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Friday, December 29, 2023

Migration 2023 * * * Stars


"I don't want to miss out on life because you're afraid to leave this pond". You tell 'em mother Pam. Got to fly with the angels or in this case, fly with the other birdies. 

So OK, a family of four mallards decide to take a chance and go south for the winter. This is something they've never done before as they are afraid to leave their commonplace comfort zone. That's the rub to 2023's Migration and well, its title says it all. What, you think "Transhumance" would've sounded better? Hooey. 

Anyway, Migration is a road trip flick, a Tom and Jerry-like slapstick-er, a merited animated fluff-er, and a slight, black comedy farce brought to you by those guys from the always reliable Illumination. Starring the voices of Elizabeth Banks, Carol Kane, and Keegan-Michael Kay, Migration might be a little too intense for the 4-6-year-old-s or the easily flustered (hence the PG-rating over the G). I mean there's an evil character named "the chef" who wants to slice up duckling personas and have them for din-din (ouch). Oh well. Adults and teenagers won't be bored by Migration's tolerant storytelling, its haphazard editing, and its tight running time (83 minutes). "I want us to get out and see the world". Indeed. 

Feverishly directed by Frenchman Benjamin Renner and distributed by Universal Pictures, Migration won't reinvent the wheel in terms of electronic imagery but it's still goofy, balls-out fun for anyone hitting the theaters during the silly season. Disjointed but still supplied with a sort of wound up energy, Migration also gives helmer Renner the chance to provide animation with a solid sense of three-dimensional space and jungle-like, following tracking shots. Add a hazy, sunny look, likable duck types, mild absurdness, and lovable high jinks via the journey from New England to Jamaica and you've got something recommendable. "Paradise diaspora". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Ferrari 2023 * * * 1/2 Stars


2023's Ferrari is a movie of violent pulchritude. For every moment of scenic beauty there is a bruising acting showcase between two personas and vehicle racing sequences that demonstrate all things speed kills. It's rather cold and calculated, as only director Michael Mann would require it to be. "If you get into one of my cars, you get in it to win". Indeed.

Distributed by Neon and only chronicling a snapshot of Enzo Ferrari's 90 years of existence circa 1957, Ferrari has Enzo trying to rescue his sports car manufacturer from bankruptcy while dealing with the anger of his deceived wife and hushed questions from his illegitimate son. Oh and there's automobiles too, fast ones that are loud enough to make your ears rattle and have you faintly smelling the propellant. Mann, well he doesn't push the effects here but he doesn't let up either. His head-to-head clips feel material, fully rooted in actuality.

Fleeting plot workings and sleek hoopties aside, Ferrari gets brilliant performances from Adam Driver (no pun intended) as Enzo Ferrari and Penelope Cruz as spouse Laura Ferrari. They immerse themselves into character completely, emoting fervently while swallowing each frame like some F5 tornado hovering over The Sunflower State.

Mann's slick and streamlined direction just props them up even more as he confidently comes back from an 8-year hiatus (remember 2015's Blackhat? Me neither). Heck, there isn't a rack focus, a diluted wide, or a jilted camera movement that Mikey didn't want to throw back into the cinematic ring. His Ferrari has a superior sense of time and place coupled with scrupulous set designs and richly textured, Italian locales. The film is also old-world art, a dismayed downer masking as a slight triumph. It works as a biopic, a period piece, and/or a domestic drama, burning straight through the heart of Enzo's tainted legacy despite having a rather cursory diegesis. "Fuel injected."

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, December 23, 2023

My Top Ten Movie Picks of 2023

1. Ferrari * * * 1/2 Stars

-A return to form for director Michael Mann as he creates old-world art with his bruising biopic about Enzo Ferrari. 

1. (tie) The Passenger * * * 1/2 Stars

-A well-acted and crisply edited thriller, like a non-art house version of 1973's Badlands.

2. Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed * * * 1/2 Stars

-A documentary about an acting icon that unfolds like a skulking sledgehammer.

3. Inside * * * 1/2 Stars

-A psychologically stealth and real time perceived vehicle, made effective by Wilem Dafoe's physical acting and Vasilis Katsoupis's deft direction.

4. Mercy * * * Stars

-A B-flick that's as mean as a snake. It doesn't hold your hand as a viewer.

5. Plane * * * Stars

-Another Gerard Butler actioner that spritzed-up nicely for the more distinguished, bargain basement crowd.

6. Hidden Exposure * * * Stars

-Combines a little bit of 2010's Black Swan and Woody Allen's Match Point to give you something dangerous right around the corner.

6. (tie) The Iron Claw * * * Stars

-A slow mounting drama about pro wrestling that hits you like a brick (or a clothesline if you know what I mean). 

7. River Wild * * * Stars

-A more indie-like version of the original The River Wild from 29 years back. Dense and atmospheric stuff. 

8. Air * * * Stars

-This is Ben Affleck's Moneyball or his All the President's Men for hoops. 

9. Girl in the Closet * * * Stars

-A Lifetime drama about human trafficking that has no filter. Effectual yet disturbing. 

10. Fear the Night * * * Stars

-A violent and remorseless ride that has Maggie Q scowling at the audience while getting her kill on.

Honorable Mention: Nightmare School Moms, Retribution, 97 Minutes, The Mill

And the worst....

1. White Men Can't Jump * Star

-Rotten remake of the '92 classic. It just doesn't get what made that film much more superior.

2. House Party * 1/2 Stars

-Updates the 1990 original and as a result, fails to possess a reason for being.

3. You People * 1/2 Stars

-An unfunny comedy that should've never been made. What were you thinking Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy?

4. On a Wing and a Prayer * 1/2 Stars

-Imagine watching the lovechild of God's Not Dead and Airport 1975. On second thought, don't.

5. A Christmas Heist * 1/2 Stars

-Ho ho ho humdrum. 

List compiled by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Airline Disaster 2010 * * * Stars


Check this: a guy who's a pilot leaves his family at home to fly an aircraft that gets hijacked by a bunch of Mohawk ruffians. Then some other bad dudes (and their bad chicks) kidnap said pilot's family as an insurance policy. Finally, madam President rolls in to save the day and she just happens to be said pilot's sister. Did you get all that? Good. Now go on YouTube and watch the outcome. Just don't watch on a flight from wherever to wherever.  

Anyway, the title of the film I'm about to review is run-of-the-mill and not worthy of what literally flies off the screen (pun intended). 2010's Airline Disaster, well it does involve an airline and yeah, there are a few disasters along the way. But hey, that's just the quick rundown. "Look closer" as Lester Burnham would say.

"Airline" is a skyjack flick, a hostage pic, and mostly all things Murdock ("climb baby, climb"). Starring Meredith Baxter, Scott Valentine, and former stuntman Geoff Meed, the vehicle also looks low budgeted and locale challenged, probably shot on sound stages as opposed to actual settings. Oh well. In truth, I actually enjoyed Arline Disaster. Why you ask? Because it has screw-loose zeal and tension that never seem to let up. "Seat backs and tray tables must be placed in their upright and locked positions." Veritably. 

Distributed by 101 Films and featuring plot over plot workings to make it look like Air Force One as a miniseries, Airline Disaster effectively inserts nasty villains, a lack of solace with its characters, lightning-quick editing, and enough action-packed leavings to power the sun. All of what's been just mentioned, well it distracts you from the fact that "Airline" is indeed a campy B-movie with special effects that are lifted straight from the Syfy channel. "Airline's" director (John Willis III), well he's the real hero here, the polisher of all things excreta. John knows where to put the camera, knows how to film bodies in motion, and does his darndest to make use of such a nil allotment. What's saddening is that this is the only movie he's ever helmed. "Disaster" artist. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 17, 2023

JFK 1991 * * * 1/2 Stars


1991's JFK is a historical epic of massive aggregate. I mean there's a lot of movie in this movie, told through the hallucinatory lens of one Oliver Stone. Sure it's over three hours long but there's never a dull moment, just shaky certitude and some probable hearsay. "Back and to the left, back and to the left". Uh-uh.

Distributed by Warner Bros. and hauntingly scored by the GOAT of musical composers (my man John Williams), JFK is not necessarily about John F. Kennedy. I mean it kind of is but it's more so about the investigation into his assassination brought by real life district attorney Jim Garrison (played with straight-faced discipline by Kevin Costner).

JFK, well it's Oliver Stone in his heyday, providing the viewer with staggered editing, tons of scorching flashbacks, and grainy, accumulated archive footage that's anywhere from the late 50s to the end of the "Swinging Sixties". Back thirty-plus years ago, Stone was never about shooting a flick for the present day. He bled nostalgia, providing a sense of time and place that's impeccable and a shadowy set design for the ages. As Ian Anderson once quipped, "oh, we won't give in, let's go living in the past". Indeed.

Remembrance and expansion of conscience images aside, JFK gives Stone the chance to do what he does best, squeeze great performances from actors that have never been solely Oscar types. Hey look there's Kevin Bacon killing it as broken witness Willie O'Keefe. Look there's the late John Candy killing it as well as slobbery attorney Dean Andrews Jr. And oh yeah, Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray's bro) channels a solid Jack Ruby (Kennedy demise enthusiasts totally know who Jack is).

Bottom line: whether you believe Stone's delirium vision of JFK or think it's just pure propaganda, what's on screen is compelling either way because of Oliver's knack for forcefully digging up American tragedies. His balls-out approach and total fearlessness here make him one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. "Let justice be done though the heaven's fall". Groovy man.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

A Christmas Vintage 2023 * * 1/2 Stars


Ohio native Lexi Giovagnoli directs A Christmas Vintage. And oh yeah, she has shot a couple of other Yuletide flicks as well (A Merry Single Christmas, Christmas Lovers Anonymous). With "Vintage", Giovagnoli puts Christmastime more in the background and less in the forefront. I mean you do see some of those ugly sweaters, you do see a few holiday decorations for set design, and yup, there is a tree lighting, ceremony scene near the hour mark. But hey, it's mostly about the wine here (hence the title).

A Christmas Vintage, well it's like watching Sideways or Bottle Shock or any other vehicle about that almighty fermented juice. You just have to eliminate the adulterous shenanigans and tomfoolery from the equation. Everyone is an expert, everyone speaks of their "Cab" in a slightly snobbery tone, and everyone gets excited when free berries are awarded to their property (that's wine speak folks). Look for "Vintage's" shooting location (Hermann, Missouri) to substitute for Holy Grail country in Napa. "Wine is wine". Uh, not quite there big guy.

Starring Karlee Eldridge, Ignacyo Matynia, and Corbin Timbrook, A Christmas Vintage presents a couple of questions to the viewer looking to cozy up to the tube with their favorite glass of Pinot Noir. So OK, why is the male lead such a moody SOB (this seems to happen a lot in these Hallmark-style movies)? Why is the female lead so compulsively easy on the eyes (hubba hubba)? And um, why is it so awkward when you think that they might actually get together? Ah yes, the plot requires them to, predictably and with that pseudo smooch attached at the end.

Bottom line: "Vintage" has a great look with darkly-lit hues and earthy, winter tones. It's also decently acted and works rather finely as a family drama about letting a daughter be free to be the winemaker that she knew she could be. As a romantic comedy however, it feels a little strained, like the pounds of grapes it done used up. Mixed "epoch".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, December 10, 2023

A Christmas Carol 1984 * * * Stars


George C. Scott is a legendary actor who left us over twenty years ago. In 1984's A Christmas Carol, Scott gives a naturalistic, underplaying performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. Yeah it's in the lamb chop facial hair, the moderate plumpness, and the gruff, sort of coarse vocal delivery. He's perfectly cast as is everybody else, updating then closely, the 1951 version of Charles Dickens's classic novel. "God bless us everyone". For sho.

Now is "Christmas Carol" a perfect film to hark in the holidays, all amended to make George C. Scott look like the new Alastair Sim? No but it comes close. This flick is richly textured, dark, and genuinely scripted, giving enough streamlining as the mid-80s would solely allow. And is A Christmas Carol just another redrafting of the ten or so offerings that came before it (remember Albert Finney, Sim, and Reginald Owen?)? Yeah but so what. There are some nice touches, some new songs, troupers that look like the characters that you envision in your head, dusky hues, and a hazy, white light look that's ready-made for the almighty silly season. If it's five degrees outside and you happen to be brewing some hot cocoa, '84's smoke is the way to go. 

The story of "Christmas Carol" is the same don't you know. An old curmudgeon gets visited by three ghosts on December 24th bent on getting him to change his ways and embrace the heartwarming swipe that is Xmas. A Christmas Carol clocking in at 100 minutes, well it does the whole deal in style, with scenes that are drawn-out but still faithful to what Dickens probably conceived. Sure the pic is mournful, dejected, and less giddy than its predecessors but I digress. Considering the contemporary production values, the barren looks on the actor's faces, and director Clive Donner's fascination with the fronts of caskets, I figured it was the right avenue to pursue. "Ho ho homebound." 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Christmas in Scotland 2023 * * * Stars


"Christmas is a time to be with those you love". Hear hear! Me just loves the holidays.

Anyhow, 2023's Christmas in Scotland is a deepened spectacle as opposed to some lovey-dovey, Christmassy helping where the leads make googly eyes at each other and the best buds chime in to give bad, impassioned advice. True story: I initially thought "Scotland" was a Hallmark flick, I did. I mean look at the poster (pan right) and get a whiff of the plot (girl goes to a faraway place to fall in love and resurrect the day of festivities spirit via a small Scottish burgh). Bully for that. Christmas in Scotland swaps the saccharine sweet for the savory and yes, it's all the better for it. "Well what are you waiting around for, you have work to do". Yes sir!

Admittedly, "Scotland" is not a perfect vehicle for those binge watchers looking to kick those Yuletide blues. I mean the male romantic interest (Dominic Watters as Alex Glenrothie) is creepily troubled and moody whereas the female interest (Jill Winternitz as Emma McKenzie) is warm, laid back, and appealing. Basically they make an off-center, forced pairing. And uh, don't go into Christmas in Scotland looking to see some postcard, ornate tinsel fest because you ain't getting it. Like the Scottish foods of neeps and tatties, it ain't all that.

What Christmas in Scotland does provide is a slow burn drama with shards of lightheartedness and shards of conflict begetting conflict. That's conflict over family history concerning an affluent heir, conflict over not moving on from relative demise and celebrating Noel, and conflict over turning a Scottish town into Leavenworth, Washington (google it and you'll see what I mean). The film along with being exactly locale-d (it was actually shot in the Kingdom itself), packs a small, emotional wallop. Merrily Christmas "carded".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, December 4, 2023

Green Room 2015 * * Stars


"I can't die here". I don't blame ya, especially when the grimy juice from the floor is below your feet.

Anyway, after performing a show and witnessing a murder, a punk rock band is confined to a small room by a bunch of skinheads bent on eventually eliminating them. That's the rub to 2015's Green Room, a barely creepy, horror thriller in which its dark hues prevent you from seeing what the heck is going on. I mean how did this guy get all bloodied up? And who got attacked by the killer dog? And um, who's fighting to the death?

Watching Green Room, you figure it could've worked had it had that Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe. Not! Instead we get a weak whiff of Assault on Precinct 13, all cat and mouse-like where it doesn't feel like anything is really at stake. Suspense? Lacking. Foreboding logic? Not really there. Tight and succinct editing? I wish. Down-and-dirty and grubby tone? Well at least Green Room has that going for it.

Taking place in Oregon and feeling like it's from a different decade (I didn't know punk rock was still a thing), Green Room stars Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart. These actors are game but the screenplay by Green Room's director (Jeremy Saulnier) is littered with inconsistencies and unclear motives. I mean we know who the protagonists and the antagonists are. We just don't know what they're trying to convey or why it's so difficult for them to get their words out. It's like jibber-jabber told in monosyllabic fashion (if that makes any sense).

Vexing dialogue exchanges aside, the trailer for Green Room gives you the feeling that you're in for a spine-tingling ride. Sigh. The execution for this film is unfortunately sloppy when it could've sent you away with your knees knocking. "Room and bored".

Written by Jesse Burleson

My Top 10 Holiday Movies of All Time (2023 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

Friday, December 1, 2023

Waiting... 2005 * * Stars


If you're gonna make a film about servers at some Chili's-style restaurant, you have to exaggerate the high jinks, you just have to. Otherwise everything on screen would be boring and well, unambiguous. Such is the case with 2005's Waiting..., a raunchy R-rated comedy in which waiters make whoopee in work bathrooms, do drugs on their breaks, play full-frontal nudity games with their co-workers, have mad parties after each day at work, and mess with their customer's food (ugh). I worked as a server back in the day and let me tell you none of this stuff went down, at least not on my watch. If it did I probably would've quit or been scarred for life. Just sayin'.

That's not to say that Waiting... doesn't provide a couple of guffaws because it does. I mean if you're all about the ostentatious-ness how can it not. The problem is that the flick at times is more gross than funny, trying to one-up every farcical gag as if it's a carnival act at some foodie freakshow. A cook puts the dandruff from his hair onto a patron's steak, a woman flashes her private area to her work buds and then kicks them in their rears (??), four teenagers are smoking cigs at a table while a guy in his twenties is trying to hook up with them, the fabled 10-second rule (you know what I'm talking about). This stuff, well it may seem amusing on paper but when it's shown on screen, it flutters, like some undercooked piece of veal (pun intended). "I hope you enjoyed everything, I know I did". Uh, not quite there big guy.

With Waiting..., the fictional, casual dinging restaurant (appropriately named ShenaniganZ) is the star, a sort of prop to loosely bind together the poor editing choices, lack of continuity, nowt diegesis, and un-redeeming characters that you would never associate with in real life. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Anna Faris, and Justin Long, Waiting... is borderline watchable but know that you'll feel peccant if you ask for "seconds". Natch.

Written by Jesse Burleson