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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

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

My Top 10 Holiday Movies of All Time (2021 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