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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.

Review – Tammy

With Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole. Written by Melissa McCarthy & Ben Falcone. Directed by
Ben Falcone. Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language. 91 minutes.

It seems even Melissa McCarthy is beginning to get that her shtick has gotten old. How many times can you play the same vulgar and aggressively stupid character before the audience moves on?  She’s doing it again in TAMMY, and you will either find her crude behavior hilarious or you will actually possess a sense of humor. This time, as insurance, she has surrounded herself with a talented cast.

McCarthy, who produced and co-wrote the script with her husband, director Ben Falcone, sticks to the formula: her character is slovenly, selfish, and moronic for nearly the whole film and then is redeemed in the last act. This time she is the title character who is fired from a fast food restaurant (managed by Falcone) for being habitually late. She has an excuse. She hit a deer with her car when she was reaching into the back seat. When she is kicked out of the restaurant, she exits by throwing ketchup packets at the manager and then touching all the food in the kitchen so it can’t be sold. It’s exactly as disgusting as that sounds.

She comes home to find out her husband (Nat Faxon) has taken up with a neighbor (Toni Collette). So she storms out to her parents’ house where she demands car keys from her mother (Alison Janney). When mom refuses she finds herself hitting the road with her alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon). The bulk of the movie is their road trip where they see who can be more irresponsible. Pearl encourages Tammy to drink while driving and buys beer for kids at a convenience store. When they are arrested and there’s not enough bail money for both Tammy gets out and commits a robbery.

They also meet guys on the road–because Tammy believes herself to be irresistible to men–but it’s grandma who ends up having sex with Earl (Gary Cole) while his son Bobby (Mark Duplass) slowly falls in love with Tammy. It all leads up to what is described as a “lesbian Fourth of July party,” the very concept of which we’re supposed to think is amusing. It’s not clear why. Do people think lesbian women don’t entertain or is it the celebration of the Fourth that’s supposed to be strange? The only good thing about this is that it brings in Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh who are so much better than the movie they’re in you wish they could be removed from it and get their own story.

Like Seth McFarlane in the summer bomb “A Million Ways To Die In The West,” the theory was a strong cast will make audiences think it’s a good movie in spite of the one-note performance by the lead. However, Janney and Collette appear so briefly you wonder why they took the parts, and Dan Aykroyd’s late arrival as Tammy’s father makes one long for the era of the first-gen “Saturday Night Live” he graced. As for Sarandon’s low comedy turn here, it’s nearly as embarrassing as watching Al Pacino in the Adam Sandler disaster “Jack And Jill.”

In the end, the responsibility for this not-terribly-funny comedy falls on McCarthy and Falcone. For those who think McCarthy is a great talent, the failure of “Tammy” might be the wake-up call she needs. If it’s a hit, she will go right on like her characters, totally oblivious to the rest of the world. File “Tammy” under “the law of diminishing returns.”•••

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 – Earth To Echo

With Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford. Written by Henry Gayden. Directed by Dave Green. Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language. 91 minutes.

EARTH TO ECHO has a lot of similarities to “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). A group of youngsters discover what turns out to be an alien mechanoid of some sort and dub it “Echo.” With the help of the kids, Echo is trying to reassemble itself from pieces scattered over many miles. Meanwhile, a group of scientists and government officials are also looking for the pieces, but for very different purposes.

However it is three decades later and we’re in a very different world. Steven Spielberg’s movie was a celebration of childhood in the suburbs, even if Mom and Dad no longer lived together. Kids were free to ride their bicycles all over the place and young Eliot and his friends eventually took to the skies thanks to their alien friend. Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) face a different situation. Their suburban community is being taken by the authorities and they all have to move away. On their last night together, they’re going to have an adventure.

These kids have grown up in an age of smartphones and GPS and the Internet. They don’t use candy pieces to attract the alien, they use electronics. It’s essentially a scavenger hunt as the pieces are located in places as different as an arcade, a biker bar, and a barn. The government agents eventually figure out what they’re doing, but a late arrival to their group, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), proves a worthy addition.

Since this is billed as a family film, we can anticipate the ending even if Echo, like E.T., has a “death scene.” This is about the young friends learning to have faith in each other and beginning to understand that not all adults have their best interests at heart. For those viewers who measure their ages in single digits, this will prove to be one of the best films of the summer.

The special effects are effective because they build up slowly across the film. From the initial discovery of Echo’s parts to its reconstitution to the big payoff at the end, they serve the story without overwhelming it. The focus is always on kids and their mission to help their new friend Echo get home. If you take the side of the adults and worry that cute little Echo might be an advance scout for a massive alien invasion force, this probably isn’t the movie for you.

“Earth To Echo” probably won’t be a critic’s favorite any more than “Jersey Boys,” the musical tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was, but both of them are actually very good signs. Particularly in the summer, Hollywood pitches most of its movies to the 18-25 audience, particularly the male audience. That explains all those monster movies and superhero films and broad comedies. “Earth To Echo” isn’t intended to burn up the box office (as “E.T.” did in 1982). It’s intended to be counterprogramming, in this case pitched to youngsters and their families. As with any other film, it can be good or bad, but that’s defined by whether it appeals to its intended audience. In that sense, “Earth To Echo” works just fine.•••

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 – Jackpot

With Kyrre Hellum, Mads Ousdal, Henrik Mestad, Arthur Berning, Lena Kristin Ellingsen. Written by Magnus Martens (screenplay) and Jo Nesb
ø (book). Directed by Magnus Martens. No MPAA Rating (R equivalent). 90 minutes.

Scandinavian literature has grown tremendously in popularity since the frenzy generated by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” series, but it is usually met with either love or hate by the American reading public. It is dark and heavy and leaves a disturbing aftertaste that some find too much to handle. Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s work, however, is surprisingly easy to digest for even the most impatient reader. His sense of humor comes through in subtle doses that don’t detract from the serious tone of murder. Instead, it makes him human enough to feel as though you would be comfortable sitting down to share a meal and conversation with him. So far, Norwegian filmmakers are taking great care in transposing that from the source material to the screen.

After Morten Tyldum’s superb 2012 adaptation of Nesbø’s “Headhunters,” we now have another smart screen translation of another Nesbø story with Magnus Marten’s JACKPOT (the original title: “Arme Riddere,” or “French Toast”). In it, Oscar Svendsen (Kyrre Hellum) wakes up pinned under a large black woman in a seedy strip bar/adult book store. The problem is that the woman on top of him is as dead as the eight men littering the floor around him. Oh, and he has a shotgun clenched in his hands and the cops are there.

At the police station, Oscar recounts to police Inspector Solør (played to perfection by Henri Mestad) the fuzzy hours leading up to that moment. Understandably, Solør takes the pieces of Oscar’s yarn with a heavy dose of sarcastic scrutiny. Oscar, who is no stranger to trouble or police, tries desperately to maintain his innocence and explain that it is due to a whole set of coincidental circumstances that start with the chance winning of a lottery ticket that was purchased with three other reformed criminals. To delve further would be to divulge spoilers.

Henrik Mestad’s performance is a refreshing change from the stereotypical Scandinavian detective trope. He comes off instantly more likable than Krister Henriksson’s and Kenneth Branagh’s separate (yet respectively stoic) portrayals of popular Swedish author Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander on Swedish television and on BBC.

The way Nesbø and Martens dissect and present violence surpasses such labels as dark comedy or comedic noir. “Jackpot” and “Headhunters” are the kinds of movies that Tarantino would love to put out if he had the capability to look beyond making every outing about witty dialogue and “favorite scenes.” These hit closer to a Coen Brothers’ vision with subtitles. In fact, there is a scene towards the end of “Jackpot” that may well be a flattering nod to a famous wood-chipper scene at the end of the Coen Brothers’ hit “Fargo.” It is unfair though, to compare this work to Stateside cinema, because of the inherent creepiness and mystery that surrounds the icy nucleus of the Scandinavian art forms, on display so effectively here.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Dana C. Kabel is the author of several short stories, appearing in Otto Penzler’s Kwik Krimes, Out of the Gutter Magazine, Shotgun Honey and several others. He currently resides in New Jersey.


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