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film reel image

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