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Author Archives: Sean Burns

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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.


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 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Girls Trip

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. 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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FILM REVIEWVALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Herbie Hancock. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language. 137 minutes.

zxkzoofbhvv_d9uoiklgk6bvgdzduyreuldgxpic0maIt’s funny because I was just complaining last week after watching that miserable “Apes” thing that summer blockbusters seem to have lost their sense of wonder. Nobody ever really marvels at anything in the Marvel movies, their wiseacre, in-jokey screenplays specialize in dragging the fantastic down to the realm of the mundane. Superheroes these days fight in empty stairwells and on anonymous airport tarmacs. Then along comes something like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, a goofball romp from writer-director Luc Besson so visually bonkers and achingly sincere it’s almost impossible to absorb all at once. The movie is a cuckoo-bananas, madcap mess with stilted dialogue, iffy performances and the final half-hour just kind of stalls when it should soar. Still, I want to see it again as soon as possible.

Based on the 1960s French comic book “Valerian and Laureline,” this is the movie Besson claims he has wanted to make ever since he was ten years old. That the film feels like a ten-year-old directed it is both an accurate summation of its shortcomings and a high compliment indeed. Set some 700 years in the future, the movie imagines an intergalactic utopia where all planets share knowledge and goodwill in a massive space station megalopolis and Rutger Hauer is president of the galaxy. Young Leonardo DiCaprio wannabe Dane DeHaan and runway supermodel Cara Delevingne star as agents of a peacekeeping federation, assigned by their supervisor Herbie Hancock (!!!) to investigate the disappearance of an obviously sinister military commander, played by Clive Owen with maximum sneer.

I honestly couldn’t summarize the permutations of the plot with a gun to my head, but basically Owen has done dire wrong to a planet of translucent-skinned, loincloth-wearing cousins to the Na’vi in “Avatar,” and the endangered tribe’s deceased princess has somehow beamed her consciousness into the not-exactly-crowded skull of DeHaan’s swaggering hotshot Valerian. Meanwhile, our hero is constantly trying to get into the space drawers of partner Laureline, prompting Delevingne to give her famously furrowed eyebrows quite an amusing workout.

But really the movie is about these two kids heedlessly running and jumping into one crazy, non-sequitur set-piece after another. Besson seems hellbent on putting every penny of the $180 million budget on screen, cramming the frames with so many bizarre alien creatures and spectacular vistas it verges on sensory overload. (This is a rare movie where it’s worth shelling out the extra bucks for 3D.) Anyone who’s seen “The Fifth Element” already knows that Besson’s ga-ga sensibility is unencumbered by taste, and there’s a rip-roaring recklessness to “Valerian’s” tangents–like the scene in which Laureline needs to locate her missing partner by sticking her head inside the ass of a psychic jellyfish. (I guess I could try to tell you why, but would any explanation suffice?)

My favorite bit finds Valerian cruising a red light district known as “Paradise Alley,” where everybody somehow still listens to Wyclef Jean and Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting pole dancer for a side story that summons a surprising amount of pathos. Ethan Hawke hamming it up as a piano-playing space pimp named Jolly is not something I was expecting to see at the movies this week––or really ever––but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted. This genuinely nutzoid sequence culminates in a Lewis Carroll-styled procession presenting food to a pot-bellied emperor of a species that looks like melting clay, while Delevingne models a hat the size of a helicopter blade.

Such a shame all this gaudy madness eventually has to settle down into some semblance of a story, and you can feel the film begin to deflate upon Owen’s return. The title character is also a problem, as there might possibly be a way to make Valerian’s antiquated lothario routine charming, but casting charisma-vacuum Dane DeHaan is certainly not it.

But really, who cares? Such matters feel like mere nitpicks when there’s this much invention and exuberance on the screen. The experience of watching “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is perhaps best summed up by a chase sequence in which our hero starts kicking his way through walls in the thickly settled title town. He barges through one wondrous world after another, giving us quick glimpses of odd environments and eerie extraterrestrials, and an imagination that apparently has no bounds.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

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FILM REVIEWNORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Rated R for some language. 118 minutes.

norman_the_moderate_rise_and_tragic_fall_of_a_new_york_fixerIt takes a lot less time than you’d probably expect to adjust to seeing Richard Gere playing a noodge. The suave, silver-maned matinee idol has been stretching his wings in offbeat projects as of late, whether as a homeless alcoholic in Oren Moverman’s excellent “Time Out of Mind” or here as the title motormouth in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Rumor has it that Gere’s gone indie these days because his outspoken activism on behalf of Tibet has made him unemployable in a new Hollywood hungry for Chinese box office. Or it could be just because independent films are where all the good roles are for actors his age. Norman is a great one.

He paces the streets of New York City all day on his iPhone, babbling into earbuds while trying to make one convoluted deal after another, most which seem to involve introducing people to each other. The self-proclaimed CEO of Oppenheimer Industries, Norman doesn’t appear to have an office but he does have a lot of moxie. He natters, he cajoles and he eventually badgers his way into situations and invitations far above his station. Norman’s a small-timer with dreams of being a big deal. His only skill seems to be making people feel important, but in the rarefied world he orbits sometimes that can be enough.

It is in the case of Micha Eshel, an up-and-coming Israeli politician Norman barnacles onto in the opening scenes. Played by Lior Ashkenazi, he’s charmed by the old coot’s insistent chatter and lets his guard down long enough to accept a gift he really shouldn’t. Three years later Micha becomes Israel’s new Prime Minister and Norman finds himself finally allowed behind those metaphorical velvet ropes, free to jibber-jabber up and down the corridors of power. Of course, he blows it almost instantly by running that big mouth of his.

The second hour of “Norman” keeps the camera locked firmly on Gere as he sinks into a puddle of quicksand almost entirely of his own creation. There’s a plum supporting part for Charlotte Gainsbourg as a steely Israeli intelligence agent, and Michael Sheen is oddly convincing as Norman’s nebbishy nephew. By the time Steve Buscemi shows up as a disappointed rabbi you might be wondering if the almost all-Gentile cast in this extremely Jewish story is some kind of running joke, but the actors all pull it off so Mazel Tov, I guess.

“Norman” is mostly a one-man-show anyway, and we watch with morbid fascination as Gere talks up, down, around and in circles trying to stave off the inevitable. It’s a bravura turn, made even more impressive when realizing his Woody Allen mannerisms should by all rights seem silly coming from such a handsome goy. Gere––always a much better actor than he’s been given credit for––sells us on Norman’s desperation, on his aching need to be “somebody.”

Director Cedar pins him into tight close-ups that at times become visually monotonous, even when the performance dazzles. “Norman” flirts with redundancy as the title character circles the drain. (A few judicious trims to the third act would go a long way.) But when all is said and done––and believe me, an awful lot is said––the film remains a rare look inside a moneyed Manhattan subculture seldom seen at the movies. After meeting Norman Oppenheimer, you’re not likely to forget him anytime soon.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Their Finest

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. With Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant. Written by Gaby Chiappe. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. 117 minutes.

marquee-mobile_1492559833As sure-footed and satisfying an entertainment as I’ve seen so far this year, THEIR FINEST is a backstage screwball romance set during the London Blitz that balances ensemble comedy and wartime tragedy with sturdy, old-fashioned aplomb. It’s the kind of movie you can point to when people say they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half” (a much better title), the film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a copywriter conscripted by the War Department to write convincing female dialogue for their propaganda films. The fact that these guys refer to actresses’ lines as “the slop” might explain why they’re having such a rough go at it, but that’s just one example of the casual sexism Mrs. Cole encounters every day at the office. “You’ll be uncredited,” huffs an ever-officious Richard E. Grant, “and of course we’ll have to pay you less than the chaps.”

Mrs. Cole almost immediately butts heads with Mr. Buckley (Sam Claflin), a snooty scenarist whose condescension is even tougher to take because he happens to be right most of the time. The two are tasked with penning a big screen adaptation of an “optimistic and inspiring” news item about a couple of young country gals who stole their father’s fishing boat to go rescue some soldiers at Dunkirk. It turns out to all be a crock of baloney, but then nobody in the picture business has ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Before long “The Nancy Starling” is headed into production––in glorious Technicolor, no less––with a few “optimistic and inspiring” embellishments.

One of which is a fictional uncle for the girls–a boozy old coot finding redemption by aiding them in their mission. It’s a plum role for faded matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard, played here with sublime self-absorption by the great Bill Nighy. Hilliard’s monolithic egotism can only occasionally cloud the realization that his stalled-out career is on the upswing lately just because all the younger actors are off fighting in the war. Nighy’s droll pokerface betrays an at times ineffable sadness–he’s an arsehole with hidden depths.

The other big addition to the cast is an actual American flying ace played by Jake Lacy, written in at the request of the War Department as an attempt to politely nudge the Yanks along into joining the battle. Problem is that nobody ever screen-tested the lantern-jawed hunk, and Lacy’s hysterically mangled line readings raise the bar for depictions of bad acting in the movies. I could honestly watch an entire spin-off sequel just of Nighy’s flustered Hilliard trying to tutor the handsome lummox on this fictional set.

Because they enjoy sniping at each other so much, we as trained moviegoers know it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Cole and Mr. Buckley will begrudgingly fall into one another’s arms. Indeed, some tiresome business with her inattentive husband (Jack Huston) provides the movie’s most predictable dramatic detours. “Their Finest” works much better as a workplace romantic comedy, albeit one where WWII casts a long shadow, disaster always just an air-raid siren away. It’s a very funny movie but it also understands how the world can be a terribly sad and unfair place, especially during this particular moment in history.

I’ve never been much for movies about “the magic of the movies,” whether we’re talking “The Artist” or “La La Land” I have little patience for Hollywood’s love affair with itself. And yet in this film the eventual unveiling of “The Nancy Starling”––complete with note-perfect Technicolor mimicry and magnificently dated special effects––captures a rather wondrous communal feeling. The audience, exhausted by the ravages of this damned war, joins together to laugh and cry at an admittedly cheesy melodrama in a great big group catharsis. It’s a marvelous argument for what movies can do. Optimistic and inspiring, even.•••

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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.