Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Gambler (Red Band) and Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailers

December release The Gambler, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, has debuted its first Red Band teaser trailer. The remake of Karel Reisz's 1974 film of the same name stars Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor whose gambling addiction puts him in serious danger with some ruthless gangsters. Boasting a lengthy cast of prominent talents such as John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson, there are plenty of reason for optimism with this Oscar-hopeful reboot.

The world held its collective breath at the first word of the Avengers: Age of Ultron teaser trailer. Following a stunning initial installment to the franchise, which grossed north of $1.5 billion worldwide, a darker and grittier sequel appears to be on the horizon. The team of superheroes will seemingly be divided by the ramifications of Ultron, a Tony Stark creation (in the movie not the comics) sporting advanced and evolving Artificial Intelligence that allows him to turn on these superheroes and become a menacing force. All of this could potentially pave the way for the "Civil War" storyline which has become the hottest rumor in geek-dom after word that Iron Man will be appearing in 2016's Captain America 3. No matter what the future holds, James Spader sounds freakishly intimidating as Ultron and excitement for the May 2015 release should continue to soar.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Speedy Reviews: Escobar: Paradise Lost and The Good Lie

With The Philadelphia Film Festival in full swing and over a dozen new films behind me, Tuesday delivered one of the clear festival highlights, Italian-native Andrea Di Stefano's Escobar: Paradise Lost. As Stefano's directorial debut, the actor-turned-filmmaker conjures up a well-crafted fictitious tale of a Canadian-born surfing instructor named Nick (played by The Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson) who ventures to Colombia and falls in love with the niece of notorious cocaine-kingpin, Pablo Escobar.

Escobar: Paradise Lost does a wonderful job of gradually escalating the tension and sealing the deal with a gripping third act. Hutcherson solidifies himself as a formidable lead, but it's Academy Award winner Benecio del Toro who lights up the screen with a devilish-arrogance in a role that's eerily flawless. There are certainly moments when the film feels a bit too ordinary and formulaic, but Escobar: Paradise Lost soars past mediocrity thanks to a convincing cast and an intense finale.

Andrea Di Stefano's fictional biopic of sorts is set against the backdrop of landmark events in Escobar's life. And filmed in nearby Panama, the setting definitely looks the part. Arriving in select theatres on November 26th, Escobar: Paradise Lost makes for a solid movie selection.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Truth be told, I had my reservations after a first glimpse at the trailer for Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie. What appeared to be a suffocating sentimental piece headed by the queen of schmaltzy dramas, Reese Witherspoon, actually turned out to be much more than that. As a Centerpiece selection at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, The Good Lie played surprisingly well to a large crowd of attendees.

Despite the way the film has been marketed - which isn't very much, due to a newly revealed condensed release - Reese Witherspoon is by no means the central force behind The Good Lie. Instead, Falardeau makes the valiant decision of placing the focus on the lives and struggles of the movie's Sudanese refugees, simply referred to as "The Lost Boys", and utilizes Witherspoon's presence as a lighthearted balancing tool to counteract such a powerful and moving story. Witherspoon fades into the background as a reliable complement in the role of an employment agent tasked with finding jobs for these three young men who journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America in hopes of achieving a rewarding future.

Much of the film focuses on the childhoods of these Sudanese natives and the war-torn conditions that they and millions of other refugees have been forced to confront. The Good Lie directs its attention to all of the right places and ultimately tells a valuable story that tugs at the heartstrings, but by no means in excess. The Huffington Post has even labeled Falardeau's effort as "The Best Film of 2014 that you probably havent seen". While I'm not willing to go quite that far, I can confidently say that The Good Lie is worthy of a watch and a suitable choice for anyone seeking out a well-intended feel-good flick.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Imitation Game

Film: The Imitation Game

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice) and Matthew Goode (Watchmen)

Director: Morten Tyldum

U.S. Release: November 21st, 2014 (Rated PG-13)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 113 minutes

Every year an unexpected film rises out of nowhere and makes its mark on the awards season race. While Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game hung quietly on prognosticators' radars, none expected it to capture the highly coveted People's Choice Award at TIFF, a recognition that instantly catapults the film into the heart of the Best Picture race. Previous winners of the award include powerhouse titles such as Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech, Silver Linings Playbook and 12 Years a Slave, so it's easy to understand the significance of such an achievement. But a larger and more important question continues loom over The Imitation Game, can the film hold off a barrage of Oscar-worthy competitors that are still awaiting releases?

Brilliant mathematician Dr. Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is summoned to interview with military officials during the German expansion of World War II. Alan is selected as part of a secretive unit tasked with one important mission, to break the most sophisticated encryption machine the world has ever seen. Understanding that human trial and error has no chance of breaking Germany's Enigma code, Dr. Turing develops an advanced computing machine that helps the allied forces defeat the Nazis and changes the world forever.

The Imitation Game has all the makings of an Oscar-caliber film. Director Morten Tyldum brings to life an amazing true story filled with obstacles and complexities that briskly carry the feature from start to finish. And at its core rests a worthy lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, whose intricacies perfectly capture the mind of a mathematician. As a professor of mathematics at a state university in Pennsylvania, I have a first-hand view into such thinkers and Cumberbatch sells the role extremely well. Everything from Alan Turing's difficulties handling social settings to his full-fledged cognitive arrogance. Although I personally felt some of the moments were slightly overacted, Cumberbatch undoubtedly gives an accomplished performance alongside other stellar turns from castmates Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode. With yet another beautiful score from Alexandre Desplat and solid direction from Tyldum, The Imitation Game is an all-around formidable piece of cinema that will certainly find its way into many Oscar discussions.

Although The Imitation Game is a strong piece of filmmaking on various levels, one unfair criticism would be that the feature never really amazes in any particular area. Actually, the movie feels like a bit of a conundrum. For example, I commend the uptempo pacing of Tyldum's work, yet more interesting ideas and controversies surrounding Alan Turing's personal life become glossed over in order to achieve a more fluid viewing experience. While such decisions unarguably ease the responsibilities of both the filmmaker and the screenwriter, The Imitation Game becomes merely a partially told story that feels like a slight disservice to such a marvelous and significant man who has left his impression on the modern technological world.

All in all The Imitation Game is an unquestionable crowd-pleaser filled with humor, drama and everything in between. Dr. Alan Turing was a pioneer in the world of technology and a mathematical genius who helped defeat the Nazis. His story of heroics is one that is told very well throughout the film and one that everyone should know, so do yourself a favor and seek out The Imitation Game when it reaches theatres in late-November.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Speedy Reviews: St. Vincent and Men, Women & Children

The Philadelphia Film Festival delivered a special treat on its Opening Night. With Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman as the main attraction, the evening also featured a viewing of Theodore Melfi's directorial debut, St. Vincent, starring the legendary comedic performer Bill Murray.

St. Vincent is a charming little film that's rough around the edges thanks to Murray's wonderful title-character turn as a grouchy Vietnam War veteran who's cornered into taking his new neighbor's son under his wing. Broke and desperate for a steady source of income, Vin becomes an unconventional babysitter of sorts as he leads young Oliver on trips to the race track and teaches the boy how to defend himself. This appealing tale transforms the typical anti-hero into a special kind of role model on the backbone of Murray's innate ability to muster up the laughs. In addition to Murray, comedic forces such as Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd offer their own bright spots to St. Vincent and the overall effect is a winning effort for the film's first-time director.

Although St. Vincent is nothing groundbreaking or exceptional, it's a solid film that's destined to please the mass audiences. Fans of Murray will not be disappointed, as the actor gives the level of performance that has an outside chance of earning him the type of awards season recognition he hasn't seen since in nearly a decade.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Just prior to the onset of the Philadelphia Film Festival, I was able to catch a screening of Jason Reitman's technology centered drama, Men, Women & Children. Reitman's career got off to a brilliant start with adored titles such as Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air, all of which represent a caliber of filmmaking that catches people's attention. However, Reitnman's more recent work has fizzles into mediocre lately with last year's Labor Day and now his newest release.

Weaving together multiple interconnected stories between local families in a small community and the effects that technology has on their lives, good or bad, Men, Women & Children is an ambitious attempt that never feels as grand as its obvious intention. Adam Sandler embraces a return to dramatic acting and performs well in his role as the husband of a distanced couple who both test the extramarital affair waters. Yet, the most intriguing story of the bunch comes from two phenomenal young talents, Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12 and Laggies), who most effectively capture the emotions of the audience. However, their gripping love story can only take the film so far and Men, Women & Children is otherwise bogged down by multiple hollow stories.

Reitman's ambition is certainly commendable, yet his final result never quite stacks up. 2013 delivered a similar themed film called Disconnect that also shed light on technology's powerful force on human life and interaction, but did so in a much more impressive fashion. While I would suggest skipping on Men, Women & Children, I highly recommend seeking out Disconnect for anyone interested in the film's subject matter.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Friday, October 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Starring: Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Emma Stone (The Help) and Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom)

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (Babel)

U.S. Release: October 17th, 2014 (Limited Release - Rated R)

Genre: Comedy

Runtime: 119 minutes

The 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off last night in a less than grand fashion. After an unexpected last-minute issue with the projector, a venue change was quickly arranged and delayed the evening by nearly an hour and a half. Set to jump-start the festival was Alejandro G. Inarritu's latest cinematic achievement, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Inarritu has taken the industry by storm with prior successes such as 21 Grams, Babel and the foreign hit Biutiful, so needless to say the buzz was swirling for his upcoming release. Unfortunately, for me, the expectations soared high above the finished product.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor who once ruled the entertainment world as the lead man behind the iconic superhero franchise, Birdman. Since his time atop the proverbial mountain, Riggan has faded from the limelight but is making one final attempt to reclaim past glory with the premier of his Broadway play. However, Riggan struggles to balance his overwhelming ego with a volatile new castmate (played by Edward Norton) and a crumbling family life.

Films like Birdman make for easy critiques. Guaranteed to be a polarizing watch, one that my gut believes the general public will find disappointing on many levels, Alejandro G. Inarritu's new title leaves the door open for massive amounts of discussion. On one hand, the technical accomplishments surrounding Birdman are nothing short of immaculate. Intended to feel like an uncut and unedited film, which is by no means an easy task, Inarritu's effort requires fully committed performances from all of its actors. And believe me, there is no shortage of brilliant tour de force performances here. It all begins with the feature's leading star, Michael Keaton, who shines brightest. Keaton feels like an all-around perfect fit for the role, only to be complemented by other towering performances from co-stars Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. Thankfully, each and every character is delivered with a soulful turn that ultimately keeps an otherwise damaged film afloat.

For all of Birdman's technical conquests and wonderfully acted efforts, Inarritu's film is a falsely advertised and tiresome tale. Being pitched as a dark comedy, the laughs are far too sparse to justify such a label. And for anyone expecting an action-fueled superhero-eque type of movie, you couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, Birdman straddles the line of surrealism in order to tell the unoriginal story of a man's obsession with reclaiming the spotlight and, more importantly, leaving behind a legacy. After nearly two hours of the same old song and dance, the film blows past a golden opportunity to gift wrap its message and regrettably overextends its finale in an irritating fashion.

Birdman is well deserving of its praises as a spectacular piece of filmmaking, further elevated by grand performances from a long list of gifted actors. However, Inarritu's common history of poor pacing and prolonged endings leaves a bitter mark on the film. While I entered the Philadelphia Film Festival with the belief that Birdman was a viable contender for Best Picture, I certainly have my doubts now.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A November to Remember

While I was running over my tentative movie-watching schedule for the 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow night with two high profiles films, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's powerhouse Oscar-contender, Birdman, and newcomer Theordore Melfi's St. Vincent, I began to think about the huge slate of titles coming to theatres this November. Whether you're in the mood for highly-touted festival darlings with Academy Awards aspirations or new installments to blockbuster franchises, November is sure to offer a little something for everybody.

On November 7th the wait is finally over for Christopher Nolan's long-awaited epic sci-fi drama, Interstellar. With a slow but steady stream of new footage constantly being released in all of its many theatrical trailers, moviegoers are beginning to formulate what the film's about and it could be downright spectacular.

Then, just one week later in a limited capacity, Bennett Miller's gripping dark drama, Foxcatcher, will finally arrive in theatres. As someone who's been waiting desperately for the film ever since it dropped out of last year's awards season contention, I couldn't be more excited. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo all appear to give knockout performances as a mentally ill multi-millionaire and the pair of Olympic-wrestling siblings he paid to train at his Foxcatcher Farms facility. We've officially been given our first in-depth look at Foxcatcher with the release of its newest trailer (below), and it looks to have all the makings of a major Oscar-contender.

There are plenty of other festival-circuit films coming to the big screen this November that could make a splash at the Academy Awards. First up is Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, a Centerpiece selection at this month's Philadelphia Film Festival which comes out in limited release on November 21st. The World War II drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch won the highly-regarded Audience Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Almost all of the recent winners have gone on to have successful awards season runs.

Two other Oscar-hopefuls include Jon Stewart's Rosewater (11/14 limited), which tells the story of a journalist who was unjustly imprisoned in Iran for over 100 days, and the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything (11/7 limited). Both have played marginally well on the festival circuit and have moderate to outside chances at receiving some recognition from the Academy.

And finally, if the Oscar talk is not really your "thing", there are plenty of blockbuster options coming to theatres this November as well. First up is the long-awaited sequel Dumb and Dumber To (11/14 nationwide). While I've openly denounced the idea of a follow-up feature, especially after 20 years since its initial debut, there's still no doubt that I'll venture to the movies to catch what happens next with Harry and Lloyd.

With a brand new official trailer for the comedy sequel Horrible Bosses 2 (11/26 nationwide) that's featured above, fans of the off and running franchise can look forward to its trio of imbeciles getting caught up in all crazy kinds of shenanigans once again. The last, but not least, title finding the big screen in November is the action blockbuster, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (11/21 nationwide). Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss in the first of two parts for the franchise's final story.

There will be something for everyone to enjoy this November. Make sure you take advantage of the fantastic slate of features and savor the movie-theatre experience on a big screen ... the way movies were meant to be watched.