Oscar Watch Trailer: “12 Years a Slave”

12-years-a-slave-posterNow that the Summer season of big-budgeted, popcorn films is over, we enter into the end-of-the-year releases that are more award-caliber in nature. In other words, my favorite time of year at the movies! For films that could potentially get on the radar of Oscar voters, I will discuss them in my newly created “Oscar Watch Trailer” section, a spinoff of my “Five-star Trailers” postings.

And first up on “Oscar Watch” is director Steve McQueen’s pre-Civil War drama 12 Years a Slave. From all the early buzz I’m hearing about the film, this will be the movie that will put the spotlight of arrival on actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the based-on-a-true-story 12 Years, Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery. Known mostly for supporting roles in films such as Children of Men, American Gangster and Inside Man, the positive buzz surrounding Ejiofor’s lead performance has been absolutely deafening. And if the positive reviews keep rolling in, Ejiofor could very well be the frontrunner for the Oscar—with a potential showdown with Matthew McConaughey for his performance in the drama Dallas Buyers Club.

Also garnering attention is a supporting turn by Michael Fassbender as a ruthless slave owner. If Fassbender grabs an Oscar nomination, it’ll be a nice “makeup nod” after the Academy snubbed his excellent lead performance in McQueen’s Shame two years ago. The film itself is even being compared to Schindler’s List­—which suggests a heart-wrenching, emotionally difficult and yet extremely important story captured on screen. Director McQueen could also be a strong candidate for a Best Director nod for bringing this searing true story to life on film.

The trailer for the film makes it very clear that this will be a brutal and unforgettable film, and it is now placed on the top of my Fall movie season must-see list! And after hearing that the film received a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, all signs to me are pointing to a film that could be one of the very best of 2013.

12 Years a Slave is Rated R and is slated for release in the U.S. on October 18.

About 12 Years a Slave:

In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery in this based-on-a-true-story drama.

For more on 12 Years a Slave, visit the official Fox Searchlight Web site or follow the film on Facebook.

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A young man tries to get his life back on track in the unforgettable drama “Fruitvale Station”

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In writer/director Ryan Coogler’s true-story drama Fruitvale Station, star-on-the-rise Michael B. Jordan gives an outstanding performance as a young man who yearns to find redemption and lead a better life for his future.

Fruitvale tells the tragic story of Oscar Grant III (played by Jordan)—a 22-year-old Bay-Area man with a troubled past. Years earlier, Grant had run-ins with the law. We see in flashbacks Oscar behind bars. In one instance, we see his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), visiting him in jail. She sees that her son hasn’t changed his ways and can do nothing but give up on him. It’s a heartbreaking scene, to say the least.

In the present day, Oscar is a caring father to his young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He’s still with his daughter’s mother, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and he’s on much better terms with his mother. Oscar seems to have his life back on track—but he hasn’t quite let go of the irresponsible young man he once was. He lost his job at a grocer due to excessive tardiness, and now he’s on the verge of selling drugs again for money. From the looks of it, it seems as though Oscar won’t ever change.

Fruitvale chronicles the last day of 2008—Wanda’s birthday. It’s New Year’s Eve—a time for celebration and, for some, a time for change. New Year’s Eve 2008 ultimately becomes the day Oscar reaches an epiphany about his life and the man he wants to become for those around him. Jordan (who showed tremendous talent in TV’s Friday Night Lights), is a revelation here as Oscar. He fully takes on the role of a young man struggling within himself and trying so desperately to change his fate. Fruitvale is the film that will have Hollywood take notice of a young actor with a bright future ahead of him.

The rest of the cast is also terrific. Diaz is excellent as Oscar’s girlfriend who will stand by her man until the end, and Academy Award winner Spencer delivers another fine performance as a mother who just wants to see her son become a better man. Coogler’s direction and screenplay for the film are also praise-worthy in that he tells an emotionally absorbing story from beginning to end.

This being the true story of Oscar Grant, the unfortunate outcome of his fate on December 31, 2008 is unavoidable. Coogler may have named his film Fruitvale Station, but he doesn’t intend for the tragic events that happened there to be what Oscar would solely be remembered by. His intention for the film is for us to know and understand the man that met a regretful fate that day in 2008. And through Jordan’s award-worthy performance, Fruitvale Station became a devastatingly unforgettable film that will affect you and won’t let you go long after you’ve finished watching it. It’s no wonder this film was an absolute sensation at the Sundance Film Festival. Without a doubt, Fruitvale Station is a must-see and is one of the best films of the year.

5 out of 5 stars

About Fruitvale Station:

Based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, Fruitvale Station tells the story of a young man with a troubled past who reaches a crossroads in his life one tragic New Year’s Eve.

For more on Fruitvale Station, visit the official Web site or follow it on Facebook and Twitter. 

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Five-star trailer: “Her”

herWriter/director Spike Jonze–best known for the acclaimed, quirky dramedies Being John Malkovich and Adaptation–looks like he has another offbeat winner on his hands with the new film Her. Fresh off his critically-adored, Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s The Master, Joaquin Phoenix stars as a depressed recluse who develops a relationship with a uniquely intelligent operating system that adapts itself completely to its user. Phoenix’s operating system goes by the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The premise reminds me a bit of the 2007 Ryan Gosling dramedy Lars and the Real Girl, which also tells the story of a lonely guy in a highly unconventional relationship.

By the looks of the trailer for Her, Phoenix looks as though he’s bound to deliver yet another praise-worthy performance. Here, it looks as though he puts his usual intensity aside to play a more sensitive character. Buzz around Her is so positive that the film is being pushed back from its original release of November 20 to December 18–presumably so the film and Phoenix are fresh in Oscar voters’ minds. Also featuring Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde, Her looks like a film I’m going to want to check out come December!

About Her:

A lonely writer forms an surprisingly real relationship with his newly-purchased operating system that’s catered to meet his every need.

For more on Her, visit the official Web site or follow it on Facebook.

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The McConaughey ‘career renaissance’ continues in the excellent Southern drama “Mud”

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Matthew McConaughey. A few years ago, that name was synonymous for romantic-comedy “fluff” films such as The Wedding Planner and Failure to Launch. He was pretty much perceived as a “pretty boy” whose prerequisite for a film was to have a few scenes with his shirt off so ladies would swoon at the screen. Then, 2011 came along and he shed his rom-com reputation by starring in the acclaimed legal drama The Lincoln Lawyer. What has followed since has been what the media has labeled a “career renaissance” for the guy a girl was supposed to lose in ten days. And now with his turn in director Jeff Nichols’ remarkable drama Mud, McConaughey continues to prove that there is indeed a talented actor in him after all.

In Mud, McConaughey plays the title role—a man hiding out on a nearby island in the South who is discovered by two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Although McConaughey dominates much of the publicity for the film, the lead belongs more to Sheridan. The film is his coming-of-age story. With a backdrop of the Mississippi River, Mud has been compared quite often to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and the film very much plays out like a classic novel. Nichols immerses us beautifully in 14-year-old Ellis’ world in the South, where he lives in a rickety house on the water with his father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson).

Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud, particularly Ellis. They become intrigued (as young adolescents would be) by Mud’s stories of his snake tattoo, his lucky shirt and the crosses on the heels of his boots. Even his hideout of choice on the island – a boat that is hanging precariously up in a tree – mesmerizes them. The reason Mud is in hiding is because he is being pursued by bounty hunters for killing the abusive lover of his childhood sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, also impressively shedding a bit of her “fluff” film persona here). Mud has hopes to reunite with Juniper and escape it all together. Everything about Mud—his backstory, his personality, his current lot in life—is portrayed precisely like a character out of a Huck Finn-like novel, and therein lies much of the beauty of the film. And with a lead in a young adolescent boy in the South (a la Huck), the comparisons are unavoidable.

With Mud’s declarations of love and unyielding devotion for Juniper, Ellis becomes fascinated by the notion of love, and it becomes a major running theme throughout the film. He’s a young boy just now discovering what love means and feels like. He ends up pining for and pursuing a slightly older local girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). But this being a coming-of-age story, Ellis also comes to discover that love just isn’t that easy—not only with May Pearl, but with the conflicts he sees in Mud and Juniper, as well as in his own, near-separating parents.

Under Nichols’ rock-solid direction, young Sheridan leads the film nicely in his portrayal of Ellis and we are immersed in his adventures with Mud and in himself. And he’s aided greatly by McConaughey’s willing turn as a man with a dark past and a hope for a future with his love. Within this very flawed character and his enthralling predicament, McConaughey was able to show a great deal of dramatic range and throw a little, well, mud on the way we have perceived him all these years. He engaged himself with the character and embodied his plight in every way an actor who cares about his craft would.

Overall, Mud impressively showcases a Matthew McConaughey that I would hope we will see more of in the future. And by the looks of his next two projects – Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and the true-life drama Dallas Buyers Club – it looks like the McConaughey “renaissance” isn’t about to stop anytime soon.

Mud is now available to rent or own on DVD/Blu-ray, so be sure to check out one of the best films of the year!

5 out of 5 stars

About Mud:

Two young boys in the South encounter a fugitive and help him evade the bounty hunters who are hot on his trail and to reunite him with his troubled childhood sweetheart.

For more on Mud, visit the film’s official Web site or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

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Five-star trailer: “American Hustle”

american hustleJust one year after writer/director David O. Russell gave us the acclaimed, multiple-Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, it seems as though he’s done it again with his new, star-studded crime drama American Hustle.

Back with Russell are Playbook actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (fresh off her Best Actress Oscar win). Also reuniting with Russell are his The Fighter co-stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams. And you can add Jeremy Renner to the cast as well. So you have two past Oscar winners and three Oscar nominees, all being directed by the Oscar-nominated Russell. On paper, American Hustle couldn’t scream “awesome” more –and the newly introduced trailer only illustrates it all the more. Russell looks like he has the atmosphere for the era down nicely (featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” to boot!), and his actors are looking to be oozing tons of raw emotion, which suggests everyone is bringing his or her A-game to this project.

American Hustle looks like it’s going to be a must watch and I look forward to checking it out!

The film is not yet rated and is scheduled for U.S. release in December.

About American Hustle:

The film tells the story of a con artist and his partner in crime, who were forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters and political figures – specifically, the unstable mayor of impoverished Camden, New Jersey.

For more on American Hustle, visit the Sony Pictures Web site or follow the film on Facebook and Twitter.

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A boy breaks out of his shell and comes of age in the good-hearted dramedy “The Way, Way Back”

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In The Way, Way Back, the writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the outlandish dean of TV’s “Community”) deliver a charming coming-of-age story centered on a teenage boy named Duncan (Liam James). Duncan goes away for the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her insensitive boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s snooty teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan is a shy, awkward teen and his summer quickly becomes one of dread and loneliness as everyone else around him seems to fit right in with their carefree, summer atmosphere.

Growingly frustrated, Duncan eventually goes out to explore the world around him more and comes upon Owen (Sam Rockwell)—a fast-talking slacker who runs a nearby water park. Through Owen’s carefree influence, Duncan loosens up a bit and his shell begins to break open as he discovers a bit of happiness (and a job) at the water park. He even manages to open up a bit to a cute girl next door named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

While we’ve seen this plot many times before—awkward kid comes of age—and although The Way, Way Back doesn’t exactly touch on any new territory in the subject, Faxon and Rash’s screenplay nonetheless brought a smile to my face from beginning to end. I ended up finding in it a refreshing bit of “slice-of-life” fresh air that is needed during these summer months of big, loud popcorn movies. The last summer “little” film I can recall that charmed me as much was Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” a few years ago.

James fits the role like a glove and makes you care about his character and his plight. The cast is overall superb. Collette is excellent as always here as Duncan’s suffering mom and Carell was nicely cast against type. The film also features notable work by a scene-stealing Allison Janney as Susanna’s loopy (i.e. drunk) mom, Maya Rudolph as a frustrated co-worker/potential love interest for Owen, and Rash has a small, amusing role as a down-trodden fellow park employee.

But aside from James, the standout by far is the immensely talented (and underrated) Rockwell. Rockwell completely shines here as the irresponsible but highly likeable Owen. You can easily see how a character like Owen would play such an influence on Duncan in terms of opening him up to the world around him. It takes an Owen type to do it, and Rockwell embodies the charisma to an absolute tee. As a “recovering” Duncan-type myself, I was sentimental and a bit envious that I never ran into an Owen to help me break out of my shell back when I was coming of age. It’s also perhaps because of that relatability that I found The Way, Way Back such a joy to watch.

Overall, The Way, Way Back is a funny and pleasant winner of a film. It’s been promoted in the media as from the studio that brought us Little Miss Sunshine and Juno—and it fits nicely alongside those films as a being another little “indie” that audiences should make it a point to see.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

About The Way, Way Back:

A socially awkward 14-year-old boy reluctantly goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend and her boyfriend’s daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan breaks out from his loneliness and forms a friendship with Owen, the carefree manager of the Water Wizz water park.

For more on The Way, Way Back, visit the Fox Searchlight Web site or the film’s Facebook page.

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The cold, inhuman nature of the Internet is exposed in the riveting drama “Disconnect”

disconnectIn director Henry Alex Rubin’s involving ensemble drama Disconnect, we follow the lives of several people in three distinct story threads—all with the commonality of how the Internet affects the real human connection and compassion that people can have toward one another.

In one story, we meet two prankster teens: Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein). Both boys end up targeting a fellow classmate named Ben (Jonah Bobo)—a kind-of emo recluse—for a heartless prank: they invent a fictitious girl on Facebook who likes Ben. Ben’s father, Rich (Jason Bateman), is an attorney who spends the family dinner focused squarely on his phone and his job.

In the second thread, we meet Nina (Andrea Riseborough)—a local TV reporter who attempts to do a story on a teen Internet sex model named Kyle (Max Thieriot) and expose the seedy world of online child pornography.

Lastly, there’s Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard)—a young couple who recently lost their baby, which leads Cindy to find solace in a personal chat room with a man who lost his wife. The couple’s fragile, uncommunicative marriage leads to more troubles when their identities are stolen on the Internet—quite possibly from Cindy’s online chats.

All three stories interconnect in some way—and all of them engaged me from beginning to end. It’s heartbreaking to see and realize just how cold of a force the power of the Internet can have on people’s lives. All Jason and Frye had to do to destroy a classmate’s life was all through the power of social media (we hear on the news from time to time about real-life online pranks and bullying among teens). Instead of truly wanting to save a young man from a life of degrading himself online through pornography, Nina sees first the glory of a story that can land her on CNN. And rather than deal with their grief together, Derek turns to online gaming while Cindy expresses her emotions in a chat room with an unknown man.

The entire cast is excellent here and the stories provide a great dramatic challenge for all involved. It’s nice to see Bateman take a stab at a more dramatic role versus the usual comedies he’s featured in. Patton is sympathetic as a young mother in deep mourning who yearns to talk to her distant husband.

Overall, the film reminded me a great deal of director Paul Haggis’ 2005 film Crash—a polarizing film to many, but one I found compellingly excellent for its high emotion and multi-layered stories. Similar to Crash, when the stories of Disconnect were about to reach their emotion-filled conclusions, I was near breathless during each one.

For an engaging and riveting drama about the lives of people affected in one way or another by the lack of emotional and real-human connection on the Web, Disconnect comes highly recommended and it will surely be a film you won’t soon forget.

4 out of 5 stars

About Disconnect:

Disconnect is a multiple-story drama revolving around a group of people searching for human connections in a modern and overly Web-influenced world.

For more on Disconnect, visit the official Web site.

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