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Review – Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

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FILM REVIEWNORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Rated R for some language. 118 minutes.

norman_the_moderate_rise_and_tragic_fall_of_a_new_york_fixerIt takes a lot less time than you’d probably expect to adjust to seeing Richard Gere playing a noodge. The suave, silver-maned matinee idol has been stretching his wings in offbeat projects as of late, whether as a homeless alcoholic in Oren Moverman’s excellent “Time Out of Mind” or here as the title motormouth in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Rumor has it that Gere’s gone indie these days because his outspoken activism on behalf of Tibet has made him unemployable in a new Hollywood hungry for Chinese box office. Or it could be just because independent films are where all the good roles are for actors his age. Norman is a great one.

He paces the streets of New York City all day on his iPhone, babbling into earbuds while trying to make one convoluted deal after another, most which seem to involve introducing people to each other. The self-proclaimed CEO of Oppenheimer Industries, Norman doesn’t appear to have an office but he does have a lot of moxie. He natters, he cajoles and he eventually badgers his way into situations and invitations far above his station. Norman’s a small-timer with dreams of being a big deal. His only skill seems to be making people feel important, but in the rarefied world he orbits sometimes that can be enough.

It is in the case of Micha Eshel, an up-and-coming Israeli politician Norman barnacles onto in the opening scenes. Played by Lior Ashkenazi, he’s charmed by the old coot’s insistent chatter and lets his guard down long enough to accept a gift he really shouldn’t. Three years later Micha becomes Israel’s new Prime Minister and Norman finds himself finally allowed behind those metaphorical velvet ropes, free to jibber-jabber up and down the corridors of power. Of course, he blows it almost instantly by running that big mouth of his.

The second hour of “Norman” keeps the camera locked firmly on Gere as he sinks into a puddle of quicksand almost entirely of his own creation. There’s a plum supporting part for Charlotte Gainsbourg as a steely Israeli intelligence agent, and Michael Sheen is oddly convincing as Norman’s nebbishy nephew. By the time Steve Buscemi shows up as a disappointed rabbi you might be wondering if the almost all-Gentile cast in this extremely Jewish story is some kind of running joke, but the actors all pull it off so Mazel Tov, I guess.

“Norman” is mostly a one-man-show anyway, and we watch with morbid fascination as Gere talks up, down, around and in circles trying to stave off the inevitable. It’s a bravura turn, made even more impressive when realizing his Woody Allen mannerisms should by all rights seem silly coming from such a handsome goy. Gere––always a much better actor than he’s been given credit for––sells us on Norman’s desperation, on his aching need to be “somebody.”

Director Cedar pins him into tight close-ups that at times become visually monotonous, even when the performance dazzles. “Norman” flirts with redundancy as the title character circles the drain. (A few judicious trims to the third act would go a long way.) But when all is said and done––and believe me, an awful lot is said––the film remains a rare look inside a moneyed Manhattan subculture seldom seen at the movies. After meeting Norman Oppenheimer, you’re not likely to forget him anytime soon.•••

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 – Their Finest

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FILM REVIEW
THEIR FINEST
. With Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant. Written by Gaby Chiappe. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. 117 minutes.

marquee-mobile_1492559833As sure-footed and satisfying an entertainment as I’ve seen so far this year, THEIR FINEST is a backstage screwball romance set during the London Blitz that balances ensemble comedy and wartime tragedy with sturdy, old-fashioned aplomb. It’s the kind of movie you can point to when people say they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half” (a much better title), the film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a copywriter conscripted by the War Department to write convincing female dialogue for their propaganda films. The fact that these guys refer to actresses’ lines as “the slop” might explain why they’re having such a rough go at it, but that’s just one example of the casual sexism Mrs. Cole encounters every day at the office. “You’ll be uncredited,” huffs an ever-officious Richard E. Grant, “and of course we’ll have to pay you less than the chaps.”

Mrs. Cole almost immediately butts heads with Mr. Buckley (Sam Claflin), a snooty scenarist whose condescension is even tougher to take because he happens to be right most of the time. The two are tasked with penning a big screen adaptation of an “optimistic and inspiring” news item about a couple of young country gals who stole their father’s fishing boat to go rescue some soldiers at Dunkirk. It turns out to all be a crock of baloney, but then nobody in the picture business has ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Before long “The Nancy Starling” is headed into production––in glorious Technicolor, no less––with a few “optimistic and inspiring” embellishments.

One of which is a fictional uncle for the girls–a boozy old coot finding redemption by aiding them in their mission. It’s a plum role for faded matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard, played here with sublime self-absorption by the great Bill Nighy. Hilliard’s monolithic egotism can only occasionally cloud the realization that his stalled-out career is on the upswing lately just because all the younger actors are off fighting in the war. Nighy’s droll pokerface betrays an at times ineffable sadness–he’s an arsehole with hidden depths.

The other big addition to the cast is an actual American flying ace played by Jake Lacy, written in at the request of the War Department as an attempt to politely nudge the Yanks along into joining the battle. Problem is that nobody ever screen-tested the lantern-jawed hunk, and Lacy’s hysterically mangled line readings raise the bar for depictions of bad acting in the movies. I could honestly watch an entire spin-off sequel just of Nighy’s flustered Hilliard trying to tutor the handsome lummox on this fictional set.

Because they enjoy sniping at each other so much, we as trained moviegoers know it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Cole and Mr. Buckley will begrudgingly fall into one another’s arms. Indeed, some tiresome business with her inattentive husband (Jack Huston) provides the movie’s most predictable dramatic detours. “Their Finest” works much better as a workplace romantic comedy, albeit one where WWII casts a long shadow, disaster always just an air-raid siren away. It’s a very funny movie but it also understands how the world can be a terribly sad and unfair place, especially during this particular moment in history.

I’ve never been much for movies about “the magic of the movies,” whether we’re talking “The Artist” or “La La Land” I have little patience for Hollywood’s love affair with itself. And yet in this film the eventual unveiling of “The Nancy Starling”––complete with note-perfect Technicolor mimicry and magnificently dated special effects––captures a rather wondrous communal feeling. The audience, exhausted by the ravages of this damned war, joins together to laugh and cry at an admittedly cheesy melodrama in a great big group catharsis. It’s a marvelous argument for what movies can do. Optimistic and inspiring, even.•••

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 – The Circle

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FILM REVIEWTHE CIRCLE. With Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Bill Paxton. Written by Dave Eggers and James Ponsoldt. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. 110 minutes.

the-circle-2017One of the more enjoyable movies nobody saw last year was “A Hologram for the King,” director Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of a Dave Eggers book that starred Tom Hanks as an over-the-hill salesman struggling to hang on to a demeaning new job at an upstart tech company. The film wasn’t so much released as it was taken out back behind the barn and shot, which is a shame because it had a lot of odd, charming idiosyncrasies and moments of real truth, most of them found in Hanks’s quietly soulful performance. (I think we take him for granted because he always makes everything look so easy.)

Another April, another Dave Eggers adaptation with Tom Hanks as a guy at a tech company that’s being quarantined like the measles by its distributor. (This one wasn’t even screened in advance for critics, almost unprecedented for a film with such a distinguished pedigree.) A big difference is that this time, instead of a starring as a workaday schlub, Hanks has a supporting role as the Steve Jobs-like founder of a Google-ish monolith with utopian dreams of a surveillance state.

An even bigger difference is that THE CIRCLE is a terrible, terrible movie.

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, an idealistic post-grad overjoyed to get a job in “Customer Experience” on the title company’s massive Bay Area campus. It’s a workaholic cult of shiny, happy millennials speaking almost exclusively in marketing buzzwords, and right away we can tell something’s amiss. Hanks has a grand old time playing up the sinister side of his avuncular persona–the performance has the insinuating edge he seemed to be trying to smuggle into his work as Walt Disney in that neutered Mousechwitz propaganda film, “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Director James Ponsoldt specializes in earnestly plodding indie dramas like “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now.” There’s nothing in his stylistic arsenal to suit the surreal requirements of Eggers’ story, which is sort of a panicky, Luddite “Invasion of the Facebook Friend Snatchers.” Mae undergoes at least two or three massive personality shifts that make no sense whatsoever, a characterization as wobbly as Watson’s American accent. The plotting takes bizarre detours almost into the realm of science-fiction, but Ponsoldt insists on shooting it all with the granola aesthetic of a Sundance also-ran about a family farm. He’s an astonishingly wrong choice for this material, which is already pretty thin soup to begin with.

No points for guessing that Hanks’ privacy-obliterating ideals aren’t all that altruistic. But what may surprise you is what a poor case the movie makes against 24/7 surveillance as a fact of life, with no real ideas behind its portentous, already dated statements about The Way We Live Now. Eggers’ book was released in 2013 but the film feels like it was made at least fifteen years before that. (Mae’s allegedly culture-defining decision to webcast every banal detail of her life suggests Eggers never spent much time surfing camgirl sites.) As far as clueless alarmism goes, the “The Circle” will make a great double feature with Sandra Bullock’s 1995 camp classic “The Net.”

Obviously a troubled production, the movie is riddled with strange logic leaps and chucks of post-dubbed dialogue played off the back of the speaker’s heads. Uncomfortably awkward performances by “Boyhood’s” Ellar Coltrane and former Stormtrooper John Boyega are more cut-around than edited. Danny Elfman’s incongruous action movie score blares over conference room conversations as if they were Spider-Man rescuing a subway car.

The movie’s one great moment finds Hanks surveying the situation, putting a big fake smile and taking a sip off coffee as he mutters, “We are so fucked.” He must have just seen the dailies.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 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 – The Fate Of The Furious

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FILM REVIEWTHE FATE OF THE FURIOUS. With Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron. Written by Chris Morgan. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language. 136 minutes.

forsazh_8_74b7b492b17364dd2fbd8f2a68504a3dThey probably should have called it a day last time around, when the clumsy, jerry-rigged “Furious 7” went out on a semi-incoherent, affectingly melancholic note after trying to cobble a movie together from footage co-star Paul Walker filmed before his tragic death under circumstances the picture did not exactly make it easy to forget.

It was a heartfelt, albeit kinda lousy capper to a franchise that had gotten awfully lucky in the third installment with the arrivals of director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan–who took a bargain basement “Point Break” knock-off and spun it out for the next four films into a sprawling, insanely crowded, time-jumping action melodrama modeled on Hong Kong’s euphorically pulpy Golden Harvest films of the late 1980s. I’ll maintain that “Fast Five” –the series’ zippy zenith that snuck up on everyone back in 2011–is still the best John Woo movie John Woo never made.

Alas, director Lin left to go make “Star Trek” flicks a couple sequels ago. And while “Friday” and “Straight Outta Compton” helmer F. Gary Gray doesn’t do a half-bad job here, he also can’t conjure Lin’s ardent, goofball sincerity. You’re always aware THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS is a mercenary product that has no real reason for being except to make more money and more “Furious” movies, collecting characters and co-stars like a lint-roller while putting them into increasingly absurd and strangely weightless vehicular cataclysms.

This time, Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto–the family values-minded patriarch of our expansive, outlaw clan–is blackmailed into becoming a villain by the fearsome, anarchist hacker Cipher, an aptly named, shockingly boring white chick with dreads played by the insanely overqualified Charlize Theron. If the idea of Furiosa taking on the Furious is enticing to you, forget about it. This most intensely physical of actresses gets stuck behind a keyboard for the entire picture, barking orders and typing adamantly. How does anyone watch “Fury Road” and then not let her drive?

Dom turns heel and absconds with a super-scary electro-magnetic pulse device, leaving Kurt Russell’s smooth-talking CIA fixer to get the band back together and try to take him down. I so appreciate the way Russell approaches this performance, as if tickled pink by the absurdity of the exposition his character exists only to deliver. He demands that Jason Statham’s bad guy from the previous picture become part of the crew, and our gang doesn’t take long warming up to the dude who cold-bloodedly murdered their beloved little Korean buddy last movie, which is kinda weird.

“It’s shit but I didn’t-not enjoy it,” a colleague said to me about this film the other night, which is perhaps the best way to explain its bloated, Roger Moore-era 007 charms. Every time I was exasperated by “The Fate of the Furious” and about to give up on it, something odd and wonderful happened -–whether that be the splendid sight of Dwayne Johnson coaching his kid daughter’s soccer team, or Jason Statham cementing the series’ John Woo bona fides by re-enacting everybody’s favorite scene from “Hard Boiled.” Helen Mirren has a cameo so delightful I’m still smirking just thinking about it, and ditto for the sight of Tyrese attempting to drive an orange Lamborghini while spinning out across the frozen Russian tundra.

It does have the lugubrious, nothing-matters quality of those eighties Bond films, though. So for all the wit of the remote-controlled “zombie cars” sequence that takes Manhattan but looks as if it were filmed anywhere else, there’s still some business with a submarine that goes on for so long you’ll laugh remembering they said they were only going a mile, and then try to do the math in your head. Gray also succumbs to some big tonal miscalculations. A series regular is callously executed in a scene that throws off the goofball charm, a moment far too unpleasant for a picture this silly.

But Johnson, perhaps trying to make up for what amounted to merely a glorified cameo in “Furious 7” works overtime here, selling the hell out of his terribly hokey one-liners with such gusto it almost feels like he’s kidding but not quite and that’s what makes him The Rock. Scott Eastwood is a lot of fun as a mealy-mouthed government toady, so between this picture and “Snowden” I’m amused that the kid is carving out a career playing the kind of uptight pencil-pushers his dad used to punch out at the end of every one of his 80s movies.

As for Diesel, it is an act of enormous bravery for a man of his age and thickening build to wear white jeans in a major motion picture. Bless him for that, at least.•••

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.

Review – Ghost In The Shell

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FILM REVIEW
GHOST IN THE SHELL
. With Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano. Written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images. 107 mins.

ghost_in_the_shell_ver5_xlgAn eye-popping technical wonderment without much going on underneath the hood, GHOST IN THE SHELL is a $110-million Hollywood reworking of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 anime, and eventually becomes something of a metaphor for itself. The searching, philosophical qualities of the original picture (and presumably the manga by Masamune Shirow upon which it was based) have been tossed aside in favor of bold-stroke, blockbuster battles between good and evil, less concerned with what it means to be human than with showing Friday night audiences a grand old time. As far as dumb action movies go, this is a great-looking one, but it should have been so much more.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, a special-ops cyborg fond of flesh-colored jumpsuits and leaping through skyscraper windows with pistols ablaze. She and the gang from covert Section 9 protect an unnamed, bustling future metropolis from cyber-terrorists, occasionally pausing to get touch-ups on their personal robotic enhancements from a warmly maternal doctor played by (of all people) Juliette Binoche. But when a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) begins picking off corporate honchos that hold the patents on our Major’s super-skeleton, the plot, as they say, thickens.

Oshii’s sometimes tediously chatty original film was fixated on questions of the singularity and the soul, with the Major struggling to assert her humanity despite being a disembodied consciousness inside a machine. It’s the kind of role that almost feels like typecasting for Scarlett Johansson when you consider the post-human trilogy of “Her,” “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” from a few years back. As a performer, Johansson is capable of a steely, magnetic reserve that’s both empathetic and otherworldly. She can also fight like hell in a catsuit.

Johansson isn’t as revelatory as she was in those other pictures, but she’s still awfully fun to watch here, a shapely vision erupting from the water while wearing a cloaking device that flickers like an old TV on the fritz. The rococo visual design pig-piles neon greens and pinks with backdrops so dense with detail that my eyes often strayed around the screen, ignoring the story to take in the sights. There’s also one marvelously haunting scene in which the Major contemplates a colleague’s physicality and Johansson makes visceral the yearning to once again be human.

Alas, since this is an expensive corporate product, we don’t have much time for metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Instead we’ve got cleanly-drawn lines with a glowering, one-dimensional baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) working for the mega-cybernetics company and unleashing his private army against the good folks of Section 9, who in addition to the Major include Pilou Asbaek’s cuddly bruiser and a commander played with incomparable cool by the great filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. He’s such a badass that he talks in Japanese the whole time and everybody in the film understands him, as if he were speaking English like the rest of the cast.

It’s precisely that sort of cross-cultural mishmash that’s made “Ghost in the Shell” a subject of controversy ever since this American remake was first announced. While the setting is never named, the movie obviously takes place in Tokyo (either there or on planet “Blade Runner”) with a ton of Asians in supporting parts, yet a pretty young white chick got cast in the lead. Now I’m not gonna mansplain to angry thinkpiece writers about how Hollywood economics work, but there are very few female stars who can secure a budget of this size and I’m sorry the lady robot isn’t ethnic enough. (Seriously though, this isn’t like Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in “Aloha.” The Major’s head is made out of titanium. Also, how many major studio blockbusters have juicy roles for Takeshi Kitano?)

The movie rather klutzily tries to tackle this taboo head-on when we discover that Major Mira Killian actually used to be one Motoko Kusanagi, a runaway-turned-activist kidnapped and brainwashed by those nasty bastards at the lab before her consciousness was implanted in our heroine’s exoskeleton. That’s right, “Ghost in the Shell” is ultimately about a Japanese troublemaker abducted by a large corporation and made over into a hot, rule-abiding Anglo movie star in a ludicrously expensive undertaking. Like I said, a metaphor for itself.•••

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.

Review – Patriots Day


FILM REVIEWPATRIOTS DAY. With Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist. Written by Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer. Directed by Peter Berg. Rated R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use. 133 minutes. 

Tommy Saunders wasn’t even supposed to be on the finish line that morning. Coming off a suspension for insubordination, the foul-mouthed Sergeant’s final act of contrition to Police Commissioner Ed Davis was putting on a fluorescent vest and walking a beat at the Boston Marathon. He may have complained that he “looked like a crossing ghad” but luckily for all of us, Tommy was there. He was the first one to go running towards the blast while all the other cops stood around dumbfounded. Tommy took command of the scene, bringing in the ambulances and telling all the highly trained medical personnel exactly what to do. I shudder to think how many more lives would have been lost on April 15, 2013 if Tommy Saunders hadn’t been there that morning.

Over the sleepless nights that followed, Sergeant Saunders’ heroism was unparalleled. Everything you heard on TV from Commissioner Davis or FBI special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers was actually Tommy’s idea first. “I worked homicide, what solves cases are witnesses,” he explained to the clueless bureaucrats in their command center, inspiring them to take the crazy, unprecedented step of asking people who were at the scene of the crime to describe what they saw. Tommy Saunders was everywhere during those crucial days. It was Tommy who located the surveillance tapes that gave us our first chilling glimpses of the Tsarnaevs. He was the officer who took the statement from carjacking victim Dun Meng, after which Tommy led the Watertown police in the firefight that shook the neighborhood to its foundations. Tommy’s the one who spotted the blood on David Henneberry’s boat in the backyard, resulting in the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and putting an end to our city’s horrible nightmare.

Oh and by the way, Tommy Saunders doesn’t exist. He’s a completely fictional character played by producer-star Mark Wahlberg in director Peter Berg’s revolting new film PATRIOTS DAY–as disgraceful an exploitation of real-life tragedy as I’ve ever seen. Everyone involved in this movie should be ashamed of themselves. In the weeks running up to its release, we here in Boston have been hearing a lot of gaseous pronouncements from the principals claiming they made the film as a tribute to the heroes of that awful week in April. Unfortunately, our obsequious local media lacks the nerve to ask Wahlberg and Berg why they invented a fake person to take credit for everything that was accomplished by the folks they’re allegedly honoring.

The few of us who saw Berg and Wahlberg’s $150 million money-loser “Deepwater Horizon” back in October know their formula already: the former-underwear-model-turned-hamburger-salesman plays a flawless-yet-humble salt-of-the-Earth fella who runs around a factually dubious depiction of a tragic event, super-heroically saving the lives of the supporting cast so they can all spend the last ten minutes of the movie thanking him in slow-motion while sad music plays. The narcissism is grotesque. In “Patriots Day,” Wahlberg can’t even walk down the street without people stopping him just to say what a great guy he is. After every big scene, someone in the cast takes a moment to tell Tommy he did a good job, and thanks him for being there.

Davis (played by John Goodman) and DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) defer most of their decisions to the uniformed Sergeant, while future commissioner Bill Evans (James Colby) puts the manhunt on hold for a monologue about “the big haht hiding inside of Tommy Saunders.” The movie spends so much time fellating its bogus hero, were it about an actual living person “Patriots Day” would feel like a North Korean propaganda film. But instead it’s just the tasteless delusions of a vain movie star recreating his hometown’s most horrifying moments so he can dress up and play policeman. A few years ago Wahlberg famously claimed he could have stopped 9/11 if only he had been on one of the planes. These fantasies of inserting himself into national tragedies are something he really should be discussing with a therapist.

“It’s all about love. Love will always beat hate,” Tommy says at one bizarrely unmotivated moment. It’s a sentiment that gets a lot of lip service in a movie that provides very little to back it up. What “Patriots Day” values is brute force. As a filmmaker, Berg’s got an authoritarian streak a mile wide and he loves nothing more than men in uniform. His first Wahlberg team-up, “Lone Survivor” was basically a recruiting ad in which everybody dies, and even a dumb alien invasion movie based on the game “Battleship” in Berg’s hands became a love letter to the United States military.

Here he fetishizes the big black SUVs and long guns, with one shot after another of manly men striding purposefully amongst flashing lights and sirens. After over-scaling the Watertown shootout into a car-flipping extravaganza better suited for a “Fast & Furious” sequel, “Patriots Day” can’t be bothered to question the trampling of civil rights (“No Miranda!” is shouted at one point) and Berg carefully elides the fact that Tsarnaev wasn’t found until after the lockdown was lifted. “Patriots Day” makes martial law look wicked awesome, bro.

Only Blue Lives Matter here, as MIT patrol officer Sean Collier’s murder is teasingly foreshadowed throughout like a snuff film, but the movie can’t spare a single word for victims Krystle Campbell or Luingzi Lu. Martin Richard’s family reportedly requested that his name not be used in the film, so he’s simply referred to as “the eight- year-old dead kid under a blanket.” The filmmakers have no time for civilian heroes like Carlos Arredondo, who you surely remember as the man in the cowboy hat from that iconic finish line photo. Here he’s been erased from history to make more room to celebrate the phony white movie star hero.

Before the closing credits roll, “Patriots Day” tacks on almost ten minutes of interview footage from some of the story’s real-life subjects, all of them offering canned aphorisms that sound over-rehearsed. It feels like a pre-emptive bid for exoneration by the filmmakers, proof they got permission to cash in on a city’s still-tender memories in order to massage the ego of their superstar producer. Without this documentary material, the movie would have ended on a shot of David Ortiz shaking Mark Wahlberg’s hand, the real slugger thanking the fake cop for his heroic service.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 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 – Batman: The Killing Joke


FILM REVIEW
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
. With the voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise. Written by Brian Azzarello. Directed by Sam Liu. Rated R for some bloody images and disturbing content. 76 minutes.

“Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s good,” hisses Mark Hamill’s Joker in this icky animated adaptation of a seminal 1988 graphic novel that was perhaps better left alone. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE is a singularly unpleasant viewing experience, confounding in its wrongheadedness and noxious in its cruelty. The project reunites the principal voice actors from “Batman: The Animated Series” and yokes the beloved afterschool TV program’s aesthetic to a miserably dated exercise in shock value for its own sake. Basically this is a Batman cartoon that looks and sounds like the one you used to watch when you were a little kid, except now it’s rated R and full of torture and sexual assault. When it was over, I wanted nothing more than to take a shower.

Published a couple of years after Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” announced that superheroes aren’t just for children anymore, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland’s exceedingly nasty “The Killing Joke” provided a tragic backstory for Gotham City’s most malevolent clown and pushed the Caped Crusader to the brink of murdering his longtime nemesis. After escaping once again from Arkham Asylum, The Joker attempts to demonstrate that only one bad day stands between good men and madness by shooting Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (who is secretly Batgirl) through the spine and torturing her father in a carnival funhouse decorated with photographs of the girl’s bloody, naked body.

As you might imagine, this all seemed very heady when I was thirteen years old, dressed in black all the time and hated my parents for getting divorced. But as influential as it unfortunately remains to this day, “The Killing Joke” has not aged particularly well. Moore (who refused to allow his name on this adaptation) often apologizes for writing it and in a 2009 interview lamented that superhero stories “are stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.” (And to think he said this seven years before “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)

What pushes this adaptation over the line from merely misguided into madness is an all-new, twenty-eight minute prologue scripted by Brian Azzarello and apparently intended to give Barbara Gordon something to do in the story besides just get shot. It’s one of the most cluelessly misogynistic portrayals I have ever seen, presenting Batgirl as a bumbling flake with a massive crush on her emotionally aloof crime-fighting mentor. (She even gets a crassly stereotypical gay best friend to confide in, because I guess this is a ‘90s sitcom.) After a gangster’s perverted son named Paris France (for real) becomes sexually obsessed with Barbara, she and Master Wayne wind up boning on a rooftop beneath a hilariously disapproving stone gargoyle. After that, Batman stops returning her calls and she eventually quits being Batgirl.

Azzarello’s additions turn an already problematic piece into an atrocity. Leaving aside out the bizarre notion that a monastic, self-flagellating hero like Batman would bang his best friend’s daughter and then ghost the poor kid, this production is hyper-sexualized in an incredibly creepy way, with leering butt-shots of countless cartoon hookers and lingering, appreciative views of Barbara in her underwear. Batgirl is constantly objectified, humiliated into giving up her career, then ultimately paralyzed, so “The Killing Joke” now reads as if she’s being punished for sleeping with her father figure. It’s telling that Azzarello never bothers to show us that Barbara survived the shooting, but he does add a scene between Batman and some dockside prostitutes heavily implying that she was raped.

So who is this movie for? The crude animation tries to mimic the panels of the original comic but it’s missing all the richness and detail of Bolland’s drawings. Similarly, Moore’s florid dialogue was obviously meant to be read and not recited, as voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill trip over speech patterns distractingly different than the ones we heard in the first half-hour. (The only one who pulls it off is “Twin Peaks” alum Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon, but maybe that’s just because we’re used to hearing him cry about his daughter.) Why again was “The Killing Joke,” of all Batman stories, translated into the style of a popular animated program for children?

Earlier this month, several female colleagues of mine were viciously harassed online for days on end after giving negative reviews to the abysmal DC Comics adaptation “Suicide Squad.” (A few dudes I know got some blowback, but the majority was heaped upon the ladies.) It’s an objectively terrible movie, incoherent in ways I never imagined possible from a major studio release. Characters are introduced–or not introduced–then introduced again, with so many major plot points elided while others are incessantly repeated; it is extremely difficult to believe that anyone at Warner Brothers could have actually watched “Suicide Squad” from start to finish and deemed it in releasable condition.

One must wonder what it is about these superhero sagas that inspires their devotees and defenders to call my friends the c-word while threatening them with sexual assault? The biggest laugh in “Suicide Squad” comes when Ben Affleck’s Batman punches Margot Robbie in the face, which is one of the few times the camera isn’t pointed at her ass. These adolescent power fantasies have grown toxic, and their treatment of women reveals a pathological, deep-seated fear and loathing on the part of fans and creators. After all, what kind of healthy, grown adult old enough to see an R-rated movie wants to watch a cartoon in which Batgirl gets crippled and raped?•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 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.