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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Hell or High Water 2016 * * * Stars

Hell or High WaterDirector: David Mackenzie
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster

"Only as*holes drink Mr. Pibb". So states the trouper of Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), an ex-con who just got out of the joint. He's a trigger-happy wild man in 2016's Hell or High Water (my latest review).

Quote: "The ex-presidents rip off banks to finance their Endless Summer. Whoa!" Oops, wrong movie, wrong quote. "High Water" is about two brothers from Texas. They instead rob a series of banks that are trying to foreclose on their family ranch. You see their mom died leaving said ranch in debt due to a reverse mortgage. Time for these boys to saddle up, switch cars from village to village, steal regular amounts from the teller drawers, and pay off everything secretively.

Hell or High Water is familiar stuff. Heck, if you've seen Public Enemies, Bandits, Point Break, or even 1986's Wisdom, you know what you're getting into. Oh well. Director David Mackenzie (Spread, Starred Up) does an admirable job to boot. He creates a world in which "High Water" feels like the type of flick the Coen brothers would have made years ago. It's bullets and blood undercut with a little darkness, a little tongue in cheek humor, and shades of a modern-day Western. It has big name stars and another star in the canvasing cinematography by Giles Nuttgens. His camerawork showcasing the Great Plains, gives you the viewer something to stew over. The "Big Empty" becomes the "big zesty". The Lone Star State dons its ski masks, its cowboy hats, its desolate abodes, and its sizzling sirloins. Ha!

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Anyway, the two actors playing the Howard brothers are Chris Pine (Toby Howard) and Ben Foster (Tanner as mentioned earlier). The Texas Ranger in hot pursuit of them, is played by the veritable Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton). They all immerse themselves in these roles to the point where you forget that it's actually the same guys. "High Water" plays out like a cat and mouse game between everybody with almost no interaction via the gun-toting robbers and their prognostic, old timer cop. Foster and Bridges could easily play these characters in their sleep. Pine however, really comes into his own just like he did in January's The Finest Hours.

In conclusion, Hell or High Water is a nifty little genre piece, a film that feels almost too perfect for its own good. Its score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is at times haunting and the ending is a non-violent standoff with overly preachy dialogue. Also, the opening shot by Mackenzie is panned to perfection and the shootout scenes are loud and panting. With "High Water's" late August release and commonplace approach, I unfortunately have to give it a fifty/fifty chance at Academy Award consideration. "High Water" as a flick doesn't feel dated but it also doesn't quite meets its "Waterloo" either. Again it's a little too familiar but entertaining in a blithe sort of way. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, September 19, 2016

Snowden 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars

SnowdenDirector: Oliver Stone
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo

I had one thought going into Oliver Stone's latest film. The issue isn't whether Stone is being paranoid. The issue is whether he's being paranoid enough. Natch.

So OK, conspiracy, controversy, yesteryear, and a persecution complex to boot. That's the Stoney way. And with Snowden (my latest review), he gives us his best film since Any Given Sunday.

Image result for snowden 2016 movie scenesOverall, Snowden is heads and tails above Oliver's box office bomb Alexander, his weak sequel in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and his conventional World Trade Center from a decade ago. It feels like the flick he was born to make. Granted, I don't know why Snowden's initial release was delayed (it was suppose to come out Christmas Day circa 2015). As a film, it doesn't appear as though it needed any additional scenes or reshoots.

Virtually nonviolent, dialogue driven and containing crisp cinematography, Snowden can be classified rather as violence of the mind, an absorbing multilayered drama, a frills-free thriller. No one feels safe in this movie and you know what, no one should. Oh and I almost forgot, there's a sequence where a drone flies above troupers heads (at a party) and then crashes to the ground. Man those things give me the creeps.

Anyway, this is a return to form for the ripe, 70-year-old filmmaker. In truth, it might not be as flashy as some of his best work from the 1990's. Nevertheless, he brings some of his old tricks back to the table anyway. With Snowden, there is some indulgence with visuals in the form of freeze frames, archive footage, and even slight animation. Stone as expected, also gives us a script in Snowden that seems to wanna speculate on facts even though everything is supposedly based on a true story (this isn't necessarily a bad thing). Finally, Stone revels in casting well known actors/actresses that fade in and out of the proceedings. Snowden has brief appearances by Scott Eastwood, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, and Rhys Ifans. Again, this isn't a negative connotation towards Oliver Stone. It's just you know, predicted.

Resembling a neutered version of Stone's own masterful JFK and a shortened version of 2006's The Good Shepard, Snowden chronicles the main character of real-life, CIA whistleblower Edward Joseph Snowden (played brilliantly by consummate chameleon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Much of the film is told in flashbacks from 2004 to present day in 2013. Ed Snowden journeys from being a discharged Special Forces candidate to a "security specialist" to working for the Central Intelligence Agency to being a lead technologist at NASA. The movie also gives insight into Edward's long-standing relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

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Bottom line: Oliver Stone's work always seems to be overfilled with ideas. He's the mad dog filmmaker, the guy who conjectures, the guy whose storytelling sensibilities go a little off-kilter. Snowden is an example of this but like most of his best vehicles, it brims with energy, fire, and eerie secrecy. My nephew and movie critic colleague gave it four stars. I thought it dragged a bit at 138 minutes but still stuck with me long after the closing credits came up. My overall rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, September 16, 2016

Blair Witch 2016 * 1/2 Stars

Blair WitchDirector: Adam Wingard
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid

I remember it clearly. There I was, sitting in an air conditioned movie theater during the hot summer of 1999. The film was The Blair Witch Project, a grainy, disturbing little masterpiece made for I guess $60,000. It was the first of its kind, a found footage experiment, a real-time horror documentary if you will. After "Project" was over, I left staggered and shaken, raving positively about it to anyone who would listen. That was a long time ago. 17 years have passed and tons of found footage/hand-held camera movies have since made their way to the silver screen. I have a few things to say about that: These kinds of movies are now lame. These kinds of movies are now tired. These kinds of movies have ran their course. These kinds of movies are now irrelevant. These kinds of movies have run out of ideas. These kinds of movies have drones now! Huh? Yup, you heard me.

So OK, Blair Witch (my latest review) is the direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project. It is made for more money, it is indisputably made to be more modern, and it is more tech-savvy. No matter. 2016's "Witch" lacks the intensity, extremity, and psychological warfare that made 1999's "Project" such a worldwide financial success. It takes the worn out path, reveling in systematic jump scares that are drawn up out of thin air. Translation: "Witch" is sadly, half hitch.

Lacking in character development, overall buildup, and decent enough acting, Blair Witch comes at us with an almost rail thin premise and plot holes aplenty. An example of these plot holes would be a trouper getting a huge gash on her foot. The foot becomes infected. She gets sick. Then, she pulls a bone fragment out of said foot but we never know why or what the point of it all is.

Image result for blair witch 2016 movie scenesAnyway, the story goes like this: Remember Heather Donahue? Well she was the star of the original Blair Witch Project. She went missing and was pronounced dead after her and two friends ventured into the evil Burkittsville, Maryland woods all alone. Cut to present day and her brother (James Donahue played by James Allen McCune) is hellbent on finding Heather in the haunted house that she disappeared into (located somewhere in the Black Hills woods). Brother James ventures to Burkittsville twenty years later. He is accompanied by a female/male couple, an attractive film student making a docu, and two kooky local residents. And like every other horror film, these dummies venture where they are not wanted while ticking off the unholy spirits. Guess what (spoiler), they don't come back. How predictable.

Certainty and flimsiness aside, "Witch" has some of the most jittery camerawork I've ever seen from flicks of the hand held genre. It's like the cinematic equivalent of a seismic earthquake that you want to avoid watching. Oh and I almost forgot, everyone in "Witch" also has too many digital devices so it's hard to tell who's doing the filming or documenting. It's inconsistent editing especially during the times when they are randomly turned on and off.

All in all, Blair Witch gave me a thought after it was over. My thought was, why don't producers have the guts to tell their directors to stop making this swipe. If it's for profit, well we all gotta make a living so I guess you'll get a little sympathy from me. If it's for integrity, well you'll get nothing, absolutely nothing. Blair Witch is a bad, unnecessary sequel. Sadly, this witch casts a spell on itself. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sully 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars

SullyDirector: Clint Eastwood
Year: 2016
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney

Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood. What a winning combination. Hanks as usual, is Hanksian. Clint is of course, the Man With No Name. Together they give us the audience, a PG-13 version of 2012's Flight minus the notions of alcoholism and vapid drug use. Their film is titled Sully and excitedly, it is my latest review.

Sully starts out mid-plot, starts out as non-linear, and feels a little draggy (no pun intended). It then turns to aviation while switching into high gear. So far it is one of this year's best films, a harrowing technical achievement, a fascinating recreation of events in the weakest of our economic times.

Now unless you've been living in a cave for the last seven years, you'd know that Sully is based on a true story. Director Eastwood puts forth the behind the scenes stuff, the info you didn't get even though you might have watched all the news coverage back in January of 2009. So yeah, you probably know Sully's premise (a US Airways flight lands in the Hudson River), you probably know its outcome (155 passengers survive), and yes, you probably know the protagonist's fate (Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger is a hero, duh). It doesn't matter though. You're still riveted for much of the way.

Image result for sully movie scenesIn terms of overseeing the vision and being faithful to Sully's fact-based material, well Clint Eastwood looks more and more like an aging genius everyday. He shoots this flick with a sense of lewd craft, a sense of realism, and a numbing sense of profound proficiency. He puts you the moviegoer, right in the middle of "The Miracle on the Hudson" (and I mean literally in the middle of it). You wonder how he was able to re-imagine two plane landing sequences (from two different points of view) with such authenticity, such panache. It's powerful stuff whether you figure it out or not. Also in Sully, he effectively includes scenes of aircraft simulation that are part of Sullenberger's character's public hearing. Again he's adroit and seamlessly technological. He's that kind of filmmaker.

Add the veritable Tom Hanks as the essential everyman playing Chesley Sullenberger (Sullenberger is a more upper echelon everyman but still an everyman) and you have a total winner with Sully. Yup, I plan on seeing it again. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, September 5, 2016

Blood Father 2016 * * * Stars

Blood FatherDirector: Jean-Francois Richet
Year: 2016
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty

In Blood Father (my latest review), Mel Gibson is meaty and super intense. His character John Link, bites the ear off a nefarious bad guy. All I gotta say is welcome back mad Mel, we missed you ya crazy loon.

Anyway, Mr. Gibson despite having personal issues in the tabloids, remains one of my all-time favorite actors. No one says the f-word, loads a handgun, breaks a car window, or shoots a sawed-off quite like Australia's favorite son. All grizzled, bearded, and wrinkled up, he makes "Blood" feel sort of like his mild comeback vehicle.

This film, with its balls out opening sequence and plot device about criminal father/estranged daughter relationships, reminded me of the earlier released Term Life. It reminded of "Life" even more when I found out that Gibson will be directing Vince Vaughn in November's Hacksaw Ridge. The difference with "Blood" however, is that it has a more malicious edge to it. Mel spits, purges, rages, and eradicates. Vaughn kinda coasts by and sports a mop-top haircut. Nuff said.

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet who shot one of my favorite remakes in 2005's Assault on Precinct 13, Blood Father is a nasty thriller, full of bikers, bullets, tats, and torque. Richet gives the flick a saturated look and provides some jilted camerawork similar to what went down in "Assault". "Blood's" only weak point for me, might be its script which could've done the actors/actresses a little more justice. Its liberation about drug dealers, hit men, alcoholism, and violent betrayals seems at times, inconsistent. The dialogue spoken teeters between macho, preachy, and the way adults jibber jabber as if they were in TV sitcoms. The humor (or lack thereof) in Blood Father feels out of place too.

Image result for blood father movie scenesOh well, these are all minor oversights. The stride of "Blood" mostly comes off as fast and forthright. The shootout/standoff scenes are standard, calculated, and well filmed. The story which feels as though it takes place about fifteen years ago (there's the presence of payphones) is as follows: Mr. John Link (Gibson) is a recovering alcoholic, a tattoo artist living in California, and a probationary convict on the mend. His daughter Lydia (played by Erin Moriarty) has been a missing person since her teenage years. Lydia gets in trouble with the wrong crowd and accidentally shoots a gang member she's associated with (during a break-in and subsequent robbery). Running from the law and just about everyone else, Lydia finally contacts father John, finds solace in him, and the rest of "Blood" involves Link trying to protect her.

Watch for a final, bloody gunfight involving an exploding Harley-Davidson and the protagonists tied up in the back of Bronco. It gives you the viewer, a feeling that Mel hasn't lost his level of superior badassery just yet. In truth, this is his best action film since 2002's We Were Soldiers. Right now it's clocking in at $7.99 via On Demand so you gotta check it out.

Bottom line: At 88 muscular minutes, Blood Father hasn't made a killing at the box office (less than a million dollars so far) and won't boost Mel Gibson's career (I don't feel like he needs the help anyway). It is however, worthwhile B-movie viewing. To borrow from Internet-laden RhymeZone, "Blood" ain't no dud. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson