Friday, April 28, 2017

The Best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Since 2008 the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has developed into a carefully constructed and delicately linked cash-cow that's expanded masterfully over the span of 14 films. And with the universe's 15th installment, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, slated to dominate the box office on May 5th, I'm devoting April's Movie List of the Month to the best of Marvel's expansive series (March's list). Full disclosure, I'm not a comic book fanatic who's examining the universe from such a nerd-centric standpoint. Instead, I'm detailing the MCUs most entertaining films.

Honorable Mention: Captain America: Winter Soldier, Iron Man 2 and Thor

#5. Ant-Man (2015)

I've always had a soft spot for Paul Rudd and the comedic actor's venture into the superhero genre felt effortless with Peyton Reed's Ant-Man. Rudd stars as cat burglar Scott Lang who's recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to assume the identity of Ant-Man, a special suit that gives its wearer the unique ability to shrink in size but increase in strength. While Ant-Man doesn't feel all that essential to the MCU, the film's laugh-out-loud humor and strong supporting performances from Michael Pena and Corey Stoll help solidify the effort.

#4. Iron Man (2008)

Before the MCU reached the enormity which it now possesses, it began as a vision that hinged heavily on its pioneer endeavor, Iron Man. Leading star Robert Downey Jr. immersed himself in the role of billionaire tycoon, Tony Stark, and the rest is history. With Iron Man, it became abundantly clear that the MCU formulaic approach would consist of comedy and action, both in heavy doses. Tony Stark's arrogant and snarky attitude is a natural fit for Downey Jr. who introduces audiences to the amazing armored suit that helps lead to the creation of The Avengers.

#3. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Some of the MCU's finest moments come from ambitious storylines that were executed exceptionally. One such moment occurs in the pivotal third isntallment of the Captain America saga, Civil War. Following the devastating effects of Ultron from the second Avengers film, two sides form pitting superhero against superhero in an unforgettable showdown. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Downey Jr.) battle over the mystery surrounding Steve Rogers' old friend, Bucky Barnes all while a new foe emerges. Civil War stands as a climactic entry in the MCU and one that doesn't fail to impress.

#2. Marvel's The Avengers (2012)

A handful of years ago, it was a daring attempt for the MCU to bring together a wide collection of superhero's in Joss Weedon's The Avengers. This final installment of the well-chronicled "Phase One" takes shape as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) heads an international peace-keeping agency that requires the assistance of Earth's greatest superhero's when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his alien combatants threaten our planet's existence.  The Avengers was a bold film that Weedon and company handled with extreme care, and it's overwhelming success shattered barriers that sent the MCU on an unbounded upward trajectory.

#1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

If you're wondering what separates James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy from the rest of the MCU, there's no simple answer. Personally, I felt that the film's quirky humor was unlike anything else the MCU offered. Chris Pratt's portrayal of Peter Quill is wonderfully complemented by his misfit collection of sidekicks who form an unlikely bond to become the Guardians of the Galaxy. Ronan makes for a compelling villain, something that the MCU often struggles to develop, as James Gunn takes the audience on an entertaining thrill ride with a fantastic soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy separated itself as a step above the rest which makes its upcoming sequel one of my most anticipated films of the year.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Beguiled Trailers

J.J. Abrams carefully resurrected the Star Wars franchise with the wildly praised seventh installment, The Force Awakens. Yet, he passes the reins to Looper and Brick director, Rian Johnson, for this December's continuation, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Mark Hamill is primed to reprise his iconic role of Luke Skywalker as Johnson progresses the stories of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Despite the debut trailer's laughable similarities to the previous film's premiere footage (you need to watch this if you haven't), The Last Jedi is destined to be a box office smash. Catch the film's first-look teaser below.

Sofia Coppola, daughter of acclaimed Godfather helmer, Francis Ford Coppola, looks to correct her professional trajectory with the Cannes Film Festival entry, The Beguiled. Colin Farrell stars as John McBurney, a wounded Civil War soldier who finds himself recuperating in a home filled with sheltered women who run rampant with sexual tension and rivalries following his arrival. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning co-star in this seemingly creepy and twisted affair that certainly has me intrigued as well. Check out the The Beguiled's first theatrical below.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Free Fire and Going in Style

One of the hottest headliners at this year's SXSW Film Festival was Ben Wheatley's action-comedy shootout flick, Free Fire. Unfortunately, the crowds were too overwhelming, so I took my movie-watching schedule in a different direction that day. But now, a month after missing out on it's United States premiere, I nestled in for an advance screening of Free Fire and enjoyed Wheatley's most simple and cohesive narrative to date.

In late 1970s Boston, Justine (Brie Larson) brokers a weapons-swap in an abandoned warehouse between Northern Ireland fighters in search of assault rifles to bring back home, and a local gang looking to unload illegal arms for cash. But after members of each of these groups recognize each other from a falling out the previous night, tensions begin to mount and eventually erupt into a chaotic gun battle for survival. With some alliances stronger then others, and a back-stabbing group of rifled snipers entering the fray, it's a wonder if anyone will make it out of this mess alive.

While I'm mainly familiar with director Ben Wheatley's two most recent works, High-Rise and A Field in England, he's definitely a polarizing filmmaker who possesses clear talents. In this upcoming title, Wheatley trades uniqueness for convention and sets out to deliver a fun and energetic action-comedy, something he accomplishes with remarkable ease. Co-writer Amy Jump and Wheatley team up to mold an assortment of quirky characters that add a zest to this cacophony of gunfire and madness. Sharlto Copely provides a majority of Free Fire's encompassing comedy, while Cillian Murphy truly transforms his Northern Irish character into a film-favorite by giving soul to an open-ended creation from the writers. Co-star Armie Hammer also shines in a cocky and arrogant role that always suits him extremely well. And just as the numbness of gunfire sound effects begins to take its toll, Wheatley quickly wraps up his work with a rather bittersweet conclusion. Yet, once I thought I had the finale figured out, one that seemed remarkably satisfying within the confines of my own imagination, we're thrown a curve-ball that feels cheap in the moment, but more acceptable in retrospect. Free Fire isn't a must-watch, but it's certainly an entertaining piece of action-comedy that doesn't disappoint.

Stars: 2 and a half out of 4

Grade: B-

It's hard to believe that it's been 13 years since Zach Braff proved he's more than just a comedic sitcom actor with the uber-personal indie drama, Garden State. Yet, it took Braff an entire decade to follow up his successful debut with 2014's Wish I Was Here, which opened to harshly mediocre reviews. But the director is on the rebound in surprisingly quick fashion with a reboot of the late 70s caper comedy, Going in Style.

Willie, Joe and Albert (Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin, respectively) are best friends enjoying the carefree lifestyle of retirement together. Until one day, when Joe visits the bank and learns that his mortgage rates have spiked to a level far too high for him to keep up with, leaving the retired grandfather with only 30 days to save his family's house from foreclosure. Adding insult to injury, the company which Joe, Willie and Albert devoted a lifetime of work to unexpectedly freeze their pension payouts, prompting the elderly trio to hatch a bank-robbery scheme in order to stay afloat financially for the rest of their days.

Zach Braff and screenwriter Theodore Melfi (co-writer and director of this past year's Best Picture Nominee, Hidden Figures) make a valiant attempt at crafting a light-hearted, feel-good comedy film. Instead, Going in Style serves as a miscalculated and emotionally-bland endeavor that hopes to masquerade re-hashed geriatric jokes as a form of relevant humor. Just to be clear, these shortcomings certainly doesn't rest on the shoulders of the film's well-chronicled veteran actors, who each provide a fully committed performance, they're sadly a product of Melfi's superficial screenplay and Braff's obsessive desire to capture the classic caper "style". In conjunction with a crop of vastly underdeveloped lead characters, Going in Style merely unveils its bank-robbery scheme via a brisk and uninformative montage that completely undermines Braff's clear dedication to the genre. It's unfortunate, but I'm starting to doubt that we'll ever witness a level of filmmaking and subtle storytelling from Braff that was so evident in his iconic debut.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Detroit and Thor: Ragnarok (NEW) Trailers

Kathryn Bigelow owns the rare distinction of being the only female to ever win a Best Director Oscar, for her Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. Bigelow then followed up the successful feature with perhaps her best work, Zero Dark Thirty. It's been 5 years since her last feature and Bigelow returns in 2017 with the heavy-hitting action-drama, Detroit, which chronicles the chaotic riots within the city during racial tensions in 1967. John Krasinski, John Boyega and Anthony Mackie star in this potential Oscar contender which arrives in theaters this August. Catch the first-look trailer of Detroit below.

The marvel universe continues its expansion with the third installment Thor: Ragnarok. Director Taika Waititi takes over the franchise and puts his imprints on the Thor sage which now finds the superhero (Chris Hemsworth) forced to face off against The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in a gladiator match in order to save Asgard from destruction. Cate Blanchett joins the series and a cameo from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) also headline this November release. Check out the newest trailer from Thor: Ragnarok below.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

All Eyez on Me (NEW) and Chuck Trailers

Two years ago F Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton took audiences nationwide by surprise with its compelling journey back to the roots of early 90s gangster rap. The late-great Tupac Shakur gets the biopic treatment this summer with Benny Boom's All Eyez on Me. Boom doesn't carry the same clout as Gray, yet his alleged "untold" story of the legendary rapper, actor and activist features newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. and hopes to ride the wave of Compton's success. All Eyez on Me arrives in theaters this June and you can catch the film's newest trailer below.

Sylvester Stallone's prolific underdog film, Rocky, went on to capture a Best Picture Oscar. Yet, Stallone's inspiration for his franchise-building character was scrappy New Jersey heavyweight boxer, Chuck Wepner, who also gets the biopic treatment Philippe Falardeau upcoming feature, Chuck. Liev Schreiber stars in the title role as audiences will receive an in-depth look at the sad but true source material for a Hollywood classic. You can watch the trailer for Chuck below.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Gifted and Colossal

Most directors would envy a debut as successful as Marc Webb's 2009 Golden Globe-nominated film, (500) Days of Summer. Webb then took a bit of a leap by following-up his rom-com with superhero blockbusters, The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel. But success is fickle in this industry and, like many do, the filmmaker has gone from being handed a major franchise to taking on the new limited-release drama, Gifted.

Chris Evans trades in his Captain America uniform for a much simpler life as Frank Adler, a boat repairman raising his deceased sister's child, Mary (Mckenna Grace), who's firm understanding of advanced mathematics is a rarity. But as Frank pushes Mary towards a conventional childhood built on playing and making friends in the public school sector, rather than a taxing life of studying rigorous mathematics at a specialized institution, his mother (Lindsay Duncan) resurfaces and takes legal action with a custody battle over guardianship of the seven year-old girl.

As a professor of mathematics myself, Gifted's distinct premise certainly raised my interest. Marc Webb's latest work attempts to master the delicate balance between a hearty drama and frequent humor. Chris Evans' sarcastic delivery feels organic and newcomer McKenna Grace offers an impressive turn as well, however the entire cast ultimately becomes limited by a one-dimensional screenplay. At it's core, Gifted merely scratches the surface of its fundamental moral quandary regarding whether or not a truly exceptional child prodigy should be pushed towards a lifetime commitment of study and research as a duty to humanity, or if they're should also be entitled to a "normal" upbringing. But rather than tackling this issue head-on, Gifted tip-toes around the predicament with an overly sentimental examination of its story. Regrettably, co-stars Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate find their talents wasted as expendable characters who are written into the script as obvious fillers. Yet. while Gifted does manage to boast a few tender moments of cinematic expression, they are far too sporadic to withstand a fatally flawed screenplay from writer Tom Flynn.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

One of the strangest and most original stories out of this year's SXSW festival comes from none other than Nacho Vigalondo. And although his film has enjoyed a nice little run on the festival circuit, with a premiere in Toronto and an inclusion at Sundance, Colossal finally finds a limited theatrical release in select cities later this month. Vigalondo teams his unconventional comedy tale with the fully committed talents of Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in this truly limitless story.

After losing her job and being kicked out of her boyfriend's apartment, Gloria (Hathaway) is forced to bite the bullet and move back to her hometown. Upon her return she runs into Oscar (Sudeikis), a former classmate and current bar owner who offers Gloria a job at his establishment to try and help her get back on her feet. But as her work life transitions into after-hours binge drinking, Gloria soon discovers an unexplained connection between her and a giant monster that's been terrorizing the citizens of South Korea.

If the premise of Colossal sounds absolutely absurd, it's because it undoubtedly is. However, the clever metaphor created by Nacho Vigalondo surrounding the monster we can become when we've had one too many to drink screams originality. However, Vigalondo's clear aptitude for conjuring up a new and fresh idea becomes soured by the film's tone-deaf delivery. Colossal cycles around moments of comedy, romance, action and drama with reckless abandon, unsure of what it wants to be and how it should get there. The effort works best as a comedy, but completely spins off the rails in a gritty third act that trades its laughs for a superhero-like finale that Hathaway against an unsuspecting foe. Colossal possesses so much promise from a creative standpoint, allowing me to believe that Nacho Vigalondo has plenty more left in the tank. Yet, despite immensely committed performances from Hathaway and Sudeikis, Colossal remains too scatter-brained and unfocused to delivery the knockout punch that Vigalondo is desperately going for.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Monday, April 3, 2017

DVD Outlook: April 2017

April's variety of new DVD and Streaming options isn't as expansive as last month's top-heavy crop, but it does offer 2016's Best Film (March's suggestions). Outside of April's most notable release, there are a few other noteworthy titles that are assured to satisfy your movie-watching cravings. Here's what this month has in store:

La La Land - 4 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Damien Chazelle's magical film La La Land went into the Oscar ceremony as the overwhelming favorite to nab the Best Picture honor. While the evening's gaff won't be forgotten any time soon, Moonlight may have actually won the crown, but Chazelle's original musical is truly the more accomplished piece of filmmaking. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as a struggling actress and jazz pianist who fall in love in Los Angeles while trying to capture their dreams. La La Land has it all, phenomenal performances, a creative script, a stand-out score and nostalgic choreography. There's a reason everyone raved about La La Land and you should experience this instant classic for yourself later this month. (April 25th)

The Founder - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

David Fincher's 2010 biographical drama, The Social Network, went on to win 3 Oscars and set the blueprint for John Lee Hancock's similarly themed biopic, The Founder. When milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) stumbles across a California-based burger joint unlike anything else in the world, he needs to be a part of the action. And after weaseling his way into the McDonald brothers' partnership, Kroc stops at nothing to elevate the brand when his vision differs from the original owners. Business is cutthroat and The Founder tackles that notion with great depth as Michael Keaton delivers another fantastic turn. (April 18th)

Hidden Figures - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Closing out my top 3 suggestions is Theodore Melfi's sophomore feature, Hidden Figures. This historical drama follows a trio of African American women who overcame great odds and societal prejudices to help NASA put John Glenn into orbit and thrust the United States into the forefront of the race to space. Janelle Monae gives the film's most impressive turn, despite co-star Octavia Spencer's Oscar recognition, as the effort satisfies with its science-centric theme. As a civil rights drama it fails to break any new ground, but Hidden Figures reminds us all just how important math and science are in the real world. (April 11th)

Honorable Mention: Best Picture Nominee Lion (4/11) and Best Foreign Film Nominee Toni Erdmann (4/11) add a bit of clout to April's new releases as well. Box office smash Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (4/4) and M. Night Shyamalan's latest, Split (4/18), also stand as solid films available this month. Seasonal comedy Office Christmas Party (4/4) and indie darling Paterson (4/4) fill out the crop of titles throughout April.