Their phone conversation was as short as it was awkward.

“I’m sorry you have to walk a thousand miles, just to …”

“Finish that sentence!” demands Reese Witherspoon’s character Cheryl, to the man she’d married years ago and still deeply cares for.

“Happy trails, Cheryl”. Click.

And with that, filmgoers find Witherspoon embarking on a cinematic journey that signifies her most challenging and emotional acting endeavor to date.

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Witherspoon, an Academy Award winner for her role as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” (2005), dominates the screen as best-selling author Cheryl Strayed. “Wild” is the movie adaptation of Strayed’s 2012 true story novel titled “Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”. Her memoir about the real-life challenges she faced along that 1,100-mile trek, in fact, reached #1 on the New York Times’ Best Seller list and made Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club selection.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) meticulously takes viewers along Strayed’s arduous path towards self-discovery. Her winding trails from California’s high desert to Oregon’s pristine forest, is marked by Witherspoon’s constant thoughts of anger and guilt. While director Vallee skillfully captures the dangers along the Pacific Crest Trail, its Witherspoon’s extraordinary screen presence that forcefully gains strength and momentum with every mile she hikes.

To Witherspoon’s credit, she really does carry this film upon her shoulders. Found in almost every scene, she demonstrates a range and depth of emotions as vast as the topography she walks. This daunting journey depicts Witherspoon’s defiance, forgiveness, and humor as she forges along with only a backpack--nicknamed The Monster—symbolizing the emotional weight of the heavy burdens she carries inside her.FOX_9534.psd

Witherspoon’s memories of her mother, superbly played by Laura Dern, culminated in Cheryl Strayed’s weakest, darkest moment of her life, as well as, her strongest and most gratifying triumph. Witherspoon flawlessly bounces between intense feelings, attempting to make sense of each emotion along her expedition. Despite the film’s meandering pace as viewers get stuck in Witherspoon’s daily routine, this movie is highly inspiring, immensely enjoyable and emotionally packed.

“Wild” is justifiably generating Oscar buzz for Witherspoon’s remarkable job playing Cheryl Strayed. She’s already earned Best Actress nominations from the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild. With this performance of a lifetime, Witherspoon is assured another Academy Award nomination next month. Following that announcement, expect large masses of moviegoers to trek into theaters to catch this adventure. Happy trails!

Grade: B

"Wild" is rated R with a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Here's the REEL BRIEF list of Best Supporting Actor names with the best shot at earning an Oscar nomination in 3 1/2 weeks:

1.  Edward Norton - "Birdman"  As theater actor Mike in "Birdman", Norton went mano a mano with Michael Keaton's burnt-out superhero persona in this behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway production.  The tension Norton brings to every scene he delivers can best be summed up as flammable.  A combative storyline surrounds the entire cast, but it's the combo of Keaton and Norton that gives audiences a volatile mix of personalities so convincingly testy that viewers will be left cringing and shaking their heads.  Without Norton's tightly wound performance, "Birdman" loses its edgy, hardened delivery that it needs to really shine.  Norton remains at #1 for now.

_AF_6405.CR2Michael Keaton (L) and Edward Norton (R) in "Birdman". 

2.  J.K. Simmons - "Whiplash"  Simmons plays an over-the-top jazz instructor to a school ensemble, preying on his students using his....how should I put this...hmmm.  OK, got it.  Using his poor people skills.  Ruthless teaching techniques from Simmons' character pushes one of his most talented young musicians to the brink--brink of what?  I won't spoil it for you.  Although Norton and Simmons are both shoe-ins for receiving Oscar nominations, forecasting which of these two will actually take home to golden statue on February 22nd is more difficult to determine.  Heads up alert--look for Simmons and Norton to switch places come mid-January.  Sorta like the college football rankings.

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"The key is to relax. Have fun." Ok.  Whatevs.  Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash".

3.  Ethan Hawke - "Boyhood"  Starring as the father of the young boy named Mason, Hawke (along with Patricia Arquette) showcase the turbulent journey of this child growing before his parents and us, the moviegoers.  "Boyhood" has garnered overwhelmingly positive responses from critics and audiences.  Filmed over a 12-year period, "Boyhood" director Richard Linklater is the easy front-runner in the Best Director category.  Additionally, "Boyhood" is making everyone's Top 10 lists for Best Film of 2014.  Thus, Hawke, Arquette and Linklater are relishing this publicity and accolades for their movie.  The 5-way race for Best Supporting Actor has been reduced to a 3-man field: Edward Norton ("Birdman"), J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash") and Hawke in "Boyhood".

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Ethan Hawke is "Boyhood".

4.  Mark Ruffalo - "Foxcatcher"  Ruffalo, an Oscar nominee for 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right” and a real-life brain tumor survivor, achieves in 2014 his two finest film performances ever; this past summer's music playlist winner "Begin Again" and now the deadly "Foxcatcher".  mark-ruffalo-foxcatcherAs Olympic wrestler David Schultz and brother to Channing Tatum's character, Mark Schultz, Ruffalo gives a chilling portrayal.

A true life crime drama, "Foxcatcher" initially earned some Oscar buzz this Fall, before several last-minute, even stronger films were released.  Now, while Steve Carell's unrecognizable role as John du Pont has unfortunately not generated many nominations this awards season, Ruffalo's job in "Foxcatcher" has been noticed--earning an award nomination from the SAG, Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild.  Soon, Ruffalo will also make the Best Supporting Actor list when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 15th.

 (Pictured above) The Incredible Hulk Mark Ruffalo in "Foxcatcher".

5.  Robert Duvall - "The Judge"  As the small town judge and father to whom Robert Downey Jr. must defend in a hit-and-run murder trial, Duvall effortlessly plays the angry, bitter role of Old Man.  While "The Judge" movie suffered from useless subplot baiting during several critical times during the film, the acting was superb throughout from the trio of Duvall, Downey and Billy Bob Thornton.  And while audiences got their fill of Duvall's angry side, they also were given glimmers of a softer side to his character.  No one will forget when Duvall's hard-nosed, prideful character must be rescued by his son (Downey) after an accident in the bathroom.  That single scene says it all about Duvall's exceptional work in "The Judge" and a track record in Hollywood spanning 44 years of excellence--including 6 Academy Award nominations (with 1 win for Best Actor in 1983's "Tender Mercies").  Duvall won't win his 2nd Oscar for "The Judge", but he deserves to be nominated--again!

JUDGE, THE

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall fighting it out in life and court ("The Judge")

The REEL BRIEF Oscar nomination predictions so far:

Best Supporting Actor

1.  Edward Norton - "Birdman"

2.  J.K. Simmons - "Whiplash"

3.  Ethan Hawke - "Boyhood"

4.  Mark Ruffalo - "Foxcatcher"

5.  Robert Duvall - "The Judge"

Best Actress - Full write-up

1.  Julianne Moore - "Still Alice"

2.  Rosamund Pike - "Gone Girl"

3.  Shailene Woodley - "The Fault in Our Stars"

4.  Felicity Jones - "The Theory of Everything"

5.  Hilary Swank - "The Homesman"

Still a heavy favorite:

6.  Reese Witherspoon - "Wild"

 

Best Actor - Full write-up here

1. David Oyelowo - "Selma"

2. Eddie Redmayne - "The Theory of Everything"

3. Michael Keaton - "Birdman"

4. Benedict Cumberbatch - "The Imitation Game"

5. Bill Murray - "St. Vincent"

Outside shots

6. Brendan Gleeson - "The Calvary"

7. Timothy Spall - "Mr. Turner"

8. Bradley Cooper - "American Sniper"

 

Best Picture - Full write-up here

1. "Selma"

2. "Birdman"

3. "The Imitation Game"

4. "Boyhood"

5. "The Theory of Everything"

6. "Gone Girl"

7. "Still Alice"

8. "American Sniper"

9. "Unbroken"

10. "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Outside shot

11. "Interstellar"

Next: REEL BRIEF's Oscar Watch: Best Supporting Actress.

In 'Cake', Jennifer Aniston plays Claire Simmons, who suffers a loss of a friend in her support group.  She attempts to answer very difficult questions surrounding the topic of suicide.  untitled (2)
From the trailer below, we see a Jennifer Aniston film performance that we've never really seen before - the shear depth and range of her role takes her acting skills to a completely different level than the romantic comedies we normally see Aniston cast in.  The girl we were introduced to as Rachel Green back in 1994, on the hit TV sitcom Friends, has now become a dramatic actress with "Cake" to prove it.

             Jennifer Aniston in GQ Magazine, 2009.

For her work in "Cake", Aniston has been nominated by the Golden Globes for Best Performance in a Motion Picture.  She's also landed an Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Leading Role nomination from the Screen Actors' Guild Awards.  And based off of this trailer, Aniston's name may be added to the Academy Award Best Actress list as the current darkhorse.

Check out the trailer and see a bold, riveting performance by Aniston.  "Cake" is directed by Daniel Barnz ("Won't Back Down", 2012) and co-stars Anna Kendrick ("Pitch Perfect 2", 2015).

"Cake" hits theaters on January 23rd.

This movie slipped under many radar screens when it was released to theaters back in September.  However, the electrifying performance by Brenden Gleeson has earned him noticeable acclaim from critics and audiences.  Look for his name to be mentioned in Oscar talk for Best Actor--it's well deserved and think you'll agree.

This movie rental will leave you thinking about it for days afterwards.

***

calvary-frA couple of times every year a movie will come out that completely surprises me--where I find the plot cleverly disguised and 180 degrees from what I was expecting after the first twenty minutes.  Similarly, like most others, I detest movie trailers for the simple fact that they've become too long and too specific for my taste. Trailers today spoil our movie experience by connecting too many dots in the storyline and test driving all the laugh lines on us viewers-- all before we've even settled into our theater seats.

The interesting part of the film "Calvary" is that not only did I have no idea what the story was about ahead of time, but that once I started watching it my perception of the movie changed dramatically compared to how I felt about it afterwards. The "Calvary" is about Father James (played splendidly by Brenden Gleeson), a priest in a small Irish town having to face parishioners who display little, if any, moral fortitude or reverence for the man of the cloth and the Catholic church.  The stakes are high for Father James, personally and professionally, as he must continue to stay true to his faith while answering difficult questions about past Catholic priests' misbehavior.

Gleeson's exceptional performance captivates audiences with his earnestness and likeability in what is easily his best role to date. The beginning of the movie was extremely slow and nondescript, to the point that I contemplated getting up and leaving the theater by the twenty-minute mark.  The film's middle and ending, however, generated interest with the stark contrasts it draws between a society that openly rejects religion and those servants attempting to preach God's word.

Gleeson convincingly does his best to chart a corrective course for the sinning souls at the remote outpost while nearing his own personal threshold in tolerance for others.  It was due to Gleeson's endearing role of Father James that viewers not only see right from wrong, but more importantly, are left asking how and why our world has become so mean, nasty and void of religion? This film painstakingly builds its case for society's mean-streak and how that lost moral compass may be due to the irrelevance placed upon religion.  Rather than forgive and understand, we tend to discard and dismiss others and their feelings.  Withstanding Gleeson's moving performance, the "Calvary" is just an average showing on the big screen. Its message, though, resonates and intensifies upon further reflection afterwards.  That introspect is the film's best message and one that makes it worthy seeing.

"Calvary" is rated R with a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.

This latest movie trailer shows us more of the Bradley Cooper character, U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle:

'American Sniper' comes out in limited theaters on Christmas Day.  Most of the nation won't be able to see it until mid-January--with a wider release.

grand_budapest_hotelAt the beginning of this year, I watched several trailers for "The Grand Budapest Hotel".  I didn't particularly like the previews and thought the movie came across as merely slapstick comedy.  Therefore, since I always have too many films to watch and never enough time to see them all, I quickly placed this movie in the "Won't See" category.

Soon after the film's release in the Spring, it began to get more and more glowing reviews.  Within only a few weeks, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was being hailed as a serious contender for several Academy Awards.  Then people began to email me and recommend--no, make that demand--that I see it.  By the end of this past summer, I'd committed myself to watching it.   At the beginning of October, I ordered "The Grand Budapest Hotel" on DVD from Netflix.

Then it started...a staring contest.  A staring contest that any 11-year old would have been proud of me for doing and holding strong against that bright, red Netflix envelope.  Days went by without me even contemplating an introduction between the DVD and my DVR.  Before I knew it, a solid month had pasted--and it was now November.  Then Thanksgiving.  All of those college football games, "Homeland", "The Walking Dead" and "Sons of Anarchy" series episodes airing for hours on end.  All TV  programming watched diligently with me only acknowledging the existence of "that" unseen DVD; twice I checked to make sure the movie disk was still in its sheath.  The staring contest continued into the month of December.

After 9 1/2 weeks (a great movie BTW), I'd endured enough and was ready to put this film behind me, if only to re-set my Netflix Queue.  So I pushed PLAY-> and sat back with an open mind.

And I was surprised.....

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a short film, only lasting 1 hour and 39 minutes in duration.  It's about a young boy, an apprentice really, learning from the master concierge at a ritzy hotel nestled in the picturesque mountains of Europe in 1932.  The horrid slapstick humor I fretted over during the film's previews never materialized.  Instead, the ensemble performed in a more theatric--or whimsical mode.

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The underline storyline of respect towards others is challenged by those with greed or hate to grind in the movie.  While the thin plot about a priceless painting being fought over after a matriarch's death is watchable, the most interesting part of the movie is the characters themselves.  Two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes leads this outstanding cast and provides the sophistication that the M. Gustave role demanded, almost effortlessly.  Likewise, big screen newcomer Tony Revolori does a wonderful job as the Lobby Boy, Zero Moustafa.

968full-the-grand-budapest-hotel-screenshotLook for "The Grand Budapest Hotel" to be nominated in a handful of Oscar categories and to win in several.  The easy calls, where the film stands an excellent chance, include: Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Director.  It could also land Academy Award nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Picture.  Lastly, don't dismiss Fiennes' performance for Best Actor.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this film.  It kept my attention with action throughout, especially with the long list of distinguished actors making small appearances.  Although I probably wouldn't place this film in my Top 10 of 2014, I would still highly recommend viewers rent it.  Just don't stare at it.

Grade: B+

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is rated R for language and some sexual content and violence.

Bradley Cooper talks with CBS This Morning's Charlie Rose about the upcoming "American Sniper" movie and whom the movie is dedicated to - U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and his life.

Previous post with info on "American Sniper" - to be released in theaters on Christmas Day - is "here".

Based upon the "Inherent Vice" novel by Thomas Pynchon comes this film's trifecta comedy-crime-drama combo directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Anderson, who directed "The Master" (2012), teams up once again with the always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix.

Although the 3-time Academy Award nominee Phoenix is getting high marks for his performance in "Inherent Vice", it's co-star Josh Brolin, as Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, who is getting far more rave reviews.  In fact, Brolin may have the best shot for an Oscar nomination come January.

This film also packs plenty of other star power on the screen - with Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short and Owen Wilson also appearing.

"Inherent Vice" was released last week.  Here's the groovy trailer...

Peace.

 

Top Five 3

Written, directed and starring Chris Rock, this romantic comedy delivers this holiday season’s funniest movie—albeit with shocking language and lewd behavior at times. In only his third time sitting in the director’s chair, the famous comedian potently combines an unsettling, crude style of humor with a milder storyline centered on relationships. The former cast member of Saturday Night Live takes moviegoers on a wild adventure involving strong sexual content and profanity-laced outbursts as we see his fallible character attempt to remain viable in the comedy business.

In “Top Five”, Rock plays a comedian turned movie star about to marry the next Kim Kardashian in front of Bravo television cameras and the world. The media frenzy over his upcoming wedding overshadows Rock’s latest movie release and leaves him with serious trust issues as he’s about to begin a scheduled interview with a New York Times reporter—portrayed perfectly by Rosario Dawson.

Top Five 2

This movie’s hilarious, yet always edgy, ride through New York City lambasts the stark differences between the media’s sensationalism of Hollywood stars and the deeply rooted insecurities often held by those in show business. That’s why this film works so well—it breaks down all the walls surrounding a person’s alcoholism, fame, and mistrust issues and replaces them with honest feedback and self-reflection. The movie’s realistic look at one’s personal difficulties despite stardom and wealth, gives the plot plenty of room to work in laughs. The catalyst for Rock’s character is Dawson’s hard-nosed interview, where she very shrewdly returns targeted verbal fire in his direction after every personal attack and joke he attempts at her expense.

Chris Rock, as the director, makes very effective use of flashbacks in the film to vividly describe his character’s destructive behavior in the past. Likewise, we see a rising comedy star currently surrounded by friends and family--all wanting to hear his ‘Top Five’ picks on hip hop artists, rappers and comics of all-time. Lastly, we feel for this comedian who isn’t sure he’ll get another laugh if he remains sober. It’s each of these situations that make this film so entertaining, real and watchable.

“Top Five” offers audiences nearly non-stop laughs with a flawless blend of nightclub comedy, mind-numbing sexual exploits and classic romance plot twists. Chris Rock is magnificent in a role he was born to write, direct and star in. Rosario Dawson’s strong performance both compliments and keeps pace with Rock’s genius work. Together, they bring an eye-opening, funny, and romantic stand-up routine to the big-screen.

Grade: B+

"Top Five" is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor and drug use.  It's running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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