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Review – Hercules

With Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes. Written by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Directed by Brett Ratner. Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity. 98 minutes.

Another “Hercules” movie? Already? (Oh, did you forget about “The Legend of Hercules” which briefly graced area screens last January?) If you’re skeptical, you might be surprised that so were the film’s distributors. It wasn’t shown to the press for review purposes until an hour before it opened to the public.

Usually that’s a sign of a movie that’s a disaster, but sometime it’s a sign that the studio didn’t know what they had. This HERCULES turns out to be a decent movie not about ancient mythology, but about war and about using the power of myth to lead men. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is reputed to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, making him a demi-god. As we’re told in the opening narration, he performed a series of labors against supernatural beasts, cementing his reputation.

In fact, he and his small band of fighters are mercenaries, ready to be hired if the price is right. Among them are Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), a seer so powerful he has predicted his own death, Autolycus (Rufus Sewall), a fierce warrior who has known Hercules since boyhood, and Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), an archer with unerring aim. They are hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the leader of Thrace, to train an army and lead the fight against Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who is on the march against Thrace.

There are some twists and turns in the plot, but the theme is how Hercules and his team inspire the troops, mostly farmers and shopkeepers. We also get a sense of how battles can be won against overwhelming odds through the use of strategy, such as holding back forces to be released against the unsuspecting enemy at just the right moment. When things take a turn for the worse, Hercules draws on the strength of his own legend–and the people who believe in him–to rouse himself at a time when all seems lost.

This is a Hercules with no supernatural or magical moments–except in the opening flashback describing the legend–but about war and, to some extent, about its use as a political tool. For those there for the fighting, there is plenty of action along the way. This may be the most violent film since the “300” movies, but it’s also about the reasons for the violence and whether it’s justified.

Dwayne Johnson may never do Hamlet, but he continues to stretch as an actor and given his build he’s a natural fit for Hercules. He shows us that heroism isn’t only about what one does on the battlefield. He’s surrounded by a great cast, from Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt as political leaders willing to use Hercules, and Sewall and McShane making wry observations along the way. Reece Ritchie is also a plus as Iolaus, Hercules’s story-telling nephew who wants to be a warrior. There’s no love story here, and so the women–primarily Berdal and Rebecca Ferguson as Lord Cotys’s daughter–are more involved in, respectively, the fighting or the palace intrigue.

“Hercules” is a solid entry as an action/war movie set in ancient times, letting us thrill at the violence but also making sure we see the consequences of it as well. In exploring the power of myth to inspire men to fight, it aspires to be something more than just a lot of guys clanging swords, shields, and clubs. It may be the most unexpected film of the summer.•••

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 – Lucy

With Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality. 90 minutes. 

With “Under the Skin” and now LUCY, Scarlett Johansson has starred in two of the most mind-blowing science fiction films of 2014. Where “Under the Skin” was arty and understated, “Lucy” is written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Professional,” “La Femme Nikita”) so you know it’s going to have plenty of action. Yet behind the shootings and special effects is a smart movie that may surprise you.

Lucy (Johansson) is a student, who, for some reason is in Taiwan. We’re thrown right into the story as a seedy boyfriend tries to get her to deliver a briefcase to a Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi). It turns out to be a very bad deal. Suffice to say something happens that causes a profound change in Lucy.

Meanwhile, we see Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) give a lecture on his theories about what it might mean if humans could use more than the 10 to 15 percent of our brains that we actually utilize. Pay attention, because it’s here where the plot of the film is explained. After being kidnapped and brutalized, Lucy discovers that her brain power is increasing. Indeed, she can see and do things ordinary humans cannot. It’s only a matter of time before the two meet and, unlike his similar scientist in the recent “Transcendence,” he’s there to help rather than oppose the film’s protagonist.

Where “Transformers: Age of Extinction” took nearly three hours to tell a story that could have been written on a matchbook, Besson’s pacing is fast and taut. There are no wasted moments. While Lucy is trying to understand what is happening to her, Jang and his gang of thugs are in hot pursuit leaving a trail of bloody bodies in their wake. Besides the professor, Lucy’s only ally is a French police detective (Amr Waked) who isn’t quite sure what’s going on even when it’s right before his eyes.

This is not a movie where you go for the acting as everyone is pretty much given their one-note characters and told to run with it. Freeman was presumably cast as much for his avuncular and authoritative voice as anything else. Even if you don’t quite follow what he’s saying, you’re willing to go along. The one real performance here is Johansson’s, who starts out as a bit of ditz and then evolves as her powers increase. In one bizarre scene she has to supervise a surgical procedure on herself–without anesthetic–while making an emotional phone call to her mother.

It all plays out like a tightly-written short story where a character is set on a race to a goal. At film’s end, the plot elements have been tied up, but like the Star Child returning to Earth at the end of “2001” you may be left wondering what happens next. It would be a mistake to do a sequel as nothing that follows could really do justice to what’s been established here.

“Lucy” may succeed where “Transcendence” failed by providing the requisite action to propel the plot, and giving us Scarlett Johansson turned into a superbrain rather than Johnny Depp turned into a computer program. Yet both films focus on questions rarely asked: if evolution is an ongoing process, why should we imagine humans are the end game? What might the next stage be? And will present-day humans seem like Neanderthals to whatever might come next?•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran film 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 – And So It Goes

With Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins, Frances Sternhagen, Frankie Valli. Written by Mark Andrus. Directed by Rob Reiner. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and drug elements. 94 minutes.

There was a time when the new Rob Reiner film was something get excited about: “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President.” Unfortunately those days are long past and so are the days when he could get top screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, and the late Nora Ephron to craft the scripts for his films.

Instead he’s stuck with Mark Andrus who had some interesting early credits but whose most recent film was the forgettable Jane Fonda/Lindsay Lohan vehicle “Georgia Rule” from 2007. AND SO IT GOES is being sold as a romantic comedy for the “baby boomer” and older set, but as someone in that demographic, this reviewer has to say, “Don’t be fooled.” The movie is mush, featuring a two-dimensional turn by Diane Keaton and a truly atrocious performance by the usually dependable Michael Douglas. With the exception of a few scenes with Frances Sternhagen as the crusty business associate of Douglas, there’s nothing to see here.

Douglas plays Oren Little, a real estate broker and a widower who is trying to sell his lavish house so he can finally retire. He’s obnoxious and unpleasant, given to racial stereotyping and contempt for the neighbors at his lakefront apartment where he now lives. When they complain, for example, that he hogs more than one parking spot, he blithely replies, “Take it up with management.” Since he owns the place, he really doesn’t care.

Into his life comes Sarah (Sterling Jerins), the granddaughter he didn’t know he had. His junkie son is off for a short prison term and leaves Sarah with a very unwilling Oren. His next door neighbor Leah (Diane Keaton) steps up to help out, and this leads to the utterly unbelievable romance between the two. Her character is a widow and sixty-something aspiring singer who keeps bursting into tears during her set when she starts talking about her late husband. It’s a match made in heaven!

Reiner didn’t always get the respect the director of so many good films might expect, and his work over the last decade or show demonstrates why: he’s only as good as the script. Given sappy material (as in this or “The Bucket List”), he presents it as if it’s great drama, unable to make us believe in the character or the situation. Sternhagen shows what the film needed: some sharp humor to take Oren down a peg or three, instead of letting him run roughshod over everyone until he discovers he’s fallen for both his granddaughter and his neighbor. This might have worked for Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol,” but a Scrooge-like character getting a heart is a very tired cliché by now.

The film is so unfocused that Frankie Valli–yes, that Frankie Valli–shows up as a restaurant owner who is cajoled into giving Leah a shot as a singer, and it’s a scene that could have been phoned in by anyone. If you’re going to appeal to an older audience (as Clint Eastwood did in his recent movie about Frankie Valli, “Jersey Boys”) then go all out and have some fun with it.

No doubt there will be some who will praise the film for being something other than the cartoon/monster/superhero fare that takes up so much of the summer movie schedule. Unfortunately it’s not enough. Older people like to go to good movies, not simply movies about people their own age. “And So It Goes”–like its meaningless generic title (lifted from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five”)–goes nowhere.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and the 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 – Sex Tape

With Jason Segel, Cameron Diaz, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe. Written by Kate Angelo and Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use. 94 minutes.

It tells you something about SEX TAPE that a cameo by Jack Black brings a moment of satire and subtlety that the rest of the film could have desperately used. Of course, referring to a digital recording as a “tape” already indicates that the people behind the film are woefully out-of-touch. It’s a smutty joke that isn’t especially funny.

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) are married with two kids. Annie writes a blog about being a mother and in the film’s prologue, she remembers the wild sex they used to have and how dull their lives are now. To spice things up, they decide to make their own explicit sex video using the new tablet Jay has gotten. The film’s contrivance is that he’s constantly upgrading his computer hardware and giving his old equipment to friends and family, yet keeping them all linked. See, he’s got some unspecified job in the music business and everyone enjoys having his playlist. If you buy that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that can be yours for just pennies on the dollar.

Going into the film, you already know what happens next. They make the video, he doesn’t erase it, and suddenly everyone who has one of his old tablets has access to it. Thus begins the supposedly hilarious adventures as they run around trying to get the tablets back. (For those of you savvy enough to know there’s an easier solution, the film finally acknowledges it late in the story.)

Their friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper) are sympathetic, but want to see the video for themselves. In a long sequence, Hank (Rob Lowe), the head of the company that wants to acquire Annie’s blog, seems to be coming onto her while Jay is being chased through the house by a German shepherd. No, it makes no sense. The characters are on drugs, although Lowe has professed sobriety since his own hard partying days. Perhaps the filmmakers were as well. It would explain why they thought this was funny.

By the time Black shows up as the operator of a porn website where the video has supposedly been uploaded, you may be wondering how low the film can sink, but it turns out to be the best scene of the film. It’s not enough to redeem the whole movie, though, and the film still has a ways to go after that. While Segel and Diaz cavort in the buff and get to use R-rated language, it’s not very exciting or even entertaining. For a movie that so desperately wants to be fun, that’s deadly.

In fact, at times the film seems more like a commercial for a particular brand of tablet–not to be given any free publicity here–and all the features it has. There are also plugs for particular software, a real-life porn website, and a classic sex manual. Did the producers sell off product placement rights to raise money for the film, or were they hoping to get something else in exchange for what amounts to free advertising?

In short, “Sex Tape” is not unlike the porn videos that inspired it: with bad acting and a flimsy script it may temporarily satisfy but will soon be quickly forgotten.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 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 Purge: Anarchy

With Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zoë Soul, Zach Gilford, Michael K. Williams. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language. 103 minutes.

Writer-director James DeMonaco has followed exactly the right instincts in crafting THE PURGE: ANARCHY, his sequel to “The Purge” (2013). He’s taken the concept, deepened it, asks a lot of new questions, provides the requisite action, and leaves us wondering what happens next. Not bad for a low-budget thriller set in the near future.

Here he reminds us that the “New Founding Fathers,” who are now running the country, have established an annual rite known as the “Purge.” For twelve hours, police, fire, and other emergency services are suspended and people may go out and murder and commit other acts of violence without consequence. As a result, we are told, crime and unemployment are down, and America is enjoying new prosperity.

The first film focused on an upper middle class family whose home was under siege. Now we’re on the streets. Leo (Frank Grillo) has a specific act of vengeance he intends to carry out that night. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is single mother who lives with her adult daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) and father. They cannot afford the fancy security add-ons to turn their apartment into a fortress. Then there’s Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a troubled married couple whose car breaks down in the city just as the Purge begins.

DeMonaco contrives to bring these characters together in trying to survive the night. Leo is the only one who is armed, and what they up against turns out to be more troubling than mere random violence. There’s a truck with a machine gunner taking out anyone he sees. There are heavily armored and masked forces breaking into people’s homes. And then there’s the 1%.

They’re not called that here, but DeMonaco has sharpened his allegory to ask how the wealthy deal with the purge and what they get out of it. Some pay the elderly or the sick to be their victims (allowing them to leave their families money after their deaths). Some skip the idea of paying their victims and simply kidnap their prey off the street for more “refined” entertainment. Meanwhile, the government has an agenda that gets more fully explored here.

The first movie gave us characters who simply accepted the purge as a good thing, but now we see that that attitude is not universal. Cali has been following someone named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), who is against both the purge and the “New Founding Fathers,” and claims it is way to thin out the underclass while ensuring profits for the elites. His answer seems to be that if this is class warfare, let’s make the most of it.

In other words, this is a movie with plenty of violent action–including a chase through a subway tunnel involving a flame thrower–but that also has a brain in its head. At film’s end, the situation of the main characters have been mostly resolved, but the larger conflict in the society has not. Like “The Hunger Games,” the violent distraction created by the authorities is unravelling and the revolution is around the corner.

“The Purge: Anarchy” isn’t quite as tight as the first one. There’s a few too many shots of people peering around corners and running across streets, but there’s enough surprises in the plot and explosive action along the way that fans of the first film won’t be disappointed.  They may even start looking forward to the next 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 – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

With Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell. Written by Rick Jaffa and 
Amanda Silver & Mark Bomback. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language. 130 minutes.

Having watched “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” (2011) twice, this reviewer makes no apologies for finding it an incoherent mess. It was a minority opinion to be sure, but a second viewing was unpersuasive in uncovering the film’s supposed positive values. Thus going into DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (a title that is arguably a synonym for the first one), there was not a lot of eager anticipation.

It’s a pleasure, therefore, to report that “Dawn” has a much more focused script, that its special effects are as impressive as any seen in this summer’s blockbusters, and for those looking for a bit of substance, the film actually has a dark message about humanity and war. While several of the summer’s films (“Godzilla,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Edge Of Tomorrow,” “Transformers: Age Of Extinction”) have had plenty of battles and destruction, this is the one that leaves us with something other than a conventional happy ending.

Ten years after the events of “Rise,” most of humanity is dead, wiped out by the “simian flu,” a disease caused not by the apes but by the scientists and their experiments in the first film. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe (of apes, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) in the forests beyond San Francisco, wondering if there are any humans left. It’s no surprise to us–but it is to the apes–when they learn there is an enclave of survivors in the big city.

The peaceful Malcolm (Jason Clarke) convinces Caesar to let the humans attempt to get a power generating dam back into operation. However, some of the humans hate the apes as mere “animals” or blame them for the plague, while Koba (Tony Kebbell) has never forgotten the suffering he enduring as an experimental animal. As much as Malcolm and Caesar attempt to slowly and carefully forge a bond of trust, there are others all too eager to undercut them.

In that sense, the movie is a parable about war and about the extremists and hotheads who can do tremendous damage in spite of the positive actions of others. What good is it that Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) is a doctor who can treat Caesar’s ailing wife when Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is ready to arm the humans and totally wipe out the ape population? Essentially the film is incident after incident where it looks like peace and rational behavior will prevail, and then someone does something stupid or hateful or violent. It’s one step forward, three steps back.

The CGI work is astounding, from the rubble of San Francisco, to the ape army on the attack. Where the work is especially impressive is in making us believe that the apes are thinking and reacting. Done largely with “motion capture” technology where actors like Serkis and Kebbell perform the scene and then their ape characters are digitally built around them, it represents special effects at their best. The effects don’t call attention to themselves as effects but instead are there simply to tell the story and serve the movie.

There are no shirkers among the actors in the human roles, but special mention must be made of Jason Clarke. The Australian actor has been quietly amassing credits in film and on television, sometimes in a leading role but never center stage in a movie like this. His turn here ought to bring him one step closer to being on the A list.

No doubt the series will continue, and if they maintain the level of “Dawn” it will be worth it. Please, though, think up a better title? Calling film number three “Beginning Of The Planet Of The Apes” would just be silly.•••

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 – Snowpiercer

With Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Jamie Bell; Written by Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson; Directed by Bong-Joon Ho; 126 minutes; Rated R (for violence, language, and drug content)

If a sci-fi movie like “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” were a 10-year-old kid on a school bus, it would be the averagely-handsome Pop Warner star who sits in the back, dazzling his slavish circle of minions with truely awesome displays of armpit farting, tales of the naked ladies he saw on HBO while staying up way past his bedtime on his bi-weekly weekend visit with his Dad, and oh-so-clever rhymes with the word “Nantucket.” SNOWPIERCER, however, would be the bell-curve-blowing smart kid who occasionally smells like broccoli, takes Harry Potter perhaps a wee bit too seriously, and sits all jittery in the front of the bus so he can quickly exit and hide in the A/V room from those other kids when they disembark and begin their daily wedgie crusade.

The story of “Snowpiercer” is this: in the not-too-distant future, mankind’s search for a scientific solution to global warming results in the seeding of the atmosphere with a chemical that oops-freezes to death all life on Earth. That is all life on Earth, save for a fortunate few who ride out the extreme weenie-shrinking apocalypse in varying degrees of comfort in a trans-global locomotive concieved and run by a mysterious and largely unseen mastermind known as Wilford (Ed Harris). Naturally, the grubby, traumatized steerage folk in the “Foot” of the train bemoan their lot in life, but find in Curtis (Chris Evans) a hero of the hopeful version of their future that would have them freely enjoying the unfathomable amenties enjoyed by those who live in the “Head” of the train. To get there, however, the brave Curtis and his dutiful lieutenant Edgar (Jamie Bell) must confront Wilford’s cold mouthpiece, Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her vicious henchman, Franco (Vlad Ivanov).

While the landscape and premise of “Snowpiercer” might be very similar to Disney’s “Frozen”–the movie that would be the girl on the bus whose hand the that the Prince of Pop Warner would hold while he later told his friends that he got to fifth base with her)–the scenario is far more complex and dire. The scenario is also better thought-out and presented than its way-cool classmates, made very real by writer-director Bong Joon-Ho, creator of such dark treats as the “Godzilla” one-upper “The Host” (2006) and the superb revenge fantasy “Mother” (2009). He crafts a tight, self-contained world that he matter-of-factly throws us into, with the only setup being a series of expository intertitles that violate the writer’s axiom of “show, don’t tell.” However, because the rest of the film is so precise in tying up all its ends, it is easy to forgive this shortcut or even rationalize it away entirely by citing masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) or Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) that used the same workaround.

Bong has a great, pedigreed cast helping him achieve this impressive synchronicity. Evans (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) proves a stoic man of action, and when it comes time for him to relate an unspeakable episode of brutality from his past, he doesn’t choke. Swinton, slightly more recognizable than she was in Wes Anderson’s recent hit “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is at her ham-tastic best, playing Mason as a weaselly cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Dr. Smith from “Lost In Space.” Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) brings some maternal humanity to the mix as a mom in search of the young son who was taken to “The Head” for no apparent reason. John Hurt, himself no stranger to sci-fi, having starred in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) and being a veteran of the “Hellboy” and “Harry Potter” series, makes a perfect mentor for Curtis, more efficiently and with greater sympathy than Alec Guiness’s Obi-wan Kenobi offered to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” (1977). And as the puppetmaster Wilford, man-of-few-words Ed Harris finally answers the question, “What happened to Christof when ‘The Truman Show’ went off the air?”

Not only is the revolt on the train a lesson in Sociology 101 that George Orwell might have taught if he had lived long enough to buddy-up with Rod Serling and write for “The Twilight Zone,” but it is also an experiment in story structure. By not wasting time on 20 minutes of set-up, Bong gives us credit to deduce the more obvious points of his tale while he focuses on beefing-up the individual characters’ backstories. He weaves them together skillfully, resolving them as satisfactorily as one can (considering that the world has already ended). He does this with style and restraint, taking great care to keep the violence from descending into all-out “Mad Max” bloodlust while preserving its impact, all the while keeping the next surprise under wraps until just the right time. The end result is that “Snowpiercer” satisfies as a Big Summer Movie. Despite the fact that movies like it live in constant fear of wet willies, purple nurples, and public depantsing at the hands of the “Transformers” of the world, they can defy those box office bullies with their staying power beyond the summer they drop and remain relevant for years to come, and not just another air-conditioned afternoon or fleeting footnote in a studio’s ledger.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Robert Newton is a former full-time film critic who opened the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, MA in 2008.


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