"Foxcatcher" is director Bennett Miller's follow-up to 2011's "Moneyball", making this his second "based on a true story" sports drama in a row. The first trailer was actually unveiled over a year ago (September 2013) because the film was originally scheduled for release last December. However, Sony Pictures Classics decided to take "Foxcatcher" out of 2013 Awards Season contention and push it back to 2014. At the time SPC said, "We support the decision of the filmmakers to allow for more time to finish the film."
The move surprised a lot of people, considering there was already plenty of buzz about funnyman Steve Carell, who went through a drastic physical transformation to play multimillionaire John du Pont, delivering a career-defining dramatic performance worthy of a Best Actor nomination and possibly a win. But co-screenwriter E. Max Frye (who penned the original draft in 2007), told me that additional editing was indeed the reason for the delay.
So, after more than a year in hiding, "Foxcatcher" is now out - unfortunately, with mixed results. There's a lot to like about this film, but it also has enough problems which, in my mind, keep it from being worthy of Best Picture consideration.
The set-up of "Foxcatcher" is stunningly slow, as we are introduced to Olympic Gold Medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum in one of his best roles), who's struggling financially with his career and his personal life. Mark's older brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) also won Gold at the '84 Games. Dave has a big personality, is running a training facility, and has a wife and two kids. Even though they are brothers, in some ways they are exact opposites. But both hope to represent the U.S. again at the '88 Olympics, which are a little over a year away.
Mark is contacted by a man he is unfamiliar with, but will soon know all too well - John du Pont, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. Along with his many hobbies (and being one of the wealthiest men in the world) du Pont is a wrestling fan and would-be coach. He flies Mark to his Valley Forge, Pa. estate so they can, as John puts it to Mark, "talk about your future". The snail-like pacing doesn't end here. Practically every line of dialogue, particularly conversations between John and Mark, and Mark and Dave, includes lengthy, dramatic pauses that get more and more annoying as the film goes on. Even if this is how these people talked in real life, it really hurts the flow of the film. Just eliminating these pauses alone could have gotten the 2 hour-15 minute runtime under 2-hours.
John convinces Mark to come work for him, and soon convinces USA Wrestling to move their official Olympic training center to du Pont's estate, becoming part of "Team Foxcatcher". But things do not go smoothly, and when Dave enters the picture, the relationships between the three of them - the "love triangle" as Frye describes it - leads to problems and, ultimately, tragedy.
"Foxcatcher" isn't "The John du Pont Story", as many people may expect. It's more "The Mark Schultz Story", but the problem is he's the least interesting of the three main characters. Carell, who at times looks more like Alfred Hitchcock that the real du Pont, gives the showcase performance, captivating the screen with several powerful moments. When you string all of Carell's scenes together, you get a dominant, nomination-worthy effort.
In my mind "Foxcatcher" would've been a stronger film had du Pont been the main focus. In fact, two of the best scenes in the movie involve du Pont and his elderly mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who doesn't care for wrestling or any of her son's achievements. They provide insight into du Pont's mental state and some of his future actions. Redgrave's role is very small, but she and Carell provide an emotional layer to the film that's missing elsewhere.
What surpised me the most at the screening I attended was that the majority of the 400 people in the theater didn't know how this true story plays out. If you followed the news coverage of the events at the time, or read about them since, chances are you will still be surprised, as Miller does a nice job portraying the climatic events in a very simple, matter-of-fact way (which is how they actually happened) - even though the time frame is compressed drastically. Many are attacking Miller for altering the years in which some of the key action takes place, but the story wouldn't have worked any other way.
"Foxcatcher" is rated R for language, brief nudity and violence. It's worth seeing for the three showcase performances (Carell at the top of the list) and for the somewhat suspenseful story. But the plodding pacing and soap-opera feel prevents it from being gold medal worthy.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Foxcatcher" gets a B-.
"Foxcatcher" opens in Limited Release on November 14th.
"The Imitation Game" is one of those Awards Season films every studio dreams of having on their "For Your Consideration" list. The true-life drama captured the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and it's destined to be a favorite among voters over the next few months, as is star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays British mathematician and WWII code-breaking genius Alan Turing.
Adapted from the book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum present us with multi-layered, enriching, moving and high-stakes love stories through three different periods of Turing's life. It's a lot to handle early-on, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear why all these elements are necessary.
As a teenager at an all boys' boarding school, Turing is bullied for being smarter than everyone else and a little different. It's during this period when he develops a fascination with and a talent for solving puzzles and breaking codes. At the same time, he's trying to develop his own identity. In addition we see Turing dealing with life after the war (1951 - which serves as present time). The British police are investigating Turing, believing he may be keeping more secrets than those he held while working during the war.
However, the majority of the film is set during wartime. Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) and the other top code breakers in the UK are recruited by the military and brought to Britain's Bletchley Park, in hopes they can solve Germany's Enigma Code machine, which everyday sends out orders to the Nazi troops where and when the next attacks will take place. Turing sets-out to create a machine of his own. It's essentially the first computer: a giant device that he (and only he) believes will allow him to intercept the Nazi messages and break their complicated, unsolvable codes. Turing calls it 'Christopher'.
You may already know some of Turing's life story before seeing "The Imitation Game", but in no way will that detract from your appreciation of this film. Tyldum masterfully weaves together these three phases of one life, resulting in a narrative that is easy to follow yet complex enough to genuinely surprise at just the right moments. In an early voiceover we are told to "pay attention", and that turns out to be the right advice, because you can rarely predict what's coming next.
I didn't expect Cumberbatch to be this impressive. It's a heavily emotional role, with dynamics of love, hate, true love and true hate. Through Cumberbatch's bold and brave performance, we are able to understand the turmoil Turing is going through 24/7, and why breaking the Enigma Code, the most important thing in his life, can't solve all of his problems. Knightley, who plays the lone female on the code-breaking team, is also excellent. She and Cumberbatch have pitch-perfect exchanges, including one heartbreaking scene at the end of the film, which showcases both actors and the authenticity they bring to these roles. Knightley will be in the mix for Best Supporting Actress consideration.
"The Imitation Game" presents a lot of serious ethical issues, which you'll think about long after the credits end. Tyldum has crafted a film about a group of people we truly care about, looking to do the impossible, and dealing with the harsh realities of what that may bring. It's suspenseful and surprising, heroic and heartbreaking...and one of the best films of the year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Imitation Game" gets an A-.
"The Imitation Game" opens in Limited Release on November 28th.
Comedy is Bill Murray's forte. From "Caddyshack" to "Ghostbusters", "Groundhog Day" to "Garfield", Murray has made us laugh for decades. In 2003, he took a dramatic turn in "Lost in Translation", which earned him an Oscar nomination. Now, as a cranky old man in "St. Vincent" - his most buzzed-about role in over a decade - Murray proves that he can deliver the right mix of comedy and drama in this sweet, satisfying film.
Murray's Vincent lives with his cat in a small house in Brooklyn. He drinks, smokes, and regularly heads over to Belmont Park to bet the horses in hopes of hitting it big and fixing his financial problems. Vincent's crankiness grows with the arrival of his new next-door neighbors: Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is going through a separation with her husband and has left him to start fresh with her son. She's a hospital tech and works long hours, often into the evening. So she needs an after school "babysitter" for Oliver and Vincent needs the $11 an hour, so he becomes the guy. The relationship between this unlikely pair is the heart and soul of the film.
And "St. Vincent" does have heart, and a little soul, but it's hurt by a story that's way too simple. Cliche situations and characters dominate the script, which includes very few surprises. This is a movie that's solely dependent on the performances, and Murray is in top form, though I don't see him getting much awards attention because the film itself is very light. He and Lieberher are a likeable pair as characters and actors. The 11 year old has great screen presence and holds his own with the veteran cast. McCarthy, known for her outrageous, over-the-top roles, tones it way down here and is genuinely believable as the overwhelmed, frustrated and caring mother. And the always hilarious Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids", "The Sapphires") has some shining moments as Oliver's Catholic elementary school teacher.
There are some subplots involving supporting characters that don't work nearly as well. Naomi Watts plays Vincent's "companion", a pregnant "Lady of the Night", complete with a not-so-convincing Russian accent. And Terrence Howard pops-in for a few scenes, as part of an unnecessary storyline.
"St. Vincent" starts promising with some big laughs and clever moments. It then flattens out, taking on a more conventional "dramedy" tone before an effective and sentimental conclusion. We're left with an overall message about people not always being what they seem, and that's fine, though I was expecting something a little stronger.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "St. Vincent" gets a B-.
"The Book of Life" is Reel FX Animation Studios' follow-up to last year's Thanksgiving-themed comedy "Free Birds". Here the studio takes-on a different holiday with the help of producer Guillermo del Toro and visionary director Jorge Gutierrez, as "The Book of Life" breathes new life into the Mexican fiesta - The Day of the Dead.
Gutierrez uses a clever device - having the story not only narrated, but designed around a group of school kids visiting a museum. Mary Beth, their tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) takes them to a special section of the museum where she unveils the The Book of Life, and proceeds to tell them the epic saga of three childhood friends living in Mexico - two boys and a girl. Young Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with the lovely Maria. When she is forced by her father to attend boarding school in Spain, the boys promise to wait for her to return.
The rulers of the two afterlife worlds - the kind and beautiful La Muerte of The Land of the Remembered (home of the dead who the living still think about) and the evil Xibalba of The Land of the Forgotten (for those who die and are forgotten), make a wager on which boy will end-up marrying Maria when she comes back home.
Years later Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) has become a proud and powerful soldier, as his father once was, willing to protect the small town from invaders. Manolo (Diego Luna) has also followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a bullfighter. But his true passion is music. When Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) finally returns, she is pressured into making a choice between the two suitors. But things get complicated when Xibalba, worried he's about to lose the bet, decides to interfere, sending Manolo on a wild journey that tests his courage and determination to win Maria's hand.
"The Book of Life" is a comedy, a spiritual adventure, and a musical. But above all, it's a love story. The film moves along at such a frantic pace that, at times, it's difficult to keep-up with all the dialogue and the frenetic action. There are a lot of attempts at humor, including plenty of goofy characters and situations. Much of it doesn't work, but there are a few bright spots, including the students, who pop in and out throughout the film and Ice Cube, who appears late as the mighty Candle Maker.
By far the best thing about "The Book of Life" is the remarkably gorgeous CGI. You could argue that "The Book of Life" has now written its own chapter in The Book of Beautiful Movie Animation. The characters in this "story within a story" are designed as marionette puppet-like toy figures, each with a specific look that makes it unique, vibrant and extremely fun, especially for a young audience. And The Land of the Remembered is a visual wonderland of fantastic images and brilliant colors. And there are several basic but very sweet and effective songs.
"The Book of Life" is rated PG for some mild action/violence and dramatic elements, mostly dealing with the concepts of death and the afterlife in inventive and appropriate ways. While the script isn't on the same level as the best of Pixar, DreamWorks, or Sony Animation, the film has a big heart, providing a look at this culture and its emphasis on family and true love. This is a solid, a pre-Halloween choice for families and a must for anyone who wants to see how imagination and talent can produce the next great accomplishment in the animation art form.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Book of Life" gets a C+.
"Fury" is one of the bloodiest, saddest, and most authentic-looking war movies in recent years. Director David Ayer ("End of Watch") holds nothing back in depicting the gritty ugliness of WWII through a five man tank platoon assisting the Allies in finishing-off the Nazis in 1945 Germany.
Brad Pitt, who won his first Academy Award earlier this year as a producer of Best Picture winner "12 Years a Slave", stars as Captain Don "Wardaddy" Collier. He leads a crew of skilled soldiers: Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), Trini (Michael Pena), and Grady (Jon Bernthal from "The Wolf of Wall Street"). Their fifth member has just been killed in battle as the story begins. He's replaced by a new recruit named Norman ("Percy Jackson"'s Logan Lerman), who was trained for a desk job, not to kill Germans. But that's exactly what he's now forced to do under the direction of a leader he initially despises, but will learn to follow as he and his "band of brothers" try to play a major role in helping end the war as soon as possible.
Ayer, who also wrote the script, takes time in building the tension and suspense, first allowing us to get to know these characters. Pitt's Collier is a complex man. He leads the others with confidence and wastes no time turning a frightened Norman into a soldier who will shoot Nazis on sight. However, there are moments when the captain is shown away from the action, reflecting on everything that's taking place, possibly questioning his methods and the madness of it all. We see, simply through his facial expressions, that none of this is easy for him.
"Fury" is two hours and 15 minutes, which gives each scene the space to develop. But it feels shorter, and only drags briefly during the extended scene involving the soldiers and two German women they encounter in a town they've just secured that, while long, shows a brief glimpse of humanity during this period of evil and chaos before reality returns. It's a difficult scene to watch, with some heartbreaking moments, and features Lerman's best work. He and Pitt are the centerpieces of the film, and they share some moving exchanges. The script includes some religious themes and symbolism, which adds to its strong emotional strength. Eventually we get a typical Hollywood showdown ending, pitting the five Americans against a group of three hundred German soldiers. Fortunately, Ayer is able to pull-off a conclusion that's anything but phony.
For intense violence, including many disturbing images and strong language, "Fury" is easily one of the hardest R-rated action films of 2014. It's also a far departure from Sony's other 2014 WWII drama, "The Monuments Men". That film's tone was way too light for the subject matter. "Fury" is right on target: mature, straightforward and meaningful.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Fury" gets a B. For once, I suggest you leave the theater when the closing credits begin because they feature a series of grim, bizarre images of the war, in blood-red, with music out of a horror movie. They convey a tone which would have been much more appropriate for the beginning of the movie than the end.
"Whiplash" is one of the great indie triumphs of the year. It is exhilarating and suspenseful - daring and dark, with two scintillating performances. Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now") plays Andrew Neyman, a percussion student at the fictional and prestigious Schaffer School of Music in NYC. In his first semester at the school, Andrew is quickly noticed by the school's top teacher, Mr. Fletcher, who is also the conductor of Schaffer's most important group - the competition jazz band. Fletcher decides to bring Andrew into his class.
Andrew has no idea what he's getting himself into. Initially, he, and the audience, think that Fletcher is simply strict. But what long-time character actor J.K. Simmons ("Juno", "The Closer") slowly and shockingly unveils is a persona of Fletcher as a man who is obsessed with the power and control he has over his students - physically, mentally, and emotionally abusing them with his relentless demands of perfection. He is ruthless in his words and actions, instilling fear in every member of the band, who know that if they screw-up they're out, and their dreams of a career in music could be shattered. And Fletcher decides to push Andrew - hard, escalating as the film progresses, to the breaking point. Their relationship is made up of Blood, Sweat, and Tears...and then some.
But yet, this is not simply the story of a bully teacher and his student. Writer/director Damien Chazelle makes sure to portray Andrew not as a victim, but a willing participant. He is extremely ambitious and cocky. He wants to become one of the all-time greats, and believes he has the talent and drive to get there. He dumps a new girlfriend, has no social life, except for occasional trips to the movies with his dad (the totally authentic Paul Reiser), who can see what's happening to his son, but is helpless to stop it.
As "Whiplash" turns into a high-stakes battle between teacher and pupil it's impossible to take your eyes off the screen. The jazz music performed by the band (which, in some ways, is a character in the story) is tremendous. There are elements of the story that push the believability of Andrew's obsession a little too far, but overall, how Chazelle is able to craft a psychological thriller out of this simple, off-beat premise, is one of the best cinematic accomplishments of the year.
And, above it all, it's the work of Simmons and Teller that make "Whiplash" a must-see. Teller does most of the on-camera drumming himself, while also handling a highly emotional dramatic role. As for Simmons - this is one of those roles that actors, especially those who never enjoyed the spotlight, can only dream of. It's amazing that the 59-year old will likely go from being the Farmers' Insurance TV commercial guy to an Oscar nominee a few months from now. He captivates the screen like a lion, ferociously feasting on his prey. The final 30 minutes of "Whiplash" is a powerhouse jammed with amazing music, intriguing mind games, and superb surprises. It's no wonder this film won both the Audience Award and Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. As an encore, a Best Picture nomination is not out of the question.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Whiplash" gets a B+.
In "To Kill a Mockingbird", lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Oscar winner Gregory Peck, must defend his client, even though he realizes he doesn't have much of a chance of keeping him out of jail. 52 years later, Robert Downey, Jr.'s fast-talking lawyer whose heart is not quite so gold, takes on the task of defending his own father, a longtime small-town judge facing a murder charge. That father, aka "The Judge", is played by Robert Duvall, whose breakout role as an actor was as Boo Radley in "Mockingbird".
There is one reference to Finch in "The Judge", but Downey, Jr's Henry (Hank) Palmer doesn't deliver any Peck-like emotional, showcase speeches. Instead, he and Duvall engage in a series of dramatic father-son confrontations, the final one taking place during the climactic courtroom scene.
For "The Judge" to work, the audience must invest in these characters quickly and fully, otherwise the next two-plus hours will have little or no impact. Director David Dobkin (taking on his most serious material yet considering his past credits include "Wedding Crashers", "Fred Claus" and "The Change-Up") does a nice job of doing exactly that. Some of Downey, Jr. and Duvall's strongest scenes are within the film's first half hour.
But then we're asked to hang in there, for quite a long time, before the inevitable and well-staged trial. And this becomes a real challenge. Hank reunites with high school girlfriend Samantha ("Up in the Air"'s Vera Farmiga), who has some baggage of her own. This subplot takes-up too much unnecessary time and pushes the narrative, as a whole, way off-balance.
At the same time, Duvall's Joseph Palmer, an Indiana judge for 42 years, must deal with the sudden death of his wife, interacting with all three sons, particularly Hank who basically abandoned his family all his adult life. And, most importantly, the judge also has to try to remember if he actually did kill someone with his car. I have no objections to Duvall's excellent, authentic performance. But it is a supporting one, and very one-note.
Downey, Jr. dominates the screen time. He's in practically every scene, playing a character who continually goes up and down on the likeability meter. Hank is a loving father to his own daughter, but when is comes to handling "Judge" as a client and father, their personal baggage makes the task very difficult.
"The Judge" is old fashioned in its slow pacing and story structure. Since the script is so dependent on most situations going one way or the other, it's difficult to actually experience suspense or surprise. And the tone is all over the place. Old family videos shot by Hank's mentally challenged younger brother aren't overly sentimental, but the antics of an inexperienced town lawyer are a bit too comical. However, the score by Thomas Newman ("Saving Mr. Banks") continues his streak of offbeat gems.
I'll admit, I had to deliberate for awhile to come-up with reasons why "The Judge" doesn't deserve a unanimous positive verdict. Is it because Billy Bob Thornton's rival lawyer is predictably cheesy and transparent? Is it because of a scene involving Hank assisting his father in the bathroom while his daughter is demanding to come in? In the end, I simply wasn't satisfied enough with the film as a whole. "The Judge" isn't emotionally manipulative, but, in some ways, depressing - and not powerful enough to make make it all worth while.
At one point, Joseph tells Hank, "I wish I liked you more." That pretty much sums-up my thoughts on this movie.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Judge" gets a C.
The opening scenes of "Gone Girl" are filled with so much rapid-fire dialogue and whip-fast editing that I thought Aaron Sorkin had re-teamed with director David Fincher. But then I remembered that author Gillian Flynn, who wrote the hit 2012 novel, adapted her own work into this screenplay.
Set in the summer of '12, "Gone Girl" stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne. He and wife Amy are living in a small city in Missouri, having moved there from New York City. On the morning of their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick returns home after running some errands to find the front door open, the house cat in the yard, and a shattered glass coffee table. Who he doesn't find is Amy. She is gone.
The police begin to investigate Amy's disappearance and Nick quickly becomes a suspect and the target of major media attention. And three main questions immediately immerge: Where is Amy? What, if anything, is Nick hiding? And did Nick actually kill his wife? Through a combination of flashback scenes of their early years together, and the first few days of the investigation and search, we start to develop our own possible answers to these critical questions.
But then, somewhat surprisingly, all three questions are answered by the end of the first hour (and the film runs 2 hours and 25 minutes). At this point "Gone Girl" becomes more than just a typical "Missing Person" movie. It's amazing how one five-minute montage drastically changes your perception of everything that's happened up to that point.
However, outside of that sequence, the script provides few legitimate surprises. This is a one-note story, which does, thankfully, include multiple layers. Fincher adds a few chuckle-worthy moments to break-up the suspense, and he lays it on thick with the over-the-top media coverage, including a Nancy Grace look-a-like TV host, whose show, apparently, is watched by everybody. The real Nancy Grace would love to have the ratings this show must have. An image of the cat looking out the window at the mayhem of satellite trucks and news crews nicely sums up all the craziness and the obvious point Fincher is trying to make.
Without a doubt, the best thing about "Gone Girl" is the phenomenal performance by British actress Rosamund Pike as Amy. This is star-making work. From the subtlety in her voice as she narrates the flashback scenes in the first half, to her exceptional range of emotions in the second (blank stares, meltdowns and everything in between), this is the showcase role every actress dreams of, and she nails it.
As for Affleck, it's tough to judge his performance because, for most of the film, we're not quite sure if we can believe Nick or not. If we don't know if the character is acting, it's tough to tell whether Affleck is portraying him correctly. The supporting cast includes Tyler Perry, who only has a few scenes as defense lawyer Tanner Bolt (great name), though he does seem comfortable not playing Madea for once. Neil Patrick Harris is also underused as one of Amy's former lovers. And Carrie Coon (HBO's "The Leftovers") is very good as Nick's sister.
"Gone Girl" is rated R for language, sexual content, nudity, and violence. There's enough intrigue and tension to hold your interest, and the work from the strong ensemble cast certainly helps. But was I ever "wowed" by anything in this film, or on the edge of my seat at any point? "No" and "no". Instead, I sat, somewhat removed, as batch after batch of questions were presented by the police, the media, family members and Nick himself, most of which I already knew the answers to. Unfortunately, nothing in this film, including Fincher's visuals and the far from-"Social Network"-memorable score, is groundbreaking.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Gone Girl" gets a solid B. I'm guessing, as is often the case, this story works much better as a novel. Still, this film is worth seeing for Pike's amazing performance and the original take on an unoriginal subject.
Chances are you've heard the title "One Chance" in movie news stories often over the past year or so. The musical comedy based on the true story of wannabe opera singer Paul Potts, who eventually won Simon Cowell's "Britain's Got Talent" TV competition show, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2013 and was released in England the following month. The US limited release was originally set for last Christmas Day. But The Weinstein Company, notorious for shifting release dates, had other ideas.
The studio decided to move "One Chance" to February 7th, 2014. This, obviously, would take the film out of the '13 Awards Season race. However, Awards Season voters, including yours truly, received a screener of the movie before this change was made. And so the Taylor Swift song, "Sweeter Than Fiction", featured in the closing credits of the film, was nominated for the Best Original Song Golden Globe, going-up against "Frozen"'s "Let it Go" and losing to U2's "Ordinary Love" from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" (another Weinstein release).
Then things got even crazier when the release date was moved to March 14th and then to the cinematic death date of August 29th. I'm sure Mr. Cowell (a producer on the movie) and director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada", "Marley & Me") were not very pleased. Than finally, TWC announced that they would put "One Chance" out in time for a second Awards Season go-around (if that's even possible) on October 10th and "premiere" the film ten days earlier online on Yahoo! Screen.
Well, I watched my screener of "One Chance", back on January 2nd, making this the longest time I've ever had to hold (and significantly update) a review. And I've been very supportive of this film, through all of the delays and difficulties, because it's delightful, charming, and absolutely worth seeing.
James Corden, from "Begin Again", the upcoming "Into the Woods", and Craig Ferguson's successor as host of "The Late Late Show" shines as Paul. Bullied as a kid, Paul now works as a cell-phone store employee in South Wales, but he has dreams of becoming a world famous opera singer. His first true love is Julz (played by Alexandra Roach, the young Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady"). They met on the internet and she is his biggest supporter, along with his caring but sensitive mum Yvonne (Julie Walters). Paul's strict father Roland (Colm Meaney) would rather see him working in the coal mines.
As you'd expect, Paul faces many obstacles as he pursues his dream. These test his spirit and determination. But he keeps his eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel, resulting in some incredible opportunities.
Both the acting and vocal performances in "One Chance" are very strong. Corden and Roach have authentic chemistry, resulting in one of the best on- screen relationships we've seen in years. Mackenzie Crook, as Paul's cell-phone store boss Braddon, stands-out amongst the supporting cast with some irresistibly funny deliveries of lines from this very sharp script. "One Chance" doesn't always go for the big laughs. The rather subtle, offbeat style of humor really works. And the cinematography, in particular when the story moves to Venice where Paul attends opera school, is beautiful.
Surprisingly, the "Britain's Got Talent" portion of the story is saved until the final 20 minutes. The actual video of Cowell and the other judges is nicely mixed-in with Corden's audition as Potts. As it turns out, "One Chance" isn't about the competition itself or Potts' run on the show, but rather the inspiring, incredible journey of Paul Potts as he strives to prove to the world, and himself, that he is a star. It's "Rocky" meets Rigoletto. Find it. See it. Watch it. And you, too, will say - "Bravo".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "One Chance" gets an A-.
Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington re-teams with "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua to bring the 80s TV series "The Equalizer" to the big screen. It's an action film with such over-the-top and unpredictable violence that it's hard to imagine this version will ever make it onto broadcast TV.
Sony is clearly counting on "The Equalizer" becoming a big money franchise. When you've got a commanding lead who brings the credibility and gravitas to a role that could easily have landed in the wrong hands, and a director who's not afraid to show a little...let me rephrase that...A LOT of blood, I can understand why audiences (though maybe not those over 65) will embrace this character and be happy to see him do his thing again and again. Hey, if Liam Neeson can rescue his abducted family members over and over and over, and do big box office in the process, Denzel can certainly continue to help those in need of his "services".
Washington plays Robert McCall, a widower who lives in Boston and works at a Home Depot-like store. His days are fairly quiet and ordinary, and are topped-off with late night visits to the corner diner, where he reads the current entry on his "100 Greatest Books of All-Time" list. After learning that a young prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz is excellent) is trying to turn her life around, but can't escape the Russian mobsters who are controlling her, Robert (who just happens to be an ex-black-ops commando) decides to "help".
He kills-off the first layer of bad guys (the "stopwatch" scene from the trailer) but unknowingly sets-off a firestorm. The narrative of "The Equalizer" is very episodic. It's one twenty-minute story after another involving Robert and a supporting character, intertwined with the continuing main plot (Robert vs. evil, and I mean EVIL, Russian mafia leader Teddy, played nicely by Marton Csokas, who could also play Kevin Spacey in a biopic). This style is too basic and obvious, and I have specific problems with several decisions made by Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk.
"The Equalizer" is wild, wacky, unintentionally funny, stagy and long. The plot, as it is for most vigilante/revenge films, doesn't provide any surprises. Instead, those come from the graphic ways Robert goes about killing-off everyone in his way, highlighted by a climactic 20 minute sequence in the "Home Mart" store, which is so ridiculously violent you'll be looking for Quentin Tarantino's name in the credits.
Unfortunately, while the "The Equalizer" succeeds in the area of creative bloodshed, it simply isn't very entertaining. It tries to shock more than achieve suspense the old fashioned way - through well-written scenes and dramatic situations. However, for Denzel fans, it's a must-see. I can't think of too many other veteran, A-list actors who could pull-off this role. And my guess is we'll be seeing more of Robert McCall in a few years, and probably a few years after that. I only hope those scripts provide Washington, and the rest of us, with more of a challenge.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Equalizer" 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+.
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 are a few more I'm leaving out.
Thomas (played by Dylan O'Brien of "The Internship") wakes-up one day to find himself in a 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, a few members of the group (the "runners") have ventured in and discovered 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 has 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 when 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-.
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.
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