Monday, August 18, 2014

St. Vincent and Rudderless Trailers

At the beginning of the month I chronicled the Fall Oscar Preview and one of the films I highlighted was Theodore Melfi's indie comedy St. Vincent. Bill Murray stars in the title role as a grumpy old war veteran who convinces his new single-mother neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) to let him babysit her young boy after he finds out he's broke. With hearty laughs and a potential drama-filled mentor story at its core, St. Vincent could be Bill Murray's chance to return to the Oscar spotlight.

Yet another film out of this year's Sundance class due for an October release is actor William H. Macy's directorial debut, Rudderless. This tender drama tells the story of Sam Manning (Almost Famous' Billy Crudup), a grieving father whose life spirals out of control after the loss of his son, Josh. But when Sam discovers some of Josh's original music, he decides to start up a rock band and play his son's songs. Critics and audiences alike raved about the charming nature of William H. Macy's Rudderless.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Giver

Film: The Giver

Starring: Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)

Director: Phillip Noyce (Salt)

Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama

Runtime: 94 minutes

For all of the many passion projects floating around Hollywood, it's amazing to imagine that Jeff Bridges has spent nearly 20 years begging and pleading for an opportunity to play the title role in an adaptation of Lois Lowry's 1993 futuristic novel, The Giver. Finally, after decades of struggle and perseverance, the Acadamy Award Winning actor's wish has been granted. Yet, director Phillip Noyce's visually compelling finished product proves that good things don't always come to those who wait.

Following a world filled with war and pain mankind adopts the idea of communities, seemingly perfect places where extreme "sameness" and "likeness" leave no room for envy or jealousy. With happiness and conflict no longer in existence a young boy named Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites) is given his future assignment, to meet with "The Giver" (Jeff Bridges) and become the Receiver of Memory. It's here where Jonas learns about the old world and discovers a wide range of emotions that he never knew existed. These revelations force the boy to question the entire foundation of his upbringing.

There are many issues circling around the latest sci-fi drama, The Giver. First, the film lands in an enormous line of young adult novels adapted into major motion pictures, which forms a natural comparison against blockbuster franchises that include The Hunger Games and Divergent. And while The Giver isn't a far cry from the newly popularized genre's finest offerings, it struggles to earn a respectable place in the crowded collection. Another blemish resides in the film's superficial approach to the story. For a novel filled with controversial and stimulating ideas about societal issues, The Giver's screenplay barely scratches the surface with properly addressing such topics. Therefore, the feature concludes as a cheapened adaptation focused more on appearance and style than delivering a mindful interpretation of Lois Lowry's novel.

To be perfectly honest, there aren't many glowing attributes to this summer's newest blockbuster. Outside of a tasteful filming style with its clever use of colors and state-of-the-art camerawork that captures some fantastic shots, The Giver is a rather bland feature. Jeff Bridges gives a fully committed performance but the rest of the cast is serviceable at best. Even fans of second hand stars such as the great Meryl Streep and music sensation Taylor Swift should harness their expectations, because neither character or performance adds much soul to the film. And despite leading man Brenton Thwaites' valiant efforts, he never feels like the right fit for the role of Jonas.

The Giver helped spawn the young adult novel movement over two decades ago and, ironically, kept getting skipped over during the recent cinematic surge. Now that audiences and fans of Lois Lowry's work are given the opportunity to visualize her words, it feels like a huge disservice. Perhaps the thought-provoking themes surrounding The Giver were never meant to be translated to the big screen.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Let's Be Cops

Film: Let's Be Cops

Starring: Jake Johnson (Safety Not Guaranteed), Damon Wayans Jr. and Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street)

Director: Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door)

U.S. Release: August 13th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 104 minutes

Back in April when I ran a Summer Preview series, one of the films I outlined was Luke Greenfield's law enforcement comedy, Let's Be Cops. Considering Greenfield was at the helm for a guilty pleasure of mine, 2004's The Girl Next Door, and I've always admired Jake Johnson's work, I figured that if Damon Wayans Jr. was even half as funny as his father, we could have the surprise comedy of the summer on our hands. Unfortunately, my initial thoughts were misguided and Let's Be Cops remains mired in mediocrity for a multitude of reasons.

Ryan (played by Johnson) and Justin (Wayans Jr.) are Ohio transplants struggling to find success in Los Angeles. And while Justin's passion project gets rejected by his boss at work and Ryan continues to dwell on his glory days as a college quarterback before he sustained a career-ending injury, the duo contemplate a return to their home state. However, a dim-witted mistake on Ryan's part finds the pair of friends dressed authentically as police officers, where they quickly discover an insatiable appetite for the power and respect that comes along with being a cop.

There are quite a few flaws peppered throughout the latest summer comedy, Let's Be Cops. Outside of its leading stars who deliver respectable performances given the circumstances, the feature is dowsed with ineffective secondary characters that offer nothing to the film. Rob Riggle leaps from the 21 Jump Street franchise to this easily comparable counterpart and fails to shine. The same can be said for Andy Garcia, Nina Dobrev, James D'Arcy and Comedy Central's Keegan-Michael Key. Then there's youngster Joshua Ormond, a worthless inclusion who manages to conveniently appear and disappear at any given moment. Also, for an R-rated comedy the jokes are merely molded out of vulgarity and male nudity, which mix together to form an almost laugh-less affair. And although the film begins with a playful examination circling the leading pair's seemingly harmless, yet punishable, offense, in the blink of an eye Let's Be Cops spins right off the realistic-meter and lands in the realm of unbelievable.

Despite the fact that driving on sidewalks appears to go unnoticed and the wanna-be cop tag-team are able to obtain expensive surveillance equipment from local law enforcement without raising suspicion, Let's Be Cops still manages to offer a handful of redeeming qualities. Jake Johnson is a bright spot who constantly demonstrates an innate ability to make a fluid transition between comedy and drama, to the point where it feels shockingly effortless. Furthermore, his chemistry with onscreen sidekick Damon Wayans Jr. is evident as The New Girl co-stars work undeniably well together.  Yet, as the minutes begin to mount and the film requires the audience to constantly suspend their disbelief, Let's Be Cops falls further and further into the class of forgettable buddy comedies.

Desperate to stack up against the recent successful 21 Jump Street franchise, this latest comedic effort lacks the creative humor and slick storytelling to stay in contention. Relying solely on f-bombs and other vulgar improv to muster up the laughs, Let's Be Cops marks another run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster that swings and misses. You're better off holding on to your hard earned money or looking elsewhere for a more reliable source of entertainment.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams

By now we've all heard the shocking news surrounding Academy Award Winner Robin Williams. After battling multiple forms of addiction since the 1980s along with a recent bout of severe depression, Williams has allegedly taken his own life at the age of 63.

As a lifelong admirer of his work, I've chosen to devote this article to fondly remembering one of Hollywood's greatest performers. And although we've lost a true artist, Robin Williams will never be forgotten. Here's a look back at my favorite Robin Williams roles throughout his illustrious career (please note that I've never seen the well regarded film The Fisher King).

Honorable Mention: Dr. Malcom Sayer - Awakenings, Peter Banning - Hook, Rainbow Randolph - Death to Smoochy and Armand Goldman - The Birdcage.

#5. Jack Powell - Jack

Like many other films listed in this article, the 1996 comedy Jack is representative of my childhood. While the film was critically panned and never truly embraced by the masses, Robin Williams gave a golden performance as a youth with an aging disorder that forces his body to mature four-times as fast as the average person. In many ways Jack represented Robin Williams in a role that he was born to play, simply a big kid. 

#4. Adrian Cronauer - Good Morning, Vietnam

Released well before my time, Good Morning, Vietnam was a film I sought out solely because of my respect for Robin Williams. I had always heard such amazing praises for his Oscar-Nominated role as Adrian Cronauer, an irreverent and insubordinate disc jockey for the Armed Forced Radio Services during the Vietnam War, where his on-air antics bring joy and comfort to soldiers during the most difficult time in their lives. Williams will always be remembered most for his comedic flair, yet Good Morning, Vietnam represented the gifted performer's successful transition to dramatic acting as well.

#3. Daniel Hillard - Mrs. Doubtfire

One of the most iconic films in Robin Williams' career was the 1993 hit Mrs. Doubtfire. Extremely quotable and the highest grossing film of his career (even more than Aladdin) touching just shy of $220 million in domestic box office revenue, Williams stars as Daniel Hillard, an immature and divorcing father of three who is forced to use his talent for impersonations in order to live under the alter-ego Mrs. Doubtfire so that he can spend unsupervised time with his children. It was through this role that Robin Williams officially captured the hearts of an entire nation.

#2. John Keating - Dead Poets Society

Another Academy Award Nominated performance came from Peter Weir's 1989 inspirational drama, Dead Poets Society. Williams starred as English Teacher John Keating, a remarkable leader who pushes his impressionable students to seize the day and create their own paths in life. As an educator generating inspiration and drawing motivation are key factors to success, and ones that Williams displayed brilliantly in the film. So much, in fact, that his performance became an influential component in my desire to teach mathematics. Therefore, in more ways than one, I owe a large bit of gratitude to the phenomenal work of Robin Williams.

#1. Sean Maguire - Good Will Hunting

Before this remembrance comes to a close, it's important to understand that the late Robin Williams will never be forgotten. His energy and zest for humor were so inspirational and transcending in millions of people's lives. But for me, my lasting memories of Robin Williams will be his emotionally charged performance in one of the greatest dramas I've ever encountered, Good Will Hunting. Williams won an Oscar for his supporting role (and deservedly so) as a former mathematics standout turned psychiatrist who takes one of the most brilliant minds the world has ever known under his careful guidance. It was through the role of Sean Maguire that Williams altered my views on feelings such as love, pain and remembrance. And although we all lost a fantastic artist yesterday, his creative genius will last for many, many lifetimes. I feel honored to have witnessed his legacy.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

DVD Outlook: August 2014

As we steadily make our way through the final summer month and into the fall Oscar season, August appears to take a hit with the quality of its DVD releases. July proved to be a "down" month and August unfortunately follows suit. Here are my top 3 selections for the month as well as a brief list of other titles arriving to DVD and Video-On-Demand, but remember that none of these picks are of the "must-see" variety.

Oculus - 3 stars out of 4 - (No review available)

My most recommended title of the month was an early-year horror release that actually hit the festival circuit in late 2013 to what were mostly positive reviews, and I definitely agree. Oculus tells the original story of two children who survive a traumatic event and reconnect years later to prove that a supernatural force living inside of a mirror is responsible for the past tragedy. With an impressively clever script and minimal key horror elements such as gore and staged scares, Oculus plays more like a mind-bending thriller that makes you question what is real and what isn't. Fans of horror should certainly give the film a try and if gore is the reason you avoid scary movies, then Oculus is the one you'll want to see. (August 5th)

Filth - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (No review available)

Based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, director Jon S. Baird offers Filth, a Scottish dark comedy about a corrupt police officer willing to do whatever it takes for a promotion. James McAvoy gives a whole-hearted performance as Bruce, a sex-crazed and drug-fueled cop who attempts to mask his crumbling personal life with the false perception that everything will be better if he moves up in rank. The laughs are constant and a shaky mid-section is resurrected by a strong finale. If you can tolerate the heavy accents, Filth is a solid feature that's entertaining to say the least. (August 12th)

Muppets Most Wanted - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

I mean, come on! Who didn't love Jason Segel's meticulously crafted 2011 re-introduction to The Muppets? And with a respectable 3 year gap until its follow-up, Muppets Most Wanted, expectations were understandably elevated. However, this sequel didn't come close to the genius of its predecessor and ultimately left a sour taste in many viewers' mouths. But on the flip side, I still felt that Muppets Most Wanted had a reasonable amount of laughs, a few catchy tunes and enough spark to ease me through the finish line. If you allow yourself to accept the fact that there isn't the same magic from Segel's effort, perhaps you'll find a little room in your heart for Muppets Most Wanted. (August 12th)

Honorable Mention: Although I haven't seen either of them, action lovers will be pleased to hear that the teen-novel turned blockbuster, Divergent (8/5), reaches DVD this month as well as the video-game adaptation Need For Speed (8/5). Also, the sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (8/19) reaches shelves as well. Furthermore, August delivers a few lauded Sundance selections such as The Double (8/26), Locke (8/12) and the vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive (8/19). And finally, the Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman drama The Railway Man (8/12) closes out the bunch.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Kill the Messenger and The Theory of Everything Trailers

Earlier this week I previewed the upcoming Michael Cuesta film, Kill the Messenger, in the second part of my 2014 Oscar Preview. Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, a reporter set on exposing the U.S. government as a known participant in the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept through the nation during the 1980s. However, the CIA retaliated against Webb with a smear campaign that shattered his career and destroyed his life. While conspiracy-theories aren't such a shocking story nowadays, the end result of Webb's investigating journalism is truly fascinating.

Academy Award Winner (Man on Wire) James Marsh teams up Eddie Redmayne  and Felicity Jones in the upcoming biopic The Theory of Everything. The film examines the life of famed physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Redmayne) and the impactful relationship with his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), as his work helped shape the science community all while battling a crippling motor neuron disease that left him almost entirely paralyzed. Redmayne and Jones have both delivered vastly overlooked performances in their past and The Theory of Everything could very well be an awards season dark-horse.