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 – 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.

 

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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.

Review – Anna


FILM REVIEWANNA. With Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexual content. 119 minutes.

anna_ver2Betcha didn’t know that a Luc Besson movie opened this past weekend. ANNA, the writer-director’s sleek new espionage thriller starring Russian supermodel Sasha Luss was quietly slipped into 2,220 theaters by distributor Lionsgate without any of the usual advance screenings or publicity outreach, presumably due to allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against the director by nine women in a French publication last fall. One assumes this stealth release is a matter of the studio fulfilling contractual obligations without opening itself up to the kind of legal difficulties that have ensnared Amazon’s film division following their recent shelving of Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York.” Or it could just be a matter of not wanting to throw good money after bad, as the movie is merely mediocre.

Even before the accusations, Besson was already back on his heels. His EuropaCorp production company filed for bankruptcy protection after the catastrophic box office failure of Besson’s enormously expensive (and to this critic quite dazzling) “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” So it’s no surprise that “Anna” feels very much like a deliberate re-entrenchment for the filmmaker, eschewing his gonzo science-fiction flourishes and getting back to the kind of sexy, ultra-violent Eurotrash thrillers that made Besson an international sensation thirty years ago. Call it “La Femme Anna,” or “Nikita, Redux.”

“Anna” begins in 1990, halcyon days for the director and two years before his latest leading lady was born. Luss plays an international fashion model moonlighting as an assassin for the KGB. Her jet-setting career provides excellent cover and access for a globe-trotting contract killer, along with ample opportunity for Besson to indulge his lifelong penchant for photographing beautiful women in their underwear. (Those recent reports regarding the director’s behavior cast an icky shadow over the film’s cheerfully prurient proceedings.)

The byzantine story finds Anna struggling to free herself from the clutches of hunky KGB handler (Luke Evans) and a slick CIA agent (Cillian Murphy) who are happily taking advantage of her both in the field and in the bedroom. Besson gooses up his plodding plot with a startling, time-jumping structure. Left-field, shockaroo twists pop up out of nowhere and then the movie skips back a few weeks, months or sometimes years to fill us in on the events leading up to whatever the hell just happened. It’s a kick the first two or three times he pulls it off, but by the last couple reveals I wanted him to learn a new trick.

But “Anna” is quite deliberately not a movie about new tricks, rather a wallow through the director’s familiar fetishes. This means lots of long tracking shots in which our long-limbed ingenue struts through opulent hotel hallways packing pistols, plus some spectacular action set-pieces filmed with the high gloss of fashion photography. A mid-film montage featuring at least a dozen of Anna’s assassinations set to INXS’s “Need You Tonight” is everything you came to the movie for in a marvelous miniature. (I can’t wait for it to wind up on YouTube.)

In her first substantial role, Sasha Luss acquits herself quite admirably and proves a fine successor to Besson’s model-actress leading ladies like Anne Parillaud, Milla Jovovich, and Cara Delevingne. It’s not her fault that the film feels flabby and occasionally exhausted. Over the past couple of years “Atomic Blonde” and especially the spectacularly sleazy “Red Sparrow” have mined familiar territory with a good deal more wit and invention. Cillian Murphy’s loutish CIA agent pales in comparison to a similar Langley scumbag played with way more hambone brio by Guy Pearce in Brian De Palma’s recent “Domino.”

It’s almost hilarious how little interest Besson has in period detail, with these Cold War characters fighting over laptops and USB drives, anachronistically chatting on clamshell cell phones while modern cars drive through the background. But even the director’s indifference can’t put a damper on the great Helen Mirren, who seethes and steals scenes left and right as a put-upon KGB second-in-command. Barely recognizable beneath a frumpy wig and black-rimmed Coke-bottle classes, she mutters about “zees,” “zat” and generally does a delightful impression of what might happen if Fran Lebowitz ever guest starred on “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”•••

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.

Review – Shaft (Sean’s Take)


FILM REVIEWSHAFT. With Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp. Written by Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow. Directed by Tim Story. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. 113 minutes.

shaftHow could they do this to John Shaft? One of the coolest characters in movie history — the cat who won’t cop-out when there’s danger all about — is now a reactionary old crank pissing and moaning about those damn millennials and their coconut water. Gordon Parks’ 1971 original may have been no great shakes as a detective story, but the movie electrified audiences thanks to Richard Rountree’s effortless elegance and the revolutionary jolt of a major studio action picture in which a sexy, funny African-American lead was calmly in command of every situation.

Reconceived as a bickering family sitcom by “Black-ish” writer Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow of “The Goldbergs,” director Tim Story’s excruciatingly unfunny SHAFT features Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role as John Shaft’s namesake nephew from the late John Singleton’s gratuitously unpleasant 2000 sort-of sequel to Parks’ film, also confusingly called “Shaft.” (Pretty sure this is the first time three movies in a franchise have all shared the same title, which strikes me as especially lazy considering how Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s series of Shaft novels had amazing names like, “Shaft’s Carnival of Killers,” “Shaft Has a Ball,” and most intriguingly, “Shaft Among the Jews.”)

Shaft’s a deadbeat dad this time, still working as a private investigator in Harlem when his estranged son J.J. (Jessie Usher) comes to him with a case regarding a boyhood friend who overdosed under mysterious circumstances. Polite young J.J. works as a data analyst for the FBI, shops at The Gap, and generally comes off like a gentle, decent kid. This is a source of no small horror to Jackson’s Shaft, a macho blowhard who barrels around in a muscle car shouting, swearing and constantly accusing his son of being a homosexual because he knows how to use computers, treats women with respect, and doesn’t love guns. “Your mama done fucked you up,” is an oft-repeated refrain in this movie where any sign of femininity is coded as weakness, the word “pussy” flung around ad infinitum as an all-purpose epithet.

Generational clashes can be the stuff of great comedy, but “Shaft” is like watching an episode of “All in the Family” in which Archie Bunker’s always right. The movie doesn’t just endorse the elder Shaft’s backwards worldview, it valorizes it – with J.J. heroically ditching his millennial manners and learning how to cuss, whup-ass, and push people around. This neutered little wimp is finally seen as a real man by his childhood crush (Alexandra Shipp) only after he shoots up a nightclub – a sequence viewed through her eyes in comedically erotic slow-motion to the tune of “Be My Baby” as bullet casings ejaculate from his borrowed pistol.

Samuel L. Jackson is one of my favorite working actors, but he’s always been all wrong for Shaft. As in Singleton’s picture, he’s strenuously flexing and preening in trenchcoats and turtlenecks with his eyes bugged out, angrily shouting everybody down. Part of what made Roundtree so cool was that he never seemed to exert himself, while Jackson is exhausting to watch. Plus, there’s nothing carnal about his presence. As I noted in my Philadelphia Weekly review of the 2000 movie, “he’s too busy being pissed off all the time to show much interest in sex, which seems an inappropriate choice for a character named after part of a penis.”

(As in Singleton’s film, Roundtree shows up for a too-brief cameo that puts the rest of the picture to shame. Mystifyingly, he’s now playing Jackson’s dad and we’re told that he was only pretending to be his uncle in the last movie for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, it’s a rare pleasure to be in Roundtree’s company again and I tacked an extra half-star onto this review just for his offhanded delivery of the line, “Oh hell no, I shot him.”)

But even if “Shaft” weren’t so retrograde and obnoxious it would still look like garbage. Director Tim Story previously helmed the “Ride Along” pictures, which I guess goes to show that you can keep making the same movie in which gun-toting tough guys drive around loudly calling their co-stars “pussies” over and over again without necessarily getting any better at it. The indifferently staged action sequences all suffer from the same flat television comedy lighting, and the glaringly obvious Atlanta locations won’t fool anyone no matter how many times these characters keep claiming they’re in New York. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to let Isaac Hayes’ immortal theme song play out in its entirety.

What’s depressing about “Shaft” is that a film so progressive half-a-century ago has been revived as an ass-backwards celebration of boorish, boomer intransigence. Every generation likes to think they’re so much tougher than the ones that follow, but only the laziest of comics congratulate their audiences for feeling likewise. A lot of the so-called jokes in this new “Shaft” – particularly some ugly, left-field jabs at trans folks – would feel at home on an episode of Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing.” If this movie spent any more time bitching about millennials, I’d assume it was written by Bret Easton Ellis.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in 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 – Best. Movie. Year. Ever.


BOOK REVIEWBEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. Written by Brian Raftery. Published by Simon & Schuster. 387 pages.

814hgnm33clI got my first job as a professional film critic in April of 1999, working as a second-stringer for the Philadelphia Weekly. This was a long time ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away, back in the days of dial-up modems when alt-weeklies paid handsomely for arts coverage and movies were the central, driving force of American popular culture. Network television was where washed-up film stars went when nobody paid to see them in theaters anymore and cable was for looking at boobs. It was the movies that mattered, and by gawd there were a bunch of great ones in 1999. So many, in fact, that someone wrote a book about them all.

Brian Raftery’s BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. casts a wide net across a wild year of cinema offerings, making a compelling case for 1999 to be celebrated alongside film buff favorites such as 1939, 1955 and pretty much the whole first half of the 1970s. The list of titles covered herein is an embarrassment of riches: “Election,” “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “Three Kings,” “The Limey,” “Office Space,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Galaxy Quest,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Run Lola Run,” “The Insider,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Magnolia.” (As if all those weren’t enough, he also cheats a little by including “Rushmore” and “The Virgin Suicides,” released in 1998 and 2000, respectively.)

It’s wildly diverse slate of films that on the surface would seem to have little in common, but running through them all is a certain recklessness – a willingness to challenge audience expectations in ways that are unthinkable today at the studio level. Working from interviews both contemporaneous and recent, Raftery rattles off the stories of how these distinctive visions found their way into multiplexes in a bunch of punchy, largely self-contained chapters that read like the surprisingly meaty behind-the-scenes coverage you used to find in Premiere Magazine or Entertainment Weekly back in the ‘90s.

It’s a lot of fun, even if it feels more a collection of articles than an actual “book” book. The most interesting passages for me found Raftery trying to tease out the overlapping themes in disparate pictures, a la the underlying semi-apocalyptic cubicle drone revenge fantasies of “Office Space,” “American Beauty,” “The Matrix” and “Fight Club.” There was something in the air back in 1999, a heady mix of millennium paranoia and Gen X disaffection agitating we folks that Brad Pitt’s “Fight Club” bad boy Tyler Durden called “the middle children of history.” (It’s scarily worth noting that twenty years later those last two pictures have become key texts for the online alt-right, which means we’re now entering our third decade of people who really love “Fight Club” not understanding that “Fight Club” is making fun of them.)

“Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” stretches itself too thin when trying to cover a brief and largely unfortunate teen movie boom, as well the rise of internet fan sites like Ain’t It Cool News and subsequent ripple effects on the industry that could probably fill a volume of their own. The macro-focus is wobbly, probably because Raftery’s dealing with too many damn movies from too many different distribution models. He’s much better with the granular reporting than big-picture analysis. Still, you read the book wistfully, marveling that there was so recently a time when Disney would give Michael Mann a massive budget to make an almost three-hour, R-rated movie comprised mainly of men over fifty delivering depositions and arguing over journalistic ethics.

An unfortunate side-effect of a gold-rush year like 1999 was a fixation on the shiny and new, and I do recall bristling back then at my colleagues rushing to prematurely coronate the likes of Sam Mendes, Alexander Payne and David O. Russell at the expense of veteran filmmakers. In a year when everyone trashed the final Stanley Kubrick picture, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s flawed yet deeply felt “Bringing Out the Dead” was crudely dismissed, David Cronenberg’s outstanding “eXistenZ” passed without notice and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” was largely laughed off. Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” barely gets a mention from Raftery, its glamour and Old Hollywood craftmanship somehow suspect despite the film being far more subversive in matters of class and sexuality than a lot of allegedly edgier titles lauded here. (The book also ignores the punchline that twenty years later Mendes, Russell and Payne are now making almost exactly the kind of banal dreck they were celebrated for rebelling against.)

Naturally, in a year of such radical, exciting motion picture achievements the Academy Awards went out of their way to fawn over exhausted, already-forgotten treacle like “The Green Mile” and “The Cider House Rules.” The big prize went to “American Beauty,” a picture Raftery likes a good deal more than I — citing its dirty-old-man fixations and the suburban Nazi next door as somehow revelatory when really they’re just the same fatuous provocations with which filmmakers like Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute had spent the previous few years annoying arthouse audiences, only gussied up with some slick cinematography, Hollywood stars and a chickenshit third act full of finger-wagging moralism. Of course it won Best Picture.

“You go down that list of movies and go, ‘Okay, which of these made money?’” quips David Fincher, who never tires of reminding us that his “Fight Club” was a massive box office flop that got most of the folks involved fired from 20th Century Fox. (Now a revered cult classic, the movie was so poorly reviewed upon initial release that they had to use a quote from a nobody like me on the DVD box.) Indeed, the vast majority of pictures chronicled in “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” were stiffs at the ticket counter, and as much as we might enjoy Raftery’s look back at the classics the sad truth is there were two 1999 films that proved far more influential.

“Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” and “Toy Story 2” were the #1 and #3 films at the box office that year, setting the blockbuster template for a form of contemporary franchise filmmaking that relies on familiar branded content and beloved intellectual property over the capricious whims of movie stars and creative types. Of 1999’s twenty top-grossing films only three were sequels, as opposed to fourteen last year.

In fact, you can look forward to new “Star Wars” and “Toy Story” installments rolling out over the next few months, and they’ll probably still be making more of them twenty years from now, when I doubt anyone will be inspired to write a book like this about the films of 2019.•••

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 – The Man Who Killed Don Quixote


FILM REVIEWTHE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. With Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard, Joana Ribeiro, Olga Kurylenko. Written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Unrated, but contains violence, profanity and sexual situations. 132 minutes.

quixote“It is accomplished,” sighed Jesus on the Cross, and presumably so did Terry Gilliam at last summer’s Cannes Film Festival, when after 25 years of false starts and heartbreak, his THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE at long last saw the light of a projector. Notorious as the most cursed film of all time, this loosey-goosey modernization of Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel has been begun by Gilliam some seven times over the past two-and-a-half decades, with one attempt going down in such spectacular flames they even made a movie about the movie that couldn’t get made (2002’s agonizing behind-the-scenes documentary, “Lost in La Mancha.”)

Arriving with a touching dedication to not one but two actors originally cast as Quixote who died before the project could see coampletion – Jean Rochefort and John Hurt – the film bears the heavy weight of its tumultuous production history, veiled references to which slyly pepper the screenplay for insider amusement. If you squint it is indeed possible to imagine a sleeker, better-funded version of this tale showing up shortly after “The Fisher King” in the ‘90s, continuing that hit film’s M.O. of yuppie scum redeemed through medieval fantasy.

Of course things didn’t quite work out that way, and now “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” arrives on the heels of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” in a sudden excavation of cinematic holy grails so swift and staggering I expect the missing reels from “The Magnificent Ambersons” and that Jerry Lewis Holocaust clown movie to be dropping on Netflix any day now. So, after a quarter-century of legendary disaster and feverish anticipation “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is finally here and it’s… okay, I guess.

Adam Driver stars as Toby, a sleazy, skirt-chasing commercial director shooting a Quixote-themed ad for a Russian vodka company on location somewhere in the Spanish countryside. He’s busy sneaking around with the sexed-up wife (Olga Kurylenko) of his dirtbag boss (Stellan Skarsgard) when a mysterious gypsy shows up with a DVD of Toby’s student film – an artsy, black-and-white adaptation of Don Quixote filmed a decade ago in the nearby peasant town of Sueños (the Spanish word for dreams. I see what you did there, Terry.)

Misty with nostalgia, Toby borrows a motorcycle and returns to Suenos, only to discover that his production ruined the lives of pretty much every villager involved. With shades of Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie,” we see that the gentle cobbler he once cast as Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has spent the last ten years in character, believing himself to actually be the Knight of the Doleful Countenance and mistaking Toby for his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Even worse, the sweet virginal teen (Joana Ribero) our budding auteur coaxed in front of his camera ran off to make it in the movies and ended up as an escort – now an abused plaything for a billionaire Russian oligarch (Jordi Molla) who just so happens to own the vodka company Toby’s working for.

It’s easy to see where this is going, our knight errant getting Toby back in touch with the better angels of his nature by rescuing the damsel and titling at the windmills of late capitalist thuggery. What’s harder to grok is how it gets there – the movie lurches semi-coherently from one tonally conflicting set-piece to another, with story elements that erupt out of nowhere and are discarded just as quickly. (What was with that fire? And how about those dead cops?) The course of narrative in Terry Gilliam films never did run smooth but “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is an especially erratic affair, one that deliberately avoids offering much delineation between the movie’s dream sequences and its highly permeable reality.

This approach leads to several scenes of startling beauty and a fair amount of perplexed annoyance. Driver heroically holds it all together with his exasperated reactions, flinging those long limbs around akimbo while finding continually inventive ways to fall down in the dirt. (He also frantically impersonates Eddie Cantor, for reasons that escape me.) There’s still no director as manic as Gilliam when it comes time for some chaotically cluttered, wide-angle obnoxiousness, and while “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” might find his gifts somewhat diminished, they’re still very much in evidence.

And hey, the movie finally got made. That’s a miracle in and of itself.•••

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.

Review – Mary Magdalene


FILM REVIEWMARY MAGDALENE. With Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Tcheky Karyo. Written by Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett. Directed by Garth Davis. Rated R for some bloody and disturbing images. 120 minutes.

mary_magdaleneThey say it was Pope Gregory back in the year 591 who first got it wrong, apparently mixing up some of the Marys in a couple of Gospels and decreeing that Jesus’ apostle Magdalene, so famously and frequently pictured at the foot of the cross, was in fact a fallen woman. Oops. Now granted, without his misinterpretation we never would have gotten Barbara Hershey in “The Last Temptation of Christ” or all those great Yvonne Elliman songs in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but baselessly being called a whore for over 1,400 years and having a string of human rights-abusing laundry sweatshops named after you has still gotta sting a little bit. In characteristically speedy fashion, the Vatican finally got around to setting the record straight in 2016.

So that’s the impetus for MARY MAGDALENE, an exceptionally tedious new film intending to rehabilitate the reputation of its namesake with the help of movie star Rooney Mara in the title role and a Jesus of Nazareth played by her real-life boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. The picture tries to put a feminist bent on the Greatest Story Ever Told, and when all is said and done the only sin Mary Magdalene could possibly be accused of now is being unbelievably boring.

Shot in 2016 only to be shelved when The Weinstein Company collapsed, the film was released in Europe last year and is finally headed to VOD here on Good Friday, presumably to stir up sales from any Christian audiences who won’t be put off by what strikes this critic as an undeserved R rating. (Okay, the crucifixion gets a bit bloody, but this is hardly a Mel Gibson fetish film.)

As reimagined by screenwriters Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett, Mary of Magdala was the first feminist – but not a scary or strident feminist, just a safe, calmly self-assured one like you see in Disney cartoons these days — refusing to submit to the marriage her family arranged for her and bringing scandal upon them all by going out alone at night to pray. With her porcelain features and unblinking stare, Rooney Mara possesses an opaque quality that in the hands of the right filmmakers can conjure a captivating aura of mystery. Or she can just be dull.

Director Garth Davis goes for the latter here, eliciting a performance as drab as the movie’s barren landscapes, threadbare costumes and undressed sets. It’s a flat-lined, flat-looking picture. Nobody shows much of a personality until Jesus comes along, and that dude just seems like he’s out of his damn mind.

I must admit I’d assumed I was long past the age of seeing a movie Jesus played by someone older than me, but casting a beefy, middle-aged guy with grey in his beard is what folks might generously call “a choice.” Joaquin Phoenix is certainly one of the most exciting actors working today, but all that twitchy, restless abandon that makes him so riveting to watch in films like “The Master” or “You Were Never Really Here” ain’t exactly beatific. His bug-eyed Jesus basically runs around shouting at people like a crazy person on the subway.

“Mary Magdalene” is a curiously enervated movie, sleepwalking through the stations of the cross with the same let’s-get-this-over-with-already” energy that reminded me of going to Mass on one of those hot, hungover Sunday mornings when not even the priest can feign interest in being there. Mary’s new place in the proceedings hasn’t been thought through very thoroughly, so she’s left kinda just standing around on the sidelines for a lot of the big scenes.

Not even Chiwetel Ejiofor can do anything with the barely-written role of Peter. But the one performance in the film I did quite enjoy was from Tahir Rahim, the Algerian actor who made such an impression in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and played FBI agent Ali Soufan in the excellent TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower.” He plays Judas Iscariot as an overly excitable young activist who misreads the room, betraying his rabbi as a political ploy that backfires badly. It’s the one interesting angle in a movie that’s otherwise inert.

Save for a weirdly hot baptism scene in which Phoenix and Mara inexplicably end up eye-fucking the entire time, there’s otherwise none of the yearning or sexual frissons that defined previous movie relationships between Jesus and Magdalene. Mara’s Mary is never in any danger of singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but another of Elliman’s songs from “Superstar” came to mind more than once: “Could We Start Again, Please?”•••

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