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.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Imitation Game and Focus Trailers

After taking home the highly coveted Audience Award from the Toronto International Film Festival, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game instantly became an early front-runner in the Best Picture race. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as English mathematician Alan Turing who built a machine that helped crack the Nazi's Enigma code and change the course of World War II. As a Centerpiece selection at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival later this month, The Imitation Game hits theatres everywhere in late-November.

In 2015, directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa return to the con-man comedy genre with Focus. After a successful indie debut with I Love You Phillip Morris, the pair of filmmakers hit it big with 2011's beloved comedy, Crazy, Stupid, Love. Their upcoming release finds Will Smith as a brilliant con artist who takes a beautiful seductress (The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie) under his wing. Things really get difficult, however, once these two untrustworthy criminals get romantically involved. Focus finds its way to the big screen in late February, 2015.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

DVD Outlook: October 2014

October has arrived and theatres everywhere are starting to fill with worthwhile options such as Gone Girl and this weekend's newcomer, Kill the Messenger. But if you've already muscled through all of September's exceptional DVD selections, this month also has plenty of stellar titles to choose from. Here are a few films definitely worth checking out on DVD throughout October.

Million Dollar Arm - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

I know what you're thinking. Here's another hokey and overly sentimental sports story from the Disney collection, but you couldn't be further from the truth. Million Dollar Arm tells an interesting true story of a financially strapped sports agent (played by Jon Hamm) who takes one last shot at tapping into the Indian market for the next wave of MLB pitching prospects. While there, he discovers two talented young men desperate to try anything in order to turn their fortunes around. Outside of a remarkable true tale, Million Dollar Arm boasts a plethora of fun and lovable characters that add an enormous amount of charm to the feature. It's in no way one of the greatest sports movies of all-time, but the film does stand out as a worthy viewing option. (October 7th)

Begin Again - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (Read my condensed review here)

Best known for his 2006 romantic Irish movie musical, Once, director John Carney continues to embrace the music theme in this year's film, Begin Again. Mark Ruffalo stars as Dan, a binge-drinking record executive who's fired from the same company he helped build. Across the city Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a talented musician whose boyfriend (played by Maroon 5's Adam Levine) is becoming a huge star. After he breaks off their relationship, Gretta performs an original song at a small bar in the city where Dan catches the performance and it ignites a desire to make a record. Together they embark on a journey of rediscovery and musical passion. Begin Again is full of laughs, emotion and redemption. Begin Again tells a simple, yet tender, story that's delivered well thanks to strong performances from its leading duo. (October 28th)

The Grand Seduction - 2 and a half stars out of 4 - (No review available)

One of the finest goofball comedies of the year was Don McKellar's, The Grand Seduction. A personal favorite of mine, the underrated Brendan Gleeson, stars as Murray French, an aging and unemployed resident of a tiny fishing village called Tickle Cove. When Murray discovers that his village needs a doctor in order to secure a local contract for a factory that will help save Tickle Cove from financial disaster, the community bands together to lure a young physician (Taylor Kitsch) into sticking around. The Grand Seduction is full of legitimate laughs that help ease an otherwise long-winded affair. Gleeson, Kitsch and company all play their parts very well and help elevate The Grand Seduction into a well-made crowd-pleaser. (October 7th)

Honorable Mention: Two major titles I haven't seen but keep hearing rave reviews about are X-Men: Days of Future Past (10/14) and the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer (10/21). At Sundance I enjoyed the George Takei documentary To Be Takei (10/7) and the indie comedy Obvious Child (10/7) proved to be a breakout for its female lead, Jenny Slate. Mediocre efforts like Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow (10/7) and the horror sequel The Purge: Anarchy (10/21) find their way to DVD this month as well. And finally, I recommend staying away from the new Seth MacFarlane comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West (10/7) and the indie zombie comedy Life After Beth (10/21) but both films are also available in October.