Thursday, March 30, 2017

Rapid Reviews: The Zookeeper's Wife and The Discovery

Ever since her near-Oscar win for the role of CIA Operative Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain has built a career portraying strong female characters in the films she's tackled. This trend continues in Niki Caro's World War II drama, The Zookeeper's Wife. But even with the feature's amazing true story and its formidable lead actress, Caro's work lands as an early-year release and not an Oscar-season contender for a reason.

As Nazi Germany begins its invasion of Warsaw, Poland in 1939, Zoo-owners Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain and Johna Heldenbergh, respectively) lose many of their animals due to the bombing of their facilities. And as the Nazi occupants begin rounding up Jewish residents and relocating them to an enclosed ghetto, the Zabinskis devise a creative plan to help these persecuted individuals escape from the ghetto and take refuge in their Zoo. But under the watchful eye of German soldier Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Zabinski family finds themselves taking an enormous risk.

Considering the film's heavy-handed source material, The Zookeeper's Wife sadly elicits only artificial emotion that feels expected rather than earned. Perhaps this vital flaw emerges because the audience never truly believes that the Zabinski family is at risk of being exposed. This unforgivable omission of necessary conflict leads to a flat dramatization filled with weakly developed characters that ultimately fails to break ground on the often highlighted World War II era. Thankfully, though, The Zookeeper's Wife manages to tell a fascinating story that deeply examines the methods of the Zoo-owner's harboring. Jessica Chastain delivers another fine performance, but one that seems very unlikely to linger deep into the awards season run. Niki Caro adapts an exceptional true story in a very mediocre and sluggish way, leaving plenty to be desired with The Zookeeper's Wife.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Non-traditional film studios have carved a niche in the movie industry as both Amazon Studios and Netflix earned Oscar wins this past year. One of Netflix's most recent purchases includes the Sundance selection, The Discovery, which releases globally on the streaming platform this weekend. After a snubbed performance for his elite portrayal of American author, David Foster Wallace, in The End of the Tour, Jason Segel continues his dramatic push in Charlie McDowell's fascinating examination of the afterlife.

Set in the near future Segel stars as Will, son of the famed Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) who proves that our consciousness travels to a different plane of existence after we die. Once news spreads of a definitive afterlife, suicide skyrocket by individuals looking for "a fresh start". And when Will disrupts a young woman's (Rooney Mara) attempt at suicide, they travel together to Dr. Harbor's research compound where they discover the truth behind where our consciousness goes.

Ambitious and artsy almost to a fault, The Discovery ponders bold ideas and stirs the imagination with a thought-provoking finale that explodes with possibility. However, Charlie McDowell decides to spend the wide majority of the film developing a slow-burning story of love and loss that merely uses this cerebral conclusion as an afterthought. Rooney Mara grips the audience with a nuanced performance. Her onscreen prowess is further complemented by Jesse Plemons' energetic supporting work. Sadly, lead star Jason Segel, whom I have defended and supported in the past with all my might, provides a monotonous turn that constantly strikes the same chord over and over again. The Discovery isn't the most entertaining or exciting watch, but once everything finally pieces together, there's a satisfying bit of beauty to this somewhat muddled and arduous affair.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

It (2017) Trailer and Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer (NEW)

Horror fans can rejoice with today's trailer release for Andres Muschietti's re-imagining of Stephen King's It. This new edition looks wonderfully shot as we journey back to Derry, Maine where a group of children are united by their terrifying encounters with a clown named Pennywise. It comes with a massive amount of hype leading up to its September 8th release date. See what all the buzz is about and check out the debut trailer for the horror re-make below.

The Impossible's Tom Holland gave us a sample of what to expect from his stand-alone film with a reassuring cameo in Marvel's Civil War. This summer we get a large dose of Spider-Man in the new film, Homecoming, where a teenage Peter Parker tries to balance his struggles with school-life and a web-slinging alter ego. Mentored by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man faces all he can handle when the villain Vulture emerges. Homecoming is destined to be a box office success, but we'll see just how well helmer Jon Watts can carry his portion of the Marvel universe. Spider-Man: Homecoming arrives on July 7th and you can watch the film's latest trailer below.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Justice League (NEW) and A Ghost Story Trailers

DC Comics has been playing catch-up to the Marvel film universe for quite some time now, but it hopes to make its mark with the November release, Justice League. Following the dispute between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit a team of super-humans to combat a new threat. Zack Snyder has been handed the keys to this necessary success, but I haven't been too impressed by his Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice prequels. Catch the new trailer for Justice League below.

One of the most talked-about films from this January's Sundance Film Festival was David Lowery's A Ghost Story. Lowery re-teams with his Ain't Them Bodies Saints stars, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, in the story of a recently deceased presence masquerading in a white-sheet who returns home to make contact with his grieving wife. Blending together drama, mystery and fantasy, A Ghost Story's debut trailer unveils an intriguing and artistic expression of life and legacy. The film is slated for a July release and its first-look trailer is below.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Danny Boyle's Finest Films

Some things are completely worth the wait. And in anticipation for Danny Boyle's upcoming U.S. release for the sequel T2 Trainspotting, one that took him over two decades to complete, I finally had the pleasure of encountering my favorite filmmaker at an exclusive Q&A. Boyle's stylish approach and unique ability to capture raw emotions make him an absolute treasure within the industry. Therefore, it's with great pleasure that I devote March's Movie List of the Month to Danny Boyle's finest films (February's list).

Honorable Mention: Millions, Steve Jobs and T2 Trainspotting

#5. 28 Days Later (2002)

Fresh off the mixed reception for his ambitious 2000 endeavor, The Beach, Danny Boyle teamed with writer extraordinaire, Alex Garland (Ex Machina), to deliver one of the finest zombie films of all-time. Cillian Murphy stars as Jim, a comatose man who awakes to find that the city of London is a ghost town. Jim crosses paths with a few other survivors who, in tandem, try to find sanctuary from a zombie apocalypse. At its most horrific moments, 28 Days Later paints a bitter portrait of humankind's savage nature, and does so long before pop culture hits like The Walking Dead made it "cool" and "edgy".

#4. Trance (2013)

As a proud Danny Boyle loyalist, I remember venturing out to a nearly-empty theater in the early afternoon on a week day to catch his newly released work, Trance. I was shocked by how little attention was given to this truly fascinating piece of filmmaking. James McAvoy stars as a deadbeat art auctioneer who gets in deep with a loan-shark (Vincent Cassel) and organizes the robbery of a pricey painting. Yet, the auctioneer loses his memory after being hit on the head during the heist and, when the loan-shark discovers the real painting had been swapped out with a worthless one, they must do whatever's necessary to locate its whereabouts. Trance represents a clever and cerebral story filled with twists and an immaculate finale, something of a staple for Boyle's oeuvre. 

#3. Trainspotting (1996)

Evident by his patient two decade-long return to the material, Danny Boyle's iconic 1996 indie title, Trainspotting, stands as a sentimental effort for the filmmaker. This tale of a heroin-addicted anti-hero named Renton (Ewan McGregor), desperate to move on from the streets of Edinburgh and get clean helped shape an entire generation of youth. Trainspotting not only edged its way into the hearts of movie-lovers all across the globe, it also helped put Boyle himself on the map. This personal story filled with unique characters made for a phenomenal indie effort over 20 years ago, and also a very strong sequel that arrives in the U.S. later this month.

#2. 127 Hours (2010)

Despite Trainspotting's immense global adoration, evident by its current #157 ranking on IMDB's Top 250 films of all-time, Danny Boyle's level of expertise happens to shine brighter in the 2010 survival tale, 127 Hours. Based on the true story of outdoor enthusiast Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), who had to go to extreme measures in order to free himself from a being pinned down by a falling rock in Utah, Boyle places the audience in the middle of Aron's 5-day struggle for survival. This gut-wrenching and visceral examination of the human spirit's will to survive is emotionally taxing and spiritually invigorating. 127 Hours relies on a fantastic Oscar-nominated lead performance by James Franco, an amazing score by A.R. Rahman, and Boyle's distinct vision to deliver an unforgettable movie experience.

#1. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

For all of Boyle's many cinematic achievements, none stand out as much as his Best Picture Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire. This undeniable masterpiece also handed Boyle a Directing Oscar as well. Slumdog Millionaire follows a pair of orphan brothers who raise themselves on the dangerous streets of Mumbai, India, escaping child exploitation and other detestable treatment. Yet, when Jamal (Dev Patel) reconnects with the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto), years later, he goes through a remarkable journey to free her from her abusive "master". Simon Beaufoy pens an immaculate screenplay that's brought to life by Boyle and complemented beautifully by an Oscar-winning score from R.A. Rahman. Slumdog Millionaire isn't just Danny Boyle's most crowning achievement, it's one of Hollywood's greatest love stories of all-time.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Best of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival

I recently finished my first trip to Austin, Texas for the wildly popular SXSW extravaganza. During my 5-day venture to the film festival I caught 15 different titles that reaffirmed the strong current state of independent filmmaking. Here is a look at the best screenplays, performances, directors and overall films that I had the pleasure of viewing last week.

Note: Due to large crowds I avoided most of the headliner films such as Baby Driver, Song to Song, Free Fire, Atomic Blonde and The Big Sick, therefore they won't appear in my lists below.

Best Screenplay

Honorable Mention: Person to Person, Us and Them and Win It All

#3. Gemini

#2. T2 Trainspotting

And the winner is ...

#1. Small Town Crime

Writing and directing duo, Eshom and Ian Nelms, deliver an exceptional script flooded with timely humor and massive intrigue. Small Town Crime gives off a Coen brothers feel, making it a top-notch selection for a multitude of reasons.

Best Supporting Actress

Honorable Mention: Aislinn Derbez (Win It All)Caitlin Fitzgerald (This Is Your Death) and Tavi Gevinson (Person to Person)

#3. Zoe Kravitz - Gemini

#2. Anjela Nedyalkova - T2 Trainspotting

And the winner is ...

#1. Octavia Spencer - Small Town Crime

Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer has proven it all, but once again she shows off her dramatic prowess in Small Town Crime. As the adopted sister of a booze addled former-cop, Spencer's character becomes the target of a malicious duo who discovery her brother is on their trail.

Best Supporting Actor

Honorable Mention: Robert Carlyle (T2 Trainspotting), Robert Forster (Small Crimes) and Joe Lo Truglio (Win It All)

#3. Ewen Bremner - T2 Trainspotting

#2. Larry Fessenden - Like Me

And the winner is ...

#1. George Sample III - Person to Person

Dustin Guy Defa's Person to Person is in many ways a collection of disjoint stories detailing various forms of human connection and interaction. None of the film's personal characters resonate with the audience as much as George Sample III's portrayal of Ray, a heartbroken romantic who makes some stupid decisions after losing the woman he loves.

Best Actress

Honorable Mention: Emma Booth (Hounds of Love), Anne Hathaway (Colossal) and Renee Felice Smith (The Relationtrip)

#3. Lena Olin - A Critically Endangered Species

#2. Addison Timlin - Like Me

And the winner is ...

#1. Lola Kirke - Gemini

I was completely enamored with Lola Kirke's performance in Noah Baumbach's indie comedy, Mistress America. She returns with another towering lead performance in Aaron Katz's latest mystery, Gemini. Kirke stars as Jill, best friend and manager to a Hollywood starlet whose dead body she discovers. And when all signs point to her, she must go undercover to unlock the mystery of her friend's murder.

Best Actor

Honorable Mention: Timothee Chalamet (Hot Summer Nights), Bene Coopersmith (Person to Person) and Ewan McGregor (T2 Trainspotting)

#3. Jack Roth - Us and Them

#2. Jake Johnson - Win It All

And the winner is ...

#1. John Hawkes - Small Town Crime

When John Hawkes was unforgivably omitted from the Best Actor race for his 2012 turn in The Sessions, I was crushed. However, the versatile performer continues to offer spectacular work in the comedy-thriller, Small Town Crime. His alcoholic ex-cop character is seeking redemption for ruining his career as an officer, and perhaps solving the mystery behind a random dead body he stumbles across could set him on a straight path.

Best Director

Honorable Mention: Joe Martin (Us and Them)Eshom & Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime) and Joe Swanberg (Win It All)

#3. Aaron Katz - Gemini

#2. Danny Boyle - T2 Trainspotting

And the winner is ...

#1. Robert Mockler - Like Me

You know I have to be overly impressed with a filmmaker for him to top my favorite director, Danny Boyle. Yet, Like Me helmer, Robert Mockler, delivers an unforgettable viewing experience with a twisted blend of experimental and narrative filmmaking that channels the likes of the great David Lynch. Mockler offers such a unique perspective to storytelling that I can't wait to see what he has in store for the future.

Best Picture

Honorable Mention: Like Me, Us and Them and Win It All

#3. Gemini

#2. T2 Trainspotting

And the winner is ...

#1. Small Town Crime

Eshom and Ian Nelms unleash a thrilling and often hysterical crime mystery that overtook a packed theater of spectators during its world premiere. Small Town Crime boasts a strong script that's brought to life by an expansive and well-rounded cast. It works as an entertaining popcorn flick, but it also offers a bit of complexity with an unpredictable story that's perfectly-paced. Small Town Crime is definitely one indie film that you'll want to keep on the radar in 2017.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Rapid Reviews: The Belko Experiment and Us and Them

Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director, James Gunn, lends his twisted and unusual imagination with the screenplay for Greg McLean's latest horror film, The Belko Experiment. In this wicked blend of The Hunger Games meets corporate America, 10 Cloverfield Lane's John Gallagher Jr. learns just how far human decency and compassion goes when society's rules and structures are thrown out the window. So if you're a horror fan with a taste for violent and visceral behavior, The Belko Experiment isn't exactly groundbreaking material, but it definitely delivers on the gore.

Nestled away in the farmlands of Bogota, Columbia, a United States Government facility houses many local and American workers. Yet, something rings different when Michael Milch (Gallagher Jr.) notices heavily armed guards greeting employees at the front gate and turning away all the local workers. And not long after their work day begins, security panels turn the building into an inescapable fortress as a random voice comes over the intercom system informing all 80 employees that they're now involved in a game of kill or be-killed.

The Belko Experiment leaves little to the imagination by putting its graphic R-rating to good use. If you're seeking a grotesque movie experience filled with blood, guts and other unspeakable acts of violence, then director Greg McLean certainly delivers in that regard. Yet, it can't be ignored that James Gunn's writing is a bit fundamentally flawed. The audience is forced to accept that all of these workers would have allowed the government to implant tracking devices into their heads for their own safety abroad, something that clearly seems far-fetched and unfathomable. Yet, if you can withstand sporadic head-scratching plot points that are necessary to allow this deadly game to unfold, then The Belko Experiment will definitely please a niche audience. McLean's film eases through its effortless 88-minute running time with escalating tension and a subtle darkly comedic tone that isn't stressed nearly enough. Lead actor John Gallagher Jr. plays his role as the sensible and level-headed employee well. But when all hell breaks loose, James Gunn's writing proves strongest through Michael's clear character arc. The Belko Experiment offers a somewhat flat finale, but the brisk and brutal ride there is a treat for the sickest of horror fans.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Without getting overly political, it's impossible to ignore the growing divide between the wealthy and the working class in developed nations all across the globe. Such an observation serves as the core principle behind Joe Martin's feature film debut, Us and Them. This SXSW selection also stars newcomer Jack Roth, son of Quentin Tarantino regular Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight), in a diabolical role that shows the apple doesn't far from the acting tree.

Danny (Roth) is a bitter and frustrated working class Brit who's fed up with the class warfare that plagues society. So he and a pair of accomplices conjure up a plan to get back at the wealthy elite by holding a prominent banker and his family hostage and broadcasting the entire ordeal over social media, in hopes of starting a political revolution. Yet, things fall apart quickly when Danny's helpers begin to deviate from his big-picture objective.

Joe Martin's Us and Them represents a worthwhile achievement that benefits most from its clever non-chronological storytelling and a brilliant lead performance from Jack Roth. Told through multiple chapters, the film offers laugh-out-loud British wit to complement its thrilling kidnapping tale. In its brightest moments, the film rings reminiscent of iconic Guy Ritchie works like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. However, writer and director Joe Martin eventually loses sight of his overriding voice on the focal point of the feature, watering down his once-poignant socio-political message. However, Us and Them still manages to impress with its unpredictable characters and an unforeseen resolution that ties a satisfying bow on the debut feature.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Friday, March 17, 2017

Rapid Reviews: T2 Trainspotting and Like Me

It feels like ages ago, but back in 1996 an unknown filmmaker named Danny Boyle made his mark on the industry by shaping an entire generation with the revolutionary heroin-addiction drama, Trainspotting. Two decades have passed and Boyle has emerged as one of Hollywood's elite directors thanks to the overwhelming success of films like Best Picture Winner Slumdog Millionaire, for which Boyle won a Directing Oscar, and Best Picture Nominee 127 Hours. So what's left for a man who's clearly reached the pinnacle of his profession? How about a return to his roots with the wildly anticipated sequel, T2 Trainspotting. As this year's official SXSW "secret screening" selection, unsuspecting audiences were given a wonderful treat.

Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to the streets of Edinburgh 20 years after ripping off his best friend Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) by running away with their 16,000-pound score following a successful drug deal. Renton hopes to make things right with his friend and ultimately agrees to help Simon with a new money-making scheme. They bring Spud (Ewen Bremner) on board to help with the plan, all while trying to avoid the craziness of Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who's back on the streets after escaping from prison.

There is so much to enjoy about Danny Boyle's long-awaited return to the boys from Edinburgh, but it all begins and ends with his direction. Boyle's sharp-style continues to impress as he plays with elements of time both visually and physically. We bear witness to decades of wear and tear to these former kings of the street, but their sense of desperation is as strong as it's ever been. Ewan McGregor and company jump back into their roles without ever missing a beat, infusing a nostalgic energy that eases the audience into the beautifully chaotic world of Trainspotting. Clever writing also resurfaces throughout the work, transforming timely jokes into necessary plot points, all of which remind us of John Hodge's exceptional ability to craft a story. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating element to T2 is how well the film plays as both a stand alone effort, and not just a continuation of the 1996 saga. But beyond all of the double-crossing and redemption that unravels throughout the film, Danny Boyle shows us all how a special kind of dedication and a distinct love for the characters are essential pieces to making any sequel a successful one.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

With enormous crowds swirling all over Austin, Texas, sometimes it's to your benefit to pass up a more anticipated screening at SXSW for a smaller, more intimate, one. And after catching Robert Mockler's first credited feature, Like Me, I was grateful for taking a shot on this unknown title. Blending together elements of experimental filmmaking with a traditional narrative core, Mockler stands out against the other directorial debuts at this year's SXSW festival.

The film opens with a lonely teenage sociopath named Kiya (Addison Timlin) holding up a drive-thru market clerk and broadcasting the entire robbery live on her social media feed. From there she continues on a crime spree that she uses to connect with her followers online, and results in the kidnapping of Marshall (Larry Fessenden), a pedophile hotel owner she lures into captivity. Kiya begins to interact with Marshall more and more and the human connection may or may not be enough to stop her villainous behavior.

Robert Mockler's thriller unfolds in a David Lynch-like manner, intense from the get-go and increasingly creepy as the story progresses. Like Me solidifies Mockler's voice and vision as a progressive filmmaker, and someone I plan to keep on my radar in the future. While some may refute the narrative structure of the film, claiming Mockler's obsession with style over substance as a detriment to the finished product, I'd combat those claims by addressing the story's phenomenal ability to develop its characters. It's no easy feat to turn an admitted pedophile such as Marshall's character into a sympathetic figure. Yet, Like Me plays along to an unpredictable beat with a unique approach to story-telling that's both unconventional and effective.  Addison Timlin delivers a spellbinding lead performance that's immaculately counter-balanced by her co-star, Larry Fessenden. Like Me appeals to all the senses and propels director Robert Mockler to the forefront of the indie scene by making one of the most memorable impressions at this year's SXSW festival.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Monday, March 13, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Small Town Crime and Gemini

One of the greatest perks to attending the SXSW festival is having the opportunity to view world premieres of films. Over the past two days I've had the pleasure of catching the first-ever showing for two of my festival favorites. First up is Small Town Crime, a comedic thriller from the minds of California-born sibling writers and directors, Eshom and Ian Nelms. The film bridges a taut story with immense acting talent, namely Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer and the Oscar-nominated SXSW favorite, John Hawkes, to create a uniquely pleasant movie experience.

An alcoholic ex-cop (Hawkes) awakes in the middle of a field after an evening of binge-drinking and somehow avoiding a DUI. As he climbs back into his car and begins driving away, he soon discovers the body of a pretty young woman on the side of the road. The man's former police instincts take charge as he dives deep into an unauthorized investigation of the girl's murder that uncovers a small-town secret which puts him and his adopted sister's family (Octavia Spencer) in grave danger.

Brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms craft an amusing and suspenseful tale that satisfies on many levels. Channeling their inner Coen brothers, the siblings utilize moments of comedic levity to fill the gaps between a remarkably-paced game of cat & mouse. Veteran performer John Hawkes has always been a personal favorite of mine, and once again he offers a multi-dimensional lead character that resonates with the audience. He's certainly flawed, but his passion and overall kind-nature help form an instant bond between him and the viewer. Joining Hawkes is the always capable Octavia Spencer who also puts her emotional prowess on full display. It would be unjust to ignore some other fantastic supporting turns which come from Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson and Clifton Collins Jr., all of whom infuse a heavy dose of humor that adds a vital element to the film. Small Town Crown checks-off nearly all the boxes and unfolds as a well-scripted and superbly-told thriller that stands as one of SXSW's finest offerings this year.

Stars: 3 stars our of 4

Grade: B+

Lola Kirke first caught my eye in Noah Baumbach's 2015 indie-comedy, Mistress America. Even standing alongside the versatile indie starlet, Greta Gerwig, from scene to scene, Kirke's performance jumps off the screen and immediately commands your attention. The same can be said for her latest work in Aaron Katz's new L.A. mystery, Gemini, which completely reaffirms that Lola Kirke is an emerging star.

Jill (Kirke) is a personal assistant and best friend to her famed Hollywood-celebrity boss, Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). Throughout the course of the day, Heather's odd behavior ultimately makes mortal enemies out of her now ex-boyfriend, and a filmmaker whom she leaves hanging out to dry. Therefore, when Jill returns to the actress' home the next day and finds her dead body on the floor, she becomes the lead detective's (John Cho) number one suspect in a sea of possible murderers, prompting her to manipulate her appearance and dig deeper into the mystery herself.

Aaron Katz delivers another fine piece of filmmaking with his latest feature, Gemini. Katz's direction continues to embolden itself with every subsequent project. It's been an absolute pleasure to watch his progression as both a writer and filmmaker, which culminates into this new career-best effort thanks to brilliant performances and a clever screenplay that propel his overall vision. Leading star Lola Kirke possesses a hypnotic ability as a performer, one that takes you on her chaotic journey through Katz's smartly written murder mystery. Zoe Kravitz also provides an exceptional supporting turn by molding a complex and conflicted character. Gemini swiftly navigates through a bleak Los Angeles backdrop, disjoint from all the glamour and glitz of Tinsel Town, in order to tell a truly unique story. And despite the film's mildly unsatisfying finale which leaves a little to be desired, this twist-filled "whodunit" tale still proves to be completely worth the ride.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Win It All and This Is Your Death

Joe Swanberg has been a staple in the indie film community as a writer, director and actor for the better part of a decade. His pinnacle of success came in the form of Drinking Buddies, a 2013 dramedy in which a pair of brewery co-workers, Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde, wonder if their flirtatious behavior will ever develop into something more. Swanberg makes his return to SXSW this year for the world premiere of his newest collaboration with co-writer and star, Jake Johnson, in the indie dram, Win It All.

Eddie Garrett (Johnson) works odd jobs throughout the week to fund his late night gambling addiction at an illegal basement casino. But when a loan shark from his past returns with a simple proposition, Eddie agrees to watch a duffel bag while he goes to jail for 6 months. However, Eddie's curiosity gets the better of him as he searches through the bag's contents only to discover a huge collection of money. Things go south quickly when he burns through an insurmountable sum of the money and receives a surprising call that the loan shark is getting out of jail early due to a clerical error.

There's humor, tenderness and conviction embroiled all throughout Joe Swanberg's latest work. Jake Johnson is clearly the heart and soul of the feature, and the star of The New Girl delivers with a knockout performance. Addiction is a disease and it becomes painful to witness Eddie Garrett's relapses into darkness, but Johnson does such a fantastic job of creating an affable and kind-hearted character that the audience becomes invested in his quest for a changed lifestyle. Win It All relies on organic humor to keep its story engaging and it does so effectively, even through all of the monotonous casino scenes where we see Eddie experience his ups and downs with the luck of the cards. In conjunction with Jake Johnson's exceptional turn, performances from co-stars Joe Lo Truglio and Aislinn Derbez, who plays Eddie's love interest in the film, can't go unnoticed. It's a complete team effort as Joe Swanberg's direction continues to progress as well, making Win It All a new career best for the indie filmmaker.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Giancarlo Esposito may not be a household name, but for millions of Americans and fans of AMC's Breaking Bad all over the globe, he will forever be known as "Gus Fring". Yet, Esposito is far from a one-dimensional artist. His second directing credit belongs to This Is Your Death, another 2017 SXSW selection recently experiencing a world premiere at the festival.

After a deadly rampage is captured live on a reality tv show finale, the network head (Famke Janssen) and show host, Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel), create a twisted new series where people take their own lives on air for the betterment of those they care most about in their lives. But as the fame and success of the show grows wildly out of control, Adam starts to lose a handle on why he wanted to go through with creating the show in the first place.

This Is Your Death begs to unveil a poignant message about the savage nature of our society and our fixation on exploitative reality television. Instead, Esposito's muddled tale goes off the rails with illogical plot points and melodramatic writing. As a filmmaker, Esposito delivers fine direction that's nothing spectacular, but completely adequate. Yet, the character development surrounding host Adam Rogers is both perplexing and drastically artificial. While the fault clearly belongs to co-writers Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel, Josh Duhamel's performance does nothing to improve the situation. Futhermore, Giancarlo Esposito steps out from behind the camera and offers a major supporting turn as well. While his role is executed slightly better than the film's leading star, flawed writing once again tears down this emotional dynamic to the story. Due in large part to an influx of over-dramatization where you're constantly being told how to feel rather than actually being made to do so, This Is Your Death serves as a classic example of when a film's premise far exceeds the overall delivery.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Kong: Skull Island and Person to Person (2017)

In an era full of reboots and remakes, chain reactions often open the door for classic characters and beloved films to make a return to the big screen. Inevitably, 2014's $500 million worldwide box-office smash, Godzilla, ultimately paved the way for The Kings of Summer director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, to reintroduce the world to King Kong. And with an infusion of energy and some fresh new ideas, we're given a version of Kong that we've never seen before.

A pair of scientists (John Goodman and Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins) piggy-back on an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific where they sense some strange occurrences are taking place. Escorted to this dangerous and unknown territory by an Army helicopter fleet headed by a war-hungry Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), an unexpected encounter with Kong sends the surviving few deep into the woods of this mysterious island. Forced to withstand attacks from multitudes of different monsters inhabiting the strange land, they all hope they can make it home and live to tell the tale of Kong.

Kong: Skull Island stands as a comedy-rich monster film with only one goal, to entertain the audience. From that perspective, Jordan Vogt-Roberts absolutely delivers the goods. The visuals are amazing and the footage of Kong leaves nothing to be desired. Nightcrawler writer and director, Dan Gilroy, pens a clever story surrounding an island full of new monsters that continues to surprise even as the running-time mounts. However, corn-ball dialogue purposely intended to deliver trailer-made one-liners masks a larger problem with the film. Gilroy lazily uses character interactions to explain the plot to the audience and progress the story. Consequently, Skull Island unravels as nothing more than a thoughtless popcorn flick guaranteed to generate gaudy box-office totals and propel a whole new franchise of films.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Indie filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa makes his return to the SXSW festival six years after his directorial debut, Bad Fever, premiered there. This time around he returns with a larger and more prominent cast in the hilarious new comedy, Person to Person. This thoughtful examination of human interactions is wrapped within a bright comedic shell that highlights the everyday humor in life and personal connection.

Set throughout the course of one day in the lives of various New York City residents, Person to Person follows a vinyl record collector (Bene Coopersmith) who stumbles across a rare find, a pair of magazine reporters (Michael Cera and Broad City's Abbi Jacobson) struggling to uncover the truth behind a murder (or was it a suicide?), a computer illiterate romantic (George Sample III) who does the unthinkable to the love of his life, and a cynical teen (Tavi Gevinson) unsure of her own sexuality. These mostly non-intersecting storylines tackle a wide array of personal issues and human connection with a hilariously tender approach.

Endearing and genuine, Person to Person captures the true essence of indie filmmaking with raw performances and modest city settings. Yet, even through its minimalist backdrop, Dustin Guy Defa crafts an assortment of enriched characters that are brought to life with skilled actors and actresses. You'll recognize some of the talent involved such as Michael Cera, Philip Baker Hall, Abbi Jacobson and Isiah Whitlock Jr., but it's a whole host of other unknowns that truly steal the show. Bene Coopersmith proves to be a naturally gifted source of laughs and the heartfelt performances of both Tavi Gevinson and George Sample III propel their complex characters to the forefront of the film. Person to Person lacks an all-encompassing message, but the film brings levity and originality to its dissection of human connection.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 9, 2017

2017 SXSW Film Festival Preview

I'm thrilled to announced that I'll be attending the 2017 SXSW Film Festival (courtesy of Geekscape) beginning in Austin, Texas this Friday. The festival offers an eclectic selection of world premieres and upcoming releases featuring some of Hollywood's most prominent acting talent and unique visionaries. I can't wait to enjoy 5 days of binge movie-watching! But before I head to the wonderful city of Austin, here's a quick look at some festival titles that I'm looking forward to seeing:


Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web - directed by Annie Goldson

Debuting at the festival is a doc surrounding the internet's Most Wanted man, Kim Dotcom. As one of the largest copyright infringement sources online, Kim Dotcom was taken in by New Zealand authorities in 2012 and awaiting serious penalties for his described theft of intellectual property.

Stranger Fruit - directed by Jason Pollock

The ongoing debate surrounding police discrimination against members of the African American community hit a turbulent peak following the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Told through the eyes of the victim's family, Stranger Fruit aims to highlight the personal anguish associated with this difficult cultural issue.

Bill Nye: Science Guy - directed by David Alvarado & Jason Sussberg

This doc examines the struggles facing former television star, Bill Nye, as he tries to bring science back to the forefront of mainstream thinking. However, this proves to be a daunting task in a modern American culture that increasingly disregards the opinions of Earth's most well-regarded scientists.

Narrative Feature Films

Song to Song - directed by Terrence Malick

Once regarded as one of Hollywood's most impressive filmmakers, Terrence Malick's aura has subsided in recent years. Yet, that won't stop his latest film, Song to Song, from shining as SXSW's Opening Night selection. The film stars Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara in the story of two intersecting love triangles set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene.

Baby Driver - directed by Edgar Wright

The famed director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World returns to try his hand at a whole new ballgame. Edgar Wright trades laughs for action sequences with his new crime thriller, Baby Driver. Jamie Foxx stars as a getaway driver for a mob boss who finds himself involved in a heist that's destined to fail.

Life - directed by Daniel Espinosa

SXSW's closing night film is the intriguing new sci-fi title, Life, which arrives in theaters later this month. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson as members of an international space crew who intercept a vessel traveling back from Mars. And when they discover that the vessel is carrying an actual living organism, they can't be prepared for the devastation that ensues when it grows wildly out of control.

Atomic Blonde - directed by David Leitch

Charlize Theron stars in the recently added action-thriller, Atomic Blonde, from director David Leitch. The film centers around Lorraine Broughton (Theron), and undercover British agent who's sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent. While there, she's forced to maneuver her way through a dangerous field of spies and double agents.

Free Fire - directed by Ben Wheatley

Ben Wheatley continues his ascension as a filmmaker with the wild shoot-out flick, Free Fire. Set in late 70s Boston, the film simply takes place in a deserted warehouse where two rival gangs meet for an exchange that quickly transforms into a game of survival. With a star-studden cast including Academy Award Winner, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley, Free Fire has all the makings of an entertaining theatrical experience.

Win It All - Joe Swanberg

Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg brings his latest work to Austin, Texas. Win It All centers around Eddie Garrett (The New Girl's Jake Johnson), a small-time gambler who agrees to watch a duffel bag for an acquaintance who's headed to jail. But when Eddie discovers that the bag is filled with money, he quickly finds himself in a massive hole. And when he learns that the owner of the money is getting an early release, he must do whatever it takes to risk it all and win back what he's lost.

This Is your Death - directed by Giancarlo Esposito

Giancarlo Espositio's (Breaking Bad) disturbing new film takes a look at just how far reality television is willing to go. After a suicide is unexpectedly captured on live tv as generates insane ratings, the network develops a new show that monetarily rewards individuals who are willing to die on live tv. Josh Duhamel and Famke Janssen star in this twisted and skin-crawling examination of human desperation.

Small Crimes - directed by E.L. Katz

Cheap Thrills director, E.L. Katz, returns with the new black comedy, Small Crimes. When a former police officer finishes a 6-year sentence for attempted murder, he returns home with hopes of leading a straight life. But instead, he quickly finds himself caught up in the same mess that got him sent away in the first place.

Monday, March 6, 2017

DVD Outlook: March 2017

If you haven't finished capitalizing on the hefty collection of titles released last month, you should definitely start your movie watching there (February's suggestions). However, if you're caught up with this year's top selections, March includes a bunch of new offerings that landed in my "honorable mention" section of 2016's Top Films. Here's a look at the movies you should keep an eye out for this month:

20th Century Women - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Just missing out on my Top 10 annual list was Mike Mills' latest effort, 20th Century Women. The film follows a teenage boy in the 1970s growing up under the roof of his single mother (Annette Bening) and her two tenants, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). And when the teen's mother begins to question her ability to properly guide him into manhood, she enlists the help of Abbie and the boy's best friend and crush, Julie (Elle Fanning). This trio of ladies, all unique in their wisdom and perspective, form an unlikely cast of role models. The film is hilarious at certain times and remarkably poignant at others. 20th Century Women delivers a wide range of well-developed characters and amazing performances as you can't help but be lured into each of their complicated lives. (March 28th)

Patriots Day - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Most people's natural reaction to Peter Berg's manhunt drama, Patriots Day, is that the wounds and scars of this American tragedy are still raw. And although that's a fair argument to make, it's also true that this gripping re-telling of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing and the city-wide hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers is a worthwhile experience. Told through the woven combination of dramatic reenactment and real-life footage, Peter Berg places the audience into the action and brings these traumatic events to surface. Despite a few clear moments of over-dramatization and the reinforced "Boston Strong" theme, Patriots Day feels so authentic and precise in its delivery. (March 28th)

A Monster Calls - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

I was completely blown away by J.A. Bayona's 2012 tsunami disaster drama, The Impossible. He finally followed up the effort with last year's sentimental adaptation, A Monster Calls. Newcomer Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor, a child whose mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness. And as the boy struggles to cope with his home life, he also faces bouts of bullying from his classmates. Yet, everything changes when a tree monster (voice of Liam Neeson) approaches the boy at night on three separate occasions and tells him stories that help him face his world of problems. A Monster Calls obviously tells an emotional and moving story, but it also offers masterful visual effects that leave a lasting impression. (March 28th)

Honorable Mention: Other Oscar Nominated titles available in March include Best Actress Nominee Natalie Portman in Jackie (3/7),  Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis in Fences (3/14), Best Cinematography Nominee for Martin Scorsese's Silence (3/28), Best Animated Film Nominee, Moana (3/21), and the Oscar winner for Best Costume Design with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (3/28). Just missing my top suggestions for the month was the political thriller Miss Sloane (3/21) starring Jessica Chastain. Finally, other random titles available in March include the sci-fi drama Passengers (3/14), Ben Affleck's gangster flick Live by Night (3/21) and the comedy Why Him? (3/28).

Friday, March 3, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Get Out and Table 19

As a fan of their sketch comedy show, it was reassuring to witness the everlasting humor from both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in 2016 titles such as Keanu and Don't Think Twice. And much like Key's satisfying dramatic transformation in the latter film, true artists make branching out of their comfort zone appear so effortless, Now it's Peele's turn, as the creative mastermind unveils his new horror release, Get Out.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his Caucasian girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) are planning to head to her parent's quaint middle-of-nowhere home for a proper introduction. But when Chris arrives and immediately notices that all of the other African-American friends of the family and house-workers are acting peculiar, he begins to wonder if a more sinister plot is brewing. Yet, addressing the issue could complicate things with the love of his life.

Jordan Peele shows off his second-level thinking with a heady screenplay that transitions fluidly between dark comedy and a creepy thriller. There are enough red-herrings and legitimate clues to keep the audience off their toes and guessing until the last possible minute. Peele's directorial debut also tackles fragile racial undertones that, on a superficial level, are supposed to camouflage as a metaphor to the film's deeper story. Furthermore, Get Out works so well in large part to Daniel Kaluuya's fine leading turn, one that's counter-balanced by exceptional work from savvy acting veterans Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Get Out dancing across a spectrum of emotions all before it explodes with a fantastic and unforgettable finale. Jordan  Peele puts his artistic prowess on full display and it proves to be one hell of a ride.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass have made a successful career out of crafting personal stories filmed on minimalist budgets. The sibling writing duo hand over another hilarious, albeit flawed, script to Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz. And with leading lady, Anna Kendrick, in tow, Table 19 satisfies all your comedy cravings while whiffing badly on its hard-pressed dramatics.

Eloise (Kendrick) is set to be the made-of-honor at her oldest friend's upcoming wedding. But days before the ceremony, she's dumped via text by the bride-to-be's brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell). Consequently, Eloise is removed from her made-of-honor duties and relegated to table 19 with all of the other "random guests", after she surprisingly decides to attend the wedding anyway.

The latest indie dramedy from the minds of the Duplass brothers leaves such a bittersweet aftertaste. From a comedic standpoint, it may be their funniest screenplay yet. Filled with outrageously quirky characters and cleverly developed humor, Table 19 offers no shortage of laughs. In fact, former Hello Ladies star, Stephen Merchant, steals the show with an oddly over-the-top role that fits his goofy persona so well. However, the film falls apart quickly once Jeffrey Blitz and company force-feed an unforgivably bad attempt at a dramatic centerpiece. Table 19 struggles to find its proper tone and relies heavily on unrealistic character epiphanies to progress the plot. With a screenplay that's suffocated by miscues and a fruitless sentimental core, there's little else to support the film's sporadic moments of hilarity.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (NEW) and Alien: Covenant (NEW) Trailers

The return of Marvel's misfit superhero group, the Guardians of the Galaxy, is primed for an enormous box office conquest. Vol. 2 kicks off the summer blockbuster season on May 5th and follows Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) search for his father's true identity. The latest trailer for writer and director James Gunn's anticipated sequel recently premiered on Jimmy Kimmel Live and broadens the scope of the film.

Ridley Scott returned to his classic Alien universe with the cryptic 2012 prequel Prometheus. Scott is back again in 2017 to follow-up the film with the buzzed-about installment, Alien Covenant. Michael Fassbender is set to reprise his role as the robot David who travels alongside a new crew that stumble across an uncharted planet. While they search out this unknown piece of paradise, they discover that it's actually a very dangerous world. Covenant reaches theaters on May 19th and you can check out its latest trailer below.