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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Home Sweet Hell 2015 * 1/2 Stars

Home Sweet HellDirector: Anthony Burns
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Katherine Heigl, Patrick Wilson

In the tradition of 1998's Very Bad Things comes a black comedy that defies good taste, or a sense of decency, or even a flask of flat-out humility. Home Sweet Hell is said featurette and it has Katherine Heigl playing Mona Champagne, the impossible wife. She's saddled with a stern disposition and a bad case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Her husband Don Champagne (Patrick Wilson), is a timid pushover, a dude who she's got by the you know what (the derogatory term would be "balls"). Together, they do rotten things in an even more rotten vehicle. This is ninety-eight minutes that screams paycheck malaise or some sort of unnecessary notoriety. Home Sweet Hell with its stars thumbing their nose in a Hollywood power play, is definitely "hell" to sit through.

Supposedly, this is something that hasn't been released in theaters yet and for good reason. Everything on screen seems hasty or rushed, like it was pasted together over a weekend of maligned debauchery. First timer Anthony Burns directs from a script by three writers and he lets the camera demean all of his actors/actresses from top to bottom. The plot sickens the pit of your stomach. It involves infidelity, an act of blackmail, and some gruesomely detailed murders. Don is a furniture salesman and he is married with a beautiful wife plus two kids. He hires a knockout associate (Dusty played by Jordana Brewster) and eventually has a torrid affair with her (Donny boy isn't getting enough sex at home, the horror). When Dusty supposedly becomes pregnant with his child, she demands twenty-five thousand dollars from him. He then buckles, tells his discerned wife, and chaos rears its ugly head. Their by the book marriage needs stability so they devise a plan to take care of the problem (I'm sure you know what I'm talking about). When Dusty goes missing, one cop handles the investigation but is highly oblivious to what's going on. He offers his business card. Wow that's really putting your foot down (oh and its got a new design, gimme a break).

Basically, this is an early candidate for worst film of the year. You know something has gone afoul when well known movie stars team up with a director who doesn't have so much as one other film making credit to his dossier (2010's Skateland). In the arena of acting, Patrick Wilson has played similar characters before (Little Children comes to mind). But he has never come off as more pathetic or dumbfounded. You feel sorry for him without any sympathy. He feels out of place with this performance in a sometimes quirky comedy. And he is only matched badly by Heigl who continues to make lousy decisions in her career. Her line readings seem to be buried in 4/4 time, like a strained musical composition. Lately, her newest foray into TV territory has blossomed with State of Affairs. Her current film resume however, is "D.O.A." The wake is tomorrow and the funeral is destined to occur shortly.

All in all, with a juvenile script, a desperate side role for James Belushi, and a clear, direct-to-video stench, Home Sweet Hell doesn't deviate from cliches, it glorifies them. If disposing a body in heavy rainfall is new to you, well you've obviously never ventured into the realm of bad cinema. Oh and if you haven't caught a Forensic Files episode, poisoning a victim via a strong drink might cause a level of hindrance. Bottom line: Seriously avoid this stink pot. The reading of the ingredients on a shampoo bottle might help you pass the time in a more constructive way.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Jupiter Ascending 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Jupiter AscendingDirectors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum

With a bloated budget of over $175 million, a release date that seems to have been delayed by several months, and reviews from the nation's critics that prove to be less than overwhelming, Jupiter Ascending might be destined for doom. I'm here to tell you however, that it's not that bad. At a running time of two hours and change, this is a tighter version of what we have come to expect from the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy). Every since they gained worldwide fame via The Matrix, their mantra has been outlandish plot workings, variable themes on a universe that we thought we knew, funky characters explaining themselves through rules or anomalies before taking action, and lush, saturated production values that come off as a little overcooked. "Ascending" indeed has these Wachowski trademarks tattooed all over it. But with it, comes less ambition and more informality.

Not necessarily taking place in the future but instead frolicking in saucy visual splendor, Jupiter Ascending is a little Fifth Element, a little Star Wars, and a little Guardians of the Galaxy. The story begins by harvesting an uneven contingent between the setting of present day Chicago and the freakish, planetary hesitance of ancient astronauts (you can also call them aliens if you want). Poor Windy City resident and maid to order Jupiter Jones (played by Mila Kunis), is actually heir to all seeded planets in multiple solar systems (who knew). The movie doesn't really explain why but it thrusts her into a world of ruthless dialings who want to kill her and steal her inheritance. Three children from the quote unquote "House of Abrasax" are after her. Their names are Balem (played by Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (played by Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (played by Douglas Booth). Only half-man, half-wolf Caine Wise (played by megastar Channing Tatum) can save Jupiter. He's got a special set of skills, big ears, and plenty of shields. To quote a 1998 Foo Fighters song, "there goes my hero, watch him as he goes". Nuff said.

To my dismay, Jupiter Ascending is probably the easiest film to follow (storywise) in the Wachowski's uncanny arsenal. In terms of the acting, it's hit-or-miss (but in truth, it's mostly hit). Beefcake Tatum as the lead protagonist (and hero), dons an effective British accent and meets the physical demands of his role. His only misstep is that he sometimes overacts as Caine with spas mastic face grimacing. Oh and then there is his hover boarding feet which makes it appear like he's skating away from his enemies. I felt like I was watching Xanadu all over again coupled with a dramatic channeling of Roller Boogie (break out the tube socks people, just kidding). As the antagonist and alien form who wants Earth all to his lonesome, Eddie Redmayne (a newly crowned Oscar nominee) is ominous and creepy playing Balem Abrasax. His eyes alone will give you the heebie jeebies. That leaves Mila Kunis contributing as Jupiter Ascending's weakest asset. She plays the object of supposed royalty and with some truly vague line readings, strains in scene after scene. This is an actress that belongs in a summer romcom or a That '70's Show reunion, not a dramatic sci-fi actioner.

Speaking of action scenes, they are abundant in Jupiter Ascending. With other films by the Chicago-born duo, you have to patiently wait for slow buildups and then short payoffs. Not this one. If you revert back to the Wachowski's epic yarn Cloud Atlas, there was a story vignette in it called "Neo Seoul, 2144". The laser gun battles featured are similar here in scope and in sound. They are relentless, breakneck, and shot with trigger-happy intensity.

Overall though, despite its tantalizing movie poster and the exciting, swashbuckling antics of star Tatum (and even co-star Sean Bean who plays the Han Solo-like, Stinger), nothing can mask the notion that Jupiter Ascending is still just another, all too familiar action adventure. The Wachowskis try to one up every other filmmaker in the realms of costume design, makeup artistry (the characters are way too nasty and funked up for their own good), and good old fashioned visual effects (you gotta wonder that if this flicks bombs, was it worth it to have over 1000 cast and crew members contribute? Just curious). In all honesty, this is preferably hot air from the brother and sister team of mighty Chi town. They take their action packed skit from 2012's Cloud Atlas and stretch it to a full length featurette. Result: Something that "ascends" into a gallantly mixed review from me.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

American Sniper 2014 * * * Stars

American SniperDirector: Clint Eastwood
Year: 2014
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Ben Reed

I once read a review on an earlier Clint Eastwood movie called Mystic River. In it, a well known critic sited his work as a product of quote unquote, "meat and potatoes" film making. I suppose it meant that he's not overly elaborate and more straightforward in his storytelling ways. Well, Clint's newest and most tiring endeavor American Sniper, has that affinity. It's like his own Flags of Our Fathers but with much better acting or Lone Survivor without the splurge of blood and guts. "Meat and potatoes" film making? Sure why not. "Meat and potatoes" film making with a large glass of wine? Okay, I'll give you that one.

Clocking in at a running time of 133 minutes, "Sniper" is after all, wholly about the red white, and blue. When I mean blue, I mean depressing. This is the only movie I've been to where when it was over, you could literally hear a pin drop in the audience. No one said a darn word as they exited the theater. War is hell (obviously).

Director Eastwood and writer Jason Hall (his screenplay for "Sniper" is heads and tails above the one he wrote for 2013's dreadful Paranoia) fashion a crisp, easy-to-follow story line that takes you through the short life of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper). What's largely on screen is based on Kyle's autobiography titled, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. In the movie, he starts off as a once promising rodeo rider from Odessa, Texas. After injuring his arm, he instead forgoes his rodeo career to serving his country overseas. You see, when he was a kid his dad taught him how to shoot (and shoot accurately) animals like quail and deer. Kyle takes these skills with him later on in life and eventually becomes a killing machine for the U.S. military. As a sniper who gets the nickname "Legend", Kyle racks up over 100 assassinations during four blistering tours in Iraq. The film depicts him coming home in between these tours and becoming incredibly distant with his kids and his wife (Taya Renae Kyle played by Sienna Miller). He's present in body but not in spirit. He even has flashbacks that eventually trigger a loose cannon temper inside of him.

Now American Sniper, with its pedestrian combat scenes, is not entirely groundbreaking. I am however, recommending it for its valid sense of time and place (Kyle's plight starts to unfold after he witnesses the 9/11 attacks on TV). The acting is all aces and it rises above the already feasible material. Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller get top billing and they literally disappear into their roles. They alter their normal appearances (Cooper gained weight and dons a pretty good Texas accent considering he's from Philadelphia) and halfway into "Sniper", you forget that it's actually them. In all fairness, you can literally feel Cooper's nerve endings in his portrayal of a bruised Navy SEAL with post traumatic stress disorder. This is more mature, more complex, and more contingent than anything he did in American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook. Believe that.

Thespian prowess and believable locations aside (California can surely look like Iraq if the set design is sufficiently done and it's done well here), American Sniper still has flaws. They are to a degree, only minimal. I didn't buy the courtship between the Cooper and Miller characters. It was probably a classic love story in real life but movie-wise, it just seemed underdeveloped. I also felt misconstrued by Kyle's brother's character (played by Keir O'Donnell) who filters in and out only to never have a median in the plot development. He fights in the war just like Chris but his only scene concludes where he tells him, "f**k this place". I'm not sure what he meant by that to be honest. "Sniper" doesn't explain what happens to Jeff Kyle. We never hear from his bewildered soldier ever again.

In conclusion, American Sniper has some powerful moments but you can always sense that it's holding back a bit. It's like a marathon to get audiences to tear up and it doesn't quite reach the finish line. The scenes involving Kyle's sniper kills are the high point. They sting a bit and the moments leading up to them involve good actors/actresses making their scenes stick. Eastwood as usual, keeps things moving and his technique is to let the audience know exactly what's going on in order for things to ring true. He directs at times, with a steel-eyed magnetism but is however, hit-or-miss on the notion of ending his films with a certain level of panache. I wanted more out of "Sniper's" muted conclusion. It's abrupt and it signals his penchant for wrapping things up quickly (under time and under budget). That might explain his no-nonsense, no flash sense of style (it's rumored that his actors only do one or two takes a scene so Clint's tidy but no perfectionist). No matter. His editing team of Joel Cox and Gary Roach make things flow like butter. He fashions a character study about Cooper's Kyle that brims with madness and panic. Kyle lives for war, it consumes him, and he's built up a scary tolerance to it. He's set in motion to kill and protect his country even though he's thousands of miles away from it. American Sniper in the end, is a solid "American" movie. It may be conventional with its minimalistic violence and by-the-book candor. However, if you take out the rushed conclusion and counterfeit romance (remember, this is how the movie treats it. I'm sure that the late Chris Kyle and his real life wife had genuine love for each other), there are still significant bruises left behind. Result: A tributed 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson