Saturday, December 31, 2016

Silence




Film: Silence

Starring: Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Adam Driver (The Force Awakens) and Liam Neeson (Taken)

Director: Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

U.S. Release: December 23rd, 2016 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 161 minutes


In many ways, the "passion project" is the backbone of all artistic expression. Surely, filmmakers and musical artists combat a "give and take" dynamic within their industries to advance their careers, but these special artistic endeavors are what fan the flames of creativity. In 2016, our cinematic year closes with a rare passion project from one of Hollywood's most iconic figures, Martin Scorsese. Silence stands as a religious tale that finally comes together after more than two decades in the making, and it's as polarizing a film as ever.

Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are a pair of 17th century Jesuit priests who learn of their mentor's (Liam Neeson) repudiation of Catholicism in Japan. Therefore, they venture to the hostile island where they work to continue spreading the gospel while trying to avoid persecution from Buddhist inquisitors. Yet, as Father Rodrigues is captured and tortured by these unforgiving Japanese natives, trials and tribulations force him to question his own faith in god.


Silence tells a rather simplistic story in an excruciatingly drawn out demeanor, evident by the handful of viewers that walked out of the screening quite early in the process. Throughout the story, the complexity surrounding Father Rodrigues' escalating doubt in his own faith lacks energy and intrigue, so much so that even an iconic filmmaker such as Martin Scorsese struggles to win the audience over with his glaring  technical achievements. Silence offers pristine cinematography and strong direction, yet its outstretched screenplay casts a shadow over the films few notable conquests. Scorsese's decades-long passion project suffers from an obsessive attention to detail that ultimately creates a punishing experience for the viewer.


It becomes a chore to sit and wade through Silence's near 160 running time. The film's valiant lead performance from Andrew Garfield serves as one redeeming quality and, certainly, Scorsese deserves admiration for his commitment to delivering a cerebral tale of spiritual turmoil. However, movies are meant to stir emotions and entertain their audiences, yet in both regards Silence misses the mark. Instead, Scorsese takes the viewer on a repetitive journey that fails to generate a mounting response, but rather feels like a tormenting episode of "Groundhog Day". Consequently, the work's intelligent and intended focus becomes watered down by such a grueling structure.

I will always look back on Silence with an appreciation for what the film sets out to achieve, yet it's impossible to praise the manner in which Scorsese chooses to go about his storytelling. Unless you possess a deep-rooted affinity for religious tales or your fandom for Scorsese's marvelous career proves too strong - much like my own respect for his work, which put me in my seat - then there's very little joy in battling through the lethargic pacing of the filmmaker's latest effort.


Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Oscar Talk - 12/29/2016


Now that Golden Globe and SAG Nominations are behind us and most of the major races are starting to settle into position, the road to the Oscars is beginning to look a little clearer. Therefore, let's take a look at the current state of the major categories.


Best Supporting Actress


Likely Nominees: Not much has changed atop the Best Supporting Actress race. Fences co-star, Viola Davis, holds a firm advantage over the field despite a small faction of rebellious voters who believe the size of her role warrants a shift into the Best Actress category. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) has been fairly successful among critics voting groups and stands as the most likely to upset Davis. Other safe bets for nominations at this point include Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Nicole Kidman (Lion).

Additional Contenders: Hidden Figures co-star and Academy Award Winner, Octavia Spencer, rounded out the top 5 with both the Globes and SAG, nearly solidifying her hold over the fifth and final spot. Her staunchest competition comes from Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women), although her momentum continues to slip as we push closer to the Oscars.

Long Shots: Janelle Monae could conceivably sneak into the mix for her role in either Hidden Figures or Moonlight (with Hidden Figures appearing most likely) and I'm still holding out a small bit of hope for one of my personal favorites, Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky).


Best Supporting Actor


Likely Nominees: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) continues his dominance in the Supporting Actor race, making him the early frontrunner to win it all. Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) and Dev Patel (Lion) have also cemented their place in the final mix with recognition from both the Globes and Sag, although neither seem to have the clout to take down Ali.

Additional Contenders: Hugh Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins) has shot up the ranks, despite landing in the "lead" category at the Globes. Many have him penciled into the top 5 at this stage of the game, but I still feel like he's vulnerable in what's notoriously the most unpredictable category. Lucas Hedges continues to improve his standing as the youngster's film, Manchester by the Sea, begins making a surge in the Oscar ranks.

Long Shots: Never say "never", because any of Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals), Issey Ogata (Silence) or Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) could still shake up this race completely.


Best Actress


Likely Nominees: There's a trio of ladies safely nestled at the top of this race, and it isn't the same three we've seen all awards season. Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Emma Stone (La La Land) haven't faded at all, but Amy Adams (Arrival) has seen a mountain of steam propel her into a viable third candidate. This is one of the more wide open competitions at the Academy Awards and it should certainly be fun to keep an eye on.

Additional Contenders: The always-nominated Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) continues to feel like a safe bet while Annette Bening (20th Century Women) had a lot of strength early, but she's fading quickly. It wouldn't be a shock to see either or both of these ladies left off the final five.

Long Shots: Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) threw a wrench into the race after missing out on a Globe but then stealing a SAG Nomination. Anyone who captures a SAG must be taken seriously, but Globe Nominees Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane) and Ruth Negga (Loving) are all still holding on to what little hope they have left. 


Best Actor


Likely Nominees: As Manchester by the Sea continues to make its push for Best Picture, the film's leading star, Casey Affleck, further distances himself from the field in the Best Actor race. Denzel Washington (Fences) still holds a strong enough base of supporters to steal an Oscar win, while Ryan Gosling (La La Land) is more likely just a filler in this two-headed battle.

Additional Contenders: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) and Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) both straddle the line of "likely nominees" after earned Globe and SAG Nominations, but Joel Edgerton (Loving) still has the potential to play the spoiler role in this competition,

Long Shots: Tom Hanks (Sully) continues to fade from the discussion and a late push from Michael Keaton (The Founder) or festival darling Adam Driver (Paterson) seem unlikely, but not completely inconceivable.


Best Director


Likely Nominees: The recent storyline, and I've addressed it frequently in this article, is that Manchester by the Sea is making a strong push across the board. And while I wasn't overly fond of his direction, this means Kenneth Lonergan could theoretically reap the benefits from an awards night dominance. At the moment, though, I still think it's a safer assumption to expect a win for Moonlight helmer Barry Jenkins (who would be the first African American winner) or La La Land's Damien Chazelle (who would be the youngest winner). Either way, we know the Oscars love a great story.

Additional Contenders: After the "big three" the race becomes far more cloudy. Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) has performed will in the early going and Martin Scorsese (Silence) is, well ... Martin Scorsese. However, momentum continues to build for Arrival so Denis Villeneuve definitely has the potential to land in the mix as well. 

Long Shots: DGA Nominations will clear up this murky picture, but Denzel Washington (Fences) still possesses a loyal following despite his film's shaky early showing. Finally, I need to show love for one of my personal favorites and overlooked filmmaker, David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water).


Best Picture


Likely Nominees: It feels like there's been a revolving door atop the Best Picture race with a strong three-headed monster that sits above the rest. By some accounts, Manchester by the Sea is the trendy new leader in the clubhouse. I still believe La La Land and Moonlight hold as good a shot as any to capture the Academy's biggest award. In the next tier of likely finalists we find Arrival, Fences and Scorsese's Silence. I'd be surprised if any of these six failed to make the final cut.

Additional Contenders: Hacksaw Ridge has had a strong showing thus far and Lion hasn't done anything to weaken its chances of landing a nomination as well. And if the Academy goes with nine nominees, you should expect Hell or High Water to make the cut.

Long Shots: Hidden Figures has made a valiant late push and early rumblings have been overly enthusiastic, while Loving and Jackie are also fringe players hoping to make in into the big dance.

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016's Most Underrated Movies


Just yesterday I broke down the year's most Overrated Films and now I want to to turn my attention to the more surprising and lesser known titles that proved to be worthwhile watches. As always, when you conjure up a list of this kind, it's important to outline the specific criteria that's used to determine the rankings. Below is a description of the factors I use to measure and classify a movie as underrated:

Criteria: The two most heavily weighted components I use are awards season recognition and box office totals. If a movie sneaks a Globe or SAG Nomination, sorry but it won't be on this list (i.e. Captain Fantastic and The Edge of Seventeen). Also, I try to identify movies that struggle to push $10 million at the box office. And although it's rare, my final assessing tool is recognizing a film that's been undeservedly panned by critics.


#5. Green Room


Jeremy Saulnier delivered a gem of a debut effort with the revenge thriller Blue Ruin. His mildly anticipated follow up, Green Room, happens to be one of the bigger names on this list. The film follows a hardcore punk band who accepts an impromptu paying gig in the middle of their tour. They venture deep into the pacific northwest and, after entertaining an audience at a neo-Nazi bar, they witness a murder and are forced to fight for their survival. Raking in a mere $3.2 million at the box office and starring the late Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart, Green Room is a grisly and visceral thrill ride that's guaranteed to entertain a select audience.


#4. Blue Jay


Alex Lehmann's emotional festival darling, Blue Jay, opened in only 3 theaters nationwide and tallied just shy of $22,000 in ticket sales. Nonetheless, this heartbreaking story of high school sweethearts (Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass) who unexpectedly reunite for an evening of memories, both joyous and painful, possesses a rare tenderness. Filmed in a fitting black and white style, Blue Jay is a remarkably-acted feature that proves the filmmaking mantra, "less is more". Lehmann's work stands as a clear achievement despite lacking the proper audience it deserves.


#3. Christine


Rebecca Hall has long been an overlooked actress within the industry, yet she continues to churn out valiant performance after valiant performance. But none could have been as emotionally taxing as her most recent dive into madness with Antonio Campos' biopic Christine. Hall stars as the title character, Christine Chubbuck, a bipolar 1970s news reporter struggling to handle the pressures of her personal and professional situations and does the unthinkable by performing a television first. Christine failed to earn even $300,000 at the box office, but Hall's haunting turn is a true testament to her phenomenal acting skills in this gripping character study.


#2. Remember


It's to be expected that you'll find overlap within my Most Underrated and Top 10 Films of the Year lists. 2016 has been no different as Atom Egoyan's revenge drama, Remember, undoubtedly finds its way on both lists. Academy Award Winner Christopher Plummer offers a brilliant performance as Zev, a retirement home resident beginning to experience stages of dementia. Yet, as Zev is reminded by a friend at the home of their pact, he escapes and sets out on a vengeful mission to execute the Nazi prison guard who killed both of their families at Auschwitz when they were children. Remember works phenomenally as a dramatic thriller and serves up one of the finest closing scenes in recent memory. Despite the film's minuscule $1.2 million box office total, Egoyan's latest is worthy of a much wider audience.


#1. Don't Think Twice


Remember isn't the only film primed to line up with my Top 10 of 2016, Mike Birbiglia's unforgettable indie comedy, Don't Think Twice will definitely find its way there as well. Even boasting the largest box office tally on the list ($4.4 million), this exceptional effort stands above all the others in terms of quality and effectiveness (as demonstrated by its near-flawless 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Don't Think Twice follows a close-knit improv comedy group living in NYC whose members are forced to experience the cutthroat and competitive world of professional comedy as they look to advance their careers. The film wonderfully utilizes a biting sense of realism and genuine humor to stir up one of the year's most notable achievements. Character development is extremely vital to writer, director and co-star, Mike Birbiglia's, humanistic endeavor, so much so that it reminds the audience how rewarding it can be when constructed within a comedic tone. Don't Think Twice is one film you won't want to miss.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016's Most Overrated Films


Christmas day has arrived and as the new year inches its way around the corner, now becomes an appropriate time to look back on 2016's cinematic offerings. I had tempered expectations coming into the year, yet very few surprises and a narrow collection of upper echelon films leaves 2016 as less than impressionable. First up on the docket for the many year-end lists, let's examine the most overrated films of the past year.

Criteria: To classify a film as "overrated" it needs to be prevalent in at least two of three distinct areas. I take into account the film's critical reception, its box-office showing and awards season recognition.

Honorable Mention: Deepwater Horizon, The Lobster and Love & Friendship


#5. Doctor Strange


I left the theater at the end of Civil War completely pleased with the current state of the Marvel film universe. Therefore, once Scott Derrickson's dimension-shattering effort, Doctor Strange, opened to rave reviews that all it to currently stand at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, I needed to continue my loyalties to Marvel. Now, I can't hold Doctor Strange in the highest regard considering it lands on such a list, yet I must clearly state that I didn't "hate" the film. Instead, I view the blockbuster as a terribly mediocre effort that delivers a few intelligent ideas, but drowns its audience in mind-numbing visual effects and cheaply written jokes. Doctor Strange cashed in with a nearly $228 million box-office and currently sits on the Oscar short-list of 10 films battling for Best Visual Effects nominations. And for all those reasons, I must label Doctor Strange as an overrated piece of work.


#4. The Conjuring 2


As a devout horror fan who really enjoyed the James Wan's first installment to the franchise, I feel obligated to call out this sequel for what it really is, an over-extended and minimally effective scary movie. The Conjuring 2 grossed north of $100 million and found vocal support from every 4 out of 5 film critics. Those type of qualifications should amount to a stronger film than the one Wan delivered. The Conjuring 2 proves an overly ambitious horror effort, focusing extensively on two separate storylines, and consequently both feel shortchanged by this shared attention. Once again, like my last entry The Conjuring 2 isn't an awful film, it just falls well shy of all the adoration that it's accumulated.


#3. Fences


For quite some time Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's Tony-winning play, Fences, was supposed the surprise film of the year. Early rumblings were positive and they've carried over into an incomprehensible 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While Fences stands as an absolute acting showcase, the film is otherwise riddled with flaws. Its reliance on story-telling dialogue bleeds through a paper-thin script than addresses different relationships with a careless lack of detail. A punishingly slow place and a complete absence of entertainment value, Fences has earned SAG's most prestigious nomination (Best Ensemble) and both lead stars, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, have fared well with individual SAG and Golden Globe noms, solidifying the film's shortcomings in every other area of filmmaking.


#2. Zootopia


I know, bah humbug right? What type of person would rip a kids movie like Zootopia? Full disclosure, I'm picky when it comes to family films like this one. And, unfortunately, I walked out of Zootopia bored and uninterested in its long story and forgettable characters. Sure, it offered some valuable life lessons within the context of its story, but I have no desire whatsoever to sit through it again. Therefore, when you place into context a Golden Globe Nomination and the whopping $341 million box-office totals that the film pulled in, along with an astronomical 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, there are plenty of reasons to view Zootopia as a grossly overrated animated effort. 


#1. Florence Foster Jenkins


If you ever wanted to spend nearly two hours watching Meryl Streep intentionally sing Opera music to the worst of her ability, here is your chance. And believe me, it's as dreadful as it sounds. Making an appearance on my annual "Most Overrated" list doesn't necessarily mean the film is a complete dud. Most of the time it's meant to call-out a mediocre effort that has been labeled as "great" by most of the viewing world. Yet, when it comes to Florence Foster Jenkins, you're given an awful film with unlikable characters that was somehow adored by critics and moviegoers alike. Achieving an unfathomable 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and garnering 4 Golden Globe Nominations, including Best Picture - Comedy/Musical, I just can't comprehend the love-fest surrounding this film. Thankfully, Florence Foster Jenkins only raked in a modest $28 million at the box office, meaning a lot of the general public hasn't seen the film. Therefore, even through its popular awards season run this winter, please listen closely and avoid one of this year's most intolerable films.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Hidden Figures and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story





The last few years have brought an endless supply of Civil Rights and Civil War era films, making it more and more difficult for writers and directors to keep their subject matter fresh with each subsequent release. St. Vincent helmer, Theodore Melfi, faces this exact quandary with his 2016 late-year effort, Hidden Figures. Thankfully, this remarkable true story incorporates the unique backdrop of science and mathematics to provide the necessary originality needed to stand out amongst a crowded field of similarly-themed stories.

It's the early 1960s and the United States are in a fragile race to space against Soviet Russia. And after falling behind, the folks at NASA are forced to double-down on their efforts to get astronaut John Glenn into space and orbiting our planet. Yet, as racial tensions divide our nation, a trio of hardworking and sophisticated African American women (Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) lead a united charge to help ensure that the United States defeats Russia on this scientific front.

Admittedly, Hidden Figures comes with a wide range of ups and downs. Throughout the duration of the film its Civil Rights subplot is addressed via an all too familiar approach. Absolutely no new light is shed on this unfortunate historical truth. Instead, Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder deliver stereotypical examples of racial injustices that tip-toe the line of embellishment considering how difficult it becomes to spot a sympathetic Caucasian within the structure of the film. However, this minor blemish falls by the way-side as the film's unbelievable real-life story begins to magnify. While the gluttony of math and science dispersed throughout its more than two-hour running time is likely to draw a yawning response from some audiences, I found it to be a refreshing and genuine examination of the common adult world where problem-solving has become a lost art. And through this eye-opening approach, Melfi and Schroeder manage to pen a strong collection of characters that are captured wonderfully by the film's three leading women. The entire trio deliver strong performances, but Janelle Monae happens to shine just a tad-bit brighter than co-stars Octavia Spencer (who will most likely earn an Oscar Nomination for the role) and Taraji Henson. Praises are also in order for Kevin Costner, who delivers his finest turn in years. Hidden Figures comes with many lulls and a few obvious flaws, yet the film centers around a soaring true story that deserves to be told and the entire cast and crew do a fine job of telling it.


Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-





We're only a week into its release and Gareth Edwards' Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, is already climbing the box office ranks. The film has already topped $350 million globally and its still going strong. However, a larger question still looms. Is Rogue One a worthy entry into the Star Wars universe? Because, like it or not, Disney is opening the flood gates and, much like Marvel's massive expansion, everything we have known and loved about Star Wars is destined to get a drastic make-over.

Set just prior to the opening of George Lucas' 1977 pioneering effort, Episode IV - A New Hope, we're introduced to Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and his family who are hiding in a remote location. But as members of the Imperial forces bear down on their dwelling, Galen instructs his daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), to disappear into a hidden compartment deep in the caves. Galen is taken by the Empire and forced to construct the Death Star, while years later his daughter Jyn works in tandem with the Rebel Alliance to steal the plans to the planet-destroying weapon.

Rogue One opens in an unflattering fashion, relying on lazy dream and flashback sequences to inadequately enhance character development and stir emotions. Soon after, the film introduces its second main character, Rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who continues to underwhelm thanks in part to more writing deficiencies and a middling performance. Throughout its first and second acts Rogue One continues to introduce a multitude of new characters that never earn their stripes, but ultimately command your feelings during the film's final showdown. I was all but tuned out going into Rogue One's third act, and then the film suddenly goes into "hyperspace". This small side-story in the grand Star Wars saga delivers a phenomenal knockout punch as its eerily reminiscent overlap with A New Hope takes shape. It's a rewarding conclusion that leaves a sweet memory as its brilliant score launches into the final credits. Although, I must admit that there many shortcomings evident all throughout the film. Enough for me to question Disney's clear intention of watering down this iconic film franchise.


Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Emma Stone's Best Performances


Emma Stone has enjoyed an upward-trending career ever since her big screen debut in 2007's comedy classic, Superbad. That mountainous climb continues with this year's awards season musical juggernaut, La La Land. Stone's onscreen achievements, both past and present, are enough to devote December's Movie List of the Month to her finest performances (November's List).

Honorable Mention: Superbad and Zombieland


#5. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)


Directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa delivered one of the decade's finest romantic comedies with Crazy, Stupid, Love. Lead stars Steve Carell and Julianne Moore consume an enormity of the film's running time, but Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone displayed an undeniable onscreen chemistry that made their side-stepping love story an absolute joy to experience. It wasn't the grandest platform to showcase her talents, but Stone seized the opportunity with another career-propelling performance.


#4. The Help (2011)


Within the same year, Emma Stone enjoyed a larger leading role in the Best Picture Nominee, The Help. Tate Taylor's Civil Rights drama battled through a successful awards season run that sadly overlooked Stone's rangy turn. The film instead resulted in Globe and Oscar Nominations for Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, while Octavia Spencer reigned victorious at both ceremonies. But despite Stone's failure to capture the recognition which she deserved, her role in The Help will always stand as a pivotal point in her career arc.


#3. Easy A (2010)


One of my largest guilty pleasures is the 2010 teen comedy, Easy A. Stone stars as a straight-laced high school girl who unfortunately finds herself caught in a wide-spreading lie that alters her image into the new school "trollop". There's never a break in the comedy and Stone's winning turn landed her a first Golden Globe Nomination. Easy A demanded the spotlight for its lead star and served as a cornerstone role that finally earned Stone more dramatic opportunities.


#2. Birdman (2014)


Best Picture Winner, Birdman, from acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu, steamrolled through the Academy Awards for its original story, brilliant director and accomplished acting. Yet, the film's most unforgettable performance came from supporting actress, Emma Stone. Her scarred and emotionally battered character works wonders on the big screen and unforgivably took the backseat to an awarded veteran, Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) at the Oscars. Stone's turn left a deeper impression, but, as often the case, the awards season isn't always fair.


#1. La La Land (2016)


Finally, you'll have to see it for yourself to believe it, but Emma Stone has saved the best of her abilities for her most recent portrayal in Damien Chazzelle's mystical new endeavor, La La Land. Not only does she consume the audience with an affable and endearing character, her musical attributes demand a whole new level of appreciation. The effectiveness of Stone's performance is as impacting as her role in Birdman, yet her widely written character allows for a more fully developed persona. She captures your attention and she captures your heart in 2016's finest achievement, La La Land. Like I said, you'll just have to see it for yourself.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Miss Sloane and Office Christmas Party





There was a brief stretch of recent history between 2011 and 2014 where Jessica Chastain stood as one of the most accomplished actresses in the industry. During that time she tallied a pair of Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win for her role in the Kathryn Bigelow's hunt for Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. Since then, it's fair to say that Chastain's chosen a few questionable roles. But with John Madden's political lobbying thriller, Miss Sloane, Chastain returns to her previous Oscar-caliber heights.

Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is the most desirable lobbyist in our nation's capital. And when an influential gun rights supporter seeks her services to sway the female public opinion surrounding an upcoming gun-law vote, Elizabeth Sloane's personal views push her to leave her firm and work on the opposite side of the issue. However, she finally recognizes that winning against the most powerful opponent in Washington will require lofty sacrifices.

In this politically volatile atmosphere where we find ourselves inescapably trapped, there's been an immense push-back against this film. However, Miss Sloane offers a reasonable portrayal of the responsible gun owner versus the emotionally reckless gun owner, both of which exist in our society. Even more important, though, is just how small of a role these identifying factors play to the greater intention of John Madden's intelligent drama. The gun rights issue actually takes a backseat to a larger message regarding the dangers of allowing money in politics and the unjust influences it can have over our elected officials. To help deliver this message, Jessica Chastain shines in her empowering lead role, providing a level of performance we haven't seen from her in a few years. Her exceptional turn supports a heady screenplay which details the mental chess-match between these feuding sides of the issue. But despite the film's fine lead performance and its cleverly concocted script, a bloated running time detracts heavily from its shining qualities. There are many lulls scattered throughout the film but, thankfully, Miss Sloane explodes with a brilliant finale that makes this marathon of a ride completely worth it.


Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-





The modern Hollywood comedy has become completely inept and devoid of any real talent or creativity. You can look no further than Josh Gordon and Will Speck's new holiday film, Office Christmas Party, to understand just how barren the genre has become. Even a long list of recognizable comedy favorites isn't enough to salvage this jumbled mess of a film.

Fresh off a divorce, Chief Officer Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) and his overseeing branch manager, Clay (T.J. Miller), have their holiday spirit crushed when the company's CEO (Jennifer Aniston), threatens to shut them down unless they can secure a huge potential client. So rather than cancel their annual office Christmas party at the CEO's behest, they double down on the evening's shindig by trying to impress the client with an outrageous bash that he'll never forget.

Careless storylines, poorly scripted jokes and an overall lack of quality ideas spoil the latest comedy effort from the directing duo of Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory and The Switch). Ironically, Office Christmas Party opens with a flurry of well-earned laughs, but then unravels quickly thereafter. This early onset of humor provides a glimmer of hope that's held on to for way too long, up until the film ultimately reaches a point of no return with its female pimp character, played by Workaholics supporting star Jillian Bell. The film's attempt at a romance subplot stands as its most formidable aspect, but even that feels sadly forced. Silicon Valley co-star, T.J. Miller, once again validates that he's only tolerable in small doses. Unfortunately, he's asked to carry the weight of the film and everything else crumbles from there. Office Christmas Party fails to produce any memorable qualities and, in all honesty, it isn't worth your time or effort.


Stars: 1.5 stars out of 4

Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dunkirk (NEW) and War for the Planet of the Apes Trailers


Christopher Nolan has become the type of filmmaker that commands the attention of the entire industry. And after the wildly ambitious sci-fi effort, Interstellar, Nolan is taking aim at a drastically different subject with his 2017 release, Dunkirk. The film focuses on the early stretches of World War II where Allied soldiers are completely surrounded by German forces on the harbor of Dunkirk, France, and their only hope is a successful evacuation mission. Starring Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, the footage in Dunkirk looks amazing and, even with a July release date lined up, perhaps Nolan will be able to capture that elusive Oscar win.





As this return to the Planet of the Apes franchise continues to improve, director Matt Reeves returns for the another installment. After the last film, it seemed hard-pressed to find another valuable chapter in the saga, but it appears the may have one with War of the Planet of the Apes. Once again, Caesar returns to lead his civilization of intellectually advanced apes against an army of humans led by a violent Colonel (Woody Harrelson). We'll have to wait and see if War of the Planet of the Apes can keep up this recent string of success when it hits theaters in July 2017.




Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Oscar Talk - 12/13/2016


A lot of surprising twists and turns have materialized since our last look at the road to the Oscars in November. The Critics Choice Awards announced their winners and Golden Globe Nominations were handed out yesterday morning (Golden Globe Snubs and Surprises). With all of the new developments in mind, let's examine the current state of the 6 major Oscar races.


Best Supporting Actress


Likely Nominees: After another precursor tipped in her favor, especially the Critics Choice Award, Viola Davis still holds claim to the frontrunner status for her role in Fences. Both Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) have solidified themselves as the likeliest to upset Davis, creating a three-headed monster atop the race. 

Additional Contenders: Following Golden Globe Nominations to round out the top five, Nicole Kidman (Lion) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) are certainly in the mix as well. Spencer could suffer from splitting votes with her co-star Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) and Greta Gerwig still has a wide range of supporters for her role in 20th Century Women.

Long Shots: As all of the races begin to narrow it becomes increasingly unlikely that outside hopefuls such as Molly Shannon (Other People), Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky) and Felicity Jones (A Monster Calls) sneak into the mix. It will take some love from the SAG Awards to change their outlook.


Best Supporting Actor


Likely Nominees: After quite the shake-up with a surprising crop of Globe Nominees, not much changes at the top of the heap. Moonlight's Mahershala Ali continues to pull away in this race little by little. Among a crowded field of competitors, Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) is beginning to distance himself as Ali's biggest threat. Yet, no one else feels like a safe bet at the moment.

Additional Contenders: The Globes handed a nomination to Dev Patel (Lion) as both he and the movie itself kept their hopes alive with a decent showing. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) gave way to surprising Globe nominees Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals) and Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins), creating a very cloudy picture that will need to be cleared up with SAG Nominations.

Long Shots: Hope is fading for some personal favorites of mine, Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Aaron Eckhart (Sully), but the Oscars typically go against the grain in this category so I'm still remaining optimistic. Also, Florence Foster Jenkins co-star Hugh Grant kept his hope alive with a Globe Nomination in the Best Actor- Comedy/Musical category (not supporting).


Best Actress


Likely Nominees: Jackie's Natalie Portman walked away from the Critics Choice Awards as the category's big winner. She finds herself in a three-way battle alongside La La Land's Emma Stone and Annette Bening (20th Century Women). This is a tightly contested race that could go any which way and such remain close down to the wire.

Additional Contenders: Not only is the winner up for grabs in this category, but so are the remaining two spots. Plenty of worthy contenders remain in the mix including the continually praised Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Amy Adams (Arrival), Ruth Negga (Loving) and Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane).

Long Shots: Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) has the ability to sneak into the finals on any given year and Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) is still holding out hope as well.


Best Actor


Likely Nominees: Fresh off a Golden Globe Nomination and a Critics Choice victory, Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) appears geared up for an Oscar win. Many tried to halt Affleck's momentum by clamoring for Denzel Washington's turn in Fences but, after watching the film and seeing its weak showing with the Globes, it will be difficult to stop Affleck.

Additional Contenders: Andrew Garfield continues to make a splash for his role in Hacksaw Ridge and it's time to start taking his surge seriously. Ryan Gosling (La La Land) and Joel Edgerton (Loving) appear primed to round out the five come Oscar Nominations in January. Tom Hanks (Sully) took a hit by missing out on a Globe Nomination and he'll need some SAG recognition in order to keep his hopes alive.

Long Shots: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), one of my personal favorites of the year, quieted the Tom Hanks camp by overtaking his Globe Nomination. It's still hard to believe Mortensen could land in the final five, but there's still time to make a push. Michael Keaton has lost a lot of steam for his role in The Founder, but I'm still interested to see where SAG goes with him.


Best Director


Likely Nominees: Moonlight helmer, Barry Jenkins, remains the critical darling as his film and direction are performing very well in the less important precursor awards. Meanwhile, Damien Chazelle (La La Land) just nabbed the Critics Choice award for directing, making him a viable frontrunner as well. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) appears to have a solid grip on an Oscar Nomination as well, leaving two spots left for the rest of the field.

Additional Contenders: Martin Scorsese (Silence) is on spoiler alert as he could rise to the top of the race at any given moment. Denzel Washington's Fences took a crushing hit from the Globes and I'm starting to think his directing chances don't have the ability to last. Instead, Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) has catapulted up the ranks with a Golden Globe Nomination. Critics and moviegoers alike have praise his film and it's hard to ignore its staying power. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) found himself on the outside looking in when Globe Nominations were announced, but I still believe he has a strong shot of making the top five for the Academy Awards.

Long Shots: I was pleasantly surprised to see that Noctural Animals filmmaker, Tom Ford, earned a nod from the Globes. It boosted his prospects, but he'll need to be reaffirmed by the Directors Guild to make a believer out of me. Finally, David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) has performed better than anyone anticipated in the early going. His film has immense support and staying power which could hand him an outside shot of sneaking into the mix.


Best Picture


Likely Nominees: Mirroring the Best Director competition, it appears as though Best Picture is down to a three-way race. And after claiming a Critics Choice win and the most Globe Nominations, it's impossible to remove La La Land from the top of the pack (albeit by a small margin). Moonlight is right on its heels with Manchester by the Sea a little further back but still ahead of the rest of the field. It's still early but, at this point, I'd be shocked if any film outside the trio end up victorious on Oscar night.

Additional Contenders: Now, here is where it gets interesting. There are a ton of big players vying for up to seven more spots. Silence and Arrival are puzzling films that could score very well with niche voters. Hacksaw Ridge, Fences and Hell or High Water feel like the next tier of contenders. 20th Century Women has garnered high praises while Lion hasn't done anything to hurt its chances either.

Long Shots: Loving and Sully continue to slowly fade from the discussion while Nocturnal Animals experienced a minimal, yet noteworthy, surge courtesy of the Globes.


*** Stay tuned for more Oscar talk as the awards season continues to unravel ***

Monday, December 12, 2016

2017 Golden Globe Snubs and Surprises


While the Academy Awards carry the biggest cachet of the awards season, no one can argue that the Golden Globes provide the funnest atmosphere and viewing pleasure for recognized performers and the at home audience. Early this morning the Golden Globe Nominees were officially announced, informally kicking off the annual awards season hunt, and , as always, there were plenty of snubs and surprises. Let's break down the official crop of nominees.


Snubs


In the Best Picture - Drama hunt, many pronounced Denzel Washington's adapted film, Fences, as a "sure-thing". However, much like the Hollywood Foreign Press, my review of the film labeled it as little more than a showcase for its performers. The Globes seemed to agree and surprisingly omitted the presumed Oscar contender from its Best Picture field.



In the Best Supporting Actor race momentum has been building for Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) and deservedly so. Shannon gives an exceptional supporting turn and it was a bit of a head-scratcher as he gave way to some surprising finalists.



Late playwright, August Wilson, provides a dialogue-heavy screenplay for Fences, one that many anticipate will end up a finalist at the upcoming Oscars showcase. Yet, this morning proved to be harsh for the entire play-turned-motion picture as Fences failed to secure another major nomination in a category that many believed it was a safe bet.


Surprises


Surprising on-lookers in two separate categories, Noctural Animals writer and director, Tom Ford, secured nominations for both the film's screenplay and in the Best Director race. Ford's stylish psychological thriller had a very strong showing at the Globes and it will be interesting to see if this strong effort will pick up steam as we push on the the Guilds and Oscar nominations.



The Best Supporting Actor field was littered with curve-balls and none was bigger than Florence Foster Jenkins' Simon Helberg. Best known as Howard on the award-winning sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, Helberg's fluid transition to the big screen proved beneficial as he earns a highly coveted nomination in a generally crowded category.



In another surprising twist among the Best Director field, Hacksaw Ridge helmer, Mel Gibson, received a trip to the finals, while the film itself also secured a Best Picture - Drama nomination. Despite my own middling opinion, most critics have adored the film and its overwhelming success with the Globes could pave the way for some future Oscar success.


*** Stay tuned for some more awards season discussion tomorrow ***

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Lion and I, Daniel Blake





It feels like the "based on a true story" tag exists on just about every movie nowadays. This alarming frequency tends to dilute any semblance of realism meant to be injected into the story. But in rare real-life instances, the truth is just too amazing to discredit, and that certainly exists in the debut drama from Garth Davis, Lion.

As a five year-old boy living in the slums of India, Saroo (Sunny Pawar/Dev Patel) is accidentally separated from his brother and mistakenly travels 1,600 km across the country. Lost from his family, the young boy is left to fend for himself on the devilish streets of Calcutta until he is taken in and adopted by a couple living abroad in Australia. But as Saroo grows up under the roof of wealth and privilege in his new home, a memory from his childhood is triggered and prompts him to venture back to India in search of his lost family.

Lion possesses a far greater appeal in retrospect than as it unfolds on the big screen in real time. And once the story shifts to an adult Saroo, there's an abruptness to the character's widely evolving emotions. From sadness, to resentment and eventual acceptance of the life he's been forced to endure, these feelings are highlighted but never actually earned. As a result, Lion struggles to break the emotional barrier necessary to elevate its sentimental finale to appropriate heights. From a filmmaking standpoint, Garth Davis delivers adequate direction that's enhanced by majestic cinematography and a memorable score courtesy of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran. Much has also been made about Nicole Kidman's performance but, even during a year of thin competition within the Supporting Actress race, it fails to leave a lasting impression. Lion's remarkable true story isn't handled with the care it deserves, yet the film's heart-warming conclusion helps salvage this otherwise flawed work.


Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-





In another exemplary illustration of the human spirit, acclaimed filmmaker Ken Loach delivers his latest award-winning effort, I, Daniel Blake. Any time a film captures a Palm D'Or prize, the highest achievable award at the Cannes Film Festival, it immediately attracts attention. And with all eyes targeting I, Daniel Blake, this frustratingly honest drama successfully stands up to its lofty praises.

After suffering from a heart attack, laborer Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is told by his physician that returning to work could develop into a life-threatening issue and advises him not to. As Daniel tries to apply for government assistance due to his delicate situation, a lack of personal attention to his case snow-piles into a laundry list of complications that keep him from receiving help. While fighting to have his appeal case heard, Daniel befriends a single mother (Hayley Squires) struggling to provide for her children. Together they try to take on a system clearly built to work against them.

What director Ken Loach is able to accomplish with his latest endeavor is nothing short of extraordinary. I, Daniel Blake is a modestly-shot film humanized on the shoulders of its unknown leading actor, Dave Johns. This protest film addresses an unforgiving British welfare system through the examination of its endearing title character. Through a blend of touchingly-funny dialogue and Johns' performance, it becomes impossible to hope for anything other than the best for Daniel. However, life can be so cruel and with every bit of rejection along the way, the audience wishes even harder for a fair resolution. Alongside Dave Johns, supporting star Hayley Squires provides an exceptional turn as well. Both of their Oscar prospects seem dim, but it's an earnest screenplay and towering performances that transform I, Daniel Blake into an overlooked festival darling.


Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Friday, December 9, 2016

Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (NEW) Trailers


Marvel has unveiled a pair of trailers for two of their major 2017 releases. First up is the newest venture into the iconic superhero, Spider-Man. This time around it's The Impossible's Tom Holland who reprises his role (from brief appearances in Civil War) as a young Peter Parker who's forced to navigate his way through this surprising new powers. With the typical Marvel formula we can expect plenty of humor and action as the comic universe continues branching out in support of their next "phase". Spider-Man: Homecoming arrives in July of 2017.





If you're like me then the gang of misfit anti-heroes that make up the "Guardians of the Galaxy" captured your heart and your funny bone. They return next year with a second installment centered around Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) search to uncover the identity of his father. The film also features a baby Groot and a whole lot of laughs as Marvel continues churning out entries in their ever-expanding universe. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 arrives in May of 2017. Catch the film's latest trailer below.




Thursday, December 8, 2016

Fences




Film: Fences

Starring: Denzel Washington (Flight), Viola Davis (The Help) and Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump)

Director: Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2016 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 139 minutes


Originally a Tony Award winning play from the late August Wilson, Fences receives the big screen treatment courtesy of director and star, Denzel Washington. The film debuted in early November to the highest of praises from countless members of the Screen Actors Guild, which instantly solidified Fences as a legitimate Oscar contender. Despite its inability to entertain quite as effectively as other awards season hopefuls, you should still expect to hear the film's name called on Oscar night.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy (Washington) is a former baseball star who finds himself unsatisfied as a 53 year-old garbage man. But as Troy's resentment trickles down to his star-athlete son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), they two battle over Cory's desire to play college football. Meanwhile, the family's adoring matriarch, Rose (Viola Davis), works tirelessly to keep the peace within their household.


It's impossible to ignore the playhouse aura that suffocates Denzel Washington's adapted work. Fences looks and feels like a stageplay in every aspect, so much so that it hampers the film's ability to stand out as more than just a superbly acted accomplishment. Both of its leading stars will most likely end up as finalists in tightly contended Oscar races. Washington's performance dances wistfully along a wide spectrum of emotions. There are powerful moments where Washington reminds the audience of his singular talents that have earned him a decades-long career in the industry. Then, on the other hand, the lead star delivers overtly embellished scenes where he sadly begs to be noticed as his character transitions from a hopeless romantic, to a stern father and a villainous foe. Washington's onscreen counterpart, Viola Davis, provides a more balanced and nuanced performance filled with heart, soulfulness and subtle intricacies. Her work in Fences is an absolute marvel and the stars are aligning for Davis to finally win an Oscar, after being unforgivably robbed by Meryl Streep (for The Iron Lady???) a few years back. Supporting star, Mykelti Williamson - best known as Benjamin Buford Blue, aka Bubba, in Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump - has also earned some early rumblings as an Oscar hopeful, further solidifying Fences as a clear showcase for its many actors and actresses.


Despite the film's unquestionably promising performances, Fences struggles to resonate in many other areas. A popular saying among filmmakers is "show, don't tell". Unfortunately, verbose dialogue and a long-winded screenplay form a recipe for boredom. Even through the stories twists and turns Fences fails to adequately entertain. Many have lauded Denzel Washington's direction, yet he never overcomes limited settings and the hindrances of a stageplay backdrop. Fences tells an expansive story spanning many characters but, even after piling up nearly a 140-minute running time, these various subplots feel under-developed. It's because of all these shortcomings that Fences doesn't quite stack up as the Best Picture contender that insiders are claiming.

Denzel Washington offers a brilliantly acted adaptation that's geared towards an award season audience. Yet, if you're searching for more than just an actor's showcase drowned in dialogue and lacking amusement, then you'll have to look further than Fences.


Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Saturday, December 3, 2016

DVD Outlook: December 2016


Once the calendar switches to December it becomes difficult to convince me to see anything other than the weekly Oscar contending releases that swarm theaters nationwide. Yet, for movie watchers trying to avoid venturing to the big screen and who prefer relaxing and enjoying a new flick in the comfort of their homes, December has some worthwhile options arriving this month (November's suggestions). Here's what's on tap for the upcoming month:




Don't Think Twice - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Mike Birbiglia writes, directs and co-stars in this brilliantly handled indie comedy. It's so rare for a comedic endeavor to combine legitimate laughs with a soulful story, yet Don't Think Twice achieves this and so much more. The film follows a popular New York City improv group called The Commune who aren't just talented performers, they've become so close that they're basically a family. But when scouts from a major sketch comedy show called "Weekend Live" set their focus on the group, bitter competition begins to tear apart the fabric of this on-stage family. Don't Think Twice is emboldened by phenomenal performances that build multi-layered characters. Each member of the improv group becomes developed enough to earn a vested interest from the audience. While an emotional supporting turn is offered by Gillian Jacobs, the rest of the cast also pull you into their competitive world of comedy where not everyone can make it big. (December 6th)




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

It's no easy task releasing a film before all of the other labeled Oscar contenders and remaining in contention as the year comes to a close, but Clint Eastwood has achieved just that with his latest biopic, Sully. Tom Hanks stars as Chelsey Sullenberger, a pilot who became an overnight American hero after successfully executing and emergency landing on the Hudson River and saving the lives of all crew and passengers on board the plane. However, upon an investigation of the flight by the NTSB, Sully is forced to ponder whether or not he responded correctly and if he put all of these lives in an unnecessary danger. The inner turmoil of the title character is captured magnificently by acting legend Tom Hanks. Both he and co-star Aaron Eckhart provide exceptional performances that may (and probably should) be recognized by the Academy Awards. My only issue with Sully, however, is the narrow scope of the film's story. There isn't much meat to it and, consequently, Eastwood consumes his running time with countless perspectives of that fateful plane landing. But either way, the film is an entertaining awards season contender that you should catch if you haven't already. (December 20th)




The Magnificent Seven - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Westerns. And while Antoine Fuqua's remake, The Magnificent Seven, has its fair share of blemishes, it also entertains the audience with an unfettered ease. Industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) overruns the small town of Rose Creek with deadly force and it prompts a widow (Haley Bennett) and other townsfolk to summon the assistant of a bounty hunter (Denzel Washington) who recruits a team of misfits to take on Bogue's militant army. This modern interpretation of a classic story is paced extremely well considering its running time pushes towards 135 minutes. Vincent D'Onofrio and Denzel Washington provide the most notable work, while co-star Chris Pratt feels awfully out of place. Nothing groundbreaking resides in The Magnificent Seven but it's compelling enough to enjoy on a more superficial level. (December 20th)


Honorable Mention: Also arriving to DVD and Blu-Ray this month are action films Suicide Squad (12/13) and the latest franchise installment, Jason Bourne (12/6). Oscar rumblings still follow Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant for their work in the overrated film Florence Foster Jenkins (12/13), and Oliver Stone's long-winded biopic Snowden (12/27) also finds a release this month. Animated films The Secret Life of Pets (12/6) and Storks (12/20) are available, as well as Tim Burton's imaginative new work Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12/13) and rom-com Bridget Jones's Baby (12/13).