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Review – Guardians Of The Galaxy

With Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker. Written by James Gunn and 
Nicole Perlman. Directed by James Gunn. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. 121 minutes.

There have been some extremely entertaining movies based on comic book superheroes and a few have been outstanding. What they have in common though is that they go from being serious to being very serious. Sure, some feature occasional comic relief, but it only serves to remind us how dark and brooding the film is the rest of the time. Coming into GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY without having read the comics but being told it’s another entry in the “Marvel Universe,” it was hard to know what to expect.

It turns out to be the goofy and action-packed antidote to most of the summer’s blockbusters. After a tragic opening in which young Peter Quill witnesses the death of his mother only to be abducted by a UFO, we’re thrown into an adventure that owes as much to “Indiana Jones” and the TV series “Farscape” as to its source material. Peter (Chris Pratt) has become a sort of space rogue and has stolen a mysterious and valuable orb. Soon everyone is after both it and him, none more so than the evil Ronan (Lee Pace).

The plot is the least important part of the film. What the story is really about is how Peter (who bills himself “Star Lord”) turns a ragtag group of rivals into the heroic group of friends suggested by the title. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been trained as a fighter by the even-more-evil Thanos (Josh Brolin), who is apparently the Big Baddie in the next “Avengers” movie. She’s been loaned to Ronan, but is pursuing her own agenda. Then there’s Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a raccoon who speaks and likes to steal, and his pal Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a living, walking tree whose conversation consists of “I am Groot.” After a stint in space prison, they are joined by Drax (Dave Bautista), who wants vengeance against Ronan for killing his family.

The movie has two things going for it. One is its terrific cast which includes everyone mentioned above plus notable bits by John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Djimon Hounsou, and Michael Rooker. Rooker is standout, playing the leader of the gang that kidnapped Peter who likes reminding him about how the other aliens wanted to eat him.

The other thing going for it is the look of the film. Credit goes to everyone from cinematographer Ben Davis to production designer Charles Wood, to everyone else involved in creating the imaginative sets, costumes, and make-up effects. The aliens come in a wide range of colors, and such is the attention to detail that Gamora’s green skin is perfectly set off by the yellow prison outfit she has to wear at one point. The integration of the CGI generated characters of Rocky and Groot with the human actors is seamless. Groot, in particular, becomes so real in expression that he seems completely real. A mixture of motion capture work (as in the recent “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) and computer wizardry, it raises the bar for this sort of work.

The bottom line is that “Guardian of the Galaxy” is fun. You don’t really have to be immersed in the Marvel Universe to get it (although there are plenty of references and in-jokes for the initiated), and as the group get over their problems and bond as friends and allies, we find ourselves joining in the celebrating as well. The film ends on a note that the Guardians will be back. There have been other films promising sequels that never came, but one suspects that isn’t going to be an issue here.•••

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 – Get on Up

With Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer. Written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth. Directed by Tate Taylor. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations. 138 minutes.

Without even knowing which musician’s life story is being dramatized, you already know how the film is going to go: He starts out from a poor or modest background, but already has the raw talent and ambition that will define his career. He’ll struggle, but eventually be recognized and get a big break. Having enjoyed great success, he’ll face serious problems–drugs, womanizing–that threaten to not only destroy the important relationships in his life, but also derail his career. He’ll get through it and return greater than ever. The film will end with a moment of triumph.

I’ve just described the plot of not only this summer’s “Jersey Boys,” but also “Walk the Line,” “Ray,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” and many others. It’s also the plot for GET ON UP, a dramatization of the life of James Brown. The details may vary, but it’s the same well-trodden path. It’s why most of these films are notable for two things: the music being celebrated and the lead performances. “Get On Up” proves to be no different.

The filmmakers have chosen to jump around in time, so one moment Brown is a little boy and the next he’s on a plane going to entertain the troops in Vietnam,  but it can’t distract us from how familiar the story feels, even if you know nothing at all about Brown. What makes the film worth seeing–even if you don’t know his music–are the two lead performances.

Chadwick Boseman is an actor to watch, having played Jackie Robinson in “42” and a key football player in “Draft Day.” He really gets to show his range here, from the young Brown on the make to the older performer who isn’t used to being questioned even by employees demanding back pay. If his turn as Robinson was about holding his emotions in so as not to give satisfaction to those attacking him, he lets it all loose as Brown, on stage and off.

Nelsan Ellis will be instantly recognizable by many as the outrageous Lafayette on the HBO series “True Blood,” but even his fans will be surprised by his very different turn here as Bobby Byrd, Brown’s longtime friend and long-suffering colleague. He also has to work a range of emotions from the eager gospel singer giving Brown–in jail for stealing a suit–a leg up, to the seasoned performer who realizes that Brown is rightfully the star of the act, a role he’ll never attain. Brown could sometimes be abusive to those closest to him, including Byrd, but Byrd had the advantage of always being able to tell Brown the truth. The most interesting moments of the film focuses on their friendship.

Other relationships get short shrift, and there are so many loose ends that the nearly two-and-a-half hour film threatens to unravel. Viola Davis, always a welcome presence, has just a few scenes as Brown’s mother. Octavia Spencer plays a madam who takes young Brown in for a while. Both actresses were standouts in the director Tate Taylor’s previous “The Help,” but seem to be here largely for publicity value. The supporting player who is the biggest plus is Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart, the promoter who was instrumental in Brown’s career.

Overall,the film is like a collection of the greatest hits of Brown’s life, from “You’re So Good” to his Boston concert the night after the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, where he was given credit for bringing people together at a time of crisis. That’s makes “Get On Up” a film that Brown’s legion of fans will want to see. As for everyone else, it’s a workmanlike movie that’s worth seeing to catch two young actors on their way up.•••

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 – 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.


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