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Only 6 months and 1 day until the next Oscars are awarded on February 26, 2017.

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Hell or High Water

photo Late August is often considered the baggage drop time zone for Hollywood studios. Summer is almost over, school is back, and the Oscar season push doesn’t start until October. August and September are the months when studios dump any movies they hadn’t been able to find a spot for the rest of the year (marketing or word-of-mouth difficulties) or for movies that had high hopes but ended up falling far short of expectations. When was the last time you heard people looking forward to the “big Labor Day weekend release?” Yeah….never.

But, within the same structure creates a window of opportunity for smaller films that may not otherwise be able to find a place in the movie release calendar. August and September often are the months when pleasant surprises can emerge, movies nobody saw coming—lower-budget movies that can’t compete with the big boys of summer and/or are afraid of getting lost in the Oscar-season shuffle. Such an August surprise of 2016 is Hell or High Water. For those of you who may think there’s nothing worthwhile playing in the theatres right now, think again.
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Sausage Party

photo Look out, Trey and Matt. There are new comedic princes of the absurd in town and they are coming for you.

When it came to outrageous animated adult humor, Trey Parker and Matt Stone had the market cornered. The ultimate purveyors of 14-year old humor for the over-21s, Parker and Stone, who became famous for their long-running animated television show South Park and their Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon, are maybe most beloved by a certain segment of society for their two perverse but brilliant full-length animated feature films, South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police. Both films are raunchy and rude, hilarious and low-brow, and definitely not for the uninitiated or sensitive. But what made them especially incisive was their format. South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut was a traditional animated film, featuring the characters from Parker & Stone’s popular television series, in anything but a traditional story, and Team America: World Police featured nothing but puppets—puppets who had foul language, bodily functions and sex with each other (among many other things). Yes, it seemed Parker and Stone had set the bar pretty high (or low) when it came to adult animated movies.

Until Seth Rogen came along.
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Movies I'm Still Looking Forward to in 2016

Complete Unknown (August 26)
Director: Joshua Marston; Starring: Michael Shannon, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates

Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz in an intriguing drama. That sentence just gets my heart racing. The August release date worries me a bit, though. We shall see…

The Light Between Oceans (September 2)
Director: Derek Cianfrance; Starring Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz.

It’s the year of Fassbender and Weisz, and this one, from writer/director Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) looks to have all the right pieces (including Oscar winner Vikander).

Jackie (September 7)
Director: Pablo Larrain; Starring Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig and Peter Sarsgaard

You had me at Natalie Portman playing Jackie Kennedy.

click here to keep reading Movies I’m Still Looking Forward to in 2016 »

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

photo It’s surprising to say, but I actually wasn’t looking forward to an AbFab movie. That’s not to say I don’t completely adore the original British television series, Absolutely Fabulous, which ran for 20 years, from 1992 to 2012, starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. I do love the series, which is exactly why I was a little nervous about the prospect of a movie four years after the series ended. While, yes, it is wonderful to revisit characters who you love and miss, it’s important to have a reason to go back. Is there something new to say? Is there something that was left unsaid, some part of the story that needed to be finished? If not, then the concept of a movie just feels a bit…desperate.

An AbFab movie feels very much like a Sex & the City movie. Both series appeal to a very similar audience (although AbFab’s audience is a bit smarter and a bit cattier—and, of course, much more British), and both decided they needed to bring their beloved characters back for a movie (or two). In the case of Sex & the City, the first movie was successful, the second not so much. For the charming and besotted ladies of AbFab, their movie is, sadly, neither successful nor as appealing as it should be, which only reaffirmed my fears and saddened my heart. I may not have been looking forward to an AbFab movie, but I sure was rooting for it. Alas.

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Ghostbusters

photo We may as well stop fighting it. Remakes, reboots and sequels, not to mention films adapted from books, TV shows, comic books, toys and video games—they are the way of the world now in Hollywood. Nobody has an original idea anymore, it’s time to just throw in the towel. All we can do is judge the result for what it is, not for where it came from. Because, if we did that each time, we’d truly go insane (you KNOW another Pokemon movie is being fired up at this very moment).

Such is my attitude as I approach the reboot/remake/reinvisioning of the ‘80s smash hit Ghostbusters. I’ll admit right off the bat that, even though I’m in my mid-40s and was a teenager when the original came out in 1984, I seem to be one of the few of my generation that does not hold a considerably tender spot in my heart for the original that starred Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Of course I’ve seen it, but it was just another movie to me, nothing special. Apparently, that is quite the minority opinion, if you go by the internet, as the original Ghostbusters seems to be considered the ultimate fan favorite film of the ‘80s. And the thought of remaking it? Beyond sacrilege. Especially when you tell them the original stars will be recast by…women?!?! Oh, the horror.

But, again, none of that matters. Or, at least, none of that should matter. Right? We should be able to judge this movie on its own merits, regardless of its influence, expectation or judgments. Easier said than done. But I sure am going to try.
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Finding Dory & The Secret Life of Pets

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So let’s start by pretending that all animated movies are equal. That somehow, someway, some other major studio can produce an animated film anywhere close to the quality of what Pixar has and continues to produce. To give you some perspective, in the 15 years the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has given out the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, Pixar has released 13 movies and all but three of them either won or were nominated for the top animated prize. A Pixar movie has won Best Animated Film a whopping 8 times in 15 years, losing only twice. Only 3 of their movies weren’t even nominated. Out of 13. Imagine any other studio with that kind of track record. It’s safe to say Pixar Animation Studios (now officially Disney/Pixar) is in a class of its own when it comes to major animation film releases.

That’s not to say other studios aren’t gaining ground, however. Pixar may have dominated the genre in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, but other companies quickly figured out their corner on the market and found other ways to break in. The first Pixar movie to be nominated for Best Animated Film and NOT win was in 2002, when Monsters, Inc. lost to the very un-Pixar-like Shrek. And, in 2012, when there were no Pixar releases, a small but feisty Rango took the Oscar. Both of these films were harbingers of a new segment of the animation market, one that focuses on a more aggressive, smart-alecky, weird and offbeat tone, as compared to Pixar’s generally more sensitive and soulful approach to storytelling.
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Love & Friendship

photo Before we allow ourselves to be swallowed whole by the overblown cacophony of big explosions, mind-bending visual effects, one-dimensional characters, simplistic stories and eye-rolling dialogue that seem to make up the majority of our summer movie season, let’s take a moment to revel in the beauty of language. You remember language—it’s that thing we used to find in books. You remember books—they’re those things we used to read before Twitter.

Well, someone who was really good at this thing called language was Jane Austen. You may know her from her many beloved screenplays, like Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma (and Emma’s more popular, if not looser, Hollywood interpretation, Clueless). Yes, this Miss Austen knew her way around the verbal playground—and knew how to spin a yarn or two in the process. One of the reasons her stories and novels have been adapted so many times in so many different ways is they are not only charming and warm but witty, smart and seductive. Well, as seductive as a 19th century English countryside can get (a smoldering Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy notwithstanding.)

The latest interpretation of the grand dame of English countryside romance literature’s prose is Love & Friendship, an utterly enjoyable, charming and language-laden bon bon upon which any lover of the English language can feast their ears. For there really isn’t anything new here, cinematically, or even thematically (seen one Austen, you’ve seen them all), but what makes Love & Friendship such a rare treat in this day and age is its total commitment to the words. Everything, even the gorgeous scenery, costumes and a Kate Beckinsale who looks NOT the worse for wear after all those Underworld movies, play second fiddle here to the words on the page, lovingly inspired by Austen’s novella, Lady Susan, but actually written by director/screenwriter Whit Stillman.

Stillman has such a grasp of the tone and texture of Austen’s language that it’s hard to believe Love & Friendship wasn’t actually written by Austen herself. From the very first scene, you get caught up in the frantic exchange between two characters and, from there, you’re in deep. Practically the entire movie is made up of one-on-one conversations, often while strolling through a garden or riding in a carriage. This is not your typical summer action movie. However, the dialogue, and the richness and cleverness of it, is so intoxicating, you find yourself drawn in and seduced by every single word.

There are many machinations in Love & Friendship. Promises of love, promises of friendship, manipulations upon manipulations, jealousies and betrayals, seductions and heartbreak. The actors, all of whom are solid and capable, serve the screenplay well, as does the entire production, which is lavish and beautiful. But, make no mistake about it, Love & Friendship is a movie only for those who seek out—and revel in—the way words, when put together in just the right way, can create dialogue (and, thusly, a story) that is seductive, cunning, playful, layered, and oh so Austen.

Keanu

photo If you think the whole fish-out-of-water trope in movies has been done to death, you haven’t seen Keanu. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the Emmy-nominated comedy duo behind television’s Key & Peele show, have made their first feature film and it’s both funny and unique. I wouldn’t have expected anything else from them.

Much like Amy Schumer’s debut film from last year, Trainwreck, Keanu marks the feature film debut of two of the best comedy voices in America and, also like Trainwreck, Keanu highlights the distinctive comedic talents—and features just enough satiric social commentary—of their exceedingly gifted stars.

Keanu tells the story of two cousins, Clarence and Kell (played by Key and Peele), who live in suburban Los Angeles, far closer socially to Beverly Hills than to Compton, as these self-acknowledged “blerds” (black nerds) have mainstreamed themselves into society and are as far away from being “gangsta” as two black guys could be. But, when Kell finds that the local hardcore drug-dealing gang may have stolen his prized kitten, Keanu, he enlists Clarence to help him infiltrate the gang in order to get Keanu back. And, well, you can guess the rest.
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Deadpool

photo You’d think Deadpool would be a movie right up my alley. A superhero movie that actually makes fun of superhero movies. A movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that has fun with tropes and conventions of the genre, one that smartalecks its way through the (bare) plot, and zips along with a fast pace and stunning visuals. So what exactly is wrong with Deadpool? Well, if you don’t mind me quoting from another campy and over-the-top movie (one that I love), St. Elmo’s Fire: “there is the brink of insanity and then there is the abyss.”

Welcome to Deadpool: aka the abyss.

This movie puts me almost at a loss for words. First time director Tim Miller is best-known for being a visual effects artist and video game producer and you certainly know it by watching this movie, which looks and feels like one giant video game, complete with slow-mo action sequences, big-budget, explosive action sequences and a teenage lowbrow sensibility that makes Jackass look like a Lifetime movie. And that’s really where Deadpool separates itself and ultimately disappoints.

Even though it does spiral into just another shoot-em-up, blow-em-up, CGI explosion-fest by the end of the movie, I’ve gotten so numb to all of that in movies I almost don’t notice it anymore. Where Deadpool really had a chance to be different was in its tone—it really set out to be snarky and clever and be the exact opposite of the other superhero movies: NOT take itself seriously. The problem with that? It goes way too far. Deadpool not only doesn’t take itself seriously, it falls in love with its own jokes. It thinks it’s just the coolest, funniest, hippest, most outrageously original thing ever to be on a movie screen and, well, it’s not. Right off the bat, I can think of two movies that tried to do the same thing and worked much, much better: Charlie’s Angels (directed by McG) and Guardians of the Galaxy (directed by James Gunn). Both of those movies managed to blend self-awareness with comedy, snark and action to much, MUCH greater success than Deadpool does here. And those movies were much more fun too.

Director Miller does one thing right, which is casting Ryan Reynolds as the star. Reynolds is as charming as he can be, and he’s put all the work in to make himself look like a superhero, but neither Reynolds’ charm nor his abs can save a script that is one dick joke after another or a directorial vision that is Matrix-meets-Playstation.

Oscars Wrap

That’s a wrap on yet another Oscar season. It was one of the most compelling in recent memory, with a legitimate 3-horse race all the way to the end, with an actual surprise (to most) film pulling out the big prize at the end. For the last three months, The Revenant, The Big Short and Spotlight were in a race, and it was fun to watch the pundits tear their collective hair out trying to figure out which one would take home the gold. In the end, it was the little film that could, Spotlight, that led from wire to wire, a rarity these days in the Oscar race—the festival darling that had the legs to withstand the challenge from the star-studded Big Short and the epic Revenant. See the complete list of Oscar winners here. (In case you were wondering, I was 19-for-24 in my predictions)

Overall, the awards season brought many delights, including Brie Larson’s emergence, George Miller’s resurgence, Ennio Morricone’s overdue appreciation, and, finally, Leo’s crowning. There, in my opinion, could have been more love for Carol, Straight Outta Compton and Idris Elba, but, as with movies in general, awards are subjective, imperfect, and built to inspire discussion, passion and awareness. The Oscars aren’t perfect, and neither is Hollywood. But life sure would be a whole lot more boring without them in it.

Before we say goodbye, here’s one last look at the 2015 Oscar-nominated movies:

Now on to 2016!

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Remakes:

1. Ocean's Eleven (2001)
2. The Departed (2006)
3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
4. Casino Royale (2006)
5. Cape Fear (1991)

Rental Pick:

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Favorite Trailers of the Moment:

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: