Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 Philadelphia Film Festival Preview

In about two and a half weeks the City of Brotherly Love will be kicking off its 23rd annual film festival. Bringing hundreds of the finest festival circuit films from all over the world, this year's lineup features everything from lesser known indie movies, to an animated Disney title, to some potential heavyweight Oscar contenders. For more information on the festival visit the Philadelphia Film Society's website and, as this year's tagline reads, "see something you'll never forget". Now, here's a look at the movies I'm most eager to catch during this 11 day film-watching frenzy.

Honorable Mention: Mumblecore legend Mark Duplass stars in the horror-comedy Creep. Benicio Del Toro stars as the drug kingpin in Escobar: Paradise Lost. With a cast of relatively unknowns, I'm excited for the raved about new horror title It Follows. Rory Culkin has been the talk of the festival circuit for his role in the drama Gabriel. Up and comer John Boyega has also been praised for yet another fine turn in the inner city drama Imperial Dreams.

Reese Witherspoon stars in the seemingly sentimental drama The Good Lie. She stars as an employment agency counselor who gets more than she bargains for when a trio of Sudanese refugees resettle in the United States. While I'd normally tread lightly with some skepticism for a potential hokey tale such as this, after the success of a similar story in this year's Million Dollar Arm, I'm willing to allow a little excitement for a more mainstream title such as The Good Lie.

#4. Wild

More so than you might realize, Reese Witherspoon is taking a page of out Matthew McConaughey's "how to have a career resurgence" book. The rom-com queen is even teaming up with last year's Dallas Buyers Club director, Jean-Marc Vallee, in this year's character-driven tale, Wild. Many have lauded Witherspoon's earnest Oscar-caliber performance as a woman embarking on an 1,100 mile hike as a means to recover from a recent tragedy. It will be interesting to see if the actress can find the same kind of results that McConaughey did during an amazing Oscar-winning run last year.

Let's just say, "you had me at Bill Murray". One of the funniest men on earth stars as a grumpy old war vet who's desperate for a paycheck, so he agrees to look after his new next door neighbor and single-mother's son after school. Murray could be in play for the always crowded Best Supporting Actor category, but even if not, St. Vincent is guaranteed to muster up some laughs thanks to Murray and co-stars Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd and Naomi Watts. Count me in!

After experiencing the first trailer for Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, I shrugged my shoulders and thought it could go either way. However, at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Tyldum's picture walked away the most-coveted awards season indicator on the festival circuit, the Audience Award. Recent winners of the honor include 12 Years A Slave, Silver Linings Playbook, The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, all of which went on to become major Oscar contenders. The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, an English mathematician who helped crack the Nazi's Enigma code during World War II and altered the course of history. Needless to say, my interest level has spiked and I can't wait to catch this potential big player.

#1. Birdman

The good news is, I won't have to wait very long to catch my most anticipated film of the festival, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman. The Opening Night selection stars Michael Keaton as a former washed up superhero movie star determined to overcome his ego and family problems as he constructs a Broadway play intended to revive his career. Critics and audiences alike have adored Birdman, which appears to be in play for many major awards including Best Actor for Michael Keaton. Joining Keaton to form an unbelievably impressive cast are Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. I am pumped for this dark comedy and all the other titles mentioned above. The only thing left to do is let the countdown to Opening Night begin ... tick tock.

Note: There are a trio of films I viewed at Sundance that are also worthy of mentioning. First there's Laggies, a unique look into the difficulties facing the late-twenties generation and that awkward phase where it's time to move forward with your life. As usual, Sam Rockwell steals the film. Also, Listen Up Philip (starring Jason Schwartzman) and Song One (starring Anne Hathaway) were a pair of titles I enjoyed that will be playing in Philadelphia as well.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Film: Kill the Messenger

Starring: Jeremy Renner (American Hustle) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed)

Director: Michael Cuesta

U.S. Release: October 10th, 2014 (Limited - Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 112 minutes

Brace yourself, because we could be in for a fantastic finish to the 2014 cinematic year. With an extensive list of highly anticipated features that begin with next weekend's release, David Fincher's Gone Girl, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. But for me, the first film up is one I highlighted in my Fall Oscar PreviewHomeland director Michael Cuesta's adapted biopic, Kill the Messenger.

Two-time Academy Award Nominee Jeremy Renner stars as San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, an investigative journalist who exposed the CIA and Reagan administration for their voluntary involvement in the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic that swept across the country during the 1980s. However, Webb quickly discovered that publishing such a story and taking on the U.S. government would be an uphill battle. The reporter accused the CIA of using their friends at the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times to question the story's credibility and generate a widespread media-driven smear campaign that ultimately left Webb as a pariah in the journalist community.

In the court of public opinion, everyone deserves a chance to defend themselves and have their side of the story told. For the late Gary Webb, Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger represents that opportunity. While many will argue that Webb's monumental reporting was reckless and lacked professionalism, Jeremy Renner's towering performance convinces modern day audiences of just the opposite. Renner, whose latest work begs for awards season recognition, does an exceptional job in the lead role and single-handedly carries Cuesta's film from start to finish. Unfortunately for the leading star, 2014's Best Actor race appears to be a crowded competition that could find Renner on the outside looking in. Nonetheless, a gutsy and valiant portrayal assists an incredibly entertaining and multi-layered story. As a strong motion picture directorial debut from Michael Cuesta, Kill the Messenger is a compelling and well-made piece of cinema that's guaranteed to satisfy conspiracy-craving audiences and beyond.

Despite the glaring successes from the feature, Kill the Messenger struggles in a few key areas. Its finale is rather anti-climactic, however, the real-life story culminates in the exact same fashion. In addition, the first half of the film paces extremely well and builds nicely, giving the third act a dragging and sluggish feel by comparison. Yet, Kill the Messenger easily hurdles these faults and results in a finely executed and well-rounded film from the entire team involved.

For a cinematic year that could be flooded with copious amounts of superior titles, Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger kicks off the late season run in grand fashion. And if not for an engaging and gripping true story, you'll want to catch this film for Jeremy Renner's wonderful performance. Opening in limited release this October, it's worth checking out Kill the Messenger.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Interview (Red Band) and Men, Women & Children Trailers

After their wildly successful go-around with 2013's This Is the End, James Franco and Seth Rogen return with the insanely premised, The Interview. The duo star as a producer (Rogen) and popular television host (Franco) who are granted an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But when the CIA shows up at their doorstep requesting that they assassinate the U.S. enemy, the unlikely pair of heroes agree to risk their lives and "take out" the threat. The Interview opens on Christmas and appears to have all the makings of another vulgar comedy hit.

On a more serious note, director Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children has also released another extended trailer. Boasting an impressive cast which features Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemary Dewitt, as well as young talent Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, Reitman's latest effort examines the widening effect of living in an internet-driven age. Men, Women & Children blends together dramatic stories with multiple perspectives on how technology influences the lives of adults and teenagers alike. Arriving to theatres in mid-October, check out the trailer below.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Big Eyes and A Most Violent Year Trailers

Love him or hate him, Tim Burton has made plenty of memorable movies throughout the course of his lengthy career. This year, some anticipate that Burton will restore his Oscar-level of filmmaking with the upcoming biopic, Big Eyes. Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane, a timid female artist whose husband (Christoph Waltz) claimed credit for all of her popular paintings during the 1950s and 1960s. Big Eyes appears to have the makings of something special with two perennial Oscar-contending performers (Adams and Waltz), as well as Burton's unique vision to a truly captivating story.

In other potential Oscar news, a first look into J.C. Chandor's crime-fused drama, A Most Violent Year, has been unleashed unto the masses. While some were beginning to think the film might drop from awards season contention, Chandor and company have made it known they're releasing the work in late December. Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain star as a married couple and business owners living in New York City during 1981, what's been widely chronicled as the most violent year in the city's history. With details at a minimum and only a teaser trailer to satisfy our craving, check out a brief look into A Most Violent Year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Best Comedians Turned Dramatic Actors

At this year's Sundance Film Festival one of the most talked-about premiers was Craig Johnson's drama, The Skeleton Twins. Starring a pair of Saturday Night Live alumni in Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, everyone was shockingly impressed with how easily the comedians transitioned to dramatic roles. And while The Skeleton Twins opened in limited release this past week to overwhelmingly positive reviews, I've decided to devote September's Movie List of the Month to the Greatest Comedians Turned Dramatic Actors (click here for August's List).

Honorable Mention: Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me), Will Ferrell (Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go) and Patton Oswalt (Young Adult and Big Fan).

#5. Steve Carell

Between Steve Carell and Adam Sandler, I debated my fifth selection a lot. While Sandler garnered a little more recognition with his Golden Globe Nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, I may be forecasting the huge expectations from Carell's upcoming work in the Oscar contender Foxcatcher. Outside of Carell's highly anticipated sinister performance, his overlooked roles in the indie sensations Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back form a strong foundation for Carell's dramatic flair. After beginning as a side reporter on Jon Stewart's comedy infused news hit, The Daily Show, Carell has branched out well and his upcoming Oscar-level performance as the wealthy murderer John du Pont is guaranteed to boost the actor's career.

#4. Bill Murray

I bet many of you are thinking that ranking the great comedic genius, Bill Murray, in the fourth spot is a slap in the face to the adored actor. Although I am a huge fan of Murray's brilliant comedy work over the years in classics such as Caddyshack, What About Bob? and Groundhog Day (just to name a few), I haven't been enamored with all of his typically-mentioned dramatic performances. The default film would have to be Sofia Coppola's overrated snoozer, Lost in Translation, which landed Murray his one and only Academy Award Nomination. However, I was more impressed with some of his other dramatic roles in films like Get Low (of which I've been a huge outspoken fan) and Hyde Park on Hudson (despite being a weak overall film). The longtime Saturday Night Live cast member has really made a name for himself, but his comedies far outshine his dramas, leaving him a little lower on my list. 

#3. Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx has evolved from a skinny young jokester who broke onto the scene in the short-lived sketch comedy series, In Living Color, into an Oscar-winning and multi-talented celebrity. Foxx has always had a knack for generating laughs, but after a dramatic beginning in Oliver Stone's long-winded football drama, Any Given Sunday, the gifted actor transformed himself into a spitting image of legendary pianist Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic, Ray. Foxx was instantly propelled to stardom and has followed up his Academy Award Winning performance with other dramas such as Collateral (for which he was also nominated), Dreamgirls, The Soloist and Django Unchained. This lengthy and impressive filmography illustrates just how remarkable of a transition Foxx has been able to make over the course of his career.

#2. Jim Carrey

Much like Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey also got his start on the series In Living Color. His goofball characters like Fire Marshall Bill and Vera de Milo helped spark a string of successful comedies such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber and Liar Liar. And then, out of nowhere, Carrey made a 180 with his career and tackled dramatic roles in films like The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and The Majestic. Audiences and critics alike grew fond of his transformation, leading to what many argue as Carrey's peek performance in the 2004 indie classic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All in all, Carrey is yet to receive recognition from the Academy Awards (despite his best efforts as a homosexual con man alongside Ewan McGregor in I Love You Phillip Morris), but a long history of Golden Globe success (including two wins and four other nominations) helps warrant his high ranking on my list.

#1. Robin Williams

While the unexpected loss of Robin Williams still feels like a fresh wound, his legacy will forever remain as the greatest comedian-turned-actor of all time. As such a special and rare funny-man, Williams molded a successful stint as a stand-up comedian into a fantastic film career. By the early 1990s he had secured himself as one of Hollywood's biggest talents after work in films such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. Mainly Williams branded himself as someone capable of blending together the highest levels of both comedy and drama in his roles, something evident in fan favorites like Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire. However, it wasn't until 1997's Good Will Hunting where he finally was able to put that long-awaited exclamation point on his career with an Oscar-winning performance in Gus Van Sant's drama. Williams' towering onscreen work in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's award-winning screenplay was simply unforgettable. It takes a remarkably talented individual to excel in both the areas of comedy and drama. No one has ever been as impressive at doing so as the late-great Robin Williams. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

THG: Mockingjay - Part 1 and Serena Trailers

One of the largest franchises in Hollywood returns this November with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. In the newest installment, Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss in District 13 after she destroys the games forever and is forced to safe Peeta and a nation looking to her for courage. Here's the first extended look into what we can expect from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1.

It's a busy year for the mega-star Jennifer Lawrence as she also stars as the title character in the upcoming Depression-era drama, Serena. George Pemberton (played by Bradley Cooper) is forced to consider the future of his timber empire after discovering that his wife, Serena, can't have children. This long awaited drama is set for a European release this Fall and, although its U.S. premier hasn't been determined yet, Serena's star-power makes it worth monitoring. Check out the feature's debut trailer below.