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Sunday, August 27, 2023

Retribution 2023 * * * Stars


"What do you want?" Ah the obligatory question the protagonist has to ask the antagonist (usually over the phone). I just the wish the antagonist would give a straight answer and not fudge the issue. 

Anyway movies with Liam Neeson aren't really movies, they're Liam Neeson vehicles, made for Neeson, product placed for Neeson, Neeson by design. He just has to be the Everyman, the antihero, the non-bad guy, the too-old-for-his-wife-and-kids family man. Yup, when you see an actor slinging passable, B-movie thrillers till infinity, well you'll just have to surrender. Time to get Neeson-ed once again.  

Liam's latest is 2023's Retribution, a film that digs up the bodies of flicks like Speed and 2002's Phone Booth. Basically it milks its golden premise for all it's worth. Neeson plays Matt Turner, a banker who while taking his kids to school, finds out from an unknown caller that there's a bomb under his seat. If he and his kiddies try to get out, well it will explode (duh). 

So yeah, what evil entity is trying to do this to Matt? Why the heck does his daughter and son have to be involved? How can anyone sit still in a car and not yearn to go to the bathroom? How come not everyone in said car can hear all the inside voices? And what's up with the unlimited supply of petrol while Matty drives like Dale Earnhardt Jr. around Berlin? 

These are questions and they give you the feeling that Retribution is kind of implausible and almost cock and bull. Oh well. Neeson's raw, salty performance pulls you through, the layered, somewhat auxiliary endings are real humdingers, and Nimrod Antal's (yes that's his name) attention to detail direction is merciless and capable of giving any viewer a cinematic, panic attack. "Do I have your attention?" Um, you've got mine. "Measure for measure". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, August 25, 2023

John and the Hole 2021 * * 1/2 Stars


"I'm just tired". So says the main character of John in 2021's John and the Hole. Obviously John isn't too tired to somehow get his sister, mother, and father down in a 50-foot bunker while keeping them there for days. The flick doesn't really show you the aptitude of it all. Implausible? Yeah you could say that.  

Anyway, John and the Hole is based on a short story called El Pozo. And no, this isn't a sub-genre you would find playing at the AMC. "Hole" is obviously an art film that wants to terrify while showing that it can be artsy-fartsy and niche market at the same time. "Hole's" director (Pascual Sisto) silently turns the psychological screws but those screws aren't completely screwed in and are somewhat ill-defined. 

So yeah, John and the Hole did at times disturb me. And the musical score by Caterina Barbieri (which shows up randomly) has a numbing awareness that evokes synth-like despair. But what is the paradox surrounding this weird little pic that has young John (played by Charlie Shotwell) doing pseudo nasty things to his well-off family? I mean it's not like he has it that bad. 

I suppose John is just an insane teen that needs to be surrounded by a SWAT team and/or put in a mental institution. Helmer Sisto never defines John or his actions, at least not to the viewer. It also doesn't help that John's family is so blase about the brute situation (I'd be screaming mad if I was stuck in that bunker). 

All in all, you'd probably need another viewing just to take in Sisto's almost completely pensive vision. But hey, John and the Hole is not that kind of movie. It's a one-and-done that wipes away any thriller, box office clout. Sure Pascual's film looks clean and his direction is apt. But with an added subplot about a mother and daughter (I suppose they were John's neighbors), John and the Hole has well, "holes". Big ones. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Mercy 2023 * * * Stars


"This family is going down whether you like it or not." Yeah well that's great. But first you got to take them out with some vigilante force. Otherwise you'll die an unceremonious death. 

So OK, I dug 2023's Mercy and I nervously admit to that. But hey, I wanted it to be more spun-out (and/or drawn-out). Eighty-five minutes is the runtime, a mere snapshot, a flap, a cinematic demo tape. Not a whole lotta backstory on the baddies. Not much of a protracted ending. Some stock side characters. An opening flashback that's well, quick as a flash. Everything in between? Well that gets better. That's Mercy's epicenter. That's the good stuff.

Mercy (whose title feels like an oxymoron) is about an Irish mafia outfit who infiltrates a hospital and takes its patrons hostage, all the while trying to find one of their own who is wounded in said hospital. Mercy, well it doesn't hold your hand as a viewer cause it's mean as a snake, all B-thriller trope-d and relentless and flinty and un-empathetically violent. The film seems to have an unexplained mean streak, ruffled dialogue, and a compulsion of denizens with bomb collars attached to them. Yikes!

Released in May of this year and acting-wise, hammed up for the masses, Mercy stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jon Voight, and Leah Gibson. They're game and committed in a low-budgeted, claustrophobic version of Die Hard in a clinic. People are trapped, the FBI rolls in, mano-a-manos go down, Meyers gets his rage on, and blood is spilled. The antagonist personas are mob types with thick accents, disheveled haircuts, and itchy trigger fingers. The protagonists are John McClane ilk-s who are stealth and can occasionally gibe. In the end it's all machismo compacted into one or two set locations. Mercy? What mercy. There's none here. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Oppenheimer 2023 * * 1/2 Stars


With his numerous films, Christopher Nolan never makes it easy for you the viewer, to gravitate to a smooth landing. I mean he's just not the most focused of storytellers, juggling tons of personas and narratives that enter and leave the screen faster than a speeding bullet. Such is the case with his latest titled Oppenheimer, a three hour biographical flick about J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by a disciplined Cillian Murphy) and his involvement with the Manhattan project (aka the development of the atomic incendiary). 

Haunting at times, lumbering at others, and secretly showing Nolan channeling his inner Terrence Malick, Oppenheimer is talky and physicist speak from the get-go. It also adds numerous cut away-s courtesy of Nolan, who numbs the audience member with imagery of all things fission. Yup, the best way to embrace Oppenheimer is to hark back to Christopher Nolan's earlier stuff a la Memento and 2002's Insomnia. You just have to think of those pics as longer and much more drawn-out. 

Historically, Oppenheimer has a solid sense of time and place (circa 1926-1954) and the musical score by Ludwig Goransson is eerie, glacial beauty. Continuity-wise, the movie sadly wears you out, presenting so many characters (played by known actors) that perform amicably but fade in and out like "slay" insertions. Look there's Emily Blunt as J. Robert's wife. Look there's Casey Affleck as military intelligence officer Boris Pash. Look there's Rami Malek as nuclear expert David L. Hill. And look there's Gary Oldman as president Harry S. Truman. Watching Oppenheimer, you concentrate less on the overall yarn here and more on the spot-the-unrecognizable-celebrity ogle. I mean it almost becomes a drinking game (not that I condone such actions). 

Edited lightning-quick but still in need of a cutdown via 30 minutes of runtime, Oppenheimer is the type of vehicle you see once and then proceed to decompress. Based on the huge box office take however, it's safe to say that it could never be a "bomb". Natch. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Nightmare School Moms 2023 * * * Stars


There's only one mom who's a nightmare in 2023's Nightmare School Moms. This is bible folks. I mean don't get swayed by the title. The mom in question is Lacy Settle (played by Crystal Allen) and boy is she a piece of work. Heck, Allen runs with this role like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire or Tom Cruise in well, everything. "This isn't over". You're darn right it isn't.

Clocking in at 86 minutes and shot in the throes of suburbanite purgatory, Nightmare School Moms feels as though it starts in the middle, all creepily enhanced by an opening scene in which a dying man (on oxygen) tries to blow out his birthday candles. Now does said man go on living in the end? Get real people. Not with creep-o mommy Settle looking for the favorable one up. I thought you knew better my alert viewer.

With sparse set locations and more coincidinks than in The O. C., Nightmare School Moms knows it's camp, it really does. It also knows it's a product of the Lifetime Movie Network and no one channels overly dramatic and overly theatrical (with special care) quite like Lifetime. Yup, that's 29 years of tweaking and devious refining.

Broadcasting distance running aside, as something about an underachieving mother who commits murder and forgery all the while trying to get her daughter into some swanky college fellowship, Nightmare School Moms rides on Allen's disciplined performance as kooky, woman-child Lacy Settle. It's in the walk, the desperate mannerisms, the caked, makeup look, the demented wheel-churning-s in the head. Crystal Allen is the anchor and she's in almost every frame. Without her, "Nightmare" would still suffice but have a so-so heartbeat and just be borderline, run-of-the-mill stuff. She is the cinematic, piece de resistance, a sort of perfect casting to inflate "Nightmare's" nearly fanciful plot. "Mother of vinegar".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, August 13, 2023

River Wild 2023 * * * Stars


"That's not true". Oh but it is my friends. Someone's got a gun with unlimited ammo and you must go with him down those stony rapids. 

Anyway 2023's River Wild represents a more indie-like version of the original The River Wild from 29 years back. It doesn't feel like a B-movie, doesn't harbor any commercial remnants, and comes off as riveting even for its non-lean, ninety-one minutes. Hey, I'm okay with that and I didn't think I would being that I don't dig remakes. Directed by Ben Ketal and featuring an almost unrecognizable Leighton Meester in one of the lead roles, River Wild only appears like the previous installment in terms of title, hostage plot, and that whole whitewater rafting thing. "Time to float". Uh, you ain't kidding. 

Filmed in Hungary and distributed by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, River Wild is about a trip down a river with two tourists, a brother and sister, and a would-be antagonist bent on ruining said trip. The actors involved (Adam Brody, Meester, Taran Killam) don't feel like paper mache pawns or thriller character stereotypes. They're veridical and you root for them good or bad. Whereas '94's The River Wild featured the bad guys as people the protagonists didn't know from Adam, the new River Wild has the bad dude as someone everyone is already familiar with (like family). A nice divulgence if I do say so myself. 

Back and forth buoyant structure pics aside, River Wild has helmer Ketal committing to every shot, using overheads, wide-s, darkened hues, and beautified, Hungarian wildlife scenery (you gotta love the waterfalls). His film is dense and atmospheric, made to provide tension when needed as almost every scene signals a little danger right around the corner. Basically every violent confrontation stings, every rough mano a mano provides a payoff, every unfolding intricacy a slight revelation. Yup, you can get into this "wild". 

Written by Jesse Burleson 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Cocktail 1988 * * * Stars


1988's Cocktail represents the second film in the Tom Cruise, Top Gun formula trilogy. '86 had The Color of Money (Top Gun in a pool hall), '90 had Days of Thunder (Top Gun in a race car), and two years prior was Cocktail (Top Gun in well, a bar). Basically you have a dude character that has an adroit skill and must face certain inner demons to corral said skill. Cruise represented the actor most suitable for his own, skilled ingredients here. I mean he learned to flair bartend, deep brake, and shoot cue balls like a champ. "That's the only way I want it". Well said Tommy boy.

So yeah, Cocktail is shot in two parts, a sort of condensing of 103 minutes of runtime. The first half has a lot of energy and panache as Cruise's Brian Flanagan stumbles upon slight bar-tending fame with the help of barkeep mentor Doug Coughlin (played with dry wit by Bryan Brown). The second half of Cocktail could be classified as a marginal downer as it takes some darker turns mixing a romantic plot between Flanagan and an NYC waitress (the sexy Elizabeth Shue playing Jordan Mooney).

Bottom line: Cocktail's narrative is thin, the minimal flair scenes feel like a tease, and the overall viewing effect appears a little uneven, like checking out two different flicks in one. The critics hated Cocktail back then, calling the drama shapeless, stupid, and vanity-driven. Bite your tongues boys and girls! I guess I don't feel the need to be so harsh. Cocktail has a few things going for it being the fact that it's vastly entertaining, slyly flaunting in the dialogue department, and splashily directed by Roger Donaldson, putting us right up in the grills of cocky mixologists slinging drams like steady bosses (if only for some brief moments). "Drink" up.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, August 7, 2023

Aquarium of the Dead 2021 * Star


How bad is 2021's Aquarium of the Dead? Let me put it this way, how bad was smallpox (pretty bad I'm thinking). "Aquarium" is billed as a zombie movie for sea creatures (check the title, duh). Somewhere the late George Romero is rolling in his grave, rolling like dough.

Aquarium of the Dead makes me wonder why Showtime would ever "show" it on their network. This is more like Syfy channel stuff and that's being generous. The special effects in "Aquarium" are an abomination, shown in green screen greenery and seen in tidbits because they are half-arsed. There's no George Lucas magic here, just continuous shots of a huge alligator and an octopus. I mean you could play a drinking game as to how much filler there is with these ersatz mammals.

Aquarium of the Dead tops out at 86 minutes hence the almost minimal build-up. The aquarium that the characters are trapped in is on lockdown so everybody wanders aimlessly. They say "we gotta go here" or "we gotta go there" but end up backtracking. I mean what is this, the town where The Blair Witch Project went down (ridiculous)? 

The acting in "Aquarium" is no prize either as everyone bickers and explains everything with bad sci-fi, psychobabble dialogue. Oh and there's comic relief too, the kind that makes you want to squirm. Every actor in "Aquarium" is unknown expect for one Vivica A. Fox. I was expecting Fox to say something like, "son, you picked the wrong aquarium" but to no avail. Instead she lets out the most fake scream in the history of cinema. Ugh. 

If I had my druthers, everyone on the set of Aquarium of the Dead would've been fired right before post-production. That includes the director (the first fall guy), the editor ("we gotta go now" or "we gotta move" could be another drinking game), and the makeup artist (which is kinda connected to the vacancy of the editor). Aquarium of the Dead is a "dead horse" or should I say, dead walrus. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, August 4, 2023

After the Bite 2023 * * 1/2 Stars


HBO Documentary Films always lends a certain voice to their offerings. The look is clean and streamlined, the camera always peeking in. The vibes are of the moment, like everything was well, shot yesterday. Such is the case with HBO's After the Bite, a 2023 docu about the people of Cape Cod, dealing with lots of sharks in their waters and the startling death of one of their own via an attack at a local beach. Lots of interviews abound, with the subjects almost appearing like actual characters instead of the other way around. You've got the lifeguard, the concerned dad, the surfer dude, the writer, and the scientist. "On a sunny afternoon off the coast of New England, a shadow was waiting". Indeed.

The blueprint for After the Bite is simple, it almost resembles the diegesis for Jaws. I'm not kidding. You have the shark strike that gets the townspeople distressed, you have those community meetings, you have the researchers who are paid to go out and track the sharks, you have the beach scene where everybody rushes out of the water because someone kinda saw a fin, and you have the setting which eerily resembles Amity Island from Spielberg's massive, box office juggernaut. What's weird is that everyone involved in "Bite" seems oblivious to the fact that Jaws the flick ever existed. They think they're living their own Jaws, I mean it's kooky. The only difference I see in the end is that Jaws is only a movie and well, After the Bite is a more sober way in which it would've all gone down.

1975 summer blockbusters and 15 minutes of renown aside, "Bite" has a lot to say about shark analysis, shark probing, and the diverting subject of seals (wha??). Every interviewee fades in and out, giving us soliloquies, opinions, and anger rapports, mostly all about those long-bodied marine fish. The viewing out-turn, well it's insightful and informative yet virtually disjointed by the time the final frame is shown. Mixed "after" effect.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Assassin 2023 * * Stars


2023's Assassin isn't an awful movie. I've seen worse when it comes to techy argot. I mean it has intentions. It just leaves the viewer with dangling loose ends in their heads, trying to decipher why such a promising premise goes AWOL in the last half hour. The diegesis for Assassin is there for the taking, a flick about a black-ops soldier who goes into other people's bodies to commit kills. Talk about a murderous Freaky Friday gone wild. Too bad Assassin's director (Jesse Atlas) doesn't know when to quit while he's ahead. Yup, the film becomes a knotty mess, trying to David Lynch it for the masses, trying for the cinematic one up. Switcheroos, well they shouldn't be such a complicated concept.

But this one is and star Nomzamo Mbatha (as assassin Alexa) murders and whines till the cows come home, looking like the poor woman's Naomie Harris (and acting like her too). A butcher here, a rage there, a flashback, an awakening from frozen ice in a bathtub (don't ask). Mbatha's acting is middling, as is the rest of the cast. Oh and did I mention Bruce Willis co-stars as well, appearing like a weird sort of Greek chorus that's kinda unnecessary. If this was his swan song (and I think it is) then his webbed feet have been exposed. Man Die Hard was a long-arse time ago.

But hey, take in at least one final viewing for the dwindling Bruce-meister. The direction by Jesse Atlas here is not half bad. It's slick, atmospheric, and on the move, provoking a more mature version of something Brian A. Miller would've done back ten years ago (remember the Willis vehicles The Prince and Vice?). Bottom line: Assassin starts strong, sadly gets bogged down by twisty plot mechanics, and overly innovates when it could've just been lean and mean. Character "assassin-ed".

Written by Jesse Burleson