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 – 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.

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Review – The Fanatic


FILM REVIEWTHE FANATIC. With John Travolta, Devon Sawa, Ana Golja, Jacob Grodnik, James Paxton. Written by Dave Bekerman, Fred Durst. Directed by Fred Durst. Rated R for some strong violence and language throughout. 88 minutes.

fanatic_ver2Given the swiftness with which formerly niche markets such as comic books and sci-fi/fantasy sagas have come to monopolize mass culture, the time couldn’t be more right for a movie examining the unsettling entitlement of contemporary fans. Emboldened by the mob mentality of social media, we witness almost daily eruptions from petulant, coddled customers making insane demands like that HBO re-shoot the final season of their favorite television program because they didn’t like how it ended, or throwing rape-threat-riddled hissy-fits because they’re traumatized by the sight of ladies using the Force or (god forbid) busting ghosts.

The film and television industry is no longer driven by movie stardom but rather pre-existing intellectual properties with built-in fanbases that claim ownership, expecting fealty and supplication from artists daring to work on what’s perceived to be their turf. Horrifying harassment campaigns against the likes of Leslie Jones and Kelly Marie Tran depressingly explain an awful lot about what’s wrong with our culture today, but of course THE FANATIC isn’t interested in any of that stuff and aside from the cell phones could just as easily have been made in 1988.

Directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, this strenuously unpleasant picture stars John Travolta as the Moose, a mentally ill hanger-on among the street performers of Hollywood Boulevard, spending his days fixated on collecting autographs and movie memorabilia. His favorite star is one Hunter Dunbar (great porn name!) a deeply unlikable horror staple on the downward swing of his career, played with a rather stunning lack of charisma by former child actor Devon Sawa. (This is supposed to be a semi-clever bit of casting because 19 years ago Sawa played an obsessed fan in the music video for Eminem’s “Stan” – a song so influential its title has entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for overzealous celebrity worship.)

His Hawaiian shirts clashing with loud print shorts and a tousled mop of hair he clearly cuts himself, the Moose is a whining, miserable figure, played by Travolta with an antic array of neuroatypical tics from across the spectrum and the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old boy. It’s a hammy, hyper-stylized performance and one that’s deeply uncomfortable to watch, foregrounding the character’s overbearing vulnerability in a manner that feels unbecoming for such a shallow exploitation picture. This isn’t one of those bad Travolta movies that’s a hoot like “Gotti” or “Speed Kills,” it just leaves you feeling icky.

After a couple of embarrassing encounters, the Moose ends up stalking Dunbar, awkwardly hanging around outside his house as we wait for the inevitable violence to occur. Written by Durst and Dave Bekerman, “The Fanatic” lifts entire scenes and sequences from Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” Stephen King’s “Misery” and even Tony Scott’s unintentionally hilarious “The Fan,” blithely unconcerned that these stories are now two or three decades old and all they’ve added to the equation is that Moose’s map to the stars’ homes is an iPhone app.

Directed by Durst in a slickly sheen of puke-flecked yellows and greens, “The Fanatic” has nothing new or of interest to say about celebrity culture. It’s devoid of subplots or colorful supporting characters, so we must just sit and wait for a sick, sad man and a rich, asshole has-been to harm one another. The gore is exploitative and gross, brought off with the dour patina of self-seriousness one might expect from an artist as dull-witted as Durst, who can at least take solace in the fact that no obsessed film fans will be stalking him after this one, unless they’re looking to get their money back.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 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 – Apocalypse Now: Final Cut


FILM REVIEWAPOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT. With Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper. Written by John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Rated R for violence, grisly images, language, some drug use and nudity. 183 minutes.

saigon-shitFrancis Ford Coppola’s magisterial, psychedelic monster “Apocalypse Now” has spawned four decades of arguments, think-pieces, and slack-jawed wonder. Is it a bombastic, mega-budget spectacle picture in the guise of a brooding, European art movie, or vice versa? Transplanting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to the Vietnam War, Coppola conjured a vision of madness on a scale we’ll never see again, during the years-long process nearly losing his house, his leading man, and his mind. In his wife Eleanor’s riveting 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” the director famously (and somewhat tastelessly) likened his experience in the jungle to the United States’ doomed military incursion: “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money and little by little we went insane.”

Greeted with mixed reviews upon initial release, “Apocalypse Now” is now generally considered one of the greatest films of all time and you won’t find any argument here. But Francis still can’t seem to stop tinkering with it, his latest and purportedly “final” revision hitting home video this week after some scattered theatrical screenings. The 80-year-old legend’s twilight at the vineyard is apparently being spent in an editing bay, with a new version of his 1984 box office bomb “The Cotton Club” set to premiere at next month’s New York Film Festival, following semi-recent, rather annoying editorial exercises like a chronological re-cut of “The Godfather” films for HBO (similar to his 1977 mini-series edit for network television) or “The Outsiders: The Complete Novel,” which contained all the scenes he’d been wise enough to leave on the cutting room floor back in 1983.

The most acclaimed of these efforts, of course, was 2001’s “Apocalypse Now Redux,” which added 53 minutes to the 1979 film’s two-and-a-half hour running time, and while rapturously received by many critics the project was, to this reviewer’s mind, an act of vandalism. Coppola’s extensions and additions more than mucked with the original movie’s carefully calibrated, bad-trip pacing, they also sought to explain away its mysteries, shoving wordy bits of historical background into what worked best as a hallucinatory fugue state. Additionally, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro snipped the sides off the frames to fit the 2.1 Univisium aspect ratio he invented in 1998 as a compromise between the widths of movie and television screens. Don’t even get me started on that.

At 183 minutes, APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT splits the running time between “Redux” and the original 1979 edit, with a new 4K scan from the original camera negative, a remixed soundtrack for Dolby Atmos and thank heavens (or Storaro) it’s back to being presented in 2.35 CinemaScope again. As always, the film is an audiovisual powerhouse like nothing you’ve ever seen, and I often wonder what it is that makes these images feel so much heavier and larger than similar shots in conventional war films. The movie is simply massive in scope, ambition and balls. Whenever I’m done watching “Apocalypse Now” again, for the next few days other pictures seem puny.

Yet this “Final Cut” requires once again sitting through some of Coppola’s more perplexing additions, which aren’t as egregious as the ones in “Redux” but are diminishments all the same. The first and most frivolous is a scene in which Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard swipes a surfboard belonging to Robert Duvall’s fire-breathing Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. I’ve never been able to buy the haunted, all-business Willard suddenly deciding to pull such a frat-boy prank, and his back-slapping bonhomie with the boat crew doesn’t fit the frayed hostility of their other interactions. (It’s like when Michael Corleone is cracking Tony Bennett jokes at the beginning of “Godfather III.” Who is this guy?) We’re thankfully spared the business of Kilgore begging for his board back that was such a groaner in “Redux,” but the entire episode still tragically undoes his “someday this war’s gonna end” departure from the original edit, one of the great character exits in movie history.

Most problematic is Coppola’s insane attachment to the notorious sequence in which Willard and the crew discover a family running a French rubber plantation near the head of the river, carrying on their colonial ways while willfully oblivious to the war around them. For starters the scene is in entirely the wrong place, shoved in following the hallucinatory freakout of the Do Long Bridge (“there’s no fuckin’ CO here”) and the killing of young Laurence Fishburne’s Private Clean by unseen assailants. “Apocalypse Now” is a journey upriver into abstraction, where we watch as structures and systems of order all collapse around us until everything is in ruins and we arrive at the Kurtz compound.

This chatty, civilized and seemingly endless dinner sequence that follows isn’t just out of place and all wrong for the movie’s mood, it’s bizarrely out-of-character for Willard. A few scenes ago we watched him shoot a wounded woman in the head because his mission is of such grave importance he doesn’t have time to take her to a medic. But now he’s cool with sitting down for a leisurely French meal before slipping upstairs to smoke some opium and get laid. What happened to “never get out of the boat?”

The ham-fisted dialogue attempts to introduce a late-game history lesson about the former French Indochina into a film that frankly isn’t built for it. “Apocalypse Now” isn’t a movie interested in geopolitical specifics, and Coppola has often been (not incorrectly) criticized for using Vietnam as a backdrop for his take on Joseph Conrad without fully reckoning with the conflict’s causes or casualties. I personally think such matters are outside the scope of the film, which attempts to deal with larger, more generalized existential questions in primarily visual terms. So suddenly stopping everything to let bit players jaw about the particulars over two hours into the movie does a disservice to all sides of the discussion. (Plus that egg metaphor is an eye-roller-and-a-half.)

Coppola claims that the initial release cut was truncated as a result of him panicking and trying to make the picture accessible to the widest possible audience, hoping to get some of his money back at the box office. But to me that’s always been the genius of “Apocalypse Now” – an undeniably strange and difficult art film brought of with the brio of a master showman. It’s troublingly, enormously entertaining movie on a grand blockbuster scale. Coppola’s continued attempts to revise and undercut his initial, towering achievement remind me of the speech in “Six Degrees of Separation” when the second grade art teacher explains that her students all seem like geniuses because she knows when to take the paints away from them. The first cut was the deepest.•••

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.

Spoiler Special – Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

SPOILER SPECIALONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references. 161 minutes.

:::WARNING:::
THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD.
LOTS OF ‘EM.

Writing a spoiler-free, pre-release review of Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD felt a bit like typing with one hand tied behind my back. Only a bastard would dare divulge the shocks and delights that make a first viewing of this film such a raucous rollercoaster ride, so if you haven’t yet had the pleasure please stop reading right away. I’m about to be that bastard.

Tarantino plays upon our knowledge of the Manson murders to tighten the suspense screws, ramping up and dragging out the dread before suddenly flooding us with cathartic, cartoonishly comic relief. But what’s maybe most impressive upon repeat viewings is how deftly he sets up his surprises, the punchlines often hiding in plain sight. Tarantino films are always unpredictable but they never cheat. He’s not a trickster trying to pull one over on the audience. The movies tend to tell you exactly what they’re doing while they’re doing it. This one especially.

I’ve seen “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” three times now and I adore the film beyond all reason. This tale of two none-too-bright, mid-level has-beens on the verge of never-was is in many ways Tarantino’s sweetest picture, improbably moving in its painstaking re-creation of a magnificently tacky Los Angeles at the end of an era. The grandeur of Hollywood’s Golden Age had already gone to rot by the time this film begins in 1969, but Tarantino has such contagious affection for crap-culture ephemera that it translates into a touching sense of longing for this gaudy, Jurassic world. It’s a blizzard of bubblegum pop ditties, middling TV westerns, catchy advertising jingles and disposable studio programmers conjured with such loving attention to detail you can practically smell the after-shave and stale cigarette smoke. I wish I could live inside this movie.

The first tip-off to where we’re headed is a clip from “The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey,” what was intended to be the big-screen breakthrough for Leonardo DiCaprio’s modestly talented TV cowboy, Rick Dalton. For every Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen who made the jump from television westerns to movie stardom there were dozens of guys like Rick who couldn’t quite pull it off. The glimpse we get of this studio standard, WWII men-on-a-mission movie finds an eyepatch-wearing Rick torching Nazis with flamethrower (along with a priceless behind-the-scenes insert in which our prima donna asks if somebody can do something about the heat). Of course that flamethrower is gonna pay off big in a couple hours or so, and since Tarantino loves referencing himself the scene is also supposed to put us in mind of his “Inglourious Basterds,” another film in which history’s monsters are at the mercy of the movies.

Shaping up to be the film’s most curious controversy is a very funny flashback in which we see how Brad Pitt’s supercool stuntman Cliff Booth rendered himself unemployable by picking a fight with Bruce Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet.” It’s a layered sequence and its placement in the film is pivotal, as we’ve previously only seen Cliff as a kind and supportive pal to basket-case Rick. But now we’re rudely informed by Kurt Russell’s put-upon stunt coordinator (who also narrates the film with just the right amount of surly disdain for our protagonists) that Cliff killed his wife and got away with it. Pitt is giving the warmest and most enormously enjoyable performance of his career, to which Tarantino tries to complicate our responses by waiting so long to drop this biographical bomb. A flashback within the flashback is teasingly inconclusive, alluding to Natalie Wood as a way of further muddying the waters. Is Cliff really a murderer?

We’ll never know for sure. He’s definitely an asshole though, as evidenced by the hilarious, ball-busting banter between Pitt and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. It’s a situation in which Cliff understands full well that he should really just shut up and drink his milk (a marvelous touch) but he simply can’t resist being a dick, even if that means the end of his career. A lot of people have been mischaracterizing the scene as Brad Pitt beating up Bruce Lee, which is the kind of statement that gets you attention on Twitter but isn’t actually what happens in the film. It’s a three-round match and in the first Cliff is immediately planted on the ground by a single kick from the kung fu icon. During the second Cliff goads Lee into repeating the exact same move, which he counters and sends him flying into a car. Round three is interrupted, so I guess if hard-pressed you could say they fought to a draw.

It strikes me as deliberately disingenuous to claim that Quentin Tarantino – a man who has done more to introduce mainstream American movie audiences to Asian and martial arts cinema than any other living filmmaker and even had Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee’s yellow “Game of Death” jumpsuit in “Kill Bill” – somehow intended here to insult his idol. In fact, Tarantino already explained exactly what he was up to in the film’s very first scene, when Al Pacino’s fidgety talent agent tells Rick that the networks are using him in villain-of-the-week roles to boost the bona fides of their up-and-coming actors. If some nobody on his first TV show is seen beating up a guy like Rick Dalton, he becomes someone the audience can take seriously as a star. So what better way to establish Cliff’s seemingly superhuman physical prowess than by having him tussle with the most formidable fighter of all time? It’s a tribute, and a damn funny one.

Besides, I think any question of who really won the fight is answered by the fact that Cliff is remembering it all from up on a roof fixing Rick’s TV antenna because he can’t get any other work and Bruce Lee is off somewhere busy being a legend. Tarantino hammers this home with quick shots of Lee training glamorous friends like Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, while Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in with his dog. And if you really feel like getting into the weeds of it, the whole sequence is deliberately framed as Cliff’s memory of events, and as in nearly every Tarantino movie from the commode story in “Reservoir Dogs” to the snowy blow job in “The Hateful Eight,” tall tales are always as suspect as their tellers.

Besides, there’s already a pretty porous line between the movies and reality in this Hollywood fairy tale. The cameras and studio lights go missing from the soundstage during Rick’s performance on the TV pilot for “Lancer,” which is presented to us in glorious widescreen with a florid, Italian spaghetti western influence unheard of in television productions of the era. (That is, until Rick forgets his dialogue and we can suddenly hear the camera rig squeaking along the dolly track.) Tarantino even digitally inserts DiCaprio into a scene from “The Great Escape,” showcasing the limits of Dalton’s big-screen charisma as compared to his fellow former TV cowboy Steve McQueen. (Some have speculated that the character’s nagging smoker’s cough is a hint that Rick’s in the early stages of lung cancer, which would claim McQueen in 1980. If so, it’s even more perverse that the closing credits include outtakes from Dalton doing a cigarette commercial.)

Similar slight-of-hand finds DiCaprio replacing Burt Reynolds on an old episode of “The F.B.I.” But Tarantino pointedly leaves the vintage footage untouched during this film’s most beguiling sequence, when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate catches a matinee of “The Wrecking Crew” and watches the real Tate on a big screen with an appreciative audience. It’s the most heartfelt scene Tarantino has ever filmed, a valentine to the movies and to the late actress, embodied here by Robbie as a beatific beacon of lost promise. The film mostly keeps a respectful distance from her, the camera gazing from afar or overhead as she bounces and dances with giddy abandon. I’m not sure how you ask somebody to play an idea, but Robbie becomes the heartbeat of the movie – wide-eyed and full of wonderment as a whole new world of glamour and excitement are just beginning to open up in front of her. That we know this will all soon be sadistically snatched away in a massacre makes the fleeting moments we spend with Sharon almost unbearably poignant.

This depiction of Tate has become quite an issue for people who apparently don’t know how to watch movies. At Cannes a reporter asked Tarantino why Robbie didn’t have as much dialogue as her co-stars. (He answered curtly with, “I reject your hypothesis,” which was frankly more cordial than such a dumb question deserved.) Branching off from this nonsense, Time Magazine had not one but five reporters actually sit down and count how many lines are spoken by women in Tarantino’s films, then discarded “Death Proof” from their results because apparently it didn’t fit whatever point they were trying to make about the director of “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill” being some sort of sexist. I’m at a loss for words when a national publication presumes that such a dopey, anti-art stunt is how one is supposed to engage with cinema, particularly when Time Magazine’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek is one of the very best in the business and a personal hero of mine who has already written gorgeously about the movie in question.

“Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time,” sings Mick Jagger on the soundtrack in one of the film’s only music cues that doesn’t come from a visible source like a car radio. (It’s also a 1975 arrangement of the song, imposed editorially from the future.) The first time I saw the picture my palms were sweating and I had a pit in my stomach while Kurt Russell ran down the bone-dry, police report tick-tock of the hot August night that would prove to be Sharon Tate’s last. The movie dawdles on day-to-day details, as if fixating on the quotidian will forestall the inevitable. At the same time we’re watching Rick and Cliff sharing a drunken farewell dinner, their bozo boys’ club coming to a close as the falling star stares down an uncertain future of dubious career prospects, new marital responsibilities and a condo in Toluca Lake. Everybody’s running out of time.

Upon second viewing the song took on a different meaning. When Mick sings “you’re obsolete, my baby” he might as well be talking directly to Rick and Cliff, two dinosaurs from another era ill-equipped for the New Hollywood. They’re men out of their time, old cowboys who aren’t about to learn any new tricks. Watch how Tarantino shoots Pitt during the film’s brilliant, white-knuckle centerpiece sequence at the Spahn ranch. He’s a lone gunslinger in a Hawaiian shirt, with collapsing western sets from his glory days in ruins around him and the dusty streets lined with sneering, malevolent young people he no longer understands. (There’s a theory going around that Tarantino has made the most Gen X movie ever, as it’s all about being surrounded by sexy, scowling millennials who hate your guts and the moral of the story is that baby boomers ruined everything.)

It’s telling that he’s filled out the Manson family with the next generation of Hollywood offspring, including the daughters of “Pulp Fiction” cast members Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis, along with Andie MacDowell’s kid Margaret Qualley in a star-making turn as a hippie hitchhiker who props her dirty feet up on Pitt’s dashboard. The cultural climate in which a hotshot young director like Quentin Tarantino could become a household name was long ago crushed by stay-at-home streaming options and Disney franchise domination, while a lot of the punkish provocations in his earlier pictures would never pass without significant censure today. (Rick and Cliff let a few slurs slip but they’re nowhere near as casually racist as they’d be if Tarantino were writing this script twenty years ago.)

once

In casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt he’s deliberately picked the last two modern movie stars who don’t do sequels, social media, TV series or superhero shit, so in a way they’re almost as out of touch with our current era as the men they’re playing are in 1969. Tarantino’s always talking about retiring while he’s still at the top of his game, and it’s in this regard that “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” begins to feel intensely personal and elegiac, like the work of a guy making peace with the fact that his run is just about up.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be just yet? The delirious charge of this movie’s gonzo wish-fulfillment fantasy climax isn’t just in watching Beavis and Butt-head here save the day, it’s also in an idea that’s become something of an obsession for Tarantino but has never quite clicked for me before this particular film. “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” are about movies righting massive historical wrongs, killing Hitler and burning down the slave plantations. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” works on a more modest scale, seeing movies as a brief, blessed escape that can keep these characters and their dreams alive for just a little longer, at least until we see them through to the closing credits.

It’s amusingly typical of Rick and Cliff’s relationship that the stunt double gets stuck doing all the work while the star is lounging obliviously in his pool. Rick’s wasted and rocking out to The Royal Guardsmen’s novelty hit, “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” – a bizarre, crazily catchy tune in which everyone’s favorite illustrated dog shoots down notorious WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen. Of course we’re hearing a song about a cartoon animal vanquishing a real-life historical menace while a fictional stuntman kills the crap out of the Manson murderers, because once again Tarantino movies love to tell you what they’re doing while they’re doing it. He even works in one of his own beloved self-references, allowing an acid-tripping Pitt to reprise his gloriously zonked reactions to James Gandolfini and the gun-toting gangsters from “True Romance” some 26 years later.

I daresay I may not see anything funnier this year than DiCaprio, pantsless and resplendent in his robe, slurping margaritas from a blender pitcher while screaming about hippies and his property taxes. But I was unprepared for just how moved I would be to hear Robbie’s voice as Sharon Tate, safe and sound, speaking through the intercom after the film’s frenzied finale. It’s an incredibly delicate, exquisitely judged scene, with the gates to Sharon and Roman Polanski’s Cielo Drive mansion opening up for Rick like the entrance to heaven, a hale and hearty Jay Sebring standing to the side like St. Peter with a better haircut.

The final music cue is not one of Tarantino’s precious pop earworms, but rather a snippet of Maurice Jarre’s ethereal, melancholy score from “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” John Huston’s absurdist 1972 Western starring Paul Newman as a semi-insane, self-appointed lawman madly in love with an actress he’s never met. That film opens with the epigraph: “…Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been,” from which this picture no doubt took much inspiration, along with an annoying ellipsis.

But notice how we never do get another real look at Sharon Tate? When she rushes outside to greet Rick, Tarantino’s camera remains deliberately at a remove, way off up high and above the house. Her voice is faint and her back to us, as if she’s there but somehow not quite fully present… because we know all too well that she really isn’t and could never be. It’s a wistful, heartbreaking acknowledgment that there’s only so much movies can do. Even a movie as miraculous as this one.•••

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 – Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw


FILM REVIEWFAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW. With Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren. Written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce. Directed by David Leitch. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong language. 135 minutes.

hobbs_and_shawA much-needed summer vacation from the long-running franchise’s increasingly overcrowded, motorhead mythology, FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW is a goofy, scaled-back spin-off (or side-quel, if you will) stranding Dwayne Johnson’s gargantuan lawman alongside Jason Statham’s snarling spy on a mission of international mayhem. It’s a mismatched buddy picture aspiring to the spirit of 1980s cable staples like “48 Hrs.” or “Tango & Cash” in which the leads spend as much time busting each other’s balls as they spend breaking bad-guys’ heads. The movie’s a little too PG-13 and way too overstuffed for its own good, but clever stunts and movie star charisma have a way of carrying the day. It’s more fun than the last two lackluster “Furious” films, and you can do a lot worse at the movies in August.

Vanessa Kirby – who plays Princess Margaret on the Netflix series “The Crown” and memorably stole her single scene in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” last summer – commits grand larceny here are as MI-6 agent Hattie Shaw, framed for the betrayal and murder of her team while on the trail of a deadly mega-virus. Johnson’s musclehead federal agent Luke Hobbs is dispatched to track her down, but since this is a “Fast & Furious” movie it also must be a family affair, and so Hattie turns out to be the kid sister of Statham’s surly, sometime-villain Deckard Shaw, who’s hellbent on bringing her home to their mum (Dame Helen Mirren, behind bars and having a ball).

Of course, the plot is just a pretext to get sworn enemies Hobbs and Shaw shouting insults at each other while snapping the necks of assorted henchmen – ramping up the animosity by having Johnson become smitten with Statham’s sister. But then filmgoers everywhere are gonna fall hard for Kirby in this. Elegantly choking out adversaries between her thighs while rolling her eyes at the monotonous macho chest-thumping of her co-stars, Hattie’s often the only adult in the room. (Also my lord, those cheekbones!) It’s a star-making turn and almost enough to make me watch “The Crown.”

They’re all pitted against Idris Elba – having a grand old time as a cybernetically engineered super-solider who can apparently control his motorcycle with his mind. He’s the enforcer for a massive doomsday cult operating out of a secret lab inside Chernobyl, but for a movie featuring such outlandish future technology “Hobbs & Shaw” works best within the realm of old-fashioned, close-quarter smackdowns. Helmer David Leitch is a former stuntman who co-directed the first “John Wick” picture, carrying over that kinetic energy to Charlize Theron’s kickass Cold War thriller “Atomic Blonde” and the surprisingly well-structured set-pieces of last year’s “Deadpool 2.”

He indulges in a couple of massive CGI meltdowns here – it is a summer blockbuster after all – but the most effective action scenes in “Hobbs & Shaw” are the artfully staged fisticuffs, as when Kirby wallops one of Johnson’s underlings with his own office furniture, or when the two title characters devise a way to surmount Elba’s superpowers by blocking his punches with their faces. The best beats are rooted in character, like when Johnson hurls himself out a window and rappels down the side of a building while Statham nonchalantly takes the elevator.

Leitch exhibits far less control over two gratuitous guest star cameos, both improvising long and vamping hard for laughs in unfunny scenes that drag on for what feels like forever. I’m also not convinced the movie really needed a trip to Samoa for Hobbs to reconcile with his estranged brother (Cliff Curtis) but screenwriter Chris Morgan has penned the past seven “Furious” films and I’m pretty sure he thinks he’s getting paid by the number of times he types the word “family.” It’s all warm and fuzzy with a good message for the kids yet what we really came to see are scenes such as The Rock attaching a tow truck to a helicopter like a fish hook and trying to reel it in.

On that front “Hobbs & Shaw” more than delivers, and I’ll concede that these sort of spin-off side-quels strike me as a shrewd way to pare down the “Fast & Furious” franchise’s oversized cast and get around the gossip that nobody wants to work with Vin Diesel anymore. If you ask me, the next one should be “Hattie and Letty,” starring Kirby and Michelle Rodriguez.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 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 – Crawl


FILM REVIEWCRAWL. With Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Morfydd Clark, Ross Anderson, Jose Palma. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Rated R for bloody creature violence and brief language. 88 minutes.

crawlThere’s a story certain members of my family love to tell about a trip to Florida for our cousin’s wedding. We were staying at a house overlooking a large lake, separated from it by an iron fence and a considerable stretch of land. While enjoying an afternoon cocktail in the swimming pool, I saw an alligator peek its head up out of the lake at least half a mile away, far beyond the fence and all that land. I immediately jumped out of the pool and ran inside the house sopping wet, screaming about how there’s a fucking alligator out there!

My personal, Captain Hook-level aversion to these scaly beasts plus an affection for modestly budgeted B-programmers probably makes me the ideal audience for CRAWL, a wickedly efficient little creature-feature from director Alexandre Aja. This trim tale of daughter and her dad trapped inside their flooding Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane with a bunch of toothy, uninvited guests is exactly the kind of lean, no-frills thriller that can feel like sweet relief during a bloated blockbuster summer. “Crawl” is the best movie of its kind since Blake Lively fought that shark.

British actress Kaya Scodalario (who I’m told is from the “Maze Runner” movies, whatever those are) stars as a college swim team washout who goes looking for her depressed dad (Barry Pepper) when he stops answering his phone during the media frenzy ramp up to yet another storm of the century. Ignoring evacuation orders, she discovers him stuck in a crawlspace under their old house with big bites out of his leg and shoulder, thanks to a surly gator who’s apparently decided to ride out the storm in their basement. Oh, and the green guy’s brought some friends.

What’s so much fun about “Crawl” is that there’s really nothing remotely resembling a safe space for our protagonists. Whenever they manage to get a moment’s respite from the alligators there’s also that pesky hurricane to contend with. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (who wrote John Carpenter’s “The Ward” and a couple other nifty scare pictures) tend to specialize in these sort of single-setting fright flicks. Here they find some sinister ways to turn the family’s house against them once the levee breaks and waves start rolling in, with precious heirlooms and mementos weaponized into fast-floating debris. (My favorite flourish charts the rising waters against pencil scribblings on a wall where Pepper marked down his children’s heights as they were growing up.)

Director Aja is a scarily talented French brutalist whose 2003 breakthrough “High Tension” remains one of the most crudely effective stupid movies I’ve ever seen. (If I’m not mistaken the surprise twist ending means the main character somehow managed to get into a car chase with herself.) Anyway, Aja will always have a place in my heart thanks to his gloriously gratuitous “Piranha 3-D,” which contains a centerpiece sequence so spectacularly sickening that a cackling college buddy described it as “like Goya, but with tits.”

There’s nothing nearly as nasty in “Crawl” but it’s got its share of bracing bites, with a shower scene that’s one for the books. Sure, maybe it takes the two of them a little too long to get out of that basement crawlspace, and the blessedly brief father-daughter therapy conversations feel like studio notes tacked on to force an emotional investment that their perilous physical situation already provides. (Just like all that junk about Blake Lively’s mom in “The Shallows.”) Still, I’d wager there’s seldom been a movie image more exquisitely Floridian than a family of yokels trying to put a stolen ATM in a rowboat.

Taking care of business in a slender 88 minutes, “Crawl” is a finely-tooled, no-nonsense, mid-summer diversion that wants nothing more than to provide a fun Friday night out at the movies. Jump a couple of times, have a few laughs and enjoy the air conditioning. Such modest pleasures should not be underestimated.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 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 – Spider-Man: Far From Home


FILM REVIEWSPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. With Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei. Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Directed by Jon Watts. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments. 129 minutes.

spiderman_far_from_homeE.D.I.T.H. is a massive satellite drone defense system that represents the latest and greatest from Stark Industries, with a characteristically snarky acronym that stands for “Even Dead I’m The Hero.” Yep, while Robert Downey Jr. may have gone off to the great expired contract in the sky, his beloved Tony Stark is nevertheless still stealing scenes and sucking all the oxygen out of the room from beyond the grave. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME – by my count the third second Spider-Man movie – is also the second live-action webslinger adventure in a row during which Peter Parker gets lost in the long shadow of his Marvel Cinematic Universe mentor. Even dead, Tony’s still all anybody ever talks about.

Which is a damn shame, as Tom Holland makes for an awfully appealing young wall-crawler, and returning director Jon Watts has once again surrounded him with a charismatic cast of awkward teens, including Peter’s portly sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon), all-business Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice), Instagram asshole Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and – best of all – Zendaya’s delightfully deadpan MJ, who’s a Gen-Z Wednesday Addams and the girl of Peter Parker’s dreams. Everything with these kids is aces, and whenever “Far From Home” chills out for long enough to be an easygoing teen comedy, you’re tantalizingly teased with how much fun these Marvel movies can be when they cool it on the overbearing mythology and apocalyptic showdowns.

“I didn’t think I had to save the world this summer,” complains Peter, who would really like to take a breather from this whole superhero business and enjoy his class trip to Europe. Alas, duty calls in the form of surly Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, receiver in hand) requiring assistance in battling a scourge of giant water and fire monsters wreaking havoc on the most tourist-friendly overseas cities. While Parker is waffling, in flies Mysterio, a roguishly handsome new superhero wearing a fishbowl on his head and a freshly ironed cape, played with musky, Shatner-ian brio by Jake Gyllenhaal.

It’s almost clever in the way Peter’s dilemma matches our own – we would also much rather just enjoy the field trip and his funny friends, rather than endure another round of weightless CGI setpieces of mass destruction. “Far From Home” is stuck cleaning up after the cataclysmic, world-changing events of “Avengers: Endgame,” amusingly putting the most laborious exposition in the mouths of blase teenagers who got over it all already. (Rice has a very funny moment in which Betty’s steamed that she and other kids who were resurrected in the last film had to start their entire school year over from scratch, even though they’d already taken their midterms when Thanos snapped them into dust.)

But the logistical issues inherent in three billion people suddenly coming back from the dead are glossed over in favor of more hysterical mourning for Tony Stark, whose smarmy visage appears on murals everywhere Peter goes, as well as in an amusingly cheeseball tribute video created by his classmates. (I didn’t keep count but wouldn’t be surprised at all if the words “Tony Stark” were uttered more than “Peter Parker” in this film.) Much in the way 2017’s “Homecoming” diminished Spidey’s story into a feature-length audition for The Avengers, this time around everyone keeps asking if he’s going to be “the next Iron Man” – a question the movie answers depressingly in the affirmative.

Without getting into too many spoilers, let’s just say that by the final act Peter has inherited not just Tony’s tech but also his sidekick Happy (Jon Favreau) and several of Stark’s arch-enemies, doing battle with a swarm of deadly drones in a machine-gun-crazy action sequence indistinguishable from the cluttered climax of any “Iron Man” movie. (Spider-Man’s web-shooters don’t even work.) I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to see if Peter finally got up the nerve to ask MJ out on a date.

Sam Raimi’s swoony “Spider-Man 2” and last year’s astonishing animated “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” are probably the two best superhero movies of the modern era. What they understood about the character that these MCU movies miss is that we love Spider-Man as an overwhelmed underdog. He’s broke, with a threadbare costume relying on his wits, always late for school and trying to finish his homework when he’s not out fighting crime. He’s your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man, not the jet-setting ward of an asshole billionaire with all the high-tech toys in the world at his sticky fingertips.

There’s an in-jokey monologue during which the film’s not-so-secret villain complains about having to come up with ever more elaborate “Avengers-level threats” to keep wowing an increasingly jaded populace that’s seen it all over these past 23 films. But what the MCU doesn’t realize is that all their toppling towers and giants made of fire are deathly dull compared to the thrill of two kids sneaking past the chaperones to go out on their first date. There’s an incredibly charming high school romance in “Far From Home,” but it’s buried under “Iron Man 4.”•••

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 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.