Thursday, June 30, 2016

Matthew McConaughey's Best Roles

As June comes to a hasty close, I'm concluding the month by discussing Matthew McConaughey's finest performances (May's list). McConaughey was once a rom-com regular who eventually went for gold and capped off a 2013 awards season run with his first Oscar. Therefore, let's take a look at the actor's best roles in June's movie list of the month (note: I never saw "Killer Joe" where his work was highly regarded).

Honorable Mention: A Time to Kill, Free State of Jones and Magic Mike

#5. The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

I've always been a sucker for courtroom movies and McConaughey's The Lincoln Lawyer is an overlooked genre gem. As the smooth talking Mick Haller, McConaughey becomes entwined in a game of cat and mouse with his wealthy client (Ryan Phillippe) who's accused of assaulting a prostitute. The Lincoln Lawyer is paced to perfection and serves as an entertaining and taut thrill ride. McConaughey's carries the film with a slick and natural confidence that makes for a fantastic lead character. If you haven't seen this one, I highly recommend seeking it out.

#4. Dazed and Confused (1993)

Perhaps the quintessential role of McConaughey's career comes from Richard Linklater's 90s cult classic, Dazed and Confused. This memorable comedy exams a day in the life of junior and senior high students on the last day of school in 1976. McConaughey steals the show as Wooderson, a twenty-something who socializes with the local high school students. He delivers quotable line after quotable line and, in fact, many would probably argue that this should be higher on the list.

#3. Interstellar (2014)

Right in the middle of his often quoted, "McConaissance", the actor delivered an exceptional turn in Christopher Nolan's ambitious epic sci-fi adventure, Interstellar. McConaughey takes center stage as Cooper, a retired pilot who's summoned to pioneer human kind's last-chance effort to save the human race from a deteriorating planet. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and McConaughey clearly shines in his surprisingly dramatic leading role. And although he ended up as a forgotten player during the year's awards season, I will always appreciate McConaughey's performance in Interstellar.

#2. Mud (2013)

2013 proved to be an amazing year of performances for McConaughey. One that became overshadowed by his eventual Oscar-winning turn, comes from Jeff Nichols' indie drama, Mud. McConaughey stars in the title role as a fugitive on the run who forms an unlikely pact with a pair of teenagers who promise to help him reconnect with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon). There's plenty of heart and intrigue scattered all throughout the film. Co-star, Tye Sheridan is exceptional in his role as an impressionable teen, all while McConaughey quietly puts on a phenomenal acting display. Mud has a few minor issues with pacing, but it's definitely worth a watch if you're looking for something you probably haven't seen.

#1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

A lot of actors tackle Oscar-bait roles, but it takes a special talent to actually pull it off. McConaughey went all in with his passion project, Dallas Buyers Club, by uglying-up and shedding nearly 40 pounds. The film focuses on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a hard-partying and homophobic Texan who discovers he's been infected with HIV and goes on a drug-smuggling spree to acquire the most progressive medicine to sell to locals who are also suffering from the virus. Jean-Marc Vallee's powerful drama earned McConaughey Oscar immortality in 2014 and remains as the performer's most impressive acting feat.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond and Morgan Trailers

J.J. Abrams helped revive the Star Trek franchise back in 2009, and once again with 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness. Yet, a shifting to the Star Wars universe has pulled him from the director's chair with his first revitalized project. Therefore, many concerns remain for this summer's newest entry, Star Trek Beyond. The entire crew of the USS Enterprise venture to uncharted territory deep in space and they discover a new foe who attempt to put an end to them and The Federation. With the tragic loss of Anton Yelchin this month, there will be plenty of reasons worth checking out director Justin Lin's (Fast Five) first go-around with the Star Trek saga.

Another intriguing new sci-fi title arriving this year is Luke Scott's debut feature, Morgan. Kate Mara (The Martian) stars as a corporate risk-management consultant who's hired to evaluate the safety of a breakthrough scientific project involving an artificial-being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). With a moderately known cast and an unknown filmmaker at the helm, Morgan comes with a lot of uncertainty. However, it was just last year when Alex Garland took Hollywood by storm with his Oscar-nominated debut film, Ex Machina, which boasted an eerily similar plot. Morgan arrives in theaters on September 2nd and you can catch it's first trailer below.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Free State of Jones and The Shallows

After a surprisingly aggressive marketing campaign that forked over massive bucks to debut its trailer during the Super Bowl, Free State of Jones finally arrives in theaters this weekend. The historical drama brings together recent Oscar winner, Matthew McConaughey, with Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games director, Gary Ross. But despite all of the film's talented cast and crew, Free State of Jones reveals itself as a forgettable attempt at an epic untold tale.

The Civil War divides a nation during the 1860s and Newton Knight (McConaughey) serves as a battlefield nurse for the Confederate Army. While Knight is forced to witness the personal sacrifices of war first-hand, he decides to desert his fellow soldiers and goes into hiding deep in the swamps of Mississippi. During this time Jones recruits countless other deserters who help stand up to the Confederate Army and put an end to the war.

Free State of Jones is a massively outstretched biopic that clouds the legacy of its central character with an overly ambitious screenplay. Matthew McConaughey provides a fully committed performance that easily reinforces his superior talents within the industry. However, film's most monumental moment occurs with almost an hour left to go and makes for a truly anticlimactic experience. As both the director and screenwriter for Free State of Jones, Ross tries to interweave two different stories set generations apart. Yet, neither story is told to the best of its ability and, as a result, the film suffers greatly from this glaring mistake.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Veteran action and horror filmmaker, Jaume Collet-Serra, returns this weekend with the survival thriller, The Shallows. It's really a simple script from the mind of budding scribe, Anthony Jaswinski, and starring the blonde beauty, Blake Lively. And although The Shallows clearly isn't anywhere near the quality of Spielberg's classic shark hunting tale, Jaws, the film manages to provide adequate thrills and worthwhile tension.

Following her mother's losing battle with cancer, a med student named Nancy (Lively) venture's to the same tropical paradise her mother visited before she was born. Nancy enjoys a majestic day of soaking in some sun on the beach and surfing until a monstrous shark chases her onto a rock 200 yards from shore. She must battle in a game of wits with this cunning predator in order to survive the fast approaching high-tide that will force Nancy back into the shallow waters.

The Shallows serves as a unique blend of survival and horror genres. Serra manages to provide some excellent suspense, but it occasionally feels wasted on a weak PG-13 MPAA rating. Lively certainly convinces in her leading role as a resourceful combatant to an enormous predator of the ocean. Yet, The Shallows suffers from typical thriller cliches such as nonsensical characters who are supposed to represent help, but fall victim to their own idiocy. Furthermore, the film's finale is riddled with question marks as it feels completely unbelievable in retrospect. Yet, I will admit that the execution of this ending is exhilarating in the moment. The Shallows is far from a must-watch film, but it manages to accomplishes its goals rather well.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Pete's Dragon (NEW) Trailers

Another film from the dark and creative mind of Tim Burton will arrive in 2016. And if I'm being honest, I was very intrigued by it's debut trailer. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children stars Asa Butterfield as Jacob, a teen who discovers clues that lead him to a magical place that defies time and space. The residence of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) serves as a shelter for boys and girls with strange and peculiar powers. Jacob must discover his unique ability and help fend off evil forces trying to destroy his new friends. Tim Burton's latest arrives on September 30th and you can catch its debut trailer below.

We're caught in a summer full of sequels and reboots, but one intriguing childhood favorite of mine makes a return with Disney's Pete's Dragon. Although some similarities are evident between David Lowery's new version and the 1977 original, it's clear that this film's story hopes to set itself apart from its source material. When a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) is found wandering alone in the wilderness by an official (Bryce Dallas Howard), he tells stories of his best friend Elliot, a dragon with the ability to become invisible. Skepticism always runs rampant for any remake, but hopefully Pete's Dragon will surprise us all this August. Check out the film's first theatrical trailer below.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Dory

Film: Finding Dory

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks and Ed O'Neill

Directors: Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) & Angus MacLane

U.S. Release: June 17th, 2016 (Rated PG)

Genre: Animated

Runtime: 103 minutes

Allow me to speak candidly about my adoration for Andrew Stanton's Oscar-winning animated masterpiece, Finding Nemo. Without a moment of hesitation, I loudly and proudly proclaim  it as the best animated film of this millennium. Not even Shrek, Up, Toy Story 3 or any of the countless other overwhelmingly successful Disney & Pixar releases manage to stand quite as tall as Marlin's cross-ocean journey to find his son. Therefore, upon hearing news of Stanton's long-awaited sequel, Finding Dory, I was forced to balance comparable levels of both joy and skepticism. Thankfully, this newest inclusion in the underwater saga is anything but a disappointment.

After the forgetful blue tang fish, Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres), helps her new clown fish friend, Marlin (Albert Brooks), find his son, Nemo, she begins to experience cloudy memories of her past. And as she pieces all of these thoughts together, Dory finally remembers her loving parents and embarks on a journey of her own to find them. But despite Marlin's lack of interest in venturing across the vast ocean yet again, he and Nemo join her on another fun-filled journey of family connection.

Much like his 2003 hit, Finding Nemo, Stanton's latest endeavor succeeds with its close attention to detail. As expected, the animation is spectacular and the story is cute and endearing. Yet, Finding Dory's most memorable moments come courtesy of a fresh new collection of quirky characters. Ed O'Neill shines as the voice of Hank, a cunning octopus with dreams of living the easy life at the Cleveland Aquarium. But Hank is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many hysterical new faces that Finding Dory introduces. Most sequels will attempt to reuse their supporting characters, story structure and other winning facets of the original in order to cash in at the box office. However, Finding Dory elevates its game and provides a wide arrangement of interesting new ideas and characters that make it a strong stand-alone film all on its own.

Despite culminating as a clear winning effort, there are a few areas of concern that prevent Finding Dory from shining as brightly as its predecessor. The biggest flaw lies in the film's unwillingness to stay grounded in reality. One of the most appealing aspects of Finding Nemo was, once humans were introduced into the film, the story still remains believable. To the contrary, Finding Dory completely breaks down in its third act and shatters any sense of realism that it ever achieved. Furthermore, the film's story is much narrower in scope than its source material. Consequently, Finding Dory is forced to rely heavily on cheaper writing tactics such as flashbacks and convoluted obstacles to help extend it's story. These blemishes are by no means detrimental to the film's success, yet they clearly create a divide between this entry and the upper echelon work that Disney & Pixar have provided over the years.

Tender, charming and witty all in large doses, Finding Dory is a guaranteed Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature and a worthy sequel. You'll fully embrace the return of these lovable characters as well as a fresh new batch that you can add to the list. June has been a rather disappointing month to the 2016 summer blockbuster season, but Finding Dory is a ray of sunshine that you should soak in before it's gone.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Rapid Reviews: The Conjuring 2 and Weiner-Dog

Horror guru James Wan, pioneer of the Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring franchises, has nothing left to prove in the genre that he's helped mold. Perhaps that's why the director has shifted his focus of late to films like Furious 7 and the upcoming DC superhero tale, Aquaman, which is slated for a 2018 release. But despite Wan's clear eagerness to branch out from his horror roots, the filmmaker welcomes his latest endeavor, The Conjuring 2, to theaters all across the country.

Years after helping the Perron family survive an evil terror lurking in their farmhouse, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) gain worldwide acclaim for their paranormal investigations into the famed Amityville murders. And with their deeper journeys into the realm of demonic spirits, Lorraine expresses her desires to put an end to the family business before something terrible happens to them. However, a new dark and powerful force haunts a single mother and her four children in their London home, which prompts Ed and Lorraine to tackle one more case.

After directing the first pair of Insidious films, and now a double dose with The Conjuring franchise as well, we've seen about all we can from Wan's deep collection of scare tactics. As a result, the only distinction between these similarly themed movies is the underlying story being told. In the first installment of the series, Wan did a spectacular job of interweaving the Warren's storyline with the family being haunted. The connection was smooth, straight-forward and right to the point. Yet, The Conjuring 2 delves deeper into the emotional and psychological state of the Warren family and how Lorraine's inexplicable ability to connect with the paranormal has become a burden to them all. Therefore, the minutes begin to accumulate rapidly and what transpires is an over-extended and inexcusable 135-minute affair that's every been exhausting as it is scary. Make no mistake about it, though, Wan is an exceptional director with a knack for clever camera work. However, The Conjuring 2 suffers mainly from a recycled sense of scares and an overly ambitious plot-line that loses its credibility with every twist and turn.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade C+

Throughout the 90s, writer/director Todd Solondz represented a unique voice in the indie film community. His adored 1995 coming-of-age tale, Welcome to the Dollhouse, introduced audiences to a nerdy teenage girl named Dawn Wiener, who reappears more than two decades later in the latest effort from Solondz, Wiener-Dog. Although early reviews have been generally positive for this Sundance selection, Wiener-Dog sadly marks only a mediocre return for the once beloved indie filmmaker.

An anthology of sorts that spans the life of a lovable dachshund, Wiener-Dog follows four separate owners who care for the animal throughout trying times of their own. This partitioned piece of work begins wonderfully, but deteriorates greatly from its first half to its latter stages. Interestingly enough, the owners age chronologically, must like the dog, literally taking the audience on a life journey. Solondz creates an interesting dynamic and parallel between the humans and canine. Yet, there are many aspects of the film that fail to materialize.

Wiener-Dog delivers a highly cynical tone that's heavily support by witty moments of dark humor. For example. Julie Delpy's character is forced to explain to her cancer survivor son how spaying the dog is in its best interest. These deranged life lessons she tries to instill in the boy are priceless and crazed all at the same time, but these moments feel real and authentic which is deserving of praise. However, as the film pushes on past Greta Gerwig's reintroduction of the Dawn Wiener character, which is Wiener-Dog's pinnacle of achievement, the post "intermission" portion of the movie unravels quickly. Themes of meaningless and despair are caked into a second half that segues to a bitter finale which morbidly astonishes at first, but requires a sarcastic chuckle at second thought. There's beauty to be found in specific moments of the film, yet punishingly long shots and too much empty space fills a large chunk of what's left, leaving Wiener-Dog as a run-of-the-mill effort from a unique voice in the industry.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Love & Friendship

While Saturday Night Live Alumnus, Andy Samberg, has enjoyed an overwhelming amount of success with his hit television sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he returns to the big screen with the new mockumentary comedy, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. With recent behind-the-scene movies capturing the lives of musical celebrities such as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and the group One Direction, Samberg decides to flip the growing genre on its side with a largely comedic twist. Yet, the final result is a middling endeavor that can only muster up the occasional laugh.

Years ago, three childhood best friends form the dynamic music group known as The Style Boyz. Their hip hop influence helps paves the way for a generation of musical talents until their frontman, Conner4Real (Samberg), branches off to pursue a solo career. But once Conner's second solo album struggles to generate sales and empty seats overtake his live performances, Conner must cycle back to his roots in order to recapture his groove.

Popstar unravels as a clever idea that's never utilized to the best of its ability. The film's entertaining theatrical trailer stirred the occasional chuckle, therefore it was disappointing to discover I had already witnessed Popstar's funniest moments. Thankfully, the film's less than 90 minute running time keeps the story moving and provides a decent level of pacing, or else things could have been disastrous. Furthermore, I've vocalized my distaste for using male genitals as a punchline. The trend is simply outdated, unoriginal and, most importantly, completely unnecessary. Popstar succumbs to the temptation and, as you would expect from an overblown mockumentary, takes the penis-showing joke to a whole new level with so much screen time I could probably pick it out of a lineup. However, to the film's benefit, I will admit that the context of the joke at least offered a sense of originality and thoughtfulness that I can appreciate to some degree. But all in all, Popstar isn't nearly as hilarious as it needs to be and Samberg's latest effort culminates as nothing more than a mediocre attempt at something new.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Accomplished novelist, Jane Austen, has had her work adapted for the big screen numerous times and to much success. Period pieces such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are just a few of Austen's well-known writings that went on to achieve critical acclaim following their theatrical releases. And now another Austen story finds itself thrust into the summer blockbuster season with Whit Stillman's adaptation, Love & Friendship.

Set just prior to the turn of the 19th century, Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a flirtatious widow who travels to her sister-in-law's estate to escape rumors or her romantic affair with a married man. While there she seeks to secure wealthy husbands for both her daughter and herself, setting her own eyes on a young and impressionable Reginal DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). But as her scandalous and adulterous behaviors continue, Lady Susan is forced to rethink her match-making strategy.

Love & Friendship blends together typical Jane Austen style with a largely comedic twist. However, the antics and simplicity of the story creep along in a punishingly slow pace that somehow transforms the almost 90-minute work into a lifetime of agony. I will give warning that Whit Stillman's film is guaranteed to be a welcome addition for lovers of Austen's writing. Yet, the feature's flippant humor isn't nearly enough to warrant a severe lack in entertainment. Love & Friendship is targeted for a niche audience who will savor the decor, lingo and charm of its flawed leading character. I must openly admit, though, that I am no such viewer. Instead, I waited tirelessly as the minutes refused to pass, all while enjoying Kate Beckinsale's fully committed performance and very little else.

Stars; 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

DVD Outlook: June 2016

As the summer movie blockbuster season brings waves of people to their local theaters, couch potatoes and home bodies can breathe a sigh of relief because June has plenty of DVD and Blu-Ray releases worth enjoying (May's suggestions). This month's upcoming titles are beginning to put 2015 in the rearview and turning to 2016's most impressive early year selections. Check out all the exceptional titles you'll be able to catch this June.

Eye in the Sky - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Gavin Hood's military thriller, Eye in the Sky, is a little gem that became overshadowed by the largely anticipated release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While this controversial depiction of modern drone warfare will mostly be remembered as the late-great Alan Rickman's final film, and one in which he gives a spectacular performance again, Eye in the Sky deserves so much more credit. Its premise is really quite simple, a high ranking British military officer (Helen Mirren) has tracked 3 of the top 5 most-wanted terrorists to the same location in Kenya. But once she receives the authority to initiate a drone missile strike carried out by an American soldier (Aaron Paul), a young Kenyan girl wanders into the missile's collateral damage zone. These military officials must come together to determine whether or not they should carry out the mission. There isn't much else to the story, but the tense and suspenseful manner in which their highly debatable actions play out is a marvel to watch. (June 28th)

10 Cloverfield Lane - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Another worthwhile early year release comes in the form of Dan Trachtenberg's sci-fi thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane. At its core the film delivers a psychologically suspenseful and mysterious tone that morphs into a puzzling sci-fi effort late in its third act. Supposedly, this was all an effort to bridge the film into the same universe as its monster movie namesake, 2009's Cloverfield. Either way, the movie still succeeds on the shoulders of standout performances from John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. After a car accident knocks her unconscious, Michelle (Winstead) awakes in an underground shelter of Howard (Goodman), a complete stranger who tells her he rescued her from an even larger world disaster. And when another resident in the bunker, Emmett (Gallagher Jr.), confirms Howard's story of a greater danger lurking outside the shelter, the trio must survive tensions in this tiny environment. There are plenty of high and low moments, but if you can withstand the film's disappointing finale, then you're guaranteed to enjoy 10 Cloverfield Lane. (June 14th)

Eddie the Eagle - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

After catching Eddie the Eagle's hokey and unappealing trailer more than a few times, I was shocked to discover that I actually enjoyed the film. I admittedly knew nothing about the true story of Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton), a relatively unathletic man who achieves his lifelong goal of becoming an Olympian. Sure, Eddie is unconventional and his methods of reaching the Olympic stage are a bit weaselly, but Taron Egerton creates such an inspiring character that the entire film comes together very well. There are certainly more than a few moments where Eddie the Eagle clamors for an unnecessary amount of sentiment, yet the prideful look in his father's eyes when he returns from the Olympics makes the entire film well worth it. Eddie the Eagle is a crowdpleasing feel-good feature that should only be watched under the knowledge of those circumstances. (June 14th)

Honorable Mention: A pair of 2015 holdovers arrive to DVD this month, Charlie Kauffman's Best Animated Feature nominee, Anomalisa (6/7), and the powerful slow-paced drama, 45 Years (6/14). The Coen brothers' semi-disappointing comedy, Hail Caesar! (6/7), and the critically adored children's movie, Zootopia (6/7), are also available. Also, a pair of movies I enjoyed to a certain extent are being released this month, Jeff Nichols' sci-fi drama, Midnight Special (6/21), and the Tina Fey comedy, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (6/28). Finally, two movies that I haven't seen, but who received positives reception, include Michael Showalter's indie comedy, Hello, My Name Is Doris (6/14), and Michael Bay's wartime action-drama, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (6/7).