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Friday, August 19, 2016

War Dogs 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars


Director: Todd Phillips
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper

The rise and fall of the American dream gets the veritable Todd Phillips treatment. And after 15 years of directing explicit comedies, he decides to venture elsewhere with the meta-drama, War Dogs (my latest review). Good for him. "Dogs" closely resembles the 2006 vehicle Lord of War except that it's far from dull. With a certain amount of flamboyance, a more entertaining flow, and Bradley Cooper in a steely-eyed, supporting role, War Dogs is the kind of movie Lord of War wish it could have been. Bravo Todd the bod. You went out of your comfort zone to channel a little Martin Scorsese (the use of freeze frames, voice-over narration, and freewheeling camera movement) and the result is one of 2016's best. "War, huh good God, y'all". Indeed.

Anyway, "Dogs" is based on a true story and takes place anywhere between Miami Beach, Florida to Albania to Jordan to the largest city in Iraq (that would be um, Baghdad). There are decent performances from the two leads (Jonah Hill and Miles Teller), a favorable use of dialogue-inserted title cards, and biting soundtrack tunes spanning at least four decades. Yeah I was a little unfulfilled with the way "Dogs" ended or if it even had an actual ending. No matter. This Warner Bros. release is sumptuous in every frame. Whether it's giving us long shots of high-rise condos in South Florida, rapid editing by way of business computers (and bookkeeping), plenty of characters smoking dubage, and even a poolside scene straight out of Scarface (the flick War Dogs references frequently), "Dogs" is a step above most cinema endeavors that have hit theaters in the dog days of August. Just call director Todd Phillips the surprising lovechild of 90's Scorsese and Andrew Niccol. The only difference is that he is not quite as self-serious.

With a running time of just under 2 hours (114 minutes to be exact) and featuring the stunning Ana de Armas (Knock Knock, Exposed) as its love interest, War Dogs chronicles two twentysomethings named Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller). David lives with his pregnant girlfriend and is just getting by financially with his massage and (nursing home) bed sheet businesses. Efraim is his best friend and just happens to be an arms dealer operating out of Los Angeles. Hill's character saddled with plenty of cockiness and will, takes David out of his life of doldrums all the while showing him how to make some real money. They team up to form a company and land a $300 million dollar arms deal that gets them in over their heads. There are random bits of humor here, suggestive language, a slight of hand towards the Bush administration, some mild violence, and plenty of guns (duh). Ultimately, this is Todd's best and most full-grown work. He should do films like this more often and stop resorting to his frat boy tendencies. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, August 15, 2016

Lights Out 2016 * * * Stars

Lights OutDirector: David F. Sandberg
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello

While attending a screening for 2016's Lights Out (my latest review), it felt like I was watching a student horror film or should I say, one of the greatest student horror films ever made. With a tiny budget of $5 million, only a handful of characters, and some efficacious jump scares (despite the fact that they were a bit familiar), "Lights" director David F. Sandberg makes this cinematic debut stylish and rather unsettling. He makes it his own.

For what's it worth, Lights Out is old school, nuts and buts moviemaking. Its eerie, first 45 minutes reminded me of the fright fandom of yesteryear. Containing a simple concept in which a disturbing, Medusa-like apparition only appears in darkness, "Lights" is for the most part, effective until its novelty loses steam in the final, underwhelming act. This nifty little scare-fest is invariably small scale, a one-trick pony, a ghostly canard. I'm going to recommend it and also praise the raw performance of Maria Bello (a Chicago Film Critics Award winner) which elevates the acting cred of "Lights" to an even higher level.

Containing a twist ending I didn't see coming (it all made sense though) and produced by Saw man James Wan, Lights Out introduces us to a new breed of spectral villainy named Diana (she's played by Alicia Vela-Bailey). Diana is a back from the dead mental patient, a unpleasant imaginary friend, and when the lights are off and it's nighttime, she kills people by throwing them around like a sack of potatoes. Throughout the film's short running time (an hour and twenty-one minutes with credits), Diana terrorizes a small family (Maria Bello as depressed mother Sophie, Teresa Palmer as her daughter Rebecca, and Gabriel Bateman as her son Martin) until they can find a way to stop her.

Director Sandberg taking cues from 2013's The Conjuring, plays with his audience by not letting them know when to flinch in their seats or not. My favorite scene overall (spoiler), is when Diana takes out two L.A. cops with loud gunfire blazing. It's something else. Also, I liked the way the actors/actresses reacted with fear in "Lights". I don't wholly agree but most troupers say reacting is even harder than actual acting.

Now if I had to pick one flaw in Lights Out, it would be the notion that "dirty" Diana can turn any house light off with her supernatural powers but can't blow out a candle or suck the life out of batteries in a flashlight. Huh? I expected more from a ghoul who speaks like she's smoked four packs of Lucky Strikes, moves from one dark room to another with lightning speed, and hasn't had a manicure in decades. Ha-ha. Anyway, "Lights" isn't the scariest movie ever made but if you're game, it may do for incandescent lighting what Jaws did for not wanting to go in the water. I wasn't entirely affected after I left the theater but as a ten-year old, it would've given me massive nightmares. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bad Moms 2016 * * * Stars

Bad MomsDirectors: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate

In Bad Moms (my latest review), Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, and Christina Applegate are perfectly realized as characters. Hahn is a comic force of nature playing single mom Carla. She is for lack of a better word, a promiscuous potty mouth (not to mention the definition of a female Rob Corddry). Bell is spot-on as Kiki, a dorky, socially inept mother of four. Finally, Applegate is pure evil as Gwendolyn, the antagonistic head master of the PTA (you know, the parent-teacher association).

Anyway, "Moms" feeling like Bridesmaids meets 1999's Office Space, is the most surprising release of 2016. It starts off as a family comedy only to descend into massive F-bombs, fierce sexual innuendo, conversations about circumcision, and a reference to Fifty Shades of Grey. Translation: It's funny as heck. Yeah it's an R-rated vehicle that takes place in a middle school. Yeah it has child actors in many a frame. And yes, it deals with uncomfortable themes of midlife crisis parenting. No matter. Bad Moms combines the sweet, the moral, and the raunchy all in one fell swoop. "Mother did it need to be so (pause) high?" Natch.

Now in normal fashion, I viewed its cliched trailer recently on YouTube with some of the comments almost making sense (one YouTube viewer actually predicted that it would be quote unquote, "complete trash"). Boy was I wrong after attending a midday screening. "Moms" tries to provide you with a hearty laugh in almost every scene. It succeeds about 90% of the time so no complaints here.

Taking place in Chicago for the umpteenth time (what movie doesn't take place in the "Windy City" these days), containing a feel-good ending, and featuring a left field cameo by Martha Stewart (she makes everyone jello shots with vodka, nice), Bad Moms chronicles young and exhausted mother, Amy Mitchell (played by Mila Kunis). Amy has two kids and takes care of them like no one's business. She cooks, cleans, and even works at a coffee company while her husband sits on his butt doing nothing (I guess he has a job but said job doesn't entail too much). Pissed off and fed up, Amy has a meltdown at a PTA meeting and quits to the chagrin of Applegate's Gwendolyn (as mentioned earlier). She then decides to get drunk, have some me time, and join forces with two other moms (Hahn and Bell) in her vicarious plight. They go to the movies during the day, throw a party to get all the other PTA moms on their side, and trash a supermarket without so much as getting arrested. Watch for a sequence where Amy steals her hubby's red Muscle Car and drives like a maniac. Also, look for the reclusive Wanda Sykes in a small role as a jiving marriage counselor to Ames and her worse half (Mike Mitchell played by David Walton).

Bottom line: If you're a working mother or a stay-at-home mom, you'll find this flick quite amusing. You might identify with it or you might not. Either way, Bad Moms with its foul-mouthed dialogue and its ode to most things unladylike, is a "good" movie. Ha-ha get it. Rating: 3 stars.

Of note: During the closing credits for "Moms", we get to see interviews with the stars of the film (Kunis, Hahn, Bell, Applegate, Smith, Annie Mumolo) plus their real-life mothers. Yeah it's kinda weird to view this at the end of something that's equal parts filthy and coarse. Oh well. Like everything else in Bad Moms, it just seems to work. Oh and by the way, these actresses look almost identical to their parental units (especially with regards to Kathryn Hahn).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad 2016 * * Stars

Suicide SquadDirector: David Ayer
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Jared Leto

Earlier this year, Zack Snyder helmed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now with Suicide Squad (my latest review), he is the de facto executive producer of 2016's second, DC Comics endeavor. Snyder has always been a good director visually but his storytelling comes off as sort of suspect. You can tell that he had heavy influence over what went into "Squad's" two-hour plus running time. Yeah it might be David Ayer shooting this vehicle but Snyder's trademarks are all over it. Ayer is more of a blitzkrieg filmmaker, a cops and robbers guy, Mr. machismo. With "Squad", we're a long way from his stylish writing in Training Day and his assertively-violent, Street Kings.

Obviously inspired by 1981's Escape From New York (the anti-heroes have bombs implanted in their necks) and containing a classic rock song to accompany almost every clip (if I hear "Sympathy for the Devil" one more time in a movie I'm gonna lose it), Suicide Squad has a PG-13 rating which sort of keeps it from being ultra-nasty. Regardless, it's still a scuzzbucket of a motion picture, complete with dirty colors, unbearable loudness, and more flashbacks than Oklahoma tornadoes. The simple blueprint for a superhero diegesis is there. Five comic book criminals who are all serving long prison sentences, get a chance at leniency by going on a black ops mission via a city that looks like Chicago, Illinois (actually it's a mixture of Chi-Town and parts of Ontario, Canada). Too bad David Ayer clutters "Squad" with uneven character introductions, add-on subplots, and an underdeveloped Joker (played with kooky abandon by Jared Leto) that feels like its in a separate flick altogether.

Bottom line: You can call this thing The Dirty "Cousins". Suicide Squad has slow-motion, samurai action setups and deep-seated shootout sequences that are anywhere between slipshod and sufficient. In terms of the acting, well inmate Will Smith as a hired assassin, caged inmate Margot Robbie as a crazed psychiatrist, and ratboy Jay Hernandez as a human flame thrower, give decent performances. However, they spout one-liners, make speeches, and emote with their scenes seeming out of place and not quite sticking. That's because "Squad" is an editing calamity. It was reported that the film needed reshoots to make things more humorous and less dark. You can tell.

Anyway, I saw "Dawn of Justice" a second time and it sort of flowed better. I almost changed my mind about recommending Batfleck's, Bruce Wayne debut. I plan on seeing "Squad" a second time as well in hopes that I'll reach that same dissertation. Until then, I'll have to give it a mixed review. Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ghostbusters 2016 * 1/2 Stars

GhostbustersDirector: Paul Feig
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon

Mayor Bradley (played by Andy Garcia) getting offended when someone likens him to mayor Larry Vaughn from the movie Jaws. College dean Thomas Shanks (played by Steve Higgins), finding new ways to give people the middle finger. Sadly, these instances don't directly involve any of the main characters. And sadly, these are the only times I chuckled during 2016's Ghostbusters (my latest review).

Anyway, they say good movies should never be remade. Such is the case here.

Now if you think I'm gonna compare this patch job reboot to the original film from thirty-two years ago, well you'd be correct. In truth, Ghostbusters doesn't try to be like the first installment. Guess what though, that just makes it feel like an even more inferior product.

Paul Feig directs "Ghost" and does what I feared he would do. He for reasons known, turns it into a Melissa McCarthy vehicle. The dialogue is grating, the improvisation is overwhelming, the lead actresses don't really click together, there are minimal laughs, and McCarthy's voice sounds like someone with a bad cold. Who you gonna call? How about the guys from 1984 instead.

When Ivan Reitman helmed the original Ghostbusters, he created cinema that combined the eerie and scary with the humorous. He had Bill Murray providing one-liners and quips. He also inserted a foreboding, musical soundtrack to add to the film's epic statue. When the dust settled and the box office receipts came in, a perfect summer blockbuster was born. With this new Ghostbusters, nothing seems to be at stake. Feig generates something stock about four woman teaming up together as ghost catchers. Their story is laughably rushed. By the time all the apparitions and demons have been eliminated via Times Square (spoiler), there's no one to really root for.

Basically with the first Ghostbusters flick, the people of New York identified with their heroes. A close relationship (and a romance) was formed between the two. With this modern day Ghostbusters, the girls with the proton packs seem alienated from most citizens in the "Big Apple". They do their job, snap at heavy metal concert goers, and complain about receiving lousy Chinese takeout. It just doesn't work. Bottom line: Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones aren't at all cooler than Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, and Ernie Hudson. I'm not saying that because I'm a guy. Heck, it's just a fact.

Granted, 2016's "Ghost" does provide an upgrade in the special effects department. The phantoms may not be scary but they have a unique look to them (kind of like metallic cartoon characters). Also, there's more ghosts this time (plus the return of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man) and more disgusting slime than in the first Ghostbusters. My problem with this current re-imagining is the weak yet tech-savvy script, the hapless cameos by stars of the original (Aykroyd, Hudson, Murray, and Sigourney Weaver), and the notion that the new ghost wrangler babes rent out an apartment (above a rundown restaurant) for $21,000 a month. Huh? In this flick's nearly two hour running time, they don't make any money in their paranormal profession.

Neither scary nor funny, Ghostbusters concludes by mimicking a flash mob. It thinks it's a success and blatantly begs for a sequel by the time the end credits roll. Somehow somewhere, the great Harold Ramis is turning in his grave. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cabin Fever 2016 * * Stars

Cabin FeverDirector: Travis Zariwny
Year: 2016
Rated NR
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Samuel Davis, Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario

"We can eat alone, we can sleep alone but we have to stick together". Huh? So quips the paperboard character of Paul from my latest review (he's played by Samuel Davis)

Anyway, the story of five campers subsiding to a flesh-eating virus, is redone in 2016's unrelieved Cabin Fever. If you've seen 2002's original, here's what's different: There's a dissimilar ending, there's an elaboration on the storyline, the Winston character is now a female, the music from The Shining is used in the opening credits, there is less utilization of a red-hued palate, and there are no bloodied flashbacks. Also, the murderous dog named Dr. Mambo is more frantically portrayed, there is virtually no 80's horror feel, and the characters are more sympathetic (I liked it better in the first flick when they were meaner to each other). Still, this comes off as an almost uniform, cash grab remake with director Travis Z (his real name is Travis Zariwny) not updating this thing with any real sense of style or substance (despite a foreboding musical score). He decides to revel in paint-by-numbers filmmaking with his actors/actresses going through the motions as if they were robotic caricatures trying to be Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, and James DeBello (the troupers from the first movie).

In truth, Cabin Fever is a midsize, acting effort that's admirable despite a first hour that makes you want to turn the DVD player off (I was almost tempted to by sheer regularity). You pretty much know everything that comes around the corner. Heck, almost every frame is identical with previous helmer Eli Roth coming back to help out by co-writing the screenplay (did I mention that he's a producer as well).

See the new flick if you're part of a later generation (or if you've never viewed the first Cabin Fever) but know that most of it is a carbon copy of what was screened 14 years ago. That's too short of a wait to redo a film. You gotta let 2002's Cabin Fever breathe a little. Better than 1998's shot-by-shot re-imagining of Psycho but still not recommendable. Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Finding Dory 2016 * * * Stars

Finding DoryDirectors: Andrew Stanton, Angus Maclane
Year: 2016
Rated PG
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neil, Ellen DeGeneres

Written by Cole Pollyea

As far as animated movie sequels go, Finding Dory is far from a letdown. It’s a vibrant, often times hilarious sequel that successfully incorporates the characters we grew so fond of in its predecessor, Finding Nemo, and manages to add new ones that are easy to fall in love with. And needless to say, it is also a perfectly enjoyable viewing experience for all members of the family.

Taking on a familiar plot, Finding Dory follows the adverse tasks taken on by Dory in her herculean attempt to find her long lost parents. Why adverse or herculean? Because, for those of you who haven’t seen “Nemo” since its release in 2003, remember that Dory suffers from short term memory loss, but since this was early onset, as the movie reveals, this also means that she has forgotten many aspects of her childhood, which could be considered long term memory loss as well.

This attempt starts one day in the quaint life that she leads with Marlin and Nemo, exactly one year after Nemo’s rescue. Dory has an epiphany and all of a sudden can remember the address of her parents, which happens to be in California. This is on the other side of the world, however, and so, because of her condition, she enlists the help of many to get there, including Marlin and Nemo, the turtle Crush, an octopus named Hank, a whale shark named Destiny, a neurotic bird named Becky, among others. It’s a pleasure to watch and cheer on our beloved Dory in an effort that we can all hold near and dear if for no other reason than for the emotional plight that we were a part of in Finding Nemo.

But as far as animated movies go, Finding Dory is not on par with its wildly imaginative and unequivocally sentimental predecessor. Since it is more or less a retread of the same story, it doesn’t have the originality of “Nemo”. Also, since the movie’s climax is out of place and since its ideals are just not as compelling, its conclusion is simply not as impactful as “Nemo”’s. The bottom line is that Finding Dory is neither as grand nor as rewarding as one might hope. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a fun ride.

Written by Cole Pollyea

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Midnight Special 2016 * * Stars

Midnight SpecialDirector: Jeff Nichols
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton

The actors/actresses speak in annoying monotones, the musical score is ominous, everything in frame takes itself way too seriously, and Mud's Jeff Nichols creates such a dark atmosphere making it hard to tell what's exactly going on. That's the vibe I got from 2016's Midnight Special (my latest review). In truth, "Special" is an overrated swipe of slight, sci-fi mumbo jumbo. The critics have seemed to embrace it. This one can't. Give me the less cynical, less violent E.T. or 1984's Starman as an acceptable opposition.

For kicks-and-giggles, CCR's beloved tune of the same name doesn't make "Special" any more satisfying. The song is redone in the closing credits, made to be more solemn and made to be a laughable wink wink for the last hour and 51 minutes.

Slow-moving yet edited prematurely with a decent enough cast (Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, and an unrecognizable Kirsten Dunst), Midnight Special doesn't exactly move you. It's a cold film, deemed strictly for the military front. Yeah there is some admirable storytelling and reasonable direction, but there's literally no background on the characters and their bellicose motivations.

Here's the gist: I used "Special's" wiki page to figure out the true plot workings and discovered that this movie takes place in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. It's about a boy (or I guess alien) who has some special, unworldly powers. His dad (Roy Tomlin played by Michael Shannon) is part of a religious cult and when the people there find out about the light coming from his son's eyes (Alton played effectively by The Confirmation's Jaeden Lieberher), well Roy escapes said cult with Alton and his friend, Lucas (played by Joel Edgerton who seems to be in everything these days). An amber alert is in effect as all kinds of authorities want to arrest the two men while capturing Alton to find out what really makes him tick. Ultimately, Alton has to get to a place where he can confront other extraterrestrial hosts and be the subject of a tumulus world event to occur. If it all sounds familiar, it is. If you think this thing trades decent production values with ho-hum, appreciable momentum, well it does. "Special" was released in March with its box office take being pretty weak (6.2 million worldwide). I don't blame the average moviegoer whose word of mouth was obviously voiced.

Stylish yet silly, well-intentioned yet overly dramatic, you can call Midnight Special Close Encounters of the "irrelevant" Kind. It didn't quite "shine a light on me." Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates 2016 * * Stars

Mike and Dave Need Wedding DatesDirector: Jake Szymanski
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick, Adam DeVine, Aubrey Plaza

The title says it all. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (my latest review) marks the third time I've seen a comedy that takes place in Hawaii. The other two are 50 First Dates and 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall. "Wedding" which falls somewhere in the middle, is not as funny as it should be nor is it as raunchy as it could have been. A main character singing and grinding to "This Is How We Do It", been there. Another getting shockingly hit by a car, done that. Two female troupers getting high on Ecstasy and running around naked. Hey, that might be a new one.

Anyway, despite scenes involving an unconventional method of having sex, a women's full frontal nudity that brings back the 70's, and a line in which someone says, "you look like Don Johnson made a baby with 'Zack' Morris", Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates only garnered some mild chuckles from me. This film sans script, has persisting moments that go on for too long, and has line readings that scream improvisation overload. The rest is just f-bombs, conventional gross-out gags, and obligatory outtakes during the end credits. Comic up-and-comers Adam DeVine and Aubrey Plaza along with chiseled Zac Efron, don't stand a chance with this material. Oh and by the way, save your money if you haven't seen "Wedding" yet. Its trailer which promotes summer movie salivation, is way more humorous.

Directed by first-timer Jake Szymanski and distributed by 20th Century Fox, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates introduces us to a sexual term known as the "push pop" (don't ask). The flick follows bumbling brothers Dave Stangle (Efron) and Mike Stangle (DeVine). They come from an upper class family, have jobs as partners in the selling of liquor, and have the maturity level of a couple of teenagers. They also like to wreak havoc on family social events (their destructive behavior resulted in a bad trampoline accident and the near death of their grandfather, no joke). When it's announced that their younger sister is about to get married, well their dad insists that they bring dates to the wedding instead of constantly just hitting on random ladies. Mike and Dave agree and eventually go on The Wendy Williams Show to put the veritable word out. In walks Alice and Tatiana (played by Anne Kendrick and Audrey Plaza). They are a couple of stoner chicks who live in a rundown apartment, say stuff like "hot as balls", and eventually get fired from their jobs as waitresses. Mike and Dave choose them because they come off as good girls. Bully for that. They do this only so they can get a free trip to The Aloha State (the location of the nuptials), bide their time by watching male porn in their hotel room, and sneak off to smoke the almighty reefer.

Now "Wedding" is pretty lightweight satire despite a lot going on. I mean, you don't know where it is actually headed. There's a mixture of romance between Dave and Alice, a love/hate relationship between Tatiana and Mike, the bride-to-be getting hit in the face by a ATV (ouch), and a side plot involving a bisexual cousin trying to get with one of the ill-mannered rendezvous. In the end, it's really hard to care about anyone involved because the banter between the characters feels made up, forced, and badly off-putting. The similar-themed Wedding Crashers was no masterpiece but it felt more absolute. It had funnier zingers, an actual conclusion, and an actual resolution (its box office take of $285 million is proof of that).

All in all, after seeing Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, I'll probably see a lot worse comedies in my lifetime. And in jest, I'll probably see a lot more superior ones too. Rating: A fair 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson