film reel image

film reel image

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Little Woods 2018 * * * Stars


"I'll figure something out". That's the understatement of the year, especially if you're looking a little homely and scraping the leavings of some podunk, North Dakota town.

So OK, if you dig movies where actresses like Tessa Thompson and Lily James leave their standard comfort zone to beautify less, then 2018's Little Woods is for you. If you don't, well stick to those cutesy rom-coms, bad sequels, and follow-up blockbusters.

Anyway Little Woods is a down-and-dirty drama with mildew ball bearings, populated by townie lower-class and layman laborers just waiting to get out (like all get-out). Colorless Upper Midwest weather, characters looking non-sexy while wearing hand-me-downs, strip clubs with bad music in the background, oxycodone rationing, musty bars. Basically "Woods" provides the viewer with a world that no one would ever wanna vacation to (or um, live in). In truth, the film feels like something Scott Cooper might have made in between Crazy Heart and that steel mill vehicle with Christian Bale. "I'm sorry, it's been a rough time for a lot of people". Indeed.

Peace Garden State settings and private bops aside, Little Woods is about two sisters. One has a kid and is pregnant with another on the way. The other is adopted, a reformed drug dealer, and the occupant of her dead mother's house about to be foreclosed upon. Both are pretty much cleaned out until an opportunity to cross into Canada is presented so they can fix their situations financially and terminally.

In retrospect, "Woods" is pretty predictable when it needn't be. And its drab journey and opening act pack more of a wallop than the crack, contented ending. But hey, director Nia DaCosta (in her feature debut) commits to every shot, gets raw performances from her cast, flexes self-effacing, and creates atmosphere a la environs. "Little" giant.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Hidden Exposure 2023 * * * Stars


If you don't pay attention to the trouper appearances in 2023's Hidden Exposure, well you'll probably not notice that Rumer Willis is in it (that would be the daughter of Bruce Willis). Rumer goes almost unrecognizable till you catch the closing credits and see her name. I suppose it's the red-colored hairstyle.

Anyway, Hidden Exposure is an effective thriller drama that's a little quiet on the thrills yet inching on the drama. Directed with a certain glow by the unknown Todd Bogin, "Exposure" avoids the notion of obviousness and never gives the viewer TMI. I say the film is better for it. Hidden Exposure is not Hitchcockian nor is it noir, it's just that it doesn't um, let you see the wheels turning in its head. "I felt like I was being pulled to the edge". Exactly.

Bogin shooting "Exposure" with darkened cinematography, flashbacks, and a sort of non-linear narrative, always gives you the feeling that something dangerous is around the corner. I mean you can tell that he saw Woody Allen's Match Point and decided to spruce his pic up a bit. You could also tell that he took in a viewing of 2010's Black Swan and said, "well I'll try to make something similar but I'll eschew the hallucinatory imagery". Hey I don't mind if a filmmaker apes other stuff as long as he (or she) makes it their own (and Todd does).

Distributed by Tubi and clocking in at a well-rounded 89 minutes, Hidden Exposure is about a dude who impregnates his current girlfriend and then by chance encounter, impregnates his ex. Guess what, his ex finds out where he currently lives and tries to re-enter his life angrily and without sense of measure. No this isn't Lifetime network stuff for it's much more pristine than that. The actors involved (Liana Liberato, Willis, Richard Kind, Jordan Rodrigues) give well-timed performances with you not fully knowing their motivations (in this case, that's a good thing). Heck, the whole crux of Hidden Exposure is decoding with an ending that is left for exegesis (a movie inclination that's as old as time). Pulp "exposure".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, June 2, 2023

American Underdog 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


As a guy who watches an immense amount of NFL football, I couldn't help but be amazed at the story of Kurt Warner. Kurt went undrafted and when he couldn't get a pro team to sign him, he ended up stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa. Now Warner is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after winning a Super Bowl, playing in two more, and becoming a two-time, National Football League MVP. 2021's American Underdog is a biographical flick about this real-life, victim/hero. You watch it and think, maybe said hero deserved a more epic tribute.

American Underdog runs 112 minutes. Its story minus the romance factor (Warner and wife Brenda), is pretty straight-forward, like almost identical to Kurt's wiki page. "Underdog" is also directed by two people in brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin. Andrew and Jon opt for a glossy look, a miscast Dennis Quaid (as coach Dick Vermeil), and some Disney undertones (even though the film's distributor is Lionsgate). They go for the schmaltz too but their "Underdog" never feels compelling enough or old-world like say, Rudy (another flick about weaker sports parties).

Then there's the football scenes of aw-shucks Kurt (played by Zachary Levi) flinging the pigskin around and getting hit like a brick at the same time. There's not enough of them and they feel pedestrian, like Levi just nonchalantly made some nifty plays. I mean where's the struggle in the pocket? And where's the grit? And where's the nasty, gridiron optics that Jack "Cap" Rooney went through? Nada, no where to be found.

Bottom line: if you want to gather the family around, make some popcorn, and ogle at a few dewy-eyed moments between a QB legend, his in the cards plight, and his loyal lady, then American Underdog is the movie for you. If you want something more than a feel-good, TV-like vehicle transitioning on the come up, well you won't have a "dog" in this fight. Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

My Best Friend the Baby Snatcher 2023 * * Stars


2023's My Best Friend the Baby Snatcher is a Lifetime flick in which the antagonist uses poisonous tea to get her kill on. "Baby Snatcher" is also a Lawrence brothers pic so you know that its savagery will certainly be in nasty taste. "Nothing else matters to me more than this baby". Uh-oh, pseudo momma bear is on the prowl.

Directed by Andrew Lawrence and starring his bro Matthew Lawrence (naturally), My Best Friend the Baby Snatcher is about two besties who get preggo at the same time. Here's the rub: one of them miscarries and then goes off the rails trying to take possession of the other's would-be tyke. In truth, it took me a while to figure what the heck was up with the gist of "Baby Snatcher". I mean I initially thought there was some sort of surrogate stuff going on here.

So yeah, helmer Andrew Lawrence is no spring chicken. He knows where to put the camera and can certainly give his viewers the veritable heebie-jeebies. Even so, his "Baby Snatcher" gets lost in a murky plot, where some kind of capable editing and/or story-boarding was needed. Sure his actors are game (Jennifer Taylor, Paul London, Lawrence) but they're lost in a fiddly "hand that doesn't really rock the cradle" (if you know what I mean).

OK, so why are the two couples friends even though they mildly bounce off each other like passing ships? And why does the bad mom character suffocate the good mom and then in the next clip she's alive while tied up in the basement (huh?)? And why does the bad mom go cray cray without a point A to point B nous? Finally, why are there flashbacks presented at odd times that fail to move the diegesis along? These are some of the questions I asked myself and concentrated more on them than caring if every Waspy suburbanite made it out alive. Fair-weather "friend".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Project Solitude 2009 * * Stars


2009's Project Solitude feels at times like it could be an art film or something a la the Lifetime network (probably because Eric Roberts stars and has been in so many of them). That's a screw loose combination and there were moments where a smidgen of it actually worked. "Solitude" is also one of those familiar slasher flick types where a bunch of people are in the middle of nowhere and get picked off by a would-be, whodunit killer. "All of us will get our hands dirty". Sigh, blah blah blah.

Project Solitude is directed by Rustam Branaman, a dude who probably thought he could get away with not hiring a good script supervisor, not hiring an expert on blood squibs, and not hiring an editor who could trim his film to create more tension. Scenes linger too long with the unlikable characters almost veering into camp. Murders that happen are blase, bloodless, and cut way too quickly. Finally, "Solitude" is so anti-climatic and predictable you feel like it almost ceases to exist. A "gotcha" final clip that suspends reality doesn't make things any more sapid. 

Filmed in Green Bay, Wisconsin of all places and making 96 minutes feel longer than it should, Project Solitude is about a professor (Roberts as John Sola) who brings a group of millennials out to the woods for a human experiment on survival and jurisdiction. He will pay them handsomely if they wade out the terms of said experiment. The problem is that everyone keeps getting offed by arrows and choking and other means of demise. Yeah Roberts gives a decent performance as you haphazardly try to see the wheels turning in his head. The other actors, well they come off as paperweight dolts in a world full of Blair Witch take off. Weak "project" management. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Love to Love You, Donna Summer 2023 * * 1/2 Stars


As a kid born in the 70s and growing up in the 80s, there wasn't a time where I didn't hear a Donna Summer jam blaring on the radio in my parents car. Summer was the "Queen of Disco", the bad mama jama, her songs innovative and bumping, her moves sexy, her singing voice easily recognizable. Love to Love You, Donna Summer is a documentary about Donna's life that was cut short at the age of 63. "Let's dance this last dance tonight". Indeed.

At a running time of 107 minutes, "Love to Love You" guides you on a trip of hypnotic archive footage, home videos, and lively Summer performances that pretty much encapsulate the entire film. Director Roger Ross Williams, well he thinks in cuts, whisking you from one grainy frame to the next. His storytelling pertaining to Summer's journey is chronological yet sporadic, his imagery dreamy yet way too present. Love to Love You, Donna Summer while stimulating, ends abruptly, teetering on the edge of the unknown (or mildly known). As Summer sang in 1978, "heaven knows it's not the way it could be". 

With "Love to Love You", the people being interviewed (Summer's husband, ex-husband, children, etc.) are people you never see. And with Summer being questioned herself, there's only snapshots of what she's thinking, it's all so ephemeral. Sure this docu is fun to look at and sure, who doesn't want to hear Summer kick the ballistics with tunes like "Last Dance", "Bad Girls", and "Hot Stuff". Nevertheless, Love to Love You, Donna Summer keeps the viewer at a weird sort of distance. It may tell you stuff about disco's pioneer that you didn't already know but at the same time, there's not enough Summer deets to burn both ends of the bass beat candle. I needed to "feel more love". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, May 22, 2023

White Men Can't Jump 2023 * Star


2023's White Men Can't Jump is bad, like 5-day-old head cheese bad. It's a remake of a 1992 film (of the same title) yet it doesn't get what made said film so much more superior and beloved. I mean when the only NBA player to make a cameo in "White Men" is the almost forgotten Blake Griffin, you know you're in trouble.

White Men Can't Jump yet again relies on the stale race relations aspect when it comes to b-ball. Thirty years ago it was kinda fresh. Now it seems dated, like we just can't move ahead. The plot of "White Men" is similar to '92's original in which two promising basketball players work out their differences in background to try to win some 3-on-3 tourney for lots of moolah. Sinqua Walls plays the poor man's Wesley Snipes while Jack Harlow plays the poor man's Woody Harrelson. Their characters are nails-on-a-chalkboard unlikable, their bond mawkish rather than hard-nosed, their dialogue readings mumbled and jumbled. Did I care if they won in the end? Uh, not really.

Topping out at 101 minutes and directed by the same guy who was responsible for the House Party remake (makes sense seeing that both are stinkers), White Men Can't Jump doesn't even get the title right because in '92 it was all about whether Woody could dunk or not. Now we have this uninspired, dog of a movie where there's no wit, charm, or actual epiphany moment to speak of. "White Men's" helmer (Calmatic) provides scenes with little payoff and his basketball hustling clips are almost pedestrian, like they were cut too quickly.

Watching White Men Can't Jump, you wish Ron Shelton could've came out of retirement to become a consultant on this thing. In the post-Cold War decade, he waxed philosophically and ironically, his ear for catchy discourse and his eye for authentic roundball leavings made the first "White Men" a solid box office hit. This new reboot, well it's just a veritable "airball".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Pregnancy Promise 2023 * * 1/2 Stars


"Best friends shouldn't have to make time for each other". Uh-oh, cray cray BFF alert. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lack of magnanimity in 2023's The Pregnancy Promise. Heck, it seems everyone in this Lifetime-r is a little rattled if not perturbed. Resentful dads, alcoholic moms, self-prophetic female teens, snobby cheerleaders, mayors oh my!

Rounding out at just under 90 minutes and feeling like the ultimate whodunit when it comes social media shaming and Mayberry mayhem, The Pregnancy Promise is about two besties who make a pact to get preggo at the same time. The problem? Well one of them wanted to wait for early adulthood and the other um, didn't. Birth control switcheroo in flashback form perhaps? Maybe. You'll just have to On Demand it to find out.  

Starring Macy Jacob, Amy Gamper, and Alexandra Swanbeck, "Promise" lives in a world where condoms obviously don't exist, high school-er(s) are abnormally catty, the courting process is futile, and "buns in the oven" just happen right out of thin air. Everything in "Promise", well it feels a little off-topic, swayed by plot mechanics, and convenient. Otherwise there'd be no movie legs to stand on. 

That's not to say that The Pregnancy Promise doesn't have some effective moments because it does. You just have to get past the unwitting of it all. I mean if you're into the crux of creepy manipulation and suburbia purgatory via the Lifetime network, you'll get a full helping here. Not only is "Promise" about what it's about (check the title) but it's also a kidnapping/extortion pic too. High school aerial shots, easily steered character types, middling to theatrical acting, concluding antagonist revealing, it's so Lifetime! I just wish the journey here wasn't so expedient to get through. Breaches of "promise". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Humbling 2014 * * Stars


In truth, I've always thought of Barry Levinson as a brilliant director. But in the last twenty years or so, he seems to have tapered off into experimental territory what with stuff like What Just Happened, Rock the Kasbah, and 2014's The Humbling (my latest review). Man I miss Levinson's 80s brand of enriched storytelling and heartened spectacle. With The Humbling however, he decides to give the viewer a diluted character study with leaden hues that could "humble" anyone behind the lens. 

"Humbling" stars Al Pacino as Simon, a washed-up actor who seems to have lost his way while in seclusion after a health-related incident via a Broadway play. What does Simon do in this spare time away from the biz? Well he gets involved with a bisexual female fan (Pegeen played by Greta Gerwig) and gets implicated in a spousal murder plot that he tries to avoid from the beginning. 

Pacino in bumbling, stumbling body language mode, gives a naturalistic performance as only Al can do. I mean you can't even tell he's acting with the camera kinda peeking in and moving like a jilted handheld. Pacino's Simon is a wannabe recluse. He looks weathered, haggard, and exhausted, with his big hair about to fly off his head like birds going south for the winter. 

Levinson sans a savvy editor, puts Pacino's Simon in every frame, his scenes jotting back and forth between disturbing fantasy and reality. Other well-known troupers (Kyra Sedgwick, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin) appear in and out of Simon's plight, their characters ill-defined and fading making The Humbling a stylish yet fragmentary experience to sit through. So yeah, I mentioned in the first paragraph that Barry Levinson was in a go-ahead phase. One wishes he would ditch this arthouse, folly swipe and just get back to basics. Crusty "humble" pie. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Missing 2023 * * Stars


I'm a fan of 2018's Searching. In fact, I put it in my top ten picks of that year. Searching is one of those screenlife flicks in which everything is basically shown through social media a la a computer monitor. Missing (my latest review) is a sequel to Searching and I stress the word sequel. I mean it's an eager if not lesser product (like most follow-ups). Not as razor-sharp and/or free-flowing as the latter, Missing feels almost dated and a desperate attempt at a one up. "The best thing you can do to help us is just wait by your phone". Uh nope. Otherwise there'd be no movie.

Missing is like watching Searching through a more convoluted lens. Yeah it's involving even though everything featured is Internet-related but it's too much, too late. I mean why does the film have countless, kooky twists and turns just for the sheer heck of it? And why does Missing run out of filmmaker wiggle room when the screenlife novelty (mentioned earlier) wears off? And oh yeah, why do the cops involved act as though they're moonlighting instead of holding down a full-time job? Ugh.

Running at a drawn-out 111 minutes and coming off as a arithmetic hitch for the audience instead of a tightened-up feature, Missing stars Nia Long, Storm Reid, and Tim Griffin. Long plays Grace Allen, a mom who disappears with her boyfriend on a trip to Columbia. It's up to daughter June (played by Reid) to find out what happened to Grace by way of good old technology. June is one smart cookie with that laptop and she uses different app platforms (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to try to get the job done. By the end of Missing however, we the viewer feel exhausted instead of elated with the annoyance of copious mouse clicks somehow rearing their ugly heads. "Missing" a beat.

Written by Jesse Burleson