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film reel image

Thursday, June 29, 2023

No Hard Feelings 2023 * * * Stars


It's simple really. In order to embrace 2023's No Hard Feelings, you have to believe that Jennifer Lawrence can transition to a raunchy flick after all her Oscar odds and ends. I think she does. I mean if Whoopi Goldberg could do it on the dramatic side with The Color Purple than well, why not.

Anyway, No Hard Feelings is a sex comedy with no actual sex and a few chuckles. Gene Stupnitsky directs and he was the mind behind Good Boys, another foul-mouthed farce that would make any moviegoer's ears perk up in a naughty way.

So yeah, every vibe in "Feelings" has that American Pie whiff where all on screen (young and old) try to one up each other in the grossness factor. And yes, almost every scene here has some sort of physical comedy that feels a little forced and staged (that's because it is). Finally, every line of dialogue contains innuendo swipe because well, it kind of has to. So did I like No Hard Feelings? I did but for more reasons other than the former.

As a film about an Uber driver who loses her car, has no other method of obtaining additional income, and answers an ad in which she has to date a nerdy type who needs to come out of his shell, "Feelings" has a heart and/or sweet spot when I thought it wasn't about that smoke. I mean I probably paid too much attention to the trailer because No Hard Feelings is not a "hard R", it's a lighthearted R.

Sure we get a little vulgarity and sure, Lawrence's Uber persona Maddie gets full-frontal naked in a beach brawl. But hey, look closer. "Feelings" becomes a movie about eventual friendship and vulnerable characterizations. Good casting, uncut storytelling, and a great performance by a rookie (Andrew Barth Feldman as said nerd Percy) a good flick can sometimes make. Not "hard" to please.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Running Scared 1986 * * * Stars


First, you gotta get past that fake, shaving cream snow (must have been Chicago in September). Then you gotta get past the fact that Billy Crystal is a little miscast as a detective (it's a stretch). Now you can enjoy 1986's Running Scared, an action comedy film that doesn't take itself seriously until it has to. Check out the heavy-handed shootout at the end with elevators and Christmas decor and what-not. "I love this job". Indeed.

Anyway, Running Scared is a wave rider in the buddy cop genre that seemed to get its groove on in the early to mid-80s. Peter Hyams directs at a breezy clip and this is normally a dude that could do without the funny (what with The Star Chamber, 2010, and Capricorn One on his resume). Every scene in "Scared" involves a quip or an attempt at the smarty boots. Every Chi-town locale gives you the warm fuzzies if you're a Chicagoan (and I am). Every back and forth between star Crystal (mentioned earlier) and star Gregory Hines gives you the old, bromantic married couple feels. I mean this film is fun and tongue-in-cheek and occasionally violent (it's a drug dealer flick so it kinda has to be). "Always searching for the real thing." Heck-s yeah!

As something about a couple of one-liner police officers who constantly contemplate moving to Florida after one last job (on the job), "Scared" hands you the reverence that helmer Hyams watched 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop and said, "let's see how I can hybrid the two." Interesting. Running Scared is not as blackly dark and/or pulsating as "Hrs." and its humor is a little drier than "Cop". He basically fashions a kooky character study about Crystal (as Danny Costanzo) and Hines (as Ray Hughes) and gives them a rapport that makes you think they were best buds even off camera. Add a splashy "Greed decade" soundtrack and a slaphappy swipe of deputy donuts and you have a pic that's at least worth a recommendation on the low. "In the running".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Atlantic City 1980 * * Stars


1980's Atlantic City is somewhat meh as a drama set to our country's most famous boardwalk. The film runs 104 glint minutes, gauged as a character study but harboring character arcs that are vague and well, short-lived. The setting is evident ("America's Playground"), you see the inside of a casino, and the 40-year-plus print I took in looked darn good. So why was I so underwhelmed by the whole experience? It's simple really. Some critically acclaimed flicks just don't hold up like expected.

With Atlantic City, I was hoping for mystery, irony, table-turning, and/or Blackjack, not some straightforward drug movie involving "cut" cocaine. Basically you have a waitress (Sally played by Susan Sarandon) getting involved with a small-time hood (Burt Lancaster as Lou) as they try to fend off mobsters looking to get back their thousand dollar stash. So yeah, I see no complexity in what unfolds here because the story could've taken place in Podunk Utah (that means anywhere).  

Sarandon and Lancaster give solid performances, the locales are crisp, and the direction by Frenchman Louis Malle is mildly sublime. But who are we kidding? Atlantic City is small-scaled, brushed off, and hardly ad rem, with its plot details unfurling easily like an extra-wide webbed lawn chair. Added to that, Susan and Burt's personas don't have the most meaningful chemistry and the fact that they supposedly made love feels a little weird and unnecessary (he was in his late 60s at the time, she in her 30s). I mean they team up but not really. In the end they're just a couple of self-regarding patsies, merely looking to come away with some loot. 

All in all, helmer Malle has the events in Atlantic City play out in procedure fashion. Rather than bait the viewer and establish some heightened epiphany, he concentrates on the earned acting showcase and his sterling, Jersey muse habitat. It was just hard for me to "double down".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Engaged to Be Murdered 2023 * * Stars


2023's Engaged to Be Murdered is a Lifetime flick that's the sloppiest of whodunits. I mean gee whiz! Someone has to be accused of attempted murder. Someone has to be accused of stealing money from their employer. Someone has to be accused of thwarting a future wedding. Finally, someone has to be accused of undermining everything, you know the whole, unlawful kit and caboodle. Yup, even Perry Mason would have his hands full here. 

Taking place in Seattle, WA (or in and around the area) and placing enough McGuffins to power a small country, Engaged to Be Murdered is about a son (Jack Finley played by Madison Smith) who brings home his sudden fiance (Erin Boyes as Olivia) to the disapproval of his rich mommy (Sarah-Jane Redmond as Amanda Finley). 

That's just the outline because we the viewer also have to worry about other stuff, like the motivations of Jack's ex-girlfriend, Jack's ex-girlfriend's mom (her and Amanda are buds), Jack's uncle boss (who thinks Olivia might be a corporate spy), some goon trying to kill Olivia, and Olivia's loser brother (who just happened to pop in the picture). Whew, poor Olivia! All she wanted to do was get married to oily bohunk. 

Watching "Engaged" is not necessarily an exhaustive experience, it's more of an eye-rolling one because everybody seems to be trying hard to reinvent the strife that is the Lifetime network wheel. It's like the director (Keegan Connor Tracy) is juggling a bunch of pins but dropping them repeatedly because she never learned to um, juggle effectively. 

Sure the actors do their best to sell the scenes and sure, you eventually want to know the outcome after 90 minutes (that's baseline for the good old wine club). But there's this thing in cinema called continuity errors and Engaged to Be Murdered has enough but doesn't know when to relinquish them. Broken rules of "engagement". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Last Deal 2023 * * 1/2 Stars


"Are we safe?" Uh no. No one is safe in 2023's The Last Deal, at least not the pseudo protagonists anyways. Henchmen and mob bosses and drug vending, double-crossing oh my! "Just Say No" my brother.

So yeah, The Last Deal is to this year what American Dream was to 2021. It's a grave thriller set to LA and its sun-filled underbellies. Low budgeted yet slick, emote-less yet dangerous, psychologically scaring yet occasionally violent, shallow yet empathetic. Viewing "Deal", you can almost smell the La Brea Tar Pits from a mile away, bones and all.

Now do I think The Last Deal could've had a better ending? Probably. Narration at the beginning and narration at the end just feels like a convenient, tack-on device for the cinematic illiterate. And do I wish "Deal" tied up its loose ends so the whole hemp back and forth could come to fruition? Yeah. I mean what happened to the dealer characters who hid a Trojan horse in order to steal a truck full of the sticky-icky?

Starring unknown actors with some solid screen presence (Anthony Molinari, Jeffri Lauren, Sala Baker), "Deal" is about a marijuana trader who needs to make one final score because his business is suffering due to the drug now being legal. That's just the blueprint for The Last Deal dives deeper down the rabbit hole via plot over plot over plot.

Just think a Scorsese student film done with limited razzmatazz. Just think David Ayer fodder but with much restraint (hence the Los Angeles locale). Director Jonathan Salemi's camerawork is divine in regards to "Deal". He uses low-angles, hand-held-s, and long shots giving the flick an atmospheric if not well nigh, noir feel. If only his coda equaled the minacious journey of narcotic moolah and merciless cutoff points. "Fair deal".

Written by Jesse Burleson 

Friday, June 16, 2023

The Bling Ring 2013 * * 1/2 Stars


"I hear helicopters". Don't forget in SoCal, they can also be called "ghetto birds". Uh oh, someone's been a bad bad girl (or boy).

OK, even director Sophia Coppola on holiday is better than most directors on holiday. With 2013's The Bling Ring she's not necessarily slumming it, she's just playing with the thinnest of narrative devices. "I wanna rob". Oh of course you do.

So yeah, here's the dirt on "Ring": a group of naive teenagers obsessed with celebrities like Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan, break into their unlocked homes and pilfer them of their wealthy possessions. And the verdict? These juvenile characters aren't really likable, they're made to feel entitled, their personas aren't really fleshed out, and you don't feel much sympathy when they get their Miranda rights read to them. I don't know, despite this flick being based on true events, maybe that was the overall point.

Anyway, The Bling Ring was Coppola's menial project between projects. It's also the second installation from a TV movie in 2011 (with the same title). 2011's The Bling Ring was cut from Lifetime cloth, all appreciable and low budgeted yet highly effective. 2013's "Ring", well it's more on the commercial side, ultra-cool, ultra-lacquered, and made for young actors to noir it up while slithering in Hollywood silhouettes.

Aside from Coppola's cast occasionally venturing into more pristine, Larry Clark territory, The Bling Ring can also amount to nutrition-less slop from a dramatic standpoint. I mean let's think about what actually counts here (when more of something else was needed). A soft-lighted, visual palate, a killer musical score, stealth editing of HS ruffians acting afoul, a breakneck pace via a dispersing ninety minutes, Leslie Mann acting like um, Leslie Mann. Entertaining? Uh yeah but come on, it's more "bling bang" than "bling bling".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Poker Face 2022 * * Stars


"I'm a gambler". Yeah you are and an affluent one at that. Look at your mansion and your fancy cars and your unchaining wine collection and your fitments. Elon Musk called and well, he wants it all back. 

Anyway, Russell Crowe has always been one of my favorite actors but as a director he seems lost with 2022's Poker Face. Feverishly edited, modish, and ultramodern a great flick doesn't always make. I mean you have to set a tone, pick a genre, and/or at least give the audience member a formidable thesis for what's on screen. Crowe, well he shoots Poker Face thinking in cuts, saturated hues, and not much else. He just doesn't know how to play his action cards here (pun intended).

As a film about a wealthy dude who is dying and decides to host a high-stakes poker fest with his childhood buddies, Poker Face stars Crowe, Elsa Pataky, and a weathered Liam Hemsworth. It runs 94 minutes while unintentionally butchering the almighty, cinematic form. Yeah Poker Face is slick and looks like a million bucks (that was probably the budget times 10) but it also feels unfinished and patchy, like the writers (and Russell himself) probably ran out of wiggle room. 

So OK, is Poker Face a thriller? I guess if you count the last half hour. Is Poker Face Molly's Game for the rich and shameless? Maybe in the first half hour. Is Poker Face a hard-hitting drama? It hangs in that category by a string. And is Poker Face a home invasion pic? Towards the end but for why and what purpose we don't fully know. Reverting back to the styling-s of the first paragraph, a few well-lit scenes, some techy conflict, and some claustrophobic acting a great flick doesn't always make. "Blind stud". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Shooting Stars 2023 * * Stars


I'm not a huge fan of the NBA but I do painstakingly admire LeBron James. Drafted number one in the league right out of high school, 4 pro championships, a quadruple MVP, the National Basketball Association's all-time leading scorer. Whew, what a resume! In 2023's Shooting Stars, the young life of James via his HS years (with his other dunking buds) is chronicled. Is it a sort of cash grab for the never-ending LeBron James brand (acting, endorsements, likeness, etc.)? Perhaps. Hey, this "King" can never not rule.

At a running time of 115 minutes, I initially thought Shooting Stars was a documentary. I was wrong in the first frame. "Stars" is an actual film where some no-name troupers and Dermot Mulroney play James, his girlfriend, his friends, and his first coach. Their acting is not the greatest, a kind of spin on the whole TV movie shtick that Sir Laurence Olivier would balk at. Hey at least these dudes know how to screen and score in the paint (that's basketball slang for hitting buckets inside the free-throw lane).

Anyhow, Shooting Stars is directed by Maryland native Chris Robinson. Robinson plays it safe with "Stars" as he fashions something that feels straight from the LeBron James wiki page. Gone is anything with dramatic heft. Gone is any real struggle concerning LeBron's path to b-ball stardom (he missed one game after accepting a jersey from a fan, boohoo). Present are some decent fast break clips where you blatantly know the outcomes. I mean is Shooting Stars watchable? It is but it'll evaporate right after you see it. And does LeBron still come off as an inward-looking superstar producing this thing? In a way yes. After Space Jam: A New Legacy and House Party, he still feels the need to "shoot" his shot. Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Little Woods 2018 * * * Stars


"I'll figure something out". That's the understatement of the year, especially if you're looking a little homely and scraping the leavings of some podunk, North Dakota town.

So OK, if you dig movies where actresses like Tessa Thompson and Lily James leave their standard comfort zone to beautify less, then 2018's Little Woods is for you. If you don't, well stick to those cutesy rom-coms, bad sequels, and follow-up blockbusters.

Anyway Little Woods is a down-and-dirty drama with mildew ball bearings, populated by townie lower-class and layman laborers just waiting to get out (like all get-out). Colorless Upper Midwest weather, characters looking non-sexy while wearing hand-me-downs, strip clubs with bad music in the background, oxycodone rationing, musty bars. Basically "Woods" provides the viewer with a world that no one would ever wanna vacation to (or um, live in). In truth, the film feels like something Scott Cooper might have made in between Crazy Heart and that steel mill vehicle with Christian Bale. "I'm sorry, it's been a rough time for a lot of people". Indeed.

Peace Garden State settings and private bops aside, Little Woods is about two sisters. One has a kid and is pregnant with another on the way. The other is adopted, a reformed drug dealer, and the occupant of her dead mother's house about to be foreclosed upon. Both are pretty much cleaned out until an opportunity to cross into Canada is presented so they can fix their situations financially and terminally.

In retrospect, "Woods" is pretty predictable when it needn't be. And its drab journey and opening act pack more of a wallop than the crack, contented ending. But hey, director Nia DaCosta (in her feature debut) commits to every shot, gets raw performances from her cast, flexes self-effacing, and creates atmosphere a la environs. "Little" giant.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Hidden Exposure 2023 * * * Stars


If you don't pay attention to the trouper appearances in 2023's Hidden Exposure, well you'll probably not notice that Rumer Willis is in it (that would be the daughter of Bruce Willis). Rumer goes almost unrecognizable till you catch the closing credits and see her name. I suppose it's the red-colored hairstyle.

Anyway, Hidden Exposure is an effective thriller drama that's a little quiet on the thrills yet inching on the drama. Directed with a certain glow by the unknown Todd Bogin, "Exposure" avoids the notion of obviousness and never gives the viewer TMI. I say the film is better for it. Hidden Exposure is not Hitchcockian nor is it noir, it's just that it doesn't um, let you see the wheels turning in its head. "I felt like I was being pulled to the edge". Exactly.

Bogin shooting "Exposure" with darkened cinematography, flashbacks, and a sort of non-linear narrative, always gives you the feeling that something dangerous is around the corner. I mean you can tell that he saw Woody Allen's Match Point and decided to spruce his pic up a bit. You could also tell that he took in a viewing of 2010's Black Swan and said, "well I'll try to make something similar but I'll eschew the hallucinatory imagery". Hey I don't mind if a filmmaker apes other stuff as long as he (or she) makes it their own (and Todd does).

Distributed by Tubi and clocking in at a well-rounded 89 minutes, Hidden Exposure is about a dude who impregnates his current girlfriend and then by chance encounter, impregnates his ex. Guess what, his ex finds out where he currently lives and tries to re-enter his life angrily and without sense of measure. No this isn't Lifetime network stuff for it's much more pristine than that. The actors involved (Liana Liberato, Willis, Richard Kind, Jordan Rodrigues) give well-timed performances with you not fully knowing their motivations (in this case, that's a good thing). Heck, the whole crux of Hidden Exposure is decoding with an ending that is left for exegesis (a movie inclination that's as old as time). Pulp "exposure".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, June 2, 2023

American Underdog 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


As a guy who watches an immense amount of NFL football, I couldn't help but be amazed at the story of Kurt Warner. Kurt went undrafted and when he couldn't get a pro team to sign him, he ended up stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa. Now Warner is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after winning a Super Bowl, playing in two more, and becoming a two-time, National Football League MVP. 2021's American Underdog is a biographical flick about this real-life, victim/hero. You watch it and think, maybe said hero deserved a more epic tribute.

American Underdog runs 112 minutes. Its story minus the romance factor (Warner and wife Brenda), is pretty straight-forward, like almost identical to Kurt's wiki page. "Underdog" is also directed by two people in brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin. Andrew and Jon opt for a glossy look, a miscast Dennis Quaid (as coach Dick Vermeil), and some Disney undertones (even though the film's distributor is Lionsgate). They go for the schmaltz too but their "Underdog" never feels compelling enough or old-world like say, Rudy (another flick about weaker sports parties).

Then there's the football scenes of aw-shucks Kurt (played by Zachary Levi) flinging the pigskin around and getting hit like a brick at the same time. There's not enough of them and they feel pedestrian, like Levi just nonchalantly made some nifty plays. I mean where's the struggle in the pocket? And where's the grit? And where's the nasty, gridiron optics that Jack "Cap" Rooney went through? Nada, no where to be found.

Bottom line: if you want to gather the family around, make some popcorn, and ogle at a few dewy-eyed moments between a QB legend, his in the cards plight, and his loyal lady, then American Underdog is the movie for you. If you want something more than a feel-good, TV-like vehicle transitioning on the come up, well you won't have a "dog" in this fight. Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson