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Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Conjuring 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

Director: James Wan
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars     Cole's Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Vera Farmiga

Let me start this review off by saying that The Conjuring is only moderately scary. This film is expertly plotted (for the first half), well cast, and provides a few jolts here and there. It's an American horror yarn that takes place in the early 1970's. To make things even more authentic, it also feels like 70's film making in general. Director James Wan loves to show off with the camera by harboring a large amount of zoom ins and zoom outs (if I'm not mistaken, these are prevalent techniques used in the aforementioned decade). He seems to want to do this instead of actually frightening the audience. Heck, he even films a long tracking shot (ala Goodfellas) at the beginning. This is done as the terrorized family portrayed, is first moving in. So with all the fun that Wan is having with these shots, it still feels like he's holding back. In just under two hours, The Conjuring is mostly build up. And when the scares come, they just doesn't feel potent enough. But to be honest, that's not the only problem. This is an exercise that pretty much borrows from almost every horror movie ever made. It's basically The Exorcist meets The Amityville Horror (the houses from The Conjuring and "horror" are eerily similar) with tidbits from The Evil Dead, The Sixth Sense, The Changeling, and Paranormal Activity all thrown into the mix. Now most of what I've just mentioned is pretty scary stuff. It's just too bad that a movie based on a true story such as this one, has to be so darn unoriginal by copying everything that came before it (yes the events in The Conjuring take place circa 1971, but it still was released this year. Just wanted to make that clear).

Set in a small town in Rhode Island and taking place in the fall season (fall is inclined to include heavy rainfall like so many horror flicks do), The Conjuring tells the story of the Perron family (five girls plus Ron Livingston as Roger Perron and Lili Taylor as Carolyn Perron) buying a farmhouse and encountering demonic forces in it that are beyond their control. They buy this place not knowing the history of it or its tantalizing structure (apparently unbeknownst to them, there is a cellar below, how original). After things go bump bump in the night (naturally), they call on a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators (Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren and Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren) to drive out from Connecticut and rid the dwelling of all things supernatural. With all the painful familiarity going on, the best scene for me however, happens when this happily married, ghost hunting couple enters the house, scopes everything out, and delivers the bad news about what's going on. This all happens toward the middle section of the running time and I figured things could maybe go uphill from here. Unfortunately I was wrong. In the past I've recommended recycled movies of all genres. With this one, I finally had to break the streak.

You don't have to take my word for it, but if you plan on viewing The Conjuring, just know that it almost loses its way in the second half. I'm not sure why, but this picture actually adds a comedic element with all the chaos that's going on (it's in the form of a police officer who tags along and looks completely out of place). It's totally unnecessary. To be honest, I thought this vehicle was supposed to be terrifying. I guess I was wrong. Truth be told, there's no need for some goofy side character (a sort of deadpan version of Deputy Dewey for Scream) taking part in the happenings at the Perron house. Added to that awkwardness, there's also sort of a level of contradiction that occupies the haunted family that was just mentioned. For instance, when the investigators sit the heads of the Perron household down and tell them that they can't escape the evil entity trying to possess them (basically they say that no one can leave the house), cut to a half hour later and the whole family being hunted, is told to go to a hotel. Furthermore, I was curious about a lot of the happenings that went on in particular, that weren't fully explained. I mean why did random species of birds run into the wall of the house (breaking their necks I might add) and what's up with Carolyn Perron's voice not being heard on the tape recorder (during the initial interviews)? She's not a dead person so it doesn't make a lot of sense, or does it. Aw heck, if you're gonna pull the audience in, at least let them know what they're supposed to be frightened about.

All in all, if you've never seen the countless films this bad boy imitates, The Conjuring might scare the living daylights out of you. If this flick somehow affects you, there's a chance you might be frightened by laying on a bed, opening a closet door, clapping twice, or looking in a mirror. But if you've been around the block like I have when it comes to scary movies, you probably will consider it disposable to the nth degree. As familiar as an old shoe and as tired as your average college student pulling an all nighter, this take on old fashioned horror fare, is nothing to "conjure" about.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Delivery Man 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

Delivery ManDirector: Ken Scott
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders

Delivery Man is sadly, just another Vince Vaughn movie. It tries to break away from this notion by showcasing a sort of toned down performance by him. And this vehicle manages to even stray away from being another proverbial Vaughn-like comedy (the trailer is a tad misleading).  But in the end, we have him playing yet another version of his character from the breakthrough role he had in 1996's Swingers. His performance in that landmark film is one that I believed, made him a big star. And now twenty years later, he is still giving versions of that performance which has been stripped down to almost nothing. Vaughn's acting style involves talking fast (he improvises to the point of absurdity), walking like he's hungover, nodding his head, yelling, and pointing (he also seems to like to have his hands on his cranium in almost every single movie poster). He likes to do projects that aren't based on true stories, a book, or anything historical. His films are spawned out of silly, trivial ideas and thoughts. Finally, he plays characters who are simpletons or boys who are trapped in men's bodies (there is also an imbedded "token" best friend in all his films giving him everyday advice). Following his most recent work, you sense that he has relieved himself of all of his integrity without even knowing it. And now after the recent revenue numbers for Delivery Man were next to nothing (whoever thought that this movie could go toe to toe with the release of The Hunger Games might need to be fired immediately), it's safe to say that the Vaughnster is churning out box office flops faster than Usain Bolt in last year's Olympics.

Taking off without much character development or heightened buildup, and containing a scene where two people have a conversation in pouring, torrential ran for no reason, Delivery Man follows the sad sack existence of one David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn). He lives in a cluttered apartment, works in the family business by driving a meat truck (while watching this thing I was wondering, was Vaughn's character adopted because he stands about a foot taller than his two brothers and his father, just an observation), owes $80,000 to the kind of people you don't want to mess with, and dates a woman police officer who reveals to him that she is pregnant with his child. Now David is really bad at his job (the only reason why he doesn't get fired I suppose, is because his father is his boss) and doesn't have much direction in life until he gets some shocking news. Twenty or so years ago, he made over 600 sperm donations to make money and because of his outstanding reproductive count, he ends up fathering 533 of them. When these young adults become curious about their long lost daddy, they end up forming a large support group and even signal for a class action lawsuit in order to find the identity of the person they never knew. Vaughn's character, not revealing himself to any of the supposed children, acts as a quote unquote "guardian angel" to them and helps them get by in everyday life. His donations long ago, resulted in examples such as an NBA basketball player, a struggling actor, a musician, and a troubled drug addict. What's strange is that even though two decades have passed, the kids all seem to still live in New York City. What's even stranger is that there are so many of them (did it have to be 533, I mean why not like a hundred or so, geesh).

Now despite being predominantly creepy (the guy has half a thousand kids and one on the way, seriously) and calculated by outlandishly sketched ideas, Delivery Man still manages to be very well made. It has a brisk pace, it doesn't contain any major plot holes, and it manages to pull at the heart strings ever so slightly in the last half hour. But don't kid yourself, there are a few things wrong with it. For instance, why is it that none of the children's moms are ever seen? I mean not even once (added to that, his best friend in the movie has four kids and his wife is never in the picture. Does Delivery Man have something against women in general?). I know that these people are in their twenties, but it just seems kind of closed off and weird. And what's with Vaughn's David dating a sophisticated, mature police officer. It seems kind of odd that this woman would ever consider being in a relationship with an underachieving schlep like Vaughn (I guess it benefits him when he gets tons of parking tickets in the first twenty minutes of the film and I'm thinking he doesn't have to pay for them). Then there is the fact that 90% of the kids he created don't look anything like him. I'm sure that the casting director could find a few more actors here and there that at least fit Vaughn's facial description (only a couple of said young adults did any real acting in the film anyway so maybe the casting department could find a dozen lookalikes right off the street). Finally, there is a scene where he goes on sort of a wilderness retreat with his 500 plus sons and daughters. They don't know his identity as the sperm donor even though it's painfully obvious that they could probably figure it out. This leads me to define Delivery Man's biggest problem: it thinks it's as smart or smarter than the audience. We as ticket buyers, know better. Trust me.

Now on the acting front, the supporting cast that surrounds Vaughn's Wozniak, is exhaustively weak. The one exception however, is Chris Pratt who plays his best friend Brett. Acting as his attorney full of life changing advice and hard nosed tough love, Pratt gives a better performance than Vaughn and the whole flick itself. And despite the fact that his character talks down to Vince's character telling him that he has and I quote, "serious has mental problems," Pratt's Brett still manages to make a grand impression on the audience (this is evident even though there is a simple one note feeling that Delivery Man projects). One of his best scenes is in the last act and it's microcosmic movie gold. I got a feeling that maybe someday he might helm his own cinematic endeavor.

In retrospect, Delivery Man is not necessarily a bad film. In fact, like most of Vaughn's recent work (especially The Internship), it's totally harmless. But as I said in the last paragraph, it's a one note exercise that being reminiscent of Vaughn's last 4-5 outings, could only pass as a sitcom or a low rent TV movie. I give director Ken Scott (Delivery Man is a remake of his other film, Starbuck in 2011) credit however for adding a soggy dramatic center to the proceedings. This allows Vaughn to at least kinda branch out as an actor and try to switch gears a little (just a small amount mind you). Bottom line: as a meaningless way to kill an hour and a half, this November release will fill a void. As a complex farce destined to be taken seriously, Delivery Man ultimately, just doesn't quite deliver.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Heat 2013 * * Stars

Director: Paul Feig
Year: 2013
Rated: R
Rating: * *  Stars
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock, Marlon Wayans

In 2011, Paul Feig directed what I like to call the first true, raunchy "chick flick" in Bridemaids. It was original and funny with a great cast of characters. Melissa McCarthy was so memorable in it that she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. Cut to 2013 and we have Feig reuniting with her again (she's like a movie star now) for The Heat (right off the bat, can't the title be a little more original). He in turn decides to pair her with America's sweetheart, Sandra Bullock. The result: an uneven and rather excruciating buddy cop movie (don't we have enough of those already) that has its moments, but has to rely on a barrage of profanity lacings to convince the audience that it's, I guess, comedic. Because this film doesn't have a large cast, McCarthy and Bullock are relied on to carry the full 2 hour running time. There in lies the problem. Bullock, I can handle but in truth, McCarthy's act in a short period of two years, has almost gotten tired by this point. She has resorted to giving the same performance in everything she appears in (I also wonder, is it in her contract to have her husband do a cameo in all her films, just a thought). In Bridemaids, she was extremely likable. In The Heat, she's almost intolerable. If you've seen This Is 40, Identity Thief, The Hangover III, and of course the aforementioned, get ready to experience more of the same. My advice to her is this: you can only play hostile for so long. Did anyone say typecast?

So without further adieu, I'll go over the gist of this 2013 summer release (probably should've been put out in August where bad summer films exist, oh well). It's about two separate personalities (an FBI agent and a detective) who are forced to work together (there's an original idea) to take down a Russian mobster in the city of Boston (is it me or is Beantown being used for every cop movie lately). Bullock's character is special agent Sarah Ashburn. She's taking the assignment to get promoted. Melissa McCarthy's character is detective Shannon Mullins. She's on board with Asburn because well, she's quote unquote "the best cop in the precinct" (that scares the heck out of me). This whole mess is brought to you from the mind of screenwriter Katie Dippold. I read somewhere that she wanted The Heat to garner its inspiration from films like Lethal Weapon and Running Scared. Well after attending a 11:15 screening yesterday, I'm forced to choose the latter (this is not a good thing). Like I mentioned earlier, bad language (f-bombs mainly) is in the majority of what comes out of the actor's mouths. The ratio is probably every fourth of fifth word (you think I'm kidding, I'm not).

Oh there's a lot of shenanigans going on in this abomination. For instance, in a buddy cop movie, you have to have villains. In The Heat, we've seen countless versions of them in other flicks of the same genre. The thing that bugs me is that not only are these ones not menacing, they don't even look like the bad guys. The main antagonist in this flick, is a high end drug dealer. He looks like someone who works at Abercrombie and Fitch. Ugh! Then there is the old adage where the villains wait and wait to cause harm to the stars in the movie (basically they let them live and off everybody else). Oh yeah, they (the bad guys) gotta explain things too. Remember Bullock and McCarthy's characters can't die because without them, how could things continue (again we've seen this nonsense all too often). Finally, I don't get the relationship between Bullock and McCarthy in general. They go at each other's throats throughout the entire proceedings but somehow by osmosis, become best buds in the end. It no doubt feels strained and forced. It's not the actors fault mind you, it's the manipulation of the script. And I'm gonna put it out there front and center, if I starred alongside Melissa McCarthy (aka detective Shannon Mullins) in this movie, I'd avoid her like the plague, just sayin'.
To be fair, The Heat does have a few funny gags here and there (the scene with McCarthy putting a knife back in Bullock's leg is a riot. And maybe throw in the sequences where they get drunk together) but I've come to expect better things from the leads and the director. McCarthy can act, there's no doubt about it. But she needs to expand her repertoire a bit. Bullock, she could probably get away with doing movies like this forever (but why would she want to). Director Paul Feig, well he made the mistake of following the clever Bridemaids with a recycled, cliched, and all too familiar vehicle. The Heat is disposable as leftover Chinese food. It's gonna make a ton of money and probably wow a few moviegoers (gosh I hope not). If you've seen the trailer, all the funny parts are in it. You've been warned so save yourself ten bucks by watching it on youtube. I'm gonna sum up my review by following one cop term with another: The Heat becomes "The Bust". The "Big Bust" that is.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Paranoia 2013 * * Stars

ParanoiaDirector: Robert Luketic
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman

Paranoia as a word, is defined as a thought process heavily dissuaded by a sense of fear and anxiety. If that's the case, then this movie definitely didn't harness that definition (it kinda tries though). A sense of boredom, familiarity, and gregarious slickness entered my mind while watching this rote thriller. If it went straight to DVD, I would have cut it a little slack. Unfortunately, a host of big name actors were attached to the project (Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Richard Dreyfuss to name a few) and that at least catapulted it to come out in the doldrums of August. Paranoia is a film that is similar to Runner Runner, which filtered its way into theaters a couple of months later. I recommended Runner Runner based on the fact that it managed to be somewhat appealing despite its shortcomings. With Paranoia, I wasn't so generous. In addition to trotting out a simulation of the Ben Affleck vehicle just mentioned, Paranoia also projects itself as a poor man's Wall Street (this thing comes close to Wall Street's vibe minus the technology) in which an impressionable young stud gets involved with the money hungry upper class (only to fall abate to a pool of deception). I gotta say this movie came off as not only a snore's fest, but a constant reminder that a ton of similar types of techno-thrillers confidently came before it. I don't know exactly why three big name stars would be attached to it, but I can decipher why it wasn't marketed very well. The movie falls flat on its feet by being technologically generic and incoherently glossy. I can't say that it's the worst film of the year because it tweaks out a little bit of passion. I will contend though, that star Liam Hemsworth should keep his distance when taking on roles like this. He'll end up being typecast as that dude from The Hunger Games and nothing else. Oh and did I mention that the movie added a love interest for him? Sadly, this is something that is forcefully included in pretty much every thriller these days. In essence, this flick felt like assembly line fodder so much that I thought I might go out to a factory instead of finishing it. I could otherwise see how peanut brittle was made. You know, just for the heck of it.

Directed by a guy who dabbles in romantic comedies and embarrassingly bad romantic thrillers (anyone see the dud Killers), Paranoia follows the character of Adam Cassidy (played with a hint of bland confidence by Liam Hemsworth). He's an inventor of some sorts and works for a corporation manned by a slimy Brit named Nicholas Wyatt (played by a slumming Gary Oldman). After being fired and re-hired for the same reason (Cassidy used the company credit card to buy his fellow colleagues drinks at a high end dance club), he then becomes blackmailed into stealing secrets from a separate corporate entity owned by Wyatt's mentor, Augustine "Jock" Goddard (Harrison Ford looking rather silly with his head shaven). If he doesn't go through with this low level bit of espionage, the people he works for, will soon go after his father Frank (played by Richard "I can't believe I'm doing movies like this" Dreyfuss). Added to that, he also meets and has a fling with someone from the workplace he is spying on. As Emma Jennings, the object of Cassidy's affection, Amber Heard barely registers a pulse and you sometimes forget that she is even in Paranoia. Her lines are muttered and she tends to fade in and out only to suggest that she is merely just the token love interest (as mentioned earlier, all thrillers for some reason, have to have this plot point embedded in their DNA).

Now for reasons sort of unknown, Paranoia has an Oscar winner and two Oscar nominees in its cast. The dialogue they trade doesn't come off as laughable. It does however, seem to be lifted from every script in Hollywood. You can tell at ad nausium when the actors speak.  And let's examine the word paranoia when applied as the title of this movie. The main character (Hemsworth) doesn't come off as exuding that characteristic by definition. What's also lacking is the feeling of him being in any real danger even though this vehicle suggests that he is. He obviously seems to be in control of the situations a lot more than the paperweight villains are (Gary Oldman's Nicholas Wyatt came off as rather soft, who knew).

In order to conclude this review, I can't help but mention the ending which lacks for excitement. When the prologue to this shiny lark comes, it's the equivalent of air being let out of someone's tires. Let's just say that Paranoia as a thriller, lapses into something that never quite picks up speed. As you watch it, you feel as if nothing is going on, or nothing is going to happen anytime soon. It feeds your technological psyche only to dumb it down considerably by constantly focusing on the aspect of the cell phone revolution (all the technological gadgetry featured in this exercise in general, seems altogether dated). If you fancy watching this on DVD, it couldn't really ruin your evening. But if you decide to take this thing seriously, you obviously have been living a sheltered life. Paranoia wastes the talent of its stars (maybe they needed the extra paycheck), glides by on a level of slick nothingness, and manages to dent the earnest career of one Liam Hemsworth. In a word, people don't want to pay $10 to view something they've already taken in many times over. Bottom line: see 2003's similar spy thriller The Recruit instead. It's not great, but it trumps this airy, misbegotten flop.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Internship 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Shawn Levy
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars     Cole's Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson

Slated as an early June release, The Internship tells the story of two guys (wrist watch salesmen I'm thinking) who lose their jobs to the unfortunate medium of technology and decide to travel to California. Their objective: Get jobs at Google and start a new life. The two best friends (Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as Billy and Nick respectively) are much older than all the interns at the Google factory and feel out of place at first. But they inject a sort of teamwork aspect that their "Big Brother" team somewhat lacks. This sets off a chain of events and brings everybody closer to their goal of getting full time gigs at what Billy states is "the best job in America."

So after viewing The Watch (unnecessarily rated R junk) and The Dilemma (a dark and restless vehicle trying to pass off as comedy), I was a little skeptical about taking in the latest quote unquote "Vince Vaughn movie." I've been critical of this guy in the past because he relentlessly gives the same performance over and over (it started with Old School and he hasn't looked back since). As a result, I'd be lying if I said I had high expectations venturing into the theater to see The Internship. But wouldn't you know it, this film surprised me. It is a refreshing, lightweight comedy that piles on good, solid palatable laughs. Its got a lot of characters in it that win you over. And its got Owen Wilson on board to compliment his best bud Vaughn. Because of this, Vaughn automatically becomes a much more likable actor this time around. The two of them echo back to their Wedding Crashers days by basically playing the same characters (it's like their always on a mission), having sort of similar adventures (Owen gets to be smooth with the ladies again), and making all of us laugh wholeheartedly.

But let's be honest, The Internship is no masterpiece. Much of what happens in it does not permeate to real life (there's maybe a 10% chance these guys would be hired at this particular organization full of genius code breakers). This flick feels more like a fantasy than a dose of surmised reality (the term "it's only a movie" applies here like you wouldn't believe). Overall though, this motion picture just wants to have fun. It tells a good story (not a true one mind you), has an outrageous Will Ferrell cameo, and caters to the whole Vaughn/Wilson chemistry thing. And although The Internship strives to be great but comes up a little short, that's okay because it defines the word "harmless." It also has a breeziness to it that's contagious. With the exception of a little too much improvisation from the cast (they talk real fast like they're in old 50's movies), what's on screen still gets my recommendation. Reason being is that it sets a gold standard for a PG-13 laugh fast. It does this by teetering on the brink of R rated movie fare while thankfully not going over the edge. It's a welcome surprise when you can giggle and snarl in the theater without the abundance of cuss words.

With the summer movie season concluding over three months ago, The Internship doesn't quite fit the mold of a huge bloated blockbuster like we see every year (yes I'm talking about Transformers). But for what it's worth, I enjoyed myself for two straight hours. It's not easy to make a film where everything comes together perfectly (you know script, direction, editing, music, etc...). So to sum up my review, I'd say yes, this film has many flaws. But for laughable escapist entertainment, it undoubtedly does the trick.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Best Man Holiday 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

Image is of the movie poster for The Best Man Holiday
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut

Malcolm D. Lee had the unfortunate task of directing one of the worst movies of 2013. Shooting the tired and unnecessary Scary Movie 5 was a total misstep. However, his film making career didn't suffer because no one really pays attention to who directs those mitigated disasters anyway. Here, he makes a moderate leap back in the right direction with the decade plus, delayed sequel to 1999's The Best Man.

The Best Man Holiday (also titled The Best Man 2) is a reunion of sorts for all the cast members who inhabited the first film. "Holiday" takes place during Christmas time (in the movie, it looked a bit warm for the month of December considering that events occurred on the upper East coast) and everyone is meeting at a large mansion in New Jersey (the home belongs to the lead married couple from the first installment). They are enthusiastically returning for rekindled friendships and a whole lot more. Throughout the proceedings, the characters reveal facades about themselves and each other. They are friends, will always remain friends, but not without a little conflict when it comes to hashing out the past. We have Taye Diggs who plays Harper Stewart. He is I guess, the main character and the quote unquote former "best man." He is married to his longtime girlfriend (Robin Stewart played by Sanaa Lathan) and they are expecting a baby. We then get to meet NY Giants football star Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut) who resents Harper for having an affair with his wife in the first film. The cast is rounded out with Quentin Spivey (Terrence Howard who provides most of the comic relief), diva Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), and another married couple in Regina Hall and Harold Perrineau (Candance and Juilan Murch). Finally, we get independent, business savvy Jordan Armstrong (Nia Long) and her new boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian playing Brian McDonald).

Make no bones about it, "Holiday" contains a solid collection of veteran actors/actresses.  Their characters are essentially upper class people. And a lot of revelations happen to them that on the surface, become just as problematic as any class of denizens below their lifestyle chain. There is a death, an elaborate birth, and a concluding football game within the last exhausting half hour. As I pull forward with this review, you'll find out that these plot points just mentioned, are inserted at just the right times. That for me, amounts to a level of formulaic manipulation reeking of an HBO TV special (even though the film doesn't quite garner that look and feel).

Now I hadn't seen the 1999 flick so when I saw the trailer, I thought I was about to view a high jinks romantic comedy. I didn't see the direction things were going in till the second and third act when the feeling of hard hitting dramatic prose started to set in. Granted, The Best Man Holiday is well acted.  It's also polished and freshening enough to come off as its own movie. I was torn with recommending it though because of the fact that things seem all over the place with editing that is sloppy and unwound. With an unfocused yet ambitious storyline, the audience is basically jerked around to feel all kinds of emotions (the majority of them being funny, angry, and sad). You as the viewer, have to latch on to each character and try to keep up with their issues. Still, with everything that goes on with I guess 8 different consenting adults, situations that happen throughout are still overly predictable and pat (as mentioned earlier). Bottom line: "Holiday" has a small continuity problem from start to finish. Even if you end up both crying and laughing (a couple of audience members near me expressed these emotions), you'll still come out of the theater with a feeling of being manipulated by what you saw in a little over two hours. It doesn't help that the musical score is from Stanley Clarke. Obviously a talented musician, his background noise is nevertheless maligned with saccharine filled TV show overtones (something that annoyed me throughout).

To not deter from the audience's reaction to The Best Man's Holiday (they pretty much all liked it), I still give this thing a mixed review. With tighter editing (including not throwing in a funny/crass moment immediately after a character's funeral precession), this could have been a movie to embrace over the holiday season. Unfortunately, it's not really the "best" thing to view on a cold, snowy winter's day. I had high hopes for "Holiday" because I'm a sucker for films of the Christmas genre. I faithfully recommend something similar in Nothing Like the Holidays from 2008. I'm not biased to Chicago based movies. And although it's not the "best" flick to wring in the silly season, it's still just plain better.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa 2013 * * * Stars

Bad GrandpaDirector: Jeff Tremaine
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is in a word, ingenious. With star Johnny Knoxville milking everything he can out of this type of comedy, he turns a new chapter of crass indignities into another overly popular Jackass experiment. These films, which are essentially directed by the same guy (Jeff Tremaine) and feature Knoxville doing a slant on such comedians as Sacha Baron Cohen, belated has-been Tom Green, and to a small degree, Andy Kaufman, are really cheap to make. They also clean up at the box office. My way of thinking on this is why ruin a good thing. The difference with "Bad Grandpa" however, is that it actually has a wafer thin storyline (which believe me, is substantial enough). The other Jackness films were just a series of skits and gags made to make people laugh riotously. This new installment is also different for another reason. It provides applicable laughs while relying less on elaborate and dangerous stunts. Be assured though, the tasteless, vile, and rudimentary middle finger attitude that fans of these films crave, ultimately remains.

Now for harmless escapist entertainment and not to vehemently repeat myself, I've seen a couple of the past Jackass films. To be honest, I couldn't bring myself to review them. They are not really cinema in layman's terms. With "Bad Grandpa" however containing a plot with the barest of bones, I now have a foreseen ability to give all of you a formidable assessment. So the question is did I like it? My answer would be a reserved and surrendered yes.

Shot with the notion that the people on screen are not actors and the situations are disturbingly real (I personally thought some of the sequences were staged though especially the beginning funeral scene and Knoxville's character running over a penguin statue), Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa chronicles the cross country journey of 86 year old Irvin Zisman (played with serviceable prosthetics and somewhat accurate body language by prankster Johnny Knoxville) and his woefully neglected grandson Billy (played by Jackson Nicoll who's effortlessly perfect in his role). You see, Billy's mom is going to jail so Irvin has been saddled with the responsibility of delivering the kid to his lowlife father (living on skid row in rural North Carolina no less). They leave from Nebraska and road trip chaos ensues. The film, with its script almost totally improvisational (it has to be), allows the two main characters to shock people with their radically sickening behavior (a highlight for me would be Knoxville and Nicoll going through a fast food drive-thru window with said grandson pushing grandfather in a shopping cart).

In a masochistic sort of way, "Bad Grandpa" will make you laugh with feelings of surmised guilt. To what degree, I'm not sure. If the movies Borat and Bruno (this exercise feels like a hillbilly version of those films) are your cup of tea, then the sky's the limit. If said films don't or didn't appeal to you, then you may end up walking out of the theater (I could be wrong, who knows).

When it's all said and done though, I give credit to Knoxville for realizing that he needed to add a new tier of elements to keep this franchise chugging along. Basically, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa gives you just what you need if you're a fan of vehicles that have simple cash register juggernaut written all over them. This one adds a new title. It also inserts a weak yet mildly effective hook of a storyline carrying things through its routine like running time (most of these films top out between 85 and 95 minutes). I don't want to admit this, but what's on screen even becomes sort of touching towards the end (I mean that in the smallest detail possible). While viewing this flick, I realized why some people (like myself) like to go to the movies. They go to escape. It's as simple as that. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but if you want to forget about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, heading out to see this gut busting train wreck isn't such a "bad" idea.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pain & Gain 2013 * * Stars

Director: Michael Bay
Year:  2013
Rated R
Rating:  * * Stars
Cast:  Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie

I have to admit, I've been wanting to see this film for a while. Its fanatic trailer pulled me right in. It's true, I have an affection for good movie trailers. This is a film with actors (to early to tell with Dwayne Johnson) that are well accomplished and respected in the industry. However, what I still haven't learned in my lifetime of movie consumption is that if the trailer is solid, the whole product might not be. And boy did I certainly learn the hard way on a beautiful Friday afternoon. I ventured into a nearby theater and 2 hours later had the misfortune to witness the monstrosity that is Pain & Gain. This is a deeply outrageous and disturbing piece of work (it's not a compliment). I am very certain that the actors completed their scenes without knowing in the slightest, what the finished product would be like. Here's another thought, maybe they're probably are all too familiar with Michael Bay's films. This tells me that either they owe him a favor by appearing in Pain & Gain, or they lost a bet with him (take your pick).

Let me just say this, I have a very strong opinion about movies that are based on a true story or are actually a true story (this vehicle lets you know the second one right away). What I can't figure out is why director Bay was at the helm to oversee things. Yeah, he's a successful guy with solid box office returns, but having him direct a film bent on telling a true story is the equivalent of having musical sensation Justin Bieber open up for the Rolling Stones. Do you know how weird that sounds. Listen, if a movie tells a true story, it should do so. It shouldn't matter if the people depicted in it are bad or not in real life (in this case they're bad). In all honesty, you still have a monumental task to be faithful to the proceedings. Unfortunately, Bay likes to add a lot of his outlandish cinematic trademarks (ridiculously fast editing, silly upward camera angles, cars filmed going a thousand miles an hour, oh and dogs, you can't forget dogs) to get the job done. Hey,don't get me wrong, I like his Transformer movies. They're part of my collection of cinematic guilty pleasures. But I was expecting a different type of film with Pain & Gain because I read somewhere that this was a more mature outing from the Bayster. As always, I like to keep an open mind. As I write this review I'm thinking, no wait, what WAS I THINKING! I've decided that this movie will make you feel icky, dirty, and in need of cleansing. It gets a lot of things wrong. It gets them so wrong in fact, that you don't wanna just throw things at the screen, you literally want to heave them.

It's about the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg in a standard high energy Mark Wahlberg performance), a bodybuilder/fitness expert from Miami, Florida who sees his life going nowhere (9 to 5 job, just barely getting by). Frustrated and looking for a better overall existence, he decides to kidnap one of his richest most asinine clients (Victor Kershaw played by Tony Shalhoub who hasn't aged a bit), torture him into signing some documents, and take him for everything he's worth. This is done with the help of his two best work buddies (Dwayne Johnson as Paul Doyle, Anthony Mackie as Adrian Doorbal). These two guys are pretty naive. And over time they acquire an equal share in the guilty doings that happen as part of Wahlberg's master plan. As Pain & Gain lurches onto its second half, a retired cop (Ed Harris) is recruited by Shalhoub's character. He enters the picture and tries to take these guys down with good old fashioned police detective work.

Behind the scenes, it's obvious that Wahlberg and the other members of the cast got into super shape for their roles. They look incredibly ripped, especially Johnson. Watching him, you almost feel that he's too big for the screen, like you need a couple of extra ones just to fit "The Rock" in. As I was expecting, all the characters pretty much look and act like they're on steroids (which they were of course. Also, Johnson dabbles in large amounts of cocaine). Their behavior shows and things get crazier and crazier when the film hits pay dirt (a few severed limbs in this one, one of Bay's favorite trademarks).

From the word go, you know that Pain and Gain walks the fine line between playing with and/or abusing its "true story" responsibilities.  How do I know this, toward the end of its running time, there is a caption in the lower right hand corner that actually says, "This Real Is A True Story." What hurts the most is that it doesn't feel like you're watching a film based on what actually happened, it feels like you're watching another Michael Bay concoction. This torrid mess also walks another fine line. It truly evokes the most uneven mix of gratuitous violence and over-the-top comedy that I have witnessed in many a moon (I felt like I was viewing his old film Bad Boys II (2003) mixed with Very Bad Things (1998)).

Now the acting, which is never really "A" caliber in most Bay films, is pretty solid here. However, most of the performances are completely dumbed down to fit his monotonous directorial style. This is especially inherit in Wahlberg's minutes on screen. He literally goes from nice, normal working class dude to complete psychopath in a short period of time (Jekyll and Hide style brought on by the roids I guess). Then there is the Ed Harris character (Detective Ed Du Bois) who enters the film halfway. I don't think I've ever seen a screen presence look more out of place in a movie in my entire life. Once things get established, he looks lost in certain scenes, gets lost in those scenes, and seemingly can't find his way out. Ed Harris to me is a terrific screen talent. But why he chose to be in Pain & Gain is a complete mystery (oh I forgot, he was in Bay's The Rock (1996)). The movie is disturbing in ways that I can't describe and Ed is by far, the most normal guy in it. He looks like he doesn't belong but believe me, it's not his fault. 

Pretty much every actor gets slimed by the tone of Bay's work in this one. It's biggest flaw unfaithfully lies in the direction. If this film ever got remade (not gonna happen), I would hope a different power would take the reins. Pain & Gain would work better if it was a searing drama and not a painfully bloated action film. Yeah it will make a lot of money just like all his films do, but in truth, you have nothing to "gain" from watching it. At about the 45 minute mark, Wahlberg says, "I watched a lot of movies Paul, I know what I'm doing." Yeah I've watch a lot of movies too, and there's no way in the world I could recommend this one.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Oblivion 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

The picture above is from the movie Oblivion

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating:  * * 1/2 stars     Cole's Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast:  Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough

You know, you gotta smirk when someone mentions the name Tom Cruise. Ever since he jumped on Oprah Winfrey's couch and another time called NBC news anchor Matt Lauer "glib" (to his face on national television), his public image has taken a moderate hit. He has become Hollywood's version of a dart board.  He's making all kinds of different movies now from each and every genre. This guy is basically the dart and he throws himself against the board hoping something will stick. Recently, Cruise has played a famous rock star in Rock of Ages (2012), a bald, high strung studio executive in Tropic Thunder (2008), a military police corps officer in Jack Reacher (2012), and a senator in Lions For Lambs (2007). I guess, maybe, he's just trying to get people to like him again. Heck, he may win some new friends with his sci-fi movie Oblivion. I viewed it yesterday in a somewhat lightly crowded theater and have decided that the Cruise man and I can just be acquaintances, that's it (ha ha). 

The movie begins by telling the story of Jack Harper (Cruise), also known as Tech 49 (one of the last few humans stationed on earth). The year is 2077 and the planet, now almost destroyed by alien forces, has taken every measure necessary to destroy those aliens (in this case, Cruise is powering up dormant drones in order to kill off the species).  Harper's job (with the help of Victoria played with monotonous overtone by Andrea Riseborough) is to complete this mission and go back to a place called Titan (I just couldn't figure out where Titan was). Throughout the film, Cruise's character has flashbacks and dreams about a life he might have had in a past existence. To explain this more in detail would be spoiler city so I'll just leave it right there. I will however interject a side plot involving Morgan Freeman (Malcolm Beech) as a sort of a secret human leader unknowingly stationed on Earth's surface. He has survived the past carnage and no one knows him and his people exists until a chance meeting with Harper. They cross paths and set the film in sort of a different direction than initially was established. 

Let me just say that Oblivion is a mixed bag. On the plus side, it's one of the best looking films I have seen in a long time. Its got a nice, shiny, salt and peppery look to it that I like. And it is directed by a guy whose last picture I'd consider a terrific sequel (Joseph Kosinski, Tron: Legacy (2010)). However, Oblivion tries really hard for greatness and falls short. It tries almost too hard but with good intentions. A lot of what's on screen is undoubtedly familiar stuff. The action scenes are reminiscent of every Star Wars film mixed with alien fare a la Independence Day (1996), the ending has a small whiff of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) saddled with the 1985 kid's film Explorers, and the Cruise character (Jack Harper) feels like a younger brother version of Harrison Ford's Deckhard in Blade Runner (1982). Oh, and I almost forgot, the costume design channels a post apocalyptic neighbor in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

Then there is the dialogue and believe me, it's sometimes laughable. With so many beautiful images on screen (minus the cheesy, director inspired, 70's zoom ins with the camera), it's hard to believe that conversations between the actors in this movie sound like ten year olds speaking to one another. What's worse, is that you suspect the villains in Oblivion to be machines. Melissa Leo's character for instance (spaceship commander Sally) is one part of the cast that you think is a machine and not human. That's a good thing because if she is a machine, that makes sense. No human being could be that annoying in person. Finally, there is the acting or should I say lack there of, especially by Cruise. Normally, he does his best work when there is not so much special effects gimmickry going on around him. But alas, he's picked another project where it's painfully obvious that he's going through the motions. His performance is so phoned in, he might as well be the spokesman for T-Mobile. When there is an exciting over-the-top spaceship chase between him (the stunning Olga Kurylenko is in the passenger seat) and the "drones" (Star Wars imitated fighting machines), the two actors act badly while the motions of the space vehicle jerk them back and forth.  It truly looks simulated people. I almost laughed in a situation that didn't call for laughter.  Kurylenko's character asks Cruise's character, "are we gonna die?." Cruise's Jack Harper first says "no," then 5 seconds later, says "yes." Way to go Tom, you're earning your Keanu Reeves acting wings with flying colors.

Truth be told, the movie fails in other areas also by posing many difficult questions concerning most of the main characters. It thinks it's clever trying to confuse the audience by adding surprises and unnecessary layers to the story. Some films flat out earn their twists and turns. Oblivion decides to mess with your head just to you know, mess with your head. When this thing finally ended, I just wanted to throw my arms up and say what the heck just happened. The only way anyone can get what's truly going on in is to see it again and try to decipher all the plot points. I will, but I might have to wait a couple more years. I have other movies to review.  Darn it.

Is Oblivion a bad film, no not exactly. It's ambitious and full of ideas. Most of them are borrowed and a slight few are wholly original. As for Cruise, he should probably not try to please everyone by doing all these different types of film fodder. He's become more of a movie star and less of a serious bonified actor. Here's my advice for the aging maverick, give directors Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson a call. Maybe they can help you get back on track. After all, it's never easy winning at darts.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

World War Z 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Marc Forster
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * stars     Cole's Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Brad Pitt, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox

Based on a novel by author Max Brooks and starring the venerable Brad Pitt (he's also a co-producer), World War Z is not your typical zombie movie. It doesn't have tongue and cheek humor like 2009's Zombieland, it's not overly depressing and dark like 2002's 28 Days Later, and doesn't involve a shopping mall (ha ha). My view on this definitive summer blockbuster is that it is a straight up thriller that takes place mostly in the daylight hours. It takes a much bigger approach on the military front and projects the conflict of events to cater to the whole planet (hence the title), not the confines of a town or village (Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead come to mind).

Honestly, this might be the most realistic entry in the zombie genre that I can remember and believe me I've seen them all. If the happenings in this vehicle occurred in real life, I'm sure that this is how it would go down according to "Z's" make-up (with the exception of the actions pertaining to the Pitt character. I will get to that later). Directed with a nice big canvas and delivering some atomic scares with minimal gore (that might have to do with the PG-13 rating), World War Z is a solid, fierce exercise. However, it's part of a long list of films that have shades of greatness but don't quite make it across the finish line. There is a lack of a build up in the opening ten minutes which renders it less compelling (without hesitation, the zombies attack and you barely get to know the main characters). Then there is the ending which was rumored to have re-shoots. It's got that blatant Hollywood feel and once you see it, you'd think that the studio execs were solely responsible (I may be wrong in saying this, but I'm pretty sure director Marc Forster didn't have a say in the final cut). I will recommend what's on screen though because it does effectively what a lot of scary movies are able to accomplish. For example, if you saw Jaws back in the day, you'd probably stay out of the water for a while. After seeing "WWZ," I didn't even want to venture out of the theater. I literally thought the undead were waiting for me. This sobering nail biter haunted me (it haunts me right now) and I believe that that's something only a good movie is able to pull off. Notice I said a good movie, not a great movie. Let's just say that when World War Z isn't chaotic, it's deflating. You anxiously wait for the next fight between Pitt and the crazily possessed. Everything in between is as bland as tap water (it didn't need to be though).

As the flick opens, we meet Gerry Lane (Pitt), who is a retired united nations investigator. In the opening scene, he's having breakfast with his wife and two children. Cut to downtown Philadelphia and Lane and his family are caught in rush hour traffic. Within seconds, a hoard of zombies storm down the road feasting on every human in sight. Lane, after observing how long it takes for someone to become a zombie after being bitten (12 seconds from what I remember), gets in his car and somehow is able to drive his family out of traffic and onto a back road. From then on, he gets a call from his U.N. superiors and boom, he's picked up on top of a building by helicopter and told that it's up him to save the world (he's not a doctor or a scientist but what the heck, it's a movie). Basically he has to travel to across the globe to find the host (the first attacking agent) and decipher what measures can be taken for survival. He does all this while his family is safely left behind (an odd plot point but it's not that big of a deal).

While watching "WWZ", I learned a couple of things that I initially didn't not know about the zombie world. For instance, they are drawn to noise. And I'm not just talking loud, richter scale stuff. Even the slightest clank or clutter sets them off. Also, they attack only healthy human beings. If you have a terminal disease and are near death, they run right past you. And make no mistake about it, these are the fastest zombies I've ever seen. They really snap to it by almost tackling each other to get to their human targets. If you've seen the trailer, you'll also notice that they to climb on top of each other relentlessly to scale a wall. The whole image is hair- raising and disturbing, but brilliant at the same time. Honestly, it was hard at times to see exactly what was going on in a lot of scenes (think the look of the car chase from The Bourne Supremacy). But being that everything happening is so chaotic in modern day thrillers, the confusion can work because it's rooted in facaded realism.

Then there is the Pitt performance which could be played by any professional actor. It doesn't require a whole lot but I'm certain that the producers wanted a big name star attached to the project (solid box office returns is a plus). Pitt really plays it low key through the entire 2 hour running time. Usually, he's as animated as any actor you'll find. But in "Z", he lets his facial expressions do more of the talking (when he runs from the zombies though, it looks more like light jogging). With this approach, his character has plenty of screen presence to burn (he's looking like 1980's Robert Redford more and more each day but what's up with the early 90's grunge getup). The rest of the cast does an adequate job despite the limitations of the script. I'm not sure though if it was the theater I was in (sound might have been a little off), but a lot of the actors mumbled their lines from time to time. It was an observation that I hope was definitively wrong.

In retrospect, there is a substantial amount of entertainment here. Flawed yet enigmatic and full of unbearable tension, World War Z is tailor made for the summer moviegoer. It also answers two important questions: Can this type of flick with a big name star like Pitt be effective? Sure why not. And can a PG-13 horror fest with minimal gore and reduced violent imagery still scare and haunt you? You betcha. So to sum up this review, I'll say this, "Z" gets my recommendation. It's a serviceable thriller and it gets a solid grade of a "B".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 11, 2013

Man of Steel 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Zach Snyder
Year: 2013
Rated: PG-13
Rating: * * * stars     Cole's Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner

For the record, I have only seen one of director Zach Snyder's previous films being 2004's Dawn of the Dead. That vehicle was a very small sample size compared to what I witnessed at a screening for his much anticipated Superman reboot Man of Steel. Within two and a half exhausting hours, I realized that this man is truly a visionary filmmaker. Snyder shoots action scenes like no other director I've ever seen (a lot of long shots and extreme long shots). There's a relentlessness, a sort of exuberant energy that comes with every frame. He throws a lot at you until you just can't take it anymore. So OK, let's lay it all out on the line, there's enough suspenseful battles/fistfights/shoot em' ups in Man of Steel to fill 7-8 movies (I'm not kidding). They are well done and totally eye popping. But this flick is a classic case of a cinematic exercise "living by the sword and dying by the sword." That means Man of Steel's strength is also its weakness. The last 45 minutes consists of carnage and destruction that you have to see to believe. There's an attempt of movie sabotage going on here which does two things: it bogs down the third act (story loses focus) and makes you, the moviegoer, feel like you're watching Transformers all over again (the part that hurts the most is that once the action heightens, the caliber of acting goes downhill and the characters become less dynamic). Now based on my rating, it's apparent that I will recommend this movie. But I am disappointed in the fact that it could have been so much better. The first half is incredibly compelling and invigorating (a possible Best Picture nominee perhaps). The second half, well what can I say, it's a big explosion fest that would fuel the psyche of your typical action junkie. To conclude the first paragraph of this review, I will say this: yes, Man of Steel is a "popcorn flick." In fact towards the end, it's popcorn with a pound of butter and plenty of fine, iodized salt.

Now if you've seen the first two Superman films (Superman (1978), Superman II (1981)) or have a love for comics, the story should be very familiar to you (Jor-El predicts that Krypton is going to be destroyed so he sends his son Kal-El to earth where his identity remains unknown. As time marches on, Kal-El realizes who he really is and identifies his possession of superhuman powers. This propels him to maintain and take care of our planet). Man of Steel stays somewhat faithful to the past Superman entries but at the same time, there is a whole new take on the proceedings. This film has the distinction of being a remake with plot elements of not one, but the combo of both flicks from 78' and 81' (General Zod is a more pivotal character this time around and Lex Luther is non-existent). And let it be known, this is a much much darker adaptation. It's more military in nature and the whimsical love story between Clark Kent and Lois Lane is sorely left out. Now, a lot of critics have found the seriousness and darkness of this entry off putting. Thankfully, I have no problem with it. Snyder's new vision is realized and assured. And there's a kind of anti-hero vibe to Man of Steel that makes it surprisingly moving (maybe it's keeping with today's mindset, I can't be sure).

The cast is mostly all aces. All the actors/actress that show up and contribute, probably could each helm their own movie (Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams). Almost everyone on screen delivers but it's Costner (Jonathan Kent) who stands out. His performance in a somewhat small role as Kal El's adopted father, is quietly powerful (there's a scene with destruction by tornadoes that will give you goosebumps). And then there is Russell Crowe as Jor-El. Listen, nobody is cooler than Crowe. He even fights a little (Gladiator style at the beginning). But his performance doesn't quite match the intensity of Marlon Brando's stint from 78' (I think it was Marlon's voice alone that kind of sealed the deal). As for the lead of Superman, Henry Cavill does a fine job despite what you might have heard. He's no Christopher Reeve (it's impossible to equal Reeve's charm and charisma) but he looks the part perfectly, has a solid screen presence, and caters to the physical demands of the role. He's a little wooden at times, but with the next installment (you know it's gonna happen), I think his acting will probably get better and better. Just a hunch. That leaves the one weak spot in casting which would be Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Now I still think she's a solid actress but her minutes on screen lack a little depth. When Margot Kidder played the part in the original, she did more "reacting" and than acting and it made her performance more natural not to mention more human. Adams is no doubt a movie star but when I saw her in Man of Steel, I just thought, that's Amy Adams (this tends to happen with a lot of big name stars).

In conclusion, I found Man of Steel to be a solid entry in the retelling of the Superman franchise. There's shades of greatness that mostly show up early on. Honestly, if this flick had eyes, you'd see in them a yearning early on, to become a cinematic masterpiece. Sadly, because of the plot going on autopilot late in the proceedings, things don't quite work out that way. But come on, it's going to make a ton of money and there's sure to be a sequel. How do I know, well you can painfully tell that the filmmakers do an obvious job of shoving that notion right down your throat. This is done at the very end and I've never seen a film try harder to announce a sequel than this one does. But hey, no worries. You'll probably still enjoy the feverishness and relentless swagger that is Man of Steel.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 8, 2013

About Time 2013 * * * 1/2 Stars

About TimeDirector: Richard Curtis
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy

Time travel flicks sometimes give me a headache. They're are interesting and involving but they also make you think too much. When About Time (the film I'm reviewing) ended, I was satisfied with it.  At the same time though, I was re jogging many of the scenes in my mind. What began as a love story between two people eventually turned into one man's journey through adult life. As I viewed this London based product from the director of the publicly treasured Love Actually, I couldn't help but over analyze the concept of the main character going back into the past and even in the smallest moments, changing things when vaulting back into present day. Trust me, when you see this thing it will drive you nuts because it never quite gets that part right. Therefore, in order to enjoy what's on screen, you have to not look too deep into the whole time travel concept. You basically have to enrapture yourself in the heartwarming vibe from the characters in it as well as the fact that it didn't deserve an R rating (a couple of cuss words shouldn't keep this from being a family film). You also have to believe that time travel isn't totally necessary when it comes to living a full and happy life. Those are my rules when taking in what I believe to be one of the best films of 2013.

Resembling a sort of tone down version (sans violence and escapist entertainment) of time travel oddities like The Butterfly Effect, Back to the Future, and to a fault, Groundhog DayAbout Time chronicles a young man's adult endeavors through the art of human transportation. The lead character being Tim Lake (played by a future Hugh Grant in Domhnall Gleeson, the son of acclaimed actor Brendan Gleeson), is told on his 21st birthday that all the men in his family, can travel back in time (it isn't explained why this is possible but what the heck, might as well have some mystery involved). Bill Nighy, perfect in his role as Lake's father, explains to him that all he has to do is venture into a dark space, squeeze his hands and walla, he goes to the exact moment that he imagined in his mind. For me, the centralized and loving relationship between Tim and his father, puts this thing over the top (in a good way). It sells the whole exercise formidably. Added to that, 75% of About Time, has a forwarding narration by said lead. It initially feels out of place only to emerge as a touching follicle toward wrapping things up.

Now to be frank, I was initially put off by the fact that Tim wanted to do this to you know, just get a girl to go out with him. But as the movie unfurled, he helps people on the side (friends and his sister to name a few), builds a sort of solid foundation for a family dynamic, and (spoiler alert) says goodbye to his dying father (a couple of times actually). Let me put it this way, this movie is only a little over 2 hours long. However, there is an epicness that inhabits the proceedings and you get more than what you bargained for. I felt like I had been in the theater for over three hours but believe me, I wasn't bored. Of note though, you might have to ignore the fact that no one ages a lick in this exercise (it spans somewhere between 7-10 years I'm thinking). It's a minor oversight and shouldn't keep you from enjoying it.

Also of note is the gist of Tim's time traveling plights becoming a little muddled when it comes to the workings of the plot. Thankfully, this is masked by a cast that delivers romcom acting of the highest order. This is especially inherit in Rachel McAdams as Mary, the object of Tim's affections. As expected, McAdams is effortlessly charming and fancy free. Two words describe her: glowing, radiant, eye twinkling (that's three words, oops). Along with the previously mentioned Billy Nighy, she adds leverage to the extreme likability factor embedded in About Time's character makeup.

When you put it all together, About Time is a great holiday film, a serviceable date movie, and even possibly something you can take the whole family to (ignore the R rating, trust me). Its breeziness is accompanied by the affable people in it. In scene after scene you sense that they deserve the utmost level of happiness. And that for me, is the reason why I recommend this motion picture so highly. If you cry easily during romantic comedies (this one is more like a dramedy) then bring a slew of handkerchiefs. To put it mildly, there is no doubt that About Time is a keeper. If you haven't seen it, it's "about time" you get to the multiplex stat!

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Last Vegas 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

Last Vegas
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman

About a week before viewing this uneven flick concerning the exploitation of senior citizens hosting a bachelor party (in Las Vegas, where else), I saw its four stars (check that, four Oscar winners) promoting their film on a high end news station (The TODAY show I believe). They looked grumpy and didn't really want to be there. But I thought to myself, maybe these guys aren't too confident about the product they are selling and they're just you know, going through the motions. I don't blame them. Besides the fact that this exercise becomes a tad darker and deeper emotionally toward its conclusion (the trailer is misleading), it's still disposable and somewhat hard to sit through. Last Vegas (the film I'm reviewing and talking about) brings together actors Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Douglas. These guys are all screen legends and there are two reasons why they might have decided to appear in this individualistic cringe fest. One reason could be that they had never been on screen before and the opportunity although mediocre, presented itself. Another reason could be that they got paid handsomely. Anyway you slice it, they dent their reputations as actors ever so slightly. In the end, I think considering each of their track records, it's commonplace that they'll probably recover. I did as a critic but only after "Vegas" was almost saved by a solemn, feasible second half. There is some moral cleansing between a father and son along with a believable love triangle that lends itself to a 58 year (you heard right) friendship. Yes, this movie boasts itself as a comedy. However, it fails as one with jokes that are bland, lightweight, and familiar. And the overall theme got annoying as well (they're old, we get it). The fact that Last Vegas changes gears (by becoming mildly dramatic) almost makes it recommendable. I heavily stress the "almost" part.

Containing a scene which almost caused me to walk out of the multiplex (the four 70+ plus year olds judge a bikini contest poolside) and directed by a guy who furthered Nicolas Cage's action star career with the National Treasure movies, Last Vegas examines four best friends (since childhood) who have somewhat grown apart and live in different parts of the country. When Malibu hotshot Billy (played by slickster Michael Douglas who in almost everything he's in, has to get with a woman half his age) decides to get engaged, he calls his buddies to get together in Las Vegas for the typical male debauchery. Paddy (played by Robert De Niro who is in just about every movie out in 2013) is a widower who lives alone in New Jersey. Then there's Morgan Freeman's character Archie, who had a mild stroke and is being taken care of by his overbearing son. Finally, we have Florida resident Sam. He's played by Kevin Kline who with shades of his comedic brilliance in the past, gives the flick's strongest performance. Kline's character has been given the OK to cheat on his wife (by his wife) so he enthusiastically tags along.

Last Vegas, despite what you might have heard from other critics, didn't remind me of The Hangover (not in the slightest expect for the whole location aspect). That film was outrageously funny and edgy. Plus, there isn't much of a sense of danger going on here like there was with the characters in The Hangover. "Vegas," with its automated sense of situational comedy, made me chuckle a couple of times here and there. But in a way, it wasn't that amusing because the jokes were constantly aimed at the adage of old age. The filmmakers seemed to want to shovel this notion down my throat. After a while, I was a little put off and felt internally bloated (no pun intended).

Honestly, I can name a ton of films that are worse than Last Vegas. But there's gotta be something more challenging or more rewarding than this considering the talent involved. Its strong points: the title (Last Vegas just roles off the tongue, why not), the cast, and the somewhat interesting premise taken to task. Its weak points: the way this vehicle stereotypes people of a certain age, the jokes that fall flat more than 50% of the time, and the fact that all the funny parts happen to be in the trailer (I'm sure it was a blatant marketing tool to get people into the theater). So to end this review, I'll leave you, the movie goer, with this piece of sage advice: if you choose to attend a showing of Last Vegas, make sure that it's not the "last" time you'll hit the theater in 2013 (that's a nice way of saying that there are other, better films out there).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Big Wedding 2013 * * 1/2 Stars

Director: Justin Zackham
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 stars
Cast: Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon

As I sat in the theater a few months ago, I saw a trailer for what I believe to be a fun Spring release with a big name cast (heck, two of them were in The Godfather Part II). Added to that, I guess wedding season is coming up (I'm not married but I did look it up) so I figured this film was being put in theaters at just the right time. Now that I have viewed what is a true exercise in scatterbrain utopia, I'm realizing all along that a bunch of stars involved in any type of movie, or should I say, in any type of movie genre, doesn't guarantee greatness. Granted, I was entertained by little snippets here and there, but I thought to myself, am I watching a movie or am I just viewing dailies. I couldn't really tell ya to be honest. 

With this major gray area fluttering through my brain, I did however become enamored by the plot (or idea of a plot). It seemed original and sort of refreshing (so many films about weddings seem so arbitrary). It goes like this: Don Griffin (played emphatically by Robert De Niro) has an adopted son who plans on getting married in the next couple of days. His adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes), brings his biological mother all the way from Columbia to attend his wedding. Added to that, his biological mother believes that marriage is sacred and that no one should ever ever get divorced. This forces De Niro's character to pretend to be married to his ex-wife (Ellie Griffin played by Diane Keaton) for the remainder of the weekend in which the wedding occurs. So you see, there is a storyline here. It's too bad that the execution is so darn sloppy.

So not to be confused with one of Robert De Niro's earliest films, The Wedding Party (1969), I am reviewing The Big Wedding which is not so much of a movie as it is a bunch of individual scenes crammed together inside all of 89 minutes. There are some funny moments and Bob's character is a riot (he plays the ultimate ladies man/lousy ex-husband and father), but along with him, there are far too many other subplots and adult situations to keep up with. What's worse, the film jumps back and forth in no particular order to established these subplots and throw at the audience, the chaos everyone is going through. This all happens all in the course of maybe a day or two. And it all happens at, you guessed it, a wedding and the pre-wedding festivities.

What we have here with this blatant misfire, is that it's the type of vehicle that feels like it starts in the middle. Some movies do a somewhat of an effective job at portraying this. Common movie going knowledge says you have to figure out what has already happened in your imagination and try to keep up with the continuum of what is already going on. The Big Wedding sadly, is not one of those types of movies. For the life of me I couldn't figure out why certain characters were mad at each other or resented each other (if you want to know what I'm talking about, pay attention to Katherine Heigl's character, Lyla Griffin). Also, I got annoyed by a lot of scenes where the whole cast were feverishly trading dialogue with one another. It felt like they didn't talk to each other (or look each other in the eye) but kinda talked just to be heard. Or better yet, the banter between them in most scenes gave me the feeling that they were literally caught in a different movie all together. There were a couple of examples of this but mainly, you have to watch the sequence where the whole family is having lunch on the patio of their big Connecticut house. It almost looked like everyone's speaking parts were filmed individually. For the sake of all the crew who probably worked very hard on The Big Wedding, I'll just admit that I might be exaggerating.

All things considered, The Big Wedding has a couple of amusing moments (I can't get the image out of my head of De Niro lighting up and smoking two cigarettes at once) and it's an hour and a half of mindless fun. It's probably worth a poultry 5-7 bucks for a matinee showing. But really, if you go into the theatre thinking you're watching an actual movie, then you're in for a "big" disappointment.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 1, 2013

Now You See Me 2013 * * * Stars

Director: Louis Leterrier
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo 

To my knowledge, there have been only two movies to come out in theaters this year that have to do with magic. The first one was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I haven't seen it yet but the word on the street is that it's a flat out "turkey" (that means that it was a horrible movie). The other magician flick, Now You See Me is pretty solid and rest assured it won't evoke you to scream "gobble gobble!" There is an original element or set up to it even though stuff is borrowed from other films. I say that because as I viewed this movie, I felt as if I was taking in Ocean's 11 meets National Treasure meets The Prestige. If you have an affection for any of the above mentioned, you'll be satisfied at what's on screen. Now I want to reiterate what I just said. Now You See Me evokes the feeling and pace of these movies, not the overall plot description. Let's just say I went in to the theater thinking that I would be confused, messed with, or kept out of the loop. To my dismay, the bulk of it was not too hard to follow and it kept me on the edge of my seat. I knew there would be a twist at the end and I was right. It's a tad implausible but the ride to get there is justified and neatly serviced. True to form, this is a piece of cinema that you'll want to see again the very minute it ends (you'll wanna view it solely to revisit everything that wasn't revealed early on). The movie doesn't make you think too hard. It just makes you think hard enough. That's why I'm recommending it. In Now You See Me, you get Jesse Eisenberg playing a deadpan version of his Social Network character, Sir Michael Caine showing up in a small role (why not, the producers figured since he was in The Prestige, that might get some more interest from the movie going public), a couple of impressive action scenes right out of The Transporter (same director so it's expected), and a car chase that'll cause you to look at the person next to you and go what the...? Anyway, I'll get your hopes a little by saying it's a good movie, but not incredibly compelling and it won't blow your mind per se. What you get from Now You See Me is a breath of fresh air, a sort of escape from all the mediocre features that have stunk up multiplexes all over the country in 2013. After viewing stuff like Gangster Squad, I as your fellow movie patron, needed reassurance and got it in a big way.  

Almost anything I say in relation to the proceedings will be a spoiler so I'll just lay out the players and the improbable set up which grabs you from the word "go." It begins like this: Four magicians are summoned by a higher power to team up and do elaborate shows across the country. Each of them has their own niche. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is an expert with card tricks, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) likes to get out of glass boxes filled to the brim with piranhas, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is out of this world with the art of mind control and/or hypnotism, and Jack Wilder (James Franco's brother Dave) is a pickpocket and escape artist. Together they form a group called "The Four Horsemen." During their first show in Las Vegas (why not, makes sense), they get an audience member to rob a bank overseas in France. They do this by teleporting him literally within seconds. When the money is clearly stolen and giving to the audience (Oprah Winfrey style), this gets the attention of a high strung detective (Mark Ruffalo as Dylan Rhodes) and an attractive French Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent as Alma Vargas). They set out to arrest the fab four with the initial help of Morgan Freeman's character, Thaddeus Bradley. Bradley is also a magician that is legendary for revealing secrets about his peer's magic (or possibly tragic) tricks. 

What stood out and what I embraced most about Now You See Me, is the casting. It's spot on because these actors can play these characters in their sleep. Eisenberg excels at cloying the smart aleck, fast talking narcissus, Ruffalo is always reliable as a concerned and tormented cop, Isla Fisher portrays effectively, a veritable form of window dressing as everyone's favorite eye candy, and Michael Caine has mastered the art of maintaining a strong screen presence (even if it's for 7-10 minutes of screen time). As for Freeman, he appears in pretty much everything these days so it's not worth examining. I will say this though, did he have some dental work done because his teeth are so perfect they might as well be right out of a toothpaste commercial.  

Anyway, there is an adequate amount of hocus pocus to admire here. There is however, a certain flaw in Now You See Me that could easily be discounted from a lot of moviegoer's minds. It's the fact that you don't really get to know "The Four Horseman." These four characters are shown escaping from the law, doing their elaborate stunts, and outsmarting everyone around them (including us, the audience). But the movie doesn't examine what makes them tick. There's also not a lot of information on where they are from and their "nothing up the sleeve" background. Their personalities aren't fully established leaving most of the attention to be diverted to the people that are in hot pursuit of their illegal schemes (Ruffalo and Laurent) and the jealous martyr who wants to profit from exposing their fanatic tricks (Freeman). Again, this is not a major oversight because the movie kind of gets away with it. All in all, this is a two hour exercise that flies by at breakneck speed. And I will say this, a lot of the surprises "The Four Horseman" pull off have to do with misdirection. Despite not getting to know them as an audience member, you just accept the fact that Harry Houdini would have been mighty proud anyway. 

So to end this review, I'll leave you with the tag line for Now You See Me. It suggests, "look closer, because the closer you look, the less you'll see." For me, I sat ten rows back and right in the middle, my favorite seating arrangement. What I had was a good ol' fashioned time at the movies and so will you. Granted, I initially thought of this flick as an odd choice to attend as a summer blockbuster release, but with the Will Smith bomb After Earth coming out in the same weekend, it's safe to say that I stand corrected.  

Written by Jesse Burleson