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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Stowaway 2022 * * * Stars


2022's Stowaway has a pretty fitting title. Actually there are two people who stow away in the film (at least for the first act). Watching Stowaway with great ardor, I sort of harked back to home invasion stuff like Survive the Night, Don't Breathe, and/or Breaking In. The only difference is that we're talking about a big fat yacht (with flair) and not some remote dwelling. 

For most of the way, Stowaway carries the viewer along with aplomb. The set-up here is well established, you get a solid beat on the main character (Ruby Rose as the rebellious Bella Denton), and the tension throughout is a moderate to slow burn. It's only in the last 15 minutes or so that Stowaway bogs down a little and becomes sort of rote and predictable. Frank Grillo (as patent baddie Meeser) just had to play Frank Grillo again.

Shot in quaint Mississippi with all its overhead and aerial glory, Stowaway's outline is too good to be true. It's about a downtrodden woman (Bella) who inherits a large sailboat from her late father. While sleeping on said boat with a random, Bella encounters some calculated marauders who are looking for millions of dollars in gold and don't plan on leaving any witnesses behind. 

Sometimes music is everything in a flick and well, Stowaway is pretty close in that respect. Try watching it without the sound, I mean don't. The soundtrack here by BC Smith is tops, a sort of steel-drummed, lucid suite that evokes early 2000s Cliff Martinez (and that's a good thing). Along with this soundtrack, some dark and dangerous direction by Declan Whitebloom (he's mostly a music video guy), and actors that are game enough, Stowaway bleeds atmospherics as it fashions itself as a nippy, compact thriller. Don't "hide" from it, just see it. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Escape the Field 2022 * * Stars


"This doesn't make any sense. How did we get here?" That's basically the depth of the dialogue from the pic I'm writing to you about. We're talking three scribblers here with thriller, script cliches running rampant.

Anyway I haven't seen Shane West in a movie for like 20 years. He's almost unrecognizable (it's probably the beard). In Escape the Field (my latest review) Shane plays a tough bloke named Ryan. Ryan has been I guess possessed and now has demonized, red eyes. He's not really scary but hey, he can still fight, sneer, and intimidate like Van Damme.

So yeah, Escape the Field has a presupposition that's there for the taking. Six people who don't know each other, wake up in a cornfield not knowing how they got there. These guys need to survive (and flee) said cornfield by solving puzzles, sticking together, and gathering clues. Basically we're talking elements of The Maze Runner, 1997's Cube, and Escape Room (with the addition of rotted maize).

Now is "Field's" privy antagonism the work of a psycho nut, a mole, or impractical, government testing? I'll go with the latter based on other films I've seen from this genre. And do the filmmakers of Escape the Field give any insight as to why some strangers are being put through the ringer via an area that would've made Malachai Boardman salivate? Nope.

"Field's" helmer (Emerson Moore) can direct as his various overhead, low angle, and aerial shots are a little disturbing. Moore's story gains traction too as you the viewer sit on pins and needles wanting to know how Escape the Field ends. Here's the problem though: "Field" doesn't actually windup or have a thread to its life-and-death quandary. The vehicle just sits there, giving you a tease of bloodless kills and aimless style. Field "untested".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Menace II Society 1993 * * * 1/2 Stars


1993's Menace II Society is not so much a violent drama as it is a war film set in the street gang areas of southern LA. The young criminals and hustlers featured are like foot soldiers and Watts is well, like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all rolled into one. Watching "Society", you feel as unsafe and parlous as its personas do. There's no two ways about it.

Edited a tad choppy in order to squeeze everything in the movie's 97-minute running time, Menace II Society was a breakthrough success for its filmmakers at the time (Allen and Albert Hughes). The Hughes brothers obviously saw Boyz n the Hood and said, "hold my beer, I can top that". "Society" is Boyz n the Hood 2.0 with a little Goodfellas sprinkled in. You catch the gunfire, you hear the sirens, you smell the blood, you sense a ghetto bird is always flying over.

Menace II Society has a sunless tone even when it's light out. It's a barbaric kaleidoscope of drugs and money and cross-cut gangbanging. The flick is seen through the eyes of its misguided chorus in lead character "Caine" (played by Tyrin Turner is some good, wide-eyed casting). "Society" follows "Caine" and his buds as they drink the OE, smoke some ganga, steal cars, and murder in one summer via the pauperized boroughs of hazy Southland. It's kill or be killed, live by the sword, die by the sword stuff and the Hughes brothers want you to feel it.

In Menace II Society, Allen and Albert Hughes commit to every shot with their favorite being the tracking shot. As their camera glides through various residences in the hood, it's like a veritable house of horrors. You know the surroundings are bleak and everyone involved may not live very much longer. For these two dudes, Menace II Society is an attested, directorial coup de maitre. Pretty much nothing in this pic is "society's" fault.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, September 19, 2022

Clean 2021 * * * Stars


"The trash man wasn't always a trash man". Yup, you know what that means. The trash man has a special set of skills (duh). He will find you and uh, you know the rest. 

Anyway 2021's Clean is anything but. I mean it's down and dirty and biting and stylish, taking place in a town that I didn't think was so um, down and dirty (Utica, New York). Clean stars Adrien Brody and his character's name is actually "Clean". Bearing arms and other stuff, he's a little John Wick and a little Travis Bickle, the vigilante who likes to get his wrench on. Let's just call him Adrien "Brooding" shall we. 

Clean is about Clean (Brody), a hushed, garbage truck driver who while trying to live a normal life, gets sidetracked by the need to protect his neighbors from drug dealers and loathsome thugs. Clean's solution is a savage one (it kind of has to be). I mean why beat around the bush. Why not off the surplus population of baddies via the shady areas of Utica. It's shoddy enough that they sort of run things. 

At a running time of 94 minutes, Clean's plot however, is a tad murky. I mean most of the antagonist's personas aren't quite fleshed out and Brody's Clean has a flashback past that doesn't really tell the whole story (unless you glance at the film's wiki page). Oh well. What pulls you through are Brody's hefty screen presence, the parching musical score (also done by Adrien), and Paul Solet's atmospheric direction full of gray hues, leaden overhead shots, and bleak destitution. 

Clean starts out as a slow-moving drama only to unfold like a sledgehammer of one-man army violence and bloody reprisal. It almost verges on snuff. Unearthly. As a viewer I was nearly "taken to the cleaners". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, September 16, 2022

Unplugging 2022 * * Stars


You don't see much of Eva Longoria anymore and it's weird to view character actor Matt Walsh in a lead role. But here they are, playing a head-scratching married couple in 2022's Unplugging. Unplugging is a lightweight comedy whose tones are ambitious yet skewed. There are times when the film sort of turns into heavy-handed drama (I stress the words sort of). There are other times when Unplugging's setting suggests that it might become horror fare (I stress the word might). All of what's on screen is uneven but hey, the producers needed to expand more on a premise that feels airy and trivial (too much cell phone usage and bad cell reception are the dated topics).

So yeah, there's a reason why a flick like Unplugging was never gonna be released in theaters. I'm not talking about the COVID situation here, I'm talking about what Unplugging is well, about. I mean did we really need a movie about two spouses who take a weekend sabbatical because today's modern technology is getting in the way of their union? Not really. It doesn't carry enough weight, well maybe if Unplugging was in the form of a third quarter Super Bowl commercial.

Longoria and Walsh (as Unplugging's couple in Dan and Jeanine) are game in their performances because why not. They're probably glad to be working actors while collecting that almighty paycheck. If they were A-lister-s they wouldn't even touch this thing with a stick let alone be okay with the film's generic title. I give kudos to them and their commitment because otherwise Unplugging would be so nugatory it might just float away.

Look for Unplugging's road trip remnants, its mild slapstick antics, its drones (wha??), and its yokel characters encountered in the middle of nowhere (because cinema just has to have them). Unplugging is not as awful as I thought it would be but aside from projecting itself as a harmless time-waster, it's still mediocrity "unplugged".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

End of the Road 2022 * 1/2 Stars


2022's End of the Road is about a woman and her family who go on a road trip only to get caught in the crosshairs of a killer who wants his dirty moolah. Regrettably, "Road" suffers from a clear lack of suspense and malaise. It's as if Netflix decided to skip watching dailies, recycle other genre pics, and just churn out another unenthused thriller.

"Road's" co-star Ludacris acts like well, Ludacris (that means dialogue transformed into flowing, rap limericks). Another co-star in Beau Bridges, piggybacks off his brother's character in Hell or High Water while not making himself the most credible, oldtimer villain (spoiler). Only lead Queen Latifah provides enough raw and flinching capability for an audience member to take notice. Sadly her performance in End of the Road is kind of wasted to be honest.

So yeah, "Road" builds a little tension only to deflate it by playing the race card or providing comic relief or giving Latiah's momma bear Brenda almost nothing to bounce off of. The film is misguided and surprisingly idle, a sort of lukewarm version of Joyride, Breakdown, and 1971's Duel.

With "Road", we get the desert, we get the one car chase, we get the hotel room scenes, and we get the kidnapping sequence. What we don't get is a sense of foreboding because "Road's" director (Millicent Shelton) skims the surface only to bypass road trek madness and veer right into Johnson family vacation territory. If Brenda and her cubs are in any kind of danger, they certainly seem borderline rattled about the whole situation.

End of the Road provides an implausible twist and an ending that appears like an unintentional ploy to not root for its protagonist characters. Instead of fessing up and seeking legal, endorsing ramifications, they'd just assume to take the money and run. "Hoo-hoo-hoo".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, September 10, 2022

McEnroe 2022 * * * Stars


If you don't know anything about John McEnroe, well you've probably been living under a rock. If you do know something about "Johnny Mac" (and I do), well 2022's McEnroe isn't gonna reinvent the wheel in terms of insight via the tennis great. Yeah we know he got mad and irate on the court. Yeah we know about his rivalry with Bjorn Borg and his friendship with the late Vitas Gerulaitis. Yeah we know that he plays a mean guitar and is a lifelong New Yorker. Now let's see how the whole shebang is handed out shall we.

So yeah, McEnroe is almost like a bullet point presentation that's chronological and la-di-da in its approach. The actual John McEnroe would never admit to it but his whole presence here verges on self-serving (no pun intended). But wait, I digress. McEnroe is expertly filmed by Barney Douglas and that's from a look and interview standpoint. Douglas goes for the 70s grain approach, showing rough cut archive footage that feels like you've entered a freaking time machine. McEnroe bleeds nostalgia when tennis was at its peak. It's all about the headbands, the wooden rackets, the rock 'n' roller, tennis line of action. John McEnroe was truly um, John McEn-fro. Natch.

McEnroe's hook is that it paints John as a regular Joe, a sort of mere mortal who still puts his pants on one leg at a time. I mean why else would a film crew follow him in present day, roaming the outskirts of New York City in the middle of the night. Uncanny. McEnroe also gives us probes of John McEnroe's inner circle that are candid and raw. The camera sort of peeks in when it knows it shouldn't. I can dig it. Overall, McEnroe is a documentary of a tennis legend that's an exercise in well worn style. It's worth recommending even though we've seen this net corded rodeo before.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Psycho Swim Instructor 2022 * * Stars


2022's Psycho Swim Instructor is about as low budget a thriller as I've seen on Lifetime Television. I mean you can literally count the shooting locations on one hand (rehab center, indoor pool, house, other house, outdoor pool). Hey I'm not saying it's a bad thing but boy is it noticeable. These locations feel soundstage-free as the producers probably paid the actual tenants to use said locations.

So yeah, Psycho Swim Instructor is pretty unambiguous. I mean it is about a cray cray swim instructor and in terms of movie titles, that's how Lifetime rolls. Except for one scene where a family member's body is completely gotten rid of by the use of hydrochloric acid (there's a new one), "Swim" is formulaic as water is wet (ha ha). It's as if "Swim's" director (veteran Doug Campbell) watched a bunch of past Lifetimer-s, took some memos, and proceeded to shoot the flick on a weekend. The only obligatory thing missing from Psycho Swim Instructor is that annoying best bud who's always in the ear of the vulnerable protagonist. I'm actually okay with that omission.

Psycho Swim Instructor checks all the Lifetime movie boxes. It's par for the course. You have the shocking opening sequence that the filmmakers come back to in the last twenty minutes (check). You have the remorseless nature of the baddie that's established in the first five (check). You have the dad character who is oblivious to the sneaky wrongdoings of the female who's mentally screwed (check). You have the happy ending that bypasses all the legal ramifications (check it). Finally, you have that LA, suburbanite setting with a couple of aerial shots of actual downtown (check yo self).

Minus a thumping amount of in the cards stuff, "Swim" is well-plotted, not too campy, and goes down easy if your mission is to kill 85 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. But if it's freshness dating you're looking for in 2022, Psycho Swim Instructor is more or less a weak "pedagogue".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Bullet Train 2022 * * Stars


"Every job I do, somebody dies". So says Brad Pitt's latest star persona with glasses and bucket hat in toto.

Brad Pitt seems to have found a new career niche for himself. He's now an action star or a brooding butt-kicker. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Lost City, he was likable and curiously intimidating. In 2022's Bullet Train (my latest review), he's surprisingly annoying. Sigh.

A little Guy Ritchie here, a little Tarantino there, a little bit of Smokin' Aces. That's the vibe I got from viewing Bullet Train. Director David Leitch borrows from the best as he fast-cuts, hard cuts, and whip pans his way into oblivion. But hold up, there's more. "Train" is more unfocused than the stuff just mentioned. I mean it's a gory, violent, and unfunny mess. Heck, there's a whole lot of movie going on in the Pokemon-looking throes of the overextended Bullet Train. Sometimes too much is not always a good thang.

Now did I enjoy the bone-cracking fight sequences in "Train?" I did but the problem was the screeching halts in between comprised of deficient dialogue and badly dead-panned, dry humor. And did I think Bullet Train needed a better editor to condense its manifold running time of 126 minutes? Oh you betcha. "Train" has enough subplots, put-ons, and flashbacks to power a small country. There's just too many "bullet" points and you don't see Pitt's Ladybug for extended periods of time.

As something about some hired guns on a moving train headed to God knows where, Bullet Train would be tighter and more effective if it just learned to not blether and get down to business. It tries to be ultracool, ultramodern, and ultra violent but would rather give audiences a scatty, cinematic copyedit. We're talking a bronze "bullet" here instead of a silver one.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Alone with You 2021 * * * Stars


"People are fascinating" Uh yeah. People are also cray cray or maybe tormented by an afreet. 

So OK, 2021's Alone with You makes you feel "alone" while you watch it. No joke. As something about a woman who waits for her would-be girlfriend only to be trapped in her haunted abode, "Alone" is distant and dreamlike and cold and cutoff. The fact that the acting in "Alone" is pretty much a one-person show just enhances the experience. Kudos to Emily Bennett. The only other characters you see in "Alone" are on FaceTime screens, through pink elephants, or in flashbacks.  

Alone with You is something Terrence Malick might've been drawn to right after his historical, war phase. How transfixing. The pic could be about schizophrenia or some sort of evil entity that settles in a female's narrow apartment. You don't quite know throughout yet "Alone" never fails to be unsettling and/or keyed up. I mean this vehicle had a couple of jump scares that just knocked me into next week. Call it a Black Swan "swan song" if you will.

Alone with You's directors (star Emily Bennett, Justin Brooks) bring psychological horror and psychological ruse to the table. They revel in cutaways, bloodied imagery, quiet grandeur, and inching, mind manipulation. What you are seeing is either the aftermath of liquidation, the afterlife of suicide, or both. You as the viewer interpret what you want and that's the beauty of this medium we have with reels and strips. 

All in all, with "Alone" Bennett and Brooks could terrify you multiple times but don't. It's in reserve. Most of their scenes are either on edge, red herrings or something of the Hitchcockian flavor. I was teased one minute and then felt chills down my leg the other. I hope I'm not "alone" in this inference.  

Written by Jesse Burleson