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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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost DimensionDirector: Gregory Plotkin
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw

The Paranormal Activity franchise has now churned out six movies. The latest issue is called Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (my most current review). Right after seeing "Dimension", I decided to look up its wiki page. In said page, it stated that this October release is supposed to be the final chapter. Uh huh. I'm sure the producers will figure out a way to make another one. After all, these flicks come with a micro budget and make a ton of money. The formula is always the same: 1. have unknown actors/actresses headline while forcing them to act like complete tools. 2. include characters that are rich or well off (with nice houses) and let their families get terrorized by evil spirits. 3. have said characters run around while filming everything even though their lives are in total danger. 4. have children involved and feature them seeing or hearing things that no one else does. 5. include no background music. 6. finally, try to tie in the current "Activity" installment with other installments by way of various clues left behind.

Anyway, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension with its rookie director and ameliorated special effects, contains these factoids plus a few minor differences. It cost more to make than any of the other follow-ups, it negates a hook in which you see actual ghosts this time around (hence the title), it takes place during the silly season (Christmas to be exact), and lastly, it doesn't feature Katie Featherston in a cameo (oh well). So am I recommending it? Not exactly. There's a few creepy moments, a couple of jolting scares, and one hot mama (Olivia Taylor Dudley as houseguest vixen, Skyler). Unfortunately, "Dimension" just feels reused from all the other sequels that came before it (same text on the screen, different director, same producer). Oh and if this is the way the filmmakers are gonna wrap things up, they should've avoided almost copying the endings via Paranormal Activity's 23, and 4. Talk about a weak denouement.

Now out of all five of the previous Paranormal Activity flicks, "Dimension" randomly decides to filter its story in through the third vehicle (sisters Katie and Kristi circa 1988) and the second vehicle (the young child Hunter is mentioned and is shown on a home video). The proceedings take place in Santa Rosa, CA with plenty of obligatory, found footage to boot (sometimes it's hard to tell what's being documented here and what's just plain old Panavision). Then there's the narrative which gives us the Fleege family. They consist of Ryan Fleege (Chris J. Murray), Emily Fleege (Brit Shaw), and Leila Fleege (Ivy George). They move into a new house not knowing that it was built over a previous one that burnt down. While unpacking in their new abode, Ryan notices a video camera left behind from the past owners. There are also plenty of VHS tapes laying around. These tapes contain a sinister and supernatural plan put into motion over twenty years ago. And whenever anyone attempts to film anything or any person, ghostly images appear on the old video camera's lens. Happy holidays everybody!

In retrospect, I have only heralded the first two Paranormal Activity films as being anywhere near advantageous. The inaugural one I felt, effectively piggybacked The Blair Witch Project. The third one although not great, had some solid roving (and panning), camera techniques which upped the flinching, fear factor. Bottom line: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension isn't awful, it's just ho-hum. You could rank it evenly with 34, and 5 (whose actual title is "The Marked Ones"). Call it a cash grab. Call it horror deja vu. My rating: 2 and a half stars.

Of note: "Dimension" takes place in 2013. That's right 2013. There's a scene where Brit Shaw's Emily looks up a phone number for a priest to exorcise her house. She does this by festering through the yellow pages. Huh? I thought people nowadays used stuff like computers or smartphones to get information (that's how you find that search engine called Google, right). This is an interesting oversight if I do say so myself.

Written by Jesse Burleson