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 – Jojo Rabbit


FILM REVIEWJOJO RABBIT. With Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence and language. 108 minutes.

jojo_rabbit_ver2Writer-director Taika Waititi’s asinine JOJO RABBIT begins with footage from “Triumph Of The Will” recut to an early German-language Beatles recording of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The joke here – which I keep seeing praised in print by people who really should know better – is equating Hitler’s rise to power with Beatlemania, a bunch of screaming, empty-headed teens losing their mind over the latest fad. Like most attempted insights in this deeply obnoxious movie, it’s a comparison that falls apart if you spend more than five minutes thinking about it. But then this picture has been designed in such a way to circumvent thought, instead congratulating the audience for catching its references and inviting them in turn to admire the filmmaker for his “daring” tweaks of taboos, wrapping it all up in a warm bath of sticky sentiment to send you home with a smile. I really hated this movie.

It’s Berlin in the waning days of WWII, and 10-year-old Jojo (played by cuddly Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to be a Nazi. Raised by his single mother (Scarlett Johansson), he ends up housebound after a grenade accident at his Hilter Youth camp, a schticky sort of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kristallnacht” presided over by a closeted SS-washout (Sam Rockwell). All the adults here seem to realize that the war is just about over and it’s not going to end their way, but they nonetheless go through the motions of Nazi-ism – which they all admittedly find pretty silly – in a half-assed fashion for the sake of the kids, who really want to believe in the Reich like it was Santa Claus or something.

Young Jojo even confides in an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler (played by the director in a grating, loose-limbed performance that’s like being trapped in an elevator with an improv comic) and the two happily frolic through their anti-Semitic “Calvin and Hobbes” while the rest of us wonder why any of Waititi’s loved ones didn’t intervene tell him that this was all a really gross idea. Billed as “an anti-hate satire,” the movie intends to skewer Nazi-ism for its stupidity, adopting the fanciful tone of a children’s fairy tale to present these Aryan adventures as exercises in arrested development. It’s all a phase – like Beatlemania, I guess – that Jojo is soon going to grow out of. (Waititi has apparently forgotten that people still really like The Beatles. Nazis, too.)

The plot thickens when the boy discovers that mom has stashed a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie of the excellent “Leave No Trace”) in the cupboard, and how much do you want to bet that much to his imaginary friend’s frustrations, Jojo’s gonna learn to move past his prejudices after getting to know her? For anyone who ever wanted to see the Anne Frank story re-done as a cutesy tween romance with a happy ending, I’ve got good news.

I got even angrier as the movie went along, recoiling at Waititi’s twee production design and winking, anachronistic dialogue. It made me start thinking about the difference is between a movie told from a child’s POV with an adult’s perspective and a film that treats its audience like children. There’s a long tradition of movies seeing war through the eyes of a child – heck, John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” even came out the same damn year – while Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” depicted the rise of fascism in Italy as an extended adolescence, authoritarianism as a fart-filled wank.

None of those films pissed me off like “Jojo Rabbit” because they didn’t pull their punches the way Waititi does. Late in the running time, Jojo discovers that something horrible has happened, but the movie doesn’t allow us to see it. We’re kept safe from any grisly images, to the point where Jojo’s allegedly “disfiguring” grenade accident leaves just a couple of minor scratches on his adorable face. There’s a running gag about a kid from camp who keeps getting blown up in battles and miraculously reappearing, joking to the camera about how apparently he’s very difficult to kill. A dead child would derail all the upbeat, feel-good whimsy, and who wants that to happen in a movie about the Holocaust?

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re not one of them,” his cool new Jewish girlfriend tells him before they dance in the street to a David Bowie song. (You can probably guess which one.) In fact, deep down none of these Nazis are all that bad, with Rockwell heroically even stepping in to save Jojo’s life near the climax. The point, I think, is that we’ve all gotta grow up and get past these silly differences, which strikes me as a dangerously Pollyanna-ish attitude considering what a comeback actual real-life Nazis have been making lately. But it’s emblematic of the movie’s stunted worldview, snickering in-jokes, and deliberate distance from anything resembling reality. Waititi tells us that people are truly good at heart in a movie where Anne Frank lives at the end. This is a deeply, distressingly insulated picture – the Funko Pop collector’s edition of “Shoah.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 0 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Western Stars


FILM REVIEWWESTERN STARS. With Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa. Written by Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen. Rated PG for profanity. 83 minutes.

western_starsBruce Springsteen has said in interviews that this companion film to his 19th studio album WESTERN STARS was intended as the completion of a three-part project that began with his 2016 best-selling memoir “Born To Run” and continued through his long-running one-man-show “Springsteen On Broadway.” What these efforts all have in common is a surprising candor from the usually cagey, press-shy superstar, stepping out of his longtime comfort zones for frank confessions and self-assessments in unfamiliar artistic forms. Indeed Springsteen, who turned 70 in September, makes his (co-)directorial debut with this compact, finely-tuned concert film. So who says you can’t teach an old Boss new tricks?

The long-gestating album was released back in June to some of the best reviews Springsteen’s gotten in decades. Miles away from E Street and more expansive than his sparse solo records, “Western Stars” is a collection of terse character sketches accompanied by sweeping orchestral arrangements that aurally unfurl with an almost cinematic grandeur. The songs attempt to reconcile the two sides of Springsteen’s – and in a sense, America’s – mythology (the two have become pretty much interchangeable anyway) pitting born-to-run loners on the open road against a longing for hearth, home, and community. It’s a record full of hitchhikers, wayfarers, and roadside bars where everybody can feel welcome for a few hours.

“19 albums in and I’m still writing about cars,” Springsteen quips in the film’s opening moments. The bulk of the movie is “Western Stars,” performed in its entirety by the singer, his wife Patti Scialfa and a 30-piece orchestra inside a massive, 100-year-old barn on the couple’s New Jersey ranch home. Shot in collaboration with Springsteen’s longtime videographer Thom Zimny, it’s an excellent performance that doesn’t radically reinvent any of the arrangements from the album but rather draws us closer inside them, with the movie theater surround setup really bringing out the stabbing strings and distant, lonely horns. The boss sounds raspier than he does on the record, putting an extra splash of whiskey on lyrics like, “She liked her guys a little greasy and beneath her pay grade.”

The men in these songs are all worn out and broken, like the title track’s former big-screen cowboy now doing Viagra commercials who’ll tell the old story about how John Wayne once shot him in a movie if you’ll buy the next round, or the washed-up stuntman who both begins and ends his song with a litany of medical mishaps. Springsteen’s sneakiest structural trick on the record is that the orchestra allows access to their inner lives, the soaring sounds conjuring vast expanses and dreams of escape, only more often than not the music melts away and Springsteen circles back to repeating the same opening lines, leaving us with the feeling that these guys have traveled so many miles while getting nowhere at all.

I suppose every song anyone’s ever written is at least a little autobiographical, but these characters still are most assuredly not Bruce Springsteen, which makes his inspirational, interstitial introductions an occasionally awkward fit. Each song is proceeded by a couple of minutes spent with shots of Springsteen on his farm, doing very Springsteen-ish things like driving old cars, looking at horses and putting on his cowboy hat in slow-motion. Via voice-over narration he talks us through the metaphors and personal journeys in the songs you’re about to hear, a nice but completely unnecessary gesture as the lyrics are already so beautifully written they require no explanation.

At their worst these chats sound like a Springsteen magnetic poetry kit, with “faith,” “work,” “perseverance,” and “dreams” all jumbled up in front of stock footage of empty highways. I love the guy but he can get a little airy sometimes, and his writing’s always been best when grounded in the everyday. That’s why the movie’s most satisfying introduction is to the album’s closing track “Moonlight Motel,” during which Bruce brings out home movie footage of he and Scialfa’s honeymoon, reminiscing about the early days of their relationship when they “had to sneak around” (Springsteen was still married to model Julianne Phillips) and would secretly meet up for picnics on a New York City bench. He’d bring a brown bag full of beer.

There’s something so beautifully precise about that detail of the six-pack in a paper bag, not to mention the mental image of rock’s biggest superstar sneaking beery lunches in plain sight on 21st street with his backup singer. It says so much more than the sermonizing that sometimes swamps the spoken word sections of “Western Stars,” and like the wonderful songs herein is a potent reminder of this writer’s once-in-a-generation gift for turning the quotidian into poetry.•••

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

Review – QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight


FILM REVIEWQT8: QUENTIN TARANTINO, THE FIRST EIGHT. A documentary written and directed by Tara Wood. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell, Jamie Foxx. Unrated but contains profanity and violence. 120 minutes.

qt8-poster-37ba44cfd4efc93e492f8ffc07f4d885No filmmaker of the past three decades has inspired as much adulation or more controversy than Quentin Tarantino. The video store geek turned rock star auteur is a bigger celebrity than most of his cast members, a household name in a field that has historically had room for very few. (Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Spielberg might be the only other directors boasting comparable brand recognition among casual moviegoers.) Tarantino films – nearly all of them unlikely, enormous blockbusters – are bona fide cultural events as well as rich, deeply idiosyncratic texts rewarding close examination. There’s a fascinating documentary to be made about the massive footprint Quentin Tarantino has left upon cinema history. QT8: QUENTIN TARANTINO, THE FIRST EIGHT is not that documentary.

Written and directed by Tara Wood, who previously served as co-director on the similarly rah-rah “21 Years: Richard Linklater,” the film gathers longtime Tarantino friends and collaborators – and notably not the filmmaker himself – to gush for a bit about what a genius Quentin is and share an amusing anecdote or two. It’s not unenjoyable to watch, even if most of these tales are old hat to film fans by now. “QT8” dutifully ticks off the origin story of the overzealous Video Archives clerk whose potty-mouthed heist script found its way into the hands of Harvey Keitel and caused a phenomenon at the Cannes Film Festival. A goofy animated sequence depicts the director’s sudden celebrity status after that first screening of “Reservoir Dogs,” when all of the sudden Oliver Stone, Paul Verhoeven, and James Cameron were climbing over each other to meet this kid.

I was 17 years old when I ducked out of school at lunchtime and went to see “Reservoir Dogs” on opening day at the long-gone Loews Harvard Square Cinema. (I’d read a bit about the stir it caused at Sundance and back then had a standing rule to automatically go see any movie that had Harvey Keitel in it as soon as possible. Actually, I still have that rule.) I spent the following months dragging everyone I could convince to see it at other vanished venues like the Charles or Allston Cinemas, as the film struggled and sputtered in its initial theatrical release. “Dogs” didn’t really find its audience until home video, when all of the sudden everyone you knew wouldn’t stop quoting it.

“Pulp Fiction” came out when I was a sophomore in film school, an event we students received with similar composure to those shrieking girls watching The Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In “QT8,” producer Stacy Sher attempts to explain the sense of liberation – the combination of high art and low culture that made Tarantino’s sensibility so shockingly exciting and new. Like the French New Wave before him, he filtered disreputable genre tropes through a post-modern sensibility, turning “trash” into “art.” SXSW founder Louis Black is on hand for some surface critical analysis of why Tarantino struck such a chord, but for the most part the movie’s content to stick with “that was awesome” as a default approach.

What you won’t find in “QT8” is any consideration of the controversies that have followed Tarantino throughout his career, nor a word about his personal life. There’s no mention of the messy falling out with his “Pulp Fiction” co-writer Roger Avary, or “Natural Born Killers” producers Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy, the latter of whom Tarantino famously brawled with at a restaurant. The accident that seriously injured Uma Thurman on the set of “Kill Bill” is glossed-over in two minutes of screen time, and her lack of participation in this project is telling. The disgraced Harvey Weinstein gets a scant six minutes near the end, despite their careers being so entwined his Miramax Films used to be known as “The House That Quentin Built.”

Tarantino’s famous feud with Spike Lee is dismissed by Jamie Foxx, who profanely brushes the whole thing off without Wood giving fair airing to legitimate qualms about Tarantino’s unseemly infatuation with the n-word. I can tell you from recent re-viewings of “Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” that these days it clangs coming from certain white characters’ mouths, feeling more like a young man’s naughty art-punk posturing than the verisimilitude with which it is deployed in his later historical films.

But then I am of the opinion that most Tarantino films are controversial because they deserve to be, and are often designed to inspire extreme reactions in the audience, which is why I’m always kinda surprised when they become consensus blockbusters. Wood’s upbeat, collegial “we all have so much fun on the set” vibe of the documentary runs counter to the deliberately provocative content of the pictures being made, and to my mind gives the work short shrift. These are complex films worthy of much further discussion than all this anecdotal back-patting. I mean jeez, it’s a two-hour documentary about Quentin Tarantino movies that never once mentions women’s feet.•••

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 WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie


FILM REVIEWEL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE. With Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Robert Forster, Scott MacArthur, Bryan Cranston. Written and directed by Vince Gilligan. Rated TV-MA for profanity and graphic violence. 124 minutes.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie • Poster“Breaking Bad” aired its series finale six years ago last month, but it really had more like three final episodes, with the show’s waning weeks sneakily providing viewers every endgame imaginable for Bryan Cranston’s chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White. Personally, I like to think of him breathing his last all alone in that snowbound cabin with nothing to watch but “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” on DVD (two copies) while I know plenty of folks who prefer the absurd, robot-machine-gun blaze of glory with which Walter went out rescuing his onetime pupil and seemingly doomed sidekick Jesse Pinkman.

The show’s creator Vince Gilligan was lauded for making “Breaking Bad” one of the precious few popular programs to give fussy fans the closure they were looking for, in part by giving them all the endings they could possibly have ever wanted. Maybe that sense of oversaturation is why I’ve never quite cottoned to “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel series that’s gone back in time to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s on a fictional universe I already feel quite finished with, thanks. Recent, wonderful re-visitations to “Twin Peaks” and “Deadwood” wrapped up shows that had been abruptly canceled without being given the chance of a proper send-off. But did “Breaking Bad” really leave anything left unsaid?

As it turns out, no. But EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE throws another ending onto the pile all the same. It’s a completely unnecessary and terrifically entertaining exercise in fan service answering questions nobody asked. When we last saw Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman he was (literally) screaming down the highway in a stolen car, having just been sprung from the cage where a bunch of scary Aryan Brotherhood bikers were making him cook meth according to Walter’s secret specs. “El Camino,” named after Jesse’s getaway vehicle, chronicles his attempts to get the heck out of Albuquerque.

It’s an agreeably stripped-down affair, more like an epilogue to the series than a standalone feature of its own. Written and directed by Gilligan, the movie conjures that familiar “Breaking Bad” mojo in which characters are constantly escaping out of a dangerous situation into an alternative that’s infinitely worse. So much of the story relies on reversals and surprises it’s probably only fair for me to say that Jesse’s on the lam and trying to come up with enough cash to buy a new identity and safe passage to Alaska from Robert Forster’s unassumingly sinister vacuum cleaner salesman.

Forster’s once again magnificent in a role that probably reads as ridiculous on the page, his gruff, flatline authority like a brick wall off which Jesse’s jumpy energy bounces in vain. His time in captivity has left Pinkman covered in scars and racked with PTSD, and Paul brings a hollowed-out sadness to the character that’s a far cry from the electric doofus routine he perfected on the program. In flashbacks (which are perhaps over-abundant and filled with star cameos from your favorites) it’s shocking to once again see the light that’s since gone out of his eyes.

“El Camino” has it’s share of white-knuckle set-pieces, and you’d swear at least 20% of the movie is Aaron Paul hunched quivering in the forefront of shots trying hard not to be discovered by folks milling around the back. Some of these situations call to mind Gilligan’s famous writers’ room trick of starting out by sticking the characters in the most impossible scenario they could come up with and then trying to write their way out of it. In fact, there are quite a few spots in the movie where I was expecting the show’s old cliffhanger commercial breaks.

I guess this is all a long way of saying that “El Camino” is often enormous fun to watch even if it’s rather redundant and has no real reason to exist. Cleverly bookended by contrasting shots of Jesse driving down the highway, the film ends on a quiet note of hard-won comfort and the hope that all these talented people will now move on and find new stories to tell.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

forsterPOST-SCRIPT:
I filed this story a few hours before the news broke that the great Robert Forster had passed away at the age of 78. One of those guys who made you smile the moment he walked onscreen, Forster’s warmth and easygoing authenticity had a way of making whatever he was in that much better. He was the sweetest guy I’ve ever interviewed, and what better sendoff to a working actor of over fifty years than to still be stealing scenes on your dying day. He’ll be terribly missed.

 

Review – Lucy In The Sky


FILM REVIEWLUCY IN THE SKY. Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Ellen Burstyn. Written by Elliott Di Guiseppi, Brian C. Brown and Noah Hawley. Directed by Noah Hawley. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 124 minutes.

d7skgemwwaa2zdj“All that astronaut dick is making you soft,” says the 87-year-old, Academy Award-winning president of The Actor’s Studio Ellen Burstyn during one of the more dignified moments granted her by LUCY IN THE SKY, which is as puzzlingly terrible and pointless as any movie you’ll see this year.

Prestige television’s golden boy Noah Hawley has made a forehead-smacking mess out of the lurid real-life tale of Lisa Nowak, the former naval flight officer and Space Shuttle Discovery Commander whose attempted kidnapping of a co-worker’s new love interest made headlines back in the aughts because she wore adult diapers during a 900-mile drive to the scene of the crime. It’s one of those weird tabloid tidbits that lodge in a reader’s mind, in part because it’s such a sterling example of NASA ingenuity and mission discipline.

Attempting to inflate this tawdry true crime tale into some sort of metaphysical meditation, Hawley leaves out the diaper detail, which is a shame because the movie’s so full of shit it could’ve used one. Now named Lucy Cola and played by an up-for-anything Natalie Portman, our unhinged space oddity has been re-routed from the real-life astronaut’s Maryland upbringing to a generic “Hee-Haw” American South, with Burstyn as her potty-mouthed granny and Dan Stevens playing Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons” as her ineffectual cuckold husband. But once Lucy gets a glimpse of the cosmos she can’t go home again so easily, finding herself unable to re-adjust back to day-to-day life after seeing beyond the stars.

Hawley attempts to convey her dislocation by mucking with the aspect ratio, the screen’s width undulating sometimes according to Lucy’s moods and other times for no apparent reason at all. I suppose our expanding and contracting field of view is meant to represent how narrow she finds the world after being in the vastness of space, but then why switch to super-wide cinemascope for an establishing shot of a golf course? Like most of the creative decisions behind the film, this one doesn’t seem to have been thought through for more than five minutes.

Lucy can only find her equilibrium by throwing herself into a passionate affair with a co-worker played by Jon Hamm. The man who Tina Fey once described as looking like “a cartoon of a pilot” is almost too perfect for this movie’s louche, 1960s Playboy magazine idea of a hard-drinking, ladykilling space ranger. Hamm hilariously plays him as a cross between Don Draper and Buzz Lightyear, though the movie doesn’t seem to be in on the joke.

He and Portman indulge in lusty, inter-office encounters overloaded with phallic symbolism like launching rockets, their somber sex morosely laden with intonations of mortality. One of the more curious interludes finds a drunken, shirtless Hamm obsessively re-watching footage of the Challenger explosion like a character in Cronenberg’s “Crash,” while an earlier desktop cunnilingus scene is awkwardly intercut with a helmet breach that almost drowns Lucy in a training accident. (Both events appear to get her off.)

Probably presuming that she’d found her own “I, Tonya,” Portman goes all in on this nonsense with great gusto and a Holly Hunter honk. (She makes “spayce” into a two-syllable word.) I know I’m in the minority here but I love it when Portman lays on a big, broad accent like in “Jackie” or “Vox Lux.” She’s typically such a tight, over-controlled performer that wacky voices seem to liberate her entire physicality. It’s fun to watch her fling herself around, “y’all”-ing it up in sleeveless crop tops and denim skirts, even though her performance makes it impossible to buy for a second that Lucy would have a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

It’s also impossible not to wonder what the hell Hawley was trying to get at here, overloading every scene with show-offy camera tricks and heavy-handed intonations of meaningfulness that don’t actually seem to mean anything at all. I’ve enjoyed some of the Coen brothers cosplay on his TV adaptation of “Fargo,” while having reservations that Hawley entirely understands the film from which he’s working. “Lucy in the Sky” is a spectacularly incoherent text, with the general takeaways being that women are far too fragile to go to outer “spayce,” and that sex with Jon Hamm is so amazing it’s worth committing multiple felonies in order to try and keep having it. At least I believe the second part.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

 

 

 

Review – Running With The Devil


FILM REVIEWRUNNING WITH THE DEVIL. With Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Leslie Bibb, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper. Written and directed by Jason Cabell. Rated R for violence and disturbing images, drug use, strong sexual content and language. 100 minutes.

running_with_the_devil_xlgIt’s not often you get to watch an actor out-hambone Nicolas Cage, but writer-director Jason Cabell’s RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL allows a deliriously twitchy Laurence Fishburne to go way over the top as a double-dealing wannabe drug kingpin with a sweaty, full-tilt brio that recalls his swaggering breakthrough performance in Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York.” Cutting his cartel stash to side-hustle a toxic cocktail of cocaine, fentanyl and heroin, this perpetually gacked, hooker-happy horndog is always trying to stay one step ahead of his employers, the feds and his ex-wife’s child support lawyers. As long as the movie sticks with Fishburne it’s a blast.

Unfortunately, Cabell has bigger ambitions. “Running With The Devil” aims to be a sweeping epic covering all facets and fallout of the cocaine trade, rather unconvincingly depicting interactions with peasants, police and politicians. When a Canadian druglord (played as a corporate shark in a suit by the always amusing Barry Pepper) discovers that his shipments are being tampered with, he calls an old partner out of semi-retirement to track and test the packages at every stop along the way from Colombia to Vancouver.

That partner happens to be a taciturn pizza chef played by Nicolas Cage with splendid sideburns and 1970s sitcom dad glasses, and a good chunk of the movie’s running time is given over to him threateningly inspecting bags of blow in various locales. There’s a pretty good joke in the disconnect between Cage’s doofus demeanor and his lethal reflexes, but it’s not enough to carry off the dry procedural nature of these sequences. Besides, we already know that the coke is being cut in Seattle and everything’s more interesting there.

Fishburne ropes a dumbbell buddy (an agreeably against-type Adam Goldberg) into his scheme, arousing the attention of a possibly psychotic DEA agent (Leslie Bibb) who just lost her sister to an overdose. Yes, this time it’s personal. I’m not sure if Bibb’s flat, laissez-faire line readings are a deliberate stylistic choice or just ordinary incompetence, but either way the performance brings a refreshingly counter-intuitive approach to police brutality.

“Running With The Devil” tries some narrative trickery and fake-out twists in its later reels, to ends more frustrating than entertaining. The further it gets away from Fishburne’s manic energy on the grungy Seattle streets the more rote the picture becomes. Meanwhile, as the merchandise slowly makes its way north you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more efficient way to traffic this stuff. (Maybe this is why we haven’t heard of too many Canuck drug lords?)

Cabell’s onscreen title cards announcing the increasing price of the product along its journey might leave you doing the math in your head, wondering what exactly the margins are on such an expensive operation. (Fishburne was in “The Mule.” Doesn’t he know you can just hire Clint Eastwood to drive your dope around?) Any credibility is off the cliff for good when the delivery hinges upon sending two out-of-shape guys in their 50s on a dangerous mountaineering trek through the snow. Distribution plans like this could single-handedly solve the drug problem.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – One Cut Of The Dead


FILM REVIEWONE CUT OF THE DEAD. With Takayuki Hamatsu, Harumi Shuhama, Mao, Yuzuki Akiyama, Kazuaki Nagaya. Written by Shinichiro Ueda and Ryoichi Wada. Directed by Shinichiro Ueda. Unrated. 96 minutes.

OneCut-Poster.jpgA surprise box office sensation in Japan that has so far grossed a thousand times its budget at the box office, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is an unexpected delight. I honestly didn’t think I ever needed to see another zombie movie for as long as I live, but director Shinchiro Ueda takes the genre’s oversaturation to giddy new levels of meta. It’s a movie about zombies attacking the set of a zombie movie, captured in a single unbroken shot by a daredevil cinematographer who at one point discreetly tries to wipe blood off the lens. Or at least it is until it isn’t, and since the movie’s entire premise pivots on a massive perspective shift about 40 minutes in, the spoiler sensitive should probably check out now and come back after you’ve seen the film.

Still here? Good. In a terribly amusing development, this ramshackle, tongue-in-cheek one-take chase picture abruptly ends at the 37-minute mark, complete with closing credits rolling after final girl Yuzuki Akiyama vanquishes her infected boyfriend and the dictatorial director who won’t stop filming amidst all the mayhem. Then “One Cut of the Dead” fades in again and flashes back to one month earlier, employing an entirely different shooting style to suddenly become a comedy about the making of the movie we just saw.

Turns out that the tyrannical filmmaker we were watching earlier (Takayuki Hamatsu) is actually a mild-mannered commercial videographer specializing in weddings and karaoke videos. He describes himself as “fast, cheap, and average” but the artist deep inside him is stirred by an offer from executives at the Zombie Channel. (I imagine there really are enough movies about the undead to run on a network 24 hours a day, or at least it feels that way.) They want to try out a live broadcast of a one-take horror flick, but every reputable director they’ve approached has had the good sense to turn them down.

What follows is an incredibly charming backstage farce, with our meek director trying to marshal a motley crew of pain-in-the-ass actors, lazy crew members and a sound guy with irritable bowel syndrome through what should be a logistically impossible shoot, taking out his frustrations in front of the camera by playing a filmmaker who says and does all the things he’d never dare. The project also provides a chance to bond with his prickly, perfectionist teenage daughter (one-named wonder Mao) and his stay-at-home wife (Harumi Shuhama) who quit being an actress after going so Method she broke a co-star’s arm.

Despite the opening salvos of splatter, “One Cut of the Dead” turns out to be terribly sweet, reminiscent of “Waiting for Guffman” and “Bowfinger” in the “let’s-put-on-a-show” spirit that animates these characters. The structural device of showing us the broadcast before we see how it was made allows Ueda to set up his punchlines way in advance, springing surprises we should have seen coming and garnering huge laughs from what’s just outside of the frames we’ve already watched. It’s a clever conceit brought off with a bouncy spirit and great camaraderie. The exuberant ending features a J-Pop cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” going behind the scenes of the behind-the-scenes footage to complete this most endearing cinematic hall of mirrors.•••

The Brattle in Cambridge hosts a one-night-only premiere of “One Cut Of The Dead” on Tuesday, September 17 @ 8:30pm.

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