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Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Trust 2016 * * 1/2 Stars

The TrustDirectors: Benjamin Brewer, Alex Brewer
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood, Jerry Lewis

Las Vegas. Home to elicit gambling, legal prostitution, and gleaming neon lights. It's also the setting for The Trust (my latest review). Speaking of that setting, well the Vegas in "Trust" is in a way, not personified. We're talking about the Sin City outer world here. I didn't view one scene where a trouper was hitting the slots, taking in a Wayne Newton show, or noshing on shrimp at a casino buffet.

Anyway, The Trust is directed by two brothers (Benjamin and Alex Brewer). They fashion a dirty cop movie that's a little offbeat and a little off the aisle. The first half feels like this year's The Nice Guys. The second half is akin to a grubby Ocean's Eleven. There's a hint of Russian roulette, Elijah Wood smoking plenty of reefer while feeling paranoid, Nicolas Cage channeling a goofball civilian killer, and a breezy tone of background music. Finally, you have Jerry Lewis appearing in a role so minuscule, you'd miss him if you blinked too much. To be honest, I had almost forgotten that the king of slapstick was susceptible to the silver screen. My mistake mind you. My mistake.

Image result for the trustWith a sort of twist ending, a poster that channels Cage's own National Treasure, and a sole release on DVD via the countries of Germany and Sweden, The Trust chronicles Lieutenant Jim Stone (Cage) and Sergeant David Waters (Wood). They seem like a couple of downtrodden, desperate guys. They obviously don't like their jobs, they aren't satisfied financially, and their law enforcement superiors either don't care about their whereabouts or what they are up to. Stone persuades Waters to rob a grocery store safe full of diamonds, cash, and plenty of gold coins. He got the tip from a wealthy drug dealer who is connected to said fortune and subsequently paid a bail receipt for $200,000. The Trust then turns into a heist movie in which Stone and Waters purchase a specific drill and illegal firearms. Cage's character is nonchalant and zany in many of his actions. He even murders a couple of people along the way as if it's entirely nothing.

Now the one thing I thought of when I saw the trailer for "Trust", was how Nic Cage and Elijah Wood would fare as a buddy cop team. Bottom line: Their on-screen chemistry is about as uneven as The Trust itself. You could sometimes tell that they were actually trapped in different films between them. And try as I might, I just can't picture Wood in an adult role. Twenty years have passed and I still see him as a child actor. So sue me. As for "Trust's" direction, well it throws darts at the crime thriller genre. Were the Brewer brothers paying tribute to explosion monger Michael Bay in some of their speedy edits? Definitely. Were they at times, filtering in elements of a bungling, Keystone Cop comedy? Yup. Finally, were Alex and Ben trying to add the notion of a full-fledged drama as well? For sure. Like I said, uneven and to a point, fluctuated.

All in all, I did admire the meticulousness of the safe-cracking sequence in "Trust" (it was effectively long-winded). I also dug the ending which had a startling, mob/gang slant to it. Ultimately though, The Trust gets a strong, mixed review from me. It's not quite "worthy" enough. Natch! Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Top 10 Holiday Movies of All Time (2016 Reissue)

1. Scrooge 1951 * * * * Stars
    Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
    Rated G
    Cast: Alastair Sim, Jack Warner,
    Kathleen Harrison

The Alpha and Omega of holiday films with Alastair Sim fitting the role of grumpy miser Scrooge like a smooth Isotoner glove. This is the purest and most nostalgic entry of Dicken's classic tale that I can remember. This timeless story was remade countless times but never reached the emotional heights that director Brian Desmond Hurst's 1951 classic did.


2. Catch Me If You Can 2002 * * * * Stars
    Director: Steven Spielberg
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks

Not necessarily a movie made about Christmas but its key scenes take place during that yule tide holiday. Leonardo DiCaprio, as bank forger Frank Abagnale, is in top form. Spielberg's direction is perfect. Overall, this is compulsively watchable stuff.

3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
    1987 * * * 1/2 Stars
    Director: John Hughes
    Rated R
    Cast: John Candy, Steve Martin

Even though Thanksgiving has come and gone, it doesn't matter. This is still top notch holiday fare with two brilliant comedic actors giving the performances of their lives. Part dramedy, part road trip movie, and totally quotable, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles will make you laugh throughout. It will also leave you with a lump in your throat at the end.

4. Nothing Like the Holidays 2008 * * * Stars
    Director: Alfredo De Villa
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Debra Messing, Freddy Rodriguez,
    Jay Hernandez

Ever since 2009, I make it a habit to watch this film at least three to four times in the month of December. It was shot about 10 miles from where I live, and it's a fine mixture of ensemble comedy and dramatic grievances involving a tight knit Puerto Rican family. They all get together for a bitingly cold Christmas break in Chicago's Humboldt park neighborhood. Very likable cast with every character having their own feasible back story. It's one of those flicks where if you live in Chicago, you say "oh yeah I've been there, I've driven down that street." Very authentic take on the Windy City locales.

5. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 1989
    * * * Stars
    Director: Jeremiah Chechik
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo

Chevy Chase as bumbling family man Clark W. Griswold, gave his last credible performance in National Lampoon's take on nutty holiday cheer. A lot of gags are taken to the extreme and the scene where he puts Christmas lights on every single inch of his house, is something only his character would ever think of doing. Revolting cousin Eddie (Randy Quiad) shows up halfway in to add to the silliness. All and all, a sloppily made comedy that I initially thought had worn out its welcome. With every subsequent viewing, I changed my mind. A classic!

6. Scrooged 1988 * * * Stars
    Director: Richard Donner
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen

Highly dark and satirical take on Charles Dicken's legendary tale. This time it's set in the 1980's with funnyman Bill Murray giving a quintessential "Bill Murray" type performance. Funny, cynical, with great one liners. Certain scenes however, might be too intense for younger viewers to take. Overall, if you like Murray's smarmy style of delivering dialogue, Scrooged will not disappoint.

7. A Christmas Story 1983 * * * Stars
    Director: Bob Clark
    Rated PG
    Cast: Peter Billingsly, Darren McGavin,
    Melinda Dillon

This is a silly, little comedy that turned into a Christmas cult classic. Peter Billingsly plays Ralphie, a impressionable young boy who only wants a BB gun for his under-the-tree present. A Christmas Story is told from his point of view. With memorable lines and some quirky characters, it's an addictive film you can watch relentlessly. Case in point: on TBS, this thing is shown 24 hours a day on the 24th and 25th of December.

8. A Christmas Carol 1938 * * * Stars
    Director: Edwin L. Marin
    Rating: Passed
    Cast: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart

Came before the Alastair Sim version but for some reason, is not as credible in terms of acting, directing, and conviction of the story. Still, it's entertaining enough in a lightweight sort of way. There is actually a color version of this film that is sometimes shown on network television. Overall, good fluff but the ending is short and by the book. It's not as invigorating as 1951's  masterpiece.


9. Just the Way You Are 1984 * * * Stars
    Director: Edouard Molinaro
    Rated PG
    Cast: Kristy McNichol, Kaki Hunter

The main reason why I put this film on the list is that it just reminds me of Christmas in general. It doesn't really involve the holidays, but it was on cable in the 80's and I must have watched it with my parents about a million times. Yes, it involves snow and skiing (in the French Alps), but mainly it's a love story about a woman with a handicapped leg who goes overseas to hide it and find Mr. Right. Honestly, nothing much goes on in this thing. However, it now reminds me of a certain time and place (December of 1985) so I'll just throw it in.


10. Prancer 1989 * * * Stars
      Director: John D. Hancock
      Rated G
      Cast: Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman

Prancer was filmed about 20 minutes from where I grew up. It's mildly entertaining and it's significant because every time I pass through Three Oaks, MI, I wonder how many of the townspeople own a DVD copy of it. Made over twenty years ago, the small Midwest town just mentioned, hasn't changed a bit. And even if you know that Santa Claus is a hoax, you'll still go along with this fable about a young girl's fascination with a wounded reindeer.

Written by Jesse Burleson


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Zero Days 2016 * * 1/2 Stars

Zero DaysDirector: Alex Gibney
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: David Sanger, Emad Kiyaei

Zero Days is my latest review. It begins with a car exploding and a creepy, modulated voice speaking (hello "lawnmower man"). That's the vein of its excitement. At nearly two hours, this is a overly talky documentary, bent on chronicling the Stuxnet computer virus and how it posed a threat to Internet access all over the world. Stuxnet was a malicious worm. It involved the nuclear proclamations of the U.S. and Iran. Sadly, an insurance seminar is "Zero's" equivalent. A college disquisition is its symposium. This is painstakingly educational stuff.

Director Alex Gibney takes his account all the way from 1979's Iranian flag burning to said Stuxnet Trojan Horse in 2010. His docu skills aren't sloppy yet his flick crawls around in circles. Zero Days is very thought-out, very calculated, soberly streamlined, and intelligent to a fault. It gets to the point where Gibney makes Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Steve James out to look like slipshod artists. In truth, you wonder if he actually required multiple takes with the real-life experts he was talking to.

Now does Alex keep his audience alert to his conspiracies, his swift ending, his relentless use of news archives, and his barrage of uniform, cinematic techniques? That remains to be seen. Does his methods channel his elongated film to accrue true greatness? Not exactly.

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Alex "I'm taking vigorous notes" Gibney fills the screen with lots of interviews (people are either not revealing much or hiding their faces), locales all over the world, slight visual storytelling, and images of code with Matrix-like tendencies. He goes off on tangents, even projecting an ocular segment akin to Blade Runner's cityscape. Ugh. In jest, there's almost too much information to take in. I'm no dummy but I was a bit addled. The eerie musical score helps a little but whatever entertainment value exists, it could only satisfy hardcore, cyber geeks. Oh and I almost forgot, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush are all in the cast credits. Too bad you never really hear from them based on their scattershot, newsreel appearances. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars

The Edge of SeventeenDirector: Kelly Fremon Craig
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick

The Edge of Seventeen is my latest review. And no, I'm not talking about the Stevie Nicks pop hit from the early 80's. "Seventeen" is an insightful film that's raw, real, and one of 2016's best. Mean Girls becomes "keen" girls. Heck, She's All That becomes "she's" a doormat.

Anyway, towards the middle part of this vehicle, a main player quips, "rise above yourself Nadine". Well "Seventeen" "rises" above almost every teen farce and/or drama that's come out in the past fifteen years.

Filmed in British Columbia and featuring an intelligent, often complex screenplay, The Edge of Seventeen gives lead Hailee Steinfeld the chance to equal her brilliant turn from 2010's True Grit. She succeeds. Steinfeld plays unflinchingly, a coming-of-age, 17-year-old girl named Nadine Franklin. Nadine is a spunky 11th grader who can't seem to connect with people her own age. To add insult to injury, her father died unexpectedly four years ago. She has one best friend named Krista (played by Haley Lu Richardson), a dopey mom who she barely interacts with (Mona Franklin played by Kyra Sedwick), and a popular brother she can't stand (Blake Jenner as Darian Franklin). When she confides in someone with various problems, she ends up going to one of her teachers named Mr. Bruner (played by Woody Harrelson).

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As "Seventeen" shifts out of its 10 Things I Hate About You/Clueless-like territory (in the first half hour or so), Nadine finds out that said best friend is actually dating her perfect brother. This throws Nadine into a tailspin. She contemplates suicide, tries to form relationships with two guys, and all the while sort of finds her battered self along the way.

Now make no mistake about it, The Edge of Seventeen is not some cutesy high school flick that is deemed appropriate for young teenagers. No this is a darker affair with various sweet moments kind of buried beneath the R-rated raunch and the R-rated angst. The writing is nevertheless crisp, the casting is almost spot-on, and there are some adequate character revelations.

The director of "Seventeen" is Kelly Fremon Craig. With the exception of just three writing credits to her dossier, this is the first thing she has ever helmed. Watching The Edge of Seventeen, you realize that the happenings pertaining to her Nadine, might have been from her own personal experience as a confused Generation Z (with a smidgen of social anxiety disorder). I might be speculating but everything Steinfeld's trouper goes through comes off as detailed, bona fide, and authentic. In jest, Craig might have wanted to translate her brooding nature through her muse's seasoned acting ability. What can I say, it just works.

In conclusion, I asked myself two questions after last night's screening of "Seventeen": Would this film garner some Academy Award nominations? Maybe. Would this film give Miss Steinfeld a well deserved nomination for best actress? I sure darn hope so. Playing Nadine, you can tell that she's digging deep. Her mannerisms, her body language, her feeling of malaise, it's just so darn genuine. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 2016 * * Stars

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang Lee
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker

Ang Lee is a very pronounced director. He has made a handful of movies that are quite divergent from each other. All of Lee's work is unique and sumptuous. He can excel at sped up action sequences, visual artistry, effectively oppressed troupers, the whole shebang.

In Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (my latest review), he creates a film that is part present-day and part flashback. Working from a screenplay by rookie Jean-Christopher Castelli, Lee sans a consistent background score. He instead dons plenty of actor closeups, drifting camerawork, and a Robert Zemeckis brand of lush framing.

Despite a perfectly realized Joe Alwyn in the lead, Lee digging up the thespian bodies of Chris Tucker and Steve Martin, and casting director Salah Benchegra stealing Vin Diesel from the bowels of Fast and the Furious, "Halftime" is not that hard hitting in the emotions department. Heck, it's far from being the best thing Ang has ever done. I can say this though, it probably has one of the most intriguing promo posters I've viewed in many a moon.

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The story is as follows: Private Billy Lynn (Alwyn) and his brethren of U.S. Army soldiers, are being honored at a nationwide, NFL football game. Just recently, they were all in Iraq, fighting for their country and surviving a tense battle that eventually deemed them newsworthy. As said NFL game progresses, Lynn looks back on his time as an Army specialist. He has maimed, he has killed, and he may or may not have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lee centers the chief heroics on Lynn and re-enacts Iraqi engagement scenes with gusto. The dialogue is minimal yet sticks, the bullet piercings punctuate, and everything sends up to be at least, self-serious. Sadly, these moments are short lived and fail to fully let the viewer in. When the film cuts forward to 2004 (the year of the football halftime show), "Halftime" spends a majority of its time with the now at ease, Bravo Squad characters. With the exception of Billy Lynn and his Jack Handey-style deep thoughts, they come off as jokey, unlikable and to a point, prickly. They keep us the audience, at a distance. We are unable to freely root for them.

Image result for Billy lynn's long halftime walk movie scenesBottom line: Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk at times, feels almost satiric or like a takeoff of an anomalous war picture. Don't go in expecting a complex drama like Ang Lee's 1997 film, The Ice Storm. Don't go in expecting a harrowing, technical treat like his Life of Pi. Don't go in expecting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and well, just don't go in expecting. "Halftime" is unintentionally hokey, a movie themed in Thanksgiving tradition that just happens to be released two weeks before Thanksgiving Day. In all honesty, it's merely a cinematic "walk" in the park. Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

(Cole's Take) Arrival 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars

ArrivalDirector:
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars (Click on the rating link to see Cole's on-site review)
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Written by Cole Pollyea

In the month of December, equally important to re-watching our favorite holiday films and sampling ones we’re unfamiliar with is getting to the theater to see new releases. And that is because of the glorious Oscar season (early November to late December), when studios release the most critically touted films of the year. I am here to discuss one particularly interesting and thought-provoking film that is considered a “frontrunner” for the Best Picture Academy Award in 2017. That movie is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival; and it is spectacular.
Arrival follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is teamed with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decode and interpret a foreign language used by aliens who have peacefully landed in 12 different locations across the globe. To tell more would be to spoil any of the fascinating twists and turns that the movie makes. That would be a grave mistake, for Arrival is a masterful sci-fi film that demands a totally uncorrupted viewing.

I must first note what entered my mind upon my viewing of Arrival: here is a movie that took a few ideas out of Steven Spielberg’s playbook. It undeniably resembles Close Encounters of the Third Kind with respect to plot, characters, and set design. And I couldn’t have enjoyed it any more. The great Martin Scorsese once said that directing is what one can “smuggle in” from other films. That is evidenced here by director Denis Villeneuve, who successfully pays homage to “Close Encounters” while at the same time creating an original work all his own.

Among Villeneuve’s other work includes 2013’s Prisoners. Like in that absorbing drama, in Arrival, Villeneuve creates a cerebral, chilling atmosphere and fills the screen with soft grey colors. The musical score is enigmatic and repetitive. All of the necessary components for the foundation of a disturbing, thoughtful sci-fi film are here. Fortunately, the movie takes advantage of them.

One of the ways in which Arrival excels is its performances. Amy Adams has the most screen time and gives one of her more memorable performances as the reputable professor and linguist. She articulates the complex emotions of her character through her aware facial expressions and her sensitive delivery of lines. Jeremy Renner is solid, as always, as her supportive and caring colleague. His character has more everyman values than his usual roles do; and I believed him for every second. What’s more, Forest Whitaker as the order-following colonel is extremely effective and his convincing performance here is yet another testament to his versatility as an actor.
It almost goes without saying that most first-rate sci-fi films of the 21st century offer knockout visuals. Arrival is no exception. Beyond the incredible CGI, the movie offers a certain mystique to what we see. We never quite get a full view of the aliens because of an eerie white mist and, in many close-up scenes, there is only focus on certain portions, or characters, on screen. This manipulation of background and camera focus is used to great effect by the director to produce an additional layer of intrigue.

My uncle and colleague wasn’t as enthusiastic about this film as I was. He complained that it was like a puzzle with a number of pieces missing. I obviously disagreed. But I did feel that the movie wasn’t long enough. Some of the most memorable sci-fi films of the recent past, like  Interstellar, run at well over two-and-a-half hours and Arrival is only 118 minutes long. This is not to say that a contemporary sci-fi film cannot be successful with a short running time. This is just to say that when Arrival’s credits rolled, I was settled back into my chair expecting at least twenty more minutes of elaboration.

Arrival is PG-13, family-appropriate for the most part, and certainly targets a more general audience than Interstellar (a more intricate and complex sci-fi film) did. Perhaps this shorter length that irked me will make viewing Arrival a more enjoyable experience for a family.

Written by Cole Pollyea

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Billionaire Ransom 2016 * * 1/2 Stars

Billionaire RansomDirector: John Gillespie
Year: 2016
Rated NR
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Jeremy Sumpter, Phoebe Tonkin, Sebastian Koch

Every trouper in Billionaire Ransom (my latest review), is virtually unknown to me. I mean I have never seen any of these people in any other movies. Oh well, at least the producers got some of them to look like actual celebrities. Lead actor Jeremy Sumptor, is pretty much a cross between Hugh Jackman and Ryan Phillippe. Curly locked Phoebe Tonkin, is a dead ringer for Rebecca Gayheart. Lastly, villain Billy Speck (played by Ed Westwick) sure does give off the whole Justin Timberlake vibe.

Anyway, "Billionaire" plays like two separate films altogether. The first hour is all about spoiled, rich kids being taken to a remote, reform school as opposed to going to jail. The last 40-50 minutes are about these same Richie Rich, twentysomethings trying to escape hardened criminals who want to hold them hostage at the same darn school.

Echoing 1993's Cliffhanger, Ransom, and The Maze Runner, Billionaire Ransom is by turns violent, bloody, and unabating. It has moments of suspense and relegated strain. However, this British thriller is only mildly compelling compared to Mel Gibson's 1996 hit and Sly Stallone's backyard brawl of an actioner.

Image result for billionaire ransom movie scenesReleased in August, filmed in Wales which is made to look like Scotland, and originally titled Take Down, "Billionaire" hasn't found much of an audience. Based on its current box office state, it might not find much of one on DVD either. Sadly, the budget constraints, the nameless cast, and the action movie cliches might be to blame (I hate it when law enforcement conveniently arrives after everyone has been shooting at each other and bodies are already lying on the ground).

In regards to "Billionaire's" character development, well the actor/actress portrayals are unlikable, snide, and defensed. We're talking about young protagonists here and their wealthy parents. These are the people you're inclined to root for. The hostage takers don't count. They're supposed to be vexatious for Pete's sake.

As for "Billionaire's" look, undoubtedly it's ultramodern and lush, with the scenery of counterfeit Northern Isles really taking over. The film's musical score by trip hop band Hybrid, makes it feel all Bourne-like as things stir along at a breakneck pace.

All in all, Billionaire Ransom senses to be a bit uneven until the gun-filled, second act takes over. And it has a slight twist at the end that almost feels like filler (a rich kid's brother makes a few secret phone calls to the bad guys, hint hint). Bottom line: Based on everything I have just written, the whiff of a rental is exactly what you'll get with Billionaire Ransom. I give it a two and a half star "payoff". Ha!

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 12, 2016

(Jesse's Take) Arrival 2016 * * 1/2 Stars

ArrivalDirector: Denis Villeneuve
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Containing a numbing, techy soundtrack, made for the widescreen, and distributed by Paramount Pictures, Arrival (my latest review) chronicles the modern day event of mysterious spaceships touching down via twelve different places in the world. With the U.S. Military being baffled by said event, a team of scientists (played by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) are assembled to negotiate with the extraterrestrials to find out what they truly want. Question: When did Earth's denizens become so darn afraid of alien species? That's what I asked myself a half hour into this 116-minute flick.

Anyway, in relation to Arrival, I have never seen a science fiction vehicle take itself so seriously, so pensively. Semantic symbols, decodes, language translation, mathematics, etc. In truth, I thought I was watching a high school film strip or secretly conducting a science project for Mr. Wizard. Who knew large spacecraft looking like half-eaten pistachios, could so profusely churn the mind's eye.

Now Arrival with its jumpy narrative and ode to the workings of a Pink Floyd music video, is directed by Denis Villeneuve. And as with his moderately successful Prisoners, no one does dark and dim quite like Villeneuve. Discarding violence and death by penetrative lasers, he tries to reinvent the close encounter wheel here and comes up with the first sci-fi, art film since 2002's Solaris. He also creates a thinking person's Independence Day as well. In certain scenes, Villeneuve uses rack focusing to capture various shots. Occasionally, he goes panoramic with other shots. He likes to mess with you, to have you linger, to turn the tables on your understanding of what manageable storytelling is.

Image result for Arrival movie scenesHis Arrival at first, feels slow, educational, and even a little pretentious. In the second half, it digs deeper. Flashbacks upon flashbacks, manipulation with the audience's perception of time. Arrival in the end, doesn't really project itself like a film about alien invasions. It unwieldy turns into a character study for one Dr. Louise Banks (played with nerve ending efficiency by Adams).

In hindsight, my speculated cognizance of Banks, is that not only is she a linguist but she can also see into the future (spoiler). When you start to ask questions about her, the movie ends rather frustratingly and on a sad note. Therefore, I didn't come out of Arrival thinking it was a flat out masterpiece. However, I know that it's the type of cinematic peppery that I just have to see again. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge 2016 * * * Stars

Hacksaw RidgeDirector: Mel Gibson
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington

Having read feedback from other critics and having seen bits and pieces of The Passion of the Christ, I knew Mel Gibson was going to make a bloodily violent war film with 2016's Hacksaw Ridge (my latest review). I was right. Mel puts the "hack" in "Hacksaw" with men-at-arms having their limbs severed, their heads dismembered, and their fragile bodies being pierced by razor sharp bayonets. When Gibson perpetrates violence, it's to glorify, to sensationalize, to make you turn away in disgust. Oh and did I mention he includes several sequences of rats nibbling on decomposed body parts. Eek!

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Anyway, his Hacksaw Ridge at two hours and 18 minutes, is kinda like his own starring vehicle, We Were Soldiers. Its got that earned R rating but without all the harsh language and disrespect between Battalion members. This film is split up into two halves. The first half is part Lifetime movie and part boot camp symposium. The second half is more akin to Windtalkers or Rambo. Mel Gibson with a standard canvas and minimal technical efficiency, gives us an unsettled action film that at times, tries to desensitize "Hacksaw's" true story of real-life WWII medic, Desmond Doss (played by a likable lead in Andrew Garfield). In the end, the whole thing seems to work anyway. That's thanks to closing credit interviews involving the actual Doss and his actual Captain known as Glover (played by Sam Worthington). Other thanks goes to screenwriter Andrew Knight for including the invigorating line, "lord, help me get one more". "Help me get one more!"

Now Gibson fresh from starring in this year's Blood Father, becomes a more improved Peter Berg here (remember Deepwater Horizon?). No stilted camera work, less military numbness, and a little more genuine emotion. Hear, hear! And despite a miscast Vince Vaughn (he plays a soldier fighting in the Battle of Okinawa) and war cliches like the mean drill Sergeant, the picture of some GI's girlfriend/wife tucked away, and the notion of boot camp enemies becoming best buds later on, "Hacksaw" is still worth a recommendation.

Image result for hacksaw ridge movie scenesHacksaw Ridge's story, which spans a decade between Desmond's childhood till his being drafted by the U.S. Army in 1942, is about pacifism, the notion of going into battle without carrying so much as a single weapon. Desmond Doss possesses this trait and his Army brethren try to get him kicked out before all are shipped to the islands of Japan (via World War II). Doss eventually saves over 75 infantrymen in battle and is awarded the first Medal of Honor as a conscientious objector (someone who refuses the aspect of performing military service).

All in all, the scenes of Desmond's rescue methods are Gibson's high point as a filmmaker. He depicts them as tunnel lights in the face of morbid brutality. As an audience member, you feel elated and exultant despite being turned off by his slight grandstanding of blood and guts. Therefore, I feel you should definitely see Hacksaw Ridge. It's a popcorn, combat relic that might be too commercial to sway the Academy. No matter. It manages to get a three star rating from me.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Duel 2016 * 1/2 Stars

The Duel
Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga

I'm not sure what director Kieran Darcy-Smith was going for when he made 2016's The Duel (my latest review). Muddled yet scenic, draggy yet periodically violent, "Duel" is one unclear Western.

At a running time of 110 minutes, "Duel" sure does feel like three long hours. It takes place oh about 100-plus years ago with vague, plot elements from Gang of New York and bearings straight from 1978's Days of Heaven. Star Woody Harrelson plays a creepy preacher and talks with a Southern drawl for the millionth time. Co-star Liam Hemsworth plays a pretty Texas Ranger and has a bland disposition in the acting department. Finally, Alice Braga plays Hemsworth's character's wife, a non-outlaw who becomes mysteriously ill and feels downtrodden. Oh yeah, there's another Days of Heaven reference I forgot to mention. Braga looks a little like Brooke Adams. Adams was Terrence Malick's cutesy muse from back in the day.

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Anyway, the story is as follows: David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) has been tapped to investigate some murders and disappearances in a small, Old West frontier town. He also has been sent to keep an eye on the town's chief officer, Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson). Brant looking kinda similar to Harrelson's own Mickey Knox, killed Kingston's father over twenty years ago. Is Kingston bent on revenge towards Brant? Is Kingston just doing his job as a responsible Ranger? Is Brant gonna have another sermon with snakes being passed around in his congregation? Is this movie ever gonna lead somewhere? Oops, I'm going off on a tangent. Sorry.

In conclusion, The Duel is slow-burning and almost devoid of conflict. And whenever said conflict does exist, well it is artificially forced upon us, the audience. There's the occasional stabbing, a final gunfight amidst rock formations, a couple of killings by way of game-like shooting, and a dark, saloon standoff between good and evil. If you don't fall asleep during "Duel", you'll occasionally catch these moments (only briefly though). If you do fall asleep during The Duel, well you aren't breaking any laws. Do yourself a favor, rent something from Clint Eastwood or George Stevens instead. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson