Monday, July 24, 2017

New 'Thor: Ragnarok' trailer is flat-out awesome

Marvel takes a lot of heat from movie fans, but there's something to be said for how their financial position allows them to make very unique films. Executive Kevin Feige hasn't always been the most filmmaker-friendly executive, and his battles with Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins have particularly turned him into a despised figure in some circles. But the tide seems to be turning at Marvel, and if you watch something like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 or see the trailer for Black Panther, that doesn't seem like a studio that is playing it safe. Granted, they have a safety net in the trappings and interconnectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet there's undoubtedly a growing sense of innovation and visual experimentation at the studio. This is probably best exemplified by Thor: Ragnarok, a film that feels like the complete creation of its director, Hunt for the Wilderpeople genius Taika Waititi. After two middling Thor installments, it appears that Waititi has revived the franchise from irrelevancy and given us the imaginative blast of a movie that we craved all along. Ragnarok looks great, and while the first trailer sold me, I couldn't wait to see more. New trailers forAvengers: Infinity War and Black Panther were kept as Comic-Con exclusives, but Marvel did manage to post the new trailer for Ragnarok online. And yes, it is amazing. Check it out!

What is there to even say after watching a trailer like that? This film just looks awesome in every single way. The cosmic adventures of the MCU have proven to be some of the most entertaining, and Ragnarok looks superior to both previous Thor installments in just about every way. In a universe where we've seen two installments of Guardians of the Galaxy from sci-fi mastermind James Gunn, it's insane to think that this looks like the craziest Marvel film yet. The colors and visual madness on display are incredible, and some of the images in this trailer are straight-up jaw-dropping. It looks like Waititi has crafted something that is beyond gorgeous, and I can't wait to see this crazy sci-fi universe come to life. Marvel's greatest sin in recent years has been their visual staleness, but with this, Guardians, and Black Panther, the studio seems to be overcoming that issue. And in addition to all the beauty on display, this movie just looks like a lot of fun. It's great to see Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner back on screen, and it's even better to see the Hulk actually talking. Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki are always delightful to watch, and it looks like Cate Blanchett is having a blast chewing the scenery as the baddie. I'm all in on Ragnarok. This could be one of Marvel's best yet.

Thor: Ragnarok hits theaters on November 3.

Poster: Disney/IMDB

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Steven Spielberg returns to blockbuster filmmaking in the first trailer for 'Ready Player One'

Few filmmakers have had as much of an impact on pop culture as Steven Spielberg. Most directors are lucky to make one movie that taps into the cultural zeitgeist and becomes a staple of the collective subconscious. By my count, Spielberg has made a whopping seven- Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan. When you say the words "film director," Spielberg comes to mind. In the minds of many, Spielberg practically is the film industry. So when it was revealed that he would be directing Ready Player One, the response was a mix of weariness and delight. On one hand, the novel by Ernest Cline is said to lean heavily on Spielberg nostalgia, and while the director has committed to not referencing his own work, it still seemed risky. But on the other hand, nobody makes blockbuster entertainment quite like Spielberg. He hasn't really done a truly innovative sci-fi project like this since the early 2000s, and Ready Player One is said to be pushing the limits of virtual reality technology. A futuristic fantasy about the world's most popular video game and a series of clues left behind by its eccentric creator, this movie really could be a game-changer. I've been intrigued since the project's announcement, and yesterday at Comic-Con, we were treated to the first trailer- watch it below!

Ready Player One is a project that has been in development for a long time, as Ernest Cline's 2011 novel became an instant hit. I even remember a time when it was rumored that Warner Bros. was going to have Christopher Nolan direct this film as his next endeavor after Interstellar. But my excitement was truly piqued when Spielberg joined the project, as Deadline's breaking announcement report seemed to indicate that we would be getting something truly revolutionary with this film. The news site positioned Ready Player One as the biggest breakthrough in cinematic special effects in decades, and the idea of Spielberg messing around with virtual reality technology to tell a reference-heavy story was thrilling to me. Rumors that the director approached the late Gene Wilder to appear in what is essentially a video game riff on Willy Wonka enticed me even further, giving me an interesting idea as to what the tone of this project would be. And the final cast list didn't hurt matters- Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, T.J. Miller, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Hannah John-Kamen, and of course, Mark Rylance.

Going into yesterday's trailer reveal, this was undoubtedly one of my most anticipated films of 2018, if not the movie that actually topped the list. After watching this quick glimpse at footage......I can't say I'm entirely sold. There are moments that seem to capture Spielberg's distinct sense of childlike whimsy, but I can't entirely shake the feeling that this isn't going to be the movie that I want- the racing scene of utter chaos and destruction at the end did nothing to increase my excitement. The first half of the trailer is superior to the second half, and I love that they have "Pure Imagination" as the main musical cue. This trailer looks good, but I want more than good. I would be looking forward to this project regardless of who's directing it. This is just a cool concept with the potential for some groundbreaking effects.

But this is Spielberg. And I want him to make another pop masterpiece. After years of stodgy (although very strong) biopics and ambitiously misguided efforts, I want him to make a film that becomes as iconic as Jaws and E.T. and Jurassic Park and all of those other movies that have become a part of our cultural lexicon. I want Ready Player One to be his middle finger to the system, the movie that proves he's still one of the greats of blockbuster filmmaking. I want him to be capable of a movie like this. The trailer does a good job of compelling the viewer, but not selling the actual story. Although I think this film looks impressive, but can it transcend the visuals to become something else entirely? We shall see.

Ready Player One hits theaters on March 30, 2018.

Image: IMDB/WB

Warner Bros. debuts extended look at Zack Snyder's 'Justice League'

Yes, DC fans, I know Wonder Woman was good. The Patty Jenkins-directed stand-alone movie was an impressive feat of blockbuster filmmaking, seamlessly telling an incredible origin story for a famous character while also bringing a distinctly epic feel to the action. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine rocked, the setpieces were dazzling, and the WWI setting was awesome. Wonder Woman was a stone cold knockout. But that doesn't mean that DC is out of the clear just yet- there's still a long way to go before the DC Cinematic Universe is proven to be a consistent franchise. The next task will come in the form of this fall's Justice League, which is the direct follow-up to director Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Snyder directed this film as well before leaving the project a few months ago due to a family tragedy, leaving Joss Whedon to finish. Justice League has generated widespread skepticism from all but the most avid DC fans, because while we're all excited to see these heroes team up on the big screen, there just seems to be a lack of vision in regards to this movie. With this weekend's San Diego Comic Con providing Hollywood with a chance to show off their best prospective films, Warner Bros. has released a four-minute trailer for the team-up movie. Check it out below!

I don't know, guys. I just don't know.

Lots of people thought that this Justice League trailer was spectacular. And I'm happy for them! That's terrific. And trust me- I want this movie to be a superhero spectacle for the ages. But I'm not even close to sold, and there are some elements in this extended look that I still can't get over. The villain looks almost identical to the antagonist in Wonder Woman, the visual effects look shoddy to say the least, and I'm not completely down with this insane tonal shift. But maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it's a positive that I have almost zero interest in this movie. I really didn't care about Wonder Woman for a good chunk of Warner's marketing onslaught, and in the end, that ended up being my favorite DC movie since Nolan's Batman finale. So who knows, maybe if I'm skeptical for the whole time, Justice League will blindside me. I'm hoping for a surprise, but I'm not banking on it. And plus, in the end we all know that anything bad in the movie will be credited to Zack Snyder, and all the good parts will be praised as the work of Joss Whedon. So yeah, can't wait to see the internet light itself on fire come November.

But hey! It's not all bad news. Look at this poster that Warner dropped yesterday. This thing is super dope. I'm gonna pretend that this overblown trailer doesn't exist and focus on the shiny poster.

Justice League hits theaters on November 17. Fingers crossed.

Poster: IMDB/WB

Epic, scary new trailer for 'Stranger Things' Season 2 hits the web

There are TV shows, and then there's Stranger Things. The Netflix show from Matt and Ross Duffer transcended its origins to become a genuine cultural phenomenon, an event that was bigger than any Hollywood blockbuster that hit theaters in the summer of 2016. Granted, this was during the weakest summer for mainstream action films in recent history, but there's still no denying the monumental impact of Stranger Things. A second season was inevitable, and it's interesting to note that Netflix has been marketing this as Stranger Things 2, almost positioning it as a film franchise. When I finally got around to watching the show in October, I noted that the show felt remarkably cinematic, both in style and in structure, which is part of the distinct quality that separates it from the rest of the pack. For their second trip to Hawkins, Indiana, the Duffers have taken the action to the fall of 1984, promising a darker, more intense adventure. Set for release in just a few short months, Netflix released the trailer at yesterday's Comic-Con panel- take a look!

I know that Stranger Things relies heavily on nostalgia for the 1980s, but it's still original sci-fi from storytellers attempting to do something new and fresh. For that reason alone, this show is worth watching- but the fact that it's a consistently frightening, awesome, emotional journey makes it all the more impressive. I wasn't sure if Stranger Things would work better with a direct sequel or an anthology approach, but after watching this trailer, I'm thrilled to be heading back to Hawkins once again. If not for last night's Thor: Ragnarok trailer (more on that soon), this would have been hands down the best thing released from Comic-Con. Netflix has been great at creating strong original content, but they haven't quite figured out how to market things yet. That's starting to change, and this trailer is perhaps the best piece of marketing they've ever released. Set to the creepiest parts of "Thriller," this is a pulse-pounding, retro burst of fun that excited me from both a visual and narrative standpoint. This season looks thrilling, but it also seems to take the characters in new and frightening directions. That's all you can ask for in a sequel, and considering how invested I was in the fate of these characters the first time around, I can't wait to see where they go from here. I could not be more pumped for Stranger Things 2- I need nothing more, this trailer is as good as it gets. Bring on October 27.

Poster courtesy of Netflix

'Cars 3' review

Each and every summer, a new Pixar movie is an event. This has been the case for the past decade, going all the way back to the release of the original Cars in 2006. When I was growing up and unable to watch the big blockbusters that came out every summer, the new Pixar was a must-see on opening weekend. And even as I got older, I still was excited to see Monsters University or Inside Out or whatever the iconic studio happened to be releasing that year in the heart of the season. I say all this because I could not have cared less about Cars 3, this year's summer release from the California-based animation house. And I'm not even someone who hates the first two films- I was at the world premiere of the original film and I even enjoyed the spy film absurdity of Cars 2. But going back to the well for another adventure with Lightning McQueen and friends just didn't sound that appealing. And yet, I've seen every Pixar movie in theaters dating back to Monsters Inc., so I knew that I had to see this one eventually. What I found was perhaps Pixar's most gorgeous animated achievement yet, a richly crafted, extraordinarily detailed piece of work from a studio that just keeps getting better and better. But for all of its technical wizardry, Cars 3 is also Pixar's most narratively confused project, a film with two equally intriguing storylines that can't marry the two together to create a satisfying whole. It's pleasant to watch, but this is ultimately mid-level Pixar.

For years, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has been on top of the racing world. He's still in competition for the Piston Cup, competing against the best of the best and winning almost every. Enter Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), the arrogant poster boy for a new generation of race cars. Storm is faster and better than McQueen in virtually every way, and worst of all, he knows how good he is. Storm pushes Lightning to his absolute limit, eventually causing him to blow out two tires and end up in a horrific crash in an important race. Defeated, McQueen retreats back to Radiator Springs, with rumors swirling that he's done with racing for good.

Months go by, and Lightning is still holed up in a shack in his favorite small town, avoiding the racing world and reflecting on the possibility of the end of his career. But after a little pep talk from Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and a message of encouragement from his sponsors, Lightning decides to get back in the game to challenge Storm and his next generation colleagues. McQueen's sponsors at Rust-Eze sell the company to an entrepreneur named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who has access to all the next-gen technology that Lightning could ever need. The veteran car is paired up with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a bright and bubbly trainer who has always dreamed of racing. In the hopes of beating Storm, Lightning will take an unconventional route to training, getting back on the open road and recapturing the magic of "real" racing. In the process, he'll look back on the mentorship of Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, who is featured in this film through previously recorded dialogue) and consider his past and future in the racing industry.

Whenever I think that Pixar has reached their peak abilities when it comes to animation, they top themselves with a piece of work that is straight-up jaw dropping. With their landscape designs for Brave and The Good Dinosaur, I was simply awe-struck. The animation looked completely realistic, like they were photographs that just so happened to be a home for animated creatures. Just when you think that they can't get any more photo-realistic or visually impressive, Pixar comes along to blow us away all over again. The plot of Cars 3 takes us to a variety of stunning vistas- beaches, mountains, dusty old towns, metropolitan cities- as part of its trek across America. And the incredible level of detail captured by the talented people at Pixar is never anything less than awe-inspiring. This movie is amazing to look at, and no matter how good some of these other studios get, Pixar is on a whole different level when it comes to animation quality.

But there's one big problem, and it's a problem that nearly undermines everything else that is good about the film. Cars 3 is attempting to tell two stories- the comeback of Lightning McQueen, and Lightning McQueen's shift to a mentor position. Both are good stories for a third installment of an aging series, but when put together, the narrative is left in an unsatisfying position. While Cars 3 never fully gets off the ground, it settles into a fairly entertaining groove for most of its runtime, recapturing the magic of the original film and bringing the focus of the franchise back to the characters. It's the ending that serves as the major issue, because when the filmmakers are forced to bring two conflicting stories to their conclusions, it doesn't work out so well. Cars 3 ends on a rather disappointing note, despite the rather impressive work that comes before it.

It took an absurd seven people to write the story and screenplay for this film, and that shows during the most important moments. Either narrative told in Cars 3 would be great on its own, but when you put the two together, one story is bound to let down the audience. The film also suffers from an abundance of over-familiarity. The similarities between this installment and the original film are quite apparent, and while it's certainly a step up from the preposterous spy story of Cars 2, there's something that just feels stale at times. This is almost always an entertaining movie, and one that I think plenty of kids will enjoy. It's just a messy film, one that probably had a writer's room with many contradicting voices and ideas.

Cars 3 seemed like a horrible idea on paper, but it actually worked surprisingly well for me considering my expectations. It's a breezy, charming film that just can't stick the landing, which means that it's still a step up from most of the animated nonsense out there today. I just wish that the emotional beats had a better payoff, and that it provided us with an opportunity to get involved in the journey of both Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. Because in its current state, the finale will either make or break this movie for most viewers. I enjoyed Cars 3 more than I thought I would, but it also gave me more reasons to be let down by its execution.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: IMDB/Disney

Friday, July 21, 2017

Red band trailer for 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' cranks up the action

I love the way that the Kingsman franchise has developed. This didn't start as some big operation at Fox, with executives planning out a shared universe of Kingsman films that would be made until the year 2034. Matthew Vaughn made an unreasonably cool movie that a lot of people enjoyed back in 2015, and because it was a hit at the box office ($414 million worldwide, which is huge for an R-rated film), the studio gave the green light for a sequel. I know, revolutionary idea, right? In a world where Universal can plan out a series of monster films as part of the Dark Universe before The Mummy even hits theaters, there's something truly refreshing about homegrown franchises. And by the looks of it, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is doing everything that a good follow-up should do. It's upping the ante in terms of action, it's throwing in a few twists, and a bunch of incredible new stars have joined the cast. With the film showing off footage in Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con yesterday, Fox took the chance to release a new trailer- watch it below!

If this trailer sounds familiar, it's because it uses the exact same music that the primary trailer for John Wick: Chapter Two used earlier this year. I knew I recognized the song at first, but someone on Twitter pointed it out and then it clicked into place in my brain. Hey, if Matthew Vaughn's sequel is nearly as good as Chad Stahelski's highly entertaining Wick follow-up, then I'm all in. Judging by this trailer, it certainly looks like an incredible burst of fun. For starters, the new members of the cast are remarkable. Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Jeff Bridges, and Channing Tatum?? That's like a murderer's row of all-star talent right now. And they all look to be having a great time, as one inevitably does in a Kingsman film. The magical thing about the original is that it established a complex mythology and universe without ever sacrificing its jovial tone or ludicrous violence, and that's something that I hope the sequel has maintained. The trailer is over-stimulating to the point of almost giving you a headache, but then came this little exchange at the end:

"It's very American."

"He he- F**k yeah!"

I'm so in. This thing is going to be a blast. It'll be astonishing if it manages to be nearly as good as the original, but I wouldn't put it past Matthew Vaughn at this point. The guy knows how to make a wild ride.

Kingman: The Golden Circle hits theaters on September 22.

Poster courtesy of Fox

'War for the Planet of the Apes' review

Remember when the idea of rebooting Planet of the Apes was a joke?

That feels like so long ago now.

In the summer of 2011, there were so many movies to get excited about. Two new Marvel movies paving the way to The Avengers, the final installment in the Harry Potter franchise, a third Michael Bay Transformers movie, and an original Jon Favreau action film about cowboys and aliens (yes, people were excited for this) highlighted what seemed to be a great summer for blockbuster cinema. Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a total afterthought- Fox seemed to be dumping the movie in the doldrums of August, there was a general lack of a marketing campaign, and James Franco leading the cast didn't inspire much confidence. So pretty much everyone in the film world was shocked when the film ended up being genuinely great, a highly engaging, entertaining reboot that breathed new life into the franchise after the disastrous Tim Burton reboot a decade earlier.

For many, 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a massive step forward for the series. Wyatt departed after failing to get his vision off the ground, allowing Matt Reeves to come in and make the sequel his own way. The director of Cloverfield and Let Me In embraced the chance to make a darker, more thematically resonant Apes movie, and Dawn became a huge critical and box office hit. For me, it displayed Reeves' terrific filmmaking abilities without having the story to match, an impressive work of post-apocalyptic style that couldn't put all the pieces together. The action scenes are incredible, the scenes with the apes are compelling, and the conflict between Caesar and Koba is thoroughly fascinating- but there's so much with Dawn that just doesn't work. It has no ending, it lacks a sense of narrative momentum, and the human characters are blank slates. Dawn has style, but it fell short of the mark.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the final installment in this new trilogy, and despite my qualms with Dawn, I could not have been more excited to see Matt Reeves send this series out with a bang. And this time out, Reeves is firing on all cylinders, delivering a monumental movie that transcends its genre origins to create something thrillingly entertaining, rousing, and emotional. It's the kind of blockbuster that is so ambitious and astoundingly different that I can't believe it even exists, a bleak journey that deals with dark themes and intense ideas. It's brutal and terrifying, told on an awe-inspiring scale that makes this whole thing feel epic. War for the Planet of the Apes is the perfect conclusion to Caesar's story, a filmmaking feat for Reeves, and a blockbuster spectacle for the ages. Equipped with some dazzling setpieces and a tremendous score from Michael Giacchino, War is a straight-up masterpiece. This film blew me away.

Some time after the battle between Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell) that started a war against humanity, the apes are locked in a bitter conflict with an army of soldiers who are determined to take back civilization. The band of humans are led by a heartless Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a deranged madman hellbent on wiping out any sign of weakness and ensuring the supremacy of humankind. Caesar and his forces are hiding out in the woods, hoping to be left alone and avoid any contact with the Colonel or his men. But after an unspeakable tragedy at the hands of the Colonel himself, Caesar and his closest allies- Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite)- embark on a journey to face down humanity's monstrous leader, while the rest of the apes move to a safe haven on the coast. With the fate of planet Earth at stake, Caesar and the Colonel will engage in a battle of wills, hoping to preserve what's left of their species and win the greatest war in history.

Back in March, I wrote an article lamenting the death of the modern blockbuster, citing Logan as an example of an era that no longer existed. Well, 2017 has been proving me wrong time and time again. The superhero movies (not counting Spider-Man: Homecoming, the weakest of this year's heroic crop) have stood on their own, and now comes War for the Planet of the Apes, a big-budget spectacle that carries a sense of scope and magnitude that I thought to be reserved only for the epics of yesteryear. It is a conclusion of Biblical proportions- after the flawed Shakespearean saga of betrayal and jealousy that was Dawn, this is a story of hate, leadership, and the thin line between good and evil. It is everything that I thought Hollywood had done away with a long time ago. I can only hope that we maintain this blockbuster momentum, the devotion to grand ideas, impossibly daring extravaganzas, and auteur filmmakers with a vision. In the case of this film, that filmmaker is Matt Reeves- it all starts with him.

I always felt that Matt Reeves was on the cusp of greatness. A longtime friend of Hollywood wunderkind J.J. Abrams, Reeves has always shown an immense talent behind the camera and a keen sense of the inner workings of genre movies. Cloverfield is ultimately a disappointing film (especially when put in comparison to Dan Trachtenberg's loosely related follow-up), but it de-constructs the monster mash well and displays plenty of innovation. I was disappointed with Dawn because I knew it came so close to being brilliant- I knew that Reeves was capable of a home run. Thankfully, everything clicks perfectly into place for War, a film that is both epic and intimate, wearing its influences on its sleeve while also being committed to its own fierce sense of originality. Reeves is a director who has an instinct for sweeping vistas and large-scale action, but he also has the ability to use the camera to examine his characters. What he does with the body language and the communication skills of the apes is astounding, and the level of emotional gravity is never anything less than stunning.

Working with co-screenwriter Mark Bomback, Reeves is able to craft a picture and a story that fits his unique set of skills. War for the Planet of the Apes is a deliberately paced film. It is tense and focused, but it is no rush to tell its story, nor does it feel any obligation to spoon feed information to its audience. It is told on a frighteningly large scale, while simultaneously being completely engaged in the thoughts and motivations of its characters. It paints a picture of a desolate, disturbing future, but it also looks into the past, telling a story of persecution, torture, and survival in the face of inhuman opposition. It exists in a world where super-smart apes are fighting for supremacy, yet it manages to feel incredibly relevant to the struggles of the modern world. Reeves has made a blockbuster that takes direct cues from Apocalypse Now and Platoon, not merely in style, but in theme as well. He doesn't aspire to create another piece of blockbuster schlock- he wants War to rise above the rest of the pack.

And that it does. War is superior to many action movies from both a thematic and cinematic perspective. In regards to the former, this is a film that concerns itself with ideology, with the struggle to deal with one's own thirst for revenge, with the consequences of extremity during desperate circumstances. It puts a more personal spin on Caesar's story, and the struggle to maintain his principles and not become what he once despised is thrilling to watch. And when it comes to the production values, it doesn't get much more incredible than this. The cinematography of Michael Seresin is bleak and beautiful, giving the film a monochromatic feel that perfectly matches the tone that Reeves has established. But perhaps the most staggering work comes from Michael Giacchino, a composer who has impressed me for nearly a decade now. He does maybe his best work ever here, giving us a score that is rousing, awe-inspiring, and equipped with a grandiose flair that makes the whole movie work.

For all the technical wizardry and Biblical scale of War, the fact of the matter is that Reeves has put an importance on character that is virtually unparalleled in the modern blockbuster world. This franchise has always been about Caesar's journey, and Andy Serkis' performance is another amazing display of his immense talent. From the moment that Caesar first appears on the screen, there's a weariness to him, a sense that he has been pushed to his boiling point. As he is tested throughout this narrative, we see Serkis maintain this fine balance between dignity and rage, a balance that must have been extremely difficult to pull off. But unlike prior films, Serkis has a worthy adversary in Woody Harrelson, who plays possibly the most despicably empathetic villain in recent film history. Harrelson's Colonel is a man who has lost his humanity, a man who has gone to incredible measures to protect his vision of the world and his species. The magic trick of Harrelson's performance is that you understand his motivation, despite hating everything he stands for.

Serkis often dominates the conversation when it comes to motion-capture work, but I feel like I can't say enough good things about Karin Konoval, who plays Maurice, Caesar's closest confidant since their time together in a California cell. Konoval gives a brilliantly subtle performance, working so well with Serkis to create a fully realized relationship with Caesar. I should also mention Steve Zahn's Bad Ape, the new addition to the crew and the movie's main source of comedic relief. While War isn't necessarily a "fun" movie per say, it is a remarkably entertaining spectacle. For all of my talk of the rich technical work and stunning devotion to complex themes, it can't be overlooked that this is a film that is simply awesome to behold. It is a character-centric saga unlike any I've seen, and the fact that there's such a deep emotional connection with the audience only enhances the experience. When it comes to the conclusion of a trilogy, it doesn't get much better than this.

It's a shame that War for the Planet of the Apes is being released so close to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Yes, the WWII epic is the superior film, but Reeves' heartbreaking, genius display of sheer cinematic power should not be overlooked. A breathtaking story that is as handsomely crafted as it is jaw-dropping in its brutality, War is the kind of visionary work that has become an increased rarity. It's an impeccable balance of character and scope, and it's a sly bit of social commentary as well. When it comes to franchise filmmaking, this is as good as it gets. War for the Planet of the Apes sends this unexpectedly moving trilogy out on a high note, all while standing as one of the most dramatically electrifying mainstream films of the decade. Yes, it really is that good.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Images courtesy of Fox

Trailer for Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' is gorgeous, strange, and thrilling

Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors who can generate interest from movie fans just with his involvement in a project alone. The Mexican filmmaker who started his career making small Spanish- language critical darlings like Cronos and The Devil's Backbone has become one of the few visionaries working in Hollywood today, having put his distinct stamp on Blade II and the Hellboy franchise during the 2000s. Del Toro got the chance to make his masterpiece with Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, and in the years since, he has created more in the way of elaborate genre fare. Pacific Rim made enough money to spawn a sequel (which will be released next year, not under del Toro's direction), but Crimson Peak debuted to mixed reviews and low box office. Many of del Toro's fans have clamored for him to return to smaller, stranger territory, and that wish appears to be coming to fruition. This December, del Toro will premiere The Shape of Water, a Cold War fantasy that blends creature feature and romance to unique effect. It's his first foray into a potential Oscar race in over a decade, and I could not be more excited to check it out. The first trailer premiered with War for the Planet of the Apes last weekend, and Fox Searchlight released the sneak peek yesterday- watch it below!

When I first saw Apes last Friday, they actually didn't play the trailer for this. I went back to see the film again on Tuesday, and I was lucky enough to see this first look before Fox put it online. The Shape of Water looks absolutely glorious on the big screen, and I don't really know what my expectations were for this movie, but this trailer blew me away. I say this as someone who likes del Toro's work without being a complete devotee of the director- The Shape of Water looks like it could be one of the year's very best films. Everything about this trailer is perfect. The music, the production design, the "connection" between the unique lead character and the gorgeously designed creature- this is all top-notch stuff from del Toro. Sally Hawkins looks great as the lead, and the supporting cast includes terrific actors like Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. This looks like an incredible fairy tale, and the Cold War setting only has me more excited. And with today's reveal from Variety that the film is set to play at the Venice Film Festival, I think we could be looking at a bona fide awards contender. I cannot wait to see more, and I really wish I was going to TIFF this year just to check this one out.

The Shape of Water hits theaters on December 8. It's surely one of the most anticipated cinephile events for the second half of the year.

'The House' review

As stated many times over the last few weeks, 2017 has been a tremendous year for movies and for many individual genres. It really has. I've been surprised by how many incredible blockbusters we've seen this summer. But when it comes to comedies, this year has been almost appallingly bad. And no, I'm not talking about comedies in the loose definition of the word- films like The Big Sick and Baby Driver don't count. I'm talking about the pure laughfests that have been Hollywood's bread and butter for years, raunchy spectacles crafted by hilarious people who made a name for themselves with these kinds of films. Every year has at least two great studio comedies, and yet 2017 seems poised to be the first year in a long time without a single one that hits the mark. Baywatch and Rough Night missed by a mile, and if you take a look at the schedule for the rest of the year, it's even more depressing than what came before. Sorry, A Bad Moms Christmas and Daddy's Home 2, but I don't think you'll be joining the pantheon of classic Hollywood comedies.

Which brings me to The House, an R-rated bit of hilarity that, on paper, seems like a slam dunk. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler doing a filthy farce with a clever concept that will surely generate plenty of laughs? Sounds like a great time to me! But there's a plague going across the film industry this year, a plague that is striking down everyone who was once funny and putting them in awful movies that aren't worth their talent or time. The House is another middling comedy, a series of sketches stretched to the absurd length of 88 minutes, which feels insanely long even if it is one of the shortest mainstream releases of the year. Despite the occasional laugh from Ferrell, Poehler, or rising star Jason Mantzoukas, The House does pretty much nothing right, offering up what feels like an incomplete plot, inept character work, and comedic energy that wears thin pretty quickly.

The story on this one is simple. Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell and Poehler) are needy, relentlessly stupid parents who are about to send their only daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), to college. Alex is going to prestigious Bucknell University, and her parents are undergoing real separation anxiety. Unfortunately, there's one other small problem- they don't have enough money. Scott and Kate had been banking on a scholarship from their small suburban town, but when a corrupt city council member (Nick Kroll) decides to do away with the prize, the parents are left to face their greatest fear. But thankfully, there's a back-up plan. Frank (Mantzoukas) is one of the couple's best friends, but after a recent separation, he's down on his luck and looking for a plan to bounce back. After a trip to Vegas, Frank comes up with a brilliant idea- an underground casino. Scott and Kate agree to team up with their friend to make $250,000 in a month, enough to send Alex to college. Of course, things don't quite end up working out as they planned. "Hilarity" and "hijinks" ensue.

The House opens to the song "My House" by Flo Rida, an on-the-nose move that sets the lackluster tone for the rest of the movie. It's a film defined more by its ubiquitous product placement for Stella Artois than its actual comedic value, and it is so devoid of laughs and fresh material that it eventually becomes exhausting. The House feels like a relic from a bygone era of Hollywood comedies- much like Scott and Kate, it's the cringe-worthy cinematic equivalent of a parent trying too hard to be hip. Like the worst of these movies, it's filled to the brim with F-bombs, sex jokes, and shocking comedic violence, but it feels so forced that it fails to ever really tickle the funny bone of the audience. It flails around, attempting to provide something in the way of entertainment, but it never feels properly anarchic or unhinged. It's textbook insanity that we've seen a thousand times before, and I'm so tired of it.

It doesn't help when your movie has no real emotional core or engaging characters. Look, I'm not a supporter of the idea that all comedies need to have serious moments where the characters reflect on their horrible decisions, but you need some investment on the part of the audience. The House tries to do this, but the movie is such a misshapen mess that it ends up endorsing the awful behavior of the lead trio in a strange way. Like this summer's Rough Night, it ends up saying "Yeah, these people are horrible, but THIS guy is way worse!" which is a message that made me scratch my head. Not to mention the fact that Scott and Kate are characters defined by two things- their love for their daughter and their total and complete idiocy. The former is quickly overwhelmed by the latter, and it's hard to care for their struggle to pay for college when they regularly display that they're terrible, terrible people.

But I can overlook some of that stuff. I don't watch comedies for their ethical and moral value- I watch them to laugh. And primarily, that's where The House goes wrong. It never has any sense of comedic momentum, settling for a sketch approach that ultimately fails the film. This movie goes into some seriously strange directions that end up being complete dead ends, and it's honestly baffling at times. To get into some spoiler territory here (not that anyone cares), Jeremy Renner shows up as a gangster during the final act of the film. It seems like it should be a big moment when he kidnaps Alex and threatens Scott and Kate, but Renner quickly has his arm chopped off in horrifically gruesome fashion. Oh, then they set him on fire and murder him. Yeah, that's a thing that happens in this movie. And the movie just keeps going! It just keeps trucking right along with its plot like nothing ever happened. Director Andrew Jay Cohen and co-screenwriter Brendan O'Brien have made some amusing movies before, but The House is almost jaw-dropping in its total lack of storytelling cohesion and comedic value.

So yeah, this is a very bad movie. Not that I was all that surprised by that fact, as Warner Bros. and New Line opted to not screen this film for critics or many audiences for that matter. They dumped this during a crowded month in the hopes that it would disappear forever, and that's exactly what it will do. It has a few chuckles here and there, and yet it simultaneously seems to have no idea how movies are supposed to work. Opportunities for both social commentary and laughs are completely squandered by the film's "Hey, look at me!" approach, and its raunchiness comes off as profoundly forced. It's a tired movie made by stars who are lost in the new era of comedy. Despite the potential for laughs, The House is dead on arrival. There's absolutely nothing to see here.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.8/10)

Images: WB/IMDB

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Michael Fassbender hunts a serial killer in the grisly trailer for 'The Snowman'

The mystery genre doesn't get much love these days, but it seems like there's always one noir film that pops up in the fall of each year. David Fincher is probably the master of the modern noir, having directed masterpieces like Se7en and Zodiac, as well as more recent efforts such as the 2011 remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. But for every Fincher-esque work of suspense and terror, there's something like Tate Taylor's The Girl on the Train, a ghastly attempt at translating a popular best-seller to the big screen. When it comes to this genre, it's a total toss-up. Ever since I first read about the concept for The Snowman, I have been on board with this film, an adaptation of a popular novel from Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson. A detective named Harry Hole, played by the reliably brilliant Michael Fassbender. A terrifying serial killer who murders in the snow. A talented supporting crew led by Rebecca Ferguson and J.K. Simmons. This sounds like hard-boiled noir 101. With the October release just under 3 months away, Universal has debuted the first trailer for the film. Check it out below!

I'm still intrigued, but if I'm being completely honest, I like the poster shown below more than the actual trailer. It starts well enough, depicting a horrifyingly intense murder and kicking things off with some intense Fassbender voice-over, but this trailer quickly devolves into standard issue action nonsense. I can't tell what tone this movie is going for, and while Alfredson's track record indicates a commitment to unconventional narratives and challenging films, Universal appears to be marketing The Snowman as a pulpy bit of mystery horror. To use my aforementioned comparison- this movie looks to be leaning more towards Girl on the Train territory, which is a very disappointing thing. That being said, I'm gonna put my money on the idea that this is just marketing. Universal probably doesn't want to have to sell audiences on a depressing, gruesomely disturbing thriller, so they're pitching a rather basic action movie with some darker elements. I can't fault them for that, but I hope the final product is more engaging than this trailer.

The Snowman will hit theaters on October 13. A festival premiere could be in the cards, but Universal has been shy about doing so in the past. We shall see.

Poster courtesy of Universal

First trailer for 'The Disaster Artist' teases James Franco's take on Tommy Wiseau

As a film festival, South by Southwest is far from the prestigious event around. It's not a cinephile haven like Cannes, Toronto, or any other major fest that pops into mind. It has always been devoted to pure genre fare, mainly existing as a party for bloggers and a platform for the best studio comedies of the summer. But in a year where there literally are no good comedies for anyone to show off, the 2017 edition of SXSW took on a bit of a different approach. It ended up being the premiere spot for Edgar Wright's Baby Driver and David Leitch's Atomic Blonde, two of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer with huge sleeper hit potential (the former has already achieved that status as it creeps its way to $100 million). But perhaps most surprisingly, SXSW may have launched an Oscar favorite- James Franco's The Disaster Artist, a biopic of The Room director Tommy Wiseau. The film is in the vein of Tim Burton's classic Ed Wood, but with an all-star cast of Franco regulars. After New Line Cinema realized that they didn't know what to do with it, the studio partnered with indie icon A24 to release this highly acclaimed comedic adventure. Set for a prime Oscar release, the marketing campaign is beginning to kick into high gear with the release of a brief, but hilarious teaser trailer. Check it out below!

I have never felt compelled to watch Tommy Wiseau's The Room from start to finish, but I've enjoyed watching compilation videos of the most outrageous moments from the disasterpiece. And if you've never seen anything from this movie or have never even heard of it, let me just say this- it's unbelievably awful. So when I heard that James Franco would be bringing this story to the big screen, I was automatically intrigued. As a big fan of Ed Wood, I was excited to see another movie about an infamous director of horrible films, and as someone who loves the stuff that Franco and Seth Rogen do on a regular basis, I was thrilled to see their take on such an absurd story. And for this adaptation, Franco has brought along a cast that includes almost every single famous actor in Hollywood- Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone, the list goes on and on.

Oh, and this teaser is perfect. Absolutely brilliant in every way. The critical point for A24's marketing campaign will be selling audiences who have never even heard of The Room, and while this teaser does a good job of pandering to midnight audiences who love Wiseau's schlock, it also works as a perfectly calibrated scene of comedic tension. It's a great first look that automatically generates interest in a fascinating character, and it is also laugh-out-loud funny. Franco looks tremendous as Wiseau, and the other Franco looks great as co-star Greg Sestero. I can't wait to see this one myself, and if it's as good as the buzz at SXSW indicates, we're in for a hysterical treat.

The Disaster Artist opens in limited release on December 1.

Poster: IMDB/A24

'The Big Sick' review

When was the last great big-screen romantic comedy?

Plenty of genres have been on their last legs in recent years, but none have suffered quite as much as the romantic comedy. It's been such a rough stretch for the former staple of the Hollywood diet that you probably have to go all the way back to 2012's Silver Linings Playbook to find the last truly great one- unless you count La La Land, which is more of a musical romance for my money. In fact, the best romantic comedy of the last several years can actually be found on television in the form of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's Master of None, a show that is as gorgeously cinematic and hopelessly thrilling as any big-screen romance in recent memory. Hollywood has turned its back on great love stories, opting to throw more money at blockbusters and leaving Sundance to create arthouse hits like Marc Webb's 2009 classic (500) Days of Summer.

But eventually, the studios have to learn their lesson, right? Romance still sells, date movies are important, and great, emotional stories are critical to success at the box office. If Hollywood takes the right lessons from this summer, we could see some serious paradigm shifts. The latest evidence of the aforementioned trends comes in the form of The Big Sick, a Sundance breakout (surprise!) from comedian Kumail Nanjiani and producer Judd Apatow, who created a raunchier version of the romantic comedy with films like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin. This film practically brought the house down at Sundance, and it has quickly emerged as the best counter-programming of the summer. Critics are absolutely loving it, and this film is practically the definition of a crowd-pleaser. I seriously didn't think that Michael Showalter's flick could live up to the hype- but it somehow managed to exceed my expectations. It's seriously funny, genuinely emotional, and grounded in warmth and compassion, a remarkable true story that is as poignant as it is truly hysterical. The Big Sick is a knockout, and a film that deserves every bit of praise and adoration that you can throw its way.

Kumail Nanjiani (played by none other than Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling stand-up comic living in Chicago, performing on stage with his friends (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler) in the hopes of becoming successful. After a show one day, Kumail meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who hopes to go into psychology. Kumail and Emily hit it off, have a fun little one-night stand, and then mutually agree that now isn't the best time for dating. Unfortunately, their chemistry is just too much to resist. They start to spend more time together, falling in love at the most unexpected time. There's just one small problem- Kumail's Pakistani family, especially his mother (Zenobia Shroff), desperately want him to be married to a Pakistani woman. Arranged marriage is a prominent part of the culture, and Kumail's mother has been setting up a never-ending series of forced dates for her son, with each girl awkwardly hoping to impress him. Kumail plays along, putting the pictures of each of the women in a cigar box in his room.

It all goes swimmingly until Emily finds the box. Shocked to see that Kumail is "judging Pakistan's next top model," a heartbroken Emily slowly realizes that there's a good chance that the two will never end up together. She storms out, effectively ending the relationship. Kumail is devastated, but he moves on with his life. One night, Kumail receives a phone call from a friend of Emily who tells him that she's in the hospital with a bad infection. He rushes there, only to find out from the doctors that she needs to be put in a medically-induced coma. Over a whirlwind couple of weeks of tragedy and insanity, Kumail is able to bond with Emily's parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), reflect on his own decisions, and come to terms with his culture and his family. The result is a journey that is part hilarious, part heartbreaking, and completely life-changing for Kumail and everyone involved.

Some movies are great because of their complexity and ambition, and others achieve greatness through much humbler methods. The Big Sick falls into the latter category- it never stretches to be something that it isn't, and its aspirations are modest to say the least. But even in the absence of flashier elements, this is a film made by people who know that they have a great story on their hands, and their love for the characters and the narrative is deeply felt at every turn. The Big Sick is a supremely confident movie, one keenly aware that realism and humanity are profoundly necessary to its success. The filmmakers and writers are in total control here, crafting an impressive balance between the humorous and the tragic, manipulating the audience in the most naturally affecting way possible. This is the romantic comedy at its most effortlessly engaging, a crowd-pleaser that isn't afraid to fit that exact bill.

Props to Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon though- it's no small task to write such an emotionally frank, messy portrayal of your own lives. The Big Sick may never veer too far into serious territory, but it has no qualms in depicting its characters as immensely flawed human beings, a choice that resonates as the film goes on. Kumail lies to his girlfriend and keeps everything from his parents, Emily is as reactionary as you can get, and her parents have their own inherent flaws that I won't divulge here. No character is perfect, but they're all genuinely good people, which is part of what makes this thing feel so refreshing. The Big Sick is about kind-hearted, funny people in extraordinary circumstances, and the changes they undergo throughout the story oddly manage to be both specific and universal. Everyone can find a little piece of themselves in this film, and that's what makes it such an enjoyable journey.

That level of empathy from the audience is not only generated from Nanjiani and Gordon's screenplay, but also from the performances of the main quartet of actors. While The Big Sick features a solid supporting crew that includes funny and engaging turns from Bo Burnham, Anupam Kher, and Zenobia Shroff, this film belongs entirely to the four main performers at the heart of this story. It's difficult to label what Kumail Nanjiani does here as a "performance," because he's basically playing himself, but in the midst of all the snark and deadpan charm of his character, he achieves a real sense of emotional depth during the most heartbreaking moments of the film. Zoe Kazan matches him well, and while she runs the risk of being typecast as this kind of character, she's terrific again. And if any performances are able to gain traction at the Oscars, it'll be the supporting turns of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. While they begin as a foil for Kumail, Terry and Beth take on a life of their own, becoming sympathetic characters with complexities and relationship issues that you don't necessarily see coming. This was a pleasantly surprising twist for me, made all the better thanks to Romano's lovable dopiness and Hunter's fiery bluntness.

But even beyond the performances and the humanity of the screenplay, The Big Sick works for two reasons- it's funny as hell, and it'll hit your emotions at precisely the right points. Few movies have as many uproarious scenes or deeply affecting moments as this one, and even fewer movies would dare to blend these comedic and tragic highs together. The Big Sick will make you laugh out loud at an awkward conversation and then devastate you with a scene of unexpected pathos, all before mixing the hilarious and the heartwarming in a flash of sheer perfection. Nothing in this film feels forced, and even though Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter (who will likely end up being overlooked, despite his impressive workmanlike direction) pack a lot of material into a film that barely hits the 2 hour mark, not a single emotional beat rings false. This is as good as it gets.

If you're looking to take a chance on a smaller film this summer, The Big Sick is the one. Even if you go in expecting something great like I did, there's a good chance that you'll have your expectations blown out the water. You'll laugh, you'll tear up a bit, and you'll see one of the very best rom-coms to come out of Hollywood in years. It's a joyously funny film with a heart of gold, told with a level of easy-going empathy that generates laughter and tears in equal measure. It's not a film that reinvents the wheel, but it has a great story and it tells that story so well that you just can't help but fall in love. Believe the hype- The Big Sick hits all the right notes.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Images courtesy of Amazon

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Second full trailer for 'Blade Runner 2049' previews a stunning, thrilling ride

With so many big movies coming out in 2017, it's easy to forget that we have a sequel over 35 years in the making arriving this October. Yes, folks, I'm talking about Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott's 1982 masterpiece of science fiction. Scott has been trying to get a sequel to that film off the ground for years, but fans resisted and the director eventually moved on and tackled a series of prequels to his Alien franchise instead. Even the most intensely skeptical Blade Runner fans finally relented when it was announced that Denis Villeneuve, the man who brought us remarkable films like Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, would be stepping behind the camera for the film. Scott remains on in a producer capacity and screenwriter Hampton Fancher and star Harrison Ford both return, while Villeneuve has brought Ryan Gosling, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer Johann Johannsson to round out the talented crew. All of the pieces are in place for this to be a masterpiece. But following up such a beloved film is a tricky balancing act- making a sequel to Blade Runner is like making a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. With all that in mind, Warner Bros. has released the third trailer for the film in advance of this weekend's Comic-Con panel, a sneak peek that gives us our best look yet. Check it out below!

The teaser set the tone, the full trailer raised some interesting questions, and this third (and final?) full look at Blade Runner 2049 solidifies my outrageous anticipation levels. Now, it is worth noting that this does look incredibly different from the original film. Blade Runner is a sci-fi film, but it's quiet and thoughtful, ruminating on big questions while resisting the urge for thrilling action scenes. 2049 does not appear to be that film, and while it appears to be retaining some of the noir elements that made Blade Runner distinct, Villeneuve and the marketing team have made it clear that this is going to be a straight-up action movie. But good lord does it look like a beautiful one. The visuals on display in this trailer are monumentally stunning, and I am in awe of how incredible this looks. It's big and bold and ambitious, but I also adore the casually gruff rapport between Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. The supporting cast is excellent, and I can even get down with the idea of Jared Leto being a creepy villain. This trailer contains some of the most perfect shots of the year, and I'm so thrilled that Roger Deakins is working on another big blockbuster after knocking it out of the park with Skyfall. Everything about Blade Runner 2049 seems perfect. It looks like Villeneuve has hit a grand slam. Here's hoping that the final product delivers.

Blade Runner 2049 opens on October 6.

Rest in Peace- Hollywood legends George Romero and Martin Landau have passed away

Sunday was a sad day for Hollywood and for film lovers across the globe, as we learned of the death of two titans of the entertainment world within hours of each other.

We first learned of the passing of George A. Romero, the father of the zombie genre and a horror mastermind, who died at the age of 77 after a short battle with lung cancer. Romero was undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers to ever live, a man who practically created a genre and announced the debut of a new kind of scary movie. His debut feature, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, is one of the most acclaimed horror films ever made, praised for both its tension and its social commentary. Romero continued to make zombie movies for the rest of his career, directing classics like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as some later films that didn't quite match up. In addition to working with the undead, Romero directed cult classics like The Crazies, Creepshow, and Martin, films that are beloved by horror lovers and cinema fans everywhere. While I can't claim to have much of a personal connection to Romero's work, his influence is undeniable. He changed the game, and without him, we wouldn't have so many of the films that we hold so dear to our hearts. His direct and indirect impact on the history of the last half century of movies is incredible. He will be sorely missed.

For a better insight into the life of Romero and this monumental loss in the film world, I encourage you to check out Edgar Wright's remembrance of the director. It's a touching, lovely tribute.

A very short time after hearing of the passing of Romero, reports began to spread that Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau had passed away at the age of 89. The storied actor has 177 IMDb credits to his name, dating all the way back to 1953. His big break came in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where he played the unnerving henchman of the lead villain. Landau also did some of his most famous work on the small screen appearing in shows like The Twilight Zone, Mission: Impossible, and Space: 1999. Landau's career saw a resurgence in the late 1980s with his appearance in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, but perhaps his most famous role came in 1994, when he played Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Landau's touching portrayal of a washed-up icon won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, cementing his status in film history with one of the best biopics ever made. I recently watched Ed Wood for the first time, and it's one of those films that just instantly became a favorite of mine. Landau's performance is so instrumental to the success of the movie, and the way that he balances caricature and genuine emotion is magnificent. Landau was one of the last icons of the golden age of Hollywood, and it was incredibly sad to learn of his passing. His loss is deeply felt. Rest in Peace, Mr. Landau.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Disney and Ava DuVernay's 'A Wrinkle in Time' gets a magical teaser trailer

Ava DuVernay has established herself as a vital filmmaking voice in a very short period of time, and I have to imagine that she's only going to grow in fame from here. After breaking onto the indie scene with Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay shot to wide success with Selma, an acclaimed biopic of Martin Luther King that debuted to universal acclaim in 2014. Since then, DuVernay has continued to embrace the unexpected, directing an Oscar-nominated documentary with 13th, lining up a TV show about the Central Park Five, and dabbling with the idea of taking on Marvel's Black Panther. But even after DuVernay departed the latter project due to creative differences with the studio, Disney was able to find a place for the director at the studio with an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle's classic novel. With this hotly anticipated film, DuVernay becomes the first African-American woman to helm a movie with a budget of over $100 million, a remarkable achievement that was long overdue. At this weekend's D23 convention, Disney took the opportunity to debut the first trailer for the film, which was promptly released online. Check it out below!

I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was in elementary school, but I would be lying if I said that I remembered anything about it or had any fond memories of the novel. I remember finding the book to be a bit strange and confusing, like a Roald Dahl story that just didn't work. So the cool thing about this film is that I really don't have any pre-conceived notions. DuVernay can surprise me with something spectacular and new and I won't have any idea of how it diverts from the book. This is a really strong trailer, one that showcases a dazzling, thoroughly imaginative journey through time and space. The trend of a slowed-down cover is cliche at this point, but the use of "Sweet Dreams are Made of This" is incredibly effective, and there are some visuals in this trailer that click extremely well. DuVernay appears to have made a blockbuster without compromising an ounce of her artistic vision, and that makes me very excited to check this out. Plus- that cast! Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Andre Holland, Mindy Kaling, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Pena, Gugu Mbatha-Raw- what a stunning lineup of talented people. A Wrinkle in Time looks unique, fresh, and original, and that's why I can't wait. It looks like DuVernay may have cooked up something special with this one.

A Wrinkle in Time debuts on March 9, 2018. 

Poster: IMDB

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Watch: New behind-the-scenes look at Rian Johnson's 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

After what was probably the most disappointing year for mainstream action cinema in my lifetime, 2017 has roared back with a vengeance. It has not only been an impressive summer for blockbusters, it has been an outstanding year on the whole. Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter Two and James Mangold's Logan brought life to the doldrums of the early months of the year, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant made May a great time at the movies, and the big-budget films have continued to impress as the summer has marched on. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman shocked everyone, Baby Driver brought Edgar Wright's talents to a whole new audience, and War for the Planet of the Apes sent my jaw to the floor. And we haven't even seen the biggest movie of the year yet. That's right, folks, even after all of these great blockbusters, we're still five months away from the Holy Grail of 2017- Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. We saw a trailer for the film back in April, but word has been quiet since then. The Star Wars narrative was overtaken by the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and it seemed like hype had been muted for Last Jedi. But with D23 this weekend, Lucasfilm and Disney took the chance to release a behind-the-scenes featurette for the film, which is the best piece of marketing yet. Take a look!

The main complaint about this new run of Star Wars films has been a simple one- it's too much of the same. While The Force Awakens was acclaimed for breathing new life into the franchise, it was also lambasted for having the exact same plot as the original film. And despite receiving praise for its grittier, darker direction, Rogue One still relied heavily on nostalgia and previously used elements. I say all this because it appears that The Last Jedi is going to break this trend. Rian Johnson is a very solid director who has taken an imaginative approach to genres like noir and sci-fi in the past, so the idea of him doing a Star Wars movie is tantalizing. And judging by this behind-the-scenes featurette, it looks like he has pulled off something that is visually distinct and fresh, something that won't merely be a copy of The Empire Strikes Back. J.J. Abrams laid the groundwork two years ago, and now it's time for Johnson to take these characters in a new direction. With Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy being so set on her vision for the Star Wars franchise, I've grown worried that we're just gonna get more of the same. But The Last Jedi looks narratively and visually unique and thrilling, and I can't say enough about how much this clip impressed me. Consider me excited.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits theaters on December 15.

Poster: Bleeding Cool

First trailer debuts for Joe Wright's Oscar contender 'Darkest Hour'

We're creeping closer and closer to the 2017-2018 Oscar season, and it's sure to be an interesting one to say the least. At this point, we already have a few contenders from the early festivals- Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name (November 24), Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and James Franco's The Disaster Artist. I think we can also safely assume that Alexander Payne's Downsizing will be in the Best Picture race, as it's the opener at the Venice Film Festival, the same spot held by La La Land, Birdman, and Gravity. In addition, we also have a few big contenders from the first few months, including Jordan Peele's acclaimed social thriller Get Out, James Mangold's Logan, Patty Jenkins' beloved Wonder Woman, Matt Reeves' trilogy capper War for the Planet of the Apes, and Christopher Nolan's upcoming Dunkirk. Due to a serious lack of "Oscar bait," we could actually see some of these films sneak into the race. But don't worry, even with a slightly weaker second half of 2017, there will still be plenty of obvious awards plays to round out the year. One of the big Oscar movies is Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, a biopic of Winston Churchill with a prestige cast and a prime November release. Earlier this week, the trailer was released for the film- check it out below!

This is a very good trailer, and it was a terrific choice to build up to what is likely Churchill's most famous speech. Oddly enough, this is the second Churchill movie of 2017, and I find it funny that each one focuses solely on the events surrounding a major battle. If anything, Darkest Hour will be a showcase for an unrecognizable Gary Oldman, an actor who has miraculously never won an Oscar despite being one of the most beloved performers in Hollywood. He looks incredible as Churchill, and he has pretty much locked up a nomination already. We'll have to see what Daniel Day-Lewis does in his supposedly final role, but I think that this could be Oldman's year. As for the film itself, I'm less certain of its chances. This seems like it could be an Iron Lady type of deal, where the movie can't quite match up to the incredible performance. Hanna has its fans, but Joe Wright has generally been in a slump since the Oscar-winning Atonement in 2007. Darkest Hour definitely looks compelling, but with a changing Academy, can it find a way into the Best Picture race? We shall see.

Darkest Hour stars Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Stephen Dillane, and will hit theaters on November 22. And depending on the strategy taken by Focus, it may find its way to a berth at one of the major fall festivals.

Poster: Focus/IMDB

Saturday, July 15, 2017

'The Beguiled' review

Sofia Coppola is one of the most powerful female filmmakers on the global stage, and she's also one of the most important voices in American independent cinema. When she makes a new film, people pay attention. After being stuck in the shadow of her famous family for years, mostly due to her role in The Godfather Part III, Coppola burst onto the indie scene with 1999's The Virgin Suicides and never looked back. In 2003, her biggest hit arrived in the form of Lost in Translation, which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and put her firmly on the map as an indie auteur. In the years since, Coppola has devoted her time to making films that fit her distinct style and interests, and that has proven to be a divisive strategy. Coppola hasn't had a universally acclaimed movie since her Oscar-winning effort, but for her fans, that hasn't been a problem. Coppola has an incredibly loyal base, and they've been out in force to pump up The Beguiled, the director's first film in four years and her first remake.

The Beguiled is a re-imagining of the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, this time told distinctly from the female perspective.  And despite its origins as a novel and as a 70s classic, this rendition very much feels like the singular work of a director like Sofia Coppola. It's slow and luxurious, bathing in its Southern style and allowing the inner lives and desires of its characters to be put under a microscope. It's atmospheric, juggling sexual tension and the threat of violence as the narrative and jealousy and betrayal progresses. And it's full of tremendous performances, led by the immaculate trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, and enhanced by a cleverly nuanced turn from Colin Farrell. And yet, for all of its incredible acting and sumptuous production values, something feels missing from The Beguiled. Maybe it's the lack of forward momentum, maybe it's the fact that it seems too restrained in the wrong places, but Coppola's otherwise deliciously entertaining period piece falls just short of greatness. It's a feast for the senses, but you just can't help but want a little more.

Set three years into the Civil War, The Beguiled is set at a school for girls in Virginia. The slaves have left (a line that has prompted a wide variety of thinkpieces), and it's just Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her girls. One day while picking mushrooms in the mossy woods around the school, Amy (Oona Laurence) makes a shocking discovery- an injured union soldier (Colin Farrell), slumped against a tree. He says his name is Corporal John McBurney, and Amy offers to help him back to the school. Once at the plantation, McBurney immediately becomes the most popular topic of conversation among the girls. In addition to Miss Martha, he attracts the attention of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher who has deeply repressed her sexuality, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a schoolgirl who practically throws herself at him. McBurney also attracts the sympathy of the younger girls at the school, and they all convince Martha to keep him around. But as his seductive techniques become more apparent, the rivalry between the girls becomes more pronounced and the betrayals stack up. And let's just say that things don't end well from there.

The Beguiled may have some flaws that I'll discuss later, but there's no question that this is flat-out one of the most gorgeous movies of the year. This movie practically exists as a middle finger to anyone who thinks that all period pieces are stuffy and drab (this is a group that includes myself). It's sexy and sultry and sumptuously crafted, and the tastefulness with which everything is done only makes it that much more compelling. The cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd captures the atmospheric intensity of the 19th century with both subtlety and a delightful flair, alternating between a rich moodiness and decadent images. The same can be said for the production and costume design by Anne Ross and Stacey Battat, respectively. The design elements manage to be both muted and delicious, chaste but hopelessly seductive, perfectly representing the contrast at the heart of this movie. Coppola puts the puzzle together with ease, resulting in a film that is an absolute feast for the senses. You sink into The Beguiled- you can practically feel this movie around you at every moment.

This is a film that also features some of the most sensational performances of the year, and despite the failings of Coppola's screenplay, she develops these characters in an expert fashion. There's no clear lead, but I guess one could say that Nicole Kidman is the anchor of the cast. She gives a strong performance as a character who is represented more by what she doesn't do than what she does, an interesting twist that allows for Kidman to do some really fascinating stuff. She's an intricate web of composure and good Southern manners- oh, and repressed sexuality too. She's the most ruthless character in the film, and also the most unpredictably compelling. It's a tough role to pull off, but Kidman does a magnificent job. She's matched in deeply held discontent by Kirsten Dunst, who plays the most easily tricked member of the group. Dunst's Edwina Morrow is a thoroughly depressed individual, and you can't help but feel a little bad for her. Dunst communicates almost entirely through body language, allowing you to understand exactly what's going on in Edwina's mind without any explicit confirmation. She has the most tragic arc of the story, and it really works.

But no actress is as fun to watch as Elle Fanning, who gives Alicia a breathy southern charm that makes you respond with laughter and shock. Alicia is the most brazen about her burgeoning sexuality, and there's not a hint of repression in her relentless pursuit of McBurney. Fanning impressed me all the way back in 2011's Super 8, but with this, The Neon Demon, and 20th Century Women, she's quickly emerging as one of the best young actresses working today. To round out the supporting cast, Oona Laurence and Angourie Rice have significantly less to do, but they're both spectacular in their own right. And of course, there's Colin Farrell, who is truly outstanding as the seductive soldier. Farrell knows how to hit the right note in each scene, and the tension created by him and the main trio of actresses is sensational.

The Beguiled is a true chamber piece, with almost all of the action taking place within the confines of Miss Martha's school. On the surface, this film really works best as a stage play- limited locations, straight-forward scenes, actor-y performances. But it's Coppola's ability to make it astonishingly cinematic that emerges as the most notable aspect of this handsome production. Coppola takes a film that could be stiff and bland and elevates it to a kind of arthouse beauty that overcomes the inherent visual constraints of the story. But there's only one problem left- the story itself. The Beguiled is an interesting film to watch and a masterclass in acting, but it's not a dramatically engaging one, and while I know she was working with adapted material, that blame shifts to Coppola herself.

There are lots of things that work in The Beguiled. I think the darkly funny ending is great. I think the banter between the characters builds tension to a certain degree. I think that some of the twists pay off nicely. But there's a restraint to Coppola's storytelling that doesn't pay off, and even though The Beguiled is set in the mannered, prim and proper world of the Confederacy, the film always seems afraid of embracing the true nature of its story. I remember when the first trailer for this came out, many were saying that this would be Coppola working in pure genre mode. And you can see this film dipping its toes into horror and exploitative territory, but Coppola seems to be resisting that at every turn. Even when things get really crazy towards the final act, there's still the sense that she's holding back. And ultimately, this means that the movie lacks punch. It doesn't have that knockout scene that sends audiences into a fit, nor does it have an escalating sense of dread that boils over into madness. Its impact is muted by the nature of its storytelling, and that is the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise gorgeously made film.

I'm probably being a little too hard on The Beguiled, mostly because I feel it was so close to being a truly great film. But at 94 minutes and with an approach to the story that just doesn't quite work, Coppola's sixth feature falls just short of the mark. And yet there's still so much to love in this spectacularly designed period piece. Even if she can't quite pull off a tricky narrative and tonal balancing act, Coppola does deliver one of the most beautiful films in recent memory, and every performance in the movie is top-notch. The Beguiled is a mesmerizing visual experience, and while the payoff doesn't live up to the rest of the film, you'll surely want to witness this delightfully grim thriller. It's a fun ride that could have been so much more.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.1/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features