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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sisters 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Sisters
Director: Jason Moore
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph

Unless you've been living a real sheltered life, you'd know that actresses Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are real-life best buds. It's obvious. They host the Golden Globes together, do interviews together, and star opposite each other in many a flick. Their latest collaboration in which they perform synchronized, dance moves together (not once but twice), is 2015's Sisters (my latest review). In truth, this is the definition of hit-or-miss comedy people. It's crass, vulgar, cringeworthy, and pretty thin on plot. I laughed heartily a few times but also felt sorry (and/or ashamed) for all the troupers (mainly in their early 40's or late 30's) plastered on screen. Just think of this thing as a poor man's Bridesmaids or a fitter version of 2008's dreadful, Step Brothers. That will set your mind straight.

Directed by Jason Moore (he shot Pitch Perfect), co-starring Oscar winner Diane Wiest (ah-huh), taking place in sunny, Orlando, Florida, and improvised to the max, Sisters had the unfortunate task of competing with the new Star Wars movie (I'd say it did pretty good overall). As a guilty girl's farce, its film score is straight out of a bad 80's pantomime, the F word runs rampant throughout, and one character actually says, "get your peanut butter out of my sister's chocolate". Interesting.

Anyway, the story goes like this: Maura Ellis (Poehler) and Kate Ellis (Fey) are middle-aged losers. Maura has poor social skills and is divorced. Kate is an unemployed stylist who lives on someone's couch and can't connect with her teenage daughter (Hayley played by Madison Davenport). When their childhood home is being put up for sale by their tolerant parents (played by Wiest and the slumming James Brolin), Maura and Kate decide to throw one last party there to summon old memories (and holistic traditions). That's basically the whole kit and caboodle. Everyone at said party is part of their high school crew. They all get hammered, drugged up, and act like unhinged buffoons. Look for solid thespians embarrassing themselves in bad cameos (we're talking John Leguizamo, Maya Rudolph, and John Cena). Also, be on the lookout for a coked-up guest painting a wall with his penis, a sinkhole that results in sisterly mud wrestling, and another party visitant accidentally getting a sharp object stuck up his keister (ugh). To quote the veritable Garth Algar, "I think I'm gonna hurl". Yup.

All in all, I've never been a fan of Tina Fey in terms of her dramatic work (see my review for This Is Where I Leave You). However, I do think she has a few comedic chops up her sleeve. In jest, it's pretty evident that her and Amy Poehler had a ton of fun making this pronounced pet project. It's just a shame that that fun can't quite be shared in the same vein as your typical cinematic audience. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, December 28, 2015

(Cole's Take) Joy 2015 * * * Stars

JoyDirector: David O. Russell
Year: 2015
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro

Written by Cole Pollyea

Over the last four years, Jennifer Lawrence has teamed with director David O. Russell and actors Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper to produce three notable films. These are 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, 2013’s American Hustle, and their latest, 2015’s Joy. All three have undeniable merit, for certain, but the result of their latest collaborative effort is Jennifer Lawrence’s finest performance to date and the initiation of a three way tie for O’Russell’s second best film (behind I Heart Huckabees).

Yielding an unjustly low Tomatometer score of 58%, Joy follows the plight of an innovative and exceedingly capable young woman, Joy Mangano, who is burdened by her uncooperative, soap opera-addicted mother, her dim-witted father (De Niro), her broke ex-husband, two kids, and the sole responsibility of paying the bills. After years of working her hands to the bone to keep up with the livelihood of the family living under her roof, she comes to the realization that she has been spinning her wheels with no forward progress since she graduated from high school, and, with the slight support and cooperation of her father, controlling sister-in-law, and ex-husband, she embarks on an entrepreneurial journey in an effort to move up in the oppressive and capitalistic world and to redeem all of her lost time.

Joy is, without doubt, O’Russell’s most engrossing and straightforward piece yet. He doesn’t meander, and he doesn’t lose focus for a second. He successfully incorporates crushing themes of consumerism and bigotry, and lets said themes play out in the despair of the viewer’s eyes. He constructs the characters in Joy’s life very simply, but gets away with it. They are cardboard-cutouts in the best sense possible because they leave the viewers very sure about Joy’s family dynamics and the way that she feels about each person in the film. He leaves all of the film's complications to the obstacles that she faces along the journey, and this results in seamless and absorbing plot development.

Bradley Cooper comes in after a decent amount of screen time, and he plays the QVC rep through which Joy is able to advertise her product on television. His role, as her personal connection to the non-personal realm of business, is key and his performance is exactly what you’d expect from Cooper. From a wardrobe/makeup perspective, his appearance properly conveys the high stakes associated with his job along with the same level of anxiety that the audience experiences during the majority of his screen time. Despite being draped in professional clothes with his consistently great haircut, he looks like he’s operating on three to four hours of sleep and his tie is tied loosely in every frame. De Niro performs on the same level; he delivers lines with gusto and adheres purposefully to the character of Joy’s father: a dull, but good-hearted man who has accepted into his heart the same condemning ideology that threatens to corrupt Joy’s success: that successful business is done by only the elite male.

Make no mistake, however, it’s all about Lawrence here. From her first scene, it was clear that she was going to shine as the housewife-turned-entrepreneur who is tested on every level. She wears anguish on her face when duty calls and kicks butt when she has to. It seems as though this is the role she was meant to play, as her portrayal feels comfortable and just plain right every step of the way. I foresee strong Oscar consideration for her work here.

All merits aside, Joy does have two setbacks that keep it from being a near-perfect film, and those are its obligatory ending and its imprecise voiceover. Seen many times before in many different movies, this aggravating sort of ending didn’t hurt Joy but certainly didn’t send itself off effectively by any stretch of the imagination. It was an attempt by the filmmakers to encapsulate all of the movie’s ideals and the characters’ denouements in one scene which was suppose to affirm our faith in what we had just watched for the last two hours. Ultimately, this goal was not reached and this scene was extremely unsatisfying. Furthermore, the movie is sort of narrated by Joy’s grandmother who, from an early age, was the only person in her life who voiced her support of Joy. Many times over, she is shown conveying her faith in Joy and telling her that she can be an amazing young entrepreneur or a great woman or a strong matriarch or a wonderful parent or a good person… Or something like that. And this is the problem; her presence in Joy’s life is too vague and her effect on Joy’s path and self-image is undefined if at all evident. Maybe her effect on Joy was more profound in real life, but based what we see in the movie, she was simply not influential enough to have the sole narration over the proceedings, which was sporadic at best.

Conclusively, Joy is a wonderful tale of a strong woman who made her way in a man's world and, unlike the filmmakers' and actors' previous movies, it is suitable for a family viewing. From me, it garners a three (out of four) star rating and ranks second on the list of O' Russell's works. In addition to serving as an inspirational biopic, it is also a film that harbors a moving performance and one that divulges formidable themes about society. It's one that won't be (completely) ignored by the Academy this year, and one that shouldn't be ignored by anybody else either. 

Written by Cole Pollyea

(Jesse's Take) Joy 2015 * * * 1/2 Stars

JoyDirector: David O. Russell
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez

For the third time in as many years, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro are appearing in a film by the freewheeling David O. Russell. Make no mistake about it though, this is strictly JLaw's show. She plays housewife-turned mop inventor, Joy Mangano. In 2015's Joy (my latest review), Lawrence doesn't push her character too hard. Her performance is raw, underplayed, and it doesn't feel like she's grandstanding (or clamoring for an Oscar like in Russell's two previous flicks). This is probably the best work she's ever done and the movie despite having a sort of pat ending, is David O.'s strongest since 2004's I Heart Huckabees.

Anyway, Joy's look is bleak and its statement suggests that events are slightly based on a true story. There's a fantasy element involved here, a dash of whimsy, and a vibe akin to the age old tale of "Cinderella". Joy's trailer tagline reads, "FIND IT". What I found mind you, was a sense of solace right after the closing credits came down. The only "joy" in the world is to begin. Duh.

Russell who usually directs with messy fortitude, parlays things straightforward this time around. And for the first time in a while, his musical soundtrack (including lost long Rolling Stones nuggets, Bee Gees relics, and Cream favorites) really does fit the scenes and the rhythms of the actors/actresses. In Joy, he bullies and frustrates his viewership only to have them salivate for his muse to achieve the taxing, American dream. It's a bruising journey containing themes of cynical consumerism, unnecessary self-doubt, and family dysfunctionality (a David O. Russell mainstay).

The story is as follows: Joy Mangano (Lawrence) is a single mother with two kids and an ex-husband who lives in her basement (Tony Miranda played by Edgar Ramirez). Her mother, her father, and her grandmother also live there too. Her mom (Virginia Madsen as Terry Mangano) does nothing but sit on the bed and indulge in daytime soaps. Her pops (Robert De Niro as Rudy Mangano) runs an auto shop and shares said basement with Tony after getting kicked to the curb (by one of his ex-wives). Joy always the creative type, works at an airport and is the poster child for misery. On an impulse, she decides to invent a revolutionary mop after spilling wine during a family boating trip. Unable to sell it by way of getting a loan from Rudy's girlfriend (Trudy played by Isabella Rossellini), Joy ventures to a home shopping network to get people to see its genius by purchasing thousands in bulk. The guy who helps her out, believes in her, and gets the ball rolling is executive Neil Walker (played by Bradley Cooper). Walker quips, "all right Godspeed, gold luck, here we go". Indeed.

Now for the majority of Joy's 124-minute running time, Russell opts to make Lawrence's Mangano a veritable centrifuge. This semi-fictional character is under a strict microscope. Everything is on her, everyone judges her from a distance, and every other trouper (De Niro, Cooper, Madsen, Elizabeth Rohm) seems to be in her gleaming foreground. This again, harks back to the fantasy element I boasted about in the first paragraph. Nevertheless, with a couple of finger points, a couple of heavy breaths, and all kinds of starry-eyed nuances, Jennifer Lawrence just kills it. Academy Award nomination beckoning? I sure hope so.

In conclusion, certain critics (not this one) seem to think that Joy's premise contains nothing that's at stake. I say hogwash. Sure were talking about selling a mop here but in jest, a woman's livelihood, dignity, financial standing, and sense of belonging (to her family) are forcefully on the line. According to the movie, Joy Mangano's world is a cruel one, filled with double-crossing business associates, cutthroat network bosses, resentful half-sisters, and buzzkill fathers. And yeah its ending (as mentioned earlier) has the need to wrap things up nice and neat. No matter. For ninety percent of Joy's running time, you sense that this is the culmination of everything bountiful to David O. Russell's, decade-plus career. It's the cockamamie, reverie fest he was born to make. Amen. My rating: 3 and a half stars.

Of note: In Joy's early third act, you have Melissa Rivers deadpanning her late mother in a cameo via the QVC network. She plays Joan Rivers in a segment where she's selling product and wink winking to the audience. Neat. Also in bits and spurts, I had no problem with Joy Mangano's grandmother (played by Diane Ladd) narrating Joy's roller coaster plight. I just wish it was sprinkled more evenly throughout. Oh well, just a minor oversight.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Spotlight 2015 * * * * Stars

SpotlightDirector: Tom McCarthy
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * * Stars
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams

"I wanna keep digging" quips the character of Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a well respected reporter at Beantown's most heralded newspaper. What can I say, I "dug" all 128 minutes of the vehicle I'm about to review.

Anyway, for all Academy Award purposes and historical insight, Spotlight is the quintessential best picture nominee. It's secure, by the book filmmaking and that doesn't hurt it in any way. 1976 had All the President's Men, 1981 had Absence of Malice, 2007 had Zodiac, and now 2015 brings us "Light". All these films have one thing in common. They are dialogue-driven, feed off paranoia, and resound in crowded newsrooms. "Nose goes" gets a nose for the news. Natch!

Taking place in the early 2000's and helmed by director Tom McCarthy, Spotlight moves along like a jack rabbit. Yeah this flick is talky but it never comes off as insipid. There are a lot of continuity cuts between scenes, ensemble acting (where everyone helps each other out) of the highest order, and crackling intrigue inhabiting every frame. Alongside his previous endeavor Birdman, "Light's" lead in Michael Keaton, is now two for two. His co-star (Mark Ruffalo) who got nominated for a supporting role via 2014's Foxcatcher, is also batting 1.000.

So yeah there might be a repetition in Spotlight involving every (news reporter) caricature interrogating a victim and/or a suspect. No matter. This Open Road Films release rings true because Josh Singer's screenplay is tight and engrossing. What we have amongst the muck, is the best movie of the year (so far). And just like one of my other top picks (2015's Black Mass), the city of Boston swallows the proceedings whole as if Michael Phelps decided to inhale tons of hot dogs. You want to see actual events depicted that involve a massive cover-up among the Roman Catholic priests? You'll get that in "Light". You want the 9/11 attacks to be used effectively as a backdrop? You'll get that as well. You wanna witness a small investigative team unravel the secrets behind so many young churchgoers getting molested? It's all there. And do you want to revel in having the Boston Globe be the locale where all the news shtick goes down? Prego. Finally, do you want a cast that includes Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Rachel McAdams, and Billy Crudup? Who wouldn't.

All in all, Spotlight involves behind-the-scenes preoccupation in small rooms and quiet, open spaces. Every nuance between the troupers sticks. With its disciplined magnetism and critical darling demur, "Light" shines brightly. Rating: 4 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Star Wars: The Force AwakensDirector: J.J. Abrams
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver

In the late 70's, my first trip to the movies was with my dad. It was the dog days of summer and drive-in theaters were hip. I saw Star Wars: Episode IV there and have since seen it 100 times over. It was the evolution of sped up sci-fi and countless imitators have tried to ride its coattails. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (my latest review) is the 7th entry in the popular, space opera saga. Unintentionally though, it tries to almost spoof and/or parody the three films from the earlier, George Lucas era (circa 1977-1983). Case in point: Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) is supposedly Episode VII's main heavy. Too bad his costume makes him come off more like Rick Moranis (in Spaceballs) than the new breed of Darth Vader. Dark Helmet well, he just ain't so dark.

Anyway, I'm not gonna lie. I am in fact, a Star Wars fan. I can also be a sort of snobbish critic. "Awakens" for the most part, was disappointing. Could it have been the John Williams score which always reliable, seemed pedestrian and sort of rushed into production? Maybe. Could it have been the fact that Mark Hamill (aka Luke Sykwalker) had literally only one minute of screen time? Possibly. Could it have been the (paper-thin) screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan which doesn't exactly elaborate on intergalactic lore? Sure why not. Finally, could it have been the notion that Chewbacca didn't age one iota (Harrison Ford on the other hand, looked like your typical, ripe 73-year-old)? Oh you betcha. Bottom line: It's all of these things and for the record, I could bring myself to only rate this Lucasfilm adventure higher than 1999's The Phantom Menace. Whereas (pioneering) director George Lucas overloaded the prequels with CGI, kid humor, and uninteresting characters, new helmer J.J. Abrams goes back to the old school ways of Episodes IV, V, and VI to harness his vision in "Awakens". J.J. is no doubt reputable. However, where's the awe factor from those previous installments, the sense of foreboding from those previous installments, and the spine-tingling feeling you get from those true sets of blockbusters? As I left the theater, I knew Episode VIII was already in production. I'll probably go see the darn thing anyway and that's the Jedi mind trick I just can't shake (ha ha).

Now what made the early flicks so memorable, was how there was a half-hour to an hour of buildup. The character development was there, the scenes were set up well, and the music chillingly advanced those scenes. Abrams on the other hand, wants to over-impress the audience. He's hellbent on getting your action-packed approval within 15-20 minutes. I didn't care about storm trooper Finn (played John Boyega) and fighter pilot Poe's (played by Oscar Isaac) relationship because it seemed manufactured (they barely got to know each other). And I didn't care that so many critics (and audience members) compared "Awakens" to the 1977 original. Yeah there's that familiar adage where something of importance is planted in a droid (BB-8). In truth though, there's no real differential. A New Hope belongs in a time capsule where Star Wars: The Force Awakens is humdrum to the nth degree. Maybe a second viewing might change my mind but for now, it's a mixed affair. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Of note: J.J. Abrams does a substantial job with "Awakens" via the battle scenes, lightsaber fights, and cinematography in the veritable Star Wars worlds. And his female lead (Daisy Ridley) has a real chance at becoming a full-fledged movie star. But if you wanna see true genius in Jaybird you're better off checking out his masterwork, Star Trek Into Darkness. Just a random thought.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Krampus 2015 * * * Stars


Krampus
Director: Michael Dougherty
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner

So is it true? Am I hearing this right? Did Universal Studios have the cojones to put out a comedy/horror/fantasy picture during the almighty silly season? Well good for them. I say bravo chap!

Anyway let's face it. Everybody loves a good holiday film. Maybe it's Scrooge you fancy. Or maybe it's Elf. Maybe it's Home Alone. Heck, it could be Mixed Nuts for all I care (oy vey). Krampus (my latest review) is Christmas-themed but it also has horror movie interludes. This thing basically gives the middle finger to all concepts of yuletide cheer and goodwill towards men. Just throw in an element of Gremlins, a dash of Assault on Precinct 13, and Two and a Half Men's Conchata Ferrell for comic relief. That's Krampus for ya. In the words of flappable Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!"

Taking place amidst the present day and containing animation derived from one long flashback, Krampus the flick is about Krampus the horned, anthropomorphic figure. He (or she) punishes little kids who are disobedient and shout out that they hate Christmas. Max (played by Emjay Anthony) commits these offenses and much more. He also rips up a letter that he planned to give Santa Claus on the 24th. Next thing you know his family (consisting of actors/actresses Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner) is terrorized by Krampus, his monstrous elves, and just about every ghoulish entity in sight (the image of snowmen outside dwelling windows still gives me the chills the more I think about it). Over the film's short running time, the skies in turn get grayer, the snowstorms get heavier, and no other humans are out and about. Basically the whole family is trapped in their Christmassy, East Coast home. Miracle of 34th Street becomes nightmare on residential street. Natch!

Now Krampus with its bloodless violence and campy tone, is a movie that provides you with no mercy. It doesn't really frighten with jump scares or jolts. It's more about the demented images of monsters who relentlessly pursue the dysfunctional, suburban family spotlighted. Translation: Take heed if you're a parent because this 2015 release is not for the kiddies. With almost no build-up, fifteen minutes pass and you already know that chaos will rear it's ugly suture. Director Michael Dougherty provides the audience with a mixture of snarky dialogue and creature intake composed of snaggletoothed devils (masking as evil dolls). Add a ton of fake snow, howling winds, and icicles the size of Texas and you've got yourself a grim, almost totally original take on holiday, trepidation fare.

In conclusion, I decided to look up all scary movies that take place on Christ's birth. There aren't a ton of them. With Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night being the only notables, it's safe to say that Krampus might turn into a December cult favorite. Only time will tell. My rating: 3 stars.

Of note: (Spoiler alert) the ending to Krampus is mildly confusing in that you experience all 98 minutes of it and wonder if everything was just a bad dream. In hindsight, I suppose this was the right way to wrap things up. With the PG-13 rating presented, it's probably appropriate that every character didn't end up dying (chiefly the women and the children). In truth, the metaphors for this film really speak volumes. If you don't believe in the magic of holy day and adhere to the fine art of misbehaving, well the demons with claws aplenty are hastily coming to get ya. Make note on that!

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chi-Raq 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Chi-RaqDirector: Spike Lee
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack

Chicago, Illinois is considered to have one of the highest homicide rates in the entire United States. I live there and not a day goes by where I don't hear about someone getting shot via the local news. Chi-Raq (my latest review) depicts Chi-Town's happenings and a whole lot more. It's tangled, unfocused, preachy, and bubbly. It also marks the return of director Spike Lee so you know it's an editing nightmare (here comes another heavy dose of plot over plot). What we have with this love letter (or love lost) to the Windy City, is a sort of skit where every word of dialogue is a rhyme or limerick. Lee's canvas in "Raq" is huge with hundreds of extras and many backdrop, Chicago locales. There's a ton of sexual innuendo, a brilliant performance by Nick Cannon (he plays a rapper/gangster and the lead character), a miscast John Cusack (he plays a South Side priest who overacts to the point of bedlam), and plenty of Lee thespian, regulars (Wesley Snipes, Angela Basset, Samuel L. Jackson). In short, it feels like the studios told Mars Blackmon he could do whatever he wanted. Therefore, he comes out guns blazing (no pun intended) while injecting the film with an overload of flask humor and cutthroat, Greek mythology. Sadly, a few targets are indeed missed.

With its derogatory nature towards the female genitalia, its opening image of a U.S. map outlined by guns, and its opening song complete with Karaoke-style rap lyrics, Chi-Raq is amusing as well as just different. It's a solidified mixture of real-life, true events and a sliding nod towards Lysistrata (a Greek comedy). Teyonah Parris plays the title character, a woman who leads a revolt against gangbangers and thugs in Chicago's savage, Englewood neighborhood. According to the readings of Lysistrata and the Parris caricature, women in Englewood will abstain from giving their boyfriends sex until they stop shooting and killing innocent people. Hence, there's a vibe with Chi-Raq that feels as much like an urban West Side Story as a gun-toting version of Grease. Look out for an all-cast dance off to the Chi-Lites ditty, "Oh Girl". It's probably my favorite moment.

Now with "Raq", Lee includes a cast that is extravagant as anything he had going for him in Do the Right Thing (1989). The problem is that all of his troupers fade in and out of the proceedings very quickly. An example of this would be the film's narrator, voice, and chorus in Dolmedes (played by Samuel L. Jackson). In truth, Chi-Raq's running time (118 minutes) dissipates and what we're left with is highly-stylized, highly-volcanic scenes clearly in search of a movie. In terms of Lee's most heralded endeavors, I would rank it rightfully below Bamboozled (2000), 25th Hour (2002), and my all-time Lee favorite, 1995's Clockers.

In the end, Chi-Raq like most of Spike Lee's films, has a heavy breadth of energy, a sense of urgency, and in essence, it's really about something. And who can resist the always teaming musical score by maestro Terence Blanchard. Unfortunately, the gun violence by which Lee sermonizes here, is minimalistic. And for over two hours, the proceedings are drenched in satiric silliness. Bottom line: Chi-Raq has its moments yet doesn't fully do justice to the South Side of Chicago or its murderous environment. My rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Creed 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

CreedDirector: Ryan Coogler
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson

You gotta hand it to Sylvester Stallone. About fifteen years ago, I figured his career had been left for dead. Somehow with his revision of Rambo, his clout to get studios to make those Expendable movies, and his relentless drive to revitalize an old, punch-drunk boxer, he's gotten into Hollywood's good graces once again. Heck, back in the day I used to quip, "Sly who?"

Anyway, unless you've been living on a desert island via the last four decades, you'll know that Creed (my latest review) is indeed the 7th film in the storied, Rocky saga. Everyone in character Rocky Balboa's life, is gone. That includes his spouse Adrian, his brother-in-law Paulie, his trainer Mickey, and his old boxing rival Apollo. But hey, nothing can stop Stallone and company from milking every bit of the Italian Stallion's account till it runs bone dry. That's why he brought in director Ryan Coogler (he did Fruitvale Station) along with his budding movie star, Michael B. Jordan (he was the lead in Fruitvale Station). Translation: This is yet a bland Rocky entry but a mature, valiant effort. It's on par with Rocky Balboa (2006), it's a lot better than Rocky V (I'd hope so), and it has moments that are deeper and more subdued than Rocky IV ("I must break you" ha ha). Somewhere somehow though, I can still hear the late Burgess Meredith saying, "I'm going on a permanent vacation". Rocky being an Irwin Winkler-produced franchise with its obligatory training sequences and its obligatory final fights, should probably just do the same.

Containing a film score that feels less compelling this time around (probably because Bill Conti wasn't at the helm) and featuring sound effects inhibiting a hammer slamming into a cookie sheet, Creed delves into Apollo's illegitimate son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). Adonis never knew his deceased dad but subconsciously, he always had the need to fight, to punch someone with plenty of lefts and rights. At the beginning of the proceedings, he's a teenager, serving time in a Los Angeles youth facility. When Apollo's actual widow shows up to take him in, Adonis goes with her, finally knowing who his father is and eventually finding out what he wants to do with his life. Cut to 2015 and he's winning fights in Mexico while working at a securities firm on the side. He eventually quits his job, moves to the fighting city of Philadelphia, and seeks out a man who had a long history with his pops. That would be Mr. Rocky Balboa. After some resistance from wanting to train the youthful Adonis, old Rocco caves in knowing that this youngin wants to be the light heavyweight champion of the world. "Baby" Creed in time, wins one big fight and then somehow gets a title shot in Liverpool, England. It's all far-fetched stuff but then again, so is the grizzled adage, "it's only a movie".

Now the main asset in Creed, is how its story translates easily from the events in the previous Philadelphia slugger installments. It would make sense that Rocky would now be too old to fight. It would make sense that Rocky still ran a restaurant and was open to training a young buck. It would make sense that Apollo Creed's son would come knocking on Rocky's door salivating for sparring advice. Finally, it would make sense that Rocky would go back to grieve Adrian and Paulie at their respective grave sites (for reasons unknown, the Paulie Pennino character kicks the bucket circa 2012). My biggest misstep involving this flick however, is how the lead troupers (mainly Michael B. Jordan and romantic interest Tessa Thompson) fail to meet the demands of selling Creed's most considerable and most substantial scenes. Basically, they turn it into something that lacks the dramatic heft of the earlier movies and the entertainment value/popcorn feel of Rocky III and Rocky IV. What's left is a slow-burning affair, a vehicle that goes through the motions and renders itself vapid. As the end credits rolled, all I wanted to do was revisit Mr. T's portrayal in 1982, Rocky and Apollo's second Superfight in 1979, and Philly's favorite son hitting the proverbial meat back in 76'. It's all in the (collection addition) DVD set and it comes pretty cheap at Best Buy. My overall rating: 2 and a half stars.

Of note: There's been talk about Stallone possibly getting an Academy Award nomination for his work in Creed. I'll admit, he knows the character well and occasionally, has some heartfelt moments. But Oscar? Come on. In all seriousness it seems like a bit of a stretch don't you think?

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Secret in Their Eyes 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Secret in Their EyesDirector: Billy Ray
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman

Dean Norris has been a working actor for over thirty years. He's not lousy with his craft but when he's in front of the camera, it feels an awful lot like direct-to-video territory. Case in point: Secret in Their Eyes (my latest review) co-stars Norris and highlights Academy Award winner Julia Roberts plus recent nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor. As a remake of 2009's Argentine film with the identical title, "Eyes" is something for the Lifetime channel, a reheated vehicle throwing in two ending twists just for the sheer heck of it. Imagine Zodiac and Mystic River posing as TV movies trimmed down with just enough commercials to fill the two-hour mark. That's the essence of "Eyes" with its systematic grandstanding posing as controlled, Oscar bait.

Based on a novel, produced by Mark Johnson (Rain Man, The Alamo, The Notebook), and featuring every trouper aching to give the performance of the century, Secret in Their Eyes doesn't quite have the scope or production values to garner end-of-the-year awards consideration. That doesn't stop it from taking things way too seriously. The story begins by chronicling FBI investigator Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts). It's just a typical day at the bureau where agents shaken up by the 9/11 tragedy, are on the lookout for relegated, terrorist activity. When Jess and her close-knit partner (Ray Kasten played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are called over to check out a murder scene (a dead body lies in a dumpster somewhere near FBI headquarters), the victim turns out to be Cobb's teenage daughter (Zoe Graham as Carolyn Cobb). Ejiofor's Ray somehow feels responsible for her death (the film explains why very briefly) and becomes obsessed with finding the killer. He veers from his spy-catching duties and turns into a homicide detective by spending many years on the Internet (looking for pictures of every criminal in the U.S.). In terms of additional casting, Nicole Kidman (Claire Sloan) plays a District Attorney supervisor to Cobb and Kasten. Also, the chameleon-like Alfred Molina does great supporting work as Kidman's persona's principal.

Now during the majority of Secret in Their Eyes, scenes cut back and forth between the years 2002 and present day. The film does this so often and so unnecessarily, I wouldn't know what time period it was had it not been for a few gray hairs on beards and a side character going completely bald. I read somewhere that a critic deemed this thirteen-year flashback fest as causing "Eyes" to constantly lose its tension. I wouldn't say that's the case. However, the hook featured is more of a gimmick than anything else. If I was in charge of editing, I would just shoot the whole darn thing chronologically. It's the same narrative anyway you look at it.

Overall, I don't think of Secret in Their Eyes as a bad film. I mean, I didn't pick up on its gotcha endings and the caliber of acting is at most, adequate (the role Julia Roberts plays isn't much of a stretch for her and Chiwetel Ejiofor emotes to the point where it's overblown). In fact, I'm actually praising "Eyes" for its ability to make you wanna watch it again the minute the credits roll (I started to make a small, mental checklist in my head of all the previous sequences that occurred). Its look and feel however, well that's a different story. What's on screen makes for a conventional, wonted viewing experience. In a sense, director Billy Ray isn't really shooting for the stars. It's more like he's auditioning for an extended contract on USA network. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Night Before 2015 * 1/2 Stars

The Night BeforeDirector: Jonathan Levine
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie

Have you ever been at a party, had a few too many drinks, said (and did) some things you might regret, and woke up with a flaming hangover (I know I have)? That my friends, is the movie equivalent of watching 2015's The Night Before (my newest review). This is a film that needed four writers to knock out its script. I find that interesting since everything is pretty much improvised (sloppily) the whole way through. "Night" is vexatious, tiresome, annoying, and oh yeah, it's a stoner comedy. Cue Seth Rogen spewing Evan Goldberg dialogue, inhaling mounds of shrooms, and giving everyone the usual imagery of sticky ickiness. In the immortal words of Ebenezer Scrooge, "Bob, I haven't taken leave of my senses, I've come to them." For me, my senses say to see this flick only if someone pays for your ticket. Natch!

So brilliant doing supporting work in Steve Jobs (one of 2015's best), Rogen regresses incredibly this time around. He basically plays a curly-haired doofus who gets wasted for the film's entire running time. His character is father-to-be Isaac. Isaac, accompanied by his two best friends (Ethan played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Chris played by Anthony Mackie), have a Christmas tradition. Every December 24th, they hit New York City for some serious debauchery. Along with getting totally inebriated, they also have other traditions like eating egg drop soup, singing Run-D.M.C. Karaoke-style, hanging out at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and playing foot piano to the tunage of Mr. Kanye West. They've been partaking in this yuletide lore for 14 years. Why? Because Ethan's parents died in a car accident via 2001 and his buddies wanted to be there for him during some trying times. Here's the rub however: This is the last time Isaac, Chris, and Ethan are gonna hang out on Christmas Eve. Isaac's wife is about to give birth and Chris is a star football player (he won't have time). Finally, everyone is getting older and the need to move on is evident.

In The Night Before, all the shananigans culminate with these dudes hitting the ultimate party (the Nutcracker Ball). The journey involves Isaac taking a ton of drugs given to him by his wife (huh?), Ethan trying to hook up with the girl that broke his heart (Diana played by Lizzy Caplan), and Chris itching to score some weed to impress the messiah quarterback he's teammates with (Aaron Hill as Tommy Owens). There's some engrossing cameos (James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Tracey Morgan), an extreme, bathroom sex scene, and comparing penises on a smartphone. I laughed once and with this being a so-called comedy, it's safe to say that I won't render a recommendation.

Ultimately, The Night Before's main culprit has to be the screenplay along with Jonathan Levine's haphazard direction and a runny, bare bones plot. The actors/actresses speak with a certain banality while trying too hard for audience laughs. As they ramble along in idle fashion, brief revelations about the importance of holiday cheer somehow seep through. That didn't keep me from deeming "Night" as almost unwatchable (I will say though that considering this thing was shot in April of 2014, the set designs and use of NYC locales are unbelievably Christmassy).

In conclusion, if you disliked This Is the End and The Interview (I'm in that camp), you won't be persuaded to see the The Night Before. After all, they're all made by the same personal. My rating: 1 and a half stars.

Of note: To get into the Xmas spirit, watch Bill Murray's Scrooged instead. It's angry, it's overacted, and Richard Donner directs outside the text. However, the one-liners resonate much better. "The bitch hit me with a toaster" sounds funnier than "we did not kill Jesus" repeated over and over.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Love the Coopers 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Love the CoopersDirector: Jessie Nelson
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde

Love the Coopers (my latest review) might be the strangest, most offbeat holiday film I've seen in many a moon. Its director Jessie Nelson, shoots 107 minutes that include innumerable close-ups (of her actors), split screens, jittery camerawork, and clips of high schoolers french kissing (badly I might add). There's Bob Dylan tunes in the background, a wealth of fake snow, Steve Martin narration lifted straight from the vehicle Little Children (don't ask), and even the sound of June Squibb farting (ugh). So is this thing a comedy as exhibited by its cliched-minded trailer? Not entirely. A sad drama that might deceive you is more like it. Is this a panoramic, sort of blackballed, ensemble piece that the late Robert Altman would have rejected? Oh you know it. 2003 had Love Actually, "Coopers" has "actual" begrudging.

Produced by the same guy responsible for 2005's The Family Stone (Michael London) and taking place near Pittsburgh, PA, Love the Coopers chronicles the dysfunctional descendants of the same name. You have Charlotte Cooper (played by Diane Keaton), a mother of two and a grandmother of three. Her wish is to have all of her kin together for one Christmas Eve. She invites everyone over by sending them snow globes as gifts. This includes her daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), her son Hank (Ed Helms), her father Bucky (Alan Arkin), and her sister Emma (Marisa Tomei). Charlotte is married to Sam Cooper (John Goodman) but they are on the verge of a separation. Hank, well he's already divorced with some kids. Eleanor isn't in a relationship yet chooses to mess around with a married doctor (she also brings home a stranger from the armed forces to pose as her boyfriend). Finally, Emma is completely alone while having a knack for stealing expensive jewelry.

Now each persona just mentioned, has a plot point. The film shifts back and forth with their vignettes until everyone meets (in the same location) for dinner, gifts, and acoustic, Xmas singalongs. At the Cooper family feast, you have the obligatory bickering and the obligatory shouting. Someone falls into the jello with a mild stroke, the dog of the household eats off many a plate, and every immediate family member (plus any anonymous invitee) dances together in relegated jubilee. In bits and pieces, Love the Coopers reminded me of Nothing Like the Holidays circa 2008. The only difference being that "Coopers" is more Americanized and there's no petrified tree waiting to be chopped down in the front yard.

In retrospect, I went into Love the Coopers thinking it was gonna be another Family Stone. I'm glad I was wrong. I'm in the minority when I say that I really loathed that flick. It had pretentious characters in manipulatively forced situations. With "Coopers", there's less of that stuff. You have a deeper tonality taking place. Sure Jessie Nelson doesn't always know where to put the camera and sure, she presents every cast member's conflict (and overlapping story) only to abruptly bring happiness to fruition. Alas, her film still has a certain amount of appeal. With beautiful images of Christmas nosh, sparkly lacerations of decorations/lights, and a whole lot of cheery, caroling going on, this is a walking Hallmark card of a movie. I can see hardcore, holiday aficionados watching it for its gaze, a Christmassy look that would give anyone their fuzzy-wuzzy, yuletide fix. Rating: A strong two and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Steve Jobs 2015 * * * 1/2 Stars

Steve JobsDirector: Danny Boyle
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels

If not for Danny Boyle's grainy, pronounced direction, the routine for Steve Jobs (my latest review) would grow rather tiresome. For the most part, this is a real ball breaker of a movie, a character study that aches and moans. Every scene is a frigid confrontation, every dramatis personae is a painstaking resolve, and every bit of dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin, strands of hurried validity (remember the jibber jabber in 2010's The Social Network?).

Anyway, if you decide to take in a viewing of "Jobs", you'll be doing what other patrons (and actual extras for the film) will be doing, looking from the outside in. This closed-off production masked as cinematic agoraphobia, has performances in it that I would categorized as master class. You don't see the wheels turning in any trouper's head. Heck, you don't see anyone really acting at all (this is a compliment).

Now Steve Jobs the movie, is about the non-fictional Steve Jobs, an American businessman and co-founder of Apple Inc. He died before he reached the age of 60, fathering a daughter he claimed wasn't his, creating a computer that could talk, and achieving a net worth of millions upon millions of dollars. The vehicle doesn't delve into his later years when his health declined (due to pancreatic cancer). And it doesn't give us a highlight reel of him inventing the iPod, iPhone, or iTunes. No this is a two-hour running time of Steve's life, spliced into three days within three different years (early 80's launch of the Apple Macintosh, 1988's launch of NeXT Computer, and 1998's premier of the iMac). Here, San Francisco's adopted son is portrayed as sullen and forthright, a miserable human being. He's the smartest a-hole in the room and he freaking knows it.

In terms of casting, Michael Fassbender shines in the lead role, Kate Winslet is almost unrecognizable playing Steve's marketing director, Seth Rogen comes into his own as Steve's rival/erstwhile collaborator, and Jeff Daniels adds on to his dramatic chops (just like in The Martian) channeling Apple Inc.'s former CEO (John Sculley). In the realm of structure, there are some swift flashbacks towards the end (Jobs and his daughter revisit their lost moments), some longer flashbacks sprinkled throughout (everything happening before 1984), a complex screenplay that sort of recycles itself, and sequences where actors talk as if it's merely for sport. My favorite line is when Jobs quips, "musicians play their instruments, I play the orchestra". Slammer!

All in all, this is Boyle's twelfth flick to date. It pays homage to Arthur C. Clarke, gives a good-natured ribbing to Mr. Bill Gates, and has an unconcerned sense of time and place. In my opinion, it was probably released too early this year (October 9th to be exact). Here's hoping the Academy voters don't ignore "Jobs", actor Michael Fassbender, and actress Kate Winslet come January (their work deserves surefire award nominations). Bottom line: Steve Jobs is lean, mean Oscar bait yet it doesn't promote it, it earns it. Dialogue-driven, frustrating, exhausting, and psychologically formidable, you can already put it on my list of 2015's best films. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson