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Friday, January 31, 2014

That Awkward Moment 2014 * * 1/2 Stars

That Awkward MomentDirector: Tom Gormican
Year: 2014
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan

That Awkward Moment is the latest romantic comedy to hit theaters this winter. Yes it does venture into gross out territory with the tired old adage of toilet humor and penis jokes, but I would still categorize it as well, a romantic comedy. Its got a sloppy screenplay that seems all over the place, but it's fresher and it feels more original than your typical film of this genre. For one, it is told from the guy's point of view thereby throwing the female characters to the wayside. And second, the story although jumbled and branching off into too many tangents, still allows things to deepen. I like the background music which sort of feels like you're trapped in the 80's (you know, John Hughes style), I like the female romantic interests not because of their looks but because of their spirit and their soul, and furthermore, I think the cast as a whole, does decent work (I've never thought of Zac Efron as being much of an actor but he emotes well here).

So why can't I recommend this thing? Simple, it's the screenplay mentioned earlier, which makes the actors contradictory, hypocritical, and almost virtually unlikable. The movie in general is about relationships. However, you as the viewer, aren't able to figure out whether the main (male) leads in "Moment," want to really be in them or not. They don't mean what they say and on the flip side, surely don't say what they mean. Let's just say that what's on screen is the movie equivalent of a world class sprinter who sprangs his/her ankle right before reaching the finish line. To put it mildly, disappointing and unfortunate would be the words I would use.

Starting with an opening lukewarm flashback sequence in the first five minutes and harboring a male (you heard me) character who drowns out his break-up sorrows with Ben & Jerry's ice cream, That Awkward Moment depicts three best friends (they used to go to college together) living in downtown Manhattan. Two of them design magazine/book covers (Jason played by Zac Efron and Daniel played by fast talking, Vince Vaughn clone Miles Teller) while the other works as a doctor (nice guy Mikey played Michael B. Jordan). When one of them finds out that he is getting divorced from his wife, all three of them decide to make a pact to become single together (of course within 10 minutes they deviate from this plan which brings me to the main reason why I didn't embrace the fallen proceedings).

Almost everyone in frame seems to at one time or another, say something relatively fake or phony (if you decide to watch this flick, pay attention, you'll see what I mean). First time director (and screenwriter) Tom Gormican, along with fumbling much of the dialogue, adds the word "idiot" a lot (the script supervisor could be to blame on that one). He gets his characters to say it at least 2-3 times to each other (they also use the term "f 'ing" idiot as well).

Then we go back to the unlikability factor involving these three man-child frat boys. With the exception of Jordan's Mikey which seems to be the only person in the film you could maybe root for, he is still guilty by association for hanging out with his two other knucklehead (not to mention snide and selfishly jerkish) best friends. These two don't have a whole lot of respect for women even though they seem to be well liked by them. And although Teller and Efron are sufficient in their roles, you sense that in the end, their characters frankly, don't deserve to be with anybody.

Now the month of January as we all know, is littered with Oscar holdovers and the opposite being lousy, wretched movies. That Awkward Moment doesn't fall into the Oscar pile but it's not as bad as the latter. Its got decent acting, a few funny moments, and a rare, fresh take on the oddities of the romcom (told almost completely from the male point of view). However, it gets a so-so review from me. The actors rise above the jumbled screenplay but it's not enough. Also, "Moment" leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth because of its weak, flashback induced ending. It then feels the need to annoy you with tired, reheated outtakes to sit through right as the closing credits come up. Overall, as a date movie that is suppose to ring in the new year, That Awkward Moment is full of "moments" that sadly equal mixed results.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Nut Job 2014 * * Stars

The Nut JobDirector: Peter Lepeniotis
Year: 2014
Rated PG
Rating: * * Stars (Click on rating link to see Cole's on site review)
Cast: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson

Written by Cole Pollyea

Before seeing The Nut Job, know this: it's been done before. Animals commit acts of theft in order to secure food for their survival during the winter. What's new? There isn't the slightest difference between this and the 2006 animated film, Over the Hedge, except maybe the voice overs, which I found to below average here. Ultimately, The Nut Job doesn't have a lot of things going for it. I suppose its charisma may be on its side, but I wouldn't say that it's enough to justify a trip to the movies.

Written by Cole Pollyea

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club 2013 * * * 1/2 Stars

Dallas Buyers ClubDirector: Jean Marc Vallee
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars     Cole's Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

As an actor, Matthew McConaughey has given some unforgettable performances. He seems to be in every movie these days. He plugs away with romantic comedies (Fool's Gold), recycled action films (Sahara), and forgettable sports endeavors (We Are Marshall). After he hit one out of the park with 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer, I knew he was on to something. Next to that screen turn and his unrecognizable yet memorable stint in Dazed and Confused, his mark as an AIDS inflicted cowboy in Dallas Buyers Club, remains his most stripped down, most uncoiled, most brilliant performance to date. As the initially unlikable Texan Rod Woodruff, McConaughey sheds all of his McConaugheyness and makes you forget that it's actually him, but rather a roughed up character going from womanizing sex addict, to self made man, to budding entrepreneur, to full on messiah.

Now "Buyers Club" isn't something I would throw into the Academy's Best Picture pile (of which it is nominated) but it's still a solid film. The performances are the key points here and this is strictly a character study. Along with McConaughey  trading scenes with Jared Leto (playing a transvestite), you literally have blatant, thespian fireworks. Dallas Buyers Club is a deeply disturbing, momentously staked out drama that travels at a very fast clip. With the exception of an unclear yet contradictory ending, I'd say it's almost perfect.

Directed by Canadian born Jean Marc Vallee and featuring its star/co-star shedding what seems to be a huge amount of weight to prepare for their roles, Dallas Buyers Club chronicles the life of wild man Rod Woodroof (McConaughey). The year is 1985 and we see this man living on the edge, not thinking about tomorrow, and mocking the day when he has to associate with a same sex lifestyle (there is a discussion about the late actor Rock Hudson that enhances the proceedings). When Ron lands in the hospital by way of an on the job accident (electric shock), he discovers that he is HIV positive and has 30 days left to live. In denial initially and defensive, he parties like there is no tomorrow only to realize that his health is failing and that he doesn't have much time. After succumbing to befriending a nearby AIDS patient (irresponsibly drug-addicted, homosexual Rayan played by Jared Leto who gives probably one of the greatest performances in the history of film), the two of them form an unlikely friendship and build an empire based on selling illegal prescription drugs to other dying patients designed to boost their immune systems. When certain authority figures get involved (namely the food and drug administration and a conservative doctor), and their operation becomes daunting, these two renegades carry on to help the decaying breed to prolong their lives a little bit longer.

With a series of individually coarse scenes, Dallas Buyers Club (based on a long overdue realization of a true story) fails to possess a righteous sense of time and place (with the exception of some recognizable 1980's hair styles) but it does hit hard. Its fast paced yet sporadic narrative, explains to us that the director wanted to tell a grand true story without catering to how accurate the mundane setting is. He doesn't shoot things in an elaborate way and he doesn't concentrate on outside atmospherics. However, what's on screen washes over you with a visible dirtiness, and a portrayal of a forbidden lifestyle that grabs you from inside.

All in all, this is a powerful film that unfortunately ends abruptly while contradicting the effects of the drug Azt (which I thought was the answer to this horrible disease). Nevertheless, it stills draws you in though with its powerful acting stints coupled with the nervous yet confident desperation of its main character. "Buyers Club" is relevant. And you might look away at times only to "buy" into its lasting, exhaustively bold impression.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, January 24, 2014

The 25th Annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival- January 23rd, 24th, and the 25th, 2014

Greetings from cold, frigid South Bend, Indiana. Here are the feature films and their ratings. All of them were anywhere between 3 and 16 minutes in length. Some were silent, some were documentaries, some were dark, and some were well, darkly comedic. In a little over two hours, 14 in all were shown. The list is as follows:

Chicks  * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Claire Stephens, Frank Schadt

Ash  * * * Stars
Collaborators: Ray Herrly, Pat Nguyen
-Dark, brooding, with genuine, atmospheric direction.

Gimp  * * * * Stars
Collaborators: Camille Muth, Hunter Speese
-Very well made with a terrific documentary feel. The narration flows nicely with the movements of the camera and its handicapped, yet positively driven subject, is an exceptional character study.

Lilith's Game  * * * Stars
Collaborators: Anthony Patti, Johnny Whichard
-11 minute short about a deadly DVD that can kill you. Reminded me of 2002's The Ring.

Rice Bag  * * Stars
Collaborators: Megan Kozak, Daniel Garcia De Paredes

Discordance  * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Lauren Josephson, Zach Ostapchenko, Mary Kate Holmes, Colton Williamson

The Suicide Disease  * * * * Stars
Collaborators: Katie Mattie, Vincent Moore, Will Neal
-Gut wrenching, heartbreaking, intuitive documentary about one woman's painful disease. The best of the bunch at this year's festival.

Dinner For None  * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Kurt Zhuang, Chris Silvestri,

Unexpected Fortune  * * Stars
Collaborators: Will Neal, Nick Desmone

The Last Free Place  * * * * Stars
Collaborators: Madeline Basil, Chris Holmes, Zach Ostapchenko
-Odd yet fascinating documentary about an eclectic town in the middle of a Colorado Desert. A risky, yet well earned choice for a young filmmaker to go out and film this thing 1000+ miles away from ND's campus.

A Quiet Day at the Park  * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Mikey Nichols, Joey Doyle, Megan Flynn, Caroline Clark, Nick Goldsmith

Unearthed  * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: McKenzie Hightower, Amanda Dudzinski

The Wormhole  * * * Stars
Collaborators: Colton Williamson
-The lead actor is perfectly cast in this 2001: A Space Odyssey/THX 1138 inspired short involving locker room showers (I know, go with me on this one). Includes some nods to "Odyssey" in terms of the music and closeups of the cast.

My Neighbor Ned  * * * Stars
Collaborators: Andrew Cheng, Marty Flavin
-Goofy zombie short with the best acting of all the films and funny outtakes at the end.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

All Is Lost 2013 * * * 1/2 Stars

All Is Lost movie posterDirector: J.C. Chandor
Year: 2013
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars     Cole's Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Robert Redford

Robert Redford has always been Hollywood's golden boy. His career has spanned over five decades. He has played everyone from a relenting columnist in All The President's Men to a aging baseball god in The Natural, to a wild, wild west outlaw in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In his latest film entitled All Is Lost, Bob along with the intrically detailed J.C. Chandor, form a terrific mesh of actor and filmmaker. "Lost", with its earthy direction and subtle, held back performance by Redford, placed me tightly in its grip. It's a flick about one man's conflict finding himself in the middle of the ocean (with a sinking ship). Ignored at Oscar time, this thing is a triumph and it's the kind of film Gravity wish it could have been (except for the box office receipts of course). Basically, it's like Gravity on water but with a higher level of fear and discontent. And also for the record, I was even reminded a little of the Tom Hanks helmed Cast Away (despite the fact that said film took place on land, there was still the whole solitude/alienation thing that came into play). In a way, All Is Lost feels like an indie version of those two vehicles just mentioned. And even though it was shot in a studio, scenes of deadly storms and ravaged destruction project to be shockingly real (nothing seemed to come off as CGI enhanced, that's for sure).

Beginning with a sort of confusing narration by its star (Redford, the only cast member) and hightailing right into the harrowing events without any character build up, "Lost" tells a simple story with the most intricate, detailing aspects possible. Robert Redford, playing the nameless character "Our Man", is somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean (I was trying to figure out why he was so content with being in such a remote area. What the heck was he doing out there?). His boat, named the Virginia Jean, has just crashed into a random shipping container and this creates a hole where water starts to gush in. After "Our Man" plugs up the hole and continues to sail onward, a storm hits, his ship sinks, and he's forced to wane about in a lifeboat raft (with a little tent thingy, how neat). With his food supply nearly gone and almost no water (he can't drink salt water, that's for sure), Redford's character desperately tries to flag down other larger freighters while somehow thinking that he might drift back to civilization (he breaks out a map and uses a navigation device to figure out where he's located). That in a nutshell, is the gist of what's going on. The ending, which I can't reveal, can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. What you see as the audience member, will be left to your own imagination. Also, as All Is Lost starts to find its conclusion, the narration from the opening minutes becomes more clear and to a degree, more concise (you'll see).

Now to a large extent, I thoroughly enjoyed "Lost". Its greatness lies in its simple story told with fascinating intricacies by its director, and a classically underplayed performance by Robert Redford. Any other actor might scream in pain, cuss, cry, or throw fits in the situation presented. Bob, who's kinda known for underplaying roles anyway, goes for the calm under pressure, quiet persona. He has maybe 2-3 lines of dialogue. But he does more acting with his eyes, his body, and his outright soul. He looks weathered, feels weathered (he's 77 years old and one tough son of a gun), but nails the part. Ultimately, he lets his head movements, his facial tics, and his creaky body flexes do the talking. As for Chandor, he directs "Lost" getting every little detail of survival as accurate as possible. I mean everything from repairing a hole in the hull, to fixing radio equipment, to using a sea anchor, to operating a sextant. Yeah everyone has been talking about Redford's minutes on screen, but you gotta hand it to Chandor for his ability to build tension block by block not to mention shooting "Lost" with a confidence and to an extent, a vast amount of believability.

To put everything into perspective, All Is Lost is a thriller, a heartache, and a solemn tale all rolled up into one. Despite the fact there is only one cast member and almost no dialogue, craftsmanship and coiled up suspense still abound. Truthfully, I would rank this exercise as one of 2013's ten best. If you haven't taken in a viewing, it's time to put it on your must see list. There's no doubt you'd be "lost" without it.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 2014 * * Stars

Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitDirector: Kenneth Branagh
Year: 2014
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightly

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth film in a series that features actors Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and now Chris Pine. After viewing this January release which is one you might forget about the moment you leave the theater, I was slightly reminded of a James Bond movie. Here's the thing: I was reminded of a lousy James Bond movie. So for the record, let's just call this Bland, Jack Bland.

Even though "Shadow" is the fifth and latest installment, it reverts to being an original story separate from the Tom Clancy novels (of which the earlier films were based on). It has been unleashed into theaters just months after the similar themed Paranoia. That film (coincidentally starring Jack Ryan alum Ford) was a huge disappointment. This Kenneth Branagh directed lark, is only slightly better. With a short running time that renders it vastly underwhelming, and containing not one plot twist despite putting that notion out in the trailers, the proceedings begin with an introduction to the events of none other than 9/11. Jack Ryan (Pine) is living in London as a college student and sees the horrific images mentioned on TV. He then decides that he wants to save the world (why not) so he enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps to serve in Afghanistan. After getting severely injured in combat, he winds up in a hospital, meets his future wife (Keira Knightly as Cathy Ryan), and is watched by an admirer in CIA agent Thomas Harper. Harper played by Kevin Costner, persuades Ryan to finish his PhD and eventually work for him on Wall Street (Pine's character uses his smarts to suspect terrorist activity). Things get hairy when Jack gets involved with a creepy Moscow investor named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh casting himself as the villain and harboring an incredibly silly Russian accent). From then on, the plot and the sporadic chase sequences/fistfights are set in motion.

Also set in motion, are the actions of one character in particular who doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but seems to be more charismatic than anyone else. He is unknown actor Alec Utgoff and plays Cherevin's son. He is a sleeper cell agent who hides out in Michigan until he is activated to carry out a devious plot. He plans on bombing the entire area of Manhattan's financial district while his father simultaneously initiates financial trades that will bring down the U.S. economy. As Aleksandr Borovsky, Utgoff says almost nothing. However, he's quietly menacing and exudes a heck of an amount of screen presence.

Now Branagh did direct the successfully suspenseful Thor so maybe he decided that it was time to helm movies of this genre for many years to come. To his credit, he does stage action scenes in a decent manner that someone who never saw a Jack Ryan movie, would be okay with. But it seems like there aren't too many camera setups or believable stunts here. As a result, nothing comes off as groundbreaking or challenging. When I think of action directors, Paul Greengrass, John Woo, and Walter Hill come to mind. When I think of Woody Allen collaborators and Hamlet, I go to Branagh. That however, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's wrong with "Shadow". Chris Pine, so debonair and sleek in the Star Trek reboots, suffers here when he's forced to carry a whole movie without a huge cast surrounding him. He's neither believable as a rough and rugged butt kicker nor is he credible as a spy. Yeah he's got movie star looks, but he comes off as wooden and stiff. And it doesn't help that he trades laughable dialogue with his love interest played by Keira Knightly. Oh and speaking of Knightly, she swaps her British accent for an American one and as a result, looks and acts as if she has a mouth full of cotton. Then there's supporting player Costner, who piggybacks on his role from his earlier work in Man of Steel (he's starting to project the whole quiet, calming, engaging vibe). He does an okay job with his limited minutes on screen. But you wonder why he is always watching Pine do all the work while he just sits there in the background. Besides firing a gun a few times in one scene, Costner doesn't have a lot to do. And don't forget, he doesn't have a PhD like Pine's Ryan so his role is disposable and somewhat unnecessary if you will.

All in all, "Shadow" is by no means an awful film. But like I mentioned earlier, it's the type of familiar PG-13 hokum that leaves your brain the moment after you view it. Right from the get go, things open up with an annoyance of obligatory spy themed music (lots of violin work with a sped up tempo) and an abundance of computer gimmickry forcing me to call this thing the quote unquote, "laptop movie". There's a lot of computer mumbo jumbo going on not to mention a slick, shiny feel when it comes to the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos (it's souped-up glitter without a pulse). And even though certain types of moviegoers might get a kick out of all the high tech stuff, what's on screen ultimately, is bland, lifeless, and to a huge degree, sterile.

Certain movies stay with you long after you see them. You pick up certain subtleties and see something new or fresh every time. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit sadly, does not possess this trait. Lacking any sort of intrigue (at 1 hr. 45 minutes, how can it), it's not a distance runner, but rather a dogged, 40 yard dash. Therefore, I don't plan on "recruiting" anyone to see it.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, January 16, 2014

August: Osage County 2013 * * * Stars

Director: John Wells
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis

August: Osage County is a film that teams up a host of fine actors/actresses who have worked with each other in the past and now meet again. It is based on a play (of the same name with the script being written by the actual playwright). The result is something that I expected. "August" is a completely dialogue driven vehicle that highlights a master class in performance compatibility (particularly by stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts). What's on screen is rooted in the extreme denouncement of dysfunctionality. The family featured and dissected, is so out of whack, they make the characters from say Mommie Dearest and Ordinary People to look like members of the Brady Bunch. A majority of these people are ones you dislike and they might force you to walk out of the theater while you try to put up with them. However, everyone is at the top of their game and needles to say, they all do superb work. "August" wants you to embrace its setting consisting of 100 degree plus heat, the underlying depression brought on by Eric Clapton's ditty, "Lay Down Sally" (I didn't think that was possible), and a sloppy narrative that still for some reason, keeps you tuned in to what exactly is going on. I'm recommending this film because of its ripe, teething script and the dialogue spoken with feverish glare by all the actors. Yeah, it's bleak stuff. But it's a showcase nonetheless.

With Streep portraying a woman with mouth cancer (and who still likes to smoke about 2-3 packs a day) and Abigail Breslin taking in the scenery as a 14 year old who masquerades as a moderate pot smoker, August: Osage County brings together the Weston-Fordam-Aiken family for a sort of meeting to find Streep's missing husband (Beverly Weston played in a bit part by Sam Shepard). Once this alcoholic better half is found dead (by way of drowning), everyone gets together for the funeral all the while loading up on bickering and revealing of all flaws embedded in their immediate clan. Set in the Northern Oklahoma town of Pawhuska, this film escalates its scenes to the point where a ticking time bomb might go off.

Meryl is intense and scary as Violet Weston. Although she seems to get award acclamation at the drop of a hat, this time her Academy Award nomination is well deserved. Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston-Fordam is equally intense as her resentful, Denver residing daughter who feigns at the notion that Violet is overdosing daily on all types of drug addicted medication. Then there's Robert's soft husband (Bill Fordam played by Ewan McGregor) who goes along for the ride but is separated from her. Her daughter is Jean Fordam (played by Abigail Breslin who is mentioned earlier) and her sisters are played by Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston) along with nearby resident Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson). Rounding out the cast are acting heavyweights in the form of Chris Cooper, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch (the villain from Star Trek: Into Darkness). All the players with their angst-ridden personas, come up aces. The casting director for "August" really deserves their own perceptive enshrinement.

As I said earlier though, "August" doesn't possess a happy ending nor does it clear anything up in terms of scaring and fortitude. You as the audience member, are pulled through the mud because of the naked, tragically enhanced portrayals by everyone involved. They talk down to each other, yearn for an argument between them, and ultimately bare their soul. This ensemble acting slightly reminded me of 1998's Hurlyburly, where star Sean Penn seemed to have collapsed a lung trying to get his hard earned thoughts out.

When this exhausting thing runs its course and you figure everyone involved (in the movie, not in real life) should avoid each other for many years to come, its conclusion reveals an icky secret amongst the family members ultimately brought upon by the brain damaged character portrayed by Streep. She's the ultimate instigator here and you love and hate her equally because well, this woman is one heck of an actress. Ultimately, this is the type of film that you see if your depressed because what this family goes through might make you feel better about your own kin. On the other hand, if you're having a lousy day and feel down trout, you might be more subjected to viewing a flick with a little more uppity vibe. For what it's worth, August: Osage County is a fireball of majestic performances. Despite its flaws, it's just as good as "August" and everything after (no pun intended on The Counting Crows 1993 album release).

Written by Jesse Burleson