Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Danish Girl and Concussion Trailers

We've finally been given a first glimpse into Tom Hooper's Oscar powerhouse, The Danish Girl. Hooper re-teams with his Les Miserables star and last year's Best Actor Oscar winner, Eddie Redmayne, in this powerful story behind the first person to undergo a sex reassignment surgery in the 1920s. As a story perfectly-timed for the social movement to accept members of the transgender community, The Danish Girl feels like a top-flight awards season contender.

Another recent trailer to debut was for Concussion, the film that the NFL doesn't want you to know anything about. Will Smith stars in this true story as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a foreign born neuropathologist who examined the effects of recurring head trauma in NFL players and discovered the long-term health consequences associated with a career in the sport. While Dr. Omalu's research was both groundbreaking and eye-opening, it wasn't graciously accepted by the NFL and he was forced to take on this powerful institution which was dead set on silencing him. Concussion finds a release on Christmas day and you can catch it's first official trailer below.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rapid Reviews: The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Mistress America

This weekend marks the theatrical release for one of the year's most talked about festival darlings, The Diary of a Teenage Girl. With critics and independent film lovers jointly voicing their approval for Marielle Heller's teen drama, needless to say I was eager to experience the movie for myself.

Newcomer Bel Powley stars as Minnie, an aspiring teen artist who has her first sexual encounter with her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (Alex Skarsgard). While they continue to sneak around engaging in a physical relationship with one another, Minnie confesses the dirty details of her taboo story to a cassette recorder. But as she comes to terms with her new-found sexual appetite and intense feelings for Monroe, Minnie soon discovers that the only person she needs approval from is herself.

Based on the Phoebe Gloeckner diaristic graphic novel of the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl paints a brutally honest picture of youth and finding one's sexuality. However, an overly devoted tribute to the novel from director Marielle Heller leads to an unconventional approach that's both unappealing and unnecessary. The frequent inclusion of cartoon animation and illustrations create a diversion from the earnest story at the film's core. And while The Diary of a Teenage Girl unapologetically journeys to some very dark places in a spiraling manner that's probably much better suited for a novel, at least the movie does a commendable job of wrapping a meaningful message around a flawed exterior.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

American filmmaker Noah Baumbach must be a busy man. After the release of his successful comedy, While We're Young, starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts earlier this year, Baumbach returns quickly with the indie film, Mistress America. While Baumbach and his film's co-star, Greta Gerwig, have a long-standing collaborative history together, this latest work represents another winning effort by the duo.

Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is an out of place college freshman in New York who desperately craves some fun and excitement. So when she reluctantly reaches out to her eccentric soon-to-be sister in-law, Brooke (Gerwig), Tracy finds exactly the influence she's been seeking. Brooke's rapid quips and unrelenting zest for life become a vital source for Tracy's writing career and an inspiration for breaking out of her shell.

Mistress America is an oddball indie comedy that works on many levels but never fully branches out from its own self-limiting absurd clutches. Greta Gerwig has developed into a versatile performer who shines in what would normally feel like an unfitting role. Her exuberance comes to life through the witty screenplay of Noah Baumbach that delivers countless quotable one-liners. Despite a third act that toes the line of believable and outlandish, Mistress America overcomes this wacky finale and stands out as another winning effort from Baumbach.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Best Paul Giamatti Performances

For all of Straight Outta Compton's many (and I do mean many) fine performances, it became difficult to recognize any of the onscreen talent with my movie list of the month considering their careers are just beginning to blossom. Therefore, I had to look to the cast's veteran performer, Paul Giamatti, as my source material for August's list. Throwing out the disclaimer that I haven't seen a notable indie film from Giamatti's past, American Splendor, here's my take on the greatest performances from the talented actor.

Honorable Mention: Love & Mercy (Dr. Eugene Landy), Private Parts (Kenny aka "Pig Vomit") and Straight Outta Compton (Jerry Heller)

#5. Barney's Version

While I admittedly enjoyed Paul Giamatti's title role performance in Richard J. Lewis' comedy, Barney's Version, much more than the entire film itself, the casting ultimately landed Giamatti his first Golden Globe victory in a motion picture category. The film tells the odd story of a rugged tv producer who reflects on his life's successes and failures as he counts down to the twilight of his own existence. Giamatti captures the essence of Barney Panofsky wonderfully even though the film finds itself tragically over-extended.

#4. The Ides of March

In what's unquestionably the smallest role on the list, I refused to ignore Giamatti's diabolical character in George Clooney's compelling political thriller, The Ides of March. Giamatti's limited face time on screen only enhances the dirty antics of his rival campaign manager character, Tom Duffy. The Ides of March is a fantastic and cynical examination of the modern political game that impresses greatly with the aid of Giamatti's ruthless portrayal.

#3. Sideways

It's fair to say that 2004 put Paul Giamatti on the map when he starred as Miles in Alexander Payne's Oscar darling Sideways. Although his co-star and comedic presence, Thomas Haden Church, managed to land a best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy, Giamatti walked away empty handed that year and had to settle for topping all of the major "biggest snubs" lists. Nonetheless, his iconic work as a middle-aged struggling writer who unknowingly embarks on a journey of self discovery through the California wine country with his best friend will certainly stand the test of time.

#2. Cinderella Man

Following his disappointing awards season for Sideways, Giamatti rebounded in grand fashion with the 2005 role of Joe Gould in Ron Howard's boxing drama, Cinderella Man. While many will argue that Giamatti's first and only Oscar nomination as a Best Supporting Actor in the film came on the coattails of his snub the year prior, I'd argue that this performance is far more memorable. As the boxing coach of former boxing champion, James J. Braddock (portrayed onscreen by Russell Crowe), Giamatti delivers a heartfelt performance in one of the best underdog films in recent memory. 

#1. Win Win

And finally, my favorite Paul Giamatti performance comes from the underrated and exceptionally honest 2011 family drama, Win Win. Starring as Mike Flaherty, a struggling suburban lawyer and high school wrestling coach who finds himself in a complicated situation when the grandson of his elderly incapacitated client moves into his family's home. Mike is shocked to discover the teenager's historic talents for wrestling and learns the hard way what it means to be a good father and a real role model. Win Win is such a down to earth and overlooked film that shines ultra-bright thanks to an unforgettable turn by the always wonderful Paul Giamatti.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Straight Outta Compton and No Escape

By now you've probably heard plenty about F. Gary Gray's gangster rap biopic, Straight Outta Compton. I'm here to reaffirm that everything you've heard about the film is correct, Straight Outta Compton is a well executed and massively engaging movie experience.

Although the frequent appearances of corrupt and irrational police officers at the onset of the film seems oddly forced, Gray quickly devotes the focus to his central characters and never looks back. My highest regards go out to the casting director who did a phenomenal job of finding exceptional raw acting talent. O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell are a trio of unknowns who develop compelling characters in the form of rap super-group NWA's own Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, respectively.

And despite Straight Outta Compton's eye-popping two and a half hour running time, the film possesses excellent pacing and stays loyal to the facts surrounding the rise and fall of NWA and its key members. Considering the group's dissatisfaction with censorship, there is tons of vulgarity (as expected) splashed all throughout the entire affair. However, whether or not you're a fan of rap and hip hop, F Gary Gray and his versatile cast of up and coming actors transform Straight Outta Compton into a worthwhile piece of cinema.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

If you've seen the (above) trailer for the upcoming thriller, No Escape, then you've probably scratched your head at the casting choice of funnyman Owen Wilson. In all fairness to Wilson, he does a reasonable job in the film's leading role and never feels like a distraction. In fact, he's a bright spot by comparison to the many shortcomings in John Erick Dowdle's No Escape.

After relocating his family to an unnamed southeastern Asian country for financial reasons, Jack (played by Wilson) tries to make the best of his new situation. Yet, to the family's unfortunate surprise, an uprising of local militia result in a coup of the government and force Jack to find any means necessary to survive and protect his family.

Never before have "conveniences" played such a pivotal role in a film. Since there's absolutely zero character development and plot to latch on to, No Escape devotes itself solely to the art of suspense. Thankfully, Dowdle achieves success in this realm through the use of conveniently timed occurences, but building a tense atmosphere is just about the only aspect of No Escape that shines. As I previously stated, a paper-thin script gives Wilson and his usually terrific co-star, Lake Bell, absolutely nothing to work with and the film suffers immensely. Coupling that brutal fact with a cartoon-ish performance from Pierce Brosnan and No Escape comes and goes as a run of the mill thriller that fails to separate itself from the pack.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Witch and Trumbo Trailers

There's a new horror entry generating a buzz and it isn't your every day scary movie. The Witch has begun making its early rounds throughout the festival circuit, and audiences have been very impressed. This period piece is set in 1630s New England where a Puritan family struggles to grow crops and fend for themselves after their newborn son mysterious vanishes. Believing it could be the work of a supernatural witch, their lives continue to unravel within the bounds of their own fears and anxieties. This indie horror appears to use the perfect time-period to tell a cerebral story about the darkness of the human psyche. The Witch is slated for a 2016 U.S. release.

I'm sure Bryan Cranston would love any role that could separate himself from the iconic character of Breaking Bad's Walter White. He gives a valiant effort in Jay Roach's true story biopic, Trumbo. Cranston stars as 1940s Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, whose career comes to a screeching halt when he's blacklisted by all studios for being a communist. Director Jay Roach has made his mark in the comedy realm as the man behind Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but this time around he's attempted a more heavy-handed drama. Trumbo arrives in theaters on November 6th.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

2015 Oscar Preview - Part 2

Yesterday in Part 1 of my Oscar preview I highlighted the most intriguing titles debuting in September and October. However, we all know that the biggest contenders generally hold off their releases until the November and December months. And while it's still very early in the game and most of this is based purely on speculation, here's a list of the late year films you should have on your radar.


Spotlight - Starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams & Mark Ruffalo

Although director Tom McCarthy hit a dud of epic proportions with his most recent effort, The Cobbler, it's impossible to ignore his otherwise very impressive catalog of work. In his upcoming dramatic release, Spotlight, McCarthy tackles the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalism executed by the Boston Globe which unveiled the diabolical child molestation scandal and cover-up within the Catholic Church. With a lengthy all-star cast and an Oscar-drooling source material, Spotlight has the potential to command a bevy of acting nominations and perhaps a Best Picture nod. Assuming McCarthy recovers from his latest and only cinematic blunder. (November 6th)

Carol - Starring Cate Blanchette & Rooney Mara

Most of the time, timing is everything. Especially when it pertains to the Academy Awards. With the recent victories for the same-sex battles in the Supreme Court, perhaps now is as good a time as any for the upcoming Todd Haynes drama, Carol. Rooney Mara stars as a department store clerk in 1950s New York who dreams of a more glamorous life and falls for a wealthy married woman named Carol (Cate Blanchette). Early indicators point to Blanchette and Mara earning Oscar recognition for their work, as well a potential Director nomination for Haynes. (November 20th)

The Danish Girl - Starring Eddie Redmayne & Alicia Vikander

Eddie Redmayne has been one of the fastest rising actors in Hollywood of late, especially thanks to his Academy Award winning performance as Stephen Hawking in last year's The Theory of Everything. Redmayne returns this year in a collaboration with his Les Miserables director, Tom Hooper, in The Danish Girl, The film follows the true story of 1920s Danish painter, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), and her husband (Eddie Redmayne) who became the first documented person to go through a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Yet another film seemingly arriving at the perfect time, The Danish Girl has all the makings of a top flight Oscar contender that could land nominations for all of Redmayne, Vikander, Hooper as well as Best Picture and beyond. (November 27th)


In the Heart of the Sea - Starring Chris Hemsworth & Cillian Murphy

Everyone is fully aware of Herman Melville's iconic novel, Moby Dick, about a mammoth whale that attacked a vessel in the 1820s. This year, Ron Howard re-teams with his Rush star, Chris Hemsworth, to tell a whole other side to that story with In the Heart of the Sea. Following the assault of a massive whale, the Essex and its crew must fight to survive brutal conditions and circumstances all while killing this beast and finding direction out on the open sea. Rush became a regrettably snubbed film two years ago, and we'll see if the Academy looks to honor the brilliant filmmaker and his anticipated feature. (December 11th)

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens - Starring Oscar Isaac & John Boyega

Despite the fact that Science Fiction films are always overlooked by the Academy, there might not be a film more talked about than The Force Awakens. Director J.J. Abrams trades his Star Trek loyalty for the opportunity to revive one of the greatest franchises in film history. While details of the plot have been closed lip and will continue to be, the early footage looks phenomenal and the final clip of Harrison Ford and Chewbacca is guaranteed to give you the chills. I'd put Oscar hopes at "less than likely", but that doesn't mean The Force Awakens won't be a late-year treat. (December 18th)

Joy - Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper & Robert De Niro

David O. Russell have developed into a "sure-thing" director with the critical adoration of his previous trio of titles The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Yet, I must admit tht the first look into his latest work, Joy, offers a bit of a puzzling vibe that we'll just have to wait and see for ourselves. Jennifer Lawrence stars in the title role as a strong mother figure who, after four generations of guidance, becomes the leader of a highly successful family business. I continue to hold my reservations, however history would suggest that Jennifer Lawrence is a safe bet in the Best Actress race while co-star Bradley Cooper may be in line for a supporting nod and David O. Russell could very well garner another Director's nomination. (December 25th)

The Revenant - Starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Tom Hardy

In the "what have you done for me lately" would in which we find ourselves, perhaps no film is as anticipated as last year's Best Picture winning filmmaker, Alejandro G. Inarritu's, The Revenant. By now everyone is fully aware of megastar Leonardo DiCaprio's quest for an Oscar and, as expected, this latest film has us all wondering if this will be the one. DiCaprio stars as frontiersman Hugh Glass who was viciously attacked and mauled by a bear during an expedition in the uncharted American wilderness in the 1820s. Left for dead by the rest of his hunting team, headed by the betrayal of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Glass must struggle to survive a harsh winter and seek vengeance on Fitzgerald. What's been described by the studio as a visceral cinematic experience, all eyes will be on The Revenant as this year's early frontrunner for Oscar glory. (December 25th)

Honorable Mention: November 6th marks the release of the newest James Bond film, Spectre, which could very well end up in the Oscar mix if everything goes well, as well as the drama Brooklyn which finds Saoirse Ronan in a complicated love triangle.

Angelina Jolie tries once again to break into the Oscar ranks with her relationship drama, By the Sea, starring her and her current beau, Brad Pitt, which arrives on November 13th. And on December 4th the raved about indie, Youth, could land Academy Award acting nominations to its two leading men, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

Finally, a pair of Christmas day releases worth noting are Quentin Tarantino's newest western entry, The Hateful Eight, which could prove a career first Oscar nom for supporting actor Kurt Russell, and the latest from Oliver Stone, Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the whistleblowing title character.