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Review – John Wick

With Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick. Written by Derek Kolstad. Directed by David Leitch, Chad Stahelski. Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use. 101 minutes.

JOHN WICK is an entertaining action film which seems to be taking place in an alternate universe. While we’re told that it’s set in New York and New Jersey it seems more like the first-person shooter video game one of the characters plays. Not only is there a good deal of gunfire, but it’s a world that seems to be set up specifically to accommodate such things.

Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former hitman for Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). He retired when he fell in love and got married. His wife has succumbed to a fatal illness at the start of the story, and he is working through his bereavement. A chance encounter with Viggo’s son Iosef (Alfie Allen), leads to Iosef and his friends brutally attacking Wick and stealing his car. We start to get a sense of how different this world is when we see the reactions to this from Viggo to a chop shop owner (John Leguizamo in one of the film’s several interesting cameos).

Borrowing the plot from “The Road To Perdition” (2002), the film shows Wick getting his vengeance while Viggo, furious at the stupidity of his son, nevertheless has to protect him from Wick. It’s here where we start to see the strange world of this film. When Wick takes out a dozen thugs who’ve come to kill him, he orders a “cleaning service” which takes care of the mess and disposes of the bodies, paying for it with special gold coins.

Then he heads to a hotel that caters exclusively to professional killers, with the unflappable concierge (Lance Reddick) letting him know that a doctor is on 24-hour call to handle bullet wounds and such. Another gold coin gets him into a private nightclub overseen by the owner Winston (Ian McShane), who reminds him that no work is to be done on premises. Meanwhile, Viggo has taken out an “open contract” on Wick, so colleagues like Marcus (Willem Dafoe) and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) are chasing after him.

This leads to a lot of carnage where, amazingly, no innocent bystanders are hurt. Wick takes out almost the entire security team surrounding Iosef at a more public nightspot, sustains serious damage himself, and yet no one else is shot. Oh, and the police are nowhere to be seen except for one Jersey cop who shows up at Wick’s house, takes in what’s happened, and wishes Wick a nice evening.

As an actor, Reeves has been accused of having a limited range. This isn’t quite fair, but it works to his advantage here. His stoic, expressionless appearance is perfect for Wick, a stone-cold killer forced to pick up the tools of his trade that he thought he had–literally–buried for good. As the father and son, Nyqvist and Allen get to show some emotion, nearly all of it negative. When Viggo smiles, that’s when the people around him really have to start worrying.

“John Wick” has a quirky style that makes it more than just another action film. It is a dark, violent fantasy that probably has more gunfire in it than any other movie out there at the moment with the exception of “Fury,” and that one is set during World War II. That ought to tell you all you need to know about what to expect here.•••

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 – Ouija

With Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff,
Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith. Written by Juliet Snowden, Stiles White. Directed by Stiles White. Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content, frightening horror images, and thematic material. 89 minutes.

The horror genre seems to be in the midst of a cycle of “haunted house” movies. OUIJA tries to put a fresh spin on it by linking it to the game that has treated as both a harmless toy and a link to the spirit world. You can guess which tack this film takes.

The film’s prologue provides us with the rules for the movie “Ouija,” if not for the real-life board: one should never use it alone; one should never use it in a graveyard; one should always say good-bye. Having established this we then come to a surprising teen death which sets the story in motion.

Laine (Olivia Cooke) is bereaved at the loss of her best friend. When she discovers that her late BFF had been playing with a Ouija board, she and several other teens attempt to contact her. The scares come from the unexpected rather than from horrific gore. Early on it is the director (special effects man Stiles White making his directing debut) giving us the cinematic equivalent of saying, “Boo!” A character walks into a room and turns on the light. Surprise! There’s someone already there. It turns out to be a friend and not a monster, but the audience jumps just the same. Later, the surprises are violent and supernatural, although staying clear of R-rated entrails.

The young cast–Ana Coto as Laine’s sister, Daren Kagasoff as her boyfriend, Douglas Smith as her late friend’s boyfriend, and Bianca Santos rounding out the group–are playing teenage types. Coto is the misbehaving punk to Cooke’s “good” girl, but she’s really not all that bad, and Smith pouts moodily as the grieving boyfriend who can’t believe his girlfriend took her own life. If there are no great performances here, neither are there any bad ones. They’re as engaging as they need to be.

Cooke is the one who actually has to carry the film, whether it’s dealing with her friends, or a crazy old lady (Lin Shaye in a scene-stealing cameo) who may hold the secret for what’s going on. It may be premature to predict the future career of this 21-year-old actress from England, but she’s clearly someone to watch, especially if she gets a chance at a more substantial role.

Meanwhile, as a horror film goes, this breaks no new ground, but it bumps along at a steady pace, providing the requisite scares and laughs along the way. We also learn that the thing moved around the board is called a “planchette” and apparently if you look through the viewer you may not like what you see. It comes to a satisfying ending and then manages to leave the door open for “Ouija 2.” Will there be a sequel? You’ll have to consult your Ouija board to find out, but don’t do it alone.•••

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 – The Irish Pub

With Liam Ahern, Garry Cusack, Bobby Blackwell, Vincent “Jasper” Murphy, and Dano Mackey; Written and directed by Alex Fegan; No MPAA Rating (not really for kids)

If you spend as much time hanging out in bars as I do, you probably won’t find many surprises in THE IRISH PUB, director Alex Fegan’s disarming documentary about this most venerable of institutions. You’ll also probably find it delightful.

Fegan’s approach is simplicity itself. Over the course of a year or so, he brought a single camera to twenty-three public houses all over the Emerald Isle. Conversations ensued.

Sticking to family-run businesses that have been passed down through at least three generations, Fegan engages the owners as they hold court behind the bar. You won’t see any televisions or jukeboxes here, just a lot of droll, oft-told tales and a beguiling spirit of community. While Boston’s most famous watering hole was where everybody knows your name, Ireland’s counterparts are wryly described by one bartender as “where you can go and not be interrupted except by everybody.”

There’s a lot of history here, and I’m not just talking about the centuries-old flagstone floors. We see the booth where Mary Robinson was allegedly persuaded to run for President, hear legends of everyone from James Joyce to Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and of course Brendan Behan stories abound–none of them ending well. A good deal of this may very well be blarney, but who cares when the yarns are delivered with such practiced panache?

Fegan favors straight-on shots from a patron’s point-of-view, occasionally interrupted by thirsty afternoon customers. It’s a relaxed, unassuming picture that breezes by in a slight seventy-five minutes, pausing once in awhile for a song before heading out for another pint in another town.

I suppose more could have been made about the darker side of the demon drink and a people stereotypically susceptible to it, but “The Irish Pub” just isn’t that kind of movie. It’s an endearing, affectionate snapshot of a fading way of life, of places where strangers from ages eighteen to eighty can still stop for a friendly chat on their way home from wherever, taking comfort in conversation and company.

“There’s enough things changing in the world,” explains one of the owners, “we’ll try to keep it the same as it was.”

Such nostalgia may be overly rosy, but given that I stopped off for a beer after the movie and found a tavern full of folks staring silently at their phones, the sentiment is awfully appealing.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 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 – 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.


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