individual to excel in both the areas of comedy and drama. No one has ever been as impressive at doing so as the late-great Robin Williams. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

THG: Mockingjay - Part 1 and Serena Trailers

One of the largest franchises in Hollywood returns this November with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. In the newest installment, Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss in District 13 after she destroys the games forever and is forced to safe Peeta and a nation looking to her for courage. Here's the first extended look into what we can expect from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1.

It's a busy year for the mega-star Jennifer Lawrence as she also stars as the title character in the upcoming Depression-era drama, Serena. George Pemberton (played by Bradley Cooper) is forced to consider the future of his timber empire after discovering that his wife, Serena, can't have children. This long awaited drama is set for a European release this Fall and, although its U.S. premier hasn't been determined yet, Serena's star-power makes it worth monitoring. Check out the feature's debut trailer below.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Best of 2014 ... So Far (Part II)

Yesterday I began a short two-part series taking a look at the Top 10 films released in 2014 so far. Numbers 6 through 10 included some early year comedies, some brand new September releases and a money-making summer blockbuster. But before the wave of Fall Oscar contenders begin crashing into theatres all across the country, here are my 5 best films of 2014 so far.

I'd be the first to admit that I had zero interest in another Marvel superhero franchise sweeping across the globe. However, they got it right with Guardians of the Galaxy. Superior even to the overly-loved Avengers, the latest team of misfit superheros provided enormous laughs without watering down its running time with useless action sequences. After Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) discovers a mysterious orb in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, he becomes the target of a manhunt led by the evil fanatic Ronan. Peter must team up with an unlikely group of not-so superheros featuring an assassin named Gamora, a muscled-up maniac named Drax, a vulgar raccoon named Rocket, and a tree-like creature known as Groot. Together they must unite to save the galaxy from Ronan's powerful destruction. Director James Gunn offers a winning formula of hilarity and tasteful thrills that's sure to generate many future Guardians of the Galaxy installments.

On one hand, I'll never understand what sick and self-torturing audiences crave seeing intentionally sad and emotional pieces of work like this summer's The Fault in Our Stars. But on the other hand, when such a film successfully delivers its power message in an entertaining (albeit heartbreaking) way, I finally "get it". Adapted from a 2012 John Green novel of the same name, Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a cynical 16 year-old girl stricken with a form of thyroid cancer that has compromised her lungs and forces her to travel around with an oxygen tank. While at a cancer support group she literally bumps into Augustus Waters (played by Ansel Elgort), a care-free and spirited young man who possess a prosthetic due to his form of cancer. Together they experience a profound love that can only be highlighted by a crippling backdrop of sickness and inevitable loss. Powerful performances by both young leads transforms The Fault in Our Stars from a hokey tearjerker into a beautiful examination of love.

One of the most unlikely finalists on my Top 10 list comes in the form of the festival circuit favorite, Cheap Thrills. Pat Healy stars as Craig, a hardworking husband and father struggling to make ends meet. But on the same day he loses his job and receives an eviction notice, Craig wanders into a local bar to drown his sorrows before confronting his wife with the terrible news. While there he runs into an old friend (played by Ethan Embry) and a mysterious couple who have an intriguing game in mind. They decide to offer some high stakes to see just how far these old friends are willing to go for a massive pay-day. With an escalating madness and desperation that's beautifully paced into an 88 minute thrill-ride, clever writing and a knockout role from Pat Healy leave Cheap Thrills as one of the finest thrillers in recent memory.

2. Chef

Attempting the rare feat of writing, directing and starring in his own film, Jon Favreau delivers one of 2014's most memorable movies, Chef. Carl Casper rules the kitchen in an upscale restaurant, but when he decides to deviate from the normal menu in order to impress a powerful food critic, the restaurant owner gives him an ultimatum. So rather than losing his job, Carl sticks the the routine menu and receives a terrible review. After a social media feud that spirals out of control, Carl quits his job and desires to find a way to make a profit off of his creative culinary freedom, all while trying to build a connection with the son he hardly knows. Not only does Chef offer a zestful soul-searching message of inner happiness, the film pairs that together with a fantastic father-son story that never disappoints. Providing legitimate laughs and a heartwarming tale, Chef stands out as one of 2014's finest cinematic offerings.

There has never been a film quite like Richard Linklater's Boyhood. The ambitious 12 year project featured Linklater shooting his entire film in bits and pieces for more than a decade, creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) is a starry-eyed boy whose life unfolds before your very eyes. We see Mason's beginnings as a young child of divorce and his mother's attempt at trying to create a whole new family environment after she falls for one of her college professors. All of these experience shape Mason's perspective on life as he matures towards adulthood. It's difficult trying to capture the right words to describe the groundbreaking achievement that is Boyhood. Linklater is a true visionary who creates a unique coming-of-age-tale that's sure to top many critics' end of the year lists.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Best of 2014 ... So Far (Part I)

As we approach the middle of September, we're about to head into the Fall movie season where dozens of Oscar hopefuls will battle for a chance to reign supreme. But before that happens, I've decided to spend the next two days breaking down my Top 10 Films of 2014 (so far). As it happens every year, many of these early-year releases and summer blockbusters will fade into the background and never find their way to my final list of 2014 in late-December. So if you're seeking a title or two to catch in the upcoming weeks, here's the first portion of this year's releases that you'll want to check out.

(Disclaimer: I haven't seen seen some of the highly regarded superhero films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Honorable Mention: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Blue Ruin, Oculus and Million Dollar Arm.

Back in April we were given one of the year's finest comedies, and you probably didn't even know it. Funny men Nick Frost (The World's End) and Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids) star as co-workers rivaling for the affection of their attractive new boss (played by Rashida Jones). And when they discover her hidden love of salsa dancing, Bruce (Frost) attempts to recapture the dance floor skills from his childhood and out-duel his confident jerk of a co-worker. The laughs are endless and a hilarious surprise supporting turn from up-and-comer Kayvan Novak helps propel Cuban Fury well beyond the average comedy.

Next up on my list is another more high-profile comedy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall director, Nicholas Stoller. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne star as the Radners, a younger married couple and parents of a baby girl who are struggling to hold onto their youthful energy. However, when a fraternity lead by Teddy and Pete (Zac Efron and Dave Franco) purchases the house next door, the Radners quickly discover their appreciation for adulthood and will do whatever it takes to get rid of their annoying neighbors. Relying on large volumes of raunchy and vulgar humor obviously generated through tons of improvised footage, Neighbors is never short on laughs and outrageous one-liners.

There are a couple newcomer releases on this list, first is this weekend's debut feature, The Drop. Author Dennis Lehane has witnessed successful adaptations of his stories such as Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island. Lehane's latest offering comes from a short story called Animal Rescue that's been molded into The Drop, the tale of a bartender from Brooklyn (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) who are robbed at gun point after closing time. Their Chechen bar owners aren't very understanding of the predicament and demand repayment all while local investigators begin snooping around. Sporting top-notch performances from its leading pair and a unique story, The Drop certainly stands out among the crowd.

The 2014 crop of Sundance Film Festival selections proved to be a stellar group. One of the most notable features to debut in Park City, Utah was this weekend's limited release, The Skeleton Twins. Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play a pair of siblings who are brought together under a set of unfortunate circumstances after not speaking to each other for nearly a decade. They both discover the imperfections in their lives and struggle to offer mutual support when difficulties begin to mount. Wiig and Hader both deliver brilliant blends of both comedy and drama in their career defining performances. The Skeleton Twins tells an honest and forthright story that only translates as well as it does thanks to a gifted pair of lead performers.

After a successful origin film in 2011, the Planet of the Apes franchise continues on in grand fashion with this summer's blockbuster addition. Following the spread of a virus that's wiped out a large portion of mankind, genetically evolved apes escape deep into the woods and established a harmonious community together. But as a colony of humans expand their search for a much-needed power source to provide electricity, they encounter the community of apes. While Caesar tries his best to work in conjunction with the humans, peace proves too difficult to maintain and a battle between humans and apes must wage on. Sleek writing sets the stage for an insightful and psychological story that transcends the stereotypical blockbuster action flick, clearly marking Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as one of the year's finest offerings.

*** Stay tuned for tomorrow when I headline the Top 5 Films of 2014 ... so far.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fury (NEW) and Horrible Bosses 2 Trailers

A lot has changed over the last six weeks when I outlined my Fall Oscar Preview. Action connoisseur David Ayer's highly anticipated and presumed awards season contender, Fury, has pushed its release date up a month to October 17th. Brad Pitt stars as an army sergeant in command of a Sherman tank unit who's forced to lead his team on a deadly mission in Europe against the Nazis during World War II. Check out the new trailer for Fury below.

On a much lighter note, Warner Bros. Pictures has released another sneak peak into the comedy sequel Horrible Bosses 2. The same dim-witted trio attempt to start their own business until a ruthless investor (Christoph Waltz) foils their dreams. So Dale, Kurt and Nick retaliate the only way they know how, by scheming a lucrative kidnapping plan against their nemesis. Scheduled for a November 25th release date, you can catch the trailer for Horrible Bosses 2 below.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Drop

Film: The Drop

Starring: Tom Hardy (Lawless), James Gandolfini (Enough Said) and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus)

Director: Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead)

U.S. Release: September 12th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

Surprisingly, it's been nearly 15 months since we lost the gifted actor James Gandolfini. And with his final onscreen performance in the upcoming crime-drama The Drop reaching theatres this weekend, for movie lovers everywhere, only now is the reality of our loss beginning to sink in. Adapted from the Dennis Lehane (author of Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River) short story titled Animal Rescue, Gandolfini's sadly short-lived career comes full circle in this mob-centered tale.

Tom Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, a loner bartender at his cousin Marv's (James Gandolfini) former bar in Brooklyn. The dive-bar establishment is now owned by Chechen mobsters as a haven for funneling illegal funds. After Bob and Marv are robbed at gun point one evening just minutes after closing time, tensions start to rise as the Chechens demand repayment and local law enforcement gets involved.

I must admit that I had wavering expectations prior to viewing Michael Roskam's The Drop. On one hand, Dennis Lehane's storytelling has a long history of success, yet, Roskam's lack of experience made him feel like an unusual choice for director. Thankfully, The Drop's sequence of events unravels nicely and a brilliant cast, carried mostly by the work of James Gandolfini and a personal favorite of mine, Tom Hardy, helps solidify the directorial effort from a rather unknown filmmaker. As expected, Gandolfini delivers a very natural performance in his final role, one that has a chance of garnering a posthumous Oscar Nomination in the Supporting Actor category. Most impressive though is how The Drop distances itself from being a carbon copy of the mainstream gangster film mold that prides itself on drugs, violence and plenty of shoot-em-up scenes. Instead, the feature uses these essential mob-genre ingredients merely as a backdrop to an in-depth character study. And although the pacing feels sluggish at times, we're left with a slow-mounting intensity that builds beautifully.

Despite the film's unique character-driven noir-ish tone, The Drop tells a very peculiar tale, one that leads to many surprises and leaves the audience unsure of how to feel. For example, during a pivotal moment at last night's screening, a majority of viewers erupted into laughter during an admittedly odd scene. While I highly doubt that humor was anything close to the reaction director Michael Roskam was going for during that vital moment, a strange turn in the story left moviegoers baffled at how to respond. Furthermore, The Drop closes with an almost contradictory scene that I felt the movie could have done without. However, none of these criticisms are glaring enough to tear down an otherwise fine adaptation from the entire cast and crew.

I would hardly call Michael Roskam's The Drop a "must-see" film. However, fans of Gandolfini and Hardy are sure to find plenty of enjoyment in their latest crime-focused feature. Don't expect anything groundbreaking here, just a stellar collection of performances and clever storytelling.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

DVD Outlook: September 2014

The barren Summer months of watered-down releases have finally come and gone. August left much to be desired, but September promises to deliver a fantastic collection of films arriving on DVD. Two of 2014's finest early-year offerings headline a strong class of titles work checking out this month.

Chef - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Jon Favreau puts all of his many talents on display as the writer, director and star of Chef, a heartwarming tale of a culinary genius desperately searching for a reasonable platform to creatively express his passion for cooking. And after a difference in opinion with his boss and a twitter battle with one of the most powerful food critics around costs him his job, he embarks on a food-truck journey with his chef-sidekick (played by John Leguizamo) and son. With a budget of merely $10 million, this little festival darling tells a story that is both tender and uplifting. Chef stands tall as one of 2014's finest films and an experience that everyone savor. (September 30th)

The Fault in Our Stars - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Another very impressive film coming to DVD this September is Josh Boone's adapted teenage drama, The Fault in Our Stars. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort star as Hazel and Gus, a pair of ill teenagers who meet at a cancer support group. And no matter how much Hazel tries to distance herself from Gus to avoid an inevitable heartbreak, the witty and spry young man refuses to give up so easily. Catering to the emotions and intended to tug at the heartstrings, there's no escaping the remarkable love story at the center of The Fault in our Stars. (September 16th)

Neighbors - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read full review here)

One of 2014's most notable comedies will be hitting shelves this month as well. Nicholas Stoller's riotous R-rated comedy, Neighbors, follows a young married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) who's surprised to discover that a fraternity has purchased the house next door to them. Tip-toeing a fine line between adulthood and the college-lifestyle, they soon realize that they can't keep up with party habits of their neighbors (Zac Efron and Dave Franco). High on improv comedy and desperate to deliver the shock-appeal, Neighbors is an indisputably hilarious effort that even culminates with a well-intended message. If you're seeking some raunchy laughs, then look no further. (September 23rd)

Honorable Mention: While I unsatisfied with Godzilla (9/16) and suggest staying away from Draft Day (9/2) altogether, there are plenty of other secondary titles worth looking in to. A ton of praise has been given to one of 2014's highest grossing films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (9/9), so fans of the Marvel Universe will want to check that out. Various Sundance selections I got a chance to view include God's Pocket (9/9), which is a fun watch for people from the Philly area, Cold in July (9/30), a highly praised festival favorite that I didn't love, and the decent family drama Hellion (9/30). Three other indie titles I'm interested in seeing are Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves (9/2), Guy Pearce in The Rover (9/23) and James Franco in Palo Alto (9/9).