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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Friendsgiving 2020 * 1/2 Stars


The setting is palm-treed November. The place is clearly near Los Angeles. The tone is obvious and bawdy. Basically a bunch of pseudo friends who are their only friends, get together to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. They bicker, smug it up, and get their swerve on. That's the rub of the almost plot-less and imposed, Friendsgiving.

Starring a bunch of known troupers, shot in 2018, and produced by Ben Stiller, Friendsgiving is yet another unfunny comedy that probably came out twenty years too late. Just imagine a more inappropriate version of The Family Stone, Love the Coopers, or The Wilde Wedding and you're making headway. Add a touch of 2013's The Big Wedding and This Is Where I Leave You and your ode to grumbling, brood endeavors is complete.

Friendsgiving is directed by rookie Nicol Paone. Unwilling to give her editor some sage advice, she lets the film wander with talky scenes that mostly flop or die. A baby sucks on the nipples of a male. A mother gets drunk and takes shrooms. That same mother makes out with a same sex house guest as her daughter walks in. Another guest talks through the entire movie with recent Botox injections. Heck, I kept wondering if Friendsgiving even had a point to all of its insouciant shenanigans.

The stunning Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Jane Seymour, and Aisha Tyler round out Friendsgiving's eager cast. They try their best to be witty and funny but they should've known that the script didn't look good on paper. These ladies while plucky, unintentionally annoy the audience threefold.

All in all, Friendsgiving is a 95-minute, chi-chi marathon in which a bunch of good-looking weirdos try their hardest to avoid being unlikable. I like stuffing and yams but Friendsgiving has too much of both (yams meaning "yammering"). There's nothing to be "thankful" for here.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cut Throat City 2020 * 1/2 Stars


"First they flood us, then they pushing us out". Yup, sadly it's time for a little "ride or die".

Anyway, four downtrodden buddies who are low on moolah, decide to pull off a series of robberies right after the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Not thinking and out of desperation, they do it with middling masks, automatic weapons, and miscued attitude. That's the rub of the disjointed and tough-talking, Cut Throat City.

So yeah, "City" is yet another flick that makes New Orleans look and appear like modern-day Beirut. Black and Blue gave us grubby and unwashed last year while Cut Throat City does it again this year. You can taste the dirt, feel the anguish, sense the danger, and literally smell the grime. Heck, the downtown hubs of The Crescent City are nowhere to be found. Just the outside gray areas are shown.

Cut Throat City, which features a big name cast for the ages, feels as scatterbrained as any action drama I've seen in the past decade. Director RZA while knowing what to do behind the lens, just needed a more capable editor, a better storyboard specialist, and a more logical script supervisor to aide him.

Characters played by T.I., Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Isaiah Washington, and Terrence Howard fade in and out while spouting numerous soliloquies. Added to that, the viewer gets the feeling that every single actor while game, is trying to showboat for the camera.

With "City", there's no clear fruition and one to really root for (good or bad). It's a bloated and misguided  heist pic, populated by violent confrontations, bumping cars, and shifty cops. Tacked on are a confusing ending, a poor man's whiff of 2018's Den of Thieves, and the overuse of urban stereotypes that don't help much. Someone should have yelled "cut" at the hour mark. Rating: 1.5 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Tremors: Shrieker Island 2020 * * Stars


"Dead ahead". So says the persona of Burt Gummer in Tremors: Shrieker Island. "Shrieker" is a sort of cinematic tribute album to the Gummer character (watch for the end credits). Played by Michael Gross, Burt is featured in every single film in the Tremors canon.

Anyway, Tremors: Shrieker Island is my latest write-up. It was released in October of this year and represents the sixth Tremors sequel with the original coming out roughly thirty years ago. 

"Shrieker" is directed by Don Michael Paul, a guy known for doing retreads (Jarhead 2, Kindergarten Cop 2, Sniper: Ghost Shooter). He fashions Tremors: Shrieker Island as fast cut, direct-to-video swipe. Minus Gross being loyal to the series, that's exactly what you get. 

So yeah, Tremors: Shrieker Island is the only installment I've seen other than the original Tremors. That being said, I can't help but to compare the two. 

1990's Tremors was loved by critics, gained a cult following, was fun, and came off like a nasty, B movie creature feature for the drive-in crowd. "Shrieker" is not as fun. Actually, it's slow in spots while feeling low budgeted and tongue-in-cheek strained. You don't see a lot of worm-like critters come from out of the ground. That was the novelty that made the original Tremors so unpleasantly effective. You also don't get much suspense or a sense of being in peril. 

In truth, I wanted to see a Tremors flick where some denizens were trapped in a deserted, southern-fried town and were at the mercy of some slimy, disgusting monsters. What can I say, I'm a purest. With "Shrieker", it's mostly military with a hunting party trying to off a bunch of Graboids for sport. I could care less about viewing that Alien vs. Predator redux coupled with shards of Kong: Skull Island

Bottom line: Tremors: Shrieker Island is so far gone from resembling the initial Tremors. In fact, there's not enough "degrees of separation" between it and Kevin Bacon to suffice. Natch!   

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Owners 2020 * * 1/2 Stars


"Very well, if that's what you want". What I "wanted" was to see 2020's unforeseen The Owners. What can I say, it really got me enthused. Then it got me thinking it was a little contrived.

Anywho, "Owners" is something else (I'm not sure if that's always a good thing). It starts out as a despairing home invasion thriller only to become a psychological horror flick and a damaging one at that. Sans any civil characters, its diegesis involves four desperate thieves who decide to break into an old English abode. They get more than they bargain for when the keepers of said abode are even more messed up than the four offenders robbing them.   

The Owners is well cast with equally young and elderly actors. They effectively blur the lines between restraint, sheer madness, and sheer lack of self-control. The real star however, is probably the London Victorian mansion where "Owners" was filmed. It comes off as drab, cold, and dusty, a sort of never-ending labyrinth where cockroaches and silverfish love to hang out at. 

So yeah, The Owners is directed by Frenchman Julius Berg. A veteran of TV, this is his first feature film and it's a fervent, mixed mess. Using one location (when one location was probably all that was needed), Berg pushes the twisty envelope by giving us something adjacent to a Twilight Zone episode that might have been helmed by Eli Roth. Heck, you could even compare "Owners" to stuff like Don't Breathe, Straw Dogs, Saw, or The Shining

Bottom line: "Owners" is violent, blood-soaked, frustrating, and belligerently creepy (look for the closing credits which are done in reverse). As an ode to all things horror mumbo jumbo, it leaves you scratching your head as to how much more nastily polished it could've been. To each their "own". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Black Water: Abyss 2020 * * * Stars


"See you at the bottom". Bottom of a cave that is. That's where a killer crocodile is waiting for five guileless friends in Black Water: Abyss (my latest review). The croc is big, it's not too fake-looking, it's stealth, and it has a wicked first step.

Anyway, Black Water: Abyss earns its title cause the water is indeed black and the abyss, well it's almost bottomless. Shot in I'm thinking Australia (it's the accents and the surroundings) and almost Hitchcockian in the fact that we don't see the croc fully until the last twenty minutes, "Abyss" is far from being prototypical but it still packs a small wallop. Heck, because of movies like this the only body of water I'm treading in these days is a pool. 

Not overly gory, not overly claustrophobic, and containing a psychological twist involving three of the protagonists, "Abyss" starts out as prodding until the crocodile VS human action gets heightened in the film's tension-filled coda. It's like The Descent meets Crawl meets Aliens with "Abyss" being the fiscally restricted, compact version of those three flicks.

Directed by Andrew Traucki, featuring a well-padded film score by Michael Lira, and heralded as a sequel to 2007's Black Water (I didn't initially know that "Abyss" was a sequel), Black Water: Abyss gives the viewer enough reason to stay out of any loch and even more reason to avoid spelunking (that's the exploration of caves). 

Yeah the characters seem to have an endless supply of juice to keep their flashlights going. Yeah the croc-attacking jolts could be a little more startling and yeah, there's no sane reason why said characters would possibly want to enter a hazardous cavern (well there'd be no pic otherwise). Still, Black Water: Abyss somehow works as a low-budgeted, horror B movie made with limited production values that have admirable intentions. Cheers mate! Rating: 3 stars. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind 2020 * * * Stars


"Natalie was gone". Yes since November 1981. But we as an audience have the luxury of seeing her in fifty or so films that will never go away. Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a documentary about her rather short life (43 years). She earned three Academy Award nominations and appeared in some of the most iconic flicks ever made (Rebel Without a Cause, Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story). "I believe, I believe, I believe". Indeed. 

So yeah, I've seen other stuff chronicling Wood. Those segments were shorter in length and delved more into her mysterious, eerie death. "What Remains" runs 100 minutes and sort of veers more towards the celebration of Natalie's time on earth. We even get Wood's daughter Natasha anchoring the docu with a compassionate love in regards to her late mother. 

"What Remains" while rather uneven and scattered in its approach, is still recommendable. Why? Because documentaries suck you in and HBO knows how to put out a professional project. There is plenty of archived footage, interviews from Natalie Wood's friends and family, and momentary insight into how her drowning demise still haunts the public today. Wood had a fear of dark water as well as going under in dark water. I share that sentiment and I share it threefold. 

In retrospect, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind captures the cryptic legacy of Wood but it doesn't always know what it wants to be. Is it a platform for past husband Robert Wagner to let the world know he didn't have anything to do with her passing? Perhaps. Is it a panoramic view of Wood's personal life and her drive to not let the Hollywood system control her choice in film roles? Maybe. Is it strictly about her impressive filmography that spans the years 1943 to 1983? Probably. Director Laurent Bouzereau doesn't fully steer the viewer in the proper directions but it doesn't really matter. Wood's movie star face and immense screen presence cut through everything. The song "remains" the same. Rating: 3 stars.   

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Scheme 2020 * * * 1/2 Stars


"Who are the good guys here?" Obviously the filmmakers who bring to life the underbellies of NCAA basketball in The Scheme. "Scheme" is a fervent documentary that contains plenty of adult language in the form of F-bombs. It gives being tactful and reserved the middle finger and yup, it's my latest review. 

The Scheme is well, about a scheme. A pseudo scheme if you will. It's a yarn where only the sufferers and bystanders were interviewed (not the b-ball coaches, the US attorney, or the FBI). This docu, which is rather blunt in the way in which it tells its story, chronicles basketball insider Christian Dawkins. He was investigated (and convicted) for being involved with the paying of standout prospects to play hoops at the highest college level.  

The Scheme, which gets its hands tied only to tell one side of the tale, is a cleanly, streamlined flick that only the highly production-valued HBO could come up with. I've always fancied documentaries, I'm a sucker for controversy, and I'm originally from Michigan. "Scheme" is about a Michigan dude and Dawkins came from one of the most successful basketball meccas in the entire state (Saginaw High School). 

"Scheme's" director (Pat Kondelis) is well-versed in the telling of factual record. He shoots the docu with a raw and unfiltered feel. There are uncensored probes from everyone involved (Dawkins, his lawyer, his parents, various sports writers), slow-motion re-enactments, wiretapped conversations, and caught on camera deals. The film is packed with info so you have to pay attention as everything comes to a revelatory head at the end. 

All in all, you don't see a ton of basketball playing footage in The Scheme. You just take in a lot of behind the scenes stuff. It's fascinating and monetarily layered, like Moneyball gone dark. Rating: 3.5 stars. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Ana 2020 * * 1/2 Stars


In 2020's Ana (my latest review), Ana the persona is not an assassin mind you (that's Anna). She is an earnest yet annoying, teenage hustler played by Dafne Keen. Ana is also a semi-abandoned youngster who is on the verge of being relegated to social services. 

So yeah, Ana is a road trip movie, a downtrodden farce, and a grave comedy/drama (with very little comedy). The film feels like something you don't see much of anymore, a kind of undo characterization from the 1980s (which I've lived through). 

Ana has veteran TV director Charles McDougall using Puerto Rico as his focal, unequivocal ode. Shot completely on the Caribbean island, you view the culture, you get the unrest, and you take in the breezy locales via every frame. Heck, it almost appears like the camera is longing as it literally peeks in.

The highlight of Ana is the turn of Cuban-American native Andy Garcia. Not being in anything lately that's headlining, Garcia's role as sad sack, car salesmen Rafael Rodriquez is sort of tailor-made for him. It's a sympathetic performance and one that proves Andrew still has some ripe acting chops.  

As Ana barrels along with its overextended running time of 105 minutes (when 90 would've sufficed), Garcia's Rodriquez takes care of Ana because her mother is in jail and she has no where else to go. They travel to the other side of the island to see Ana's estranged father. They also try to find a way to make money in order to pay off Rafael's life-threatening gambling debt. 

All in all, Ana suffers from being a little draggy, a little exasperating, and rather sloppily edited. However, the happy, turn-the-tables ending and Garcia's character's painful plight make the flick worthwhile viewing (at least for the first hour). Ana "banana". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Alone 2020 * * * 1/2 Stars


"I think I'm being followed". Uh oh. I'm pretty sure I know what those words mean. 

Anyway, Jessica (played by Jules Willcox) is a widow who loads her stuff in a U-Haul and heads to an unknown destination. Along the way, she gradually gets tormented and kidnapped by a nameless psycho (played by Texan Marc Menchaca). That's the blueprinted rub of 2020's Alone. With ample enthusiasm and the need to write at 5 in the morning, it's my latest review.

So yeah, we've seen films like Alone before and its title, well it's not too thought out. Still, Alone is one of this year's best. Feeling like Spielberg's Duel in which the antagonist actually talks, Alone's setting of lush, wet Oregon takes over as it becomes a swallowing co-star.

The performances in Alone are as it seems, nerve-ending and calculated. Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca share different sides of an acting coin. They exhibit decent vs. evil and damaged vs. non-empathetic. Menchaca reminded me of a mustached Jason Sudeikis while Willcox gave off a heroine, Winona Ryder type vibe. They are pretty much in every frame and carry Alone with superior aplomb.

Directed by John Hyams (son of veteran helmer Peter Hyams) and nifty and compact in its 98-minute running time, Alone keeps you on your toes with devised, inching tension. It's a thriller mind you and it's done with careful skill despite feeling a little familiar (pale, cold-blooded killer stalks vulnerable female). Hyams using rack focusing, low angles, and teeming overhead shots, actually outdoes his pops here. Confidently committing to every shot, he is aided by rich, forestry cinematography from the seasoned Federico Verardi.

Alone ends like other violent, heady rides but it doesn't cheat the audience. Every nuanced plot point, every grubby mano-a-mano, and every sense of foreboding shake up is assured. I hope I'm not "alone" in these inferences.

Written by Jesse Burleson