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 He stashes them all at

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 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 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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 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 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.