Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Focus and The Lazarus Effect

Once upon a time Will Smith was a Hollywood "untouchable". And then the former king of summer fizzled out, leaving a four-year gap in between 2008 and 2012 where he disappeared from the spotlight altogether. Even since his return to the big screen, audiences having been clamoring for a fresh start from the same megastar they used to know and love. Well now, in co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's new con-man drama, Focus, we're given glimpses of the Will Smith of old.

Nicky (Smith) is a veteran con-man born into the business by his father and grandfather at a very young age. And after taking a beautiful young amateur con-artist named Jess (The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie) under his tutelage, they become romantically involved. Yet, Nicky's deceptive lifestyle as a liar by trade makes falling in love a bit of a messy situation.

Ficarra and Requa are a superb writing and filmmaking tandem that rely heavily on the "twist" in their work. As their third collaborative feature, Focus takes bits and pieces from their first two efforts, Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris, by molding together a solid love story with clever caper-movie elements. The result is an entertaining and fairly unpredictable tale that makes for a gratifying ride. Probably the weakest of all their works, Focus still manages to hold the viewer's attention with frequent humor and periodic twists to keep you on your toes.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Mark Duplass is a fantastic voice in independent film. As a versatile writer, director and actor, Duplass has left this mark on meaningful films such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Having caught Duplass as the show-stealer in the indie horror film, Creep, on last year's film festival circuit, I became slightly intrigued by his newest and more mainstream work, The Lazarus Effect.

Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are a pair of engaged scientists who head a grant-funded research team whose work has evolved into a Lazarus serum that they believe could bring people back from the dead. What begins as a trial on dogs and other animals quickly spirals out of control when a freak accident in the lab unexpectedly takes Zoe's life. However, refusing to accept the loss of his loved one, Frank injects her with the serum and brings her back to life, only to discover that Zoe isn't the same person she once was.

The Lazarus Effect is a strange blend of Frankenstein meets Carrie crossed with a tiny element of Nightmare on Elm Street, but all in a less that satisfying way. Relying on cheap PG-13 scares and demonstrating some serious writing deficiencies, The Lazarus Effect boasts an intriguing premise and very little else. As expected, Duplass delivers another fully committed performance that's unfortunately squandered by weaknesses scattered all throughout the rest of the project.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

2015 Oscars Recap

I just turned 32 years old. I know, it's scary stuff! But through all of the knee troubles I've been experiencing lately and getting married not too long ago in the summer of 2014, nothing has made me recognize my aging as much as fighting desperately to stay awake through Sunday night's long-winded Academy Awards ceremony.

Despite over-extending itself way too far, this year's Oscars offered many iconic moments. Neil Patrick Harris received a passing grade for his first-time hosting duties, Lady Gaga proved she has an amazing set of pipes on her, and a long list of first-time winners delivered memorable acceptance speeches that showed how truly grateful they were for their big prizes.

The Academy Awards has a difficult job of annually recognizing the best of world cinema. And while many (including myself) were excited about all of the tight races that could go any which way on Sunday night, the Oscars managed to be fairly predictable yet again. Outside of perhaps the night's biggest upset, Big Hero 6 taking down How to Train Your Dragon 2 in the Best Animated Feature showdown, all the of major races went in favor of the frontrunners (no matter how slight of an advantage they were given).

Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel stood tallest with four wins apiece. However, to steal an NCAA basketball phrase, quality of wins matters as Birdman captured Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Sundance winner and indie sensation, Whiplash, took home a trio of statues including a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor title for J.K. Simmons.

Also, in as fair a showing as possible, it was interesting to notice that each of the eight Best Picture nominees took home a piece of hardware. The Theory of Everything was honored for leading man Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of ALS sufferer and renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, Boyhood's Patricia Arquette stirred up the crowd during her acceptance speech, The Imitation Game won Best Adapted Screenplay, Selma was recognized for its Original Song, and American Sniper reigned triumphant in the Sound Editing race.

The Academy certainly spread the wealth this year and it was extremely fitting for such a strong crop of films. Even Christopher Nolan's epic time and space adventure, Interstellar, claimed a victory in the Visual Effects category (for a full list of winners click here).

So as we rewind the clocks for another cinematic year, we can only hope that next year's Oscars will run a little faster! Well, that and a win for Leo (finally)!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions

It has been a year in the making, but Tinseltown's biggest event gets underway this Sunday evening. The Academy Awards are the pinnacle of any cinematic year, and you can guarantee that tonight will offer a few surprises. More so than any other year in recent memory, there are a lot of major races completely up for grabs. Birdman vs. Boyhood, Keaton vs. Redmayne, Inarritu vs. Linklater, your guess is as good as mine in these too close to call competitions. But just in case you have no idea which way the Oscar voters will lean, here are my predictions on how tonight will unfold:

Best Picture

Winner - Birdman

There was a time not so long ago when it felt as though Boyhood would be unbeatable in the Best Picture category. However, recent momentum with huge SAG, DGA and PGA wins have put Birdman in the driver's seat.

Best Director

Winner - Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Here's one race where I'm going against the mainstream grain. After Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) won the prestigious Director's Guild Award, which is usually a very strong indicator of how academy members will vote, the weight has shifted to his corner. However, what once was a rare feat, the Oscars have seen many Best Picture/Best Director splits in recent years. Richard Linklater spent 12 years making his instant classic, Boyhood, and I envision a slight upset tonight in his favor. 

Best Actor

Winner - Michael Keaton (Birdman)

It usually isn't a good idea to predict against the guild winners, and I've already done so in the Best Director race, but I'm going to put my faith in another slight underdog, Michael Keaton. Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything has been all the rage lately, however Keaton's once-in-a-lifetime role seems too perfect to vote against. Maybe I'm picking with my heart here, but I hope the academy chooses the veteran for a well deserving performance.

Best Actress

Winner - Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

In a category that's been decided for a few months now, hearing anyone's name other than Julianne Moore would be an absolute shock. She gives a committed performance in the sentimental Alzheimer drama, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor

Winner - J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

While this is another race that feels all but decided, frontrunner J.K. Simmons features a bit more of a challenge from the highly deserving actor Edward Norton (Birdman). If Best Director swings in favor of Birdman as well, Norton could pull off a major upset, but I wouldn't count on it. 

Best Supporting Actress

Winner - Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Although Boyhood has slipped front the head of the pack, you can just about lock up a win for the film's matriarch, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. Similar to Edward Norton's upset factor in the Best Supporting Actor field, Emma Stone (Birdman) is Arquette's biggest threat. Yet, the upset would be very unlikely. 

Other predicted winners ...

Best Original Screenplay - Birdman will ride its wave of momentum in a win here over The Grand Budapest Hotel (which won the WGA albeit Birdman wasn't in contention).

Best Adapted Screenplay - The Imitation Game holds a slight advantage over staunch competitors Whiplash and American Sniper

Best Animated Feature - How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like a clear cut favorite, although Big Hero 6 could be a spoiler.

Best Foreign Language Film - Ida firmly holds the frontrunner status by a wide margin, and any other winner would be a bit of a surprise.

Best Documentary - Citizenfour has a huge edge over the rest of the field, making it a very safe pick.

Rapid Reviews: Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and The DUFF

It's been a handful of years since the wildly premised cult comedy phenomenon, Hot Tub Time Machine, took us on a journey back to the 1980s. Only this time around filmmaker Steve Pink has the difficult duty of replacing one of the original cast members, John Cusack. As an obstacle that's always tough to hurdle, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 swaps Cusack for Park and Recreation star, Adam Scott, and the drop-off actually feels minimal in this surprisingly successful comedy sequel.

After Lou's (Rob Corddry) arrogance as a prominent business owner infuriates a multitude of people, someone shoots him at one of his extravagant house parties. Therefore, Jacob (Clark Duke) and Nick (Craig Robinson) jump into their trusty old time machine with Lou to stop the unknown assassin from pulling the trigger. This murder-mystery aspect is a great inclusion as it helps translate Hot Tub Time Machine 2 into a well-paced and fine-flowing film.

Let me be clear, however. This winning sequel isn't a film you should venture to see without appreciating its predecessor. Yet, fans of the original are guaranteed to enjoy a fresh collection of rehashed and newly crafted jokes that keep the hilarity churning throughout the feature. Adam Scott joins the team and his presence is absolutely necessary, but not without its ups and downs. In a time where I've been constantly letdown by recent comedy sequels such as 22 Jump Street and Dumb and Dumber To, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 marks a rare instance in which taking the appropriate amount of time to make the film correctly actually pans out.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

If I must admit, teen comedies have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Everything from John Hughes' classics in the 80s, to Can't Hardly Wait in the 90s and as recently as a personal favorite of mine, with 2010's Easy A. Therefore, when I first caught a glimpse of Ari Sandel's The DUFF, I was immediately intrigued. Unfortunately, though, a hearty message isn't merely enough to sustain this vastly unoriginal teen flick.

The Perk of Being a Wallflower co-star, Mae Whitman, takes center stage as Bianca, an ordinary high school senior who's devastated to discovery that she's the DUFF ("designated ugly fat friend") to her popular circle of friends. This earth-shattering news sets her world off-track and forces her to ask a childhood friend and heartthrob, Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), to help transform her into a date-able woman in order to win over her crush. It's impossible to deny The DUFF's firm and valuable moral to its story, which it constantly feels pressured to spell out to the audience again and again with voice-over, yet Ari Sandel's directorial debut offers nothing new to the genre.

While I'm not the first to point out The DUFF's unmistakable desire to mimic the teen comedy hit, Easy A, its impossible to overlook similarities like its leading lady's quick-witted and adult-like vocabulary, as well as the same school mascot (Blue Devils) and multiple overlapping songs to their soundtracks, The film has its moments of sincere laughs and well-acted dramatics, but unfortunately they become overshadowed by the "been there, done that" undertone that lurks throughout. Mae Whitman and the rest of the cast give their greatest efforts, but they just weren't great enough in this highly mediocre teen comedy.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Top 10 Oscar Moments

*** Guest writer Greg Rouleau recounts his 10 favorite Oscar moments

Growing up watching the Oscars can definitely be attributed to my love for film today.  While not always showcasing the most mainstream of choices, the Academy’s nominations encouraged me to seek out the movies that weren’t always taking up half the wall at Blockbuster, or to venture off to one of the Ritz theaters in Philadelphia to see something that’s only in limited release.   I don’t always agree with the winners, but the nominations are usually a solid selection of what truly represents the best of that year in films and performances.  Thankfully, in my twenty-plus years of watching the ceremony, there have been a number of moments that stuck with me, and thanks to YouTube, I’ve been able to relive over and over again.  Here are some of my personal favorites.

Honorable Mention: Not quite the crème de le crème, I have to recognize a few moments starting back in 1993 when 11-year-old Anna Paquin was stunned speechless after Gene Hackman revealed her win for Supporting Actress in The Piano.  In 2006, when Three Six Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for A Pimp” won Best Original Song, which was a shocking upset but also a hilarious moment, accented by host Jon Stewart immediately after, claiming, “I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp”.   Here’s a pair of funny moments with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in 2004, then Seth Rogen and James Franco in 2009.  Finally, just last year we had Ellen’s Oscar Selfie, and the Apex of the McConassiance.

10 – Dustin Hoffman Keeps It Classy

The one moment on this list I didn’t experience live, is Dustin Hoffman’s humble and heartfelt acceptance speech for Kramer vs. Kramer, where he honors the hard-working crew of the film, actors everywhere attempting to break into the industry and a poignant tribute to his fellow nominees.  

 9 – Cuba Gooding’s Ecstatic Speech

It’s unfortunate that Cuba Gooding didn’t exactly capitalize on his Oscar win in 1997, with his lackluster role choice following Jerry Maguire, but his speech will always be remembered for the exuberant manner in which he kicked off the proceedings that year.  It starts slow and humble and explodes at the end once the “please get off the stage” music kicks in.  Not to be bullied, Gooding actually uses the music crescendo to start exclaiming his love for everyone involved, then a big fist pump that gets a standing ovation.

8 – Woody Allen Finally Appears

Woody Allen, is notorious for no-showing the Oscar ceremony.   A three-time winner at this point, but never there to receive the statue, the unfortunate events of 9-11 finally encouraged the New York City native to make an appearance.  Allen shows up to introduce a montage of films of New York, and makes the most of his showing with an incredibly funny speech addressing his trepidation for coming, as well as his previous awards and snubs.  

7 – Hugh Jackman Nails the Opening Number

Oscar hosts seem to usually kick-off the show one of two ways: a lengthy stand-up style monologue, or a musical number honoring the films of that year.  While some have been more memorable than others, Hugh Jackman’s opening number in 2009 stands above the rest.   His “on a budget” set – thanks to the economic recession – is a nice touch, as well as his inclusion of future Les Miserables co-star, Anne Hathaway.  A well deserved standing ovation to the host who hopefully is invited back very soon. 

6 – Tom Hanks Goes Back-to-Back

It seems rather strange to think Tom Hanks started his career off as one of the best comedic actors in the business, only to reveal that he also had the chops to pull off the strongest dramatic roles as well, a transition that not all actors can so effortlessly achieve.  Hanks won in ‘93 for Philadelphia and ‘94 for Forrest Gump, both very well deserved and he delivers two equally heartfelt speeches, one of which even inspired the 1997 movie In and Out.  

5 – Spielberg Wins His First Best Director

In 1976, a young Steven Spielberg watched in agony as he was snubbed for Best Director for Jaws.  Then in 1994, nearly twenty years later, he would receive his first of two Best Director Oscars, for Schindler’s List in one of the easiest slam dunk wins ever for arguably one of the greatest directors of all-time.  

4 – Scorsese Gets His Due

The “Will Martin Scorsese Ever Win For Director?” was a story well before I even began to follow the Oscars closely.  Finding himself on the losing end for Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ, I then witnessed him coming close for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and it was starting to look like Scorsese might join Hitchcock, Kubrick and Altman, among others, as one of the greatest auteurs never to win Best Director.   But after returning to the gangster genre in 2006 for The Departed, the stars aligned and Marty, deservingly, won his first statue. 

3 – Robin Williams Best Supporting Actor

The late Robin Williams took home his first and only Oscar in 1998 for Good Will Hunting.  His acceptance speech is brief but includes some memorable quips about the young screenwriting duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as well as the subliminally effective direction of Gus Van Sant.  It’s very evident how truly honored the great actor is, as well as his long-time friend, Billy Crystal, who served as host that year.  

2 – Heath Ledger Posthumous Oscar Win

In 2007, a year before the release of The Dark Knight, word was coming from set that Heath Ledger had tapped into something special with his take on the Joker.  Everyone from Gary Oldman to the veteran Michael Caine – who apparently was so stunned by Heath’s work that he forgot his lines the first time he saw him in character – were raving about the young Aussie. Tragedy then struck in January of 2008 as Ledger passed away from an accidental drug overdose, for better or worse giving the film, and his role, even more buzz.  It turned out to live up to the hype and is one of the most iconic performances ever.   Heath’s Joker dominated the award season, winning all of the major precursors and culminating with his family accepting the Oscar on his behalf at the 2009 ceremony.  

1 – Adrien Brody Upsets in Best Actor

At the 2003 Oscars, four of the five nominees were previous winners, and then there was Adrien Brody.  It was presumed the race was between Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, and Brody had only managed to win a small number of precursors, with the National Society of Film Critics being the most notable, but nothing that would indicate this dark horse as a potential upset.   So when Halle Berry reveals Brody as the winner, the shocked look on Brody’s face is truly genuine.  He revels in the standing ovation then seizes the moment and memorably plants one on Berry.   His speech begins with a joke about the absurdity of the situation and then after nearly two minutes he actually stops the cut-off music cold to finish with a few words on the situation in Iraq, and how his experience filming The Pianist opened his eyes to the experience and “dehumanization” of war, which earns him a second standing ovation – mid-speech.   Him and the audience then fight back the tears as he caps off his remarkable win with a shout out to one of his friends serving in Kuwait.  Bravo, Mr. Brody.  Bravo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Best Performers Who Never Won an Oscar

Every year the Academy Awards are full of surprises and, on the other end of the spectrum, a fair amount of "sure-things". This year is no exception as safe bets include first-time acting winners to-be include Julianne Moore (Still Alice), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood). Not to mention another first time winner coming out of the Best Actor category, whether it be Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) or the potential spoiler, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper).

The Oscars always seem to provide plenty of first-time winners, that's why it's so shocking to pinpoint all of the gifted actors and actresses who have somehow managed to elude a prestigious Academy Awards victory. Hence, for February's Movie List of the Month I take a look at Hollywood's top 10 biggest stars who have never won an Oscar (click here for January's List).

Honorable Mention: Glenn Close, Robert Downey Jr., Ralph Fiennes, Joaquin Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver.

#10. Will Smith

The two-time Oscar Nominated star was once revered as the "King of Hollywood" after an impressive stretch of money-printing summer blockbusters in the late 90s. However, Smith has surprisingly never won an Oscar or fared well with the Academy whatsoever. His biggest opportunity at a gold statue came in 2007 when he lost for his role in The Pursuit of Happyness to Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland).

#9. Harrison Ford

Best known for hit franchises such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones as well as a brief stint as the iconic literary character, Jack Ryan, Harrison Ford is another Hollywood star who has never garnered much appreciation from the Academy. Having only been nominated once for his role in 1984's Witness, Ford ultimately lost out to Willian Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and has yet to make it back to the Oscars.

#8. Brad Pitt

Heartthrob Brad Pitt actually possess some exceptional acting skills, as illustrated by his trio of acting nominations. Unfortunately for Pitt, he's forced to fill this void with an Oscar win as producer of the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Pitt's most upsetting defeat came as recently as 2012 when he lost for his role in Moneyball to Jean Dujardin's silent performance in The Artist.

#7. Bill Murray

It's impossible to ignore the great Bill Murray's comedic talents, but the versatile actor has proven that he has a knack for the dramatics as well. Murray's lone nomination came in 2004 for his work in the Sofia Coppola drama, Lost in Translation, where he was eventually beaten by Sean Penn (for another over-acted role in Mystic River).

#6. Annette Bening

While it's a widely-regarded fact that there are far more promising roles for men than women on a yearly basis, one actress that's failed to collect on a long overdue Oscar statue is Annette Bening. The four-time nominee still hasn't won "the big one" yet, but 2011's showcase was her most promising opportunity (for The Kids are All Right). Although she ultimately lost out to Natalie Portman in a deserving win for Black Swan, the Academy usually votes against darker-themed work, but not that time!

#5. Johnny Depp

Many will call into question Johnny Depp's versatility, as he regularly reprises similar characters in the many Tim Burton works which he's featured. However, no one can dispute his unforgettable turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Much like the previously mentioned Bill Murray, the three-time nominated star's best chance at a win came in 2004 where Captain Jack Sparrow lost out to an undeserving Sean Penn.

#4. Tom Cruise

As one of my personal favorite actors of all-time, Tom Cruise also suffers from the same type-casted label that plagues Johnny Depp. But despite Cruise's pretty-boy stigma, the actor has earned himself a trio of nominations from the Academy throughout his long and prestigious career. The closest he's ever come to winning the highly coveted honor was in 1997 when Cruise (Jerry Maguire) fell to Geoffrey Rush (Shine). Don't worry, Tom. I still believe you're going to win one someday!

#3. Edward Norton

Edward Norton's career kicked off in grand fashion when he earned an Oscar Nomination for his first feature film, a brilliant role in the court-room thriller Primal Fear. After losing that year to Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), we all believed Norton would be an Oscar regular for the remainder of his career. Yet, Norton has come and gone in recent years, usually with exceptional work though. For example, he's the only entrant from this list with a chance at changing history for this year's role in Birdman. Although he's nominated and one of the top contenders, a win seems almost assured for his biggest competitor, J.K. Simmons. In fact, Norton should have won already for his turn in the drama American History X, but instead lost to Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) in 1999.

#2. Robert Redford

Upon doing my research for this list, I was utterly shocked to discover that the legendary talent, Robert Redford, had never won an Academy Award for acting. Equally mystifying is the fact that's he's only been nominated once, and that was in 1974 for The Sting. Another iconic performer, Jack Lemmon, took home the statue that year for his role in Save the Tiger, but I'm sure everyone believed Redford would have plenty of opportunities in his career. Unfortunately, the aging veteran refuses to play the campaigning game and it has hurt his chances as recently as last year for his gutsy portrayal in All Is Lost.

#1. Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio is the actor that lists like this are made for. The mega-star has garnered four Oscar Nominations without ever leaving the ceremony victorious, and it's truly an unjust reality. DiCaprio churns out spectacular work on almost a yearly basis, yet the Academy has yet to reward such a talented performer. Much like Will Smith who fell victim to Forest Whitaker in 2007, that was DiCaprio's year to win. Leo gave a brilliant turn as Danny Archer in Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, but he was overlooked yet again. Although we can all anticipate that Leo's "big win" is coming, and hopefully soon, it's a major surprise that he (along with all of these other major talents) still hasn't claimed Oscar glory.