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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Counselor 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Ridley Scott
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz

Every aspect of the 2013 release The Counselor (minus the philosophically damned script), tells you that this is a Ridley Scott film. If you enjoy the way he carefully directs by bringing scenes to a slow creep and then having things interrupted with an act or two of brutal violence, then this will satisfy you, the fan of said director.  I have to say that initially I had become bored with the first 30 minutes or so of this slick, trashy (might as well throw in stylized) sort of 2 hour resembling of a cable TV drama (rated for mature audiences of course). It started off as pretentious and self indulgent. You have actors constantly engaging in conversations with each other that go on longer than needed. And the dialogue is all about the meaning of life and such. Therefore, I kept thinking to myself, why does everyone in this vehicle have to be so smart? Although the performances were substantial (with the exception of the continuously miscast Cameron Diaz), it seemed as though the script required almost all the cast members to be Socrates (the supposed founder of Western philosophy).

Brought to life by rookie screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (his novices shows in his screenwriting even though he's a well accomplished novelist) and dedicated to Ridley Scott's brother (famed director Tony Scott) who committed suicide during filming, The Counselor examines a lawyer who on the side, gets involved in drug dealings with the Mexican cartel. Hoping to get a huge return back and taking different angles of advice from a drug kingpin named Reiner (played with a goofy stature and an even goofier haircut, by Javier Bardem), "Counselor" (he has no name, this is what everybody calls him) eventually gets in way over his head. He is warned by a middleman named Westray (played by Scott veteran Brad Pitt) that such a deal might be the wrong path to be taken. Furthermore, it doesn't help that he puts his I guess, pregnant wife (Laura played by Penelope Cruz) in harm's way throughout. Let me put it this way, I found myself more embroiled with The Counselor's fate as every other character begin to die off. I read a separate review that said this motion picture was sort of a dark neo-noir. By definition, neo-noir films deal with social ramifications so I guess that critic pretty much got it right.

Anyway, if you can get past the gnawing characteristic of the aforementioned tainted screenplay, then you'll find that this movie barrels along by becoming more intriguing and to a fault, more involving. You realize that Scott knows that there is a problem with the script (he didn't write it), but he decides to be in complete control of the camera anyway. He directs with confidence and funnels little nuggets here in there from his other movies, plastering them into this one. His cast is vast and diligent (a couple of cameos by some notable screen talents). He films sequences either from a long distance away or close up with two actors trading words in a small, claustrophobic space. Last but certainly not least, he puts a relatively unknown yet well seasoned Michael Fassbender in the lead role. Known in this flick as simply "The Counselor," he is able to carry the whole 2 hour running time quite well. He's in almost every frame (Fassbender looks a little like a young Jeremy Irons and has Ewan McGregor's manneristic smirk) and goes toe to toe with some big name actors (Brad Pitt anyone) that seem to fade in and out of the proceedings. In the end, you don't quite know what the future has in store for him. But you get a sense that his character is the type of person who falls prey to the notion of bad things happening to not so bad people.

All and all, The Counselor as a movie, likes to leave little tracings of symbolism here and there (especially in the opening scene). Its intentions are to let you know that it has deeper interludes that extend far beyond the simple art of a drug deal. Yes, there are little flaws that are evident (some of the dialogue is borderline laughable and cringe worthy) but in the end, it still comes off as weirdly sophisticated. It's for the moviegoer who can hold his or her attention span and not harbor to all the disposable drivel that's thrown in year after year (stuff like remakes of classics which I've been ripping on since March). To be honest, I don't know if I would put this thing on my top ten list of 2013. However, it resonates with you minutes after you see it. And that's something I look for when I want to garner a recommendation. It also has the type of ending shot that I like where the camera focuses on a main character's face, and then goes suddenly to blackout (without any type of fading). With The Counselor, you get a mostly trademark Ridley Scott film and heck, usually he's incapable of making anything mediocre. Halfway into the second act when things get dangerous, Brad Ptit's character states, "I'd say it's pretty bad, then muliply it by ten." Yeah, I'd say this flick is not so bad so I'll just add three stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monsters University 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Dan Scanlon
Year: 2013
Rated: G
Rating: * * * Stars     Cole's Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi

If you made an animated version of the recent release The Internship and sprinkled it with an edited for content addition of 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, Monsters University is what you'd get. It's a fun, briskly paced cartoon adventure that brings more kid humor to the table than adult humor. That's okay because the adults that take their kids to see it will still laugh and have a good time regardless (after all it is rated G). I have to admit, this is a sufficient prequel that actually surpasses the original (Monsters Inc.).You get to know all the characters (Mike Wazowski, James Sullivan, Randall Boggs) and get insight into how they came together or met at where else, college. It's clever and though I've never been a huge fan of animated films, Monsters University surprised me. This flick gets things right pretty much the whole time until the ending which is sort of a cop out. I won't reveal what happens but if I was behind the camera, I'd change it up a bit. Anyway, I will say this, if you want to take in an animated film that tells a straight story and moderately entertains, Monsters University will satisfy. It's "scary" good!

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Evil Dead 2013 * * Stars

Director: Fede Alvarez
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci

The tag line for the poster of this movie reads "The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience." Talk about false advertising. Evil Dead (remake of the original The Evil Dead (1981)) is probably not even as terrifying as a episode of Scooby Doo. Which begs the question: why is it so important for horror films to be remade. I just don't get it. Is it to make money? C'mon, that shouldn't be the reason. Is it so a new generation of fans can experience a second rate version of a beloved classic? Hope not. Here's an idea, how about watching the darn original. Really, enough is enough. So far there have been remakes of The Fog (2005) (absolutely dreadful), The Amityville Horror (2005) (a Ryan Reynolds movie so I don't need to say anymore), Halloween (2007) (watchable but Rob Zombie is no John Carpenter), and Nightmare On Elm St. (2010) (far and away one of the worst remakes of all time in any film genre). There is one exception though. The remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) which came out in 2003, was pretty solid. But we all know what happened after that, Texas Chainsaw The Beginning (2006) and Texas Chainsaw 3D (2010). Lord help us.

Anyway, sticking somewhat close to the plot of the original, Evil Dead tells the tale of 5 friends (one of which looks like a cross between 90's rocker Kurt Cobain and 70's folk singer Sammy Johns) who while staying at a log cabin (literally in the middle of nowhere), are tormented and tortured by evil forces beyond their control. You see, they entered the basement and found a book entitled, "The Book of the Dead." This book is bad news because reading it brings back, or propels demons to enter from the nearby woods.

You get the point. What makes this Evil Dead a lousy and tired exercise is simple: there is a lot of blood and gore but it's just not that scary. When a film is scary to me, it haunts me for days. I have trouble sleeping. I think about it long after the credits roll. The only thing rolling when I left the theater was my eyes. The acting, though not necessarily Oscar worthy in most horror movies is monumentally bad in this one. The lead actor and I guess hero (Shiloh Fernandez playing the character David), looks like a cross between Vincent Gallo and Joaquin Phoenix. That's about it. His acting range is about as wooden as the log cabin that is shown in the first five minutes. The other members of the cast try hard with the stale script. But in the end they give off the vibe that they're just happy to be in a film in general. The biggest omission with these characters is being in any peril or actual real danger. When they're being tortured by the demons, you can barely hear them scream. It's almost faint I tell you. And the scares (or lack there of) which are typical of good horror films, have that "seen it before" feel in this one. If you want a truly terrifying movie that takes place in a log cabin, go with Cabin Fever (2002). It's underrated, not seen by hardly anyone, and its premise and execution of that premise, will chill you to the bone.

Let's face it, most moviegoers after seeing this mess will probably prefer the original The Evil Dead (1981). I'm one of them. It had a grainy old school look to it which I liked. It wasn't the most terrifying movie I ever saw but I do give it points for being comedic and over the top. This remake however is not comedic and it is over the top but not in a good way. I will give it credit though for actually trying to break new ground. It adds a subplot about David's sister (Jane Levy) harboring to get over her drug addiction therefore throwing out a different reason for the five characters to venture to the woods. And the special effects, they garner it at least one extra star from me. They aren't too shabby. But again, you need more than just your typical gross out horror tactics to make a good film. Honestly, i'd have to say that Evil Dead suffers mostly from just being flat out stylish.

All and all it's maddening that the guys from the first Evil Dead (Bruce Campbell (star) and Sam Raimi (director)) actually wanted to produce a reboot of the movie that made them a household name. Guys I never thought I'd say this but this stinker of a film is "dead" on arrival.

Written by Jesse Burleson 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Scary Movie 5 2013 * 1/2 Stars

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Simon Rex, Ashley Tisdale, Charlie Sheen
As I entered the theater to view Scary Movie 5, I had a feeling that it would be a lousy movie. I mean, I knew what I was getting into. Truth is, I probably shouldn't have gone. My ten dollars along with the $10 contribution of millions of other moviegoers is the main reason why these films continue to get made. Like I said in my previous review of Scary Movie (2000), these turkeys don't cost a lot to make. This one was probably around $20 million. It ended up making a little more than $60 million worldwide. Which brings me to my next thought, I don't think the people working on them care whether they are bad or not. They know that the misguided audience member will somehow get duped into thinking they're seeing something relevant. But after 80-85 short nutrition free minutes (that's the normal running time), they as an audience, just wasted an amount of life that will never come back. Every second counts you know in the stratosphere that is movie land.

Now I liked the first Scary Movie. As I stated in my review of it, I thought it was the first of its kind. Just like Airplane (1980) spoofed airports and flying, this one was an original spoof of horror films. But they really should have stopped after the first one. I remember seeing the last 20 minutes of it and realized that a sequel would not work, should not work, and will not work. Scary Movie 5 makes some big mistakes, humongous I tell you. The first is having it be rated PG-13. That's difficult to pull off because the tone is lazy. Everyone is basically trying to project R rated humor in a PG-13 film. I guess the studios are trying to bring in a younger crowd. This is, in my opinion, is to make money. What a silly way of thinking. The first Scary Movie was a huge box office success. It had the cojones to push the envelope on gross out humor. That's why I recommend it even to this day. Scary Movie 5 is a tired exercise that maybe belts out three and four genuine guffaws, that's it. Then there is the second mistake this film commits which is trying to spoof the Paranormal Activity movies. It would have worked had it been done maybe 4 or 5 years ago when it was a fresh concept in everybody's mind. But just like the Scary Movie franchise, there have been I guess three Paranormal Activity sequels/prequels ever since. And let's face it, those movies have pretty much already spoofed or parodied themselves. Finally, there is the preview of this movie which I saw a couple times before viewing the actual product. Some of the scenes in it were actually kinda funny. Guess what, almost none of them are in the final cut. Are you kidding me, wow what a clever bait and switch.

I could go on and on how disposable this film is but I'll refrain. Here's one more tidbit: Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan do a cameo in the first five minutes of Scary Movie 5. It was probably the funniest portion of the movie. I kinda wondered why they weren't the stars and had been asked to carry the weight. But who are we kidding, their careers have already been dented enough. I'm starting to wonder if they even wanted to get things back on track. I guess not. Oh a lot of washed up entertainers seem to taint the heck out of this thing. In addition to Sheen and  Lohan, we have Snoop Dogg, Heather Locklear, Molly Shannon, Jerry O'Connell, Jasmine Guy (yeah, I couldn't make this up if I tried), and Mike Tyson (he was in the film for 10 seconds, good for him). They must be really desperate to be on screen cause it seems like we haven't seen them in a long while.

Here's another thing I was wondering: Did the actual Morgan Freeman do the narration for Scary Movie 5 or was someone imitating him? Lord I hope not because if it was actually Freeman, I might have to stop going to movies forever. I might be scarred for life.

If you really wanna check out this abomination, it's your choice. Just stay away from the closing credits. They're outtakes that are much worse than the movie itself. And they feel staged like they were actually scripted. Yeah I payed my ten bucks and sat in the theater. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably just go home and watch dust form. That's quality entertainment compared to this.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Carrie 2013 * * Stars

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Julianne Moore, Judi Greer, Chloe Grace Moretz

So far, 2013 is proof that the concept of remaking classic films is probably the wrong thing to do (from a critics standpoint I guess). First, we got to witness a rather bland reboot of The Evil Dead (entitled just Evil Dead). Now, we get another bland, lifeless, and unnecessary retelling of Brian De Palma's audacious (did I mention powerfully mesmerizing) Carrie. I get it. I know why films are redone. It's obviously to make money and to let a newer generation get to experience something similar to what went down over 30 years ago (blah, blah, blah). Listen, if these films didn't have an original copy that came before them, then maybe they'd be okay on their own. But the fact remains that The Evil Dead (1981) and Carrie (1976) already claimed their stake and to give them a second interpretation to me, is just sacrilege.

Coming off as a shot for shot newbie and having the majority of the actors actually looking age appropriate, Carrie examines a shy, telekinetic girl (Carrie White played by Chloe Grace Moretz who in every scene, seems to have her mouth gaped wide open) who is picked on by her classmates at school, has a religiously defiant mother (Julianne Moore as Margaret White), and out of sheer kindness (and realized guilt), gets invited to the prom (by the most popular boy in high school). As the film progresses, we don't quite no why, but Miss White has inherent powers by which she can move objects with her hands (the hand motions by Moretz aren't quite believable, sorry). When she realizes she can't take the bullying from her fellow classmates and the bible thumping crassness of her mother, Carrie goes a little bonkers (if you've seen the original you know the story anyway. This paragraph is basically for the people that haven't seen either version) and well, you get the drift. What hurts this movie and may have dented the original (the only fault of the 1976 version) is the way Carrie is treated from beginning to end. You feel sorry for her as a character and there is never any resolve when the flick comes to fruition. There is never a happy ending for her and you never get to empathize with her plight. Like I said earlier, I dig the original. But I disregard this buried (no pun intended) aspect of it

All explanations aside, with this current 2013 release, we get performances that are second rate (with the exception of Julianne Moore who plays Carrie's mom and Alex Russell who plays a slightly different version of John Travolta's character who is Billy Nolan), direction that lacks the swooping camerawork/spilt screen effect courtesy of Brian De Palma (even though it was helmed by the critically acclaimed Kimberly Peirce), and a lack of plodding creepiness that made the original such a 70's relic. Even the musical score has been modernized and filtered through an MTV type vibe. Yes, this version is much more violent and its lead does some pretty demonic things (the final scene at prom gets a startling makeover), but there's no sense of awe or dreamlike intensity that made the first one so mystifying (the opening scene in the original within seconds, trumps the new version). Also, the aspect of 70's culture feels more tailored to this type of flick than having it take place in present day (the new Carrie has the ever popular IPhone/youtube phase going on which I know is keeping with the times, but seems overly emphasized). In hindsight, this is a faithful yet laughably unfaithful rendition of Carrie and it's far from memorable or compelling. It hinders itself disposable and has the quintessential feel of every reboot you've ever witnessed (this is not a good thing). With good remakes (which are few and far between), the director adds a new twist or something more than an almost shot for shot retelling (sadly, this one comes pretty close to that). This new Carrie is on line with the type of modern horror films in which sterile, stylized blood and gore drips all over the screen while barely frightening the audience. Maybe it's me but I miss 70's and 80's horror films. They're grittier, eerier, and because of the time passed, grainier. Unless someone figures out how to reinvent the horror genre, we're gonna get scary movies that come off the world's biggest artificial assembly line. But hey, they're probably gonna keep making money because people wanna jump out of their seat (or think they're actually achieving that reaction).

In retrospect, Carrie didn't need to be re imagined (even though it kind of wasn't). It comes from the mind of someone who is too good for this type of stylized hack job. It's as if Kimberly Peirce (director of the powerful Boys Don't Cry) was so worried that she wouldn't get another directing opportunity and had to settle for this one. I'm hoping that she gets back to what she does best which is making hard hitting dramas based on fascinating true stories. She does get the set design right though because the White family home in this version of Carrie seems like a dead on replica of the one in the original. And Julianne Moore does harness the same psychotic intensity brought on by Piper Laurie in 76'. But alas, there's a moral to all this. Don't remake a great film when you know it's better to remake a bad one. To end this review, I'll leave you with the famous line from both Carries which is, "they're all gonna laugh at you!" Yeah, they're all gonna laugh at you, the viewer, if you think this is a serviceable motion picture.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Captain Phillips 2013 * * * 1/2 Stars

Captain phillipsDirector: Paul Greengrass
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars    Cole's Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Paul Greengrass seems like the ideal director to helm a movie about real life dramatizations. This can involve anything from terrorism to hijacking to the rifle shooting of a group of protesters (events or happenings that categorize some of his work). He is a former journalist and that may explain some of his career choices when it comes to various film projects. Of the three or more pictures I've seen of his, my understanding is that he likes to direct material that is based on true events (world news related, 9/11, you know that sort of thing). Using hand held cameras and showcasing a sort of documentary feel, Greengrass picks unknown actors for a lot of roles in his films. He also shoots a flick in a way that allows these actors to have a smooth, unassuming style of delivering their lines. Scenes in his movies (like the near perfect United 93) have a real life feel to them. They almost suggest that you're not watching a movie but actual live content as it happens. This trademark is wholly evident in the Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips. It's a 2013 release in which everyone seems overly natural on screen (this is a good thing). It's also one of the best pictures of the year (so far). With a superb, perfectly plotted opening 30 minutes and a sense of raw fear that accompanies the majority of those minutes, "Phillips" gets off to a stupendous start. What keeps it from perfection is a slightly bogged down second act in which the filmmakers sort of run out of steam. "Phillips" involves the act of kidnapping and piracy. With this notion in my mind, you'll find that a lot of the scenes between the kidnappers and the hostage seem like unnecessary filler. It doesn't help that the conversations between them are terse and involve minimal dialogue.  Overall though, I'd say that this choppy (yet effective) nail biter ends on a riveting, amped up note. It gives Hanks a chance to give one of his "Hanksian" performances (I didn't make up that term by the way) and it provides audiences a reason to believe that Greengrass is one of the most accurate, innovative voices in American cinema. If the film has any flaws, it would be the almost too by-the-book style of explaining true events and the aforementioned selected hostage/pirate episodes. From a director's standpoint, that sort of thing seems admirable. From an audience's viewpoint, it can be deemed monotonous and repetitive.

Beginning without any opening credits (that's a Greengrass trademark) and featuring a small appearance by Catherine Keener (it would've been nice to see more of her in the movie. She plays the hero's wife), Captain Phillips tells the true account of Captain Richard Phillips (a straight faced Tom Hanks). He is a merchant mariner who's ship, the Maersk Alabama, gets hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Their first order of business is getting on board and holding people up with machine guns. Then, they ultimately want the insurance money (or as they say, they want millions). When these pirates don't get what's coming to them, they eventually go onto a small vessel boat and take the Hanks character with them as a hostage (this is where the movie loses some of its dramatic power before regaining it in the final, explosive ten minutes).

That's the overall gist of "Phillips" and with films like Bloody Sunday and the aforementioned United 93 (and this one as well), Greengrass likes to include a lot of faces that you've never seen on screen before. He squeezes terrific performances out of all of them and in my mind, this takes the star power away and lets the viewer concentrate more on the story. This technique also makes a lot of the material seem more like real life (as mentioned earlier in the review). With Captain Phillips, a lot of the actor's lines seem improvised (but you know they're probably not). And what he does with the casting of the antagonists (the hijackers with Barkhad Abdi as their leader) is absolutely amazing. These gentlemen had never acted in a movie before and got picked out of a group of 700 people (in an open casting call). Their screen presence is undeniably electric (the looks in their eyes are searing) and they hold their own with a 30 year acting veteran like Hanks. Speaking of star Tom Hanks, with the casting of unknowns being the director's strength, you wonder if the addition of him as the lead, would hurt the proceedings. Honestly, I don't think it matters because this dude is a reputable icon and a darn good thespian anyway (not an easy combination to pull off). Playing the "everyman" to perfection, he can undeniably get away with it because he effortlessly embodies the character of Richard Phillips. He sort of underplays this performance in certain spots and acts with a slew of dead on mannerisms (he only emotes when needed). With the exception of him clearly campaigning for an Oscar in the last few minutes of the film, I'd say that this is one of his 5 best screen performances of all time (I saw the actual Captain Richard Phillips on the news a week ago and Hanks nails his persona. He looks like him, has the same facial expressions, and the accent is a deadpan)

All in all, Captain Phillips is a the perfect anecdote for an accomplished director like Paul Greengrass and a Hollywood goodie goodie like Hanks (watch him in the last scene, not many films showcase stuff like this). It has its ups and downs (as per the first paragraph, I explained that some of the kidnapping sequences have a suffocating tension, while others seem sort of dragged out) but my overall observation is that it has what a lot of films today lack which is an aptitude of sophistication. It also meets the basic Oscar criteria because of its association with its multiple Academy award winner and the addition of its heroic true story value (you can add historical value too because the Academy loves that one as well). In its possibly overlong running time (I'll let it slide this time), Captain Phillips is an accurate, professionally told true story, an "everyman" drama, and a directorial showcase all rolled up into one. Oh yeah, and it's a solid action adventure with good sea legs too (I always wanted to say that).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Runner Runner 2013 * * * Stars

runner runnerDirector: Brad Furman
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Anthony Mackie

I'm going to start this review off by saying that Justin Timberlake is in way over his head (I'm not just talking about the character he plays) in Runner Runner. The first movie I ever saw him in was Alpha Dog and he was excellent you know, as a supporting player. Now, we have him occupying one of the lead roles (along with the effectively slumming Ben Affleck). I gotta say that watching this dude assist in carrying a feature length film can sometimes be very frustrating. If you can get passed the fact that he looks about 15 years old and deals with heavy handed thugs from Costa Rica (along with hard nosed, manipulative FBI agents), then Runner Runner might be your spiked cup of tea. What we have here is a shallow, empty, and implausible farce of a movie (I find it hard to believe that the events that take place are rumored to be the make up of a true story) but somehow someway, an entertainingly bad one at that. Its director, Brad Furman, directs with a slickness equivalent to an oily racetrack. I've seen his last film (The Lincoln Lawyer) and I totally knew what to expect. Like "Lawyer," Furman supplicates Runner Runner with a juicy script (lots of zingers too), a nice brisk pace, and decent performances (even if the actors involved are a little miscast). This exercise is basically the movie equivalent of the best fast food you ever ate. It's not healthy (minimal nutritional value), it goes right through you, and usually it has extra cheese. I'm gonna hold my breath and recommend it though for its witty, smart aleckness in the script and its continued effort to get you the viewer, to like it no matter how silly things unfold. Like I said earlier, Timberlake strainfully appears to be in uncharted territory with the demands of his role (in this beautifully locale-furnished setting). But the phrase, "it's only a movie," is unequivocally on his side.

Taking place in two different countries (two different climates too), produced by megawatt star Leonardo DiCaprio (maybe he wanted to stay away from acting in this thing and leave the duties to Timberlake, who is kinda the poor man's Leonardo DiCaprio anyway), and moving the plot along with total aplomb (within the first I don't know twenty minutes, everything is set in motion), Runner Runner tells the story of Richie Furst (apparent A-lister Justin Timberlake). He's a student at Princeton University who almost gets kicked out because of his association with on-line gambling (he basically turns other students on to it through his own site and then gets a cut when they win anything). He can't pay his tuition without this money he earns so he decides to do one last game on his own. He does this in order to make a profit of $60,000 (that should cover everything for one year. Wow college is expensive). When he gets cheated by an off shore con artist name Ivan Block (played with a slimy urgency by Ben "I don't look like a guy named Ivan" Affleck) and loses all of his supposed winnings, Richie gets on a plane and boom, confronts the cheater (self made millionaire) asking him for his money back. Ivan returns his winnings but also wants Richie to stay in Costa Rica and work for him (of course, without this plot element how could the movie go on). From then on, Runner Runner almost completely leaves the online poker element and goes straight into the fallible world of marginalized greed and deception. To give things some added dramatic heft, Timberlake's Richie is also being followed by an FBI agent named Shavers (played by Anthony Mackie who steals all the scenes he's in and creates a character you keep wanting to see). Shavers wants Richie to help him take Ivan down. If he succeeds, he won't go to jail and get back safely to the states.

Throughout the film's moderate length (an hour and a half plus change), I was fitfully entertained (not by plausibility but by sure dimwittedness). The ending, well that was my favorite part. Let's just say that the film's conclusion although a little twangy, will have you frolicking in your seat (possibly laughing heartily as well).

When it's all said and done though, Runner Runner is kinda predictable (the trailer pretty much explains most of the movie. The rest you can easily figure out on your own) but it's fun, breezy, and downright cheeky (especially when you have Mackie delivering crackling dialogue every time he's on screen). Honestly, just when you think things might head downhill, this film picks up the pace and willingly takes you with it. It's definitely not a movie going experience you would (or should) take seriously (there's a lot of times when I thought to myself, "yeah right"), but if you (gulp) decide to take a chance on Runner Runner, you just might like it like it.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Gangster Squad 2013 * 1/2 Stars

Director:  Ruben Fleischer
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

Gangster Squad is a big, shiny, mess of a movie. It's loud, violent, and very mean spirited. This January release (red flag there) harks back to the organized crime days of 1940's Los Angeles. The film is loosely based (I mean that sincerely) on the story of the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) forming a "Gangster Squad unit" to stop crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) from causing havoc and taking over the city. The unit is comprised of Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). Also, you got a wire tapper named Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and Robert Patrick's character, Max Kennard. The unique thing about these guys is that they are deep undercover. They basically aren't cops anymore. They are vigilantes. That's the gist of the film and you kinda get the feeling that everyone involved was trying to remake the acclaimed motion picture The Untouchables (1987). Nice try.

"Squad's" biggest problem lies in the screenplay. The words the actors say don't justify anything that's on screen. The script feels like it was written in a half hour. And what we get for the entire running time (1 hr. 53 minutes) is sparse dialogue between the characters followed by violent shoot-em-up scenes that have virtually no set up and no payoff. Don't get me wrong, the action scenes are well done, but it's hard to care about anyone involved because we don't know much about the the villains or the good guys. And the little we do know, isn't enough leverage to embrace what happens to them. It's sad because the film was directed by Ruben Fleischer. His last two movies (Zombieland in 2009, 30 Minutes or Less in 2011) are ones that I would recommend. He brings a lot of energy to the proceedings. He misses the boat however, on this one because it lacks the character insight and juicy, playful banter between the actors in the two movies just mentioned. 

The other problem with "Squad," lies in the acting. Sean Penn is the only one in the cast that does any of it. His performance is over the top but it's decent. The bad part though, is that it also feels like it it's from another movie, a better movie. All the other actors in the film literally seem like they're going through the motions. Let's face it, they're being lazy. It's as if the director yelled cut and everyone went to their trailers for a nice long nap. These are actors that I like (Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte). Added to this disaster is the casting of Emma Stone as pretty much the only woman in the film. She is Grace Faraday, the so-called love interest. It's obvious that she looks out of place. When you see her all you think of is the other movies she's done. I'm talking teenage films like Superbad (2007) and Easy A (2010). And did anyone else find it creepy that she played Sean Penn's character's girlfriend? Yeah me too. Finally, there is the look of the film. You notice I said "shiny" earlier in this review. I'm serious. If this movie ever made it back to theatres for a reissue (it's probably not gonna happen), you'd find out that "Squad" is so slick and glossy that you could probably see your own reflection on the movie screen.

You get the point. It's not necessarily that this film should have never been made, It's just that there was another film like this made earlier and with much better results. I tend to use the term "popcorn flick" a lot in my reviews. The definition of "popcorn flick" is a movie that's good or bad, but not monumental. A "popcorn flick" can actually be a good waste of time.  Gangster Squad is a bad "popcorn" flick because as a moviegoer, it's more than a waste of your time, it's two hours out of your life you can't get back. Oh, it's a "popcorn flick" all right. It's of the stale, microwave, and burnt kind. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Spring Breakers 2013 * * Stars

Director: Harmony Korine
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, James Franco, Ashley Benson

OK picture this: Four college kids (Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine) are bored with their existence. It's Spring Break and everyone at their school has already left. With little money in their pockets and in a drug fueled haze, they decide to rob a fast food restaurant to bankroll a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida for Spring Break madness. While living it up, these girls are befriended by a gangster/rapper named Alien (James Franco) who draws them back into a life of crime with more mischief and mayhem. That's the basic idea behind Spring Breakers, a mindless farce that's kind of a cross between the films Point Break (1991) and True Romance (1993). However, it's the rude stepchild of both of them. A sort of poor man's hangover version if you will.

First off, Spring Breakers is a monumental case of an exercise that is all style and no substance. Possessing a couple of well done sequences and an Oscar worthy performance, it painstakingly thinks that it's a better movie than it really is. You also get the feeling that the cast felt the same way, like they were making a uncompromising college film classic. With a slew of former teen actresses who are all now in their twenties, this vehicle was probably chosen as the type of work that would shed their wholesome good girl image. However, the idea of these girls playing characters who infiltrate a fast food restaurant and put guns in people's faces is ridiculous and sad. What's even more sad is how disorienting this mid-March release is. There is never enough time to take in anything on screen especially the tone at which actors are gauging. Director Harmony Korine is obsessed with cutting from one thing to the next, and I know it's a Spring Break theme movie, but he has an annoying habit of constantly panning from an important plot point to a bunch of half naked woman doing alcohol shots.

That's why you have to hand it to actor James Franco for literally saving "Breakers" from being a total disaster. He shows up halfway in the movie and to his credit, he makes the other cast members look better despite their limited acting range. Alas, everything in "Breakers" kind of slows down to tell a more coherent story the minute he's on screen. It's a shame he wasn't inserted in the proceedings earlier because his performance is downright Oscar worthy.

With the exception of Franco being the only true bright spot, there is one more flaw in this film that sticks out like a sore thumb. A lot of the script is tainted with dangling loose ends. You get the feeling that the actors didn't have much to say toward the end of the dialogue. The solution: Yell out the words SPPRRIINNGG BREEAAK! or SPRRIINNGG BRREEAAK FOR EVVEERR! Utter nonsense. That's why I can't possibly recommend this movie. It continues the trend in today's dreck where there is sort of this lousy MTV style of not letting a shot just pan out. You know, keeping a scene in frame for longer than a couple of seconds. Therefore, in truth, we need a immediate "break" from films like this.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness 2013 * * * 1/2 Stars

The above picture is a title image for the movie Star Trek Into Darkness Director: JJ Abrams
Year: 2013
Rated: PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 stars
Cast: Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, John Cho

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It was probably the first movie sequel I ever saw (Jaws 2 doesn't count; I was only 4 years old). At the time, I proclaimed this "Trek" gem to be the best darn movie in the world. I also burned it in my brain that hey, sequels just plain rule! Hmmm, how times have changed. I see things differently now. But every once and a while, a glimmer of hope seeps its way through the garbage bin that is movie inferiority. Yes, I'm talking about a few part 2's, a couple part 3's, no 4's though (by the way, Fast & Furious 7 is likely to hit theaters next summer, take heed).  

Now, if you've read my most recent reviews, it's obvious that I've never been a huge fan of sequels in general. In my mind, they never quite equal the velocity and sheer magnitude of the original. I'm thinking maybe 2% of all them have surpassed the first one in terms of critical acclaim. I mean come on let's face it, not every part II can be The Godfather. So for some spur of the moment reason, I decided to take in the new Star Trek regardless of my beliefs. After all, a critic must review as many movies as possible. It's our job. With popcorn and Diet Coke in hand, I ventured into a wonderful surround sound theater to witness Star Trek Into Darkness. I gotta say it surprised me wholeheartedly. It doesn't try to outdo and outgun the first one (Star Trek (2009) of the re-imagined franchise). Basically, it sticks to that 2009 release in terms of structure and make up from start to finish. J.J. Abrams, a director who has pretty much hit the big time these days, unleashes his signature shiny look to the proceedings and what you get is a fresh, entertaining, and forceful jolt of movie going hysteria that spills itself all over the screen. While viewing the essence of this "Trek," the action sequences reminded me of the swashbuckling gaudiness of Raiders Of The Lost Ark mixed with the sci-fi kinetic motion of Minority Report (Abrams is a big Spielberg fan so there you go).  

This summer goose bump adventure finds our heroes dealing with a superior villainous specimen who's initial name is Starfleet agent John Harrison. This Harrison later reveals himself to be Khan, a superhuman with uncanny life-recovery mechanisms who's been asleep for 300 years. He awakes from his slumber bent on destroying the enterprise and causing worldwide mass destruction. Khan is played by Benedict Cumberbatch and he's a British actor who's stare could literally cut through glass.

I'm gonna turn over a new leaf and not reveal too much so I'll say this, what makes Star Trek Into Darkness such a delight is that there is never a dull moment, never a time when you might look at your watch, and all along you get spine tingling excitement coupled with a feasible, easy to follow script. The actors (Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto for example) make it look effortless and fancy free. They seem to nail their parts and do exactly what's called for. I especially thought Peter Weller as Starfleet Admiral Marcus was a very nice touch as well (I missed you Robocop). As in the previous installment, they replicate the old Star Trek characters from back in the day (you know Spock, Sulu, Scotty, etc.). Most of them do flat out impersonations but that's okay by me (a lot of these guys look like the old characters as well). I'd say they get away with it. But heck, there's not a lot of time to analyze much in the realm of character development because these guys literally get whisked from one exuberant set piece to the next. To put it mildly, fast paced is an understatement when it comes to Star Trek Into Darkness. It's also got a little bit of biting humor as well (the gibber jabber between Captain Kirk and Spock is priceless). Basically, it's a popcorn flick done right and it could satisfy the most defensive of summer moviegoers (I sometimes have my reservations about bloated summer movies that spew hot air so I'm one of these people). 

So for all you Trekkies and non-Trekkies out there (hey anybody can enjoy this bad boy), I'll leave you with this tag line for any Star Trek adventure: "to boldly go where no man has gone before." I'll even throw women in the mix as well. How bout everyone get their shields down and see this sequel. It's one of the few good ones. 

Written by: Jesse Burleson

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Hangover Part III 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Todd Phillips
Year: 2013
Rated: R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong

Well I guess it's official, I'm eating my words as we speak. Yeah, I'm the guy who doesn't like sequels and yet here I am giving positive ratings to Star Trek Into Darkness and now The Hangover Part III. It's scary to think of what I might do next. If the new Fast and the Furious movie impresses me, I guess I'll just skip reviewing it and go straight into denial. But seriously folks, I went into the new Hangover with really low expectations. We're talking bottom feeder if you know what I mean. So from now on I think that's the key. I'm going to take this approach with every film I see. That way I'll stroll out of the theater as a movie critic that raves about everything and comes off as not so darn grumpy. Whoa, forget what I just said. I was merely kidding people!

Anyway, here's what occurs in part III. At the very beginning, we find mentally unstable "wolfpack" member Alan (Zach Galifianakis getting the most exposure he's had in any of the Hangover films) buying a giraffe, putting it in the back of his truck, and killing it on the freeway (I'm thinking you know how it happened). Upon doing this, he irritates his family and draws concern from the other "wolfpack" members (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha). Everyone but Alan, stages an intervention on his behalf to get him to a treatment center somewhere in Arizona. He'll agree to go if his three buds will drive him there. As the four of them set out on a moderately short road trip, their car is rammed off the road, they are dragged out of it (held at gunpoint mind you), and one of the crew (Bartha of course) is taken hostage. This sets off a chain of events which leads everybody to venture back to good old Sin City.

Well let's get down to it. Right off the bat I want to let you know why I liked The Hangover Part III. I enjoyed it for the exact reason that some critics panned it. This flick doesn't try to be like the other two in the trilogy. In fact, it feels like a totally different animal all together. Yes there is a dash of the funny (something part I did effortlessly and part II attempted miserably), but there's also a hint of darkness that comes close to turning everything into a sort of black comedy with shards of mild violence. For me, this is an effective way to wraps things up (unless there is a part IV of course). You can tell that the director (Todd Phillips) wanted to avoid copping out and injected part III with a little more juice (this is the other reason I liked it and most critics didn't. They think Phillips went way over the top or felt he had to prove something). He did the film justice by avoiding the same tired plot line (everyone gets smashed and wakes up not knowing what the heck just happened) while making an effort to tie together loose ends from the other two movies (by way of flashbacks). This is done to effect in the first 15 minutes and it sets everything in motion.

The actors then promptly assume their personalities from the first two installments. Doug Billings who's never around for the debauchery, plays the happily married nice guy. Alan, plays the screw loose, borderline mental patient who nonchalantly goes about his business. Phil, is the smug, unhappily married school teacher who is calm under pressure, and Stu is the manic anxiety ridden dentist who thinks all hope is gone. Together they fit their roles like comfortable old shoes. Overall their performances are manically unhinged. You get what's required of them coupled with a fresher more potently nasty script this time around (part II's had lazy written all over it).

As far as supporting work goes, I thought John Goodman (gangster Marshall) was a nice little addition to the Hangover family (he riffs off his Big Lebowski character but just not quite as intense). I also like the addition of a love interest for Alan (someone besides man crush Phil) in Melissa McCarthy. She seems to make a cameo in everything these days and certainly is a hoot as a pawn shop owner who candidly berates her wheelchair confined mother.

The only setback for this Hangover is the blatant deviation from the focus of the four stars of the movie (the infamous "wolfpack"). This exercise is bent on giving two supporting characters their own vehicle (Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow and Galifianakis). True these guys are funny and steal many a scene, but the other members of the cast don't get a lot of room to breathe. They get kind of pushed to the side and become sort of frowned upon (Bradley Cooper recently got nominated for an Oscar, give him some props for gosh sakes). And what's with always having Justin Bartha's character not present with the other members of the "pack" when the madness of their misadventures is going down. It seems predetermined and silly. What, is he not good enough an actor to occupy some precious screen time with his buddies (Bartha was in the colossal flop Gigli (2003) so maybe that's it, who knows).

When it all comes down to it, I found myself at ease with the way part III whisked by. It's darker than the first one, funnier than the second one, and more daring than both of them. I laughed, I winced, and felt confident in recommending this hot mess of a movie. It's a sequel all right, but it tries really hard not to be one. I admire that. With nothing to lose, you should go check out The Hangover part III. It's a solid time killer and a required "hair of the dog" if you will.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gravity 2013 * * * Stars

The picture is the movie title poster for GravityDirector: Alfonso Cuarón
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars     Cole's Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

The only actors that pretty much appear in the 2013 sci-fi release Gravity, are George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. They share top billing but in the end this is Bullock's show. She gives a stunning and seething performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a Mission Specialist who gets caught in a violent (outer atmosphere) debris storm that destroys her shuttle and sends her floating into space. With the help of astronaut Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney), she is brought back to safety (by way of a tether) and the two of them must find a way to get back to Earth. They have limited resources (the rest of the crew are dead and Stone's oxygen pack is waning) and can't get any type of radio transmission.

This is basically the set up for the rest of the proceedings. My overall view: Gravity is pretty good but not great. From the opening shot, right away it feels like the director is teasing you with a teeny tiny homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (a space shuttle floats across the faraway landscape of the planet Earth). That's where the comparisons end. This film hints at Kubrick's masterpiece (there's a close-up of Bullock's eyes that channel Keir Dullea with his space helmet on) and it seeks to bring the terror like say, the 1979 gem Alien. But alas, Gravity lacks the eerie beauty displayed in "Odyssey" and the nightmarish posture that possessed Ridley Scott's celebrated marvel. Yes, the characters in this flick are in a lot of danger and extreme peril. However, their plights did not shake me. I didn't experience fear with them. Being lost in space is I guess, terrifying. But it's hard to pull off. Open Water, a movie that has nothing to do with sci-fi but carries a similar theme, is a superior thriller that has two characters stranded in a body of water with no land in sight. The fact that they might be eaten by sharks is something that shook me to the core. I didn't get the same vibe with Gravity. I don't think it's the filmmakers fault. This is a picture that is stunning to look at and it has that feeling you get when you think to yourself, "how the heck did they make this." I give credit to director Alfonso Cuarón for using the same technique that he perfected in Children of Men (2006). He excels at getting the camera to closely follow every action of the characters (it stays right next to them) while at the same time, having the destruction and chaos occur around them and at close proximity.

Honestly, if there is one major flaw that seeps into this vehicle's veins, it would be this: a lot of the dangerous situations that Bullock and Clooney (more Bullock than Clooney) get into are the plot devices this thing throws in to keep things afloat (ha ha) or moving (they wander into another space station and there is a fire. Bullock's character tries to get home in an escape pod and it's out of fuel. They come into more contact with debris etc, etc...). And then there's the ending that kinda winks at Ron Howard's Apollo 13. Again, Gravity is a good film. But it's not the masterpiece that most critics make it out to be.

I see some good things happening with this picture though. It should get some technical nods come awards time. And I think Bullock deserves a nomination from the Academy (completely different from her performance in The Blind Side, but still terrific in its own right). But is it Best Picture material? Not in my book. Gravity is no doubt an effective way to kill an hour and a half.  This movie has a look and a feel like nothing you've ever seen before. But as something that stays with you long after the curtain closes, I feel it doesn't quite hold much weight.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines 2012 * * 1/2 Stars

The picture above is a teaser poster for the movie The Place Beyond the PinesDirector:  Derek Cianfrance
Year: 2012
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

As I viewed the first frame of director Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, I witnessed star Ryan Gosling fiddling about with a switchblade before leaving his dressing room. The camera then tracks him to a state fair circus area where he proceeds to do some daredevil stunt work. I'm not gonna lie. Within the first five minutes, I was pumped to see the rest of this movie. Gosling portrays motorcycle outlaw Luke Glanton and his screen presence is fiercely intimidating. Resembling a young Steve McQueen (not in looks but in stature) and having his own signature "movie walk" (it's the same in everything he's in especially Drive), he has the gift of being a great actor while relying on the most minimal amount of dialogue (I'm not sure if I'm right, but I think it's in his contract to be followed with the camera from his backside and not his front side). In "Pines," which is a long, winding film that drifts about into uncharted territory once too often, Gosling's Glanton is only featured in the first half (he inhabits about an hour of screen time). You follow his character  hoping that he finds peace of mind with his life choices. Alas, when he leaves the proceedings, the director asks us, the audience, to latch onto another character and then another (each with their own hidden agendas). So here's the gist of it: when watching The Place Beyond the Pines, you begin to realize that this is the movie equivalent of getting in a car, driving to an unknown destination, realizing that you're thousands of miles away, and stopping in the middle of nowhere. Two hours and twenty minutes after viewing it, I figured I was on some kind of meaningless journey (to where I have no clue) instead of fully immersed in an actual, relevant cinematic experience. "Pines" doesn't make much of a point and offers no real significance when it comes to its plot descriptions. The fact that it's well directed (lots of tracking shots and some hand held camera stuff), ardently scripted, and evenly scored only frustrates me even more as to the fact that I just can't recommend it.

Presenting itself as a three part character study and taking place in two fairly different time periods, "Pines" takes a gander at motorcycle stuntman turned bank robber Luke Glanton. He ditches touring around the state of New York to stay in town and befriend an old flame (he robs banks for extra money to support a one year old child he didn't even know about). Then there is police officer Avery Cross (played by Bradley Cooper) who while only a year on the job and in the line of duty, gets shot in the leg and winds up being a hero (he apprehends Glanton). Fast forward 15 year later, and we get a troubled boy (Glanton's grown up son) who searches for any information on the father he never had by resorting to a violent act of kidnapping.  All of these characters have serious moral dilemmas. They're all connected in some way either by blood or simple coincidence, and their lives intersect for minutes at a time. This is my biggest complaint with "Pines." The film plays like three different stories that all have deadening, superficial loose ends. We are not given a chance to think about and decipher each character because the plot already leads us into the trials and tribulations of another. Like I said earlier, this flick is a journey that leads to nowhere. The fact that it's well done only leads to my continued frustration with it.

In hindsight though, The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of utmost originality. If I'm not mistaken, it is cut completely from original cloth (its not based on a story, a book, or true events). But it was difficult for me to decide on who to root for, who to reason with, and who to feel sorry for when it came to the actions of the dissuaded players in the cast. One cast member in particular who had an interesting character motivation, was Luke's friend Robin Van Der Zee (played by Ben Mendelsohn). He persuaded Luke to do the robberies and then cut him off by eventually not helping him escape. Then when Luke's son comes knocking on the door 15 years later, Robin tells him what a great guy Luke was and what an amazing motorcycle rider he became. I don't know about you but this seems pretty hypocritical to me.

Honestly, there are three questions you have to ask yourself when viewing this thing: is this film about Glanton's need to take care of his family (his young boy and his forgotten lover played by Eva Mendes) by committing multiple motorcycle robberies, is it about Cooper's character who works on a corrupt police force and wants to break free by becoming New York's youngest district attorney, or is it about Gosling's character's misguided, unloved son who resorts to stealing, kidnapping, and alleged drug dealing to get through the day? I wasn't sure and I couldn't make up my mind on who was the main focus. This is a vehicle that comes off as a set of ideas in search of a major voice. Cianfrance's earlier release, Blue Valentine at least had the audacity to keep the storytelling locked in one area and not have it break off into tangents like he does here. If you choose to see "Pines," see it for its whimsical pace (this film moves at a fast clip for having a 2 and a half hour running time), its decent performances and its raw like tone. Just know that it may leave you "beyond" cold in the end.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, October 4, 2013

Elysium 2013 * * * 1/2 Stars

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars     Cole's Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga

With a somewhat original and visionary take on the sci-fi genre, Elysium gave me the ultimate spine-tingling feeling I've been hoping for in a summer movie. This flick has elements of other science fiction fare but it doesn't try to copy them, it just tries to add new perspectives. Director Neill Blomkamp (he shot the Academy Award nominated District 9) has a unique style all his own. He likes to bring a sort of dirty, non-pristine look to his films (not exactly the same but in a similar vein to what Ridley Scott did with Alien). And at the same time, the cinematography is undoubtedly top notch. Being that Blomkamp is from South Africa, the film I'm reviewing along with District 9 have the look and feel of one of its cities which is Johannesburg. So in a rare feat these days, Elysium combines effectively, the complicated elements of futuristic culture with stellar action sequences. Yes, this exercise can sometimes lose a little focus with its sort of jumbled storyline, but by the last half hour, everything seems to come together just fine. As I viewed this picture with its hair raising, horn-filled musical score, I was reminded (in a lightweight sort of way) of two classic films: The Road Warrior and Blade Runner. Again, Elysium does not copy off these films by any means. But it serves as a worthy companion to both of them (it has the distinction of feeling like a true dystopian flick and a post apocalyptic flick like the aforementioned movies).

Giving star Matt Damon a deglamorizing role to sink his teeth into, Elysium takes place in the year 2154. The planet has become split up into two completely different worlds. A beautiful space station called Elysium (of course), is tailor made for the wealthy and disease free. Then there is earth, a now poor, overly populated slum where the order that exists, projects misery to everyone living there. Damon's character (Max Da Costa) is propelled to take on a mission that might possibly bring the two worlds together and provide uniform equality. Here's the dilemma: he's got to get past a cold, icy Secretary of Defense (Jessica Delacourt played stiffly by Jodie Foster) and John Carlyle (William Fichtner), a misguided CEO of the Armadyne corporation (they built Elysium). I'm not going to give anything more away. You just have to know that Elysium's plot doesn't quite kick in immediately. You just have to be patient and let this concoction take you for a ride.

Harboring a solid enough cast, I would only consider Jodie Foster to be Elysium's weak link. She is a great actress no doubt about it, but this is not the Jody Foster we know and love. Saddled with an unnatural, uncomfortable screen presence and a silly accent (I guess it was British, but I could be wrong), this might be one of the worst performances she has ever given in her 40-plus year career. On the other end of the spectrum, there's Damon. I can say with confidence, that he has found the perfect role to enhance his attributes as a rough and rugged actor (the image of him firing machine guns in slow motion is pretty darn cool). He gets totally put through the wringer in this slam bang actioner and indelibly shines throughout (his character reminded me of his Jason Bourne but more vulnerable and living in the near distant future instead of present day).

With summer sort of coming to a close, I'm glad I took in a screening of Elysium. It's a refreshing and welcoming surprise considering what's been out lately at your local multiplex (in August, there hasn't been anything write to home about, that's my report). In a sense, this is a cunning, breathtaking, challenging, and exhilarating sci-fi trip par excellence. I truly want to see it again.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Don Jon 2013 * * * Stars

don jonDirector: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza

As I recall, the last Joseph Gordon-Hewitt movie I saw was Looper. With a little prosthetic make up and a slight voice alteration, he willfully imitates Bruce Willis. Now in his directorial debut (not the first film he's overseen but this is the first that's not a short), he looks and acts slightly more like a young Robert De Niro (sans make up, its gotta be the smirk and the mannerisms I'm thinking). Don Jon (the flick I'm reviewing) is a quirky little movie that is interesting and amusing (not to mention foul-mouthed, crass, and overly sexual). To Gordon-Hewitt's credit, it works because of him. His direction is swift, sassy, and for the first half, unique in the way it dictates the rhythms of the actors/cuts through music and narration. Along with the solid directorial effort he shows here, he's also become a fully accomplished actor that specializes in creating different and interesting (multi layered) characters.

Muscle-chested, full of road rage tendencies and a cleanliness freak, his Jon Martello, Jr. is a study of one man's inability to formulate a relationship (with a woman) because he would rather watch pornographic material on the Internet. He's an unwealthy playboy (that's why his two best friends call him quote unquote, "Don Jon"), a ladies man, and a churchgoing type all rolled up into one. He's proud of his clean apartment and I guess, doesn't cook (that explains why he mostly eats at his parent's house). As I said earlier, Martello, Jr. has a bit of a temper from time to time and probably gets it from his dad (Jon Sr. played by Tony Danza who sheds his Who's The Boss character's image by spewing a ton of profanity). His sister doesn't talk and basically is on her phone all the time. Then there's Jon Jr.'s mother who wants so bad for him to be in a relationship, get married, and have kids. Basically for most of the proceedings, Don Jon details three things: Gordon-Levitt's (Martello, Jr.) unusual relationship with his family (he and his dad love to rock the wife beaters at the dinner table), his obsession with watching pornographic movies, and his pursuit of a "dime" of a girl that he meets at a dance club (Scarlett Johansson giving a solid performance as Barbara Sugarman (she gets the Jersey accent down pat)). And if you've only seen the trailer, this movie as a whole can be a little misleading as it gets closer to its conclusion. Don Jon ventured down a different path than I initially thought it would. The reason: A supporting role played by Julianne Moore (Esther) kinda changes things up a bit. She plays a sulking widow who befriends Gordon-Levitt's character giving him insight into his admitted condition. and all, Don Jon is fun for most of the way. It is the type of film that will cause you to laugh nervously because you feel guilty for enjoying it. Its only fault may be the way it ends things so abruptly and without enough of a satisfying conclusion (the flick went from music video mayhem to a rom com indie look). I will recommend it though for Joseph Gordon-Levitt alone. He is able to nail down any character he plays and with a slight nudge from outside forces (any male cast member from Jersey Shore comes to mind), he creates Martello, Jr. completely out of thin air. He's a darn good actor and his future A-list status is fully assured. As for Don Jon the vehicle, it may turn off certain types of moviegoers. If you are one of the easily offended, I would advise against seeing it (the innuendo is off the charts). If you don't mind your jaw dropping from time to time with the occasional guilty chuckle or snort, Don Jon might just be the "Don" Perignon of sex comedies.

Written by Jesse Burleson