Last year, Tom Hanks had the potential of scoring Oscar nominations for two high-profile roles: the title character in "Captain Phillips" and Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks". While many experts, including myself, thought Hanks was at-least a lock for "Phillips", it turned out he failed to snag either nomination. This awards season, a fellow Oscar winner could be in line for THREE acting nominations, which would be an Academy first.
Chances are, Reese Witherspoon (who captured a Best Actress statue in 2006 for playing June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line") won't make Oscar history. Howevers she could become the 9th woman (and only 12th person overall) to score acting nods for two different films in the same year. And the fact that Witherspoon, who generally stars in only one movie a year, is at the center of three early Awards contenders, is quite an accomplishment.
In Warner Bros.' "The Good Lie" (limited release open on Oct. 3), Witherspoon plays Carrie Davis, a woman who takes-in a Sudan refugee and then fights to get additional family members to come to America. The role has a little Sandra Bullock/Leigh Anne Tuohy/"The Blind Side" vibe to it. Five years ago, that sports drama, also released by WB, earned Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
Based on a true story, "Wild" (distributed by Fox Searchlight; limited open Dec. 5) stars Witherspoon as strong-willed and troubled Cheryl Strayed, who goes on a solo hike of more than 1,000 miles. This is director Jean-Marc Vallee's follow-up to "Dallas Buyers Club", which won Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Oscar gold last year. Early reviews for "Wild" from the Telluride Film Festival premiere have been very strong.
And Witherspoon is also part of director Paul Thomas Anderson's ensemble crime drama "Inherent Vice" (also from WB; limited - Dec. 12; nationwide Jan. 9, 2015). No specific details are known, as yet, for her character, but Anderson's track record with Oscar nomination success for his actors ("Magnolia", "Boogie Nights", "There Will Be Blood", "The Master") speaks for itself.
"The Boxtrolls" is the latest stop-motion animation film distributed by Focus Features and brought to life by Laika, the makers of "Coraline" and "ParaNorman". Both of those movies were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and I'll be very surprised if "The Boxtrolls" isn't on the ballot this year. What, on the surface, appears to be a cute family adventure about a boy and his best-friends - mythical monsters who live inside boxes on and under the streets of a fictitious England village, is actually a serious relationship drama with some deep themes and political messages, sprinkled with a good deal of offbeat British humor. "The Boxtrolls" is not for young kids, but rather, for the kid in all the rest of us, who longs for excitement, love and a purpose in life.
Set in Cheesebridge, where its namesake food is the most prized possession, the story is centered on young boy called Eggs, who the townsfolk believe was taken from his family as a baby by the feared Boxtrolls. Eggs (voiced by "Game of Thrones"' Isaac Hempstead Wright) grows-up thinking he is a Boxtroll, acting, talking and living just like them, inside a cardboard box. And he learns from them how to build things and make incredible machines from discarded parts thrown away by humans. His best friends and father-figures are Fish and Shoe.
But as the years go by Eggs gets too big for his box and he soon realizes that he's different from the rest of his "family". And when he meets a girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning is excellent) he learns he is really a human boy.
These two become friends and work together to try to stop four exterminators (led by the voice of an unrecognizable Sir Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher) from capturing The Boxtrolls, who wander into town at night in search of new junk they can use for their inventions. And they aren't monsters at all - but kind, loving and caring creatures. Snatcher's ultimate goal is to kill every last Boxtroll so he can earn an esteemed white hat and become a member of the town's elite, who not only get to make all the rules, but also eat all the exquisite cheese in the land. Winnie's father, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris, who played Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") is their leader.
"The Boxtrolls" is packed with fun and funny characters, including Snatcher's three assistants: the crazy one with the off-kilter one-liners is Mr. Gristle (voiced by Tracy Morgan). The other two, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout (Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost), are more sensitive, and as the story progresses, these two begin to question if they're really the good guys or the bad guys.
But the script also has a lot to say - at least I think it does. Were the writers really making statements about class warfare, social status, immigration, economics, family relationships - all inside an often silly animated film? Or, were they simply going for laughs? Clearly there's a lot going on below the surface of "The Boxtrolls" (pun intended). I thought more about this film, upon leaving the theater, than any I've seen in recent memory.
Yet, the narrative itself is very straightforward and provides very few surprises. This is the film's major weakness. There's really only one "wow" moment, and it comes in the closing credits (and is the best closing credits sequence of the year, by far).
However, everything else about "The Boxtrolls" exceeds expectations. The stop-motion animation is triumphant, especially in the difficult to create, over-the-top slapstick moments. It took the filmmakers 18 months to create one, two-minute elaborate and very sweet ballroom sequence. And directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring genuine emotion to several of the scenes involving Eggs and the Boxtrolls. The ensemble voice cast also includes Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, and Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum as Boxtrolls, characters adapted from the 2005 book "Here Be Monsters!". The dialogue among the humans is very sharp. And the beautiful score by Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli is nomination-worthy as well.
Most impressive, within the basic story, are the challenging, multi-layered messages. Not too many films, particularly in this genre, delve into the mature topics we get here, such as a child's feelings about family, security and the fear of daring to break out of one's own box and become somebody. There's symbolism everywhere.
"The Boxtrolls" is rated PG for some action/violence, rude humor and a little peril. With good intentions in all the right places, this is a daring and satisfying animated feature that's just as unique and special as its many characters, who teach us that there's nothing wrong with being a little square.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Boxtrolls" gets a B+.
"The Boxtrolls" opens nationwide on September 26th.
It's ironic, yet hardly surprising that "The November Man" was buried by distributor Relativity Media at the end of August. The best thing that can be said about this effort, based on the 7th book in the "NM" series, "There Are No Spies", written by late author Bill Granger, is that it's appropriately titled, because when anyone thinks about it, the first thing that will come to mind is - TURKEY.
The true big screen "November Man" is James Bond, as six of the last seven 007 movies were released in that month to box office glory. Pierce Brosnan played the iconic agent four times and is regarded as one of the Best Bonds. As ex-CIA agent Peter Devereaux in "The November Man", Brosnan doesn't get to revisit his 007 glory days of fancy cars, beautiful women, incredible gadgets, weapons and ruthless villains. Instead, he settles for a clumsy, dumbed-down Bond knock-off which provides very little suspense or excitement.
Olga Kurylenko, who played Daniel Craig's Bond Girl in 2008's "Quantum of Solace", becomes Devereaux's partner as Alice, a social worker with a mysterious background and some inside information. The film is being promoted as an "Old Spy vs. New Spy" showdown, with Devereaux matching skills with his former apprentice at the CIA, Mason (played by Luke Bracey), who is now working against Devereaux and also happened to kill his wife. And, as has become popular in spy movies once again, the Russians are the bad guys.
If director Roger Donaldson ("The Bank Job") succeeds with anything it's that "The November Man" deserves its R-rating for the most random and bloodiest shootings and murders of any film this year. There's hardly anything new or innovative in the dull and all-too-familiar script. The "revelation" midway through, poised to fool everyone, comes-off as a bad joke. And here's how unoriginal this film is: there's actually scene involving Brosnan's character playing revolver Russian Roulette with a character he's trying to get information from.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The November Man" gets a D. It's 15 months until the next James Bond film hits theaters (November 2015). After watching a mess like this, the return of 007 can't come soon enough.
"If I Stay" is the "End of Summer of 2014 Tween/Teen Romantic Tearjerker". Based on the popular 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, Chloe Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass") stars as 17-year-old Mia. She lives with her parents and younger brother Teddy in Portland, Oregon. Mia's love of music was inherited from her mom and dad, but they were rockers and she plays classical cello. Adam (Jamie Blackley) is the lead singer of a local rock band. He instantly falls in love with Mia while watching her play the cello in school, and together they form what they believe will be an unbreakable bond.
But that all changes when Mia, Teddy, and their parents get into a serious car accident. Mia survives the crash but slips into a coma. Yet (as a cinematic device) she is able to step away from her body and watch as the rest of the day unfolds, and her fate, and those of her parents and brother, are decided. At the same time, through flashbacks, we get to see the key moments in Mia's life - from early childhood to the current day, as she's deciding whether or not to fight to stay alive.
"If I Stay" is stronger than I expected, both structurally and emotionally. It doesn't quite provide the punch of the "Beginning of Summer Tween/Teen Romantic Tearjerker", the surprise hit "The Fault in Our Stars", but it's close. Moretz and Blackley have a likeable chemistry and are most believable in their pre-ER scenes. Mireille Enos ("The Killing", "World War Z") and Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project") are solid as the ex-rocker parents. And Stacy Keach, as Mia's supportive grandfather, has two showcase scenes that are the most authentic and heartbreaking in the entire film.
There are predictable elements in "If I Stay", and minor details are given away early that take away from some of the suspense in the final act. Some scenes are stretched-out simply to fill time, which is necessary since the main storyline ("Will she stay or will she die?") is fairly thin. And judging from the reaction of the mostly female YA audience in the theater I was in, there may be some dissatisfaction with the rather abrupt ending. Overall, veteran TV/documentary director R.J. Cutler deserves credit for taking this material, including the "out there" premise and making a film that, for the most part, is genuine and effective.
"If I Stay" is rated PG-13 for some language, adult content, dramatic elements and medical scenes. There were tears flowing freely in the theater, so keep that in mind before deciding if this subject matter is for you.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "If I Stay" gets a B-.
I give the team behind the new sports movie, "When the Game Stands" a lot of credit for pulling-off something nearly impossible: they've made a film about the most successful high school football team of all-time that's about as exciting as a 0-0 tie in an NFL exhibition game.
"When the Game Stands Tall" is based on the true story of Concord, California's De La Salle High School football program, and head coach Bob Ladouceur, who lead the team to the longest winning streak in sports history - 151 games in a row - from 1992-2003. However, like all unprecedented accomplishments, De La Salle finally lost and the streak ended in the '04 season opener. The film looks at the coach and his players before, during and mostly after they suffer their historic loss.
In the months leading up to seeing the film I had watched the unapologetic Regal Cinemas First Look preview for "Game" over a dozen times, and it gave away nearly every major plot point. The summary (SPOILER ALERT if you haven't been to a Regal theater in awhile) said it all: "Bob has a heart attack, a very popular player is tragically killed, and they lose the streak - all within a couple of months." Well, what's left?
So, while the clock was ticking along as I was watched "Game", I kept waiting for something genuinely surprising or interesting to take place. And nothing does. Instead we get a script packed with cliches, countless forced speeches and stereotype characters, from the hot-shot player, to the ignored wife, to the worst stage parent in the history of high school football. Coach Ladouceur is played by "Person of Interest" star Jim Caviezel with all the energy and enthusiasm of a zombie. An almost unrecognizable Michael Chiklis is the way too sensitive assistant coach, and Laura Dern's best scene, as Bob's wife, is a bizarre monologue which comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all.
A subplot involving QB Chris Ryan ("The Hunger Games"' Alexander Ludwig) and his father Mickey, who's obsessed with his son breaking a touchdown record, gets way over-the-top in the "all-football" second half. The actor who plays Mickey is Clancy Brown, the voice of Mr. Krabs on "SpongeBob SquarePants". Both characters are greedy, but I'll take Mr. Krabs, who's genuinely loyal to his "son-like" fry cook over this wacko father any day (who by the way, wasn't a real person, but made-up for the movie).
Many of the predictable themes of "When the Game Stands Tall" involve friendship, brotherhood and bonding over, as the Coach puts it, "just a high school football game". Yet there's only one brief classroom scene and no discussions about the importance of academics. Though they try to deny it, this film is all about the game. Technically, director Thomas Carter ("Coach Carter") succeeds with the well-shot football scenes. And a stretch in a rehabilitation facility (also fiction) is a nice change of pace. But the announcer voice-overs are amateurish and completely unrealistic and there are so many obvious and sloppy mistakes that the editors must have been rookies.
"When the Game Stands Tall" is rated PG for brief violence, smoking, and mild thematic elements. Diehard football fans expecting an inspiring film with emotionally charged moments will be disappointed with this unsatisfying and corny take on a coach and team that deserved much better.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "When the Game Stands Tall" gets a C-.