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Thursday, March 31, 2016

8th Annual River Bend Film Festival Feature Film-The Flying Dutchmen 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

The Flying DutchmenDirector: Kendal Miller
Year: 2015
Rated NR
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Jonathan Helmuth, Daryl Zook

I wasn't expecting a comedic romp when I attended the documentary, The Flying Dutchmen. I have to admit, I wanted to view more scenery. I wanted some more revelations. But here it is, a commencing fortysomething and a gruff father figure barreling down America's desolate roads. They joke around, they playfully bicker, and they somewhat reflect. Ultimately, they provide the audience with a slight level of tedium. I initially thought of "Dutchmen" as a mixture of Easy Rider, The Straight Story, and A Walk in the Woods. But because the two subject's motorcycle constantly breaks down while they bring the film to a "screeching" halt (with prolonged humor), The Flying Dutchmen doesn't "fly", it sort of sputters along.

Helmed by Kendal Miller in the anti-documentary style (there are no interviews or confessionals, that's a good thing) and featuring the obligatory, documentary score (lots of gentle, strumming guitar), "Dutchmen" gives us two main characters playing themselves, garnering admirable acting chops, and appearing very natural on screen (Jonathan Helmuth and Daryl Zook). You see these guys are traveling by way of an experimental chopper. Jonathan lost his dad earlier to pancreatic cancer. Daryl has a bad eye condition. Together they venture from Michigan to Oregon, stopping at various bed and breakfast places and receiving meager directions from local denizens. The flick chronicles their journey, their release from everyday life.

Now for what it's worth, Matthew Jeppsen's cinematography here is bang-up when it wants to be (which is not all that often), "Dutchmen's" final shot is a beauty (The Beaver State showcasing rock formations in the Pacific Ocean), and the beginning/end titles are put in quite nicely. Bottom line though: The Flying Dutchmen would rather grace us with its goofy amusement, its tendency to come to a standstill when John and Daryl's transportation seems to persistently break down. Their outcome despite certain setbacks, is in a word, predictable. Also, the constant closeups (of the cast) by director Miller are overdone. And although I get the message these two men are conveying, I wanted more of a road movie. I didn't want the humdrum, the sparse footage of bike riding, and limited sightings of Wyoming (ha-ha).

On an impulse, I attended a screening for "Dutchmen" at the 8th Annual River Bend Film Festival. During the Q & A for star Jonathan Helmuth, he said it was hard for him to watch it for the first time (clear through) with people he knew in the audience. I don't blame you Mr. Helmuth. Agreeing with your subtle statements at said Q & A, I would've thought there were some faint missteps in The Flying Dutchmen as well. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016 * * Stars

Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeDirector: Zack Snyder
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill

In 2013, Zack Snyder made the moderately successful, superhero film Man of Steel. He shot it with a weaker second half showcasing darkness overload, a lack of humor, virtually no romantic interludes, and an unnecessary amount of death and destruction. He did though, direct "Steel" with an acceptable sum of narrative clarity. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (my latest review), Snyder does the opposite. He becomes the bemused storyteller, the antithetical Spielberg. He tries to juggle too many characters, too many subplots, and too many locations. Basically, wacky Zacky butchers the almighty cinematic form. Listen, I don't fault the actors/actresses and I can't knock Zack for his wide-eyed intentions. His vision here is not to entertain but to make you ponder and think (that results in a real boring first hour). But by his inclination of trying to be Christopher Nolan (coupled with some choppy editing by veteran David Brenner), he turns "Justice" into the anti-popcorn flick, the type of cinematic vessel that a fanboy would analyze and a young child would want to leave the theater halfway through. In truth, I predict Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will have a strong opening weekend with ticket buyers. I then see its box office take drop further than Marco Rubio's political ratings. Ouch!

Featuring a bloated running time of 153 minutes, harboring a Hans Zimmer film score that is equal parts loud and unbalanced, and highlighting a brief cameo by Mr. Kevin Costner, "Justice" marks the first time that Batman and Superman have shared the screen together. Add Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Aquaman to the mix ("Flash" and Aquaman are on screen so briefly, I wouldn't have known it had someone not told me) and you've got something that veers completely from the advertised battle between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. Watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice only reminded me that it was more of a blatant setup for future Justice League movies.

Bottom line: Almost all the performances in "Justice" are decent (that includes Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Henry Cavill, and Ben Affleck). Director Zack Snyder however, lets his cast down by failing to install their screen time in a less-than-scattershot manner. Added to that, the events and characters from his superior Man of Steel, don't transition well to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It's a copy-edit nightmare. Actors like Laurence Fishburne (director of the Daily Planet) and Diane Lane (Superman's mom, Martha Kent) have their scenes so randomly inserted, there's no tone and no sense of them being compelling. And with Snyder being such a special effects maestro, here he gets sloppy. In "Steel", he filmed action sequences with a visual artistry that I'd never seen before. In "Justice", there's no poetry, no adequate movement from frame to frame. Oh and if you're wondering about the main event between Superman's superhuman powers and Batman plus his gadgetry, gas-fueled Batmobile, well their highly anticipated duel is on and off the screen faster than a speeding bullet (ha). Overall rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, March 21, 2016

(Jesse's Take) 10 Cloverfield Lane 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars

10 Cloverfield LaneDirector: Dan Trachtenberg
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr.

Like Academy Award winner Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead acts brilliantly with her eyes. In 10 Cloverfield Lane (my latest review), she portrays the quintessential, astute heroine. Winstead channels fear, dread, and discomfort like nobody's business. And being the only good commodity in 2011's prequel The Thing, she's now the best commodity in "Lane" (2016's most beguiling surprise).

Produced by J.J. Abrams, taking place in Louisiana, showcasing a soundtrack fastened with 60's radio hits, and having all of its plot points intricately put into their rightful places, 10 Cloverfield Lane is nifty not to mention wholly original. A majority of its running time is in enclosed spaces (agoraphobics need not worry). In terms of its final act, well "Lane" has a quota of squirmy, alien fare. The CGI and special effects are decent but may just be for show. You will for the most part, be more enamored by what you didn't see on the outside (the first 90 minutes are what I like to call the violence in the mind).

Anyway, the film with only 4 characters visible on screen, is a genre piece tested purely in psychological thrills and chills. On the surface, its structure as a sequel (to 2008's more big-budgeted Cloverfield) feels a lot like direct-to-video. Thankfully that never ends up being the case. And rightfully, "Lane" isn't a follow-up that continues the whole found footage BS.

The story begins with an outlined car crash scene so loud, so instinctive, and so unexpected, it might just make you flip out of your seat. In said crash is thirtysomething Michelle (played by Mary Winstead). Michelle has just broken off her engagement to her boyfriend Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper). After leaving his ring and keys to his apartment on the dining room table, she drives away to someplace north of the Bayou State. A mystery motorist hits her from the back, Michelle's car spins out of control, and she ends up in a ditch. When she awakens, she finds herself constricted to an underground shelter owned by a short-tempered man named Howard Stambler (played by John Goodman). Howard has either abducted her or wants to keep her alive from an unknown, extraterrestrial/nuclear attack. Unsure of his motivations (Howie is a little rattled, a little threatening, and socially inept), Michelle vows to escape anyway even though Goodman's trouper thinks the air outside is unbreathable. She attempts this with the help of another young soul in confinement (the naive Emmett Dewitt played by John Gallagher, Jr.). Some online critics have compared 10 Cloverfield Lane to last year's Academy Award winner, Room. If that's the case then heck, sign me up.

Now "Lane" with its bedazzling score, its claustrophobic setting eliminating plenty of storyline holes, and its 1950's bunker overtones, is an effectual, nerve-shredding thriller. It evokes Hitchcock, The Twilight Zone, and doesn't need extra images of monsters to invigorate you, the viewer. Having seen Cloverfield, I didn't get much of a connection between that shaky camera vehicle and the new, supposed successor. No matter. 10 Cloverfield Lane stands on its own with three great performances (the creepy John Goodman, Winstead, and the affable John Gallagher, Jr.), a sense of disquiet that exists in the gray matter, and direction by rookie Dan Trachtenberg that feels like seasoned veteran stuff. The ending which I won't reveal, contains a level of badassery (not to mention an inkling of hope). It will make you pump your fist and feel a sense of wonderment all at the same time. My rating: 3 and a half stars.

Of note: If you haven't seen "Lane" yet, brace yourself. This might sound a little weird. There's a slight homage to the 1986 flick, Pretty in Pink (yup). In that 80's relic, Molly Ringwald is an aspiring designer of clothes. She draws up attire patterns with pencils and paper. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Winstead's Michelle does the exact same thing. She tries to design a space suit in case she escapes the isolated, underground bunker (small spoiler). Oh and look for a scene where John Goodman's Howard actually watches "Pink" on VHS. All hail Harry Dean Stanton (ha).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Zootopia 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars

ZootopiaDirectors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
Year: 2016
Rated PG
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba

Written by Cole Pollyea

I read somewhere that 2016’s early release, Zootopia, is this year’s Inside Out. Almost, but not quite. With that said, it is one of the finer animated pictures in recent years. It’s likely that this exceedingly entertaining family movie is going to be a contender for best animated feature in 2017’s Academy Awards for its bright screenplay, insightful political allegory, and most effective voice performances in recent memory.

In terms of outside-the-box thinking, February gave us Hail Caesar! and, now in March, we have Zootopia. It exerts a genuine craft and ascends in its own league due to its original storytelling and its ability to truly entertain every member of the family. I went with my own, ages 3, 5, 11, 17 (myself), and my parents; all were satiated.  

Zootopia chronicles the unlikely endeavors of bunny Judy Hops (energetically voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) who refuses to be “settled” by the traditional lifestyle that her parents, community, and co-species pressure her to adopt: carrot farming. Contrarily, she wants to make a difference in the world and feels that by becoming a police officer, she’s sure to do just that. When old enough, she enlists in the police academy, completes her training, and is assigned to the heart of Zootopia (the Chicago of Illinois).

Enter Jason Bateman as a sly fox who makes his living by tricking innocent passersby into paying for his “child”’s large Popsicle because he forgot his wallet at home. Once out the door, he takes the Popsicle, turns it into smaller Popsicle, sells them for a profit (because he has no explicit costs), and reuses the Popsicle sticks from his customers’ nearby recycling bin. He then bundles the sticks up, sells them as infrastructure to smaller species, and calls it a day. It’s all a part of his ‘hustle’. This, at least, is as much as he tells one of his innocent passersby, officer Judy Hops, who chases him down to see what he’s up to. Bateman’s voicework done here is pivotal, and so spot-on.

So when she is made responsible for finding a missing otter, she enlists his help (blackmail, she threatens to expose his tax evasion) and uncovers a conspiracy that may compromise the civility that defined what animals of Zootopia had based their coexistence upon for years.

At a time in our lives when all we see when we turn the TV on is the face of Donald Trump or scathing political debates, Zootopia’s timely release provided a unique, underlying perspective on heroism, underdogs, and the generalization of demographics. While it doesn’t stuff it in our faces, it’s there, and it’s intelligent.

A few more notable things about Zootopia can be chalked up to its wonderful costume design, aesthetic CGI work, and its ability to capture this period of American culture. The mafia polar bears sport black coats with white shirts and black ties, our sly fox wears a Hawaiian shirt with a yellow tie, and Hops herself always has a cut police uniform. It’s crafty through and through. It also boasts exuberant CGI and brings the world of Zootopia, and all of the characters in it, to a sort of life we’ve never before seen. Lastly, the movie employs a relatable usage of technology that shows the screenwriters’ grasp on today’s culture―Hops uses her iPhone camera, everybody’s using a face-swap app, Hops “FaceTime”’s her parents back home.

Zootopia is almost perfect except for that it stumbles along the way. It gets needlessly strange in its final moments, yet it manages to recollect itself and celebrate at the finish line. With a million different hilarious, reference-worthy scenes―sloths working at the DMV, confronting a childhood bully years later, parents casually telling Hops that she’ll never accomplish her dreams, small rodents imitating Don Corleone―Zootopia has all of the vision, voicework, meaning, and entertainment value of Inside Out. What it doesn’t have is the potency and the sentimentality of it.

Nonetheless, of course, it is a marvelous film and I certainly expect it to be one of the best animated movies of the year.

Written by Cole Pollyea

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Perfect Match 2016 * * Stars

The Perfect MatchDirector: Billie Woodruff
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Terrence J, Cassie Ventura, Donald Faison

Terrence J is the best reason to see this otherwise, clunky romantic comedy whose title doesn't justify a means to an end. The Perfect Match (my latest review) has him playing Charlie. Charlie is an agent, a freelance photog, and a guy who is not into relationships. When it comes to sex, he eventually loses interest in every female he hooks up with. After Charles meets Eva (played by Cassie Ventura), things change. He starts to have genuine feelings for her (because the film's plot mechanics require us to believe so). She might be using him for a little ohh la la or she might be engaged to another man. Either way you look at it, the womanizer gets the tables turned on him, the player gets played. The Perfect Match huh. The "perfect" foil sounds more like it.

Anyway, despite its lush LA setting and flamboyant soundtrack comprised of unknown, R&B singles, "Match" is all too familiar and virtually emotion-free. Like I said earlier, Terrence J is the only good thing going for it. He's got the looks, he's got the voice, and in my opinion, has the makings of a budding movie star. With almost no formal acting training (he started out as a radio DJ and I remember seeing him on Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami), I feel he could successfully headline his own flick. The Perfect Match sadly, is not the platform to do that.

This is 1992's Boomerang without a decent script. This is Think Like A Man without any interesting characters. This is a so-called romcom without any real, suggestive humor. There are some bad, out of place cameos (Robin Givens, French Montana, Brandy Norwood), some bad, out of place supporting performances (J. Lo's 28 year-old boyfriend playing a rapper agent who rides around on a hoverboard, really?), troupers that drink enough alcohol to promote either liver disease or cirrhosis (remember the dudes in About Last Night?), and the actual director (Billie Woodruff) using his own name as the heading of the film's fictional, fertility clinic (huh?). In terms of its cinematic look, well The Perfect Match is slick, upper classified, and untarnished. You could literally eat off the screen it's on but that doesn't make the proceedings any more effective.

All in all, it's obvious that "Match" was marketed weakly as it currently plays on under 1000 screens with practically no showings for critics. You can tell why. It's pretty but pretty disposable. Bottom line: There's another movie out there with the words "The" and "Perfect" attached to it. I suggest you see that one instead. Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, March 10, 2016

London Has Fallen 2016 * * Stars

London Has FallenDirector: Babak Najafi
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman

I believe Gerard Butler to be a good actor. I also believe that he makes bad choices in the roles he takes. Playing for Keeps, Movie 43, Gods of Egypt, Chasing Mavericks, Gamer. King Leonidas really needs to fire his agent (if he hasn't already). Gerard's latest is 2016's London Has Fallen (my newest write-up). It's an uber-sequel to the lousily excessive Olympus Has Fallen and only exists because that vehicle became a so-so to moderate hit. Whereas "Olympus" felt like the ultimate Die Hard rip-off, "London" feels like a remake of Invasion U.S.A. (1985). Whereas "Olympus" proclaimed Butler to be the poor man's Bruce Willis, "London" now has him conveying Chuck Norris. Bodies pile up, cardboard villains bite the territorial dust, London city landmarks are blown to smithereens, and countless rounds of ammunition are discharged. Oh look kids, there's Big Ben, and there's Parliament. Ha-ha.

Anyway, Olympus Has Fallen was directed by Antoine Fuqua. London Has Fallen passes the reins over to relative unknown, Babak Najafi. Najafi doesn't stray from Fuqua's previous vision. He keeps the proceedings fast and brainless, patchy and dippy. "London's" action scenes like in "Olympus", consist of gunfights promoting the look of a video game (Call of Duty comes to mind). There's nothing visceral here, just mounds of bullets and bad guys groaning briefly before they parish. As for the special effects shots, well they sort of look fake and cartoonish. It's as if a helicopter flew over the calm city of London, England (to shoot dailies) and then the CGI artists came in to add some sham, death and destruction. That sort of buffoonery worked with the Transformer movies. Here, it's obvious and kind of laughable.

Containing many, unnecessary insert titles, harboring a screenplay that took four writers to complete, and owning a strong cast for such a silly actioner (Morgan Freeman, Jackie Earle Haley, Angela Basset, Melissa Leo), London Has Fallen never makes any mention towards its predecessor from 2013. You could walk into it thinking everything was its own movie. The story is as follows: Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is about to be a father. He and his wife Leah (played by Radha Mitchell) are expecting a child in two weeks. At the same time, Banning is contemplating resigning from his job via protecting President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). In the process of drafting his resignation letter, Mike finds out that a British Prime Minister has died prompting him to accompany said President to London for a state funeral. All the world leaders show up there too but for some reason, a terrorist organization wants to kill all of them (quickly) and then capture President Asher for means of a public execution (YouTube here it comes). With "London", I've never seen automatic weapons fired so quickly and so hastily in a feature film. Again, this harks back to my video game perception stated earlier.

Now as mentioned in the first paragraph, I don't think of Gerard Butler as being bad at acting. I do however, feel that registering as an action hero is not quite his forte. Despite plugging tons of bad guys and even dispatching them in the style of Michael Myers (same knife too), he lacks the wit of a 90's Bruce Willis, the accent and one-liners of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the overall coolness of one Liam Neeson. Yeah he looks manly but resorts to grimacing at the camera, subjugating an impractical one man army persona, and spouting plenty of F-bombs. You end up rooting for his character the way you would root for action monger Jason Statham (that can't be good). Bottom line: With a dilettante slickness and an evaporating running time (99 non-epic minutes), London Has Fallen isn't the worst action movie to date. It does though, register just above a rental. My rating: 2 stars.

Of note: There's a sequence in "London" where a chopper crashes after being shot down. In that chopper is President Asher (Eckhart), Secret Service director Lynn Jacobs (Angela Basset), Butler's Mike Banning, and I guess two pilots. Who do you think survives without any internal injuries and almost no bruising? That's right, the Prez and his protective badass in Banning. Oh Hollywood, you never disappoint.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, March 4, 2016

Eddie the Eagle 2016 * * * Stars

Eddie the EagleDirector: Dexter Fletcher
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken

Does anybody out there recall the 1988 Winter Olympics? I do. I was 13 going on 14. What I vaguely remember about those games was the fact that the United States had a lousy showing. The land I was born in finished below 9 other countries. In 88', there was also British ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards. He never won a medal, looked sort of funny, and became an affable media sensation. I remember watching highlights of his jumps but was never tuned in to his ultimate journey, his plight. With 2016's Eddie the Eagle (my latest review), I now have that affinity. It's only the month of March but "Eagle" stands as one of the best films I've seen this year. It's about good-hearted people having good things happen to them. Ah, you know there's nothing like warm, movie fuzzies when the temperature is 25 degrees outside. Natch.

So OK, have you ever had a dream? Have you ever felt the need to pursue a dream? And were you in the mindset of not giving up no matter what odds stood in the way of fulfilling that dream? If these thoughts and notions pertained to you, then Rudy was the film to see back in the early 90's. That was then and now Eddie the Eagle keeps the train rolling. "Eagle" is similar to that legendary, Notre Dame true story. The events feel almost identical in terms of underdog main characters, the ridicule they got from their peers and family members, their journey to notoriety, and the fact that they didn't quite have gifted, athletic ability. Rudy remains in my top five list of best sports movies. Eddie the Eagle isn't quite as invigorating but it's more intricate in plot specifics. With a few feel-good moments and two likable leads (Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton), it's recommendable enough for at least a spot in my top twenty.

Based on true events, featuring a soundtrack full of 80's synthesizer music (sounding like residue from ABC's Wide World of Sports), and giving us a neat cameo in the form of one Christopher Walken, "Eagle's" trailer had me initially feeling a Disney sports vibe. For some reason however, it rises above that distributor's brand of schmaltz and manipulative banter. The story chronicles the real-life (Michael) Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton from Kingsman: The Secret Service). You see from the time Eddie was a youngster, he always wanted to be an Olympian. It didn't matter what event. He put Olympic posters on his wall, practiced throwing the javelin in his backyard, and tried to do the high jump only to break many pairs of his glasses. At one point, his dad finally tells him, "Eddie, you're not an athlete!" As time goes on, Ed ditches the idea of being in the Summer Olympics and instead decides he wants to ski in the Winter Olympics. After being rejected by British Olympic officials for being unrefined, he ends up finding a way to be the only ski jumper on the British Olympic team. He learns how to fly high within a year (most people start practicing when they are 6 according to everyone in the flick). And with the help of a peevish, has-been Olympiad from the 70's (Bronson Peary played by Hugh Jackman), Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards (a nickname given to him by a newscaster) vows to compete in the 15th Olympics via the city of Calgary, Alberta.

Image result for eddie the eagle movie scenes
Now despite using the overplayed Hall & Oats song, "You Make My Dreams" during its training montages, "Eagle" is still a movie that anyone of any age could like. Director Dexter Fletcher surprised me by how well he filmed the ski jump sequences. Whether it was through the eyes of Edwards himself (going down an in-run) or having the camera stuck right up in his face (in the middle of said in-run), the technique is quite impressive. In terms of the acting, well up-and-comer Egerton and top billed Jackman have great chemistry together. They give dynamic performances as bumbled ski monger and alcoholic-soaked, jumping guru. I had my reservations at first but it turned out to be perfect casting. Bottom line: Eddie the Eagle might be a little too playful to qualify as say, an Oscar contender. However, for 106 fervent minutes, it mostly "soars" (ha-ha). Rating: 3 stars.

Of note: I got a kick out of the Jackman trouper. He smokes heavily, drinks from a flask because it keeps him warm (the dude doesn't wear a coat even though it's the middle of winter), works as maintenance guy and I guess, plows snow, and with ciggie in mouth, can still jump 90 metres in the dead of night. God bless ya mate!

Written by Jesse Burleson