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Sunday, August 14, 2022

To Live and Die in L.A. 1985 * * * 1/2 Stars


"If you can't come up with the front money, you're not for real". Oh but 1985's To Live and Die in L.A. is for real, real authentic. That's how director William Friedkin wanted it. Just check out the counterfeiting scene in the film's first act. Nuff said. 

"L.A." is probably the first R-rated movie I ever went to see at the theater. It was the fiery red trailer that garnered interest. Ugh. As an 11-year-old that got my dad to accompany me, it was an awkward moment to say the least. Oh well. I've gone on to appreciate Friedkin's distant vision of detectives and malefactors in the City of Angels. To most people, Los Angeles is palm trees and sunshine and Hollywood. To William Friedkin, it's the dark end of the street, the seedy borough, the turista.  

Now is To Live and Die in L.A. a buddy cop movie? For sure. The flick is somewhat sandwiched between 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon. Is "L.A." a good buddy cop movie? Again for sure. Yeah the actors were unknown (at the time), yeah their characters were aloof, and yeah, To Live and Die in L.A. is anything but tongue in cheek. Still, "L.A." succeeds as a big studio pic with an independent feel. As I stated in the first paragraph, that's how Billy Friedkin wanted it. 

Friedkin directs To Live and Die in L.A. with a certain rawness and a dirtied up proficiency. According to the film's documentary, his stars (William Peterson, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe) didn't need to hit their marks and didn't need to memorize the script (improvisation was called for). Rapt. "L.A." is an action-packed, non-probity nightmare. It may evoke the 80s with its neon hues but the tone is bleak what with the cops playing dirty pool against the expert, ersatz slugs. 

Look for the greatest car chase ever filmed for its time (Pankow and Peterson's personas evading the bad guys by driving down a one-way street), some windup revelations, and Wang Chung's sick, 1980s soundtrack. To Live and Die in L.A. is well, "the place to be". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Art of Passion 2022 * * Stars


"Whatever you feel inside, let it come to life". Sounds like something van Gogh would say. Or wouldn't say.

Anyway 2022's The Art of Passion is pretty cut-and-dried. I'm serious. As something from the Lifetime TV network, I was surprised. There's no real mystery or intrigue (when there should have been). There's no big reveal or twist (when I thought there would be). "Passion" is one big red herring but what's the point? Said red herring never leads to squat.

Well at least The Art of Passion gets its title right. The film is in fact about art (there's an accomplished painter character involved) and passion (said painter and an ER doctor do the horizontal hokey pokey). The love scenes in "Passion" that are accompanied by out of place, techno drivel, are almost filler. I mean it's like the screenwriters ran out of stuff to pen and decided to just insert the softest of core porn. Heck, call the whole thing "fifty shades of meh".

The Art of Passion is about a doctor (Hope Williams played by Dakota Johnson lookalike Katie Reese) who gets terrorized by an abusive husband whose wife Hope is trying to protect. Meanwhile Hope is trying to get her groove back by getting busy with hunk James Sosa (played by Italian actor Victor Alfieri). The whole crux of "Passion" involves Hope running from said hubby (while losing her phone in the process) and doing the nasty with painter boy. It's all rinse, rinse, repeat stuff and then it ends without babble.

"Passion" has sterile production values, workaday editing, and the token, best friend persona who's always giving advice and can't stay out of everyone's beeswax. It's not an awful flick but did it have to be so anti-knife-edge and shamefully blase? It did. Lifetime seems to have gone on holiday here. Not enough "amour fou".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, August 8, 2022

Shark Bait 2022 * * * Stars


2022's Shark Bait has a generic title. I mean anything a shark goes after is bait (duh). Look closer though. "Bait" tries really hard to freshen up the shark movie patheon. The shark in question is rarely seen in close-ups so yeah, why give another moviegoer a reason to put a label on this genre (fake marine fish with toothlike scales and dorsal fins).

Shark Bait is well, about a nasty great white. What else would they be thinking of? Said great white hunts a few drunk idiots who steal a couple of jet skis and venture out to sea. So OK, the characters in "Bait" are unlikable dolts who are cliches of any millennial stuck in peril. To "Bait's" credit though, we actually feel something for these people when they are being diced up. Maybe it's the pacing, maybe it's the jim-jams, maybe it's the nerves secreted. Somehow the whole thing works in a sort of B-movie conch.

Shot in Malta (near Sicily) and favoring itself as a more commercialized version of 2003's Open Water, Shark Bait is all too familiar but steadfast in its approach. "Bait's" director (James Nunn) elevates the material while making you forget that stuff like Apex Predators and 2020's Shark Season ever existed (that's a good thing). Whether he's hitting the audience with overhead shots, underwater shtick, bloodless kills, or various wipes, Nunn is the proverbial polisher of the turd that is the modern-day shark pic. It's like the guy who's the assistant to the assistant but doesn't mind the grunt work and wants to move up the veritable, cinematic food chain.

In retrospect, Shark Bait builds tension throughout and better recycles every piece of crud that came after 1975's Jaws (the GOAT of predatory thrillers as they say). If I'm up for a rental that's rawness doesn't scream hoary, I'll take this "bait" any time.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, August 5, 2022

Sons 2 the Grave 2022 * 1/2 Stars


A promising, cocky young basketball star headed for the pros, can't escape the gray areas of his downtrodden neighborhood. Who's he gonna play for in the NBA? We don't know. Why does he still associate with the stench of the hood? He point shaves I guess. Why does he still hang out at his digs via the wrong side of NYC's tracks? You tell me. Call all of it the gist of 2022's Sons 2 the Grave. As Danny Glover's Richard Murtaugh would say, "that's pretty thin".

Sons 2 the Grave feels like an unintentional Afterschool Special when it should be a hard-hitting drama. You can tell. "Grave's" helmer (Lynne Stoltz) handles the material with almost too much care, teetering on the edge of being dangerous but ultimately fluttering when it really counts. Lynne's direction is standard here and the atmospherics, well they should have been a little more unwashed. 

Sons 2 the Grave has Stoltz as writer, director, and producer. You can't really call "Grave" a vanity project because well, she is a full-blown rookie and had to cut some teeth. Lynne's film despite its mobbed up subject matter, is virtually anticlimatic and almost glossed over. You have to wonder what would have become of "Grave" had Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, or the reclusive Ernest Dickerson got a hold of the deets. 

Sons 2 the Grave stars Trevor Jackson, Maria Howell, and Brad James. Their performances aren't lousy but they come off as pigeonhole personas that you see in almost every crime drama. Ditto for the side characters as well. Probably on the dole, probably drifting, and probably high school idlers, they act a fool and make "Grave" a misguided attempt at telling an urban tale. Bottom line: If you plan on seeing Sons 2 the Grave, don't tell anyone (like I did). Just take it to the "grave". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Hunting Souls 2022 * * Stars


"This is not real, this is not real". Oh but it is. Things that go bump in the night are real to the poor mortals that have to deal with them.

Anyway if you've ever wanted to see a movie rivaling the first Paranormal Activity (sans the found footage and improvisation), then 2022's Hunting Souls is that movie. Yup, a demon or supernatural entity is going after someone (in this case a little girl). Added to that, the outside of the house in "Souls" looks different but the interior, well it's almost identical to the abode that Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat inhabited.

Now is Hunting Souls as good and as low budget-friendly as Paranormal Activity? Uh no, not by a long shot. "Souls" has a few taut moments but it's not really scary, probably because we've seen too much of this fodder in the past. I will say that you could almost play a drinking game every time you hear (or see) the words "you can't save her". Or not. You may be three sheets to the wind before the 97-minute running time of "Souls" subsides.

The director of "Souls" (Diego Silva Acevedo) is a full-feature rookie. He wants to creep you out but ultimately can't. I mean he inserts a few Hitchcockian moments (the actual evil spirit doesn't show up for a while) and his actors while unknown, are pretty much committed. Too bad his film veers almost into SNL parody territory, what with its cheap special effects, choppy editing, cringed comic relief, and weak costuming.

I mean let's look at that demon in question. It tries hard to be menacing but appears like a cut-rate version of the ones from The Descent or some 80s Amityville endeavor. Along with a typical surprise ending and some strained, horror psychobabble, Hunting Souls sadly doesn't do its job. It is a dog that can't quite (or won't) "hunt".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fastball 2016 * * * 1/2 Stars


The director of 2016's Fastball is NYC native Jonathan Hock. He's obviously a baseball fan (as am I). With Fastball, Hock is like a telling physics teacher, guiding you through the ins and outs of how a speedy pitch reaches a certain speed. His Fastball is educational and technical without putting you in the forty winks. Time to bring on that stinking cheese!

Fastball with ads, is a docu clocking in at 87 minutes (no puns I swear). Its editing is lightning quick with a clean pace that whizzes by (like I said, no puns). Some documentaries have a self-serving, pretentious vibe but not this one. Fastball features interviews from baseball player legends that are genuine. Their observations of dudes with nasty, high heat are Bible (and that means truth).

With Kevin Costner narrating (why not) and archive footage that is not normally seen (compared to the abundance a la NFL Films), Fastball is a pic that basically fawns about who threw the fastest MLB pitch ever. Vast talks arise in the form of Derek Jeter, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, and Bryce Harper. You just wish Pete Rose with his normally heightened insight, would be in the mix too.

Supposedly hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports (you have the blink of an eye to get it right). With Fastball, you get a clear intuition as to why. Hock is not the most focused of filmmakers but that doesn't mean you're not fascinated or pushed back by what's on screen. In no particular order, he shows you why pitchers like Goose Gossage, Walter Johnson, Aroldis Chapman, and Nolan Ryan were virtually impossible to hit off of. The heightened musical soundtrack in their critical moments just adds to the pain (a good pain at 90-plus MPH). Fastball is well, "ballin".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Invisible Lies 2021 * * Stars


2021's Invisible Lies is an experimental model. It may be streaming on Peacock but it probably belongs in some international film festival out in Iowa. Frank E. Jackson Jr (the director of "Lies") basically shoots the flick in three ways. We're talking 360 pivot shots, follow shots, and alternating close-ups (that are really close up). There's also a non-linear narrative but hey, don't be fooled by what you're actually seeing. 

Invisible Lies has Jackson Jr as writer, producer, helmer, and star. With almost no production values in the tank, "Lies" is probably not an ego trip for Frank but rather a way of cutting corners by him doing everything himself. Now did Jackson Jr act as the sound editor too? Maybe. If that's the case then he should have hired someone instead. The sound editing in Invisible Lies is something horrible to behold. I mean the characters are either talking too loud or their voices are being drowned out by the melodic soundtrack. There's just no consistency and even some bad background noise might've been picked up by the boom mics. 

Coming off as a sort of student film version of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, "Lies" is about an African-American lawyer who falls for a Caucasian woman despite his offhanded views of interracial relationships. Frank E. Jackson Jr plays lawyer Malcolm White Jr while Kristin Lauria plays Amber Lake, Malcolm's curious source of fondness. 

The acting in Invisible Lies isn't awful but it still has a little whiff of community theatre. Howbeit, some of the scenes actually crackle as long as the actors settle in and hit their marks. The biggest snag I had with "Lies" is that it's disjointed and blatantly unfinished despite its self-serving, non-sequential gimmick (mentioned in the first paragraph). Bottom line: I can't recommend Invisible Lies and its half-done tease of 71 minutes. If I did I'd be "lying" to myself.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Gasoline Alley 2022 * * 1/2 Stars


Sometimes the script is a little corny and sometimes the music doesn't always fit the cuts but make no bones about it, 2022's Gasoline Alley is at certain points, compelling. That's thanks to a disciplined performance by one Devon Sawa. Here's a working actor who knows he's been relegated to B-movies and non-theatrical releases till the end of time. What does Devon do? Well he trudges along, brooding and world-weary like a Philip Marlowe type (except that his persona Jimmy Jayne is a prime murder suspect and not a real PI). Sawa carries Gasoline Alley because well, he's in pretty much every frame. The other characters are tough-talking and sardonic but seem to fade in and out like wipes. 

That being said, let's talk about the tone of Gasoline Alley, a film that shows another dark corner of otherwise sunny LA. "Alley" is directed by Edward Drake, a guy who commits to every shot with most of his drawn-out scenes being rather underlit. I suppose that's the overall point. "Alley" is noir, so much so that the flick almost announces it as if it had personalized name tags. Gleaming and steamy with even a little twang, Gasoline Alley looks like something Paul Schrader would have done right after Hardcore. Heck, you could even compare "Alley" to 2005's Sin City minus the over-sensationalized violence and color processing.  

Now did I like Gasoline Alley with its plot about a tattoo artist being implicated in a triple murder? Sometimes yeah. I mean it got better as it went along with Sawa being the sort of snarling antihero with a rather large chip on his shoulder. And did I like the fact that Bruce Willis and Luke Wilson played good cop, bad cop detectives hot on the trail of Devon's Jimmy? Not really. Luke Wilson talked too much and tried to be cool while Willis didn't talk enough and only showed up in the film's final twist to give his character relevance (hint, hint). 

Gasoline Alley with its drinking and smoking and hardboiled ambiguity, is decent enough to stream. Even so, its surprisingly restrained manner and one-note-ness kept me from truly recommending it. The pic needed a little more "fuel" poured on its fire. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, July 23, 2022

The Cannonball Run 1981 * * * Stars


1981's The Cannonball Run is an opening "Greed decade" movie, a beer and pizza endeavor that was shown more times on HBO than The Simpsons was probably shown on FXX. As something about a bunch of drivers competing in an illegal race from Connecticut to California, "Cannonball" is fun, almost too much fun. It's simple. Just throw in a cluster of big name, Hollywood heavyweights and let them wink to the audience until their eyes dry up.

So yeah, I've seen The Cannonball Run maybe 100 times (mostly as a preteen). As I watched it in 2022, the film is anything but self-serious. The stars of "Cannonball" (and there are many of them) are living off the cinematic hog. They know they're not making an Oscar winner here but darn it if it's not a chance for guys like Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Peter Fonda, and Sammy Davis Jr to hang out and shoot the proverbial you know what. Heck, there are lots of action comedies where the audience doesn't have as much merrymaking as the actors but The Cannonball Run isn't one of them (thank the almighty for that).

"Cannonball" is directed by the late Hal Needham. He intersects madcap arcs but the plot is kinda nil. Watching the flick, you realize that Needham was a stuntman first and a director second. No matter. It feels in the early 80s that Hal created a whole new genre annexed, what with all the free-falling car gags, improvised dialogue, pioneering outtakes, and goofy, devil-may-care personifications.

The Cannonball Run was probably greenlit on pure star wattage. It gives the middle finger to the authorities as its characters take on cross-country road racing like it's an actual, titular thing. Unaffectedly, I found "Cannonball" amusing and boldly insouciant, the same way I found Needham's Stroker Ace and Hooper to be. Just grab the Blu-ray, pop open a sixer, and enjoy the jaunty madness that is The Cannonball Run. "Dun dun dunnn!!"

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Gold 2022 * * 1/2 Stars


2022's Gold is quite the departure for one Zac Efron. You'll see. As a drifter named Virgil in Australia's Outback, Efron gives a truly transformative performance. He's weathered, he breathes heavily, and he doesn't even look like well, Zac Efron. It's almost like the guy is channeling his inner Jared Leto.  

Gold is um, about gold. You know, that chemical element that's worth a lot of moolah. Efron's Virgil (or "man one") finds it in the middle of nowhere and must protect it until his buddy comes back with an excavator. We're talking a few days with Virgil trying to survive via almost no livable resources. 

Shot in the Land Down Under with eight distributors attached, Gold as a movie is a slow burn but not as slow as one might think. Director Anthony Hayes (normally an actor) gives Gold a bleached-out look with lucid tones and flattened wide shots. I suppose the flick is post-apocalyptic and "Mad Max"-ish but it could go the other way. Ultimately it kinda reminded me of 2002's Gerry but with a little more down and dirtiness. 

Now is Gold effectively atmospheric as a thriller? I mean it has to be with those white, sandy and salty hues. Does Gold have a point in its plotting of relentless hold out? I suppose the point would be greed and possibly nothing else. And is Gold the type of film that has you scratching your head at the end trying to figure out what all the fuss is about? I didn't want to believe it but yeah. 

Gold's main attribute is really its one-man show of abrabed acting by Zac Efron. He's one aloof bloke. After 97 minutes his character is so brittle-looking he could disintegrate with the poke of a stick (or "struck" with a stick if you are into puns and I am). Rolled out "gold". 

Written by Jesse Burleson