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Author Archives: Sean Burns

Review – Sorry To Bother You

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FILM REVIEWSORRY TO BOTHER YOU. With Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer. Written and directed by Boots Riley. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use. 105 minutes.

sorry_to_bother_youThe damndest thing you’re gonna see this summer – and probably all year – is rapper Boots Riley’s debut feature, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, a screamingly funny anti-capitalist manifesto, an air-horn blast of subversion with a surreal, midnight-movie twist. It’s like if “Get Out” got all mixed up with “Repo Man,” Robert Downey Sr. and scabrous early Brian De Palma satires like “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” Even the title proves hilariously ironic for such a punchy provocation.

The film stars Lakeith Stanfield as the exquisitely-named Cassius Green, currently living in his Uncle Sergio’s garage somewhere in Oakland while dating a radical performance artist (Tessa Thompson) of dubious talent. “Cash,” as he’s called by his friends, takes a questionable job selling encyclopedias on commission for a telemarketing firm, and the first of Riley’s prankish visual stunts finds the contents of Cash’s cubicle crash-landing into the kitchens and living rooms of prospective customers while he repeats the film’s title, trying sputter out a sales pitch.

Cash’s co-worker Danny Glover (who gloriously gets to claim he’s “too old for this shit”) coaches him on finding his “white voice” – a way of appealing to clients by sounding like all of your bills are paid. Our hero discovers a hitherto unknown upper octave (amusingly overdubbed by real-life white guy David Cross) and it launches his sales into the stratosphere. Before long Cash Green is seeing tons of green cash, taking a literal golden elevator up to a luxurious corporate office while abandoning his friends on the floor who are trying to organize for fair wages.

In synopsis “Sorry to Bother You” probably sounds like a black-and-white morality tale about the perils of selling out to The Man, which I suppose it is, in addition to being about at least sixteen other things at once. Riley brings along his carefully cluttered hip-hop style to sample dozens of social satire riffs, skipping across subjects with an enthusiasm as clumsy as it is infectious. The movie misses almost as often as it hits, but when the big swings land they leave a mark. Flat as all the inane art-world parody may fall, when Cash is coerced into rapping for his new white friends Riley conjures an incendiary, catch-in-your-throat comic set-piece to rival anything in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.”

It only gets more audacious upon the arrival of Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift, a coked-out tech-bro of Jobs or Bezos proportions who has big plans in mind for our protagonist. Hammer’s vaguely sinister air of aristocracy hasn’t been put to such good use since “The Social Network,” and Stanfield’s naturally suspicious demeanor makes for a perfect foil. (I wouldn’t dare give away the big twist, save to say that certain particulars involving stereotypically black physical characteristics are gasp-inducingly funny even though I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh.)

“Sorry to Bother You” is ultimately too scattershot to be a great movie, but it’s a great first movie. Here’s a ferocious new talent kicking down the door with enough cojones and go-for-broke ambition to fuel a dozen lesser films. You leave wanting most of all to see what Boots Riley does next.•••

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, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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Review – Leave No Trace

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FILM REVIEWLEAVE NO TRACE. With Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dana Millican, Dale Dickey. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini. Directed by Debra Granik. Rated PG for thematic material throughout. 109 minutes.

leave_no_traceThey say a movie is only as good as its villain. But what about one with no bad guys? Is there any drama to be found in a picture about people doing their best under damnable circumstances to try and help each another out? Will audiences sit still for a film in which ordinary folks are just trying to be decent and kind? The sleeper success of director Debra Granik’s enormously moving LEAVE NO TRACE suggests we might be starved for just such a thing. It’s a sad movie that’s somehow still full of hope. You leave with your heart aching but not quite broken, dismayed but not despairing.

Granik’s surprise 2010 smash “Winter’s Bone” provided a career-making showcase for a then-unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence, and “Leave No Trace” offers the same for the remarkable young Thomasin McKenzie, who stars here as thirteen-year-old Tom, coming of age in a campsite off the grid in an Oregon National Park with her PTSD-rattled dad, Will. Played by an uncharacteristically undercranked Ben Foster, his haunted eyes hint at untold traumas as father and daughter seclude themselves away from the outside world, living off the land in isolation from modern life and all its noisy intrusions.

Unfortunately, they’re also trespassing, at least in the eyes of the law. But when Tom and Will are discovered by some well-meaning police officers and social workers we’re miraculously spared the plot machinations and misunderstandings that would have driven a more Hollywood take on the material. I honestly kept waiting for their case officer (affectingly played by Dana Millican) to turn inexplicably evil or intolerant for no other reason than to goose the drama along.

Instead, “Leave No Trace” admirably avoids histrionics while following these characters through a situation that inevitably becomes impossible. Folks keep reaching out to Will and Tom with great understanding and generosity, trying to help them acclimate, but there’s just something in his brain that got broken over there. Will can make a good show of things for a little while but he never quite does get the hang of making small talk, or even sleeping indoors. Credit the movie for never giving us any specifics as to what exactly happened overseas, relying on Foster’s anguished gaze and subtle flinches in lieu of exposition.

One of the most delicious hams in modern movies, Ben Foster has been making memorable meals out of the scenery as far back as TV’s “Freaks and Geeks.” (My favorite part of 2016’s terrific “Hell or High Water” is when he starts a fist-fight at a gas station simply by staring.) What happens to him here is similar to Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread” – the thrill when a chronic over-actor underplays and as a viewer you can feel everything they’re holding back reverberating through the tiniest of gestures. (See also: Pacino, Al. “The Godfather.”)

McKenzie has an even more difficult role, remaining devoted to her dad while also opening up in the presence of peers. We watch Tom come into her own the way we’re watching the actress become a star and take command of the movie, even if Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rossellini lean a little too hard on the symbolism when she meets a friendly beekeeper and suddenly everybody starts talking about hives and colonies.

“Winter’s Bone” was pretty overwrought in that department as well. But “Leave No Trace” actually has more in common with Granik’s superb 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” which followed a Missouri trailer park manager along on a motorcycle pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and in the process upended every possible preconceived notion you might have made about the people portrayed onscreen.

She’s stacked the supporting cast here with first-time actors and their scenes exude a grubby, hardscrabble authenticity. You might think you have these folks pegged at first glance but chances are they’ll keep surprising you with their kindnesses. As far as visions of America go, “Leave No Trace” might not exactly be 100% believable, but it’s awfully welcome right now.•••

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, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – American Animals

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FILM REVIEWAMERICAN ANIMALS. With Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier. Written and directed by Bart Layton. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude sexual material. 116 mins.

american_animals_ver2It’s an ancient conservative bugbear to say that bad kids see too many movies, but personally, I’ve always thought the problem was more a matter of watching them wrong. That’s certainly the case with the young men of AMERICAN ANIMALS, writer-director Bart Layton’s true-life tale of a 2004 rare book heist gone awry at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. The four students who fancied themselves criminal masterminds weren’t in any particular financial need, they were just bored, overprivileged, and wanted life to be as exciting as their favorite films. Too bad none of them paid attention to how those pictures end.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s” supremely creepy Barry Keoghan plays the straight man here, seduced into a whole playbook of bad ideas by Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) when the two set their eyes on the school library’s stash of original Audubon books. (There’s also a copy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in there too, because real life is full of hacky symbolism.) They round out the crew with a childhood friend (Jared Abrahamson) and recruit a spoiled rich kid (the spectacularly smarmy Blake Jenner) to be their getaway driver because he can borrow his mom’s minivan for the heist. There’s even a scene in which they assign themselves multi-colored code names, mimicking “Reservoir Dogs” as if the blood-soaked black comedy was somehow aspirational.

“Not my favorite Tarantino,” chimes in one of the real-life robbers, who by the way happen to appear throughout “American Animals” in quasi-documentary interviews. Occasionally they even show up like ghosts over the shoulders of their Hollywood counterparts as Leyton riffs on the malleability of memory, adjusting the movie mid-scene to correspond with the participants’ occasionally conflicting accounts. (I seem to recall the filmmaker toying with unreliable perceptions in his acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Imposter” but for all that movie’s stuck with me I honestly couldn’t tell you anything else about it.)

The movie’s meta-trickery isn’t nearly as impressive as Leyton’s handling of the heist itself, a squirm-inducing set-piece during which our boys are forced to subdue the school’s kindly librarian (old reliable Ann Dowd) and their celluloid fantasies come crashing down to cold, ugly reality. These guys haven’t quite figured out how to account for the sheer size of these Audubon books, and taking the elevator isn’t exactly the smartest way to make a clean getaway. Those things also stop on other floors, you know?

Their scheme is so stupid one could easily see Leyton turning the tale into a Coen Brothers-y farce in which bad things happen to dumb criminals, but instead, he sticks with a tone of impressively mounting dread. “American Animals” conjures a nifty, pit-of-your-stomach feeling like when you know you’ve blown it but there’s no going back. The movie’s most novel element is not its show-offy intrusions by the actual participants, but rather how long it wallows in the robbery’s aftermath – the cold clammy wait to get caught.

And yet, on the other hand, there’s something troubling about seeing everybody here just a decade and change later – happy, healthy and appearing in a movie about their own misguided youthful foray into armed robbery. In many ways these boys are finally getting what they always wanted – their adventure immortalized in just the kind of heist picture they’d probably all buy on DVD.

After all, well-heeled white kids don’t have their lives ruined by such transgressions, a class critique the movie probably could have made more explicit but is lurking around the margins all the same. There’s something troubling about “American Animals,” but I think deliberately so. It sticks in your craw.•••

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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Ant-Man And The Wasp (Sean’s Take)

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FILM REVIEWANT-MAN AND THE WASP. With Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena. Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari. Directed by Peyton Reed. Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence. 118 mins.

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2_xlgMy favorite thing about the “Ant-Man” movies is that nobody has to save the world. While the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues “raising the stakes” to diminishing returns with increasingly apocalyptic punch-outs, over here in the insect corner they thankfully still seem content to coast on breezy banter and clever chase sequences. This past May’s “Avengers: Infinity War” was about as miserable a moviegoing experience as I’ve had all year, a bludgeoning conundrum of losing battles and monotonous self-mythologizing with the fate of the universe (yawn) hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is a high-spirited lark of enormous appeal and blessedly little consequence.

Affable everyman Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, the bungling burglar with a heart of gold turned shrinking superhero. He’s just served two years under house arrest for his amusing extra-legal shenanigans in the otherwise desultory “Captain America: Civil War” and despite the suspicions of his punctilious parole officer (a very funny Randall Park) it looks like he’ll be a free man in a few days, just so long as Scott steers clear of fugitive scientist Hank Pym (the delightful Michael Douglas) and the doc’s daughter, Hope van Dyne (former Ford model Evangeline Lilly.)

A small pileup of plotlines conspires to keep that from happening, including but not limited to the machinations of a shady tech-pirate-slash-farm-to-table restaurateur played with lip-smacking relish by Walton Goggins, a phase-shifting, dimension-hopping ninja with a grudge (Hannah John-Kamen) and Laurence Fishburne as a prickly former colleague of Pym’s. There’s also the matter of Scott receiving something like a distress signal from the inter-molecular quantum realm where Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) disappeared three decades ago. Oh yeah, and Lang’s old jailbird buddies (David Dastmalchian, T.I., and the movie-stealing Michael Peña) are running a failing security company that sorely requires some expert assistance.

“You guys are just adding the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything, right?” quips Scott as a way of cutting through the pseudo-scientific gobbledygook deployed here to provide arbitrary timelines and obstacles to the adventure. As with the previous picture, Rudd is one of several credited screenwriters and is presumably responsible for a good deal of the self-deprecating humor that keeps things humming along. He’s got a terrific rapport with Lilly, who spent too much time on the sidelines last time around (for reasons that movie openly admitted were stupid) and here emerges as such a credible, competent hero in her own right that by the opening reel she’s already crime-fighting circles around Rudd’s goofball galoot.

Shot in bright, primary colors by the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” isn’t exactly elegant when spinning out all the various story threads, but returning director Peyton Reed is smart enough to prioritize the chemistry of his cast over assorted plot nonsense. A scene in which Pfeiffer employs unorthodox methods to make Rudd deliver a message is the kind of sublimely silly and strangely moving scene you only get when a filmmaker fully understands how movie stars can provide their own sort of special effects.

Of course, the digital trickery here is also top-notch, with our heroes’ oddball superpowers forcing the action sequences into far more clever contortions than the usual skyscraper-toppling slug-a-thons. From using giant Pez dispensers as weapons to Hot Wheels-sized car chases, the action beats are orchestrated with a level of wit and invention too often lost in the genre’s typical spates of CGI porn. (An extended homage to Dirty Harry in “The Dead Pool” is also a surefire way to warm this cranky critic’s heart.)

Alas, since this is a Marvel movie everything must eventually tie into this summer’s earlier bummer, but thankfully here not until a tacked-on post-credits scene. (Basically, if you bolt out right after the poppy, Partridge Family-scored happy ending you’ll have just seen one of the season’s sweetest treats.) Funny, for a story full of small things getting big and big things getting small, the most satisfying thing about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is its human-scaled sense of proportion.•••

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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

 

 

Review – Uncle Drew

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FILM REVIEWUNCLE DREW. With Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller. Written by Jay Longino. Directed by Charles Stone III. Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language, and brief nudity. 103 mins.

uncle_drew_ver13Probably the most entertaining film ever based on a soft drink commercial, UNCLE DREW finds Boston Celtics’ superstar point guard Kyrie Irving reprising his role from a series of viral YouTube shorts promoting Pepsi Max. In these admittedly amusing spots, Irving plays the title character beneath a ton of “Coming to America” old man makeup, giving crowds of unsuspecting, trash-talking young whippersnappers a good what-for on the basketball court. The not inconsiderable pleasure of the Pepsi ads is in watching a doddering codger suddenly spring into action with the grace of a professional athlete. But is that enough to sustain a movie? Surprisingly, sort of.

Comedian Lil Rel Howery – the diminutive scene-stealer who managed to make us root for the TSA in last year’s “Get Out” – stars here as a bumbling, broke basketball coach who just lost his star player a few days before Harlem’s Rucker Park Streetball Tournament. Howery Is still haunted by a high school championship game in which his buzzer-beating shot was blocked by an obnoxious bully played by Nick Kroll, who has continued to torment him throughout adulthood as what girlfriend Tiffany Haddish calls, “The Ghost of White Boy Past.”

Out of options, Howery’s hapless coach enlists Irving’s barbershop legend Uncle Drew, who insists on reuniting his old Rucker team from half-a-century ago, all played by NBA icons underneath mountains of wrinkly latex. What follows is a road trip in Uncle Drew’s funkadelic orange van, blasting slow jams from the seventies while picking up Chris Webber’s born-again Preacher, the legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller) and mute, wheelchair-bound dementia patient Boots (Nate Robinson.) The geriatric squad is rounded out by Shaquille O’Neal’s aptly-named Big Fella, who hasn’t spoken to Drew in decades and isn’t about to start again now. (This is far and away Shaq’s finest big screen performance. The not-talking part helps.)

Director Charles Stone III (who after “Drumline” and “Mr. 3000” is an old pro at underdog stories) grounds the silly shenanigans in a sweetness that can get a bit sticky sometimes. But he keeps the nonprofessional actors in the cast fully committed to their characters with far more consistency and credibility than you’re used to seeing when, say, an athlete hosts “Saturday Night Live.” Irving, in particular, brings a surprising gravity to Drew’s more dramatic moments, even if he does fall back on calling everybody “Youngblood” a few too many times.

“Uncle Drew” invests absolute sincerity in cornball old tropes like: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.” (My favorite exhortation to teamwork is: “Everybody knows Gladys Knight was nothing without The Pips.”) The guilelessness is almost touching, albeit slightly disingenuous considering the film is spun off from a corporate branding exercise and contains wall-to-wall product placement as far as the eye can see.

But of course what you came to watch is your favorite players clowning around on the court, and in that department “Uncle Drew” delivers. Stone and his one-named cinematographer Crash take advantage of the cast’s prowess in the paint, shooting Harlem Globetrotter-styled slapstick sequences in long, head-to-toe takes so we can fully appreciate their artistry. (There’s also a delightful dance number that goes on for what feels like ever because apparently everyone was having too much fun to stop.) Inside jokes abound involving Webber’s time-out miscount and Shaq’s free throw difficulties, and by the end even WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie gets her turn to play.

“Uncle Drew” will never be mistaken for a masterpiece but as far as branded content goes it’s sunny and good-natured enough to get by. And hey, at least it’s better than “Space Jam.”•••

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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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FILM REVIEWWON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?A documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Featuring Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Eddie Murphy. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. 94 minutes.

wont_you_be_my_neighborEver since it screened at Sundance back in January there’s been a strange phenomenon surrounding WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, director Morgan Neville’s fine documentary about children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers. People can’t seem to stop crying. A lot of critics spend their entire reviews writing about how they sobbed their way through it, and a colleague sitting next to me during the film’s New England premiere at the Independent Film Festival Boston was so inconsolable afterwards he had to go take a walk around the block before he could even bring himself to talk about the movie.

This is a bit odd, because “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a sad film at all. It’s really kind of a boilerplate bio-doc about the placid Presbyterian minister who from 1968 to 2001 hosted a uniquely gentle and almost comically low-budget public television program that spoke directly to the fears and concerns of its preschool audience. Fred Rogers talked to children as if they were his peers – tackling scary subjects like war, divorce, and death with an unwaveringly steady voice and vast reservoirs of kindness in his eyes. He changed into his trademark cardigan and sneakers at the top of every episode while singing a happy song, a ritual that reassured young viewers we were amongst friends, or at least neighbors.

This is what knocks folks for such a loop during the movie. At our particular moment in history, we’re simply not prepared to receive Fred Rogers’s straightforward sincerity – so heartfelt and direct, devoid of any self-protecting irony. Every time I have turned on my television for the past three years I’ve been greeted by the putrid visage of a blathering orange yam preaching a toxic, semi-literate combination of bullying braggadocio and lachrymose self-pity while the faces of his followers contort with orgiastic abandon, braying a stream of unprintable epithets. The forthright decency of Mister Rogers feels as if it has been beamed in not from our recent past, from a distant planet altogether. If you cry during this film it’s because you’re realizing how much has been lost.

Neville won an Oscar for his wonderful music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” a few years back, and he’s shrewdly assembled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as a highlight reel of footage that will probably feel familiar to public television aficionados but still leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling all the same. I’ll never not fall apart watching Rogers’ 1981 interview with 10-year-old quadriplegic Jeff Erlanger, so matter-of-factly accepting disability as just another unfortunate fact of life and chatting with this child as a friend like any other. You simply didn’t see people like Jeff on television back then, and what a gift it was to get to know him.

The show confronted so many topics that were taboo on TV at the time. Rogers began his career talking to kids about Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and then wrapped it up returning to the air shortly after 9/11. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” never sugarcoated the subjects tackled within these episodes – witness the close-ups on his dead goldfish during that traumatic half-hour – our host always made it plain that the world could often be a frightening and confusing place. But with his cheapo puppets and bargain-basement production values, Mister Rogers also let every viewer know that it was okay to be angry sometimes, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re feeling sad.

What struck me most about the film was the iron will Fred Rogers must have possessed, his borderline fanatical exercise regimens hinting at the discipline required to see his stubbornly uncommercial and altruistic vision through three decades on the air in a milieu that mainly exists to sell plastic crap to kids.

We revisit the brilliantly subversive moment when Rogers invited his African-American police officer pal Francois Clemmons to soak his feet alongside him in a kiddie pool on a hot day. During an era when riots were breaking out over colored restrooms this was a giant screw-you to Jim Crow, but at the same time, we learn that Rogers put the kibosh on closeted Clemmons hanging out in gay bars. Our host was pragmatic enough to know the show could never survive a sex scandal, and it was going to take the outside world a long time to catch up to the utopia he depicted every week onscreen. We’re still not there yet.

You can’t help but think about this strength of character when the movie gets into the bizarre 2008 campaign by Fox News and other conservative commentators to blame the “softness” of millennials on Mr. Rogers telling them that they were “special.” I’ll never understand how baby boomers – who grew up in an age of unparalleled economic prosperity and job security yet did nothing but trash the planet and leave their children screwed with off-the-charts income inequality and insurmountable debt – can in good conscience keep puffing out their chests and calling everybody pussies just because younger generations don’t like to behave as boorishly in public as they do.

To watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is to be reminded that kindness and grace are what will endure and leave a legacy. It’s easy to laugh at these threadbare sock puppets but impossible to dismiss the tough truths they imparted. Visiting Mister Rogers’ neighborhood every week made growing up a feel little less confusing and frightening for this little kid, and it was a pleasure to return for these ninety-odd minutes.•••

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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Deadpool 2

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FILM REVIEWDEADPOOL 2. With Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller. Written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by David Leitch. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material. 119 minutes.

deadwellThe surprise 2016 smash “Deadpool” was like being stuck watching an off-brand “X-Men” knock-off while sitting next to an unsupervised eleven-year-old who had just discovered the f-word and wouldn’t stop flicking boogers at the screen. A blandly corporate “subversion” of superhero cash cows starring the blandly “irreverent” Ryan Reynolds, this lazily plotted and shoddily assembled picture offered the novelty of a potty-mouthed protagonist breaking the fourth wall and heckling the film’s tired tropes while nonetheless religiously following all the exhausted formulas it purported to mock. Some movies like to have their cake and eat it too. “Deadpool” had its cake, made fun of the cake for being lame, and then ate more cake.

A significant improvement over the original while still not being particularly good, DEADPOOL 2 begins with our obnoxious anti-hero Wade Wilson in a pit of suicidal despair, unable to even kill himself thanks to those pesky mutant regeneration powers. Because movies like this are made for little boys who are terrified of powerful women, it has already swiftly disposed of Wade’s sexually adventurous girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) before the opening title sequence, wherein director David Leitch kiddingly credits himself as “one of the guys who killed John Wick’s dog” to let us know he means business.

Leitch, a former stuntman who also helmed last summer’s none-too-shabby Charlize Theron vehicle “Atomic Blonde,” has a surer hand and a less gratingly bro-tastic sense of humor than original “Deadpool” director, Tim Miller. (At least this time I didn’t leave the theatre feeling drenched in AXE Body Spray.) The sequel leans into the story’s sappier elements, which unexpectedly makes Reynolds’ smarmy, adolescent posturing a bit easier to bear. “Deadpool 2” isn’t trying so hard to pretend like it’s something “dangerous” or “edgy” and is perfectly content to be a typical summer superhero smash-up that’s slightly snarkier than the competition across the hall.

During a failed tryout as a trainee for the X-Men, our despondent Wade takes an interest in an abused orphan (Julian Dennison of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) who possesses massive mutant powers and the mediocre moniker Firefist. Unfortunately for all, Josh Brolin’s snarling cyborg assassin Cable has just beamed himself back here from the future, Terminator-style, to kill the little brat before he can embark upon a career of genocidal supervillainy. So it’s basically the baby Hitler argument, or “Looper.”

The ploddingly-plotted “Deadpool 2” at long last kicks into gear somewhere around the one-hour mark, when Wade hastily assembles an all-star super-team called “X-Force” to go rescue the kid and immediately gets most of them killed in spectacularly grisly fashion. Leitch has a real knack for Rube Goldberg mayhem, particularly in scenes involving perpetual survivor Domino (the hugely appealing Zazie Beetz) whose sole superpower is “luck” and thus always leaves behind her a trail of catastrophic coincidences. This is visually witty stuff.

Reynolds’ hit-and-miss, “ain’t I a stinker?” asides are tempered by fine deadpan reactions from Stefan Kapicic’s Colossus and the second unexpectedly modulated Josh Brolin Marvel supervillain performance in as many months. “Deadpool 2” ultimately attempts to skewer the dour self-importance of last year’s “Logan” but also tries to jerk tears with sad orphan kids and heavenly dream sequences set to a mournful, acoustic rendition of A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

For all Deadpool’s vulgar showboating, this is still a careful, corporate product and nowhere near genuinely transgressive takes on costumed heroes like Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” or James Gunn’s “Super.” It’s a film full of edgy, R-rated language and a safe, PG-13 sensibility.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.