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 – Underwater


FILM REVIEW
UNDERWATER
. With Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller. Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad. Directed by William Eubank. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, brief strong language. 95 minutes.

The uninspiringly titled, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am aquatic misadventure UNDERWATER gets right down to business in its opening scene. No sooner have we watched Kristen Stewart’s Sigourney 2.0 rescue a stray spider from a sink drain while brushing her teeth (see folks, she’s kind) than the entire undersea oil rig she’s been working on for months begins collapsing upon itself in a watery cacophony of twisted metal. Stewart and the crew have been drilling seven miles down, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. What could have caused this catastrophe? An earthquake, or something worse? (Spoiler: It’s something worse.)

An ideal January junk-food quickie like this knows we’ve already seen “Alien,” “The Abyss,” “Gravity” and all the other films from which it’s shamelessly stealing, so there’s no reason to fart around wasting everybody’s time with exposition or character development. Shot in 2017, “Underwater” has been kicking around the Fox/Disney release slate for some time and the final product feels edited down from a longer, more ambitious and presumably less propulsive picture. I think I like it better this way. Introductions are made on the fly while crucial information is often ADR-ed as the movie hustles along the ocean floor from one derivative but no less spine-tingling set-piece to another.

The secret weapon here of course is Stewart, and the chance to see the “Twilight” teen turned international art cinema icon battling nasty sea monsters in some slick schlock. Wearing a bleach-blonde buzz-cut and a bomber jacket over a sports bra, Stewart goes all in on the androgyny chic, showing no signs of slumming as she applies her trademark, inverted-Brando millennial murmurings to the screenplay’s stock scenarios. (I loved watching her in this.) Gallic maniac Vincent Cassel delivers a surprisingly tender turn as the doomed craft’s avuncular captain, and as they strap into their pressurized mech suits its easy to imagine these two sharing a downtime chuckle about how far they’ve strayed from the Cannes Croisette.

“Underwater” was shot so long ago that disgraced comedian T.J. Miller plays the Bill Paxton comic relief role. A naturally unwelcome presence, during his introduction Miller calls Stewart “a flat-chested elfin creature” as if that were some sort of bad thing. (Then again, the whole trick with obnoxious characters like this is waiting to see what kind of grisly demise the filmmakers have cooked up for them. He gets a doozy.) Likewise stranded on the rig are a pair of moony-eyed lovers played by Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr., along with Mamoudou Athie, who is the only black guy on the crew, so don’t get too attached.

The great cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who’s worked with everybody from Abel Ferrara to Michael Bay) pushes the limitations of low-light digital, making striking use of luminescent beams swallowed up by the sickly green, underwater murk. I adored how the dive suits have small crescents of LED lights near their necks that frame the actors’ faces with the most lovely little shadings and patterns. But it’s exactly this kind of exacting detail work I worry will be massacred by the botched projection of modern multiplex screens. Not since Bradford Young’s boundary-pushing work on “Solo: A Star Wars Story” has a movie’s aesthetic been so prone to highlighting the weaknesses of current presentation standards.

(I had the pleasure of seeing “Underwater” via the pristine projection at Boston’s brand new, state-of-the-art ArcLight complex, but I can’t imagine how impossible it would be to try and follow the action with one of those cheapo AMC bulbs flickering and a 3D cap on the lens. Indeed, I’ve read quite a few reviews from other markets in which critics complained they could barely see what was going on. This reminded me of something I once heard about how The Rolling Stones used to test their final album mixes by playing them through the crappiest car radios they could find. Maybe cinematographers should do the same, holding test screenings at janky suburban mall theaters to see how their hard work is actually being viewed by the masses.)

“You have to take your pants off or the suit won’t fit,” Stewart advises the comely young Henwick while they’re putting on their dive gear. It’s one of those lines that lets you know these filmmakers and actors all knew exactly what they were doing here, providing the most hilariously transparent of excuses to get Stewart running around in her sports bra and Ripley-skivvies for the big finale. That’s the kind of movie “Underwater” is, and exactly what I wanted it to be.•••

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.

Sean’s 10 Worst Films Of 2019

SEAN’S 10 WORST FILMS OF 2019

by Sean Burns

Every year around this time the usual scolds chime in, tut-tutting and finger-wagging about the practice of making a Ten Worst List, claiming that film criticism should be about sharing enthusiasm and uplifting good work instead of dwelling on the bad. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to spend the majority of my time writing about stuff I enjoy and championing smaller films that don’t have the benefit of multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns. But I also have to watch a lot of crap. And since people were paid very handsomely to make this garbage, then turned around and asked you fork over the cost of a ticket, overpriced concessions, parking and a sitter to watch such dreck, I humbly submit that they should be able to handle a parting shot or two before we ring in the new year.

  1. JOKER

An empty simulacrum of feel-bad ‘70s-cinema signifiers, the year’s most bafflingly popular blockbuster mashes up and hollows out “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” among other classics, carefully side-stepping any of the issues explored in the films it’s stripping for parts. This is a cowardly, tedious corporate product posing as quote-unquote dangerous art. I guess every era gets the Joker it deserves, so this one wallows in victimhood and self-pity while the movie feints at blaming “society” for his actions but is really more interested in setting up sequels.

  1. BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON

Almost every year the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award goes to the movie I hated most. Picked up by Amazon Studios at the tail end of the fest for an obscene $14 million, this is one of those ghastly-looking lil’ indies thrown together with such indifference to aesthetic concerns they might as well have left the lens cap on. Jillian Bell stars as a flip, sardonic party girl who takes up jogging — losing weight along with any vestige of a personality. Self-help affirmations ensue. This is why people hate runners.

  1. RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

A reactionary crock even by Stallone standards, Sly’s boringly sadistic, molasses-paced finale to his ultra-violent adventures in ideological incoherence gets a MAGA makeover. With his long hair, headband and hunting bow, our disaffected Vietnam Vet was always visually coded as a Native American warrior, a man apart fighting alone. Now he’s all cleaned up with a cowboy hat and Winchester rifle, a rancher defending hearth and home from bad hombres and foreign hordes. It doesn’t even feel like a “Rambo” movie so much as an even more racist remake of “Taken.”

  1. THE FANATIC

This year’s terrible John Travolta movie finds the wayward superstar giving an awfully committed (and committedly awful) performance as an imbalanced superfan obsessed with a horror movie has-been, charmlessly played by real-life horror movie has-been Devon Sawa. Ineptly directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, it’s a grindingly unpleasant little picture, wallowing in misery and running down the clock until the inevitable, ugly bloodshed. The only respite comes when two characters kick back and listen to some sweet Bizkit tunes on the car radio. (This is seriously something that happens.)

  1. GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

There were probably worse blockbusters this year but none so baseline incompetent at visual storytelling. This is a movie that kills off a major character but you can’t see it happen so they put a picture of her up on a computer screen with the word “DECEASED” over her face. I learned days later that Ziyi Zhang is actually supposed to be playing two separate roles here but the movie is edited so incoherently it’s impossible to tell. And what kind of director gets a bad performance out of Kyle Chandler?

  1. GLASS

In the curious case of M. Night Shyamalan, I find myself torn. On one hand you’ve gotta salute his heroic commitment to wrestling this singular, specific and often very strange creative vision through a studio system increasingly hostile to anything a shade off from homogenous anonymity. But on the other hand I think his movies are stupid and boring, with this ret-conned trilogy-capper prompting a particularly egregious round of logy eye-rolling. When I told my friends what happens to Bruce Willis at the end of this picture none of them believed me.

  1. THE LION KING

You could throw this summer’s “Aladdin” in here as well, in so far as Disney’s joyless, weaponized nostalgia re-enactments don’t work as movies in their own right, but rather exist as a depressing form of corporate brand extension, sucking all the life, wonder and color out of beloved cartoon classics. The whole concept of this one confuses me. No expense has been spared to painstakingly mimic the fur patterns and limited movements of actual jungle cats, who I guess are supposed to look like real animals while they’re singing Elton John songs.

  1. CATS

Tom Hooper’s gaudy, guileless big-screen blow-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gibberish Broadway perennial is already being hailed as a disaster of legendary proportions. The un-kitty valley CGI turning these mugging performers into “Island of Dr. Moreau” half-feline hybrids is deeply disturbing, with their monkey tails and the not-to-scale, super-sized sets making you wonder if anyone involved has even seen a cat before. This may sound like a kitsch classic, except remember the show is just the same scene over and over again and feels like it’s never going to fucking end.

  1. LUCY IN THE SKY

The most mystifying of this year’s massive flops starred Natalie Portman in a puzzling adaptation of that tawdry 2007 tabloid tale about a NASA Space Shuttle Commander who wore adult diapers while trying to kidnap a co-worker. Prestige TV auteur Noah Hawley leaves out all the interesting, pulpy parts in favor of doom-laden, metaphysical free-associations and annoyingly ever-changing aspect ratios. Leering, sexist and over-directed within an inch of its life, the film wastes an unhinged Portman going full “Hee-Haw” on a movie where the meaning seems to escape its maker.

  1. JOJO RABBIT

No movie in years has made me angrier than this cutesy-wutsey take on the Holocaust from writer-director Taika Waititi, who had the unmitigated gall to make an Anne Frank story with a happy ending. It turns out fascism is just a phase you’ll grow out of if you’re lucky enough to find a cool Jewish girlfriend in the cupboard. Gross in so many ways, it’s a movie made by and for those of an insulated and intensely arrested sensibility, processing atrocity via anachronistic in-jokes and audience-flattering asides. Watch it win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (Sean’s Take)


FILM REVIEWSTAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. With Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Ian McDiarmid. Written by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. 141 minutes.

There’s a story my mother loves to tell about when I was eight years old, coming home from a breathlessly anticipated outing with the neighborhood kids to see “Return of the Jedi.” Everyone else burst out of the station wagon, running around mimicking lightsaber fights and making pew-pew blaster noises while according to legend I glumly shrugged and said, “It was pretty good, I guess.” Looking back I think the then-final chapter of George Lucas’ beloved space opera was probably the first time I’d ever been disappointed in a movie, a feeling that as a “Star Wars” fan would grow to become something of a constant over the years.

J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is yet another final installment of the Skywalker saga, by my count the third “last Star Wars movie” I’ve gone to see and this one’s not so much disappointing as it is actively, outright terrible. Nothing in this picture makes any sense. It’s got one of those insanely over-convoluted plots where everybody’s running to get a thing they need that tells them where to go to get some other thing they need (in this case, one of those glowing doohickeys apparently on loan from Disney’s Marvel division) and then when they get there somebody explains why what they were doing isn’t working so they have to go get something else– and it just all makes you long for clean lines, cause and effect, characters going from A to B. Like maybe, go rescue the princess from the space fortress and blow it up? Or perhaps, go to a planet full of teddy bears and turn off the deflector shield so you can blow up the replacement space fortress?

I really can’t explain what anybody was doing most of the time during “The Rise of Skywalker,” but we learn in the opening crawl that the ugly Emperor who Darth Vader threw down a hole in the Death Star right before it exploded 36 years and seven “Star Wars” movies ago is somehow still alive and well and also secretly responsible for the events of the previous two sequels. He instructs Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren to go kill Daisy Ridley’s fetching Jedi-in-training Rey, but the Emperor doesn’t really want him to kill her and anyway Kylo’s had kind of a crush on Rey ever since she slashed his face with a lightsaber a couple movies ago so this all gets pretty complicated, if not particularly edifying.

Meanwhile, what’s left of the Rebel Alliance (or the Resistance, as they’re now called) learns of an even bigger, crazier threat to the fate of the universe than anything they faced in the last two movies, so there’s a lot of running around and forced conviviality between Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. The screenplay constantly makes a huge deal about what close friends these three have become over the course of all their exciting adventures together even though two of them didn’t meet until the final scene of the previous picture.

Competing for screen time are our old pals C-3P0, R2-D2, BB-8 and even Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is back for this round. There are also several deeply unsettling scenes featuring the late Carrie Fisher, creepily cobbled together with digital trickery and unused footage from the earlier films. (Remember in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” when Carl Reiner edited Steve Martin into scenes from old Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney movies? It’s something like that, only less convincing.) It grossed me out, to be honest, cutting and pasting lines Fisher delivered out of context and slapping them into scenes written years after her death. It feels to me like a violation of her integrity as an actress, inventing in the editing room a performance she never would have delivered in such a flat, disjointed fashion. (The eyelines don’t even match.)

As we’re watching a J.J. Abrams movie, all of this happens in an incredible hurry. The first hour of “The Rise of Skywalker” feels like it’s being played on fast-forward, our characters racing from planet to planet so quickly while randomly running into old friends so often that this galaxy far, far away feels smaller than the suburb I grew up in. Abrams can’t even be bothered with establishing shots, slamming you from one scene to the next in medium close-up medias res. The film boasts some fine production design and never once slows down for long enough to let you look at it. A lightsaber battle on a sea of roaring waves is the lone moment of visual grandeur, and even that’s cut far too quickly to appreciate the choreography.

The elephant in the room here is that they accidentally made a real movie last time. Say what you will about Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” – and if you spend any time online you know people haven’t shut up about it for the past two years – the movie took some big swings at challenging a viewer’s preconceptions and the subtext carried with it a sharp level of autocritique with regard to “the sacred Jedi texts,” et al. I think it’s a great work of popular art and one of the few franchise blockbusters worth taking seriously. So of course J.J. Abrams was brought back on board to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

Just as Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” was a beat-for-beat remake of the 1977 “Star Wars” (we refuse to call it “A New Hope” in this household), “The Rise of Skywalker” eventually settles into such a “Return of the Jedi” redux it might as well end with cheap firecrackers and “Yub Nub,” plus the the added insult of walking back or outright erasing pretty much everything fanboys found threatening about Johnson’s film.

There’s a palpable petulance with which Abrams brings back that stupid “Spaceballs” helmet Kylo Ren smashed in his first scene of “The Last Jedi,” and the film’s dismissive sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico feels particularly egregious given the way racist hordes of young male “fans” chased her off social media. Worst is that Abrams fatally undoes Johnson’s most promising revelation regarding Rey’s parentage, negating his idea that the Force belongs to everyone and not just semi-incestuous members of dynastic bloodlines. Alas we’re back to the monomyth again and old, tiresome prophecies about chosen ones who will bring balance and everyone in this entire universe is fucking related.

“The Last Jedi” tried to open up the world a little bit. However you may feel about the casino sequence – and I go back and forth on it—Johnson was at least trying to show us something new instead of just slavishly reenacting your favorite scenes from a movie you loved when you were a little kid. Following “The Last Jedi” by bringing back the Emperor is like when Sylvester Stallone looked at the miracle Ryan Coogler made with “Creed” and said, “Yo, let’s do it again with Dolph Lundgren!”

“The Rise of Skywalker” is a work of creative stasis and profoundly limited imagination. Eight-year-old future critics will probably spend the holidays smiling weakly and telling their moms “it was pretty good, I guess,” while the rest of us consider that it might finally be time to put away these childish things.•••

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 – Jojo Rabbit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Western Stars


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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