Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Kudos are in order as Judd Apatow has officially transformed an acclaimed filmmaking career into legitimate brand-name recognition. The "Apatow" name has become synonymous with comedy, and it's been plastered all over television screens and billboards as a luring attraction for the general public. His film company's latest production, director Michael Showalter's Sundance Audience Award winner The Big Sick, brings hilarity back to the forefront of independent cinema, reminding us why it's always worthwhile to take a chance on any creative endeavor cloaked with the "Apatow" seal.
Kumail (Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani-born amateur comedian living in Chicago. After a performance one night, he meets a free-spirited white woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and their instant connection quickly turns into a meaningful relationship. But when the strict Muslim beliefs of Kumail's family force a wedge in their relationship, Emily soon suffers a severe sickness that leaves her comatose, and the trying situation helps give Kumail the strength he needs to confront his loved-ones.
The Big Sick is a poignant and timely examination of the modern Americanized Muslim struggling with their own faith. In an era of division across all walks of life, Michael Showalter's hysterical work addresses cultural and religious differences with nothing but sheer love. The tenderness displayed from scene to scene is effortlessly organic and stems from the real-life inspirations of star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife and co-writer, Emily V. Gordon. Scripted from their own crazy and true love story, taking creative license with only a few minor exceptions, Nanjiani and Gordon pen a wonderful screenplay that does a phenomenal job of setting up perfect comedic conclusions to the film's more personal moments. No matter what direction the story wanders, The Big Sick always circles back to its humor-first foundation. This well-balanced dramedy also benefits from brilliantly crafted characters that come to life through unique chemistry and fearless performances. Nanjiani and Kazan light up the screen together, which allows for a bitterly outstretched third act to feel like nothing more than a mere hiccup in an otherwise exceptional romantic comedy.
Stars: 3 stars out of 4
It's rare, but I went into Miguel Arteta's new drama, Beatriz at Dinner, completely blind. I hadn't seen a trailer or read a synopsis. It was the film's modest 82-minute running time and familiar favorites such as Salma Hayek and John Lithgow that were enough to draw me into the theater. Yet, this darkly-comedic Sundance selection packages together the story of an unlikely encounter with an absurdly frustrating finale that leaves Beatriz at Dinner as a remarkably forgettable film.
Beatriz (Hayek) is an illegal immigrant who happens to be an expert at holistic medicine. She lives a very simple lifestyle, but travels to the wealthy Los Angeles home of a family she's helped treat for years. And when car troubles leave her stranded at the residence just moments before an important business-related dinner party, Beatriz becomes an extra dinner guest at a table that includes billionaire real estate developer, Doug Strutt (Lithgow). The evening's events provide Beatriz with an in-depth look at how the rich and powerful view the world around them, and how different it is from her own experiences.
Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White deliver a tone-deaf effort, one whose underlying sense of mystery and intrigue can only take the film so far. Eventually, Beatriz at Dinner becomes forced to show its hand, and everything spirals downward quickly from that point on. There aren't any issues with the onscreen work of this finely-assembled cast. The audience takes an unfamiliar journey into the life of Beatriz, an extremely unique character which Hayek engulfs so well. However, as the minutes mount and tensions between these opposing lifestyles grow, Beatriz at Dinner loses its voice with motivated rhetoric and pseudo thrills. The entire chance-encounter between the title character and tycoon Doug Strutt seemlessly morphs into a caricature of a dinner party. Both characters deviate into bloated figureheads of conflicting ideals, settling into a nauseating resolve that's littered with disappointment after disappointment until the final credits arrive to rescue us all from the torment.
Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4
Saturday, June 24, 2017
As we get into the swing of the summer season, fall's potential Oscar players begin to unveil their trailers. One such film comes from the long-time comedy guru, David Gordon Green. Stronger's Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, a Boston native who lost his legs during the deadly 2013 marathon attack. And as he struggles to accept his fate, Jeff also serves as a valuable resource for investigators as they work diligently to find the bombers. It's evident that Stronger will be a heavy drama and perhaps one that could propel Jake Gyllenhaal into the heart of the Best Actor race. Stronger debuts September 22nd and you can catch the film's first trailer below
From the screenwriter of American Sniper and the producers of Lone Survivor comes the latest tale of a soldier struggling to adjust to life after war in Jason Hall's Thank You for Your Service. Miles Teller stars as Adam Schumann, a decorated soldier experiencing severe PTSD as he attempts to live a normal life with his family, Thank You for Your Service appears to be a respectful nod to the soldiers who put their lives on the line for freedom, as well as the lack of resources our country provides for them after the fact. Thank You for Your Service arrives in late October and you can catch the film's debut trailer below.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Back in 2009 Paul Feig's Bridesmaids launched the R-rated female comedy genre into the middle of mainstream cinema. And since then, stars like Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer have carried the torch through a mostly unspectacular crop of releases. But in-steps the eye-popping Scarlett Johansson, an unlikely character actress who finds herself starring in Broad City director Lucia Aniello's feature film debut, Rough Night.
The film centers around bride-to-be Jess (Johansson), a state politician caught in the middle of a neck-and-neck race. Her former college roommate (Jillian Bell) demands an elaborate bachelorette getaway weekend, and things go completely sideways when a freak accident leads to a dead stripper in their shore house. Jess and her best friends need to put their petty grievances aside and work together to avoid some serious jail time.
There are a few strong positives provided in Lucia Aniello's Rough Night. Cleverly scripted humor is sprinkled throughout, allowing the film to do more than just rely on raunchy and vulgar jokes. In addition, Scarlett Johansson transitions from drama to comedy with exceptional ease. Her performance is the glue that holds the rest of this up-and-down cast together. Co-stars Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer and SNL's Kate McKinnon, who sports her finest Aussie accent, each offer a handful of shining moments. Yet, they also suffer from grossly embellished characters and instances of all-out absurdity. Sometimes the craziness is effective, but other times it's a legitimate concern. Futhermore, Rough Night's secondary storyline following Jess' fiance Peter (screenwriter and co-star Paul W. Downs) is way over the top. If you're seeking some easy and constant laughs with little regard for a sensible plot, Rough Night will surely suffice. But if you're searching for a comedy that's plausible and grounded in reality, then you should look elsewhere.
Stars: 2 stars out of 4
The Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" marathon is right around the corner and if you're trying to find a way to set the mood for July's annual festivities, you may want to consider Johannes Roberts' new underwater thriller, 47 Meters Down. Roberts, who has also been handed the keys to the upcoming 2018 horror sequel The Strangers 2, brings a recognizable lead, Mandy Moore, on board for this new release. And with shark infested waters and bikini clad women dominating the screen time, what more could a horror fan ask for?
Sisters Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico trying to break Lisa out of her conventional and boring lifestyle. But when Kate convinces her sister to climb into a rickety cage in the middle of the ocean surrounded by enormous Great White Sharks, things go south quickly when the cage breaks from the ship and crashes 47 meters below to the ocean floor. Running out of oxygen and with blood-thirsty sharks hovering above, the sisters try desperately to formulate a plan for survival.
There are some noteworthy elements to Johannes Roberts' tense new thriller. After a heart-pounding free-fall into the dark depths of the ocean floor, 47 Meters Down makes you feel the confinement of its lead characters. The film provides an inherent "ticking time bomb effect" with air-tank gauges that constantly remind the audience of the impending doom. Moreover, the visual effects with the sharks are superb, creating genuine fear during their timely arrivals on screen. But despite these effective attributes to the film, 47 Meters Down finds itself mired in a repetitious cycle of conflicts and resolutions that transform this 89-minute experience into an unimaginable marathon. And as the film crawls to its finale, Roberts and co-writer Ernest Riera miss the mark completely with a crafty ending that doesn't quite provide the punch that they were expecting. 47 Meters Down is a frustratingly slow, albeit occasionally tense, thriller that turns its back on some golden opportunities.
Stars: 2 stars out of 4
Sunday, June 18, 2017
This being my first Father's Day celebration as a dad, I decided to put together a list of the best cinematic fathers for June's Movie List of the Month (May's list). Since being a dad is hard work and time consuming, this was a spur of the moment list and one that I may have missed some notable choices. Feel free to comment below with some of your personal favorites and ones I've regretfully omitted. Happy Father's Day to anyone out there who's performing a father-like role!
Honorable Mention: Bill Nighy - About Time, Eugene Levy - American Pie, Ray Liotta - Blow, Stanley Tucci - Easy A, Sean Connery - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and J.K. Simmons - Juno
#5. (Voice of) Albert Brooks - Finding Nemo (2003)
I'm going to kick off my Top 5 with the animated film Finding Nemo, which tells the fantastic story of a father who goes to great depths to save his son. After Nemo becomes captured by a boat full of scuba divers, his father, Marlin (Brooks), teams with a forgetful Blue Tang (Ellen DeGeneres) to rescue him from impending doom at the hands a dentist's reckless, brace-faced niece. Marlin never gives up in his quest for Nemo and even learns a few positive parenting tips along the way.
#4. Liam Neeson - Taken (2008)
Looking back at another heroic father whose love for his daughter knows no bounds, Liam Neeson reminds everyone to make sure that a girl's father doesn't know "a particular set of skills" before kidnapping her. Retired CIA agent Bryan Mills (Neeson) learns that his daughter's been abducted on a European trip and travels the globe to kill her captors and hopefully find her alive. Not only is Mills an absolute killing machine, but he also has a soft spot for the special young lady in his life.
#3. Marlon Brando - The Godfather (1972)
Not all dads can provide positive influences in every aspect of life, some are saddled with a darker side. Yet, no one can ever question Don Corleone's (Brando) love for his family. As the patriarch and head of an organized crime empire approaches the latter stages of life, he tries passing the immense responsibility and leadership onto his reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino). The Godfather isn't just a gangster-film masterpiece, it's a beautiful examination of loyalty and family-commitment through and through.
#2. Robin Williams - Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Here to lighten the mood is the late Robin Williams' masterful performance in Mrs. Doubtfire. After a fed up mother (Sally Field) decides to divorce her hilariously childish husband (Williams), they embark on a bitter custody battle that provider her full custody and leaves him with Saturday visits only. He decides to do whatever it takes to see more of his children, even if it means dressing in drag and posing as their new British nanny. This clever and comical story simply revolves around the boundless love between a father and his three kids.
#1. Chevy Chase - National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
Finally, The National Lampoon's Clark Griswold (Chase) takes the top honor as cinema's greatest dad. Clark's patriarchal conquests (or lack thereof) span a collection of films, but I'll focus on his humble beginnings when a family road-trip to the Wally World theme park tests his patience and sanity. Life isn't always too kind to Clark, but he's been blessed with a (sometimes) loving family whom he cherishes. And through these ups and downs that the world constantly throws his way, Clark reminds us all that family is the most important thing we have.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Having experienced both of his films, it's clear that Trey Edward Schults cares more about how his movies make you feel rather than the boldness of their stories. Consequently, the young filmmaker has maneuvered a stranglehold over the independent filmmaking world with his festival-darling debut feature, Krisha. Countless accolades from the most prominent indie awards groups bridged Schults' accessibility to bigger talent and larger funds in order to return with his shamefully mis-marketed follow-up, It Comes at Night.
A highly infectious disease has dwindled mankind and a former history teacher (Joel Edgerton) has managed to keep his wife and teenage son alive in a secluded and enclosed shelter in the middle of the woods. But when a stranger arrives at their safe-haven seeking water and refuge for his family, they agree to stay in the shelter together and combine resources. Yet, tensions arise when both families quickly discover that they'll do whatever's necessary to stay alive.
I can't understand why It Comes at Night has been branded as a horror film when its most terrifying scenes all occur in a handful of brief dream sequences. If you're chasing scares, then look elsewhere. Instead, Schults' sophomoric effort blends feelings of claustrophobia, paranoia and fear into a rangy psychological drama that offers rare and thinly-spread moments of suspense. Trey Edward Schults uses a manipulation of aspect ratios and clever camerawork to frame instances in the story that elicit various emotions from the viewer. It's a unique ability that resonates well, but one that also needs a complement of other factors to fully appease the audience. Therefore, despite the film's narrowly developed story, exceptional performances from the entire cast help ease its slow-building tension that mounts like a well-choreographed dance as the stakes for survival grow higher and higher. It Comes at Night shows a darker side of humanity through a largely ambiguous lens. Personally, I enjoyed connecting the dots and cementing my own belief to the film's events. However, if you're someone who needs to know every little detail of a story, then expect to be frustrated. But either way, we'll all remember exactly how the film's explosive finale made us feel.
Stars: 3 stars out of 4
Director Colin Trevorrow's career has been on an odd trajectory ever since his well-made 2012 indie debut, Safety Not Guaranteed. The film's sci-fi backdrop and critical success paved the way for Trevorrow's emergence on the big-budget blockbuster stage with the money-printing franchise reboot, Jurassic World. Yet, before he closes out the latest Star Wars trilogy as the visionary behind 2019's concluding Episode IX, Trevorrow changes course entirely with the new limited-release drama, The Book of Henry.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a remarkably gifted and bright 11 year old boy who serves as the voice of maturity in a household that includes his waitress mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). But when Henry discovers that his next door neighbor and classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her police-chief stepfather (Dean Norris), he concocts a deadly plan to help free her from this miserable home life. Yet, unable to take care of matters himself, Henry pens a precisely detailed book so that his mother can carry out the plan.
At its core, The Book of Henry tells a heartbreaking, albeit somewhat uplifting, tale that satisfies with minor elements of humor, suspense and tenderness. Yet, an unforeseen sappy mid-section, one that would typically crumble under normal circumstances, plays surprisingly well thanks to a pair of Hollywood's most talented young performers. Jordan Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay. Lieberher broke into the industry as Bill Murray's sidekick in the affable comedy St. Vincent, while Tremblay is best known as the youngster in recent Best Picture nominee, Room. Together, these two stars in the making guide the audience through a messy and flawed story. Trevorrow and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz attempt to wrap everything up in an inspiring fashion, yet force puzzling and unrealistic behaviors onto characters in order to make this narrative fit. Henry's cerebral and premeditated nature constantly preaches the notion that any miscalculation can throw off a plan entirely. Sadly, in opposition to what The Book of Henry teaches, flimsy and imperfect writing transforms this fun and heartfelt drama into a wildly mediocre film.
Stars: 2 stars out of 4
Sunday, June 11, 2017
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its expansion as we're given a teaser trailer for Ryan Coogler's (Creed) 2018 entry, Black Panther. Following the events from Civil War, King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to rule his technologically advanced African Country where he finds a faction of his civilians who desire to overthrow his power. Black Panther is set for a tempered February release early next year, but it should primed for another huge box office as a spin-off sage from Marvel. Catch the premiere teaser trailer below.
Tom Cruise's weekend release, The Mummy, hasn't fared too well, but the one-time king of the box office hopes to rebound with September's crime-thriller, American Made. Doug Liman's (The Bourne Identity) 1980s-set film follows a pilot (Cruise) who aids the CIA on a reconnaissance mission to a volatile Central America where he soon finds himself atop one of the agency's biggest covert missions of all-time. A Cruise-Liman collaboration should pique the interest of action fans everywhere, and you can see American Made's first-look trailer below.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
With inadequate disappointments such as Man of Steel, BvS: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad paving the way for the budding DC Comics film universe, something needed to jump-start this hypothetical super-world. And that film has finally arrived, courtesy of Monster director, Patty Jenkins, and what's only her second feature film. Wonder Woman tells the epic origin story of a god-like princess-warrior with some insane battle moves. What more could you possibly want?
Raised on the island paradise of Themyscira, a young Diana (Gal Gadot) develops a fascination with hand-to-hand combat training. Under the tutelage of her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), a skilled army general, Diana becomes the most gifted warrior among all her people. And when a British spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane off the coast of the island, Diana learns of the first great World War and accompanies Steve back into the heart of Europe in order to confront an ancient prophecy.
If the premise sounds a bit messy, well that's because it is. But Wonder Woman's hybrid-blending tale of mythology and chronicled world-history is a beautiful mess indeed. The film's first act details Diana's life on an island paradise hidden from the rest of the world. Surreal and other-worldly circumstances mold effortlessly with reality the moment Steve Trevor enters the picture. Chris Pine injects a much-needed energy that's complemented to perfection by co-star Gal Gadot's idealistic and infectious persona. Furthermore, Diana's obliviousness to the real world acts as a clever genesis to Wonder Woman's exceptional comedic elements. The banter between Steve and Diana is well-written and organic, which also allows for their characters to develop as the story progresses. But not only is the writing stellar, Pine and Gadot prove to be extremely capable leads as well. Perhaps, more surprising is Gadot's natural transition into the spotlight. Her charm, talent and beauty make stardom look so easy, it's impressive. And despite a finale that achieves its goal in a less-than perfect fashion, Wonder Woman is too smooth and enjoyable of a ride to shy away from.
Stars: 3 stars out of 4
One of the hottest films out of this year's SXSW lineup was Edgar Wright's high octane action-comedy, Baby Driver. Wright is best known for his singular style with critically acclaimed titles like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End. This time around, though, Wright dives deep into the crime underworld of bank-robbing with a unique vision that only he can deliver.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best get-away driver around, so he becomes the key cog in the operation of a powerful crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who masterminds bank robberies. But as Baby tries his hardest to give up this secret career, his waitress girlfriend (Lily James) and foster father find themselves entangled in the dangerous racket. This leaves Baby no choice but to take part in a heist that feels doomed to fail.
Baby Driver utilizes a phenomenal soundtrack to its advantage. The film's title character suffers from a constant hum in the eardrum following an accident as a child, and he's always listening to music in her earphones to drown out the noise. Consequently, Wright uses this behavior to edit his film accordingly in an uptempo and rhythmic sequence that keeps the pace flowing. Baby Driver moves without a hitch throughout its first two acts, lining up insanely-choreographed stunt driving with a witty dialogue that's become a staple in Wright's oeuvre. However, for no good reason whatsoever, Wright ditches his rhythmic approach during a third act that falls completely off the rails in both a realistic sense and structure. Baby Driver bounces from what feels like ending, to ending, to ending in a roundabout fashion that does absolutely no justice to the film. A once compelling effort becomes tarnished by cheaply dramatic flashback sequences and a forgettable finale. Thankfully, a thrilling and comical majority of the film makes its blemished conclusion worth sitting through.
Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4
Sunday, June 4, 2017
With Wonder Woman's massive weekend opening just the beginning of what could become a busy month of big-screen cinema, June's new streaming and purchase options may have a hard time competing (May's suggestions). But if you're trying to avoid the movie crowds and prefer a stay-at-home option for the month, you can find June's upcoming releases below:
T2 Trainspotting - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)
A clear cut above the rest of the month's options (of the movies that I've seen, at least), Danny Boyle's long-awaited sequel to the iconic 90s junkie comedy, Trainspotting, proves to be a successful return. T2 picks up twenty years after the original, a cleaned-up Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his Edinburgh roots where he attempts to make amends with the same friends that he ripped off during a major drug deal before he left. Boyle's follow-up does a fantastic job of standing alone as its own film (so don't feel obligated to have seen the original), all while being completely nostalgic and respectful to its source material. Comedy and drama combine in an extraordinary fashion in T2 Trainspotting. (June 27th)
The Lego Batman Movie - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)
I'm not the easiest critic when it comes to animated family films, but I found The Lego Batman Movie to be a humorous watch. While its predecessor, The Lego Movie, cleaned up at the box office and mustered an Oscar Nomination for Best Original Song, this spin-off of sorts clearer outshines the former. The film dives deep into the superhero vs. villain world of Batman (voice of Will Arnett) where the caped-crusader has to ditch his solo Gotham-saving ways and work in tandem with some new faces in order to stop The Joker's (voice of Zach Galifianakis) latest Earth-shattering scheme. The Lego Batman Movie sells a valuable message of teamwork wrapped inside of a silly, yet enjoyable, story. (June 13th)
The Belko Experiment - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)
As an avid horror fan, Greg McLean's The Belko Experiment delivers some pretty chilling footage. From the mind of Guardians of the Galaxy figurehead, James Gunn, comes the twisted story of a government office tucked away in Bogota, Colombia, where the building randomly turns into an inescapable fortress and the employees are pitted against one another in a game of survival. If you're into blood, guts and heads exploding, well The Belko Experiment doesn't shy away from extremely graphic imagery. The film succeeds on its strengths, while also possessing its fair share of weaknesses. Like most horror movies, The Belko Experiment suffers from a few shaky plot-holes. However, the violence and bloodshed is guaranteed to satisfy your horror movie cravings. (June 27th)
Honorable Mention: It's a popular title that I anticipate enjoying, but I still haven't seen Disney's Beauty and the Beast (6/6) remake yet. Also, John Wick: Chapter 2 (6/13) continues to earn solid reviews and a loyal cult following, while Power Rangers (6/27) and Life (6/20) are two other notable releases available this month that I haven't seen. I wasn't overly impressed by either Gore Verbinski's latest thriller A Cure for Wellness (6/6), or the wedding comedy Table 19 (6/13) starring Anna Kendrick. Closing out the month of June are a pair of comedies I haven't watched yet, the buddy cop film CHIPS (6/27) and Woody Harrelson's latest vulgar work, Wilson (6/20).
Thursday, June 1, 2017
This November Kenneth Branagh stars in and directs the adapted remake, Murder on the Orient Express. The stylish mystery follows a train-full of passengers who quickly become suspects when a murder occurs on-board. Luckily, renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is one of the surviving riders who must work to identify the killer before he strikes again. Some feel that Murder on the Orient Express could be an awards season player thanks to its prominent cast and strong source material, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Check out the film's first full trailer below.
On the opposite end of the spectrum comes the summer comedy, Rough Night. Lucia Aniello writes and directs this hilarious tale of a bachelorette weekend that goes terribly wrong when a male stripper ends up dead and the women try desperately to cover it up. Scarlett Johansson, SNL's Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer star in this R-Rated comedy that arrives later this month. You can catch the latest trailer for Rough Night below.