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Review – Boy Erased

FILM REVIEWBOY ERASED. With Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton, Russell Crowe, Flea. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use. 114 minutes.

boy_erased_ver2The fact that so-called “gay conversion therapy” is still somehow legal in 36 states is an abomination. This vicious form of child abuse is perpetrated by charlatans peddling junk science to ignorant Bible bangers who pay a small fortune to let these ghouls torture their kids and brainwash them into believing that natural desires are moral failings. It’s no wonder so many of these children wind up killing themselves, and in any sane society the practice would be outlawed and its perpetrators imprisoned. But for that to hopefully happen someday we’ll probably need better movies about the subject than BOY ERASED, which I suppose means well but is exactly the kind of star-studded, issue-oriented snore that makes Oscar season such a slog.

Based on a memoir by Garrard Conley, the film chronicles a two-week stint in an Arkansas outpatient program called Love in Action. Now named Jared Eamons, our protagonist is played by the gifted Lucas Hedges of “Lady Bird” and “Manchester By The Sea,” here shipped off for de-gay-ification by his devastated pastor dad (Russell Crowe) and downbeat, dutiful mom (a brazenly unconvincing Nicole Kidman). Adapted for the screen and directed by actor Joel Edgerton, the movie is a mix of murky interior shots that first of all fails miserably at establishing any sense of day-to-day life in this Christian community.

There’s a severe paucity of detail, with drab sets and nondescript locations matching the script’s one-note characterizations. Everyone here is exactly who they first appear to be, which along with the absence of surprises in the story makes sitting through the picture feel like running out the clock. Edgerton has given himself the meatiest role as Love in Action’s tinpot Torquemada, a mustachioed martinet he plays with a vaguely mincing menace that feels borrowed from Kevin Spacey. (It will come as a shock to absolutely nobody that in a closing credits postscript we learn why the lady doth protest too much.)

Hedges is a promising talent but the character is written at too far a reserve from his own story, the bit players in the program suffering all the serious trauma while Jared silently looks on and heads back to a nearby hotel every day at five to hang with his supportive mother. Casting a superstar like Kidman in the role tips us off that it’s only gonna be so long before she goes full lioness to protect her cub, and however satisfying her ultimate diva moment may be, it only underlines the fact that Jared is typically the dullest character with the least at stake in any given scene. And god forbid he ever gets any enjoyment or even fleeting satisfaction from his sexual encounters, depicted here as tortures of the damned. 

This past summer we saw the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “The Miseducation Of Cameron Post,” writer-director Desiree Akhavan’s tart take on conversion camps which played up the eye-rolling absurdity of these holy rollers but also stung when it needed to. While following a lot of unfortunately identical story beats, “Boy Erased” ladles on the prestige-picture solemnity like molasses, with Edgerton even lifting a couple of camera angles and lighting tricks from “The Godfather” to unintentionally comic effect. (He also seems to really like “Full Metal Jacket.”) As with many movies directed by actors, the banality of the staging quickly becomes a grind. It’s like leafing through a catalog of the most hackneyed shots imaginable.

“Boy Erased” seems to be missing scenes here and there, with a particularly egregious four-year time jump before the climax that leaves us with an awful a lot of questions about plot particulars, (Though I did chuckle aloud at the oh-so-elegant expository device conveying that Jared has in the interim become a successful freelance writer by the camera panning across a cluttered home office bulletin board with a prominently positioned Post-it note that reads: “Washington Post deadline.”) 

Hedges and Crowe have a strikingly well-acted confrontation in the final reel that’s undercut by the movie’s bizarre refusal to depict a massive chunk of their relationship. It’s pretty much impossible to reconcile this young man’s firm acceptance of himself with the tremulous, self-doubting teen as seen in the rest of the picture — Edgerton neglected to include the journey that got him there. Presumably accidentally, the title is a deft critique of the screenplay.•••

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


Review – The Girl in the Spider’s Web

FILM REVIEWTHE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEBWith Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Claes Bang. Written by Jay Basu & Fede Alvarez and Steven Knight. Directed by Fede Alvarez. Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. 117 minutes.

girl_in_the_spiders_web_ver6It’s hard to say what Swedish author Stieg Larsson would make of the success of the series of thrillers he started with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Intended as a ten-book series, he died after having written only three, all of which were published posthumously, becoming international bestsellers. The original trilogy led to an equally successful Swedish film series, and an American remake of the first one. With a huge audience primed for the further adventures of Lisbeth Salander and magazine editor Mikael Blomkvist, the Swedish publisher of the books commissioned writer David Lagercrantz to continue the series, with two additional books released thus far.

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB is an English language adaptation of Lagercrantz’s first book. It’s billed as a sequel or reboot of the 2011 American film, although with a different cast and director. It’s a convoluted story, with some twists that will ultimately shed some light on Lisbeth’s early years. This time she’s involved in an elaborate plot involving software linked to the world’s nuclear weapons. It’s being pursued by an American agent, Swedish authorities, and Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), whose connection to Lisbeth is one of the film’s mysteries.

Director Fede Alvarez, who scored a hit with “Don’t Breathe,” paces the thriller with skill, whether it’s a car chase or a showdown in the villain’s lair. Where the film falls short is in making the viewer care beyond the simple rooting for Lisbeth and her muckraking ally Mikael. In the earlier films we see Lisbeth brutalized and then exacting vengeance. She was a hero for the modern age with her punked out look and her expertise in cyberspace. She was clearly not part of the mainstream. Claire Foy had big shoes to fill in a role defined by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish films and Rooney Mara in the American remake. She has the right intensity for the part, but the script itself only sketches in her motivation. She’s mostly on the run, when not beating or getting beaten.

The showy part here is that of Camilla, garbed in red, and set up as Lisbeth’s mortal enemy for reasons that slowly emerge. Much more thought seems to have been given to her motivation than to Lisbeth’s, throwing the story somewhat off-balance. It’s not that it needed less Camilla, but rather more Lisbeth. It’s not clear if this film will recharge the series after a seven-year hiatus on screen.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is an entertaining thriller that falls short of the excitement and originality of the Swedish originals, or even the 2011 American version. It might be that future films rev up the energy again, or it could be that this film serves as an example of Ebert’s Law of Diminishing Box Office Returns.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Suspiria

FILM REVIEWSUSPIRIA. With Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper. Written by David Kajganich. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references. 152 minutes.

mv5bmjq2mtiynjm2mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmde3ndmynjm-_v1_How do you remake SUSPIRIA? Dario Argento’s legendary 1977 Technicolor freakout about a German dance academy secretly run by a coven of witches is hardly the kind of timeless tale that can be repurposed throughout the generations. This isn’t “A Star Is Born.” It’s one dude’s wild fetishes running amok in a symphony of eyeball-searing hues, spectacular extravaganzas of gore and a rattletrap buzzsaw soundtrack by Goblin that sticks your head for years. The things that make “Suspiria” a classic can hardly be peeled off and passed down. They’re so abstract and embedded in the psychosis of their creator you might as well try remaking David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” while you’re at it.

Plodding literal-mindedness seems to be the solution favored by director Luca Guadagnino, who has chosen to parlay the critical and commercial success of his much beloved “Call Me By Your Name” into the most inexplicable no-win remake scenario since Gus Van Sant followed “Good Will Hunting” with “Psycho.” Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajagnach have added about an hour’s worth of exposition to “Suspiria,” attempting to somehow ground Argento’s witches’ brew within Germany’s real-life political strife circa 1977. The result is baffling when it’s not busy being flat-out offensive.

The always-appealing Dakota Johnson steps in for Jessica Harper as young Susie Bannion, the doe-eyed American girl swept up and bound for stardom in this strange school run by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, lackluster here in several roles). A student played by Chloë Grace Moretz has recently gone missing. Some think she’s joined up with the Red Army Faction, as Baader-Meinhof fashions are rocking that particular summer of ‘77 in Berlin. But the missing Moretz recently told her elderly psychiatrist that the whole campus is rotten with witches.

Oh, about that shrink, Dr. Klemperer. Credited as “Lutz Ebersdorf,” he’s actually played by Swinton in some not-particularly-convincing old man makeup that kept reminding me of Spike Jonze’s cameo in that first “Jackass” movie. It’s a real wet blanket or a performance, pokey and lacking in Swinton’s usual eccentricities, and it’s downright bizarre just how much screen time is given over to Klemperer’s snail-paced investigation of stuff we’ve already had explained to us by the witches in preceding scenes. There’s no mystery here for us, so why are we watching him try to solve it?

The movie is logy and feels interminable. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom avoid Argento’s vivid palette in favor of a dreary beige blur. This “Suspiria” is awfully ugly to look at, and replacing Goblin’s manic prog rock score with Thom Yorke’s droning and moaning is another energy sap that makes these two-and-half hours drag like five. A couple of decent dance numbers culminating in surprise gross-outs aren’t enough to compensate for the overall vibe of vampiric boredom, and even the film’s final, orgiastic ritual is stifled by sloppy wide shot coverage and weirdly stilted camera distances. (After “Mandy” this all kinda looks like kids’ stuff.)

Credit Johnson for being an actress who’s game for anything, bringing a light touch otherwise missing from this dolorous dirge. But not even she can salvage the film’s insanely misguided final monologue, which attempts to drag the horrors of Theresienstadt into this silly story. In films like “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” Guadagnino has impressed me as a lusty sensualist who knows how to have a good time without necessarily being the sharpest knife in the drawer. “Suspiria” is cut off from the aesthetic pleasures of his previous pictures, suffocated in the self-serious stupidity of trying to make his sexy witch movie into a statement about the Holocaust.

Except “Suspiria” doesn’t actually have anything to say about the camps, nor the Lufthansa hijacking nor any of the other terrorist attacks strewn about this silly movie like Easter eggs. They’re simply decorative atrocities, which at any other time might just seem tacky but right now feels especially gross.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

FILM REVIEWTHE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMSWith Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren. Written by Ashleigh Powell. Directed by Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston. Rated PG for some mild peril. 99 minutes.

nutcracker_and_the_four_realms_ver3Loosely inspired by the famous ballet and its underlying story, THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS is an imaginative and charming movie for the upcoming holiday season. There are some dance sequences and there are some excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s well-known score, but this is not your traditional “Nutcracker.” Instead, it’s a fantasy adventure in which a young girl learns to trust her own abilities.

Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is scientifically minded, like her late mother, and has not handled her mother’s death very well. Taken to a Christmas party with her father and siblings, she seeks out the host, an apparently wealthy inventor named Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), to get help unlocking a gift from her mother that requires a key. He provides the means to get the key, which involves her crossing over to the “Four Realms,” a fantasy kingdom that she discovers was ruled over by her mother.

The key is stolen by a mouse allied with Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who seems to have declared war on the three other realms, including one led by Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), who takes the confused Clara under her wing. Obtaining the key, now in Mother Ginger’s possession, seems to be the means to setting things right. But things are not what they seem. Along the way she meets Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the Nutcracker soldier, who becomes her protector when he realizes who she is.

There are twists in the story, but the ultimate conclusion should not be in doubt, given that this is a Disney film clearly intended for family viewing. There are some surreal touches, along the lines of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but director Lasse Hallström is not Burton, and though there is peril, there’s little of the darkness of the Burton film. In one of the film’s biggest in-jokes – for knowledgeable adults – there’s a shot that’s an echo of Disney’s legendary “Fantasia.”

Foy is a feisty Disney princess (as she becomes when she learns her mother was queen), who knows her way around machinery, and yet does not shy away from the gowns and glitter of her new position. The avuncular Freeman easily handles his role as Clara’s inventor-godfather, and Mirren and Knightley – often playing much more serious roles – seem to be enjoying themselves as their fantasy characters. Both women play parts which have hidden depths allowing them to be able to go along with the ride without missing a beat. Fowora-Knight, in his first significant movie role, plays the hero with aplomb, getting his dramatic moments even though Clara will be saving the day on her own.

The movies churned out for the holiday season are often a chore, either so heavy-handed or so lightweight that they’re instantly forgettable. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” manages to avoid both traps, making this a film that should be enjoyed by young viewers for years to come.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Bohemian Rhapsody

FILM REVIEWBOHEMIAN RHAPSODYWith Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Aidan Gillen, Aaron McCusker, Mike Myers. Written by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Bryan Singer. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language. 134 minutes.

bohemian_rhapsody_ver2Biopics – which is to say, dramatic movies that purport to be based on the life of a real person – are a genre unto themselves. No matter who the person is or what the subject matter, one expects to see scenes before they were famous and how they were discovered or emerged, scenes where they enjoy their greatest successes, scenes where their personal lives threaten to derail them, and the moment of triumph that cements their place in history.

In that sense, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, which is the story of the rock group Queen and their lead singer Freddie Mercury, has surprising similarities to the recent “First Man,” which is about Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. Both films hit similar beats in charting the rise and fall and rise of their protagonists even though – obviously – their stories are completely different.

Mercury, played by Emmy winner Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) in a star-making turn, was a baggage handler at the Heathrow Airport when local band Smile lost their lead singer. His joining the reconstituted group would set them on the road to success as one of the major rock acts of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The film leads up to their reunion – after Mercury went solo and discovered he had contracted AIDS – at the Live Aid concert in 1985.

As a story, the film offers some interesting insights into the rock music industry. They walk out on their record producer (played by an unrecognizable Mike Myers) when he dismisses the esoteric recording that gives the film its name. They bicker among themselves over which songs should be recorded. And they have to deal with various “outsiders” who influence the lives of the group, from managers to romantic partners.

For Mercury it was especially complicated, as Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) was the love of his life whom he clearly intended to marry, but there was another side of him he could not ignore. When he confesses his bisexuality to her it dooms their relationship and yet they remained close friends even as they became involved with other partners. The film depicts both a negative and a positive relationship for Mercury, with Aaron McCusker portraying Jim Hutton, the man with whom he spent his final years.

If the movie reflects its troubled history with several actors, writers, and directors coming and going – including director Bryan Singer who was fired before the film’s completion – it scores on the basis of its performances, particular Malek as Mercury. He burns up the screen as Mercury whether dealing with intimate personal issues, ego-driven conflicts behind the scenes, or on stage in performance. This is a star-making turn and ought to put him on the short list for the Best Actor Oscar along with Ryan Gosling for “First Man” and Chadwick Boseman for “Black Panther.”

For rock fans, for Oscar handicappers, and for anyone who enjoys an outstanding performance, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the must-sees of the season.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Johnny English Strikes Again

FILM REVIEWJOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAINWith Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Ben Miller, Olga Kurylenko, Jake Lacy. Written by William Davies. Directed by David Kerr. Rated PG for some action violence, rude humor, language, and brief nudity. 88 minutes.

johnny_english_strikes_again_ver3JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN is Rowan Atkinson’s third outing as the comically inept British spy. Johnny has retired and is now a teacher where he’s showing children various elements of spycraft – instead of whatever subject he’s supposed to be teaching – when he gets called back to service. The Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) is told that someone has outed all their secret agents and is otherwise hacking British technology, so they have to recall retired agents who are off the grid.

The villain, as is revealed quite early, is Jason (Jake Lacy), a high-tech wizard whom the P.M. is trying to recruit to solve her problems. Like Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau, Atkinson’s Johnny English can be counted on to make things worse before bumbling his way through to saving the day. The comedy is slapstick and easy, and those viewers who simply want to be distracted and have a few laughs should find this satisfies.

The gags are very undemanding. If English tells his assistant (Ben Miller) that there’s no need to refuel their car, you know they will run out of gas. If he’s told there’s some paperwork to be filled out before trying out a virtual reality run-through of his mission, you know he’ll try it out before the test supervisor gets back. And let’s not even get started on what happens when he disguises himself in a suit of armor.

Since this is a James Bond spoof, there needs to be an exotic woman/love interest. Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko) is a Russian agent who seems to be in the employ of Jason, but who has an agenda of her own. English’s attempt to be suave will, of course, lead to more slapstick. Ultimately, they have to join forces against Jason.

Depending on one’s sense of humor, there are sequences that work and others that may not. A highlight is his testing the VR goggles for a dry run into Jason’s stronghold but actually taking place in more mundane locations like a coffee shop and a tourist bus. Other moments land with a thud, as one easily anticipates things not working or otherwise backfiring. An overlong scene in a restaurant, where he’s trying to steal Jason’s cell phone disguised as a waiter, can only end one way the moment you see that the patio establishment is lit with torches.

Fans of the two previous “Johnny English” films will find this on par with the previous efforts, as will those who have enjoyed Atkinson’s turn as the equally inane Mr. Bean. Atkinson has said he has no plans to make any more moves as English or Bean, which is good news for those of us who are fans of a completely different character that he has done on television but has yet to bring to the big screen. Mr. Atkinson, are you now ready to do a “Blackadder” movie?•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Hunter Killer

FILM REVIEWHUNTER KILLERWith Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Michael Nyqvist, Linda Cardellini. Written by Arne L. Schmidt and Jamie Moss. Directed by Donovan Marsh. Rated R for violence and some language. 121 minutes.

hunter_killer_ver4HUNTER KILLER is a serviceable action film that hits the expected notes of the subgenre of, well, the sub genre. Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) is the newly appointed captain of a submarine that is sent into Russian waters to learn what became of a previous American sub that has disappeared. The twist is that he’s not an Annapolis graduate who has been groomed for leadership, but someone who has worked his way up through the ranks.

It takes a while before we learn what is really at stake and so it won’t be revealed here. Suffice to say tensions are rising and a wrong move could move the two countries towards World War III. Based on a thriller novel (“Firing Point”), the film juggles several settings and groups of actors who may be working at cross-purposes. In Washington, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gary Oldman) is ready to strike hard, while an admiral (Common) and an NSA operative (Linda Cardellini) seek an alternate way out. To that end, a group of special operatives has been sent in to try to learn what’s going on at the Russian naval base.

When the complexity of the situation is revealed, Glass has to reach out for help from the captain of a Russian sub (Michael Nyqvist), who has to be convinced that working with Glass is not betraying his country. This is only one of the things that causes some of the crew to question Glass’s decisions, with his executive officer seeming to be on the verge of mutiny.

Butler’s action films sometimes venture into camp, as with “London Has Fallen,” but “Hunter Killer” plays it straight, as does Butler. Even the clichés of the sub genre – diving so deep that the submarine is endangered, having to remain utterly quiet to avoid detection – are treated seriously so that a moment that could have generated laughs instead gets gasps. Credit director Donavan Marsh for not condescending to the material as well as getting us to feel the claustrophobic confines of the submarine.

While Butler is the anchor for the film, the film also has a solid cast in supporting roles. The tension between Oldman and Common, as two naval officials with different approaches, is palpable. Likewise, Nyquist conveys a career Russian naval officer trying to thread the needle in figuring out what course of action to follow. If the plot sometimes falls into melodrama, the characters and how they face various challenges makes this more than just another action film.

No one will confuse “Hunter Killer” with the Oscar bait and holiday blockbusters that will fill the movie schedule for the remainder of the year. Like the recent “Halloween,” it is an unapologetic genre film that treats its material – and the audience – with respect.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.