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Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I

With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore. Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material. 123 minutes.

As the first half of what should have been a single film, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART I does a good job of setting up the events of the final book in “The Hunger Games” trilogy. As a film standing on its own, it is long and slow and unsatisfying. It will undoubtedly make a lot of money and so Hollywood will learn the wrong lesson, as it did with turning “The Hobbit” into three bloated films.

For those who know where it’s going, “Mockingjay, Part I” gets a lot right. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) remains that mix of bravery, daring, and insecurity that makes her one of the most memorable of modern heroines. She and her mother and sister are now refugees in District 13, the base for President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and the rebel forces. Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has defected from the Capitol forces of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), convinces Coin that Katniss can be the face of the revolution. Her acts of defiance in the first two films make her the perfect person to rally and unite the other districts. The only one who has trouble believing it is Katniss herself.

Lawrence captures the contradictions within Katniss in a sequence when she visits a hospital filled with the dead and wounded. In turn she is shaken, stirred when she sees the effect she has on people, and then defiant when the Capitol strikes back. If “The Hunger Games” can be read (and seen) as an extended metaphor for adolescence, it is in “Mockingjay” that Katniss finally comes of age and takes full responsibility for her actions rather let herself be the pawn of others.

That’s in contrast to Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is in the hands of Snow and is being used for propaganda purposes to suppress the rebellion. The irony is that both Katniss and Peeta are being used, but since Snow is a cruel and sadistic leader–he orders mass murder just to make a point–it is Peeta who needs rescuing, an action taken up the last part of this film.

The look and feel of the film is different from the first two, since the Capitol scenes are brief and mostly in tight shots focusing on Snow, Peeta, or unctuous interviewer Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). We get much more of a sense of the spare military conditions of District 13, where Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) can’t get a drink, Effie (Elizabeth Banks) can’t get make-up, and Katniss has to demand that her sister be allowed to keep her cat. If you’re wondering what the world will look like after the revolution, you’re starting to get the idea.

The real problem here is that reviewing this film is like reviewing the first half of a book. There’s plenty of foreshadowing of what is to come but the story doesn’t so much come to an end as have an intermission. Those who haven’t read the book will likely feel frustrated and those who haven’t seen the other movies shouldn’t even bother.

For fans of the books and/or movies, “Mockingjay, Part I” can’t really be judged until we see “Part II.” Unfortunately, due to the President Snow types at Lionsgate, we have to wait another year.•••

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 – Force Majeure

With Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, and Brady Corbet; Written and directed by Ruben Östlund; Rated R for some language and brief nudity; 118 minutes.

It all comes down to the electric toothbrushes.

That irritating hum of mechanized oral hygiene is cranked to ear-splitting levels during the ritualistic family brushings we cut back to time and again in FORCE MAJEURE (aka “Turist”), writer-director Ruben Östlund’s mordantly hilarious tale of a bourgeoisie Swedish couple torn asunder by an unexpected act of cowardice while on vacation in the Alpine valley.

At first glance, the blandly attractive Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Konsgli) appear perfectly happy and profoundly uninteresting, dragging their two young pre-teen towheads along for a ski trip at a tony French resort. Everything is all very moneyed, polite, and frankly rather tedious; until one morning over breakfast, when an avalanche comes a little too close for comfort to the lodge’s balcony café.

Ebba dives for the kids and clutches them dear. Tomas grabs his gloves and his cell phone–then he turns and runs like hell. When the snow clears, everybody is safe and sound. Daddy Dearest sheepishly returns to the breakfast table and shrugs it all off like nothing ever happened. But Ebba saw. The kids saw. Everybody saw.

What follows is a squrimingly funny deadpan comedy of emasculation. Tomas first tries to deny it, but Ebba is suddenly guzzling wine and blurting out the whole story to strangers over dinner. The kids retreat into their iPads. It’s readily apparent now on which side Tomas’ fight-or-flight instincts fall, and the heartbroken Ebba just can’t stop herself from picking at his vanquished masculinity like a scab. Resentments fester. Worse of all, they seem to be contagious–the couple’s closest friends arrive for a visit only to find their own relationship knocked off its axis by the aftershocks of this avalanche that only appeared to cause no casualties.

I realize that I have described “Force Majeure” as a comedy, but be forewarned: there aren’t any actual jokes, per se. The pitch-black humor erupts at odd moments during awkward pauses, prompted by Östlund’s droll, dispassionate gaze at all these roiling caveman emotions tamped down for appearances’ sake in such a fussy, affluent locale. Those electric toothbrushes take on an amusingly symbolic weight as noisy instruments of useless modernity. Recurring appearances from a poker-faced janitor at times turn the film into a farce about just how goddamned impossible it is for a couple to have a conversation alone when traveling with the kids.

If any of this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of “The Loneliest Planet,” director Julia Loktev’s mesmerizing 2012 mood-piece in which Gael Garcia Bernal earned the title of Worst Boyfriend Ever during a hike in the Caucasus Mountains. The two films would make a fine double feature, as they’re similar stories told in strikingly different registers. Östlund keeps a chilly detachment from the proceedings.

Though occasionally punctuated with blasts of Vivaldi that play like aural punch-lines, the soundtrack mostly sticks to abnormally amplified ambient sounds–these silences are indeed deafening. He and cinematographer Wenzel back up the camera to stress the smallness of these messy characters amid their pristine, opulent surroundings.

Even the mountains are manicured; these slopes carefully tended with snow-making machines and the booming reports of cannons fired at the resort to set off controlled avalanches. This illusion of control and its subsequent undoing is what gives “Force Majeure” such a sickly kick. That and the toothbrushes.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 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 – Dumb and Dumber To

With Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Rob Riggle. Rachel Melvin, Kathleen Turner. Written by Sean Anders, Mike Cerrone, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, John Morris, Bennett Yellin. Directed by Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references. 109 minutes.

In a desperate attempt to save their dying careers filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly return to the scene of their first big hit, the 1994 “Dumb and Dumber.” Watching Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels playing morons in their 30s was amusing to many. Watching them play the same roles in their 50s in DUMB AND DUMBER TO borders on the pathetic.

We know we’re in Farrelly territory early on when Harry Dunne (Daniels) comes to visit his friend Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) at a mental institution where he has been in a catatonic state for twenty years. From the moment Harry starts fussing with Lloyd’s catheter we know that not only is no joke too low, but they will be going out of their way to trade and wallow in bodily waste.

Soon the boys–the old boys–are back on the road. Harry announces he needs a kidney transplant and can’t find a donor only to discover that he has an adult daughter he never knew. Fraida (Kathleen Turner) had written to him and reveals their daughter Penny (Rachel Melvin) had been put up for adoption. Now Harry and Lloyd have to track her down, Lloyd convinced that the much younger Penny is the woman of his dreams.

There’s more, including a murder plot involving Rob Riggle playing twin brothers, but none of it matters. This is a move that celebrates aggressive and tasteless stupidity. To watch Jeff Daniels at the top of his game in the final season of HBO’s “The Newsroom” and then see him in this may impress you with his range, but may also leave you wishing you could unsee the movie and blot it from your memory (perhaps with a visit to the clinic from Carrey’s 2004 film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). It’s not clear whether he did this for an unconscionable amount of money or because he took pity on the Farrellys whose last few films were “Movie 43,” “The Three Stooges,” and “Hall Pass,” among the worst films of recent memory. As for Carrey, after movies like “The Truman Show” and “Man on the Moon” showed there was a talented actor beyond the idiot roles that had made him a star, this seems like a giant step backwards.

The supporting cast does what they can with their roles. Riggle and Turner play it straight and Melvin uses her cuteness effectively to play off her own dumb character. Indeed, Melvin may be the only one able to say this movie represents a step up in her career. Her other 2014 film is something called “Zombeavers.”

Ultimately, “Dumb and Dumber To” is a film about two guys in their fifties who are largely oblivious to the world around them, are obsessed with below-the-waist humor, and enjoy pushing people into bushes. If this is your idea of a good time, you may enjoy it, although you may want to seek some help yourself. As for the Farrellys, you had a good run, but that was a long time ago. After this, it’s doubtful anyone will want to do “There’s Something More About Mary.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 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 – Listen Up Philip

[This review comes to us via Movie Mezzanine, and is reprinted with permission.]

What an asshole.

At not yet 35 years old, Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is about to publish his second novel. He lives in New York City with his beautiful, fashion-photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), who has supported Philip for these past two years through thick and thin. He’s earned the admiration of his peers and sparked the interest of elder idols. The bad review he’s facing in the Times doesn’t matter nearly as much as such things used to, and it looks like this surly kid “from an unsupportive background” is about to start living all his childhood dreams.

So of course, Philip has to go fuck everything up. The problem with reaching any lifelong goal (at least according to what I hear from folks who’ve actually accomplished stuff) is that you wake up the next morning and there are still dirty dishes in the sink and you’re still the same damn person you were when you started down this road in the first place. Comically unsuccessful attempts at reveling in his new-found success by making appointments to gloat in front of certain ex-girlfriends and abandoned pals result in Philip’s sad realization that none of them were exactly holding their breath waiting for him to show up again to say “I told you so.” They just weren’t thinking of him very often and his success escaped their notice because nobody really reads books anymore, anyways.

All of this happens before the opening credits. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP is a rueful, remarkable film about how success can still feel like defeat. I first saw it at Sundance back in January and haven’t shut up about it since. It’s funny as hell, but funny in that way where the laughs catch in your throat. I’ve watched it three times since then. This is a relentless downward spiral of a movie that finds the melancholy in misanthropy–like Llewyn Davis’s literary cousin.

Philip Lewis Friedman spends the entire picture in self-destruct mode, pushing all his private pain onto others and retreating into a calloused cocoon of his own neuroses, deliberately blowing up anything good that comes his way. Schwartzman’s casting makes it feel sometimes feel like a worst-case-scenario sequel to Rushmore—Max Fischer gone to seed, without the happy dance number ending.

Flushed with success yet still bothered by a nagging discontent, Philip sabotages everything good in his life and spurns all kindnesses save for one–an invitation from washed up icon Ike Zimmerman, a Philip Roth-ian hero famous for seminal, decades-old books like Madness & Women, Bad Eating, and Ample Profanity. (This movie beats The Royal Tenenbaums for best fake book covers.) Ike lives in seclusion upstate, isolated and alone–momentarily revived from his blocked stupor by the prospect of a protégé with similarly anti-social tendencies.

Jonathan Pryce has been very good in a great many movies, but this is something else altogether. Ike Zimmerman is a bullying lion, the king of a rapidly disappearing jungle. He takes Philip under his wing, but remains incapable of giving a compliment that doesn’t also have an insult buried in there somewhere. He’s the kind of guy who hosts a party with a bar full of Scotch and carefully doles out drinks from different bottles from different years, depending on which one he feels his guests have earned.

Ike’s also got a daughter who hates his guts. Playfully mixing around component parts from Roth’s The Ghost Writer, Perry borrows the setup and then veers off into another direction altogether. Breaking Bad’s puke-victim Krysten Ritter shows up as Zimmerman’s estranged daughter, Melanie, none too pleased to meet her Dad’s aspiring doppelganger.

The tricky thing about Listen Up Philip is that the perspectives keep shifting. Bound together with a bone-dry, novelistic third-person narration (read with magnificent aplomb by Eric Bogosian) it skips though time and follows different characters for stretches, as if you’re paging through chapters in a book.

So just when you’re getting used to a one-man-show of Schwartzman’s astounding assholery, the movie changes gears and follows his long-suffering girlfriend for 20 minutes or so after he’s gone, as she brokenheartedly begins a life anew without Philip. It’s a staggering performance by Elisabeth Moss. A visual artist, Ashley is denied all the show-boaty, hyper-literate dialogue supplied to the other characters and we just watch the emotions play across her anguished face—stunning work by Moss, perhaps the best of her career.

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams bobs and weaves, shooting in gloriously grainy, hand-held shallow-focus Super-16mm and always keeping the camera too close for comfort. (And when in doubt, go back to another telephoto close-up on Elisabeth Moss.) The characters and situations are so well established, editor Robert Greene can afford to cut out of scenes a couple beats early and we’ve already gotten the jokes. This is sly, smart filmmaking.

I love pretty much everything about Listen Up Philip. I love the lament for a literary culture that has gone the way of the dodo, where former giants now play unrecognized with blowsy divorcees they picked up at closing time. I love the way the movie is so gloriously and verbosely *written*, instead of letting actors make up dialogue while staring at their toes, as usually passes for indie cinema these days. I love the way Perry focuses on the women in this story, and all their sadness left in the wake of so many writerly self-abnegating clichés.

And I also love the Guns N’ Roses gag at the end. This is a great film.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Interstellar

With Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, Matt Damon. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. 169 minutes.

When “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released, critics and audiences were divided. Some hailed it as a tremendous achievement while others found it indulgent and obscure. Over time, the movie has come to be recognized as one of the greatest films ever. While it’s too soon to say how INTERSTELLAR will fare in the long run, director Christopher Nolan’s bid to create his own “2001” will undoubtedly divide viewers as well. Count this reviewer among those who think this is the best science fiction film of the year.

It’s the near future. Our destruction of the Earth is nearly complete with animals and plant life falling to extinction, and corn seemingly one of the last crops hanging on. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with his father (John Lithgow) and two kids on his farm, although he was an engineer who had worked for NASA. Not only is there no space program. Students are now taught that the moon landing was faked.

Cooper learns otherwise and finds himself on a desperate mission through space. There is stable wormhole that will allow us to go to another galaxy and find a new planet for humanity. However when he and his crew get to the other side, it’s not at all what they were expecting. To say much more about the plot would be to give away an epic story that Nolan (and his brother/co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan) allow to unfold slowly. There are moments early on that may seem like they could be cut but which pay off in the film’s final act.

Many reviewers will focus on the film’s visuals, since that’s what they expect from science fiction movies. While the journey through the wormhole may remind you of the trip through Kubrick’s monolith in “2001,” what’s much more imaginative are the alien surfaces they explore. A good deal of thought has gone into avoiding clichés, so that even the robot “sidekicks” are unlike anything you’re likely to have seen on screen.

The performances are solid with most of the weight of the film on McConaughey, but nice turns by Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, and Matt Damon as astronauts, Michael Caine and John Lithgow as a scientist and Cooper’s grandfather respectively, and Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as Cooper’s grown children. However this is not a film about character for the most part. It’s a film about relativity… and that’s what’s going to baffle some viewers, even more than Nolan’s “Inception” did.

Time moves differently for the astronauts than it does for the people back on Earth, and the nature of time is one of the key questions of the film. Ironically, for those who have no problem with that, the stumbling block may the film’s other key theme which is the bond between parent and child or, more specifically here, fathers and daughters. That mixture of mind-boggling ideas interlaced with real human emotions has been a hallmark of Nolan’s films, and is one of their strengths, even if some only appreciate one side or the other.

“Interstellar” is a masterfully paced space odyssey that tackles big issues but doesn’t forget that it’s individuals with their own personal histories who are engaging with them. We’ll have to wait to see what people think of this in ten years, but right now it’s the best science fiction movie you’re likely to see this year, and quite possibly one of the best films period.

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 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 – Big Hero 6

With the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., James Cromwell. Written by Robert L. Baird & Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts. Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams. Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements.108 minutes.

What’s distinctive about BIG HERO 6 is that it is the first Disney animated film that comes out of their having acquired the Marvel Comics properties. Closer in sensibility to “Guardians of the Galaxy” than “The Avengers,” it’s yet another group of misfits who band together as superheroes. There is much to recommend it, but it is a variation on a theme and not a stunning work of originality.

Hiro (voice of Ryan Potter) is a young genius who lives with his college age brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and builds cutting edge robot technology. A mysterious accident leaves him suddenly alone, but inheriting Baymax (Scott Adsit), a walking, talking medical device that his brother invented who looks like the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man in “Ghostbusters.” Hiro discovers that someone has stolen his own invention and decides to take action. Enter the Scooby Gang–excuse me, the self-proclaimed nerds who worked with his brother–who join forces to help him.

The story follows Hiro, Baymax, Fred (T. J. Miller), Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) as they pursue a villainous figure in a kabuki mask. They eventually craft costumes to go along with the powers and scientific discoveries they have developed. This being a Disney film, the end should not be in doubt.

The core of the film is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax, which is similar to the 1999 film “The Iron Giant,” also about a young boy and a robot. Baymax is essential a diagnostic nursemaid but Hiro programs him to utilize karate and become a fighting machine. If there’s any message among the action sequences it is that it’s wrong to sink to the level of one’s enemies, and when Hiro transforms the gentle Baymax into a killing machine he realizes he’s made a mistake.

It’s goofy entertainment, and there’s even the fun of seeing Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee doing his expected cameo in an animated film. (Hint: stick around through the very long closing credits.) The film also gets point for its cultural diversity of characters. Hiro and Tadashi are of Japanese heritage but this is offered up matter-of-factly, not as a “special” Disney film with Asian characters like “Mulan.” If any point is being made it’s that science is cool and that nerds are too.

Yet beyond that it’s hard to say the film is breaking any new ground. The story could easily have been a “Scooby Doo” episode with Baymax replacing the mangy dog. The characters are engaging but hardly original. “Big Hero 6” works precisely because it seems so familiar, with just enough fresh spin so that it feels like something new rather than a rerun. Go and enjoy, but don’t let anyone try to convince you this is the animation event of the year.•••

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 – Nightcrawler

With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton,
Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language. 117 minutes.

NIGHTCRAWLER is an unsettling film about a sociopath, someone unable to make connections with other people. Set in a world of local television news that is, at best, wildly exaggerated and fanciful, it is nonetheless a fascinating character study with a riveting and utterly creepy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

We first meet Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) stealing a chain link fence. When he brings it to an unsavory operator to sell it he first tries to get a better price and then, incredibly, asks for a job. Lou is ambitious but has no sense of how he comes across to others. The only things that matter to him are his needs and his goals.

Happening upon a car accident, he meets Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance cameraman who shoots accidents and crime scenes and then sells the footage to local stations. Soon Lou is in the business himself, starting small but quickly learning. He’s also not above rearranging things to make his footage more “dramatic.” When he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), it’s a match made in hell. She’s a news director at the lowest rated station in town, and desperate for anything to jack up the ratings. Lou’s bloody and graphic footage does the trick. Soon he’s tooling around with his new “intern” Rick (Riz Ahmed), and taking bolder and bolder steps to get to “the next level,” no matter who gets hurt.

This is a very dark satire, and one shouldn’t mistake this for the real world. Lou wanders into a TV newsroom without difficulty and gets away with increasingly audacious acts with hardly any consequences. Writer Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), making his directing debut, is more interested in showing a man that the world treats as a success story but who we see as deranged and obsessive. In one scene, after cajoling her into a date, Lou makes it clear to the much older Nina what he expects from their relationship, from more money to more personal connection with her. When she dismisses him out of hand he pushes ahead, not through physical threat but through the sheer determination that there can be no possible outcome other than his getting what he wants. Anything that stands in his way–anything–must be overcome.

It’s unlike anything we’ve seen from Gyllenhaal before, depicting a character with no self-awareness. We see how people who don’t know him might be charmed or impressed, but we also see a soulless creature who doesn’t waste a moment thinking about anyone else. The whole world exists for him to use.

Russo (who is married to Gilroy in real life) tackles a not-particularly-likeable character with surprising nuance. Nina is an older woman who is just as desperate and ambitious as Lou and sees her opportunities dwindling. She’s almost as bad as him but not quite. She knows when she’s crossing the line. Lou isn’t even aware there is a line. Riz Ahmed’s Rick is the closest to a “normal” person in the movie, questioning Lou but not in a position to do anything about it.

Gilroy’s direction is slick and chilling, making good use of the shift from the dark scenes of death (preferably in upscale neighborhoods) to the brightly lit newsroom. Instead of being a splash of reality, though, it’s where Lou’s worst instincts are reinforced. There’s no escape from Lou’s world, not even for the police.

“Nightcrawler” is a disturbing character study which ultimately tells us something about people who may be far removed from the environment of “if it bleeds, it leads” TV news. That may be the most disturbing thing of all.•••

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.



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