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).

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Best Performances in Christopher Nolan Films

Like a writer pushing his deadline, guest-writer Greg Rouleau has stepped in to deliver the first of a three-part Movie List of the Month featuring the magnificent Christopher Nolan just before the calendar changed to August (June's list). To begin the upcoming movie list series Greg begins by highlighting the Top 10 performances featured in Nolan's film catalog. Here's a look at the selections:

#10. Matthew McConaughey - Interstellar (2014)

The apex of the “McConaissance” came when McConaughey, fresh off an Academy Award win for Best Actor, signed on to star in Nolan’s big-budget sci-fi epic, with an ensemble that included its fair share of Oscar winners and nominees.  Heading this cast in impressive fashion, McConaughey’s Cooper perfectly embodies the rural American family man who can’t deny his dormant thrill for exploration when he’s chosen to lead a team through a wormhole in hopes of discovering a new home for Earth’s inhabitants.  Coop’s great balance of heart, heroism and exuberance captain us through the equally emotional and thrilling time-bending odyssey as he faces the possibility of never seeing his family again, in a mission that – while however bleak - he deems as completely necessary.  

#9. Al Pacino - Insomnia (2002)

Al Pacino (Will Dormer) has never had an issue with playing it big -- chewing up the scenery was almost his shtick around the time he won an Oscar in 1992 -- but what Nolan pulls out of Pacino in Insomnia is a tremendously subtle, nuanced performance.  He never allows his performance to overshadow the story.  The movie is a masterclass in atmosphere and much of that is aided by the veteran Pacino as a guilt-stricken detective suffering from major sleep deprivation as he tracks down the suspected killer.

#8. Guy Pearce - Memento (2000)

Memento is the movie that made Christopher Nolan a name on the indie scene, and much of that can be attributed to the strong performance by Guy Pearce as the short-term memory deficient Leonard Shelby.  Pearce brings Nolan’s screenplay to life with his ability to have us empathize with Leonard as he struggles to deal with his condition.  If it weren’t bad enough that he spends half the movie tattooing notes on his body that serve as reminders of mundane tasks, we also come to understand his desire for vengeance that motivates him as he tracks down his wife’s killer. 

#7. Marion Cotillard - Inception (2010)

Much of Nolan’s films are male dominated with the actresses relegated to background roles and love interests.  With Inception, the French Oscar winner was tasked with arguably the most well rounded role for a woman in a Nolan movie to date.  As Mal, she is both the ambiguous villain whose projection haunts Cobb and creates a barrier between him and his team’s goal.  And through flashbacks, she is the loving wife that our protagonist left behind and stands as a symbol of what he once had.  Cotillard conveys both sides of her character flawlessly and delivers one of the finest performances in a Nolan movie, regardless of gender.  

#6. Robin Williams - Insomnia (2002)

What makes Al Pacino’s role in Insomnia work incredibly well is that he’s playing opposite of another major star at the top of his game, in Robin Williams as the obsessed author, Walter Finch.  In a year that saw Williams shed his typical funnyman reputation in favor of darker, edgier roles -- also seen in the underrated One Hour Photo -- it was truly remarkable to see how easily he could make the transition.  Williams had always shown a knack for the dramatic, but it was eerie to see just how well he could play sadistic.  

#5. Gary Oldman - The Dark Knight (2008)

In The Dark Knight, Gary Oldman turns in one of the best performances in the entire Dark Knight trilogy.  Ironically -- in a film with an all-time classic villain portrayal -- Oldman, usually known for being cast as the antagonist, slips further into the straight-edged Gordon with grace and ease.  It was evident from Batman Begins that Oldman had a strong grasp on the character and here he’s given much more to do including facing off against both the Joker and Two-Face and delivering the rousing final monologue that hammers home why Batman truly is the “Dark Knight”.

#4. Christian Bale - Batman Begins (2006)

Christian Bale was a relative unknown when he was cast as Bruce Wayne in the summer of 2003.  In his audition, Christopher Nolan mentioned he could see in Bale’s eyes the determination of someone who would go to such great lengths to create something as extraordinary as the Batman.  Thankfully, the movie works because of what Nolan saw in that audition.  It’s difficult to remember now after a successful trilogy, but the Batman franchise was on life support after the critically panned Batman & Robin.  Batman Begins success rested on the shoulders of Bale who not only revived the franchise but sent it to new heights with his impeccable portrayal of both Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader.   

#3. Mark Rylance - Dunkirk (2016)

In a movie where dialogue is kept to a minimum, it takes a true artist to give the kind of performance that Mark Rylance pulls off in Dunkirk.  As the stiff upper-lipped Mr. Dawson, Rylance portrays him with such poise as he heads into a situation where the odds of survival are grim.  One standout moment is late in the film when Dawson must acknowledge that his son made the right move to pacify a shell-shocked soldier, as he nods approvingly at his son’s coming to terms with the gravity of the situation.  It’s the work of a master craftsman who for most of the movie conveys so much while saying so little.  

#2. Christian Bale - The Prestige (2006)

Following their successful venture into Gotham City, Nolan and Christian Bale teamed up again for what would be their second of four collaborations, in The Prestige.  As Alfred Borden, a working-class magician obsessed with pushing the boundaries and maintaining the illusion of his artform, even if the consequences are deadly, Bale adeptly depicts the con-man side of magic.  What makes the performance even more impressive is on subsequent viewings -- after you’ve learned the twist -- you see how Bale adds subtle differences to both characters he portrays but maintains enough similarities to keep the illusion alive.  

#1. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (2008)

It’s somewhat remarkable to think about how the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was met with such criticism.  Despite showcasing a broad range of talent in a diverse filmography, the late actor had some naysayers to prove wrong.  As it turned out, Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Gotham was seemingly the role he was born to play.  Inspired by A Clockwork Orange, his anarchic Joker seamlessly fit into the dark, twisted Gotham that Nolan created and will go down as one of the greatest villains ever put to screen.  As the film opened to a record setting box-office debut (at the time) and heaps of critical and fan adulation, Heath removed all doubt of what was once a suspicious casting decision and enforced Nolan’s keen eye for talent.  No amount of hyperbolic praise can do justice to what Heath created with this character.