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 – 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.

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Sean Burns’s 10 Worst Films Of 2018

For many years I had to go see pretty much every movie that came out, and only recently has my professional situation afforded me the opportunity to skip stuff in which I’m not particularly interested or that I am pretty sure I’m gonna hate. (For example, I stopped watching Mark Wahlberg films and “Transformers” sequels right around the time both began to overlap.) Perhaps there were worse films in 2018 than the ones on this list, but these are ten titles that cheesed me off most, the ones I couldn’t resist taking a few more shots at before calling it a year.

10. READY PLAYER ONE

Steven Spielberg sings a song of himself in this lumbering nostalgia wank positing a nightmare dystopia of regurgitated 1980s pop culture references. Author Ernest Cline’s shameless Willy Wonka ripoff is the worst kind of fanboy fantasy, celebrating couch potato arcana and video game prowess as what will save the world. The endless action sequences are entirely without weight or consequence, while our heroes rail against corporate commercialism in a movie full of prominent product placement for Pizza Hut. 

9. BEAUTIFUL BOY

Bearing the bad news that drug addiction is something that can also happen to those nice people from the Lands’ End catalog, this unbearably bourgeoisie melodrama stars Steve Carell and a vast collection of expensive flannels as the kindest and most understanding dad in the world whose wayward son (Timothée Chalamet) nonetheless gets hooked on crystal meth. The film exists inside a spectacularly unexamined bubble of moneyed privilege that makes Nancy Meyers look like the Safdie Brothers.

8. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

The noisiest and most overcrowded Marvel extravaganza yet pig-piles twenty-six characters from the past eighteen films into a numbingly repetitive 160 minutes of samey, unimaginative, intergalactic punch-outs during which Earth’s Mightiest Heroes take turns getting their asses kicked by Josh Brolin’s silly-looking Grape Ape. There are worse superhero movies, but none so light on story or this tediously inconsequential, ending with a cheap cliffhanger stunt sure to be instantly reversed in next summer’s sequel.

7. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

What if they remade “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” but with foul-mouthed Muppets that fuck? Honestly, not a terrible idea for a movie. Alas, Brian Henson’s breathtakingly unfunny noir spoof just sits there, visually inert and stuck on the single idea that nothing’s more inherently hilarious than saying swear-words. A dire, distended sequence in which our felt detective ejaculates an uncontrollable spray of silly string is the sort of joke that makes you feel sad for the teller.

6. SUSPIRIA

Luca Guadagnino’s gobsmakingly misguided remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Technicolor freakout tries to explain the inexplicable, dulling down the visual palate and tastelessly evoking the horrors of Theresienstadt and a ton of real-life terrorist attacks in this silly story about a dance school for sexy witches. Tilda Swinton gives several of her least interesting performances in multiple roles while Thom Yorke’s droney, energy-sapping score makes these two-and-a-half hours drag like five.

5. THE FRONT RUNNER

At a cultural moment when powerful men are finally being called upon to answer for their sexual improprieties, Jason Reitman’s hagiography of womanizing, failed former Presidential candidate Gary Hart couldn’t possibly be less in tune with the times. This banal, deeply incurious picture demonizes the press and exudes rich-kid entitlement, pining away for the good old days when the privileged and powerful closed ranks to protect their own. Reitman should make a Brett Kavanaugh biopic next.

4. THE 15:17 TO PARIS

In August of 2015, three young American men foiled a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train, an astonishing real-life rescue that takes up approximately five minutes of Clint Eastwood’s reverential reenactment. The rest of the time it’s mostly the boys wandering aimlessly around Europe, a dramatically deadening decision compounded by the bizarre choice of casting the real-life participants as themselves. The amateur acting and absence of incident are so stultifying it’s almost avant garde.

3. A QUIET PLACE

Any movie trying to draw suspense from silence shouldn’t have a blaring, wall-to-wall musical score. Anyhow, John Krasinski’s recent heel turn from adapting David Foster Wallace and writing an anti-fracking screenplay to becoming a bulked-up star of rightwing Tom Clancy fantasias and Michael Bay’s Benghazi picture strikes me as a mostly mercenary move. This film plays an NRA ad stoking Pro-Lifer paranoia while carefully not committing too hard to its own queasy subtext.

2. VICE

Writer-director Adam McKay’s cacophonous Dick Cheney biopic is the best thing that’s happened to Oliver Stone in decades. A dumbing-down of recent history that will feel insulting to anybody who actually lived through it, the film finger-wags in fulminating outrage without having anything new nor particularly interesting to say. Anchored by one of those “transformative” Christian Bale performances that’s all weight-gain and gimmicks while offering zero insight into he man himself, “Vice” doesn’t know Dick.

1. GOTTI

John Travolta’s laughably incompetent “Battlefield: Earth” of gangster epics proceeds from the outlandish and morally indefensible notion that the Teflon Don got a bum rap, depicting this murderous dirtbag as an aspirational figure of endangered masculine values in a fallen world of pussies and finks. It’s an astoundingly stupid, boring, and ugly-spirited picture, full of angry-old-man axe-grinding and clownish goombah posturing by a cast curiously short on actual Italians. Basta.

Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse


FILM REVIEWSPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. With the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman. Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language. 117 minutes.

spiderman_into_the_spiderverseSince 2002 we’ve seen three different live-action Spider-Men in eight big-screen adventures, but honestly it feels like even more. There’s been an exhausting game of franchise musical chairs going on for the past decade or so, and to put things into perspective we’re already on our third Peter Parker since the year Pierce Brosnan stopped being James Bond. Part of the sneaky, snarky brilliance of the rollicking new animated extravaganza SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is how it weaves our collective Spider-fatigue into the fabric of its story. If you think you’ve had it up to here with webslingers, here’s a movie crawling with them! The multiplicity of Spideys is part of the joke.

This may take a moment to explain. We begin with Miles Morales, a new Spider-Man created for the comics in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli as part of the “Ultimate” universe existing outside of Marvel’s regular continuity. (Comic book fans initially reacted to Miles with the warm exhibitions of inclusivity and racial sensitivity for which the subculture is renowned [sic] but even they must admit he looks a heck of a lot more like a 21st century kid from an outer-borough neighborhood than Peter Parker does these days.) 

In the movie Miles is a science prodigy who likes to skip out on his scholarship at a fancy Manhattan boarding school and would rather paint graffiti art in abandoned subway tunnels with his ne’er-do-well Uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali). It’s during one of these underground escapades that he’s bit by a radioactive spider. Conveniently nearby, oversized crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is firing up an atom collider that will rip open the quantum realm so he can try to find alternate universe replicas of his dead wife and child. This doesn’t work out so well.

What he accidentally brings back are Spideys, a whole bunch of them from other dimensions who can hopefully help shut down the collider before the Kingpin blows up Brooklyn. This is how Miles winds up being mentored by a divorced, depressed, pot-bellied Peter Parker in sweatpants (the hilarious Jake Johnson). Pitching in to assist are Hailee Steinfeld’s svelte Spider-Woman, a Japanese anime Peni Parker complete with robot sidekick, Nicolas Cage as a black-and-white, 1930’s Nazi-punching Spider-Man and yes, even Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham.

“Into The Spider-Verse” smashes together all these wildly divergent tones and cinematic styles into a madcap, laugh-a-minute sprint that calls out just how unimaginative contemporary studio animation has become. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rodney Rothman cheerfully toss aside the semi-photorealistic Pixar house style to which most CGI features are beholden, indulging instead in wild, expressionistic flights of fancy complete with flying thought balloons, sound-effects text bubbles and narration blocks. I adored their design of the Kingpin, with a body the size of an SUV and a comparatively microscopic head. The movie is loosey-goosey looking enough for anime characters to share the screen with Cage’s pencil-sketch Will Eisner homage, all the clashing aesthetics somehow working wonderfully in concert.

This sense of looney-tune liberation extends to the screenplay (penned by co-director Rodney Rothman and “LEGO Movie” co-writer Phil Lord) and its manic pile-up of sight-gags, in-jokes, and good old-fashioned heart. This is a disarmingly sweet picture, miraculously making time for us to care about these characters between spectacular set-pieces. There’s also a playful feeling of limitless possibility in this world, one that’s very much the opposite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s deliberately drab attempts to ground their fantastical adventures in something approximating “realism.”

Perhaps most importantly, baked into the text here is a powerful rebuke to comic fans’ initial rejection of Miles Morales. So much of geek culture is fixated on gatekeeping and exclusivity, the loudest and ugliest contingent being middle-aged guys in ill-fitting Dark Knight T-shirts still furious that someone allowed women to bust ghosts. “Into The Spider-Verse” is built for a new kind of fandom, offering a world in which anyone can be Spider-Man — including young men of color, teenage girls, anime robots, talking pigs and even Nicolas Cage. All are welcome here.•••

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

Review – Searching For Ingmar Bergman


FILM REVIEWSEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN. With Margarethe Von Trotta, Liv Ullmann, Daniel Bergman, Ruben Östlund, Mia Hansen-Løve. Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta. Unrated. 99 minutes.

ingmar2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, so throughout the year we’ve seen retrospectives at repertory theatres, a sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival and a massive Criterion Collection box set all attempting to put into perspective the towering legacy of this cinema giant. But with 45 feature films over seven decades leaving a seismic impact on movie history, it’s probably impossible to provide a definitive take on the Swedish master, certainly not in under two hours. 

Which is why director Maragrethe Von Trotta was wise to go the anecdotal route with SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN, a loose collection of friendly conversations with fellow artists and former collaborators about the legendary filmmaker’s life and influence. It’s by no means comprehensive, nor is it really trying to be. This beguilingly personal project is made up mostly of informal chats – a counterintuitively shaggy portrait of an artist renowned for his rigid austerity.

We first see Von Trotta standing on the beach where Bergman shot the opening sequence of “The Seventh Seal” some sixty-odd years ago. She astutely analyzes the scene’s components while quite movingly explaining the effect this scene had upon her as a young artist, and the the doors that were blown open in so many hungry young minds by the sight of Max Von Sydow challenging Death to a game of chess.

Bergman became a fan of Von Trotta’s as well; in 1994 he listed her “Marianne & Juliane” as one of his eleven all-time favorite films, alongside works by Chaplin, Kurosawa and Fellini. “Searching For Ingmar Bergman” sometimes feels a bit like a director trying to return the compliment, but there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching a bunch of brilliant artists talk about their favorite Bergman pictures.

Of course his old muse Liv Ullmann is on board, elegant and eloquent as always in discussing their intense collaboration over so many remarkable films. There’s some typically erudite commentary from director Olivier Assayas, who started out as a film critic and boasts one of the sharpest analytical minds in the movie business. 

Contemporary up-and-comers Mia Hansen-Løve and Ruben Östlund offer their own angles, with the latter illuminating an academic schism over Bergman’s legacy in Sweden’s film culture unheard of on these shores. International cinema warhorses Carlos Saura and Jean-Claude Carriére join the chorus of approbation, but the conversations stay on the brainy side without ever tipping over into gushing.

(A perhaps unsurprising omission is that of Woody Allen. I know he doesn’t usually do this kind of thing but Allen’s constant references to and re-makes of Bergman pictures provided my introduction to the artist as a pre-teen cinephile. I feel like he provided an entry point for a lot of us who saw “Interiors” and “Another Woman” before we sought out the Swedish movies Woody was ripping off all the time. Also in that spirit, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” was a pretty good primer for “The Seventh Seal.”)

Things get a bit stickier when it’s time for Von Trotta to talk to family members, with Daniel Bergman in particular offering an affectingly dry-eyed summation of his father’s shortcomings as a parent. It’s always fascinated me how certain artists can be so perceptive and insightful about relationships in their work while making such a mess of things in their personal lives.

But far the most amazing memory recounted in “Searching For Ingmar Bergman” is his grandson’s recollection of watching Michael Bay’s craptastic “Pearl Harbor” in Bergman’s private screening room, the legendary filmmaker impatiently instructing his projectionist to fast-forward over the dialogue scenes. That’s a mental image to rival anything in “The Seventh Seal.”•••

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

Review – What They Had


FILM REVIEWWHAT THEY HAD. With Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga. Written ańd directed by Elizabeth Chomko. Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference. 101 minutes.

what_they_hadYou don’t see a lot of actorly fussing about from Robert Forster. Plainspoken and direct in a pre-Method, old Hollywood fashion, Forster is one of those rock-solid guys from another era who plants his feet and tells the truth on camera. His turn as lovesick bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” is one of the great performances of the 1990s, and if Hollywood had any sense he’d have been working nonstop ever since. Indeed, the best thing about Elizabeth Chomko’s moving, occasionally awkward Alzheimer’s drama WHAT THEY HAD is that it gives Forster his meatiest role in ages.

Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, a fitness-crazed California poultry chef called home to Chicago on Christmas Eve after her dementia-addled mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) sneaks out and wanders the neighborhood in her nightie during a snowstorm. Dutiful dad Burt (a heartbreaking Forster) has been taking care of his beloved for so long he’s willfully blind to how far her disease has advanced, constantly insisting in a familiar chorus of Catholic repression that everything is fine. “Fine” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in this movie, and usually signifies that things are anything but.

Big brother Nick (Michael Shannon) runs a hipster bar downtown and currently crashes in the back room. He’s constantly quarreling with the old man, and even pulled some strings to secure a room for Ruth at the city’s nicest MemoryCare facility, but Burt won’t budge. No way is he gonna let a bunch of strangers tend to his girl, and there’s a palpable flush of fear in Forster’s eyes when we see him trying to contemplate what the hell he’d do all day without her. It was a stroke of genius casting the rough-edged Shannon as Forster’s son, as the two are seemingly incapable of false moments onscreen and they’ve got similarly hardened hides. This family really knows how to bust each other’s chops.

Considerably less compelling is Bridget’s frayed relationship with her college dropout daughter (Tessia Farmiga) and the well-meaning husband with whom she’s fallen out of love (Josh Lucas). Chomko has claimed that the film is semi-autobiographical, and I fear she’s overestimated our interest in the personal growth aspects of the story when we’d much rather be watching the frayed family dynamics play out.

The playwright-turned-filmmaker betrays her theater background by writing long sequences in which members of the ensemble enter and exit, but there’s an attention to detail here that feels lived-in and true, even when the scene structures beg credulity. Forster has a way of reading his newspaper at the dinner table that illustrates a lifetime, and Shannon’s wide, child-like grin whenever he’s able to get one over on his prodigal sister tastes like decades of resentment coming home to roost.

Danner probably has the trickiest part here, playing the majority of her scenes in a distracted fog and trying not to be a bother. There are moments when we can bask in the warm glow of Ruth’s five decades with Burt and in others we see the terrifying confusion and loneliness wrought by a horrific disease.

“What They Had” goes on for a bit longer than it probably should, piling on too many tidy resolutions when the movie’s strongest scenes are its messiest. But Chomko clearly loves these characters so much it’s hard to fault her for trying to give them all the kind of closure I imagine didn’t come so easily for their real life counterparts.•••

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

Review – Divide And Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes


FILM REVIEWDIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILESWith Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Richard Nixon. Directed by Alexis Bloom. Unrated, but contains profanity. 107 minutes.

divide_and_conquer_the_story_of_roger_ailesHe might not be a household name, but Roger Ailes has conceivably done more damage to the fabric of American life in the 21st century than any foreign despot could ever dream of causing. The disgraced former Fox News chairman was an unparalleled genius at media manipulation, a kingmaker of scoundrels, and an unrepentant lech.

Alexis Bloom’s blood-boiling documentary DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES methodically traces the diabolically brilliant tactics via which this porcine pervert transformed modern conservatism into a billion-dollar grievance industry. It’s a depressingly necessary viewing experience, basically the opposite of the Mister Rogers movie in that you spend two hours with one of the worst human beings to walk the planet during our lifetimes but in the end feel a little bit better because at least he’s dead.

Bloom’s film traces the arc of this unlikely arch-villain from his humble beginnings in Cleveland as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” where Ailes pitched guest and then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon on being his “media consultant” and somehow miraculously managed to make the sweaty, glowering mountain of mendacity come off okay on television. From there Ailes became the man behind the curtain for a murderer’s row of malignant pricks, from Rudy Giuliani to Mitch McConnell. His masterpiece, of course, was the notorious “Willie Horton ad” that rocketed a floundering George H.W. Bush to the Presidency by brazenly stoking white folks’ fear of big, scary black dudes, a staple of Ailes’ repertoire.

But like most people who spend all day grousing about celebrities and “Hollywood elites,” Ailes desperately wanted to be part of the club that wouldn’t have him as a member. In the early 1990s he oversaw the short-lived NBC cable channel America’s Talking and presided over a collection of banal daytime chat shows aimed at bored housewives. Indeed, the most revealing clip in Bloom’s documentary finds Ailes hosting a program of his own, sycophantically sucking up to Cyndi Lauper before busting out some cringe-inducing dance moves.

“Divide and Conquer” posits that the mogul might have remained perfectly happy to rub elbows with C-listers forever, had the Peacock not scuttled his programming and sold the channel to Bill Gates, thus creating MSNBC. A cheesy reenactment of the office furniture destruction that ensued culminates with a revenge-obsessed Ailes sliding up to Australian tabloid billionaire Rupert Murdoch to start their own “fair and balanced” 24-hour news network. And the rest, alas, is history.

An ex-producer from “The O’Reilly Factor” admits that around the office they called it “riling up the crazies” — conceiving of programming to make their target audience feel constantly under attack by frightening, nefarious forces beyond their control. Bloom cuts together damning montages to demonstrate the dopamine hits of fear and resentment provided around the clock to a mostly older, white audience increasingly obsessed with their own victimization. The nuttier the on-air crackpots the better, exemplified by a now contrite, formerly froth-mouthed Fox superstar Glenn Beck, who shows up here to wonder how things ever got so out of hand.

Then there are the women. One of my favorite Artie Lange bits on the old “Howard Stern Show” found the comedian confessing that he couldn’t watch Hurricane Katrina coverage on Fox News because the anchors kept giving him an erection and that felt inappropriate during something so sad. The documentary points out how Ailes outfitted his staff of blonde bombshells with see-through desks and carefully lit their legs underneath. In such an environment it’s no surprise abuse was rampant, particularly given the presence of serial harasser and loofah-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly as the public face of the network.

For a lot of viewers it won’t come as a surprise to learn that America’s most trusted news channel was a haven for disgusting old men hopped up on erectile dysfunction medication chasing women younger than their daughters around desks with trousers at their ankles, all the while peddling racist conspiracy theories confirming the worst prejudices of your out-of-work, alcoholic relatives nobody wants to sit near at Thanksgiving. But Bloom’s documentary does do a fine job of dispassionately laying out the whole sordid saga from end-to-end, complete with the contributions of two crisis management experts who actually quit working for Ailes and refused to take his money because the man was so revolting.

The sad twist ending to this all is that before finally kicking the bucket Ailes stuck us with a President embodying the most toxic tenets of his life’s work, a virulent misogynist wallowing in hysterical self-pity while bleating out paranoid, uninformed assertions with ugly racist undertones. A talking head in “Divide and Conquer” astutely points out, “If Donald Trump didn’t exist Roger Ailes would have had to invent him.” One might even argue that he did.•••

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

Review – Creed II


FILM REVIEWCREED II. With Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Stephen Caple Jr. Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality. 130 minutes.

creed_ii_ver31979’s “Rocky II” doesn’t get mentioned much when people are talking about their favorite films in Sylvester Stallone’s apparently deathless franchise. It’s an odd picture, that first sequel, tilting back and forth between the gritty, broken-hearted uplift of director John G. Avildsen’s 1976 original and the glossy, steroidal triumphalism of Stallone’s subsequent entries, which quickly degenerated into comic-book gladiator montages. “Rocky II” is kind of an awkward segue between seventies and eighties movies, and now almost four decades later, CREED II finds itself straddling a similar fence, following up a thoughtful, much-loved surprise hit with some fine character beats before drifting into stale, over-familiar formulas and fawning fan service.

Stallone was uncharacteristically gracious enough to step aside and hand Ryan Coogler the car keys for 2015’s “Creed,” in which this dynamo writer-director appropriated the “Rocky” saga for his ongoing exploration of young black men reckoning with absent fathers. This theme has been the cornerstone of former social-worker Coogler’s collaborations with the ferociously charismatic young superstar-in-waiting Michael B. Jordan. From 2013’s Sundance sensation “Fruitvale Station” to this past February’s Marvel mega-hit “Black Panther,” these two keep grafting a sneaky, sociopolitical agenda onto increasingly massive, crowd-pleasing canvases with blockbuster returns.

So I guess only someone with the ego of Sly Stallone could look at a movie as textured and thoughtful as “Creed” and think: “What everybody really wants now is more dumb Drago shit.” Coogler was so careful in how deftly he side-stepped the patent absurdity of “Rocky IV,” only mentioning in passing that Apollo died in the ring, while never getting into the whole Russian propaganda angle or Rocky ending the Cold War by carrying tree-trunks on his shoulders across mountains in Siberia to a tacky Vince DiCola synth score because everyone involved was too cheap to pay Bill Conti.

Alas, Coogler’s gone off to Wakanda and Stallone is back in the writers’ room. So we say goodbye to those vividly realized streets of Philadelphia and get ready for some Russian intrigue with the disgraced Dolph Lundgren bringing his brick shithouse kid Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) to America so he can find redemption for his family by clobbering Apollo Creed’s kid. “My son will break your boy,” Lundgren tells Sly, in a well-played scene that probably should’ve stung a little more considering Drago and Balboa’s shared history.

This silly backstory is a huge drag on “Creed II,” which strikes me as the biggest blown opportunity for a sequel since J.J. Abrams spent an entire movie setting up a brand new “Star Trek” universe just so he could remake “Wrath of Khan” four years later. The movie has some admittedly terrific moments between Jordan and Tessa Thompson as his trash-talking, dreadlocked better half, conspicuously mirroring the goofball marriage proposal and difficult childbirth sequences from “Rocky II.” (She even spends a fight wearing one of Talia Shire’s old, unflattering coat-and-hat combos.) But it’s all so purposefully secondhand, deliberately designed to remind you of he previous films you loved without going anywhere exciting or new.

“Creed II” is pretty much the movie everyone was worried the first “Creed” was gonna be, but it’s well-acted enough that I couldn’t hate it. Jordan and Thompson are as appealing as screen presences get these days, and though missing the pathos of the last installment Stallone still brings a reliable dim-bulb charm to his punchy palooka. Phylicia Rashad steals enough scenes for you to wish she was given more of them and I found myself fascinated by Lundgren’s sad-eyed scowl, though I could have done without him repeating umpteen variations on “I must break you.”

It was slyly (sorry) subversive of Stallone back in 1985 to put Carl Weathers’ swaggering, showboating Apollo Creed in an Uncle Sam outfit and place him alongside James Brown, both “Living In America” as two black and proud icons sayin’ it loud against the Soviet menace. I wish Stallone still had that kind of nerve, and I really wish he’d confronted head-on just how much of his target audience right now would probably root for the Russians over a black millionaire heir from California. That’s the kind of movie that might break you.•••

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