Review – An American Pickle


FILM REVIEWAN AMERICAN PICKLE. With Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Molly Evensen, Eliot Glazer, Kevin O’Rourke. Written by Simon Rich. Directed by Brandon Trost. Rated PG-13 for some language and rude humor. 88 minutes. Available on HBOMAX.

Somewhere in brine
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Seth Rogen gets the dual role of a lifetime in AN AMERICAN PICKLE as poor Herschel Greenbaum, an immigrant to American from an eastern European shtetl in 1919, and his great-grandson Ben in the present day. They improbably get to meet when Herschel falls into a pickle vat and is revived a century later having been miraculously preserved by the brine. If you can buy that premise, this is a delightful comedy that is both specific to the Jewish immigration experience and yet universal in its theme of different generations trying to understand each other.

Herschel wakes up to a world where his beloved wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) is long-gone, and his son and grandson have passed away. His sole living descendant is Ben, an app developer living in Brooklyn who at first welcomes his great-grandfather but soon finds their differences create difficulties. Herschel, whose dream of success was that he’d be able to afford to drink seltzer, is amazed that Ben has a machine that can carbonate water. Ben, however, has no real Jewish roots (the theme for his bar mitzvah party was “Jumanji”) and can’t join Herschel in ritually mourning his lost family.

The two have a break which leads to most of the complications of the film. Herschel falls back on what he knows and is suddenly hailed for his “artisanal pickles.” Ben becomes jealous of Herschel’s success and contrives to undermine him. You may anticipate where the film has to end up (and do stick around for a scene in the closing credits), but much of the fun comes from Herschel’s encounter with the 21st century, and how people react to him. When he goes on Twitter (with the help of an intern) and expresses what, for him, are utterly commonplace views about women and gays, this leads to outrage. Then it leads to support for his refreshing honesty and willingness to speak his mind… until, ultimately, he goes too far.

Meanwhile Ben slowly comes to see that Herschel––for all their differences––is a man of strong principles and devotion to family. And that’s the key to the film. Each of them has to reach out and understand someone who is totally alien to their experiences, discovering that perhaps they’re not so different after all.

The film is a tour de force for Rogen, not only in playing two roles, but in not relying on the easy laughs related to drugs and sex that carry so many of his films. His performance as Herschel is heartfelt, where we sympathize with him even when his comments might strike us as outrageous. Ben is a bit closer to the onscreen character Rogen is known for, but he shows a depth here as well, as his anger and resentment evolve into understanding. This is a must-see for Rogen’s fans.

“An American Pickle” may not become a film classic, but it gets its laughs while delivering the dual message that we must respect the past while also learning to embrace the future.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Burnt Orange Heresy


FILM REVIEWTHE BURNT ORANGE HERESY. With Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland. Screenplay by Scott B. Smith. Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi. Rated R for some sexual content/nudity, language, drug use and violence. 99 minutes.

Infectious/Dis-ease

Every 80 seconds someone in America dies from Coronavirus. As a nation we’re creeping up on five million cases with more than 160,000 dead, the latest estimates suggesting we’ll hit 300,000 fatalities before December (that’s a hundred 9/11s). To the shock and horror of the rest of the world, our stumblebum country’s half-hearted containment efforts have been cataclysmic failures and our testing and tracing programs dysfunctional disasters. No matter how often elected officials like to stand in front of television cameras and congratulate themselves on what a great job they’re doing, the numbers are only going up. Scientists and health care professionals agree that things are going to get much worse before they get any better, so I guess now’s a great time to go back to the movies?

Director Giuseppe Capotondi’s THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY was just beginning its theatrical rollout back in March when screens went dark due to COVID-19. It’s a corker of a picture, the kind of sexy, sophisticated thriller people are talking about when they say they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Starring Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki––two exceptionally tall and attractive actors whose names I’m always convinced I am misspelling––the film is based on a 1971 novel by Charles Willeford. The action has been transplanted from Florida to Italy’s Lake Como, where Bang’s ethically dubious academic and his naive new gal-pal from Duluth fall under the thumb of a shady art dealer, portrayed with lip-smacking relish by Mick Jagger as a man of wealth and taste.

This is Jagger’s first real film role since he played a fading gigolo in 2001’s otherwise unmemorable “The Man From Elysian Fields,” and once again, one wishes his pesky day job didn’t have to deprive us of such delicious performances. He’s all sinewy insinuations here, ensnaring our morally malleable leading man in a scheme to wrest one final masterpiece from a reclusive, retired painter played by Donald Sutherland. With a honeyed drawl and mischief in his eyes, Sutherland does that old trick of his where he strolls into a movie for twenty minutes and saunters away with it tucked inside his breast pocket. A nifty little noir that left a big, silly grin on my face, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is the kind of purely pleasurable picture that in different times I’d describe as to die for. Except I wouldn’t mean it literally.

Other aborted March releases such as “First Cow,” “The Way Back,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” found their way to premium VOD services, while enterprising indie distributors like Kino Lorber and Oscilloscope Labs have teamed up with arthouse theaters to offer virtual screenings, splitting the revenues to help keep your local cinemas going while you watch their latest films from the safety of your sofa. But not so for Sony Pictures Classics, whose co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson it’s theaters or nothing. This is why “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is being re-released exclusively to cinemas during a global pandemic. In other words, if you want to see this movie you’d better be cool with killing your grandma for the privilege.

All available science says that sitting in an enclosed, poorly ventilated space for extended periods of time with other unmasked people is one of the most dangerous things you can do right now, short of licking doorknobs or playing Major League Baseball. For most of my adult life I’ve been going to the movies three or four times a week, and I haven’t been since March. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less at this particular moment, except maybe go to a bar (which used to be my second-favorite thing in the world to do, alas).

Cinema chains like AMC talk a good game about safety measures, but it’s difficult to imagine their compliance with complex protocols when most locations can’t even manage to show a movie with the correct lens on the projector. The amount of garbage (and vermin traps) routinely found on multiplex floors should already tell you everything you need to know about their commitment to cleanliness, and I’m sure these folks will do a fine job enforcing social distancing. After all, look how great they are at keeping people from using their phones during a film.

(I used to work for a theater chain owned by a maverick billionaire who likes to throw his money around on a television show. Our place had a leaky roof that we were told was cost-prohibitive to repair. When soaked ceiling tiles began to break apart and came crashing down upon the seats below, we were instructed merely to rope off the rows in which we thought patrons were most likely to be struck by falling debris, then continue on with business as usual. Your personal safety is not a priority to these people.)

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” was for a while envisioned as the world’s return to movie theaters, the large-format film eschewing home viewing options and bumping back its theatrical release date several times in response to worsening conditions in the country. For months now, Nolan has been a whipping boy in industry columns and on social media for wanting to wait until audiences can see his film safely on a big screen, instead of rushing the $200 million movie out early onto pay-per-view platforms. I find it both astoundingly hypocritical and completely unsurprising that Nolan’s been vilified for trying to protect his audience while SPC’s Bernard and Barker haven’t received the slightest bit of blowback for putting theirs at risk.

I mean, I get it… to an extent. Nolan’s a poncy British fellow who takes himself terribly seriously and wears silly scarves. He made folks on the internet insanely angry a few years ago when he suggested that he’d prefer audiences see his life’s work on a large screen under optimum conditions whenever possible. This innocuous-enough admission was read as “elitist” by the Dorito-dusted keyboard commandos who only watch torrents anyway so they can live-tweet them, and now Nolan is constantly being accused of “trying to kill his fans” because he didn’t somehow hijack Warner Bros. $200 million investment and send “Tenet” straight to Netflix months ago.

Meanwhile, the audience for most films released by Sony Pictures Classics has hair the same shade of blue as the distributor’s logo, putting them at extremely high risk of becoming COVID-19 casualties. Yet the company charges on with this reckless and irresponsible “theaters or nothing” plan––a full month ahead of the latest tentative release date for “Tenet,” mind you––unencumbered by any censure from our esteemed moral watchdogs in all their wisdom.

It depressed me this week to watch how many of my fellow critics have cautiously exempted themselves from this conversation. Colleagues whose actual job description is telling people whether or not they should go see a movie are now clamming up and claiming that it’s not their place to tell people whether or not they should go see this particular picture. Part of it is presumably my profession’s usual, mealy-mouthed obeisance in exchange for access. SPC has some of the most vindictive publicists I’ve ever encountered, with Barker and Bernard boasting rough, hard-won reputations for treating regional film festivals and any writers outside the NY/LA axis like some fetid glob discovered on the underside of their shoes. There’s a reason Sony Pictures Classics been around since 1992 while almost all of their competitors in indie and foreign language film distribution have cratered: these guys mean business.

So I guess there’s some kind of irony here in that “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is about Jagger’s sinister culture vulture blackmailing a compromised critic to create a phony narrative that will make them both millions, even if innocent people have to die for them to pull it off. The film really is a smashing entertainment, but would I be so quick to recall my favorite moments while intubated? Is the warmth of Sutherland’s sly performance really worth coming home and coughing droplets onto my loved ones that will turn their lungs into cement? I see retail outlets are currently listing the DVD and Blu-ray street dates for “The Burnt Orange Heresy” as August 25th. If you want to watch it safely at home, this is a movie very much worth waiting for.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality

Review – You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski


FILM REVIEWYOU NEVER HAD IT: AN EVENING WITH BUKOWSKI. A documentary directed by Matteo Borgardt. With Charles Bukowski, Silvia Bizio, Linda Lee Beighle. Unrated, but contains profanity and drunkenness. 52 minutes.

Stand and de-liver

Henry Charles Bukowski was born 100 years ago next week. This means it was 51 years ago that, at the behest of Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin, the part-time peddler of poems and dirty stories quit his day job at the post office to devote himself fully to writing, drunkenness, and days at the track. Bukowski went on to pen more than 60 books of poetry and prose, in the process becoming an international icon of wry degeneracy. Those yellowed Black Sparrow paperbacks were foundational texts for myself and lord knows how many other sad-on-the-inside, misfit boys with a taste for mischief and ye olde demon rum. Immortalized by Mickey Rourke as the writer’s romanticized alter ego Henry Chinaski in director Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 Bukowski-penned masterpiece “Barfly,” he was our double-fisted, sensitive scamp––the poet laureate of Skid Row.

Clumsily cobbled together from recently rediscovered footage, Matteo Borgardt’s YOU NEVER HAD IT: AN EVENING WITH BUKOWSKI is very much a fans-only proposition, but for fans it’s a dream come true. In January of 1981, journalist Silvia Bizio brought a camera crew to Bukowski’s home in San Pedro to record a short interview for Italian television. She arrived at four o’clock in the afternoon and left around one in the morning, their brief chat stretching out to the wee hours as bottles of wine were emptied and the ashtrays overflowed. For all its aesthetic limitations––captured in fragments in smeary colors on as many U-Matic videotapes Bizio’s crew could slap into their decks while the evening rambled on––it’s nonetheless a cinematic record of a night spent drinking with Charles Bukowski, which is something a lot of us have fantasized about for most of our lives.

Then sixty years old and still in fighting form, his persona honed by European superstardom and all those famously rambunctious live readings, Bukowski lays it on deliciously thick for Bizio, the way he always did for lady interviewers, especially the pretty ones. Their boozy, flirty chat is hardly a comprehensive overview of his career and might mystify the uninitiated, but those who grew up on his slurred words will find much to treasure here. When discussing the early days cranking out stories for local skin mags, Bukowski confesses that he always wrote celibate drafts first, then went back and added in the grossest sex stuff he could imagine after the stories didn’t sell anywhere else.

Like most conversations with Charles Bukowski, this one keeps coming back to sex, albeit with an older man’s grudging admission that as you get on in years you find sometimes the screwing isn’t as much fun as the Johnny Carson show that’s on afterwards. Poet Adam Kirsch once eloquently surmised Bukowski’s appeal is in his combination of confessional intimacy with “the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp fiction hero.” All the vamping and peacocking masculinity are flimsy cover for a sad, terribly wounded soul, one that keeps peeking out periodically here as the vino flows.

He explains how he’s having a tough time with his new book, a “horror story of my childhood” that would eventually become “Ham on Rye,” to my mind Bukowski’s best novel. A violently abused kid cursed with disfiguring acne that left massive boils and pustules all over his face, the young man who would become Henry Chinaski spent school dances outside in the cold, peering in through the windows at a world into which he was never allowed. His finest writing conjures for me that same anguished yearning for beauty, the ache for something transcendent when all you’re capable of feeling is ugly and alone.

“I write about things,” he tells Bizio, “I don’t try to explain them.” And that, dear readers, is how his flat, declarative sentences add up to so much more than the sum of their parts. It’s how simple statements become poems. Bukowski never got flowery. There was nothing ornate about the squalor, but rather a blunt, seen-it-all acceptance that things have been worse and probably would be again. He had a hilarious gift for understatement, casually regarding the madness around him with dry one-liners, even funnier when read aloud in his droopy, sing-song cadence.

He makes it look easy, but it’s not. I filled entire notebooks in high school with pathetic attempts to write like Bukowski, and the literary world is still littered with sorry imitators. (Try reading some of Michael Madsen’s poems sometime, if you dare.) I’m not looking forward to the inevitable reappraisals that will undoubtedly arrive with his centenary. There are too many obnoxious fans whose only books on their shelves are by Bukowski and Chuck Palahniuk, so I’m sure his reputation took a hit during that semi-recent new media fad when millennial women were grotesquely underpaid to write confessional essays about the annoying habits of their asshole ex-boyfriends. (An unfortunate trend that prompted the semi-literate Twitterati to deem David Foster Wallace a symbol of toxic masculinity, for reasons that continue to escape me.)

“It’s hard work being Bukowski,” he confesses to Bizio late in the evening, taking a moment to kid the oversized persona he’s built for himself and admitting how onerous it can be always having to live down to everybody’s worst expectations. But it still beats working at the post office.•••

“You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski” starts streaming Friday, August 7th at the Brattle Theatre and Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Rooms.

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality

 

Review – The Tax Collector


FILM REVIEWTHE TAX COLLECTORWith Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, George Lopez, Jose Conejo Martin. Written and directed by David Ayer. Unrated. 95 minutes. Available on digital, on demand.

Power Gang

When it comes to film genres, there are films that are groundbreaking landmarks and those that pick up on already established themes and find interesting ways to explore the territory. Gangster movies and TV shows like “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” made much of playing off the violence of its perpetrators with the seeming normality of their family lives.THE TAX COLLECTOR puts a fresh spin on this by taking us into the world of David (Bobby Soto), an enforcer for Wizard, a Latino crime boss still running things from prison.

David loves his wife (Cynthia Carmona) and two adorable children, the elder of which is preparing for her quinceañera party. Then he goes off to work where he and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) collect payoffs from the various gangs and other criminal enterprises in their domain. The family theme plays out as we learn he is the nephew of Louis (George Lopez), overseeing things while Wizard is doing time.

David’s world is upended with the arrival of Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), who declares he’s the future and David and Creeper can either join his team or pay the price. The price turns out to be steep, as carnage and brutality become the order of the day. (The unrated film would almost certainly deserve an R for its onscreen violence.) We’ve seen this before, of course, but what took Martin Scorsese three and a half hours in “The Irishman,” Ayer accomplishes in a taut 95 minutes.

By setting the story in today’s mean streets of Los Angeles Ayer shows that the more things change the more they stay the same. Tony Soprano might have had to make alliances with Jewish mobsters, but for David the way to control his turf is to make a pact with black gang leader Bone (Cle Sloan), to ensure they respect each other’s boundaries. Conejo is the wild card, disrupting the established order, making him a danger to everyone.

Ayer gets some solid performances here, including from LeBeouf as the stone cold Creeper and a surprisingly gritty turn from comedian Lopez. Some of Soto’s best moments are with Carmona, as she reveals why she was attracted to him and why she has stayed loyal even though she came from outside his criminal world. While not quite reaching the complexities of Edie Falco’s Carmela Soprano, she offers one of the richer performances of being married to the mob.

Perhaps most interesting to fans of the gangster film, “The Tax Collector” shows how much some things have changed even as the shootouts and betrayals remain a constant. Under the old Production Code, crime could not pay and so the antihero protagonist had to be gunned down at the end. Here, we’re invited to ask what was won and what was lost and whether it was worth it.•••

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 latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Senior Love Triangle


FILM REVIEWSENIOR LOVE TRIANGLEWith Tom Bower, Anne Gee Byrd, Marilyn Mason, Travis Van Winkle, Loren Lester. Written Kelly Blatz, Isadora Kosofsky. Directed by Kelly Blatz. Unrated. 92 minutes. Available on digital, on demand.

Polynanna
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One of the most difficult subjects for the movies––and for audiences––is the emotional lives of the elderly. Of course, there are plenty of wisecracking elders and doting grandparents in movies, but the notion that people in their later years might still be riding the rapids of a complicated love life is one films rarely address. SENIOR LOVE TRIANGLE is a bittersweet story of three such people, a story inspired by the photographs of Isadora Kosofsky, who shares a screenplay credit with the film’s writer/director Kelly Blatz.

William (Tom Bower) is a cantankerous WWII veteran who at the film’s start is being ejected from senior housing because he’s been an unauthorized resident in the apartment of his girlfriend Adina (Anne Gee Byrd). He is fortunate enough to find an apartment in another such building, and there he meets Jeanie (Marilyn Mason). As William is told when he moves in, the women outnumber the men and so he’s a prize catch.

William is still looking for his big score, and keeps sending money to someone who’s supposed to be providing a big payday for him but we come to suspect is a scam. However, his dream of providing a spacious mansion for himself and Adina soon expands to include Jeanie as well. The two women are wary of each other at first, but their loneliness leads to them forming a bond among the three of them. Each of the characters has their own issues, with William given to bursts of violence and Jeanie sometimes drifting into her past, but the affection and support they provide for each other is real.

The actors are all veterans with extensive TV and movie credits, even if you can’t quite place them. Here they’ve been given the opportunity to portray complex roles where we might sympathize with them one moment and pity them the next, all the while managing to hold onto each character’s essential dignity. These are not caricatures of old age, nor blanket representations of the elderly. Blatz and Kosofsky want us to see these three not as symbols, but as individuals, whose lives are what they are, for better or for worse.

It does not end well, but then that’s an age old story as well, going from the dependence of childhood to the independence of maturity and then, often, back to dependence. In the classic musical “Gigi,” Maurice Chevalier sang, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.” For the characters of “Senior Love Triangle,” it’s not a sentiment they’re likely to share. Yet this unflinching portrait leaves food for thought about what the future holds not only for our elders but also for ourselves.•••

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 latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine


FILM REVIEWCREEM: AMERICA’S ONLY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL MAGAZINE. A documentary directed by Scott Crawford. Featuring Dave Marsh, Jann Uhelszki, Cameron Crowe, Greil Marcus, Chad Smith. Unrated but contains profanity and drug use. 75 minutes.

The bird is the word
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The obligatory beats of the boomer rock doc have become so soothing I find myself watching them as comfort food. You know the drill: take contemporary talking head interviews with surviving band members, fans, and music journalists, add some news footage of Presidents and protests for historical context and then pepper in as many cool old photographs and fun film clips as you can find, along with some silly animated interludes to paper over the gaps. Proceed from inauspicious beginnings to surprise fame and fortune, then personality conflicts and Drugs! Drugs! Drugs! before the inevitable deaths and dissolution. Wrap it all up with a half-hearted, optimistic epilogue in which everyone kinda looks like shit but says they’re happier now.

So I guess it’s only natural during CREEM: AMERICA’S ONLY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL MAGAZINE to feel a little let down that a publication so hell-bent on taking the piss out of the establishment would receive such traditional treatment. Director Scott Crawford’s film respectfully colors within the lines while telling the tale of this misfit magazine that emerged with a chip on its shoulder and two middle fingers aloft amid the noise and economic devastation of Detroit Rock City to give Rolling Stone a wedgie. “If you weren’t in on the joke, you were the joke,” explains the son of publisher Barry Kramer, who in 1969 sold his trio of head shop/record stores and started the counterculture phenomenon known as Creem.

With its Boy Howdy! beer can mascot drawn by underground comics icon R. Crumb, Creem was the class clown of music magazines, foul-mouthed, irreverent and truer to the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll than anything else on the newsstands. When Rolling Stone was writing about James Taylor, Creem was all about Iggy Pop. According to interviews with former staffers such as Cameron Crowe, the magic was conjured by the collision of three possibly psychotic personalities: The mercurial Kramer, who in his more genteel moments greeted employees with a hearty “Good morning, motherfucker,” editor and wiseass wannabe-revolutionary Dave Marsh, and legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, whose clown prince persona loomed larger and louder than most of the acts he was covering.

The conventionality of Crawford’s film starts to make more sense when you realize he’s covering Creem as if it were a great rock ‘n’ roll band, elevating these madmen scribblers to the same heights as the stars they chronicled and reveling in the debauched office shenanigans the way traditional music docs dish backstage gossip. There’s no shortage of that stuff here, especially when the magazine abandoned its office in an increasingly uninhabitable slum and the whole staff moved to an isolated farmhouse commune where they all paired off, slept around and got on each other’s nerves for a couple years. The simmering internal conflicts finally came to blows the day Marsh left a pile of dogshit on Lester’s desk.

It’s a melancholy experience watching the movie and reflecting on how timid and sycophantic our current culture coverage has become. For all the boorishness and sexist swill sometimes peddled by Creem––Joan Jett once wrote a letter offering to kick their asses––the filthy rag was taking big swings at the establishment and unafraid to shit where they ate. Bangs’ insane, pugnacious interviews with his idol Lou Reed must be read to be believed (“Like I didn’t have my own problems,” Lou says of Lester in a 2003 audio clip included here) and Alice Cooper wistfully remembers Creem calling his first album “a tragic waste of plastic.” While of this would all be unthinkable today at any office with a Human Resources department or even a modicum of good taste, Crawford paints a vivid picture of a place where people took the music seriously but never themselves.•••

“Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine” is available to stream starting Friday, August 7th at the Cape Ann Community Cinema’s CACC@HOME Virtual Screening Room.

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality

Review – Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo


FILM REVIEWINMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO. A documentary directed by Brett Harvey. Featuring Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Donal Logue, Robert Rodriguez. Unrated, but contains violence and profanity. 107 minutes.

Cared straight

You may not know Danny Trejo’s name, but you know his face. One of the meanest mugs in movies, the actor’s effortlessly intimidating glower has been a crucial component of rotgut genre pictures for the past quarter-century. I first noticed him in 1995’s “Desperado,” in which Trejo flung knives and stole scenes without uttering a single word—that dead-eyed stare did all the talking for him. With a whopping 385 IMDB credits to his name, Trejo has terrorized thousands in countless cheapo action efforts, charmed children in the “Spy Kids” pictures, and the man known as Machete has even monkeyed around with the Muppets. INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO takes its title from the actor’s usual billing during the early days of his career, though it’s noted he also often played “Gangster #1,” “Cholo #1,” and “Ese #1.” What we learn from this unexpectedly emotional documentary is that Trejo’s onscreen authenticity is rooted very much in real-life experience.

Growing up in Pacoima in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, young Danny idolized his gangster uncle Gilbert, who instructed the young lad in the finer points of armed robbery and gave him his first shot of heroin at age 12. In and out of juvenile halls for most of his childhood, Trejo eventually graduated to San Quentin, where he became a dominant force both in the boxing ring and on the yard. Tattooed all over his chest and upper body decades before that became something the cool kids did, Trejo was a fearsome presence who realized he was blossoming into a sociopath the day he caught himself getting mad because the savage beating of a fellow inmate had ruined his afternoon game of dominoes.

He speaks these days with a wry smile and an aura of genuine goodwill. Danny Trejo’s not supposed to be here, and he knows it. During a prison riot in 1968 he clobbered a corrections officer in the head with a rock, and at that time the attempted murder of a guard was a death penalty offense. After weeks in solitary confinement spent singing and acting out “The Wizard Of Oz” to try and stay sane, Trejo narrowly escaped an inevitable execution when the injured party couldn’t positively identify him. (He must have really scrambled that guy’s eggs—how do you not pick Danny Trejo out of a lineup?) Life doesn’t give out many second chances like that, and when he was paroled the following year, Trejo took his and ran with it.

His first stop after getting out was an AA meeting, in part because he’d been impressed with how welcoming everybody was when he and his buddies robbed one a few years before. A broke and contrite Trejo moved back in with his parents, and when Uncle Gilbert showed up with a thousand dollars and two bricks of heroin to sell, Danny handed the drugs back and told him where to go. (“Of course, I kept the money,” he smiles.) Trejo instead spent his newly sober days working menial jobs, delivering groceries to the elderly, and eventually becoming a drug counselor.

Trejo was helping out a pal from the program when he wound up on the soundstage prison set of Andrey Konchalovsky’s “Runaway Train.” His leathery visage immediately caught the eye of the director, who hired him as an extra on the spot. But maybe more importantly, Trejo was recognized by the film’s screenwriter Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue in Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”), the legendary ex-con crime novelist who’d served time with him in San Quentin. The best parts of “Inmate #1” detail Eddie’s efforts to help Trejo get ahead in Hollywood, two knockaround guys from the streets who happened upon the score of a lifetime.

After a harrowing first half, the rest of the documentary is almost relentlessly upbeat. Warm and funny anecdotes abound, and I was especially taken with tales of Robert De Niro’s generous treatment of his “Heat” and “Machete” co-star. “So Danny, how do you want to do this scene?” he asked the then-neophyte actor on the set of Michael Mann’s 1995 opus. (Fun trivia for “Heat” fanatics: Trejo’s character in the film is indeed named after the notorious Uncle Gilbert, who had been a big help to Mann almost 20 years before when he shot “The Jericho Mile” on location in Folsom Prison.) De Niro is also said to have told Trejo, “Take whatever roles they offer you, because these people have short memories,” which explains a lot about both of their careers, I guess.

From a filmmaking standpoint, “Inmate #1” has about five or six too many endings, and the championing of Trejo’s tireless charity work for prisoners and at-risk kids borders on one-note hagiography. But on a human level it’s enormously moving to watch someone strive so hard to give back to the community and his fellow man, hoping he can help someone else get the kind of second chance with which Danny Trejo was blessed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality

Review – Yes, God, Yes


FILM REVIEWYES, GOD, YES. With Natalia Dyer, Alisha Boe, Timothy Simons, Donna Lynne Champlin, Wolfgang Novogratz. Written and directed by Karen Maine. Rated R for sexual content and some nudity. 78 minutes. Available via The Cape Ann Community Cinema’s CACC@HOME Virtual Cinema, on digital, on demand.

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A successful movie can be specific and universal at the same time. As an older Jewish man, this reviewer is clearly not the target audience for YES, GOD, YES, the new coming-of-age comedy about a teenage Catholic girl. Yet in spite of things that might especially resonate for parochial school alumni, nearly everyone should be able to relate to this tightly-written story of an adolescent grappling with a variety of conflicting messages about sexuality.

Alice (Natalia Dyer) is a “good” girl, whose idea of sinning is re-watching a sexy scene from “Titanic.” She is the target of a mean rumor about performing a sex act that not only isn’t true, but she doesn’t even know what it means. As a way to get control of her life, she goes on a four-day school retreat that promises to be a life-changing experience. It is a way to bond with friends, strengthen one’s faith, and face some personal truths.

It proves to be challenging. She finds herself drawn to hunky Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), one of the senior counselors at the retreat. She gets into trouble for holding onto her cell phone against camp rules. She also finds that a lot of the people presented to her as role models are hypocrites, including cabin leader Nina (Alisha Boe) and Father Murphy (Timothy Simons), separately espied in compromising situations.

Through it all, Alice finds it hard to control her own libido, even though she’s instructed early on that “sex with one’s self” is a sin. As she comes to see that her peers are often as confused and conflicted as she is, she also sees that even adults who aren’t hypocrites still have to struggle. Mrs. Veda (Donna Lynn Champlin) is first seen in the school hall imposing unflinching rules, like citing a boy who neglected to wear a belt with his pants. Gina (Susan Blackwell), an older woman who is both out and ex-Catholic, provides some sympathetic advice, suggesting Alice consider broadening her horizons by applying to coastal colleges rather than the local state school, while not pushing the young girl to her own point of view.

The cast is wonderful, although most known mostly for their TV work, including Dyer (“Stranger Things”), Boe (“13 Reasons Why”), Champlin (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), and Simons (“Veep”). Credit goes to writer/director Karen Maine, who co-wrote the 2014 arthouse hit “Obvious Child,” as well as Dyer in making a movie about a teenage girl’s sexual explorations neither titillating nor smarmy. Instead, viewers–male or female, Catholic or not–are more likely to wince and/or smile in recognition and wonder, “Was I ever that naïve?”

Yes, we all were at some point in our lives, and “Yes, God, Yes” navigates that tightrope by telling a story not about entering adulthood but instead focusing on that tiny moment of revelation when you discover that the world is a lot more complicated than you realized and there is so much to learn.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Rental


FILM REVIEWTHE RENTAL. With Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss. Screenplay by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg. Directed by Dave Franco. Rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexuality. 88 minutes.

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The biggest laugh I’ve had in weeks came during the closing credits of THE RENTAL. See, I was sent a screener link from the distributor by mistake––it was supposed to be “The Painted Bird”––and in the mood for something scary during my usual 3AM end-of-the-world insomnia, one night earlier this month I wound up watching it totally cold, not knowing so much as the movie’s premise. After eighty-odd minutes of slack-jawed marveling at how such a barely-written wisp of a thing could possibly have attracted a semi-famous cast and national distribution, Joe Swanberg’s co-writing credit appeared onscreen and I cackled aloud.

For those blissfully unfamiliar, Swanberg was at the forefront of what came to be known as the “mumblecore” movement back in the mid-aughts, helming a staggeringly prolific number of middling relationship dramas shot indifferently on digital video. I can’t stand these movies. Swanberg came close to cracking the mainstream about six or seven years ago, rounding up some name stars for limp improvisational exercises like “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas,” but the indolence of these pictures was so insulting I swore the filmmaker off for good. (To be honest, the only thing Swanberg’s ever done that I really enjoyed was when he beat the shit out of hack film critic and bullying sex pest Devin Faraci during an exhibition boxing match at Austin’s Fantastic Fest back in 2012.) So had I’d known who’d co-written “The Rental” I probably never would have watched it.

But it all makes perfect sense, in that “The Rental” is basically a mediocre mumblecore movie with a sour slasher flick tacked on to the second half. As par for the course with Swanberg pictures, it’s about the dull relationship woes of uninteresting young couples, navigating their tiny problems within a bubble of unquestioned privilege. Dan Stevens and Shelia Vand play business partners celebrating some sort of big break for their new start-up with an expensive weekend Airbnb on the California coast––bringing along their respective romantic partners. He’s married to a tiresomely fussy Alison Brie, while she’s dating Stevens’ ne’er-do-well little brother (Jeremy Allen White).

You can tell from the jump how quarter-assed this movie’s gonna be when the writers can’t even be bothered to decide what Stevens and Vand’s company is supposed to do––the characters all talk about “the business” in such laughable non-specifics it sounds like placeholder dialogue that someone forgot to go back and fill in later. There’s a promising bit of friction with the property’s possibly racist caretaker (Toby Huss) that suggests which Michael Haneke movies were watched by director Dave Franco before shooting started, but like most things in “The Rental,” this is brushed aside to make way for dopey plot mechanics and tedious romantic revelations.

A bunch of philandering houseguests discovering cameras in their showerheads is actually a pretty good hook for a sicko comedy––one dreams of what Brian De Palma might have done with the idea––but Franco’s directorial debut plays only one ploddingly morose note. The muted angst of these cardboard characters gets swallowed up in the foggy gloom and doom of Christian Sprenger’s underexposed cinematography. Some movies are hard to watch, this one’s hard to see––I had to rewind a couple of the big kills because I couldn’t make out what had happened, even with my face pushed up close to the screen. (After difficulties at the film’s outdoor premiere back in June, there was discussion of remastering a brighter version for future drive-in engagements.)

It’s all just a rather witless, unpleasant slog. There’s nothing in these 88 minutes nearly as knowing as that shot of a lonely Ken Follett paperback on the Cape Cod bookshelf in Jeffery A. Brown’s flagrantly superior “The Beach House.” (If you see only one horror movie about leased waterfront property this summer, make sure it’s that one.) Franco’s direction is almost entirely devoid of personality, displaying zero emotional investment in the grim narrative. You watch “The Rental” wondering why anybody even bothered getting up in the morning to go make this movie in the first place, because their reasons sure aren’t on the screen. But I guess there is some level of self-awareness in that the film’s title was up until recently a commonly used pejorative for films not good enough to merit even a matinee ticket price.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality

Review – Radioactive


FILM REVIEWRADIOACTIVE. With Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Sian Brooke, Anya Taylor-Joy. Written by Jack Thorne. Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality. 109 minutes. Available on Amazon Prime.

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RADIOACTIVE has so much going for it that it’s frustrating when it takes a wrong turn. While focusing on the life of Marie Curie, it is powerful and inspiring. When it tries to transcend her life and times, it reaches for the stars and falls short.

Rosamund Pike offers a solid performance as Marie, a brilliant scientist who has two things going against her: she’s a woman in a field otherwise entirely male and she’s Polish trying to establish her work in France. She meets Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a scientist who is an exception, as entranced with her work as he is with her. They join their lives and their science.

As depicted here, it’s a hard sell for her. She has to work so hard to gain any traction for her work that she’s loathe to involve anyone else in it. Pierre tells her he lives for collaboration. He wants to help her but he also wants her to help him. When their discovery of radioactivity leads to the Nobel Prize, initially it’s offered just to him. He insists that her essential work be recognized as well, leading to her to become the first woman to win a Nobel.

Pierre is a complex figure as well. His openness to exploring new ideas makes him an ideal partner for Marie, but it also means he dabbles in the fashionable interest in spiritualism of the time. When he dies, Marie continues her work–earning a second Nobel in her own right–but questions the choices she’s made in her life, urging her daughter Irene not to follow in her path. (Irene did, and would eventually earn her own Nobel.)

Where the film goes wrong is attempting to place the Curie’s work on radium and radioactivity into a retrospective of 20th century history dealing with atomic weapons and nuclear power. For no discernible reason, the story is interrupted for flash-forwards to the bombing of Hiroshima and the Chernobyl disaster. Are we supposed to hold the Curies responsible for what later generations made of their discoveries, or is this an attempt at irony? The filmmakers themselves seem so unsure what their point is that after these interruptions we return to Marie without any additional insight.

Pike is marvelous as Marie Curie, showing both her strengths and weaknesses, and making her accessible to those to whom Curie is only a historical figure. One wishes there was more of her relationship with Pierre, particularly because Riley’s performance makes it clear this was an ideal pairing of minds and personalities. Together the two of them achieved things that neither might have done on their own, her subsequent accomplishments notwithstanding.

“Radioactive” is a near-miss, proving moving at one moment, and annoying at the next. It’s worth seeing, but one is left wishing for the film that might have been.•••

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 latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.