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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling Will Make Sweet Music Together in an Upcoming Film

I am in the small minority of folks that did not care for Whiplash, so I can't say I am rushing to see another film from writer/director Damien Chazelle, even if it does star Ryan Gosling. The actor has re-teamed for a third time with Emma Stone in Chazelle's next film, LA LA LAND, for Summit Entertainment. (You might recall the two starred in the unfortunate 2011 comedy, Crazy, Stupid Love, and 2013's Gangster Squad).

At any rate, LA LA LAND is described as a musical, which means there will likely be singing and dancing. So...this will be interesting. More in the synopsis:

In this modern take on the Hollywood musical from Damien Chazelle, the Academy Award-nominated writer and director of WHIPLASH, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are drawn together by their common desire to do what they love.  But as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.

LA LA LAND will open on July 15 in wide release. Thoughts?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Kristen Wiig Just Barely Saves the Otherwise Unremarkable Dramedy, WELCOME TO ME

I've gotta hand it to Kristen Wiig. It can't be easy to shed such a recognizable brand of comedy (some might even call it goofy) and reinvent yourself as a "serious" dramatic actress. I know I have even considered her dramatic turns wooden and simply unconvincing. Not because she was strictly known as a comedienne, but because she never quite fit in to any of the dramatic roles she so desperately tried to portray (see The Skeleton Twins). But in WELCOME TO ME, she may be finally close to finding her groove.

And the funny thing is, it took a satire to bring it out of her. Though I hesitate to even call this film satirical, because that would imply that it is smart. It's not--not consistently anyway. Which is unfortunate because the beginning is so strong, it pulls you in right away. Then kinda drops you off about halfway in. You see, WELCOME TO ME, is hindered by is incessant need to say so many things at once things that it ends up not saying anything at all. Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a woman suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, who spends most her days either watching hours of The Oprah Winfrey Show or reveling in her daily minutiae seated on her therapist's couch. That is, until the day she wins the lottery. That's the day she also decides to abandon her reclusive existence and live out her life on the small screen as the host and subject of her own talk show. With the support of her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini, who deserves better than this), Alice finds a studio greedy enough to ignore her obviously ridiculous idea (garnished with swan entrances and biographical reenactments) in order to cash in on her newfound cash.

You're probably wondering  how someone in her condition could handle being the star, writer and sole creative talent of a major network TV show. At this point in the film, I assumed that screenwriter Eliot Lawrence would take us through an allegory of our obsession with watching trainwrecks on TV. But no, the film isn't so much about the exploitative nature of media; Alice tries to use it as a new version of therapy, a way to reconcile her past hangups and, presumably, find solace in front of the camera.  This isn't really plain stated in the story, which is why I said "presumably." The plot is rather rushed and almost egregiously sentimental in its latter half, only serving as its own punchline and therefore destroying what potential it had to really make a statement.

However, Wiig manages to be the only bright spot in this otherwise silly film. While she doesn't really humanize Alice, Wiig delivers an impressive blend of awkwardness, humor and pathos that elevates the story, even though it isn't enough to mask its flaws. Supporting cast James Marsden, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wes Bentley and Joan Cusack are all serviceable as the show's desperate producers, though together their characters are written as mere ornaments that are more forgettable than anything else.

WELCOME TO ME is a film that is as strange as it is empty, yet will hopefully provide a launching pad for Wiig to better dramedies in the near future.

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

WELCOME TO ME hits theaters Friday, May 1.

Monday, April 27, 2015

And For His Next Trick, Kevin Bacon Will Terrorize Audiences in the Thriller, COP CAR

Hey, are any of you watching The Following on Monday nights on Fox? If you're not, you're missing out on one of the most ridiculously violent shows on TV (if you're into that kind of thing). The show has become a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, now in its second season. (But the addition of Michael Ealy as a lunatic killer, is worth the price of admission alone). In case you're unfamiliar, it's about a group of law enforcers, led by Kevin Bacon, who try to stop a vicious cult from running amok. At this point in the series, Bacon's character has become uncomfortably intertwined with cult leader Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

At any rate, I bring this up to say that Bacon will play another dark role in the upcoming thriller, COP CAR. The actor stars as a county sheriff who becomes two young boys' worst nightmare after their prank goes awry. More in the synopsis:

Kevin Bacon (The Following, HBO's Taking Chance, Mystic River) stars in director Jon Watts' delightful throwback thriller Cop Car. When two good-natured but rebellious young boys (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) stumble across an abandoned cop car hidden in a secluded glade they decide to take it for a quick joyride. Their bad decision unleashes the ire of the county sheriff (Kevin Bacon) and leads to brutal consequences.

Camryn Manheim (where the heck has she been?) also stars in COP CAR, which is slated to hit theaters in August. Check out an image from the film:

Thoughts? I'll keep you updated on the film as I learn more. 

I Really Wanted to Like BLACKBIRD...

For what it's worth, I'm glad that movies like BLACKBIRD are out there. In general, Hollywood has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ representation on the big screen, particularly with minority characters. But that said, I was really disappointed with director Patrik-Ian Polk's BLACKBIRD. Aside from a tender performance from lead actor Julian Walker, the film is poorly structured with heavy-handed writing.

And it's a real shame, partly due to the fact that this project was poised to be the big comeback for Mo'Nique, arguably the biggest start in the film (and the only Oscar winner). After being unfairly lambasted for not doing enough press interviews prior to her 2009 Oscar win (Precious), it was reported that she was "blackballed" in Hollywood for several years. For BLACKBIRD, the actress not only did numerous interviews, but she also wrote an open letter to the black community, encouraging more support and acceptance of LGBTQ people.

Secondly, Isaiah Washington, a great actor though most remembered in mainstream media for this moment in which he used a homophobic slur, is also on the comeback trail playing the supportive father of a gay son (Walker) in the film. With all the media hype behind the film, including the many social media conversations it's sparked, I had just hoped that it would have follow in the footsteps of 2011's Pariah (an unfair comparison, I know, but I wished it had at least been on the same level). But it definitely isn't.

In case you forgot, BLACKBIRD is a coming-of-age drama about 17-year-old Randy (Walker), a devoted, church-loving son grappling with his sexual identity while also having to care for his mother (Mo'Nique), who's distraught over the disappearance of her daughter. If it sounds like there's already a lot going on there (and needlessly), buckle up, there are even more subplots: Randy's father Lance (Washington) is a deadbeat Dad; Randy's friend Effrem (Gary LeRoi Gray) is going through his own trials as an openly gay teen; and fellow classmate Leslie (D. Woods) is faced with a major life decision.

Yet none of these plots are really explored. They're all shortchanged. Many of them just sort of collide with one another insubstantially in the latter 30 minutes of the film just when Randy's story sadly implodes. Why include these storylines if you're not going to explain them? Awkward dream sequences and blurred themes further aggravate the structure adding to the confusion. Even some of the dialogue seems misplaced and not thought out. It just became...a mess.

Despite what could have been a breakthrough performance for Walker, BLACKBIRD becomes just a well-intentioned melodrama that lacks the focus it needs to truly soar.

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

BLACKBIRD is not playing.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A New Documentary on 17-Year-Old Activist Malala Yousafzai HitsTheaters in October

I have so much respect for Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old real life hero who became a leading campaigner for the rights of children worldwide after being shot in the head when Taliban gunmen opened fire on her and her friends’ school bus in her region of Swat Valley in Pakistan back in 2012.
You may have seen her in media interviews in which she spoke about her experience and her passion for educational activism, including this glorious cover of Time Magazine's Person of the Year Issue in 2013 (she was the runner up, after President Barack Obama):

Not to mention, she's also the youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. (Kinda makes you wonder what you're doing with your life, huh?)

And now Yousafzai's story will be the focus of an upcoming documentary titled HE NAMED ME MALALA, written and directed by David Guggenheim (Safe House). The film, which also stars Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala's father, will open in select theaters in the U.S. on October 2.

I am so there.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Adrien Brody's New Thriller is Close to Getting a Major Acquisition Deal After Its Impressive Tribeca Debut

You may remember last month when I first wrote about BACKTRACK, the thriller starring Adrien Brody that made its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival just last week. It was one of the films on the roster I was most looking forward to, and it looks like it made quite an impression at the festival as Saban Films is closing in on a seven-figure acquisition of the film, which also stars Sam Neill and was written and directed by Michael Petroni (who wrote the underrated drama, The Book Thief). This is according to a press release issued by the studio today.

Here's a recap of the synopsis:

In BACKTRACK, troubled psychotherapist Peter Bowers (Adrien Brody) is suffering from nightmares and eerie visions. When he uncovers the horrifying secret shared by his patients, he is put on a course that takes him back to the remote hometown he fled years ago. There in False Creek he is consumed by solving a decades-old mystery that holds the key to his strange and menacing delusions.

Saban Films President Bill Bromiley said, “BACKTRACK is an unexpected and haunting psychological thriller. Michael Petroni is a great storyteller and his film was a major standout in the Tribeca Film Festival. This will be a strong addition to the Saban slate.” 

For those of you unfamiliar with Saban Films (as I was), it launched just before last year's Cannes International Film Festival, and quickly hit the ground running acquiring films including The Homesman (another gem from last year). 

I'll keep you posted on the film as I learn more about it. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fred Armisen Has Also Joined the Cast of ZOOLANDER 2

Don't ask me why Paramount/Ben Stiller has decided to reveal one cast member from ZOOLANDER 2 a day, but I suppose it's building excitement for those of you who eagerly anticipate this sequel. Today's actor? Fred Armisen, most known from SNL and Portlandia.

In case you forgot, this is what he looks like:

I really, really hope this movie pleasantly surprises me. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt Team Up for a New Film from the Director of ANCHORMAN

Pardon me if I don't get too excited about this film right away. Actually, call me cautiously optimistic at this point, only because I do love the cast so far. Today it was announced that director Adam McKay's upcoming film, THE BIG SHORT, will star Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, as well as Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei. Awesome lineup, right?

But here's the thing. It's Adam McKay, who brought us Anchorman, Stepbrothers and The Other Guys--three films I can't even get through (I am okay with being in the minority on this). So obviously I'm not too geeked to check out this new film, which McKay also wrote. Even the synopsis is very meh to me:

“THE BIG SHORT” is the remarkable true story of the genius contrarian investors who, recognizing just how insane the housing bubble had become, figured out how to “short” the market prior to the financial collapse of 2008.

It's just not compelling, not even as a comedy (though my Spidey senses tell me that this might turn out to be along the lines of an American Hustle kind of thing...Take from that what you will). So a couple of guys (okay, maybe Leo and Tomei's characters get wrapped up in this somehow) stumble upon a housing scheme which pays off for them big time. So what?  

Ugh, maybe it will be more than that. With this cast, I could only hope McKay puts them to good use. Production has already begun in New Orleans. I'll share more as I learn more.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Are You a ZOOLANDER Fan?

...Because I never bothered with the franchise. But now I feel like I have to watch ZOOLANDER 2 because my girl crush Penelope Cruz is going to be in it (oh how the mighty have fallen). You might have already heard this announcement from Ben Stiller when he tweeted about it last week (peep the hilariously adorable vintage pic of Cruz in the link):

And today brings the news that Billy Zane (arguably the hardest working actor in Hollywood, averaging about 200 movies a year that no one actually watches) will return for the sequel. Check out this gnarly photo of him:

Eh, I can't say I'm too excited about this one. But I'll have to support team Cruz. Thoughts?

Monday, April 13, 2015

TRUE STORY, Starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, is Pretty Much Dead on Arrival

It has reluctantly come to my realization that James Franco has become a shocking parody of himself, so much so that I can't even take him seriously in dramatic roles anymore (which pains me to say because I always felt like I was his last surviving fan). But now I feel like I don't know if he's trying to be funny, actually trying not to laugh or whether it is in fact supposed to be a comedy that I am watching. Weeks after I've seen his new movie, TRUE STORY co-starring Jonah Hill, the answer is still unclear (on all fronts).

It's never good when you leave a film and completely forget you've seen in not even five minutes later. That's how it was with this movie. It just kinda...happened. Franco phoned in a meager portrayal of a con artist/accused murderer Christian Longo, who might just be an interesting character in real life but certainly not in this film. Perhaps more accurately, it is Christian who is playing Franco as the actor never quite gets a grip on who this character is. There are several times when Franco clearly slips out of character in a scene with Hill in which they both actually look like they're going to just start reciting lines from This is the End. Hill is on the one side playing disgraced journalist Michael Finkel, convincingly desperate to pen Christian's story, and across the table is Franco, struggling to find a single genuine emotion despite portraying a man accused of murdering his wife and three kids. Seriously, WTF is this?

Director Rupert Goold, who also adapted the screenplay from Finkel's own memoir, tries to create a fuller story that actually draws the audience in with suspense and its "who's playing who?" intrigue. But actually doesn't. Between the empty tête-à-têtes with Christian and Michael and the meaningless scenes with Michael running around trying to pick up the pieces of his ruined reputation, TRUE STORY just never feels like it gets anywhere. And Goold's lame attempt to give Felicity Jones (who plays Hill's concerned wife) something to do at the tail end of the film just seems like a tacked-on effort to add gravitas when the film had already fallen over a cliff.

This movie is just an anomaly in the worst way.

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

TRUE STORY is in select theaters April 17. Watch the trailer below:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Let's Cast the Live Action Mulan

By now you've probably heard that Hollywood has set its sights on a live-action adaptation of the 1998 Disney classic Mulan (arguably one of the best fictional heroines ever), and I am thrilled/concerned. Thrilled because it's one of the best Disney films ever and concerned because of the same reason (because no one knows how to mess up a good thing better than Hollywood). I can only hope that the powers that be stay as true to the original film as possible.

But since I generally find it hard to rely on "hope," I've decided to combine forces with you, the reader, by asking who you think should be cast in this new version of Mulan.

To get you started, I've included my own wishlist of actors who I think would be great for this production:

Steven Yeun (in my head, he is Shang)

Devon Aoki (as Mulan)

Jamie Chung (as Mulan)

Ken Watanabe (as Fa Zhou)

Daniel Dae Kim (as Shan Yu)

Michelle Yeoh (as Fa Ling)

Rick Yune (as Shan Yu)

John Cho (as Mushu)

Who are your picks?

Monday, April 6, 2015

CHEATIN' Is Not Your Average Crime of Passion Drama

In the saturated market of crime of passion dramas (Fatal Attraction, Gone Girl, etc), it is always refreshing to see a filmmaker like Bill Plympton go outside the box to create a strangely alluring animated contribution to the genre -- even if it fails to truly connect with the audience. CHEATIN', with its hyper stylized look and absence of dialogue, will likely be the type of film that polarizes audiences who will either love it for its originality or hate its pretentiousness.

I actually belong to both categories; I intensely love the film until I don't. Meaning, beyond its dark humor, erotic passion and deviant narrative, I never feel like I really know the actual characters beyond this one moment in their lives and beneath the film's artistic sophistication. I actually wish it was more lowbrow in its approach (or at least had dialogue).

As the story goes (and without giving away any major plot details), Ella and Jake meet by chance at a carnival, fall madly in love and get married. They have a lot of great, clutch-the-covers sex, they're the envy of everyone around them. and things are going really well. Until they're not. Infidelity becomes a contentious third wheel in their relationship, so much so that Ella resorts to an elaborate crime of passion to keep Jake. Trouble is, they still love each other deeply yet feel they both have a score to prove. Thus sets off a surreal game of love and murder.

CHEATIN' has a real knack for illustrating a fascinating moment that just so happens to involve characters. Plympton doesn't seem to spend a whole lot of developing the people in this story, but his attention to the scope of each scene (the music, the setting and the colors) gives it gripping visual aesthetic. But the film ends up being more of a meditation on lust, manipulation and romance than anything else. It's interesting to watch, but is not as complete as it should have been.

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

CHEATIN' is now playing in New York City and will roll out to the following cities: Chicago, San Francisco, Seattale, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland and others throughout April. It will be available nationwide exclusively on Vimeo on Demand on April 21.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

FURIOUS 7 is a Bittersweet Yet Slightly Imbalanced Ending to a Badass Franchise

Just when you thought the Fast and Furious movies couldn't get any sillier, FURIOUS 7 comes along. Don't get me wrong: I've seen about half of the movies in the franchise (it's really not necessary to watch each one), which means I have contributed to its popularity and I hold myself accountable for that. But you know what? I enjoyed them. Oh, they are utterly ridiculous with laughably implausible action scenes, but man are they entertaining. They are literally the reason popcorn was invented.

So to describe FURIOUS 7 is to describe any other film in the franchise. You know the deal: the crew (played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez) reunite on the highway when one of their own is threatened, launching full-on vehicular warfare. But as its star Vin Diesel has intimated in multiple interviews over the last few weeks, this latest installment has more heart than its predecessors. And I'm not just talking about the ole "we don't just race cars together, we're family" prose we've been hearing from these characters since we first met them in 2001. There is in fact a maturity in how director James Wan approached both the story and the characters. Not to say the movie is exactly sophisticated (after all, we are just talking about hot people driving fast cars for two hours), but at least the story was taken into consideration. For example, new dad Bryan (Walker) is now struggling to embrace life in minivan, while Letty (Rodriguez) is grappling between blurred memories and a promising but intimidating new future with Dom (Diesel). I don't know if that was on account of giving us something special to remember the Paul Walker, the fact that this is the last film, or that it was simply past time for the characters to catch up to their ages. But it worked, and it was needed.

Even the action is more advanced. Now I'm not saying that I didn't say "WHAT?!" countless times while watching many of the over-the-top scenes (you will never convince me that cars can drive out of planes thousands of feet in the sky and land safely on the road with just a parachute). But I will say that there are a handful of moments in the film, particularly the fight scenes, that gave me old school Sylvester Stallone (or even the first Expendables film) in that they are inspired, badass and downright nasty in the best way possible. It takes you back to when bad meant goood.

Of course, the addition of Jason Statham as ruthless villain Deckard Shaw ups the badassery, and gives our familiar quintet someone to play bumper cars with. But, assuming due to the premature death of Walker, Diesel is forced to step up to the plate and carry the film as lead alpha (he's actually referred to this in the movie), disrupting the more natural balance he shared with Walker. Exacerbating that issue is the fact that throughout most of the film Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, "franchise viagra") is out of commission. Thankfully each member of the cast brings their own brand of awesomeness to the film (even Bridges gets to knock someone out), so Walker's absence doesn't seem like as much of a deficit for the film.

And speaking of Walker, remember when I told you to bring tissues to the theater? You may need them for the final ten minutes or so as we reminisce over his entire F&F career (and many hair changes). It is a tasteful tribute to an actor gone too soon. In fact, I'd say FURIOUS 7 is a fitting sendoff for the franchise, not only to the many millenials who grew up with the films but the rest of us who admire them for their penchant for rebellion, diverse casts and, yes, their foolishness.

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

FURIOUS 7 is now in theaters.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I Am So Ready to See CHEATIN'

As you've probably gathered by my obsession over Gone Girl and Chicago, I love a great murderous romance. Which is why I am particularly interested in Oscar-nominated director Bill Plympton's upcoming animated film CHEATIN' that has gained quite a bit of buzz as it continues to make its rounds on the festival circuit. It just sounds like an awesome blend of strange and alluring, and I am here for every ounce of it. More:

CHEATIN' is an award-winning, surreal animated adult tale of love, jealousy, revenge, and murder. Inspired by the work of James M. Cain (“Double Indemnity”, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”), CHEATIN' marks Academy Award nominated Bill Plympton’s seventh animated feature film.

In a fateful bumper car collision, Jake and Ella meet and become the most loving couple in the long history of Romance.But when a scheming “other” woman drives a wedge of jealousy into their perfect courtship, insecurity spells out an untimely fate.With only the help of a disgraced magician and his forbidden “soul machine,” Ella takes the form of Jake's numerous lovers, desperately fighting through malfunction and deceit as they try to reclaim their destiny.

Watch a two new clips from the film:

CHEATIN' opens in New York City on Friday, April 3rd, with a national roll out to follow in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland and others throughout April. It will also be available nationwide exclusively on Vimeo On Demand on April 21.

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