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Review – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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FILM REVIEWWON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?A documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Featuring Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Eddie Murphy. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. 94 minutes.

wont_you_be_my_neighborEver since it screened at Sundance back in January there’s been a strange phenomenon surrounding WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, director Morgan Neville’s fine documentary about children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers. People can’t seem to stop crying. A lot of critics spend their entire reviews writing about how they sobbed their way through it, and a colleague sitting next to me during the film’s New England premiere at the Independent Film Festival Boston was so inconsolable afterwards he had to go take a walk around the block before he could even bring himself to talk about the movie.

This is a bit odd, because “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a sad film at all. It’s really kind of a boilerplate bio-doc about the placid Presbyterian minister who from 1968 to 2001 hosted a uniquely gentle and almost comically low-budget public television program that spoke directly to the fears and concerns of its preschool audience. Fred Rogers talked to children as if they were his peers – tackling scary subjects like war, divorce, and death with an unwaveringly steady voice and vast reservoirs of kindness in his eyes. He changed into his trademark cardigan and sneakers at the top of every episode while singing a happy song, a ritual that reassured young viewers we were amongst friends, or at least neighbors.

This is what knocks folks for such a loop during the movie. At our particular moment in history, we’re simply not prepared to receive Fred Rogers’s straightforward sincerity – so heartfelt and direct, devoid of any self-protecting irony. Every time I have turned on my television for the past three years I’ve been greeted by the putrid visage of a blathering orange yam preaching a toxic, semi-literate combination of bullying braggadocio and lachrymose self-pity while the faces of his followers contort with orgiastic abandon, braying a stream of unprintable epithets. The forthright decency of Mister Rogers feels as if it has been beamed in not from our recent past, from a distant planet altogether. If you cry during this film it’s because you’re realizing how much has been lost.

Neville won an Oscar for his wonderful music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” a few years back, and he’s shrewdly assembled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as a highlight reel of footage that will probably feel familiar to public television aficionados but still leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling all the same. I’ll never not fall apart watching Rogers’ 1981 interview with 10-year-old quadriplegic Jeff Erlanger, so matter-of-factly accepting disability as just another unfortunate fact of life and chatting with this child as a friend like any other. You simply didn’t see people like Jeff on television back then, and what a gift it was to get to know him.

The show confronted so many topics that were taboo on TV at the time. Rogers began his career talking to kids about Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and then wrapped it up returning to the air shortly after 9/11. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” never sugarcoated the subjects tackled within these episodes – witness the close-ups on his dead goldfish during that traumatic half-hour – our host always made it plain that the world could often be a frightening and confusing place. But with his cheapo puppets and bargain-basement production values, Mister Rogers also let every viewer know that it was okay to be angry sometimes, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re feeling sad.

What struck me most about the film was the iron will Fred Rogers must have possessed, his borderline fanatical exercise regimens hinting at the discipline required to see his stubbornly uncommercial and altruistic vision through three decades on the air in a milieu that mainly exists to sell plastic crap to kids.

We revisit the brilliantly subversive moment when Rogers invited his African-American police officer pal Francois Clemmons to soak his feet alongside him in a kiddie pool on a hot day. During an era when riots were breaking out over colored restrooms this was a giant screw-you to Jim Crow, but at the same time, we learn that Rogers put the kibosh on closeted Clemmons hanging out in gay bars. Our host was pragmatic enough to know the show could never survive a sex scandal, and it was going to take the outside world a long time to catch up to the utopia he depicted every week onscreen. We’re still not there yet.

You can’t help but think about this strength of character when the movie gets into the bizarre 2008 campaign by Fox News and other conservative commentators to blame the “softness” of millennials on Mr. Rogers telling them that they were “special.” I’ll never understand how baby boomers – who grew up in an age of unparalleled economic prosperity and job security yet did nothing but trash the planet and leave their children screwed with off-the-charts income inequality and insurmountable debt – can in good conscience keep puffing out their chests and calling everybody pussies just because younger generations don’t like to behave as boorishly in public as they do.

To watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is to be reminded that kindness and grace are what will endure and leave a legacy. It’s easy to laugh at these threadbare sock puppets but impossible to dismiss the tough truths they imparted. Visiting Mister Rogers’ neighborhood every week made growing up a feel little less confusing and frightening for this little kid, and it was a pleasure to return for these ninety-odd minutes.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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Review – Deadpool 2

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FILM REVIEWDEADPOOL 2. With Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller. Written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by David Leitch. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material. 119 minutes.

deadwellThe surprise 2016 smash “Deadpool” was like being stuck watching an off-brand “X-Men” knock-off while sitting next to an unsupervised eleven-year-old who had just discovered the f-word and wouldn’t stop flicking boogers at the screen. A blandly corporate “subversion” of superhero cash cows starring the blandly “irreverent” Ryan Reynolds, this lazily plotted and shoddily assembled picture offered the novelty of a potty-mouthed protagonist breaking the fourth wall and heckling the film’s tired tropes while nonetheless religiously following all the exhausted formulas it purported to mock. Some movies like to have their cake and eat it too. “Deadpool” had its cake, made fun of the cake for being lame, and then ate more cake.

A significant improvement over the original while still not being particularly good, DEADPOOL 2 begins with our obnoxious anti-hero Wade Wilson in a pit of suicidal despair, unable to even kill himself thanks to those pesky mutant regeneration powers. Because movies like this are made for little boys who are terrified of powerful women, it has already swiftly disposed of Wade’s sexually adventurous girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) before the opening title sequence, wherein director David Leitch kiddingly credits himself as “one of the guys who killed John Wick’s dog” to let us know he means business.

Leitch, a former stuntman who also helmed last summer’s none-too-shabby Charlize Theron vehicle “Atomic Blonde,” has a surer hand and a less gratingly bro-tastic sense of humor than original “Deadpool” director, Tim Miller. (At least this time I didn’t leave the theatre feeling drenched in AXE Body Spray.) The sequel leans into the story’s sappier elements, which unexpectedly makes Reynolds’ smarmy, adolescent posturing a bit easier to bear. “Deadpool 2” isn’t trying so hard to pretend like it’s something “dangerous” or “edgy” and is perfectly content to be a typical summer superhero smash-up that’s slightly snarkier than the competition across the hall.

During a failed tryout as a trainee for the X-Men, our despondent Wade takes an interest in an abused orphan (Julian Dennison of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) who possesses massive mutant powers and the mediocre moniker Firefist. Unfortunately for all, Josh Brolin’s snarling cyborg assassin Cable has just beamed himself back here from the future, Terminator-style, to kill the little brat before he can embark upon a career of genocidal supervillainy. So it’s basically the baby Hitler argument, or “Looper.”

The ploddingly-plotted “Deadpool 2” at long last kicks into gear somewhere around the one-hour mark, when Wade hastily assembles an all-star super-team called “X-Force” to go rescue the kid and immediately gets most of them killed in spectacularly grisly fashion. Leitch has a real knack for Rube Goldberg mayhem, particularly in scenes involving perpetual survivor Domino (the hugely appealing Zazie Beetz) whose sole superpower is “luck” and thus always leaves behind her a trail of catastrophic coincidences. This is visually witty stuff.

Reynolds’ hit-and-miss, “ain’t I a stinker?” asides are tempered by fine deadpan reactions from Stefan Kapicic’s Colossus and the second unexpectedly modulated Josh Brolin Marvel supervillain performance in as many months. “Deadpool 2” ultimately attempts to skewer the dour self-importance of last year’s “Logan” but also tries to jerk tears with sad orphan kids and heavenly dream sequences set to a mournful, acoustic rendition of A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

For all Deadpool’s vulgar showboating, this is still a careful, corporate product and nowhere near genuinely transgressive takes on costumed heroes like Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” or James Gunn’s “Super.” It’s a film full of edgy, R-rated language and a safe, PG-13 sensibility.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Death Wish

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FILM REVIEWDEATH WISH. With Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Elisabeth Shue. Written by Joe Carnahan. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated R for strong, bloody violence and language throughout. 107 minutes.

death_wish_ver2_xlgFor a movie directed by a notoriously smirky provocateur and featuring one of Hollywood’s few outspoken right-wingers running around the ghetto in a hoodie shooting brown people, what’s most shocking about Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH remake is just how lame and instantly forgettable it is. Twenty-four hours after seeing the film it has already blessedly begun to fade from my memory. You’d think such a morally repugnant gun-nut masturbation fantasy would at least be worth getting worked up about, but the movie’s so lugubrious and wheezy it’s almost pitiable. (I said almost.)

One can’t say the same for unrepentant schlockmeister Michael Winner’s 1974 original, which despite spawning four increasingly inane sequels still retains a crude kick. The crasser, bastard cousin to “Dirty Harry” and “Straw Dogs” became a cultural touchstone for its blunt-force depiction of Charles Bronson’s liberal pacifist Paul Kersey turning vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter raped in a New York City gone all to hell. Based on what I am told is a considerably more thoughtful novel by Brian Garfield, the film was at one point to be directed by Sidney Lumet with Jack Lemmon playing the lead.

From what I can ascertain, it was the Bronson/Winner team that threw out Garfield’s original ending – in which Kersey goes mad, eventually gunning down unarmed kids just because he doesn’t like the looks of them – and the author has spent subsequent years attempting to distance himself from their adaptation, even writing a sequel called “Death Sentence” to try and clarify his intentions.

Unfortunately, this remake is probably not gonna let Garfield sleep any easier. Scripted by Joe Carnahan, who has spent a career trafficking in macho bullshit from the sublime (“The Grey”) to the ridiculous (everything else he’s ever done), the new “Death Wish” strips whatever shreds of ambiguity existed in the original film in favor of a ghoulishly ill-timed NRA manifesto and a stroke-job for its washed-up star.

An indolent Bruce Willis stars as Kersey, no longer an architect but now a well-to-do surgeon in Chicago who goes from saving lives to taking them after his wife (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter (Camila Morrone) beaten into a coma by home invaders one night while he’s at work. In the most squeamishly-handled scene of “Hostel” director Roth’s otherwise lurid filmography, the movie not only skimps on the “Death Wish” tradition of gratuitous sexual assault but also discreetly cuts away to an exterior shot so that we don’t have to see the mayhem. (I briefly wondered if Ron Howard had been called in to direct some reshoots.)

Bronson’s Kersey — inspired in the original film by a gaudy Wild West theme park attraction slyly suggesting America’s addiction to outlaw myths — was on an endless, existential quest killing mad muggers in the night, every night, because he knew nobody would ever find the scum that destroyed his family. There’s a helplessness inherent even in the fantasy. But here Bruce Willis winds up obstructing the police investigation just so he can play detective and kill the bastards himself, going from everyday doctor to gunslinging superhero in the course of a cringe-inducing training montage set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

It’s embarrassing to watch the 62-year-old Willis putter around doing badly-faked stunts to classic rock while spitting out cheeseball one-liners that would have been rejected by “Eraser”-era Schwarzenegger. It wasn’t too long ago that “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Looper” offered the tantalizing possibility of an older Bruce Willis segueing into complex character roles, but he’s instead squandered the intervening years cashing paychecks for cameos in generic direct-to-VOD swill – films with which “Death Wish” would be presumably already be keeping company on your cable box were it not for the title’s brand name recognition and the fallacy of sunk costs.

Willis is atrocious in this film. He looks uncharacteristically frail and vainly preens through his scenes with an entirely inappropriate air of entitlement and a disinterest verging on somnambulism. Confoundingly, Kersey has been given a doting, deadbeat brother played by Vincent D’Onofrio who has nothing whatsoever to do with the story and provides an emotional support system that makes our protagonist’s vigilante turn even more improbable. Bronson was isolated, man. Going it all alone was part of his appeal.

Constant references to D’Onofrio’s money problems and his typically twitchy performance keep suggesting some sort of twist in which it will be revealed that the brother was perhaps in part responsible for the home invasion, but nothing of this sort ever arises. (Maybe Ron Howard cut that out, too.)

“Death Wish” was originally scheduled for release last October, but pulled after the Las Vegas massacre and moved up to what turns out to be an even worse time for this sort of pistol porn. There’s an incredibly queasy scene set in a chain sporting goods store (called Jolly Roger’s so I guess we’re not supposed to think it’s Dick’s) where a hot twenty-something blonde clerk and her delightful décolletage run through all the awesome armaments, joking with Willis about how easy it is to buy them.

It’s tone-deaf and gross, but also characteristic of this exhausted, lumbering relic of a movie, which somehow already feels even more dated than a film made 44 years ago.•••

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


Review – The Breadwinner


FILM REVIEWTHE BREADWINNER. With the voices of Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Soma Bhatia, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah. Written by Anita Doron. Directed by Nora Twomey. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images. 94 minutes.

the-breadwinner-new-poster-544x800As the old saying goes, if you only see one children’s cartoon about Taliban-occupied Kabul this holiday season… Okay, so that’s probably not a real saying, as there’s certainly not another film out there quite like THE BREADWINNER, director Nora Twomey’s rousing – and occasionally grueling – animated adaptation of the bestselling book by Deborah Ellis. Set in Afghanistan circa 2001, it’s a tough-minded child’s adventure that might be too much for some children. (This is the part of the review where critics typically guesstimate an age the film is appropriate for. I think you know your kids well enough to be able to tell if it’s suitable for them without me assigning an arbitrary number.)

Eleven-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) helps her father in the tattered Kabul marketplace, where he reads and writes letters for the largely illiterate population. Until one day the old man earns the ire of a former student turned gun-toting street-creep and ends up busted for keeping books around the house. He’s dragged off to the local prison under mysterious charges for an unspecified length of time, which leaves Parvana to fend for the family. This is a task easier said than done, since under Taliban rules women aren’t allowed outside without male accompaniment, and the man of the house is not yet two years old.

Cutting her hair and donning a dead older brother’s clothes, Parvana makes up a comically phony boy’s name and takes to the streets with a newfound freedom. She soon happens upon a classmate named Shauzia who’s working a similar scam, and “The Breadwinner” begins a dance between exhilarating escapades and unthinkable brutality, which though largely confined to offscreen spaces nonetheless lurks over the movie like a dark cloud. Much like “The Florida Project,” this film understands that children are always going to be children and cannot resist the urge to play, even under circumstances that terrify us adults in the audience.

There’s a great camaraderie between these two characters, pulling a fast one on their ogre-like oppressors and climbing on tanks for kicks. The evocative animation sticks to bold, simple line drawings, my favorite design belonging to a massive hulk of an adult figure who becomes an unlikely ally to Parvana after she reads him some bad news. I was captivated by how much director Twomey is able to convey by the fashion in which he slices fruit – a pause in his process bringing one of the film’s most unexpected emotional payoffs.

What doesn’t work so well are the movie’s occasional sidelines into Afghan folklore, with Parvana spinning tall tales and legends about an Elephant King in a heightened cut-out animated style that’s visually pleasing yet superfluous to the proceedings. The final reel, taking place on the eve of the American invasion, is so unbearably tense that the meandering metaphors become something of a nuisance. The reality of Parvana’s story is nerve-racking enough without all these fanciful interruptions.

Still, “The Breadwinner” is an exceptionally strong film, one that stands alongside executive producer Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” as 2017 movies that make visceral for us the day-to-day realities of life during wartime, through the eyes of children who sadly don’t know of anything else.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Stronger


FILM REVIEW
STRONGER
. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Lenny Clarke. Screenplay by John Pollono. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images and brief sexuality/nudity. 116 minutes

stronger“Boston Strong? What the fuck does that even mean?” asks Jeff Bauman on his way home from the hospital, baffled by the slogan that became a merchandising bonanza during the weeks following April 15th, 2013. STRONGER, an admirably tough-minded picture adapted from Bauman’s memoir by screenwriter John Pollono and director David Gordon Green, is about a young man grappling with the media-fueled transformation of his unique circumstance into a universal symbol. It’s a movie interrogating the neat little narratives we need to tell ourselves in order to help wrap our heads around unfathomable tragedies, even if while doing so it kinda can’t help becoming one of those stories itself.

As local folks undoubtedly remember, Bauman was on the finish line at the marathon and caught a glimpse of one of the bombers before losing both legs above the knee. It was Jeff we saw in that unforgettable photo, blood-spattered and being pushed to safety by Carlos Arredondo–the mysterious Man in the Cowboy Hat. Through several surgeries and a painful, lengthy rehabilitation, Bauman became an emblem of the city’s perseverance, on the ice at the Garden waving a Bruins flag and throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. Bauman was our hero, the epitome of Boston Strong.

“What’s so heroic about standing there getting my fuckin’ legs blown off?” asks Bauman in the movie. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an affable, hard-drinking party guy who wakes up in a nightmare, Jeff can’t really comprehend his newfound fame but nevertheless keeps putting on a brave face for the benefit of others. (He’s what fellas in the neighborhood call “a good kid,” which is less distracting than it probably should be considering the pushing-forty Gyllenhaal is at least ten years too old for the role.) The visual motif used most often by director Green and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keeps Bauman in sharp focus, crammed in a foreground corner of the frame while the rest of a blurry world goes about its business behind him.

The only one allowed to share Jeff’s isolation in such shots is Erin, his on-again, off-again girlfriend played by Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”). They’d broken up again before he showed up at the finish line to try and win her back, and the bombing is depicted with chilling understatement from Erin’s point of view while she’s running the race. The relationship becomes a complex tangle of tenderness, guilt, and resentment, with Maslany using a haunted stillness to elevate a script that sometimes borders on the schematic. She allows us to see an inner world that isn’t always on the page.

Director David Gordon Green confounded fans of his early, lyrical coming-of-age indies “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” by veering into raunchy studio stoner comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” He’s a restless talent, difficult to pin down but possessing a strong capability for capturing privileged moments between his actors and telling stories in visual terms. (I was amused during an early scene to spot a DVD of Green’s downbeat 2007 melodrama “Snow Angels” on one of the Bauman family’s shelves. Didn’t peg them as fans.) He keeps the movie on a muted, even keel throughout, eliciting Gyllenhaal’s least histrionic performance in years.

It’s a tricky tale to pull off, the largely internal journey of a young man reconciling his private pain with the requirements of a public persona. Bauman might not feel like the hero the city wants him to be, but eventually he learns how to be comfortable with allowing people to project what they need to onto him. The film’s highlight is Jeff’s long-delayed meeting with Arredondo, artfully framed to keep the audience at arm’s length — reminding us that we cannot imagine what these men have been through, and shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to try.

At its best, the film recalls late-period Eastwood pictures like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “American Sniper,” in its plumbing of the gulf between the truth and what people need to hear. While last year’s despicable act of movie star auto-fellatio “Patriots Day” invented a phony hero to save the day, “Stronger” reminds us that tragedy and survival are a lot more complicated than a bumper-sticker slogan.

And if the closing crawl neglects to mention that Jeff and Erin are currently divorcing, well, remember the whole point of the film is that we don’t like our inspirational stories to get too messy.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past eighteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Goon: Last of the Enforcers


FILM REVIEWGOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS. With Seann William Scott, Wyatt Russell, Alison Pill. Callum Keith Rennie, Liev Schreiber. Written by Jay Baruchel and Jesse Chabot. Directed by Jay Baruchel. Rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content and bloody sports violence. 101 minutes.

bb2af0d88cefbf66e09415dc31a6db3c-hd-movies-movie-filmBarely released to theaters in the spring of 2012, the scrappy, foul-mouthed hockey comedy “Goon” went on to become something of a sensation on home video––at least amongst sports fans and those of us who enjoy elaborate arias of profanity. Based on a memoir by Hanson, Massachusetts’s own Doug Smith about his un-illustrious career in the minor leagues (over 400 penalty minutes and zero goals), the movie’s grubby authenticity felt like a throwback to the naughty, bygone days of “Slap Shot” or “Semi-Tough” and an antidote to today’s blandly inspirational sports sagas. Cheerfully disreputable and endlessly quotable, “Goon” is the kind of movie guys like to put on when they come home drunk.

Like most comedy sequels, GOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS cranks everything about the original up a few notches thinking audiences won’t be satisfied unless they get a bigger, louder and more outrageous version of what they enjoyed last time. And like most comedy sequels, it’s pretty lousy. Sean William Scott returns as Doug Glatt, the lovably lunkheaded enforcer for the Halifax Highlanders. The whole joke with Doug is that he’s not much of a hockey player and can’t even skate very well, but he’s got a skull made out of rock and an almost supernatural ability to inflict grievous bodily harm upon his opponents. Our Number 69 is also a great big sweetheart, tenderly helping players off the ice after knocking their bloody teeth out.

But it’s Doug’s turn to get carried off in the opening moments of this sequel. He’s flattened and beaten within an inch of his life by Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), semi-psychotic estranged son of the Highlanders’ new owner (Callum Keith Rennie). First-time director Jay Baruchel––who co-wrote the original and briefly reprises his role here as Doug’s annoying Masshole pal—stages the scuffle with geysers of blood better suited for a Tarantino movie. The previous picture’s casually escalating brutality already amped up to absurdity before the opening credits have even rolled, there’s nowhere for this movie to go except bigger, bloodier and more ridiculous. And believe me, it gets there.

His career seemingly ended by injuries, Doug tries working at a day job at an insurance company while not-so-secretly itching to get back on the ice despite doctor’s orders. His pregnant wife Eva (the returning Alison Pill) has a monologue in which she begs him not to turn her into the stereotypical shrew standing between her husband and his dreams, and for a moment it feels like they left the camera rolling while the actress was yelling at Baruchel and co-screenwriter Jesse Chabot because that’s exactly what has happened here.

“Goon: Last of the Enforcers” lurches its way around a long season of incoherently melodramatic developments, with the dastardly Anders Cain becoming the Highlanders’ captain between suspensions and then getting traded again whenever the plot requires additional conflict. Russell––a former professional goalie––has a few scenes here in which he’s genuinely scary, at odds with the oft-buffoonish comic tone but interesting enough to make you wish you were watching whatever movie he seems to think he’s in.

One of the things that made “Goon” so special was that the actors all took their ridiculous characters desperately seriously. Nobody acted like they were in a comedy and even Eugene Levy played it straight. Baruchel’s bigger-is-better M.O. leads to a lot more shouting and face-pulling. A direly unfunny blooper reel that runs under the closing credits reveals that the actors were encouraged to ad-lib to their hearts’ content, which would account for the erratic, over-scaled performances and random non-sequiturs that probably seemed funny on set.

Bless that Liev Schreiber though, who reprises his role here as Ross Rhea, a former bruiser for the Boston Bruins not going gently into that good night. Once again, Schreiber plays the part like he’s Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” an elaborately mustachioed relic with an odd gentlemanly streak, still swinging away according to ancient codes of combat. There’s a brief, wonderfully affecting scene in which he simply sits alongside Doug, bloody and concussed while lighting yet another cigarette. It’s a tiny moment in which Schreiber allows us to catch a quick glimpse of this cartoon character’s pain and regret, and it belongs in a much better movie than this one.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past eighteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Girls Trip

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FILM REVIEW
GIRLS TRIP
. With Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Kate Walsh. Written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity and drug material. 122 minutes.

girls_trip_xlgTiffany Haddish in GIRLS TRIP is one of those out-of-nowhere breakout performances––like Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” or Zach Galifianakis in “The Hangover”––where you can’t remember if you’ve ever seen them in anything before, but you know you want to see everything they’re in from now on. As the most unabashed and excitable of four friends reuniting for a road trip in this bawdy, good-natured comedy, Haddish runs away with so many scenes you might find yourself missing key plot points because you’re busy scanning the screen for her reactions. The actress, who previously played the wonderfully inappropriate sister-in-law Nekeisha on NBC’s late, lamented “The Carmichael Show,” brings a boisterous innocence to even the raunchiest material. When she’s being dirty she still seems awfully sweet.

That’s also a pretty good way to describe “Girls Trip,” which exploits a few gross-out girls-gone-wild gags but smartly never quite crosses the line between naughty and smutty. It’s already shaping up to be the surprise hit of the summer, which really isn’t surprising at all once you’ve seen it. “Girls Trip” has some big laughs––but more importantly, you really like these characters and feel good about laughing with them. It’s the kind of movie people tell their friends about.

Regina Hall stars as Ryan Pierce, a self-help author married to a hunky former NFL star (Mike Colter) and so ascendant in her career she’s already been dubbed “the second coming of Oprah.” When Ryan gets invited to give a keynote speech at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, she decides to bring along her old college girlfriends. Careers and families have kept this crew––formerly known as the Flossy Posse––apart for too many years, it’s high time for them to all get together and cut loose like the old days.

Of course things ain’t like they used to be. Queen Latifah’s former journalist Sasha these days hustles for a scummy celebrity gossip blog, barely one step ahead of her creditors. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Lisa was once the life of the party and is now a dowdy, overprotective single mom. Haddish’s Dina is still pretty much the same though––enthusiastically talking about how she’s smuggled weed onto the plane “in her bootyhole” and accidentally getting the Flossy Posse kicked out of various upscale establishments throughout New Orleans.

The plot kicks in when Sasha receives a paparazzi photo of Ryan’s husband getting down with “an Instagram skank,” and it turns out our rising star’s life isn’t as perfect as she makes it out to be on television. But her handsome husband and their allegedly idyllic marriage are such an important part of “her brand,” the suspense comes from the question of how much humiliation Ryan is willing to put up with for the sake of a pending TV deal.

One of the keys, I think, to the film’s success is that it’s about how these women all once again become their best and truest selves when reunited with their friends. Director Malcolm D. Lee, of “The Best Man” films and last year’s surprisingly sophisticated “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” shoots “Girls Trip” as a glossy, old-fashioned Hollywood “women’s picture,” lavishing attention on these beautiful ladies in their fine fashions and luxurious surroundings, while also sneaking in some thoroughly modern sex jokes––including something involving a grapefruit I can’t even try and explain, save to say that it in a just world it would be Tiffany Haddish’s Oscar clip.

The performances are hugely appealing across the board, with Pinkett Smith and Latifah at one point slyly acknowledging that this is the first time they’ve appeared onscreen together since the seminal “Set It Off” some twenty-one years ago. Like most Malcolm D. Lee movies, this one’s probably about fifteen minutes too long, as he often tends to get a bit over-enamored with the dramatic side of his comedies at the expense of keeping the story moving along. Nonetheless, time with the Flossy Posse is time well spent.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.