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Friday, January 14, 2022

Killer Stepmom 2022 * * 1/2 Stars


Break out the marshmallows and call on Father Robinson. 2022's Killer Stepmom is so campy, offhand, and off the reservation, it threatens to become a listicle. "Stepmom" is akin to a lot of other Lifetime flicks that deal with the evil that stepparents do. But its ending is a little more satisfying considering that most of the adversaries in LMN's hitherto get away scot-free. In the words of F. Murray Abraham, "ain't life a mother". 

Killer Stepmom is a typical Lifetime-r that clocks in at 90 minutes (with ads you can fast-forward through). The acting is middling to decent with antagonist Susanna (played by Jillian Murray) looking as though she could pass as a high school-er (even though she's actually 37-years-old). Susanna is a homicidal progenitor that defines the term, "a twinkie in the city". Her and the daughter she's terrorizing could be sisters or well, freaking besties (no joke).

So for what it's worth, Killer Stepmom is entertaining enough to please any Lifetime movie fundi (like myself). Its tingling musical score by David Bateman makes "Stepmom" an even more keyed up piece of riffraff than it actually is.

Playing like a gender-reversed version of Domestic Disturbance (with Johnny Travolta and Vince Vaughn), "Stepmom" is about a teenager who witnesses her stepmom murder someone with a crowbar and cement (ugh). The problem is nobody believes her and that includes her dad (the most oblivious dad character ever), the po-po, and initially her mom. Oh and Susanna is pregnant with daddy-o's child. Does this all sound familiar? Well it should if you saw Domestic Disturbance (which I have many times). 

Killer Stepmom was released in January and directed by a Lifetime three-timer (Richard Switzer). "Stepmom's" plot is layered as the stepmom in question is a little more than just a psycho on the lam (Susanna launders money, puts people in the slammer, and is also a mysteriously trained pharmacist). It won't "kill" you to at least give Killer Stepmom one viewing. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Queenpins 2021 * * * Stars


In 2021's Queenpins, Vince Vaughn sort of reinvents himself as a comedic actor. You eliminate "The" from the title of his past flicks while having him sort of underplay his role and it's refreshing. Vaughn channels an overly serious postal inspector and well, he's a subdued hoot.

Queenpins is a streaming comedy, a farcical tale by which crime doesn't pay (or does it?). It's a lot of fun and why wouldn't it be. I mean the film derides illegal couponing. Two regular, female Joe-s (Kristen Bell as Connie, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as JoJo) create a million dollar coupon scam from their Phoenix, Arizona homes. They live large, live high on the hog, and become well, "gangster". The role of Connie is kinda perfect for a gal like Kristen Bell. You see her in commercials and other movies and she's always real kooky/happy. 

Queenpins doesn't take itself seriously because again, it's about couponing (duh). Two directors helm it and they move the proceedings along at a feisty, tasty clip. I always love vehicles where people try to illegally pursue the American dream. You don't want them to get caught but at the same time, you also kinda do. Queenpins is a little tongue-in-cheek, a lotta girl power, a little crackpot, and sprinkled with the driest of humor. What could've easily been $5 bin disposable just gets better as it barrels along. 

Oh and did I mention Paul Walter Hauser? Well he's in Queenpins too. He plays a loss prevention inspector (Ken Miller) who helps Vaughn's Simon Kilmurry try to nab Connie and JoJo. Just like in Richard Jewell, Hauser inhabits the dim bulb persona to perfection. Ken has a poop schedule (7:30 AM by alarm), an overzealous way of interrogating suspects, and that cheesy mustache. Like Bell, he's in cinematic, comfortable shoe territory. 

Queenpins might be the only flick ever made about discounted vouchers and the stuff that propels the TLC-driven reality. It "goes in style" from the female perspective. I'll take the "discount". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Nightshade 2022 * * 1/2 Stars


"I want you to know that I love you very much". Uh-oh. Someone's housewife has gone a little cray cray in the City of Angels. She's the antagonist in a cop thriller a la the "voodoo that you do". 

So yeah, Nightshade is said cop thriller and my first write-up for 2022. Call it police procedural dread that's two years removed from Body Cam

Nightshade stars Lou Ferrigno Jr. and well, he's the son of Lou Ferrigno. Lou Ferrigno Jr. is not a bad actor but he seems miscast as a sleuth-hound with disturbing nightmare issues. He appears more like a model for Men's Health Magazine. Hey at least Ferrigno Jr. emotes more than his dad ever did (the occasional hulking out and green makeup don't really count as emoting). 

Anyhow, Nightshade is an 80s stoner pretense coveted by a director who has seen one too many movies by other directors (David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, David Fincher, Alex Cox). With Nightshade, Landon Williams styles it up for the masses. Employed by the lens he uses and the ominous music by Benjamin Burney, Landon's film is acid trip noir while featuring enough Apocalypse Now fan shots to form a drinking game.

Dark and saturated while harboring a nanosecond cameo by Jason Patric and supporting work from Dina Meyer (she just gets sexier with age), Nightshade is about a detective (Ben Hays) whose trippy dreams and psychic leavings help him try to nab a brutal killer. 

Look for a twist you don't quite see coming and plenty of fuzz cliches (the frazzled partner battling demons, the angry captain, the token, odd buddy cop couple). In truth, Nightshade's outcome doesn't bode well and that might be its strongest asset (talk about a Karma Houdini). It is not the first great flick of 2022 but it is the first flick of 2022. Call it a "night". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Survivalist 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


The Survivalist came out in 2021 but it represents my first write-up of the new year. "Survivalist" is post-apocalyptic, gimcrack-ed, and well, it almost gets by on one shooting location (a dank farmhouse in what looks like the Midwest).

Anyhow, The Survivalist tops out at barely 90 minutes (with credits). With maybe someone like Liam Neeson in the lead, or better production values, or a stronger cast, it might've been something more. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Malkovich star but with mixed results. Meyers painfully overacts and Malkovich, well it feels like he's playing himself. 

So yeah, "Survivalist" is a film that piggybacks on the pandemic. Howbeit, it tells its story from a more down and dirty point of view. In the real world, toilet paper, ketchup, and coins were the shortages circa 2020. In the world of The Survivalist, bullets, guns, and venison are the things that need rationing. 

The Survivalist was filmed during COVID and released in October of last year. It contains annoying father and son flashbacks, pedestrian low budget shootouts (where's the blood?), and a hack, end of the world script. 

Now does "Survivalist" have some tense moments in fits and starts? Yup. Otherwise I would've panned it completely. And does "Survivalist" lay out a decent blueprint for a merited standoff flick? Sure it does. I just think it's strange that five antagonists can't take out one dude with limited ammo and two gunshots in him (I'm guessing they were in the arm and leg). 

Shot with cinematography that feels like one hue (I'm thinking beige) and containing acting by the supporting players that supplements the almighty B-movie, "Survivalist" is about a former Fed who tries to protect an immune women from a gang of ruffians (who want to use her and her breeding to save the planet). In truth, I didn't dislike The Survivalist. I just think it might be all too brief and too small-scale to be "extant". Natch. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Don't Look Up 2021 * * Stars


2021's Don't Look Up is so Adam McKay. I mean he's that director. He's the guy that makes you nervously wink wink at the corporate, the political, and the world in general. Now is McKay's Don't Look Up the wrong movie for these trying times? You bet. It's like reliving COVID all over again but with asteroids. And is Don't Look Up another reason for me to dislike the hunch of social media (which I already do)? Uh yeah.

Don't Look Up is for my taste, a black comedy. And it's probably the blackest one I can think of. It's like watching Armageddon but with less laughs and only the intermittence of special effects (which are actually done decently). The cast for Don't Look Up is vast and known (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance). The problem is that they come off as a little annoying, a little miscast, and just plain irksome. 

Speaking of irksome, all I gotta say is what's up with Adam McKay? His vision for Don't Look Up is well, a downer. He wants us the audience, to think that most humans are bad eggs and all we do when the Earth is about to implode is to act like smarmy smart alecks. He also wants to remind the public that death and destruction are just a Twitter post away. In real-life I know that's not how this would go down. If a comet was about to strike our fragile planet, I'm pretty sure we'd all be scared-straight. 

Don't Look Up is about two astronomers (DiCaprio as Randall Mindy and J-Law as Kate Dibiasky) who try to warn the public about a rock the size of Mt. Everest set to destroy Earth. That mysterious premise lasts about 30 minutes before Don't Look Up barrels on for another 2 hours. 

The outcome as opposed to Deep Impact and Armageddon (mentioned earlier) is not good. 99.9% of the world's population dies and you wonder, what's the point? All Adam McKay does is project satire for satire's sake. He's like a cinematic style monger who doesn't care if you accede to. Unlike the germane Vice and The Big Short, he "looks" the other way. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Top Ten Movie Picks of 2021

1. Tina * * * * Stars

-Tina is an exhilarating foray into a singer that screams like a boss and zigzags like an energizer bunny on pure stimulation.

2. Girl in the Basement * * * 1/2 Stars

-Girl in the Basement is like 2015's Room bucked up about ten notches. And if you're easily upset and/or wholly traumatized, you might wanna stay clear of "Basement's" tormented, 88-minute running time.

3. The Guilty * * * 1/2 Stars

-"Guilty" is one of this year's best. A lot of people contribute but it's a bruising character study for actor Jake Gyllenhaal, a one-man show if you will. As 911 operator Joe Baylor, Gyllenhaal lets us feel his nerve endings with every close-up by director Antoine Fuqua. Abraded tour de force, well that's an understatement. 

4. Crisis * * * 1/2 Stars

-Crisis is like a re-update of stuff akin to Traffic and 2005's Crash. And although it has a more direct-to-video feel than those two films, its tight editing, inching revelations, and dejected outcomes still demand your attention as a viewer.

5. Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James * * * 1/2 Stars

-Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James provides the audience with genuine, off the cuff interviews and grainy nostalgic archive footage. At 111 minutes, you get a chronological snapshot of James from his birth in Buffalo, NY till his ultimate demise via LA's Toluca Hills apartments.

6. The Birthday Cake * * * 1/2 Stars

-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. 

7. Ghostbusters: Afterlife * * * 1/2 Stars

-"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.

8. The Card Counter * * * 1/2 Stars

-Accompanied by Robert Levon Been's anesthetized musical score and cinematography that puts the racked extravagance of a casino right in your backyard, The Card Counter gives Paul Schrader the gumption to provide more layers than your average wagered vehicle. You just knew the "odds" would be good. 

9. The Power of the Dog * * * Stars

-"Dog" is a pure, intimidatingly slighted Western piece. And its breadth and width need to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

10. Dune * * * Stars

-2021's Dune is pretty uncompromising. I mean why wouldn't it be. This 155-minute flick is very epic in scope. It's sometimes Kubrick-an and almost every wide-angle frame is like a portrait. 

Honorable Mention: Land, 13 Minutes, Voyagers, King Richard, The Marksman, American Dream

And the worst...

1. Habit * Star

-Habit is like a Gen X movie made with millennial-s (if that makes any sense). It's also over-stylized, over-directed, bible-thumped, full of itself, and pretty kitschy. It's as if rookie director Janell Shirtcliff dares you to hate it. Yeah I'm not joking here.

2. An Organized Killer * Star

-I never "want" to see 2021's An Organized Killer ever again. I'm dead serious. It's like a bad episode of The O.C. It's wine and cheese la-di-da. It's a potboiler gone to "pot". It's trashy soap opera incarnate. I hated it.

3. Survive the Game * 1/2 Stars

-"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). 

4. Old * 1/2 Stars

-With Old, Shyamalan forgets his craft as he comes off like a dude that never helmed a flick before. The camerawork is the main culprit as M. Night shoots with sloppy angles and well, unnecessary whips and pans. 

5. Cosmic Sin * 1/2 Stars

-Cosmic Sin is poorly lit in a soft bulb sort of way. It also has action scenes that are choppily edited, actresses you feel sorry for (I'm talking about you Perrey Reeves), and a script that contains enough sci-fi mumbo jumbo to denounce any normal ritual. 

List compiled by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Licorice Pizza 2021 * 1/2 Stars


The odd title of 2021's Licorice Pizza doesn't add up to much. Licorice Pizza the movie? Well it doesn't add up to much either. The film's blueprint involves a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old girl hanging out together in Southern California circa 1973. Why these two would ever have anything to do with each other or even be attracted to each other is well, beyond me. 

So yeah, Licorice Pizza is a comedy-drama that saunters and irks. It's like a series of random, "Me Decade" scenes that sort of taper off into the wind. The leads (Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman) are not horrible, they're just dupes of automation. They begrudgingly do whatever Paul Thomas Anderson's implausible screenplay tells them to. 

Speaking of Anderson, well he's the director. Once the boy genius behind my favorite flick of all time (Boogie Nights), Paul Thomas Anderson has now regressed to the point of jumbled-ness. With Licorice Pizza, he dips back into the 70s again butchering the almighty cinematic form. There's no continuity, no lucid story, no scripted 411.

So OK, Anderson knows where to put the camera and yeah, his soundtracks are earthy and retro (this one is good but lacks a little freshness). Still, you can't help but wish PTA would spend two-plus hours on something more than a messy, bipolar character study. In truth, I was annoyed by Alana Haim's Alana Kane to the point where I wanted to shake the wishy-washy out of her. I mean what a royal pain in the butt. 

Per the last paragraph, I said that Licorice Pizza was a messy film. True dat. It could learn age-old wisdom from a tidy one. Licorice Pizza is also cock and bull film. I mean you'd have to believe that Hoffman's Gary Valentine could own a pinball arcade, successfully mack on a twentysomething, and manage a waterbed factory as a blackhead juvenile. Wha?? 

Add pointless cameos (I'm talking to you Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn) and fading personas whose plot threads add to nil and you have the movie equivalent of a failed competitor on The Gong Show. "Hold the anchovies". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, December 24, 2021

Toying With the Holidays 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


I reviewed many Lifetime movies circa the year 2020. Toying with the Holidays is my first Xmas write-up for good old '21. Christmas Day is getting closer so well, it's time again. 

Anyway Toying with the Holidays sort of "toys" with the audience. I mean it's not intentional but you figure the film could've been a tad shorter (I always thought Lifetime yuletide flicks clocked in at 90 minutes). A slow burn, cutesy drama that didn't really have anything at stake? Yeah I got through it. 

So OK, Toying with the Holidays follows the Lifetime holiday blueprint down to its nub. You got the two leads (male and female) who initially have conflict. You have one of the leads saddled with a relative who passed away. You have the same female lead going back to her hometown to predictably save Christmas. Lastly, you have that final smooch at the end which could've happened a heck of a lot sooner. I mean c'mon, just kiss the girl dude!

Toying with the Holidays is a December release that looks about as Christmassy as you can get. I mean every frame could be a postcard from the snowcaps of the North Pole. Watching "Holidays", you secretly wonder if the filmmakers decided to open up a year-long Noel shop between jobs. Heck, "ho ho ho" feels like a regularly scheduled thang.  

Taking place in a fictional town in Illinois and featuring two appealing actors (Chad Michael Murray, Cindy Busby) who I guess have perfectly placed hair, Toying with the Holidays takes the cheese factor and the wraith of Frank Capra and applies it to the concept of resurrecting old-world, model trains. Murray squints, Busby looks good in jeans, the town gets drowned in eggnog, and everybody lives happily ever after. My ka, well it got a full helping of saccharine and glace. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Card Counter 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


Paul Schrader has been writing and directing films for almost 50 years. He specializes in the irony, the trenchancy, and the moral ambiguity of his brute personas. With 2021's The Card Counter, Paul's exploratory stature ventures to the dark side. And saying Schrader is dark is like saying apples are roundish. It's just true. 

The Card Counter is a drama about playing cards and a whole lot more. It's a numbing, almost glacial viewing experience. It's like Rounders on downers with torture flashbacks. It's 2007's Lucky You where family ties are at a distance. It's Molly's Game but someone actually gets killed or threatened. 

"Counter" is about a gambler named William Tell (named after a folk hero, I looked it up). Tell is played by Oscar Isaac and he's got well, quirks. Tell goes from city to city and stays at hotels where he covers all the furniture with sheets (pictures get taken down too). Tell also drinks a different drink wherever he travels and mostly wins at the table. 

Tell is well, the quasi-antihero, a dude who's thorough but has an off compass. Isaac plays him quietly like a laconic force of nature. Oscar Isaac is the type of actor that you are drawn to and scared of at the same time. It's like Michael Corleone and George Clooney swapped bodies and then well, swapped back again. 

Anatomies begot, Paul Schrader creates a glitzy, sort of sterile character study around Isaac's Tell. And he puts actors like Tiffany Haddish and the boyish Ty Sheridan in Tell's almost sedulous pathway. At age 75, Schrader hasn't lost anything. Accompanied by Robert Levon Been's anesthetized musical score and cinematography that puts the racked extravagance of a casino right in your backyard, The Card Counter gives Schrader the gumption to provide more layers than your average wagered vehicle. You just knew the "odds" would be good. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Humans 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"The Blake family bounces back that's what we do". That's good because the Blake family kinda has it rough. Everyone has lost their job (or is about to), one of the members has colitis (ugh), one is formally depressed with a trust fund on the way (five years away), and the mom is quote unquote, "eating her feelings" (ouch). The Blake clan (and the daughter's boyfriend) are chronicled in 2021's The Humans

So OK, The Humans is like an art house version of a holiday vehicle where everyone weighs up, bickers, and purges. Actors like Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, and Beanie Feldstein are well cast and they sort of look alike (that helps because their characters are well, related). They're natural on screen together and the dialogue for "Humans" is pretty much improvised and overlapping. 

So is The Humans avant garde for a slow burn Thanksgiving Day drama? You know it. And does "Humans" have a playful hint of a dwell-ed haunting? Maybe. And is the opening shot for "Humans" a doozy to end all doozies? Yep. 

The Humans takes place in a dingy Manhattan abode where lights continue to go off and pots/pans go bump bump in the night. Rookie director (Stephen Karam) fashions "Humans" as a pic where the camera is constantly peeking in or spying on these complicated, Blake household members. They are filmed chewing the fat (or turkey) in long shots, Steadicams, and wide shots. And that's even in the space of an enclosed, narrow apartment. 

Watching "Humans" is like having mediocre seats at a rock concert where you can obviously hear the music but don't get a great view of the performers. I mean I've never seen a flick shot quite like The Humans. The acting is good however and the remnants of strained, family dysfunction sneak up on you from a mawkish standpoint. I just wish the film's combo of masturbatory lens styling-s, human spectacle (natch), and purported horror came to a final fruition. "Humans" almost "being".  

Written by Jesse Burleson