Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rapid Reviews: The Martian and Sicario

*** Guest Reviews Courtesy of Reel True Owner Greg Rouleau

It’s undeniable that director Ridley Scott is one of the all-time greats, but it’s also been a rough few years for the auteur who, despite putting out films at a rapid pace, has unfortunately seen most of them met with lukewarm-at-best reception.   The Martian is here to turn that all around.  Adopted from the book of the same name, the film tells the story of an astronaut, Mark Watney, who is stranded on Mars after being hit with debris in a storm and unable to escape with the rest of his crew.  There, he must fend for himself as the sole human on the planet, with only his botany skills and indomitable spirit keeping him alive.  

Compared to recent sci-fi blockbusters, it lacks the intensity of Gravity, as well as the scope and vision of Interstellar, but there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Matt Damon is outstanding and charming as the deserted Watney, forced to improvise survival methods as we hope to witness his rescue.   A surprising element of The Martian is its levity.  While there’s surely a decent amount of drama and spectacle on display, many characters in the large ensemble are given a chance to show off some comedic chops, too.  The somewhat lighthearted tone and conventional story here are surprising, but also likely key in what should be a major success commercially.   While it’s not on the level of his greatest hits, it’s welcome to see Sir Ridley on the right path again and The Martian is decidedly enjoyable from start to finish. 

Grade: B+

At last, fall movie season has arrived and with it, brings one of the best movies of the year, Sicario.  Denis Villeneuve’s tightly paced thriller is a masterwork of crafting tension and a brutal, violent, bloody look at the war on drugs around the Mexican border.  Benicio Del Toro, giving his best performance since the actor’s Oscar winning turn in Traffic, oozes machismo as Alejandro, the government agent with an ambiguous past.  Emily Blunt shines in her role as the FBI representative who aids the special task force assigned to locate a Mexican drug lord. 

Throughout much of the film, Blunt’s character is kept in the dark when it comes to specifics of the mission and even certain team member’s allegiances.  Villeneuve does a fantastic job of putting us in her shoes, particularly in one of the film’s best scenes, when the task force heads to Juarez to extradite a prisoner.   With such a powerful subject matter, Sicario does leave a little to be desired when it comes to examining the intricacies of the actual task at hand; it’s pretty much here’s the bad guy – let’s get him.  But with the stellar performances, I’d be remiss to not also mention Josh Brolin, and a plot that unfolds in such a gripping manner, it’s easy to overlook a few shortcomings.   It’s also worth pointing out the wonderful technical craft on display, in particular, Roger Deakins’ always beautiful cinematography and Oscar winner Johann Johannsson’s intense score.   Sicario is not one to be missed.

Grade: A-

Friday, September 25, 2015

Truth and The Big Short Trailers

A debut trailer has just dropped for James Vanderbilt's real story drama, Truth. Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett stars as former CBS News producer, Mary Mapes, who faced massive amounts of scrutiny and shaming alongside her famed news anchor, Dan Rather (Robert Redford), after reporting a false story just prior to the 2004 election claiming then-president, George W. Bush, of using his father's political ties to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam war. Truth tells a controversial story that's guaranteed to stir the political pot. Arriving in theaters this October, just out the films trailer below.

Arriving late this year is the economic drama, The Big Short, from director Adam McKay (Anchorman and Step Brothers). Despite McKay's history as a comedy filmmaker, the combination of a late-December limited release, dramatic content revolving around the 2008 economic collapse and a star-studded cast featuring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell all signal a potential Oscar contender. When four outsiders well versed in high finance discover that the credit and housing bubble is about to explode, they join forces to take on the corrupt banking system for their lack of ethics. The Big Short's trailer is one you won't want to miss, so check it out below.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rapid Reviews: The Intern and Sleeping with Other People

One of the films opening this weekend is The Intern, the latest comedy from It's Complicated director Nancy Meyers. With an A-list cast featuring Academy Award winners Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, this fluff piece regrettably falls a little short of initial expectations.

After a brief stint with retirement prompts Ben Whittaker, a 70 year old widower, to apply for an internship with an online fashion website, he's selected for the position and assigned to personally assist their company head, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). And as Ben closely observes his overworked boss, he slowly convinces her that he can be a valuable asset to the company, and more importantly, a loyal friend.

The Intern works tirelessly to blend together legitimate laughs and earnest drama. Yet, while the film succeeds from a comedic standpoint, its emotional core feels forced and insincere. With a running time just north of two full hours, The Intern finds itself massively outstretched and completely dismantled by a deplorable third act that's overacted by the film's leading lady, Anne Hathaway. The movie's best moments come at the hands of its supporting stars. Unfortunately, they aren't enough to maintain a winning formula.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

In a bit of a surprise, the indie comedy Sleeping with Other People wraps a laugh-filled exterior around a hearty center. Despite filmmaker Leslye Headland's unloved 2012 debut, Bachelorette, she rebounds nicely with this admirable second effort.

Following an unconventional encounter in which Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) took each other's virginity a dozen years prior, these two sexual deviants reconnect outside of a sex addicts meeting. And although Jake has developed into a non-committal womanizer and Lainey can't shake her sexual relationship with a taken man, their unusual friendship gives them fresh perspectives on life and happiness.

Sleeping with Other People is relentless with its sexually-driven humor and, despite feeling too over the top at times, it ultimately works well thanks to excellent turns from Sudeikis and Brie. Their onscreen chemistry is exceptional and their talents allow for fluid transitions between its raunchy jokes and more dramatic moments. Sleeping with Other People always feels authentic and benefits greatly from a strong collection of secondary characters and well-developed characters. Don't expect the next big breakout comedy, but it proves to be an enjoyable and smooth ride.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Black Mass

Film: Black Mass

Starring: Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Joel Edgerton (The Gift)

Director: Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace)

U.S. Release: September 18th, 2015 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 122 minutes

Scott Cooper has developed into a very intriguing filmmaker. After guiding Jeff Bridges to Oscar immortality with his 2009 directorial debut, Crazy Horse, Cooper then followed with the gripping, albeit flawed, drama, Out of the Furnace. Hence, cinephiles watched closely as news developed regarding Cooper's third major motion picture, Black Mass. And as details emerged and footage of leading star Johnny Depp began to surface, moviegoers everywhere awaited eagerly in hopes of watching Cooper take the next big step in his career. However, things don't always go according to plan.

On the mean streets of Southie in Boston during the 1970s, local Irish gangster, James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp), finds himself pitted against the Italian mob who have infiltrated the city's criminal underground. And when a loyal Southie native and FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), is ordered by his superiors to take down the Italian mob boss, Gennaro Angiulo, he reaches out to Bulger for assistance. While the feds dismantle Anguilo's crew, Bulger and his "Winter Hill Gang" become an unstoppable force throughout the entire city of Boston and beyond.

It's very difficult to pinpoint a specific tone for Scott Cooper's latest offering, Black Mass. The film lacks depth with its dramatic elements and paces along too aimlessly to sustain any true sense of action. In fact, Black Mass serves as nothing more than a highlight reel of Whitey Bulger's murderous repertoire. Instead of developing some form of moral conflict or complexity with its writing, the audience is forced to sit through scene after scene of Scott Cooper's glorification of violence. Make no mistake about it, the film caters solely to a visceral appeal and circumvents any attempt at telling a deeply layered story. Perhaps, notorious criminal mastermind "Whitey" Bulger is simply a cold-blooded and ruthless killer, nothing more. If so, then there's really no interesting story worth telling in a major motion picture setting. Leave that for the ID Channel or any of its other similar true crime programmers.

Despite all of the many issues surrounding Black Mass, Johnny Depp provides handfuls of memorable scenes that keep the film from utter disaster. This isn't the devoted actor's finest work, but his performance is still magnetic. Solid enough that it makes Cooper's painful journey down the mob movie checklist somewhat fathomable. An absence of originality and authenticity reveal Black Mass for what it truly is, a superficial one-man show that's as cold and lifeless as its main character.

Expectations undeniably carry a bias toward any movie experience and, admittedly, I was hoping for much more from Black Mass. Scott Cooper's first two films were on the fringe of something special but instead of propelling his career to another level, he takes a big step backwards with this latest effort. Character development through storytelling is such an integral part of any cinematic experience and, unfortunately, it's nowhere to be found here.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Best Survival Movies

We're a couple weeks away from the release of the visual effects spectacle, Everest. Following the 1996 story surrounding a group of climbers forced to battle extreme weather conditions during their conquest of Mount Everest, early reviews for the film have been highly favorable. Therefore, I'm devoting September's Movie List of the Month to the greatest survival films (check out August's list). While survival films have been more of a contemporary genre in mainstream film, my list surprisingly traces back to the 1970s. Just as a disclaimer, my list avoids content centered around zombies, vampires and anything post-apocalyptic. These selections are man verse nature, I hope you enjoy!

Honorable Mention: Cast Away (2000), Into the Wild (2007) and The Way Back (2010)

#5. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

As a huge fan of a cruise-line vacation, the everlasting effect of The Poseidon Adventure haunted many of my days on rough seas. Gene Hackman stars in this classic survival tale of an ocean liner that capsizes and puts its passengers on a desperate quest to escape before the ship fully sinks. Action-packed and boasting some impressive special effects considering its release date, The Poseidon Adventure is definitely a worthy inclusion on the list.

#4. All Is Lost (2013)

I'll keep thing on the open waters as I move on to the nearly-silent but impactful drama, All Is Lost. Leading star Robert Redford was irritatingly snubbed of an Oscar nomination as a lone sailor who encounters unimaginable troubles after his vessel strikes a lost shipping container floating aimlessly in the sea. Short on dialogue but heavy on intensity, Redford gives an unforgettable performance in a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

#3. Alive (1993)

When I think about the phrase, "survival film", my brain immediately defaults to an iconic entry from my youth, Alive. Based on the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the snowy Andes Mountains following an unforeseen plane, Alive examine that harrowing struggles of surviving in these elements. When things get really desperate for these athletes, they must turn to cannibalism to stay alive and those images and ideas will forever haunt me.

#2. 127 Hours (2010)

Danny Boyle is such an amazing filmmaker and one of his greatest efforts is the brutally honest and true tale, 127 Hours. James Franco gives an Oscar nominated performance as outdoor enthusiast, Aron Ralston, who unfortunately finds himself trapped by an immovable boulder in a Utah canyon. As the hours turn to days and Ralston struggles to come to terms with his situation, he must go to extreme measures to ensure he lives to see another day. What a film!

#1. The Impossible (2012)

It doesn't get much better than J.A. Bayona's four-star breathtaking true story, The Impossible. Centered on the crippling events of the 2004 Tsunami that struck Thailand, Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts star as the parents of a family forced to overcome the impossible odds of surviving and reconnecting after this unforeseen storm claims nearly a quarter of a million casualties. The Impossible is a non-stop thrill ride full of tension and suspense that transcends almost anything you've seen before. This is a complete must-see, so do yourself a favor and seek it out!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rapid Reviews: The Visit and 99 Homes

M. Night Shyamalan, the gimmicky filmmaker who once made his mark on the industry with unforgettable works such as The Sixth Sense and Signs, had lost the confidence of many major studios after a decade-long tailspin derailed his once envious career. However, Universal Pictures has handed him another shot at redemption with Shyamalan's latest thriller, The Visit.

After the events of one impactful evening turned into 15 years of silence between Paula (Kathryn Hahn) and her parents, she receives a letter from the elderly couple asking if they can meet their grandchildren, Becca (Olivia Dejonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), for the first time. Despite her reservations, the children push her into saying yes and they embark on their trip across the state while Paula takes a cruise with her new boyfriend. As Becca and Tyler spend a few days trying to get to know their grandparents, the elderly couple's behavior grows increasingly odd and leaves the kids concerned for their well being.

Although The Visit is far from the recurring duds that M Night Shyamalan has released over the past handful of years, the director continues to rely solely on shocking twists to win over an audience. And although Shyamalan may have convinced others that his career is trending back to its old winning ways , I recognize The Visit as the schematic ploy that it truly is. Filmed from the first-person perspective, meant to be a documentary by the eldest grandchild, Becca, this whole fad is as washed up and outdated as Shyamalan's "gotcha" approach. Creepy performances from aged veterans Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are executed brilliantly and clearly the film's driving force. But when you peel away The Visit's flimsy exterior, it represents yet another ineffective and empty entry from Shyamalan.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

After nearly a year-long stint on the festival circuit, Ramin Bahrani's indie drama, 99 Homes, finds a theatrical release on September 25th. With a detailed and sinister examination of the housing market collapse and its immediate aftermath, 99 Homes is an eye opening and powerful piece of filmmaking from Bahrani.

After falling behind on the mortgage payments to his family's home, contractor Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is ordered by a judge to evict his home. Struggling to find work, Nash crosses paths with real estate broker Richard Carver (Michael Shannon) who takes the single father under his wing and shows him the ropes to corrupting the system. Forced to perform the same eviction practices that he once experienced himself, Nash must choose between compromising his morals and providing for his son and mother (Laura Dern).

Despite a shaky first act that feels flooded with unconvincing dialogue and preachy undertones, 99 Homes quickly unravels into a morality tale that works on various levels. Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon give top-flight performances that serve as a backbone to an escalating tale of fraud and misconduct. The film illustrates an earnest, albeit bleak, portrait of the housing market collapse that swept across our country throughout the end of the last decade. The dramatics are genuine and the feature is paced extremely well for a two-hour affair. 99 Homes isn't going to dominate this year's awards season, but it proves to be a worthy fall release that captivates audiences and tells a harsh, but necessary, story.

Stars; 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Demolition and The Dressmaker Trailers

Fast-rising filmmaker, Jean-Marc Vallee, has entertained audiences each other the past two years with acclaimed hits such as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. He has managed to direct Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar wins while nearly pulling off the same feat with Reese Witherspoon (who still landed in the top five). This year Vallee returns with another superb talent, Jake Gyllenhaal, in the comedy-drama Demolition. After the tragic loss of his wife in a car accident, Davis (Gyllenhaal) has struggled to piece his life back together. And what begins as a complaint letter to a vending machine company, eventually transforms into a string of letters that catch the eye of a customer service rep (Naomi Watts) who develops an unlikely bond with Davis. Oddly, Demolition finds an early-year release in April 2016.

After a long while away from the director's chair, Jocelyn Moorhouse returns this year with The Dressmaker, a drama that's receiving a modest amount of awards season buzz. Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, a stylish woman who returns to her small hometown in Australia and, with the aid of her sewing machine, transforms the women in town and exacts revenge on those who wronged her in the past. The Dressmaker is currently making the festival rounds and is expected to find a release later this year.

Friday, September 4, 2015

DVD Outlook: September 2015

After an abysmal month of DVD options in August, the fall begins to get us back on track. While I don't want to overstate the quality of the new titles that will be hitting shelves this September, I will say that they are far more promising than last month. Here are my top recommendations for September:

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

My first suggestion is mainly intended for the fans of HBO's former hit show, Entourage, who may have missed out on its big screen post-series release this past June. Much like the long-running comedy series, the film unravels with its ups and downs but, all in all, the feature film plays out like an extra long episode. Good jokes, beautiful women, and the 5 guys who helped make our Sunday nights extra enjoyable for a very long time. Entourage picks up immediately where the show leaves off with Ari (Jeremy Piven) back in Hollywood as the head of a major studio. And with his first monumental decision, Ari chooses Vinny Chase (Adrian Grenier) to star in the studio's next big project. However, Vince will only do the film if he can sit in the director's chair as well. If you're a fan of the hit television show, then it's worth taking a shot on Entourage. (September 23rd)

Mad Max: Fury Road - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

It took a trio of decades for filmmaker George Miller to return to his post apocalyptic universe that he branded in the 70s and 80s. Well, needless to say, some things are worth the wait. In Miller's triumphant return, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tom Hardy takes over the title character and he must try to escape the evil clutches of a tyrannical ruler with the aid of a female rebel named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and a group of enslaved prisoners. The action is spot on and Fury Road indescribably succeeds as nothing more than a two-hour chase scene. It's quite impressive and like nothing else you've ever seen. While I wasn't as big of an admirer of the film as many other critics and moviegoers, I will say that Fury Road is a remarkably original film that withstands some noticeable pacing issues. (September 1st)

Love & Mercy - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

I've been a committed lifelong fan of perhaps the greatest harmonizing band of all time, The Beach Boys. A few years back mere curiosity had me stumble across the wiki page of the band's song-composing leader, Brian Wilson. After skimming through the peculiar events of his life story, I remember thinking it would make a compelling film. Fast forward and director Bill Pohlad has turned Wilson's story into the critically acclaimed biopic, Love & Mercy. The non-chronological tale casts both John Cusack and Paul Dano as the musical mastermind, recapping his estrangement from the Beach Boys as he went on to compose one of the greatest albums ever written, Pet Sounds, and the eventual effects of a psychological stranglehold by his doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Prepare yourself for a wild story of manipulation all while reliving the birth of a musical masterpiece. (September 15th)

Honorable Mention: Action fans should be stoked for the DVD and Blu-Ray release of Furious 7 (9/15), although I admittedly quit on the franchise a long time ago. Melissa McCarthy's latest comedy, Spy (9/29) is available later this month and so is the a-cappella sequel, Pitch Perfect 2 (9/22). Blake Lively stars in the age-defying love story, The Age of Adaline (9/8) and a pair of indies, the swinger-comedy The Overnight (9/15) starring Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott, and the drama I'll See You in My Dreams (9/1) starring Blythe Danner.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Film: A Walk in the Woods

Starring: Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Nick Nolte (Warrior)

Director: Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants)

U.S. Release: September 2nd, 2015 (Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 104 minutes

In the twilight of his illustrious career, the iconic film star, Robert Redford, has only appeared in four separate roles since 2007. Such a small number would clearly indicate a selective approach for the one-time heartthrob. Hence, it's a bit puzzling what drew Redford to his latest film choice, the old-timer comedy, A Walk in the Woods. Needless to say, even the great Robert Redford couldn't salvage the newest plot-less film from director Ken Kwapis.

As the best-selling American travel author, Bill Bryson (Redford), seeks out the next adventure in his life, he stumbles across the great and lengthy Appalachian Trail. Quickly, the aged writer dives head-first into planning out his 2,000+ mile journey from Georgia to Maine. Yet, the only thing missing is a travel companion. After countless rejections, Bryson hears back from an old friend named Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) who's willing to join him on the trek of a lifetime.

A Walk in the Woods musters up the occasional laugh, but mainly suffers from poorly developed characters and an unfocused plot. Don't expect any notable character arcs or legitimate dramatic moments. Instead, the film paces along solely as a geriatric comedy drowned in predictable situations and unoriginal jokes that produce soft chuckles, but never full on riotous laughter. As A Walk in the Woods meanders from one rehashed joke to another, the most disappointing aspect of the film is its untimely and abrupt finale that ultimately reinforces the notion that the feature is nothing more than a thoughtless and misguided attempt at storytelling.

Although A Walk in the Woods suffers from numerous inexcusable mishandlings, it's impossible to deny the onscreen efforts of co-stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Without these seasoned vets who try their hardest to resurrect a dead story, the film would have been an absolute disaster. Thankfully, the committed work of Redford and Nolte help ease the audience through a journey of recycled humor and an even flimsier screenplay. But all in all, A Walk in the Woods is a mediocre comedy with almost no redeeming qualities.

As a result of poor storytelling and a lack of creativity, Ken Kwapis' latest endeavor comes and goes without ever leaving a mark. Perhaps Redford is a devoted fan of Bill Bryson's highly regarded and humorous novels on world travel. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to fathom what attracted him to a script that's so unapologetically devoid of emotion. A Walk in the Woods is undeserving of your hard earned money and far from the summertime adventure you should be seeking out.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Danish Girl and Concussion Trailers

We've finally been given a first glimpse into Tom Hooper's Oscar powerhouse, The Danish Girl. Hooper re-teams with his Les Miserables star and last year's Best Actor Oscar winner, Eddie Redmayne, in this powerful story behind the first person to undergo a sex reassignment surgery in the 1920s. As a story perfectly-timed for the social movement to accept members of the transgender community, The Danish Girl feels like a top-flight awards season contender.

Another recent trailer to debut was for Concussion, the film that the NFL doesn't want you to know anything about. Will Smith stars in this true story as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a foreign born neuropathologist who examined the effects of recurring head trauma in NFL players and discovered the long-term health consequences associated with a career in the sport. While Dr. Omalu's research was both groundbreaking and eye-opening, it wasn't graciously accepted by the NFL and he was forced to take on this powerful institution which was dead set on silencing him. Concussion finds a release on Christmas day and you can catch it's first official trailer below.