Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Best of 2014 ... So Far (Part II)

Yesterday I began a short two-part series taking a look at the Top 10 films released in 2014 so far. Numbers 6 through 10 included some early year comedies, some brand new September releases and a money-making summer blockbuster. But before the wave of Fall Oscar contenders begin crashing into theatres all across the country, here are my 5 best films of 2014 so far.

I'd be the first to admit that I had zero interest in another Marvel superhero franchise sweeping across the globe. However, they got it right with Guardians of the Galaxy. Superior even to the overly-loved Avengers, the latest team of misfit superheros provided enormous laughs without watering down its running time with useless action sequences. After Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) discovers a mysterious orb in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, he becomes the target of a manhunt led by the evil fanatic Ronan. Peter must team up with an unlikely group of not-so superheros featuring an assassin named Gamora, a muscled-up maniac named Drax, a vulgar raccoon named Rocket, and a tree-like creature known as Groot. Together they must unite to save the galaxy from Ronan's powerful destruction. Director James Gunn offers a winning formula of hilarity and tasteful thrills that's sure to generate many future Guardians of the Galaxy installments.

On one hand, I'll never understand what sick and self-torturing audiences crave seeing intentionally sad and emotional pieces of work like this summer's The Fault in Our Stars. But on the other hand, when such a film successfully delivers its power message in an entertaining (albeit heartbreaking) way, I finally "get it". Adapted from a 2012 John Green novel of the same name, Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a cynical 16 year-old girl stricken with a form of thyroid cancer that has compromised her lungs and forces her to travel around with an oxygen tank. While at a cancer support group she literally bumps into Augustus Waters (played by Ansel Elgort), a care-free and spirited young man who possess a prosthetic due to his form of cancer. Together they experience a profound love that can only be highlighted by a crippling backdrop of sickness and inevitable loss. Powerful performances by both young leads transforms The Fault in Our Stars from a hokey tearjerker into a beautiful examination of love.

One of the most unlikely finalists on my Top 10 list comes in the form of the festival circuit favorite, Cheap Thrills. Pat Healy stars as Craig, a hardworking husband and father struggling to make ends meet. But on the same day he loses his job and receives an eviction notice, Craig wanders into a local bar to drown his sorrows before confronting his wife with the terrible news. While there he runs into an old friend (played by Ethan Embry) and a mysterious couple who have an intriguing game in mind. They decide to offer some high stakes to see just how far these old friends are willing to go for a massive pay-day. With an escalating madness and desperation that's beautifully paced into an 88 minute thrill-ride, clever writing and a knockout role from Pat Healy leave Cheap Thrills as one of the finest thrillers in recent memory.

2. Chef

Attempting the rare feat of writing, directing and starring in his own film, Jon Favreau delivers one of 2014's most memorable movies, Chef. Carl Casper rules the kitchen in an upscale restaurant, but when he decides to deviate from the normal menu in order to impress a powerful food critic, the restaurant owner gives him an ultimatum. So rather than losing his job, Carl sticks the the routine menu and receives a terrible review. After a social media feud that spirals out of control, Carl quits his job and desires to find a way to make a profit off of his creative culinary freedom, all while trying to build a connection with the son he hardly knows. Not only does Chef offer a zestful soul-searching message of inner happiness, the film pairs that together with a fantastic father-son story that never disappoints. Providing legitimate laughs and a heartwarming tale, Chef stands out as one of 2014's finest cinematic offerings.

There has never been a film quite like Richard Linklater's Boyhood. The ambitious 12 year project featured Linklater shooting his entire film in bits and pieces for more than a decade, creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) is a starry-eyed boy whose life unfolds before your very eyes. We see Mason's beginnings as a young child of divorce and his mother's attempt at trying to create a whole new family environment after she falls for one of her college professors. All of these experience shape Mason's perspective on life as he matures towards adulthood. It's difficult trying to capture the right words to describe the groundbreaking achievement that is Boyhood. Linklater is a true visionary who creates a unique coming-of-age-tale that's sure to top many critics' end of the year lists.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Best of 2014 ... So Far (Part I)

As we approach the middle of September, we're about to head into the Fall movie season where dozens of Oscar hopefuls will battle for a chance to reign supreme. But before that happens, I've decided to spend the next two days breaking down my Top 10 Films of 2014 (so far). As it happens every year, many of these early-year releases and summer blockbusters will fade into the background and never find their way to my final list of 2014 in late-December. So if you're seeking a title or two to catch in the upcoming weeks, here's the first portion of this year's releases that you'll want to check out.

(Disclaimer: I haven't seen seen some of the highly regarded superhero films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Honorable Mention: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Blue Ruin, Oculus and Million Dollar Arm.

Back in April we were given one of the year's finest comedies, and you probably didn't even know it. Funny men Nick Frost (The World's End) and Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids) star as co-workers rivaling for the affection of their attractive new boss (played by Rashida Jones). And when they discover her hidden love of salsa dancing, Bruce (Frost) attempts to recapture the dance floor skills from his childhood and out-duel his confident jerk of a co-worker. The laughs are endless and a hilarious surprise supporting turn from up-and-comer Kayvan Novak helps propel Cuban Fury well beyond the average comedy.

Next up on my list is another more high-profile comedy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall director, Nicholas Stoller. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne star as the Radners, a younger married couple and parents of a baby girl who are struggling to hold onto their youthful energy. However, when a fraternity lead by Teddy and Pete (Zac Efron and Dave Franco) purchases the house next door, the Radners quickly discover their appreciation for adulthood and will do whatever it takes to get rid of their annoying neighbors. Relying on large volumes of raunchy and vulgar humor obviously generated through tons of improvised footage, Neighbors is never short on laughs and outrageous one-liners.

There are a couple newcomer releases on this list, first is this weekend's debut feature, The Drop. Author Dennis Lehane has witnessed successful adaptations of his stories such as Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island. Lehane's latest offering comes from a short story called Animal Rescue that's been molded into The Drop, the tale of a bartender from Brooklyn (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) who are robbed at gun point after closing time. Their Chechen bar owners aren't very understanding of the predicament and demand repayment all while local investigators begin snooping around. Sporting top-notch performances from its leading pair and a unique story, The Drop certainly stands out among the crowd.

The 2014 crop of Sundance Film Festival selections proved to be a stellar group. One of the most notable features to debut in Park City, Utah was this weekend's limited release, The Skeleton Twins. Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play a pair of siblings who are brought together under a set of unfortunate circumstances after not speaking to each other for nearly a decade. They both discover the imperfections in their lives and struggle to offer mutual support when difficulties begin to mount. Wiig and Hader both deliver brilliant blends of both comedy and drama in their career defining performances. The Skeleton Twins tells an honest and forthright story that only translates as well as it does thanks to a gifted pair of lead performers.

After a successful origin film in 2011, the Planet of the Apes franchise continues on in grand fashion with this summer's blockbuster addition. Following the spread of a virus that's wiped out a large portion of mankind, genetically evolved apes escape deep into the woods and established a harmonious community together. But as a colony of humans expand their search for a much-needed power source to provide electricity, they encounter the community of apes. While Caesar tries his best to work in conjunction with the humans, peace proves too difficult to maintain and a battle between humans and apes must wage on. Sleek writing sets the stage for an insightful and psychological story that transcends the stereotypical blockbuster action flick, clearly marking Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as one of the year's finest offerings.

*** Stay tuned for tomorrow when I headline the Top 5 Films of 2014 ... so far.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fury (NEW) and Horrible Bosses 2 Trailers

A lot has changed over the last six weeks when I outlined my Fall Oscar Preview. Action connoisseur David Ayer's highly anticipated and presumed awards season contender, Fury, has pushed its release date up a month to October 17th. Brad Pitt stars as an army sergeant in command of a Sherman tank unit who's forced to lead his team on a deadly mission in Europe against the Nazis during World War II. Check out the new trailer for Fury below.

On a much lighter note, Warner Bros. Pictures has released another sneak peak into the comedy sequel Horrible Bosses 2. The same dim-witted trio attempt to start their own business until a ruthless investor (Christoph Waltz) foils their dreams. So Dale, Kurt and Nick retaliate the only way they know how, by scheming a lucrative kidnapping plan against their nemesis. Scheduled for a November 25th release date, you can catch the trailer for Horrible Bosses 2 below.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Drop

Film: The Drop

Starring: Tom Hardy (Lawless), James Gandolfini (Enough Said) and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus)

Director: Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead)

U.S. Release: September 12th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

Surprisingly, it's been nearly 15 months since we lost the gifted actor James Gandolfini. And with his final onscreen performance in the upcoming crime-drama The Drop reaching theatres this weekend, for movie lovers everywhere, only now is the reality of our loss beginning to sink in. Adapted from the Dennis Lehane (author of Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River) short story titled Animal Rescue, Gandolfini's sadly short-lived career comes full circle in this mob-centered tale.

Tom Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, a loner bartender at his cousin Marv's (James Gandolfini) former bar in Brooklyn. The dive-bar establishment is now owned by Chechen mobsters as a haven for funneling illegal funds. After Bob and Marv are robbed at gun point one evening just minutes after closing time, tensions start to rise as the Chechens demand repayment and local law enforcement gets involved.

I must admit that I had wavering expectations prior to viewing Michael Roskam's The Drop. On one hand, Dennis Lehane's storytelling has a long history of success, yet, Roskam's lack of experience made him feel like an unusual choice for director. Thankfully, The Drop's sequence of events unravels nicely and a brilliant cast, carried mostly by the work of James Gandolfini and a personal favorite of mine, Tom Hardy, helps solidify the directorial effort from a rather unknown filmmaker. As expected, Gandolfini delivers a very natural performance in his final role, one that has a chance of garnering a posthumous Oscar Nomination in the Supporting Actor category. Most impressive though is how The Drop distances itself from being a carbon copy of the mainstream gangster film mold that prides itself on drugs, violence and plenty of shoot-em-up scenes. Instead, the feature uses these essential mob-genre ingredients merely as a backdrop to an in-depth character study. And although the pacing feels sluggish at times, we're left with a slow-mounting intensity that builds beautifully.

Despite the film's unique character-driven noir-ish tone, The Drop tells a very peculiar tale, one that leads to many surprises and leaves the audience unsure of how to feel. For example, during a pivotal moment at last night's screening, a majority of viewers erupted into laughter during an admittedly odd scene. While I highly doubt that humor was anything close to the reaction director Michael Roskam was going for during that vital moment, a strange turn in the story left moviegoers baffled at how to respond. Furthermore, The Drop closes with an almost contradictory scene that I felt the movie could have done without. However, none of these criticisms are glaring enough to tear down an otherwise fine adaptation from the entire cast and crew.

I would hardly call Michael Roskam's The Drop a "must-see" film. However, fans of Gandolfini and Hardy are sure to find plenty of enjoyment in their latest crime-focused feature. Don't expect anything groundbreaking here, just a stellar collection of performances and clever storytelling.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

DVD Outlook: September 2014

The barren Summer months of watered-down releases have finally come and gone. August left much to be desired, but September promises to deliver a fantastic collection of films arriving on DVD. Two of 2014's finest early-year offerings headline a strong class of titles work checking out this month.

Chef - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Jon Favreau puts all of his many talents on display as the writer, director and star of Chef, a heartwarming tale of a culinary genius desperately searching for a reasonable platform to creatively express his passion for cooking. And after a difference in opinion with his boss and a twitter battle with one of the most powerful food critics around costs him his job, he embarks on a food-truck journey with his chef-sidekick (played by John Leguizamo) and son. With a budget of merely $10 million, this little festival darling tells a story that is both tender and uplifting. Chef stands tall as one of 2014's finest films and an experience that everyone savor. (September 30th)

The Fault in Our Stars - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read my full review here)

Another very impressive film coming to DVD this September is Josh Boone's adapted teenage drama, The Fault in Our Stars. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort star as Hazel and Gus, a pair of ill teenagers who meet at a cancer support group. And no matter how much Hazel tries to distance herself from Gus to avoid an inevitable heartbreak, the witty and spry young man refuses to give up so easily. Catering to the emotions and intended to tug at the heartstrings, there's no escaping the remarkable love story at the center of The Fault in our Stars. (September 16th)

Neighbors - 3 stars out of 4 - (Read full review here)

One of 2014's most notable comedies will be hitting shelves this month as well. Nicholas Stoller's riotous R-rated comedy, Neighbors, follows a young married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) who's surprised to discover that a fraternity has purchased the house next door to them. Tip-toeing a fine line between adulthood and the college-lifestyle, they soon realize that they can't keep up with party habits of their neighbors (Zac Efron and Dave Franco). High on improv comedy and desperate to deliver the shock-appeal, Neighbors is an indisputably hilarious effort that even culminates with a well-intended message. If you're seeking some raunchy laughs, then look no further. (September 23rd)

Honorable Mention: While I unsatisfied with Godzilla (9/16) and suggest staying away from Draft Day (9/2) altogether, there are plenty of other secondary titles worth looking in to. A ton of praise has been given to one of 2014's highest grossing films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (9/9), so fans or the Marvel Universe will want to check that out. Various Sundance selections I got a chance to view include God's Pocket (9/9), which is a fun watch for people from the Philly area, Cold in July (9/30), a highly praised festival favorite that I didn't love, and the decent family drama Hellion (9/30). Three other indie titles I'm interested in seeing are Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves (9/2), Guy Pearce in The Rover (9/23) and James Franco in Palo Alto (9/9).

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Foxcatcher (NEW) and Rosewater Trailers

The suspense is killing me! It feels as though I've been waiting my whole life for the release of Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, a story that's both local and iconic from my childhood, and all the studio continues to release are short teaser trailers. Steve Carell stars as John du Pont, a wealthy sponsor driven to recapture American glory in the sport of wresting. After he builds a first-class training facility and recruits a pair of gifted brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), du Pont begins to display unusual behavior that leads to a shocking finale. Foxcatcher received rave reviews at the Cannes Festival earlier this year and reaches theatres on November 14th.

Both Foxcatcher and The Daily Show's Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater, were outlined in my Fall Oscar Preview. While little has been known about Stewart's passion project until the release of Rosewater's first official trailer, we can now see that he's going for Oscar gold. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Maziar Bahari in the adapted autobiographical account of the journalist's 100+ days of brutal interrogation in an Irani prison. There's no shortage of dramatics here and if the film can manage to tell a well thought-out harrowing story, then Rosewater may end up being a legitimate Oscar contender.