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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Greatest Night in Pop 2024 * * 1/2 Stars


2024's The Greatest Night in Pop represents the biggest stars in the music industry getting together to record the single, "We Are the World". You could say it was a surreal experience back in 1985, seeing Michael Jackson and Kenny Rogers and Huey Lewis and Diana Ross you know, just hanging out. If you're a sucker for nostalgia (and I am) and were born in the 70s (and I was), The Greatest Night in Pop will take you back, back to a simpler time. "But if you just believe there's no way we can fall". Indeed. 

Some archived moments here, some interviews there, Lionel Richie everywhere, The Greatest Night in Pop has the camera peeking in, capturing singing icons for the first time as normal people (with normal psyches). I don't know how "Pop's" director (Bao Nguyen) got this long-lost footage or why it was kept in the vault for so long but hats off to him. The first half of The Greatest Night in Pop is exhilarating, longing in how its timelines of LA in January lead up to everybody getting together to record a song benefiting African famine relief. I mean even if you remember what went down almost 40 years ago (and I do) and even if you've heard "We Are the World" 100 times (and I have), the annals in "Pop" still feel fresh and new, like visiting an old friend or uh, absent relative. 

So OK, what's the downside to viewing The Greatest Night in Pop (I waited for the last paragraph to throw down the downside)? It's simple really, the documentary is too long and well, runs out of wiggle room. I mean the singers come into the studio right after the American Music Awards to record. Great. Looks there's Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder and oh my, Tina Turner. Fabulous. Then "Pop" shows them taking 6 or so hours to complete their vocals, looking exasperated at 5 am, mumbling to each other, and feeling darn knackered. Um, that's not a movie, that's just docketed material for filler, not giving the audience member anything to really latch on to. Heck, you're simply better off watching the 52-minute making of "We Are the World" via YouTube. It's leaner, meaner, and makes the rock legends look more streets ahead. "Greatest" lower bound. 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, January 27, 2024

The 35th Annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival, January 26-28th, 2024

I've been covering the Notre Dame Student Festival on and off since 2014. Here are some of the highlights from this year along with favorable ratings. 

After the Race * * * Stars

-It's about race dogs who after competing, find solace in a pooch retirement home that's run for non-profit. If you like furry, hounds in their golden years (most people do), then After the Race will make you feel somewhat misty-eyed and agog before cutting to its teeming, Alaskan landscape. A type of mores that I've never been accustomed to before. 

A Dash of Paper & A Pinch of Spice * * * Stars

-Two people that have different forms of OCD, establish a sort of romantic relationship as one helps the other out. A Dash of Paper & A Punch of Spice may be a short at just under four minutes but it gets to the point. The two characters don't say anything but they make tender magic, transmitting their obsessions through the melodious background music. 

Bajo El Sol * * * Stars

-Street vendors in Southern California chronicle their hard-working day, selling snow cones and other tasty treats. Bajo El Sol is hazily shot low to the ground, and although its look is sunny and earthy, its subjects seem to have futures that don't appear so bright. Real and well, unfeigned.

Three Hands * * * Stars

-It's about four women playing poker and having a cocky air, with one of them eventually trying to hustle the other. Three Hands is ambitious, suggestive filmmaking, with swift editing, a lurid script, great use of the overhead shot, a rhythmic techno soundtrack, and solid, epigrammatic acting. "Hands up!"

Island Zero * * * 1/2 Stars

-Low camera angles, peeking-in discussions amongst townspeople, and winsomely dense cinematography inhabit Island Zero, a 12-minute documentary about the erosion of a tiny piece of land via the Chesapeake Bay. The mayor of said land acts as narrator and a sort of Greek chorus, offering his two cents while the area around him eventually looks as though it might turn into the landscape of Waterworld. This year's best entry at the ND film fest. 

Confishion * * * Stars

-Confishion is a quirky, kind of darkly comedic short about a woman who accidently kills her friend's fish (said friend just happens to be a priest). Good use of a single zoom shot and good use of a single flashback, Confishion is fun and rather outre. As the viewer you nervously laugh at what goes down. "Clown fish". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, January 26, 2024

Calibre 2018 * * * Stars


"Go to the police? It will be considered murder". So says the character of Marcus in 2018's Calibre. He's probably right you know. I mean two strangers are dead and two other strangers who they came in contact with are alive. Bodies are moved, weapons are confiscated, no self-defense, crime scene is abandoned. Um, do the math.

Anyway movies like Calibre suck me in, they just do. We're talking swipe about ordinary people that unluckily commit an offense and find themselves tirelessly trying to get away with it. It's like a nightmare that well, you can't believe is happening. Calibre as a film combines the intense malfeasance aspect with beautiful cinematography a la the mountains of Scotland, UK. Its director (Matt Palmer) boasts a lot of tracking shots, medium shots, and wide-s via good old Jock country. Heck, he probably also saw A Simple Plan or even '72's Deliverance for some taut inspiration.

So yeah, here's the gist of Calibre: two childhood buds go on a hunting trip in the Scottish Highlands. Trip goes bad (har har) when one of them accidentally kills a human instead of a deer. Then said buds have to deal with the Mayberry townspeople when they get back to their hotel. These townies, well they're very prying blokes, asking questions and forming their own snarky, vigilante mob.

Animal stalking and boyhood besties aside, Calibre is a gnawing tort of a flick, intriguing, fiercely well-acted, and directed with a rather suppressed barbarity by Matt Palmer. I mean it mostly works until you realize that there are no law enforcement personas around. Nada, just these Scottish, denizen inmates who are clearly running the asylum (clearly). Improbable? Yeah, could be from a viewer standpoint. Advocated by this critic? Not entirely but I'm still recommending the thriller genre-recycled Calibre. "Livened ammunition".

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, January 22, 2024

Sixty Minutes 2024 * * * Stars


"I can't right now, I've got a fight". Yeah you do, with the opposing fighter and every other ruffian looking to come to blows. Somebody give this dude a time out. Stat!

Anyway, Sixty Minutes is an action movie in every sense of the word. I mean every character in it knows how to brawl, as if Chuck Norris arrived on set as some AARP advisor. "Minutes" is also a race-against-time flick, as shown in its simplistic title. You put the two genres together and you've got some rock 'em, sock 'em thriller that doesn't always concur with the timelines, but never leaves you unoccupied or veritably out in the wind. 

So yeah, Sixty Minutes was shot and takes place in Berlin, Germany yet no one speaks a lick of German or has any type of German accent. Incongruous but um, I'll let it slide. I mean few films have the urgency and/or bone-crushing voyeurism of "Minutes", a non-stop rinse, repeat of loud fistfights then payoff, then loud fistfights then payoff. Yeesh! Just imagine if directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie teamed up with martial arts guru Scott Adkins. In other words, what if 2017's Good Time and 2018's Accident Man had a cinematic tyke. That's what you'd get with Sixty Minutes. "This is bigger than you think". Indeed. 

Edited lightning-quick, with a fierce techno soundtrack and personas with nasty dispositions, Sixty Minutes is about an MMA fighter (Emilio Sakraya as Octavio Bergmann) who throws a fight in order to be with his daughter on her birthday. Here's the rub: he's got 1 hour to get to said daughter or he'll lose sole custody of her (ouch, pun intended). Meanwhile mobsters who bet on his rumpus, are out to get him at every turn. It's like James Bond gadget-free but without the notion of death involved.

Bottom line: Sixty Minutes is one of those films where the main persona is put in a nonviable situation with little hope in sight. Howbeit, every little plot element of incessant furor seems to work out in the end, for better or worse. "Minute made". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, January 19, 2024

Snowmageddon 2011 * * Stars


What I learned from 2011's Snowmageddon, is that a disaster movie can still be low-budgeted and have those cheesy, tangible Syfy special effects. I mean when something explodes in this flick, it looks like firecrackers going off or "Yo Yo" sparklers instead of an actual rumble. You sort of snicker even though overt devastation is truly at hand. 

Anyway here is the gist of Snowmageddon: a small, postcard-like Alaskan town becomes the target of natural disasters after one of its families receives a gifted snow globe on their doorstep. You see whatever happens inside the globe, happens in the town (wha??). We're talking avalanches, meteor-like hail, and large, geological fault lines. Ugh. I guess the household characters in Snowmageddon never saw 1984's Gremlins. I mean you never take home and/or open up a Xmas present that has an obvious admonition attached to it. 

So yeah, Snowmageddon takes itself real seriously even though it's hard for the audience member to do the same. But as mentioned in the first paragraph, it is indeed a disaster pic, carrying those disaster traits we've all grown familiar with. You know the concept of half the personas trying to stop the disaster and the other half just trying to survive. Then you've got the large cast, the weird climate changes, the fact that even good people die, the dreaded hate sink character, and the made-for-TV stuff. Um, somewhere Chief O'Hallorhan is quipping, "it's out of control, and it's coming your way". Oh fo sho. 

All in all, Snowmageddon isn't a bad movie in terms of the energy it brings. I mean it's earnest in its execution, piloting lots of action and jumpy suspense that never let up. The problem is that in all its earnestness, Snowmageddon's director (Sheldon Wilson) gets sloppy with the storyboarding and/or editing processes. In certain clips, the Alaska town featured has a ton of snow on the ground and a minute later, it looks like it's 50 degrees out (huh?). Then there's the notion of how the main characters never reveal how they got from point A to point B or how "this" led to "that" in terms of them being in peril. Helmer Wilson, well he cuts corners, not doing enough do justice with Snowmageddon's within reach cogency or meager, allocated spreadsheet. Mixed "snow job".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Night Swim 2024 * * 1/2 Stars


Mostly known for shorts, Bryce McGuire directs the pseudo Hitchcockian Night Swim. With "Swim", McGuire initially uses every camera angled frame to signal a little danger coming right around the corner. The pool (and you knew there was gonna be a pool) is the unequivocal star. "Marco, Polo". Uh-oh, you know what that means. 

Night Swim, well let's put it into perspective. It's like watching '82's Poltergeist but the lido and only the lido is the source of all the creepiness and chaos. Every scene has a wet n' wild, systematic jump scare to it. Every overhead shot of the deep and shallow end is neatly placed. Every dewy-eyed persona just has to go in the water (of course, otherwise there'd be no movie). Every pool drain (and human) seems to cough up a lot of black guck. Yuck!

"Swim", yeah it's kind of effective in its first and second act. We're talking a rinse, repeat cycle of all the antagonistic duppies constantly messing with the characters as opposed to just getting it over with and ending them. Very modus operandi if I do say so myself. 

And as mentioned in the first paragraph, Night Swim does have a little Hitchcockian flavor to it. Case in point: there is a cinematic twist near the end, a sort of mumbo jumbo take on possession, wishing wells, and all out, soul sacrifice. The problem is that it mostly seems far-fetched and almost contrived. I mean by the last half hour, "Swim's" plot about a roving family who buys a house with a cursed pool literally turns all wet (pun intended). A miscast Wyatt Russell as an aging, MLB player dad (really?), clips that are supposed to freak you out but turn funny, and a 70s, TV look doesn't make things any more palatable. Mixed "night vision". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Snowbound 2017 * 1/2 Stars


2017's Snowbound is definitely about the snow, what with all the overhead shots and caps of an icy, wintry wonderland. Too bad the film is also about being a lousy version of Saw, where people awaken in an unknown area and don't know how they got there. Oh and some evil dude is involving said people in a deadly game of survival. Snowbound's opening scene, well it's a revealing doozy. The main characters are naked, lying in frozen water vapor after being drugged and knocked out for the entire night. Director Olia Operina obviously didn't think things through however. I mean everyone would've been dead from some form of hypothermia, guaranteed. 

Distributed by Lighthouse Home Entertainment, having a coda that runs out of wiggle room, and containing a lot of pretentious, thriller mumbo jumbo, Snowbound establishes tension early on only to have it dissipate into momentum-free flashbacks and bad acting from a villain that's got a real hard on for voodoo dolls. Helmer Operina, well she puts her personas in a cabin via the middle of nowhere. They don't know each other from Adam and find a dead girl (also naked) upstairs. They must figure out who killed her and kill one of each other or they'll all be killed. Uh, was Tobin Bell in on the production meetings? 

In retrospect, Snowbound has a decent look but it's obviously low budgeted. I mean it's evident in the sparse set locations, the casting of unknown actors, and the lack of blood and butchery. Olia Operina could've taken these constraints and left you with your knees knocking but I digress. She isn't interested in creeping you out or baiting the suspense out of you. No Olia would rather take Snowbound and make it assertively avant garde and/or something art house. Um, only Stanley Kubrick was able to pull that off with Jack Nicholson sweetie. "Snow blind". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Trees Lounge 1996 * * 1/2 Stars


Brooklyn native Steve Buscemi made his directorial debut with 1996's Trees Lounge. And ever since, he has made a few more films as well as helming some episodes of TV shows (Love, The Sopranos, Oz). With "Lounge", Buscemi takes on the lead too, playing alcoholic and unemployed car mechanic Tommy Basilio. Steve's Tommy acts as a sort of Greek chorus but hey, the bar remains the star. "It's a good deal, it's a good deal for me!" Maybe Stevie, maybe.

Trees Lounge, well it's like watching '87's Barfly minus that flick's gritty one-liners, revealing irony, and overly soiled look. Nevertheless, almost every public face is aggressive, every barkeep agitated, every half-drunkard unintelligible. No one's future looks that bright and well, Buscemi uses "Lounge's" shooting locations (which appear to be NYC boroughs) as a way of swallowing his personas up whole. You can just smell the stale lager, the salty Beer Nuts, and the aroma of a rye shot of Wild Turkey. Believe that. 

As mentioned in the first paragraph, Steve Buscemi is the director/star of Trees Lounge but he also mysteriously invites a bunch of non-visible, known actors to fade in and out of his tied house vision. We're talking Carol Kane, Seymour Cassel, Samuel L. Jackson, Mimi Rogers, and Michael Imperioli (to name a few cause there's more). They're on and off the screen faster than a speeding bullet and you wonder, are they doing Buscemi a favor by filling the 95-minute running time with meaningless cameos or are they just his buds. Heck, I found the whole viewing experience here to be rather untypical and kind of disunited. 

All in all, Trees Lounge is well-directed and well-acted. It establishes the atmosphere of a shabby Cheers where everybody knows your name and well, where your worn out barstool is. The problem is that the flick intentionally wades in despondency, establishing itself as a strict character study about lushes that despite a few, witty/sarcastic moments, never goes anywhere. Departure "lounge". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Bitconned 2024 * * * Stars


2024's Bitconned is a fascinating documentary about three dudes who scammed the American public through cryptocurrency. How'd they do it? Well they did it through a fake company called Centra Tech. I mean I didn't know much about the concept of digital tokens but director Bryan Storkel gave me the tech-y lowdown. Obviously there are no judgments here.

Robert Farkas, Sohrab Sharma, and Ray Trapani are the real-life con men who after getting caught, seem to hate each other. I'm not surprised. Giving up your co-workers by ratting them out to lighten your sentence, can tick off certain people running a pseudo business. At 93 minutes, Bitconned appears like a vanity project for these boys to sort of heighten their criminal fame (especially in regards to one Ray Trapani). Whatever. I have this weird habit of nervously rooting for the bad guy like in the good old days (hint, hint). What's wrong with me?

So yeah, if flicks like Boiler Room, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Social Network were made into docus, they'd probably equal the plot line of the cocksure Bitconned. You know, a bunch of twentysomethings start up a commerce that's either legal or illegal. The goal? To make money don't you know, lots of it by living off the buying and selling of others or just sitting on their behinds in front of the almighty laptop. Prosecution, lawsuits, and greediness oh my! "Nowadays, you have to figure out some sort of way to finesse the system". Uh-huh. 

Jordan Belfort antics and Mark Zuckerberg innovations aside, Bitconned is sleekly made and modern-day infused, showing interviews from its subjects that almost feel scripted, like what's on screen is actual fiction as opposed to actual transmission. Hey I'm not complaining, I was entertained. Sometimes you have to be malefactors in denial to get the rights to your own movie. Champing at this "bit". 

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Boys in the Boat 2023 * * * Stars


Last year I saw George Clooney's The Tender Bar. Now in 2024, I caught a showing of his new flick, The Boys in the Boat. George as a director, well he longs for the past, the wistful lightness of being. I mean just look at his directorial resume. That's right, ninety percent of his stuff takes place before the 1980s. The Boys in the Boat has to do with the University of Washington rowing crew and their trek to the 1936 Summer Olympics. It's old-fashioned, blithesome stuff I tell you.

At a running time of just over two hours, The Boys in the Boat is an epic sports journey, where nobodies gradually become somebodies and well, become Gold Medalists. Watching "Boat", I realized that this pic might be Clooney's Hoosiers, his underdog story to end all underdog stories. It's in the layers of development with the athletes, the way they had to beat other crews to reach the ultimate echelon, and the fact that their school wasn't the richest or uh, the biggest. 

Now is "Boat's" outcome all kinda predictable and feel-good formulaic? Somewhat. And does it not quite reach the emotional heights that Gene Hackman's 1986 vehicle did? Yeah, you could say that. Oh well. The propelling oar scenes (and there are many of them) have enough tension and agog to cause your heart to skip a beat. "Everyone else tires and they just get stronger". Indeed. 

Starring the likes of Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, and Jack Mulhern, The Boys in the Boat is authentic and attested, putting the viewer in a time machine via the blow-softening period of The Great Depression. Clooney, well I've always liked the look of his films. With "Boat", he knows where to put the camera, he effectively shoots low to the ground, his visual palate is sunlit and nicely glossy, and he never seems to have to pander to lack of refinement to get his point across (hence the PG-13 rating). Strong "stern".  

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, January 1, 2024

The Iron Claw 2023 * * * Stars


I've always thought of Zac Efron to be a very talented actor. He's charismatic, with a gleaming, devil-may-care attitude. With 2023's The Iron Claw, Efron shines as real-life wrestler Kevin Von Erich. He totally immerses himself in the role, with a blistering screen presence that's off the charts. "You feel that, you feel that, that's pressure". Oh yeah. 

Now is The Iron Claw the best film of 2023? No but it's certainly in the team photo. The pic is a slow-mounting drama that at certain moments, hits you like a ton of bricks (or a clothesline if you know what I mean). And does "Claw" provide the audience with a sterling sense of time and place? Oh you know it. The complete effect is staggering, a sort of vaulted escapism via the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s. Yup, there were times when I was getting some serious Reagan Era vibes. Radical!

The story of The Iron Claw is a true one, about the rise and fall of the wrestling Von Erich brothers, their mildly cold father, and the tragedies that seem to have accompanied their so-called, cursed family. "Claw" clocks in at 132 elongated minutes, with unassumingly brilliant editing by Matthew Hannam. Sure the flick has that "goes on and on and on" feel to it but there's stuff to appreciate. An earthy, gritty look, authenticity in the time period, raw acting, ripped character alteration, and violently blunt, grappling scenes. "Claw's" director (Sean Durkin), well he unintentionally goes into Bennett Miller territory here, offering the moviegoer a sort of expanded companion piece to 2014's Foxcatcher. 

Bottom line: The Iron Claw is powerfully realized and well, powerfully depressing. It doesn't have much of an arc, a kind of hard documentary with troupers inserted. Oh well. You'll leave the theater numb and distraught anyway so it's probably worth it. "Dragon's claw". 

Written by Jesse Burleson