Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Nocturnal Animals and Jackie

Winning a Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival is a crowning achievement for any filmmaker, let alone one who only has two works to his name. Tom Ford burst onto the scene in 2009 with his warmly received debut, A Single Man. The effort landed lead star Colin Firth an Oscar Nomination and left everyone in the industry wondering what Ford would be doing next. It took quite a while to get here but Ford returns with Nocturnal Animals, a taut thriller that far surpasses his admired debut.

Susan Morrow is an art gallery owner who receives an unexpected package from her ex-husband of many years, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Inside she discovers a manuscript of his new novel which Edward dedicates solely to her. As Susan becomes engrossed in this violent and sinister novel she begins to reflect on the torment she caused her former lover.

Everything from the film's trailer to its detailed premise would lead you to envision Nocturnal Animals as a mind-bending and brutal thrill ride. And although the feature possesses a few grisly moments throughout its story-within-a-story structure, Tom Ford's effective sophomore effort surprisingly stands out for its psychological layering. Immense praise is in order for the entire cast as the film offers exceptional performances from top to bottom. Leading stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver the caliber of work we all have come to expect but, in many ways, supporting stars Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson steal the show. From a filmmaking perspective, Tom Ford also impresses. In many ways Nocturnal Animals conveys a David Lynch kind of vibe, yet it's not quite as cryptic and I mean that as a compliment. Ford has a specific intention in mind and by the closing credits he makes it abundantly clear. Therefore, even if Nocturnal Animals isn't as visceral of a thriller as advertised, its cerebral anguish is by no means a consolation prize.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

One of the Centerpiece selections as this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was Pablo Larrain's historical drama, Jackie. Much has been made of Natalie Portman's portrayal of former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and all of it is warranted. There's an Oscar Nomination in her near future and perhaps even a win. Therefore, Portman alone provides enough reason to witness this upcoming December release.

Upon allowing a face to face interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup), Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman) recounts the horrific events of her husband and former President, John F. Kennedy, as he was assassinated in Dallax, Texas in 1963. She paints a chilling portrait of that fateful day and the moments leading up to his historic funeral in Washington, D.C..

To Larrain's benefit, Jackie feels every bit like a journey back in time. Capturing a nostalgic tone with grainy shots reminiscent of classic reel to reel film, the film transports the audience back to 1963 where you're forced to endure catastrophic heartache that's so beautifully delivered by Natalie Portman. But even beyond the scope of the bloody and untempered account of the assassination, Jackie digs deeper with a broader story of legacy and remembrance. Larrain offers a bitter examination that illustrates the First Lady's fragile psyche as her world was taken from her in a single instance. Greta Gerwig gives a noteworthy supporting turn as Jackie's White House confidant, but I wasn't as fond of Peter Sarsgaard's accent-less portrayal of Robert Kennedy, which has been touted as Oscar-worthy by many. Jackie's heavy content transforms a 95 minute running time into a marathon, but there's depth and commitment worth appreciating by all involved.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Silence and The Comedian Trailers

Martin Scorsese has given us all something to be very thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday. The first official trailer for the legendary filmmaker's upcoming release, Silence, has officially landed and it provides a story and perspective of Scorsese that we haven't seen in quite some time. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver star as a pair of 17th century Jesuit priests who venture to Japan and face persecution as they try to find their religious mentor (Liam Neeson) and restore his faith in God. Word has it we're in for another marathon as Silence pushes towards 160 minutes of screen time, but we should still expect a gripping story and phenomenal direction from this assumed Best Picture contender.

Like many great pairings in this this world, it wouldn't feel right mentioning Martin Scorsese without his long time collaborative partner, Robert De Niro. The all-time great performer has chosen some questionable roles of late, and early word isn't too favorable for his upcoming film, The Comedian. De Niro takes center stage as Jackie, an aging insult comic who's trying to reinvent his career. While it proves to be a daunting task, he finally finds inspiration when he meets the young and rambunctious Harmony (Leslie Mann). The Comedian arrives in January, 2017 and you can catch the film's debut trailer below.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Oscar Talk - 11/22/2016

With Golden Globe nominations less than 3 weeks out, the Awards season is just starting to heat up. Both Ben Affleck's Live by Night and Denzel Washington's Fences have recently screened for the first time while Martin Scorsese's Silence will premiere later this month, leaving the Oscar picture a bit cloudy at the moment. However, there's still enough buzz floating around to mold together an idea of how the major races appear to be shaping up. Let's take a look.

Best Supporting Actress

Likely Nominees: Hindsight is 20/20 and, although I even felt it at the time, it's impossible not to look back and acknowledge that Viola Davis should have won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in 2011's The Help (Meryl Streep won for Iron Lady). Yet, history has a funny way of correcting itself as Davis could be in line for some Oscar glory for her work in Fences. Other safer bets to land in the final five include Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight).

Additional Contenders: Nicole Kidman (Lion), Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women), Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) and Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky) are all viable names that round out the next tier of performances.

Long Shots: The Academy loves Felicity Jones (A Monster Calls), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) and Lupita Nyong'o (Queen of Katwe), so it's never safe to count any of them out of the race.

Best Supporting Actor

Likely Nominees: With all of the backlash surrounding last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy could really make a statement by awarding both Viola Davis and Moonlight's Mahershala Ali. Moonlight certainly has the staying power to fend off newer debuts such as Fences and its fellow Oscar contender, Mykelti Williamson. Hell or Highwater has also been adored by critics and audiences alike, which should provide Jeff Bridges another opportunity for a statue.

Additional Contenders: It pains me to say it but Hugh Grant's name continues to surface around any awards season discussion for his work in Florence Foster Jenkins, while Dev Patel (Lion) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) are also in the mix.

Long Shots: Only a long shot because his film hasn't screened yet, but everyone anticipates a late surge for Liam Neeson's role in Martin Scorsese's Silence. Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures) and Aaron Eckhart (Sully) could also end up making the final cut as well.

Best Actress

Likely Nominees: At this moment most of the major races still feel highly competitive, which is a rarity. The Best Actress race has settled into a trio of ladies with a real shot at winning. Emma Stone feels most deserving for her role in La La Land, especially after missing out for her fine supporting work in Birdman. However, Stone will find stiff competition with another win-less veteran, Annette Bening (20th Century Women), as well as past winner Natalie Portman (Jackie).

Additional Contenders: Ruth Negga (Loving) and Amy Adams (Arrival) remain strong candidates in a deep field of performers, as well as the always dangerous Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane).

Long Shots: Sadly, Rebecca Hall's exceptional work in the darkly twisted character study, Christine, seems unlikely to make the cut. Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Isabelle Huppert (Elle) and Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) are all excepted to be on the outside looking in as well.

Best Actor

Likely Nominees: The Best Actor race doesn't seem as top heavy as years past. In fact, it's looking as though Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) and Denzel Washington (Fences) will battle it out for the highly coveted award. These two feel like the only safe bets at the moment, but the rest of the second tier field is quite crowded.

Additional Contenders: Veteran actor Warren Beatty (Rules Don't Apply) is bound to garner some comeback votes while Ryan Gosling could be the benefactor of a huge evening for La La LandJoel Edgerton (Loving) is well liked by the voting body and his performance certainly warrants recognition. 

Long Shots: It wouldn't be a shock to see Andrew Garfield sneak in for either of his performances in Hacksaw Ridge or Scorcese's Silence, while Tom Hanks (Sully), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) and Michael Keaton (The Founder) all still remain in the hunt.

Best Director

Likely Nominees: Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Fences' director and star, Denzel Washington, appear to be locks, while Moonlight auteur, Barry Jenkins, is quickly solidifying his spot in the final five. Any one of the aforementioned names could end up victorious, which is another testament to how remarkably competitive this year has been.

Additional Contenders: Martin Scorsese (Silence) is always an enormous wild card, while I was also extremely impressed with Denis Villeneuve's work in Arrival. Although I was rather indifferent towards Kenneth Lonergan's direction in Manchester by the Sea, the film is exactly what the Academy's voting body historically adores.

Long Shots: Ben Affleck (Live by Night) was undeniably snubbed for Argo a few years back, so a makeup nomination could be in order. Clint Eastwood (Sully) has displayed staying power, while Jeff Nichols (Loving) and David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) appear less likely to make the cut, but still remain in the discussion.

Best Picture

Likely Nominees: Until I see a better film myself or until I hear that a frontrunner has emerged, I have to believe that La La Land will claim the Best Picture award. While it's virtually a lock to make the final cut, you should also expect Fences, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea to score nominations as well.

Additional Contenders: Arrival has a rarely embraced sci-fi backdrop, but it's artistic enough to sway the voters. Scorsese's Silence has to be viewed as a serious contender until we hear otherwise, and Loving strikes the right chord for members of the Academy.

Long Shots: It's a crowded year so you shouldn't be surprised to find any of Sully, Lion, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Live by Night or 20th Century Women to make the final cut as well. But as nominations are announced in the upcoming weeks leading up to the holidays, all of this races will surely begin to narrow.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and Doctor Strange

A lot can change in the matter of a few months. Prior to its October premiere at the New York Film Festival, many penciled-in Ang Lee's new adapted feature, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, as a viable Best Picture candidate. Lee's well-documented success with the Academy, mixed together with a war-time drama, the film checked-off all the necessary boxes. Yet, now, having watched Billy Lynn for myself, Lee's latest work is far from the Oscar-player we all expected and, sadly, it's one of the year's most disappointing entries.

This non-chronological adaption follows its title character (Joe Alwyn) and the other members of his Bravo squad who are home from Iraq on a victory tour. And as Billy prepares to be honored during the halftime show of an NFL football game for one of the worst days of his life. he recalls the harrowing events of the battle and contemplates his future as a soldier altogether.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk stands as a rare fatally flawed endeavor from Ang Lee. Boasting a muddled screenplay, subpar performances and questionable direction, something of which I was utterly shocked to witness, it's difficult to pinpoint a single redeeming quality from the film. portrayal of Lynn's squad is over-exaggerated beyond belief. Having known many soldiers who experienced the horrors of the Iraq war, most had a smooth re-integration back into everyday life. In addition to under-developed and cartoon-ish characters, the entire ensemble contributes to insufficient dramatics. Billy Lynn falls terribly short of the powerful and moving story Ang Lee intended to tell. With a long list of intriguing options arriving in theaters every week, Billy Lynn is a film you should simply avoid.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

With Phase Three of Marvel's expansive universe in full motion, Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange marks a pivotal moment within the series. Incorporating a whole new element that spans beyond the dimensions of the normal Marvel universe, there was a lot resting on this new release. And after hearing rave reviews about the film, I was eager to experience this ambitious superhero tale for myself.

Skilled neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) sets the bar for his field of medicine. Yet, after a tragic accident leaves him desperate to discover the secrets of regaining full health in his limbs, Stephen learns of a mystical realm accessible through the unique powers of the human mind. This newfound ability pits him in a battle against evildoers set on changing life as we know it.

It's impossible to deny many of the clever ideas floating all throughout the fabric of Doctor Strange. However, a mind-numbing overdose of CGI used to support multiple dimensions becomes a tired routine that inhibits the film's creativity rather than letting it blossom. Benedict Cumberbatch gives an adequate lead performance in a Tony Stark-like role, but the films's recurring attempts at humor fail to land as easily as they once did. Underwhelming jokes and another forgettable villain couple together to reaffirm Doctor Strange's status as a middling rehashing of the prototypical Marvel formula. This added element to the Marvel universe proves unnecessary and leaves plenty to be desired.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Live by Night (NEW) and Hidden Figures (NEW) Trailers

Ben Affleck is quickly climbing the ranks as one of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers. After his last effort, Argo, won Best Picture, all eyes are shifting to Affleck's upcoming release, Live by Night. Affleck stars as a prohibition era gangster who learns that getting out of the racket is far more difficult than it appears. Live by Night will receive a late-year qualifying run, but don't expect to see it in theaters until January. Some things are definitely worth the wait, catch the film's final trailer below and see for yourself.

Theodore Melfi impressed audiences with his 2014 directorial debut, St. Vincent. Melfi returns in 2016 with another crowd-pleasing story, but this one's of the factual variety. Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African American women who were pivotal in launching the United States' first successful space mission during the 1960s. Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer and co-stars Taraji Henson and Janelle Monae help bring this inspiring tale to life. Catch the new trailer for Hidden Figures below.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Best Amy Adams Performances

Amy Adams has become somewhat of an awards season staple with Oscar Nominations in 4 of the last 8 years. She makes a huge return in 2016 with a pair of vastly different films in the sci-fi drama, Arrival, and the mind-bending psychological thriller, Nocturnal Animals. Therefore, since Adams could be primed for another Oscar run for her role in this month's science fiction release, November's Movie List of the Month examines the finest work of her career (October's list).

Honorable Mention: Big Eyes, DoubtEnchanted, and The Muppets

#5. Junebug (2005)

Phil Morrison's original indie drama, Junebug, proved to be a catalyst for Amy Adams' career. The film follows an art dealer (Embeth Davidtz) and her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) as they travel back to his home southern town where she meets his family and pregnant sister-in-law (Adams). Amy Adams knocks her southern accent out of the park and shines in her wholesome, albeit it talkative, role. The film is decent enough, but it's Adams' strong work that landed her a first Oscar Nomination.

#4. The Fighter (2010)

The story of boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward propelled a successfully union with filmmaker David O. Russell. The Fighter highlights the career of Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addict brother (Christian Bale) who helped train him on his road to a title. Amy Adams gives a fine supporting turn as Ward's rough-around-the-edges girlfriend. Although The Fighter brought home Oscar wins for both Christian Bale and fellow supporting actress, Melissa Leo, Adams was also nominated herself for the impressive performance.

#3. Arrival (2016)

After catching Denis Villeneuve's new cerebral sci-fi effort, Arrival, at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, it became impossible to leave the latest work from Adams off this list (review here). She stars as a linguistics expert whose summoned by the U.S. Military to help communicate with an alien species shortly after their vessels begin appearing in a dozen cities throughout the world. While the extent of success regarding her performance is still left to be determined, I was extremely pleased by her onscreen work. Low on science fiction and high on drama, Arrival's artsy venture into the genre is undoubtedly catapulted by her lead performance.

#2. American Hustle (2013)

In her second collaboration with David O. Russell, Amy Adams delivers one of the finest performances of her career. American Hustle tells the true story of a con man (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend (Adams) who are forced by an unpredictable FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to bring down a slue of corrupt politicians. Adams' character is caught in a love triangle and the cloudiness of her intentions become a huge selling point in the film. She was magnificent enough in the film to capture her most recent Academy Award Nomination, but she still managed to walk away from Hollywood's biggest awards show as a statue-less talent.

#1. The Master (2012)

Finally, we arrive at the best showing of Amy Adams' career. Many actors and actresses dream of working with director Paul Thomas Anderson, and Adams took full advantage of their collaboration in 2012's The Master. While its been wildly speculated that the film is loosely based on the life of charismatic leader and originator of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard - which one would be hard pressed to argue against considering the overlapping similarities with the film's main character - Adams stars as the wife of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who brainwashes a vulnerable Naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) and takes him under his wing. Although The Master represents a sluggish character study that's short on thrills and heavy on subtle nuance, Adams offers a ranging turn as a strong and an empowered co-conspirator of the cult. Outside of a trio of towering performances, The Master offers very little else. Yet, it can't be overstated that the work of Adams is nothing shy of brilliant.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Bleed for This and Christine

It isn't difficult to pinpoint the turning point in Miles Teller's young career. Fresh off a strong showing in the indie success, The Spectacular Now, Teller gained immense notoriety as the lead actor in the critically acclaimed Best Picture Nominee, Whiplash. And the artist isn't afraid to talk about one of his biggest influences in Hollywood, the great Robert De Niro. Therefore, when word broke of Teller's upcoming role in the true story of boxer Vinny Paz, it felt as if the youngster was longing for his Raging Bull moment. But let me be abundantly clear, Ben Younger's Bleed for This is no Raging Bull.

Despite struggling to cut weight throughout his career, Vinny Paz (Teller) eventually becomes the Middleweight Champion in 1991. But just as the fighter reaches the pinnacle of his success, Vinny's forced to relinquish his belt after suffering a broken neck in a near-fatal car accident. Against the doctor's wishes, Vinny continues secretly working out with his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), in hopes of making a triumphant return to the ring and reclaiming his title.

Boxing films have always served as the perfect platform for the beloved underdog story, and Ben Younger's Bleed for This attempts to accomplish the same. Yet, while the life story of Vinny Paz is truly an inspiring one, a flawed screenplay and structure results in a disappointing translation to the big screen. It's no fault of co-stars Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, who both deliver fully committed and strong performances. However, the film's pivotal accident occurs too late in the story and resolves itself too quickly for the full effect to sink-in with the audience. Consequently, the aura surrounding Vinny Paz's comeback to the rink becomes watered-down and less uplifting than intended. Therefore, Bleed for This merely stands as a mediocre examination of a genuinely remarkable event in boxing history.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Rebecca Hall has always been one of those under-the-radar actresses who continually impresses despite never landing a true Oscar-worthy role. Yet, that all changed when she struck gold with Antonio Campos' true story Sundance selection, Christine. Recounting the slow downward spiral into madness of a 1970s news reporter who did the unthinkable, Rebecca Hall finds her career-defining role and delivers sheer brilliance.

Christine Chubbuck (Hall) works as a news reporter in Sarasota, Florida who's "always looking for a positive human interest story". Yet, as the industry begins evolving for ratings purposes by sensationalizing darker-themed stories, Chubbuck's desire for a promotion forces her to get caught up in this movement. Coupling this with her lack of a romantic and personal life, Christine's lifelong battle with depression prompts her to step in front of the cameras and make television history.

Antonio Campos' captivating character study represents a platform for Rebecca Hall's exceptional acting talents. She perfectly captures the essence of a bitterly torn individual who, under multiple factors within her life, begins to succumb to depression. Christine is an intelligently-paced ticking time bomb that explodes with an unforgettable finale. A precisely-detailed script accentuates Hall's Oscar-deserving work. It's a wonderfully nuanced performance that undeniably stands as one of the year's finest. Whether or not you're familiar with Christine Chubbuck's true story, this film will have you yearning for more throughout all of its lulls and explosive outbursts.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Film: Manchester by the Sea

Starring: Casey Affleck (Interstellar), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) and Lucas Hedges (Kill the Messenger)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me)

U.S. Release: November 18th, 2016 (Limited - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 137 minutes

As usual, the Philadelphia Film Festival debuted numerous Oscar contenders in my hometown this past October. One such film destined for the big-time and right near the top of my wish-list was Kenneth Lonergan's heavy drama, Manchester by the Sea. As a longtime fan of both Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, the buzz around their performances left me more than eager to ride along this emotional roller coaster.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is an embittered apartment complex handyman living in the Boston area. But after receiving word that his brother has passed away from heart complications, Lee travels back to his hometown of Manchester and soon learns that he's been willed as the new legal guardian to his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). While the teen wishes to remain in Manchester, Lee struggles to come to grips with past events that prompted him to uproot his entire life in the first place.

Manchester by the Sea's hard-hitting and somber story is masterfully complemented with subtle humor that adds a much-needed element of levity. In fact, two of the film's strongest attributes are writer and director Kenneth Lonergan's bold script and its collect of extraordinary performances. Casey Affleck's gut-wrenching turn is an absolute tour-de-force that possesses a quiet sadness which mirrors his character's scarred past. Understanding the complexities of Lee Chandler clearly takes time to develop but, after all of the pieces are finally in place, there's no doubt that Affleck's performance is one of the year's finest, if not the best. Co-star Michelle Williams isn't quite given the same attention or screen time as her counterpart, however her deeply emotional work doesn't go unnoticed. Although it's safe to anticipate strong runs to the Academy Awards for the aforementioned performers, newcomer Lucas Hedges also impresses with an eye-eopening supporting role. All in all, Manchester by the Sea captures its audience with a tender screenplay brought to life by an outstanding ensemble.

Despite its many shining qualities, Lonergan's effort struggles to sufficiently engage the audience. Manchester feels every bit of its over two hour and fifteen minute running time. The film presents countless lulls that occasionally benefit this character-driven effort, but often stand out as gaps in an otherwise well-crafted story. Furthermore, Kenneth Lonergan's name is constantly being tossed around the Best Director discussion. To the contrary, Manchester feels like a safely shot and executed feature. Lonergan doesn't take many risks and, while he should be lauded for piecing together a strong final product, this directorial effort fails to stand out as something spectacular.

Manchester by the Sea deserves to be savored for its wonderful performances and a story that goes surprisingly deep. Yet, the film isn't always an enjoyable watch. There's a grim undertone at work and poor pacing doesn't necessarily make it any easier to sit through. However, when the dust settles, Manchester by the Sea stands apart as a bitter drama that effectively captures a wide array of emotions.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 5, 2016


Film: Moonlight

Starring: Mahershala Ali (Free State of Jones), Ashton Sanders and Naomie Harris (Skyfall)

Director: Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy)

U.S. Release: October 21st, 2016 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 110 minutes

There are certain things in this world that just can't be explained. On the surface, Barry Jenkins' profound new feature, Moonlight, focuses on a familiar premise using many unknown actors and actresses, but somehow it manages to transcend the superficial sum of its parts. Being able to pull off that rare feat is nothing to take lightly. And for that reason, Barry Jenkins and his entire collection of writers, actors and crew appear to be in line for a huge awards season run.

Moonlight tells the gripping story of an impoverished youth named Chiron growing up during the heart of "The War on Drugs" in the projects of Miami. Chiron is taken under the wings of a local drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae) while trying to avoid his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). And as Chiron comes into his own, not only is he forced to battle the demons of his home life, he also struggles to come to grips with his sexuality.

Although Moonlight fails to venture into uncharted territory with its premise or story, the film unfolds in a truly mesmerizing manner. Within its partitioned structure, years pass from chapter to chapter bringing about a trio of performers to capture the essence of Chiron. Each are absolutely magnificent is this evolving story of self discovery and personal acceptance, but it's Ashton Sanders who shines brightest. Sanders highlights the middle segment of the film during Chiron's trying teenage years, where he experiences harsh bullying and an unforgettable glimpse into his sexual curiosity. It's a challenging role that's captured brilliantly by the young actor. Other standout performances come from Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris. Ali gives a memorable turn in the opening chapter as Chiron's flawed mentor, while Harris appears in all three parts as the boy's drug-addled mother. Mounting buzz suggests that both Ali and Harris are the most likely to earn Oscar recognition but, make no mistake about it, there's no shortage of impressive acting on display throughout the entirety of Moonlight.

In addition to countless exceptional performances help create an engrossing story, Moonlight possesses flawless pacing and top flight direction. Barry Jenkins delivers a masterful vision that lifts the film from a recognizable tale to a refreshingly original finished product. And although Moonlight's stereotypical portrayal of urban drug addiction is slightly frustrating, it becomes an easily overlooked blemish by the time the third act arrives. In fact, I felt completely caught off guard by the film's final scene, as I could've easily taken another hour of Chiron's captivating journey. Needless to say, the surprising conclusion doesn't feel cheapened at all as the story ends at a meaningful crossroads.

Moonlight is a beautifully poetic expression of artistic collaboration. The film doesn't need to resort to shockingly graphic scenes of homosexuality to make a statement. It's understood that less is more as long as everyone involved goes above and beyond, which they certainly do. Moonlight stands as a transcending indie film packaged wonderfully by Barry Jenkins into a certified and deserving awards season contender.

Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Best of the 2016 Philadelphia Film Festival

Sadly, the 25th annual Philadelphia Film Festival has come and gone. One of my favorite yearly events produced an amazing film lineup throughout its 11-day span of uninterrupted movie-watching, making 2016 the city's most impressive festival to date. I was only able to catch 17 films in total, a slightly lower figure than usual, but I'm thrilled to look back and recognize my "Best of the Fest" selections (here's a look back at the 2015 festival). Keep an eye out for these picks in the upcoming months, because many of them are guaranteed to garner acclaim during this year's Oscar run.

Best Supporting Actress

Honorable Mention: Greta Gerwig (Jackie) and Janelle Monae (Moonlight)

#3. Naomie Harris (Moonlight)

#2. Haley Squires (I, Daniel Blake)

And the winner is ...

Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea

Williams has always been a personal favorite of mine. And although her screen time is somewhat limited in this over two-hour drama, she most the most of every opportunity and even manages to deliver that necessary "Oscar scene". 

Best Supporting Actor

Honorable Mention: Aaron Eckhart (Bleed for This), Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen) and Jeremy Renner (Arrival)

#3. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight

#2. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)

And the winner is ...

Ashton Sanders - Moonlight

It's difficult to describe, but Moonlight provides such an engrossing story that works so well because of the many fine performances in the film. My favorite of which comes from the second of three chapters in the life of an impoverished teen struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Ashton Sanders may be a newcomer, but his exceptional work speaks for himself in one of the year's most captivating features.

Best Lead Actress

Honorable Mention: Amy Adams (Arrival), Sarah Paulson (Blue Jay) and Haley Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen)

#3. Natalie Portman (Jackie)

#2. Rebecca Hall (Christine)

And the winner is ...

Emma Stone - La La Land

We've known for a while now that Emma Stone is an amazing performer. You don't have to look any further than her phenomenal role in Birdman where she unforgivably lost out on her first Oscar statue. Yet, the world has a funny way of correcting itself and Stone has provided the finest lead actress performance I have seen all year, by a long shot. And not only is her acting on point, but she whisks you away into the magical world of La La Land with her impressive vocal abilities as well.

Best Lead Actor

Honorable Mention: Mark Duplass (Blue Jay) and Miles Teller (Bleed for This)

#3. Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake)

#2. Ryan Gosling (La La Land)

And the winner is ...

Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea

Affleck is another actor I've long admired. From his outstanding performance in Gone Baby Gone to his present role in the hard-hitting Oscar contender, Manchester by the Sea, Affleck has long displayed a wide range of talent. This could finally be the work that brings him an Oscar statue thanks to a relentlessly heavy script that he helps bring to life.

Best Director

Honorable Mention: Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake) and Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

#3. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

#2. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

And the winner is ...

Damien Chazelle - La La Land

In the finest and most impressive film I've seen this year, director Damien Chazelle delivers an absolute spectacle. With tremendous acting talent, a detailed screenplay, a magnificent score and Chazelle's unique vision, La La Land emerges as a remarkably original and nostalgic homage to Hollywood. His work catches you immediately from the opening scene and never lets up until the films grand finale. Chazelle is surely in line for an Oscar Nomination, but it would be an impressive feat to take the crown with only his second major motion picture.

Best Picture

Honorable Mention: Backpack Full of cashBlue Jay, Christine and I, Daniel Blake

#4. Arrival

And the winner is ...

Not only is La La Land the best film from the 2016 Philadelphia Film Festival, it's hands down the number one movie I've seen all year. Outside of a brief lull in the second half of the film, La La Land truly has it all. Singing, dancing, an original score, gifted actors and fantastic direction. It's an absolute marvel and a film I will undoubtedly watch again upon its theatrical release. If you haven't heard of La La Land yet, then prepare to hear all about it once December hits and the awards season heats up. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

DVD Outlook: November 2016

Just as the theatrical releases begin to heat up, this month's crop of new DVD and Blu-Ray releases offer a strong alternative (October's suggestions). November boasts a couple of my favorite films of 2016 so far, as well as plenty of other diverse and stellar options. So here are my top picks of the month:

Hell or High Water - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

In one of the year's most complete packages, David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water delivers a classic Western feel despite its present day setting. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) embark on a well-orchestrated bank-robbing spree in order to save their family's ranch from auction, all while an aging Sheriff (Jeff Bridges) gets hot on their trail. A tremendous script and taut story are captured wonderfully by top flight performances and David Mackenzie's keen vision. Ben Foster shines in a well-suited and edgy role while Chris Pine's timid character connects deeply with the viewer. Jeff Bridges' supporting role doesn't quite compare to his co-stars, yet early word suggests he's the likeliest Oscar nomination from the film's impressive cast. Hell or High Water caters to a Western genre niche by design, but it's definitely a film for all types of audiences. (November 22nd)

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

Despite its surprising lack of fanfare and putrid box office results, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Roald Dahl's timeless children's novel, The BFG, stands as a remarkably satisfying return to a familiar tale. When a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) discovers a giant lurking the streets of London at night, she's whisked away into his world full of whimsical magic and other people-eating giants. The BFG works so well because it blends together a light-hearted children's film vibe with Spielberg's unique vision as a director. Ruby Barnhill proves a capable lead and the CGI is tastefully advanced in this live action reboot. If you're a fan of the classic story, then you'll certainly want to enjoy The BFG. (November 29th)

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

One of the most polarizing films of the year comes from the minds of comedy gold like Superbad and This Is the End. Yet, they take their twisted humor to a whole new level in the raunchy R-rated animated comedy, Sausage Party. Items all throughout the grocery store have one goal and one goal only, to be "chosen" by a shopper and enter a grand eternity. Yet, when a sausage named Frank (voice of Seth Rogen) discovers the shocking truth of what happens to food when it comes home with us, he tries to alert everyone that their beliefs have been wrong this entire time. Sausage Party refuses to shy away from vulgar jokes and racial metaphors. Personally, I found the humor to be downright hysterical, but I do understand that the material isn't suited for everyone. If you think Sausage Party may be something you'd enjoy, then I suggest giving it a shot. It's not the funniest film ever made, but it's a laugh-out-loud journey that, in some twisted way, sends an important message. (November 8th)

Honorable Mention: Horror fans will enjoy the solid entry Don't Breathe (11/29), while Finding Dory (11/15) represents another worthwhile watch that the whole family can enjoy.Star Trek Beyond (11/1), Bad Moms (11/ 1) and War Dogs (11/22) are a trio of Summer Blockbusters arriving this month as well. Other releases include the kid-flick reboot Pete's Dragon (11/29), World War II thriller Anthropoid (11/1) and the indie drama Indignation (11/8).