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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Honest Thief 2020 * * 1/2 Stars


"No one knows who I am". I do. You're Liam Neeson, one of my acting heroes. You love to talk intensely on the phone, you love to move like a 40-year-old, you love to evade the po-po, and you love to punch people in the chest (natch).

Anyhow, Neeson stars in 2020's Honest Thief (my latest review). "Thief" was released in October and was filmed just outside of Boston (that would be Worcester, MA). In truth, Honest Thief is never boring and moves at a relentless clip. There are car chases, wrongful murders, and an underused Robert Patrick (that stinks). 

Featuring Neeson, a miscast Kate Walsh, and a nasty antagonist in Jai Courtney (doesn't he always play the creep-o?), "Thief" runs a scatterbrained 99 minutes. There are too many side characters, too many revelations, and one annoying dog (don't ask). Neeson's 2015 vehicle Run All Night is similar in scope to "Thief". If only the latter measured up. 

So yeah, Honest Thief is too self-serious with its personas feeling the need to completely explain themselves. Second-time director Mark Williams needed a better editor to sift through this intention-ed mess. Added to that, Jai Courtney (mentioned earlier) plays a psychotic FBI dude who goes off the rails rather quickly. You wonder why the feds would even bother to let this sicko be in the field in the first place.  

Honest Thief is about a bank robber named Tom Dolan (Neeson). He confesses to the FBI in order to get a reduced sentence. Tom is doing this because he wants to come clean to his loving girlfriend. Here's the kicker: A couple of the FBI agents are dirty and want to collect the bank robber's money amassed over the past few years. We're talking $9 million in cash. 

"Thief" is worth a rental but know this: It's basically Neeson reheated leftovers. Liam at 68 can still carry a thriller but you'd like him to carry one that's more "honest". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Candy Cane Christmas 2020 * 1/2 Stars


"Find a way to make this Christmas magical". Okay sure. If only I could "find a way" to avoid penning a bad write-up for Lifetime's latest tinseled helping. 

Anyway, an unappealing flower shop owner and a pushover veterinarian run into each other excessively during the holidays. This is amidst the dilemma of securing a longtime Christmas tradition. For some odd and/or forced reason, these passing ships believe they are meant to be together. That's the blueprinted gist of 2020's cringe-y, Candy Cane Christmas.  

Filmed in Ottawa, Canada, harboring romance for dummies, and distributed in assembly line fashion by Lifetime Television, "Candy Cane" is misguided, distressed, and designing. It has officially caused me to take a break from reviewing these types of manipulative, yuletide endeavors. Every moment in this sweet-toothed flick prolongs the viewer until the inevitable rears its futile head. The obligatory kiss comes at the end and even the mistletoe eventually becomes a little wilted. 

"Candy Cane" is directed by sometimes thriller and horror helmer, Adrian Langley. Using spare locations, a vapid script, unknown troupers, and a little counterfeit snow, he shoots the film in a slow burn, awkward manner. The main characters are on chain of events autopilot as they share a bunch of pseudo, cutesy moments before actually canoodling. 

To make matters worse, said main characters have to deal with their head case friends who act as sort of relationship therapists. In your mind, you want to slap them silly. "Why? She seems so sweet". "Just give her a chance Eric". "Don't you think it's time". "Would it be so terrible to have someone interested?" "Sounds like you need a distraction". Gimme a freaking break. If I want romantic advice I'll throw a bunch of money at a professional and plop myself on a couch instead. Ugh.      

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, December 21, 2020

Echo Boomers 2020 * * Stars


"I didn't see anything". I did earlier today when I felt giddy and decided to hit the almighty Redbox. I saw Echo Boomers. It's a dated robbery flick directed by a rookie and it's overt style that sometimes begets substance. 2010's The Town while more epic in scope, did this stuff better ten years earlier. 

Anyway, "Echo" is my latest write-up. Using fast cutting flashbacks and title cards in cursive, "Echo" was released in November while being filmed almost two years ago (January 2019). Echo Boomers' helmer (Seth Savoy) commits to every shot as if his life depended on it. Channeling Joe Carnahan and a little D. J. Caruso, he fashions a vehicle that is briskly editied, hyperkinetic, snide, and unintentionally hollow. 

Echo Boomers takes place in Chicago yet you can tell it was sometimes filmed elsewhere (some Second City exteriors, Salt Lake City, and neighboring Los Angeles). I live in Chi-town and yup, that always seems to annoy the heck out of me. 

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger's son Patrick (who might even be a better actor than his father), featuring Michael Shannon as the always reliable co-star, and running a fast-paced ninety-four minutes, "Echo" contains mostly unlikable characters who you don't feel much sympathy for. Even Patrick Schwarzenegger's persona as the antihero protagonist, has unclear reservations by the time "Echo" concludes. 

Echo Boomers is based on a true story (I'm thinking it's the bare bones of a true story). It's about some arrogant millennials who break in, amass mass destruction, and steal from the wealthiest families in The Windy City. They do this because they can't get jobs and feel cheated by their place in the US economy. That's funny, boo-hoo-ish, and forced. I know plenty of adults between the ages of 22 and 38 and they seem to be doing just fine. Pure bullocks perhaps? You decide.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Too Close for Christmas 2020 * 1/2 Stars


"Are you okay?" That seems to get asked a lot in the Lifetime film I'm about to review. Yes I'm okay, we're okay, things are okay, it's okay. Geesh!

So yeah, in Too Close for Christmas there's plenty of holiday cheer, schmaltzy remnants, roasted chestnuts, and characters that are so into the festive season they might as well be from the North Pole. The budget for "Too Close" was probably in the $1-$1.5 million dollar range. That's $900,000 for decorative sets and ornaments alone.

Anyway, the blase story of Too Close for Christmas involves a romantic interlude between Hayley (played by Jessica Lowndes) and Paul (played by Chad Michael Murray). They reconnect five days before Jesus' birthday with Paul being responsible for ending Hayley's last relationship over a year ago. Spoiler alert: Hayley's adopted sister and Paul's brother are married and about to have a kid. Hayley and Pauly even thinking about hooking up seems oddly wrong to me.  

Clocking in at eighty-eight minutes and showcasing the actor's hairstyles because they needn't be bothered to wear winter hats in snowy weather, "Too Close" is a bit of a slog and predictable as gifting credit card bills in the month of January. Come on, you just know Hayley and Paul are going to end up together (but why?). And yeah, there's always that big delayed smooch that comes at the very end. 

Too Close for Christmas has its actors looking straight out of a GQ catalog while its actresses appear to always be in makeup (even as they get out of bed). Murray with his stilted line deliveries, his manipulative grin, and his George Clooney head tilt seems to come off as mostly annoying here. He's a capable trouper but he's in a flick that's "too close for un-comfort".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Rental 2020 * * 1/2 Stars


"It can never happen again". Yeah but it surely did. I "rented" The Rental. It's a nether thriller by James Franco's brother Dave and yeah, I never knew the dude was even a director. Not great but not too bad for his first go-around.  

Anyhow, 2020's "Rental" is my latest review. It was released in July of this year and was shot in the lush cities of Bandon and Portland, Oregon. In truth, Dave Franco knows where to put the camera in regards to The Rental. He creates a flick that is somewhat Hitchcockian, somewhat Brian De Palma, cloaked in frankness, and darkly atmospheric in its tack. 

Watching "Rental", you might think twice about spending time in a seaside home for a weekend. That's especially if someone is secretly filming you making dampened whoopee in a shower (yikes).

Starring Jeremy Allen White from Showtime's Shameless, featuring a disarming closing credits hook, and running a slight eighty-eight minutes, The Rental possesses two unlikable characters that are nonchalant about the concept of infidelity. One of said characters is even cheating on his wife with his brother's would-be girlfriend. Talk about cutting it close (ha-ha).

So yeah, "Rental" is all about sardonic friction from the word go. The problem is that its antagonist is unknown, speechless, robotic, and without any clear motive. Who is this Mr. Clean-style killer? What is his stone-faced deal? And why does he feel the need to off some la-di-da millennials along with his D-bag associate?

The Rental chronicles two couples who rent a home and are terrorized by a veritable, invasion of privacy wacko. This wacko also runs like a deer and seems palled on because he doesn't have anything else to do. Me, well if I'm in the lurch I write reviews just like this mixed one. "Rent"-a-cop-out. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Heart of the Holidays 2020 * * * 1/2 Stars


"Welcome home". Me, well I "welcome" the holidays 24/7. That's even if it's in the monstrosity that is 2020.

Anyway, Heart of the Holidays is a whimsical, luxuriate, and lighthearted romantic drama. It's also my latest review. As something about a woman who reconnects with an old boyfriend in her hometown via Upstate New York, "Heart" has the most appealing of female leads while packing a small wallop in emotional, yuletide convention. You can smell the bark of the tree, the Christmas cookies baking, the hot chocolate churning, and the Christmassy candles a blazing. "It's the most wonderful time of the year". Indeed.

Granted, Heart of the Holidays gets a little too soppy at the end and its setting of Upstate Crawleigh is purely fictional (I guess it's supposedly located somewhere near Buffalo). Still, "Heart" has likable characters, unforced flash, plenty of holiday pluck, and slow-burning chemistry between its dewy-eyed stars (Vanessa Lengies and Corey Sevier who's also the director). "Heart" minus any adulterated innuendo or suggested dialogue, is like watching a G-rated tinsel version of 2002's Sweet Home Alabama

Look for exterior overheads of New York City coupled with interior scenes filmed in Ontario, Canada (it's merely a Hallmark thing which is okay by me). Also know that Heart of the Holidays is cutesy like other Hallmark flicks but much more full-grown in its approach. Sevier's direction here is cozy, unforced, and tranquil as he gets every garnishing shot just right. 

The personas in "Heart" are good-natured denizens who deserve to have good things coming to them. Added to that, "Heart's" setting is pure, pop-up Christmas card with mellow panache and tones of soft, background lighting. Basically, the late Nora Ephron, the late Garry Marshall, and Nancy Meyers would be proud. I "heart" for Heart of the Holidays

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 12, 2020

My Top 10 Holiday Movies of All Time (2020 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

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Christmas Unwrapped 2020 * * * Stars


"Don't you believe in a Christmas miracle?" I believe! I believe! Especially when the tree goes up in Rockefeller Center. It's 75 feet, it glistens brightly, and it shows up a few times in Christmas Unwrapped (my latest review).

Anyway, "Unwrapped" makes sense as a title because it has a reporter trying to "unwrap" the true motives of a millionaire. Said reporter also gets soft on said millionaire because you can't have a Lifetime Xmas flick without that sickly sweet notion. 

Filmed in Ottawa, Canada (but NYC seems to show up) and more mature while less cutesy than your typical holiday levy, Christmas Unwrapped really gets your yuletide juices flowing. Its lavish set design, Love Actually actuality, Frank Capra corn, and Christmassy tunage defeats any inner "Scrooge" you might have. 

Not overly sentimental, featuring a female lead that comes off as a little reserved, and projecting the ultimate holiday setting (New York City in late December), "Unwrapped" is dramatically corporate. Its thought-out script and reality vs fantasy story really hammer that notion home. 

Directed by Bosede Williams, harboring a cast of the obligatory good-looking people, and containing an actual villain (the never aging Cheryl Ladd), Christmas Unwrapped is exoticism meets the good tidings version of 27 Dresses

"Unwrapped" is about a news writer named Charity Jones (played by Beyonce lookalike Amber Stevens West). Jones investigates a rich dude named Erik Gallagher (played by Jay Hernandez lookalike Marco Grazzini). Gallagher is adopted and loves to give millions of dollars of gifts to children in his community. The kicker is that all of the gifts he obtains come from Santa himself (I guess he's best buds with St. Nick). 

Charity and Erik eventually get together and get that big smooch at the end. Don't worry though, there's much more profundity to Christmas Unwrapped than that. Rating: 3 stars.   

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, December 7, 2020

Mank 2020 * * 1/2 Stars


"We're expecting great things". I was too, especially since I just finished watching a David Fincher film. Fincher is diverse, dark, and talented. He's a director that has been known to touch greatness (just watch 2007's Zodiac and you'll know what I mean). 

Anyhow 2020's Mank is my latest review. It was released in November by Netflix and is filmed in black and white. Truth be told, Fincher gives us one heck of a gimmick here. Watching Mank is surreal because it feels like you're literally taking in a flick from the 1940s. The lighting, the set design, the sound editing, and even the opening credits really bring you aback. 

Starring Gary Oldman and featuring a stirring musical score from a couple of Fincher veterans (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross), Mank runs a languid 131 minutes. Minus the solid performances and a bit of the whimsical, I felt like I was taking in a less entertaining version of The Aviator

So yeah, Mank is filled with flashbacks while being choppily edited and/or all over the place. David Fincher who's normally a supreme storyteller, loses a little bit of his focus here. There's a lot of scenes where the concept of point a to b almost doesn't exist. Added to that, Mank is dialogue-driven and it is dialogue-driven in the most recyclable way.  

Mank chronicles screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Herman co-wrote the infamous Citizen Kane but that sort of takes a backdrop. Mank is more about Mankiewicz the man and less about his involvement with "Kane". 

Mankiewicz was an alcoholic who died young at the age of 55. Oldman channels him brilliantly but where's the stuff where Mankiewicz is doing some actual writing. Fincher sees him more as a drunken depressive who's witty, opinionated, and off the cuff. I liked Mank's technical prowess and old worldliness but I'm going with a mixed rating.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, December 4, 2020

Deliver by Christmas 2020 * * 1/2 Stars


"It's complicated". The holidays always are. Then the January credit card bills come. Ugh. Don't worry though because Hallmark is here to make you feel cheery and warm once again. Ho ho ho!

Anyway Deliver by Christmas is my latest review. It was released in October of 2020 and was filmed during the summer of 2020. Could've fooled me. Talk about every scene looking like an effective, Yuletide pop-up card. 

Directed by Terry Ingram (an Xmas TV guy) and starring a dude who normally plays brooding types (Eion Bailey who might be above the material here), "Deliver" delivers plenty of saccharine-filled and/or sugary moments. After all, there were plenty of frosted Christmas cookies involved in the ornate making of Deliver by Christmas

So yeah, "Deliver" has some pedestrian line "deliveries" along with a frustrating premise that seems to prolong the inevitable. Heck, you gotta wonder if Deliver by Christmas could've even gotten made if cell phone technology didn't exist. You also gotta wonder how two people take so long to connect the dots of their kismet in a town where everybody knows everybody.  

"Deliver" is about a man and a woman named Josh and Molly (played by Bailey and the ravishing Alvina August). They meet randomly, text each other about baking tips, tint, and eventually get together in the days leading up to I guess, Christmas Eve. 

Josh is a widower, Molly is single and available, and there's some quasi chemistry involved between these nice-looking people. They kiss at the end and it looks a little staged and incumbent. Oh well. "Deliver" is a Hallmark flick and no matter how cheesy and how safe in terms of plot, the film's elaborate Christmassy look and December timing gets you in the holiday spirit. I'd take it over crap like 2004's Surviving Christmas any day.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth 2020 * * * Stars


"Craig comes from a line of shock jocks". I've never heard of the guy until now. "Craig" refers to radio personality and New Yorker Craig Carton. He is featured in a documentary that probes his early life till his present day actuality in 2020. Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth is said documentary and yup, it's my latest review.

Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth is about well, a loudmouth, a kind of controversial Howard Stern for the sports world. It's a straightforward docu that is of course, HBO ready. There are plenty of interviews, tight editing, flashbacks, decent NYC cinematography, and a sort of involuntary sympathy for its subject.

"Loudmouth" chronicles Craig Carton as he goes from being a successful broadcasting co-host to being a prison inmate at the United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg (that's in Pennsylvania). Carton who was a compulsive gambler, was convicted of securities fraud and wire fraud. As the film concludes, he is a free man after serving just one year of a 3-year sentence.

Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth is directed by two people (Marin Dunn, Marie McGovern). They do an adequate job considering that they might have not had control over final cut (their documentary is a mere 76 minutes long).

Dunn and McGovern's only misstep is allowing Carton to be featured too much, as if he were the financier, producer, and director himself. Carton seems like an okay dude who deserves a little redemption. However, Craig kind of uses his screen time in "Loudmouth" as a rudimentary platform or declaration. It's sort of off-putting but it doesn't deflate what is already a report worth revealing.

Bottom line: Every gambling addict might benefit from sitting down and watching "Loudmouth". This "downfall" via Craig's plight could only turn into a "rise".

Written by Jesse Burleson