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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Too Late 2021 * 1/2 Stars


"Comedians aren't really people". That's harsh. Well the comedians featured in 2021's Too Late aren't really funny either (I could care less about 7-Eleven, shroom, and/or yoga jokes). The laughs you see from the denizens in the audience are well, crocodile laughs.

Anyway Too Late is cinema's "latest" attempt to combine the funny (and unfunny) with hidden horror. Too Late's title, well it refers to a comedy club somewhere in present day Los Angeles. The film at a running time of 80 minutes (with 2-minute ads) is about a Borat-ed club owner who is a monster and eats mostly males (WTF). The club owner's assistant as petite lackey, begrudgingly helps him find his next tasty meal (someone preferably with pills, bourbon, coke, and nicotine in their system).

Too Late is a little indie, and little camp, a little low budget, and almost qualifies as a short (see last paragraph). The actors featured (voice-enhanced Ron Lynch, Will Weldon, Jack De Sena) are unknown one-offs and they appear in the flick's alternate reality where humans just disappear without a moment's notice. 

If you're an aspiring comedian, then Too Late will amuse you and your small circle of only friends' friends (let's hope that's not the case). If you're not a comedy person (that would defiantly be me), then Too Late is like attending a bad night of prosaic vaudeville at Zanies. 

All in all, the gore in Too Late is low-key special effects (except in the concluding, chest-bursting frames) and the love story element is a sort of twisted Greek chorus. You anxiously wait to see how Too Late ends but by then it's um, "too late". The movie is an artsy, amateur entry at a dank film festival where the patrons call it meh and just head out the back door. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

My Top 10 Holiday Movies of All Time (2021 Reissue)

1. Scrooge 1951 * * * * Stars
    Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
    Rated G
    Cast: Alastair Sim, Jack Warner,
    Kathleen Harrison

The Alpha and Omega of holiday films with Alastair Sim fitting the role of grumpy miser Scrooge like a smooth Isotoner glove. This is the purest and most nostalgic entry of Dicken's classic tale that I can remember. This timeless story was remade countless times but never reached the emotional heights that director Brian Desmond Hurst's 1951 classic did.

2. Catch Me If You Can 2002 * * * * Stars
    Director: Steven Spielberg
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks

Not necessarily a movie made about Christmas but its key scenes take place during that yule tide holiday. Leonardo DiCaprio, as bank forger Frank Abagnale, is in top form. Spielberg's direction is perfect. Overall, this is compulsively watchable stuff.

3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
    1987 * * * 1/2 Stars
    Director: John Hughes
    Rated R
    Cast: John Candy, Steve Martin

Even though Thanksgiving has come and gone, it doesn't matter. This is still top notch holiday fare with two brilliant comedic actors giving the performances of their lives. Part dramedy, part road trip movie, and totally quotable, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles will make you laugh throughout. It will also leave you with a lump in your throat at the end.

4. Nothing Like the Holidays 2008 * * * Stars
    Director: Alfredo De Villa
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Debra Messing, Freddy Rodriguez,
    Jay Hernandez

Ever since 2009, I make it a habit to watch this film at least three to four times in the month of December. It was shot about 10 miles from where I live, and it's a fine mixture of ensemble comedy and dramatic grievances involving a tight knit Puerto Rican family. They all get together for a bitingly cold Christmas break in Chicago's Humboldt park neighborhood. Very likable cast with every character having their own feasible back story. It's one of those flicks where if you live in Chicago, you say "oh yeah I've been there, I've driven down that street." Very authentic take on the Windy City locales.

5. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 1989
    * * * Stars
    Director: Jeremiah Chechik
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo

Chevy Chase as bumbling family man Clark W. Griswold, gave his last credible performance in National Lampoon's take on nutty holiday cheer. A lot of gags are taken to the extreme and the scene where he puts Christmas lights on every single inch of his house, is something only his character would ever think of doing. Revolting cousin Eddie (Randy Quiad) shows up halfway in to add to the silliness. All and all, a sloppily made comedy that I initially thought had worn out its welcome. With every subsequent viewing, I changed my mind. A classic!

6. Scrooged 1988 * * * Stars
    Director: Richard Donner
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen

Highly dark and satirical take on Charles Dicken's legendary tale. This time it's set in the 1980's with funnyman Bill Murray giving a quintessential "Bill Murray" type performance. Funny, cynical, with great one liners. Certain scenes however, might be too intense for younger viewers to take. Overall, if you like Murray's smarmy style of delivering dialogue, Scrooged will not disappoint.

7. A Christmas Story 1983 * * * Stars
    Director: Bob Clark
    Rated PG
    Cast: Peter Billingsly, Darren McGavin,
    Melinda Dillon

This is a silly, little comedy that turned into a Christmas cult classic. Peter Billingsly plays Ralphie, a impressionable young boy who only wants a BB gun for his under-the-tree present. A Christmas Story is told from his point of view. With memorable lines and some quirky characters, it's an addictive film you can watch relentlessly. Case in point: on TBS, this thing is shown 24 hours a day on the 24th and 25th of December.

8. A Christmas Carol 1938 * * * Stars
    Director: Edwin L. Marin
    Rating: Passed
    Cast: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart

Came before the Alastair Sim version but for some reason, is not as credible in terms of acting, directing, and conviction of the story. Still, it's entertaining enough in a lightweight sort of way. There is actually a color version of this film that is sometimes shown on network television. Overall, good fluff but the ending is short and by the book. It's not as invigorating as 1951's  masterpiece.

9. Just the Way You Are 1984 * * * Stars
    Director: Edouard Molinaro
    Rated PG
    Cast: Kristy McNichol, Kaki Hunter

The main reason why I put this film on the list is that it just reminds me of Christmas in general. It doesn't really involve the holidays, but it was on cable in the 80's and I must have watched it with my parents about a million times. Yes, it involves snow and skiing (in the French Alps), but mainly it's a love story about a woman with a handicapped leg who goes overseas to hide it and find Mr. Right. Honestly, nothing much goes on in this thing. However, it now reminds me of a certain time and place (December of 1985) so I'll just throw it in.

Image result for prancer movie poster10. Prancer 1989 * * * Stars
      Director: John D. Hancock
      Rated G
      Cast: Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman

Prancer was filmed about 20 minutes from where I grew up. It's mildly entertaining and it's significant because every time I pass through Three Oaks, MI, I wonder how many of the townspeople own a DVD copy of it. Made over twenty years ago, the small Midwest town just mentioned, hasn't changed a bit. And even if you know that Santa Claus is a hoax, you'll still go along with this fable about a young girl's fascination with a wounded reindeer.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


Ghostbusters: Afterlife has five kid actors carrying on the storied, Ghostbusters legacy. They do a solid job exhibiting spunky fortitude, coming-of-age slant, and some whimsy, Spielbergian moments. It also doesn't hurt to have the original specter fighters show up in the end (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and um, Harold Ramis). 

"Afterlife" is a re-bunked sequel done with perspicacity. Gone is the thought of that unnecessary mishap that Melissa McCarthy gave us in 2016. Gone is the staunch overuse of slime a la 1989's Ghostbusters II. Added is a sense of nostalgia and a smack of fuzzy recollection. If you saw Ghostbusters in the theater circa 37 years ago (and I did), "Afterlife" will take you back. Rob Simonsen's almost identical film score to Elmer Bernstein's stuff from '84 just adds to it all. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife changes its setting to small town Oklahoma. Don't worry. It still feels like a Ghostbusters film and at the same time, "Afterlife" is pretty much its own entity. The visual effects are indeed solid and that's saying a lot with a now small budget of $75 million. And oh yeah, there's a couple of car chases too. They're whiz-bang, brisk, and well, on a swivel. Heck, it's good seeing the Ecto-1 being flexed into high gear. 

As a Super 8ish follow-up that's directed by Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan Reitman), Ghostbusters: Afterlife supplies tongue-in-cheek humor to smooth over the spooky just like in the original Ghostbusters (I didn't think that was possible here). 

As for "Afterlife's" strongest asset, well it's its first half which has some beautiful build-up. The last act consisting of Gozer, the Gatekeeper, and the Keymaster sort of copies '84's version scene for scene. Whatev. "Afterlife" is still a sound and solid, family film. Bustin' feels good once again.   

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 27, 2021

King Richard 2021 * * * Stars


2021's King Richard refers to Richard Williams. He's the pseudo architect behind the success of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is not always about Mr. Williams though. It's about Venus too. Serena? Well she takes a back seat even though she's now regarded as the greatest female to ever swing a racket (something Richard declared circa 1994).  

King Richard is probably the greatest tennis movie ever. That's not saying a whole lot because I've only seen five of them and three have been bad (Jocks, Players, Wimbledon). King Richard is also light on its feet (no pun intended), has a pep in its step, and is full of jovial energy. The film could be a little more compelling however. I mean it doesn't reach those kinds of heights except in the first act (trying to practice some down-the-line shots in a seedy area of Compton, CA).

King Richard from a technical advisor standpoint, is pretty darn good. The tennis matches are well shot and you don't get that overwhelming feeling of CGI (remember Paul Bettany's Peter Colt trying to flex his forehand on those grass courts?). King Richard also blew me away with the casting of Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams. Sidney's backhand looks pretty much identical to the one the actual Venus used to rip winners crosscourt. If you don't believe me just check the almighty YouTube. 

As a true story drama that would be worthwhile viewing for any aspiring tennis prod, King Richard feels somewhat unfinished even at 145 minutes. It doesn't really have a beginning and it ends about 3-4 years before the Williams sisters were ready to rule the tennis world. King Richard also suffers a little from being technically trite (I'm referring to the professional advice of the tennis teacher personas in the movie). Still, I can't help but recommend it. 

King Richard has great performances from three actors in Jon Bernthal (he plays tennis guru Rick Macci), Aunjanue Ellis (she plays Richard's wife Oracene), and Will Smith (he plays of course, Richard Williams). Smith is the standout here and deserves to be recognized by the Academy. He completely disappears into character just like he did in 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness. Heck, back then the Fresh Prince never stood a chance. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Apex 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"I'm bacon and eggs on Sunday morning." Those are the words of the Bruce Willis character, Thomas Malone. Somewhere a screenwriter is saying with glee, "yeah I nailed that one". 

Anyway 2021's Apex is an action thriller set in the future. The holograms and daylight-ed Blade Runner vibe gave it away. Apex is also an action thriller a la natural androcide. The main lead uses his wits and smarts to just let every man (or woman) kill each other off. 

So is Apex better than most of the crap Bruce Willis has been churning out for the past 8-9 years? Surprisingly yes. And is Apex decent despite Willis still not being able to act effectively anymore? Again surprisingly yes. 

Apex for all intensive purposes, is something else. It's the ultimate testosterone-filled, Mexican standoff. The cast (minus AARP-hinged Willis) is actually pretty good. Their mano a mano stature is highlighted by the lucid, antagonistic performance of actor Neil McDonough. He's cold, white as clear, and well, not crazy (so he says). 

Apex's ending is probably the only real lowlight of the film. You wonder how the Willis persona escapes an exploding house (I guess he was a hologram too). You also wonder how Bruce's Malone evades a bunch of savages wearing a red jacket in a forest (I mean seriously, WTF). 

Directed by Edward Drake (Cosmic Sin, Broil) and equally dialogue-driven as it is nastily violent, Apex is akin to stuff like 1994's Surviving the Game and The Hunt. I dug the banter between the marksmen who are basically screw loose and despise each other. I also dug the musical score by Hugh Wielenga that's equal parts techno, fermented, and well, creepy. 

Apex is about five, rich snobbish hunters who pay to hunt down a former cop who doesn't know how to die (Bruce Willis in monosyllabic mode). Willis doesn't do much but his stunt double sure does (shocker). Apex by definition, means high point. Well Apex the movie is a "high point" considering what low expectations I had for it.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 19, 2021

Survive the Game 2021 * 1/2 Stars


"So much for no killing". Exactly. There's a lot of "killing" in 2021's Survive the Game. Some of it stings but in the end there's just too much of it (quantity over quality I guess). 

Now is Survive the Game a mess? Of course it is. There's plenty of fistfights where you can't see what's going on and editing of character actions where viewer POV is badly skewed. And is Survive the Game the type of shoot 'em up where the antagonists have to constantly explain themselves before doing any darn thing? Oh fo sho. 

Anyhow, "Game" has virtually no plot or no plot that is fully spelled out (look ma). And yup, co-star Bruce Willis is back in the saddle again, barely moving, collecting his million dollar paycheck, and begrudgingly getting out his lines (was there an earpiece involved? Maybe). Sure Willis spars a little with the bad guys but you know what, his stunt double probably did all the heavy lifting. You can tell.

Reminiscent of 2016's Standoff (another VOD endeavor) and directed by LA native James Cullen Bressack (Beyond the Law, Bethany), Survive the Game is about a drug mob who infiltrates a dude's farmhouse trying to leave no witnesses behind. "Game" is I suppose a pseudo Western or a mere parody of action thrillers. There's bad humor involved, a main black hat who looks like a 16-year-old, and plenty of slick cinematography that's drenched in its own slickness. 

And I might as well talk about the two car chases in "Game" since I'm on a roll. Bressack sets them up to some horrendous rap music, has them cut by monkeys, and basically shoots from just two slants. It's a bad couple of sequences and the low-angle patchiness is off the charts. Somewhere the great William Friedkin is laughing his arse off. And somewhere every critic is trying to "survive" what they just saw at 97 minutes (which feels like 2 hours). Natch.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Deep House 2021 * * * Stars


2021's The Deep House is my latest write-up. Dug this French-produced movie and the title, well it's pretty self-explanatory. 

So OK, let's not beat around the bush. The Deep House is a ghostly horror flick that will indeed give you the creeps. Its blueprint is a sadistic haunted house that lies meters down below a lake. Bona fide concept if I might say so myself. The lead actors are a little annoying at the beginning but you feel their suffering in the end. Yeah, for the majority of "House's" brief running time I was sent away with my knees knocking.

The Deep House is what you get when the films Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, and 1989's The Abyss adopt a child. It's gotta be tough filming anything underwater and directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo go into the project with reckless aplomb. I'm thinking some professional divers did the diving and troupers James Jagger and Camilla Rowe did the emotive voice dubbing. If that's the case then those are some darn good dubs. 

"House" builds a lot of collywobbles throughout until it bogs down a little bit by the third act. Don't worry, it's not a huge oversight. The Deep House is not jolt-happy mind you, just flat-out eerie. Maury and Bustillo are almost Hitchcockian in their approach. What you're waiting to see scares you as opposed to thrusting the horror and anguish at you right off the bat. The underwater mansion is the star and minus some occasional jittery camerawork, its callous images and hostel environment really suck you in. All that and the main characters have to worry about their level of oxygen, their level of normality, and well, the concept of the bends. Yeesh. 

If you wait till after the closing credits, The Deep House provides one brief scene that you can interpret any way you want. By then I already had my recommendation in place. Safe "house". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Birthday Cake 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


2021's The Birthday Cake is my latest write-up. The film's title refers to an actual cake that is taken to a memorial celebration. Said cake is also sort of metaphoric. I mean it's literally like an antagonistic co-star.

So OK, The Birthday Cake surprised me considering how much the other critics panned it. My question is how is this flick overlooked? Yeah it's mob-related and well, mob-licious. But it also plays out like a living nightmare, a sort of horror talkie if you will. 

"Cake" stars Shiloh Fernandez and he heads up a well-known cast of at least 5 people who appeared in Goodfellas (I'm not kidding). Fernandez is the anchor here and his screen presence is indeed bruising. It's like 1972's Michael Corleone appeared out of nowhere with well, a little facial hair. 

Speaking of Goodfellas and Mean Streets and um, Uncut Gems, The Birthday Cake is like a compact version of all three of them. Rookie director Jimmy Giannopoulos (I'll just call him Jimmy G) gets his camera right up in the actor's grills. His pace is frantic and claustrophobic as it feels like everyone is filmed in a freaking tin can. 

Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, Lorraine Bracco, and Luis Guzman are just a handful of side characters in Jimmy G's cowed, blistering vision. They're mere sycophants in the film's 93-minute running time but you like seeing them on screen anyway. Heck, it's good catching up with Kilmer considering what the dude has gone through. Val plays a mafia boss who I guess got shot in the throat and can't talk properly. In real life Kilmer suffered through throat cancer and uses a tracheotomy to get the words out. Man that's some mindful casting. 

All in all, "Cake's" only criticism from me is that the film is rather short with so many familiar faces fading in and out. I mean Shiloh's Gio is the only one that registers from a full, narrative standpoint. Oh well. Any snapshot of beastly thug life caught on camera is better than no snapshot at all. The Birthday Cake is the type of violent crime drama that gets under your skin and seeps into your bloodstream. For a little over an hour and a half, I had my "cake" and ate it too. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Antlers 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"All this has got to be an animal, right?" Sure buddy. Whatever you say.

Anyway 2021's Antlers is well, another creature feature. Its creature is a manimal which by definition, is a life form that's part human and part beast. It's like an ordinary dude turned into the alien from Alien, or a male Zelda Goldman, or the world's ugliest reindeer. Was I scared? Sort of. I mean there were those few jolts that made my heart skip.

Antlers is R-rated. It's R-rated in the same way that any horror flick is R-rated. Basically it's gory, ghastly, and gross. Scott Cooper directs and yup, he gets back to the grimy and grubby. What downtrodden Pennsylvania is to Out of the Furnace, Oregon is to Antlers. The ground is damp, the fog settles in, and characters make bad decisions right before they got offed by sharply branched horns.

Taking place in a small town via The Beaver State and filmed three years ago (COVID-19 had a lot to do with that businass), Antlers shows that even little kids perish in supernatural horror fare. The movie is about a frazzled school teacher who tries to uncover the secret behind her sickly-looking student and his mutation-ed father.

Antlers runs 99 minutes, still builds like it's 120, and features a forlorn ending. The film is all about atmospherics and disquiet and less about knotty mystery (that's Scott Cooper for ya). The musical score by Javier Navarrete is tops and the performances are unassuming, wind-sucking, and raw (especially Keri Russell who plays weathered English teacher Julia Meadows).

Bottom line: If you eliminate Russell's presence, the music, and Cooper's ground down mood from Antlers, you'd probably have one of the lesser scary pics out there. But you have those attributes so I'll extend Antlers the proverbial olive "branch". Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Voyagers 2021 * * * Stars


Science fiction films tend to be more of the same and well, that's what I went into thinking when I was about to watch Voyagers. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised. 2021's Voyagers breaks the mold or at least it intends to. It's knife-edge, intense, and gets all it can out of its $29 million dollar budget. It's been thirty years but we can now actually call a flick Lord of the Sci-Flies

So yeah, Voyagers blurs the lines of its PG-13 rating. There's some bloody images and nubile themes that may be a little too much for your normal budding youth. Coming from the enthusiastic mind of director Neil Burger (Divergent, Limitless), Voyagers has a pristine look and can actually wow you on the big screen (sadly it might be too late for that). With cinematographer Enrique Chediak on board and game, Voyagers is 2001-ish with some serious, Steadicam bliss. 

Taking place in the year 2063 and containing adequate set designs that are futuristic enough, Voyagers is the space-age version of "inmates running the asylum" (or not running, just rebelling). It's about a group of teenagers sent on a spacecraft mission to colonize a planet because the living conditions on Earth just ain't cutting it. 

Voyagers at a sufficient running time of 108 minutes, is basically cut from original cloth unless you count the 1990 film mentioned earlier (see first paragraph). Edited cleanly, stealth in its violence, and cast almost perfectly (Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, and Colin Farrell are really good here), Voyagers only suffers from a pat and speedy ending that sort of wraps everything up in a nice neat bow. Whatev. It's about the journey here or should I say, the journey of 86 years from our planet. Voyagers revels in cinematic conflict as its characters let natural selection and vacuumed Darwinism weed itself out. Good peregrination. 

Written by Jesse Burleson