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Saturday, January 12, 2019

American Hangman 2019 * * * Stars

American HangmanDirector: Wilson Coneybeare
Year: 2019
Rated NR
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Vincent Kartheiser, Joanne Boland

Boom bang boom! "Do I have your attention now?" OK, here we go:

A comatose, retired judge gets kidnapped, locked up in a basement, and put to trial for supposedly sentencing an innocent man to death. This so-called legal action involves only a defendant and a prosecutor while being broadcast live to millions of people. That's the gist of American Hangman, my latest review. "Hangman" starts out as a preposterous, Hostel-style torture flick only to submerge into a slow burn, mano-a-mano character study. I couldn't help but be reminded of star Donald Sutherland being in a similar predicament via 1989's Lock Up.

Image result for american hangman movie scenesNot released in theaters, rid of empathy, and taking place in a hub unknown to its audience (the setting kinda looked like Atlanta or I guess, Kansas City), American Hangman presents a fresh take on the tired, old adage of social media power. Just imagine Money Monster as a decently made form of Renaissance drama and that's what you get here. With "Hangman", newbie director Wilson Coneybeare creates more tension, more strain, more wallop, and more edge-of-your-seat suspense than Jodie Foster could ever muster. He also gets great, smoldering work from his leads in Sutherland and Vincent Kartheiser (they respectively play the aforementioned judge and the snide kidnapper).

So yeah, the supporting performances in "Hangman" are sadly a little wooden and out of place (how unnecessary is the dude who noshes on finger food and stupidly watches the mock trial at a bar?). And yes, the ending is quite a downer as it paints society, the police force, a smug attorney, and various news people as silently shooting themselves in the foot (no pun intended). Still, American Hangman is wholly original with an intricate script, a wake-up call to piss-take justice, and some well placed story-boarding. It ruggedly "hangs" on for a three star rating.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Escape Room 2019 * * * Stars

Escape RoomDirector: Adam Robitel
Year: 2019
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Taylor Russell, Deborah Ann Woll, Logan Miller

Six strangers are promised $10,000 if they can unknowingly win a life and death game. They have to exhaustively find their way out of a Minos Escape Room Facility in downtown Chicago (ah, yet another freaking movie that takes place in yet doesn't echo The Windy City). That's the rub of Escape Room, my latest review. In truth, I found "Escape" to be as disturbing or upsetting as any PG-13 endeavor I've ever seen. After viewing it, you might think twice about entering any sterile office building with I guess, one creepy employee and a butt load of surveillance.

Released in January yet better than your typical January "junk", Escape Room revitalizes the helplessly trapped, twenty-something genre. Bucked with a hint of originality, it has elements of stuff like The Game, The Belko Experiment, any Saw sequel, 1997's Cube, and even The Breakfast Club (go with me on this one). With "Escape", director Adam Robitel gives us a nifty little thriller that resembles the aforementioned but in good taste. He piles on the tension, effectively inserts flashbacks, avoids any bloodstained gore, and provides riotous set designs with mounds of verve. Credit also goes to the performance of Taylor Russell as Escape Room's reserved contestant named Zoey. Russell goes from timid physics student to gun-toting badass as the film readily wears on. It's a heck of a transformation.

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So yeah, "Escape's" polar characters walk the fine line between being annoying bickers and nervous humorists. And yes, Escape Room's last act piles on twists, turns, and implausible revelations just for the heck of it (the whole diegesis might have been a hallucination or an experimental fugazi, seriously?). Still, this flick with its fringe booby traps, its inventive shocks, and its remorseless cantering keeps you enthralled for 75% of the running time. Yup, I'm down for joining this "Escape Club" (that's a reference to an English pop band from the 80's if you didn't already know). My rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, January 4, 2019

My Top Ten Movie Picks of 2018

Image result for unsane movie poster1. Unsane * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Now I read somewhere that Steven 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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 79%

Image result for searching movie poster2. Searching * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Searching is far and away one of the best Geek Squad movies of 2018. As something that makes mouse double-clicking, secretive livecasting, MapQuest seeking, and Facebook watching so eerie and intricate, Searching "searches" for greatness and nearly achieves it via the belated Age of the Internet." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 92%

Image result for kin movie poster3. Kin * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Kin is dirtied-up, lower class sci-fi, furnished with an earthy post-rock soundtrack and some 70's tunes by the likes of one Joni Mitchell (1974's "Help Me" never sounded so good). Kin is also a thinking man's form of science fiction, relying less on bloodshed and plot over plot and more on character-driven theatrics."
Rotten Tomatometer Score: 30%

Image result for Can you ever forgive me movie poster3. (tie) Can You Ever Forgive Me? * * * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Can You Ever Forgive Me? is well cast with a somber, piano-driven soundtrack and an attested view of winter in 1990's Manhattan. The flick avoids flimflam and unfolds with a mild-mannered amount of sledgehammer intensity. If you are any kind of writer (like I am), Can You Ever Forgive Me? will intrigue you. And if you like your movies as cinematic hot chocolate on a cold, frigid day, Can You Ever Forgive Me? will make you perk right up." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 98%

Image result for Vice movie poster4. Vice * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "Vice has out of the box film-making, an uber-skimmed narrative, and a need to sometimes feel like a political, bullet point presentation (don't worry, it's still all good). The pic also announces director Adam McKay as the hottest thing going in Hollywood. Heck, if you let him grab you by the lapels and sweep you into his radical vision (without conventional judgement), Adam's Vice might just "entice" you." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 63%
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5. Den of Thieves * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "Thieves" is effectively dense, plausibly bold, and tough-talking. Its setting is Los Angeles without the sunshine, the city of angels without the glamour, the back-alley stuff. You can't totally identify it as informal William Friedkin or full on Michael Mann (Heat's Chicagoan director). You can however, deemed it as Michael Mann "manifested". Rotten Tomatometer Score: 41%

6. Mid90s * * * Stars
Image result for mid90s movie posterMy quote as a critic: "Mid90s is a neutered, West Coast version of Kids coupled with personas straight out of Saturday Night Fever (everyone involved is looking for a way out of their existence even though their futures aren't too bright to begin with). Directed by two-time-Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill, Mid90s has an assured vision as Hill creates atmospheric LA in ghetto bird fashion. He's like a more contentious version of Larry Clark." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 77%
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7. Isle of Dogs * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "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." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 89%

8. BlacKkKlansman * * * Stars
Image result for blackkklansman movie posterMy quote as a critic: "Like with most Spike Lee endeavors, there is controversy, race-related humor, and plot over plot mechanics. BlacKkKlansman is controversial with its uncomfortable racial epithets yet it's about as straightforward and non-violent a story as Lee has ever concocted (except for maybe 2006's Inside Man). Spike doesn't push the envelope here and at 135 minutes, he only scratches the surface of what unpleasantness BlacKkKlansman could've become." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 95%
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9. Siberia * * * Stars
My quote as a critic: "Siberia's director is New York City native and Harvard graduate, Mathew Ross. His first flick titled Frank & Lola (which I have yet to see) supposedly is also of the racy, noir variety. With Siberia, Ross is manifest with his vision. He fills the screen with Siberian landscapes, various close-ups, soft-core sex scene realism, and cold, ominous background lighting. His calculated pacing along with Keanu's scruffy, roughed up stares into the camera, make Siberia work as crossfire fiction." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 11%

10: Ride * * * Stars
Image result for ride movie posterMy quote as a critic: "With Ride, rookie director Jeremy Ungar concocts a seething little flick that feels dangerous and visibly chancy from the opening frame. He careens with long takes and effectively uses the darkened, silhouetted streets of LA as his swallowing backdrop." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 33%

Honorable Mention: Tully, Ready Player One, White Boy Rick, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Game Night. These are all good films that didn't quite make the cut.

And the worst...

1. Occupation * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Along with cheap special effects, sloppy editing, some laughable slow-motion shots, and the tired adage of documentary-style footage, Occupation's school play acting is pure abomination with its stock characters appearing one-dimensional and childlike." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 38%

2. Tag * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "With the addition of an old school hip-hop soundtrack, some R-rated dialect, a messed up waterboarding scene, and some slo-mo, Jason Bourne-like fight sequences, Tag tries to mask how trivial and flimsy it really is. In truth, it's hard to make an efficacious movie about sneaking up on someone and simply tapping them on the shoulder. Maybe a horror version of blind man's bluff or Capture the Flag might have been a better option." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 57%

3. Gotti * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "Gotti is a skewed, timeline misfire. It features star John Travolta hamming it up, talking into the lens a la Ray Liotta, and sporting yet another fake hairpiece. As far as new releases go in 2018, Gotti tries way too hard to appeal to everyone's gangster sensibilities. Despite decent supporting work from an unrecognizable Kelly Preston (Travolta's actual spouse) and veteran character actor Pruitt Taylor Vance, Gotti is sadly pretty "spotty". Rotten Tomatometer Score: 0%

4. Proud Mary * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "After an opening credits sequence that's a homage to blaxploitation films everywhere, Proud Mary reeks in terms of familiarity and forced habitualness. It descends into becoming a totally stock mob thriller." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 28%

5. The Meg * 1/2 Stars
My quote as a critic: "The Meg feels like just another Jaws ripoff with updated special effects, less suspense, and a larger specimen of great white on the cocky prowl (yup, you're gonna need a much bigger boat). The characters that "Meg's" shark reeks havoc on are unappealing and ones you don't really want to root for to survive." Rotten Tomatometer Score: 45%

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Predator 2018 * 1/2 Stars

The PredatorDirector: Shane Black
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Olivia Munn, Boyd Holbrook, Jacob Tremblay

Some government captives, an autistic kid, and a biologist try to defeat a couple of Predators who specialize in good old slice and dice dispatching. Body parts fly, bullets careen, blood oozes, and humans even kill each other at will in 2018's The Predator (my latest review).

In truth, I thought there would be only one of these snaggle-toothed caricatures involved (hence the conventional title). I digress because The Predator has more than one Predator and even a couple of smelly Predator canines to boot. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said in 1987, these are some "ugly motherf*ckers".

Image result for the predator 2018 movie scenesTouted as number four in the Predator film series, harboring the same style film score, and coming off as the least self-serious, "Predator" is gory, B-movie kitsch that will have you rooting for the actual Predators as opposed to the irksome buffoons trying to take them down (that can't be good). As a side persona, Thomas Jane plays "Predator's" kooky Marine veteran with cringe-worthy Tourette syndrome. Man what was he thinking.

With "Predator", director Shane Black bucks integrity and readily goes on paid holiday. He creates violent, grindhouse overtones while letting his troupers spew some of the most gawky one-liners in the history of cinema. Compared to the first three Predator entries (Predator, Predator 2, and 2010's Predators), Black's production values here are weaker, his flick is too flippant, and his special effects seem shoddy at best. If not for The Predator being associated with the long-standing Predator name, this thing would probably find itself slotted into the direct-to-video bin.

Image result for the predator 2018 movie scenesAll in all, 2018's The Predator is probably one of the most erroneous sequels ever made. You know the movie feels cheesy when the actors seem overly excited just to be firing automatic weapons for the first time (at least it appeared that way). You also know that The Predator is a little misguided when an elementary school sign in one scene unintentionally reads "STDS" (oops). Finally, you know things are bad when certain trigger-happy characters look so much alike you can't tell the gov agent antagonists from the soldiering protagonists. Bottom line: On the wings of the saying "to catch a predator", I say you avoid catching this Predator at all costs. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Vice 2018 * * * Stars

ViceDirector: Adam McKay
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell

"I want you to be my VP. I want you. You're my vice". So quips Sam Rockwell's barbecue-noshing president who's reduced to a non-radar blimp in 2018's Vice. Yeah, it's my latest review.

Covering about forty years in the life and times of ex-vice president Dick Cheney, Vice vies with the Bush administration's take in 2008's W. and gives it a little more pizzazz (ironic seeing that a certain controversial helmer directed W.). In veracity, I had been readily waiting to see Vice on a traditional Christmas Day. Safe to say I wasn't disappointed.

Image result for vice 2018 movie scenesReleased at 132 minutes with its narrator as veritable heart transplant donor and its end credits coming in rather prematurely (ha-ha we get it, slick Dick wasn't quite done with his anti-terrorize-r career yet), Vice gives Dick Cheney impressionist Christian Bale another chance to be his chameleon self. His method acting is in the stylings of Robert De Niro while his weight has fluctuated over the years like Oprah. With Vice, Christian becomes so unrecognizable and goes so far down the rabbit hole, you forget he's even in the darn flick. Put Bale's movie posters of 2004's The Machinist and The Fighter next to his yellowed poster for Vice. Come on, I dare you.

Anyway, Vice has out of the box film-making, an uber-skimmed narrative, and a need to sometimes feel like a political, bullet point presentation (don't worry, it's still all good). The pic also announces director Adam McKay as the hottest thing going in Hollywood. Heck, if you let him grab you by the lapels and sweep you into his radical vision (without conventional judgement), Adam's Vice might just "entice" you.

Image result for vice 2018 movie scenesMcKay as the brainy lovechild of early David O. Russell and 90's Oliver Stone, breaks a lot of cinematic rules here. He knows it. You know it. But hey, he doesn't really care. McKay infuses Vice with freeze frames, archive footage, reverie elements, bucked humor, and splashy editing. Granted, he sometimes wanes focus and skips the information superhighway (unlike in The Big Short) by showing more of the Chief of Staff positions Cheney held as opposed to what he actually did (this is only in the first hour or so). Still, Vice is commendable, outre oeuvre from Adam McKay. And it doesn't hurt that he gets great supporting work from Amy Adams, Tyler Perry, and Steve Carell (they play Lynne Cheney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld respectively). Not as hate-filled or dour as some critics have rendered it to be, Vice might yield as one of this year's best. It gets a strong 3 star rating.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Ride 2018 * * * Stars

RideDirector: Jeremy Ungar
Year: 2018
Rated NR
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Bella Thorne, Jessie Usher, Will Brill

An Uber driver named James who's also a striving actor, picks up two passengers. One is an attractive girl he fancies and the other is a screw loose killer out on a grandstanding power trip. Later on, these disparate strangers all wind up in the same car together with chaos ensuing. That's the gist of 2018's Ride, my latest review. In truth, I became extremely enthusiastic about Ride because it did affect me (especially the pic's first and second act). After seeing it, you yourself might think twice about pursuing a career in peer-to-peer, road-sharing.

Released at a running time of 79 minutes when all you really want is more cinematic cowbell, Ride is like an independent film version of Collateral coupled with pop jams akin to last year's Baby Driver (look out for the .44 Magnum, Taxi Driver reference as well). With Ride, rookie director Jeremy Ungar concocts a seething little flick that feels dangerous and visibly chancy from the opening frame. He careens with long takes and effectively uses the darkened, silhouetted streets of LA as his swallowing backdrop. Kudos also goes out to Austrian Paul Haslinger for his contribution to Ride's brilliantly numbing, techno soundtrack.

Image result for ride 2018 movie scenesSo yeah, Ride's villain Bruno (played with gusto by Will Brill) doesn't have a lot of motive or reason for being such a souped-up whack job. And yes, Ride's abrupt coda, spur, and close-packed editing leaves you with a few more questions than answers. Still, this movie has the performances, pacing, and macabre to sort of hit you in the gut. Ride despite being just a snippet of thriller/drama greatness, still gets your pulse racing (no pun intended). Oh and you'll never hear R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)" the same way in the near future (again no pun intended). My rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

A Simple Favor 2018 * * * Stars

A Simple FavorDirector: Paul Feig
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding

Stephanie Smothers as a widowed mom living in Connecticut, befriends a married mom named Emily Nelson. Emily has a nice house, a smarmy attitude, a love of alcohol, and a checkered past (as does Stephanie). When Stephanie decides to watch Emily's kid as a favor, Emily goes missing. Stephanie then becomes mousy and flamboyant detective. That's the beginning blueprint of A Simple Favor and it's my latest review. In all honesty, I thought "Favor" was strictly gonna be a spellbinding thriller (trailers do that sometimes). I didn't know there would be some out of place humor, some snobbery, some tongue-in-cheek, and some violent slapstick thrown in.

Released at just under two hours with guessing game remnants and mounds of twists in tote, A Simple Favor is satiric, blackly comedic, and single white female-d. With the novel-based "Favor", funnyman director Paul Feig shows us a dark side we thought he never had. He just does a better job of hiding it that's all (hence one of the lines in the movie). Paul's direction here isn't any more flashy or conspicuous. He just goes rogue and bends his curiosity for genres sake (viewers of Bridesmaids, Spy, and the rebooted Ghostbusters are gonna be thrown for a loop).

Image result for a simple favor movie scenesIn A Simple Favor, Feig disregards regulars Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, and Rose Byrne this time around. He instead goes with Anna Kendrick (as Stephanie) and Blake Lively (Emily) as mano-a-mano, female leads. It almost feels like perfect casting. Feig also saddles "Favor" with a sort of Mexican standoff ending and a sense of upsetting malaise. The dialogue is F-bombed (and spit-fired) and the whodunit factor keeps you afloat at least until the 90-minute mark.

Bottom line: A Simple Favor is a weird spin, a manipulative noir in broad daylight, and a voyeuristic look at mommy-and-me ilk (you can even add cutesy vlogging as well). I liked it just enough. Rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson