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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Traffik 2018 * * 1/2 Stars

TraffikDirector: Deon Taylor
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Paula Patton, Omar Epps, Roselyn Sanchez

Traffik is my latest write-up. As borderline, B movie mayhem and a relative form of trashy exploitation, Traffik starts off as a Straw Dogs/Deliverance tribute only to take a detour that's much more disturbing. I can't quite recommend it for it readily blurs the lines of bad taste. However, Traffik is effective enough that it might make you think twice about vacationing in Northern California.

Featuring a level of blatant vileness, not screened for critics, and starting off with some idle acting, Traffik hits us with a misleading trailer (it ain't about some cutesy couple on a tender, botched rendezvous). Traffik also has an interesting choice of closing credit dailies in which everything seems to be filmed upside down or inherently sideways.

Image result for traffik 2018 movie scenesTraffik chronicles journalist Brea who is played with frantic intensity by Paula Patton. Brea travels outside Sacramento with her boyfriend John (Omar Epps). They are on route to a romantic getaway, complete with a snazzy house in the mountains and an exotic pool to boot. When they collide with some biker ruffians who run a human trafficking ring, all hell breaks loose.

A twist here and there, some faceless characters, a winding car chase, multiple murders, and a police force that happens to be in on the villainous eventuality (spoiler). Traffik has all this as it ratchets up a relentless adage of anxiety and upsetting malaise.

Director Deon Taylor knows and protracts that he's basing his movie on true events. Unfortunately, he doesn't honor them in a deft manner. Deon would rather sensationalize Traffik with gore, race-related mantras, and visible, grindhouse overtones. He gives you a reason to think Traffik came out at the wrong time and he gives you another reason to think Traffik probably shouldn't have been made in the first place. Give me Jonathan Mostow, Florent Emilio Siri, or John Dahl at the helm and I might've upped my rating (we're talking a higher level of thriller sophistication with these veteran filmmakers).

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In conclusion, Traffik while giving off that coarse Saw vibe, did effect my shamefaced psyche and kept me on the edge of my seat for the last hour. It's messy, smash-mouth "congestion" so I'll go with 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Molly's Game 2017 * * * Stars

Molly's GameDirector: Aaron Sorkin
Year: 2017
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner

In Molly's Game (my latest review), we get a film based on a book and a true story. We also get a portrayal of a semi-protagonist who's in way over her head. Finally, we get the biggest amount of wayward chit-chat ever put on celluloid. Yup, this is Aaron Sorkin's sphere and we're just passing through it.

Sorkin penned "Game's" screenplay so you know the actors words will be juicy and expository to the nth degree. You also know that Sorkin's work will have hints of cynicism and cruelness. Finally, you know that Aaron Sorkin will be making yet another cameo appearance. With "Game", he plays an underground poker player that's just hanging out.

Anyway, Molly's Game has a similar arc to The Social Network (which is also written by Sorkin). And although "Game" isn't quite as invigorating, weighty, or compelling as "Network", it's still worth recommending.

Image result for molly's game movie scenesEdited tightly (even at 140 minutes), completely dialogue-driven, and containing ferocious performances from the likes of Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Molly's Game is about a former skier turned illegal Hollywood poker game runner.

"Game" dodges between flashbacks and present day scenes involving Molly Bloom (Chastain) and her quest to avoid jail time. In the vein of card shark tactics, buy-ins, rakes, and Russian mafia inquests, you can safely call Molly's Game 1998's Rounders on steroids (ha-ha).

In total veracity, I dug the intelligence and sophistication of a flick like "Game". This is Aaron Sorkin's first foray behind the camera and yes, he can direct as well as write. Sorkin shoots Molly's Game with a fast cutting style, a slow-motion know-how, and a rags to riches to rags residue. It's as if he were Martin Scorsese's unequivocal proxy. Firstly, Sorkin's a steamrolling director, sledgehammering character study interludes while filling the screen with countless details (his script feels like it's 5000 words long).

Image result for molly's game movie scenesNow despite not fully hitting its stride thematically and climatically, "Game" is nevertheless Aaron Sorkin in his highest comfort zone. This is him getting free rein to do whatever he wants. Basically this is Sorkin pushing the talky envelope. Sure his Molly's Game is overlong, over-explanatory, and narrative-binged (Chastain is like Ray Liotta talking twice as much as he did in Goodfellas). Regardless, this motion picture feels worldly-wised and more cultivated than your average, dumbed-down blockbuster. "Game" while no "royal flush", still checks in as the thinking person's moonlight drama. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Borg vs McEnroe 2017 * * * Stars

Borg vs McEnroeDirector: Janus Metz Pedersen
Year: 2017
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Shia LeBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgard

In Borg vs McEnroe (my latest review), Shia LeBeouf's John McEnroe utters, "you cannot be serious" and "you guys are the absolute pits of the world". This actually happened a year later, not during the 1980 Wimbledon semifinal (which is briefly depicted in "vs"). Oh well. We all get a kick out of seeing John McEnroe throw a tantrum on the tennis court. The filmmakers I suppose, added his famous outburst in just for effect.

Anyway, "vs" is slow-moving yet intricate. It also lacks excitement but feels saddened and absorbing. Borg vs McEnroe is equal to 2017's Battle of the Sexes, better than 2004's cutesy Wimbledon, and less syrupy than 1979's Players. If I had to rank it in the small throng of tennis movies, it would be near the top.

Based on a true story, predictable if you know tennis, and relatively accurate in terms of baseline recreation, "vs" chronicles the events leading up to John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg's famous clash at the 1980 Wimbledon final. Borg and McEnroe met 14 times in their careers with a record of 7-7 between the two of them. Borg vs McEnroe the movie pushes all that aside to handily focus on said final. Torrid behind the scenes stuff, wooden rackets, public cigarette smoking, headbands, mulled grass courts, and bad sportsmanship. It's all there vividly in "vs".

Image result for borg vs mcenroe movie scenesIn truth, "vs" is a decent flick. Janus Metz Pedersen's direction is solid as he creates something that is R-rated and at times, pressure cooked. He does well with various flashbacks and numerous overhead shots of the sweaty tennis action. The way he uses camera angles to film groundstrokes and volleys is like nothing I've ever seen before.

Pedersen's "vs" is also a master thesis in the character development of one Bjorn Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason who looks like Borg and gets his mannerisms just right). As for the McEnroe persona channeled by Shia LeBeouf, well it's not fully drawn-out and for good reason. LeBeof gives a decent performance but doesn't look like John McEnroe, strut like John McEnroe, or completely act like John McEnroe (too many obvious F-bombs and no East Coast accent). The producers probably knew this and didn't want to fluctuate and/or elaborate on Johnny Mac's hard-ass back-story.

Image result for borg vs mcenroe movie scenesAll in all, it's hard to make a compelling film when you know the outcome. Also, Borg vs McEnroe's pace is somewhat glacial with some muted scenes feeling like pseudo PowerPoint presentations. Still, "vs" is edited well (check out Borg's superstitions/rituals with his Donnay sticks and his overall body routine) and has an effectively saturated look. As independent fodder made carefully with a little skill and craft, Borg vs McEnroe secures "match point" and gets my harnessed recommendation. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Isle of Dogs 2018 * * * Stars

Isle of DogsDirector: Wes Anderson
Year: 2018
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray

Isle of Dogs (my latest review) is the best form of animation. Stop-motion animation that is. As a film about a young boy searching for his dog (via an island where illness outbreak pups are banished to), "Isle" is a technical triumph. It has director Wes Anderson using his required trademarks to make eye-popping grandeur a complete understatement. This is Anderson's ode to fictional Japan, his form of made-up dystopia that he was born to put out.

Image result for isle of dogs movie scenesIn Isle of Dogs, Wes gives us a rinse, repeat cycle of wide-angle clips, close-ups, various title cards, random flashbacks, and whip pans. Sure his narrative is a little choppy, his storytelling way overzealous, and his plot points too aplenty for a flick rounding out to 101 minutes. Still, "Isle" is a midnight stoner's dream, a feast of lushly framed scenes so detailed and itemized that you can't help but demand a second viewing.

For instance, check out a sequence where an animated chef is making sushi with a poisonous wasabi. Also, check out a depiction of a garbage bag filled with dumpster diving food. Finally, look for a sequence where a doctor persona is performing a blow-by-blow kidney transplant. Anderson is wise here to give us his signature camera shots from up above. It wouldn't work any other way.

Image result for isle of dogs movie scenesAll in all, the characters in Isle of Dogs are voiced by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, and Liev Schreiber. Schreiber and Cranston handle the majority of the dialogue while everyone else sort of fades in and out. In truth, my favorite Wes Anderson film of all time has always been Rushmore. "Isle", with its beautified dirtiness, its form of deafening taiko drumming, its tongue-in-cheek squeak, and its V for Vendetta banality, comes in at a close second. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Quiet Place 2018 * * * Stars

A Quiet PlaceDirector: John Krasinski
Year: 2018
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe

Actors giving seething performances with the bare minimum of dialogue. A lacquered, low budget setting with cornfields and contemporary homes that looks like rural Pennsylvania (I could be wrong). Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" being played on headphones via iTunes (cool). Mortifying creatures with cartoon chompers who are nimble and really snap to it. It's all here in A Quiet Place, my latest review.

Image result for a quiet place movie scenes"Place" is post-apocalyptic, refreshing silent film eclectic, Quiet Earth resonant, and atmospheric. Hitchcock would wince for it's a less gory version of The Descent coupled with a less humorous version of 1990's Tremors coupled with a less religious version of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs.

The pic tells the story of a family who must use sign language to avoid being killed by blind, extraterrestrial varmints who prey by way of audible sounds. Said family could've used rifles for self defense. However, they don't seem to figure that out till "Place's" ninety-minute running time has eclipsed one hour (spoiler).

Anyway, you remove the whole rifle aspect and A Quiet Place is disturbing, depressing, and readily effective even if it's almost unbearable to watch. John Krasinski is behind the camera and also stars alongside his real-life spouse (Emily Blunt).

In truth, I've never known Krasinski to be a horror flick helmer and I never knew he was a filmmaker in general. Nevertheless, his art-house direction is pinpoint, rachet-minded, and calculated. He builds a sense of dread and morbid torment right from "Place's" startling, opening scene.

Image result for a quiet place movie scenesYeah John's premise doesn't always wring true. Sometimes the spider-like creatures show up when there's no sound, sometimes they hold back when there is sound (huh?), and sometimes they're not as quick when trying to off certain protagonists (a pregnant woman for example). Still, A Quiet Place is worth "visiting" for its fingernail biting statue, its way of keeping you in its character's shoes as you exit the theater, and its mark of unsettling constitution. See it if you want your blood to curdle. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Unsane 2018 * * * 1/2 Stars

UnsaneDirector: Steven Soderbergh
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

When I think of maverick directors, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Steven Soderbergh always come to mind. 2018's Unsane (my latest review) has Soderbergh shooting his entire film with an iPhone 7 Plus. That's right, an iPhone. Some would call this careless but Stevie boy never misses a beat. The dude can pretty much do anything for he is a total guerrilla.

Now I read somewhere that Soderbergh had retired as a filmmaker. Yeah whatever. He just couldn't stay away could he. His Unsane is a motion picture that will keep you enthralled and sock in the throat at the same time.

Unsane is a trademark or better yet a benchmark of all things Steven Soderbergh (minus any sighting of Channing Tatum). It's occasionally flashy yet somber. It's effective without harboring a huge budget. Its got a look that is equal parts dark, hazy, and fading. Its got a mild-mannered Matt Damon (in a cameo no less). Finally, it has one of those striking soundtrack scores courtesy of Thomas Newman.

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Unsane while released under the radar, is an excellent side companion to Soderbergh's 2013 masterpiece, Side Effects (another foray into female psychiatric illness). Note to Steven: Please don't think about retiring again. You're a revolutionary and a cinematic badass.

Anyway, Unsane is about a thirty-something woman who involuntarily checks herself into a mental institution. She gets tricked I suppose or straight-up bamboozled. To make matters worse, she has a supposed stalker from two years ago who works at the same darn institution. There's more to the story so I'm not gonna give it away. All I'm gonna say is that Unsane starts out as an incensed drama only to turn into an upsetting and interminable thriller.

Image result for unsane movie scenesSteven Soderbergh goes for broke as he makes his audience have feelings of nil hope, misunderstood rage, and gnawing chimera. His Unsane is a violent incubus, directed with numerous close-ups, low camera angles, and featuring powerful performances by its leads (Joshua Leonard and Claire Foy). Soderbergh, relegated to small scale trim while pushing the independent envelope, doesn't want you to awaken from his sprawling nightmare on screen. He has fashioned one of the best films of this year. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One 2018 * * * Stars

Ready Player OneDirector: Steven Spielberg
Year: 2018
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn

Ready Player One is my latest review. It has director Steven Spielberg channeling his inner Blade Runner, his inner dystopia suture, and his inner young adult. For instance, check out his lead actor (21-year-old Tye Sheridan). Tye kinda looks like Spielberg did back in the early to mid 1970's. Trippy.

Anyway, "Player" is Steven's take on virtual reality in slumming Columbus, Ohio (circa 2045). Although overwrought, over-plotting, and overlong at 140 minutes, Ready Player One still comes off as one of the best technical achievements of this year or any other year. Oh and by the way, Jobe Smith, aka "the lawnmower man" called. He wants his new and improved simulation headset back, stat!

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Now Steven Spielberg's career in movies has spanned to almost 50 years. He has made bad films (Hook, The Post), boring films (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies), and stupendous masterpieces (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark). "Player" while totally recommendable, gives you your money's worth yet falls somewhere in the middle.

In truth but not drowned disappointment, "Player" is not as invigorating, emotionally engaging, or majestic as Steve-O's finest work. Still, Ready Player One has an eye-popping look that's one for the ages. "Player" is a candy-coated fever dream, chocked full of pop culture references, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments, 80's relics (Atari), 70's and 80's tunes, and elaborate movie references (you won't believe what Spielberg does to reenact Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining). Seeing this flick once is not enough for every scene has blotches of special effect nooks and crannies. Heck, once the DVD comes out, you'll be hitting the scan button like a mother.

Image result for ready player one 2018 movie scenesIn conclusion, I mentioned earlier that Steven Spielberg has been directing for five decades. I'm not lying when I say that this is unlike anything he's ever done. To my dismay, I thought no A-list filmmaker could reinvent the science fiction wheel with cojones the size of Texas. Guess what, Stevie came in and proved me wrong. Bottom line: Ready Player One gets a three star rating from me. With its lushness, its forced razzle dazzle, and its yearning to be unabashedly avant-garde, I might be "ready" to see it again.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, March 26, 2018

Open Water 3: Cage Dive 2017 * 1/2 Stars

Open Water 3: Cage DiveDirector: Gerald Rascionato
Year: 2017
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Joel Hogan, Josh Potthoff, Megan Peta Hill

Open Water 3: Cage Dive is my latest write-up. With its unmoved thrills kicking in after the fifty-minute-mark, "Cage Dive" contains incoherent/jittery found footage, an incorrigibly boring first half, some implausible coincidences, and some various Blair Witch Project overtones.

In all honesty, I got very perturbed watching "Cage Dive". I mean why does some Gen X in peril have to chronicle everything via a hand-held camera? There were times when I couldn't tell what the heck was going on with this worn out exercise in seizure cinema.

Anyway, the plot of Open Water 3: Cage Dive involves three Californians who venture to Australia to partake in a shark cage dive. When their boat is capsized by a random wave (in calm waters which makes no sense), they find themselves abandoned in the middle of the ocean. They bicker, lose their heads, and are left as procrastinating fish food for some hungry great whites.

Image result for open water 3 cage dive movie scenesBasically, "Cage Dive" has the same blueprint as the original Open Water film from 2003. The only difference is the occurrence of said wave, which looks and feels like the special effects department didn't want to take the effort to enhance or elaborate its destruction. The acting in Open Water 3: Cage Dive is decent and its closing shot is a little disturbing. However, "Cage Dive" fails to garner the gravity of tension and numbing fear demonstrated by its previous sequels (Open Water and Open Water 2: Adrift). 

In retrospect, Open Water 3: Cage Dive feels like the boring stepchild to the more harrowing, 47 Meters Down (released in 2017 as well). It's obviously low budget, it's patronizing in its audience perception, and it comes off as tired in its forgone genesis. You don't root for its characters and you constantly wonder why the sharks haven't eaten them right off the bat. Oh yeah, if they're dead early on then there'd be nothing to fill "Cage Dive's" poky running time of eighty minutes.

Image result for open water 3 cage dive movie scenesBottom line: Despite Open Water 3: Cage Dive being the only crappy installment in the Open Water series, the future of this franchise stills needs to be "closed" at this point. I mean what's next, getting stranded in the Dead Sea without perspicacity or the ability to float? Total nonsense. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Annihilation 2018 * * Stars

AnnihilationDirector: Alex Garland
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez

With some serious sci-fi mumbo jumbo, a look of sterile beauty, a good use of multidimensional space, and moments that are not for the squeamish, I give you 2018's Annihilation (my latest review). In truth, I think Annihilation is a lot of things as a movie. Sadly, entertaining is not one of them.

Annihilation's story involves four scientists and one paramedic. With machine guns, foot soldier gear, and flawed dispositions in tote, these five women venture into an area called "the shimmer" (if you've seen a Coldplay music video you'll know what I'm talking about). In "the shimmer", they eventually lose their memory, their sense of time, and they encounter nasty mutations of various animals.

Annihilation, which seems to ask more questions than an audience member can answer, feels preachy and contains a swift ending that has the emotional impact of a gnat. The film is frustrating and choppily edited, harboring a loud musical score, trite found footage clips, varied flashbacks, and shoddily acted flash-forwards.

Image result for annihilation movie scenes 2018Annihilation is like Aliens without prototype aliens, John Carpenter's The Thing with an all-female cast, and 2016's Arrival without its characters getting totally mutilated. If I had my druthers, I'd still watch the pics just mentioned as opposed to taking in another viewing of Annihilation.

Anyway, Annihilation's director is London-born, Alex Garland. Although wet behind the ears, he is indeed a visionary and a sort of mimeographed version of David Lynch. His camera is constantly roving with most of his scenes shot from ground level. As for his general direction, well it seems a little more assured than his script. Overall, Garland tries too hard to reinvent the science fiction wheel here. His Annihilation is artsy-fartsy and overwrought, with sumptuous visuals and odious violence that can't compensate for a continuity-free narrative.

Image result for annihilation movie scenes 2018The troupers in Annihilation are comprised of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac. Their performances aren't necessarily phoned in mind you. It's just that they come off as blase more than anything else. Annihilation as antiseptic light showiness, may be headache-inducing but it still contains more of a pulse than Natalie, Jennifer, and Oscar can muster. Bottom line: Annihilation the word is defined as a "total defeat". Annihilation the flick? Well it's halfway there. Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Midnighters 2017 * * Stars

MidnightersDirector: Julius Ramsay
Year: 2017
Rated NR
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Alex Essoe, Perla Haney-Jardine, Dylan McTee

A gloomy setting that projects light fog and early morning dew. A hooey story that unfolds like a blandly horrific stage play. A torture scene where some guy's fingers are driven through a chair with hammer and nails. Another torture scene where a girl's face is struck three times and all she does is put a tiny bandage on her forehead (huh?). It's all here in 2017's Midnighters (my latest review).

Taking place on New Year's Eve, reckoning itself as poor man's Kubrickian, and distributed by Eagle Films, Midnighters chronicles a couple whose marriage may be on the downslope. Half-drunk and possibly upset with each other, they accidentally drive over a man as he's walking down a desolate road. Being that they're in the middle of nowhere, the husband and wife take the dead body and then later on, try to cover everything up. Unknowns Ward Horton, Dylan McTee, and Alex Essoe round out the cast. Their acting is anywhere between overreaching to just plain middling.

Image result for midnighters 2017 movie scenesMidnighters has its director (Julius Ramsay) clearly being inspired by 1998's A Simple Plan. "Plan" is a mean and lean drama that leaves you shaken and disturbed. Its varied twists and turns are effective and well, "simple". Midnighters on the other hand, over-complicates itself. It may have "Plan's" similar musical score but it surprisingly harbors a lack of suspense. With its weird plot contrivances and its push for trying to be too clever, Midnighters goes AWOL as thriller-based cinema. It never quite distresses you like it should.

Julius Ramsay's direction is palatable so the biggest culprit for Midnighters has to be its shambolic screenplay (written by Ramsay's brother, Alston Ramsay). Alston creates a film experience where you don't have a clear idea of who the protagonists or the antagonists are. Obviously inexperienced at his craft, Alston seems to literally be making up stuff as he goes along. Oh and he insults the audience by thinking it's a victory for the heroine to escape with $50,000 (that's a nothing amount in today's world). 

Image result for midnighters 2017 movie scenesIn conclusion, I've reviewed two films recently with the words "midnight" in their titles. Guess what, Midnight Special and now Midnighters are both pretty lame. Thankfully we have 1978's Midnight Express to fall back on (ha-ha). Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson