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Friday, January 29, 2016

The 27th Annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival- Jan. 29th, 30th, and the 31st, 2016

The 27th Annual Notre Dame Student Film FestivalGreetings from Browning Cinema in Notre Dame, Indiana. This is my third time covering this glorious festival. All in all, there were eleven flicks shown with running times ranging anywhere between 4 and 19 minutes. The head of the film department at ND, said that these films were shot as deepened class projects only to become works of art. Well stated. All three festivals I have covered in South Bend have contained a dark side to a lot of the student directors. 2016 provided the darkest set of entries so far. Five of the shorts were silent, three of them were documentaries, three of them were comedies, and one had nothing to do with Transformers (that would be Revenge of the Fallen, LOL). The University of Notre Dame seemed to be used a lot more as a locale than in 2014 or 2015. Anyway, here are some of the highlights along with star ratings:

Five Simple Steps * * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Lauren Josephson, Camille Muth, Zach Ostapchenko
-As an extremely strong entry to open up the festivities, Five Simple Steps inhibits a funny side to death. We get to see the grim reaper being vulnerable and conscientious. And at eleven and a half minutes, "Steps" is witty, darkly funny, and tongue-in-cheek with some neat zoom shots.

Luggage * * Stars
Collaborators: Tanner Cipriano, John Salazar

Spark of Madness * * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborator: Anna Gonzalez
-Over 12,000 students go to The University of Notre Dame. Only 20 of them aspire to be stand-up comedians. That's the basis for this documentary about twentysomethings who study hard and then head to Legends (an ND bar venue) to get on stage and show you the funny. Great interviews, clean editing, and some tidy, archive footage from Late Night with David Letterman (circa 1994) give you "Spark's" rub. Amy Schumer better watch out!

Glitch * * * Stars
Collaborators: Moira Hamilton, Maddie Landon
-In my opinion, Glitch is partly inspired by The Matrix (all you gotta do is notice the Matrix code or "green rain"). Heck, you could probably throw in Johnny Mnemonic as well. Being a Keanu Reeves double whammy, I kinda dug the fight scenes, I liked the movie within a movie residue, and the music felt like a foot-tapping, cyber slam. There is no spoon (ha-ha).

Patrolling Sandy Hook * * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Caroline Clark, Kelly Quinn
-Just like in 2014's The Last Free Place, an ND student ventures way off campus (with camera crew in tote) to get the inside scoop on happenings we the general public, hardly knew anything about. This time it's in Florida and now we're talking about a guy who thinks the whole Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting was a hoax. Fascinating stuff whether you believe it didn't happen or not (I did by the way). Patrolling Sandy Hook floored me. In fact, it knocked me back a pike. The best and most nonplussed entry in this year's festival.

Revenge of the Fallen * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborator: Wisdom Mak

Platonica * * * Stars
Collaborators: John Haley, Emily Dauer
-Just call this thing Carol (a 2015 Oscar nominee) for the student filmmaker generation. The only difference is that the setting is present day, there is less innuendo overall, and there is absolutely no sex. The dialogue in Platonica is only spoken by two people. And as a short chronicling a time-eloped, same-sex relationship, the (duo) female leads give raw performances. You can tell over time that they'll improve on their craft and eventually make it big one day. My reviewing colleague (Cole Pollyea) rated this one right at the top.  

Ambiguous Encounter * * Stars
Collaborators: Liza Connor, Rose Biehl

Anthony: Portrait of a Boxer * * * Stars
Collaborators: Indi Jackson, Austin Burgett
-Straightforward documentary about a boxer who has been honing his craft since the age of six and habitually spits three hours a day just to lose weight for a fight. Anthony Sims Jr. (said boxer and docu subject) has an easy presence towards the camera. He mugs and preaches and puts other fighters to the ground. I never heard of his hometown before (Plainfield, Indiana) but now I feel it's been put on the map. As a ten minute-plus, short film, Anthony: Portrait of a Boxer isn't a full knockout but it gets the decision. Rating: 3 stars.

Edison Brockwell * * * Stars
Collaborators: Keenan Kelly, Drew Ronson, Frank Lanham
-Hitchcockian? Sort of. Atmospheric? Definitely. Anyway, Edison Brockwell gets my vote for being the best silent film out of the five that were featured at DeBartolo's sold out event. The lead here was also presented in Luggage (an entry that was screened earlier). In "Brockwell", he faithfully gets something more effective to work with. Murder as theme, great camerawork as a medium, and a surprise revelation that I didn't see coming is what's on tap. Rating: 3 eldritch stars.

No Presentation * * 1/2 Stars
Collaborators: Eric Ways, John McDonough

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Norm of the North 2016 * * 1/2 Stars

Norm of the NorthDirector: Trevor Wall
Year: 2016
Rated PG
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong

Hello folks. It's the start of the new year again. That means a lowbrow, cartoon flick is being marketed badly, it's being released in January, and it's being taken down by critics like the Arizona Cardinals were taken down by the Carolina Panthers (a rare football reference). 2014 had this going on with The Nut Job and now here comes Norm of the North (my latest review). Seeing "Norm" today with my two nephews and my niece, I realized that these types of movies are critic proof when it comes to small children. I mean it's a cartoon just like anything else. You put the young tykes in their seats, give them some Skittles, and they stare straight at the screen, transfixed. So parents, just be patient. You can rightfully go see The Revenant next week (ha-ha).

Anyway, as an animated film made by a rookie director (Trevor Wall), Norm of the North is off-putting and unsavory without having an ounce of adult humor. And with a reference to Titanic, a couple of fart jokes, and an assumed PG rating, kids ages 4-8 will still dig it a lot more than their parental units.

Now for kicks-and-giggles, the visual effects in "Norm" are mostly decent with their inspiration obviously coming from any one of the Ice Age movies. It's the human characters however, that look a little old fashioned (I thought I was watching a Def Leppard music video circa 1992). Bottom line: I didn't dislike Norm of the North but a totally mixed review is necessary. When I saw the main trouper (a guileless polar bear voiced by comedian Rob Schneider) doing weird, gyrated dance moves to some cheesy, outdated Muzak, well I pretty much cringed like a mother.

Featuring the voiceover work of Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, and Bill Nighy, being heralded as the first feature-length, animation release from Splash Entertainment, and having its chief protagonist dress up in an outfit prompting him to take a stab at a gay joke (that's what I thought anyway), Norm of the North contains a dance-along-type ending that lets you know that it's strictly for the kiddies. The story begins by chronicling Arctic Circle/carnivorous bear, Norm (Rob Schneider). You see Norm is an Ursus maritimus that can't seem to hunt effectively. He can however, talk to humans and has an animalistic sense of empathy. When Norm gets word of a rich, real estate mogul (Jeong as Mr. Greene) trying to build condos in his Arctic territory, well he becomes distraught, gets on a plane to New York City, and tries to hatch a plan to stop said developer's money hungry plans. Look for a scene where young Norman eats live gills and fins at a sushi bar. Also, look away when his sidekicks (furry creatures called lemmings) urinate in a fish bowl and just about everywhere else. How unsanitary.

All in all, I found Norm of the North to be disposable (to an adult, what animated vehicle isn't) yet not awful. Ninety minutes go by and what's on screen is like every other kid toon, evaporating the moment you leave the theater. Actually, strike that. There is one exception. 1982's The Secret of NIMH is in my mind, four star stuff. Darn it though, they just don't make em' like they used to. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Carol 2015 * * * 1/2 Stars

CarolDirector: Todd Haynes
Year: 2015
Rated R
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson

Written by Cole Pollyea

I heard a saying once that goes like this: there is magic in excellence. I pondered that for a while, ingesting it and observing events encompassed by it, and eventually decided that it must be a two-way street. Namely, there is a high degree of excellence in magic. Whichever way this notion is considered, it’s evident that the intersection is passed through by Todd Hayne’s marvelous Carol, a film that contains wondrous amounts of both excellence and magic.

Taking on an old-fashioned stylistic approach, Carol captures the love affair between two women at starkly different times in their lives, whose attraction to one another is untimely for Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is in the middle of a divorce with her husband, and confusing for Therese (Rooney Mara), who, to put it lightly, can’t even make up her mind about lunch. That last line was stolen from the film itself, from a scene where the two have lunch together, meeting each other for the first time in a non-professional environment. It is one of the film’s finest moments, as it showcases nearly every one of the film’s merits, but above all, its powerful screenplay.

By old-fashioned I first mean that the movie does little with sound and camerawork. Despite that the proceedings take place in the city, in bars, restaurants, hotels, parking lots, and busy streets, all we really hear are the soft voices of the leads and all we really see is a traditional series of tight shots, medium close ups, and mid shots. What the movie really relies on is the chemistry between actors Blanchett, Mara, Kyle Chandler, and a number of other supporting roles who unquestionably provide. They keep the fire lit from start to finish.

Secondly, the movie captures the 1950’s in a way that is both fresh and intoxicating. From costume design to screenplay accuracy to production design, Carol just gets it right. It also allows its main characters’ issues to fit in with what was going on in society in an entirely believable way, which adds to the depth of the movie’s emotion.

My only complaint about Carol is that, for a while, it’s hard to grasp what is drawing the two women together. Until a certain series of events transpire, there is little that matches the magnitude of their first meeting. This is made unimportant by the fact that once these events do transpire, we can again understand what is drawing these two towards one another, and the movie returns to its bona fide status as the marvelous, chillingly romantic film that it is. In fact, it’s safe to say that by the end of it all, we feel more strongly about the plight of the two women than we ever imagined we would; that is a sign of a true work of art.

Written by Cole Pollyea 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dirty Grandpa 2016 * * Stars

Dirty GrandpaDirector: Dan Mazer
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Robert De Niro,  Efron, Aubrey Plaza

Hello all readers. I just saw Dirty Grandpa earlier today. Critics everywhere have been ripping it left and right. Now I can't say that I want 102 minutes of my life back. I do however, feel remorse for humoring myself in bits and pieces during "Grandpa". I have one word to recount my disposition: Ugh!

Anyway, actor Robert De Niro is rich, bored, probably needs a hobby, loves to act, and in the last fifteen years or so, seems to take on almost every script that comes his way. That's kinda what I gathered from watching his 78th movie (my first review of the new year). Bobby's integrity in time has steadily gone downhill but I doubt he gives a darn. I mean he's Robert freaking De Niro, two-time Oscar winner. In truth, he does a complete 180-degree turn from his lovable, senior citizen role in The Intern (one of my favorite films from last year) to playing a horny, perverted oldtimer bent on sleeping with promiscuous, college girls. Dirty Grandpa featuring De Niro and Zac Efron (he plays Robert's character's grandson), is one of the sickest, foulest, nastiest, and most vile comedies ever to come down the pike. I couldn't recommend it even if I had a gun to my head. Here's the thing though: If you're into crass, gross, and profanity-laden humor, it will sometimes make you laugh (out loud I might add). A 72 year-old man masturbating to porn, the same 72 year-old man singing Ice Cube (karaoke-style) while spouting off the n-word, a young, prominent attorney smoking crack and waking up half-naked on a beach (surrounded by beer bottles), and a female police officer putting a smartphone down her pants while taking a picture of her full vagina. God helps us. God help us all.

Taking place in Daytona Beach, Florida (mingled with Atlanta, GA), featuring a hip soundtrack (songs by Nick Catchdubs, DJ Rebel, and R3hab), showcasing an ending that actually reminded me of The Graduate (I'm not kidding), and obsessing the audience with penises being drawn on people's faces, Dirty Grandpa is directed with a skewed moral center by Dan Mazer (he wrote 2006's Borat). There's an unnecessary cameo involving famed actor Danny Glover (he plays an old army buddy of De Niro's character), a bit of dialogue where Bob actually mentions defecating and Queen Latifah in the same sentence (gulp), and sexual innuendo literally up the wazoo. The story is as follows: Dick Kelly (De Niro) lives in the state of Georgia and just lost his wife of forty years to cancer. Every year during springtime, he went to Florida with said wife as sort of a prolonged tradition. Right after the funeral and to the dismay of his own son (David Kelly played by Dermot Mulroney), Dick vows to take his grandson (Jason played by Zac Efron) back to The Sunshine State for golfing and eventual high jinks (a la Daytona Beach). Jason reluctantly goes even though he is soon to get married. He is forced to help gramps get sex from an easy vixen named Lenore (played by 31 year-old Audrey Plaza). Zoey Deutch (Shadia) plays Efron's forgotten love interest and Jason Mantzoukas (from Neighbors) plays a whacked-out drug dealer who befriends them all.

Now if you decide to take in a viewing of "Grandpa", know what you're getting into. Don't go expecting a sensory, crime thriller in the shape of 2012's Spring Breakers. Just think of this vehicle as a Spring Breakathon more along the lines of Very Bad Things (minus any real tension or anyone getting murdered). As for legend Robert De Niro, well he has too much fun playing Dick Kelly. It's as if he thinks he's expanding his acting repertoire by acting unprincipled in a ruckus comedy. Travis Bickle really needs to just check himself.

In conclusion, Dirty Grandpa tries so hard for laughs that it either exhausts you, offends you, or just makes you feel like you need a shower (no pun intended). I liked the chemistry between De Niro and Efron in that they looked similar while seeming believable as grandfather and grandson. I don't think they'll dent their careers with "Grandpa" (Zac might unless Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising does well) but you gotta wonder why they would humiliate themselves for so much as a paycheck. I mean did De Niro actually read the script and think that it was okay to put his character's penis in Efron's character's face (in one scene) or get a young twentysomething pregnant (in another scene)? And did De Niro actually agree to say a line describing wrestler Andre the Giant and his fingering of several stacked females (apparently so)? Oh and did Zac Efron really think it was okay to have a young, child actor grab something from his waist area on camera (it was masked by the filmmakers to look like molestation)? That remains to be seen. Yes I sort of laughed during this movie but these sequences were not part of that laughter (the Andre the Giant line, well it just felt out of place). I felt queasy and unsettled more than anything else. Here's my rating: One star goes for Dirty Grandpa's $6 matinee price plus lounge seating at the local multiplex. Another star goes to director Mazer for trying to give "Grandpa" a sentimental edge involving long lost love and a rekindling between father, son, and grandfather. Overall rating: 2 stars. Dirty Grandpa is justifiably flowers in the "dirt" (thank you Paul McCartney).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Hateful Eight 2015 * * Stars

The Hateful EightDirector: Quentin Tarantino
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

"Got room for one 'mo?" quips Sam Jackson's character in The Hateful Eight. Director Quentin Tarantino has got room for more movies and along with Django Unchained, this is his second Western in three years. In "Eight", Tarantino bludgeons us with the n-word, overindulges the audience with splattered blood and guts, brings in a cast of regulars/relative newbies (Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum), and provides no aura or mystery to something that's at least forty-five minutes too long. Registering in just under three hours, The Hateful Eight slightly reminded me of Quentin's earlier work in Reservoir Dogs. This is especially inherit during the flick's last act. However, "Dogs" is one of my favorite endeavors of his whereas The Hateful Eight falls into a set of his movies that I could care less about (that would be Inglorious Basterds, "Django", and Kill Bill: Volume 2). Granted, this isn't a disdain for Tarantino's latest mind you, it's just pure disappointment.

Anyway, his direction here is adequate if not unflashy, his main lead (Kurt Russell) does a great John Wayne impersonation a la Big Trouble in Little China, and Quentin even narrates certain parts of "Eight" which feel completely out of place. This thing is kind of a forced whodunit whose time setting is right after the Civil War. The story begins in snowy Wyoming where a blizzard is heavily approaching the town of Red Rock (an actual place in the Cowboy state). John Ruth (Russell) dubbed "The Hangman", is transferring a fugitive to "Rock" named Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). He wants to see her hang but his carriage is diverted (because of overwhelmingly heavy snowfall) to a stagecoach lodge called Minnie's Haberdashery. On the way, he picks up a bounty hunter named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and a local sheriff named Chris Mannix (played by up-and-comer Walton Goggins). When they get to Minnie's, other strangers await their presence (Bruce Dern as a former war general is one of them). Ruth is suspicious that some of these random gentlemen are trying to help Daisy escape. He thinks that quote unquote, "one of those fellas is not what he says he is". As the proceedings barrel along, gunfights, stabbings, and poisonings ensue. Murder is unforgiving and unsentimental. Tarantino style!

Now "Eight" moves briskly in certain spots and really drags its feet in others. Most of its scenes happen in one room so it felt as if I was watching a savage version of What Love Is (2007) combined with a life-and-death variant of 2001's Tape. I was expecting to experience an intermission but I guess that was only for the film's roadshow release (we're talking about screenings in cities like L.A. and New York with the whole 70mm treatment tacked on). I was also expecting to see the Band Apart logo which seems to pop up at the beginning of every Tarantino venture. Oh well. So much for bantered tradition.

All in all, just like in the Kill Bill exercises, Quentin inserts The Hateful Eight with title cards that say "Chapter 1", "Chapter 2", "Chapter 3", and so on and so on. This doesn't hold much burden because what's on screen is such a straightforward eventuality. There are long stretches of dialogue where the actors explain everything to the audience. And Tarantino himself explains things too with his clunky narration plus a flashback sequence that although similar, doesn't quite equal the import of his finest hour, Pulp Fiction. In truth, there's no enigma to "Eight". And as for its grisly violence, well it's over exaggerated because humans don't contain that much plasma (sorry). With most of the troupers equaling the adjective by which this 2015 release got its title (you end up detesting almost everybody expect for Bruce Dern), well you can just call Tarantino's 8th vehicle The Good, the Bad and the Fugly. A bloody, messy, and obvious affair. Rating: 2 Stars.

Of note: Samuel L. Jackson was brilliant in Pulp Fiction. It was new, fresh, and exciting the way he spewed soliloquies about Big Kahuna burgers, Ezekiel 25:17, and Caine in Kung Fu. Twenty-one years later and within the span of 50+ movies, he's still tiredly doing the same old shtick. In The Hateful Eight, it has reached an all-time peak of annoyance. Also of note: Ennio Morricone's film score is nifty. But what's up with Tarantino adding songs that came out in the year 2000 (The White Stripes) and the year 1972 (David Hess). Didn't this flick take place in the 1800's. Just a random thought.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Daddy's Home 2015 * * Stars

Daddy's HomeDirector: Sean Anders
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini

Will Ferrell's latest is a 2015 release that's less amusing than his boldest endeavors (The Campaign comes to mind). Let's just call Daddy's Home Ferrell lite shall we. At 96 minutes, "Home" as a comedy is stupid funny without being hilarious. It's like a mild hack job from director Sean Anders. Sean's leads (Willy Boy and Mark Wahlberg) are perfectly cast with a few laughs seeping through. However, the screenplay by "Home's" three writers is just meh. A creepy Thomas Haden Church (he plays a radio station owner) giving insensible advice is not amusing. A gag involving a dog who looks ragged while possessing silver-colored eyes is also not amusing. A scene where characters dance with each other instead of fight each other is kind of half-baked. And finally, what's with the adage of locales used in Daddy's Home. Twenty minutes in and I thought things took place in Los Angeles, California. Come to find out that New Orleans, LA was the primary setting. I guess a car license plate and Pelicans basketball gave it away. Natch.

Anyway, the three main characters in "Home" are in a sense, labeled. Their identities are sledgehammered towards the audience as if they were types. Brad Whitaker (Ferrell) is the dimwitted stepdad, a doofus lacking self-confidence and an easy target for ridicule. Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg) is the biological dad, a manipulative jerk who deals in childcare MIA (he's also a slimy badass). Finally, Sara Whitaker (played by Linda Cardellini) is the spouse of Brad, a beautiful yet dull housewife who seems to be caught in the middle of it all.

Slapstick antics of the obligatory kind ensue with Brad Whitaker crashing a large motorcycle into his house, Whitaker punching Dusty without so much as a flinch, Whitaker getting drunk and hitting a cheerleader at a basketball game (with a b ball), and finally, Whit getting electrocuted while trying to skateboard in a backyard half-pipe. I chuckled, I winced, I checked my phone, and I eventually left the theater. The whole time I thought, this flick got green-lighted because of actor notoriety. There's no other explanation.

The story is as follows: Brad works as a radio executive and shares a beautiful house with his wife Sara plus her two kids (Scarlett Estevez and Owen Vaccaro as Dylan and Megan Mayron). He loves being a stepfather to them even though they haven't warmed up to Brad yet. Just as he is about to make a connection with said ankle-biters, in walks Dusty Mayron, their real father who's been away too long and is making up for lost time. Dusty I guess, works in black ops (that's what a couple of other reviews said but I wasn't entirely sure). He drives an intimidating chopper, he can build an intimidating tree house, and he has the radio voice to make mad royalties. Dusty's motivation is to get his kids back, remarry his ex-wife, and eventually give her another baby. He even persuades Brad and Sara to let him stay at their home for an extended period of time. What happens next is you guessed it, an old-fashioned "dad-off". Both of these dudes compete against each other for the affection of two adolescent tykes. Examples would be early Christmas for the kids (in April), complete with tons of presents including a pony. Another example would be the kids meeting Kobe Bryant while sitting in $18,000 seats (at an NBA game). Oh and who can forget Dusty telling fun, bedtime stories while slipping them each twenty bucks. I wish I got that kind of dough when I was seven.

All in all, watch for a lot of erratic jokes, PG-13 fare that doesn't really push the envelope, Ferrell being Ferrell, and Wahlberg being Wahlberg. And despite feeling like a vehicle that was cooked up over a couple of days, Daddy's Home has already made a ton of money ($162 million-plus). Bottom line: Everyone involved (the filmmakers, the producers, the studio executives) is probably laughing all the way to the bank. Rating: 2 stars.

Of note: I read somewhere that Mark Wahlberg has achieved enough success to the point where he's not trying to impress critics or parlay audience members. He now does movies for his family, or for his own self-satisfaction, or because he's got clout, or whatever. "Home" is proof of that. Also of note: For the record, I couldn't tell you whether Daddy's Home is better than Ferrell/Wahlberg's earlier screen pairing being 2010's The Other Guys. I have yet to see that cult worthy, monster hit. Finally, I have to give "Home" points for picking actors who look alike (this applies to immediate family relations). I get annoyed when this is not the case (see my review for This Is Where I Leave You). In reality, if Wahlberg and Linda Cardellini had children, they would probably look exactly like the young troupers featured here. Bravo to the casting department.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Revenant 2015 * * * Stars

The RevenantDirector: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars    Cole's Rating: * * * * Stars
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson

Leonardo DiCaprio was good enough to win an Oscar playing Howard Hughes (from The Aviator), coked-up stock broker Jordan Belfort (from The Wolf of Wall Street), and foreign gunrunner Danny Archer (from Blood Diamond). The Academy felt otherwise. Now it seems he is the undeniable favorite to win Best Actor for 2015's The Revenant (my latest review). I call it a sympathy vote. Academy voters have been blackballing Leo for over 20 years so I guess they're calling it truce and just handing him the golden statuette. His performance in "Revenant" is a solid dose of physical acting (with few words) but I don't think it's his best work. He claws, he moans, he bleeds, he aches, and ultimately he suffers. I suppose that's good enough to take home the prize at this juncture.

Anyway, DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a hunter venturing from wintry South Dakota to Big Sky Montana (circa 1823). He gets mauled by a bear, his son gets unjustly murdered by his party's frontiersman, and because of his bloodied condition, he is mistakingly left for dead by his military peers. Barely ambulant, Glass goes on a long journey to find the vigilant who took his boy from him. Leo's character gets put through the wringer as he gets shot at by arrows, goes down a waterfall in icy temperatures, sleeps inside a gutless horse, and eats the raw carcasses of slain bison. Chameleon Tom Hardy (brilliantly) plays Hugh's antagonistic foe, Forrest Goodluck plays his native American son, and Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays his captain, Andrew Henry. In veracity, I took in The Revenant's mostly brisk, 2 hour and 36 minute running time and was reminded of a more foreseeable version of 2013's Snowpiercer. Granted, this is minus the futuristic elements and train ride vibeology.

Now if you haven't seen the trailer to The Revenant, I implore you that it literally gives the whole movie away. Sacrilege! And if you go into this winter release without hearing any early advance about it, you'll still find things pretty darn predictable. No matter. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu takes a straight ahead and straightforward revenge thriller and injects it with his brilliant direction. He gives his main lead a series of feverish dreams and hallucinatory flashbacks to stew upon. He also combines the dirty, the violent, the bilious, and undercuts "Revenant" with sights/sounds of swallowed up nature. You can tell he uses his own style but hey, why not steal a little from his buddies too. There's a small bit of Terrence Malick going on here (stills of trees and animals) and residue courtesy of Alfonso Cuaron to boot (camera near the actor's faces with long takes happening all around them). And despite the film never sustaining the power of its opening battle sequence (between a tribe called Arikara and Henry's hunting party), you're still entertained while being drawn along with Emmanuel Lubezki's brilliant cinematography plus a harrowing musical score by three different composers (Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, Ryuichi Sakamoto). Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, January 8, 2016

My Top Ten Movie Picks for 2015

Spotlight1. Spotlight * * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 97%

2. Steve Jobs * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 85%

3. Burnt * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "The look of this vehicle is slick and unblemished. The screenplay by Steven Knight (he wrote and directed 2013's Locke) is juicy in that it deals with themes of anger, absolution, irony, and alienation. In terms of casting, Bradley Cooper really brings to life the persona of an unsound, head chef (this is based on all the Food Network shows I tend to watch). The role of Adam Jones really caters to his fast-talking, manneristic style of delivering lines." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 28%

4. The Intern * * * 1/2 Stars 
My quote as a critic: "If you've recently watched The Internship (2013), you'll somewhat be reminded of The Intern. Both films start off similar yet the latter ascends to something much greater. Bottom line: Chalk up another round of effective, sentimental goo courtesy of the veritable Nancy Meyers." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 61%

5. Joy * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "In 2015's Joy (my latest review), Jennifer 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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 60%

6. Everest * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Overall, beautiful cinematography, a considerable cast, and accurate locales (certain scenes were actually shot in Nepal's South Base Camp) make Everest a candidate for one of the year's best. A powerful, powerful moviegoing experience." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 73%

7. Black Mass * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Mass" has the cojones to kick in the door and possibly kick you in the teeth. It's a gangster pic scaled down to the bare minimum (for my money, that's a good thing). Bottom line: A great cast, a few Scorsese-like exterior shots, a top five performance from Depp, clean editing, and some tasty Massachusetts locales give you the final rub. Yeah it's violent, yeah it's unforgiving, and yeah it's altogether antagonistic. But Black Mass checks in as a winner pretty much the whole way." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 75%

8. Run All Night * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "2015's Run All Night is the third collaboration from Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra. They scored with last year's Non-Stop and actually top themselves this time with "Night". It's a hard-ass, moxie noir that makes you feel unsafe and doesn't give you a chance to breathe. Dare I say that this might be the crowning achievement in Liam's career as a vigilante who's on the verge of collecting his veritable social security." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 61%

8. (Tie) The Revenant * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "Despite the film never sustaining the power of its opening battle sequence (between a tribe called Arikara and Henry's hunting party), you're still entertained while being drawn along with Emmanuel Lubezki's brilliant cinematography plus a harrowing musical score by three different composers (Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, Ryuichi Sakamoto)." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 81%

9. McFarland U.S.A. * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "McFarland, USA is a conventional yet well filmed sports drama. With a little heart, a little tug, and a little shine courtesy of Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, it gets the job done. The running scenes are profusely shot with the Southwest California landscape glistening in the background. Its authenticity is paramount showcasing unknown, young cast members (from what I read, actual students from McFarland High School as well) and the mighty Kevin Costner whose old world weariness, scruffy demeanor, and acting as veritable comfort food deem him perfect for the role of Jim White." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 80%

10. The Walk * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "The three-dimensional space in "Walk" is sumptuous and avant garde. The look of it is salt and peppery, the sense of time and place is physically real, and the performances by all the actors are thoroughly impactful (especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Edited quickly yet overwhelmed by large amounts of buildup (is said French dude finally gonna be "Mr. Man On Wire" and cross over?), this thing still keeps you interested. Rotten Tomatometer Score: 85%

Honorable Mention: The Martian, The Perfect Guy, Entourage, Survivor, Mad Max: Fury Road. These are all good films that didn't quite make the cut.

And the worst...

1. Nightlight
My quote as a critic: "2015's Nightlight was directed by two people. It is possibly the lamest horror film ever made. You watch in disbelief and wonder how worse it could have been had only one person been behind the camera. Blatant characteristics of 2007's Paranormal Activity and 1999's The Blair Witch Project come to mind when taking in a viewing. But imagine those landmark vehicles with almost no scares, shallow and meaningless characters, mediocre acting from the leads, and countless scenes of tedium." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 17%

2. Poltergeist
My quote as a critic: "This is the worst re-imagining of any cinematic endeavor that I've ever had the displeasure of viewing. Director Gil Kenan sticks to the basic blueprint of 1982's original only to not respect nor honor anything that made it emotionally (not to mention eerily) effective." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 30%

3. Hot Pursuit
My quote as a critic: "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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 7%

4. Home Sweet Hell
My quote as a critic: "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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 5%

5. Vice
My quote as a critic: "This is something that throttles its Sci-Fi jargon completely through the mud. It's a swindle of copycat stuff that's straight from the playbooks of Blade RunnerThe IslandStrange Days, and even A.I. There's some B movie kitsch going on here with matter-of-fact acting and a sometimes elaborate screenplay." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 4%

5. (tie) The Boy Next Door
My quote as a critic: "The Boy Next Door as a movie, is artificially staunch. Rob Cohen directs and his results are nothing less than uninspired (look for a scene where some poor audio dubbing is used, who would have thunk it). He veers away from his more complex and flashy work with The Fast and the Furious to churning out bad camp that resembles something more along the lines of his 2000 vehicle, The Skulls." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 10%

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Point Break 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Point BreakDirector: Ericson Core
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer

I don't consider Keanu Reeves to be the world's greatest actor. But in all honesty, he gives one of the best performances of his career (next to Speed) in 1991's favorable hit, Point Break. 24 years later, "Break" is being remade with Aussie Luke Bracey in the Reeves role. Sad to say though, Bracey doesn't equal Keanu's charisma or wide-eyed intensity. And the same goes for 2015's reworking in general. But hey, I've seen a lot worse of these second-runs to come down the pike. Case in point: Did anyone remember the modernized version of Poltergeist from last summer? Me neither.

Not coming off as shot-for-shot, not changing any of the persona's names, not using the same locales (the original was set in surrounding L.A. while 2015's version goes all over the globe), and directed by cinematographer Ericson Core, new crop Point Break focuses on extreme motocross star-turned-FBI-agent, Johnny Utah (played by Luke Bracey who appears to be channeling the lead singer of the grunge band Puddle Of Mudd). You see Utah feels responsible for the death of his best friend (years ago, buddy Jeff perished from a cliff via a motorbike mishap). He needs "structure" in his life so he vehemently decides to join the Bureau. His first assignment: Go undercover, accumulate enough evidence, and capture Bodhi (played by Edgar Ramirez) plus his merry band of badasses. In the original "Break", Bodhi and his crew wanted to quote unquote, "rob banks to finance their endless summer, whoa!" Cut to present day and surfer/snowboarder/fight club member Bodhisattva wants to conquer the Ono Osaki 8, a series of ordeals that honors the forces of nature. This somehow involves committing a lot of felonious activities (who knew). Now with the newfangled version, helmer Core provides cinematography that harbors a real silvery look. And if you're afraid of heights, it's best to look away during many a scene (I talked about these same aspects in my previous review of The Walk).

Anyway, as mentioned in the first paragraph, I stated that there are far worse remakes than the new Point Break. The two films are surprisingly dissimilar making this current reboot pretty much its own vehicle. In fact, if the original never existed, I would probably garner Point Break circa 2015 a higher rating. So OK, does that mean I'm gonna recommend it? Not quite. The original from 91' is epic. It's stronger in that it gives you the urge to view it multiple times (a cult classic is what I'm saying here). There are quotable lines of dialogue ("back off Warchild, seriously"), visceral gunfights staged by director Kathryn Bigelow, fleshed out characters, doses of mild humor, nuggets of snarky dialogue, original concepts, strong acting from the leads (Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze), and one bitch of a parachute-free, skydiving sequence. 2015's "Break" doesn't exactly contain these traits. Yeah, it's filmed well with a more straightforward narrative and scenery that if you pause it, looks like postcards. Plus, the action sequences are decent in that they're carried out with veritable aplomb. But Point Break redux (that's what I've decided to call it) sledgehammers lousily, a certain something. We as an audience, don't want to be diverted from important plot points to see extreme sports for the sake of extreme sports. This isn't X Games mind you, it's a movie. Bottom line: I give modern-day Point Break a strong two and a half star rating. I paid six dollars and attended a matinee screening to view it. Not a classic but I have zero regrets.

Of note: As I took in the slickly, up-to-date (Christmas Day) release that is Point Break, one of its characters constantly annoyed the bejesus out of me. That would be Angelo Pappas. In 1991's original, he was Johnny Utah's agent partner, a kooky, cigar-chomping blowhard with a devil-may-care attitude and an appetite for sloppy, meatball sandwiches. Gary Busey played him as though he was playing his own, eccentric self. Cut to 2015 and we have Ray Winstone as Pappas. Again he's an agent. He's scruffy, grumpy, and lights up the ol' tobacco. This time though, Angelo does almost nothing. Yeah he makes a phone call or two and judges Utah from afar. But in the grand scheme of things, he doesn't even get in on the action like Busey's Pappas gleefully did (he never manages to pull out his weapon). Next time don't sleepwalk through it all Ray. Also of note: I know I talked about Luke Bracey (earlier) not being right for the role of sunny bro Johnny Utah. He can act though. All you gotta do is check him out in 2014's The November Man. The dude shines co-starring alongside Pierce Brosnan. This is merely just food for thought.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Big Short 2015 * * * 1/2 Stars

The Big ShortDirector: Adam McKay
Year: 2015
Rated R (Click on the rating link to see Cole's on-site review)
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt

Written by Cole Pollyea

In the last three years, Best Picture winners have included films that are stylistically original and successful (Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), films that have tremendous historical significance (12 Years A Slave), and films that show and tell riveting stories (Argo). While all three of those films, and many more best picture winners from the past, demonstrate possession of two of those attributes, it’s rare that a film possesses all three, but such is the case in The Big Short, a dazzling portrait of the individuals with the ability to foresee the collapse of the housing market in the few short years leading up to 2008.

Based on his portfolio, it appears that director Adam McKay has officially stepped out of his comfort zone with his twelfth directorial undertaking, his last few being Anchorman 2: The Legend ContinuesThe Other Guys, and Step Brothers. Truthfully, you don’t have to be a film connoisseur to notice the distinct differences between the type and caliber of filmmaking that he’s doing now as compared to in the past. In hindsight, there was nothing about his previous films that I was reminded of during my immensely satisfactory viewing of The Big Short, indicating that this director is seriously talented and he’s got a few more aces up his sleeve (at least I hope he does).

Taking on a Wolf of Wall Street-esque approach to the introduction—we’re introduced to the world of investment banking, real estate, and our main characters via a combination of narration by and talking to the camera of the well-fitting, yuppie-looking Ryan Gosling, as did Dicaprio in “The Wolf”, along with a seamless incorporation of real-life footage—the movie starts out exactly where it needs to in order to prepare us for the onslaught of financial jargon. Collateralized debt obligations, or CDO’s, subprime loan rates, and default rates are just a few of the most frequently used terms in the film, and, as Gosling explains, they are simple concepts that are given a complicated label to keep commonfolk in the unknown. The movie is fast and sharp and it has an innovative and refined approach to explaining these to its viewers before it gets going. For example, in a thirty second cutaway, Margot Robbie tells us, from the luxury of her bathtub, that when we hear subprime, we need to associate the word with “s***” in regards to the quality/reliability of mortgages being taken on by certain consumers. As opposed to stressing out over comprehending what the characters are talking about, we relish in the fashion which they are explained, and it makes the viewing experience all the more fascinating. What’s more, the filmmakers also employ an innovative tactic to signify passing time: relevant snapshots of well-known events that took place during the time period, stitched together and shown in rapid succession that is at first disorienting, but later on becomes an essential aspect of the movie.

And Gosling isn’t the only one to talk to the camera and this doesn’t just occur in the introduction; it’s consistent throughout and there are a number of characters sharing (what feels like) equal screen time addressing the audience. It seems as though this is becoming more and more common in films these days, and it’s increasingly evident where it works and where it doesn’t. As to The Big Short, it is a wonderful attribute.

However it’s not all about comprehending what’s going on on-screen, despite that there is a little too much effort that the audience must put forth for this cause, to the filmmakers’ fault. Looking past the story, there are a number of impressive performances at work here, Steve Carrell’s as the obvious leader of the bunch. Here he plays an extroverted president of a hedge fund who, along with his well-portrayed colleagues, becomes overwhelmingly aware of the fragility of the housing market and, consequently, the overall United States economy. Together, they, along with Gosling’s character, who goes against the ideology of his employer on Wall Street, Deutsche Bank, a young pair of entrepreneurs who operate out of their parents’ garage with the assistance of a next-door trading veteran (Brad Pitt), and an exceedingly quirky, self-motivating business owner (Christian Bale) all decide to short the housing market. To those of you who don’t know what “shorting” is, it is essentially an organized way of betting against the success of a certain company or, in this case, an industry, in the form of an investment through financial corporations. Despite all of the flack, mockery, and opposition to this decision, which was viewed as totally idiotic given the recent success of the market (a result of the mesmerizing facade which the film digresses in great detail), these three paralleling stories, which are told independently of one another, are told with intent, skill, and pizazz. Carell delivers lines naturally here, and his presence feels very real. His discoveries of the misconduct in the world of real-estate point to his optimism about our nation, which he undoubtedly shares with many viewers. “There’s a bubble! There’s a bubble!”, he exclaims over the phone to his business partner as he runs through the airport terminal. “Let’s short it 50 million!”. It’s fresh and exciting stuff and the fact that we already know the outcome of their investment doesn’t make the proceedings any duller, but rather, the opposite.

As mentioned, Gosling plays the part of the jaded banker magnificently, as does Bale as the strange leader who births the idea of the big short. Of note are the pitch perfect performances of the two young men who played the mentioned entrepreneurs, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, whose prowess help us understand the underlying cynicism that comes with betting on the failure of our own economy, an interesting aspect of the screenplay, which Pitt helps carry out.

Another of the underlying themes in the movie is that justice is never really served or, if it is, it never quite feels how we anticipate it might. The grim circumstances under which Bale’s character makes his millions and under which Carell’s character do all point to the question, at what cost? Both fought the system and appear to have “kicked them in the teeth”, but Bale’s character has lost respect and valuable business relationships and Carrell feels equally saddened about how corrupted the world in which they live is, despite his abundant wealth. The note that the movie goes off on is poignant and surely gives its viewers something to ponder over as we go on with our everyday lives.

Yet its overarching complexity is what holds it back from being a perfect film. Take a theater of viewers and I’m certain that a handful of people would struggle to explain the series of events that lead to its denouement. While the material isn’t far-fetched, it does, as mentioned, require a great deal from its audience in order to follow what’s going on, which ultimately doesn’t resonate with all audiences (though it did for myself).

With that being said, make no mistake about the fact that The Big Short is one of the sharpest, most mesmerizing films of the year and a best picture nomination is guaranteed for the masterwork. It harbors an array of invigorating performances and its style is fresh and distinct. Its screenplay carries out fascinating themes and its intelligence is rarely paralleled. If there were an Academy Awards market, it wouldn’t be in your best interest to “short” one of the best movies of the year.

Written by Cole Pollyea