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Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 * * * Stars

Mad Max: Fury RoadDirector: George Miller
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

In the mid-1980's, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior represented the first time I ever saw a movie on VHS. No joke. There I was, taking in the existential, catastrophic splendor and thrusted into a funky, eclectic world that only director George Miller could deposit me in. I was also taken aback by the aura of star Mel Gibson. He didn't say much. He just drove the big rig and gave any punk rocker delinquent the business (via a veritable, sawed-off shotgun). When the announcement that a new installment was on the horizon (some thirty years later), it was also predicated on the fact that Australia's favorite son be omitted from the lead role. Brit Tom Hardy who seems to be everywhere these days, got to inhabit the driver's seat (ha-ha). The question on every moviegoer's mind is can he fill the shoes of "mad" Mel? The answer is, it doesn't matter. Mad Max: Fury Road isn't entirely about the character of Max Rockatansky. And Hardy for what it's worth, only possesses about a smidgen of Melle Mel's ear to the grindstone screen presence. For practical purposes though, he'll do and so will the movie. Its plot is slight yet there are action sequences providing enough scorched antics and kinetic motion to make your eyes shoot through the back of your head. We're talking apocalypse now more than ever.

Historically, George Miller has been in charge of every Mad Max movie since their franchised inception back in 1979. He takes everything that made those films work and ratchets it up a few more notches here. His world in "Fury Road", is made up of caricatures that for the most part, are funkier, nastier, and much more repugnant. This is imagination outside five boxes. The look is more modern too. Cinematographer John Seale (he shot The Tourist) harbors a canvas that is ablaze, drenched, and vehemently dusty. It's like a sunburn that eventually turns golden brown. As for storytelling sensibilities, well they are fashioned less than in all three of the previous outings combined. The script is the product of more than one writer and you think to yourself, "did it need that many?" In truth, there's not a whole lot of dialogue anyway and I suppose whatever amount is messaged to the audience, well it probably comes off as concealed. No matter. I honestly don't go to Mad Max movies for the account. I want to view what Roger Daltrey sang about (that would be the tune by The Who called "Let's See Action"). Granted, this 2015 release has enough pyrotechnics, villainy, and aerodynamic exertion for ten movies (with what seems like almost no CGI). I hope the stuntmen got paid handsomely because they work some serious overtime.

Now the last thirty minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road are a masterpiece all in itself. They make the flick better than it really is or even has a right to be. You gotta use your utmost imagination or just think Raiders of the Lost Ark on anabolic steroids. What precludes is an extended chase sequence with enough semi trucks and other motorized vehicles to overrun the city of Detroit. There is violence in nature here and acrobatic candour that simply wears you out.

So who is this all attributed to? Well director George Miller of course and at age 70, he is one feisty fellow. This dude is like the Martin Scorsese of action directors because of his starry-eyed energy that's blatantly possessed. He hadn't made a Mad Max film since 1985 so you know that he had a lot of time to subjugate his newest vision. My thinking is that he might have checked out 1995's Waterworld to mirror the costume design, or to polish things up a bit, or even to add some new angles (there are shots in "Fury Road" where the villainous malefactors are off in the distance and you know that danger is coming. It reminded me of said film so sue me). His premise is in short doses and it intervenes between periods of metal-geared rubble and heavy metal stage prog.

You have of course, Max (Tom Hardy). He's an Australian prisoner and a man who's held captive while being used for upside down blood donation. Then there's Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron in the token, female badass role). She's a War Rig driver who is helping five wives escape from breeding slavery. Finally, we have Nux (played by Nicolas Hoult who reminded me of the Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior). He's a sick War Boy and needs a large amount of ichor to go on surviving. That's all I'm gonna reveal. Just know that all of these souped-up characters are in some way, connected. Now your job is to buy a ticket, get strapped in, and let the chaos and upheaval simply spill onto the screen.

In conclusion, this film has garnered four stars from many of the nation's critics. I myself enjoyed it but I'm scratching my head to figure where all the enormous praise came from. Here's how I chalked up my rating. I gave Mad Max: Fury Road three and a half stars for the audacious, relentless suspense and two and a half stars for the razor thin narrative. That results in a solid dose of action-adventure fare but not something that's catered to magnum opus territory. Regardless, this is still a "road" worth taking. There are no exits, no stop lights, and the aspect of no passing lanes is irrelevant. To quote Nicolas Hoult's albino, cracked-lipped Nux, "what a day, what a lovely day!" Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hot Pursuit 2015 * Star

Hot PursuitDirector: Anne Fletcher
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * Star
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Michael Mosley

In the opening scene of 2015's Hot Pursuit (my latest review), a police officer is driving around with his 7 to 8 year old daughter (a younger version of the main character) huddled in the back seat. He's taking on hardened criminals, arresting prostitutes, and even attempting to fire his gun in the line of duty. The little tyke must have signed a waiver or it's just take your child to work week. Yeah that's what it is... not!

Anyway, Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon obviously had a lot of fun making this flick. Myself? Well, I didn't have a lot of fun watching it. In fact, I would rather endure a four hour insurance seminar with walking pneumonia than to have to take in a second viewing. This is screwball comedy masked as faux implausibility. This is Thelma & Louise revealed as the galling, stepdaughter version. Heck, this is "Hot" Garbage touted as working title incarnate. To say that "Pursuit" is among the crappiest films released this year is a conspicuous understatement. I just hope that bubbly Elle Woods is enjoying her $15 million dollar paycheck at the conclusion of the wrap party.

Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) is behind the camera and her direction for the most part, flaunts itself as pedestrian. She's about as comfortable with the concept of physical comedy as a cow playing the waiting game inside a slaughterhouse. Added to that, Hot Pursuit's screenplay feels like it was written on napkins. And just a thought, was this thing filmed over a three day weekend? I'm thinking no. But it sure as heck felt like it was.

Containing almost no laughs, featuring sequences of nettlesome, rapid-fire dialogue that evaporate right before your eyes, and referencing a women's menstrual cycle through two cringe-worthy script readings (ugh), Hot Pursuit chronicles a pint-sized, rent-a-cop in Rose Cooper (Witherspoon). Her late father inspired her to pursue a career in law enforcement. The downside is that in the beginning of the film's 87 minute running time, she's relegated to desk work due to her hyperactive inefficiency on the job. When she gets an opportunity to redeem herself via protecting a drug informant's wife (Daniella Riva played by Sofia Vergara), Coop froths at the chance. The proceedings then dive into her and Riva bickering ceremoniously while barreling through the state of Texas. As the film gets closer and closer to paydirt, (spoiler alert) there are at least three twists coming. Two of them involve Cooper's superior officers turning on her while revealing that they secretly work for the bad guys. You have to wonder, the superintendent that hired these crooked schleps probably needed to be brought in front of a committee (for outright dismissal).

Now I no doubt feel that Witherspoon can act. She's won a frickin Oscar and recently got nominated for another (2014's Wild). However, I've never seen her so unlikable in a role like the one she plays here. Her Cooper is judgemental, a spaz, socially inept, and borderline insubordinate. The fact that she gets hurled into the field is only predicated on moving the plot along. Cooper trooper would be better off sitting behind a desk, answering phone calls, or partaking in some serious counseling. When she infiltrates a mob invested party (as a Justin Bieber lookalike) and involves herself in a Mexican standoff, I got a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. I mean honestly, would you as a police chief, let someone carry a firearm after they put a taser to a college student belting out the word "shotgun"? Yeah, me neither. As for Sophia Vergara, well I've never been a huge fan of hers to begin with. She's beautiful to look at but irksome as heck. She's the reason I can't quite get through an episode of Modern Family. Her and Louisiana's golden girl try to out annoy each other while the audience shakes their heads in disbelief. This is a screen pairing that's about as credible as the food equivalent of green beans and butterscotch candy. Yuck!

In conclusion, like every other bad comedy from the last ten years, Hot Pursuit does in fact, contain outtakes at the end. We've seen this all before. The actors flub their lines and laugh uncontrollably. I mean, it almost comes off as scripted now. Truthfully, the only time I've ever embraced end-of-the-movie bloopers was after 1981's The Cannonball Run concluded. They were actually funny and sort of the first of their kind. Nowadays every darn gag reel seems to be used as filler. During one of the deleted scenes, Reese Witherspoon messes up a line and actually says, "I was about to give the performance of a lifetime." Sure you were Reese. That's a good one. Hilarious!

Of note: There's another movie titled Hot Pursuit that came out in the spring of 1987. It starred John "I always get the girl" Cusack. It was no masterpiece but you can safely say you saw it instead of this clutter.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Spare Parts 2015 * * * Stars

Spare PartsDirector: Sean McNamara
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Alexa PenaVega, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis

Around March of this year, I saw McFarland, USA. It was lightweight, breezy, and culture-based. It also made me believe in Kevin Costner again not to mention any added faith in the almighty sports flick. 2015's Spare Parts (my latest review) doesn't have a lick to do with cross country running ("McFarland's" vital concern). But the themes are similar. You have the unruly school, the teacher who takes a job at said school only as temporary until something better comes along, the students who are deemed underprivileged while being told of their place in life, and the unheralded, long shot circumstances that affect every denizen involved. Costner's spring release sort of found its audience. "Parts" didn't exactly find theirs (underwater, robotics competition as plot fodder isn't the most sexy choice for your everyday moviegoer). Regardless, this is a film that still wrestles up enough inspiration to suffice at least a solid rental. Spare Parts is for the most part, "sparingly" good.  

Technically, this eighty-three minute exercise was unleashed into theaters two months before the aforementioned "McFarland". Therefore, it would be hard-pressed not to give it its rightful due. The similitude factor is enormous but I think "Parts" veers in a more telling direction. The script here brims with plenty of effective, engineering lingo. Therefore, it's a neat trick when the filmmakers know what they're talking about, true story sensibilities are cradled, and research to avoid dumbing down the cinematic patron seems hard-fought.

Shot entirely in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which masquerades as Phoenix, Arizona), based on true events, and taking place in the early 2000's, Spare Parts is affecting and grandiose despite containing some unintentional, TV movie interludes. Director Sean McNamara utilizes virtual unknowns (David Del Rio, Carlos PenaVega), resurfacing troupers (Esai Morales), and familiar actors/actresses (George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis) to hurry things along. The story begins by chronicling non-fictional, Carl Hayden Community High School. Its newest teacher isn't really a teacher, he's an engineer. He goes by the name of Mr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez) and he takes a job there to bide his time. He's knows that this is not his life's calling but needs the work and likes to educate young minds. He also has to tend to a club that meets after class. This is a club with no members (at the moment) and it's suppose to deal in computer science along with you guessed it, robotics. When someone shows up, he's hesitant but eventually listens to the idea of getting a team together. This team of four high schoolers will build a robot (with a budget of only $800), venture to Santa Barbara, California, and go up against MIT students in a competitive environment. They consist of Oscar Vazquez (played by Carlos Pena, Jr.), Christian Arcega (played by David Del Rio), Luis Arranda (played by Oscar Gutierrez), and Lorenzo Santillan (played by Jose Julian). They for the most part, don't know each other from Adam and are all in different cliques (one of them is oafish and friendly, another has aspirations of being in the US Army, one of them is nerdy but smart as a tack, and the rebel in the group can fix anything, especially cars). But they come together for one common goal: They want to use their expedition as footing for getting college scholarships. This is where the feel good element comes into play. Going into Spare Parts, I didn't think a film about this type of subject matter would grab me. Well it does. The filmmakers thrive on flair while giving every other movie cliche the heave-ho.

Now I've gotta admit, George Lopez really surprised me in the lead role here. His Fredi Cameron employs seriousness, doubt, and some surmised guilt. With a shade of grey goatee and a downplayed persona, he almost completely resembles Kevin Costner's real-life Jim White (in personality mind you, not looks). He really works well with the young cast and somehow breaks away from his nutso comedic screen time via the self-titled sitcom, George Lopez (but of course).

All in all, despite harboring some underdeveloped characters (at a running time of under an hour and a half, it seems unavoidable), some banal characters (the disapproving, stubborn father, the teacher with a past, the token female love interest/teacher co-worker), and a final credits montage where the real-life people involved, aren't split-screened next to the actors playing them (I feel this is necessary to avoid confusion), Spare Parts still gets my recommendation. It was a joy on screen, to see these four youthful, highly intelligent players poised to make something of themselves despite their illegal immigration status. You want them to succeed and you want them to at least find their unequivocal Waterloo. Overall, this is a vehicle that ranks among the best I've seen so far this year. It's an underdog unguarded. My rating: 3 stars.

Of note: In regards to the film's designation, Spare Parts comes off as a little obvious and ordinary. This is an inspirational, mildly heart-tugging feature that deserves a more honorable title than something having to do with repairables and consumables (boring). Now I don't have any clout and it's probably too late, but might I suggest "La Vida Robot" (the article in Wired Magazine that "Parts" was adapted from) or maybe even the simplistic, Carl Hayden High. That's my two cents. You can take it or leave it.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, May 4, 2015

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Kidnapping Mr. HeinekenDirector: Daniel Alfredson
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Anthony Hopkins

2015's Kidnapping Mr. Heineken is the latest film co-starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. At ninety-five hasty minutes, it's a true story adaptation devoid of inspiration yet loaded with veneer. Hopkins, with a voice that seems as mellifluous as the sound of crashing waves in the ocean, plays the title character. Portraying Freddy Heineken, he's a wealthy guy, the CEO of Heineken International (the beer company of course), and a debonair soul taken hostage by five desperate criminals. I gotta tell ya, Hannibal Lecter is an absolute hoot playing this character. There's no fear in him and a certain nonchalantness to the way he's held captive in a soundproof room. He wants books to read, he needs some variance in the music played while awaiting ransom demands, and boy does he crave plenty of bang bang chicken from the local Chinese restaurant. Truth be told, I've never seen a characterized victim so laid back in his catastrophic predicament. This is just another business transaction for a guy who pisses a poultry, one million dollars.

"Heineken", with its crackling dialogue and Holland-based locales, is directed by newcomer Daniel Alfredson. As a motion picture, it moves at a riotously fast clip. It's witty and dark, nasty and last-ditch. We're talking lock, stock, and five smoking bandits. The film score featured is in a word, calculated. It's baseline for a heist/abduction spectacle. And mind you, it's only made more effective by the lightning-quick editing that Mr. Hakan Karlsson bestows upon us (he cut the TV series, Millennium). But what's the basis for this vehicle I'm about to propose as a mixed review? Well, things end on a run-of-the-mill note. We're talking about true events with minimal evidence via the fugitives (an anonymous tip, really?), vacant spacial reckoning, and absolutely no one to root for. In all honesty, I figured the bad guys who were despicably charismatic here, would carry this thing through. I was wrong. I denounce these proceedings as a misstep of the most exorbitant order. Give me 1991's Point Break or 2010's The Town as a true, alternative viewing prospect.

With a script based on a book by Peter R. de Vries and some ruggedly shocking violence early on, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken follows five down on their luck schleps who use to run a business (it was unclear to me what they did for a living and that was frustrating). The time setting is early 80's posh and within the first few minutes, the dirty, thirtysomethings are seen trying to get a bank loan. They are in a sense, broke. Things then go afoul (loan approval is denied) leaving them no choice but to abduct Freddy Heineken (Hopkins). He's worth a boatload of money and their plan is to get at least thirty-five million Dutch guilders from him (at the time this was the highest ransom on record). The merry men/culprits consist of Willem Holleeder (played by Sam Worthington), Cor van Hout (played by Jim Sturgess), Jan Boellard (played by Ryan Kwanten), Frans Meijer (played by Mark van Eeuwen), and Martin Erkamps (played by Thomas Cocquerel). The names just mentioned are all real life people. They are Dutch criminals who served (and still may be serving) lengthy prison terms. The actors that play them give off a sort of goofball vibe. One moment they're serious and astute. The next minute they're ribbing each other, telling penis jokes, and taking male bonding to an unhinged, fraternity level. In essence, "Heineken" didn't garner my recommendation but I liked the way the cast played thespian ping pong on the back and forth tip.

Now in all uprightness, I've never seen a movie where the screenwriters are so enthralled with the intricacies of kidnapping. It's as if they consulted known criminals currently serving life without parole. Every detail is woven into the first hour like the villainous characters wearing masks, all the felonious activity being done locally, the use of voice alteration to talk to victims, and the adage of a ransom note untouched by human fingerprints. Granted, this isn't an exercise about the people being taken nor is it a character study about law enforcement heavy on certain malefactor's trails. No what's on screen is strictly about the art of holding someone against their will. And it involves characters we really know nothing about. I mean how did these guys become professional criminals so quickly? And how is it that they know so much about the planning of such a heinous act? Finally, they are businessmen with families so what begot their vile nature? Then there's the other questions I asked myself during "Heineken". They pertained to the police. So OK, why doesn't a law official have any speaking lines? And why don't we the audience, get an idea of their inside strategy via bringing these despairing crooks to justice? Obviously, a lot of research went into formulating a hypothetical Kidnapping For Dummies. Too bad every other attribute fell by the wayside.

All in all, this is not a disastrous crime drama, just a borderline, mediocre one. I viewed "Heineken" wondering why it took thirty-three years for its true story sensibilities to come to fruition. And as its ending credits filtered in, I also thought to myself, "this is the culmination of three plus decades in development?" The lowest point: Everyone involved really drops the ball with period detail. We're supposed to be taking in Amsterdam circa 1982. Instead, what's on screen could have probably passed as present day (all you gotta do is look at everybody's modern hairstyles to know what I'm getting at). Bottom line: This is a ho hum tribute presented by its filmmakers. It almost veers into slick, direct-to-video territory. In the beginning of its hour and a half-plus running time, the Jim Sturgess character (Cor van Hout) says, "that's all crime is, it's a wager." Interesting thought. I'd say if I had to wager anything on the staying power of this flick, it'd be a middling investment. My rating: A disappointing 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson