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 He stashes them all at

Review – Never Rarely Sometimes Always

FILM REVIEWNEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. With Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Theodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. Rated PG-13 for disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references and teen drinking. 101 minutes.

never_rarely_sometimes_alwaysThe first thing seventeen-year-old Autumn Callahan does after learning she’s pregnant is heat up a safety pin on the gas stove and pierce her nose in her kitchen. She doesn’t explain why, and the movie doesn’t have to tell us. We can already see that this is a young woman’s awkward attempt to assert some sense of control over her body, trying to reclaim a feeling of personal agency after so much has been taken away. Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s extraordinary third feature NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS has a lot of scenes like this, where the characters are revealed through their actions instead of dialogue. It’s a small miracle of inferences and implicit understandings.

Played by the remarkable first-timer Sidney Flanigan, Autumn is a typical teen in run-down rural Pennsylvania, working at the local chain supermarket and coming home to an abusive dad who sulks in the other room with what appears to be an endless supply of insults and cigarettes. Her slightly more worldly cousin and co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder) dodges party invitations from creepy older guys in the checkout line, while they’re both relentlessly harassed by the store’s sketchy manager. It’s Skylar who puts together what needs to be done, silently packing an oversized suitcase. There’s no place for Autumn to get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania.

After a harrowing tour of what passes for women’s health clinics in such communities — with their chintzy store-bought pregnancy tests, legalese lectures and Christian propaganda videos – the two girls steal away in the dead of night with a fistful of crumpled cash swiped from the supermarket register drops. They’re headed to a Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn, dragging along behind them that large, clunky luggage that serves purposes less practical than metaphorical. The film could easily have been a hectoring screed – an Afterschool Special about young women’s rights, preaching to the converted how laws that claim to make teenage girls safer only serve to endanger them further.

Fortunately for us, Hittman’s approach is entirely experiential. She nestles the handheld camera up close to her actresses’ faces until we can read behind their eyes, inside their souls. Autumn and Skylar don’t talk much, and they don’t have to. We’re not told anything about what their lives were like before the movie began, and we never even learn who it was that got Autumn pregnant. It doesn’t matter because the film exists in the same moment-to-moment, here-and-now headspace as our heroines, just trying to overcome the latest obstacle before the next one comes along, with no time to take a larger view. (Helene Louvart’s gorgeously grainy, cramped cinematography complements the characters’ tunnel vision.) The film feels like a cousin to the Romanian New Wave masterpiece “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” by way of Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy.”

It’s such a gratifying feeling when a filmmaker you’ve been following for some time finally knocks one out of the park. I fell hard for Hittman’s debut “It Felt Like Love” at Sundance seven years ago, one of those surreal, only-at-a-film-festival afternoons where everyone from the film you’ve just watched suddenly streams into the bar you’re drinking at. Her follow-up “Beach Rats” won directing and jury awards at the same festival four years later, with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” earning a Special Jury Award for “Neorealism” at Sundance this past January, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

I kid because I worry that such a label gives short-shrift to the artfulness of Hittman’s technique, the skill with which her subtractions become additions in the audience’s imaginations. One need only look at the astonishing centerpiece sequence from which the film takes its title, a locked-down reaction shot of Autumn while a nurse reads through a required questionnaire. Flanigan’s face takes us through an astounding array of emotions, her hardened shell of teenage diffidence cracking and giving way, but only for seconds at a time that reveal her entire world. It’s as stunning a scene as you’ll see all year, breathtaking in its stripped-down simplicity.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was at the start of a slow theatrical rollout when cinemas were closed due to the coronavirus. Distributor Focus Features’ parent company NBC/Universal has just put the movie out on Premium VOD for $19.99. Though slightly cheaper than a pair of movie tickets, this is still an admittedly steep charge for a low-budget indie, especially considering how other arthouse distributors are charging far less for rentals and splitting the proceeds with your local theaters. (God forbid a struggling little company like NBC/Universal share the wealth.)

Still, I’m happy that the film is at least able to be seen. One of the most important things that movies can do is show us our world through the eyes of another. Far too many people –especially lawmakers—see young women like Autumn and Skylar as abstractions or statistics, pawns to be used in political games. They’ve never stopped to imagine things from any perspective besides their own. A couple of guys I know have complained about the depiction of men in this film, about how there always seems to be a masturbating weirdo in the subway car or a leering creep lurking around every corner. They’re uncomfortable with how unsafe these girls are made to feel in average, everyday situations, which I believe is exactly the movie’s point.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past two decades, 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Jesus Rolls

FILM REVIEWTHE JESUS ROLLS. With John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Jon Hamm, Susan Sarandon. Written and directed by John Turturro. Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and brief nudity. 85 minutes.

jesus_rolls_ver3John Turturro’s purple-jumpsuited pederast Jesus Quintana had less than five minutes of screen time in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic, “The Big Lebowski.” Another picaresque digression in a movie that on the surface appeared to be assembled of nothing but such distractions – don’t get me started on the secret structural genius of “Lebowski” or I’ll sound as annoying as its most vociferous fans — Quintana was a throwaway slo-mo gag and a prosthetic penis that clearly meant a lot to Turturro, as he’s spent the past couple decades trying to talk the Coens into revisiting the character. Now 22 years later, with the Brothers’ blessing (though not their creative input), at long last arrives THE JESUS ROLLS.

“Lebowski” fanatics are bound to be disappointed and more than a little confused, which is fine by me because a lot of those guys are as obnoxious as people who love “The Boondock Saints,” except with better taste in movies. Written and directed by Turturro, this curious spinoff has little interest in revisiting the Coens’ zonked Raymond Chandler revisionism and instead turns out to be an almost scene-for-scene remake of Bertrand Blier’s breathtakingly tasteless 1974 counterculture comedy “Going Places,” which starred Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as what Roger Ebert called “two loutish, brutal and unclean young men” stealing cars and enjoying assorted acts of sexual deviancy up and down the bourgeoisie countryside.

“The Jesus Rolls” was for a long time also titled “Going Places” until the distributor changed it to further emphasize the “Lebowski” connection. But the French title of the original translated to a slang term meaning “Balls,” which was far more fitting as the 1974 film is basically two dumb testicles clanging into each other for two hours and I should probably be ashamed of how hard I laughed at it. Turturro’s remake offers the curious spectacle of scenes from Blier’s film being recreated almost shot-for-shot – right down to identical costumes at times – except now starring Jesus from “The Big Lebowski” and Bobby Cannavale as his lunkhead partner, Petey. (The heedless, wanton sexuality has been tamped down somewhat from “1970s French film” levels but remains off-the-charts for an American movie of our neo-Puritanical era.)

Turturro is 63 years old and Cannavale turns 50 this year, so the horndog shenanigans have a decidedly different, somewhat sadder affect than when they were enacted by the then-twentysomething Depardieu and Dewaere. We are however relieved to learn that Quintana’s infamous incident with the eight-year-olds has been ret-conned to a misunderstanding at a urinal for which he was unfairly imprisoned, and that the enormously endowed Jesus actually has a happy, healthy attitude towards having as much sex as often as possible, but with adults only. He even tries to put the moves on Petey, explaining “it’s okay when friends do it.”

Fresh out of jail, these two hook up with a hotsy-totsy hairdresser played by Audrey Tautou, who despite 347 previous sexual partners and plenty of concerted effort from Jesus and Petey, has yet to achieve orgasm. They’ve stolen a vintage car from her rich jerk boyfriend (Jon Hamm, going all in) who promptly shoots Petey in the behind, grazing his scrotum so that Cannavale spends the first half hour of the movie screaming “Ow, my balls!” and worrying that he’ll never again get an erection.

“The Jesus Rolls” sprints haphazardly through Blier’s loosey-goosey narrative, rushing through an obligatory checklist of “Lebowski” references early on as if getting them out of the way, before ditching the bowling alley altogether for a progression of atonal episodes (and usually group sex) with celebrity guest stars and famous friends of the filmmaker. The finest of these finds Susan Sarandon in the role Jeanne Moreau played in the original picture, bringing much-needed ballast to the lewd proceedings with a mysterious sadness behind her eyes. It’s a killer cameo, and if I may say so, the 73-year-old knockout throws herself into a threesome with great gusto.

Turturro is one of our finest actors and a most perplexing filmmaker, with an attitude towards onscreen sexuality more in tune with European films of his youth. His oddball 2007 musical “Romance and Cigarettes” had James Gandolfini singing Springsteen songs to woo Kate Winslet at her most hubba-hubba carnal (and yet somehow with this setup it was not the greatest movie ever made.) Turturro also quite generously cast himself as a sex worker servicing Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara in his 2013 “Fading Gigolo,” in which Woody Allen played his pimp. What these movies have in common is that they sound way more entertaining than they actually are, and I suppose one might say the same for “The Jesus Rolls.”

Yet I can’t help but feel a strange affection for this misbegotten picture, while also breathing a sigh of relief that Turturro wisely chose not to replicate the scene from the 1974 film in which the boys cheerfully relieve a teenage Isabelle Huppert of her virginity. It’s just such a screwy idea shoving a random Coen Brothers’ character into one of your raunchy world cinema favorites, like remaking “Time Me Up! Tie Me Down!” with Mike Yanagita from “Fargo.” I must admit that Jesus was never my favorite part of “Lebowski,” but his sunny, anything-goes disposition kind of grew on me here, just hanging out all happy with his hairnet and his giant wang. One might even say that he abides.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past two decades, 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Way Back

FILM REVIEWTHE WAY BACK. Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins. Written by Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O’Connor. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. 108 minutes.

way_back_ver2In many ways, Ben Affleck – the Burt Reynolds of Generation X – wears his stardom lightly and always seems to be having a better time than you are, creating an easy rapport with the audience that overcomes his rather limited range and an unfortunate penchant for making terrible movies. Like Burt before him, he’s locked into a perpetual comeback cycle and whenever he finds himself solidly back on the upswing has an uncanny knack for mucking things up in spectacular fashion. Affleck’s ubiquitous tabloid travails have made it impossible for him to really disappear into a character, with his best roles these days being thinly veiled considerations of his Affleck-ness. 2014’s “Gone Girl” may have been the ultimate meditation on Being Ben, but THE WAY BACK comes a close second.

An inspirational sports drama directed by Gavin O’Connor – whose “Miracle” and “Warrior” were both about as good as this genre gets – the film stars Affleck as a California construction worker who begins every morning with shower-beers and at night the regulars all help carry him home from his neighborhood dive bar. A star basketball player back in high school, he walked away from a full-boat scholarship to spite his dad and has seemingly devoted the rest of his life to screwing up in one way or another, until his old alma mater comes calling, looking for a new coach.

The screenplay (which the director wrote with Brad Inglesby) is pretty boilerplate stuff. Think “Hoosiers” with Dennis Hopper as the head coach, or “The Bad News Bears” if Buttermaker’s alcoholism was supposed to be sad. But the thing about formulas is that they work, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the familiar beats of the misfit coach turning around a losing team just in time for the playoffs. O’Connor knows how to low-key sidle up to triumphant moments on the court, making them feel earned instead of obligated. The grainy cinematography and rough-and-tumble production design scuff up the script’s Disney slickness, as does Affleck’s habit of bellowing f-words in front of priests at this Catholic school for boys.

He’s terrific in this, by the way. Burly and bearded, exuding the same shambolic gravity he brought to his shockingly effective turn in last year’s nifty “Triple Frontier,” Affleck is finally aging into the soulful screen presence he couldn’t pull off in his self-directed performances. (There’s a reason the best movie he’s helmed stars his little brother.) Playing a jock gone to seed is the perfect use of a persona that in his early stardom too often came off as callow or fratty. Consequences look good on him.

The film plays footsie with Affleck’s real life, excessively well-documented substance abuse issues, to a point where I felt like his confessional promo campaign bordered on distasteful. But boy can this guy crush a drunk scene. Exhibiting the same elan with which in “Triple Frontier” he slipped his breakfast beer into a cozy before driving his daughter to school, Affleck has a showstopper of a sequence here when he houses a 24-pack, rattling around his empty apartment at night, rehearsing his half of imaginary conversations while making sure to always pop the next can into the freezer so it’ll be ice cold when he drains this one.

Unfortunately, in its second hour the film veers from the tried-and-true. Right when we’re really rolling with the team and getting to know the players, “The Way Back” drops a surprise tragic backstory for Ben and pulls our attention away from the game. It’s a development that’s honestly too big for this modest movie to bear, throwing everything that follows out of whack and cheapening the character’s self-destructive tendencies by explaining them away. As it becomes more overtly melodramatic, the film becomes less emotionally effective, straining for massive moments as if Affleck had gotten jealous of kid brother Casey’s “Manchester By The Sea.”

The kids and the game that we’d become so invested in are all but lost here, and it feels like crucial scenes have gone missing during the runup to the playoffs. (Curiously, initial press materials listed the film’s running time as 29 minutes longer than it is now. A last-minute edit, perhaps?) I’m not often one to complain about movies being too short but this one feels awfully tight around the middle.

I wanted more time in the paint. As with his superlative hockey scenes in “Miracle,” O’Connor is excellent at conveying the strategy of sport without just letting an announcer to explain to the audience what’s going on. There’s a great bit in which Affleck sketching out a play is intercut with the team pulling it off, and of course it’s pure gold every time our coach cusses out the referees. “The Way Back” barely puts any emphasis at all on the big game, by then mired in off-court drama that’s decidedly less interesting. But I guess there’s something poetic and in character about such a solid Ben Affleck comeback vehicle finding a way to screw everything up.•••

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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Spenser Confidential

FILM REVIEWSPENSER CONFIDENTIAL. With Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, Iliza Shlesinger, Bokeem Woodbine. Written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland. Directed by Peter Berg. Rated R for violence, language throughout and sexual content. 111 minutes.

Parker smothers

spenser_confidentialLeaving fingerprints smeared with Wahlburgers’ grease all over a beloved Boston institution, SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL takes Robert B. Parker’s sly, sophisticated private eye and dumbs him down into another one of its star’s patented, know-it-all knuckleheads. Immortalized in 40 Parker novels, three seasons of ABC’s “Spenser: For Hire,” a bevy of TV-movies and spinoffs along with a sorely missed bookshop on Newbury Street, the dashing detective was the most erudite self-described “thug” in crime fiction. A former boxer and ex-cop, the mononymous Spenser was also a gourmet cook with a penchant for quoting poets when he wasn’t busting bad guys’ heads. Now, though, he’s just an asshole.

The new film, so I’m told, is very loosely adapted from one of eight Spenser novels penned by author Ace Atkins since Parker’s death in 2010. (I confess I haven’t read any of them, but then I never read Parker’s Phillip Marlowe books either, as I don’t like estate-sanctioned literary fanfic.) It’s an origin story of sorts with Wahlberg playing a hot-headed uniformed cop we first meet beating the crap out of his crooked captain. “The son of a bitch deserved it,” he explains to the judge. Released after five years in Walpole, our hero wants nothing more than to graduate from tractor-trailer driving school and relocate to Arizona, but unfinished business in the old neighborhood keeps conspiring to get in his way. Especially when that old commanding officer of his is found massacred in a school bus parking lot.

“Spenser Confidential” basically just borrows a few names of characters from the Parker novels, with Alan Arkin phoning it in as cantankerous boxing coach Henry Cimoli and Winston Duke reimagining Spenser’s suave sidekick Hawk as a dim-bulb MMA fighter who doesn’t know how to throw a punch. (Of course, Wahlberg teaches him how to fight. As per what must be a clause in the star’s contract by now, he spends a good deal of the movie walking around correcting people, occasionally interrupted by underprivileged folks from the neighborhood stopping to tell him what a great guy he is.) During an early scene, Spenser is glimpsed wearing glasses while reading a book and I was terrified for a moment that we were about to hear Mark Wahlberg recite poetry, but luckily that personality quirk was abandoned along with the detective’s affinity for fine dining.

The central whodunit is hardly a headscratcher, with a criminal mastermind so inept he leaves a chewed toothpick at the murder scene. There isn’t a great deal of gumshoe work in the scenario, just lots of shots in which the camera circles worshipfully at a low angle under Wahlberg as he gazes up into the sun, nodding like he’s just figured something out. (I guess they thought this was more cinematic than simply having him say “A-ha!”) The rest of the time he’s getting the crap kicked out of him by four or five guys at once. I suppose having the star lose so many fights is intended to make him seem more down-to-earth, but considering the outrageous odds stacked against him, Spenser always holding his own for tediously long periods of time somehow feels even more egomaniacal.

It’s a surprise Wahlberg and director Peter Berg were allowed back in town after their loathsome 2016 “Patriots Day,” a crassly exploitative wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the star singlehandedly solved the Boston marathon bombing and received effusive thanks from a grateful Commonwealth. “Spenser Confidential” isn’t nearly as offensive (how could it be?) but rather merely content to traffic in exhausted Southie stereotypes and the usual donkey Irish burlesques, most characters carrying on like that Casey Affleck Dunkin’ Donuts commercial from “Saturday Night Live.” The low point is probably a brawl at a replica of the long-closed West Broadway bar Slainte during a Sox game while everybody’s singing “Sweet Caroline.” This is the kind of quote-unquote Boston movie you’d expect from a couple of Lakers fans.

Berg’s direction is uncharacteristically enervated, with a good-enough-for-government-work vibe to the slapdash staging. (Like a lot of Netflix movies, this one is also egregiously overlit. It looks like a pilot for a TNT show.) Any mystery reader will be at least a half-hour ahead of our characters, and the broad, cartoonish attempts at comedy don’t mesh with the mawkishly sentimental salutes to our hero’s fundamental decency. Berg lazily tosses in so many hacky music cues from local bands like Boston and Aerosmith, I can only assume that the Dropkick Murphys have become prohibitively expensive.

Re-watching a few early episodes of “Spenser: For Hire” this week I was taken all over again not just with the air of worldly melancholy Robert Urich brought to the detective or the smooth, Clarence Clemons-esque charms of Avery Brooks’ Hawk, but also with a vision of our fair city that’s constricted considerably as its big-screen profile has expanded. The extensive and impressive location shooting on the ABC program showcased a Boston of universities, fancy restaurants and upscale cultural institutions existing alongside the inevitable underworld shenanigans. The elegance was aspirational, as was the characters’ educated banter, unlike the loutish shouting of fuckwords and meathead, street-smaht posturing that dominate “Spenser Confidential.”

For the love of God, don’t let these people anywhere near “Cheers.”•••

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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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.


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.


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.”


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.