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Review – Fury

With Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal. Written and directed by David Ayer. Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout. 134 minutes.

FURY is a solid World War II drama that has some original flourishes as it covers familiar tropes about the madness of war. After a season of comic book battles where the death tolls were the equivalent of video game scores, it’s important for a film that reminds us of the actual consequences of military action.

It’s April 1945, and everyone senses that the war in Europe is close to ending. However, the Nazis are refusing to surrender, although American troops are bearing down on Berlin, and even children are being sent off to fight. Our focus is an American tank commanded by Sgt. Collier (Brad Pitt), who has kept his crew intact through fighting in Africa, France, and Belgium. As the story opens, one of their members has been killed, and is replaced by Norman (Logan Lerman), a clerk typist who has been told he’s now going into battle.

As expect, the grizzled crew–Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Gordo (Michael Peña), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal)–give him a hard time, both as a rookie and as a reminder of the member of their team whom they lost. Over the course of the day, both the sergeant and the crew make life rough for him, but after he finally proves himself, that starts to change.

Pitt, who was also one of the film’s executive producers, has the most complex role. A literally battle-scarred warrior, he declares that his position as sergeant is the best job he’s ever had, and yet after a particular brutal scene where he forces Norm to kill a German prisoner, he also proves to have a somewhat sensitive side as well. Unfortunately, most of the characters are walking clichés, from the abrasive hick (Bernthal) to LaBeouf’s Bible-thumping soldier asking everyone if they’ve been “saved.” It’s not the performances that are flawed. It’s the script that reduces the characters to foxhole caricatures.

For that matter Norman–sensitively played by Lerman–is a bit of a cliché himself: the green replacement soldier who becomes the stand-in for the audience. He goes from a reluctance to kill to gleefully slaughtering the enemy as he learns what war is really about: kill or be killed. The climactic battle leads to a somewhat ironic ending as we come to realize that even the “Good War” (i.e., World War II which clearly was a battle against evil) had its ambiguities.

The film works best in its unexpected moments, which are often moments of violence. Someone is doing their job, whether soldier or civilian, and in the next instance they are dead. There’s no justice or reason. As one character says of a dead comrade, “His number was up.”  Though the soldiers try to show respect to a dead comrade, often it’s little more than place a covering over the face of the corpse.

“Fury” lacks the bravura acting and writing of something like “Inglourious Basterds” or the historical underpinnings of “Saving Private Ryan.” In telling a story set in World War II, it’s really telling a story about every war, and why those who come back often don’t want to talk about the experience.•••

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 – The Book Of Life

With the voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate. Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez. Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images. 95 minutes.

A group of kids arrive for a field trip at a museum and think it’s going to be another boring afternoon. Instead, they are taken by a clever guide to an exhibit on Mexico where they learn about the holiday know as the Day of the Dead. It’s a festive occasion where families remember their departed loved ones who are assumed to come back to visit for the day.

Thus begins THE BOOK OF LIFE, a creative and thoroughly entertaining animated film produced by (among others) Guillermo del Toro. The guide brings out wooden dolls to tell a story about a bet between La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who oversee different parts of the afterlife. The bet is over who will win the hand of Maria (Zoe Saldana).

On the one hand there is Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a dashing hero who has been given an enchanted medal by Xibalba which makes him invulnerable. On the other hand is Manolo (Diego Luna), who hails from a long line of bullfighters but would rather play his guitar. Both are brave and both are in love with Maria, and the story is about what the characters have to go through to sort things out.

From the animated wooden characters to the colorful depiction of Mexican mythology–new territory for Hollywood–the film is endlessly inventive. Manolo is forced into the family business of bullfighting but, like Maria, he has no desire to engage in killing, making him a disappointment to his father. Yet when Manolo enters the afterlife, he discovers that the family tradition isn’t quite what he has been told.

In spite of the themes of death and the stylized skeletal remains of Manolo’s family, the movie lives up to its title in affirming life. It’s about making the most of your life, but also not forgetting where you came from, with that remembrance of one’s ancestors being the way that assures them an afterlife in paradise. In some ways, the mix of the macabre and the joyous brings to mind “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” with its similarly creative animated look and offbeat storytelling.

This has turned into a very interesting year for Hollywood animation given that Disney/Pixar have had no major releases. From “The Lego Movie” to “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” there have been a number of movies that have clicked with audiences and gotten mostly glowing reviews. “The Book of Life” seems destined to join the list of best animated features of the year because it gets it right. It’s got an engaging and witty script and combines it with creative animation and a voice cast that includes Hector Elizondo, Placido Domingo, Danny Trejo, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Cheech Marin, and Miguel Sandoval.

This is one of those rare films that really is fun for the whole family. “The Book of Life” provides some welcome entertainment for the youngsters, but don’t be afraid of checking it out without one in tow.•••

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 – The Best Of Me

With James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Gerald McRaney. Written by J. Mills Goodloe and Will Fetters. Directed by Michael Hoffman. Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language. 117 minutes.

Now is the time to invest in companies making tissues and handkerchiefs because the new Nicholas Sparks movie is opening. Sparks is to treacly romance what Stephen King is to horror: someone who keeps grinding it out books with the inevitable movie to follow. The quality of the work is beside the point. He has his audience.

If you’re not familiar with his body of work, it includes “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Safe Haven.” They all feature star-crossed lovers who–in the movie versions, at least–are beautiful even when they have to suffer. Sparks’ strategy is to get the reader/viewer invested in his romantic leads, and then make life as difficult as possible for them. The tears soon flow.

THE BEST OF ME may be the worst Sparks movie yet. The problem isn’t in the casting or the production values. It’s in the utterly contrived plot which followed a tired formula and then throws in twists that will either have you weeping or gagging. The formula is to get two people together who have all sorts of things to keep them apart… except for their true love.

Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) lives a comfortable life with a son she adores, but whose husband is more interested in his business contacts than his marriage. When she learns that someone in her hometown has died and has left a bequest for her, she goes back over her husband’s objections. Meanwhile, Dawson (James Marsden), who works on an oil rig, has received a similar letter. As it turns out, Amanda and Dawson were high school sweethearts, but he was from the wrong side of the tracks. Her father tries to buy Dawson off. His father is a violent thug who resents his son’s interest in getting an education. It’s a match that could only exist in Sparksworld.

In flashbacks, we see the younger Amanda (Liana Liberato) and Dawson (Luke Bracey) and learn how they met and fell in love. They find a safe haven at the home of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a cantankerous widower who has–wouldn’t you know it–a heart of gold. It is Tuck’s passing that reunites Amanda and Dawson in the present.

How the story plays out, with several unexpected accidents, attacks, and deaths, will not be spoiled here. You either buy it or you don’t and there are a lot of people willing to swallow this whole. Suffice to say that this movie could be used to define the word “contrived.”

The young leads (both the teen and adult versions), play the material straight, agonizing over the romantic setbacks, and looking both blissful and beautiful when things are working out right. McRaney provides some welcome gruffness as Tuck, helping the film escape from being total mush. Sean Bridgers is menacing at Dawson’s criminal father, yet is trapped in a character with no backstory, so he’s simply “the villain” without the film giving us any sense of how he sees himself.

Which gets us back to the problem of Nicholas Sparks. His writing is what might be described as romantic porn. It’s not that the brief sex scenes are anything less than tasteful and discreet. It’s that, like traditional pornography, “The Best of Me” has no purpose other than to get a specific reaction, in this case making the audience think they’re learning something about love when all that’s really happening is that they are being stimulated into giving up their tears… and their ticket money.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 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 – Kill The Messenger

With Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Michael Sheen, and Ray Liotta; Written by Peter Landesman; Directed by Michael Cuesta; Rated R for language and drug content; 112 minutes.

Watching KILL THE MESSENGER is an incredibly frustrating experience, but not in ways the filmmakers intended. This is a sensational true-life story, chilling in its implications but plodding in execution. The muddled movie contains all the elements of a top-notch muckraker, deployed erratically and to increasingly diminished returns.

Jeremy Renner (who also produced the picture) stars as Gary Webb, an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who in 1996 stumbled upon the story of a lifetime. Thanks to an accidentally leaked Grand Jury transcript slipped to him by the va-va-voom wife (Paz Vega) of a local drug kingpin, Webb tumbles down a rabbit hole of corruption to discover the C.I.A.’s role in funding the Contras via cocaine smuggling back during Ronnie Reagan’s Nicaraguan misadventures.

It’s a powder-keg of a piece, one potentially too huge for a small potatoes NorCal daily paper. (“We don’t do international,” sighs his beleaguered publisher played by Oliver Platt.) While a murderer’s row of great character actors drop into the movie for a scene or two trying to either tip him off or warn him off, Renner’s Webb pursues the story with a dogged determination just this side of parody. Peering out from behind aviator shades, this denim-clad, motorcycle-riding hotshot journalist even blasts The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” (on vinyl, no less!) while writing his articles. It’s a bit much.

Working from multiple sources, screenwriter Peter Landsman (who penned and helmed last year’s pointless Kennedy assassination procedural, “Parkland”) has a difficult time laying out the conspiracy with any clarity. We mostly have to just roll with Renner’s bug-eyed reaction shots to stuff like Andy Garcia’s imprisoned coke kingpin name-dropping “Ollie” North. The breadth of this particular tale is perhaps better suited to a television miniseries, a notion hammered home by director Michael Cuesta’s basic-cable sense of scope.

Ever since his 2001 indie breakthrough “L.I.E.,” (which ranks just behind “Zodiac” as the second-most terrifying movie to prominently feature both Brian Cox and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”), Cuesta has worked mainly in television, directing the pilots for “Blue Bloods,” “Elementary,” and “Homeland.” More dutiful than outraged, there’s a flat, budget-conscious functionality to “Kill the Messenger” that feels designed for a smaller screen.

Still, it’s impossible not to get your dander up over what happened next. It seems the C.I.A.’s intimidation tactics have nothing on our modern media’s professional pettiness. Embarrassed after being scooped by this small town paper, larger news outlets set about assigning dozens of reporters to pick apart Webb’s story. “They’re going to controversial-ize you,” warned Michael Sheen’s Washington politico, and sure enough the reporter’s findings are largely ignored in favor of a nit-picky smear campaign groaningly familiar in our depressing twenty-four-hour news cycle. No matter that the Mercury News backed up the piece with extensive documentation on the then nascent World Wide Web, perception is everything in this sound-byte culture and Gary Webb was marginalized and painted in the press as a kook.

This is pungent stuff, but a similar case was portrayed far more vividly in Michael Mann’s The Insider – a movie that Cuesta and company obviously watched more than once in their preparations.  Kill the Messenger’s pacing grows more languid and the focus grows more diffuse as it goes along, just when the paranoia should be ramping up. (“Ollie” Stone could have knocked this one out of the park.)

The movie bogs down in domestic melodrama involving Webb’s wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, trying her best with a character who seems to have a different motivation in every scene) and teenage son (Lucas Hedges.) Renner is, at heart, a weirdo character actor whose live-wire performance in “The Hurt Locker” resulted in Hollywood mistakenly shoving him into leading man parts for which he’s ill-equipped. Whether flinging arrows as the lamest Avenger or starring as The Bourne Lazenby, this actor who once played Jeffrey Dahmer and walked away with “The Town” feels strait-jacketed in straight roles. He gets progressively less interesting here the more he’s martyred, and for all its admirable ambitions, “Kill the Messenger” ultimately boils down to one of those movies where the slighted underdog gets to stand up at a podium at the end and deliver a corny speech “telling it like it is.”

In actuality, two years later the C.I.A. confirmed that Webb’s reporting was indeed correct, but by then nobody cared anymore because we were all crotch-deep in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gary Webb committed suicide in 2004. “Kill The Messenger” saves these revelations for the closing credits, which in journalism is what we call burying the lede.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Judge

With Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio. Written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Directed by David Dobkin. Rated R for language including some sexual references. 141 minutes.

There’s no question that fathers and sons have complex relationships. That idea is what is at the heart of THE JUDGE. It’s dressed up as a courtroom drama, and there’s plenty of legal jockeying for position, but in the end it’s about family. Surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, this is an acting duel between Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall. The result is a draw, which is another way of saying that the audience wins.

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-city criminal attorney who specializes in getting guilty people off the hook. Ask how he feels about all his clients being criminals he points out, “Innocent people can’t afford me.” He’s slick and smart and knows all the angles. At the start of the story he has to return to his small town Indiana home because his mother has passed away.

This not only means having to deal with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has remained behind, but his sweet mentally challenged younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong). The person he barely speaks to is his father Joseph (Duvall), a long-sitting judge and a pillar of the community. There is a wall between them that neither shows any interest in breaking down.

Hank can’t wait to get out but then he gets a call. His father has been arrested and the charge is vehicular homicide. The Judge has run down someone who once appeared in his court. Worse, he has no memory of the incident whatsoever. Reluctant to have his son defend him, the story is set up so that’s precisely what happens. Billy Bob Thornton shows up as the ruthless prosecutor who has his own history with Hank.

As the story unfolds we not only learn about the backstory of the characters and why they are who they have become, but we see that Hank and his father are a lot more alike than either would care to admit. Both of them are smart, proud, and stubborn, afraid to show their emotions but are able to do so unexpectedly. When Hank’s young daughter comes to visit he warns her that her grandfather, whom she has never met, is likely to be cold and stern. Instead he turns into a doting grandpa who delights in his granddaughter, leaving Hank baffled at this side of his father that he did not believe existed.

Duvall, at 83, is still an actor who can command the screen. The Judge can be angry or vulnerable, stiff or loving, generous or unfeeling. He seems to have no understanding of why Hank is estranged and therefore is incapable of doing anything about it. Downey, for all his flamboyant turns as Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, has grown into a serious presence. One can easily see how Hank can dominate a courtroom and be the sort of loving father he wishes he had had, while we get clues as to the ways he has held himself back. His scenes with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga) show him to be a man who thinks of himself as open but is afraid of letting his guard down.

“The Judge” is the sort of grown-up movie that we might hope to see as a matter of course. It may or may not make ten-best lists or get award nominations, but it’s solid, engaging story featuring two performances that make the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time fly by.•••

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 – Dracula Untold

With Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh. Written by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless. Directed by Gary Shore. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality. 92 minutes.

It takes some guts to make yet another vampire movie–particularly one about Dracula–given how many have been made in the past. However, Universal Pictures, which made some of the greatest horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, seems poised to do a 21st century reboot of their cast of characters. In that context, DRACULA UNTOLD isn’t a terrible film, but it doesn’t make one eager to see whichever one they do next.

This is an origin story, and Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) has to be made a sympathetic character before he is transformed into a creature of the night. When we meet him, he is a prince whose reign is being celebrated by his people, but it has come at a price. They pay tribute to the Turks to stave off further attacks. As a boy, Vlad’s father had turned him over to the Turkish authorities for military service, where he grew to be a fearsome and ruthless fighter (hence his nickname).

Now they’ve come to demand his own son, as well as the boys of his people, and he decides to fight back. Unable to raise a military force equal to the Turkish army, he instead returns to a mysterious cave where the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) is imprisoned. Vlad is given the opportunity to assume vampiric powers for three days, provided he can resist the lust to drink the blood of humans. If he can’t, then Vlad will no longer be able to return to human existence, and his maker will be freed from his curse.

It’s not like there’s a lot of suspense here. We know where the story has to go. Instead, the film tries to impress us with its locations (Ireland substituting for Transylvania) and special effects (mostly involving swarms of bats). Ultimately it’s the acting, not the scares, that make this engaging.

As Vlad, Luke Evans is a man who has been a monster in battle and prefers to live in peace with his beautiful wife (Sarah Gadon) and young son, doing what needs to be done to ensure peace and prosperity for all. When Hamza Bey (Ferdinand Kingsley) demands a price too steep, Vlad makes the deal with the devilish vampire, hoping he can achieve victory before the transformation becomes permanent. The plot contrivance that makes that impossible is a bit too neat.

Evans pulls off the tragic hero, and Dance, under prosthetics and make up until the end of the film, adds a definite touch of class to the production. Still, it suffers from the problems of all reboots that start with an origin story: since we know where it’s going, there’s got to be a lot of stuff to grab our attention. “Dracula Untold”–and even the title makes no sense–seems to be saying, “This is just the prologue; the next film is going to be great.” Maybe it will be. While this one is adequate, it falls short of being anything special.•••

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 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 – Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

With Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey. Written by Rob Lieber. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Rated PG for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language. 81 minutes.

Movies often change the titles of the books they are based on, but for some reason the title of Judith Viorst’s classic children’s book was consider too good to waste. So, in spite of its awkwardness at the theater, where parents will undoubtedly mangle it or just call it “Alexander,” we get the big screen version of ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.

This is a movie that will hit the sweet spot for tweens and youngsters, and will leave most everyone else glad it’s only 81 minutes long. Its protagonist is Alexander (Ex Oxenbould), an ordinary kid who is having the titular bad day. Among the things that go wrong are the most popular kid in his class is having a birthday party the same day as his, and even his best friend is bailing on him. Worse, he accidentally sets the chem lab on fire with the notebook of the girl he’s trying to impress. No, it’s no fun being Alexander and he gets no sympathy from his parents (Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner) or his older siblings (Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey). It’s not that they’re mean. It’s just that they’ve got their own lives to deal with.

So Alexander makes himself an ice cream sundae to console himself and puts a birthday candle on it to make a wish: that the rest of the family suffers a day like he just had. The bulk of the movie is the hilarity–well, supposed hilarity–of the rest of the family, including his baby brother, having everything go wrong. This includes his sister getting a cold when she’s supposed to be starring in the school’s production of “Peter Pan,” the baby getting a hold of an indelible marker and painting his face green, and Mom not catching an unfortunate typo in the children’s book her company is releasing. Where Froggie is supposed to take a jump, all the Js in the book have mysteriously turned into Ds.

For someone who is, say, nine or ten, this should be hilarious. What’s nice is that the film isn’t merely about mocking the other members of the family. They are also shown to be talented and loving and not quite deserving of all the chaos that ensues from Alexander’s wish. By the time his brother is taking a driving test (with Jennifer Coolidge as the tester), Alexander is pleading with him to reschedule. Ultimately the movie is about how family members need to look out for and be loyal to each other, and that’s not such a bad message.

The acting is about what you’d expect in this sort of cartoonish material. Carrell and Garner are perfect sitcom parents, alternately foolish and ideal. Dad has to go to a job interview in a pirate blouse because his daughter has thrown up on him from taking too much cold medicine, but then shows he has both the smarts and the ability to have fun that impresses his younger would-be employers. By the time he’s chasing a kangaroo down the street (Alexander has a thing about Australia) there’s no reason to take any of this seriously.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is an okay, mildly amusing, fast-paced, very entertaining movie… provided you haven’t yet hit puberty.•••

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



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