Thursday, October 12, 2017

2017 Philadelphia Film Festival Preview

As the City of Brother Love prepares for the Halloween season, this special time of year means something a little bit different to local film lovers and enthusiasts. At the end of every October the Philadelphia Film Society brings many of the awards season's hottest titles to its annual film festival (for more information and tickets click here). This 26th annual crop of selections is no different from years past, loaded with potential Oscar contenders, festival circuit darlings and cinematic achievements from all across the globe. In preparation for Opening Night festivities that begin in one short week, here's a look at some of the biggest titles that I'm most excited to catch at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival.

Honorable Mention: Borg/McEnroe, Breathe, Most Beautiful Island and Where is Kyra?

#10. Wonderstruck

Carol and Far from Heaven helmer Todd Haynes offers his latest adapted feature Wonderstruck. This tale of parallel timelines follows the lives of a present day young boy living in the Midwest and a young girl from New York fifty years prior, as they both seek out a similar mysterious connection. Early buzz has been generally positive and Haynes owns a decent track record of finding his movies in the Oscar conversation.

#9. Gemini

Having already had the opportunity to attend the film's World Premiere at 2017's SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, I can certainly vouch for Aaron Katz's new crime mystery Gemini. With sleek direction and a crafty story that highlights the darker side of Los Angeles, the friend and personal assistant (Lola Kirke) of a prominent movie star (Zoe Kravitz) becomes the primary suspect after a grisly murder takes place. Gemini won't end up in any awards season discussion, but the film packs a nice and compact punch with its entertaining and brisk 90-minute run time.

#8. The Square

Winner of this year's prestigious Palm d'Or award at the Cannes Festival in France, Ruben Ostlund's The Square will take to the big screen twice during this year's Philadelphia Film Festival. The uber-talented Elisabeth Moss co-stars in this satirical drama that follows the curator of a contemporary art museum (Claes Bang) whose life is flung into an existential crisis following the ill-advised PR campaign for his latest feature. The Square could very well end up as this year's Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Film.

#7. Thoroughbreds

Following a World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and enjoying a successful run on the festival circuit, Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds makes its way to Philly prior to its March 2018 release date. Teaming up a pair of well rounded young actresses, The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's Olivia Cooke, the film highlights the upper-class suburban murder plot of two teenage girls. In what's now the late Anton Yelchin's final film, Thoroughbreds brings together a crop of gifted young actors and an intriguing tale of murder and betrayal.

#6. The Florida Project

After the wildly successful debut Tangerine, Sean Bakes returns with another journey into the human soul with his upcoming release, The Florida Project. Willem Dafoe stars as a motel owner who watches as a permanent customer and mother inadequately raises her outspoken 6 year-old daughter (Broklynn Prince) in one of the rooms. The Florida Project has garnered immense praises and some have even labeled Dafoe as a possible Oscar contender in this examination of youthful innocence and familial heartbreak.

#5. Darkest Hour

It's no secret that veteran performer Gary Oldman is deserving of Oscar immortality, yet the elusive actor has somehow dodged the big win throughout his career. Perhaps those complaints will be put to rest with Oldman's trans-formative turn in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour. Oldman stars as the strong-willed Winston Churchill during the bleak days of World War II when England finds its back against the wall from the powerful and imposing forces of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Darkest Hour has been described as typical Oscar fodder and if Oldman's on board, then count me in.

#4. Lady Bird

While Greta Gerwig's directorial debut Ladybird may not carry the same Oscar clout as some of the other titles on this list, a strong theatrical trailer and a versatile lead actress have me eager for a viewing. Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan stars as the self-nicknamed "Lady Bird", an outspoken teenage outcast who dreams of leaving her California home town and venturing to a more cultured east coast destination. Gerwig has shown a strong ability to deliver bold characters throughout her career and I have the utmost confidence that she's created another one with her screenplay for Lady Bird.

#3. I, Tonya

Without a trailer to fully understand its tone and delivery, Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya made quite a splash with its Audience Award runner-up debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Margot Robbie stars as the controversial sports figure, Tonya Harding, who was notoriously involved in the attack of fellow U.S. Figure Skater Nancy Kerrigan during their Olympic run in the mid 90s. The film tackles Harding's harsh upbringing and her journey from the bare minimum to a world of class and privilege that she struggles to compete with. As this year's Opening Night selection, I, Tonya should be on every festival-goer's list of "must-see" films.

#2. Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater has been an established visionary and filmmaker for quite some time now, but his more than a decade-long work on the Best Picture Nominee, Boyhood, placed him in a whole other class of director. Linklater returns in 2017 with the emotional road-trip comedy, Last Flag Flying. On the long drive to visit the dead body of his soldier son, a Vietnam vet (Steve Carell) enlists the emotional support of estranged fellow veterans Sal and Richard (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, respectively) as he comes to grip with the painful loss. Linklater possesses a rare talent that beautifully molds together drama and hilarity, which we can expect in large doses with Last Flag Flying.

#1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Finally, if there's one film I'm itching to see more than anything else at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, it's undoubtedly Martin McDonagh's hysterical crime comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. From the same brilliant mind that brought In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths comes the story of a distraught small town mother (Frances McDormand) who buys a trio of billboards on a major road that shines a light on local law enforcement who still haven't solved her daughter's murder. McDonagh re-teams with the always phenomenal Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in this comedy-infused drama that have many industry insiders calling it a serious Best Picture contender. Three Billboards has all the makings of an instant classic and it will surely sell out the house as this year's Closing Night selection.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (NEW) and Pacific Rim Uprising Trailers

Despite all of the awards season contenders debuting to rave reviews all throughout the festival circuit, which is setting up an interesting final run to the Academy Awards, there's no movie more anticipated than the upcoming continuation of the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi. During last night's nationally televised Monday Night Football game, we were given a whole new glimpse into the sure-fire box-office smash. Rian Johnson's effort follows where The Force Awakens leaves off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeking out the guidance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in order to battle descendant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the villainous First Order to restore balance in the galaxy. You can catch the latest footage from The Last Jedi below.

Keeping up with a sci-fi theme, I was surprisingly satisfied with Guillermo del Toro's 2013 Kaiju fighting action film, Pacific Rim. While my reservations with the upcoming sequel continue to grow, mainly due to the fact that del Toro has handed the keys to producer-turned-first-time-director Steven S. DeKnight, a whole new cast of characters carry on the story in March of 2018. The Last Jedi's John Boyega helps lead a new generation of Jaegar pilots against a catastrophic Kaiju attack that threatens the fate of the world. Pacific Rim Uprising unveiled its debut trailer earlier this week and you can check it out below.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Blade Runner 2049 and American Made

It was 35 years ago when Ridley Scott broke ground with his sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Trading action-packed thrills for a tempered and more cerebral science fiction endeavor helped make an impact on an entire generation of movie lovers. And if a sequel had to be done, what better filmmaker to take the reins than Arrival helmer Denis Villeneuve? Brandishing an intellectual screenplay and Villeneuve's keen visionary mastery, Blade Runner 2049 has clearly been placed in the most worthy of hands.

Set thirty years after the original, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a new-hybrid of replicant Blade Runner, programmed to fully obey his human masters. But as he becomes assigned to a very delicate case, the mystery he's supposed to solve slowly forces him to question his own existence. And with all of the answers belonging to former agent Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has gone into hiding for decades now, K must track down the legendary Blade Runner in order to finally unlock the truth to his cloudy past.

Much like Ridley Scott's Alien franchise, Blade Runner 2049 finds a unique beauty in its ability to pose more questions than answers. But despite a frustrating ambiguity that's assured to displease select audiences, Denis Villeneuve and company do an amazing job of expanding on the universe that Ridley Scott created 35 years ago. Taking the auteur's classic idea of building compassion for the replicant population and transforming that into a core principal within the structure of this new examination, Villeneuve enlightens the viewer with fascinating psychological quandaries and thought-provoking introspection. Ryan Gosling offers a stellar lead performance that's wonderfully complemented by a multitude of smaller, yet unbelievably effective, roles. And while Gosling undoubtedly hogs the film's face time, not a single side character wastes a moment on screen. Don't be fooled, though, Blade Runner 2049 comes with a fair share of criticisms. The film wallows in a sluggish and thrill-less delivery that snow-piles throughout an often painful 160-minute duration, and its uncharacteristically weak score with the great Hans Zimmer on board proves to be a bit of a disappointment. However, loyal and respectful fans of the original Blade Runner can look past these flaws and find solace in Denis Villeneuve's originality and heady subtext that rival the work of its predecessor.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Doug Liman returns with his second offering of 2017, re-teaming with his former Edge of Tomorrow star, Tom Cruise, in the wild true story of a commercial airline pilot-turned-CIA recon gatherer. American Made plays to a similar tone that we've witnessed on many occasions, shedding its light on the notorious Medellin drug cartel and leader Pablo Escobar. This aura of familiarity and a complete disregard for character building haunt Liman's latest and have us pining for the level of success he showed early in his career with hits like The Bourne Identity and Swingers.

After growing tired of the monotony involved in his everyday life as a commercial pilot for TWA in the late 70s, a rare opportunity falls in the lap of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) when he's recruited by the CIA to fly recon missions in South and Central America. Barry's thirst for adventure proves reckless when he finds himself immersed in a cocaine smuggling scheme under the behest of ruthless dealer Pablo Escobar. With all sorts of government agencies on his trail and danger certainly looming, Barry puts everything at risk when he makes a compromising decision that places him and his loved ones in grave danger.

Eerily reminiscent of Ted Demme's 2001 cult classic, Blow, American Made suffers from what can only be described as an apparent egotistical grandstanding from leading star Tom Cruise. You'd be hard-pressed to find any extended period of time without Cruise's long, flowy locks and devilish grin plastered across the screen. Sadly, the film focuses exclusively on Barry Seal, and its failure to properly address the impacts of Barry's decisions on everyone else in his life through an adequate development of side characters proves detrimental. Barry's family, most notably, is nothing more than a silhouette to Cruise's demanding character. But despite this glaring weakness and unforgivable oversight to the film, American Made still manages to attract an audience with an energetic and amusingly tragic story. As Barry continues to fall deeper into his corrupt world of drug trafficking and money laundering, its like watching a car crash develop, where you refuse to look away for fear of missing the most destructive moment of impact. Cruise isn't at his best but he certainly remains capable of carrying a film, even if we're forced to take him in overflowing doses. But for as engaging and consuming as American Made's story allows it be, you can't help but feel like Liman should have accomplished so much more.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

DVD Outlook: October 2017

Just as the fall movie season begins to heat up, a fresh new crop of DVD and streaming options available this this include a pair from my Early Year Top 10 Films of 2017 so far (September's suggestions). So if you're looking for alternatives to what's in movie theaters this October, you'll have plenty of worthwhile titles to choose from.

War for the Planet of the Apes - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Matt Reeves dynamic Planet of the Apes set of prequels finds another winner in its third installment. The franchise reboot has developed a unique way of jostling dramatic themes with full fledged action sequences that reaffirm the benefits to carefully constructed CGI. And with War for the Planet of the Apes, a rather dubious title selection considering the film's reliance on a more emotionally-driven story line, we follow Caesar (Andy Serkis) into the next chapter of the saga where the ape leader once again finds himself at odds with a human foe. Woody Harrelson stars as the Colonel, a rogue military leader who recruits his forces to terminate the ape population once and for all. Anyone invested in the first two films of the series shouldn't hesitate taking a chance with this third inclusion. And although I felt it was a small step down from its immediate predecessor, War for the Planet of the Apes still stands as a worthwhile exploration into this storied franchise. (October 24th)

Spider-Man: Homecoming - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

The unstoppable force that has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) bulldozes along with its most recent release, Spider-Man: Homecoming. And where this year's disappointing Guardians of the Galaxy sequel felt disjointed from everything that's been building up within the MCU, Homecoming brings the audience back to a familiar place that looks and feels like the trademark branding we've come to expect. A teenage Peter Parker (Tom Holland) finds himself desperate to join the elite ranks of The Avengers, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to keep a safe distance due to the teen's immaturity. So as Peter works tirelessly to prove his worth to the world's greatest superheroes, he finds a formidable foe in an average Joe (Michael Keaton) who gets his hands on some alien weaponry. Like most entries from the MCU Homecoming brandishes some highs and lows, but all in all it's a welcome return to the formulaic approach that boasts a lucrative track record. (October 17th)

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

Admittedly, I have been historically critical of the adored filmmaker Edgar Wright. While many have succumbed to his cheeky and outlandishly implausible action-comedy delivery, which includes films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End, I've been disappointed by the unhinged demeanor in which these movies culminate. The director's latest effort, the wildly engrossing Baby Driver, offers more of the same, but it waits until a fatefully late third act until this otherwise exceptional work finally spins off the rails. After being coerced into a crime underworld where he becomes the best getaway driver in the business, Baby (Ansel Elgort) reaches a point where he'll do anything to escape this fateful lifestyle. The uptempo driving sequences are insane and the film's choreographed-style plays eloquently to its phenomenal soundtrack. Yet, the whole experienced becomes soured when Edgar Wright once again ditches his successful game-plan and takes the film's final act into a completely different and ludicrous direction. Thankfully, a wonderful majority of the ride makes a bitter finale easier to swallow. (October 10th)

Honorable Mention: David Lowery offers a captivating Sundance selection and one of the year's most talked-about indies, A Ghost Story (10/3). Sophia Coppola returns with the critically acclaimed drama, The Beguiled (10/10), and unimpressive films The Book of Henry (10/3) and Will Ferrell comedy The House (10/10) are available this month. October is the perfect time for some scary movies as Annabelle: Creation (10/24) received some surprisingly strong reviews, as did the female-centric comedy Girls Trip (10/17). Finally, Stephen King's The Dark Tower (10/31), Halle Berry's Kidnap (10/31) and yet another Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (10/3) close out this month's new releases.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Battle of the Sexes and Brad's Status

Following an unusual career path to filmmaking that included nearly two decades of making MTV music videos for accomplished artists like REM, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and countless others, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris began their Hollywood career with a bang. The husband and wife's debut feature Little Miss Sunshine went on to win a pair of Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay) and earn heaps of critical praise. And despite an egregiously overlooked second feature, the superbly told fantasy love story Ruby Sparks, the couple's latest work has them back in the spotlight.

Battle of the Sexes tells the timely true tale of female tennis great, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), as she emerged as a beacon of the women's liberation movement during the early 1970s. While embroiled in a bitter fight concerning equal cash prize payouts for the men's and women's tournament winners, King also discovers her inner desires and begins a secret and risque affair with a pretty young hair dresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Meanwhile, 55 year old former men's champion and gambling aficionado , Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), comes up with a crazy sideshow idea to play King in an exhibition match, and puts on a chauvinistic display to help make it happen.

Caught in the midst of a heated social climate, Dayton and Faris' Battle of the Sexes proudly parades its pro-feminism and pro-LGBTQ rights agenda. You'll be hard pressed to find a single scene where King's character is on screen and neither of those issues are involved. Consequently, the film will assuredly polarize audiences, so it's important to take all passionate opinions regarding the movie with a grain of salt. And even though Academy Award Winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's (Slumdog Millionaire) script comes off as a bit preachy, recent Oscar Winner Emma Stone and co-star Steve Carell both deliver outstanding performances. If anything, Battle of the Sexes could have used a larger dose of Steve Carell, as Bobby Riggs' energetic character merely lurks around in the film's first two acts, giving way to a tepid romance story between Billie and Marilyn. Both Austin Stowell, as Billie's husband Larry King, and Andrea Riseborough fail to offer convincing and meaningful characters, which certainly creates a void in the film. Battle of the Sexes tells an interesting true story in a rather uninteresting way, making it a decent but unfulfilling watch.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

At first glimpse of its movie trailer and before knowing anything about the film whatsoever, I wrongly assumed that Brad's Status was the newest addition to indie auteur Noah Baumbach's extensive catalog. With Ben Stiller in tow and a personal examination of the human psyche at its core, Mike White's film seemed to look and feel exactly like a Baumbach picture. Unfortunately, Brad's Status fails to play out anything like the heralded American filmmaker's work. Instead, writer and director Mike White reminds us all just how frustrating and immature we can be as individuals.

Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a middle-aged owner of a mildly successful non-profit organization who can't help but feel resentful of his inner circle of college friends who all grew up to become insanely successful. And as Brad ventures onto a college tour with his smart and put-together teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams) who has goals of getting into Harvard, Brad continues to be plagued by regret and self loathing that makes him question all of his life's decisions.

Selling an audience on a character as irritating and emotionally inept as Brad is quite difficult. And even worse, the depth of his character is built almost exclusively through the cheap narrative tool of voice over. Brad's Status attempts to paint a meaningful tale of self discovery, but as Brad's character finally begins to peel away at his layers of cynicism, he's already alienated the viewer with an annoying obsession over stature and prominence. Mike White tries his hardest to provide a silver lining and he actually does conjure up a worthwhile, albeit obvious, message to the story. Yet, it's quite the challenge to still be invested in Brad's irrational psyche by the time the film finally arrives at its well-intended conclusion.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Best Jake Gyllenhaal Performances

Jake Gyllenhaal has enjoyed a quietly effective acting career that some may even label as underrated thanks to only one Oscar Nomination after all of these years on the big screen. But no matter how deep your affinity for Gyllenhaal runs, it's impossible to deny the actor's versatility and commanding presence every time he graces the screen. And in recognition of Gyllenhaal's new Oscar-baity performance in the sobering drama, Stronger, September's Movie List of the Month highlight's the actor's finest roles (August's list).

Honorable Mention: End of Watch, Love & Other Drugs, Prisoners and Source Code

#5. Donnie Darko (2001)

Gyllenhaal really began putting his talents on display in 1999's October Sky, but he eventually took things to a whole new level in Richard Kelly's boldly intricate and clever sci-fi drama Donnie Darko. After narrowly surviving a freak accident, Donnie (Gyllenhaal) begins experiencing dark visions of a man in a rabbit suit as he tries to unlock the keys to a fascinating mystery. The cult classic wins over its loyal audiences with a creepy collection of characters and many stellar performances, all of which are capped by the magnificent early-career work from Jake Gyllenhaal. 

#4. Stronger (2017)

It's very new and fresh in my mind, but I was surprised by the convincing manner in which Gyllenhaal delivers his role in David Gordon Green's Stronger. Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, an unreliable young man who runs into his on-again-off-again girlfriend at a bar. When he promises to cheer her on at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and actually comes through with his word, he falls victim to the devastating bomb blast that takes both of his legs. Normally, a heart-tugging story can be a difficult sell for me, but Gyllenhaal's earnest delivery is spot on as he effortlessly crafts a wildly sympathetic, albeit flawed, character. But even through all of Jeff's obvious faults, Gyllenhaal masterfully earns your rooting interest.

#3. Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Tom Ford's mildly polarizing story-within-a-story thriller, Nocturnal Animals, utilizes Gyllenhaal's talents in a rare dual role for the actor. Within both stories Gyllenhaal pays his usual attention to detail and offers up a pair of subtle performances that span very different tones. On one end, he's a struggling writer unable to convince his wife (Amy Adams) of his abilities due to a lack of profound inspiration. On the other hand, he's a vengeful husband who watches as his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter are kidnapped and later found murdered. Gyllenhaal illustrates a vast range and high level of competence in two smaller, less flashy supporting roles.

#2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Jake Gyllenhaal finally landed in Oscar contention following a powerful supporting turn in Ang Lee's drama Brokeback Mountain. After an unlikely romance forms between a pair of Wyoming cowboys (Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger), they struggle to keep their true feelings secret from the lives that they built at home. In a delicate story of homosexuality and prejudices, something very edgy for its time, Gyllenhaal and his onscreen counterpart, Heath Ledger, respond with towering performances that are respectful of their material and complex in beauty. While Gyllenhaal's clearly out-shined by Ledger's more prominent role, both offer unforgettable work that will forever stand the test of time.

#1. Nightcrawler (2014)

Sadly, the Academy Awards missed greatly when it turned its back on Jake Gyllenhaal's finest performance to date in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. The film tells the skin-crawling tale of a sociopath (Gyllenhaal) who finds his life calling as a freelance videographer of freshly-bloodied crime scenes. There's no shortage of fantastic onscreen work from the likes of the late Bill Paxton, Rene Russo, and The Night Of's Riz Ahmed. However, it's Jake Gyllenhaal's film and he refuses to waste a moment of face-time with an eerily captivating turn. His works really takes you into the demented psyche of a crazed-lunatic and it's truly a shame that this apex of Gyllenhaal's career was regrettably ignored by Hollywood's biggest awards show. Thankfully, he'll have plenty of future opportunities to set the record straight.