The Academy Awards are only five months away, and two crucial elements are still missing: a host and some legitimate contenders. By this time last year (it was August 2nd, 2013 to be exact), Ellen DeGeneres had been named host of the 86th Oscars. For some reason the Academy is taking its time with this year's choice. My prediction: ABC will finally let their late night star, Jimmy Kimmel, have a shot at emcee duties on February 22nd. He's overdue.
Now that that's settled, here's my fearless list of 20 people who I think will receive acting nominations. What categories they'll end up in is yet to be determined. Come January we can look back and see how I did. And, keep in mind, most of these films have yet to release, so most of these picks are based on buzz, reputation, strategy and gut instincts.
Amy Adams ("Big Eyes")
Steve Carell ("Foxcatcher")
Laura Dern ("Wild")
Robert Duvall ("The Judge")
Felicity Jones ("The Theory of Everything")
Michael Keaton ("Birdman")
Anna Kendrick ("Into the Woods")
Keira Knightley ("The Imitation Game")
Matthew McConaughey ("Interstellar")
Julianne Moore ("Still Alive")
Edward Norton ("Birdman")
Jack O'Connell ("Unbroken")
David Oyelowo ("Selma")
Vanessa Redgrave ("Foxcatcher")
Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything")
Mark Ruffalo ("Foxcatcher")
Meryl Streep ("Into the Woods")
Christoph Waltz ("Big Eyes")
Reese Witherspoon ("Wild")
Shailene Woodley ("The Fault in Our Stars")
At every county fair there's a challenging, exciting and exhausting corn maze. It's filled with twists and turns, giving those who dare to enter the feeling that there's no way out. "The Maze Runner" presents a lot of questions early on. And after going in circles for nearly two hours, the only way I hoped to come out of the theater with a sense of satisfaction was to get some believable answers. Instead, the final 20 minutes of "The Maze Runner" are simply packed with corn, leaving me dazed, confused and completely let-down.
Of course, I can't give much away, not wanting to ruin some big "surprises". But I can say, "The Maze Runner", based on the first in a series of popular tween/teen novels, is completely unoriginal from start to finish. It's "The Hunger Games" meets "Survivor", with some "Amazing Race" and a little "Lord of the Flies" tossed in. And I'm sure there's a few more I'm leaving out.
Thomas (played by Dylan O'Brien of "The Internship") wakes-up one day to find himself in crate elevator in the middle of a large field. He's greeted by a group of 30 or so guys, ages 12-25. The "glade" is enclosed by giant walls, and they're trapped inside. One of the walls opens-up every day, and over the course of three years, some of the men have wandered in to discover a large maze. But with dangerous, albeit cheesy-looking, monsters lurking in the night, ready to kill them, no one has been able to find a way out.
A new male is sent to join the group every month, and a sense of rules and order have been established. None of them remember anything about their past, except their names. But all Thomas cares about is getting out. For some reason he's the first one who is motivated to figure out what's really beyond the maze and why he and all the others have been sent there. This leads to some risky situations. And once a girl named Teresa arrives, that really shakes things up.
"The Maze Runner" is Wes Ball's feature film directorial debut, which comes as no surprise as the narrative is all over the place. The action scenes are underwhelming (including a moving doors sequence that's much tamer than the one in "Monsters, Inc."), and the performances are showy, with every dramatic and emotional scene feeling forced. The basic plot is intriguing and the story is good enough to hold your interest for a while, but as if stuck in a maze, midway through, the script just has nowhere to go. And by the final act, you really don't care what happens to this group of stereotypical characters. I do give Ball credit for surprising us with a very bizarre ending. It's just too bad that none of it works.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Maze Runner" gets a D+.
Released nearly three years ago, "Dolphin Tale" was a smart, sophisticated and sweet live-action family film with genuine heart. I was surprised when Warner Bros. announced they were making a sequel, wondering if this saga could support a franchise.
But since the first film was based on real life events, and more events took place in an around Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium that warranted a sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2" was made. And it tackles twice as many issues as the original. The aquarium is still run by Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.). And a much older Sawyer (16-year-old Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) are still taking care of "Winter", the famous Bottlenose dolphin with the prosthetic tail. Winter has become an inspiration to many, and a symbol of the aquarium. Real life surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack (and was portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb in 2011's "Soul Surfer"), appears briefly as herself, joining Winter in the pool.
However, Winter's health is starting to become an issue. And things get worse when one of her companions dies (there are a few shots of the deceased dolphin at the bottom of the pool). Clay is tasked with having to provide Winter with another female friend, and soon, or she will be taken from the facility and re-located.
And then, Hope arrives. Literally. A tiny, abandoned Bottlenose named Hope is rescued by the team and brought to the aquarium. If you've seen the trailers for "Dolphin Tale 2" (and who hasn't), you'd think this happens early in the film, but actually it's not until almost an hour in.
Sawyer's relationships with both Hazel and Winter are tested in "Dolphin Tale 2". And in one of the best scenes, Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, who reprises his role as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, explains to Sawyer some of the film's strong themes about growing-up, life's many changes, and that when one door closes, an even better one opens. Freeman also delivers at least a dozen chuckle-worthy one-liners, including - "I'd never pass-up a free meal" and (when referring to the small dolphin) "I've pulled anchovies off of pizzas that were bigger than that." Somehow, coming from Morgan Freeman, these lines work.
Also back from the first film, but with smaller roles, are Ashley Judd as Sawyer's mom and Kris Kristofferson as Clay's father. The focus of "DT2" is mostly on the kids and the animals, including the noisy and nosy seagull Rufus and his new rescued sea turtle friend Mavis.
There are some continuity errors, a few corny situations and structural issues, and the nicely shot underwater scenes go on too long. As with the original, "Dolphin Tale 2" does its best to avoid being preachy, but it comes close at times. However, just as with last year's NAVY Seals action drama "Lone Survivor", the most effective part of "DT2" (and I'd never thought these two films would have anything in common) is the real-life footage at the end. We get to see how Hope was rescued (exactly 5 years and 1 day after Winter) and the impact these dolphins have had on so many lives. For animal lovers and those inspired by stories of these two dolphins, there are plenty of emotional moments.
"Dolphin Tale 2" is rated PG, and is one of the better live-action family films of the year. However, some scenes of danger involving the live dolphins (and the previously mentioned dead one) may be a bit intense for very little ones.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Dolphin Tale 2" gets a B-.
"The Identical" is a small, Christian-based drama with the most contradictory title of any film this year. In so many ways this movie is unlike any ever made. The set-up is o.k. - a young, married couple living in the South back in the 1930s, decides to give one of their newborn twin boys to a pastor and his wife (who cannot conceive), because they can't afford to take care of both of them. These early scenes of "The Identical", shown in black-and-white, are the most authentic in the film.
Then things shift, rather quickly, to technicolor, and everything changes. The boys, each unaware that he has an identical twin brother, both become singers. Pastor Reece Wade (Ray Liotta, who also served as an executive producer) and wife Louise (Ashley Judd) watch their son Ryan (Blake Rayne) grow-up with dreams of becoming a performer, not a preacher like his dad. His best friend Dino (Seth Green) encourages Ryan to pursue this career, but there are hurdles and struggles along the way.
At the same time, (now in the mid-50s), a new superstar emerges on the national music scene, and it's the other twin, Drexyl Hemsley (also played by Rayne). He becomes an instant sensation with "Blue-Suede Shoes"-esque bee-bop hits for all the soda pop kids in candy colored outfits to boogie woogie to. But what takes "The Identical" way off-key and keeps it there from this point forward is that both singers look, sound, and act like the King of Rock N' Roll, Elvis Presley. It now becomes very difficult to take the characters and the story seriously. And the Elvis references don't stop there: Ryan joins the Army, we see Drexyl appear on an Ed Sullivan-type TV show. And the fact that no one, including neither of them, suspects that they might be related when they look and sound EXACTLY alike is simply ridiculous.
At one point, when Ryan begins working as a "Drexyl Impersonator", I actually started to buy back into "The Identical" (we don't get much of Drexyl's side of the story). But then the reality of living here on Planet Earth, instead of the weird, bizarre universe where this story takes place, returned, leaving me to once again ask: "How come nobody can see that these two are identical twins - and they're both Elvis knock-offs?"
With about 20 minutes left in the film, a minor character finally references the Elephant in the Room, stating, "There's only one Elvis". Now what are we supposed to think? Apparently Elvis somehow existed on "Planet Identical" this entire time, along with not one, but two professional copycats who are also both superstars? Talk about being "all shook up". The closing credits confirm that this is an "entirely fictional story", but that fact will do nothing to ease "suspicious minds".
Had "The Identical" been about two generic soul, pop or country singers it might have worked. The Christian themes are welcome and prominent, and Liotta does fine work. But even with the numerous upbeat songs, the pacing is way too slow and there are way too many unforgivable errors. Somebody, back at the start of this project, should have marked this script: "Return to Sender."
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Identical" gets a C-.
"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.