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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tier Ranking the Independent Spirit Award Nominations

Don't you just love it when an awards committee actually honors talent and films you love or at least care about? This is why I am always excited about the Film Independent Spirit Award nominations, because this crew just gets it. Their red carpet fashion may be questionable (at best), but few other awards can legitimately claim that they celebrate as much diverse talent and underrated gems as the Spirits.

Before we get to the full list, I want to present my very biased ranking of the nominees, followed by my second and third tier favorites (those who don't make any of these three lists...welp). Here goes (note: this is not category specific):

1st Tier (The Best of the List)
  • Boyhood
  • Director Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
  • Patricia Arquette (Boyhood
  • Director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)
  • Cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)
  • Edward Norton (Birdman)
  • Michael Keaton (Birdman)
  • Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)  
  • Screenwriter Justin Lader (The One I Love)
  • Screenwriter Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive)

2nd Tier (Those I Liked, But Didn't Love)
  • Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
  • J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
  • Director/Producer/Writer Justin Simien (Dear White People)
  • Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive)
  • Jenny Slate (Obvious Child)
  • Director Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child)
  • Emma Stone (Birdman)

3rd Tier (The Nominees I Haven't Seen Yet, But Whose Past Work I've Loved)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
  • Jessica Chastain, (A Most Violent Year)
  • Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma)
  • Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter)
  • David Oyelowo (Selma)
  • Carmen Ejogo (Selma)
  • Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler)

Since I am a slave to my own snark, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how shocked I am to see serious duds Love is Strange and Jimi: All is By My Side anywhere on the nominations list -- particularly Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias's screenplay for Love is Strange (which leaves a lot to be desired) and André Benjamin's performance in Jimi: All is By My Side (a film that is horrendous in every aspect). Also, this list could have really used more Christopher Meloni (White Bird in a Blizzard ), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Elisabeth Moss (The One I Love), but instead they are SNUBBED.

Okay, I got that out of my system. Check out the complete rundown of the nominees here, and let me know your thoughts.

The Film Independent Spirit Awards air live on IFC February 21, 2015 at 2pm PST/5pm EST.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Werewolf Thriller LATE PHASES is About Something Far More FrighteningThan Its Grizzly Villain

We often talk about common tropes in horror films -- everything from characters running purposely into the direction of the danger to the family pet being the most intelligent characters in the film. When we get to the topic of older characters in the genre, there isn't really much to say about them. They're either possessed (The Taking of Deborah Logan), the maniacal villain (Drag Me to Hell) or a peripheral character that's irrelevant to the central story. Rarely are they protagonists, someone we can root for. Which is what makes Adrián García Bogliano's LATE PHASES so interesting to watch. It propels the senior character into a role that isn't instantaneously definable.

From its start, there's a sadness about LATE PHASES. The film opens as Ambrose (Nick Damici) is sitting tensely in the passenger seat of his son Will's (Ethan Embry) car as he's driven to Crescent Bay, an out-of-the-way retirement community where he is to spend the rest of his days alone. He doesn't speak much, despite the effort Will puts into the conversation. We soon realize that this has been designated his final destination without his full consent, which has left him cantankerous and bewildered. Ambrose's failure to connect with his son is no longer because he is unable to but because he simply doesn't want to. A widowed veteran left blinded by the Vietnam war, Ambrose is at the point where he feels it's too late for him to start being the man he's supposed to be. Rather, he's settling for the man he actually is.

The idea of settling is a strong component of LATE PHASES. The word is often used in describing the twilight years of someone's life, the notion that at this stage it's all about merely existing, reflecting and, well, waiting for death to arrive. But Ambrose doesn't fit that stereotype. When he looks back on his life, it's filled with pain and regret -- punctuated by the thought that the only honorable thing he's ever done was serve his country in a war it ultimately lost. He's more than simply present; he's restless, radioactive and frustratingly aware of his desolate surroundings. As he seeks for an activity to fill his days, he quickly finds one when he learns of the frightening events that are decimating the people of Crescent Bay quicker than old age ever can: werewolves.

The irony of wolves attacking people in a community where they've essentially been dropped off to die isn't lost on the audience. They're the forgotten family members, pushed away from society, neglected by both their loved ones and even law enforcement -- who have all but given up on trying to protect the neighborhood that's become under siege. So Ambrose channels the one thing he's confident in, his military skills (miraculously sharpened by his blindness), as he comes to terms with the fact that he will likely die in this community, but not without winning the grizzly war that's taken out so many of his neighbors. As he gathers his ammo and military attire, he embarks on the greatest battle of his life.

Interestingly, many think of old age and immediately think of death, when in fact the bigger concern among seniors tends to be loneliness -- the idea that they're no longer needed or even wanted. What Bogliano and screenwriter Eric Stolze do is give the senior agency to take claim of his life one final time, giving him something to fight for before he takes his last breath -- using the idea of wolves terrorizing residents of a retirement community only as an allegory to present this more poignant message. Though LATE PHASES isn't as smart as Bogliano's excellent Here Comes the Devil, the filmmaker once again provides terror where you least expect it, blending themes of faith and redemption. As the film leads up to its bloody conclusion, there's a sense of peace that falls upon our hero, a reparation that he is unable to find at the local church or even with his son.

LATE PHASES is influenced by the success of many classic horrors in that it doesn't allow the element of fear to be the film's only value. Though the special effects in the werewolf transformation scenes come off more cheesy than terrifying (I kinda wish Bogliano chose to cut away from those scenes and focus the camera on the victims' faces instead), it is the imminence of death even before we actually see the wolves that incites such an unsettling feeling. As the lead antihero, Damici embodies the film's strongest themes in a performance that is physical, emotional as well as psychological.

Rating: B (*** out of *****)

LATE PHASES opens Friday in select theaters and on VOD.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So, THE AGE OF ADALINE Trailer Kinda Confirmed My Worst Fears

I'm conflicted. While I love Blake Lively as a red carpet superstar, Blake Lively as a serious actress I am having some trouble with. But, as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been trying to keep hope alive about her new role as a woman stricken with the inability to age in a world that continues to evolve and pass her by. Or something. The trailer for THE AGE OF ADALINE has now been released and...guys, I just don't know.

Lively seems uncomfortable and ill-fitted for the role, and the rest of the cast -- as dazzling as they are in other films -- noticeably seem just as lost as she is to be in this movie that may just have been doomed from its premise. The trailer looks lifeless, unconvincing and in desperate need of a clear target audience. Here's the official synopsis of the film to give you a better idea of the story:

After miraculously remaining 29 years old for almost eight decades, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) has lived a solitary existence, never allowing herself to get close to anyone who might reveal her secret. But a chance encounter with charismatic philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) reignites her passion for life and romance. When a weekend with his parents (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker) threatens to uncover the truth, Adaline makes a decision that will change her life forever.

Take a look at the trailer:

Eh, maybe this is just a bad trailer. 

THE AGE OF ADALINE comes to theaters April 24, 2015.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I Just Got Way Too Excited About This 'PEANUTS' Trailer

And I make no apologies about my geekasm, whatsoever. I grew up with the Peanuts comic strip and I've always loved its minimalism -- reflective of old school cartoons that don't rely on a whole lot of wild effects and snarky wit to attract audiences. Charlie Brown was that quintessential character of his time who couldn't ever win for trying, but we loved him anyway. Which is also why I never miss a chance to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (which should be re-airing any minute now), and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Yes, my obsession is very much real.

So, needless to say I nearly dropped my coffee mug this morning when our beloved Snoopy presented the trailer for THE PEANUTS MOVIE, which you may remember is finally making its way onto the big screen next year (and in 3D!). We have a grueling 12 months to wait until we can see this, which means you'll likely see me mention this movie a lot on this site. So, here's what the gang is up to this time:

In PEANUTS, a 3D, CGI animated comedic adventure, Snoopy, the world’s most lovable beagle – and flying ace! – embarks upon his greatest mission as he and his team take to the skies to pursue their arch-nemesis, while his best pal Charlie Brown begins his own epic quest back home.
Watch the adorable new trailer:

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is in theaters November 6th, 2015. Who else is psyched about it?

Now on DVD: Nicole Beharie Stars in the Interracial Romance Drama, MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU

November 21st update: I've since watched MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU and, while it's not a perfect film (Duken is especially unremarkable in it), Nicole Beharie is absolutely divine in this role. Watch it if only for her. 

Those of you who have recently boarded the "I love Nicole Beharie" train after watching her team up with Ichabod Crane on FOX's Sleepy Hollow may be interested to catch her in the indie romance, MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU. After a limited theatrical run late last year, the film is finally available on DVD today, and you will also be able to catch it streaming on Netflix in December. As a longtime fan of Beharie after seeing her in the criminally underrated American Violet back in 2008 (seriously, go find this film if you haven't seen it already), I'm so here for her as the lead in any film. Here's a little more about MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU:

My Last Day Without You is loosely based on Emmy-winning television and film producer Christoph Silber's whirlwind romance with his late wife. Directed by Stefan Schaefer, My Last Day Without You is about two strangers from opposite corners of the world, who meet by chance in New York City and fall in love. 

Two lives become intertwined when, on a one-day business trip to New York, young German executive, Niklas, played by Ken Duken, falls in love with African-American singer-songwriter, Leticia, played by Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow, 42) . Leticia exposes Niklas to her Brooklyn-bred world, Niklas experiences emotions he's never felt before, but their two worlds clash when Niklas's business interests threaten to overshadow his feelings for his new love. With a soundtrack comprised of five original songs recorded by Nicole Beharie, this story portrays an unlikely but layered love story between the film's romantic lead characters, the music, and the city of New York. 

OMG, in case we needed another reason to love Nicole Beharie, she sings too -- and well! Also, I was just discussing interracial romance on the big screen during Cinema in Noir's Twitter chat on Sunday when I brought up the 2006 film Something New. We don't see this portrayed very often in romantic cinema by two lead actors, so I'm really interested to see how MY LAST DAY WITHOUT YOU unfolds.

Watch the trailer:

Monday, November 17, 2014

That Feminist Vampire Warrior Film You Ordered Has Been Served

And let me be among the first say, it is delicious. That's just one way to describe how absolutely hypnotic musician-turned-filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour's A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is. If only for its cool black-and-white photography, awesome indie rock/80s pop soundtrack and one of the baddest goth heroines we've seen in some time.

But if the premise (which follows the nocturnal escapades of a female vampire) sounds derivative to you at all, then just wait. It gets zanier. Amirpour personalizes the well-worn concept by blending the cinematic styles of 50s horror icon Vincent Price, 80s romcom king John Hughes and the millenial badassery of Robert Rodriguez with her own Iranian rock feminism -- resulting in a gorgeous, mysterious and seductive film. Picture it, if you will, a young woman vampire (remarkably played by Sheila Vand), wearing a striped Freddy Krueger-like shirt and sneakers underneath traditional full chador, prowling the streets of Bad City for misbehaving men. Her transportation of choice? A skateboard.

It's this fusion of several different cultural influences together that make the film so intoxicating to watch. But at its core the film is about the human connection, or the lack thereof. As Vand's character, simply referred to as "The Girl," lurks through the town (which actually looks like the backlot of an old John Wayne film though it was shot in a California desert), she encounters "The Persian James Dean" charmingly played by Arash Marandi, who is simultaneously slinking down the street after leaving a particularly joyless costume party. The two share very little conversation. Actually, it is our James Dean incarnate who does all the talking as he tries to mask his insobriety. But the two strangely hit it off as she struggles to hide her fangs from him and he likewise avoids telling her about his drug addicted father whose habit costs him his kickass convertible (a prize possession he worked hard to obtain). They are virtual strangers but united in that they both remain invisible except to each other in a town overrun with abominations. The world may be coming to an end, but as long as they've got a decent Lionel Richie song to listen to and each other, it may not be as bad.

This awkward 80s-styled romance humanizes an otherwise bloodthirsty tale in which a dangerous vampire seeks vengeance on men like James Dean's father, who solicits prostitutes and forces them to partake in his habit. Or the tattooed drug dealer/pimp who's so obsessed with his hustle that he doesn't even notice that The Girl he welcomes into his home is not interested in sex...

Rapturous, bold and even funny at times, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is that Iranian feminist vampire film you never knew you always wanted. Amirpour creates an unusual world that defies era and location. The electrifying performances further illuminate Amirpour's vision that is sexy without being about sex and modest without being at all conservative. It's so smart, meticulous and fresh that I can only hope it marks the beginning of a provocative new franchise.

Rating: A (**** out of *****)

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles Friday, with national expansion to follow.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

BEYOND THE LIGHTS is a Cliched Romantic Drama with Two Great Lead Performances

If you thought the commercials for writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood's BEYOND THE LIGHTS looked like any number of romantic dramas in which a damsel in distress is "saved" by a big strong -- and beautiful -- man, then you were right. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a pop starlet caught between her fabricated image and her true identity, who does in fact find the strength to stand on her own two feet only when she falls in love with her heroic bodyguard (Nate Parker) -- after which they live happily ever after. It's derivative, it's cliched, it's expected (considering Prince-Bythewood also brought us the equally simplistic, Love & Basketball). But you know what? Mbatha-Raw and Parker sell it.

Let's move beyond its well-worn premise for a bit, which admittedly deserves every criticism you may have -- from its presumed failure to honor the much talked about feminism code to its made-for-MTV appeal. Ponder this instead: how many times have we seen a recent major release original romantic film (in this case meaning not adapted from a book, not a sequel and not an independent film) with two lead characters of color entangled in a romance that does not include gang members, murder and/or drugs? I'll wait.

It's strange that we live in a world in which tiny victories like this are considered major milestones, but here we are. We're at a place where two gorgeous actors of color portraying lovers on screen is something of an anomaly. Even more interesting, it seems like the world is finally catching on to what many of us already knew -- Mbatha-Raw and Parker are undeniable talents. It might have taken Mbatha-Raw donning a long purple weave and skimpy costumes, and Parker nearly in the buff, to get here -- but we've finally made it. At least a little.

BEYOND THE LIGHTS takes a lot from films like A Star is Born in that it's about two distinct individuals whose big time careers often get in the way of who they really are -- and how their romance collides with their separate ambitions. It's hokey and melodramatic at times for sure, but it doesn't get so carried away from reality that it removes you from the film. And that's all due to the performances. Mbatha-Raw's vulnerable performance as fragile pop sensation, Noni, is particularly heartrending at times -- infused with equal levels of tenderness and bold, naughty girl sexuality that will make anyone's head spin at the fact that this is all coming from one actress who just earlier year brought us the demure, corseted royal heiress in Belle. Yes, Hollywood, Mbatha-Raw is beautiful, talented and here to stay.

Same goes for Parker, who's delivered one great performance after another for years that it seems silly to refer to him as a "breakout star." Did people miss his amazingess in Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters seven years ago, and how he held his own alongside Richard Gere in 2012's Arbitrage? Parker yet again redefines himself here as an actor playing Kaz, a dapper cop/security officer in charge of keeping Noni safe. When Noni takes a dramatic personal stumble, it is Kaz who becomes her knight in shining armor -- rescuing her from a downward spiral and helping her find her true voice. This male superhero trope gets a jolt when Noni in turn far less dramatically rescues him back. (Sorry, I couldn't resist this Pretty Woman cliche in a genre that continues to borrow from itself). So that's a mild but appreciated surprise which allows Parker to play with a little nuance. The scenes between Kaz and his father (Danny Glover) are particularly special to watch.

Then there's Minnie Driver, who stars as a rather unsung character in the commercials yet delivers the film's most complex performance as Noni's single mother, Macy Jean. Introduced as an unreasonable stage mom right from the beginning of the film, Macy Jean was determined to remove herself and her young daughter from their South London flat and turn Noni into a superstar -- by any means possible. Which entails turning Noni into a product, sacrificing her innocence, voice and natural hair texture in order to be accepted in America's superficial yet coveted vault of approval. Driver portrays Macy Jean as driven but unlikable, narrow-sighted yet by the end of the film she allows an ounce of love to peak through her tough exterior. Actually, to her own words, everything Macy Jean does is on account of love for Noni. It's just that her love isn't the gooey, pleasurable kind we see in other areas of the film. It's dutiful, deliberate, and harsh but still unyielding. Driver carries all these responsibilities in a performance that is nothing short of impressive.

These fine performances would not be what they are without Prince-Bythewood's dedication to the story and insight into the life of an American pop product. The filmmaker is known for her often mawkish portrayals of black romance, but she attempts to touch on the misogyny and pride-swallowing apathy that makes up much of the entertainment industry -- though not enough to make a definitive point about that as it focuses on the romance between Kaz and Noni. I would have liked to have seen more of a statement piece, something that gives me a little more to cling to, but there is something charming about Prince-Bythewood's depiction of the power of love. It's not enough to compel cynics like myself, but it will likely touch the heart of romantics everywhere.

Rating: C+ (** 1/2 out of *****)

BEYOND THE LIGHTS is in theaters Friday, November 14th.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Teaser Trailer for THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT Just Makes Me Miss Ashley Judd's Character Even More

As I've mentioned before, I think Ashley Judd's brief performance as Tris's mom in Divergent was the most compelling in the whole lackluster film. I had actually wished the story focused on her, or at least gave us a little more insight into her character. But alas, she perished in Divergent, leaving us to assume that we would never see her again. We were wrong (kinda).

With today's teaser trailer for THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT, we actually learn three important things: 1) Tris is reliving her mother's death subconsciously, which means Judd may get more screen time 2) Judd deserves a serious comeback, and 3) Woodley doesn't look half bad with a cropped blonde 'do. (The clip is only a minute long, so there isn't much else to say about it).

I'm presuming Tris uses her mother's death push her toward her own strength (or something). Once again, here's the synopsis of the film:

THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT raises the stakes for Tris as she searches for allies and answers in the ruins of a futuristic Chicago. Tris (Woodley) and Four (James) are now fugitives on the run, hunted by Jeanine (Winslet), the leader of the power-hungry Erudite elite. Racing against time, they must find out what Tris’s family sacrificed their lives to protect, and why the Erudite leaders will do anything to stop them. Haunted by her past choices but desperate to protect the ones she loves, Tris, with Four at her side, faces one impossible challenge after another as they unlock the truth about the past and ultimately the future of their world.

Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay by: Brian Duffield and Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback
Based On The Novel by: Veronica Roth
Produced By: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Academy Award® Winner Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Janet McTeer, Daniel Dae Kim, with Naomi Watts, and Academy Award® Winner Kate Winslet

Watch the teaser:

THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT opens nationwide in 2D, RealD, and Digital 3D on March 20, 2015.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Jon Stewart's Directorial Debut, ROSEWATER, Has a Lot of Awkward Moments

There's something uncomfortably ironic about the fact that "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who pokes fun at political news for a living, has directed a film about a real-life journalist who becomes the victim of a very serious situation when he is captured and held captive in Iran for videotaping the riots sparked by the country's 2009 election considered rigged in the favor of totalitarian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even more interesting, part of the evidence used in the kidnapping was a satirical "Daily Show" interview in which featured the journalist identifying himself as a spy. This is only the beginning of the awkwardness that sets the tone of Stewart's directorial debut, ROSEWATER.

Based on 42-year-old Tehran-born journalist (living in London) Maziar Bahari's own bestselling memoir Then They Came for Me: a Family's Story of Love, Captivity and SurvivalROSEWATER attempts to duplicate Bahari's literary approach to his ordeal -- often infusing the story with humor as a way to cope with his predicament. But rather than a seamless dose of comic relief or a gradual descent into delirium, the film treats these moments as merely an obligation to the source material without being invested in why these moments even exist. They don't offer the substance they should because they just don't seem natural. Sure, watching Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari locked up and tortured by a man Bahari refers to as Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) in solitary confinement could certainly use a few areas of levity, but at one point Stewart (who also wrote the film) makes it look like scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor of the "The Daily Show" -- funny, but meaningless.

Which is a shame because the essence of Bahari's story is quite fascinating: the idea that a journalist with the proper press credentials is considered a threat simply because the government wants to control how their images are portrayed reinforces how the government often makes decisions based on fear. The fight for freedom of the press in a country whose citizens have very few rights (and the rights they do have are manipulated) could have made a powerful film. But Bahari is just one of many journalists around the world who are imprisoned for simply doing their job. So the question becomes why tell his story? What's the significance? Is it just because Bahari's story was exposed internationally (read: the U.S. got involved)?

Stewart doesn't really seem to be sure. He says, "The original impetus for the film came from my own feelings of guilt and atonement over what happened to him in Iran." It was also a passion project for him because he believed Bahari's story deserves to be told. And it does. but there doesn't seem to be a particular angle here. The story simply seems to be for the sake of sharing it. Even though the performances are committed (Bernal is great and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bahari's devastated mother is particularly heartbreaking in the film), the story overall has nothing really to say. It's very much on the level of "this is what happened and...the end." Stewart doesn't take his time constructing a message, even when he tacks on a flimsy ode to captive press at the end of the film. For a director known mostly for his unique approach to the political landscape, you'd think ROSEWATER would be a far more thought-provoking piece.

But though his direction is wobbly at best, Stewart does succeed in telling Bahari's introspective story -- how the memories of his sister and father (both imprisoned years prior by their government for their political beliefs) got him through 118 days of captivity. We see Bahari essentially conjure images of his family members who offer guidance and encouragement. They're not the best executed scenes, but they effectively draw us closer to Bahari and his story. Which is something.

The rest of the film is...kinda all over the place. Stewart sets up the film nicely when he places the audience directly onto the horrifying political scene in Iran, with Bahari catching it all on video, brings us to the bleak Evin Prison where the rest of the film takes place, then proceeds to oddly interrupt long bouts of exhaustive interrogation with dream sequences, an errant dance number and poorly structured (though legitimately funny) comic relief. By the third ac,t it all just becomes bewildering.

ROSEWATER pretty much reveals itself to not have a point about midway through, at which time you're better off just coasting through the rest of the film -- marveling at how great Bernal and Aghdashloo are (and how unfortunate that the film isn't) and gracefully laughing on cue at the silly parts Stewart threw in just because.

Rating: D+ (** out of *****)

ROSEWATER opens in theaters Friday November 14th.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Eating Crow: FOXCATCHER is One of the Most Gripping Films This Year (Though It's Not Without Its Faults)

Beneath the uncomfortably awkward pauses in dialogue, and Steve Carrell's unrecognizable face, there's an even more unsettling truth that lies within FOXCATCHER. And it's not just the real-life drama about a wealthy egomaniac (played by Carrell) so obsessed with trying to prove he's more significant than his bank account that he dangerously manipulates an impressionable young athlete (played by Channing Tatum). It's that director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) was able to pull from Carrell and Tatum what zero few other filmmakers have been able to do -- a solid performance.

Now before you go in on how often I have doubted Tatum and Carrell's acting abilities in the past (admittedly, it's been consistent and I still stand by all of it), I want you to know that while Tatum particularly delivered an admirable portrayal of 1984 Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, I still think there are other actors who could have better fit the role had they had, say, the popularity Tatum clearly possesses. But, I digress. Miller did seemingly the impossible with a little known (at least to me) story that has stuck with me weeks after I've seen the film.

Miller draws us into the bleak, modest and solitary life of 27-year-old pro wrestler Mark Schultz -- on the outside a successful Olympian and role model (if only to a bunch of elementary school students seated in a mandatory class assembly), on the inside a rather soulless athlete who's seemingly qualified his entire life on the sport. Though Mark and his older brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) were among the first pair of brothers in U.S. history to win Olympic titles, we learn in the film that Mark felt the need to get out of his brother's shadow and claim his own greatness, under the pseudo tutelage of the elusive multimillionaire -- and closeted lunatic -- John Eleuthère du Pont (Carrell).

Right off the bat, there's an air of crazy surrounding this du Pont character, at once masked behind Carrell's naturally benign appeal and also the several acres of Pennsylvania land on which he resides along with several  handlers, a stable of horses and one perpetually disapproving mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave). Though, Miller is meticulous about distinguishing both du Pont and Mark's viewpoints, so it could very well be that du Pont's mother Jean was not as much disapproving as she was simply a regular finicky old woman. But this skewed technique adds layers to du Pont's character that in the wrong hands could have been seen as a purely a villain. Carrell takes the opportunity to portray du Pont as a vulnerable man whose only strength lies in his ability to exploit another's weakness for his own gain. By affecting a parental demeanor and a Dickens-like tone in his voice (you can tell he watched Capote several times), Carrell brings the type of pretentious charm needed to convince audiences that someone as obviously creepy as du Pont could effectively beguile a character as brute in his own right as Mark Schultz to join his "Team Foxcatcher."

Then we have Tatum, who's stripped (no pun intended) away his famous gigolo image to play a character dutifully blinded by his own ambition -- an easy prey for someone like du Pont. But while Tatum takes on a rather clunky walk (I described it in my notes as similar to Herman Munster) and slumped posture, he doesn't bring more emotion to the role than the bare minimum. We see that he's driven, a bit antisocial, whose relationship with his brother is similar to that between a father and son. But beyond that, we don't know how he feels, about anything. Which is strange because Mark goes through a lot under du Pont's control -- drug abuse, physical depletion and mental conditioning. Yet Tatum doesn't really provide much of a shift between phases. These things sort of just happened, and then they simply are no longer an issue for him. A more experienced actor would have allowed the audience to connect more with Mark as goes through these hard times. As a result, his portrayal of Mark is indistinct, hollow.

But perhaps this is intentional, to illustrate just how lost Mark was in this very crucial time in his career. Then again, someone who has far less screen than Tatum, Ruffalo shines as the protective barrier particularly once Mark falls under du Pont's spell. Though Dave meets his fate at the end of the film (in a gradual series of escalating events), Ruffalo embodies the complexities of a man who has to handle the pressure of being as much a father to his two small children as a world class wrestler/coach, and a guardian for his brother who loses his way. Ruffalo balances each of Dave's layers in varying degrees of intensity, particularly when he faces off against du Pont. In fact, some of the most tense scenes of the film are between Ruffalo and Carrell. Their conflict, intensified by du Pont's jealous rage over everything Dave stands for (success, happiness, influence over Mark), makes the film that more riveting to watch.

While the acting is mostly impressive, the ending of the film leaves much to be desired as screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's script simply flutters to a close without much of an impact. This is another case of when a movie should have ended five minutes earlier. du Pont's ending was so haunting that the film's tacked-on finale seems woefully misplaced. Plus, it leaves one vital question unanswered: How does Dave's murder affect Mark, both personally and professionally? If there had to be another scene after du Pont's capture, it should have took place in a domestic setting, not back in the ring. It's impersonal, and yanks the audience away from the crux of an otherwise captivating drama.

This is all to say that even with the issues I've mentioned, FOXCATCHER is one of the most gripping films I've seen this year -- as strange as it is seductive, down to Greg Fraiser's eerie cinematography. The journey toward each character's American dream deferred alone is worth the price of admission.

Rating: B- (*** out of *****)

FOXCATCHER is in theaters Friday.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Casting News: Michelle Yeoh and Jessica Alba Join Jason Statham in MECHANIC: RESURRECTION

Am I the only one who kinda forgot about The Mechanic from 2011? It must have gotten lost in the pile of lookalike action films that star Jason Statham because it went right by me. But it must have gone over well because Summit Entertainment is releasing a sequel titled MECHANIC: RESURRECTION. Michelle Yeoh (The Lady, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Jessica Alba (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) have also been added to the project, which is pretty cool news. It's always awesome to see both ladies kicking ass on the big screen (I'm assuming Jones will be there to pout the whole time). Here's a short synopsis:

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) returns as the Mechanic in the sequel to the 2011 global hit. When someone from his past forces him back into the business, Bishop has to complete an impossible list of assassinations of the most dangerous men in the world.

MECHANIC: RESURRECTION will open in wide release on January 22, 2016.

And speaking of Tommy Lee Jones, the actor will also star alongside Kevin Costner, Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman and Gal Gadot in CRIMINAL, also from Summit Entertainment. The film is being directed by Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) from a script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (the writing team behind The Rock and Double Jeopardy. More after the jump:

The memories and skills of a CIA agent are implanted into the brain of a dangerous criminal in order to stop an international terrorist.

CRIMINAL will open wide on August 21, 2015. 


Friday, November 7, 2014

In Other Web Entertainment News, MTV World Will Offer a Look at Modern Native America in a New Documentary

Here's more news to confirm what we've all been saying for quite some time: if you want original quality, diverse entertainment that you're not getting on the big and small screens, look no further than the world wide web. Actually, in this case, you don't even have to leave your Facebook page for it.

In a rather uncharacteristic move for a MTV property, MTV World has announced the premiere of REBEL MUSIC: NATIVE AMERICA -- part one of a six-part documentary series that will focus on the personal stories of young Native American activists and musicians and how they are using art and music to spark social change within the community. I say uncharacteristic because MTV isn't exactly known for its diversity, quality entertainment, or even music for that matter. But the Rebel Music series actually first debuted a year ago on mtvU and was apparently so successful that they've brought it back.

This second season 30-minute premiere episode will air exclusively on MTV's Facebook page Thursday November 13th at 4pm EST/1pm PST, followed by additional airings on mtvU, MTV2, Centric, Epix 2 and It will also debut for free on leading digital download and streaming platform partners including iTunes, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Verizon Flexview, and Xbox Video. The five subsequent episodes will be released in the spring of 2015, and will feature stories from Iran, Myanmar, Senegal, Turkey, and Venezuela.

From the press release, below are some statistics on Native America that will be covered throughout the film:
  • According to United States and Canadian censuses, there are over 6.2 million people who identify as Native American or First Nation Canadian
  • In spite of the fact that they make up only 2 percent of the population, Native North Americans experience alarming rates of suicide (over 4 times the national average)
  • Native North Americans are also 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of sexual violence and often suffer adverse health effects from environmental disasters
Of course these won't be the only areas discussed in the film, but they're interesting to note since we don't see nearly enough images of Native America on the big or small screens (or even on the web). So this will likely be an eye opener for a lot of us. The most interesting thing about the project to me seems to be that these are young people and artists sharing their stories in a way that will hopefully resonate with MTV's millenial, cheap entertainment-obsessed audience. 

REBEL MUSIC: NATIVE AMERICA is co-directed by Native American filmmaker Billy Luther, whose film Miss Navajo debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2007.

Watch the trailer:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

SELMA Trailer: When David Oyelowo Speaks, We All Need to Listen

Aaaand...let the Oscar season begin. Paramount's release of the first trailer for SELMA comes right on time for the typical awards bait kickoff. The film, directed by Ava Duvernay (Middle of Nowhere) follows Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's tumultuous campaign for equal voting rights which resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Duvernay, with screenwriter Paul Webb, was wise to not make the film yet another cradle to the grave biopic that wouldn't tell us anything new. Instead, she focused on the three pivotal months of King's fight that were met with violent opposition.

Though he doesn't particularly look like King, David Oyelowo (who can be seen in Interstellar opening Friday) steps into his massive shoes and actually seems to command the screen in the trailer -- which highlights the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The rest of the cast is also illustrious, featuring Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, with Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey as “Annie Lee Cooper” -- most of whom appear in this two-minute trailer. More on the film in the synopsis below:

SELMA is the story of a movement. The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay’s SELMA tells the story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.

While I can't say I'm that enthusiastic about seeing another civil rights set film, I absolutely love this cast, and I am really, really curious to see how Duvernay tackled this particular story. Not only because she's a woman who have discovered some of the nuances of this period, but also because this is a gargantuan project for a filmmaker mostly known for microindie projects. The trailer is definitely impressive. Check it out:

SELMA is in select theaters December 25th, and will open nationwide January 9th.

Review: INTERSTELLAR Proves That We Still Don't Have the Answers (And That's Okay)

With all the rampant think pieces questioning the probability of every science fiction film that comes out, it's comforting to across a movie that doesn't really claim to have any of the answers. In INTERSTELLAR, theories of mankind are neither proven nor debunked. Rather, the film's beauty lies in the fact that it questions everything and ultimately ends with no concrete solutions. It floats beyond ever evolving scientific thought to discover that the most illogical constant of all is love.

But this shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone who's seen a Christopher Nolan film before. His films have almost always explored the human journey toward truth to only find that it is relative to the person who searches for it. INTERSTELLAR is no different. Though its characters are scientific geeks encapsulated in their own world filled with technical jargon and equations incomprehensible to the average viewer, it humanizes their story to reflect how the rest of us fit into it, in the one language we all speak.

It takes a while to get to that romantic core, though. Nolan (who also co-write the film with his brother, Jonathan) opens the story at the home of former test pilot and engineer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), and his two kids, Murphy (named after Murphy's Law, of course) and Tom. Nestled deep in the middle of America's Dust Bowl, the family has learned to rely on each other and their love of curiosity as the earth slowly deteriorates around them. In fact, we meet them just as the earth's regression has been accepted, and all previously determined scientific law has become null and void -- even the schoolteachers have thrown out the principles from textbooks and lectures. Which is unfortunate for Cooper, whose entire life's work and personal passion is about these now extinct ideas. So in a way, Cooper simply no longer fits into the world in which he lives. And his daughter, a chip off the ole block, is similarly as displaced.

So what do you do when the world is no longer big enough for your imagination? According to this film, find a new one to venture off to. Once Cooper literally stumbles upon a hidden NASA station, led by the mysterious Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he accepts an offer he feels he can't refuse -- the chance to go beyond where mankind has trekked before to find out whether there is in fact life on other planets.

The immediate question becomes how can he leave his children for a chance journey -- a family who's already faced the loss of their mother years prior? Though Nolan sets out to prove in this film that love transcends all time and travels beyond galaxies. it's difficult to believe that a man like Cooper would leave his family for a dangerous mission as his youngest child's heart breaks in a heart-wrenching scene. But this is science fiction and one of the genres most constant themes is that science is above most everything else.

Or is it? INTERSTELLAR is actually one of the most anti sci-fi sci-fi films I've seen in a while in that it bypasses scientific theory in favor of the human emotions. Something that is continuously stated throughout the film is that this mission isn't about leaving anyone behind but about saving them from a world that's been rotting since the day we inherited it. If there's an alternative, why not try to find it, right? But throughout this mission, joined by Brand's own daughter Amelia (another not so unintentional name) played by Anne Hathaway, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and their two robot comrades, it is often reiterated that while they are supposedly fighting to save the people of earth from perishing on a destructible planet, using tried and true scientific calculations, the only one fact they continue to fall back on is that only love is transferable. You can't save the human race without possibly sacrificing it first. But if so much time is spent traveling to far away galaxies through wormholes in which time is a fraction of what it is on earth, where does the love go once the realization that your loved ones may no longer be there to witness your great discoveries? Nowhere.

Meanwhile, back on earth Nolan struggles to make sense of the world back home -- the dust storms, the crop depletion, sickness. But whatever he is trying to say with that (it seems to run afoul at times), he is at his best with the connection he creates between Cooper and a now adult Murphy (Jessica Chastain in an astonishingly tender performance). At one point in the film Cooper and the rest of the crew can only receive messages from back on earth and not actually send any. So, we often see Cooper watching these video messages of his family growing up. While Tom (played as an adult by Casey Affleck -- in a truly thankless role), the constant farmer, keeps regular contact with his dad (however one-sided), Murphy barely signs on. Instead, she chooses to keep the love between she and her father alive through her own fight to finish the scientific journey her father started back at home. Together, the two come to a rather neat non-conclusion conclusion that will satisfy even the biggest skeptic.

While INTERSTELLAR is by no means a perfectly executed excursion (some of its theories and counter-theories beyond the idea of love collide almost to a point of exhaustion, using clips from Ken Burns's documentary never quite works, and Matt Damon plays a character that ends up being merely obligatory for added drama), there is something about its romantic ideals that make the film quite stellar in many areas. It's endearing when you least expect it to be. Of course, Hoyte van Hoytema's lush cinematography and the marvelous acting from the cast boosts the experience of watching this all unfold.

Rating: B- (*** out of *****)

INTERSTELLAR is in theaters and IMAX Friday November 7th.

Mark Wahlberg is Kinda Unstoppable

Despite my own doubts about his obviously flourishing career, Mark Wahlberg continues to book one role after another. And you know what? I kinda admire his gusto. Though I don't think he really has the chops (at least not yet), I find it interesting that he is approaching his career similarly to that of Leonardo DiCaprio -- young heartthrob-turned--older heartthrob with major Hollywood clout. For that, I've got to hand it to him.

For his next trick, audiences can see him share the screen with John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams and Jessica Lange in the high stakes drama THE GAMBLER (in select theaters December 19th). More on the film after the jump:

Jim Bennett (Academy Award® nominee Mark Wahlberg) is a risk taker. Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams) and offers his own life as collateral. Always one step ahead, Bennett pits his creditor against the operator of a gambling ring (Alvin Ing) and leaves his dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy mother (Academy Award® winner Jessica Lange) in his wake. He plays both sides, immersing himself in an illicit, underground world while garnering the attention of Frank (John Goodman), a loan shark with a paternal interest in Bennett’s future. As his relationship with a student (Brie Larson) deepens, Bennett must take the ultimate risk for a second chance…

Yesterday Paramount released a new trailer. Check it out:

Eh, I've seen enough gambling/casino type crime dramas, but I'd watch Lange on screen any day. Plus, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) directed THE GAMBLER from William Monahan's (The Departed) script. Which is actually two more pluses. 

And in other Mark Wahlberg news, the actor has also signed on to reunite with Will Ferrell in the comedy DADDY'S HOME, also for Paramount. You may remember that the two headlined The Other Guys back in 2010 -- a film of a which I never got the appeal, but I know made tons of money. 

DADDY'S HOME reunites some of the comedy team behind the upcoming Horrible Bosses 2-- director Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris. They'll team up with The Other Guys writer Chris Henchy, Adam McKay (who wrote Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) and Tropic Thunder writer Etan Cohen. Which means this will probably be frat boy silly. The film is expected to begin shooting later this year. Here's more on it:

“DADDY’S HOME” follows a mild-mannered radio executive (Ferrell) who strives to become the best stepdad to his wife’s two children, but complications ensue when their freewheeling and freeloading real father (Wahlberg) arrives, forcing him to compete for the affection of the kids.

Well, of these two projects, I'd have to go with the former as one that is more likely to get my attention. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why the Announcement of the Urban Movie Channel Gives Me Pause

A press release issued today announced that BET (Black Entertainment Television) founder Robert Johnson's RLJ Entertainment will launch UMC (Urban Movie Channel), a subscription digital streaming channel that will focus on "urban-themed movies" that will include documentaries like Dark Girls, comedies, horror, and stage plays. According to the release, the content will primarily consist of independent cinema such as All Things Fall Apart starring 50 Cent, live stand-up performances featuring big name talent like Kevin Hart and genre films featuring talent of color less likely to be featured on other channels.

Though I'm always glad to see more diversity on both the big and small screens, I have to admit the announcement gave me pause when I read it because I think that anything related, spun off from, or at all connected to BET automatically gets a side eye (even though Johnson hasn't been affiliated with the channel for years, it was at one point his brainchild). I love what BET was supposed to represent, but I hate that it doesn't actually own up to its refusal to show diversity within black entertainment. Is UMC supposed to be the answer to that? Apparently, but it just sounds more like a band-aid to cover up what BET should have been doing all along - providing quality entertainment that expands from the stereotypes we see on other channels. Basically, how Centric and TVOne have been succeeding. 

Another thing that is more of a personal grievance for me is that customers will have to pay yet another bill just to watch the content on UMC. As if we don't have enough to pay with our escalating cable bills? While UMC's strictly digital service will launch with a free trial period through February 4th of next year, there is a "suggested" retail price of $4.99/month or $49.99/year thereafter (but with special limited time introductory pricing of $2.99/month or $29.99/year to start). All of this just sounds like a lot to me, but maybe I'm the only one who doesn't feel like having to pay for something else. Especially since there's so much free quality content already online.

Anyway, I write this all to say that at this point I can only be cautiously optimistic about this news. I'm curious about the viewer reaction, and ultimately what kinds of images we will see on the channel. Can it work? I think so, especially in this Shonda Rhimes world we live in. Clearly audiences crave diversity, and maybe this channel is the answer. But then again, maybe audiences will bypass this in favor of another episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta. Who knows?

What are your thoughts on UMC?

The Cast of NOW YOU SEE ME 2 Makes Me Almost Want to See It. Almost.

I know many of you have told me that last year's caper film, Now You See Me starring Jesse Eisenberg, was actually good, but the whole villainous magicians angle wasn't really a draw for me. However, when word came via a Lionsgate press release yesterday that Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan are joining NOW YOU SEE ME 2, I finally became interested, sorta. Not in a "OMG I can't wait to see what these magicians have in store next" kind of way, but a "I just want to see Lizzy Caplan in anything" kind of thing.

Caplan will play a character named Lula, while Radcliffe will play a guy named Walter and Jay Chou (The Green Hornet) will also star as Li. Unfortunately, no character descriptions have been released yet. The trio will team up with the original cast -- Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson and Michael Caine -- in the sequel that will pick up where the last film left off. Synopsis: One year after outwitting the FBI and winning the public’s adulation with their mind-bending spectacles, the Four Horsemen resurface in NOW YOU SEE ME 2 only to find themselves face to face with a new enemy who enlists them to pull off their most dangerous heist yet. 

Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the upcoming Jem and the Holograms) is helming the film from a script by Pete Chiarelli (The Proposal) and Ed Solomon (Levity). Well, I don't really like those odds...but I continue to hope for the best...

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 is slated to hit theaters June 10, 2016.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Trailer Watch: Scott Foley, Donald Faison and Patrick Wilson Show How NOT to Get Away with Murder in LET'S KILL WARD'S WIFE

With all the real-life atrocities going on in the world, you'd think the trend of comedies like Horrible Bosses that use murder as a punch line would start to dwindle. But no, they're thriving. Because, of course. (For the record, I love Horrible Bosses, but it does make me a little uneasy that studios continue to capitalize off the concept right now).

Now there's LET'S KILL WARD'S WIFE, Scott Foley's directorial debut that I first wrote about here. Tribeca Film has just released the official trailer for the film that follows a group of yuppie guys (Foley, Donald Faison and Patrick Wilson), who, well, plot to kill Ward's (Faison) annoying wife. Pretty self explanatory, I suppose. But how intolerable must she be if the only option is to kill her? Anyway, obstacles and hilarity apparently ensue.

Watch the trailer:

LET'S KILL WARD'S WIFE will be available on nationwide On Demand and iTunes/digital platforms beginning December 23 and in select theaters January 9.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Grab the Tissues... See the Late Paul Walker and the Rest of the FURIOUS 7 Cast in New Images from the Film

Looking at images of the late Paul Walker in FURIOUS 7, the franchise which made him a bonafide star, is as thrilling as it is bittersweet. On the one hand, we get to see his character inevitably ride off into the sunset, but on the other hand this means that we never get to see him on the big screen again. *insert teardrop*

Universal Pictures previously confirmed that Walker's brother, Cody Walker, stepped in for the actor in this latest installment (which Walker had already begun filming during the time of his death nearly a year ago). And the rest of the cast (Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Elsa Pataky), led by director James Wan, have reprised their roles. Newcomers to the franchise (aside from Wan, who has taken the reins from Justin Lin) are Djimon Hounsou, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham, Ronda Roussey, Tony Jaa and Nathalie Emmanuel.

The story reportedly picks up as Ian Shaw (Statham) seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew for the death of his brother.

Check out the images:

FURIOUS 7 speeds into theaters April 3, 2015.

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