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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

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Mule 2018 * * * Stars

The MuleDirector: Clint Eastwood
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest

Earl Stone (played by Clint Eastwood) is an expert in horticulture. He also neglects his family from time to time and revels in inept, carpool karaoke. When Earl's plant business goes sour and he finds himself almost broke and destitute, crusty Earl decides to become a drug courier with basically one phone call. That's the rub of 2018's The Mule and yup, it's my latest review.

Released in the same year as Eastwood's last film (The 15:17 to Paris), "Mule" is a step up from "Paris". That's probably because Clint decided to take his time more and craft something that doesn't feel like it was rushed into theaters. Oh and did I mention Eastwood got some real actors on board this time?

Image result for the mule 2018 movie scenesSo yeah, Clint's 90-year-old character in "Mule" gets with women who are more than half his age (it's creepy yet amusing at the same time). And yes, "Mule's" true story adaptation while unvarnished, still feels a little far-fetched. Oh well. Over the span of six decades, Eastwood's ability as a legendary trouper and director has rarely lost the ability to entertain. Sit back and go ahead. He'll probably "make your day" (ha-ha).

Produced by Eastwood (why not) and featuring his daughter Alison in a visibly underwritten role, The Mule gives Clint a lead stint that is almost perfect for him. He's like that brittle old-timer who doesn't know any better when spewing racial epithets. Remember Eastwood's Walt Kowalski from 2008's Gran Torino and his grandpa Gus from Trouble with the Curve? Well now imagine a sort of friendlier version of those personas.

Anyway, "Mule" is a streamlined, road trip flick that contains plenty of dope lingo and plenty of tattooed, gun-toting machismo. It will even make you laugh from time to time (some of the humor is actually unintentional). Eastwood's direction as always, is smooth and efficient here even if certain spots drag. Along with himself, Clint also gets good supporting work from Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena (they play DEA agents who are hot on the heels of Earl Stone).

Image result for the mule 2018 movie scenesBottom line: The Mule is strictly Eastwood's show being that every other dramatis personae is either undeveloped or void of a real backstory (that's probably because "squint" Clint is in nearly every frame). I'm still going with a recommendation though because this "Mule" despite certain flaws, has shades of being a minor "jewel". I wouldn't dare call Clint Eastwood Clint "Ego-wood". Natch. My rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Equalizer 2 2018 * * * Stars

The Equalizer 2Director: Antoine Fuqua
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Melissa Leo

Released about four years after 2014's The Equalizer, The Equalizer 2 is at least 10-12 minutes shorter in length. You can plainly tell. "2" also feels readily like an outlying sequel and at the same, has almost no connection to the first film. Don't worry though. "2" plants Denzel Washington as its reliable, one man army ringer. He's probably my favorite actor and might be the coolest, most badass dude that ever lived. "I'm gonna kill each and every one of you and the only disappointment is that I only get to do it once." Ah Denzel, you slay me as Robert McCall bro. You are a beast!

Produced by Washington himself and being the fourth collaboration between him and director Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer 2 again pits Denzel as a 60-plus-year-old, anti-hero juggernaut (Liam and Mel rank a close second). As a film, "2" initially comes off as slightly diluted, slightly globetrotting, and mostly slow-burning. Then at the hour and fifteen minute mark, Fuqua puts the pieces together making The Equalizer 2 a climatic and suspenseful revelation (check out "2's" cutthroat, final twenty minutes in the midst of a hurricane). Antoine has always been the slickest and most darkest of action firework helmers. His style of a modern day Western here coupled with remorseless soldiering is all the better for it.

Image result for the equalizer 2 movie scenesNow in the first Equalizer, Denzel's McCall mysteriously works at a hardware store while trying to avenge the mistreatment of a teenager brutally owned by Russian mobsters. In The Equalizer 2, McCall mysteriously works as a Lyft driver while trying to avenge the death of his best friend and colleague, Mrs. Susan Plummer (played by the chameleon-like Melissa Leo). In hindsight, "2" is not as brutally violent or candidly exhausting as the original. However, the flick at times seems more ominous, more lustrous, and truly more revealing. With folded tea bag, hot water, iron fist, and glaring eye at his disposition, Washington's character is again the Jason Voorhees of savage dispatchers. He's gliding, stealth, and surgical in his bone-cracking gambits. The galvanizing Equalizer 2 succeeds because of him and even succeeds a little bit on its own. My rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Speed Kills 2018 * * Stars

Speed KillsDirector: Jodi Scurfield
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: John Travolta, Katheryn Winnick, James Remar

Released in limited fashion via November of 2018 and named after its fifth production company (Speed Kills Production, naturally), Speed Kills seems like a fitting title. Fitting for its star John Travolta that is. John's waxy, self-tan character loves his fast boats, loves his fast woman, loves his fast cash, and well, you know the rest. "Kills" is inspired by a true story but sorta feels spoofed and hard pressed to do any justice. Oh well. This rise and fall, American dreamed film is not as horrible as you might think.

Image result for speed kills 2018 movie scenesSaddled with a running time of 102 minutes that could've been stretched out to two-plus hours (gee I never thought I'd say that), Speed Kills has a murky storytelling arc, a seemingly low budget, stark production values, and pivotal scenes that are cut rather quickly. With a timeline spanning about 25 years, "Kills" is like a condensed, motorboat version of Goodfellas and Blow. The presence of actor Jordi Molla only enhanced my thought-out comparison.

Directed by a first-timer (the unknown Jodi Scurfield), containing random freeze-frames, and featuring a cameo by Tom Sizemore that shows he's aged about 9,000 years, Speed Kills chronicles one Ben Aronoff (played by John "I just came from the set of Gotti" Travolta). Aronoff is a speedboat racing champion who has made millions not only racing boats but building them as well. Mysteriously and without much explanation, Ben is also a bad husband and a credulous drug trafficker that's unwillingly connected to the Mob.

Image result for speed kills 2018 movie scenesIn retrospect, "Kills" has a bunch of known troupers that fade in and out (Jennifer Esposito, Matthew Modine as George Bush, Kellan Lutz, and James Remar). They do what they can with sparingly undeveloped parts. As for Travolta, well he's not bad here despite almost devoting his caked, makeup presence to self-parody. Bottom line: Speed Kills is entertaining, novel, and absorbing in spots. It uses its Mafia violence effectively (when needed) and contains a happy-go-lucky, 60's pop soundtrack. Still, "Kills" with its direct-to-video feel and shortcut racing sequences as split-screened, archived hooey, comes off as a little cheesy and a little thin. If I had to see it again, I wouldn't have a whole lot of need for "Speed". Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Reprisal 2018 * * 1/2 Stars

ReprisalDirector: Brian A. Miller
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Bruce Willis, Frank Grillo, Jonathon Schaech

2018's Reprisal is my latest review. It was released in late August and not necessarily in theaters. If you ask me, that's a bad and unfortunate combination.

So OK, Reprisal's concluding outcome is droll and the whole thing in general feels like silly, B-movie trope. Still, this is probably the best work helmer Brian A. Miller has ever done (I guess he's growing in one genre). Remember Vice and his 2014 vehicle The Prince? Yeah it's a step up.

Image result for reprisal movie scenesReprisal contains a weighty soundtrack, neutered FBI Protocol, minimal production values, thunderous sounds of hailed carbines, and a subdued Bruce Willis (that's Brian A's mysterious, go-to muse). Yup, "it's Miller time!" again. In truth, If you like slick and oily direction coupled with Michael Bay-like cuts and fast-rearing flashbacks, Reprisal is your ticket. And if you like your films morbidly violent, street detailed, and right around the 90-minute mark, Reprisal might revive your Redbox renegade.

Using Cincinnati, Ohio as its entire locale, distributed by five production companies (that's normal for this kind of flick), and having the same, obligatory Bruce Wills movie poster (also normal for this kind of flick), Reprisal involves bank manager Jacob (played by Frank Grillo). Jacob is a family man whose financial institution gets robbed in broad daylight. After one of his co-workers is murdered in the process, Jacob teams up with an ex-cop (James played by Willis) to track down and bring to justice, the evil one man army. Jonathon Schaech plays said one man army as if the superpowers of John Matrix, Rambo, and Paul Kersey are readily infusing him. What nonsense and implausibility.

Image result for reprisal 2018 movie scenesAll in all, Reprisal is just another one word movie title (Marauders, Extraction, Extortion, Arsenal, etc.). It also feels like just another Wills paycheck, another ploy to keep the direct-to-video train rolling, and an excuse to roll out streamlined gunplay as stylistic mannerism. What's different this time, is that Reprisal's swift pace feels a little more justified and the compelling factor is a tad more evident. I'm going with a rating of 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

My Top 10 Holiday Movies of All Time (2018 Reissue)

1. Scrooge 1951 * * * * Stars
    Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
    Rated G
    Cast: Alastair Sim, Jack Warner,
    Kathleen Harrison

The Alpha and Omega of holiday films with Alastair Sim fitting the role of grumpy miser Scrooge like a smooth Isotoner glove. This is the purest and most nostalgic entry of Dicken's classic tale that I can remember. This timeless story was remade countless times but never reached the emotional heights that director Brian Desmond Hurst's 1951 classic did.


2. Catch Me If You Can 2002 * * * * Stars
    Director: Steven Spielberg
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks

Not necessarily a movie made about Christmas but its key scenes take place during that yule tide holiday. Leonardo DiCaprio, as bank forger Frank Abagnale, is in top form. Spielberg's direction is perfect. Overall, this is compulsively watchable stuff.

3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
    1987 * * * 1/2 Stars
    Director: John Hughes
    Rated R
    Cast: John Candy, Steve Martin

Even though Thanksgiving has come and gone, it doesn't matter. This is still top notch holiday fare with two brilliant comedic actors giving the performances of their lives. Part dramedy, part road trip movie, and totally quotable, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles will make you laugh throughout. It will also leave you with a lump in your throat at the end.

4. Nothing Like the Holidays 2008 * * * Stars
    Director: Alfredo De Villa
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Debra Messing, Freddy Rodriguez,
    Jay Hernandez

Ever since 2009, I make it a habit to watch this film at least three to four times in the month of December. It was shot about 10 miles from where I live, and it's a fine mixture of ensemble comedy and dramatic grievances involving a tight knit Puerto Rican family. They all get together for a bitingly cold Christmas break in Chicago's Humboldt park neighborhood. Very likable cast with every character having their own feasible back story. It's one of those flicks where if you live in Chicago, you say "oh yeah I've been there, I've driven down that street." Very authentic take on the Windy City locales.

5. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 1989
    * * * Stars
    Director: Jeremiah Chechik
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo

Chevy Chase as bumbling family man Clark W. Griswold, gave his last credible performance in National Lampoon's take on nutty holiday cheer. A lot of gags are taken to the extreme and the scene where he puts Christmas lights on every single inch of his house, is something only his character would ever think of doing. Revolting cousin Eddie (Randy Quiad) shows up halfway in to add to the silliness. All and all, a sloppily made comedy that I initially thought had worn out its welcome. With every subsequent viewing, I changed my mind. A classic!

6. Scrooged 1988 * * * Stars
    Director: Richard Donner
    Rated PG-13
    Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen

Highly dark and satirical take on Charles Dicken's legendary tale. This time it's set in the 1980's with funnyman Bill Murray giving a quintessential "Bill Murray" type performance. Funny, cynical, with great one liners. Certain scenes however, might be too intense for younger viewers to take. Overall, if you like Murray's smarmy style of delivering dialogue, Scrooged will not disappoint.

7. A Christmas Story 1983 * * * Stars
    Director: Bob Clark
    Rated PG
    Cast: Peter Billingsly, Darren McGavin,
    Melinda Dillon

This is a silly, little comedy that turned into a Christmas cult classic. Peter Billingsly plays Ralphie, a impressionable young boy who only wants a BB gun for his under-the-tree present. A Christmas Story is told from his point of view. With memorable lines and some quirky characters, it's an addictive film you can watch relentlessly. Case in point: on TBS, this thing is shown 24 hours a day on the 24th and 25th of December.

8. A Christmas Carol 1938 * * * Stars
    Director: Edwin L. Marin
    Rating: Passed
    Cast: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart

Came before the Alastair Sim version but for some reason, is not as credible in terms of acting, directing, and conviction of the story. Still, it's entertaining enough in a lightweight sort of way. There is actually a color version of this film that is sometimes shown on network television. Overall, good fluff but the ending is short and by the book. It's not as invigorating as 1951's  masterpiece.


9. Just the Way You Are 1984 * * * Stars
    Director: Edouard Molinaro
    Rated PG
    Cast: Kristy McNichol, Kaki Hunter

The main reason why I put this film on the list is that it just reminds me of Christmas in general. It doesn't really involve the holidays, but it was on cable in the 80's and I must have watched it with my parents about a million times. Yes, it involves snow and skiing (in the French Alps), but mainly it's a love story about a woman with a handicapped leg who goes overseas to hide it and find Mr. Right. Honestly, nothing much goes on in this thing. However, it now reminds me of a certain time and place (December of 1985) so I'll just throw it in.


Image result for prancer movie poster10. Prancer 1989 * * * Stars
      Director: John D. Hancock
      Rated G
      Cast: Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman

Prancer was filmed about 20 minutes from where I grew up. It's mildly entertaining and it's significant because every time I pass through Three Oaks, MI, I wonder how many of the townspeople own a DVD copy of it. Made over twenty years ago, the small Midwest town just mentioned, hasn't changed a bit. And even if you know that Santa Claus is a hoax, you'll still go along with this fable about a young girl's fascination with a wounded reindeer.

Written by Jesse Burleson


Friday, November 30, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? 2018 * * * 1/2 Stars

Can You Ever Forgive Me?Director: Marielle Heller
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is my latest write-up. After attending an 11 am screening, I now "forgive" star Melissa McCarthy for her past string of lousy, jarring films.

So yeah, Can You Ever Forgive Me? again has a McCarthy-like style of acting (her persona here is mostly unlikable). Still, this is an effectual, involving, and concerning drama. It's surely one of 2018's best.

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.

Image result for can you ever forgive me movie scenesBased on a true story and directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a vehicle I would compare anything to. I will say however that there's a scene between Jane Curtin and Melissa McCarthy that rivals the office segment between Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack via 1982's Tootsie. It's the neutered version but effective nonetheless.

The rub of Can You Ever Forgive Me? involves one Lee Israel (played by a stripped-down and raw Melissa McCarthy). Cynicism meets "McCarthyism" as Lee struggles to maintain her status as a once promising author. Downtrodden, broke, and unable to get through her writer's block, Israel begins to forge letters from deceased famous people for major profit. Aided by her platonic buddy in Mr. Jack Hock (the scene-pilfering Richard E. Grant), Lee eventually gets caught by the feds and readily pays for her wrongdoings.

Image result for can you ever forgive me movie scenesAll in all, I'm hoping McCarthy and Grant get well-deserved nominations at the Academy Awards (for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively). Also, I'm wishing the cinematography of Brandon Trost will get recognized as well. Granted, I know Can You Ever Forgive Me? is supposed to be just a morphed and disciplined character study. Still, Trost gives the pic an earthy, dim lit look. Sidney Lumet's untimely, 80's canon is the comparison that comes to mind. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 26, 2018

Creed II 2018 * * Stars

Creed IIDirector: Steven Caple Jr.
Year: 2018
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

Ivan Drago has an offspring. He snarls, bulges, and fights like bull. Ivan's son Viktor wants a piece of Adonis Creed because Creed just became the non-lavished WBC World Heavyweight Champion. On a side note, about thirty years ago Ivan killed Apollo Creed (the father of Adonis) in a Las Vegas exhibition bout. There's some sentimentality here, some wonted unrealistic fight sequences, some minimal build-up, and a mask of predictability (you're a step ahead of all the characters about twenty minutes in). That's the flax of the inevitably modernized Creed II. It's my latest review.

Related imageStarring creaky Sylvester Stallone, megastar Michael B. Jordan, and alley-like returnee Dolph Lundgren, Creed II is the eighth installment in the juggernaut Rocky film series. Stallone is reliable and likable just like in the first Creed and Lundgren is surprisingly good as stone-faced Captain Drago (he emotes a little more this time with molten screen presence). As far as Rocky follow-ups go, "II" is earnest and zealous but it feels as though the filmmakers are trying to milk the Rocky storyline to its proverbial bone. These movies tend to make money so I guess the cash cow keep a cometh.

Anyway, Creed II has a story arc that resembles Rocky's II, III, and IV. And because Balboa is no longer wearing the groves and Max Kellerman is now doing some annoying boxer commentating (Kellerman is no Stu Nahan), "II" lacks the power, heightened sincerity, and invigorating nature of those earlier Rocky pics. Oh and what's with the limp musical score of Creed II that's hastily provided by Ludwig Goransson. You listen and ask yourself, "where the heck is 76-year-old Bill Conti when you need him" (where are county fair rock gods Survivor as well. Natch).

Image result for creed 2 movie scenesAll in all, Creed II is directed by Cleveland, Ohio native Steven Caple Jr. Caple avoids adding too many stentorian fight sequences and instead opts for a dragged out situation drama that goes off into non-sparring tangents. He doesn't want "II" to be a popcorn-like, Tommy Gunn Rocky so I'll give him that much. Bottom line: There are hundreds of sequels that are worse than Creed II. That doesn't mean I'm gonna recommend it. "I must break it." Rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Widows 2018 * * Stars

WidowsDirector: Steve McQueen
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Daniel Kaluuya

These ain't Four Brothers, they're four sisters. They're four women who have to take care of their husband's debt after said husbands die in a botched robbery. They plan a lucrative score to appease a nasty crime boss who wants $2 million dollars from them. That's the rub of 2018's Widows, my latest review. It's part soap opera, part heist piece, and all mob filler.

Question: What flick has well known troupers like Jacki Weaver (she's in one and a half scenes), Jon Bernthal (he's in half a scene), Liam Neeson, and Robert Duvall barely registering as full blown personas? Answer: Widows does and despite its readable twist early on, the pic feels solely edited on the chopping block.

Image result for widows 2018 movie scenesAnyway, Widows is like an Ocean's Eleven movie minus the fun but with more of the brutality. And if you live in the city of Chicago like I do (Widow's main locale), Widow's cankerous violence (remember Death Wish?) and remorseless nature will surely leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. One scene in particular reminded me of 2014's police shooting of Chicagoan Laquan McDonald. Man I tell you that can't be good.

Registering at 129 minutes with too many miscast actors and enough subplots to power a small country, Widows is polarizing and ideological to the nth degree. Its only sequence of real excitement involves ladies in hockey masks with desperation on their minds and cocked firearms in tote. Almost everything else in Widows has to do with false hope and mean-spirited malaise.

Image result for widows movie scenes daniel kaluuyaSteve McQueen helms Widows after a five-year hiatus from 12 Years a Slave. His unsympathetic direction is off-kilter as he gives us weird GoPro shots and lets the camera pan away when people are having middling confrontations (who does he think he is, Taxi Driver Scorsese?). All in all, Widows may rattle the squeamish and make you feel unsafe in a heated theater. Still, it's a miscalculation for almost everyone else involved. My rating: 2 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

BlacKkKlansman 2018 * * * Stars

BlacKkKlansmanDirector: Spike Lee
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier

Yup, I'm a fan of Spike Lee. Ever since I saw 1995's Clockers, he has been appointment movie time for me. Spike shoots films that other helmers would be hard pressed to touch. His work is involving, absorbing, compulsively watchable, and messy. In truth, I expect that familiar Terence Blanchard film score whenever a quote unquote, "Spike Lee Joint" is released. I also expect the obligatory Spike Lee cameo even though I can kinda do without it. Finally, I expected and got Isiah Whitlock Jr. giving us his patented catchphrase. You know, he's the actor that always says "sheee-t".

Image result for blackkklansman 2018 movie scenesIn BlacKkKlansman (my latest review), Lee opens the proceedings with a clip from Gone with the Wind (I'm not kidding). The director then chronicles the true story of one Ron Stallworth. Stallworth was the first African-American detective in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Also in the early 70's, Ron managed to infiltrate and uncover central Colorado's infamous Ku Klux Klan. On a side note, the character of Stallworth is played effectively by John David Washington (he happens to be Denzel Washington's son). When you watch John David move through BlacKkKlansman with big head of hair and strut in tote, you're reminded of his dad via Spike Lee's He Got Game from twenty years ago.

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.

Image result for blackkklansman 2018 movie scenesOh well. The actors pull you through (especially Topher Grace as a quirky David Duke and the chameleon-like Adam Driver), Spike's go-to cinematic tricks are intact, and BlacKkKlansman's message of hate and racism is relevant today as it was in 1970. How do I know this? Well all you gotta do is check out the ending news footage Lee provides in the form of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It ups the ante on an otherwise behaviorally tamed flick early on. My rating: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody 2018 * * 1/2 Stars

Bohemian RhapsodyDirector: Bryan Singer
Year: 2018
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello

Just for the record, I'm a big fan of Queen. Ever since childhood, their out-of-the-box music has always been in my DNA. From the years 1970 to 1985, the story of rock's most eccentric band is chronicled in Bohemian Rhapsody (my latest review). Actually, it's mostly about Queen's flamboyant and over-biting lead singer, Freddie Mercury. On a side note, the character of Brian May (Queen's lead guitarist) looks like a cross between REO Speedwagon's early Kevin Cronin and Howard Stern. Epic fail for the costume department.

Like with Lizard King Jim Morrison in 1991's The Doors, Mercury's frontman persona is in nearly every frame. The only difference is that "Rhapsody" is sadly rated PG-13 whereas "Doors" merits a hard R. I'm not gonna lie. I have reservations about that and I want some realism darn it.

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movie scenesAnyway, the best reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody is for the lead performance portrayal of "ready" Freddie (played by a totally committed Rami Malek). It's staggering stuff as Malek literally disappears into the role. Is it an impersonation? Yes, but it's the gold standard of rock n' roller impersonations. When he's on stage carousing at Wembley Stadium with mustache and half-microphone stand in tote, Malek makes his Freddie Mercury a totally commanding presence. "It comes to you as to us all. We're just waiting for the hammer to fall". Indeed.

"Rhapsody", with a swiftly paced running time of 133 minutes and some choppy editing, is like a popcorn flick that happens to be a straightforward, rock biopic. The movie also has a splashy look and mounds of energy. I especially enjoyed the final sequence in which Queen performs a badass set of 20-plus minutes at the widely-watched, Live Aid concert. It's accurate, well filmed, extravagant, and ultra cool. I also dug Queen's songs of course but I would've liked to see them perform "You're My Best Friend". That ditty is pure nostalgia for me.

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movie scenesThe only reasons I'm giving Bohemian Rhapsody a mixed review are the fact that it's not particularly deep and lacks a sense of readied rawness. It's almost like a TV movie that the Academy would wince at (sans Malek's favorable acting). Added to that, director Bryan Singer who's not known for tackling this kind of VH1 rock genre, gets the timelines wrong in terms of Queen's successful discography ("We Will Rock You" came out in 77' not 1980, Freddie Mercury didn't get his AIDS diagnosis till 1987 as opposed to 1985, and the band claims they hadn't played for years prior to Live Aid despite putting out an album just 15 months earlier). Honestly, I would've liked to see what scorched residue Oliver Stone would have produced had he been behind the camera here. Bottom line: Bohemian Rhapsody is placidly entertaining yet sort of "easy come, easy go". My rating: 2 and a half stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 2, 2018

Mid90s 2018 * * * Stars

Mid90sDirector: Jonah Hill
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Gio Galicia

"F*ck, sh*t, that was dope". The lowdown flick I'm about to review teeters on the edge of greatness so yeah, it's kinda dope. Did I mention the proceedings are also filmed with a Super 16 millimeter camera that feels like it's peering in on pimple-faced adolescence?

Anyway, Mid90s is an uninhibited coming-of-age endeavor that doesn't feel the need to push its cultured envelope. It highlights non-actors acting and portrays 1990's Los Angeles as the land of smutty, surfin sewage. With scenes that sometimes have a documentary feel, Mid90s features 13-year-old Sunny Suljic giving a fervent performance in the lead role. Mid90s also has Lucas Hedges going from playing a timid, nice guy character in other movies to playing a total d bag character this time around.

Image result for Mid90s movie scenesAs far as fall releases go in 2018, Mid90s is a mere snapshot of a certain time and place. It's a film that puts a small smile on your face yet at the same time, feels kinda unfinished. Don't worry all you skateboard fanatics, malted 40 oz drinkers, and Tony Hawk wannabes, I'm still gonna recommend Mid90s. Really I am.

So OK, Mid90s chronicles newly-christened teenager Stevie (Suljic). Stevie gets bullied daily by his brother Ian (Hedges) and fails to connect with his aloof mom (Katherine Waterston as Dabney). Bored and looking to find his place in the world, Stevie befriends a group of poorly yet talented skaters and forms a bond with them. Said skaters nickname Stevie boy "Sunburn". They take him to parties where he relentlessly smokes weed, hooks up with older females, and gets drunk. When I was in my teens I was still watching cartoons and munching on my favorite Post cereal. Sigh.

Now 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.

Image result for mid90s movie scenesAll in all, I loved the improvised dialogue in Mid90s which makes it one of the rawest indies ever made. I also liked Hill's elongated shots of the skateboard artists weaving down a turning lane with the camera being firmly placed in the distance. Bottom line: Mid90s with its enthralling soundtrack lounging between The Mamas & the Papas, old school rap, and grunge, gets a tripling 3 stars. I can't wait to see what lived-in, personalized vehicle Jonah Hill tries to concoct next.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Star Is Born 2018 * * 1/2 Stars

A Star Is BornDirector: Bradley Cooper
Year: 2018
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot

A famous, alcoholic country singer befriends an aspiring pop singer. They fall in love, perform on stage together, and eventually marry. There's a rock concert ambience feel going on here as well as a tainted romance. Oh and did I mention there's also an unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay doing supporting work? That's the gist of 2018's A Star Is Born, a sun-drenched uber-biopic that clocks in at a dragged out 135 minutes.

Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as crooner Jackson Maine and muse Ally Campana, "Star" is a remake of a remake of a remake. Cooper channels his inner Kris Kristofferson while Gaga proves she can decently act and react (she's an even better singer though, trust me). As far as musical dramas go, "Star" ain't bad but it feels too much like a downer (don't let the blithe trailer fool you). To be honest, I'd rather smile a little while watching Almost Famous again.

Image result for a star is born movie scenesAnyway, A Star Is Born is a kaleidoscope of pills, booze, rocking tunes, Solid Gold remnants, and show business fortitude. It's somber but not as heavy as I thought it would be because Cooper's Maine is a milder, pacifist drunk (unlike sleep-deprived Nicolas Cage via 1995's Leaving Las Vegas).

Oh I almost forgot, Bradley Cooper helms "Star" as well? His direction is claustrophobic yet largely canvassed at the same time. He loves his close-ups, his jittery camera movements, and his lighting technique which is very Last Waltz-esque. Coop also likes his widescreens too and his concert sequences are surprisingly deft for a rookie director.

What ultimately fails A Star Is Born, is its script by three writers (Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters). Outside of the live music, the searing guitar solos, and the cheering crowds, the film never quite takes off. It's like an earnest work of dramatic hooey, a slight of hand vanity project from Cooper, and a seen it before, rise and fall requiem. The actors spew improvised dialogue with conversations between a boozed-up rocker, his brother, his wife, and his wife's manager seeming repetitive as ever. Yup, it just goes on and on.

Image result for a star is born movie scenesBased on other critic reviews and audiences going "gaga" with the box office take, the Academy might make "Star" its darling and give it some award nominations. I'm going to retort and saddle A Star Is Born with a mixed rating of two and a half "stars".

Written by Jesse Burleson