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Review – Office Christmas Party

With Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon. Written by Justin Malen & Laura Solon & Dan Mazer. Directed by Josh Gordon, Will Speck. Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity. 105 minutes.

There are two kinds of “stupid comedies” which modern Hollywood turns out. The first are movies in which the star–think Adam Sandler, Melissa McCarthy, Zach Galifianakis–engages in aggressive stupidity and the “normal” protagonist is endlessly frustrated and humiliated. Some of these films make money, encouraging Hollywood to make more.

But then there’s the other type. Call it the “smart-stupid comedy.” There’s a lot of low humor, and material you wouldn’t want to be seen laughing at if your mother was in the room, but these are more akin to farces. Everyone acts foolish and yet even some of the most foolish characters turn out to be redeemable, and no one is treated as an expendable victim, as if this was the comic version of a “Saw” splatterfest.

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY falls into the latter category. Much of it is inane, and yet there are also moments of wild zaniness and broad comedy that should make anyone smile if not outright laugh. In spite of the inevitable bodily function jokes, drug jokes, and gratuitous sex jokes, there’s also some cleverness, some winning performances, and some wonderfully anarchic humor.

Jason Bateman plays the newly-divorced Josh Parker, a top executive with Zenotek, a high-tech firm. The manager of the Chicago office, Clay Vanstone (T. J. Miller) is the son of the late company founder, but his uptight sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), is the C.E.O. She arrives to complain about the office’s performance, cancels their Christmas party, and plans to fire nearly half the employees. However, if they can land a big account they’re pitching, they will get a reprieve. When Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) turns them down, tech whiz Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn) has an idea. Throw the party and invite Davis, showing him they have the company culture he claims to want.

Everything after that set-up is the party, which spirals increasingly out of control as HR director Mary (Kate McKinnon) tries to enforce the rules, wild animals are let loose, cocaine is accidentally put in the snow machine, and–of course–Josh and Tracey finally connect. In the manner of farce, secrets are revealed, people work at cross purposes, characters show up at the most inopportune moments, and instead of being humiliated, the most uptight characters start to loosen up and join the fun.

The humor is hit-or-miss, and depending on your expectations you may find yourself laughing, groaning, or averting your eyes at any given moment. What keeps it going is a cast that knows how to play the material, from Miller’s ditzy-but-kindhearted boss to McKinnon’s office prig. Indeed, after last summer’s “Ghostbusters,” McKinnon once again shows herself capable of lifting up a comedy that might sink without her efforts. Someone get this woman a starring vehicle.

Bateman and Aniston, of course, are old hands at this sort of thing, and Munn manages to make Tracey more than just a token “love interest.” Supporting players like Vance and Rob Corddry head a long cast who manage to infuse their limited screen time with memorable moments. “Office Christmas Party” may be disposable and ultimately forgettable, but it is welcome seasonal silliness for those looking for something other than family films or Oscar bait.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Swing State

With Alex Beh, Elaine Hendrix, Billy Zane, Taryn Manning, Sean Astin. Written and directed by Jonathan Sheldon. Rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use. 95 minutes.

swing-state-movie-posterAs we enter the Age of Trump, movies about politics are going to reflect the divisiveness of the times. The problem for fimmakers is, first, whether to take sides, and second, whether to play it as comedy or drama.

SWING STATE (available on iTunes, Amazon, and VOD) goes for light and broad comedy, while mocking both sides. If anyone’s the heavy here, it’s the media corporation which makes huge profits by pandering to the fears and prejudices of their rightwing audiences. Let’s be honest here: personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity thrive on the gullibility and ignorance of their listeners. There’s some of that on the Left–see, for example, the people who support Jill Stein–but when it comes to talk radio, it’s decidedly one-sided.

Alex Beh plays Ethan Smith, who works at a progressive radio station and is constantly in debt. One day, the right-wing host of a show on the station down the hall falls ill, and Smith–thinking it will be easy money–agrees to fill in as “Charles Fern.” Fern is a cartoonish version of a right-wing talk host, making Stephen Colbert’s character on “The Colbert Report” seem subtle and understated. He insults listeners, endorses “intelligent design,” praises right-wing author Ann Alcott (Elaine Hendrix) for her latest book, “A Brief History of Liars: From Hitler to Hillary,” and, naturally, becomes a sensation.

What ensues is what one would expect from a comic setup in which someone pretends to be someone he is not: he finds himself in a series of situations where his lie might be exposed, including an ex-girlfriend who’s a radical journalist and a current girlfriend whose mother is the Democratic candidate for governor. All of the right-wingers are presented as clowns, but only the ex-girlfriend (Taryn Manning) is presented as an example of the extremism of the Left. And since she figures out the double life her ex is leading, she’s not exactly irrational.

Beh is likeable as the radio personality with the secret identity, but the script is too lightweight to score many points. Indeed, the plot is a cousin to “Mrs. Doubtfire,” where we await the moment when the protagonist’s secret is finally exposed. Writer/director Jonathan Sheldon would have been better off not playing at being evenhanded and instead trying to draw some blood. With a real life president-elect who seems to believe that the truth is whatever he says it is, the satire here seems tame.

That’s not to say it’s totally without its moments. Fern reciting a poem against evolution is good for a laugh, as well as his scenes with the conservative Republican governor (Billy Zane) who takes him out hunting. “Swing State” is political comedy for those who don’t want to be challenged or upset, but only want a chance to laugh at the foolishness too often on display in the real world. It’s not the fimmaker’s fault if reality has turned out to be even more bizarre than he could have possibly imagined.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Moana

With Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement. Written by Jared Bush. Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker. Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. 113 minutes.

Something interesting is going on at Disney Animation, and it’s not Pixar. Pixar’s recent films included the brilliant “Inside Out,” the entertaining if uninspired “Finding Dory,” and such duds as “Monsters University” and “The Good Dinosaur.” That next year brings us “Cars 3” is not a good sign.

Meanwhile Disney’s separate animation unit–now supervised by Pixar’s John Lasseter–has had major hits with “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” Their latest offering, MOANA, will likely extend the run of the reinvigorated operation. Taking its inspiration from Polynesian folk tales, it tells the story of Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) who is destined to succeed her father, Tui (Temuera Morrison), as her island’s chief. Although the two are close, they have clashed since her childhood over her desire to explore the oceans. He has one hard and fast rule: no one travels beyond the outer reef. The island takes care of all their needs, he argues, and there’s no need to go into the dangerous outer world.

Her Gramma (Rachel House) encourages Moana’s dreams and we know it’s only a matter of time before she sets sail. Her mission is to set right a situation involving the gods that occurred centuries before when the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, the earth goddess. Now it’s up to Moana–with Maui’s reluctant help–to set things right.

The film has a lot going for it, particularly in the characters of Moana and Maui. She’s the plucky heroine while he’s the egotistical partner whose contributions are crucial, like teaching the novice sailor to navigate, but does not upstage her. Indeed, for all the hilarity of Johnson’s bravado in voicing Maui (with the help of some animated tattoos), she’s the one who is frequently saving the day.

There are also the interesting secondary characters we expect in a Disney film, but being derived from Polynesian mythology, they will seem fresh and original, from the dimwitted rooster Hei-Hei to coconut pirates to Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a monster crab who collects shiny things (and gets the film’s final laugh after the closing credits). Likewise, the animation is top-notch. The human figures are suitably cartoonish so that we can accept them just like other toons, but the animation of the oceans and the native boats skimming across the water are so impressive you’ll almost feel the ocean spray.

Oddly, the one thing that doesn’t work is the music. There’s a song score largely credited to Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” but there’s not a memorable number in the bunch. The songs are serviceable but forgettable.

2016 has turned out to be quite a good year for animation, and “Moana” is a worthy addition to the honor roll. For those simply interested in a good family feature to see over the Thanksgiving holiday, you’ll be happy to know that it works for that, too.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Rules Don’t Apply

FILM REVIEWRULES DON’T APPLYWith Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen. Written and directed by Warren Beatty. Rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references. 110 minutes.

Warren Beatty, who turns 80 next year, has had as fascinating a career as any Hollywood star, both in front of and behind the camera. From landmark films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” to films that caught the mood of an era like “Shampoo” and “Bulworth,” from the epic sweep of “Reds” to one of the most notorious flops in movie history with “Ishtar,” what Warren Beatty did mattered. That seemed to come to an end with the now largely forgotten “Town & Country” (2001). It was, perhaps, not the note he wanted to end his movie career on.

So fifteen years later we get RULES DON’T APPLY, a curiosity that can’t seem to figure out the story it wants to tell. Beatty shares story credit with veteran Bo Goldman, but takes sole screenwriting credit as well as directs, so the lack of clarity is on him. The story involves Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a young songwriter and actress who has been signed to Howard Hughes’ studio, RKO. There she languishes along with many others, wondering if they’ll ever meet Hughes (Beatty), much less get a screen test. After her mother (Annette Bening in one of the film’s many cameo roles) leaves, her primary human companionship is her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich).

There are two problems with that. First, Hughes has a strict rule that none of his employees are allowed personal relations with any of the starlets under contract. Second, even if they decide to skirt the matter, she’s a devout (and quite virginal) Baptist and he’s engaged to his childhood sweetheart and is a Methodist. Much of the film is devoted to getting the two of them together and then they (and, frankly, we) trying to decide if that makes sense.

Meanwhile Hughes, the mysterious billionaire, gets to know the two of them in a series of halting scenes. She wants to get the promised screen test. He wants to interest Hughes in investing in a real estate deal. In the end, no one seems to get what they were expecting. Part of the problem is that this isn’t the dynamic Hughes that Leonard DiCaprio played for much of “The Aviator,” but the reclusive and eccentric man of his later years. Beatty has always had a fascinating with characters grappling with fame or power, but he can’t seem to get a handle on Hughes. It’s not clear why the others in the film fall under his spell when the evidence is all around them that it’s not worth it.

Collins and Ehrenreich can’t quite make their tenuous relationship dynamic enough to carry the film and so we’re left with everyone following Hughes around, or waiting for Hughes (sometimes in vain), or finally giving up. Matthew Broderick plays the man who enforces the rules on the drivers but then is seen trying to break them himself. Is he the fool for doing so or is Hughes the fool for trusting him?

With no real point of view, we’re left watching familiar faces pop up in small roles, like Candice Bergen, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Amy Madigan, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and several others. Beatty apparently took his title–and the film’s theme song–“Rules Don’t Apply” and decided that rules like solid storytelling and sensible casting didn’t apply to him. The result is a film that’s not unwatchable, but it’s hardly the capstone of a distinguished career either.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

FILM REVIEWFANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEMWith Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston. Written by J.K. Rowling. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. 133 minutes.

Oddly enough, the fantastic beasts of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is the least interesting part in this offshoot of the “Harry Potter” series. Author J. K. Rowling takes her title from a textbook used at her fictional Hogwarts wizardry school, and which appeared in bookstores in a slim volume. What she has done with it here, however, is address a lot of the issues that were left unresolved in her original seven books.

Chief among them is whether the wizarding world extended to America. Now we see that it does as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in 1926 New York with a magical suitcase filed with strange creatures. Among his plans is finding another magical animal from a local dealer, but he quickly learns that the American wizarding authorities take a dim view of such matters.

Several of the creatures escape and Newt sets off to find them, getting some help from a would-be baker (Dan Fogler) who is a “non-maj,” or non-magical, what the British wizards call “muggles.” He also connects with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who has been demoted from being an “auror,” or enforcer of wizarding rules, because of past mistakes. She’s a lot better than that but her boss Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) isn’t interested.

The main plot of the story involves Newt and friends recapturing the missing beasts, but also uncovering a plot to subvert the wizarding world that is presumably led by the mysterious Grindelwald, a precursor to Voldermort in the Potter series. There are a number of loose ends including one involving a powerful newspaper publisher (Jon Voight) and another with anti-witching group that wants to bring back the Salem witch trials that are barely developed. That’s when discovering this is the first of an intended five film series lets you know there is much more to come.

As an expansion of the Potter world, it’s a lot of fun, with sly references to characters we know, like Albus Dumbledore who will be the head of Hogwarts in Harry’s time. Seeing it through the filter of 1926 New York is also interesting, as when the plot takes Newt and Tina to a wizarding speakeasy where the bartender announces he is a “house elf.”

Director David Yates, who directed several of the Potter films, is slated to direct the entire “Fantastic Beasts” series, so there’s a consistency in the look and feel of the films. As the anchor for the story, Redmayne plays Newt as if he’s a distant cousin of the Weasleys, someone well-meaning and comical who sometimes let’s things slip out of control. Although a romance seems to be planned for him and Tina, the more interesting duo is Fogler’s “non-maj” and Alison Sudol as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie. She comes closes to the notion of what a “Jazz Age” witch might be like.

“Fantastic Beasts” may not convert any muggles or non-majes, but fans of Harry Potter who have come to appreciate Rowling’s fertile imagination should have a great time. To its credit, the movie comes across less as an opportunity to squeeze every last dollar out of the franchise and more like Rowling has many more stories to tell in a universe she hasn’t yet finished exploring.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

FILM REVIEWBILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALKWith Joe Alwyn, Makenzie Leigh, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker. Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use. 110 minutes.

A group of soldiers are noted for fighting a dramatic battle and are brought home for a “victory tour.” They learn that the only ones who get what they’ve been through are each other. This is the plot for “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) which was set during World War II, and is the same plot for BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK. The new movie is nowhere near as good as the film it mimics, and is as awkward as its title.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is the 19-year-old hero of a battle in the Iraq War, and he and the soldiers of Bravo Squad come back to the U.S. to be celebrated, culminating in a garish and tasteless halftime show at a Texas football stadium. Meanwhile an agent (Chris Tucker) is trying to put together a deal for a movie of their battle, the somewhat cold owner of the team (Steve Martin) tries to use them to his own advantage, and poor Billy and the other soldiers find themselves longing for the certainty of the war.

It’s not clear what the point of it all is. If it was to explore the disconnect between the soldiers fighting in Iraq and a country that was barely paying attention to the war, it seems a roundabout way to do it. At the stadium the soldiers are invited to the lush pre-game buffet, and some of the other guests seem appalled at the soldiers chowing down like…, well, soldiers who have been getting their meals out of a can. This seems more about social class than anything else, and one has to wonder whether the wealthy guests have any family members putting their own lives at risk in the Middle East.

The whole movie builds up to the halftime show where the soldiers are little more than props, and are resented by the stadium crew who sees them as more of a bother than as heroes. The one person at the stadium who actually seems to like Billy is Faison (Makenzie Leigh), one of the cheerleaders, but even that gets undercut by the end. Was she using him or is she as awkward as he is in communicating her feelings? The movie doesn’t seem to know.

The stunt casting of Martin, Tucker, Vin Diesel as their sergeant, and Krisin Stewart as Billy’s sister, proves to be as much a distraction as anything else. Putting well known actors in small roles calls more attention to those roles but, again, it’s without any clear purpose. Indeed, the scenes with Stewart make it appear that there is something more going on between brother and sister than her concern about him going back to war.

It’s all as misguided as the special filming process utilized by director Ang Lee who shot this at 120 frames per second (rather than the standard 24 per second rate) which most audiences will never get to see. Reportedly there are only five theaters in the world equipped to show the film as Lee intended. None of them are in Massachusetts. As with everything else connected with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” we’re left with the question, “What was the point?” Alas, no one seems to know or, if they do, they neglected to put it up on the screen.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Arrival

With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma. Written by Eric Heisserer. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 116 minutes.

The alien first contact story has an honored place in science fiction. Sometimes they’re friendly aliens (“E.T.”). Sometimes they’re dangerous (“War of the Worlds”). And then there are the aliens whose motives are ambiguous for the story’s human characters. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” the alien wants to help Earth avoid being destroyed, but is seen by some as a threat. In “To Serve Man,” an episode of the original “Twilight Zone,” the titular text of the benevolent aliens turns out to be a cookbook.

In ARRIVAL, we get the most ambiguous aliens yet. They arrive in what seem like gigantic boulders hovering over a dozen locations around the planet. And they communicate by what appears to be puffs of inky smoke emitted from their tendrils. Are they here on a mission of peace or are they stating the terms of our surrender?

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of the American site, and he’s enlisted the help of experts to try to solve the mystery. Chief among them is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist. Slowly they begin the seemingly impossible task of figuring out how to communicate with two of these totally alien creatures, whom Donnelly dubs “Abbott and Costello.”

To reveal much more of the complex plot would be to spoil the mystery. Suffice to say that communication involves not only learning the alien vocabulary and syntax, but an entirely alien way of thinking. For example, some Earth leaders wonder if the aliens speaking to China and Russia are working at cross-purposes with the ones speaking to us. The process begins with the various nations pooling their knowledge, but when Chinese leader General Shang (Tzi Ma) withdraws, it’s not clear if this is what the aliens were trying to stir up or if its going against their–and our–best interests.

This is cerebral science fiction (based on a short story by author Ted Chiang). There are special effects, to be sure, but those expecting “Independence Day” or “Star Wars” will be disappointed. It’s slow, but not dull, requiring that you be engaged by the mystery.

Adams and Renner are coolly convincing as the two academics facing the challenge of their lives. Part of the unfolding of the story is the characters learning something about themselves as they study the aliens. Whitaker is all business as the military head of the operation, riding herd on both the troops and civilians under his command.

For Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”), “Arrival” shows him finally getting control of unwieldy material after the disappointing – and over-praised – “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” There’s no wasted energy here. This is science fiction for grown-ups, ready to follow three-dimensional characters grappling with deep ideas.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.