Thursday, December 18, 2014

Knight of Cups and Mad Max: Fury Road Trailers

Filmmaker Terrence Malick possesses a loyal cult following, so the niche crowd clearly rejoiced at a glance into the upcoming 2015 film, Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. There are very few people who view the world and artistic expression like Malick, evident from his mind blowing 2011 Oscar Nominated film, The Tree of Life. But with this latest project, Malick finally appears to be tackling a modern-day setting for once, something which could be a nice change of pace for the director. I'm eager to see how it translates, but if you're looking for a practical plot to the film, odds are you'll never get one. That isn't Malick's style, so you should see it for yourself.

Another cult classic franchise is getting a jump-start in 2015 with the long-awaited prequel, Mad Max: Fury Road. What makes this journey into the futuristic setting of a broken down wasteland so unconventional is original director George Miller returns after a three decade-long absence to revive the story. Move over Mel Gibson, because a superbly talented Tom Hardy takes over the title role of "Road Warrior" and the film, which Miller describes as one long "feature-length chase scene", has loyal fans stoked for its release.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Film: Selma

Starring: David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels' The Butler) and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)

Director: Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere)

U.S. Release: December 25th, 2014 (Limited Release - Not Yet Rated)

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 127 minutes

Timing is everything. The current state of racial turmoil in the United States is abundantly clear and, much like the central figure in Ava DuVernay's freight-train of an Oscar contender, Selma, I'm a believer in universal peace and unconditional love. But with relatively recent outcomes in the deaths of unarmed African American individuals such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, where much controversy has been boiling up for some time, DuVernay's timely picture leaves us wondering how far we've really come since the violence-plagued Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

David Oyelowo stars as the charismatic preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during his fearless crusade to the hotbed of racial animosity in Selma, Alabama. After local authorities continue to reject voter registration applications from African Americans trying to exercise their rights, Dr. King shifts the focus of the Civil Rights Movement to the heart of the south where he's greeted by hate-fueled law enforcement and state politicians. Desperately seeking the support of a reluctant President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Dr. King decides to lead a peaceful 54-mile march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery in hopes of achieving legislation granting African American's the uninhibited right to vote.

Analyzing the latest emotional Civil Rights drama, Selma, purely on its qualities as a film, there are many aspects that are worthy of fair criticism. Many strong performances aside (I will touch on each of them later), DuVernay's breakthrough feature is hampered by a noticeably weak first-time screenwriter, Paul Webb, and some serious issues with pacing. While Webb's screenplay has been lauded by many in the early going of the year-end awards run, the writing is actually bogged down with mild cliches and very little depth. What you see is what you get and outside of a few justly included facts surrounding Dr. King's known infidelity, most of the film's characters and situations are quite superficial and without complexity. As for the film's long-winded and repetitive feel, I understand that the entire production team stays true to the historical timeline and the three marching attempts needed to achieve their goal, but the manner in which the story unravels is punishingly slow. These mitigating factors place Ava DeVernay's Selma much closer to Lee Daniels' The Butler than last year's gut-wrenching Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.

Despite over-extending itself and merely scratching the surface with many of its characters, Selma offers many exceptional performances. While David Oyelowo's courageous turn as Dr. King will almost assuredly land him an Oscar Nomination in the Best Actor category, I was most impressed by supporting stars Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson. Ejogo is given the most multi-dimensional character as Coretta Scott King and she handles the role mightily well. Roth is convincingly despicable as segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and Wilkinson walks on egg shells adequately as President Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, DuVernay gives a superb directorial effort as well. Her whole-hearted devotion is evident as she truly captures the essence of these iconic moments in U.S. history. Some naysayers will declare DuVernay's assumed Oscar Nomination for Best Director as nothing more than a flashy headline as she'd be the first female of color to ever be nominated. Yet, truth be told, she does a remarkable job and would be worthy of any such recognition.

I will close by stating that I typically try to avoid political discussion because of the insensitivity it generally promotes, but Selma makes it difficult to ignore. And while I certainly understand the authenticity dedicated to showing physical brutality and visceral images that undoubtedly occurred during this real-life struggle for freedom, however, putting such a large focus of the film on the unforgivable rage that transpired in Selma is the wrong message to send to audiences. Although I will not speak on DuVernay's behalf and claim this as her intention, I can guarantee that there will be factions of viewers who leave their theatres feeling bitter and enraged by the story. For example, at last night's screening in the city of Philadelphia, a select few clapped and cheered during the final moments when screen text revealed that racist politician George Wallace was left paralyzed by an assassination attempt in 1972. This is by no means the message of peace that the great Dr. King lived and died for, and that's the message our country needs right now.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Best Seth Rogen & James Franco Films

November examined The Greatest Comedy Sequels and, in some ways, December's Movie List of the Month boasts a similar theme. Despite the middling reaction from early reviews, Seth Rogen and James Franco's controversy-stirring comedy, The Interview, is a must-see on my year-end checklist. Therefore, this month I'm ranking the best Seth Rogen and James Franco top-billed films.

Honorable Mention: This Is the End, Neighbors and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

#5. Milk

James Franco wasn't a driving force behind Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic, Milk, but he offered a compelling side character that helped bring some authenticity to his skills. All in all, though, a fantastic ensemble headed by an Oscar-winning performance from Sean Penn helped earn the film 8 Academy Award Nominations.

#4. Superbad

While Jonah Hill and Michael Cera were clearly the main attractions in the 2007 comedy hit, Superbad, some of the film's funniest moments were delivered by the wacky cop duo featuring Seth Rogen. Enjoying a wild night on the town with their nerdy sidekick, McLovin, Rogen's beer chugging and gun-firing officer supported Greg Mottola's instant comedy classic.

#3. 127 Hours

When I first started brainstorming the idea for this list, I immediately expected Danny Boyle's emotional true story of survival, 127 Hours, to finish at the top. Surprisingly, James Franco's unforgettable Oscar-nominated turn as an outdoor enthusiast who goes to unspeakable lengths to survive a canyoneering accident in the mountains of Utah somehow finds itself in third place. That's a true testament to quality of films on this list.

#2. The 40 Year-Old Virgin

For as much as I loved 127 Hours, I must admit that Judd Apatow's undisputed funniest feature, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, is one of my favorite comedies ever. Steve Carell stars as Andy, an aging virgin who's coerced into getting back in the game by a trio of oddball co-workers. All of the supporting characters are great but Seth Rogen gets entangled with Paul Rudd in the hilarious "You know how I know you're gay?" joke, and it's still quotable to this day. 

#1. 50/50

Seth Rogen takes back to back #1 and #2 spots with the amazing cancer drama, 50/50. Featuring a perfect balance of both humor and earnest sentiment, Jonathan Levine's emotional tale also headlined my Best Films of 2011 list as well. And although its most outspoken fans demanded Oscar recognition for a brilliant lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I clamored for Seth Rogen's supporting role as the hysterical lighter side of 50/50

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rapid Reviews: Inherent Vice and The Babadook

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's well-established career can be described as somewhat of a Jekyl & Hyde scenario. On one hand, Anderson has been the creative catalyst and visionary for highly regarded Oscar contenders of the past like There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, each of which represent a truly impeccable level of filmmaking and storytelling. On the other hand, three of the director's last four features haven't quite lived up to the superior quality of his more prominent work. Yet, while the auteur's latest attempt, Inherent Vice, is a big step down from Anderson's trio of brilliant titles, the quirky crime comedy is a tolerable watch that gives a refreshing new vantage point for Anderson's abilities.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a clumsy, drug-loving (especially reefer) private investigator in 1970s Los Angeles who's given a tip by his former ex-girlfriend about a wealthy real estate mogul's impending disappearance. And shortly after both his ex-girlfriend and the wealthy man go missing, Doc uses his unorthodox methods to crack the case. Ultimately, its Joaquin Phoenix's wonderfully peculiar performance and plenty of adequately-timed situational humor that helps ease the audience through an otherwise unfathomable two and a half hour affair.

Inherent Vice is without a doubt a second straight muddled feature from Paul Thomas Anderson (including 2012's The Master) that's weak on mystery and substance. However, rich in style and easily-earned laughs, you're better off just welcoming the off-kilter and mindless entertainment than bogging yourself down with its lack of intrigue. Much like the drug-users of its time would say, "just enjoy the ride, man", no matter how nonsensical and pointless it may seem.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Another recent release I've had the pleasure of viewing was the widely buzzed Australian horror film, The Babadook. Before I begin my praises for the feature, because I definitely thought it was an extremely well-developed horror idea, let me first give the disclaimer that The Babadook is nowhere near a conventional scary movie. In fact, Exorcist director William Friedkin's recent remark, in which he said, "I've never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook", is wildly excessive.

The movie follows a widowed single mother named Amelia (played by Essie Davis) who's still struggling to cope with the fact that she lost her husband in a car accident the same day she gave birth to their son, Samuel, nearly 7 years prior. Then, one evening before bed time, Samuel picks a book off the shelf for his mother to read to him called "The Babadook". Despite their greatest efforts, the mother and son can't seem to get rid of the frightening short story and its evil character.

More in tune with the psychological thriller genre, The Babadook plays off of human fears and weaknesses beautifully. William Friedkin was correct in stating that the film is a terrifying experience, just not in the traditional sense. You won't jump and you won't look away from the screen, instead you'll marvel at the perfectly nuanced storytelling brought to life by filmmaker Jennifer Kent. She does a spectacular job of turning the horror genre into a mirror of our own human insecurities and demons. And although the finale is extremely strange (and I do mean "extremely), allowing the necessary time for its message to sink in will certainly enhance the effect. Because you must always remember one important fact, "you can never get rid of The Babadook".

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Golden Globe Nominations: What They Mean

Hollywood listened closely this morning as the Hollywood Foreign Press released their annual Golden Globe Nominations. Unlike the Academy Awards, the Globes divide their Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress nominations separately into both comedy and drama categories, meaning there aren't many major performances and films getting left out of the awards show. Here's a look at the motion picture nominees and what we can take away from the crops of finalists.

Best Picture - Drama

Nominees are: Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Selma and The Theory of Everything

Best Picture - Musical or Comedy

Nominees are: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods, Pride, St. Vincent

The Scoop: It's surprising to see Angelina Jolie's prisoner of war drama, Unbroken, completely ignored, especially in this race. After walking away with only one SAG nomination (Stunt Ensemble), this sluggish first step into the awards season could spell trouble for Unbroken. While the overlap in voting body between the Globes and Oscars is insignificant, perception definitely holds some clout. Also, omissions for Gone GirlA Most Violent Year and American Sniper will effect each film differently. I sense very little impact for the missing wife drama (especially since it received plenty of individual nominations), but this could end up being a big blow to Eastwood's American Sniper.

Best Actor - Drama

Nominees are: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actor - Musical or Comedy

Nominees are: Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) and Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes)

The Scoop: While Jake Gyllenhaal has had himself a fantastic week with recognition from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Globes, and believe me it's well deserved, the same old suspects are hurt by these nominations. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Jack O'Connell (Unbroken) have both been fringe players up to this point, but striking out in both big competitions this week will only distance them further from the pack. Finally, Oscar Issac (A Most Violent Year) missed out on a SAG (which is a more important precursor) because of screening issues, so this omission isn't as crushing to his chances.

Best Actress - Drama

Nominees are: Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Best Actress - Musical or Comedy

Nominees are: Amy Adams (Big Eyes), Emily Blunt (Into the Woods), Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Julianne Moore (Map to the Stars) and Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie)

The Scoop: The "big four" landed  Drama nominations like everyone expected. Jennifer Aniston takes another small but important step to securing the first Oscar recognition of her career, which may require me to start calling them the "big five". Emily Blunt is one of Aniston's main competitors, so her inclusion keeps things interesting for that fifth and final spot moving forward.

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees are: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees are: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman) and Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

The Scoop: For the men, this class appears to be holding steady and it's becoming less likely to see anyone else in the final mix. Similarly, everyone was surprised by Naomi Watts' Supporting Actress SAG nomination for her "lady of the night" role in the comedy, St. Vincent, but it seemed fairly obvious that Jessica Chastain was the safe bet to round out the top five for the Oscars. It will be difficult to supplant any one of these women.

Best Director

Nominees are: Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Ava DuVernay (Selma), David Fincher (Gone Girl), Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) and Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Screenplay

Nominees are: Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game

The Scoop: In the director race there are so many worthy contenders this year, but Wes Anderson's shocking inclusion must come with a disclaimer ... Warning: This probably won't happen with the Oscars. DuVernay has quickly become a trendy riser as she's seemingly destined to become the first woman of color to ever be nominated for Best Director. Linklater and Inarittu feel like locks too, but seeing Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) lose out to Fincher is a very interesting turn of events. I think Tyldum is also safe bet for the Oscars. Lastly, the Academy Awards separate their screenplays by original and adapted, so each nominated script here will probably be a finalist when it really counts. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dissecting the 2015 SAG Nominations

After sizing up the current state of the 6 major Oscar races with yesterday's Oscar Talk, we've been graced with the first "real" precursor awards this morning. The important Screen Actors Guild Nominations have officially been announced and, as usual, there are plenty of surprises in the acting categories.

Let's begin with the Best Ensemble category. Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel receives a big boost with its inclusion in the top five. Many have given Ralph Fiennes a fighter's chance in the Best Actor race, but no one else from the film had been mentioned. Foxcatcher is the film taking the biggest hit here. As an outspoken fan of Bennett Miller's latest work, I thought Foxcatcher would receive its best showing from the Screen Actors Guild. However, Oscar hopes for the creepy crime drama are slowly fading away.

Next, I'll set my focus on the Best Actor field. Steve Carell has kept his Oscar hopes alive with an inclusion on the list, but the biggest surprise has to be Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal's performance was certainly worthy of recognition, but with a crowded competition many expected him to miss the cut. As for this outcome's Oscar effect, we need to keep in mind that many voters may not have had an opportunity to see the latest top-tier contender, Selma, which means David Oyelowo will most likely find his way into the final mix.

As expected in the Best Actress race, the top four contenders were basically set in stone and Jennifer Aniston (Cake) can breathe a sigh of relief as the fifth and final member of the field. Her Oscar hopes have been solidified and there's not much else to report from this competition.

With the Best Supporting Actor category there were also very few surprises. Similar to the Best Actress field, the top four were pretty much assumed. The last opening had a couple different names attached to it, but Robert Duvall (The Judge) took control of the position which will help his Oscar chances significantly.

Finally, in the Best Supporting Actress competition Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) proved to be the biggest surprise (and perhaps the biggest of all nominations). Barely anyone had Watts on their radar as a "serious" contender, but she still managed to sneak in. While this would normally help her odds at securing an Oscar nomination as well, it appears as though A Most Violent Year (much like Selma) hadn't been screened enough, meaning Jessica Chastain may have her number by the time the Academy Awards roll around.

Full List of Nominees

Best Ensemble
Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything

Best Actor

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress

Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Best Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent)