Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Spectacular final trailer for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' incites fan frenzy

Well, after months and months of speculation, excitement and impatience, last week, the Star Wars community and the filmgoing community found what they were looking for- a final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most anticipated movie in history. I'm a little late on this due to my insane schedule, but I remember everything from that night in vivid detail. For me, a final Star Wars trailer had been in the back of my brain for a while. J.J. Abrams and co. whet our appetites with two terrific teasers, and on Sunday, October 18, Lucasfilm confirmed that a full trailer would drop with ESPN's Monday Night Football, accompanying the commencement of ticket sales. A new poster debuted for the film, and throughout the day on Sunday, brief teasers hit the web and played on all Disney-owned networks. Excitement was at a fever pitch and the fanboy community was foaming at the mouth, ready for everything that Monday would hold.

Monday arrived and I have to say, it was one of the longest days of my entire life. I'm usually pretty calm with the movie stuff, but this new Star Wars movie has tapped into my inner uncontrollable geek. School dragged on, and in the hours after, I watched Mississippi Grind (a fantastic little indie, review coming later) to pass the time. Finally, Monday Night Football began and so did the Star Wars insanity. Tickets on Fandango and Movie Tickets were supposed to go on sale in the immediate aftermath of the trailer's premiere at 10 PM EST, but it didn't quite work out that way. As soon as fans heard that the tickets were up, a wave of consumers flooded the ticketing websites causing widespread server failures. I was lucky enough to snag tickets to the 7:00 PM IMAX 3D showing for my friend and I, but others did not have the same success. Fans scampered to purchase any tickets that they could. In my area, 6 of the 15 opening night showings have already sold out nearly two months before the premiere; a virtually unprecedented number.

After the craziness of ticket sales, the moment that every Star Wars fan was waiting for finally arrived. The trailer. And it lived up to the hype. If you didn't contribute to the 112 million views or if you just want to watch it again, check out the trailer below.

I feel completely comfortable saying that this is one of the best trailers I've ever seen. The music, the imagery, the visuals, the voiceover- everything in this trailer is absolutely pitch perfect. After I initially watched it on ESPN, I immediately went and watched it about 50 more times online. It's almost addicting to a point, and it's so meticulously crafted and chill-inducing that I can't help but keep watching. This is the final trailer for the film and it's likely that we won't see many more images from The Force Awakens until its debut. The marketing campaign has done its job and the anticipation is now at an all-time high. Thanks to spoiler boards and other sites, I have a general idea of what the film's plot is, but I cannot wait to unlock all of the film's secrets on December 17. Star Wars: The Force Awakens stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Domnhall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew and Max von Sydow and is directed by J.J. Abrams.

Image Credits: Joblo

Monday, October 19, 2015

'The Martian' review

Ridley Scott has been on a career roller-coaster over the last few years and his latest film has not changed that. From the solid American Gangster in 2008, to the poorly received Robin Hood, to the divisive Prometheus, to the critically derided The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott has been less-than-consistent over the course of the last decade. However, every once in a while, he proves that even at the age of 77, he's still got it. The Martian, his latest foray into the sci-fi genre, is evidence that Scott is still one of the most talented directors on the planet. A smart, witty and universally appealing film, The Martian is led by an absolutely terrific performance by star Matt Damon, Drew Goddard's magnificent script and assured direction from one of the modern sci-fi masters. The Martian may not be as bold as Christopher Nolan's Interstellar or as technologically revolutionary as Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, but it combines some of the best elements from those films for a tasty concoction of humor, strong ensemble performances, scientific smarts and a deeply human story that will endure for years to come.

Set in the near future during a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the Hermes crew (Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) are on a routine walk when disaster strikes in the form of an incoming dust storm. Due to the danger, the crew must pack their things and leave immediately. The evacuation goes well, except for one small thing- Mark is struck by a large piece of debris, presumed dead and left stranded on Mars. Watney awakens with a large rod stabbed into his abdomen. He only has enough food to last for a month. And he's stuck in a small life habitat not meant to keep people alive for a very long time. Mark's death seems imminent. But thanks to his scientific genius, Mark finds a way to stay alive. Through his own brilliance, as well as the tireless work of NASA scientists back on Earth, the mission to return Mark safely home becomes one that unites humanity and brings a sense of hope to the world.

The first thing that is noticeable about The Martian is the fact that throughout the whole film, there are no villains. No mustache-twirling astronauts who want to sabotage Mark's plans. No dastardly bureaucrats that stand in the way of success. In The Martian, everybody is united behind the common purpose of saving Mark. Optimistic, hopeful and altogether free of the dread that seems to permeate through the sci-fi genre today, The Martian is a film with exceptional flow and a brilliant sense of humanity that is deeply felt in every frame. Exquisitely shot, set on an epic, but intimate scale, and cast to perfection, The Martian is a top-notch blockbuster that stands as one of the best films of the year and an instant science fiction classic.

While what really makes The Martian work lies beyond the actors on screen, the ensemble cast is phenomenal and every actor, no matter how large or small the part, contributes to make the film even better. Matt Damon anchors the production with a smart cockiness and a constant likability that helps the audience relate to Mark. In this film, it would have been absurdly easy for the producers and writers to give Mark an incredibly gimmicky backstory with a wife, kids and some sort of contrived reason to get back home. That angle had already been done rather well in Interstellar (and Gravity to a certain extent) and there was no need for it to appear in The Martian. Thankfully, we know very little about Mark. He's just a good guy- a man who was injured and caught in a dangerous situation just for doing something that he loved. And because of that, we as audience members are able to effortlessly relate to him.

The supporting cast is loaded with Oscar winners, nominees and great character actors who all get their chance to shine. Jessica Chastain plays the leader of the Hermes crew rather well, and her guilt over leaving Mark behind is felt in every scene that she's in. It's not quite the emotional turn that she gave in Interstellar, but the different flavor that she brings to it is pretty spectacular. Michael Pena also has some fantastic moments, as do Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the most prominent member of the Earthbound NASA crew and he is terrific as always. He brings a lot of wit and dignity to the role of Vincent Kapoor and I think that Ejiofor is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors. Jeff Daniels turns in a strong performance as NASA President Teddy Sanders and he does great as the brains and logical center of the operation. In addition, Donald Glover has some comical moments as Rich Purnell, Benedict Wong is consistently fantastic, and despite having little to do, Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Wiig do a very good job.

In addition to being impeccably cast, The Martian is also wonderfully scripted by Drew Goddard, working from Andy Weir's beloved best-seller. Goddard wrote World War Z and some other hit TV shows in the past, but this is the first screenplay that could garner him some Oscar attention. The film takes extremely complex science lingo and difficult ideas and makes them accessible to a wide audience. And it does it in a way that works even better than it did in Interstellar (one of the main complaints of that film was its scientific complexity and the confusion that resulted). Goddard's screenplay is also tremendously funny and it moves along a brisk pace, never becoming boring over the course of the film's 142 minute runtime.

While Goddard sets the tone with his taut and magnificent screenplay, Scott is the master executor, taking the material and allowing it to flow off the page onto the screen with ease. The film is simultaneously grand in scope and incredibly intimate, allowing us to feel like we've been on an epic journey with characters that we truly care about. Scott's direction never does anything extraordinarily unique, but the filmmaking is classically constructed to perfection and unfolds gracefully. His use of sound, of music (David Bowie's "Starman" is put to great use) and of stellar visual effects make The Martian a masterpiece of composition. This is, without a doubt, Scott's best film in years.

But what really sets The Martian apart as a film that will be remembered for ages is the feeling that it gives you as an audience member. It's an almost intangible sensation- one that can't easily be described in a few meager paragraphs. If I had to put together the words, I would say that it's a feeling of hope. A feeling of pure joy at what is coming together on the screen. The Martian is pure cinema- a trip to another galaxy that is so filled with rich, textured human emotion that you'll leave the theater elated. Everything with The Martian feels natural and easy. Nothing is forced, nothing is contrived. It's all perfectly and masterfully done.

I entered The Martian with a lot of trepidation, simply because of Scott's recent track record, and I left feeling invigorated. A perfect blend of all of the elements that make up great films, The Martian is an instant Oscar contender and an instant classic, a film that makes all the right moves and does it in a fresh, entertaining way. Damon is fantastic, the script is fresh and Ridley Scott has another great sci-fi film to add to his already impressive collection. You might think that there's nothing new left to be done with the space genre, but The Martian will make you rethink that. It's a masterful film and one of the best times I've had at the theater in years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                            (10/10)

Image Credits: Screen Rant, The Guardian, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

'Goosebumps' leads pack of new releases, 'Bridge of Spies' solid, 'Crimson Peak' flops at weekend box office

The two-week reign of The Martian ended this weekend thanks to R.L. Stine and the crew at Columbia. Goosebumps, the $58 million horror comedy, finished in first place with $23.5 million and an "A" Cinemascore, which indicates that audiences very much enjoyed this flick. Sony kept their predictions pretty low for the film, but the target market of kids raised Goosebumps above its target. The PG rating and the star power of Jack Black was a good marketing pitch for Sony, and it with good word of mouth and little competition, Goosebumps might be able to reach the heights of $75-$80 million. Very solid numbers for an original horror comedy and if the international numbers are strong, I can see a sequel being produced.

The Martian took a slightly harder tumble this weekend, dropping 42% to second place. The Ridley Scott space epic snagged $21.5 million, which was enough to raise its total to $143.7 million. Overseas, the film has been performing strong as well, grossing $175.4 million for a total worldwide gross of $319.1 million. Whether or not it can approach the totals of Gravity and Interstellar is still up for debate, but there's no question that The Martian is one of the biggest hits of the fall season so far. For some reason, I have yet to write my review but it is coming very soon. All you need to know is that it's one of the best movies of the year. Go see it if you haven't already.

Steven Spielberg's first film in three years, Bridge of Spies, finished in third place with $15.8 million. That's one of Spielberg's lower openings, but don't count it out yet- his Oscar favorites almost always rely on word of mouth. And for Bridge of Spies, the buzz is very good. Fans gave it an "A" Cinemascore, and on Rotten Tomatoes, the film stands at a fantastic 93%. Oscar buzz hasn't been as strong as it was for Lincoln, but I have no doubt that Tom Hanks and Spielberg will be in the conversation come January. However, competition for the Cold War thriller over the next few weeks is stiff- Universal's Steve Jobs is coming down the pipeline next week, Our Brand is Crisis hits the week after, and a bunch of limited release contenders debut after that. But if Bridge of Spies sticks, it'll end up close to $100 million.

Crimson Peak was the final wide release of the weekend, and unfortunately, the odd man out. Guillermo del Toro's Gothic horror film debuted in fourth place, pulling in a paltry $12.8 million. The $55 million flick, which stars Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, disappointed in both America and in overseas markets, where it only grossed $13.4 million. Audiences were lukewarm on the film, awarding it a lackluster "B-" Cinemascore. Critics enjoyed it a little bit more (it currently stands at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I don't see this film gaining much traction. It will be interesting to see if del Toro gets many big-budget features after both Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak failed to generate interest. He's set to direct a small film next, but he does have other large budget films set up for the future.

Sony's Hotel Transylvania 2 continued to be the surprise hit of the fall, grossing $12.2 million in fifth place. The animated comedy has made $136.4 million and will likely top the original's $148.3 million total by the end of next weekend. Sony has had a rough run lately, but this will provide a lone bright spot for the studio. Unfortunately, while Sony is gaining a bit of ground, Warner Bros. is still struggling. Pan fell 61.7% to sixth place for the weekend and brought in $5.8 million. The big-budget flop has made $25.7 million with a massive price tag of $150 million. A huge loss is coming for Warner Bros. in the near future.

In seventh place, The Intern kept its sleeper hit run rolling with $5.4 million. The Nancy Meyers dramedy has made $58.7 million so far, a relatively solid total. Close behind was Sicario, which finished in eighth place with $4.5 million. The bleak hitman drama has made $34.6 million so far and will probably finish with $40 million. Christian drama Woodlawn, which received an "A+" Cinemascore from audiences, took in $4.1 million in its debut frame in ninth place. Not as strong as War Room or God's Not Dead, but pretty good overall. And finally, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials rounded out the top ten with $2.75 million. The film has made a disappointing $75.4 million thus far.

As for the limited releases of the weekend, Room grossed $120,000 in 4 theaters, a very solid total, while Truth failed with $76,646 in 6 theaters. Room will continue to expand as its Oscar buzz grows, but Truth may have just sealed its awards fate over the weekend. Finally, Netflix-released Beasts of No Nation took in $50,699 in 31 theaters. That's not a very good amount, but the film simultaneously released on Netflix in millions of homes across the country. The streaming numbers will determine the bleak and beautiful war drama's fate.

Next weekend sees the release of Steve Jobs, Jem and the Holograms, The Last Witch Hunter, Rock the Kasbah and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, as well as the limited release of Burnt and Suffragette. Here are my predictions:

1. Steve Jobs- $17.8 million
2. Jem and the Holograms- $16 million
3. Goosebumps- $14 million
4. The Martian- $13.8 million
5. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension- $12 million
6. Rock the Kasbah- $10.8 million
7. Bridge of Spies- $10.5 million
8. The Last Witch Hunter- $9 million
9. Hotel Transylvania 2- $7.9 million
10. Crimson Peak- $6 million

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Flickering Myth, Joblo

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Trailer for Coen Brothers' 'Hail, Caesar!' is a fast, funny delight

The last time that the Coen Brothers released a film, it was 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis, a funny, smart and soulful masterpiece that was bolstered by a terrific turn from Oscar Isaac and a stellar soundtrack. It was just another wonderful addition to the Brothers' growing collection of masterpieces. I just love how Joel and Ethan Coen are able to make something as richly hysterical as The Big Lebowski and then turn right around and produce a dark, terrifying classic like No Country for Old Men a few years down the line. Their entire career has been a bit of a wild ride of comedy, drama and the little films like Llewyn Davis that fall in between. In 2015, the Coens will return with another highly-anticipated film, entitled Hail, Caesar! This star-studded comedy, set in 1950's Hollywood, looks like it will fall much more on the funny side of things. And with a cast led by Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, George Clooney and more, what's not to like? Check out the first trailer for the film below.

If someone asked me to put together my dream movie, it might look a little bit like Hail, Caesar! Screwball comedy, Hollywood setting, brilliant ensemble cast- count me in. This was one insanely good trailer and it's safe to say that Hail, Caesar! has jumped to the top of my most anticipated list for 2016. Josh Brolin has been brilliance upon brilliance lately in films like Inherent Vice and Sicario, and this looks like another phenomenal performance. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are together again with what looks like a very sultry and funny Scarlett Johannson thrown in for good measure. In addition, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton, two of the most consistently great actors in Hollywood are here in supporting roles. And Ralph Fiennes! Monsieur Gustave is here too! And finally, George Clooney as a big, dumb movie star? I don't think this gets any better. If Hail, Caesar! is half as good as its trailer, it'll be a classic for years to come. The film hits theaters on February 5, 2016 and you can bet that I'll be the first in line.

'Godzilla vs. Kong' set to hit theaters in 2020

We knew that this move wasn't too far away from becoming a reality, but now it's official: Godzilla and King Kong will be squaring off against each other in an upcoming film set to hit theaters in 2020. Although there were some problems involved with getting the two monsters into one giant crossover flick, as Godzilla's rights belong to Warner Bros. and Kong belongs to Universal and Legendary, it seems that the studios have figured that all out. Universal and Legendary's partnership remains intact, but for this new monster cinematic universe, King Kong and Godzilla will be throwing down at Warner Bros. In addition to that, Legendary is the home of Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, which could also find a way into this monster universe (even though Pacific Rim 2, the long-awaited sequel, is being indefinitely delayed). Before any of this happens, we'll get two more films involving these characters- Kong: Skull Island (set for release on March 10, 2017) and Godzilla 2 (June 8, 2018). The monsters are back in a big way. Check out the press release from the studios below.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND confirmed for 2017, GODZILLA 2 for 2018, GODZILLA VS. KONG for 2020

Burbank, CA- October 14, 2015- Following Legendary's and Warner Bros. Pictures' 2014 success with the global reinvention of the Godzilla franchise, the companies have come together to create an epic, new shared cinematic franchise. All-powerful monsters become towing heroes for a new generation, revealing a mythology that brings together Godzilla and Legendary's King Kong in an ecosystem of other giant super-species, both classic and new. Monarch, the human organization that uncovered Godzilla in the 2014 film, will expand their mission across multiple releases. 

The announcement that the reinvention of monsters continues was made today by Legendary CEO, Thomas Tull, and Kevin Tsujihara, Chairman and CEO, Warner Bros. The initial trio of films are 2017's KONG: SKULL ISLAND, GODZILLA 2 in 2018 and then GODZILLA VS. KONG, arriving in theaters in 2020. While Legendary maintains its new home at Universal Pictures, the GODZILLA films remain in partnership with Warner Bros., who will now also distribute KONG as a part of this franchise. Production on KONG: SKULL ISLAND begins October 19th.

Warner Bros. and Legendary released Godzilla in May 2014 with an agreement to release Godzilla 2 on June 8, 2018. Both films feature the human Monarch organization. Shortly following Legendary's pact with NBC Universal, Legendary acquired rights to additional classic characters from Toho's Godzilla universe, including Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. This paved the way for developing a franchise centered around Monarch and anchored by Godzilla, King Kong, and other famous creatures. 

When Legendary announced films centered on Godzilla and Kong, fans all over the world speculated these two characters might one day meet in the same film. Classic Toho monsters including King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan, as announced at Comic-Con in 2014, may also join the Legendary pantheon of giant monster mayhem going forward. 

"Audiences really responded to Godzilla," stated Tull. "Today, I'm excited to reveal that film was only the beginning of an epic new entertainment universe. As a lifelong fan of these characters, I've always wanted to see the ultimate showdown, and today we're pleased to be announcing that and more."

"Working with our partners at Legendary, we enjoyed tremendous creative and commercial success with 'Godzilla'," said Tsujihara. "It's great to be able to revisit these characters and help create a franchise with so many creative possibilities for filmmakers. Fans love these big, globally iconic films and it doesn't get any bigger than this." 

KONG: SKULL ISLAND stars Tom Hiddleston, Sam Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Tian Jing, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, and Toby Kebbell. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and written by Max Borenstein, John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Derek Connolly, KONG: SKULL ISLAND will fully immerse audiences in the mysterious and dangerous home of the king of the apes as a team of explorers ventures deep inside the treacherous, primordial island. Legenday's Thomas Tull and Jon Jashni will produce with Mary Parent, Alex Garcia and Eric McLeod will executive produce. Warner Bros. will distribute the film in 3D and IMAX 3D on March 10, 2017.

GODZILLA 2 will be written by Max Borenstein and directed by Gareth Edwards. Legendary is producing with Mary Parent and Alex Garcia will executive produce. The film is set to be released by Warner Bros. on June 8, 2018.

GODZILLA VS. KONG will be released in 2020.

All of this is very exciting for fans of the franchise and I like the way that these two studios are coming together for the greater good of the fans (and for the boatloads of cash that this film will pull in). Godzilla wasn't a great film, but it was a solid start and with all of this talent, I'm quite excited for Kong: Skull Island. While it's not easy to get excited for Godzilla vs. Kong this far out, if they can get the right people involved, it'll definitely be on my most anticipated list. 

Sources: Legendary, Collider
Image Credits: Comic Vine, IGN

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

New trailer for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is on the horizon

I feel like we've been saying this for July (which we most definitely have), but a new trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens is coming very, very soon, which is incredibly exciting news. The last look we got at the seventh installment in the Star Wars saga came back in August, when Disney and Lucasfilm unveiled a quick 15-second Instagram teaser that showed star John Boyega's Finn with Luke Skywaler's iconic lightsaber in what looked like a duel with Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. And while director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm have also debuted two teaser trailers and a behind-the-scenes reel, there has been no full trailer to give the rabid fans of Star Wars any indication of what this film will be about. Because of that, impatient Star Wars geeks across the galaxy (yours truly included) have been waiting with baited breath for a full, complete look at the journey that we'll be headed on in The Force Awakens. There were rumors that we'd be getting the trailer at Comic-Con or D23, as well as some Force Friday talk and mid-September chatter. In the world of Star Wars, this trailer has been a mysterious enigma haunting everybody. Well, according to some very trusted sources in the galaxy, it appears that Abrams is finally ready to lift the curtain on The Force Awakens.

According to Making Star Wars' Jason Ward and Screen Crush's Mike Sampson, the third and final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be announced by Lucasfilm very soon (Screen Crush and a separate source are both citing tomorrow) and will premiere on Monday, October 19th, the same day that tickets go on sale. Ward seems to believe that the trailer will premiere during Monday Night Football and will go online shortly after. He also is stating that a new logo will be revealed, even though other sources seem to refute that. John Boyega also made a vague comment on Twitter about how he asked J.J. for a trailer, but he didn't confirm or deny anything. All in all, there are so many dates and times flying around for this thing that I believe it'll drop anytime between now and the Monday Night game on October 19. So what exactly will we see in this trailer? I'm not honestly sure. Probably different shots of the same stuff that we've seen already, as well as a general hint of the plot (it'll definitely support or refute the synopsis that Making Star Wars put together). We might see some new characters like Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata or Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke or whoever Max von Sydow is playing. Some cool effects will drop. And there's even the possibility that we see a brief glimpse of the one and only Luke Skywalker. However it goes down, it will be incredible to behold and I'm so very excited. I'll be back on Monday with the full details.

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Screen Rant

'Sicario' review

I don't think I've seen a movie in theaters this year that has as much pure, visceral tension as Sicario. The latest from director Denis Villeneuve (known for Prisoners, one of the very best of 2013), Sicario is a nihilistic and bleak drama that works as both a crazy, white-knuckle thrill ride and a thought-provoking, thoroughly compelling story. Villeneuve focuses on the terror of the drug war in this ambient thriller, which alternates between eerily quiet scenes of calming nothingness and graphically bloody occurrences of shocking violence. It's a film so gripping and so intense that you cover your eyes, sneaking a look at the screen as each of the razor sharp sequences play out. By placing us in the shoes of two outsiders (Emily Blunt's Kate Macer, and her partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya), Villeneuve is able to make a film where the lead characters know as much as the audience- we're placed in unfamiliar situations, where we don't know the ultimate purpose or the circumstances. Everything in Sicario adds up to a moviegoing experience that can only be described as haunting- the music, Roger Deakins' cinematography, the atmosphere, and even the performances. Sicario may not reach the heights of Prisoners (it'd be hard to live up to that one), but it's a movie that you just can't stop thinking about.

A tank drives through a desolate desert village in Arizona. The mood intensifies, and the music swells as the tank crashes into the door of a suburban household. FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) burst out of the vehicle and charge the drug dealers who are living inside. Kate runs into one room and is met with a hail of gunfire from one man. She takes the man down. But soon, she realizes what the dealers are really hiding. 40 dead, rotting bodies stored in the walls of a suburban home. Kate is horrified, and after an explosion takes down two cops in the aftermath of the operation, she is determined to catch the men responsible. With that, Sicario begins its journey.

Kate is called into the office of Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), their FBI superior, but at the table are several other men. Who are they? Who do they work for and what do they want? One of the men introduces himself as Matt Graves (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense adviser. Another one of the men is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who also introduces himself as a DoD adviser. Who are these guys? What are their goals? And who do they really work for? As Kate finds herself thrust into a variety of the most dangerous and terrifying situations in the drug capital of Mexico, Juarez, she finds herself questioning the motives of the men in charge and her faith is tested as she realizes that nobody can really be trusted.

While Villenueve can sometimes get lost in the craziness of his own plots, there's no denying the fact that he brings an absurd amount of intensity to every single frame. Prisoners, a movie that I only watched on a small, portable DVD screen, was gripping from start to finish and one of the most unsettling and spectacular movie experiences I've ever had. Sicario is less of a twisty affair and more of a bluntly ambiguous one- the performances are calmer and the atmosphere is more serene, but when the violence comes, it's blisteringly nerve-wracking and exquisitely choreographed. I find Sicario's brutality and small-scale story somewhat saddening, but there's no denying the captivating power of the way that Villeneuve tells this story. It firmly puts him on the map as one of the most skilled filmmakers working today.

Sicario's first act might be the most disorienting and powerful opening that a movie can possibly have. In addition to the opening scene that I described above, there's a second scene that will make you stare blankly at the screen, eyes wide open, all while you start to feel the atmosphere close in on you. I won't exactly tell you what the scene consists of, but I'll say this- it's a raid behind Mexican borders, and Villeneuve's message is expressed loud and clear. The machinations of the assault, the visual poetry of the way that the scene unfolds, the ever-intensifying music in the background and the fact that the main character and the audience are both in the dark all contributes to create the finest action scene of the year. I was utterly immersed and terrified by the scene, and it's one of the best in recent memory. It shows Villeneuve at the height of his filmmaking prowess, cleverly manipulating the audience to feel a certain way.

It's unfortunate that the rest of the film can't quite keep it at that same level. Yes, the third act does come roaring back to life with another frighteningly crazy action scene, but the middle act wanders endlessly. Sure, there's still a slight sense of tension in the background, yet the second act of the film feels static. Not much happens in the middle section that could really classify as important. A few isolated incidents highlight the terror of the drug war, and Villeneuve inserts a bit of character and plot building, but I just found myself bored at times. However, it doesn't stay that way for long.

Thankfully, Villeneuve re-animates Sicario with a rip-roaring and terrific conclusion that is simply brilliant. Intense, meticulous and stunning, by the end of the film, Sicario has you in its clutches, watching through the openings between your fingers as the story unfolds. The third act is both crushingly violent and morally devastating, making you hope and pray that the film's worldview isn't correct. This cynical suspense ride is almost unwatchably nerve-shredding and that makes it all the more fun to watch.

Led by an incredible trio of actors, Sicario increases its level of menace through three great performances. Emily Blunt is already gaining some Oscar attention for her turn as Kate, who is the audience's pathway to the madness for the entire film. I wish that Villeneuve had given Kate a bit more complexity, but there's enough subtle nuances and fascinating subplots that I was compelled by the character. And Blunt is terrific as always, highlighting Kate's anxiety throughout the whole show. Josh Brolin continues his recent string of fantastic performances, bringing lots of charisma and just a bit of mysteriousness to the gum-snapping, flip-flop wearing Matt. He's really good in this film and I would love to see him in more roles like this. And finally, Benicio Del Toro is the true knockout of the film as Alejandro, the cold, calculating killer who very much reminded me of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh. Alejandro is unpredictable, and when he's on screen, the film reaches a fever pitch of perfection.

But of course, the real stars of the film are the men behind the camera. Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve, who will tackle Blade Runner next, has already established himself as a master of the craft of movie-making and this one shows that he's getting better. It really helps when you have collaborators like Roger Deakins, Taylor Sheridan and Johann Johannson. Deakins' cinematography is crisp and stellar and like all of his best outings, it enhances the film itself. Sheridan's script is masterfully executed, taut and smart for a writing debut. And finally, Johannson's score is viciously intense and it never lets up during the more important moments of the film.

Sicario may falter during its slow second act, but it makes up for it tenfold with scenes that will put you on edge for days. Orchestrated by master filmmaker Villeneuve, this drug war drama has everything that a good thriller needs- a strong ensemble, awesome camerawork, fierce action setpieces and great musical work. It's a piece of cinema that many may find difficult, but it's absolutely one of the most thrilling films of the year- it's not often that we see a rising directorial star working at this high of a level.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                            (8.6/10)

Image Credits: Wired, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Flickering Myth, Joblo

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: 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