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Saturday, August 29, 2015

American Ultra 2015 * * Stars

American UltraDirector: Nima Nourizadeh
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Connie Britton, Kristen Stewart

August has arrived and I guess that means it's Jesse Eisenberg's turn to appear in a movie (remember 30 Minutes or Less?). He's a fast-talking, brilliantly smart aleck actor and if he had a decent script, you always wonder what this dude might be capable of. Take for instance his American Ultra (my latest review). It's ultra-violent, ultra-filthy, and ultra-preposterous. There's the compulsory premise of a guy with special skills, a lot of brute force, and dialogue about the Central Intelligence Agency (and such) that seems masqueraded with f-words instead of actual insight. In truth, "J's" magnificent turn in The Social Network now feels like it was eons ago. I wanted to wait for "Ultra" to bomb at the box office so I could back up that discerned dissertation.

Touted as a stoner flick but coming off as nothing of the sort (only if you count the protagonist smoking a joint or two), featuring a bad guy who dies from a bullet that ricochets off a frying pan, and heralding the spoon as a modern day murder weapon, this 2015 release focuses on Mr. Mike Howell (Eisenberg). Mike's a loser with anxiety issues. He's also a long-haired nebbish that loves to get his weed-on. Finally, he works at a convenience store in Liman, West Virginia (a fictional town) and dates a spunky vixen who's clearly out of his league (Phoebe Larson played by a wooden Kristen Stewart). Mikey doesn't know it yet but a few years ago, he was trained by the boys at Langley to be a deadly killing machine. He was part of an experiment for bloke criminals on the verge of getting their third strike. When said experiment turns pale (cut to present day), everybody in the department flies from Virginia to its neighboring state to eliminate Howell. An activation then occurs in his head (by way of computer code) and walla, senses are enlighten, fists turn into fists of fury, and trigger fingers becomes happy happy happy. The agent who helps him fight off the CIA schleps who want him dead, is Victoria Lasseter (the always sexy Connie Britton).

In terms of direction, Nima Nourizadeh (he shot the hyperactive, hand-held Project X) subjugates a certain unevenness while adding nothing really new to the action/comedy genre. I found myself not investing my time in the film's intricacies. I just waited impatiently for the next, habitual action set piece (what else was I gonna do, walk out?).

Now as mentioned earlier, I wouldn't quite put "Ultra" in the category of Cheech & Chong. However, if you were under the influence of the almighty ganga, that might be the only way you could possibly think of it as a masterpiece. This is reheated and rehashed stuff, a shoot em-up schlock that barely redeems itself. Yeah there's the impressive cameo in veteran Bill Pullman (he plays a CIA superior named Raymond Kruger), a couple of nifty action sequences where the hero gives everyone the Liam Neeson treatment, and a speedy, new wave musical soundtrack accompanying plenty of impactful kills. But despite what some critics have noted, these proceedings aren't cult following material. Heck, I've already been to the Mountain State (the film's murky setting). I don't need to go back again because that's punishment enough.

Bottom line: Eisenberg in the lead, deserves better material than this. I don't know him personally but he seems to have an actor's inferiority complex. In all sincerity, American Ultra barely heightens your senses with standard bone cracks, Ecstasy-laden scenic environments, and hazy butt kicking (you can't quite make out the fight scenes because it's always dark outside). And in between all the barbarous shenanigans, you feel bored not to mention disinterested. Just call it an ultraist ultimatum. The result: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, August 24, 2015

Southpaw 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

SouthpawDirector: Antoine Fuqua
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker

Jake Gyllenhaal just blows me away. As an actor, he completely transforms himself profusely and in a way, excessively. You watch him play a Travis Bickle type in last year's Nightcrawler and a pitted fighter in 2015's Southpaw (my latest review). Honestly, it's really hard to tell that it's the same guy. He's the best and maybe the only reason to see this conventional, sort of Rocky retread, a boxing flick directed by the guy who made Training Day. Yo Adrian guess what, Antoine did it! Antoine did it!

In terms of storyline and/or premise, Southpaw is a typical take on the whole riches to rags to riches concept. It's fall from grace and then grace again. The direction is careful, the soundtrack is rap-infused (which sort of kills any dramatic momentum at key points), and the antagonist thwarts the words "b*tch" and "belt" via multiple sentences. There's blood, there's sweat, and there's tears. Oh and Eminem to boot.

Written by the guy who penned TV's Sons of Anarchy (Kurt Sutter) and released by The Weinstein Company (this initially, was not the case), "Paw" chronicles scruffy, ripped Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal). He's the World Light Heavyweight champion, a fighting monster with the mind of a ticking time bomb. Early on in the film, he defends his title. Cut to the next hour and a half and he loses everything that's important to him. Southpaw unequivocally starts with a devastating twist (which I won't reveal). Things then detour from cheery sports territory to flat-out, hard drama.

Now as mentioned earlier, Southpaw procreates the feel and attitude of all six Rocky movies combined. There's a funeral (just revert back to Mickey kicking the bucket in Rocky III), a final fight sequence (just think of every installment except "V"), a scene where a character is lying dead and no one bothers to help or contact the paramedics (just like when Apollo went down in "IV"), a house getting repossessed (just like when Stallone lost his mansion again in "V"), plenty of bloody and unrealistic fight enactments (this was in every Rocky pic), plenty of scantily clad ring girls ("III" had the best assortment of this), the obligatory training montage ("I", "II", "III", "IV", and Rocky Balboa had this), and a villainous opponent bent on harassing the hero not to mention his beautiful wife (remember Clubber Lang in "III"?). In truth, the only difference between "Paw" and all things Rocky, is the R rating due to harsher language (Mr. Balboa wasn't into spouting off F-words). Oh and N.Y.C. substitutes for Philly this time around.

Italian Stallion imitations aside, Southpaw also is pretty manipulative when trying to get its point across. The film is loosely based on true events (uh, not really) and it's a playbook for tragedy. Everything that happens seems inserted or staged to keep the narrative afloat. So OK, let's take away Billy Hope's wife (check). Then, let's take away his kid and give Hope only supervised visits (check). Let's give him anger issues and have him suspended by the boxing commission (check). Let's leave him broke and penniless, living in a rundown apartment on 100 whatever street (chickity-check). Let's give him illegal guns in his mansion and a problem with drugs/alcohol (check-o-slovakia). Oh and let's foreclose on his humbled abode in record time (I saw this flick with my father. He's a realtor and he said there's no way this process could happen so quickly).

In conclusion, this two hour-plus, depression fest is almost recommendable because of Gyllenhaal's amazing dedication to his craft. There's also decent performances including Forest Whitaker as his reluctant trainer (he plays Titus "Tick" Wills) and rapper 50 Cent as his character's fight promoter, Jordan Mains. But with its lack of powerful vigor and total shortage of flask originality, Southpaw sadly, goes "south". My rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Gunman 2015 * * Stars

The GunmanDirector: Pierre Morel
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Sean Penn, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca

Sean Penn is a real badass in 2015's The Gunman. Heck, if Liam Neeson can pulverise any paperweight villain (into submission) at the age of 63, why can't Jeff Spicoli do the same at 55. He gives the usual, raw performance and his character is a humbled, ripped hitman that is made to be thoroughly likable.

Now "Gunman" with its cheesy dialogue and quick-minded plot workings, has a look that is sun-drenched and bright. It's crime drama playbook stuff. And in a mild relief, it's Taken with more of a story. However, the proceedings feel like a parable that's been told in revenge thrillers threefold. Director Pierre Morel revels in fast cutting. He wants to move things along faster than they needn't be. After a strong opening, everything becomes rote. We've seen all this before. Guy assassinates the wrong leader, guy gets framed, everyone is out to kill said guy, guy has a love interest he protects, guy takes on tons of baddies and finds various ways to avoid death. Oh and guy leads an alternate life that only few people know about. Sound familiar?

Using locales like Spain, Wimbledon, London, and South Africa, The Gunman chronicles one Jim Terrier (Sean "I got that weathered look" Penn). He kills people for a living, gets headaches from time to time that are life threatening, and I guess, digs wells for poor denizens on the side. When he assassinates the minister of the mines of Congo, he goes incognito and later finds himself the target of his own profession (a hit squad wants him dead some years later). He then tries to get info on his death warrant by way of a sniveling uber pal in Felix (played by Javier Bardem who does some severe overacting here). From then on, chaos ensues with Sean kicking ass and taking names. You can feel a lot of bones crack, a lot of bodies piling up, and plenty of silencers (a given inclusion in any contract dispatch).

For show, various actors fade in and out while giving us cliched turns (Idris Elba as an operative and Ray Winstone as a fellow killjoy). Plus, most of the cast members are made to look older (the flick pole votes eight years later) by way of just shaving their facial hair. I guess makeup artists need not apply.

The whole film ends in a vicious shootout a la a crowded bullfight. The blood flows like red wine and the fight scenes look like UFC contests that no human being could ever survive. The filmmakers seem bent on upping the violent content to levels deemed unrealistic. I didn't pump my fist in excitement. I just felt queasy and bored.

In the end, The Gunman isn't necessarily a vanity project for Sean Penn (like some critics have noted). It does however, calculate itself as his cash grab or his cashing in on the likes of what Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, and even Kevin Costner did 5 years ago. Basically, if you've seen The November Man (which is far superior) then you've seen this globetrotting mess of rushed ambivalence. Penn is formidable in the action scenes, creates admirably, a chain smoker with veritable head trauma, but his movement with the desolation of the diegesis, doesn't celebrate him like say, Denzel Washington (I forgot to mention The Equalizer). He kills people in the most savage way and while it's suppose to move you, it just equals an audience turnoff. Metaphorically speaking, there's no target to hit here and the ammo is at times, blanks. My rating: 2 stars.

Of note: There were so many instances when I thought Penn's medical condition would leave him to be executed or just leave him for dead. But walla, he just kept waking up. Yeah, we all know the so-called hero will never die, right? It's just baseline at this point. Honestly, Penn's Terrier came off as inhuman via a horror film starring Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. The fact that he recovers from the beatings he takes is flat out ludicrous.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ricki and the Flash 2015 * * Stars

Ricki and the FlashDirector: Jonathan Demme
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Meryl Streep, Rick Springfield, Kevin Kline

In 2015's Ricki and the Flash (my latest review), Meryl Streep plays an aging, sixty-year old rocker. I know it's a stretch but let's face it, she's incapable of giving a bad performance. And while I'm certain that no Academy Award nomination will arise for her (I could be wrong), "Flash" is harmless and lightweight, with moments that drag (sometimes this film feels like a boring, extended rock concert), moments that are tender (the ending while inconclusive, is perky), and plenty of plot threads (Streep's character connects with her messed up daughter, Streep's character has a moment of clarity with her ex-husband, Streep's character beds the lead guitarist in her band, etc.). Director Jonathan Demme fills his screen with well established personalities, he projects some out of the box casting (real-life rock star Rick Springfield, Charlotte Rae, and Meryl's real-life daughter), and his storytelling sensibilities are adequate. But do we really care what happens to everybody considering that their conflicts are rather minuscule? Not really. And although Streep is likable playing Ricky Randazzo (her stage name), she gives off the stoner vibe half the time. Uh and honestly, could we as an audience, sympathize with someone who abandons their family, moves to California (from middle America), and never really makes it to rock-'n'-roll glory? I think it would be difficult to care but hey, let the music play on.

Featuring tunes from the film's fictional cover band (The Flash) that channel the songbooks of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Lady Gaga (ugh), Ricki and the Flash tries to deepen your musical stenography yet doesn't seem to veer deep enough. The story chronicles braided, leather-clad singer Linda (Streep). She used to be married to a wealthy businessman in Pete (Kevin Kline). Now she's on her own, gigging at a dive bar in L.A. She's got an earnest boyfriend (Rick Springfield as Greg), one album that bombed a while ago, and now has to fly back to Indiana's state capital to comfort her estranged daughter who has been dumped after a short marriage (Mamie Gummer as Julie). Her other two cubs (one is happily gay and the other is getting married) are also alienated from her. Finally, she has to deal with her ex's current wife who feels that Linda (or Ricki) has missed out on all of the children's childhood happenings.

Absent mommy time and missed birthdays/holidays aside, "Flash" wants us to believe that Ricki actually married Kline's Pete but that seems so forgone. One of them lives in a tight mansion (common in the city of Indianapolis) while the other needs her daughter's ex-husband's credit card to procreate a total makeover (hair, nails, shampoo treatment you name it). Total bullocks!

In retrospect, I attended a screening of "Flash" and a friend of mine (in the audience) chatted me up about what a chameleon Streep is as an actress. She can be made to look older or younger. She can play anything from a cancer-stricken southerner (like in August: Osage County) to a conservative therapist (like in 2005's Prime) to a sexy divorcee (2009's It's Complicated). But what baffles me is why her Ricki here is made to be such a louse. This is a woman who takes home a four hundred dollar paycheck, works at a supermarket, and is filing for bankruptcy. What's the point in honoring her plight? Oh and let's not forget who's responsible for the inception of Ricki and the Flash. You have two Academy Award winners (Jonathan Demme and Diablo Cody) on board and this can't be their latest, unequivocal Waterloo, can't it? Cody, who's a brilliant screenwriter (as exhibited in 2007's Juno), litters the proceedings with family dysfunction cliches and garbled dialogue robbing Rick Springfield from distributing any sense of acting chops ("it's not their job for your kids to love you, it's your job to love them", huh?). It appears she's on holiday (look for a cameo of this Lemont, Illinois native dancing freely to The Flash's jams). As for Demme, well he's a music aficionado (from what I've heard) so I'll give him a sympathy pass. But honestly, with his signature camerawork (lots of zoom shots), his shtick looks out of place and there's a sense that he just might be on holiday as well. Together they collaborate on something that's not necessarily uneven, just more akin to a late night rental. My rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson