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Review – Transcendence


With Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara. Directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. 119 minutes.


TRANSCENDENCE
 is an intelligent, complex movie about artificial intelligence that delves deep into some of the issues the overrated “Her” only touched on. You spend much of the time wondering who you’re supposed to be rooting for, and that’s the point. This is a film with no easy answers.

Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall) are a husband-and-wife team of scientists. They’re trying to create a self-aware computer. As Will points out at a scientific conference at the beginning of the film, the journey is much more interesting than the goal because of the potential for discoveries along the way. It is at this point that he is shot by a member of a terrorist group attempting to destroy everyone and everything involved with the research. To try and save him Evelyn and their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness into a supercomputer.

It is here where viewers have to start choosing sides. Does the experiment work? Evelyn believes her husband is alive within the computer. Max believes that Will is dead and that whatever the creature in the computer is, it is not only not Will but constitutes a dangerous threat. The terrorist group (led by Kate Mara), wants to destroy it while a scientist (Morgan Freeman) cooperating with the government investigation becomes increasingly concerned about where things are heading.

Meanwhile, in his new incarnation, Will has spread through the Internet, amassed the money to fund his projects, and directs Evelyn to a small town where he plans to construct the facilities he needs for his research. Eventually, through the use of nanotechnology, he is able to repair shattered bodies, bring sight to the blind, and perform similar miraculous feats. He says he wants to make the world better. Others fear he’s trying to take it over.

It’s a fascinating premise, and Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, makes an assured directing debut here. (Nolan was one of the film’s executive producers.) It’s only in the last act where it falters. Perhaps they feared that having, say, Will and Max debate over the world Will wants to bring into being wouldn’t be dramatic. Instead, the two sides make their cases separately, without the chance to pick apart the other’s arguments. Screenwriter Jack Paglen seems to have been trying for a variation on “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), another film about a sentient computer that struggled at the box office yet is now considered a classic. It, too, had an ending that disturbed some viewers.

Nonetheless, the movie is engaging on a number of levels, from Depp not hiding under layers of makeup and reminding us that he really is a good actor, to Pfister’s visual compositions, such as Evelyn’s living quarters at the computer complex. It also touches on one of the high tension points in modern life: whether science is our benefactor or a potential threat. Arguments are made on both sides, and the viewer is left to decide.

Ultimately, though, “Transcendence” is a commentary on the American movie business. Here is a serious science fiction movie that makes you think. Naturally, it is released in April. The next few months will be given over to comic book superheroes, monsters, giant robots, and a variety of blockbusters and would-be blockbusters. For the most part, it’s serious thought we’ll be transcending at the movies in the months ahead.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Draft Day

With Kevin Costner, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph. Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language and sexual references. 109 minutes.

You don’t have to like sports to enjoy sports movies and you don’t have to know the first thing about football to enjoy DRAFT DAY. What little you do need to know on the subject the film fills in. This is a movie that, like “Rush” (about auto racing) and “Moneyball” (about baseball), is a powerful drama that transcends its source material. None of that is to say that football fans won’t find this especially fascinating.

Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, general manager of the Cleveland Browns. Apparently the Browns are a team that hungers for a Super Bowl victory the way the Red Sox used to crave the World Series. It’s the day of the NFL draft where teams get to select new players from a pool of college athletes. Sonny, who has the top first round pick, is under a lot of pressure over what he should do with it. To give you an idea: the head coach (Denis Leary) wants a player who will fit in with the strategy he’s been building for the team while the owner (Frank Langella) wants a star who will fill the stadium. Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants Sonny to drop everything and come to a memorial service for his father–the former manager whom Sonny fired.

There are players (Chadwick Boseman among them) who see their future with the Browns. There are rival managers willing to trade draft options with Sonny to get what they want (without letting on what it is they really want). And there’s Ali (Jennifer Garner), who’s part of the Browns organization and lives and breathes football… and who has been having a private relationship with Sonny that’s about to get more complicated.

So it’s all on Sonny and Costner gives his best performance in years as a decent man trying to steer a steady course through all these conflicts knowing it may cost him his reputation and his job if he’s wrong. As with “Moneyball,” this is all insider stuff. It’s not about winning the big game. It’s about putting together the team that might be able to win the big game. Sonny has to figure out when to bluff and when to give in, making choices that enrage the people around him. It’s not clear if he feels he doesn’t have time to explain or keeping them in the dark is part of his strategy, but this is a movie that will be appreciated by poker players as much as by football fans.

Costner is surrounded by a strong supporting cast with some, like Chi McBride, Sam Elliott, and Sean Combs, popping up for just a scene or two. Leary and Langella are fire and ice in their confrontations with Costner, with Leary literally setting fire to Sonny’s office at one point, while Langella is coldly calculating as the team’s owner. Garner provides the film’s heart, allowing Costner to demonstrate there’s a thinking, feeling person in the midst of this chaos.

What’s incredible is that the film’s director is Ivan Reitman, whose most notable work in the last decade or so–besides having the talented filmmaker Jason Reitman for a son–was the amiable romantic comedy “No Strings Attached.” After forgettable (and forgotten) movies like “Evolution” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” to see his name on this is a surprise. Reitman has come roaring back with a film that is as different from his past hits–including “Ghostbusters” and “Twins”–as could be. “Draft Day” is a film about people working at cross-purposes and how the man in charge doesn’t waver from doing what he thinks is right even when he’s not 100% sure himself.

Yeah, it’s about football, too, but that’s the least of it.••• 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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Oculus


With Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard.
Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language. 105 minutes.

If you put aside the monsters and the gorefests, the most interesting thing going on in contemporary horror movies is how the horror has become a metaphor for the dysfunctional family. Recent films like “The Conjuring” and “Sinister”–and even nonsense like the “Paranormal Activity” movies and the enormously overrated “Insidious”–have a family where there’s an issue between spouses or siblings or parents and children.

OCULUS is about Kaylie (Karen) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who have been living with some ugly family history. We only get hints at the beginning (and so this review will not fully explain it) that something horrible happened involving their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) which led to Tim being institutionalized. At the start of the story, Tim has reached his 21st birthday and has been pronounced safe, not a danger to himself or others.

Tim is eager to get on with his life, but Kaylie wants to fulfill the promise they made to each other eleven years before: to deal with what caused their family to implode in a night of violence. Her theory is that it has to do with a cursed mirror that their father hung in his office. Kaylie, who works for an auction house, has traced the history of the mirror and it turns out there are many gruesome deaths in its wake. She has “borrowed” it from the auction house to conduct controlled experiments to prove her theories.

The skeptical might ask why she doesn’t simply destroy the mirror. In the movie, Kaylie claims that the mirror and the forces it contains can defend itself, but we in the audience know better. If they destroy the mirror at the start of the movie, there is no movie.

Instead, we’re asked to suspend our disbelief as director Mike Flanagan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Howard based on a short film he had made) moves us back and forth in time. We see young Kaylie (an impressive Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) watching with growing fear as their parents’ marriage spins horribly out of control. Since the mirror also creates illusions in the minds of those within its power, both the two youngsters and their adult counterparts can’t always be certain that what they’re seeing–or not seeing–is real. There are moments when they cross paths with each other and we’re not always sure if it’s real or a trick of memory or something more sinister.

There are scares along the way and the story does come together, but this isn’t simply a story where characters are trying to destroy or exorcise evil spirits. That’s there, but if that’s all you want out of the movie it may disappoint, because it is the characters of Kaylie and Tim who are the real concern here. Can they let go of their past and live their lives, as Tim clearly wants to do, or will they be unable to rest until they confront their demons, literal or otherwise? The movie may want to scare you with its horror elements but it also wants to creep you out with real life horrors, like Kaylie and Tim overhearing their parents fight.

“Oculus” doesn’t break new ground, but it does handle the material in a slick and engaging manner, helped in no small part by the six actors in the four principle roles. Compared to what passed for horror back in the 1980s–masked killers gruesomely murdering horny teenagers–this is a mature and satisfying movie in more ways than one.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier


With Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie. Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout. 136 minutes.

It’s getting to the point that if you didn’t grow up reading Marvel Comics you need to take a refresher course before every movie based on them. The world of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. now encompasses several movie and TV series, with characters jumping back and forth among them, and hints of things to come. Indeed, the second of two tags during the closing credits is almost unintelligible to the uninitiated. (Hint: it’s a tease for the 2015 “Avengers” movie.)

As the individual franchises go, “Iron Man” is still the best because it has Robert Downey Jr. as the sardonic Tony Stark, while “Thor” and “Captain America” simply offer up bland beefcake in the title roles. After all, no one came out of the last “Thor” raving about Chris Hemsworth. The buzz was all about Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.

Chris Evans has a similar lack of star power as “Captain America” who is, truth be told, a rather boring superhero. He seems to have superstrength and a shield that can be used both offensively and defensively, but otherwise the most interesting thing about him is that he’s seventy years out of his time. In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, he returns as the World War II G.I. trying to understand the 21st century. Unfortunately, not much is made of that.

Instead we have yet another plot to take over and/or destroy the world. S.H.I.E.L.D. (the good guys) seems to have been infiltrated by bad guys who plan to establish a new world order by first engaging in mass murder. Helping them is the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who has a tie to Captain America’s past. When assassins try to take out Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), it’s up to Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Cap’s new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to defeat them. Oh, Sam is a superhero too, donning robot wings that allow him to fly as the Falcon. While it’s unusual to see Robert Redford turn up in a movie like this, he might have held out for some superpowers of his own. Instead he’s “merely” Alexander Pierce, an ordinary human who happens to be on the World Security Council, which oversees S.H.I.E.L.D.

If you’re confused, don’t worry. So long as you can remember who to boo and who to cheer, the details don’t really matter. If Cap and Black Widow discover a secret installation, they’ll be discovered by the bad guys just after they get some crucial information. If there’s a countdown to world destruction, the key moment will be in the final few seconds. As for all those innocent bystanders killed along the way? Pay them no mind. If they were important then Nick Fury would have invited them to join the fight. (The one notable exception, as always, is Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee who pops up here in his obligatory cameo as a guard at the Smithsonian.)

For all the exciting action set pieces and all the thought about creating this complex Marvel universe, one might ask why the Avengers didn’t assemble to fight off the end of the world here or in the last Thor film. While viewers are expected to recognize references to the other movies and the whole comic book history they are also expected to take the individual movies as taking place in a vacuum. The Winter Soldier and Captain America are pretty evenly matched. What would have happened if Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk showed up as well? We’ll never know.

For those invested in the Marvel superheroes, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ranks high up there. It’s not “The Avengers” or “Iron Man,” but it’s better than most of the rest of them. There’s enough intrigue, explosions,  and double crosses to keep you going through 136 minutes.

Although there are new “Spider-man” and “X-Men” movies coming out, they are separate business deals and are currently not scheduled to crossover on screen in spite of any overlapping history in the comics. The next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is “Guardians of the Galaxy,” due out this summer. Start studying.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Noah


With Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content. 138 minutes.

In the Jewish study of Biblical texts, there is a concept known as “Midrash.” These are legends and folktales where the rabbis of old tried to fill in the blanks of the stories that are tersely told. In NOAH, writer/director Darren Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel engage in what might be called cinematic Midrash. They follow the Biblical account, but draw from other sources and engage in some creativity of their own.

You already know the basic story: Noah (Russell Crowe) is told by God that the world has fallen into evil ways and that a great flood will wipe it clean. In the meantime he is to build an ark which will contain him and his family as well as two of each kind of creature. At the end–and if this is a spoiler you probably are not the audience for this film–they emerge and repopulate the world.

Some of the things that happen in the film may surprise you if you are unfamiliar with the text. There are these giant rock creatures that help Noah build the ark and protect him from his evil neighbors, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). These rock creatures are an interpretation of the “Nephilim,” who appear in a single verse (Gen. 6:4) and are purportedly connected to so-called “fallen angels.” Tubal-cain has a much bigger role here than in the Bible, where he too appears briefly (Gen. 4:22).

You may also be surprised to see Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and the miraculous blessing he confers late in the film seems to be an invention on Aronofsky’s part. Yet if you do the math as the rabbis of the Talmud did in examining all the “begats,” Methuselah–who is reported to have lived 969 years–died at the start of the flood. One last bit that may surprise if you don’t know the story is Noah getting drunk and passing out naked in the post-flood world. In fact that story is right out of the Bible (Gen. 9:20-27). What Aronofsky does here is take Noah’s curse of one of his sons and created a backstory of their relationship which fleshes out the characters.

So if the movie is in the tradition of exploring the Biblical text, is it any good? It turns out to be surprisingly good. There are things that work (the start of the flood) and things that don’t (those silly rock creatures), but the performances are solid. Crowe plays Noah not as a saint but as a man with a burden. By not providing God’s voice but only the vision Noah has, the film has Noah struggling with the meaning of his task and getting it wrong. This allows Jennifer Connolly–who also played Crowe’s wife in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001)–a dramatic moment where she asserts herself against Noah’s mistaken intent. Also an asset to the film is Emma Watson as Shem’s wife, a character only implied in the text.

Whether taken literally or metaphorically, “Noah” makes you think about the issue of evil in the world. The depictions of how Noah’s neighbors live raise the question whether they could have or should have been spared. (Although having one of them as a stowaway on the ark in order to create an action scene late in the film was not the most inspired idea.) The argument between Noah and his wife is really the moral center of the film: is humanity a blessing or a curse to the world?

By leaving us with such issues to ponder, “Noah” transcends the genre of mere “Biblical epic.” It becomes part of the very discussion.•••

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 first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.

Review – Sabotage


With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello. Directed by David Ayer. Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use. 109 minutes.

Since leaving the California governor’s mansion and returning to the big screen, Arnold Schwarzenegger has not had much luck at the box office with conventional action movies like “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan.” For all their action, they were a little too arch, as if it was still the 1980s and we were expecting him to utter some new catchphrase. SABOTAGE goes in an entirely different direction. It is a tough, gritty story that could have been made with a different actor in the part. It’s not a vehicle for Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the head of an elite undercover DEA unit that takes down major drug distributors. In the film’s opening set piece, he and his team invade a mansion held by a foreign drug cartel for a dual purpose: to get the bad guys but also to skim $10 million off the cash stockpiled there. Things go wrong and Wharton and the others find themselves relieved of duty and under investigation.

The main story kicks in when they’re all reinstated, and then–one by one–start getting bumped off in horrifically violent ways. Is it revenge from the drug cartel or is it someone else? The Atlanta homicide detective (Olivia Williams) assigned to the case not only finds herself caught up in law enforcement rivalries, but a bloody mystery in which she can’t be sure whom she can trust.

The other DEA agents turn out to be as “colorful” as Breacher. Monster (Sam Worthington) is married to Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who is also part of the team. Grinder (Joe Manganiello) towers over Breacher. Sugar (Terence Howard) is a smooth talker but, like the others, lives on the adrenaline rush of their jobs. They work hard and they play hard, and when they start getting killed, they’re lucky if all their body parts are in one place.

There are a number of mysteries afoot that slowly play out. In the meantime there are shootouts and car chases and a series of betrayals that payoff late in the film with Schwarzenegger playing it straight. There are no winks at the audience that this is just a goofy action movie. To the contrary, the characters all act as if the stakes are high and their lives are on the line, as they are.

While the film boasts a strong cast, the stand out is Williams as the police detective who is the outsider to what is going on. As she tries to get to the bottom of it we see she is human, but she is also a solid professional who does what it takes to get the job right. When the others threaten to get too cartoonish with their machismo–including Enos– he brings the proceedings back to Earth.

“Sabotage” (which has nothing to do with the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title that most of the audience wouldn’t even have heard of) is the sort of violent, hard-boiled action film that surprises. The genre is often played with a nudge and a wink to the audience that of course we’re not to take it seriously. Not this time.•••

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 first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.

Review – Bad Words


[VIEW THE NSFW "RED BAND" TRAILER.]
With Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall. Directed by Jason Bateman. Written by Andrew Dodge. Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity. 89 minutes. 

People are either going to love or hate BAD WORDS depending on whether they take it literally or not. If you take this as, in a sense, a dirty fairy tale, it is absolutely hilarious. If you take it straight–that the movie wants us to root for the smug, selfish, self-absorbed character played by Jason Bateman–you’re going to have a terrible time. You’re also going to be missing the point.

Never having been much of a fan of Jason Bateman, this reviewer wasn’t sure what to expect of the actor’s debut as a feature film director (the fear was another “Identity Thief”). Instead, this is a movie that is akin to 2003′s “Bad Santa,” in which we slowly come to understand a character we shouldn’t like at all, and enjoy his skewering of the pompous twits around him.

Bateman plays Guy Trilby. When we first meet Guy he has shown up for a regional spelling bee… for children. He has found a loophole in the rules that allows him to compete and is threatening to make life miserable for the sponsors if they violate them. Forced to allow him to compete, they can only hope he quickly loses. Unfortunately for them, even when they try to rig the contest, he doesn’t.

Why he is doing this is a mystery that doesn’t come out until late in the film, so instead we’re forced to go through this adventure alongside this bully, who tries to psyche out the other kids, and gleefully watches as the woman running the program (the always-wonderful Allison Janney) discovers he’s outsmarted her at every turn. Bateman does everything he can to make us dislike Guy, including showing the contemptuous way he treats Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), the reporter who is reporting his story and occasionally having sex with him.

As with “Bad Santa,” it is our anti-hero’s totally inappropriate friendship with a young boy that starts to reveal that the character is more complex than he initially seems. One of the other contestants is Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a smart, likable kid who seems to have spent his entire life being groomed for the spelling contest. At first Guy rebuffs the offers of friendship, but finally they go on a spree that should get social services called in. When we finally meet Chaitanya’s father, the inkling of the film’s theme begins to emerge.

Bateman directs the proceedings with a sure hand, having twenty years of television directing behind him. (He was not yet twenty when he first got a chance to helm a few episodes of “The Hogan Family.”) He hits all the comic beats without tipping his hand too soon, and takes special delight in letting Janney and Philip Baker Hall (as the person who oversees the event) fuss and fume at length.

The film has been derided as “racist” and “misogynist” in some quarters, which also misses the point. Guy is a misanthrope–he’s bitter with the entire world. His insulting remarks are a way to keep everyone at a distance so that he won’t have to admit how he has been hurt.

“Bad Words” is a laugh-out-loud funny comedy and a chance for Bateman to show he can be more than the nice guy schlemiel he usually plays.•••

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 first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.

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