All posts by Sean Burns

About Sean Burns

Sean Burns is a Staff Writer at WBUR's The ARTery. His reviews, interviews and essays have also appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at www.splicedpersonality.com

Review – The Man Who Killed Don Quixote


FILM REVIEWTHE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. With Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard, Joana Ribeiro, Olga Kurylenko. Written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Unrated, but contains violence, profanity and sexual situations. 132 minutes.

quixote“It is accomplished,” sighed Jesus on the Cross, and presumably so did Terry Gilliam at last summer’s Cannes Film Festival, when after 25 years of false starts and heartbreak, his THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE at long last saw the light of a projector. Notorious as the most cursed film of all time, this loosey-goosey modernization of Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel has been begun by Gilliam some seven times over the past two-and-a-half decades, with one attempt going down in such spectacular flames they even made a movie about the movie that couldn’t get made (2002’s agonizing behind-the-scenes documentary, “Lost in La Mancha.”)

Arriving with a touching dedication to not one but two actors originally cast as Quixote who died before the project could see coampletion – Jean Rochefort and John Hurt – the film bears the heavy weight of its tumultuous production history, veiled references to which slyly pepper the screenplay for insider amusement. If you squint it is indeed possible to imagine a sleeker, better-funded version of this tale showing up shortly after “The Fisher King” in the ‘90s, continuing that hit film’s M.O. of yuppie scum redeemed through medieval fantasy.

Of course things didn’t quite work out that way, and now “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” arrives on the heels of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” in a sudden excavation of cinematic holy grails so swift and staggering I expect the missing reels from “The Magnificent Ambersons” and that Jerry Lewis Holocaust clown movie to be dropping on Netflix any day now. So, after a quarter-century of legendary disaster and feverish anticipation “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is finally here and it’s… okay, I guess.

Adam Driver stars as Toby, a sleazy, skirt-chasing commercial director shooting a Quixote-themed ad for a Russian vodka company on location somewhere in the Spanish countryside. He’s busy sneaking around with the sexed-up wife (Olga Kurylenko) of his dirtbag boss (Stellan Skarsgard) when a mysterious gypsy shows up with a DVD of Toby’s student film – an artsy, black-and-white adaptation of Don Quixote filmed a decade ago in the nearby peasant town of Sueños (the Spanish word for dreams. I see what you did there, Terry.)

Misty with nostalgia, Toby borrows a motorcycle and returns to Suenos, only to discover that his production ruined the lives of pretty much every villager involved. With shades of Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie,” we see that the gentle cobbler he once cast as Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has spent the last ten years in character, believing himself to actually be the Knight of the Doleful Countenance and mistaking Toby for his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Even worse, the sweet virginal teen (Joana Ribero) our budding auteur coaxed in front of his camera ran off to make it in the movies and ended up as an escort – now an abused plaything for a billionaire Russian oligarch (Jordi Molla) who just so happens to own the vodka company Toby’s working for.

It’s easy to see where this is going, our knight errant getting Toby back in touch with the better angels of his nature by rescuing the damsel and titling at the windmills of late capitalist thuggery. What’s harder to grok is how it gets there – the movie lurches semi-coherently from one tonally conflicting set-piece to another, with story elements that erupt out of nowhere and are discarded just as quickly. (What was with that fire? And how about those dead cops?) The course of narrative in Terry Gilliam films never did run smooth but “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is an especially erratic affair, one that deliberately avoids offering much delineation between the movie’s dream sequences and its highly permeable reality.

This approach leads to several scenes of startling beauty and a fair amount of perplexed annoyance. Driver heroically holds it all together with his exasperated reactions, flinging those long limbs around akimbo while finding continually inventive ways to fall down in the dirt. (He also frantically impersonates Eddie Cantor, for reasons that escape me.) There’s still no director as manic as Gilliam when it comes time for some chaotically cluttered, wide-angle obnoxiousness, and while “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” might find his gifts somewhat diminished, they’re still very much in evidence.

And hey, the movie finally got made. That’s a miracle in and of itself.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, 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.

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Review – Mary Magdalene


FILM REVIEWMARY MAGDALENE. With Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Tcheky Karyo. Written by Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett. Directed by Garth Davis. Rated R for some bloody and disturbing images. 120 minutes.

mary_magdaleneThey say it was Pope Gregory back in the year 591 who first got it wrong, apparently mixing up some of the Marys in a couple of Gospels and decreeing that Jesus’ apostle Magdalene, so famously and frequently pictured at the foot of the cross, was in fact a fallen woman. Oops. Now granted, without his misinterpretation we never would have gotten Barbara Hershey in “The Last Temptation of Christ” or all those great Yvonne Elliman songs in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but baselessly being called a whore for over 1,400 years and having a string of human rights-abusing laundry sweatshops named after you has still gotta sting a little bit. In characteristically speedy fashion, the Vatican finally got around to setting the record straight in 2016.

So that’s the impetus for MARY MAGDALENE, an exceptionally tedious new film intending to rehabilitate the reputation of its namesake with the help of movie star Rooney Mara in the title role and a Jesus of Nazareth played by her real-life boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. The picture tries to put a feminist bent on the Greatest Story Ever Told, and when all is said and done the only sin Mary Magdalene could possibly be accused of now is being unbelievably boring.

Shot in 2016 only to be shelved when The Weinstein Company collapsed, the film was released in Europe last year and is finally headed to VOD here on Good Friday, presumably to stir up sales from any Christian audiences who won’t be put off by what strikes this critic as an undeserved R rating. (Okay, the crucifixion gets a bit bloody, but this is hardly a Mel Gibson fetish film.)

As reimagined by screenwriters Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett, Mary of Magdala was the first feminist – but not a scary or strident feminist, just a safe, calmly self-assured one like you see in Disney cartoons these days — refusing to submit to the marriage her family arranged for her and bringing scandal upon them all by going out alone at night to pray. With her porcelain features and unblinking stare, Rooney Mara possesses an opaque quality that in the hands of the right filmmakers can conjure a captivating aura of mystery. Or she can just be dull.

Director Garth Davis goes for the latter here, eliciting a performance as drab as the movie’s barren landscapes, threadbare costumes and undressed sets. It’s a flat-lined, flat-looking picture. Nobody shows much of a personality until Jesus comes along, and that dude just seems like he’s out of his damn mind.

I must admit I’d assumed I was long past the age of seeing a movie Jesus played by someone older than me, but casting a beefy, middle-aged guy with grey in his beard is what folks might generously call “a choice.” Joaquin Phoenix is certainly one of the most exciting actors working today, but all that twitchy, restless abandon that makes him so riveting to watch in films like “The Master” or “You Were Never Really Here” ain’t exactly beatific. His bug-eyed Jesus basically runs around shouting at people like a crazy person on the subway.

“Mary Magdalene” is a curiously enervated movie, sleepwalking through the stations of the cross with the same let’s-get-this-over-with-already” energy that reminded me of going to Mass on one of those hot, hungover Sunday mornings when not even the priest can feign interest in being there. Mary’s new place in the proceedings hasn’t been thought through very thoroughly, so she’s left kinda just standing around on the sidelines for a lot of the big scenes.

Not even Chiwetel Ejiofor can do anything with the barely-written role of Peter. But the one performance in the film I did quite enjoy was from Tahir Rahim, the Algerian actor who made such an impression in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and played FBI agent Ali Soufan in the excellent TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower.” He plays Judas Iscariot as an overly excitable young activist who misreads the room, betraying his rabbi as a political ploy that backfires badly. It’s the one interesting angle in a movie that’s otherwise inert.

Save for a weirdly hot baptism scene in which Phoenix and Mara inexplicably end up eye-fucking the entire time, there’s otherwise none of the yearning or sexual frissons that defined previous movie relationships between Jesus and Magdalene. Mara’s Mary is never in any danger of singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but another of Elliman’s songs from “Superstar” came to mind more than once: “Could We Start Again, Please?”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Triple Frontier


FILM REVIEWTRIPLE FRONTIER. Starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Heldund, Pedro Pascal. Written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor. Directed by J.C. Chandor. Rated R for violence and language throughout. 125 minutes.

triple_frontierA heaping plate of meat-and-potatoes comfort food, Netflix’s TRIPLE FRONTIER is a throwback to the sort of solid, mid-budget action pictures that studios used to crank out during the spring and fall off-seasons back before everything had to be a godforsaken franchise. It’s one of those films that would turn a small profit in theaters before reaching full cultural saturation two years later via heavy basic cable rotation on weekend afternoons. Unpretentious, unassuming and a bit better than expected, it’s the kind of movie you talk about with your Dad.

Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago “Pope” Garcia, a burnt-out military contractor working for the government of a deliberately unnamed Latin American country. He’s spent the past three years trying to take down an elusive drug lord who’s now holed up in a jungle fortress, sitting on $75 million in cash. Santiago is so fed up with the corrupt and ineffectual local law enforcement, he hatches a plan to round up his old army buddies so they can ice the bastard themselves and make off with all his money.

The years have not been kind to our former soldiers, with Charlie Hunnam’s “Ironhead” Miller making motivational speeches to PTSD cases while his kid brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) gets his head bashed in every night as an MMA fighter to make ends meet. Their pilot pal “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal) just lost his license over a coke bust while their old captain “Redfly” Davis – a beefy, surprisingly believable Ben Affleck – chugs PBRs for breakfast and is the least persuasive condo salesman you’ve ever seen onscreen.

“You got shot four times defending your country and can’t afford to send your kids to college,” goes Santiago’s recruiting pitch. (His captain corrects him, it was actually five.) The screenplay, revised by director J.C. Chandor from an original script by “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” writer Mark Boal, is upfront and blunt about our government’s shoddy treatment of veterans. So we can’t really blame all that much for wanting to finally cash in here, especially if it’s at the expense of some seriously bad cartel dudes.

The neat twist of “Triple Frontier” is that the heist goes even better than planned. Our boys wind up scoring $250 million instead of the expected seventy-five. Problem is that’s four times as much weight as they’d prepared to transport. So how do you move three tons of money over the Andes mountains? It’s a logistical nightmare that Chandor – who previously helmed the excellent Robert Redford vs. The Ocean adventure “All Is Lost” – exploits for some hair-raising set-pieces both predictable and less so.

It’s a film of modest pleasures, well-executed even while Chandor should probably have taken another pass to brush up the boys’ occasionally banal banter. (How strange that the professional fighter in the group is the only one without a cool nickname.) There are a couple of groaner needle-drop music cues — I’m sponsoring a Constitutional amendment prohibiting any further use of Creedence Clearwater Revival in military movies — but I quite enjoyed the deployment of Metallica, Pantera, and period-specific heavy metal that guys who enlisted twentysomething years ago would totally have been listening to when they signed up.

The biggest surprise here is Affleck, taking over a role that Tom Hanks was set to play back when Kathryn Bigelow was going to direct Boal’s original screenplay in 2010. His massive Batman physique has settled into something lumpier, lending the look of a guy who’s gone to seed. Affleck’s screen presence has always been too slick and callow to brood believably, but washing up on the rocks of middle age he’s developing a dissolute gravitas that quite suits him here. (His fifties could be full of some interesting character turns.) For all of this movie’s extensively well-researched military minutiae, my favorite detail is when he makes sure to slip his beer into a cozy while driving his daughter to school.

The thing with Netflix movies is they don’t really even have to be good enough to justify getting dressed and leaving the house. These things just magically pop up on your television screen already paid for, and ideally you hope they won’t be a total waste of two hours. By such modest measures, a pretty good movie like “Triple Frontier” is a smashing success.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

 

Review – The Beach Bum


FILM REVIEWTHE BEACH BUM. With Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence. Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Rated R for pervasive drug and alcohol use, language throughout, nudity and some strong sexual content. 95 minutes.

beach_bumWriter-director Harmony Korine’s THE BEACH BUM is the ne plus ultra of “Awlright, awlright, awlright.” The title character – called Moondog by his friends and various law enforcement officials – is a blissed-out manifestation of full-bongo McConaughey-isms. A literary legend married into exorbitant wealth, Moondog now spends his perpetually zonked nights and days crawling the Florida keys as the life of a never-ending party. It’s funny because this is exactly what most us already assume Matthew McConaughey is doing whenever the camera isn’t rolling.

Wearing a raggedy wig, flip-up shades, yellowed teeth and a variety of gaudy swimwear (both men’s and ladies’) that comes in colors with names like “electric volcano,” McConaughey’s Moondog is a gonzo good ol’ boy made up of nothing but sunniness and positive vibes. There are no hangovers, drunken rages nor any ravages of addiction, and nobody even gets angry when he’s late for his daughter’s wedding because he was busy boning the lady at the burger stand. (Playfully spanking her ass with a greasy spatula is the closest the character ever comes to violence.)

Moondog’s many idiosyncrasies and daily infidelities are shrugged off by his ridiculously rich wife (played with a touching wistfulness by Isla Fisher) and the movie’s most romantic interlude finds these two dancing on a dock to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” The lyrics serve as something like the movie’s mission statement: “If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is.”

“The Beach Bum” doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of slight speed bumps that barely slow down our libertine hero’s hedonasistic pursuits. Moondog constantly escapes from any consequences of his actions and accomplishes everything with a comically bare minimum of effort, much to the seething resentment of his long-suffering literary agent (Jonah Hill, doing a cornball Colonel Sanders accent someone really should have talked him out of.)

“Life’s a rodeo,” Moondog explains, “I’m gonna suck the nectar out of it and fuck it rawdog until the wheels come off,” demonstrating a somewhat diminished aptitude for metaphors that nonetheless doesn’t interfere with his poetry winning a Pulitzer Prize. Whether you’ll find this all enormously entertaining or mindlessly monotonous depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing. I had a good time but will admit it makes for a long 95 minutes.

It is a trip to see the Harmony Korine of “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers” working with big movie stars on a broad comedy that plays in shopping malls, while somehow also staying true to his raggedly obnoxious DIY aesthetic. Like its protagonist, “The Beach Bum” exists only in the present tense, with scenes cut on top of each other so that single conversations flow through different setups, locations and time periods like a wastrel’s stream of semi-consciousness.

Yet for as much as the movie has been reverse-engineered from McConaughey’s offscreen persona, I still found myself slightly disappointed in his performance simply because there are no surprises in it. I get that the guy is supposed to just “abide” like Jeff Bridges’ Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” but such a reading willfully overlooks all the pissy little petulant grace notes with which Bridges shaded his now-iconic character. Moondog is missing the undercurrent of malevolence that makes McConaughey so memorable. He’s more appealing when he’s a little dangerous.

The motley supporting cast, however, is superb. “The Beach Bum” boasts shockingly credible turns from both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett, while Zac Efron is gutbustingly funny as a devout, born-again Christian who runs around committing whatever sins he feels like “because Jesus already died for them.”

Still, the movie’s nearly stolen outright by Martin Lawrence as the aptly named Captain Wack, a dolphin-tour boat proprietor who owns a cocaine-addicted parrot and could stand to brush up a bit on the differences between dorsal fins. Returning from an eight-year hiatus from the big screen, Lawrence isn’t just hilarious here – he seems touchingly invested in the character and his dreams.

Presumably by design, “The Beach Bum” is missing the kamikaze sociopolitical sting of Korine’s last picture, “Spring Breakers.” Hill’s got a terrific line in which he remarks that “the great thing about being rich is that you can be awful to be people and they have to take it.” But the movie is a bit too blissful to venture very far down that road, perhaps out of fear it might cause a hangover in a film that defiantly doesn’t believe in them.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – A Madea Family Funeral


FILM REVIEWA MADEA FAMILY FUNERAL. Starring Tyler Perry, Cassie Davis, Patrice Lovely, Jen Harper and Courtney Burrell. Written and directed by Tyler Perry. Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, language, and drug references throughout.

tyler_perrys_a_madea_family_funeral_ver3Apologies for not taking Tyler Perry at his word that this eleventh big-screen appearance of his sass-mouthed, pistol-packin’ granny Mabel “Madea” Simmons will be her last. But if you’re gonna call the movie A MADEA FAMILY FUNERAL and she ain’t the one in the box, then I’ve got some suspicions.

Why would Perry quit when he’s so far ahead? The writer-director-performer-mogul has admirably built his own massive entertainment empire entirely independent of the entrenched white Hollywood power structure. (Madea’s first movie, “Diary Of A Mad Black Woman,” opened in the nationwide box office top ten without playing in a single Boston theater.) He delivered a deftly comic supporting turn in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” – less so in the lamentable “Vice” – but otherwise Perry appears perfectly content to stay away from the studios and continue wielding complete creative control over his own self-generated projects. Or, to borrow one of his own titles: “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.”

I find Tyler Perry films fascinating in how violently they whiplash from juvenile tastelessness to churchy sermonizing and back again – the lowest of lowbrow comedy interrupted by exhortations to get right with Jesus. Meanwhile, all of this is staged with such little regard or consideration for the basic principles of filmmaking that certain scenes approach the realm of outsider art. (Not since Kevin Smith has a director worked so often and learned so little about the nuts and bolts of his craft.)

“A Madea Family Funeral” is more of the same, placing our heroine in charge of the Baptist homegoing for a distant relative who was something of a dog. In fact, the man met his heavenly reward while wearing a ball-gag during some rough S&M play with his wife’s best friend. Making matters more difficult is that the generously apportioned deceased died with an erection so large the coffin won’t close all the way.

This leads to many admittedly amusing scenes of Madea wailing about while whaling on her regular sidekicks Aunt Bam (Cassie Davis), Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and brother Joe –who, like Madea, is played by Perry in old age makeup that will hardly have Rick Baker losing sleep at night. The crew is joined by Uncle Heathrow – played by Perry again, this time in a wheelchair and talking through an artificial voice box Madea likens to a vibrator for her ears. (Heathrow is bald on the top of his head but keeps his remaining hair long in what’s presumably the world’s first Jheri Curl mullet.)

The movie’s fine when all the old folks are bickering and bantering with little regard for propriety or good taste. (I lost it when Madea hit Joe so hard she knocked the dentures out of his mouth.) But as this is a Tyler Perry film, there are also way too many serious subplots about couples coping with infidelity, complete with scorching, heartfelt monologues and heavy dramatic performances keyed more toward the kind of movie that doesn’t have nearly as many jokes about a dead guy’s boner.

Despite Perry’s public claims, this ”Funeral” leaves plenty of room for more Madea movies in the future, the character herself noting how much she’s mellowed and matured over this series of films: “These days I don’t even hit a bitch in the mouth unless she says something I don’t like.” See, there’s life in the old girl yet.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Serenity


FILM REVIEWSERENITY. With Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou. Written and directed by Steven Knight. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images. 106 minutes.

serenityAs someone who came of age in the heyday of late-night premium cable, I have recently become quite puzzlingly nostalgic for erotic thrillers, which for some sad reason Hollywood stopped making ages ago. Largely crummy and compulsively watchable, these modestly budgeted potboilers required little more than an exotic locale and a few glimpses of celebrity skin to keep one tuned in through the usually underwhelming violent climax. Over the past months I must confess I’ve found myself staying up far too late to watch the lousy likes of “Masquerade” and “Consenting Adults,” and for about an hour or so writer-director Steven Knight’s SERENITY appeared poised to scratch a similar itch.

Set on the peculiarly named tropical island of Plymouth, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as the magnificently monikered Baker Dill – a swarthy fisherman possessed of an Ahab-like fervor for a possibly mythical, oversized tuna he calls “Justice.” When not at sea, Baker spends his afternoons servicing a ravishing, silk-robed rich lady (Diane Lane) and the two discuss her frequently missing cat in a spectacularly strange simulacrum of dirty talk.

Until one day, of all the gin joints and all the towns, in walks Baker’s ex (Anne Hathaway, decked out in blonde hair and noir lighting) offering him ten million dollars to take her rich, abusive husband (a seethingly unpleasant Jason Clarke) out for a fishing trip and toss him overboard to the sharks. Of course, she could also be playing him for a sucker, and if you’ve seen a few old Robert Mitchum movies you can probably figure out where this is headed.

Except you’d be wrong. Especially after the unseasonably dressed, black-suited fishing tackle salesman strolls in at 2:30 in the morning to drop a depth charge of goofball exposition and “Serenity” supernovas from a trashy little piece of pulp into a full-blown aria of nonsense. Suddenly all the overwrought performances and stilted dialogue – which felt so jarringly amateurish from the screenwriter of sophisticated, adult fare like “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” – are revealed to be by design, and if the movie has thus far felt like a thirteen-year-old boy’s idea of a film noir, well it turns out there’s a very good reason or that.

Bafflingly, “Serenity” soldiers on with business as usual after it’s movie-exploding plot twist. (I believe it was A.O. Scott who said of the dippy James Mangold thriller “Identity” that it rips the rug out from underneath you and then continues vacuuming. I thought about that line a lot while watching this picture.) You sort of just sit there, mouth agape, wondering why we must keep going through the motions here now that all the beans have been spilled. Nevertheless, Baker Dill’s pursuit of Justice continues.

“Serenity” is exactly the kind of movie that tanks at the box office and gets a lot of mock-outraged bad reviews and Razzie nominations, yet I think there is something to admire in the go-for-broke nuttiness of the entire affair, and the cast’s ardent commitment, no matter how foolish they sometimes look. (Watching his anguished, scenery-devouring cries here is a reminder that post-comeback McConaughey will never again be accused of giving too little to a role.)

After much puzzled meditation on the picture I think the problem with “Serenity” is not its inherent, absurd stupidity – lots of awesome movies are stupid – but rather Knight too often striving for the grim and unpleasant. McConaughey and Hathaway can be delightful performers, but they’re directed here to be relentlessly dour, and one of the reasons the movie comes off as so silly is because everyone’s taking it so damn seriously.

One marvels to think of what the slightly winking, sardonic tone of a De Palma or Cronenberg might have wrestled from this material. If “Serenity” had taken even the slightest bit of pleasure in its own ridiculousness this could have been something very special indeed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Replicas


FILM REVIEWREPLICAS. With Keanu Reeves, Alice Eve, Thomas Middeditch, John Ortiz, Emily Alyn Lind. Written by Chad St. John. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, disturbing images, some nudity and sexual references. 107 minutes.

replicas_ver2By the time Keanu Reeves was crouched in an office bathroom straining to make small talk with his boss in the next stall while simultaneously sticking a needle into his eyeball in order to copy his cerebral cortex onto a laptop computer, I was pretty sure I had no idea where REPLICAS was gonna go next. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t either.

This is one strange shambles of a movie, thrown together on-the-cheap and overstuffed with so many stupid, bonkers conceits that it becomes morbidly fascinating to watch all the wild variations in tone and kooky, convoluted plot turns get flattened out by the pedestrian production and our genial leading man. The film lands firmly at the “Johnny Mnemonic” end of the Keanu science-fiction spectrum, though it’s nuttiness presumably won’t prove nearly memorable enough to be namechecked twenty years down the road. (I doubt people will even be talking about it this weekend.)

Reeves stars as a brilliant scientist working at a shady biotech firm headquartered in Puerto Rico. He’s been trying to implant the brain data of dead soldiers into robots with little success. His boss (John Ortiz) is about to pull the plug on the whole project, and then one night Keanu’s wife (Alice Eve) and three children are killed in a car crash. Instead of reporting the accident, our good doctor scans their brainwaves onto big, clunky hard drives and calls his lab assistant (Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley” and all those goddamn Verizon commercials) – who just so happens to know a thing or two about cloning.

With remarkable ease these dudes swipe millions of dollars in scientific equipment from work and set up a lab down in Keanu’s basement to try and recreate his dead family. (Middleditch identifies one of the purloined vats as containing “amino acids and primordial ooze.”) The catch is that there aren’t enough cloning pods for everybody, so Reeves has a mini-“Killing of a Sacred Deer” dilemma trying to choose which one of his children won’t be brought back to life.

This anguished decision is quite bizarrely juxtaposed with comedic nonsense like Reeves and Middleditch lying to teachers about the kids’ absences from school during the clone gestation process, or our over-protective dad angrily answering text messages from his teenage daughter’s wannabe suitor. These two actors have similarly laid-back line deliveries, lapsing into bits of dude comedy that don’t sit particularly well on top of all the dead kid business.

The family stuff is handled so awkwardly it’s almost a relief when Ortiz pulls a heel turn and “Replicas” becomes a regular corporate espionage thriller, albeit one that keeps bursting the boundaries of its own scientific concepts by having the characters yell laborious exposition in each other’s faces every time the script has written itself into another corner. Keanu remains an endlessly endearing screen presence but shouting gobbledygook terminology is pretty much the opposite of what he’s good at.

What’s astonishing is the all-around lack of urgency. Here you’ve got a couple of scientists who basically invent a cure for death without anybody making a big deal out of it. (Keanu’s cloned wife recovers from learning about her demise in shockingly short order.) The scale of the movie is all out of whack, nothing but drab industrial office spaces and a dingy basement. Even the supposedly futuristic scientific tools resemble crummy construction equipment, with Reeves doing his work in a flimsy helmet with a plastic face shield that makes him look like a guy who fixes telephone poles.

I suppose the general air of grubbiness could have been an aesthetic choice by the filmmakers to try and ground this outlandish story in a workaday reality. (Or the producers just could have been cheapskates.) But combined with the placid performances and nonplussed reaction shots it leaves “Replicas” flatlined, absent any sense of wonder. Keanu brings his whole family back from the dead and nobody even says “Whoa.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.