Friday, October 9, 2015

'Straight Outta Compton' filmmaker F. Gary Gray to direct 'Furious 8'

Even though this year's Furious 7 was advertised with the tagline "One Last Ride," you had to know that if the film was a box office success, we would be seeing many more Fast and Furious films. And the seventh installment in the racing franchise was more than just a mere success. The film grossed $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, enough to make it the fifth highest grossing film of all time. Despite the tragic loss of star Paul Walker, Universal had too much money left to make in the Fast universe for them to just move on from the franchise. However, the question of how to continue the series became the biggest question. Early on, Universal set an April 14, 2017 release date for the film, and everyone knew that Vin Diesel would be back in some shape or form, but little else was known about the state of the film. There was a dramatic report for The Hollywood Reporter a few weeks back that stated that Universal had offered Furious 7 director James Wan "life-altering money" to come back and direct, but he declined. Diesel was also difficult the last time around, and there were fears that his perfectionist personality would end up in the director's chair for chapter eight. Alas, that will not be the case as one of Hollywood's hottest directors has joined the project.

F. Gary Gray, the director of the August sleeper hit Straight Outta Compton, has signed on to direct the eighth installment in the franchise. Gray joins producer/star Diesel, as well as Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, who will be reprising their roles as Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, respectively. While there is little news on the state of the script, Diesel has made it clear in the past that for this go-around, he wants to take the action to New York. In addition to the previously mentioned cast members, it's likely that Kurt Russell, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris will be back for this flick. In my mind, Gray is the perfect pick to helm this film, and I think that he'll do a phenomenal job. Straight Outta Compton is still one of the year's best films and the visceral intensity that he brought to the rap biopic will translate well to the Furious franchise. I'm curious to know where the story goes from here, but hiring Gray is a good start. Furious 8 will debut on April 14, 2017.

Image Credits: Deadline, Screen Rant

Sunday, October 4, 2015

'The Martian' explodes with $55 million for second biggest October opening; 'Sicario' soars, 'The Walk' uneasy at weekend box office

As soon as the first reviews hit for The Martian at the Toronto International Film Festival, I knew for certain that this film would be a very big hit. The trailers were good, it was deemed to be a terrific crowd-pleaser (which it is), and the critics were on its side. It was only a question of "how big" for Ridley Scott and Matt Damon's new sci-fi epic. We got the answer to that question this weekend, and the answer was a massive $55 million showing, enough to score the second biggest October opening ever, only behind Gravity's $55.7 million. Made on a budget of $108 million, The Martian opened in 3.851 theaters and continued the trend of fall space adventures hitting it big at the box office. The aforementioned Gravity was a huge success back in 2013 with $723.1 million worldwide and Interstellar also did extraordinarily well last year with $675 million in worldwide grosses. The Martian has only made $45.2 million in international markets so far, but that will most certainly change. It's a film that plays well to both cinephiles and audience members (shown by its "A" Cinemascore) and it will be in the Oscar conversation for the foreseeable future. All in all, a huge win for Fox, for Matt Damon, and most importantly, for iconic director Ridley Scott.

Continuing its spectacular run in second place was Sony's Hotel Transylvania 2, a desperately needed hit for the studio. After a record-breaking $48.4 million opening weekend, the animated comedy dropped a light 32% and snagged another $33 million this weekend, enough to raise its total to $90.5 million. Everybody involved with this project really needed it to be a hit, so in that regard, I guess I'm happy. Adam Sandler might just have to stick to animated comedies about Dracula in the future, instead of dressing up in drag as his own twin.

After a strong couple of weeks in limited release, Lionsgate's Sicario broke out in 2,620 theaters and finished in third place. The drug cartel drama grossed $12 million, which is very impressive for a more art house-y action flick. Sicario also received an "A-" Cinemascore, which means that audiences were down with what director Denis Villeneuve and company had to offer. I have to admit that I am slightly surprised by the CinemaScore for this one. Not to say that Sicario is a bad movie- far from it, it's a terrific little piece of cinema. But it's not necessarily an audience-friendly film. It's bleak, brutally violent and grim. And it can be kinda vague and slow paced as well, not something that general audiences usually dig. It's a simple testament to the completely random and unpredictable nature of CinemaScore.

The Intern finished in fourth place with $11.6 million, a solid hold from its $17.7 million opening. The adult-skewing dramedy has grossed $36.5 million and with very little competition in that aspect, I expect The Intern to finish with around $60 million. In fifth place was Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, which took another sharp tumble and only pulled in $7.6 million. The sequel to last year's surprise hit has grossed $63.2 million so far, a noticeably lower amount than the original. But thanks to overseas box office, there's no doubt in my mind that we'll be seeing The Death Cure in the near future.

Black Mass also continued its downward spiral this weekend, falling to sixth place and taking in only $5.9 million. Johnny Depp's Oscar bait-y crime drama has made $52.2 million, basically hinting to the fact that the pic was incredibly front-loaded. No matter- this is a good critical success for Depp and something that he really needed after his slip into caricature in recent years. Right behind Black Mass was Everest, which also took a steep 58.4% fall down to seventh place, snagging $5.5 million. The IMAX climber drama has made $33.1 million, a somewhat disappointing but unsurprising total for the $55 million movie. It didn't gain nearly enough festival traction and in my view, isn't a very good movie at all.

M. Night Shyamalan's surprise hit The Visit fell to eighth place and grabbed another $3.9 million, enough to raise its total to $56.9 million. A much-needed success for Shyamalan, The Visit will hopefully bring him back to his horror roots in a big way. Christian breakout hit War Room was farther behind in ninth place, with $2.8 million, enough to reach $60.5 million. And finally, Sony's The Perfect Guy rounded out the top ten with $2.4 million. It has now made $52.6 million.

The odd man out this weekend was TriStar's The Walk, which opened in 448 IMAX theaters this weekend, a similar rollout to Everest. Unfortunately, Robert Zemeckis' tight-rope drama was not nearly as successful, grossing a meager $1.5 million over the weekend and $1.9 million for the 5-day frame. The film expands next week and its grosses did increase over the weekend, making this Oscar contender seem like a possible word of mouth hit, but only time will tell. 

Next weekend sees the wide release of Pan, the expansion of 99 Homes and The Walk and the limited premiere of Steve Jobs. Here are my predictions:

1. The Martian- $34.5 million
2. Pan- $23.1 million
3. Hotel Transylvania 2- $20.3 million
4. The Walk- $11 million
5. Sicario- $7.6 million
6. The Intern- $6.5 million
7. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials- $4.9 million
8. Black Mass- $3.5 million
9. Everest- $3.4 million
10. The Visit- $2.6 million

Image Credits: Screen Rant, Hey U Guys, YouTube, Joblo

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Black Mass review

As far back as I can remember, I've always loved gangster movies.

Okay, maybe not quite as far back as I can remember. I just really wanted to use the Goodfellas line. But it is true that gangster movies hold a special place in my cinematic life. I remember sitting in a hotel lobby when I was 13 years old, watching Scarface and being completely wrapped up in the story. I begged my dad to let me watch the full, unedited versions of Goodfellas and The Godfather for years and he probably got sick of it after a while. Gangster flicks just hold this sort of magic that is hard to explain- the characters on screen are so despicable, but you can't help but get caught up in their world. It's that effortless sympathy that the great filmmakers like DePalma, Scorsese and Coppola generate that has elevated this genre to new heights (although I would argue that Scarface's success lies more in its style than its protagonist's likability).

Black Mass, Scott Cooper's Whitey Bulger epic, is not a great gangster flick. There's so much story to tell and so much unbelievable material that Cooper has a difficult time cutting it down. Reports have said that the original cut was 3 hours long and I believe it- Black Mass is full of subplots, side stories, isolated incidents, loose ends and character twists that all get shoved into this 122 minute flick. But despite those glaring flaws, Black Mass shines as a moody, brutal and ominous crime drama with terrific central performances and a seedy atmosphere. Johnny Depp is brilliantly chilling as Bulger, and every time he popped up on screen, my stomach dropped. He's that terrifying and that good. And while this grimy and dark film won't inspire any smiles upon exiting the theater, Black Mass is a great way to kick off awards season and a good addition to the gangster movie canon.

Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a mob kingpin trying to expand his empire in his quest to dominate the city of Boston. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) is an ambitious, fame-seeking FBI agent who wants to nab the Italian mafia. Connolly and Bulger grew up together, and after a lunch meeting with Whitey's Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Connolly hatches an idea- Let Bulger run his business, but use his information to get the FBI to take down the Mafia. Both sides come out on the winning side. And with that small start, the FBI enabled Whitey to terrorize the city of Boston for several years, killing anyone who stood in his way for years before the whole thing fell apart.

Told in the aftermath of the downfall of Bulger's organization from the perspective of the three main associates of his organization- Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane)- Black Mass tracks the rise and fall of the gangster, from his relationship with Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) to the heights of the relationship with the FBI all before his capture in 2011. And although the edges are a little rough, Black Mass is ultimately a very entertaining tale about greed, corruption and the dangers of ambition.

If you're seeing Black Mass and you're not a hardcore movie fan, you're probably seeing it for Johnny Depp's performance. And in that aspect, you won't be disappointed. Depp is absolutely terrifying as Bulger, and the vampiric, devilish comparisons that have been made are quite apt. From the slicked back hair to the icy stare to the piercing eyes, everything about his performance is spot-on. Depp and the filmmakers even slip in a bit of humanity to Bulger, and it makes the character a fascinating enigma. The character might not ever amount to much of an arc (he's a terrible, murderous person at the beginning and a terrible, murderous person at the end), but Depp deserves all of the praise being thrown his way. He's that good.

And the even better news is that the supporting cast is terrific as well. Joel Edgerton almost steals Depp's show as Connolly, the power-hungry agent who destroys his entire life as a result of his deal with Bulger. After his twisty role as Gordo in The Gift, Edgerton is back in his comfort zone a bit with this one, but he's never been better. Rory Cochrane, who most famously played the perpetually stoned Slater in Dazed & Confused, is great as well. Cochrane is an actor who I wish was in more movies, because he's such a good actor and he brings so much to Steve, Bulger's right-hand man. The rest of the actors have roles that amount to little more than cameos, but each of them gets their change to shine. Peter Sarsgaard oozes awkward paranoia as Brian Halloran, Jesse Plemons does solid work as Kevin, and brief appearances by Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Corey Stoll and Dakota Johnson work very well.

Unfortunately, when I say that most of the actors have what amounts to a brief cameo, it's not necessarily a compliment. Black Mass is a film with a ton of moving parts and that sprawling nature is what makes it a good film, but not a great one. It's not often that I say this about a film, but Black Mass is just too short. With so much rich, compelling material and such well-measured and textured performances, why not go for something truly bold? Despite how good Black Mass is, I think that I'll always be haunted by how good it could have been. It catches its groove quite often and gets flowing, but other subplots feel a little slighted and jumbled. Like many people said with Straight Outta Compton, I almost feel like Black Mass would have work better as a Narcos-type miniseries (terrific show by the way, if you haven't started watching yet). Cooper's direction, the writing and the acting is all flawless, but ultimately, the final ingredient is missing.

While all of this may sound negative, I very much enjoyed this film. I just wish that it had lived up to its full potential. But since this is a positive review, let's focus on the good things, shall we? For one, I love the 1970's noir sensibilities of this film. There's no fun, upbeat twists like in Goodfellas or a classic family story akin to The Godfather. Just brutal, nasty, vicious drama. Set in gritty, rainy alleys, bridge underpasses, dimly lit bars and functionally bland office buildings, Black Mass is beautifully captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and feels like a film ripped straight out of the 70's.

Scott Cooper also proves himself to be a very strong director with this one, as he's able to tackle a lot of tricky material and make something that really works. His stylistic elements and music choices (there's a good score from Junkie XL, who is having a terrific year when you mix this with Mad Max: Fury Road) aren't too flashy, but they fit with the tough nature of the film. Cooper has made a few well-received films before this (Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace), and it's clear that he knows what he's doing and will become a directorial talent to watch. He'll tackle something big someday and I have a feeling that it'll work terrifically.

Black Mass may have its failings and it might fall short of gangster classic, but it's a well-executed crime drama that features some of the best performances of the year and a noir feel that truly works. Depp and Edgerton lead the way as Cooper leads us through this epic tale of brutal violence and government corruption (or ineptitude). Anyone looking for the next Scorsese mob story will be sorely disappointed, but audiences with more reasonable expectations will be thrilled and compelled by the story of Bulger and the relationship that changed Boston for years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Latin Post, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, The Guardian, Joblo

Saturday, September 26, 2015

John Goodman and Thomas Mann join the cast of 'Kong: Skull Island'

Kong: Skull Island was announced back at San Diego Comic-Con in 2014, but since then, it has gone through a plethora of changes. Joe Cornish was originally rumored to direct the film, yet in the end, Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts took over. After that, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Keaton and J.K. Simmons joined the cast, making the film appealing to a wide range of audiences. Unfortunately, Simmons and Keaton were forced to drop out because of conflicts, leaving many film fans disappointed. Then earlier this month came the stunning announcement that Universal was moving Skull Island to Warner Bros. to ultimately set up a massive conflict between King Kong and Godzilla. The project has also gone through four writers- Max Borenstein, John Gatins and Dan Gilroy all put their spin on it before Jurassic World's Derek Connolly finished the last draft. So with all of that craziness, it's clear that this movie has been constantly in motion since it was first announced. Now, the storm seems to finally be calming and some official casting information is coming out. It started last month when Straight Outta Compton stars Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell joined the cast, and now, two more fantastic actors have signed on for a trip to Skull Island.

John Goodman and Thomas Mann, the breakout star of this summer's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, have joined the cast of Kong: Skull Island for unspecified roles. Despite the constantly shifting cast, there is very little hard information on the plot of this film or the characters. The story is reportedly set in the 1970s (source: J.K. Simmons via Screen Rant) and will be a new and unique take on King Kong. However, with all of the script rewrites and the move to WB, I wouldn't be surprised to see this become a modern-day take on the classic monster. All in all, despite the slightly unsettling shifts that have occurred with the project, I'm very excited for Skull Island. The cast and talent is strong, the premise is great, and the potential for a crossover with Godzilla is incredibly exciting. Goodman has always been one of my favorite actors and Mann was dynamite in Me and Earl. This is shaping up nicely and if it holds together, Kong: Skull Island will be one to watch. 

With a cast led by Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, John C. Reilly and Toby Kebbell, Kong: Skull Island will hit theaters on March 10, 2017.

Source: Screen Rant
Image Credits: Hitfix, Film School Rejects

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest review

The disaster movie is a dying breed in Hollywood, and the true-story disaster film is even more rare at this point. And despite brilliant visual filmmaking and a cast that tries its best to make it work, Everest will not bring that genre back to life. Technically awe-inspiring, especially in IMAX 3D, but dramatically empty and uninvolving, Everest moves at a sluggish pace through its tale of misery and death, culminating with a conclusion that beats you into submission so hard with its special effects that you don't get much out of its story. Director Baltasar Kormakur handles the visual sequences well, and there are a few moments of true emotional poignancy from Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley, but this overlong adventure tale (it feels like 3 hours, but only runs for 2) has a script that is a consistent letdown, resulting in a laborious and tiresome flick that never lives up to its potential.

Based on the tragic true-story of a group of climbers who were caught in a terrible storm back in 1996, Everest aims to show us how and why several men risked their lives to conquer one of the most dangerous natural sights in the world. As the story begins, we set the stage with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), climber extraordinaire and businessman, who has made a living off of taking people to the summit of Mt. Everest and getting them back safely. This year, he's competing with the smart and somewhat reckless Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) for the money of climbers and especially for the attention of journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). Climbers arrive in March and Hall's group for the season contains Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and more, all of whom are regular guys with one goal in mind- climb the world's tallest mountain.

After months of training, Hall, the climbers, and his team (Emily Watson, Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Worthington) begin to work their way up the mountain with the goal of reaching the summit on May 10, the prime window for climbers. Hall and the men face harsh elements- illness, bitter temperatures, thin air- but as they work their way up, they form a bond and become more and more determined to reach the top of the mountain. They reach the top of the mountain successfully (at least a large majority of them do), but during their return trip, disaster strikes. A large storm hits, killing several climbers and injuring many others, leaving the remaining men and women to band together to survive the worst disaster in Everest's history.

The failure of Everest has nothing to do with a lack of material or a dearth of visual punch. This movie has both of those things in droves. What Everest lacks is discipline, storytelling control and moviemaking pizzazz. Despite all of the sensory flash of this so-called IMAX "experience," Everest struggles to ever find a consistent pace, a momentum that carries it from scene to scene. Most of the movie consists of moving from one point on the mountain to another, with little drama or flash to go along with it. And when the action hits and the film gets intense, it's still pretty boring to watch; in fact, I'd go as far as to call Everest a miserable watch. I know that the events that form the basis of the film aren't exactly happy, but there have been films that have used tragic material to create a compelling story for the audience. Everest merely shows you what happened- there's no attempt to really create much drama between the climbers, or to create any real "movie magic." It makes for visceral filmmaking, but it's a pretty tedious narrative to watch.

There's a great moment in Mr. Plinkett's Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace review where he talks about the lack of a central protagonist in the film. It's not Anakin, it's not Qui Gon, it's not Obi-Wan and it's not Padme, so who is it? Everest suffers from this same fundamental protagonist issue. The ensemble cast is full of talented actors who aren't given much to work with at all, and there's not one central character for us to connect with. Jason Clarke's Rob Hall seems like the film's leader at some points, but there are other stretches that disconnect him completely from the film. Same goes for Josh Brolin and John Hawkes, and even Jake Gyllenhaal in some stretches- they all seem like the main character of the film, but Everest never latches onto a single person in the cast. It jumps around from character to character, presumably with the goal of creating the most vivid picture of what really went down. But unfortunately, that doesn't work and the film just ends up being extremely overcrowded.

That's not to say that the acting in Everest is bad, per say. The stars do pretty solid work with what they're given and occasionally, what they're given is quite spectacular. There's a scene in the late goings of the film with Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley that will probably go down as the best scene in a bad movie this year. For a film that feels so emotionally (and literally) cold the rest of the time, it's this odd moment of warmth between two characters with a tangible, palpable connection. Clarke and Knightley elevate the material to another level, and it's impressive.

Gyllenhaal also does a fantastic job of playing the young and brash Scott Fischer, while John Hawkes' Doug Hansen is one of the few characters with whom I felt a particularly strong connection. Josh Brolin and Robin Wright have a few decent moments as well, though none that are quite as mesmerizing as those from Clarke and Knightley. And yet, the cast list doesn't even end there. Sam Worthington pops up from time to time as the team's scout, Emily Watson has some good scenes as Helen Wilton (base camp manager), Michael Kelly stars as "In Thin Air" author Jon Krakauer, and Elizabeth Debicki is there too, but to be honest, I had no idea she was in this movie until I read the cast list yesterday.

All of these actors are talented and they give committed performances, but the overall theme is that there's just too many people that director Baltasar Kormakur tries to shove into the story. And beyond just the name-brand actors that I mentioned, there are literally tons of other characters that pop in and out on occasion- the team of Sherpas, Hall's assistants, South African climbers, Japanese climbers, Fischer's assistants, etc. It's just too much for one two hour film to handle. If Kormakur had aimed for a vignette style approach that mixed together several different perspectives on the events, maybe this expansive cast could have worked. But Everest goes a very traditional route, and the sheer number of characters becomes problematic at that point.

But Everest's ultimate problem is momentum, or more specifically, a lack thereof. For what has been marketed and pitched as a disaster/action/adventure/thriller, Everest is insanely slow. The characters walk. And they walk. They stop and eat and share "climber ties." They walk some more. They fall down from a lack of oxygen. They talk about the magnitude of Everest. And then they walk some more. This goes on for nearly the entire runtime, with only a few moments of dramatic tension here and there. Even the ending of the film, with all of its terrifying visuals, suffers from an abundance of sitting around and not doing much of anything. If Everest had a more focused approach, a better screenplay with more lively dialogue, more developed characters, and more measured emotional punches, the walking and the climbing might not have been so repetitive and tedious. Instead, we get a film that feels miserably long and uninteresting, devoid of much flair or interest.

Everest is a visually stunning film, and for some, that, along with the performances from the stars, will be enough. Unfortunately, the story and the characters are pushed to the backburner, leaving us with some cool avalanche scenes and a few sad moments. There is a good film here somewhere, and maybe even a great one. As a realistic take on the events of May 1996, this is probably pretty accurate, but as a movie with solid pacing, a natural flow and interesting characters, Everest simply falls short.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Image Credits: The Guardian, Screen Rant, Variety, Youtube,  Fat Movie Guy

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Post-Toronto Oscar Update- Where does the Best Picture race stand now?

The Toronto Film Festival closed up shop this past weekend, after a long stretch of premieres, galas and movies that formed the foundation for the Oscar race. The end of Toronto signals the finale of the first leg of fall festivals (TIFF, along with Venice and Telluride) and we're now able to get a much better picture of the awards potential for many films. Although several films like Black Mass, Spotlight, The Danish Girl, Room and Beasts of No Nation premiered at other festivals, how the audience responds at Toronto is absolutely critical to Oscar success. In previous years, Best Picture winners like Argo, Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years A Slave have hit it big in the Great White North and gone on to be massive hits on the awards circuit. So this year, who were the big winners from Toronto? And what does it mean for the Oscar race?

The most critical award that TIFF hands out is the Audience Award, which in recent years has gone to successful films such as Silver Linings Playbook, The King's Speech, 12 Years A Slave and last year's The Imitation Game. This year, Lenny Abrahamson's Room, the tale of a woman and her child adjusting to life outside of captivity, won the prize, further signifying that this A24 release is here to stay. The indie distributor has never had a big awards player before, but Room is looking more and more like a film to watch. Room hits theaters on October 16, a prime slot for any Oscar contender. It'll make a stop at the Savannah Film Festival next month during its presumably slow rollout over October and November.

Other films that premiered at Venice and Telluride also continued to gain momentum at Toronto, firmly putting themselves in the Oscar conversation. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, was a smash at Toronto as well, with Paramount striking a huge distribution deal for the film. The stop-motion animation drama will now debut on December 30, just in time for Paramount to squeeze it into the Oscar race. With such a strong reception, Inside Out now has some major competition in the Best Animated Feature category. Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation also played well at the Fest, with most viewers considering it to be "mandatory viewing" as Joblo's Chris Bumbray put it. The Netflix-distributed drama is an awards season question mark, as it is currently eschewing a traditional release. But will the pure power of Fukunaga's film be too much for the Academy to ignore? We'll find out.

Brooklyn, the Sundance hit, kept its momentum strong as well and is looking more and more like a major Oscar play each day. It debuts in cinemas on November 4, and if it continues to play well at festivals, it could be a Best Picture nominee. The Lobster had a successful TIFF run after its Cannes premiere, and Sicario was a huge box office hit, as well as a critical one at Toronto, hinting that we could see this one sneak into the Oscar race. But out of all of the films that had previously premiered, Spotlight was the one that gained the most at Toronto. Once an afterthought in the race, Spotlight is now the Best Picture frontrunner according to prognosticator site Gold Derby. Critics went crazy for the film and it's the type of movie that can appeal to many audience members as well. Spotlight debuts on November 6. This will be a big test for Open Road Films, but if they run a good campaign, we may see director Thomas McCarthy and Michael Keaton on stage in February.

Beyond the big festival hits, TIFF was set to hold the premieres of some pretty big films. But oddly enough, The Martian was the only one that really hit it big. Fans and critics went appropriately bonkers over the Ridley Scott sci-fi flick, heaping tons of praise on it. While I've been skeptical about The Martian all along because of Scott's recent track record, it's clear that Fox and the director have a big hit on their hands- one that will make a ton of money, and one that will garner quite a bit of awards attention.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other big-ticket premieres fell flat. Biopics Trumbo and Truth received some praise, but mostly for the performances. Truth might get a bit of Best Picture buzz, but with Spotlight hogging all of the attention, James Vanderbilt's journalism-based flick might not stand a chance. David Gordon Green's Our Brand is Crisis fell flat with pretty mediocre reviews across the board, Freeheld gained zero traction, and Demolition, the opening night film and the latest from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee, was also a disappointment (it's obvious that Fox Searchlight isn't looking at it as an Oscar player as the film debuts in 2016). And finally, Tom Hiddleston's I Saw the Light bombed completely- reviews were poor and reaction was pretty muted.

In addition to that, some films that hit it big at other fests weren't so big in Toronto. The Danish Girl will still likely snag some acting nods, but the film took a major hit after the so-called "lukewarm" Toronto reception. Same goes for Black Mass- Johnny Depp will still get nominated, but the film's flaws are being amplified by more successful flicks. As for the other gangster flick of 2015, I have a feeling that Legend will be much more successful in Britain than in the US (the box office overseas was huge when it opened). The film didn't even make a dent in Toronto, and Universal moved the film to November because of the reaction.

So with all of that said- and I know it's a ton of info- where does the Oscar race stand today? What films are in, what films are out, and what movies are we waiting for? As for the latter, I have a strong feeling that films like The Revenant, Joy, Bridge of Spies and The Hateful Eight will be on the final list, with Creed, The Walk and In the Heart of the Sea standing an outside chance. Also, The Big Short just jumped into the Oscar race today after a series of strong test screenings, so that's an important one to consider. It's a messy race right now, but it's clearing up pretty quickly and we'll get an even clearer picture after New York next week. But as of now, here are my Oscar predictions for Best Picture.

1. The Revenant
2. Spotlight
3. Joy
4. Steve Jobs
5. Carol
6. Inside Out
7. The Martian
8. The Hateful Eight
9. Brooklyn
10. Bridge of Spies

Image Credits: Indiewire, Hollywood Reporter, Screen Rant, Joblo

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials review

After dominating Hollywood for years, it seems that the young adult genre may finally be riding off into the sunset. The Hunger Games series wraps up this year, Twilight is long gone and Divergent only has a couple movies left in the tank. Most of the other YA films have fallen flat, but one film that did manage to catch on was last year's The Maze Runner. Its $340 million worldwide total meant that Fox pushed to get the other two films in the franchise out as fast as possible, and because of that, we now have chapter two, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, only one year later. And while it will surely rake in a healthy profit for Fox, it further hints to the downfall of the YA adaptation. Because just like Insurgent, Paper Towns, and some other recent films, The Scorch Trials is dull, tedious, uninteresting, soulless, repetitive, murky, moronic and simply, a whole mess of nothing. Despite being familiar with the source material, I had no idea what was going on, why it was going on and most importantly, why I should care. The Scorch Trials is simply a terrible movie and a big disappointment after a solid first entry into the franchise.

The Scorch Trials picks up pretty much right where The Maze Runner left off- the Gladers, led by Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), have escaped from the Maze and now live in a bizarre facility operated by the mysterious Janson (Aidan Gillen). Once Thomas begins to suspect something sinister thanks to the help of Aris (Jacob Lofland), he orchestrates a prison break of sorts. Thomas seeks a group of people in the mountains that will protect them from WICKD, the organization that put them in the Maze. But once they find themselves stuck in the Scorch, the Gladers will realize that their toughest task is ahead of them. The Scorch is an unforgiving landscape, filled with Cranks (zombie-like creatures that attack without provocation) and gangsters, all while WICKD is still following their every move. Through their ordeal in the Scorch, Thomas will have to find a way to unite the Gladers and the others in the Scorch against WICKD and prevent them from orchestrating their reign of terror.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a movie that is so lifeless and boring that I feel like I'm wasting my time. Every word that I write in this review is a word that could be put to better use, better than telling you that The Scorch Trials sucks. Because it does. The first 20 minutes hold the intrigue of the first film, and the final sequence works too, but the other 90 minutes in between are stunningly uninteresting. None of the characters are developed, their motivations are completely up in the air, and to be honest, I didn't really care or like any of them. Character actors like Barry Pepper, Giancarlo Esposito and Aiden Gillen give it their all, but there's no getting around the emptiness of this film.

Let's talk plot. I find it hard to say that The Scorch Trials has one, at least one that really works at all. The basic idea behind it seems to be "Hmm, something is up with these WICKD people. Let's go run around the Scorch to avoid being used for an antidote that will save THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE." Maybe I'm missing a key plot point or something, but from what I remember, the heart of the book series was the moral dilemma behind using the minds of a generation of children to find the cure for a disease. Was that ethical? Was that something worth doing? Is WICKD truly good, as they claim to be?

The film series is so much more shallow. There's a bit of moral conflict thrown in there every once in a while, especially towards the end, y'know, the good part of the movie. But for about 80% of the film, it's a sterile, soulless, bland trip through a CGI landscape that doesn't feel palpable in any way, with characters that we don't care about, on a quest we don't care about, moving from Point A to Point B to Point C and so on, in the most tiresome and rote way possible. I don't think I've ever heard the words "Go! Go! GO!" or "We gotta move! Let's run!" used so many times in any other movie. The concept and direction of the action scenes is fine. Wes Ball is a perfectly solid director and when he has the screenplay content to work with, he's able to do some pretty solid stuff. But the rest of the time, he has no good material and that's problematic for any director.

The main characters don't do much to add intrigue. Dylan O'Brien is a perfectly fine actor, but his character is the most static, flat protagonist I've ever seen in a young adult adaptation. Thomas has not changed in the slightest from the moment that he arrived in the maze. He starts off as a leader, he progresses as a leader and at the end of this film, he's still a leader. It would have been cool if Thomas had been a really timid person at first, with a lot of bad stuff thrust on him that makes him change, but that didn't happen. We have a protagonist who isn't compelling in the slightest, so what about the rest of the cast? They're not much better. Minho, Newt, Frypan and Winston are merely stand-ins who work as people for Thomas to run around with, as they have nearly no character development. The only character that changes in the slightest is Kaya Scodelario's Teresa and her change is abrupt, unwarranted and straight-up silly.

The supporting adult actors bring a bit of dignity to the project, but at a certain point, even they can't save it. Patricia Clarkson, Alan Tudyk, Gillen, Esposito, Pepper- all of them are actually pretty fantastic in their roles. Clarkson and Gillen work well as the mustache-twirling villains, Esposito and Tudyk bring the comic relief and Pepper works well as the military guy. I will say this- The Maze Runner does have one of the more impressive supporting casts in a recent YA adaptation, certainly better than Twilight or the Divergent series. Not quite on the Hunger Games or Harry Potter level, but all of the adult actors work surprisingly well.

But there's simply no getting around the pure tedium of this film. The number of times I checked my watch was sky-high, and the non-stop, breathless action with no real purpose in mind did nothing to curb my boredom. Most of the action takes place in generic settings- warehouses, abandoned buildings, underground bunkers- and none of it feels real. The Maze Runner was a promising start for a new franchise, but The Scorch Trials proves that it was a fluke. Chalk this up as the second big dystopian disappointment of the year, after Insurgent failed to do anything in March. Audiences are tiring of this material, and I think that the creative forces behind it are drained as well. It's a crushing disappointment for any fan of the source material, but considering the recent track record of these types of films, it's nothing surprising.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.7/10)

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Screen Rant, Forbes