Friday, July 21, 2017

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.