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Monday, December 29, 2014

The Interview 2014 * * 1/2 Stars

The InterviewDirectors: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Year: 2014
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Lizzy Caplan

The celebrated bromance between actors Seth Rogen and James Franco parlays itself into a fifth movie with 2014's The Interview. And with this thing being screened in only about four to five theaters via the entire state of Illinois, I was lucky enough to be twenty minutes away from one of them in Chicagoland's own Buffalo Grove. So what did I witness? Well, from what was expected, The Interview had "so stupid, it's funny" written all over it (the vibe is decidedly more stupid than funny though). What I didn't expect was its gratuitous violence that came off as comical to the audience I sat with. A person's head explodes, someone's brain matter is splattered all over people's clothes, fingers are bitten off, and one of the main characters actually puts a missile up his buttocks (not violent but indeed gratuitous and just flat-out nasty). "Interview's" queasy bloodletting reminded me of some of the key sequences in Pulp Fiction. I researched the types of violent images that were featured in that Tarantino Academy Award winner and I found out that what was on screen was labeled hyper-real violence. The Interview towards its last half, had a lot of that going on.

Now I can see why this borderline black comedy caused a lot of controversy upon its initial release. After all, its main plot point is about the killing of a real life supreme leader in Kim Jong-un. So just on a whim, I checked IMDb to make sure this vehicle wasn't premiering in North Korea (anytime in the near future). Phew, what a relief. It wasn't.

Shot in Vancouver, British Columbia (masquerading as the most dangerous place on Earth), written by Dan Sterling (who's screenplay pretty much allows the actors to say whatever they want), and featuring the caricature of Kim Jong-un coming off as a real nice guy (and sort of humble too), The Interview begins by following the lives of talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his cautioned producer Aaron Rapoport (played by Seth Rogen who once again possesses a garbled way of delivering lines and a really goofy laugh). They are part of a TV show titled Skylark Tonight and it has successfully reached its 1000th episode. But wait, Rapoport is upset that the show is perceived as trashy and not really newsworthy. The solution: Set up a televised interview with Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This will give Skylark Tonight a chance to be in a more political circle as opposed to just having the host interview Uber-esque celebrities. Oh and it gets better. Skylark and Rapoport get contacted by the CIA and along with getting said interview in the doldrums of N. Korea, have to assassinate Jong-un by way of shaking his hand with a poisoned band aid. Talk about blurring the lines of proper etiquette.

Anyway, the bulk of The Interview has star Seth Rogen playing straight man to his best bud Franco. And James Franco's performance literally suggests that he's "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs". His Dave Skylark is a successful wild man and Franco portrays him with the energy of a long-tailed baboon on an all night cocaine binge. There's also Lizzy Caplan who's cute as a button playing CIA agent Lacey. And of course there's Randall Park who really encapsulates the nastily-perceived Kim Jong-un. His character in "Interview" likes the music of Katy Perry, playing one on one basketball, and singing Karaoke. Park, with his blubber physique and deadpan hair cut, makes Jong Un come off as pretty likable to say the least. Finally, there's Rogen who along with serving as one of "Interview's" two directors (the other being Evan Goldberg), basically plays himself for the umpteenth time. In fact, he does it so often these days that I've gotten to the point where I've just resorted to labeling him a huskier, yet shorter version of Vince Vaughn. Granted, "Interview" isn't really a quote unquote, "Rogen stoner flick". But it's still Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen and that truly grates on you after a while.

Oh and did I forget to mention the cameos that accompany these star actors? Well there are a few of them and they share some pretty faux revelations (just think Neil Patrick Harris playing a straight guy in the Harold and Kumar movies and you'll know what I'm talking about). Eminem on Franco's character's show admits that he's gay, Rob Lowe on the same show reveals to the nation that he's almost totally bald, Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes on Skylark Tonight and lets everyone know that he has a fetish for cats, and this isn't a cameo but a news story in "Interview" reveals that Matthew McConaughey is caught having sex with a goat. That's an image better left out of sight and out of mind (totally).

In conclusion, everyone who worked on The Interview probably handled it as if it was one big joke. These proceedings don't take themselves seriously and neither should you. If you've seen something along the lines of Stripes or a raunchier, R-rated version of 1985's Spies Like Us, well this is what you're in for. "Interview" with its 112 minute running time, is sloppy, not well prepared, and doesn't ask a lot of intelligent questions (kind of like a real life bad interview). But it has a few laughs and a sumptuous look (Canada really appears to pass in scenery as North Korea, impressive) even though it's clearly a juvenile, comedic romp. My rating: A mixed 2 and a half stars. The Interview's Achilles' heel is that it's rushed and not silent enough (sadly, these are even more characteristics of a real life bad interview. Natch!).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, December 26, 2014

Sand Castles 2014 * * * Stars-(Reissue) Goshen, Indiana Premiere

Director: Clenet Verdi-Rose
Year: 2014
Rated NR
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jordon Hodges, Anne Winters, Randy Spence, Clint Howard

Ah Goshen, Indiana. Home to the second largest county fair in the U.S., nicknamed "The Maple City," and having the distinction of being the birthplace of legendary film director Howard Hawks. It was also the main shooting location for the top featured selection in last year's River Bend Film Festival.

Sand Castles is said selection and it's every bit worth the hype. I mean, it's about as personal as a movie can get. After all, star, writer, and producer Jordon Hodges grew up in Goshen and believe me, he shows us the audience, that he never forgot where he came from. Now to be honest, this is a picture that starts out slow and really sneaks up on you. After a viewing, I declared it to be Prisoners meets Mystic River meets independent film making. That's another way of saying that it's part crime drama, part vigilante escapade, and part acting showcase. In terms of location, it is Northern Indiana personified. There's an earthy and grainy look coupled with low camera angles and dreary landscapes. Basically the town depicted, becomes one of the stars as well as its source of recognition. In fact, I haven't been reminded of a small Midwestern venue feeling a lot like the movie's primary voice since Three Oaks, Michigan took over the scenery for 1989's Prancer.

Set to be available for purchase on DVD in 2015 (as voiced by two of the film's producers) and showcasing flashback kidnapping scenes via my hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan (Silver Beach to be exact), Sand Castles tackles the terrifying aspect of child abduction. The film begins with a young Lauren Daly (played by Anne Winters). She is abducted and I guess, sexual assaulted by an unknown assailant. After years of her family searching for her, she manages to escape and eventually returns to them. Lauren is traumatized, doesn't speak, and is in a state of shock. Her alcoholic mother (Marie Daly played by Saxon Trainor), her older brother (Jordon Hodges as Noah Daly), and her uncle (the veritable Randy Spence as Tommy Daly) are happy that she has come back and is safe. However, they want to find out who committed this horrible act. Tommy Daly takes on the role of unannounced detective by interviewing a car mechanic (Clint Howard) and stealing the badge number of a police officer (to get information on area sex offenders). This series of events is what kicks Sand Castles into high gear. The proceedings become more involving, more absorbing, and to a fault, more catastrophic.

As for the performances, I had the pleasure of chatting with one of the stars of Sand Castles being the legendary Clint Howard. A self-proclaimed character actor, he told me about how neat it was to climb out of his Hollywood environment and fly down to the Hoosier state to make quote unquote, "a small independent film." His screen time is short lived but that's what he does (as does so well). He shows up in "Castles" for a couple of scenes, makes a swift impression, and is never heard from again. That's what you get from a Howard performance and that's okay with me. Then there's the star of Sand Castles being an up and comer named Jordon Hodges. As Noah Daly, he underplays his role a bit too much but relegates a strong amount of screen presence. He reminds me of a young Casey Affleck with the swagger of Aaron Paul. His screenplay is impressive and it gives "Castles" a lot of bite. The actors get a chance to spout off some unabashed, juicy free fall dialogue. And the top recipient for the strongest dose of this dialogue, is Randy Spence bringing to life the revenge minded Tommy Daly. He plays to perfection, a drug addicted, alcohol minded bad boy who takes the law into his own hands without any sense of just or justice. His rawness, confidence, and devil-may-care attitude only add to the spice of this powerful film. 

Overall, Sand Castles with a small budget, a small town feel, and an anti-Hollywood approach, teeters on the edge of amateurism. Thankfully, director Clenet Verdi-Rose avoids this notion for almost 90% of the running time. He channels a little bit of Steven Soderbergh with his camerawork all the while building tension with every careful inch. The film currently doesn't have a MPAA rating but believe me, after seeing the finished product, I garner it a hard R saddled with adult themes, adult situations, rough language, and some violent images. And to truly decipher the film's heart wrenching conclusion, you have to stay through the closing credits.

To put it mildly, Sand Castles only falters when it goes off into tangents with certain scenes. When it's focused and heavy handed, watch out. You've got a fairly effective, hard boiled thriller on your hands. Thumbs up!

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Into the Woods 2014 * * Stars

Into the WoodsDirector: Rob Marshall
Year: 2014
Rated PG
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick

Johnny Depp has always been known to play weirdos or freaks on camera. 2014's Into the Woods is just another film catering to his fixation for such fodder. His role in "Woods" hightails the fictional Big Bad Wolf and he's on and off the screen faster than a speeding bullet. Does his five minutes of fame really matter though? Not so much. He's just another pawn in this hyperactive mess of a movie that feels more like a stage play than anything else. Characters break into song relentlessly bringing the two hour proceedings at times, to a screeching halt. As I attended a sold out, Christmas Day showing, I thought I should be waiting for riggers to dart across the stage. I also thought the curtains were going to go down after each act, and then I found myself yearning for muted applause from the audience. Oh and I was bored for most of the vehicle's running time. Bottom line: After seeing Into the Woods, I realized that musicals belong in the theater, not in popcorn-munching multiplexes. You won't get a more truer statement from me anywhere.

Granted, this is a flick based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim (he adapted 2007's Sweeney Todd) and a book by James Lapine. Rob Marshall (he shot 2002's highly energized, Chicago) takes on the reins as director and he inconsistently tries to weave four fairy tales ("Little Red Riding Hood", "Cinderella", "Jack and the Beanstalk", and "Rapunzel") into something an audience can follow. Bully for that. He provides Into the Woods with a lush, dangerous look only to have his editor (Wyatt Smith) appear to be on holiday. Too many characters fade in and out, too many scenes don't gel from one to the next, and the songs all sound the same (I heard that's the case with most musicals so count me out on seeing any more of them in the future). In truth, this is a clusterfunk of gigantic proportions, a sort of sabotage on the part of the actors/actresses who truly give it their best effort (Meryl Streep as a witch, kills it and should get her umpteenth Academy Award nomination). They can all sing, they obviously can act, but their jumbled storylines are wasted upon us, the audience. Oh and the script forces everyone to say "into the woods" about a million times throughout. I guess this is catered to the ticket buyer who is not misconstrued by the film's title (ha-ha).

Now with Into the Words almost becoming a virtual, continuous loop of characters breaking out into song, most of the pieces (examples would be "Prologue: Into the Woods", "It Takes Two", and "Magic Beans"), have the same refrain, the same rondo, and virtually the same stanza (musical terms that involve repetition). This became a nuisance. There was one sequence however, where the cast members exhibited impeccable timing and I was impressed to know how they actually pulled it off. If you take in a viewing and listen for the movement, "Your Fault", you'll know exactly what I mean.

Regardless, this wannabe critical darling is almost too intense to harness a PG rating (what with the implied notion of people's toes getting amputated and evil birds attacking two woman causing them to go completely blind). And with its elaborate cast (including Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, and Tracey Ullman), I expected Rob Marshall and crew to right the ship. Negatory. Into the Woods is out of bounds with its incoherency and choppy narrative. Halfway through it, I wanted to leave the theater to go home and have a stiff drink.

Of note: When the final credits for "Woods" came up, I heard about ten to fifteen people clapping. My ten year old nephew who also attended the screening, asked why they were clapping. My sentiments exactly.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Five 2014 * * 1/2 Stars

Top FiveDirector: Chris Rock
Year: 2014
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union

God bless Chris Rock. He has always been for my money, the best comedian on the planet. If you worship him as much as I do and you haven't yet seen his 2014 release Top Five, well you're probably wondering if it's as funny as his work in the stand-up routine department. Sadly, I'm here to say that it's not. That doesn't mean that what's on screen is lousy, it's just mildly uneven. I think I heard somewhere that this 102 minute vehicle might be considered Oscar material come January. Might have to pump the breaks on that one.

Serving as director, writer, and star of a sort of feature film akin to his Everybody Hates Chris television show, Top Five features Rock surprisingly dumbing himself down to make his lead role seem less smarmy, less cool, and well, less funny. He'd rather give all the humorous stuff to his co-stars in the form of non-stop cameos. To his credit though, he has a keen eye behind the camera with his direction being spotty, yet swift and confident. If there weren't so many disjointed, inconsistent flashbacks documenting his character's life (anywhere between ten years ago to five hours ago), I would have praised his directorial efforts a bit more. Alas, he is for the most part, better off just doing stage comedy. It's where he belongs, not parading around in a film involving raunchy dialogue (a lot of n-words and f words) where the actors speak rapidly as if they were stuck in a bad version of something Kevin Smith directed circa 1995.

Featuring half the cast of Think Like a Man (it seems that Kevin Hart has to appear in everything these days), augmenting Gabrielle Union in a role as a reality television star (in a real life interview she said she disliked reality television. Talk about hypocrisy), and glamorizing sexual innuendo in the form of rectal exams and threesomes (with Freddie Jackson's "You Are My Lady" playing in the background, how poetic), Top Five chronicles comedic actor turned serious thespian, Andre Allen (played with various levels of stiffness by Chris Rock). Allen is I guess, meant to be an alter ego of the real life Chris Rock. Or Rock, an already established movie star himself, could just be playing Allen as another movie star. I couldn't tell. Anyway, his Andre Allen made his name in Hollywood via the lead in the fictional "Hammy The Bear" franchise. He played a cop in a bear suit and these films made enough money to relegate two more sequels. Cut to present day where he's now a recovering alcoholic, he's leaning towards doing more serious work like slave dramas ("Uprising" is something new he's promoting), and currently he's partaking in a personal interview with New York Times reporter, Chelsea Brown (played by Rosario Dawson who's character is also reluctantly trying to stay off the sauce). As the proceedings move along, he eventually has to get back to I guess, L.A. where he must marry Bravo TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). But wait, he develops some feelings for Brown and the two produce some sparks. I can't reveal anything more only to let the audience know that this thing felt to me like life imitating art. "Five's" sometimes repugnant nature however, managed to smear said art.

Now as mentioned earlier, Top Five revels in countless cameos and they're the best thing it has going for it. Look for sightings of Jerry Seinfeld, Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg, DMX, and Adam Sandler just to name a few. DMX is a hoot as he plays himself singing the blues inside a jail cell (there's a stretch). As for Sandler, he's actually funnier playing Adam Sandler than he ever has been helming the lead in other countless, wretched films. His scenes as a customer at a strip club are without a doubt, priceless.

In conclusion, I'd rather watch Rock's comedy special Bring the Pain than seeing him clamour at the idea of channeling his inner Woody Allen. He walks the streets of New York City with a beautiful woman. He's angry, sullen, and defensive but gosh, his character is also a rich movie star. Could his Andre just for once, lighten the heck up! Gees. As for the film's stab at vulgar stipulations, well they don't equal many real laughs. I mean, would you want to see Cedric The Entertainer having loud sex with two woman? Uh, neither would I. Bottom line: Top Five is no "top tier" when it comes to the workings of staunch comedic timing. Result: A poultry 2 and half stars.

Of note: If you decide on seeing Top Five, pay close attention to the ending which seems like a homage to the age old tale of Cinderella. Also, pay attention to pictures of our last two U.S. Presidents subliminally placed on the walls of various hotel rooms and houses. As for the films title, Top Five if you haven't already heard, refers to the naming of every one's favorite five rap groups (if anyone cares, 2Pac is number one for me). Finally, if you take a gander at Chris Rock, it's uncanny how young he looks. I'm serious. He appears the same way he did about twenty years ago. Seriously, the dude does not age. Except for one or two gray hairs, he's Rob Lowe incarnated. Crazy.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

And So It Goes 2014 * * 1/2 Stars

And So It GoesDirector: Rob Reiner
Year: 2014
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins

Director Rob Reiner and his star of 1995's The American President (that would be Mr. Michael Douglas), reunite again for the half-baked, hackneyed comedy/drama And So It Goes. Released this past summer and rightfully swallowed up by a host of big-budgeted blockbusters, Reiner films "Goes" as if he's remaking As Good as It Gets almost twenty years later and Something's Gotta Give more than ten (And So It Goes is like a watered down combo of the movies just mentioned but with characters in it that aren't quite as affluent). The result: ninety-four loose minutes that gives the audience a few pertinent revelations but ultimately gets a mixed review from me.

Written by Mark Andrus (Life as a House, Georgia Rule, As Good As It Gets), filmed mostly in Connecticut, and featuring a Michael Douglas dirtbag who actually pursues a woman in his own age group, And So It Goes paints itself as a comedy (that's the vibe I got from the trailer I saw) but on the surface, has some really bleak moments as well. The proceedings focus on one Oren Little (Douglas). He's a cranky old-timer who sells houses and dishes out insults to almost everyone he meets. He's has minimal racist tendencies, he's a bigot, he doesn't like kids or animals, and he wants to retire by getting someone to purchase his home listed at 8.5 million dollars (only he thinks that that's the appraised value). He'll then move to Vermont so he can be moody, angry, and alone all over again. There's also other plot points going on. He has a granddaughter he never knew and now he must watch over her while his only son (a former heroin addict) goes to jail and his granddaughter's biological mom (a current heroin addict) continues to wade in a downward spiral. Thankfully, he aids his next door neighbor (Leah, a struggling lounge singer played by Diane Keaton) to help watch over said granddaughter. As things continue to move along, Oren develops a connection with Leah (one is a widow and the other is a widower) and sparks I guess, fly. That's the gist of And So It Goes and its breeziness might help you forget about how familiar and vacant it is.

Now I don't fault the performances in And So It Goes because it feels like the actors are doing what they can. I do fault the script which seems overly inconsistent. Considering that the same dude who penned As Good as It Gets wrote this screenplay, well I figured it might be just as sharp. Negatory. Andrus gives the Douglas character plenty of berated one-liners only to not have them fit the tone of the scene or the circumstance. One minute Oren is doing nice things for people and trying to come off as having a good heart. The next minute, he's telling people off just to you know, tell people off. It feels as if Mr. Little is spewing insults just for the heck of it. I mean, it's like he's reading them from cue cards or having someone whisper them in his ear right before the cameras start to roll. When he tells a co-worker at his real estate firm, "and you'll get hit by a bus if the driver does what he's paid to do", it just feels like filler. When Jack Nicholson told off his co-stars in his 1997 Oscar nominated flick, it actually felt genuine and earned. Here not so much. Again, I don't fault Douglas. I fault Andrus for not connecting the dots this time around. Then, there's the supposedly sufficient romance that brews between Little and Diane Keaton's Leah (oh come on, you knew the movie would force them to get together). With a length of just over an hour and a half, there's not enough time to really believe that these two could actually fall in love. And you know, it doesn't help that Douglas has a track record of getting with a younger woman in pretty much all of his movies. The fact that his character froths at the mouth at trying to sleep with the 68 year old Keaton, seems totally not believable.

In retrospect, with its Hallmark setting and familiar romcom cliches (this is yet another romantic comedy where the male lead happens to befriend a straying dog), And So It Goes feels like a second tier version of the type of concoction the late Nora Ephron would have made in the mid 90's. However, with a few genuine, Taster Choice moments between the cast members, there's no reason why this box office flop wouldn't suffice as a mildly entertaining, weekday rental. Its director Rob Reiner, has a legendary resume consisting of superb work (Misery, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, This Is Spinal Tap) intertwined with some God-awful stuff (North, The Story of Us, The Bucket List). His latest falls somewhere in between causing him to stand on neutral ground. Bottom line: And So It Goes "goes" into the $4.99 Best Buy bin probably 2-3 years from now. That's my prediction. You can take it any way you want it.

Of note: If you choose to check out And So It Goes, look for two cameos. One of them is Frankie Valli playing a restaurant owner and it's pretty good. The other is by actual director Rob Reiner and he plays a musician dating Diane Keaton's Leah. Sadly, Reiner's bit is one of the worst 3-5 minutes of screen time that I've ever seen. It's completely irrelevant and woefully underdeveloped. Also, for the sake of all that is holy, he really needed to lose that wretched, combed over toupee. Ugh.

Written by Jesse Burleson