Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015's Most Underrated Films

Being that it's New Year's Eve and the cinematic calendar year is on the verge of turning to a new chapter, I'll be offering my personal insight into what I encountered in 2015. First up is a look into the year's most underrated films. In order to derive my list I examine a wide range of criteria including my most valued variable, a film's box office performance, as well as a film's critical reception (via Rotten Tomatoes) and the ever-important moviegoer opinion (via IMDB). I also try to avoid including films that are recognized mightily throughout the awards season run to the Oscars. So here they are, 2015's most underrated films:

Honorable Mention: The Golden Globe and SAG recognized film (for supporting actor Michael Shannon), 99 Homes ... The female centered drama, Clouds of Sils Maria ... Thriller and Netflix stream option, Creep ... Irish war action/thriller, '71.

#5. Faults

Box Office: NA - RT: 89% - IMDB: 6.7

Director Riley Stearns impressed audiences at the 2014 Philadelphia Film Festival with his indie psycho-thriller, Faults. Stearns' wife and lead actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, stars as a woman brainwashed by a cult-like group called "Faults". And when her parents approach a self-proclaimed "de-programmer" named Ansel to help reverse their daughter's controlled thoughts and behaviors, Ansel finds himself entranced by the young woman's seductive powers. Faults is an unknown that delivers odd laughs and cerebral thrills in Coen brothers-like fashion. The film may be difficult to locate, but it's worth watching on a few available online streaming options. 

Box Office: Less than $1 million - RT: 100% - IMDB: 7.1

As an entry from 2015's Philadelphia Film Festival, one of the hidden gems in the programming was Paul Katis' true story war thriller, Kilo Two Bravo. The film follows a company of British soldiers stationed by the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan in 2006. On a routine mission to approach some Taliban militants members of the company find themselves trapped in an active mine field. With the smallest of movements putting all of their lives at risk, these brave soldiers must navigate through the mine field in order to rescue their injured friends. Boasting a stern tension that almost puts the Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, to shame, Kilo Two Bravo is a heart-pounding ride.  

#3. The End of the Tour

Box Office: $3 million - RT: 91% - IMDB: 7.5

From the look of the film's specs, James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour was adored by both critics and general viewers alike. The only problem is, not nearly enough people have seen this wonderful film. Jesse Eisenberg stars at Rolling Stone Interviewer, David Lipsky, who follows American author, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), on the final 5 days of his book tour. There is a calm and peaceful aura surrounding this dialogue heavy and soulfully rich examination of a great contemporary artistic mind. Jason Segel gives a magnificent and overlooked turn that finds itself sadly omitted from any and every awards season discussion. Thankfully, though, this brief encounter between reporter and novelist poses as a beautiful microcosm of human interaction and personal relationships. The End of the Tour requires the viewer to open their mind and think for themselves, which is something I truly admired about Ponsoldt's latest success. 

Box Office: $1.5 million - RT: 81% - IMDB: 7.0

I typically avoid placing Golden Globe nominated films into my Top 5 list, yet Infinitely Polar Bear is the ultimate exception to the rule. In a wild announcement that no one so coming at all, Mark Ruffalo finds himself as a Best Actor - Comedy finalist at the heralded upcoming awards show. Back in January 2014 when I had the pleasure of attending the Sundance Film Festival, many critics threw their support for an eventual Best Picture nominee, Whiplash, but I felt a stronger connection to Maya Forbes dramedy, Infinitely Polar Bear. Ruffalo is spectacular as Cam Stuart, a bi-polar father of two who is forced to play Mr. Mom while his wife ventures to New York for grad school. This hilarious and reassuring family drama is what feel-good movies are all about and I'm grateful that the Hollywood Foreign Press had the backbone to recognize the film.

Box Office: $7 million - RT: 83% - IMDB: 7.8

Generally, I'm able to find some films to add onto this list that critics panned, but I approved. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case in 2015. Instead, I was left to scramble and sift through well-received titles that came and went without an appropriately-sized audience to enjoy them. The most notable film of this type is the priceless coming-of-age indie drama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. As the rare winner of both the Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's adapted story is an absolute must-see! Thomas Mann takes center stage as Greg, a high school loner who keeps civil relations with each of his school's many cliques. And after Greg forms an unlikely bond with a female classmate (Olivia Cooke) suffering from leukemia, the relationship helps open his eyes to the world. Filled with superb direction, a trio of fantastic leading performances and a unique script that perfectly blends humor with dramatics, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is in a class of its own. It's currently available for rent on Redbox and, believe me when I say, this is one film you definitely shouldn't miss!

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Hateful Eight

Film: The Hateful Eight

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), Kurt Russell (Furious 7) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Machinist)

Director: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)

U.S. Release: January 1st, 2016 (Rated R)

Genre: Western

Runtime: 167 minutes

Rare filmmakers have the tendency to eclipse the content of their work, both in style and public recognition. Quentin Tarantino arrived at that status long before he re-modernized the western-film genre with his 2012 all-around critical and commercial success, Django Unchained. Tarantino laces up his cowboy boots once again with his latest entry, The Hateful Eight, a film that almost never happened after Tarantino vowed to abandon the project when its script was leaked all across the internet. But despite his rigid and reactionary declaration, cooler heads prevailed and Tarantino returns to deliver another fine addition to his well-rounded filmography.

Bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee), to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming where she stands to be hung for crimes committed. But when a blistering winter storm forces him and a band of untrustworthy fellows to take shelter in a stopover along the way, tensions begin to mount. And with a steep $10,000 reward on Daisy's head, The Hangman will operate under any means necessary to ensure that he survives the storm and that justice prevails.

The Hateful Eight surfaces as another rare and bold story from an Oscar-winning mind unlike any other. This time around Quentin Tarantino uses a western backdrop as a bit of an homage to the classic stage play. The film incorporates an exceptionally-timed intermission to divide Tarantino's newest irregular story into two fully different subsections. The first of which is used as an introductory to our eight mysterious characters. But throughout the second half of the film, the characters reveal their true colors culminating in a bloody and gruesome showdown that's to be expect from Tarantino. As always, it's the film's absorbing dialogue and the director's keen eye for camera work that turns a nearly three hour story into a wildly engaging thrill ride. The Hateful Eight never tries to mask a valuable life lesson or tell some profound, insightful message. It's an experience created simply to entertain, and it achieves that with unburdened ease.

Despite the feature's stylish successes and Oscar-caliber screenplay, The Hateful Eight reveals a few weaknesses. For starters, the cleverly implemented intermission is a foregone necessity. Without this brief separation from the story, The Hateful Eight would have been a far less enjoyable one-sitting watch. Furthermore, Tarantino has long ditched the normal tendencies of screenwriting. As a result, this time around he decides the characters are of much less importance than the wildly epic tale he aims to construct. Consequently, any strong emotional attachment to the movie is out of the question. Instead, the audience is expected to sit back, relax and enjoy the twisted and perverse concoctions of a storytelling genius.

Quentin Tarantino's latest effort falls shy of his highly regarded, Django Unchained. However, The Hateful Eight is still a strong piece of filmmaking in its own right. Tarantino continues to deliver superb direction in support of a brilliantly crafted set of characters brought to life by a gift team of performers. Even if Jennifer Jason Leigh stands as the most likely cast member to receive an Oscar nomination, it's Samuel L. Jackson who steals the show with an onslaught of hilarious one-liners. You should expect to literally laugh out loud, a lot. And if you can stomach another gory finale from Tarantino, then The Hateful Eight is something you should savor.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Friday, December 25, 2015

A (Not So) Christmas Movie List

Although it's nearly 70 degrees in the Philadelphia area and it feels nothing like the holiday season, Christmas is here and it can't be averted. For many, the holidays are synonymous with a strict movie catalog. Christmas films have always been a huge staple in society, but I've never really embraced any such tradition. Therefore, since I never was one for iconic winter-time movies like A Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life and Home Alone, I will spend my Christmas morning and movie list of the month outlining my favorite "not so" Christmas movies (November's List). These are movies that are set during the holiday season but aren't your traditional Christmas classics. Enjoy and have a wonderful holiday!

Honorable Mention: Edward Scissorhands, Gremlins and Just Friends

#5. Trading Places (1983)

Whatever happened to the golden days of comedy? Nowadays the genre is filled with shock value laughs at the expense of the male anatomy and other reprehensible cheap tactics. But back in 1983, comedic stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy teamed up to make humor history with Trading Places. After a pair of brokerage firm tycoons debate whether a person's environment or heredity play a bigger factor in one's success, they put their theories to the test by orchestrating a plan to fire and defame a promising businessman (Aykroyd) and replace him with a street con artist (Murphy). The laughs are endless and the Christmas time setting paints a wonderful backdrop for this comedy classic.

#4. Love Actually (2003)

"Christmas is all around us ... " sings fictitious musician, Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), at the onset of Richard Curtis' wonderful holiday tale, Love Actually. A large collection of fantastic performers interweave eight love stories that culminate in an exceptional movie experience filled with laughter and emotion at every turn. Richard Curtis has always told valuable and personal stories, but Love Actually works in conjunction with its holiday backdrop to deliver an impressive outside-the-box Christmas title.

#3. The Ref (1994)

Next up on the list is a bit of a more obscure selection with Ted Demme's riotously funny gem, The Ref. Denis Leary stars as Gus, a caper who's abandoned by his partner during a heist and forced to kidnap a dysfunctional couple and pose as their marriage counselor during a big Christmas Eve dinner. With local police traveling from door to door in order to find the missing burglar, Gus must rely on his hostages and their delinquent son in order to escape the pursuit of law enforcement. The Ref shines as a result of clever one liners and edgy dialogue delivered wonderfully by Leary and co-star, Kevin Spacey. This is a rare holiday treat that flies under the radar, but it's also one that you should definitely see. Make sure to check out The Ref, which is now available on Netflix, if you haven't already. 

#2. Die Hard (1988)

In wouldn't be an unorthodox Christmas movie list without the action classic, Die Hard. We all love NYPD officer John McClane (Bruce Willis), but many may have forgotten that he got his start on Christmas Eve. McClane travels to Los Angeles to try and rectify his marriage at his wife's work Christmas party. Yet, a gang of bank robbers led by Hans Gruber take control of the entire building and hold everyone hostage except for McClane, who plans to foil the heist. John McTiernan's action masterpiece captured 4 Oscar nominations in technical categories and still stands as a monumental film of its genre.

#1. Bad Santa (2003)

It's really the antithesis of Christmas, but perhaps that's what makes Bad Santa such a brilliant film. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, a deadbeat drunk and small-time thief that poses as a mall Santa every Christmas to scout out his holiday robbery target. But when Willie weasels his way into the life of a helpless and bullied youngster, he finds a soft spot for the kid and tries to finally do something right in his life. Although it's an overload of Christmas vulgarity and raunchy humor, Bad Santa is unwavering in its cynicism and embraces its anti-hero. Hysterical from start to finish and unforgettable thanks to a fully committed performance from Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa is a holiday movie classic in its own right. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Concussion and 45 Years

Baseball may be American's greatest pastime, but professional football is our country's sport of the present and the future. The NFL's aura is magnetic, drawing attention to anything branded by its touch. And with Peter Landesman's hard-hitting new drama, Concussion, the NFL's unavoidable allure will be attracting audiences to a true story that refuses to pull any punches on the league's deceptive attempts at masking the facts behind player-safety concerns.

Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist working as a coroner outside of Pittsburgh in 2002. Dr. Omalu's strict devotion to his craft leads to a startling discovery after performing an autopsy on Hall of Famer "Iron Mike" Webster's body. Examining the football legend's brain, Bennet find that Webster's constant exposure to head trauma released an accumulating protein that, in essence, strangled the brain and destroyed his psyche. But when Dr. Omalu attempts to shine a public light on his groundbreaking research, he's met with a forceful opposition from the NFL who attempts to smear his work.

Through an unmistakable good vs. evil approach, Concussion unapologetically paints a sinister portrait of the National Football League and its current commissioner, Roger Goodell. But what opens as an in-your-face drama that refuses to downplay the severe struggles of every day life for these mentally wounded athletes, Concussion sadly culminates in a recursive plot that fails to reach an enviable climax. However, throughout the story's repetitious nature Will Smith gives his finest dramatic performance in years and remains as a stable bright spot for the feature. Whispers of a Best Actor Oscar nomination circled the film for quite some time, and it would be a justifiable result considering his opposition. Furthermore, Albert Brooks continues to offer exceptional supporting work as this marks another fine turn that will end up overlooked by the Academy. All in all, Concussion's sluggish second half becomes overshadowed by sound performances from its entire cast that help solidify the film as a decent viewing option.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Despite a limited release during the week of Christmas, the indie drama 45 Years made a huge splash at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival in October. Director Andrew Haigh quietly continues to build his legacy with this exceptional slow-burning character study, one that could even find itself in Oscar contention.

It's the week leading up to Kate and Geoff's (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) 45th wedding anniversary, when Geoff receives an unexpected letter regarding a former lover he had before meeting his wife. As the news sends her husband into a mental tailspin, Kate pries deeper into Geoff's old love story and confronts its impact on her own life.

Andrew Haigh develops such a simple, yet emotionally explosive, story that's beautifully acted by its pair of veteran leads. Tom Courtenay shines in his own right, but it's Charlotte Rampling who gives a career-best performance that's worthy of recognition. Although she missed out on nominations from the major precursors, namely the Golden Globes and SAG, I wouldn't count Rampling out of the Best Actress Oscar race just yet. She has the unique ability to transform a crawling 95 minute drama into a memorable example of genuine filmmaking. 45 Years gives its performers the entire canvas to work with and they muster up a wonderful piece of art that proves to be well worth the investment by the time the credits roll.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Starring: Harrison Ford (42), John Boyega (Attack the Block) and Daisy Ridley

Director: J.J. Abrams (Super 8)

U.S. Release: December 18th, 2015 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Action

Runtime: 135 minutes

Back in 2012 when Disney acquired the rights to George Lucas' Star Wars saga, fanboys and lovers of the iconic franchise knew they'd be given a fresh voice and perspective. And since most loyal fans were rather disappointed by Lucas' less than memorable trio of prequels, perhaps a new vision was exactly what Star Wars needed. Then, in stepped writer, director and producer, J.J. Abrams, the same man who recently revived a lifeless Star Trek franchise back in 2009. Abrams assured a respectful loyalty to the original source material and kindly disregarded George Lucas' parting suggestions, all in order to leave his own singular imprint on the treasured saga. And believe me, we should all be grateful that he did.

Following the fall of the Empire decades earlier, a new threat has arisen called The First Order. With a powerful villainous leader, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver), embarking on a warpath to take over the galaxy and discover the whereabouts of hidden Jedi, Luke Skywalker, an unlikely pair of heroes, Finn and Rey (John Boyega and Daisy Ridley), must return a missing droid possessing valuable information to General Leia Organa and the Resistance forces. As these opposing armies prepare to collide in an epic battle, "the force" reemerges and creates a balance to the galaxy.

I'm nowhere near the first to announce the news, but beloved fans of Star Wars can breathe a sigh of relief with J.J. Abrams' triumphant return to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The Force Awakens re-energizes its franchise with a near-perfect blend of devotion to the original trilogy and a fresh perspective built through a winning collection of brand new characters. Newcomers Finn and Rey graciously accept the proverbial torch that's passed to them as unknown acting talents, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, burst onto the scene as instant icons. Abrams and fellow credited writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, craft an action-packed an entertaining story that continually develops each of these new center-stage characters. The Force Awakens consumes your undivided attention from start to finish and its tasteful nostalgia will make you feel like a kid again.

It's an indescribable feeling listening to another emotionally charged score from Oscar-winning composer, John Williams, and witnessing the big-screen return of franchise-founding icons, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, C3P0, R2D2 and Luke Skywalker. Abrams paces the story perfectly and unveils his heavy-hitters periodically throughout the film. It's a wise play that helps ease the audience along and frequently reaffirms that we're in a place of familiarity. And although The Force Awakens suffers minimally in both the dialogue department and Carrie Fisher's sadly inadequate reprisal of her Princess Leia role, well-timed humor, up-tempo action sequences and a fantastic collection of brand new characters form a durable foundation from which the franchise can build.

Skeptics can rest easy and die-hard fanboys can give a sigh of relief. J.J. Abrams has reintroduced us to a lively and exciting new chapter in the Star Wars saga. The seamless transition comes at the hands of a hefty role from Harrison Ford who offers his finest work since 1977's original film. You can add me to the long list of critics and movie lovers who claim that The Force Awakens doesn't disappoint. Now, all you have to do is travel out to your nearest theater and enjoy the must-see big-screen experience for yourself.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is "The Force Awakens" a Serious Best Picture Contender?

I don't have to tell you what today is. By now everyone is fully aware that tonight marks the first public showings of J.J. Abrams' beyond anticipated release, The Force Awakens. And while everything seems to be perfect for Disney's recently acquired sci-fi universe, critical adoration has been robust and public hype is astronomical, one question still hovers around the film. Is The Force Awakens a legitimate Best Picture contender for the Oscars? In order to fully wrap our heads around this fair, albeit unpredictable, question, we must consider many criteria both past and present.

Let me be frank, no science fiction film has ever won a Best Picture statue from the Academy Awards. That means J.J. Abrams and company are pitted against some serious odds. Now, that doesn't mean the latest adaptation of George Lucas' groundbreaking creation can't weasel its way into the final dance. In fact, if The Force Awakens is as triumphant and comparable to the original trilogy as many critics have suggested, then perhaps it has a real chance at a Best Picture nomination and, dare I say, more.

After the 1977 release of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, the epic feature went on to capture a robust 10 nominations from the Academy, 6 of which it won. Although Lucas' film cleaned up in the technical categories, as well as John Williams' symbolic score, A New Hope also earned recognition for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor. Those are some major accolades and, even more noteworthy, a level of respect unmatched by any other sci-fi film to date (although James Cameron's Avatar came awfully close with 9 nominations and 3 wins).

It's also important to recognize that A New Hope wasn't the only Oscar darling from the franchise's original trio of installments. Although each of their subsequent nominations either pertained to technical aspects of the film or John Williams' score, The Empire Strikes Back was victorious with one of its three nominations and Return of the Jedi went home empty handed in all of its four inclusions. Therefore, a look at history would suggest that if The Force Awakens is as good as the general critical consensus claims, then J.J. Abrams' work could very well stand as a viable Oscar contender.

After catching up on the history of Star Wars, now it's essential to place the franchise's latest effort in the context of this year's Oscar race. Following Disney's lavish red carpet premiere on Monday that spared no expense, it was reported by Deadline's Pete Hammond that, not only will Disney make a viable Oscar push for its long-awaited release, but The Force Awakens is also screening for Academy members at their prestigious Goldwyn Theatre not once, but twice! Typically, the voting body attempts to illustrate complete transparency and fairness by simply giving all other films one chance to screen for members. This will be the standard protocol for other weekend Oscar hopefuls scheduled to screen, such as The Revenant and Anomalisa, however this extra opportunity could prove to be very advantageous for The Force Awakens' Oscar prospects.

It's no secret that the Academy Awards grasps for ratings at their annual event and a reunion with the Star Wars saga would clearly draw a massive number of fanboys to their program. Furthermore, 2015 has been a decent cinematic year but no film has separated itself from the pack as a formidable Best Picture frontrunner. With The Force Awakens opening this weekend, we'll all see if it's as good as advertised. And if it is, then perhaps the stars have aligned for history to be made at February's Academy Awards.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Independence Day: Resurgence and The BFG (Teaser) Trailers

In late-June, 2016, two decades after Independence Day went on to dazzle audiences and win a Best Visual Effects Oscar, Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum reprise their roles in the man vs. alien sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence. A debut trailer recently dropped for this long-awaited follow-up that pits the nations of Earth against another threat of extinction. Sorry, but there's no Will Smith this time around. Either way, Independence Day: Resurgence should stand as another visual effects spectacle and one of the most anticipated summer blockbusters next year.

Another film on the slate for the summer of 2016 is Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Roald Dahl's timeless childhood classic, The BFG. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill stars as Sophie, a young girl who encounters a giant during the late hours of the night who happens to be an outcast to all his peers because he won't eat little children like the rest of them. Spielberg attempts to turn a beloved children's tale into a visual masterpiece and if anyone can it, I'm sure it's him. Check out the first teaser trailer for The BFG below.

Friday, December 11, 2015

DVD Outlook: December 2015

December is finally here to close out the 2015 calendar year. And while that usually means a massive wave of heavy-hitting end of the year releases will find their way into movie theaters nationwide, it typically spells disaster for the DVD and Video-On-Demand outlook (November's List). In all honesty, you should really backtrack my suggestions for a few months in order to find more top-quality options. However, if you're in desperate need for something new, I'll do my best to point you in the right direction.

Ant-Man - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Marvel has managed to carve out a worldwide following as their ever-expanding universe co-exists between big screen adaptations and all of their beloved television series. This past summer, Marvel added a new superhero to their ranks with Peyton Reed's Ant-Man. Paul Rudd stars as con-man, Scott Lang, who's recruited by Dr. Hank Pym to stop a former protege from selling the secrets to his body-shrinking suit. Pym's creation allows a human to transform into the size of an insect all while gaining a reverse proportional amount of strength in the process. Pym recognizes the dangers of his creation if placed in the wrong hands and he needs Lang's help to make sure that never happens. In typical Marvel fashion, the formulaic approach of frequent humor and impressive action sequences flow wildly throughout the script. Yet, a signature issue prevalent throughout all of Marvel's recent offerings is a weak villain, and Ant-Man can't seem to escape that obstacle. Paul Rudd is solid in the title role and Ant-Man is worthy enough to warrant a watch, but sappy dramatics and a weak antagonist lower the film's ceiling. (December 8th)

Mistress America - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Noah Baumbach is a stellar indie writer/director who continues to church out films at a wildly rapid rate. I envision him as a modern day Woody Allen whose mind must be racing with ideas at all times. And like Allen, Baumbach's films succeed thanks to witty and genuine dialogue draped over simple, yet very human, stories. His most recent 2015 release (yeah, he's delivered more than one title this year), Mistress America, re-teams Baumbach with his regular leading lady, Greta Gerwig. Aspiring short-story author and lonely college freshman, Tracy (Lola Kirke), is having trouble adjusting to her new life in the Empire State. Following the suggestion of her recently engaged mother, Tracy seeks out her soon-to-be sister in law, Brooke (Gerwig), for some friendship. The two meet and hit it off as Tracy becomes fascinated by Brooke's upbeat and often delusional views of the world. And unbeknownst to Brooke, Tracy begins to use her as a main character in her latest story. Mistress America delivers a plethora of quotable one-liners that flow past the lips of Gerwig with such blistering ease. Although Baumbach's simplistic stories hamper his films from breaking through elevated barries, it never stops them from being an entertaining and enjoyable experience. (December 1st)

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - No rating or review available

With December's undeniably weak crop of titles, I had to dig deep for a well-reviewed film that I haven't yet seen myself. I will admit that I wasn't a big fan of the massively praised 4th installment to the Mission: Impossible franchise, yet critics were just as impressed with this past summer's Rogue Nation. Tom Cruise returns once again as Ethan Hunt, an undercover agent of the legendary IMF unit. But when CIA chief Alan Hundley (Alec Baldwin) persuades a Senate commitee to abandon the secret team of agents, Hunt and his team must go after a deviant organization known as The Syndicate without the backing of the U.S. government. Daring stunts headline this action-packed return to the franchise. Comedian Simon Pegg consistently delivers valuable complementary humor that helps the Mission: Impossible series to revel in its continued success. (December 15th)

Honorable Mention: The foul-mouthed sequel, Ted 2 (12/15), and geriatric comedy, A Walk in the Woods (12/29), starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte were two films that left plenty to be desired. Other notable releases this month that I haven't seen include the well-received documentary, Amy (12/1), which chronicles the life and addiction of late singer Amy Winehouse, as well as the kid's flick spin-off, Minions (12/8). Horror fans have a pair of intriguing selections with Eli Roth's Knock Knock (12/8) starring Keanu Reeves and the foreign hit, Goodnight Mommy (12/1), which has become a rampantly discussed scary movie for hardcore fans of the genre.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

2016 Golden Globe Nominees: Snubs and Surprises

With the recent Screen Actors Guild (complete list of SAG nominees) and Golden Globe nominations (complete list of Golden Globe nominees), the awards season is finally starting to heat up. Within both prestigious ceremonies, there were plenty of snubs and surprises to discuss. Let's take a look at what these nominations mean for the stretch run to the Oscars.

The Best Actor race was looking for a 5th performance to round out the group and it appears they may have found it. In a bit of a surprise Breaking Bad star. Bryan Cranston, found himself receiving both a SAG and Golden Globe nomination for him performance in Trumbo. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) appear to be locks in the Best Actor category, with Johnny Depp (Black Mass) and Will Smith (Concussion) representing other possible finalist as well. 

One of the biggest shockers to come out of these nominations was a complete omission for Carey Mulligan's work in the feminist drama, Suffragette. Mulligan delivered a fine performance in a role that just begs for awards season attention, however this could spell the beginning of the end for her hopes at an Oscar nomination. In her absence from the SAG finalists Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back) welcomed a surprising inclusion. Mulligan, Silverman will also be competing with the phenomenal and regrettably snubbed work of aging veteran, Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), for a chance at the big dance. Safer bets in the Best Actress race are Brie Larson (Room), Cate Blachett (Carol), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and perhaps Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) too.

Odds are many prognosticators pegged Mark Ruffalo as a guaranteed Best Supporting Actor nominee for his work in Todd McCarthy's Best Picture bound drama, Spotlight. Yet, Ruffalo received a Golden Globe nod for his vastly overlooked work in one of my favorite films of 2015, the hilarious indie dramedy, Infinitely Polar Bear. Kudos to the Hollywood Foreign Press for recognizing an exceptional turn by Ruffalo. Unforeseen to many, Spotlight's big pair, Ruffalo and co-star Michael Keaton, were both blanked for their roles in the film. The biggest beneficiaries were 99 Homes supporting star, Michael Shannon, Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Creed's Sylvester Stallone. The Big Short's Christian Bale and Room's deserving youngster, Jacob Tremblay, also secured SAG nominations as well. Any of the aforementioned, along with Tom Hardy (The Revenant) and Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), have a fighting chance as this competition is completely wide open outside of the current frontrunner, Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance. 

Bryan Cranston wasn't the only star from Trumbo to shock the industry with a pair of recent nominations, add Helen Mirren to the list of rising performers forcing their way into the Oscar discussion. Mirren was never believed to be a viable Best Supporting Actress contender but her stock is surely on the rise as she'll have to battle with The Hateful Eight's Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane Fonda (Youth), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy) and Joan Allen (Room), while Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) and Rooney Mara (Carol) feel like sure-things.

Although its Best Picture hopes are still minimal at best, the collective cast from F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton surprised everyone with a Best Ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild. I was a little perplexed to see that Room failed to make the cut in the same category, although it did earn a Best Drama nod with the Globes. Mad Max: Fury Road still has a staunch set of supporters, evident by its Best Drama recognition by the Globes and only Spotlight and The Big Short found themselves earning a pair of nominations from both voting bodies. It seems pretty obvious that Spotlight is a narrow Best Picture frontrunner at this point in time.

*** Stay tuned for plenty of more awards season talk throughout the long long journey to the Oscars in February

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Rapid Reviews: In the Heart of the Sea and Krampus

Ron Howard is a living legend of Hollywood, plain and simple. And for reasons unknown to me, the accomplished actor, director and producer never seems to end up in the same discussion as cinema's greatest filmmakers.You can't argue against his impressive credentials which include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and his most recent and, perhaps, most overlooked film, 2013's thrilling Formula One racing biopic, Rush. However, with Howard's latest endeavor, In the Heart of the Sea, we certainly aren't handed his most prolific feature.

Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) sets out to interview an older Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a crew member on the whaling ship Essex that was rumored to have encountered an enormous beast. And after a reluctant start to his recollection of the harrowing true story surrounding the sinking of the Essex, Nickerson finally buckles down and relives the events of his childhood. He tells of the power struggle on-board between the ship's captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). prior to their encounter with the most massive whale any of the crew had ever seen.

Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Sea fails to break ground as either a survival film or a dramatic biopic. Instead, the film serves as a visual spectacle and very little else. Filled with hokey dramatics that never capture the core emotions of the audience, Ron Howard's newest film falls flat of its revived Oscar hopes. In the Heart of the Sea surprisingly pushed it release date back from March of 2015 until this December, and many were expecting an awards season contender. However, outside of its marvelous CGI and a memorable small supporting turn from Cillian Murphy, this origin tale for Herman Melville's classic American novel, Moby Dick, is nowhere near tbe whale-sized masterpiece that many desired.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

As a lifelong fan of the comedy-horror genre, generally positive reviews immediately perked my interest in Michael Dougherty's Krampus. Boasting a surprisingly respectable cast including Oscar Nominee Toni Collette and comedy regulars Adam Scott and Anchorman's David Koechner, I was really hoping that Krampus could deliver a rare, but enjoyable, holiday scare.

Youngster Max, (Chef's Emjay Anthony), wants nothing more than to spread the Christmas cheer to his mother (Collette), father (Scott) and sister. However, when his extended family stops over for some festivities and their destructive behavior spoils the holiday, Max loses his Christmas spirit and makes a nasty wish that summons a dark and ancient abomination known as Krampus. This demonic force and his evil helpers unleash on the family and force them to work together to survive the ordeal.

I know what you're thinking, "who heard this movie pitch and though it was a good idea"? Well, truth be told, Krampus attempts to model itself in the vein of Gremlins, a holiday comedy-horror that plays well to the audience. And while the humor is infectious and clearly eases the viewer through the film, the lack of authentic scares and an awfully weak finale spoil Dougherty's naughty Christmas tale. Krampus does contain a few exceptional moments, yet the film's closing climactic sequence leaves too big of a blemish to overcome.

Stars: 2 stars out  of 4

Grade: C

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Dawn of Justice (NEW) and The Nice Guys (Red Band) Trailers

With the unquantifiable success of the Marvel universe sweeping across the world on an annual basis, DC was destined to scurry for a competitor in this billion dollar superhero movie market. And while their first main attraction, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, left plenty to be desired, the story-melding follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, hopes to rival that of Marvel's Avengers. However, the recently released first major glance into Dawn of Justice has turned me into a skeptic. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) cross paths in Metropolis not only as reporter and business tycoon, but as their superhero alter egos as well. And while they battle over their differences and the world debates which superhero it prefers, Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) begins to stir up trouble of his own. Here's the latest look into Dawn of Justice arriving in March 2016.

Speaking of superheros, director Shane Black has dipped into the genre as the visionary behind Iron Man 3. Yet, in the summer of 2016 he'll ditch Tony Stark and his iron suit for the comedy crime-thriller, The Nice Guys. Russell Crowe stars as a private investigator hired to find a porn star who some believed committed suicide. He enlists the services of a detective (Ryan Gosling) and the two individuals become quite the duo on their way to unlocking the mysteries of the case. Check out the first Red Band look into Shane Black's The Nice Guys below.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Rapid Reviews: The Danish Girl and A Royal Night Out

Instead of honoring a respected lifelong performer like Michael Keaton with a well-deserved statue at last year's Academy Awards ceremony, the Best Actor crown was handed to an up-and-comer that mainstream audiences knew very little about. Eddie Redmayne was undoubtedly impressive in his Oscar-winning portrayal of famed-physicist and ALS sufferer, Stephen Hawking, in the nominated biopic, The Theory of Everything. But swept into the Hollywood allure, he chose to follow up the recognized role with another awards season target in Tom Hooper's, The Danish Girl.

Danish landscape painter, Einar Wegener (Redmayne), lives a happily married life with his portrait-artist wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), in 1920s Copenhagen. But when Einar stands in as a female subject in Gerda's painting, it elicits a deep and powerful curiosity within him. As his infatuation and natural instinct to appear in public as a female grows to extreme heights, Einar bravely attempts the first-ever gender reassignment surgery.

By now it's blatantly obvious that Eddie Redmayne is attracted to roles with the potential to land him on Hollywood's biggest stage, and his latest collaboration with Tom Hooper is merely Oscar fodder. The Danish Girl meanders along and inadequately unveils the heroic story of Einar Wegener. But rather than effectively addressing the daily hardships and struggles of a man trapped in a woman's body, we're given a tragic love story that Army-crawls to its brutal two-hour finish line. In many ways the film actually parallels The Theory of Everything. It includes an unusual love triangle, it tells the story of a man trapped and living without a real voice in the world and, most notably, it delivers a standout female performance. Alicia Vikander is the main attraction here, and while I anticipate Oscar nominations for both her and co-star Eddie Redmayne, her recognition is certainly deserved.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

One of the more upbeat features to play at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was the British comedy, A Royal Night Out. Sundance star Bel Powley, who made a name for herself with the indie hit The Diary of a Teenage Girl, joins Canadian actress Sarah Gadon in Julian Jarrold's historical crowd-pleaser.

Following Germany's surrender after World War II, both Princess Elizabeth (Gadon) and Princess Margaret (Powley) go incognito and venture out onto the streets of England on V.E. Day. The royal daughters experience a night unlike any other filled with laughter, danger and even first-time romances.

A Royal Night Out sets itself up as a playful and feel-good movie experience, however the jokes are typical, the love story is bland and the entertainment is minimal. These actresses put forth their greatest efforts to draw the audience into what's supposed to be the best night of their young lives. Yet, elementary writing and generic direction ultimately transform A Royal Night Out into a run of the mill and forgettable comedy.

Stars: 2 out of 4

Grade: C

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Revenant

Film: The Revenant

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Domhnall Gleeson (Ex-Machina)

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2015 (Limited - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 156 minutes

Last year's Best Picture winner, Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman, amazed audiences with its single-shot appearance and paved the way for the director's next project. Even though the Mexican filmmaker has successfully lured impressive acting talent to his highly regarded past works, The Revenant has always been different, it's supposed to be "the one". With the Oscar-less Leonardo DiCaprio set to star in the role of a lifetime as he rides the wave of Inarritu's recent success, all eyes have shifted to their upcoming collaborative effort.

Set throughout a massive uncharted American wilderness during the 1820s, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as famed explorer, Hugh Glass. Following a viscous grisly bear attack that leaves him fighting for his life, Glass is abandoned and left for dead by fellow frontiersman, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Against all odds, Glass is forced to withstand blistering winter conditions as he embarks on a vengeful quest to find and kill Fitzgerald.

The Revenant is a relentless survivor tale that motions fluidly between an intense drama and a visceral revenge thriller. Despite all the attention placed on Leonardo DiCaprio's leading performance, it's Inarritu's direction that shines brightest. Unlike his fine technical achievements in Birdman, Inarritu slightly tones down his flashy filmmaking skills and utilizes them solely as a complement to Hugh Glass' remarkable true story. This naturally brings us to DiCaprio. Although I'd argue against this being the finest work of his career, the performance still warrants global attention and I do believe that he'll win his first statue on Oscar night in February. Sometimes the stars just need to align and DiCaprio's exceptional turn is further elevated by surprisingly weak competition within the Best Actor race. Don't be fooled, however, The Revenant is more than a one man show. The entire ensemble is worthy of immense praise and that includes each of Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter and the rest of the film's brilliant cast.

While The Revenant is an epic story of one man's staunch pursuit of revenge that exceeds Inarritu's previous Best Picture winner, it still fails to mask a few noticeable shortcomings. First, the film packs an immediate punch and culminates with a phenomenal climactic finish. Yet, the second act of Inarritu's Oscar contender trudges along aimlessly with a Terrence Malick-like sense of artistry that keeps the plot at a standstill. Despite being existential and filled with marvelous imagery, this two and a half hour feature suffers from a sluggish midsection. Furthermore, The Revenant's continual reliance on violence and brutality stays loyal to the main theme of the film, but it will undoubtedly repel a large faction of moviegoers and Academy members. Therefore, I see The Revenant as a major Oscar player but an unlikely choice for back-to-back Best Picture winners from Inarritu.

As someone who enjoyed Birdman for its exquisite direction and not as much for its middling story, I had a few reservations regarding Alejandro G. Inarritu's latest offering. However, The Revenant surpasses last year's top-honored film in both style and substance. The feature doesn't boast a high re-watch factor, but it still manages to set itself apart as an instant classic from one of Hollywood's most talented visionaries. And maybe, just maybe, he'll be able to get Leo that well-deserved Oscar win.

Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B+