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Saturday, December 25, 2021

Licorice Pizza 2021 * 1/2 Stars


The odd title of 2021's Licorice Pizza doesn't add up to much. Licorice Pizza the movie? Well it doesn't add up to much either. The film's blueprint involves a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old girl hanging out together in Southern California circa 1973. Why these two would ever have anything to do with each other or even be attracted to each other is well, beyond me. 

So yeah, Licorice Pizza is a comedy-drama that saunters and irks. It's like a series of random, "Me Decade" scenes that sort of taper off into the wind. The leads (Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman) are not horrible, they're just dupes of automation. They begrudgingly do whatever Paul Thomas Anderson's implausible screenplay tells them to. 

Speaking of Anderson, well he's the director. Once the boy genius behind my favorite flick of all time (Boogie Nights), Paul Thomas Anderson has now regressed to the point of jumbled-ness. With Licorice Pizza, he dips back into the 70s again butchering the almighty cinematic form. There's no continuity, no lucid story, no scripted 411.

So OK, Anderson knows where to put the camera and yeah, his soundtracks are earthy and retro (this one is good but lacks a little freshness). Still, you can't help but wish PTA would spend two-plus hours on something more than a messy, bipolar character study. In truth, I was annoyed by Alana Haim's Alana Kane to the point where I wanted to shake the wishy-washy out of her. I mean what a royal pain in the butt. 

Per the last paragraph, I said that Licorice Pizza was a messy film. True dat. It could learn age-old wisdom from a tidy one. Licorice Pizza is also cock and bull film. I mean you'd have to believe that Hoffman's Gary Valentine could own a pinball arcade, successfully mack on a twentysomething, and manage a waterbed factory as a blackhead juvenile. Wha?? 

Add pointless cameos (I'm talking to you Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn) and fading personas whose plot threads add to nil and you have the movie equivalent of a failed competitor on The Gong Show. "Hold the anchovies". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, December 24, 2021

Toying With the Holidays 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


I reviewed many Lifetime movies circa the year 2020. Toying with the Holidays is my first Xmas write-up for good old '21. Christmas Day is getting closer so well, it's time again. 

Anyway Toying with the Holidays sort of "toys" with the audience. I mean it's not intentional but you figure the film could've been a tad shorter (I always thought Lifetime yuletide flicks clocked in at 90 minutes). A slow burn, cutesy drama that didn't really have anything at stake? Yeah I got through it. 

So OK, Toying with the Holidays follows the Lifetime holiday blueprint down to its nub. You got the two leads (male and female) who initially have conflict. You have one of the leads saddled with a relative who passed away. You have the same female lead going back to her hometown to predictably save Christmas. Lastly, you have that final smooch at the end which could've happened a heck of a lot sooner. I mean c'mon, just kiss the girl dude!

Toying with the Holidays is a December release that looks about as Christmassy as you can get. I mean every frame could be a postcard from the snowcaps of the North Pole. Watching "Holidays", you secretly wonder if the filmmakers decided to open up a year-long Noel shop between jobs. Heck, "ho ho ho" feels like a regularly scheduled thang.  

Taking place in a fictional town in Illinois and featuring two appealing actors (Chad Michael Murray, Cindy Busby) who I guess have perfectly placed hair, Toying with the Holidays takes the cheese factor and the wraith of Frank Capra and applies it to the concept of resurrecting old-world, model trains. Murray squints, Busby looks good in jeans, the town gets drowned in eggnog, and everybody lives happily ever after. My ka, well it got a full helping of saccharine and glace. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Card Counter 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


Paul Schrader has been writing and directing films for almost 50 years. He specializes in the irony, the trenchancy, and the moral ambiguity of his brute personas. With 2021's The Card Counter, Paul's exploratory stature ventures to the dark side. And saying Schrader is dark is like saying apples are roundish. It's just true. 

The Card Counter is a drama about playing cards and a whole lot more. It's a numbing, almost glacial viewing experience. It's like Rounders on downers with torture flashbacks. It's 2007's Lucky You where family ties are at a distance. It's Molly's Game but someone actually gets killed or threatened. 

"Counter" is about a gambler named William Tell (named after a folk hero, I looked it up). Tell is played by Oscar Isaac and he's got well, quirks. Tell goes from city to city and stays at hotels where he covers all the furniture with sheets (pictures get taken down too). Tell also drinks a different drink wherever he travels and mostly wins at the table. 

Tell is well, the quasi-antihero, a dude who's thorough but has an off compass. Isaac plays him quietly like a laconic force of nature. Oscar Isaac is the type of actor that you are drawn to and scared of at the same time. It's like Michael Corleone and George Clooney swapped bodies and then well, swapped back again. 

Anatomies begot, Paul Schrader creates a glitzy, sort of sterile character study around Isaac's Tell. And he puts actors like Tiffany Haddish and the boyish Ty Sheridan in Tell's almost sedulous pathway. At age 75, Schrader hasn't lost anything. Accompanied by Robert Levon Been's anesthetized musical score and cinematography that puts the racked extravagance of a casino right in your backyard, The Card Counter gives Schrader the gumption to provide more layers than your average wagered vehicle. You just knew the "odds" would be good. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Humans 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"The Blake family bounces back that's what we do". That's good because the Blake family kinda has it rough. Everyone has lost their job (or is about to), one of the members has colitis (ugh), one is formally depressed with a trust fund on the way (five years away), and the mom is quote unquote, "eating her feelings" (ouch). The Blake clan (and the daughter's boyfriend) are chronicled in 2021's The Humans

So OK, The Humans is like an art house version of a holiday vehicle where everyone weighs up, bickers, and purges. Actors like Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, and Beanie Feldstein are well cast and they sort of look alike (that helps because their characters are well, related). They're natural on screen together and the dialogue for "Humans" is pretty much improvised and overlapping. 

So is The Humans avant garde for a slow burn Thanksgiving Day drama? You know it. And does "Humans" have a playful hint of a dwell-ed haunting? Maybe. And is the opening shot for "Humans" a doozy to end all doozies? Yep. 

The Humans takes place in a dingy Manhattan abode where lights continue to go off and pots/pans go bump bump in the night. Rookie director (Stephen Karam) fashions "Humans" as a pic where the camera is constantly peeking in or spying on these complicated, Blake household members. They are filmed chewing the fat (or turkey) in long shots, Steadicams, and wide shots. And that's even in the space of an enclosed, narrow apartment. 

Watching "Humans" is like having mediocre seats at a rock concert where you can obviously hear the music but don't get a great view of the performers. I mean I've never seen a flick shot quite like The Humans. The acting is good however and the remnants of strained, family dysfunction sneak up on you from a mawkish standpoint. I just wish the film's combo of masturbatory lens styling-s, human spectacle (natch), and purported horror came to a final fruition. "Humans" almost "being".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Power of the Dog 2021 * * * Stars


Jane Campion has done thrillers (In the Cut), comedies (Holy Smoke!), and dramas (The Piano). Now she tries her hand at Westerns with 2021's The Power of the Dog. Campion's eye behind the camera, well it sure is something to "behold" (no pun intended).  

So yeah, "Dog" is a pure, intimidatingly slighted Western piece. And its breadth and width need to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Sure "Dog's" plot about ranchers, sons, and wives via 1920s Montana seems a bit scatty. And at 125 minutes, the film tends to meander (what period drama doesn't?). Still, The Power of the Dog is old-world, wide-eyed, big-skied, and hauntingly yore-d. They don't make em' like they use to and if they did, they didn't look as good as this. 

The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion's ode to all things Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson. That's basically saying that the flick resembles 1978's Days of Heaven and There Will Be Blood. Every frame is well, a portrait. Every rack focus is um, a banquet (har har). Every pouncing note from "Dog's" film score is uh, soul-stirring. 

Campion's direction in "Dog" is impeccable as she commits to every shot. Look there's a wide angle of someone coming through an entrance at an old barn. Look there's a close-up of a key going in a keyhole. Look there's The Treasure State landscape in all its mountainous beauty. And look there's an extreme close-up of someone fiddling with the teeth of a comb. 

As for the performances in "Dog", well they are raw and subtle, a sort of motile tribute to the days of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee star in "Dog" and they deserve some serious Academy Award consideration. They are part of a character study here and not characters that speed along "Dog's" quasi, green-eyed monster tale. 

Bottom line: The Power of the Dog is an enlightened, old-fashioned night at the movies. Despite its choppy narrative, non-sequential editing, and rushed, brief cutting, this "dog" will still hunt. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, December 10, 2021

A House on the Bayou 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"Did that old guy seem odd to you?" Yup. And 2021's A House on the Bayou "seemed odd" even for a sickened horror film. It's like a screenwriter stayed up all night drinking a six pack while thinking up ways to top him or herself. Straw Dogs meets The Skeleton Key meets Funny Games meets Get Out? OK just let me catch my breath. 

Anyway "Bayou" is upsetting, rutted, and obtuse all at the same time. The actors featured look bug-eyed, snaggletooth-ed, and well, long-faced too. Heck, at least the casting director got enough antipode lookers to add to the flick's apparent creep-o factor. 

So is A House on the Bayou scaring on its own merit? It appears so. And what's up with the inverted 80s synth score? And does "Bayou" have enough twists and turns to wear you to the nub? Oh you betcha.

"Bayou" is the type of psychological mind swell that begs for its director to just ease off the accelerator pedal. The cast consisting of unknowns give it their rawest all but for what (dangling loose ends I guess). The viewer while drawn, scratches their head multiple times. I mean two evil doers die like normal human beings and then come back to life like the bumpkins they are. And whatever happened to the black cat character who was a beloved pet? The snarky feline just probably wandered off. 

A House on the Bayou is about a miserable couple who bring their daughter to a getaway house in Louisiana. There they encounter two ruffians who want to hold them hostage and initially kill them. Oh and there's a satanic element involved (that's so voodoo of those marsh people). 

I wanted to love "Bayou" (I really did) but it doesn't know what it ultimately wants to be. Unseasoned helmer Alex McAulay yearns to pull the rug out from under you just for the sheer heck of it. He provides an uneven mix of phrenic horror, occult mush, and snaking thriller heap. The "house" doesn't always win here.

Written by Jesse Burleson 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

13 Minutes 2021 * * * Stars


The film title of 13 Minutes refers to the average time to seek shelter during a tornado. And what better setting to feature said tornado than that vortex's habitual stomping ground known as Oklahoma. "Auntie Em, it's a twister! It's a twister!" Indeed.  

So yeah, 13 Minutes is a disaster movie through and through. And even though its screen carnage only lasts about 300 seconds, the flick still reminded me of stuff like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (just look at "13's" poster and you'll see what I mean). The tornado that enters 13 Minutes about an hour in, is a real doozy. You don't really see it from a distance but up-close the special effects are like a rocket. The way everyone dealt with being in peril, well it kinda shook me to the core. 

13 Minutes is technically proficient, character arc coincidental, and accurately passionate on how it deals with the aftermath and build-up of tornado ideology. The cast in "13" is mostly c-list but they do a pretty decent job. I mean the only persona that annoyed me was Peter Facinelli's Brad. Brad is like a parody of a weatherman with sketchy dialogue readings and a weak southern accent (Facinelli is a New Yorker for crying out loud). 

As something that was probably low budget and dated considering all the disaster porn that came out in the last twenty years, 13 Minutes is a mini triumph for rookie director Lindsay Gossling. Gossling creates a more human drama out of "13". Basically she establishes the characters (and their backstories) for a good amount of time and ditches the overuse of rumble and deafening CGI (yes I'm talking to you Into the Storm). 

13 Minutes is a nifty little ish thriller, a calamity-ed snapshot if you will. You get to know the lunch pail denizens involved, the funnel cloud hits, and almost everybody survives with resolutions looming. "13's" plot is peek-in minimal but I can't help but recommend it. That's my stand after 108 "minutes". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Too Late 2021 * 1/2 Stars


"Comedians aren't really people". That's harsh. Well the comedians featured in 2021's Too Late aren't really funny either (I could care less about 7-Eleven, shroom, and/or yoga jokes). The laughs you see from the denizens in the audience are well, crocodile laughs.

Anyway Too Late is cinema's "latest" attempt to combine the funny (and unfunny) with hidden horror. Too Late's title, well it refers to a comedy club somewhere in present day Los Angeles. The film at a running time of 80 minutes (with 2-minute ads) is about a Borat-ed club owner who is a monster and eats mostly males (WTF). The club owner's assistant as petite lackey, begrudgingly helps him find his next tasty meal (someone preferably with pills, bourbon, coke, and nicotine in their system).

Too Late is a little indie, and little camp, a little low budget, and almost qualifies as a short (see last paragraph). The actors featured (voice-enhanced Ron Lynch, Will Weldon, Jack De Sena) are unknown one-offs and they appear in the flick's alternate reality where humans just disappear without a moment's notice. 

If you're an aspiring comedian, then Too Late will amuse you and your small circle of only friends' friends (let's hope that's not the case). If you're not a comedy person (that would defiantly be me), then Too Late is like attending a bad night of prosaic vaudeville at Zanies. 

All in all, the gore in Too Late is low-key special effects (except in the concluding, chest-bursting frames) and the love story element is a sort of twisted Greek chorus. You anxiously wait to see how Too Late ends but by then it's um, "too late". The movie is an artsy, amateur entry at a dank film festival where the patrons call it meh and just head out the back door. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


Ghostbusters: Afterlife has five kid actors carrying on the storied, Ghostbusters legacy. They do a solid job exhibiting spunky fortitude, coming-of-age slant, and some whimsy, Spielbergian moments. It also doesn't hurt to have the original specter fighters show up in the end (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and um, Harold Ramis). 

"Afterlife" is a re-bunked sequel done with perspicacity. Gone is the thought of that unnecessary mishap that Melissa McCarthy gave us in 2016. Gone is the staunch overuse of slime a la 1989's Ghostbusters II. Added is a sense of nostalgia and a smack of fuzzy recollection. If you saw Ghostbusters in the theater circa 37 years ago (and I did), "Afterlife" will take you back. Rob Simonsen's almost identical film score to Elmer Bernstein's stuff from '84 just adds to it all. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife changes its setting to small town Oklahoma. Don't worry. It still feels like a Ghostbusters film and at the same time, "Afterlife" is pretty much its own entity. The visual effects are indeed solid and that's saying a lot with a now small budget of $75 million. And oh yeah, there's a couple of car chases too. They're whiz-bang, brisk, and well, on a swivel. Heck, it's good seeing the Ecto-1 being flexed into high gear. 

As a Super 8ish follow-up that's directed by Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan Reitman), Ghostbusters: Afterlife supplies tongue-in-cheek humor to smooth over the spooky just like in the original Ghostbusters (I didn't think that was possible here). 

As for "Afterlife's" strongest asset, well it's its first half which has some beautiful build-up. The last act consisting of Gozer, the Gatekeeper, and the Keymaster sort of copies '84's version scene for scene. Whatev. "Afterlife" is still a sound and solid, family film. Bustin' feels good once again.   

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, November 27, 2021

King Richard 2021 * * * Stars


2021's King Richard refers to Richard Williams. He's the pseudo architect behind the success of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is not always about Mr. Williams though. It's about Venus too. Serena? Well she takes a back seat even though she's now regarded as the greatest female to ever swing a racket (something Richard declared circa 1994).  

King Richard is probably the greatest tennis movie ever. That's not saying a whole lot because I've only seen five of them and three have been bad (Jocks, Players, Wimbledon). King Richard is also light on its feet (no pun intended), has a pep in its step, and is full of jovial energy. The film could be a little more compelling however. I mean it doesn't reach those kinds of heights except in the first act (trying to practice some down-the-line shots in a seedy area of Compton, CA).

King Richard from a technical advisor standpoint, is pretty darn good. The tennis matches are well shot and you don't get that overwhelming feeling of CGI (remember Paul Bettany's Peter Colt trying to flex his forehand on those grass courts?). King Richard also blew me away with the casting of Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams. Sidney's backhand looks pretty much identical to the one the actual Venus used to rip winners crosscourt. If you don't believe me just check the almighty YouTube. 

As a true story drama that would be worthwhile viewing for any aspiring tennis prod, King Richard feels somewhat unfinished even at 145 minutes. It doesn't really have a beginning and it ends about 3-4 years before the Williams sisters were ready to rule the tennis world. King Richard also suffers a little from being technically trite (I'm referring to the professional advice of the tennis teacher personas in the movie). Still, I can't help but recommend it. 

King Richard has great performances from three actors in Jon Bernthal (he plays tennis guru Rick Macci), Aunjanue Ellis (she plays Richard's wife Oracene), and Will Smith (he plays of course, Richard Williams). Smith is the standout here and deserves to be recognized by the Academy. He completely disappears into character just like he did in 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness. Heck, back then the Fresh Prince never stood a chance. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Apex 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"I'm bacon and eggs on Sunday morning." Those are the words of the Bruce Willis character, Thomas Malone. Somewhere a screenwriter is saying with glee, "yeah I nailed that one". 

Anyway 2021's Apex is an action thriller set in the future. The holograms and daylight-ed Blade Runner vibe gave it away. Apex is also an action thriller a la natural androcide. The main lead uses his wits and smarts to just let every man (or woman) kill each other off. 

So is Apex better than most of the crap Bruce Willis has been churning out for the past 8-9 years? Surprisingly yes. And is Apex decent despite Willis still not being able to act effectively anymore? Again surprisingly yes. 

Apex for all intensive purposes, is something else. It's the ultimate testosterone-filled, Mexican standoff. The cast (minus AARP-hinged Willis) is actually pretty good. Their mano a mano stature is highlighted by the lucid, antagonistic performance of actor Neil McDonough. He's cold, white as clear, and well, not crazy (so he says). 

Apex's ending is probably the only real lowlight of the film. You wonder how the Willis persona escapes an exploding house (I guess he was a hologram too). You also wonder how Bruce's Malone evades a bunch of savages wearing a red jacket in a forest (I mean seriously, WTF). 

Directed by Edward Drake (Cosmic Sin, Broil) and equally dialogue-driven as it is nastily violent, Apex is akin to stuff like 1994's Surviving the Game and The Hunt. I dug the banter between the marksmen who are basically screw loose and despise each other. I also dug the musical score by Hugh Wielenga that's equal parts techno, fermented, and well, creepy. 

Apex is about five, rich snobbish hunters who pay to hunt down a former cop who doesn't know how to die (Bruce Willis in monosyllabic mode). Willis doesn't do much but his stunt double sure does (shocker). Apex by definition, means high point. Well Apex the movie is a "high point" considering what low expectations I had for it.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, November 19, 2021

Survive the Game 2021 * 1/2 Stars


"So much for no killing". Exactly. There's a lot of "killing" in 2021's Survive the Game. Some of it stings but in the end there's just too much of it (quantity over quality I guess). 

Now is Survive the Game a mess? Of course it is. There's plenty of fistfights where you can't see what's going on and editing of character actions where viewer POV is badly skewed. And is Survive the Game the type of shoot 'em up where the antagonists have to constantly explain themselves before doing any darn thing? Oh fo sho. 

Anyhow, "Game" has virtually no plot or no plot that is fully spelled out (look ma). And yup, co-star Bruce Willis is back in the saddle again, barely moving, collecting his million dollar paycheck, and begrudgingly getting out his lines (was there an earpiece involved? Maybe). Sure Willis spars a little with the bad guys but you know what, his stunt double probably did all the heavy lifting. You can tell.

Reminiscent of 2016's Standoff (another VOD endeavor) and directed by LA native James Cullen Bressack (Beyond the Law, Bethany), Survive the Game is about a drug mob who infiltrates a dude's farmhouse trying to leave no witnesses behind. "Game" is I suppose a pseudo Western or a mere parody of action thrillers. There's bad humor involved, a main black hat who looks like a 16-year-old, and plenty of slick cinematography that's drenched in its own slickness. 

And I might as well talk about the two car chases in "Game" since I'm on a roll. Bressack sets them up to some horrendous rap music, has them cut by monkeys, and basically shoots from just two slants. It's a bad couple of sequences and the low-angle patchiness is off the charts. Somewhere the great William Friedkin is laughing his arse off. And somewhere every critic is trying to "survive" what they just saw at 97 minutes (which feels like 2 hours). Natch.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Deep House 2021 * * * Stars


2021's The Deep House is my latest write-up. Dug this French-produced movie and the title, well it's pretty self-explanatory. 

So OK, let's not beat around the bush. The Deep House is a ghostly horror flick that will indeed give you the creeps. Its blueprint is a sadistic haunted house that lies meters down below a lake. Bona fide concept if I might say so myself. The lead actors are a little annoying at the beginning but you feel their suffering in the end. Yeah, for the majority of "House's" brief running time I was sent away with my knees knocking.

The Deep House is what you get when the films Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, and 1989's The Abyss adopt a child. It's gotta be tough filming anything underwater and directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo go into the project with reckless aplomb. I'm thinking some professional divers did the diving and troupers James Jagger and Camilla Rowe did the emotive voice dubbing. If that's the case then those are some darn good dubs. 

"House" builds a lot of collywobbles throughout until it bogs down a little bit by the third act. Don't worry, it's not a huge oversight. The Deep House is not jolt-happy mind you, just flat-out eerie. Maury and Bustillo are almost Hitchcockian in their approach. What you're waiting to see scares you as opposed to thrusting the horror and anguish at you right off the bat. The underwater mansion is the star and minus some occasional jittery camerawork, its callous images and hostel environment really suck you in. All that and the main characters have to worry about their level of oxygen, their level of normality, and well, the concept of the bends. Yeesh. 

If you wait till after the closing credits, The Deep House provides one brief scene that you can interpret any way you want. By then I already had my recommendation in place. Safe "house". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Birthday Cake 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


2021's The Birthday Cake is my latest write-up. The film's title refers to an actual cake that is taken to a memorial celebration. Said cake is also sort of metaphoric. I mean it's literally like an antagonistic co-star.

So OK, The Birthday Cake surprised me considering how much the other critics panned it. My question is how is this flick overlooked? Yeah it's mob-related and well, mob-licious. But it also plays out like a living nightmare, a sort of horror talkie if you will. 

"Cake" stars Shiloh Fernandez and he heads up a well-known cast of at least 5 people who appeared in Goodfellas (I'm not kidding). Fernandez is the anchor here and his screen presence is indeed bruising. It's like 1972's Michael Corleone appeared out of nowhere with well, a little facial hair. 

Speaking of Goodfellas and Mean Streets and um, Uncut Gems, The Birthday Cake is like a compact version of all three of them. Rookie director Jimmy Giannopoulos (I'll just call him Jimmy G) gets his camera right up in the actor's grills. His pace is frantic and claustrophobic as it feels like everyone is filmed in a freaking tin can. 

Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, Lorraine Bracco, and Luis Guzman are just a handful of side characters in Jimmy G's cowed, blistering vision. They're mere sycophants in the film's 93-minute running time but you like seeing them on screen anyway. Heck, it's good catching up with Kilmer considering what the dude has gone through. Val plays a mafia boss who I guess got shot in the throat and can't talk properly. In real life Kilmer suffered through throat cancer and uses a tracheotomy to get the words out. Man that's some mindful casting. 

All in all, "Cake's" only criticism from me is that the film is rather short with so many familiar faces fading in and out. I mean Shiloh's Gio is the only one that registers from a full, narrative standpoint. Oh well. Any snapshot of beastly thug life caught on camera is better than no snapshot at all. The Birthday Cake is the type of violent crime drama that gets under your skin and seeps into your bloodstream. For a little over an hour and a half, I had my "cake" and ate it too. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Antlers 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"All this has got to be an animal, right?" Sure buddy. Whatever you say.

Anyway 2021's Antlers is well, another creature feature. Its creature is a manimal which by definition, is a life form that's part human and part beast. It's like an ordinary dude turned into the alien from Alien, or a male Zelda Goldman, or the world's ugliest reindeer. Was I scared? Sort of. I mean there were those few jolts that made my heart skip.

Antlers is R-rated. It's R-rated in the same way that any horror flick is R-rated. Basically it's gory, ghastly, and gross. Scott Cooper directs and yup, he gets back to the grimy and grubby. What downtrodden Pennsylvania is to Out of the Furnace, Oregon is to Antlers. The ground is damp, the fog settles in, and characters make bad decisions right before they got offed by sharply branched horns.

Taking place in a small town via The Beaver State and filmed three years ago (COVID-19 had a lot to do with that businass), Antlers shows that even little kids perish in supernatural horror fare. The movie is about a frazzled school teacher who tries to uncover the secret behind her sickly-looking student and his mutation-ed father.

Antlers runs 99 minutes, still builds like it's 120, and features a forlorn ending. The film is all about atmospherics and disquiet and less about knotty mystery (that's Scott Cooper for ya). The musical score by Javier Navarrete is tops and the performances are unassuming, wind-sucking, and raw (especially Keri Russell who plays weathered English teacher Julia Meadows).

Bottom line: If you eliminate Russell's presence, the music, and Cooper's ground down mood from Antlers, you'd probably have one of the lesser scary pics out there. But you have those attributes so I'll extend Antlers the proverbial olive "branch". Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Voyagers 2021 * * * Stars


Science fiction films tend to be more of the same and well, that's what I went into thinking when I was about to watch Voyagers. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised. 2021's Voyagers breaks the mold or at least it intends to. It's knife-edge, intense, and gets all it can out of its $29 million dollar budget. It's been thirty years but we can now actually call a flick Lord of the Sci-Flies

So yeah, Voyagers blurs the lines of its PG-13 rating. There's some bloody images and nubile themes that may be a little too much for your normal budding youth. Coming from the enthusiastic mind of director Neil Burger (Divergent, Limitless), Voyagers has a pristine look and can actually wow you on the big screen (sadly it might be too late for that). With cinematographer Enrique Chediak on board and game, Voyagers is 2001-ish with some serious, Steadicam bliss. 

Taking place in the year 2063 and containing adequate set designs that are futuristic enough, Voyagers is the space-age version of "inmates running the asylum" (or not running, just rebelling). It's about a group of teenagers sent on a spacecraft mission to colonize a planet because the living conditions on Earth just ain't cutting it. 

Voyagers at a sufficient running time of 108 minutes, is basically cut from original cloth unless you count the 1990 film mentioned earlier (see first paragraph). Edited cleanly, stealth in its violence, and cast almost perfectly (Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, and Colin Farrell are really good here), Voyagers only suffers from a pat and speedy ending that sort of wraps everything up in a nice neat bow. Whatev. It's about the journey here or should I say, the journey of 86 years from our planet. Voyagers revels in cinematic conflict as its characters let natural selection and vacuumed Darwinism weed itself out. Good peregrination. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


I saw the first Conjuring flick and I thought it was meh. I've never seen the second Conjuring installment (aptly titled The Conjuring 2). Now it's Halloween and yeah, I might as well watch a little fright fare. Why not The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. I mean why not. 

Anyway "Devil" is a modern-day horror pic even though it takes place in 1981. I say it's modern-day because it has those jump scares that are seen so often and don't really terrify you internally. There's also that MTV-style editing we see so much of in today's fear fest assembly line (in MTV's defense, they did start their inception in '81). 

Finally, there's that whole follow-up faze and revisiting of stuff from years past. Examples: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has an opening shot that feels like something out of The Exorcist. Added to that, the possessed dude in "Devil" looks like the possessed dude in Amityville II: The Possession (Sonny Montelli). And just for kicks and giggles, the afreet in "Devil" targets a family just like in those Paranormal Activity vehicles. Need I say more.

"Devil" is a June 2021 release that has the look and texture of an episode of Paranormal Witness. It chronicles the Warrens (who else?) as they investigate the demonic bewitching of a young, contortionist man who committed murder. "Devil" is directed by Michael Chaves, a sort of meat and potatoes filmmaker whose 3rd Conjuring is decently well-made and suitably plotted. Sadly though, we've seen this whole movie before (no pun intended). 

"Devil" is a sequel of a sequel that knows it's a sequel. It's a continuation of something prosaic, a new chapter of real-life paranormal investigators who just happen to stumble upon some more demonic mumbo jumbo. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga do a decent job in their Warren portrayals. But if what's on screen isn't bone-chillingly scary, there's no need to "conjure" up anything but a mixed review. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Dune 2021 * * * Stars


First Denis Villeneuve decided to piggy back on Blade Runner. Now he's doing an update of 1984's Dune. Hey bro, how about coming up with some original material. Ha-ha just kidding. 

Anyhow, 2021's Dune is pretty uncompromising. I mean why wouldn't it be. This 155-minute flick is very epic in scope. It's sometimes Kubrick-an and almost every wide-angle frame is like a portrait. Villeneuve's lens is as big as Texas and you expect the Sand People from Star Wars to eventually show up (I mean the movie is called Dune). You'll sometimes be wowed by what's on display but you'll also be a little head-scratched. 

In truth, I've never seen David Lynch's '84 version and I've never read the book on which the film is based (I don't read). So yeah, I'll just lay out Dune's plot and get it over with. Paul Atreides (a smothering screen presence in Timothee Chalamet) is the ducal heir of House Atreides. Paul must travel to an evil planet to ensure that the safety of his family and people is secure. Dune takes place in the way-out future (10,191 ad to be exact). It's a stoned, fever dream that feels like total science fiction manifest.  

Denis Villeneuve's vision is completely assured even if Dune's story-line has thighs and ankles instead of legs. Villeneuve's vision will also creep you out as he gives us sandy white tropes, dragonfly spaceships, wonted opening credits, a glacial pace, and Hans Zimmer's almost demonized film score. Heck, you know this is a Denis Villeneuve pic from the first darn shot. As with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Denis the menace is a creature of sculpted habit. 

All in all, Dune is not thinking man's sci-fi because well, it doesn't give you enough gumption to think. It starts somewhere in the middle and yup, its coda is somewhere in the middle too (I suppose that's why it's listed as Part 1). Whatever. Dune looks and feels like a million bucks (or $165 million if you're talking budget). There's a lot to admire here even if its disjointed narrative doesn't allow you to admire all of it. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Redemption Day 2021 * * * Stars


"The gentleman we are dealing with is crazy". OK, that's established. So why are you calling him a gentleman? Are you giving him credit for being a meshuggana?

Anyway Redemption Day is a thinking man's actioner with raw performances that only unleashes its action in the last half hour. Don't worry, said action still sticks. Oh and the brute one-liners and machismo are a hoot too ("I've been practicing on the weekends", that refers to shooting).

In Redemption Day, the protagonist (Gary Dourdan as Brad Paxton) becomes a veritable Chuck Norris with some visible badassery. Also in Redemption Day, the antagonist is a Christoph Waltz lookalike who doesn't have a nice bone in his body. He actually threatens a female character that if he doesn't get 10 million bones in ransom, he'll kill her and her unborn baby. Yeesh. 

Redemption Day is about a Marine who attempts to rescue his wife from a terrorist organization stationed in Algeria. The film while cleanly story-lined and gleamed in its lighting, is a slickster version of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Take heed though, "Day" doesn't have the Academy Award values of the flicks previously mentioned. It's more TV movie-influenced with some serious CNN remnants and a Call of Duty whiff. 

"Day" has a cast consisting of Andy Garcia (acting like well, Andy Garcia), Ernie Hudson (he's from my neck of the woods so I had to mention him), and Martin Donovan (acting like his normal, smarmy self). Redemption Day is also filled with long tracking shots, wide shots, a Mexican standoff, a head-scratching twist ending, and obligatory, thriller spy music. It's the type of film Micheal Bay would make if he was deciding to go art house. Whatever. Redemption Day is still worth "saving" for a midnight rental. It's okay to seize this "day". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Halloween Kills 2021 * * * Stars


Halloween Kills is a sequel of a sequel of an original of a sequel. Just kidding. But seriously though, "Kills" is the twelfth film in the Halloween franchise canon. Its story picks up right where 2018's Halloween left off. Halloween Kills, well it's an appropriate title. Michael Myers (the bad guy, duh) "kills" just about everybody in this flick. We're talking recurring characters, new characters, long-lost cameos, and paper mache denizens just waiting for the slaughter. He even comes off as an action star doing some serious Van Damage. "Evil dies tonight". Uh, not exactly (spoiler).

Halloween Kills is also made for the die hard fandom of Halloween franchise mongers everywhere (I'm kinda one of them). It bleeds nostalgia, weaving tons of persona arcs, new revelations, and story-lines from Halloween in Haddonfield circa 40 years ago. 

As a modern-day follow-up, "Kills" has huge intentions and grated enthusiasm. It doesn't want to be middle-of-the-road stuff (like tons of other direct-to-video swipe). Director David Gordon Green's vision rather, is to be faithful and further the origins of Halloween's fanciful notion from 1978. Heck, even Donald Pleasence shows up CGI-style (it's an impressive feat). 

Helmer Green goes a little 70s with a few zoom shots in "Kills". He also gives Jamie Lee Curtis a pseudo break from raged vengeance and lets Anthony Micheal Hall's Tommy Doyle get his angered revenge on (welcome back Gary Wallace). Halloween Kills doesn't have the most creative "kills" in the series (that honor goes to 1981's Halloween II). It's still pretty violent and the blood, well it flows like Merlot-d red wine. 

"Kills" is a decent combination of brains and well, brains (of the squishy kind). It's truly the dark second act of a trilogy that will give us Halloween Ends in 2022 (no happy ending here folks). Based on the box office take of these new Halloween endeavors, there's always more tricks to be treated. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Guilty 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


2021's The Guilty is my latest write-up. The film's title doesn't exactly come to fruition until the end. Most of the way I figured I was watching 911: The Movie

So yeah, "Guilty" is one of this year's best. A lot of people contribute but it's a bruising character study for actor Jake Gyllenhaal, a one-man show if you will. As 911 operator Joe Baylor, Gyllenhaal lets us feel his nerve endings with every close-up by director Antoine Fuqua. Abraded tour de force, well that's an understatement. 

The Guilty I guess, represents something along the lines of 2013's Locke (a flick I have yet to see but have seen clips of) and 2018's Searching (a flick I have seen and enjoyed immensely). "Guilty" is also COVID-19 ready as it was shot solely in the eye of the pandemic (November 2020). The actors of which there are few of, become socially distanced whereby they're never really near each other. Helmer Fuqua instead opts for the proverbial "violence of the mind". It's what you don't see but discern that really creeps you out. 

Harboring a cast of rattled voices on the other end of a telephone line (Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano) and filmed primarily in one location (an intricately detailed 911 call center), "Guilty" chronicles LAPD officer turned demoted 911 operator Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal). Baylor is being demoted because he's awaiting trial for a manslaughter charge while on duty. Throughout "Guilty", Joe has to navigate a disturbing call concerning the abduction of a wife by a distraught husband. 

The Guilty has a twist I didn't see coming, a mean-spirited/downtrodden approach, an involved attention to detail, and tension that's 10 inches thick. Antoine Fuqua feels right at home with "Guilty's" camouflaged LA vibe and well, that's his old stomping ground (remember Training Day?). Basically if you don't check out The Guilty you'll feel "guilty" for not doing so. Natch. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, October 9, 2021

College Professor Obsession 2021 * 1/2 Stars


2021's College Professor Obsession (my latest review) is in a way, about a college professor. But the title, well it's kinda misleading. There's a lot more things going on in this Lifetime vehicle. Most of them from a cinematic standpoint, aren't great.  

So yeah, "Professor" is akin to a bad Scream sequel that ultimately plays out like a lumpy murder mystery. The acting, well it's mostly mediocre with enough hammy residue to fill a whole dinner table at Easter. Only the actual professor character (who's purely foul) provides any sort of heighten tension throughout the film. Neve Campbell is sadly not there to save the day. 

Sidney Prescott-s begot, you wanna see a Lifetime pic that's tonally all over the place with editing that is completely scattershot? Well "Professor" is truly your ticket. You wanna witness a director (Brent Ryan Green) use his actors sparingly so they fade in and out like shades of common light? Well "Professor" doesn't disappoint. Finally, do you want to see a lead performance by Rhonda Rousey lookalike Grace Patterson that's about as bad as what Rhonda Rousey would've done? It's up to you but I would avoid it.

Filmed in Oklahoma (with plenty of filler aerial shots) and harboring the production company of Almost Never Films Inc. (that's funny), College Professor Obsession is about a college student who finds herself in danger because she won't do the deed with her d-bag teacher. 

That's the plot description I got off the Internet and it's a vague one at that. Be that as it may, helmer Green doesn't follow up on said description. He doesn't give the professor persona enough screen time and doesn't establish the dude's shaded evilness. He'd rather make "Professor" more slasher/whodunit elaborate than it has any right to be. Talk about a messy "idee fixe".

Written by Jesse Burleson 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Human Capital 2019 * * * Stars


"I need that money back". Ah, spoken like any scrounger who has ever made a bad ante. 

Anyway 2019's Human Capital is my latest review. It's a remake of an Italian film by the same name from several years ago. The new Human Capital takes place in New York while the older version takes place in Milan, Italy.

So yeah, Human Capital is a "human" drama that reminded me of other human dramas from the early 2000s. You know the ones with the highly known cast playing family men characters who collide with each other. 

Human Capital is an intertwining plot film by which the personas connect or link to one another in multiple ways. "Capital" is Doug Liman's Go without all the bells and whistles. It's Magnolia un-magnified. It's 2004's Crash without racial overtones and bad lieutenants. Basically "Capital's" director (Marc Meyers) comes correct as he provides himself with one or two Rashomon-like moments. 

Meyers gives the flick a cold, pallid, and sterile look. He doesn't stray from the narrative, he just gets a little non-linear on you. Human Capital isn't violent and the actor's portrayals aren't in too much danger (except financially, adulterer-d, and with the law). "Capital" is more psychologically bruising with the raw acting by Liev Schreiber, Betty Gabriel, and Marisa Tomei being proof of that. 

Distributed by Vertical Entertainment and featuring Peter Sarsgaard in his normal smug supporting role, Human Capital is about two different families (one middle class and one upper class) who are somehow connected by way of hedge fund investments, hit-and-run car accidents, and pseudo boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. 

In retrospect, "Capital" ends low-key as almost everyone involved is basically in the same position they were at the beginning of the flick. Whatever. It's not about the destination here, just the parasitic journey. "Human" conditioned. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, October 1, 2021

Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story 2019 * * * Stars


In 2019's Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story, the "quiet storm" refers to Artest himself. Ron Artest (now known as Metta Sandiford-Artest) played in the NBA for 18 years. He won a title with the LA Lakers in 2010, was Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, and was a one-time All-Star. At almost two hours, "Quiet Storm" tells Metta's story and tells it chronologically. We're talking from growing child age till present day.

So yeah, "Quiet Storm" is a documentary about an NBA player who had moderate success while also exhibiting a volatile nature. Remember the Malice at the Palace? Well Artest was there and it caused him to be suspended for the remainder of the 2004-2005 season. Metta went into the stands and punch a spectator. He also got a couple more slugs in when another spectator got onto the court. 

Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story is an effective if not conventional documentary. It would be more conventional had it not been for title cards featuring words of wisdom from Metta's never seen shrink. Now is "Quiet Storm" a platform docu for Metta to gain sympathy for his past incidents? Sure it is. Artest had problems on court with fighting and what not. Also, he was arrested for domestic violence in 2007. Is "Quiet Storm" a manifesto for Metta to get himself consideration for the NBA Hall of Fame? I mean it feels like it but I don't believe he's an actual Hall of Famer (he had a decent career though). 

All in all, Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story gets the job done by garnishing all the standard docu checkmarks. The archive footage is solid, the interviews are real, the editing is streamlined, and you get some concrete attestation concerning the Metta you thought you knew. The con is that "Quiet Storm" doesn't jump off the screen (no pun intended) like this year's Tina and The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. It firstly goes through the motions as to not fully laud Metta's pseudo self-serving journey. It does however, give the dude some sprinkled redemption. Imperfect "storm".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Secret Life of A Student 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"I'm your teacher. There is nothing more between us". There is "more" I need to say about the flick I'm about to review. How about another 200+ words. 

Anyway, Secret Life of A Student is my latest write-up. And its title, well it doesn't have much to do with the movie. "Secret Life" is about a female high school teacher who is getting it from all angles. Someone in a sleek car is trying to harass her, her student claims he had an affair with her therefore threatening her job, and social media deviants are posting stuff about her that is well, inappropriate. The high school teacher I'm talking about is Lauren Beeches and she is played by Canadian actress Rhonda Dent. Dent gives a solid performance in the lead role. There's a certain rawness and vulnerability to it. 

Secret Life of A Student is directed by sometimes producer Jason James. James fashions "Secret Life" as a slow burn where you anxiously wait for the big reveal. So OK, who is driving by Lauren's house and giving her the creeps? Why doesn't the dean of students believe that Lauren is an upstanding teacher who doesn't rob the cradle in her spare time? And who killed Lauren's bestie at the beginning act leaving Lauren to care for said bestie's young daughter? These questions get answered at the two-hour mark (with commercials added). "Secret Life", well it has the ability to leave the viewer tedium-bound and enthralled all at the same time.

Basically "Secret Life" is a Lifetime endeavor posing as veritable whodunit. The acting is sometimes hammy, the whiff of the film is sometimes campy, the red herrings are ready-made, and there's the final twist where the antagonist goes completely cray cray (the way she says "sweet baby angel" is borderline theatrical). I've seen better Lifetime-rs but I've also seen worse. A secret "life" less ordinary.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, September 23, 2021

My Husband's Secret Brother 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


My Husband's Secret Brother refers to a half-brother who works at an auto repair shop. He avoids his other half-brother cause well, the dude is a psychopath. Said psychopath is Kevin and he is played by Joey Lawrence. Lawrence's Kevin yields a needle and kills like a hit-man (he's so darn professional about it). He also appears like an oily son of a gun with what looks like painted-on facial hair.  

Appearances begot, "Secret Brother" is a Lifetime thriller that gets invaded by the Lawrence brothers (Matthew, Joey, and Andrew). Matthew and Joey co-star while Andrew directs. And yeah, all three of them are executive producers. 

Now is My Husband's Secret Brother an ego trip by those Lawrence broheims? It could be but the flick is not half bad. And is "Secret Brother" better than the other Lawrence outing titled Money Plane? It is but both films are still in bad taste (bad meaning nasty fun). Case in point: Joey Lawrence's Kevin goes to a lady's condo and drowns her in her Jacuzzi. He then goes over to her piano and plays a tune with his O.J.-style murder gloves on. Joey, we hardly knew ya! 

All in all, My Husband's Secret Brother is sloppily directed by Andrew Lawrence with some off-kilter camerawork and some cringe-worthy dialogue. But hey, Lawrence is certainly ambitious and doesn't come off as the world's worst storyteller. 

His "Secret Brother" about a woman who marries a plastic surgeon bent on doing whatever it takes to claim her inheritance, has enough twists and turns to make Keyser Soze do the doo-wop. The film also gives you the standard Lifetime quirks. You got the po-po who are never around when someone gets offed. You got the sparse set locations and clear depletion of extras. Finally, you got the antagonist who announces himself to be the bad guy about 10-15 minutes in. Yup, My Husband's Secret Brother has a definite whiff of Lifetime fare. It's no "secret".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, September 20, 2021

Copshop 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"I'm gonna kill you". That's the understatement of the year when it comes to 2021's Copshop. There's a lot of bullets that fly all over the place in Copshop. A lot of them miss, a few graze, and a few hit. Just ask an entire police station and a couple of prostyle killers. Oh wait, you can't.  

Anyway, Copshop is about a con man who voluntarily gets locked up only to find out that he shares the prison barracks with the actual assassin who wants to kill him. 

Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo star. One looks like Ian Anderson in the early days and the other looks like Antonio Banderas via 1995's Desperado. Both have enough sweaty testosterone and chutzpah to solve the energy crisis. And both seem to get right back up like energizer bunnies after getting shot. 

Released in September of this year, feeling like Assault on Precinct 13 with steroids, and harboring opening title credits straight from the 1970s, Copshop feels like something Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter would combine forces on. Sadly you're better off watching their individual movies just by themselves. 

Granted Copshop isn't a bad film, it's just an uneven one. Intertwined between violent shootouts and feisty one-liners is otherwise annoying dialogue and characters who try to be too darn witty. Copshop's plot, well it's its own Mexican standoff. There's too many directions, too many points, and lots of personas chiming in. 

Oh well. At least you get director Joe Carnahan's standard ending that's abrupt, gotcha-inducing, and thought-provoking. Carnahan is truly a style monger and his flick The Grey is a favorite of mine. But sometimes he comes off like a Tarantino clone who ignored the Academy and just went for schlock. Unfortunate.  

Bottom line: Copshop might be the film Joe was born to make but it's more like he might have been "born" yesterday. "Chopped" shop.  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, September 17, 2021

Prey 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


In 2021's Prey, the "prey" refers to some dudes who are being tormented by a soundless, female sharp shooter. Said sharp shooter is obviously distraught and traumatized. We know she lost her kid to a careless hunter and that's about it (that's I guess enough for her to go loco).

So OK, Prey is a brief Netflix thriller that I'm thinking was filmed in the backwoods of Germany (the mountainous scenery gave it away). It stars unknown troupers whose voices for the most part, might have been occasionally dubbed. The actors are not from the camp of Laurence Olivier and well, they come off as sort of unlikable millennial-s. Instead of talking to each other calmly and working out their dire situation, these five guys would rather bicker, wine, and be snide.

Prey is an exercise in style on hollow point. Director Thomas Sieben knows what he's doing behind the camera and with the help of Michael Kamm's musical score, there is fitful tension to be built. If only Prey had a more detailed plot and a tighter reason for being, it could've been something. Instead you have a B-movie with standardized violence, unmapped characters, and a conclusion that contains a loose end or two.

I wanted to know more about the woman assassin who doesn't talk and just dutifully shoots to kill. I also wanted to know why at one point she sees three of the men in her sights and doesn't off them immediately. Why? Finally, I wanted to know why the five blokes she was hunting had such an erotic same sex nature about them. I gotta admit it was very Top Gun-ish.

In retrospect, Sieben's film is well-made from a technical standpoint and his use of random flashbacks is moderately telling. But Prey would rather revel in its flowing modus operandi then flesh out any cinematic meaning. It's just not "predatory" enough.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, September 13, 2021

Val 2021 * * * Stars


In 2021's Val, "Val" refers to chameleon-like actor Val Kilmer. Val killed it in movies like Top Gun, The Doors, and Heat. In Val he's so in love with holding a camera you wonder why he hasn't become a director himself. This documentary perhaps is the closest thing to him doing that (even though Val was ultimately helmed by filmmakers Ting Poo and Leo Scott).

So yeah, Val is a docu that spans the career of Val Kilmer through archived footage and present day footage. Unable to talk because of his bout with throat cancer, Val is narrated by Kilmer's son Jack (also an actor). What's neat is that Jack sounds just like his pops did in the 1990s. And Kilmer for my money, had one of the greatest acting voices of all time (next to Russell Crowe and Al Pacino).

Val is fascinating, dissipated, and sort of surreal. Is it a four star affair? Not quite. Is it the movie Kid 90 wished it could've been? Oh absolutely. Kid 90 was about the life of Soleil Moon Frye. You know the girl from Punky Brewster. Where Val succeeds Kid 90 is that it's more profound and has more of an anchor (perhaps because Kilmer reached higher bouts of stardom). Kilmer is an interesting and pretty eclectic dude. In the world of acting, he might have been difficult on set but the guy is all passion and heart.

In truth, Val might come off to some viewers as a little pretentious, a little vanity-stricken, and self-serving. And at 109 minutes, the flick tends to go on and on until ending abruptly (kind of like an Oliver Stone pic hint, hint). Still, Val is well-made from a technical standpoint and paints Kilmer as a sympathetic figure who still deserves to hug a little spotlight. In the words of Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison, "this is the strangest life I've ever known". No matter. It's been a good life Val so keep on truckin' bro.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Party from Hell 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"I love party games". Uh-oh. Someone's gone a little cray cray. That someone is Molly Cole and she is played by New Jersey native Jackie Moore. Moore is a decent actress who does a lot of mugging with her eyes. Man, dem some creepy eyes. 

Jackie Moore co-stars as the manipulative and unscrupulous villain in 2021's Party from Hell. "Party" is a nasty Lifetime flick that borders on sterile exploitation with enough camp value to pitch a tent. It's the type of film where Lifetime studio execs salivate with a green-light and become hot and bothered at the same time. 

So yeah, Party from Hell is Lifetime network fare that checks all the merited boxes. You got the unseen cop characters who are never around when someone gets murdered (check). You got the protagonist (Denise Allen played by April Martucci) who is oblivious to all the evil shenanigans that's going on (check). You got the cliche ending where the antagonist gets away scot-free (check). You got the hammy acting (check). Finally, you got the low production values and sparse locations (Czechoslovakia!). Jared Cohn directed Party from Hell but you just know that the hand of David DeCoteau did a little bit of the guiding. 

Released in the US via this month and featuring Eric Roberts in a small role as a rich investor (Roberts and Vivica A. Fox sure have been getting their Lifetime on), Party from Hell is about a wife and mother who hires a party planner only to have said party planner try to ruin her life.  

Bottom line: If you like your Lifetime movies free of integrity and cogency, then "Party" will be consistent viewing in that arena. If you're a snooty critic like myself, then you'll be stuck in stranded "purgatory" trying to come up with a recommendation. Party "pooper". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James 2021 * * * 1/2 Stars


Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James is my latest write-up. It's a documentary that projects like an artist's wiki page. No matter. You still slide on its slurp-y groove. "Sound and Fury" is long overdue for it's the first time we've seen a docu about James since 1998's E! True Hollywood Story. Rick James died in 2004 from cardiac failure (among other things). He was only 56 years old. 

So yeah, "Sound and Fury" tells the story of a singer-songwriter whose image and funked sound are forever frozen in time. Director Sacha Jenkins knows this and fashions James as a flawed human being with a touch of volatile genius and a sense of braided smut. "Give me that stuff that funky that sweet that funky stuff". Indeed. 

Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James provides the audience with genuine, off the cuff interviews and grainy nostalgic archive footage. At 111 minutes, you get a chronological snapshot of James from his birth in Buffalo, NY till his ultimate demise via LA's Toluca Hills apartments. The editing by Nicholas Pacchiano is lightning-quick while the overall experience of "Sound and Fury" gives you feelings of being agog and wistful. If only helmer Jenkins would've done away with the whole animation aspect (man I hate that stuff in on record flicks). 

All in all, "Sound and Fury" is the second best of its kind for this year (Tina about Tina Turner is a tad better). The docu omits Rick's relationship with Linda Blair but it also gave me insight into things I didn't know about James. I mean the dude actually hated hip-hop, he was a draft dodger, and he even used to jam with Neil Young and The Band (crazy). Dave Chappelle parodies him while Sacha Jenkins salutes him. Overall rating: 3.5 stars. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Danger in the Spotlight 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"Everything's gonna be fine". The Lifetime network never goes that route. That's like saying that the Leaning Tower of Pisa doesn't lean. Natch. 

Anyway, Danger in the Spotlight is my latest write-up. It's gonzo film-making with an even more gonzo ending (and that's saying a lot for a certain long-running cable endeavor). What's on screen has so much promise till "Danger" pulls a 180 "WTF" just for the heck of it. I mean seriously. 

So OK, Danger in the Spotlight for the most part is a Lifetime drama thriller that is generally well-crafted. It has an original premise about a recovering alcoholic who commits a hit-and-run leaving a famous ballet dancer paralyzed (so you think). 

Jessica Morris (as Martha) plays said alcoholic and her screen presence is palatable. I mean Morris is a babe, she's a Lifetime lifetime-r, and well, she's pretty darn sexy. But to paint her as a kind of pseudo villain in the end is just bunk. It renders "Danger" sort of icky and a little misguided. 

Danger in the Spotlight leads you down a path where you almost know where things are headed. Thanks to its eerie vibe, its multiple flashbacks, its red herrings, and its solid musical score by Tomas Peire, the film is still generally watchable. But jeez, that conclusion lacks credibility and overall plausibility. I guess pigs really do fly (ugh).

I mean you'd have to believe that someone would forgive someone else for trying to kill them so they could get their daughter back in a custody battle. You'd also have to believe that that same someone would commit a murder and help dispose of a dead body for the same darn reason. Lifetime network, I give you credit for going for shock value and thinking outside of the box on this one. But even M. Night Shyamalan has his limitations. Unclear and present "danger".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Habit 2021 * Star


"Good day sir, so kind". Me, well I'm not gonna be so kind to 2021's Habit (my latest review). Habit is like a Gen X movie made with millennial-s (if that makes any sense). It's also over-stylized, over-directed, bible-thumped, full of itself, and pretty kitschy. It's as if rookie director Janell Shirtcliff dares you to hate it. Yeah I'm not joking here.

So OK, Habit's plot is so murky I had to look it up on the flick's IMDb page. It's about a heroin addict who gets involved in a bad drug deal and poses as a nun to keep out of trouble (huh?). Habit paints helmer Shirtcliff as the poor man's Darren Aronofsky and/or the poor man's Terry Gilliam. The imagery here is striking and ornamented but the overall result is a hollow mess.

Produced by over 20 people and clocking in at 81 minutes (that's with credits), Habit is a cinematic acid trip, the worst kind of trip. There's nutrition-less flash cuts, bad filler low camera angles, and even a couple of freeze frames (ugh). Yeah that's fine and dandy if you knew what was going on, you actually cared what was going on, and the troupers didn't come off as so darn irksome.

Honestly I'd like to know what went down at the meeting when Habit was formally green-lighted. Did the studio execs think it might turn into a cult film? Maybe. Did they owe the filmmakers a favor or were strong-armed? Probably.

Actors/actresses featured in Habit are Bella Thorne, Gavin Rossdale, Josie Ho, and Ione Skye. Throughout the proceedings they think they are being witty but they come off as total dolts. The dialogue given to them by Libby Mintz and Shirtcliff is so rife with annoyance it suggests an inner circle sitcom a la the Disney Channel (with profanities added). Um, please make a "habit" of never watching movies like Habit ever again.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Take Back 2021 * * Stars


"Don't you remember me?" Ah when someone says that, it's never really a welcoming sign.

Anyway 2021's Take Back is my latest write-up. By definition, the words take back refer to reclaiming possession of something. In the film Take Back, a married couple is trying to reclaim possession of their daughter who is being kidnapped by sex traffickers. Take Back is a shade watchable but it doesn't equal the intensity of the similar Traffik from three years ago. That flick involving the forced labor of women was pretty darn upsetting.

Movie comparisons aside, Take Back is an action/thriller that has a little bit of both. It's a somewhat dangerous pic in which no one really feels safe throughout. There's plenty of hand-to-hand combat, a few remorseless killings, a couple of shootouts, and one proposed ego trip by Mr. Russell Jones (he acts as co-producer, extra, production designer, and art director).

Yeah Take Back moves at decent clip and yeah, the acting is sort of amicable. But as Roger Murtaugh once said in an 80s action relic, the overall outline here is uh, "pretty thin".

Take Back has a lot of brooding characters (with Mickey Rourke acting like well, Mickey Rourke) and everyone pretty much appears mean-spirited and nasty. But the filmmakers obviously didn't do enough research with the concept of captivity in cinema. The script by rookie Zach Zerries is pretty vague as it presents some holes in the so-called trafficking mythos. I mean not that I condone torment but those scenes are so quickly cut you don't know exactly what's going on.

Bottom line: I don't want a "take back" so I'm going with a mixed review. Check out 2018's Traffik (mentioned earlier) if you haven't already. It just goes deeper down the rabbit hole of coercing and abduction. Furthermore, it does so without the inching folly.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Designed for Death 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


Designed for Death (my latest review) refers to an interior designer who hears voices in her head and hallucinates. She designs a handsome dude's house and then decides she wants to become the ultimate homewrecker (no pun intended). Said designer's name is Ava and she is played with discipline by 28-year-old Kelcie Stranahan. Stranahan is quite pretty and can act but "Death's" script causes her to go way too far over the top. Kelcie's Ava, Mrs. Mott, and Joan Crawford could have become real-life besties (ugh). 

Best buds begot, Designed for Death is a Lifetime thriller that has a real hard-on for style, dazed imagery, and voyeurism. It's as if the director wanted you to forget that the flick was Lifetime fare and more a cinematic acid trip. Everything from the opening credits sequence to the heightened flashbacks to the fast-cut editing shows that an inner Oliver Stone was channeled. I was wondering, did the two opposite list filmmakers hang out at a screening for U Turn?  

So yeah, I could've recommended "Death" but a few things kept gnawing at me. I mean there's actors featured here with bad actor voices, annoying next door neighbor characters that might be a little cray cray themselves, an ending that feels a little misguided, and an obsession with the antagonist (and the protagonist) hitting everybody over the head with some sort of mass. Oh and there's also enough long shots of sunny LA to make your eyes roll. I'm curious if the helmer was just using these shots as filler. Maybe. Possibly.

Bottom line: Designed for Death is not "designed" to be taken seriously (when it thinks it is). It's also out of the box film-making that you don't normally get with everyday Lifetime swipe. Oh whatever, I'll just call the whole thing a wash. "Designed" by committee (yup, I'm the committee).  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Midnight in the Switchgrass 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"It'll be dark soon." So says a subdued murderer in Midnight in the Switchgrass (my latest review). "Switchgrass" is Florida Panhandle noir with a little deep-fried twang. Its plot may be conventional (law enforcement officials track down a serial killer) but there's some style to boot.

Bruce Willis and Megan Fox are on the front of the poster for "Switchgrass." Willis, well you wouldn't even know he was in the movie unless you saw said poster. Brucie has about 7-10 lines (which I'm guessing comes out to be about $100,000 per line). With a little nudge, he just manages to get those lines out. 

As for Fox, well except for creating an interesting persona in 2012's This Is 40, Megan ain't much of an actress. Midnight in the Switchgrass isn't an awful film but it shows that Willis and Fox should probably never appear on screen together ever again.

"Switchgrass" is a flick that caters more to the deep performances by Emile Hirsch (he plays an FDLE agent) and Lukas Haas (he plays a sluggish psychopath). I guess they weren't sexy enough choices to headline the poster like Willis and Fox. Haas, who usually doesn't carry an entire film, does decent work here as menace Peter. It's strange seeing him in this type of role considering that he mostly panders to cameos and bit parts.

Midnight in the Switchgrass is directed by Randall Emmett. Emmett is normally a producer so this represents his first time behind the camera. Randall revels in stark images, flashbacks, weaving character arcs, and overhead shots. You can tell he doesn't want to be the bearer of direct-to-video gifts (which he kind of is). Sadly Emmett wants "Switchgrass" to be art but it's faux art. Oh well, I'll give him points for trying. Lipstick on a pig is better than no lipstick at all. 

Written by Jesse Burleson