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Review – The Old Man & The Gun

FILM REVIEWTHE OLD MAN & THE GUN. With Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits. Written and directed by David Lowery. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 93 minutes.

old_man_and_the_gun_xlgWhile peers like Gene Hackman and Sean Connery may have quietly hung it up after a couple of unmemorable duds (“Welcome to Mooseport” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” respectively) the recently retired Robert Redford’s final film is a more carefully considered and well-publicized affair. This makes sense, as Robert Redford thinks a lot about being Robert Redford. The 82-year-old icon has so carefully managed a career spanning more than five decades, it’s easy to see why he chose to go out with THE OLD MAN & THE GUN, a gentle caper comedy full of wistful, wrinkly smiles and a sweetly elegiac tone.

Based on what we’re told is a mostly true story, the film stars Redford as Forrest Tucker, who led a crew of senior citizen bank robbers on a spree across the Southwest back in the late 1970s and early 80s. Writer-director David Lowery winningly utilized the screen legend’s avuncular appeal in his terrific 2016 “Pete’s Dragon” remake, and here skips over any unpleasant particulars of Tucker’s real-life story in favor of a genial, slightly exaggerated folk tale.

Shot on richly textured 16mm film stock with old-timey title cards, “The Old Man & the Gun” is like a lot of Lowery’s films in that it feels like it was made forty years ago. Redford plays the world’s most polite armed robber, charming the tellers and flashing his pistol but never pointing it in their faces. Clad in a dapper blue suit with a hearing aid dangling from his ear (it’s actually a police scanner) he’s the last person you’d ever expect to be knocking over a bank — which is exactly how he keeps getting away with it.

Casey Affleck co-stars as a depressed Dallas detective humiliated when Tucker robs an establishment where he’s waiting in line. Seething with resentment, he begins tracking this crew he’s dubbed “The Over-The-Hill Gang” like a hangdog Javert. Putting these two at odds is an inspired pairing, with Affleck’s rumpled deadpan and miserable mustache consistently outshone by Redford’s mega-watt charisma. The younger actor seems to have prematurely Matthau-ed, displaying withered grimaces that are comedy gold.

Between heists, Tucker hangs with Sissy Spacek’s unassuming rancher. She can tell there’s something fishy about this guy, but he’s awfully fun to be around and it is a pleasure for us to bask in the chemistry of these two adorable old pros. The easygoing vibe also applies to Redford’s fellow felons, played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, settling into their roles like comfy easy-chairs. There’s not exactly a lot of urgency in “The Old Man & the Gun,” which for a manhunt picture is paced more like an afternoon stroll. That’s part of the appeal.

I suppose a tougher movie could have gotten into the gulf between Tucker’s folksy demeanor and a life wasted on the run or in prisons, but besides a brief cameo by Elisabeth Moss as his estranged daughter, the picture doesn’t really seem to want to go there. A better actor than he’s often given credit for being, Redford in his finest films has dug into disenchanting undercurrents beneath the golden boy persona. (His near-silent performance in 2013’s “All is Lost” was a marvel of physicality and regret.) “The Old Man & the Gun” is content to stay on the surface while offering warmly valedictory flourishes, going to far as to incorporate footage of the young star in 1966’s “The Chase” and allowing Affleck to borrow that snubbed-nose salute from “The Sting.”

It’s a fond farewell to a legend who has earned himself this kind of affable victory lap, and I’ll take it over “Welcome to Mooseport” any day.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.


Review – Halloween

FILM REVIEWHALLOWEENWith Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Haluk Bilginer, Will Patton. Written by David Gordon Green  & Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity. 106 minutes.

halloween_ver3_xlgReleased in 1978, the original “Halloween” was a game changer. Michael Myers was a relentless masked serial killer who left teenage bodies in his wake, spawning countless sequels, remakes, and competing series. John Carpenter’s film was a horror landmark and got Jamie Lee Curtis (who played Laurie, the virtuous, teenage “final girl” who survives) dubbed the original “Scream Queen.”

Forty years later, with Carpenter’s blessing (he’s one of the film’s executive producers), we get a new HALLOWEEN, which ignores all the films in the series except the first one, and in which Michael and Laurie have a final showdown. Of course, horror films themselves have changed over the years, and so this one has more gore than the original, but those shots are few and fleeting. In many ways, director David Gordon Green (and his two co-writers) have gone old school. Fans of the original will surely be pleased.

The premise is that Michael, who has been locked up for forty years, is being transferred to a new facility. The prison psychiatrist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), has been studying him for decades and has not gotten him to utter a word. Meanwhile, we learn that Laurie, now a grandmother, has never gotten over that night and lives in a fortified house in the woods. Her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), has a strained relationship with her, having been removed from the house by authorities as a child. On the other hand, her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) does have a connection with her grandmother. This Halloween night will offer the three generations of women a horrific opportunity to bond.

The story takes off when – of course – Michael escapes and not only starts killing more people but doesn’t limit himself to sexually active teens. Ironically, Laurie has been praying for Michael to escape, as she tells Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) because she wants the opportunity to kill him herself. In that sense, this is an unusual film for the genre since it’s not only about characters meeting bloody ends, but about the impact the horror has on the survivors.

As Michael, again billed as “The Shape” in the credits, James Jude Courtney provides the appropriately hulking menace. (Writer/director Nick Castle, who played the role in the original, apparently filmed a few scenes in the part as well.) It’s the three female leads who make this a cut above the ordinary slasher flick. Curtis provides depth to the role, showing an obsessiveness in Laurie that plays off Greer and Matichak.

The film offers several nods to the past, from Laurie calling Sartain the new Loomis (a reference to the late Donald Pleasance’s character in the original) to a cameo by P. J. Soles as a teacher (Soles was one of Michael’s first victims). There’s also a set-up late in the film that smartly echoes a similar moment in the ’78 movie. Fans will instantly recognize it.

This new “Halloween” succeeds in a way that very few of the progeny of Carpenter’s classic have done: it scares and it entertains, but you don’t have to check your brain at the door.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Sisters Brothers

FILM REVIEWTHE SISTERS BROTHERS. With John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer. Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content. 121 minutes.

sisters_brothers_ver3They wouldn’t be the heroes of any other western. Hell, they’re hardly even the stars of this one. Ne’er-do-well brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters are a couple of loutish, dim-bulb assassins shooting up Gold Rush country on behalf of a shadowy crime boss (Rutger Hauer in a sly, silent cameo) known only as “The Commodore.” In a more conventional movie these two hayseeds would be pistol fodder within the opening reels, but then there’s nothing conventional about THE SISTERS BROTHERS.

Directed by Jacques Audiard, the fine French filmmaker best known on these shores for his electrifying 2009 crime saga “A Prophet” and the 2012 killer whale amputation romance “Rust and Bone,” this is one of those wildly idiosyncratic westerns you get when a European director starts dismantling American genre archetypes. From the incomprehensible opening shootout lit only by muzzle flashes to an incongruously bouncy jazz score by Alexandre Desplat, Audiard instantly flips the toolbox upside down and starts shaking it around. He keeps you disoriented for damn near the entire running time, in ways both frustrating and productive.

Jake Gyllenhaal co-stars as finicky private detective John Norris, sent ahead by the Commodore to track down a thieving prospector (Riz Ahmed as the wonderfully named Hermann Kermit Warm) so the Sisters Brothers can shoot him. But there’s more to both hunter and prey than it first seems on the surface, and it’s easy to imagine a straighter version of this story being all about the emerging conscience of Norris, inspired by Hermann’s altruism to become an unlikely hero.

We do get a little of that, but mostly we’re riding way behind with the titular peckerwoods as they foul up, get drunk, and fall ill in a rambling collection of picaresque misadventures. At times it feels a bit like watching “The Wild Bunch” from the POV of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, always a day or two in back of the real story. Admittedly it took me longer than it probably should have to grok where Audiard was going with all this — a sort of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Go West,” glimpsing a changing world through the eyes of two entirely inconsequential characters.

The actors are in fine form, with Phoenix bringing a brutishly amusing shallowness to the pickled, pragmatic Charlie. But it turns out to be Reilly’s show (he also produced the picture) as this hulking, gentle giant gradually develops a slow-dawning decency that becomes downright adorable by the film’s final stretch. A lot of movies don’t seem sure what to do with the big galoot – a performer of wide range and great depth just as comfortable clowning around with Will Ferrell as he was on Broadway doing “True West” with pal Philip Seymour Hoffman. (The two traded roles throughout the run. Gawd, what I would give to have seen that.) 

Reilly’s performance deepens as “The Sisters Brothers” goes along, quietly amassing emotional ballast as Audiard’s oddball cutting patterns and narrative ellipses keep tricking us into the sensation that there’s a more important movie going on somewhere just over yonder. Scenes and entire storylines tend to self-destruct in eruptions of left-field violence, the film constantly interrupting itself on the way to wherever you think it’s going. (Get ready for the most hilariously anti-climactic climax this side of a Coen Brothers movie.) That is, until the gorgeously unexpected ending, which sneaks up on you with a warmth one never imagined from a bloody picture like this.

I imagine “The Sisters Brothers” is one of those movies that will be more enjoyable on second viewing, once you’ve gotten the lay of the land. Luckily the first time around is entertaining enough to leave you looking forward to a return trip.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Hate U Give

FILM REVIEWTHE HATE U GIVEWith Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, K. J. Apa. Written by Audrey Wells. Directed by George Tillman Jr. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language. 133 minutes.

hate_u_giveBased on a popular YA novel by Angie Thomas, THE HATE U GIVE is a powerful drama about the racial tensions that exist in America today, seen through the eyes of an African-American teenage girl. It is a film that may succeed in appealing to audiences across the racial divide and should provoke talk about a variety of topics that we need to discuss. It’s not a perfect film, but the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

The film’s narrator, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg in a stellar performance), tells us that she has to live two lives. In her troubled community, she has to be “black” to fit in with her friends. Yet at her mostly white private school, she makes sure she walks the straight and narrow, even as her white friends emulate their favorite rap stars. All this comes crashing down when she witnesses her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) needlessly shot by a white police officer.

Starr is suddenly torn in several directions. A local activist (Issa Rae) wants her to go public as a witness. Her mother (Regina Hall) wants her to keep quiet so as not to attract trouble. A protest at her high school turns out to be an excuse to cut classes. And a local gang leader (Anthony Mackie) demands her silence because Khalil sold drugs for him to help support his own family.

There’s a lot of issues going on here, which is why the film should resonate with audiences. Beyond finding characters with whom to identify, there are also moments for viewers to see the world through the eyes of someone else. White viewers need to see the opening scene in which Starr’s father (Russell Hornsby) has “the talk” with her and her two brothers, telling them how to cooperate with a police officer who stops them no matter how bogus or unjust the situation is. As the film (and the headlines) makes clear, it is literally a matter of life or death. Yet we also hear from Starr’s uncle (Common), a police detective, how he is entirely sympathetic with the views of his fellow officers. And then there’s Chris (K.J. Apa), her white boyfriend, who stumbles along the way as he tries to be supportive.

The film’s strength is in recognizing nuance. Khalil doesn’t deserve his fate at all but did everything he could to provoke it. Starr’s father is a former gangbanger who did time in jail but is now an upright business man devoted to his wife, his children, and his community. When Starr’s involvement becomes public, she discovers that not all of her white friends are colorblind, but also finds those who sincerely want to understand.

If the film is melodramatic – and the last act is certainly contrived and manipulative – it is also a movie that should engage the viewer in Starr’s dilemma and open one’s eyes to issues it raises. “The Hate U Give” – the title is inspired by the late rapper Tupac Shakur and is explained in the movie – is an important contribution to bridging the racial divide. Let’s hope people are paying attention.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Chasing the Blues

FILM REVIEWCHASING THE BLUESWith Grant Rosenmeyer, Ronald L. Conner, Chelsea Tavares, Jon Lovitz, Anna Maria Horsford. Written by Scott Smith, Kevin Guilfoile. Directed by Scott Smith. Not rated. 77 minutes.

p15734710_v_v8_aaCHASING THE BLUES is essentially the movie equivalent of a one-act play, running about 70 minutes when you exclude the closing credits. It’s primarily a showcase for two young actors, Grant Rosenmeyer and Ronald L. Conner, who succeed in making the slight premise more entertaining than it warrants. Jon Lovitz, who appears at the beginning and near the end of the movie, is being heavily promoted as the biggest name in the cast, although ‘80s star Steve Guttenberg does pop up for one scene.

Lovitz plays Lincoln Groome, a shady Louisiana lawyer who shows up at a prison to visit Alan Thomas (Rosenmeyer), who was implicated in a mysterious death several years earlier. The attorney promises to get Thomas something that he’s desperately wanted… for a price. Soon thereafter Thomas is released and heading to Louisiana along with Vanessa (Chelsea Tavares), a young woman he meets on the bus.

He tells her that his goal is to obtain a rare and possibly cursed record by a legendary blues musician. In flashback, we learn the story of the record, but more particularly how Thomas and Paul Bettis (Conner) find themselves in the apartment of the dotty Mrs. Walker (Anna Maria Horsford), who has held onto the massive record collection of her late husband. She has no idea the value of what she has, but Thomas and Bettis do, and both want that one particular record.

Most of the movie is set in Walker’s apartment, as the elderly woman offers them “sweet tea” and each of the men tries to outmaneuver the other to obtain the record. Farcical complications ensue which, we know from the start, lead to the two men ending up in prison. Now, twenty years later, they will have a final showdown with the addition of lawyer Groome.

As a story it’s not very much, relying almost entirely on the bickering and bantering between Rosenmeyer and Conner for whatever entertainment value it has. Fortunately, they are fun to watch as they play off of each other, and the supporting cast does what it can to keep things moving. The payoff works to the extent that you’re willing to indulge what is a shaggy dog story.

This is what might be thought of as a “calling card” movie, intended less for potential box office success than to provide future producers a work sample of the talent involved, including director Scott Smith, who comes out of advertising and has a number of shorts to his credit. Someone considering hiring Smith or one of the cast members could use this as an audition. It doesn’t make “Chasing The Blues” a must-see film for the general public, but it’s amiable and amusing enough if you have 70 minutes or so to spare.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – First Man

FILM REVIEWFIRST MANWith Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber. Written by Josh Singer. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. 141 minutes.

first_man_xlgRyan Gosling has his fans but while he has a number of solid performances under his belt, all too often he underplays his roles to the point of inertia, as with “La La Land” and “Blade Runner 2049.” With FIRST MAN, in which he plays Neil Armstrong, he has found the perfect part in that he plays a man who revealed very little of himself to the public or even to those who were close to him. It’s hard to say what the future may hold but this may be the performance for which he’ll be remembered.

“First Man” is the story of the U.S. space program, seen through the eyes of Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. For viewers old enough to remember the actual event, it’s an impressive recreation of history, managing to generate suspense even when one knows what is going to happen. For younger viewers, it captures the sense of wonder that captivated supporters of NASA and what came to be called the “space race.” Having been repeatedly bested by Russia in launching satellites and in manned space flight, President John F. Kennedy put America on the path to put the first man on the moon.

Based on James R. Hansen’s book, it focuses on Armstrong, giving us a look at a man who was conditioned to persevere regardless of the circumstances. The film opens with him surviving a dangerous test flight, but perhaps the most revealing moment comes when his future moon partner Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), notes that the deaths after the Apollo 1 tragedy opens up opportunities for the other astronauts. When he says that he’s only pointing out what they’re all thinking, Armstrong replies that maybe he shouldn’t. Gosling walks a tightrope as Armstrong, rarely revealing his feelings so that when he lets the mask slip it has maximum impact, whether it’s offering a wry smile to a fellow astronaut or discussing with his children the uncertainty of his return from his mission. Indeed, death is a recurring theme not only in his personal life but with the repeated reminders of the dangers of what they are trying to accomplish as friends and colleagues perish along the way.

Director Damien Chazelle has upped his game from his previous films, the uneven “Whiplash,” which succeeded on the strength of a bravura performance from J.K. Simmons, and the overrated “La La Land.” Perhaps it helped that, for a change, he did not write the script and that Josh Singer has given him a much more solid base from which to work. Thus, we get suspenseful sequences such as Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission, and we get personal details about the relationship between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who demonstrates she’s no pushover for her husband or for NASA, yet clearly worked at maintaining a solid marriage.

In real life, Armstrong came back from the moon in 1969 and did not go on the lecture circuit or otherwise try to cash in on his fame, but largely withdrew from public life. “First Man” provides a sympathetic portrait of a true American hero, acknowledging that he was a complex person who was more interested in doing the job than getting the acclaim.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Molly

FILM REVIEWMOLLYWith Julia Batelaan, Emma de Paauw, Joost Bolt, Arnost Kraus, Andre Dongelmans. Written by Thijs Meuwese. Directed by Colinda Bongers, Thijs Meuwese. Rated PG -13. 91 minutes.

molly-2017-movie-colinda-bongers-2MOLLY is a Dutch “Mad Max” wannabe. It’s in English, but it doesn’t really matter since much of the film consists of fight scenes without dialogue. While it has moments of visual creativity – impressive given the minuscule budget on which the film was made – neither the plot nor characterization is particularly engaging.

We’re in a post-apocalyptic world, in which survivors on their own are barely hanging on and a thuggish bully has become the dictator of his own little realm. He distracts his followers with fights to the death among his captives, drugged into a rabid state. None of this makes sense, but you’re supposed to go with the flow.

He then learns about Molly (Julia Batelaan), a lone wolf who is not only an expert fighter but also appears to have extraordinary powers that are never really explained. He’s eager to have her captured in order to fight for him. Meanwhile, she’s found a young girl – whose parents we see captured at the film’s start – and decides to protect her.

And that’s really all there is to the plot. It comes down to whether Molly will prevail or not, but other than the fact that her opponents are the minions of the stereotypical post-apocalyptic dictator, there’s no reason to really care. Batelaan has done a number of film and TV productions in the Netherlands, but from this film, it’s hard to gauge her acting talent beyond her abilities to perform the martial arts choreography the story demands. That’s no small thing, but it would be pressing it to claim it a dramatic performance.

What merits the film may rest on the visuals, from the staging of the various fight scenes to the sets which reflect the makeshift nature of this world (and possibly the film’s budget). If all one asks is visceral action, then “Molly” delivers on that score. Unfortunately, it is done at the level of a not particularly imaginative video game, so that we get a setup and then get to root for Molly to prevail.

With a better script, “Molly” might have risen to the level of a B-movie. As is, it’s a disposable curio that might be of interest in retrospect if the star or directors prove their talent in more ambitious material down the road. It’s possible. Few people saw the original “Mad Max” on its original U.S. release nearly forty years ago and wouldn’t have guessed that director George Miller and star Mel Gibson had big careers ahead of them.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.