Thursday, August 31, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Logan Lucky and Good Time

Early in 2013 Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh announced that he was through with Hollywood and declared Side Effects as his final film. Less than a handful of years have passed and Soderbergh is back in the game, re-teaming with his Magic Mike star Channing Tatum in the new screwball heist comedy Logan Lucky. The critics continue to fawn over Soderbergh's work, and although the film's hardly the type of effort to emerge from retirement to deliver, Logan Lucky marks another successful endeavor from the filmmaker.

After Jimmy Logan (Tatum) loses his job and then learns that his ex (Katie Holmes) plans to move their daughter further away than he finds acceptable, the one-time football star pitches a heist idea to his one-and-a-half-armed brother (Adam Driver). The siblings embark on an unconventional plan to rob a NASCAR venue on race-day that includes breaking a fellow partner (Daniel Craig) out of jail to pull this thing off. And with the odds stacked completely against them, and time certainly not on their side, the Logan brothers hope to break from their cursed family history.

As the visionary behind the Oceans trilogy, heist films are far from uncharted territory for Steven Soderbergh. Yet, he uses some familiar elements in conjunction with a fresh crop of quirky characters to deliver a smooth and enjoyable ride. Channing Tatum continues to show he's an effective lead, all while Adam Driver quietly steals the show. In tandem they provide enough laughs and slow-witted misdirection to help make the impossible a reality. Logan Lucky is never as hilarious as it should be, yet Rebecca Blunt's carefully crafted screenplay maneuvers through the robbery with masterful precision that helps solidify the film. Perhaps Logan Lucky's achievements are a bit embellished, thanks to an outpouring of critical adoration, but the film still stands as a strong return for Soderbergh.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Indie filmmaking siblings Josh and Benny Safdie have quietly delivered highly regarded short and feature films over the last ten years. But none of their timely work has made a splash as big as their latest Cannes selection and Best Composer winner, Good Time. Teaming with a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson and co-starring Benny Safdie himself, Good Time blends together a stylish vision with a pulse-pounding original score that provides relentless thrills.

Connie Nikas (Pattinson) cares deeply for his mentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie), even if he's too blind to notice his toxic influence on him. And after a bank robbery sends Nick into the brutal prison system and Connie on the run from the cops, the fugitive will do whatever it takes to get his brother out of jail. Yet, Connie's foiled plan sends him on a wild chain of events that even he can't control anymore.

The first thing you notice about Good Time is Daniel Lopatin's gripping score. But the film offers plenty more, piecing together a stimulating character study with sleek direction. Robert Pattinson has transformed his career since the early Twilight days, tackling diverse roles that are often small in stature but exceptionally delivered. He takes over the screen in Good Time, commanding your attention with his survivalist mentality and dwarfing the performances of everyone around him, including Oscar nominees Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips). However, for all of Good Time's strong attributes, the film frustrates witha bitterly unrealistic sequence of events that takes 100 minutes to end up exactly where it should have been after only a half hour. But despite this infuriating blemish with its script, Good Time still represents a fine independent effort from Robert Pattinson and the Safdie brothers.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Friday, August 25, 2017

Last Flag Flying and Suburbicon (NEW) Trailers

Richard Linklater (Boyhood and Dazed and Confused) returns to Oscar-craved dramatics with the upcoming November release, Last Flag Flying. A former Navy Corps medic (Steve Carell) reunites with a pair of his old service buddies (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) for a road trip to bury his son, a casualty of the Iraq war. Heavy with heart and laughter, Last Flag Flying carries a deeply talented cast that looks every bit the awards season contender that you would expect. Check out the film's debut trailer below.

George Clooney returns to the directors chair with his wildly anticipated late-year release, Suburbicon. Matt Damon stars in this Coen brothers scripted tale of a deadly home invasion that shakes a small suburban town. Quirky, darkly comedic, and oozing with the siblings' trademark style, Suburbicon could be a major Oscar player this year. You can catch the latest look at Clooney's film below.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Ranking Christopher Nolan's Filmography

Guest-writer Greg Rouleau unveiled his Top 10 Performances in Christopher Nolan's films as part of a tribute to the Dunkirk director. This month Rouleau returns by ranking all of Nolan's feature films from best to worst. Nolan has enjoyed an illustrious start to his movie-making career, so let's honor this visionary as best we can. And here it is, Christopher Nolan's filmography ranked in order:

#10. Following (1998)

It’s difficult to stack this ultra-low budget indie against the rest of Nolan’s filmography – especially when most of his epic blockbusters command budgets north of nine figures.  Reportedly shot over weekends while the director maintained a full-time day job, Following still shows a glimpse of the talent that would burst through in his next movie.  The black and white, neo-noir thriller, featuring a notable performance by Jeremy Theobald, as well as some twists and a nonlinear structure that would eventually become Nolan’s trademark.  At 70-minutes it’s an easy watch and an admirable first feature.

#9. Insomnia (2002)

The 2002 thriller about a detective summoned to investigate a homicide in an Alaskan town where darkness is null displays Nolan’s continued mastery of moody, noir-inspired films with a guilt-ridden protagonist.  Anchored by a pair of notable performances from industry vets, with Al Pacino as the sleep-deprived cop who harbors quite the burden, and Robin Williams – adeptly slipping into the psychotic, homicidal role – Insomnia is a somber, but effective studio debut for the director that proved instrumental in opening up the doors for Nolan’s relationship with Warner Bros., a partnership that would prove incredibly fruitful for the director.

#8. Batman Begins (2005)

Batman doesn’t make an appearance until nearly an hour into Batman Begins, but by the time the iconic superhero announces his arrival to a frightened Carmine Falcone, it’s clear we have a winner on our hands.  With a gripping first act – complete with the director’s trademark nonlinear storytelling – we’re treated to the most complete and engrossing retelling of the Batman origin story.  Christian Bale – surrounded by a stellar supporting cast – more than delivers in arguably his best role of the trilogy, commandeering the Dark Knight persona with ease as well as portraying the dual-sided Bruce Wayne, who creates a public persona as a drunken playboy to keep his caped crusader identity hidden, and the tortured Bruce Wayne who only a select few come to truly know.

#7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

While Batman Begins revived the stalled DC franchise,The Dark Knight Rises cemented Nolan’s Batman films as the greatest comic book trilogy of all-time.  Rises concludes Bruce Wayne’s arc in epic fashion bringing the story full circle with an incredibly powerful and satisfying conclusion, but not before Batman is physically pushed to his limits by Tom Hardy’s memorable Bane.  Anne Hathaway is also a standout as the ambiguously aligned Selina Kyle.  This final chapter also features some stunning IMAX sequences – the most of The Dark Knight movies.

#6. Interstellar (2014)

After completing one of the most critically and commercially successful trilogies, Nolan essentially had carte blanche for his next endeavor, so the auteur known for mind-bending narratives on an epic scale decided to venture into the far reaches of outer space.  Theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne, laid the groundwork with some scientific theory and Chris, along with brother Jonathan, scripted the sci-fi epic about a group of researchers who travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for Earth’s inhabitants.   Matthew McConaughey leads quite the prestigious ensemble through this 169-minute odyssey.  For this ambitious vision, Nolan – in his first collaboration with DP Hoyte Van Hoytema – utilized IMAX cameras in new, innovative ways essentially treating them like GoPros.  What resulted is a spectacle for the eyes but the story also holds up because it’s perhaps Nolan’s most personal and emotional, heart-wrenching story as it deals with themes of love, survival and loss.

#5. Memento (2000)

In only his second feature, Christopher Nolan crafted a modern classic with his noir-inspired thriller Memento.  Much of the hype with Nolan’s sophomore effort surrounded the atypical approach to the layout of the movie, in which a series of black and white narrated scenes that run linear are interspersed with color scenes that show the story happening in reverse.  Another ambitious feat for the young director, who wanted to put the audience into the mind of the protagonist – played dutifully by Guy Pearce – as Leonard, a man seeking revenge for his wife’s death while he suffers from anterograde amnesia and is unable to retain short term memory.  With strong supporting turns from Joe Pantoliano and Carrie Anne-Moss and an Oscar nominated screenplay, the highly re-watchable Memento undoubtedly announced Nolan’s arrival as a director to keep an eye on.

#4. Dunkirk (2017)

With Dunkirk, it appeared the key elements of Nolan’s cinematic style dovetailed into one stunning, harmonious achievement.  The perfected use of IMAX cameras, shooting exclusively on large format for this movie, allowing us to feel as if we’re right there with the stranded soldiers on the beach and in the cockpits of the spitfires.  Nolan’s frequent collaborations with composer Hans Zimmer have always yielded memorable results, but never has the score been so effectively implemented in a way that contributes to perfectly building tension to a dramatic climax.  This World War II survival thriller could’ve been a straightforward war movie with subplots, Generals strategizing over maps, and frequent breaks in action to spend time on more character driven moments, but Nolan boldly eschews all of the unnecessary exposition that would’ve only muddied the waters.  Dunkirk is not devoid of emotion, however, and at a relatively brisk 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Nolan film since his low budget indie Following that allows the action to continually build for a gripping ride that never lets up.

#3. The Prestige (2006)

Released between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight -- and in the same year another turn of the century magician centric movie was released -- The Prestige unfortunately was overlooked at the time, but it’s ultimately the most re-watchable in the Nolan catalog, improving upon repeat viewings.  With a duo of great performances by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians turned deadly rivals, The Prestige is a thrilling maze of twists and turns, including the most memorable surprise ending of any Nolan movie.  The shocking finale is built to perfectly by mimicking the three acts of a magic trick (alluded to by Michael Caine in the opening narration) and helps this one stand up to the more extravagant, big-budget fare the director has to offer.

#2. Inception (2010)

Inception was arguably the first movie that could be marketed on the Nolan name alone.  Hot off the heels of the blockbuster The Dark Knight, Warner Bros green-lit this 160-million dollar heist movie with an original screenplay, a rarity in the current landscape of the industry for a studio to bank on a movie not based on any larger cinematic universe.  It’s the perfect blend of cerebral narrative and awe-inspiring set pieces that only the visionary mind of Christopher Nolan could dream of.  Nolan’s continued push for favoring practical effects over CGI must be highlighted here as it lead to some spectacular sequences -- notably the hallway fight scene with Joseph Gordon Levitt.  Start to finish it may be the most entertaining of Nolan’s movies and one that will continue conversation for years to come.

#1. The Dark Knight (2008)

From the opening moments it’s clear this isn’t just another superhero movie, this was a genre changing, crime thriller that happened to feature the greatest superhero and the most iconic villain of all-time facing off. Christian Bale’s Batman is given some weighty moments to further display the turmoil Bruce Wayne must endure in his fight to take back Gotham City.  Heath Ledger’s Joker is an all-time classic performance that shows how critical a great antagonist is for storytelling.  Not to be overshadowed, Aaron Eckhart delivers his best work as the White Knight Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman also shines as Commissioner Gordon.  This was the first movie to feature IMAX cameras which were used for several sequences including a stunning prologue that was screened in the winter before release to build hype. Nolan will undoubtedly continue to produce more great efforts in the years to come but his greatest contribution to cinema will always be the 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Best Woody Harrelson Performances

Woody Harrelson has enjoyed a prosperous three-decade long career that, in many ways, has flown completely under the radar. He always demonstrates an ability to stand out in any role, no matter how big or small. Therefore, in honor of his new release, The Glass Castle, August's Movie List of the Month pays tribute to Harrelson's finest performances (July's list).

Honorable Mention: The Edge of Seventeen, The Glass Castle, King PinNatural Born Killers and Out of the Furnace

#5. Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Martin McDonagh's hysterical and under-appreciated comedic effort pits Harrelson, as an angry and unhinged mob boss, whose cherished dog is stolen by a reward-seeking dog-napper (played by Sam Rockwell). The absurdity of the film's primary storyline plays extremely well thanks in large part to Harrelson's fully committed performance. Seven Psychopaths is well worth a watch if you haven't seen it.

#4. Zombieland (2009)

Another outstanding comedy featuring Harrelson's singular talents is Ruben Fleischer's one-of-a-kind laugh-fest, Zombieland. Harrelson steals the show as Tallahassee, a vengeful and demented mad-man whose heart is as big as his penchant for zombie-killing. His off-the-wall demeanor is brought to life masterfully by Harrelson and helps cap-off this exceptional 88-minute comedic ride.

#3. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

One of Harrelson's two Oscar-Nominated turns comes from Milos Forman's biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt. Harrelson stars in the title role as the Hustler magazine publisher who faced an enormous public blow-back that resulted in a court case battle surrounding free speech. Harrelson delivers a knockout performance that stands the test of time and serves as an illuminating reminder of his gifted acting abilities.

#2. White Men Can't Jump (1992)

Although Harrelson's role in Ron Shelton's White Men Can't Jump doesn't quite carry the same dramatic cachet as his Larry Flynt performance, the film will always stand as a staple of my childhood. Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) represents a flawed lead character whose knack for hustling on the basketball courts of Los Angeles is equally measured my his dimwitted ability for blowing all of his winnings on stupid bets. Harrelson manages to blend together a hilarious turn with tempered dramatics that illustrate his well-rounded talents.

#1. The Messenger (2009)

For an overall movie that's almost as towering as Harrelson's supporting work, Oren Moverman's The Messenger is an absolute Tour de Force. Harrelson, along with co-star Ben Foster, stars as a member of the Casualty Notification Team who's responsible for breaking the news of a soldier's death to their next of kin. Harrelson demonstrates the depths of his dramatic talents in this Oscar-Nominated turn that's every bit as powerful and moving as the film's premise suggests. Harrelson's character appears both cold but respectful in this challenging task that he's been saddled with. The Messenger serves as the epitome of independent filmmaking telling an emotional story through a modest budget and immense acting talent, thanks to the exceptional work of Hollywood legend Woody Harrelson.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Molly's Game and Rememory Trailers

After a quarter-century in the film industry, Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin finally takes a seat in the director's chair for his November biopic, Molly's Game. The superior talents of Jessica Chastain appear to be fully on display as she plays Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who became a target of the FBI after organizing the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Molly's Game could possess some clear Oscar potential with it's big-named cast and an always envious Sorkin screenplay. Yet, the most interesting aspect of the film will be seeing how well Sorkin can handle the overwhelming task of filmmaking. Check out the debut trailer for Molly's Game below.

Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage stars in the upcoming mystery thriller from writer/director Mary Palansky, Rememory. The Sundance-selected feature follows the invention of a device with the ability to record and play-back a person's memories. Dinklage plays a man who uses the device to help track down the killer of its inventor. Rememory premiered to polarizing results in January, but you can make your own decision when the film arrives later this year. In the mean time catch the film's first-look trailer below.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Ghost Story

David Lowery's filmmaking career has been all over the map. He first stepped onto the scene with his uber-artsy Bonnie & Clyde-esque Sundance selected drama, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, in 2013, only to follow it up with last year's successful re-imagining of Pete's Dragon. Lowery's upward trajectory following his well-received summer-film reboot would normally send a director in search of his or her next big venture, but Lowery went in a completely different direction. He returns to his artistic prowess in the ambitious festival darling, A Ghost Story.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara stars as a loving couple who experience an unforeseen tragedy following a car accident  that results in Affleck's character's death. As the saddened widow confirms his passing at the morgue, Affleck's spirit emerges from the bed as a sheet-covered ghost who transports back to his home where he watches his wife grieve the loss. But as she moves on with her life and leaves a secret note in the crack of a doorway as she sells and leaves the home, the ghost stays in the dwelling desperate to uncover the note's contents.

A Ghost Story is a beautifully poetic expression of love, loss and countless other emotions. Lowery's bold endeavor both captivates and mesmerizes throughout a loosely coherent storyline that becomes more and more muddled as it progresses. Nonetheless, uniqueness and originality effectively guide the audience through an existentially-crafted plot and mildly ambiguous resolve. Mara's soulful turn and Affleck's surprising depth, even cloaked behind a sheet for the majority of the film, are transcending enough to keep the effort afloat.

"Polarizing" would be an apt descriptor for Lowery's latest critically-adored work. The filmmaker begins by utilizing excessively long takes that the audience is forced to muscle through. Thankfully, nearly all of these shots include a purposeful conclusion that help alleviate the frustration. Furthermore, A Ghost Story possesses a misleading title. The film is strictly a drama and fantasy, so don't expect any horror whatsoever. In fact, the scariest moment in the film is a nearly five-minute shot of Mara sorrowfully spoon-feeding an entire pie down her throat following the loss of her husband. Symbolic of the film's painfully slow demeanor, but also its poignant capturing of human emotion, A Ghost Story is a sluggish 90-minute indie that certainly pays off from a creative and artistic perspective.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Glass Castle

Destin Cretton is anything but a household name. Yet, the gifted filmmaker turned heads with his massively overlooked 2013 drama, Short Term 12. The effort bridged together Cretton's singular story and vision with the remarkable acting talents of Brie Larson. Since then Larson has gone on to win an Academy Award (Room), but her career comes full circle in her latest collaboration with Destin Cretton in the adapted film The Glass Castle.

Told non-chronologically through various flashbacks, The Glass Castle follows the unconventional childhood of gossip columnist and eventual Best-Selling author Jeannette Walls (Larson). Prior to her career as a writer, Walls grows up under the dysfunctional supervision of her alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) and her amateur artist mother (Naomi Watts). But as Jeannette and her siblings begin to mature and fully comprehend their squatter-lifestyle and impoverished upbringing, they must work together to escape the clutches of their deadbeat parents.

Destin Cretton's The Glass Castle serves as a heavy drama that illustrates the director's keen vision and his cast's stellar performances. There are many captured shots scattered throughout the film that transcend the normal standards of direction, reminding us just how impressive Cretton truly is. Likewise, Brie Larson continues to shine and reinforce her standing as one of the best actresses alive today. And her counterpart, the underappreciated Woody Harrelson, always has a knack for commanding the screen. Witnessing these two titanic performers deliver the goods over and over again for more than two hours is what keeps this film from crumbling at the hands of its weaker elements.

For starters, The Glass Castle begins its constant rewinding of time through flashbacks with a fluid approach that effectively links the present with the past. However, eventually, the film ditches its smooth transitions and forcefully breaks from its underlying format. And as Jeannette's character begins to truly ponder the joy vs. sorrow of her childhood, deciding whether her father was an inspiration or a burden, the flashbacks become a hokey and contrived element rather than a useful and informative tool. But even through much of the screenplay's over-extension and sloppiness, exceptional direction and performances keep the audience connected to this powerful tale of familial struggle.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 3, 2017

DVD Outlook: August 2017

It appears August is rather barren with new DVD and streaming options (July's suggestions). Thankfully, a hot slate of diverse theatrical offerings such as The Big Sick, Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming and so much more, you can find a worthwhile movie to enjoy no matter what your personal preference may be. Either way, here's a look at what's available on DVD and streaming services this month.

Alien: Covenant - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Earlier this year Ridley Scott returned to his storied Alien universe once again with the follow-up to 2012's Prometheus. In the latest installment, Scott and company shift their efforts from cryptic to visceral and disturbing with a bloody and twisted affair that feels immensely more horror-based than its predecessor. While on a colonizing mission to jump-start the humanity on a distant planet, crew members of the Covenant are awoken from their hibernation state following a malfunction with the vessel. Consequently, they abandon their long-term plans for a closer destination that proves to be a deadly decision. Covenant isn't the craftiest effort from the franchise but it certainly delivers some fine moments. It's difficult to sense where Ridley Scott will take things from here but as long as there's another Alien film, you can count me in. (August 15th)

Chuck - Not Scored or Reviewed

Rarely do I put a film that I haven't seen in my top 3 suggestions, but Chuck is one I've heard good things about and I plan to watch immediately. I had an advanced screening planned but because of unforeseen circumstances I had to pass my tickets along to a friend who raved about the Chuck Wepner biopic. Liev Schreiber stars as the retired boxer whose real life title fight with Muhammad Ali inspired the screenplay for Sylvester Stallone's Best Picture Winner, Rocky. With co-stars Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss and Michael Rappaport, this intriguing examination regarding the origins of one of Hollywood's most prolific films has legitimate knockout potential. (August 15th)

Sleight - 2 stars out of 4 - (No review available)

Under a normal set of circumstances, a film like Sleight wouldn't land in my top 3 suggestions. However, a lackluster crop of titles opens the door for this rather intriguing tale with a mediocre delivery. Newcomer Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a young street magician who's forced to care for his young sister after the loss of their parents. Taking his remarkable talents to the streets for a modest payday, Bo becomes entangled with a dangerous drug dealer in order to make ends meet. But once he realizes that he's getting in too deep, he must figure out a way to cut ties and make it out alive. There's definitely more than meets the eye with Sleight, including some unexpected sci-fi that fits very well into the storyline. However, creativity doesn't hold the film back, it's a weak delivery and unimpressive acting that tempers the overall experience. (August 1st)

Honorable Mention: One of August's biggest DVD releases is the highly anticipated, albeit very disappointing, Marvel sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (8/22). Other mediocre options that I've reviewed include the war thriller The Wall (8/15), Zach Braff's geriatric heist comedy Going in Style (8/1), and SXSW selection Colossal (8/1) with Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. I highly suggest avoiding one of 2017's weakest efforts, the sci-fi drama The Circle (8/1) starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. Finally, other notable options that I haven't seen include Snatched (8/8), Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (8/8), Baywatch (8/29) and indie My Cousin Rachel (8/29).