Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Focus and The Lazarus Effect

Once upon a time Will Smith was a Hollywood "untouchable". And then the former king of summer fizzled out, leaving a four-year gap in between 2008 and 2012 where he disappeared from the spotlight altogether. Even since his return to the big screen, audiences having been clamoring for a fresh start from the same megastar they used to know and love. Well now, in co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's new con-man drama, Focus, we're given glimpses of the Will Smith of old.

Nicky (Smith) is a veteran con-man born into the business by his father and grandfather at a very young age. And after taking a beautiful young amateur con-artist named Jess (The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie) under his tutelage, they become romantically involved. Yet, Nicky's deceptive lifestyle as a liar by trade makes falling in love a bit of a messy situation.

Ficarra and Requa are a superb writing and filmmaking tandem that rely heavily on the "twist" in their work. As their third collaborative feature, Focus takes bits and pieces from their first two efforts, Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris, by molding together a solid love story with clever caper-movie elements. The result is an entertaining and fairly unpredictable tale that makes for a gratifying ride. Probably the weakest of all their works, Focus still manages to hold the viewer's attention with frequent humor and periodic twists to keep you on your toes.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Mark Duplass is a fantastic voice in independent film. As a versatile writer, director and actor, Duplass has left this mark on meaningful films such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Having caught Duplass as the show-stealer in the indie horror film, Creep, on last year's film festival circuit, I became slightly intrigued by his newest and more mainstream work, The Lazarus Effect.

Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are a pair of engaged scientists who head a grant-funded research team whose work has evolved into a Lazarus serum that they believe could bring people back from the dead. What begins as a trial on dogs and other animals quickly spirals out of control when a freak accident in the lab unexpectedly takes Zoe's life. However, refusing to accept the loss of his loved one, Frank injects her with the serum and brings her back to life, only to discover that Zoe isn't the same person she once was.

The Lazarus Effect is a strange blend of Frankenstein meets Carrie crossed with a tiny element of Nightmare on Elm Street, but all in a less that satisfying way. Relying on cheap PG-13 scares and demonstrating some serious writing deficiencies, The Lazarus Effect boasts an intriguing premise and very little else. As expected, Duplass delivers another fully committed performance that's unfortunately squandered by weaknesses scattered all throughout the rest of the project.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

2015 Oscars Recap

I just turned 32 years old. I know, it's scary stuff! But through all of the knee troubles I've been experiencing lately and getting married not too long ago in the summer of 2014, nothing has made me recognize my aging as much as fighting desperately to stay awake through Sunday night's long-winded Academy Awards ceremony.

Despite over-extending itself way too far, this year's Oscars offered many iconic moments. Neil Patrick Harris received a passing grade for his first-time hosting duties, Lady Gaga proved she has an amazing set of pipes on her, and a long list of first-time winners delivered memorable acceptance speeches that showed how truly grateful they were for their big prizes.

The Academy Awards has a difficult job of annually recognizing the best of world cinema. And while many (including myself) were excited about all of the tight races that could go any which way on Sunday night, the Oscars managed to be fairly predictable yet again. Outside of perhaps the night's biggest upset, Big Hero 6 taking down How to Train Your Dragon 2 in the Best Animated Feature showdown, all the of major races went in favor of the frontrunners (no matter how slight of an advantage they were given).

Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel stood tallest with four wins apiece. However, to steal an NCAA basketball phrase, quality of wins matters as Birdman captured Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Sundance winner and indie sensation, Whiplash, took home a trio of statues including a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor title for J.K. Simmons.

Also, in as fair a showing as possible, it was interesting to notice that each of the eight Best Picture nominees took home a piece of hardware. The Theory of Everything was honored for leading man Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of ALS sufferer and renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, Boyhood's Patricia Arquette stirred up the crowd during her acceptance speech, The Imitation Game won Best Adapted Screenplay, Selma was recognized for its Original Song, and American Sniper reigned triumphant in the Sound Editing race.

The Academy certainly spread the wealth this year and it was extremely fitting for such a strong crop of films. Even Christopher Nolan's epic time and space adventure, Interstellar, claimed a victory in the Visual Effects category (for a full list of winners click here).

So as we rewind the clocks for another cinematic year, we can only hope that next year's Oscars will run a little faster! Well, that and a win for Leo (finally)!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions

It has been a year in the making, but Tinseltown's biggest event gets underway this Sunday evening. The Academy Awards are the pinnacle of any cinematic year, and you can guarantee that tonight will offer a few surprises. More so than any other year in recent memory, there are a lot of major races completely up for grabs. Birdman vs. Boyhood, Keaton vs. Redmayne, Inarritu vs. Linklater, your guess is as good as mine in these too close to call competitions. But just in case you have no idea which way the Oscar voters will lean, here are my predictions on how tonight will unfold:

Best Picture

Winner - Birdman

There was a time not so long ago when it felt as though Boyhood would be unbeatable in the Best Picture category. However, recent momentum with huge SAG, DGA and PGA wins have put Birdman in the driver's seat.

Best Director

Winner - Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Here's one race where I'm going against the mainstream grain. After Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) won the prestigious Director's Guild Award, which is usually a very strong indicator of how academy members will vote, the weight has shifted to his corner. However, what once was a rare feat, the Oscars have seen many Best Picture/Best Director splits in recent years. Richard Linklater spent 12 years making his instant classic, Boyhood, and I envision a slight upset tonight in his favor. 

Best Actor

Winner - Michael Keaton (Birdman)

It usually isn't a good idea to predict against the guild winners, and I've already done so in the Best Director race, but I'm going to put my faith in another slight underdog, Michael Keaton. Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything has been all the rage lately, however Keaton's once-in-a-lifetime role seems too perfect to vote against. Maybe I'm picking with my heart here, but I hope the academy chooses the veteran for a well deserving performance.

Best Actress

Winner - Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

In a category that's been decided for a few months now, hearing anyone's name other than Julianne Moore would be an absolute shock. She gives a committed performance in the sentimental Alzheimer drama, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor

Winner - J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

While this is another race that feels all but decided, frontrunner J.K. Simmons features a bit more of a challenge from the highly deserving actor Edward Norton (Birdman). If Best Director swings in favor of Birdman as well, Norton could pull off a major upset, but I wouldn't count on it. 

Best Supporting Actress

Winner - Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Although Boyhood has slipped front the head of the pack, you can just about lock up a win for the film's matriarch, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. Similar to Edward Norton's upset factor in the Best Supporting Actor field, Emma Stone (Birdman) is Arquette's biggest threat. Yet, the upset would be very unlikely. 

Other predicted winners ...

Best Original Screenplay - Birdman will ride its wave of momentum in a win here over The Grand Budapest Hotel (which won the WGA albeit Birdman wasn't in contention).

Best Adapted Screenplay - The Imitation Game holds a slight advantage over staunch competitors Whiplash and American Sniper

Best Animated Feature - How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like a clear cut favorite, although Big Hero 6 could be a spoiler.

Best Foreign Language Film - Ida firmly holds the frontrunner status by a wide margin, and any other winner would be a bit of a surprise.

Best Documentary - Citizenfour has a huge edge over the rest of the field, making it a very safe pick.

Rapid Reviews: Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and The DUFF

It's been a handful of years since the wildly premised cult comedy phenomenon, Hot Tub Time Machine, took us on a journey back to the 1980s. Only this time around filmmaker Steve Pink has the difficult duty of replacing one of the original cast members, John Cusack. As an obstacle that's always tough to hurdle, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 swaps Cusack for Park and Recreation star, Adam Scott, and the drop-off actually feels minimal in this surprisingly successful comedy sequel.

After Lou's (Rob Corddry) arrogance as a prominent business owner infuriates a multitude of people, someone shoots him at one of his extravagant house parties. Therefore, Jacob (Clark Duke) and Nick (Craig Robinson) jump into their trusty old time machine with Lou to stop the unknown assassin from pulling the trigger. This murder-mystery aspect is a great inclusion as it helps translate Hot Tub Time Machine 2 into a well-paced and fine-flowing film.

Let me be clear, however. This winning sequel isn't a film you should venture to see without appreciating its predecessor. Yet, fans of the original are guaranteed to enjoy a fresh collection of rehashed and newly crafted jokes that keep the hilarity churning throughout the feature. Adam Scott joins the team and his presence is absolutely necessary, but not without its ups and downs. In a time where I've been constantly letdown by recent comedy sequels such as 22 Jump Street and Dumb and Dumber To, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 marks a rare instance in which taking the appropriate amount of time to make the film correctly actually pans out.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

If I must admit, teen comedies have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Everything from John Hughes' classics in the 80s, to Can't Hardly Wait in the 90s and as recently as a personal favorite of mine, with 2010's Easy A. Therefore, when I first caught a glimpse of Ari Sandel's The DUFF, I was immediately intrigued. Unfortunately, though, a hearty message isn't merely enough to sustain this vastly unoriginal teen flick.

The Perk of Being a Wallflower co-star, Mae Whitman, takes center stage as Bianca, an ordinary high school senior who's devastated to discovery that she's the DUFF ("designated ugly fat friend") to her popular circle of friends. This earth-shattering news sets her world off-track and forces her to ask a childhood friend and heartthrob, Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), to help transform her into a date-able woman in order to win over her crush. It's impossible to deny The DUFF's firm and valuable moral to its story, which it constantly feels pressured to spell out to the audience again and again with voice-over, yet Ari Sandel's directorial debut offers nothing new to the genre.

While I'm not the first to point out The DUFF's unmistakable desire to mimic the teen comedy hit, Easy A, its impossible to overlook similarities like its leading lady's quick-witted and adult-like vocabulary, as well as the same school mascot (Blue Devils) and multiple overlapping songs to their soundtracks, The film has its moments of sincere laughs and well-acted dramatics, but unfortunately they become overshadowed by the "been there, done that" undertone that lurks throughout. Mae Whitman and the rest of the cast give their greatest efforts, but they just weren't great enough in this highly mediocre teen comedy.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Top 10 Oscar Moments

*** Guest writer Greg Rouleau recounts his 10 favorite Oscar moments

Growing up watching the Oscars can definitely be attributed to my love for film today.  While not always showcasing the most mainstream of choices, the Academy’s nominations encouraged me to seek out the movies that weren’t always taking up half the wall at Blockbuster, or to venture off to one of the Ritz theaters in Philadelphia to see something that’s only in limited release.   I don’t always agree with the winners, but the nominations are usually a solid selection of what truly represents the best of that year in films and performances.  Thankfully, in my twenty-plus years of watching the ceremony, there have been a number of moments that stuck with me, and thanks to YouTube, I’ve been able to relive over and over again.  Here are some of my personal favorites.

Honorable Mention: Not quite the crème de le crème, I have to recognize a few moments starting back in 1993 when 11-year-old Anna Paquin was stunned speechless after Gene Hackman revealed her win for Supporting Actress in The Piano.  In 2006, when Three Six Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for A Pimp” won Best Original Song, which was a shocking upset but also a hilarious moment, accented by host Jon Stewart immediately after, claiming, “I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp”.   Here’s a pair of funny moments with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in 2004, then Seth Rogen and James Franco in 2009.  Finally, just last year we had Ellen’s Oscar Selfie, and the Apex of the McConassiance.

10 – Dustin Hoffman Keeps It Classy

The one moment on this list I didn’t experience live, is Dustin Hoffman’s humble and heartfelt acceptance speech for Kramer vs. Kramer, where he honors the hard-working crew of the film, actors everywhere attempting to break into the industry and a poignant tribute to his fellow nominees.  

 9 – Cuba Gooding’s Ecstatic Speech

It’s unfortunate that Cuba Gooding didn’t exactly capitalize on his Oscar win in 1997, with his lackluster role choice following Jerry Maguire, but his speech will always be remembered for the exuberant manner in which he kicked off the proceedings that year.  It starts slow and humble and explodes at the end once the “please get off the stage” music kicks in.  Not to be bullied, Gooding actually uses the music crescendo to start exclaiming his love for everyone involved, then a big fist pump that gets a standing ovation.

8 – Woody Allen Finally Appears

Woody Allen, is notorious for no-showing the Oscar ceremony.   A three-time winner at this point, but never there to receive the statue, the unfortunate events of 9-11 finally encouraged the New York City native to make an appearance.  Allen shows up to introduce a montage of films of New York, and makes the most of his showing with an incredibly funny speech addressing his trepidation for coming, as well as his previous awards and snubs.  

7 – Hugh Jackman Nails the Opening Number

Oscar hosts seem to usually kick-off the show one of two ways: a lengthy stand-up style monologue, or a musical number honoring the films of that year.  While some have been more memorable than others, Hugh Jackman’s opening number in 2009 stands above the rest.   His “on a budget” set – thanks to the economic recession – is a nice touch, as well as his inclusion of future Les Miserables co-star, Anne Hathaway.  A well deserved standing ovation to the host who hopefully is invited back very soon. 

6 – Tom Hanks Goes Back-to-Back

It seems rather strange to think Tom Hanks started his career off as one of the best comedic actors in the business, only to reveal that he also had the chops to pull off the strongest dramatic roles as well, a transition that not all actors can so effortlessly achieve.  Hanks won in ‘93 for Philadelphia and ‘94 for Forrest Gump, both very well deserved and he delivers two equally heartfelt speeches, one of which even inspired the 1997 movie In and Out.  

5 – Spielberg Wins His First Best Director

In 1976, a young Steven Spielberg watched in agony as he was snubbed for Best Director for Jaws.  Then in 1994, nearly twenty years later, he would receive his first of two Best Director Oscars, for Schindler’s List in one of the easiest slam dunk wins ever for arguably one of the greatest directors of all-time.  

4 – Scorsese Gets His Due

The “Will Martin Scorsese Ever Win For Director?” was a story well before I even began to follow the Oscars closely.  Finding himself on the losing end for Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ, I then witnessed him coming close for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and it was starting to look like Scorsese might join Hitchcock, Kubrick and Altman, among others, as one of the greatest auteurs never to win Best Director.   But after returning to the gangster genre in 2006 for The Departed, the stars aligned and Marty, deservingly, won his first statue. 

3 – Robin Williams Best Supporting Actor

The late Robin Williams took home his first and only Oscar in 1998 for Good Will Hunting.  His acceptance speech is brief but includes some memorable quips about the young screenwriting duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as well as the subliminally effective direction of Gus Van Sant.  It’s very evident how truly honored the great actor is, as well as his long-time friend, Billy Crystal, who served as host that year.  

2 – Heath Ledger Posthumous Oscar Win

In 2007, a year before the release of The Dark Knight, word was coming from set that Heath Ledger had tapped into something special with his take on the Joker.  Everyone from Gary Oldman to the veteran Michael Caine – who apparently was so stunned by Heath’s work that he forgot his lines the first time he saw him in character – were raving about the young Aussie. Tragedy then struck in January of 2008 as Ledger passed away from an accidental drug overdose, for better or worse giving the film, and his role, even more buzz.  It turned out to live up to the hype and is one of the most iconic performances ever.   Heath’s Joker dominated the award season, winning all of the major precursors and culminating with his family accepting the Oscar on his behalf at the 2009 ceremony.  

1 – Adrien Brody Upsets in Best Actor

At the 2003 Oscars, four of the five nominees were previous winners, and then there was Adrien Brody.  It was presumed the race was between Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, and Brody had only managed to win a small number of precursors, with the National Society of Film Critics being the most notable, but nothing that would indicate this dark horse as a potential upset.   So when Halle Berry reveals Brody as the winner, the shocked look on Brody’s face is truly genuine.  He revels in the standing ovation then seizes the moment and memorably plants one on Berry.   His speech begins with a joke about the absurdity of the situation and then after nearly two minutes he actually stops the cut-off music cold to finish with a few words on the situation in Iraq, and how his experience filming The Pianist opened his eyes to the experience and “dehumanization” of war, which earns him a second standing ovation – mid-speech.   Him and the audience then fight back the tears as he caps off his remarkable win with a shout out to one of his friends serving in Kuwait.  Bravo, Mr. Brody.  Bravo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Best Performers Who Never Won an Oscar

Every year the Academy Awards are full of surprises and, on the other end of the spectrum, a fair amount of "sure-things". This year is no exception as safe bets include first-time acting winners to-be include Julianne Moore (Still Alice), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood). Not to mention another first time winner coming out of the Best Actor category, whether it be Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) or the potential spoiler, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper).

The Oscars always seem to provide plenty of first-time winners, that's why it's so shocking to pinpoint all of the gifted actors and actresses who have somehow managed to elude a prestigious Academy Awards victory. Hence, for February's Movie List of the Month I take a look at Hollywood's top 10 biggest stars who have never won an Oscar (click here for January's List).

Honorable Mention: Glenn Close, Robert Downey Jr., Ralph Fiennes, Joaquin Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver.

#10. Will Smith

The two-time Oscar Nominated star was once revered as the "King of Hollywood" after an impressive stretch of money-printing summer blockbusters in the late 90s. However, Smith has surprisingly never won an Oscar or fared well with the Academy whatsoever. His biggest opportunity at a gold statue came in 2007 when he lost for his role in The Pursuit of Happyness to Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland).

#9. Harrison Ford

Best known for hit franchises such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones as well as a brief stint as the iconic literary character, Jack Ryan, Harrison Ford is another Hollywood star who has never garnered much appreciation from the Academy. Having only been nominated once for his role in 1984's Witness, Ford ultimately lost out to Willian Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and has yet to make it back to the Oscars.

#8. Brad Pitt

Heartthrob Brad Pitt actually possess some exceptional acting skills, as illustrated by his trio of acting nominations. Unfortunately for Pitt, he's forced to fill this void with an Oscar win as producer of the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Pitt's most upsetting defeat came as recently as 2012 when he lost for his role in Moneyball to Jean Dujardin's silent performance in The Artist.

#7. Bill Murray

It's impossible to ignore the great Bill Murray's comedic talents, but the versatile actor has proven that he has a knack for the dramatics as well. Murray's lone nomination came in 2004 for his work in the Sofia Coppola drama, Lost in Translation, where he was eventually beaten by Sean Penn (for another over-acted role in Mystic River).

#6. Annette Bening

While it's a widely-regarded fact that there are far more promising roles for men than women on a yearly basis, one actress that's failed to collect on a long overdue Oscar statue is Annette Bening. The four-time nominee still hasn't won "the big one" yet, but 2011's showcase was her most promising opportunity (for The Kids are All Right). Although she ultimately lost out to Natalie Portman in a deserving win for Black Swan, the Academy usually votes against darker-themed work, but not that time!

#5. Johnny Depp

Many will call into question Johnny Depp's versatility, as he regularly reprises similar characters in the many Tim Burton works which he's featured. However, no one can dispute his unforgettable turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Much like the previously mentioned Bill Murray, the three-time nominated star's best chance at a win came in 2004 where Captain Jack Sparrow lost out to an undeserving Sean Penn.

#4. Tom Cruise

As one of my personal favorite actors of all-time, Tom Cruise also suffers from the same type-casted label that plagues Johnny Depp. But despite Cruise's pretty-boy stigma, the actor has earned himself a trio of nominations from the Academy throughout his long and prestigious career. The closest he's ever come to winning the highly coveted honor was in 1997 when Cruise (Jerry Maguire) fell to Geoffrey Rush (Shine). Don't worry, Tom. I still believe you're going to win one someday!

#3. Edward Norton

Edward Norton's career kicked off in grand fashion when he earned an Oscar Nomination for his first feature film, a brilliant role in the court-room thriller Primal Fear. After losing that year to Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), we all believed Norton would be an Oscar regular for the remainder of his career. Yet, Norton has come and gone in recent years, usually with exceptional work though. For example, he's the only entrant from this list with a chance at changing history for this year's role in Birdman. Although he's nominated and one of the top contenders, a win seems almost assured for his biggest competitor, J.K. Simmons. In fact, Norton should have won already for his turn in the drama American History X, but instead lost to Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) in 1999.

#2. Robert Redford

Upon doing my research for this list, I was utterly shocked to discover that the legendary talent, Robert Redford, had never won an Academy Award for acting. Equally mystifying is the fact that's he's only been nominated once, and that was in 1974 for The Sting. Another iconic performer, Jack Lemmon, took home the statue that year for his role in Save the Tiger, but I'm sure everyone believed Redford would have plenty of opportunities in his career. Unfortunately, the aging veteran refuses to play the campaigning game and it has hurt his chances as recently as last year for his gutsy portrayal in All Is Lost.

#1. Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio is the actor that lists like this are made for. The mega-star has garnered four Oscar Nominations without ever leaving the ceremony victorious, and it's truly an unjust reality. DiCaprio churns out spectacular work on almost a yearly basis, yet the Academy has yet to reward such a talented performer. Much like Will Smith who fell victim to Forest Whitaker in 2007, that was DiCaprio's year to win. Leo gave a brilliant turn as Danny Archer in Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, but he was overlooked yet again. Although we can all anticipate that Leo's "big win" is coming, and hopefully soon, it's a major surprise that he (along with all of these other major talents) still hasn't claimed Oscar glory.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Aloha and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Trailers

Academy Award winner Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire) returns in 2015 with another seemingly fine love story titled Aloha. Bradley Cooper stars as military contractor who returns to Hawaii for a project all while crossing paths with a past love (Rachel McAdams) who he let slip away. Also featuring Bill Murray, Emma Stone, Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride, Aloha boasts a wonderful collection of acting talent and a charming debut trailer.

Arriving in August this summer is Guy Rithchie's spy adventure, The Man From U.N.C.L.E..Spun off from a 1960s television show of the same name, the film follows a CIA Agent named Napolean Solo (Man of Steel's Henry Cavill) who reluctantly joins forces with a Russian KGB operative in a mission against a group of criminals trying to reproduce nuclear weapons. Loaded with intense and impressive action sequences, check out the debut trailer for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. below.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trainwreck (Red Band) and Pitch Perfect 2 Trailers

From the comedic mind of Judd Apatow, director of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, comes one of 2015's most anticipated comedies, Trainwreck. Amy Schumer writes and stars as a successful, yet commitment-phobic, woman who accepts an assignment to write an article on a sports doctor (Bill Hader). And while she never envisioned herself getting tied-down, perhaps he may be the one. The initial trailer for Trainwreck packs a hysterical punch and you can catch the Red Band version below.

Another major comedy hitting the big screen in 2015 is the highly anticipated sequel, Pitch Perfect 2. The Barden Bellas return to enter in an international a cappella competition that no other American team has ever won. With Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and the rest of the misfit-filled squad returning for another go-around, we'll see if Pitch Perfect 2 can sustain the amount of love its first installment received when it reaches theaters everywhere in May.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Film: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Starring: Colin Firth (The King's Speech) and Taron Egerton

Director: Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass)

U.S. Release: February 13th, 2015 (Rated R)

Genre: Action

Runtime: 129 minutes

While all of the industry's attention is focused on the fast-approaching Academy Awards showcase airing next Sunday night, February 22nd, a sleek and wildly engaging action extravaganza appears to be slipping under the radar. Based on Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar's 2012 spy-centered comic book series, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class director, Matthew Vaughn, unleashes Kingsman: The Secret Service nationwide beginning this Friday. And if you're seeking a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick over this Valentine's Day weekend, then look no further than Kingsman.

When a secret spy organization known as the Kingsmen seek out a replacement agent, the veteran member Harry (Colin Firth) stumbles across Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a former agent who saved Harry's life. Although Eggsy has grown up in a rough neighborhood and attracted the attention of local police, under the tutelage of Harry he begins to realize his own potential. But while Eggsy tries his best to out-duel the other highly qualified candidates for the position, a sadistic technological mastermind named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) puts a plan in motion that threatens the entire world.

For as off-the-wall and crazy as it is, Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman is an enjoyable ride. The film flaunts its well-earned R-rating with brilliantly choreographed and stylishly-violent action sequences that never lose their flavor. Channeling its inner James Bond, Vaughn's espionage-adventure features Academy Award winner Colin Firth as a classic gentleman who you wouldn't want to provoke in a bar setting, or anywhere for that manner. Simply stated, Firth makes for an excellent choice, but it's newcomer Taron Egerton who emerges as the film's brightest spot. The youngster is both charming and exquisite in the role of a street kid-turned-spy extraordinaire. Egerton delivers an eye-catching performance that not only solidifies Kingsman as a worthwhile feature, but also shines the light on this blossoming star.

As someone who admittedly knows nothing about the film's original source material, there was obviously an influx of characters and events that Kingsman refused to ignore. Consequently, the feature's 129 minute running time feels like a marathon at multiple points throughout its duration. However, well-timed jokes and phenomenal fight scenes make the lulls completely worth it. One unforgivable aspect, though, resides in a huge plot hole surrounding Valentine's crafty female assistant. Without giving away any spoilers, she somehow manages to avoid catastrophe like everyone else in her similar situation during a pivotal moment in the third act. But despite this obvious blunder, Samuel L. Jackson's speech-impaired villain is hysterical enough to wash away any sour taste this inconsistency brings.

I ventured to my advanced screening of Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service with mild expectations and left the theater pleasantly surprised. The humor was legitimate, the acting was spot-on, the story was effective and the action was very tasteful. All of these ingredients blend together extremely well in Vaughn's successful contemporary spy adventure, Kingsman.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Monday, February 9, 2015

Oscar Talk - Part 4

This past football-less Sunday marked the two week countdown until the 87th annual Academy Awards (join my FREE Oscar Pool here). And unlike many years in the past, we have quite a few races that are officially too close to call. Now that all of the major guilds have released their winners, even more questions have been raised about who wins and who goes home empty handed.

Best Picture

In a surprising turn of events, Birdman has catapulted itself into the pole-position of the Best Picture race after capturing top honors from SAG, PGA and, most recently, the DGA. Despite Boyhood's BAFTA win last night, the impressive coming-of-age tale has lost too much momentum to maintain its "front-runner" status.

Predicted Winner: Birdman

Biggest Threat: Boyhood

Other Nominees: American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash

Best Director

The Best Director competition is a huge toss-up at the moment. Birdman's Alejandro G. Inarritu took home the valuable DGA statue, however Richard Linklater's 12 year directorial feat with Boyhood feels like it's too impressive to overlook. It'll be close, but a momentum shift for Birdman could swing things in Inarritu's favor. 

Predicted Winner: Richard Linklater - Boyhood

Biggest Threat: Alejandro G. Inarritu - Birdman

Other Nominees: Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bennett Miller - Foxcatcher and Morten Tyldum - The Imitation Game

Best Actor

Another race that's difficult to dissect in the Best Actor category. The field is stock-piled with worthy inclusions, but I'm putting my stock in the SAG winner, Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything). SAG has managed to match winners with the Oscars since 2004 and I'll take a decade-long history of consistency. That would leave Birdman's Michael Keaton as the unfortunate loser in this intense head to head battle.

Predicted Winner: Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything

Biggest Threat: Michael Keaton - Birdman

Other Nominees: Steve Carell - Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper - American Sniper and Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game

Best Actress

There isn't much debate surrounding the Best Actress field. Julianne Moore appears to be a shoe-in for her work in Still Alice and it would be an absolute stunner if she was dethroned.

Predicted Winner: Julianne Moore - Still Alice

Biggest Threat: Reese Witherspoon - Wild

Other Nominees: Marion Cotillard - Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones - The Theory of Everything and Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl

Best Supporting Actor

J.K. Simmons has boasted a lengthy career as a wonderful character, and the veteran actor will finally be recognized for his outstanding performance in the music-centric drama, Whiplash. Simmons holds a firm grasp over this race after sweeping every major precursor.

Predicted Winner: J.K. Simmons - Whiplash

Biggest Threat: Edward Norton - Birdman

Other Nominees: Robert Duvall - The Judge, Ethan Hawke - Boyhood and Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher

Supporting Actress

Although Boyhood's momentum seems to be quickly fading, I doubt it will be enough to supplant the film's most notable performance. Patricia Arquette has clearly dominated all of the early precursor awards, but perhaps Emma Stone can ride Birdman's recent wave of success and pull off the upset.

Predicted Winner: Patricia Arquette - Boyhood

Biggest Threat: Emma Stone - Birdman

Other Nominees: Laura Dern - Wild, Keira Knightley - The Imitation Game and Meryl Streep - Into the Woods

Best Original Screenplay

The Best Original Screenplay competition will be interesting to watch. The voting members obviously appreciate The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, but I'm still not convinced that Birdman can be taken down. At this point, I'm expecting a BIG day for the critically adored film.

Predicted Winner: Birdman

Biggest Threat: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Other Nominees: Boyhood, Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler

Best Adapted Screenplay

When it comes to the Best Adapted Screenplay race, the only reason I'm leaning in favor of The Imitation Game is Harvey Weinstein. Part of me believes the film's allure is fading, yet Weinstein is putting all of his resources into the WWII drama. If the film manages to lose, the rising indie sensation, Whiplash, would be the biggest benefactor.

Predicted Winner: The Imitation Game

Biggest Threat: Whiplash

Other Nominees: American Sniper, Inherent Vice and The Theory of Everything

Sunday, February 8, 2015

2015 Oscar Contest

Back by popular demand co-writer Greg Rouleau and I will be running another FREE Oscar Pool where you select winners in EVERY Academy Awards category. Different point values are assigned to the different races and the person with the most points wins a $50 gift card of their choice to either Regal/AMC. This year has a little caveat, though. If we get 100 entries into the pool, we'll increase the prize to a $75 gift card.

Remember, it's completely free to enter, all you need is an e-mail address and to sign up by clicking HERE. After you submit an e-mail address and create a username use the following information to join the contest:

Pool Type: Oscars 2015
Pool Name: 87th Academy Awards - By Greg and Dave
Password: oscars2015

You have until Sunday February 22nd to make your selections, so there's no immediate rush. Once again it's COMPLETELY FREE to join and a whole lot of fun for any fan of movies who plans on watching the Oscars anyway.

Note: You must live in the continental United States to be eligible for the prize.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Poltergeist and The Reach Trailers

Filmmaker Gil Kenan is handed the keys to the 2015 horror remake, Poltergeist. Move over coach Craig T. Nelson, because the lovable Sam Rockwell is the new man of the house. And when Eric Bowen (Rockwell) decides to move his family into the ideal suburban home, the unthinkable happens as angry spirits begin to torment them and capture their youngest daughter. Poltergeist hits theaters this July and here's a first official look at Kenan's re-imagining of the horror classic.

Legendary actor Michael Douglas continues to churn out films in the latter stages of his career, and the latest one brings him together with War Horse star, Jeremy Irvine, in The Reach. The thriller follows a wealthy corporate shark (Douglas) who ventures deep into the Mojave Desert for a big-game hunting trip with a young guide (Irvine). However, when things take an accidental turn for the worse, the tycoon and resourceful guide match wits in a deadly cat & mouse game. Check out the trailer for The Reach below.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Unfinished Business (Red Band) and Fifty Shades of Grey Trailers

We all wished the middling 2013 Vince Vaughn comedy, The Internship, would have been rated R. In 2015 we're being given the next best thing with Vaughn's latest comedic adventure, Unfinished Business. Vaughn leads a trio of knucklehead businessmen (Dave Franco and Tom Wilkinson) to Europe to close on the most important deal of their lives, but the only problem is their big-shot competitor plans to steal the client. Seemingly raunchy and over-the-top, perhaps Unfinished Business can be the rebound that Vince Vaughn's career so desperately needs. Arriving in March, check out the film's official Red Band trailer below.

Opening just in time for Valentine's Day is the cult phenomenon adapted from novel to the big screen, Fifty Shades of Grey. Newcomers Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan star as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, respectively, as the duo meet during an interview and embark on a wild and seductive journey of sexual exploration. While I hold my reservations, despite being a fan of filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, there's no question that Fifty Shades of Grey is destined to become a box-office smash. Check out the feature's latest trailer below.

Monday, February 2, 2015

DVD Outlook: February 2015

After a VERY strong list of titles arriving to DVD and Blu-Ray in January, this month continues with some other elite options for movie-lovers. It's undoubtedly Oscar season, as many of these recognized films are scurrying to reach the shelves and Red Box dispensers. So if you're looking to stay in and avoid the frigid February weather all while enjoying a solid flick, then these are the movies you'll want to take a chance on.

Nightcrawler - 3 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

By now you've probably heard about Jake Gyllenhaal's phenomenal work in Dan Gilroy's debut thriller, Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal gives an Oscar-worthy turn as Lou Bloom, a sociopath living in L.A. desperate for work. And after Lou encounters an accident on the freeway, he watches eagerly as videographers arrive to the scene and capture the footage for local television stations. Determined to make an impression on the crime journalism industry, Lou does whatever it takes to reach the pinnacle of success. Illustrating exceptional writing and a long list of impressive performances from the entire cast, Nightcrawler is easily one of the best films of 2014. (February 10th)

St. Vincent - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Emma Stone put it best in Zombieland, Bill Murray "has a direct line to my funny bone". This past year he earned a Golden Globe Nomination for his hilarious curmudgeonly portrayal in the good-hearted comedy, St. Vincent. Murray plays a war vet and degenerate gambler who finds an unlikely friend in Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a young man who moves in next door with his single mother (Melissa McCarthy). Despite all of Vincent's rugged attributes that could easily be mistaken for flaws, Oliver takes an unusual liking to this head-scratching role model. Downright hysterical and enjoyable on all levels, Ted Melfi's directorial debut, St. Vincent, is guaranteed to win you over. (February 17th)

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

Although Nightcrawler unjustly missed the final cut, the Academy Awards recognized last year's Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner, Whiplash, in its Best Picture field of eight. Similar to the first two entries I've discussed, Whiplash marks director Damien Chazelle's feature film debut as well. Miles Teller takes the lead as Andrew, a passionate young drum student obsessed with achieving "greatness" on his instrument. However, his demanding instructor, Fletcher (the Oscar Nominated J.K. Simmons), pushes Andrew to the brink of breaking down. Somewhat controversial and emotionally taxing, Whiplash possess all the elements of a successful drama. (February 24th)

Honorable Mention: Two of my most underrated films of 2014 include the Sundance dramedy Laggies (2/10) and the conspiracy drama Kill the Messenger (2/10). A few major Oscar contenders will hit the shelves this February including Best Picture Nominees Birdman (2/17) and The Theory of Everything (2/17), as well as Best Animated Feature Big Hero 6 (2/24). I'd be doing a huge disservice to critics everywhere if I failed to mention the documentary Life Itself (2/17) centering around Roger Ebert is also available this month. And finally, comedy sequels Dumb and Dumber To (2/17) and Horrible Bosses 2 (2/24) arrive this February as well.

Poll Question Results: January 2015

After a month of Oscar Nominations and the release of the box-office hit, American Sniper, the results are in for January's Poll Question of the Month which centered around A-List star Bradley Cooper. I posed the question, "Which is your favorite Bradley Cooper film", and the comedy classic, The Hangover, narrowly edged out the victory by claiming 42% of the votes. In a close second place was David O. Russell's mental disorder rom-com, Silver Linings Playbook (38%). Cooper's latest portrayal of our nation's deadliest sniper, Chris Kyle, was at a  huge disadvantage being released mid-month, yet American Sniper garnered 14% of the vote. And finally, closing out the group was another David O. Russell film, American Hustle, which only managed to secure 4% of total votes.

Be sure to check out February's Poll Question (upper right hand corner) which shines the spotlight on megastar Will Smith, who finds a new release this month with the con-man film, Focus. I'm asking people to decide on which Will Smith film is the best of his career.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Most Violent Year

Film: A Most Violent Year

Starring: Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (Interstellar)

Director: J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost)

U.S. Release: December 31st, 2014 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 110 minutes

After debuting to rave reviews at the AFI Festival in early November, it's taken nearly three months for director J.C. Chandor's crime-drama, A Most Violent Year, to reach theaters nationwide. Similar to the marketing strategy implemented for Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, pushing the limits to qualify for the Oscars was believed to improve the film's chances at the prestigious awards show. However, unlike Eastwood's Best Picture nominee, A Most Violent Year suffered a very different fate and failed to secure a single nomination. I suppose good things don't always come to those who wait.

Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Issac takes center stage as Abel Morales, an ambitious immigrant business owner trying to balance his efforts in building an oil empire with the recent string of thug-like antics imposed by his competitors. Rather than taking action through his wife's (Jessica Chastain) mob connections, Abel chooses the high road and sits idly by as his truck drivers are beaten and his oil is stolen during the heat of New York City's most violent year on record in 1981. And to make matters worse, Abel also feels the mounting pressure of a police investigation and impending charges all while trying to obtain the "American Dream" in as honest a way as possible.

Strangely enough, the most impressive aspect of A Most Violent Year has very little to do with what actually transpires on screen and everything to do with its widely-talented director, J.C. Chandor. The auteur has delivered three feature films to date, all of which tackle very different themes and tones. Although I wouldn't classify any of his works as a "masterpiece", each entry stands strongly on its own and reaffirms Chandor's place as a versatile screenwriter and a talented director. Standout performances from Oscar Isaac - who channels his inner Michael Corleone - and Jessica Chastain, in a gritty mob daughter's role, are what essentially salvage this oddly paced and anti-climactic film. A Most Violent Year is shot exceptionally well and Chandor does an admirable job transporting the viewer into a perfectly constructed early 80s throwback setting. However, this character-driven feature fails to amount to much else.

For all of its wonderful performances and fine direction, A Most Violent Year is far too mediocre from a screenplay standpoint. Chandor's script helps to mold deep and honest characters that are brought to life brilliantly by Isaac and Chastain, yet the painfully slow tension builds to a resolution that packs little to no punch at all. In the final moments we're given a break from tradition by the lead character, Abel Morales, but nothing monumental is shown to adequately support his hasty transformation, which is just one of the many blemishes to Chandor's latest screenplay.

With a title that's as misplaced as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (which was only the 4th of about a dozen installments to the franchise), there's only a minimal amount of action and violence displayed throughout the feature. Therefore, you shouldn't venture to the theater expecting a gangster movie gore-fest. Instead, A Most Violent Year is a character-centric and timid tale of morality and corruption in the quest for success.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-