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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cole’s Assessment and Ranking of the 2016 Oscar Nominees

With 2015’s filmmaking season coming to an end this evening with the 88th Academy Awards, it is important to recognize the tremendous creative talent on display this year and every year, and that’s what tonight is all about. Below is my take on this year’s finest, with the exception of Brooklyn, which I was unable to get around to seeing.

  1. The Revenant: ★★★★

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s filmmaking reign lives on with his latest film, The Revenant, a captivating, hard-edged testament to the director’s style, prowess, and pursuit of perfection. It boasts large scale production design, two brutally well-done performances (by DiCaprio and Hardy, the frontrunners in their categories, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively), and it is ultimately the most memorable, most precise, most impressive motion picture of 2015.

  1. Carol: ★★★ ½

Carol is a chillingly romantic tale whose main characters are brought to life by the enchanting Cate Blanchett and the exuberant Rooney Mara. Among the film’s assets are the talented supporting cast and the equal mix of real-life and work of art that makes the story so unique.

  1. Room: ★★★ ½

Brie Larson is nominated for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the young woman abducted and kept in a garage shed for seven years in Room. That’s not the only thing to marvel at, though. Larson’s screen partner, the nine year old Jacob Tremblay, delivers a ground-breaking performance, and ultimately, the two leads carry us through one of the most memorable true-life stories told through cinema this year.

  1. Bridge of Spies: ★★★ ½

The Tom Hanks starring, Coen Brothers written, Steven Spielberg directed (wow!) cold war drama, Bridge of Spies, is exactly as fulfilling as the savory credits would indicate. It is captivating, well-acted, and gets everything right from the get-go. It also adds a serious amount of insightful perspective towards how we should treat enemies of the state.

  1. Spotlight: ★★★ ½

Spotlight is Zodiac meets All the President’s Men, about the Catholic church child molestation charges and, quite possibly, with better performances. Unfortunately, it sacrifices the impending sense of danger that the two other films harbored so effectively. Nonetheless, however, this is a chilling newsroom drama that makes all the right moves.

  1. Steve Jobs: ★★★ ½

Despite the fact that this year may finally be Leonardo’s year―having undeservedly lost for at least two of his Academy Award nominations in past years―Michael Fassbender delivers the strongest performance in any film of 2015 as Steve Jobs. What’s more, the movie takes on a unique approach to portraying a chunk of his life story by chronicling Jobs’ social and professional turbulence at three different moments in his life: right before his presentation of the Mac, the Black Cube, and the iMac.

  1. The Big Short: ★★★ ½

The Big Short is 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. It is engrossing and entertaining to the nth degree, and it harbors a wide array of cast members who make the relevant proceedings that much better.

  1. The Martian: ★★★

While not quite as impactful as 2014’s Interstellar, The Martian is a bona fide sci-fi entry into this year’s Best Picture nominees. It is fueled by Matt Damon’s dedication to his craft and it is a heart-racing, supremely entertaining two hour and some minutes.

  1. Joy: ★★★

Joy is, without doubt, among director David O’Russell’s most engrossing and straightforward films. He doesn’t meander, and he doesn’t lose focus for a second. With a moving performance by the O’Russell regular, Jennifer Lawrence, the movie is a well told, important slice of life. Nothing more, nothing less.

  1. Straight Outta Compton: ★★★

Straight Outta Compton is a long, well made biographical film about the rise and fall of the N.W.A (Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre) and it boasts a particularly good performance by Paul Giamatti, playing the group’s producer. While slightly overlong and weakened by a repetitive (but still impressive) screenplay, it is an important movie that ultimately addresses the roots of a large aspect of American culture.

  1. The Hateful Eight: ★★★

The Hateful Eight is among director Quentin Tarantino’s most undisciplined, most cynical work. That said, it’s also among his most mysterious, hilarious, and exciting. If the second half of the film went exactly the way the first half did, we’d have a movie of Pulp Fiction’s Caliber. (Needless to say that, instead, it indulges in cynicism and drags the proceedings out over an unnecessarily long running time of 167 minutes).

  1. The Danish Girl: ★★ ½

Despite two moving performances by Redmayne and Vikander, The Danish Girl is a boringly conservative telling of a compelling life story. Every scene plays out exactly the way one would expect, and director Tom Hooper directs exactly the way one would expect him to as well.

Written by Cole Pollyea

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Triple 9 2016 * * 1/2 Stars

Triple 9Director: John Hillcoat
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul

Atlanta, GA as a locale, almost projected itself to be the main character in 1981's Sharky's Machine. Cut to 2016 and Triple 9 (my latest review) portrays ATL as modern-day Beirut.

With assured direction by John Hillcoat (Lawless), a capable cast, and Kate Winslet going almost unrecognizable as a Russian Mafia associate, "9" belongs in a cinematic guilty pleasure of mine: The crime thriller drama. Immediately after viewing its trailer (in December), I was reminded of Illinois native/badass screenwriter David Ayer. Granted, this isn't the David Ayer of Training Day and Street Kings (two of my favorites in the genre). Triple 9 is more like Sabotage David Ayer being Georgia-based, dirtied up, and lacking in emotional resonance not to mention secreted tension. Yeah heads are dismembered, officers go rogue, tats are abundant, and street gang initiations get mucky. "9" doesn't however, shake you with these images. It's just another day where actors talk tough and draw blood.

Including a lot of troupers that fade in and out while harboring admirable screen time, Triple 9 tells the story of two corrupt cops (Anthony Mackie as Marcus Atwood and Clifton Collins, Jr. as Jorge Rodriguez) teaming up with three hardened criminals (played by actors Aaron Paul, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Norman Reedus). Their initial mission: Commit robbery by stealing a safety deposit box holding information that could help a Russky mob boss get out of prison. Their next mission: Commit the same volatile act yet with much higher stakes. The five gentlemen have to pull off a Triple 9 to get it done. A Triple 9 according to the film's title, is a maneuver where an officer down call sends every member of the heat to the location of the relegated incident. Casey Affleck (as Chris Allen) plays the honest cop who gets embroiled in said Triple 9, Woody Harrelson (as detective Jerry Allen) plays his concerning uncle, and Hotlanta plays atmospheric chic with its view of destitution and click click multitude. Viktor Bout called and he wants his guns back (ha ha).

Now director John Hillcoat with his excessive use of close-ups, shoots "9" as if it's a horror snuff pic. He turns Atlanta's unsavory environment into a complete war zone. Most of the homicidal sequences featured are in broad daylight. And in staging several car chases and gunfights, Hillcoat renders every effect sloppy if not realistic and lifelike. His work behind the camera isn't necessarily the problem. It's the script by unknown Matt Cook and some rushed editing by Dylan Tichenor (Child 44) that become Triple 9's main Achilles' heel. Instead of effectively spouting long-winded soliloquies about (authentic) PoPo corruption and partaking in juicy one-liners (revert back to David Ayer, paragraph two), "9's" characters mire every word of dialogue in the form of F-bombs and muddled, good cop/bad cop arguments. Bottom line: With Triple 9's every stand alone kill, every obvious double-cross, and every exploding body part, you feel Denzel Washington did it better fifteen years ago by simply saying, "King Kong ain't got sh*t on me!" Rating: A mixed but strong 2 and a half stars. "Number 9, number 9, number 9". Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Exposed 2016 * 1/2 Stars

ExposedDirector: Declan Dale
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ana de Armas, Mira Sorvino

Unknown director (with a pseudonym to boot). Generic title. Big name stars who you sense are doing it for a paycheck. Released by way of video on demand instead of theatrical. Sound familiar? It should. If you've seen reviews for movies like The Prince or Vice, then Exposed (my latest write-up) is embedded in that category. Yeah it's lousy like the aforementioned vehicles but in a different way. Vice and "Prince" have a sense of coherency. You can mostly follow their every beat. Exposed is just messy. There were times when I didn't know what it was that I saw. So OK, what were you thinking Mira Sorvino? What were you thinking Michael Rispoli? And Christopher McDonald, what the heck?

Anyway, watching this thing is like viewing two different films at once. I don't know how to classify it. You could call Exposed a nonprofessional indie. You could call it a crime drama/supernatural charade. Heck, you could claim it to be a foreign language flick starring Keanu "whoa" Reeves (huh?). No matter how you interpret things, there's 102 minutes here that feel like 3 hours. When its best performance is given by a washed-up, recluse rapper (Big Daddy Kane), you know the proceedings are in trouble. When its opening sequence takes forever and sets a bad precedent for what lies ahead, you know the proceedings are in trouble. And finally, when its director doesn't want to reveal his (or her) actual name, you know the proceedings are in trouble. Exposed can easily be renamed, Excruciating.

Speaking of said director, he may be a rookie or he may be a veteran. Either way, Declan Dale (or whatever his name is) lets you know it's amateur night right off the bat. It's clear from the opening credits (of Exposed) that he can't effectively set up a shot, can't frame a scene, doesn't know when to infuse a close-up, doesn't know where to put the camera, doesn't use a zoom out at the right time, and can't juggle his many, muddled subplots. Scenes in Exposed are either too long-winded or not nearly long enough. And Dale's editing team could have been a pack of monkeys and the audience wouldn't even know the difference. Tone is absent, dramatic momentum starts up only to get sucked into the wind, and laughable overacting comes on like gangbusters. I paid $6.99 to watch this movie on XFINITY. If I paid $1.50 for it on Redbox, it still would have been a bad investment.

Filmed in an uncommon part of New York City, distributed by Lionsgate Premiere, and originally titled Daughter of God, Exposed jots back and forth to chronicle the lives of two different, combative characters. First we have Scott Galban (played by Keanu Reeves). He is your typical, doom and gloom detective. His wife passed away, his son has been taken from him, he has almost no friends, and his partner (Joey Cullen played by Danny Hoch) just got murdered in an underground subway. Galban against mild orders from his superior (Lt. Galway played by Christopher McDonald), investigates the reality of his partner's death. He goes around asking questions yet every witness he talks to, gets murdered. Second, there's Isabel de La Cruz (played by Ana de Armas). She's the only witness that Galban hasn't talked to yet. Her character is borderline schizo. She becomes pregnant by way of a miracle, she has visions of ghostly apparitions, there's a side plot about her husband being stationed in Iraq, and she ultimately wanders the film as though she's a lost puppy. Throughout Exposed, we as the audience see Isabel the most (even though her and Keanu's Scott are loosely connected). Many frustrating scenes involve Isabel, her family, and her friends constantly gabbing in Spanish (when all of them obviously speak English). As for Reeves, well we only discern his screen time in bits and pieces. His presence is never developed or consistent. Like I mentioned in the second paragraph, Exposed feels like you're watching two separate vignettes altogether. They're so unconnected from each other, it makes the film totally shapeless. When every plot element finally comes full circle (in the concluding clips), you feel the damage has already been done. Exposed "exposes" itself to be a real scrape. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

Of note: A lot of death occurs in Exposed yet we never see it. Heck, we don't even view any of the actual aftermath. It's like the film is trying to be 1995's Se7en but is too lazy to explain how A led to B. Is it possible the studios didn't want to go over budget? Maybe. Is it possible director Dale didn't know how to make homicide scenes look believable? Maybe so. Or did the special effects crew run out of fake blood? Oh yeah, that's it. Yeesh! Also of note: I usually give Keanu Reeves a pass because a lot of moviegoers think he can't act. I've seen him do solid work in Point Break, Speed, and Street Kings. I know what he's capable of. In Exposed however, he hits a wall by showing us the ultimate, wooden moment. There's a scene where he sits in his police car, gets upset, shows frustration, yells at himself, and bangs his hands on the steering wheel. To say this is laughable would be an understatement.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, February 15, 2016

How to Be Single 2016 * * Stars

How to Be SingleDirector: Christian Ditter
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie, Leslie Mann

2016's How to Be Single (my latest review) takes place in New York City. Unless you've been living in an igloo somewhere, you'd know that it's the biggest hub in the whole United States (8 million denizens and counting). Somehow though, every character in "Single" seems to coincidentally run into each other as if it's the town of Mayberry. The Big Apple contains five boroughs, hundreds of neighborhoods, and almost 500 square miles. Small world? I don't think so.

Anyway, despite featuring a comic force of nature in Rebel Wilson, marginally attractive actors/actresses, and a look of NYC that is as glistening as ever, How to Be Single is a directionless romcom. It's the type of vehicle that requires a tacked-on, concluding narration device just to let you know what's really going on. Oh and by the way, this film has a made-up notion of a drinking hookup rule (the number of alcoholic beverages a man and a woman would have to consume before they fall into bed together). Total ludicrousness!

At a running time of just under 2 hours and penned by three screenwriters, "Single" uses tactics that other (general) flicks have presented over the past few years (visible text messaging, tired d*ck jokes, droll fast cutting). As buffoonery, it's a pre-Valentine's Day release that's a legend in its own mind or should I say, an unknown director's catacomb that marches to the beat of its own drum. The story is as follows: Alice (Dakota Johnson) is a career woman who dumps her college boyfriend so that she can find herself as a young adult. She moves in with her sister (Leslie Mann as Meg), finds a job as a paralegal, and bar hops with her party girl/co-worker named Robin (Rebel Wilson). Over periods of fast-forwarding (fall season, Xmas, St. Patrick's Day), Alice runs into ex-boyfriends, has a one night stand or two, and eventually decides that she's better off not being in any kind of relationship at all. Johnson isn't much of an acting juggernaut but she's darn adorable. I'm no casting agent but I feel she's still pretty much perfect for her role.

By hook or by crook, How to Be Single is R-rated, has the obligatory bad language, and contains the required, flask notions of innuendo. However, I was surprised at how non-juvenile it was compared to most raunchy comedies. The filmmakers and everyone else involved really wanted to say something. Too bad the proceedings get drowned in a vat of drunkenness, casual sex, self-prophesied female starlets, and douche-like, male characters (Anders Holm as a womanizing bartender and Nicholas Braun as a manipulative suitor). Disappointing. Rating: 2 stars.

Of note: Hallmark's favorite holiday has passed but I still think every guy should avoid taking a date to see "Single". With its demoralizing of women just looking for Mr. Right, you as gentlemanly John Doe might be cursed by your sweetie or relegated, significant other. All strapping males have been warned.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hail, Caesar! 2016 * * * Stars

Hail, Caesar!Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

Quirky and lingering, that's the Coen brothers way. And with a certain talent in every frame, Hail, Caesar! is a tribute to the movies or a tribute to their love of movies. Containing sumptuous period detail, a surplus of big-name stars, and behind-the-scenes accounts reminiscent of Robert Altman's The Player, "Caesar" goes back to the 1950's film industry with Joel and Ethan Coen as its unequivocal tour guides. They weren't alive when classical, Hollywood cinema was a mainstay. However, it feels like Minnesota's favorite sons were actually there, in a former life sort of speak. Their characters talk quickly, their characters smoke tons of cigarettes (in public places no less), and even legendary actor Danny Kaye is mentioned. Ah, the good old days.

Anyway, despite being semi-unfocused and somewhat erratic, Hail, Caesar! is expertly directed with every shot obtaining a level of film noir gleam. With its simplified diegesis, there is a little time to kill. The Coens give the audience halting scenes where actors show off an incredible skill set. All you gotta do is catch Alden Ehrenreich performing lasso work (with a plate of spaghetti and a rope) and Channing Tatum tap dancing his arse off. Amusing.

Harboring a budget of $22 million, set in 1951, and dealing with antagonists straight from the communist party, Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (an excellent Josh Brolin). He's the head of Capital Pictures and a quote unquote "fixer". He oversees the budgets and attitudes of movie stars as well as keeping their scandalous behaviors out of the press. When his biggest acting commodity (Baird Whitlock played by George Clooney) gets kidnapped and put up for ransom, Mannix has to come up with $100,000 just to smooth things over. Things to look for in Joel and Ethan's 100-minute opus: 1. cinematography of the highest order with Roger Deakins channeling residue a la Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. 2. a couple of neat sequences where Brolin's Eddie is watching dailies (to a film buff like me, that's interesting). 3. finally, Tilda Swinton plays twin, gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker. Fostering a ruthless and shallow demur, she makes today's media seem like child's play in comparison.

In conclusion, if you're obsessed with cinema (I know I am), intrigued by the ins and outs of Hollywoodland lingo, and want to revel in the Coen brothers strutting their movie within a movie pedigree, then Hail, Caesar! will cure your wintry blues. All I gotta say is "hail" yes! Rating: 3 stars.

Of note: As mentioned earlier, tons of stars and Coen regulars inhabit little or almost no screen time via "Caesar!". It's as if they are doing a favor for their filmmaker buddies. Jonah Hill plays a surety agent for a production company, Frances McDormand plays a chain-smoking editor, Ralph Fiennes plays a patience-tested director, Scarlett Johansson plays an impregnated A-list actress, Dolph Lundgren plays a Soviet "submarine commander", and Clancy Brown plays a co-star of a flick starring the Clooney trouper. With so many notable faces, I thought I saw John Turturro popping up as an extra. If you happen to read this review, correct me if I'm wrong.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, February 5, 2016

The 5th Wave 2016 * * * Stars

Director: J Blakeson
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Liev Schreiber

Chloe Grace Moretz is all over the place these days. In fact, she's about to show up in four movies via the year 2016. Her latest release is The 5th Wave and it regretfully got shuffled into the month of January (never a good sign). Critics everywhere have been comparing it to Twilight and/or The Hunger Games flicks. Having never seen anything from those sets of franchises, I couldn't make a supposed juxtaposition. I as a critic, got a Maze Runner/Day After Tomorrow vibe more than anything else. And here I was expecting to have something to tide me over until Independence Day: Resurgence came out. Eh, no biggie.

Anyway, with its themes of quarantined isolation and genocidal deception, The 5th Wave has a rather small budget even for a sci-fi, action thriller (a poultry $38 million). It shows. "Wave" is about countless alien invasions but doesn't give you enough visually, to think that any alien species really exist. I mean yeah they're disguised as humans but you can hardly tell. And despite a few spaceships roaming the sky and one giant mothership coming out of some cumulus clouds, this is more a military affair than an extraterrestrial glop fest. What can I tell ya, I dug it anyway. The storytelling is taut, the troupers are ones you generally care about, the action sequences are quite nifty, and the 80's-style soundtrack is seemingly legit. January "junk?" Thankfully no.

Containing an intense, dystopian flavor (even for something rated PG-13), featuring a romantic interest in the form of a half-human, taking place in Ohio, filmed entirely in Atlanta, GA, and based on a novel of the same name (written by Rick Yancey), The Fifth Wave throws buildup out the window as it contains two important flashbacks (one of them having varying camera angles) plus the adage of top billed actress Chloe Grace Moretz narrating Earth's cordial demise. The Moretz character is named Cassie Sullivan. She's your typical high school kid. She goes to parties, she meets boys, she has close friends, and she studies hard. This is all status quo until a plethora of alien attacks off her parents, separate her from her brother (Sam Sullivan played by Zackary Arthur), and force her to become a gun-wielding badass. You see these aliens are in the form of an army called the Others. And they are headed by a threatening colonel named Vosch (played by Liev Schreiber). From what I've gathered, Vosch's chief motivation is to eliminate all human adults and then have their children go through military training so that they get into gunfights while deceptively killing off each other. This plot point was one of many startling revelations in "Wave" that I didn't pick up initially.

Being the best film of the year so far, the only thing that bugged me about The Fifth Wave though was its need to cut corners in terms of special effects shots. In my mind I kept saying, "this isn't an art film, it's suppose to be a popcorn-munching blockbuster." Oh well. What are ya gonna do.

All in all, The 5th Wave ends with the disappearance of one of its supporting actors. And there are also a couple of final moments involving the protagonists hanging out at a campfire. These pointers are there to indicate that a sequel might be in the works. Based on "Wave's" lukewarm box office take and critical ribbing, I don't know if that will happen. If it does, I'll happily buy a ticket. What the heck. My rating: 3 stars.

Of note: In The 5th Wave, director J Blakeson implores some cool, gun disarming scenes, he shoots a tidal wave sequence in which the cities of New York and London turn to rubble, and he casts an unrecognizable Mario Bello to play a Nazi-like sergeant (of the Others) named Reznik. Talk about a woman having a bad hair and makeup day. Yeesh!

Written by Jesse Burleson