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Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

With Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Stanley Tucci. Written by Art Marcum & Matt Holloway & Ken Nolan. Directed by Michael Bay. Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo. 149 minutes.

tf5ovbb-1Folks, we have a winner: TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT is the worst movie of the year. That’s actually good news because, having hit bottom, it can only get better from here on in.

The fifth of a series of movies based on toy cars and trucks that turn into robots–or is it the other way around?–it is an incoherent mess that exists primarily so good robots, bad robots, and humans can fight with each for two-and-a-half hours. Why? It has something to do with Merlin’s staff. Yes, you read that right. The film opens with King Arthur and his knights fighting Saxon hordes and losing badly until Merlin (Stanley Tucci) enlists the help of the Autobots, the “good” robots.

With a helpful title card (“1600 years later”) we’re in the present, where elite human soldiers including Col. William Lennox (Josh Duhamel) are at war with all robots, and are seeking Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a human inventor who is still loyal to Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) and the Autobots. Meanwhile Optimus is back on his decimated home planet of Cybertron where he learns from Quintessa (voice of Gemma Chan) that only by destroying Earth can Cybertron return to life. And the key is–wait for it–Merlin’s staff.

Still following this? Wait, there’s more. Anthony Hopkins inexplicably shows up as Sir Edmund Burton to inform Cade that he is the “last knight” and newcomer to the series Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) is the only one who can recover the staff. And let’s not forget Megatron (voice of Frank Welker) who leads the Decepticons, and would like nothing more than to destroy Earth.

So all these characters are working at cross-purposes, under the direction of Michael Bay, who seems to have come to the conclusion that as long as things keep happening on screen, there’s no reason at all they have to make sense. Indeed, even if you’re paying closing attention, it’s hard to follow who is responsible any action, as explosions, car chases, and debris mix with cliched dialogue that rips off everything from “Scarface” to Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

Presumably, large paychecks make up for the embarrassment of being associated with this mess, but there’s no question that there’s a fan base who have made the previous four films into hits and will enjoy having their senses pummeled yet again. That there’s an audience for “Transformers: The Last Knight” will be beyond belief for most people, but then we’re living at a time when most of the things in the news are similarly unbelievable.

If there’s a movie worse than this set for release this year, let’s hope the distributor has the good sense not to do it.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Cars 3

FILM REVIEWCARS 3With the voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Armie Hammer. Written by Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson and Mike Rich. Directed by Brian Fee. Rated G. 109 minutes.

cars_three“Cars 2” is arguably the worst film Pixar ever made. With it, the animation house that gave us “Toy Story,” “The Incredibles,” and “WALL*E” proved that nobody’s perfect. And the film made over $500 million worldwide. Thus we get CARS 3.

This is a world without humans and in which cars and trucks talk. Questions like how the cars get made or, indeed, how anything other racing gets done are never raised, much less answered. The series is clearly pitched to youngsters who won’t be bothered by such things which is why the plot (in which seven writers had a hand) seems especially peculiar.

See, Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) finds that newer cars are out-performing him and it seems it may be time to retire. He resents this, but also doesn’t feel the need to modernize in any way. He’s feeling the heat from Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a modern race car with design improvements that make Lightning seem like a dinosaur. For much of the film, Lightning keeps trying to turn back the clock. This includes flashbacks with Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman from the original “Cars”) in which we see–but Lightning does not–that such change is inevitable.

He’s helped by his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), although he doesn’t really take her advice, preferring the old ways racing on a dirt track. This leads to a bizarre sequence where Lightning and Cruz find themselves trapped in a demolition derby. Cruz has her own issues which suddenly become important in the third act. Or maybe it’s the fifth act. It seems to take forever to get to the inevitable climactic showdown between the old and the new.

“Cars 3” will keep the young fans happy, offering enough in the way of new characters and advancing storyline to preserve the franchise, but lacking the emotional impact of the far more involving “Toy Story” sequels. It’s all a bit calculating, with the supremely annoying Mater (the dim-witted tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) given a few scenes for his fans but otherwise kept off-screen for much of the running time, and a climax in which it is becomes painfully obvious that an earlier scene was put in simply to set up the later one. Filmmakers do that all the time, but the idea is not to call attention to it.

The movie is preceded by a charming short, “Lou,” which will likely be up for an Oscar next year. It’s hard to imagine that “Cars 3” will.•••

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 this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Rough Night

FILM REVIEWROUGH NIGHTWith Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoë Kravitz, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer. Written by Lucia Aniello & Paul W. Downs. Directed by Lucia Aniello. Rated R for crude sexual content, language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images. 101 minutes.

rough_night_ver12_xlgWhy is ROUGH NIGHT different from all other “friends go on a drunken spree” movies? It’s being compared to horrible (though popular) movies like “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover,” which isn’t really fair. This movie generates laughs without ever having to humiliate its characters, or make you wonder why supposed adults would act like this.

The setup is that a group of four college friends are going to Miami for a “bachelorette” weekend to celebrate Jess’s (Scarlett Johansson) impending marriage. The organizer is Alice (Jillian Bell) who, in a different movie would be played by Melissa McCarthy as belligerent and stupid. Instead, she’s self-conscious and needy, jealous that Jess considers them all her “best friends.” This neediness becomes more stressful when they are joined by Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’s friend from her semester abroad in Australia. The group is rounded out by Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer), who were a couple in college, although Blair ended up in a straight marriage.

As with the best farces, things start off slowly but the chaos to come is signaled early on by the reaction at the airport when someone pops a bottle of champagne and nearly sets off a panic. Although they’re now in their 30s–with Jess running for office–they goad each other into taking a break from the rules, indulging in drinking and drugs, and hiring a male stripper. That’s when things go wrong and kick into high gear. A freak accident leads to a fatality, and now the five women have to figure out what to do. Each choice leads to further complications, so that Blair finds herself having sex with the swinging next door neighbors (Demi Moore, Ty Burrell), Pippa tries to dump the dead body in the ocean, and Jess’s fiance Peter (Paul W. Downs) finds himself speeding towards Florida in adult diapers under the mistaken belief she’s broken off the engagement.

There’s an attention to detail here so that little things like turning on a TV or Alice buying phallic shaped pasta pay off in unexpected ways. It even touches on “Big Chill” territory by raising the question of whether these college friends (who we see at a frat house party in the prologue) have any reason to be friends ten years later. In short, unlike similar films, this is not a movie about stupid people behaving badly, no matter how absurd the situations get.

As Jess, Scarlett Johansson gets to show off her comedic skills which are rarely seen in her superhero movies, while the ever-astonishing Kate McKinnon develops an Australian accent and shows she really can do anything. Kravitz, Glazer and, especially, Bell bring their individual talents to the project and get their moments in the spotlight. No one is there just to be a patsy.

The R-rated humor may not be for every taste, but there’s a reason they call it “Rough Night.” Do watch through the closing credits for a scene that either ties up a loose end or, perhaps, sets us up for “Rough Night 2.” Either way, this is the summer comedy we’ve needed.•••

Click for the R-rated "Red Band" trailer!

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Mummy

With Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson. Written by David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman. Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity. 110 minutes.

mummyIf you want to understand the summer movie season, the key word is “franchise.” Every studio wants a characters that they can use to keep churning out blockbusters because they’re presold: audiences already know what they’re getting. Paramount has “Star Trek.” Warner Bros. has the “DC Universe” of Superman, Batman and now Wonder Woman. Disney has both “Star Wars” and the “Marvel Universe” featuring the various members of the Avengers.

And so Universal is trying again to kickstart the franchise that helped define them in the 1930s and 1940s: the Universal monsters including Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and in the premiere offering of what is being billed as the “Dark Universe,” a new version of THE MUMMY. We can tell they’re serious about it because they’ve cast Tom Cruise in the lead, and have Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll which hints that, like the cable series “Penny Dreadful,” the characters in this Dark Universe are going to bump into each other from film to film.

The present story has to do with Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), whose military service in Iraq is simply an excuse to loot ancient artifacts for the black market. When they discover the tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess buried a long ways from Egypt, it unleashes her on the world. Her goal is to complete a ceremony that will transform her lover into Set, the Egyptian god of war and violence, but associated with life and death in the movie. Since her ancient lover is long since gone, none other than Nick has been selected to take his place.

Once the pieces are all in place, archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) will try to save Nick while Ahmanet is restoring her own mummified body and creating a zombie army. Jenny works with Dr. Jekyll, but he needs to take frequent booster shots lest he turn into Mr. Hyde. While Nick is the ostensible hero of the film, he finds himself getting beaten badly by almost all the other characters, although he does survive a plane crash without a scratch on him.

There’s not much deep thought here–evil is bad, didn’t you know?–but the special effects are impressive, and the variety of tombs, museums, and laboratories where the story takes place provides enough visual stimulation to keep it interesting. As a summer “amusement park” ride, the film works fine, although Universal seems to have missed the lesson of the Marvel movies and has no “Easter egg” addditional scene in the closing credits.

What is a bit sad is to realize that Tom Cruise, who turns 55 on July 3, seems to be content in being an “action star.” It’s been a long time since “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Rain Man” and “A Few Good Men.” There was a time when his star turns allowed him to tackle more serious roles. Now he seems more interested in showing off his admittedly buff body. There’s nothing wrong with his performance here–he still knows how to turn on the charm–but when he breaks into a sweat it’s because he’s fighting a bunch of zombies.

“The Mummy” provides the requisite thrills and chills one would expect without much downtime. Whether Universal’s “Dark Universe” can rise from the dead as well remains to be seen.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Megan Leavey

FILM REVIEWMEGAN LEAVEY. With Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton, Common, Bradley Whitford. Written by Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements. 116 minutes.

megan_leaveyHere’s irony: last week moviegoers flocked to see “Wonder Woman,” making it a smash hit. Why not? It’s a fun film about a comic book hero. Much was made that it was a summer blockbuster with a woman director. Compare that with this week’s release of MEGAN LEAVEY. Here’s a story of a real-life hero and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is a documentary filmmaker in her narrative film debut. It’s a safe bet that it won’t be opening at number one, and will trail not only “Wonder Woman” but this week’s expected blockbuster, “The Mummy.”

And that’s too bad. This is a moving story, with Kate Mara excelling in the title role, about a misfit kid from a broken home who joins the Marines after the death of her closest friend. You have to wonder what Leavey was thinking in enlisting in that branch of the service as the short and slight woman doesn’t seem to be the stuff Marines are made of, but she doesn’t give up. She discovers she has the grit and determination to pull her life together and now is only lacking a focus.

She gets that when she is punished by having to work in the kennels where bomb-sniffing dogs are being trained. Something falls into place for her and she pleads with Gunny Martin (Common) to be assigned to the unit. She then shows she has what it takes by striving for–and meeting–all the requirements for the job. What follows are what would be described as her “adventures” in Iraq with Rex, a hard-to-handle dog with whom she forges a bond. But these are not “adventures.” This is real life.

The movie avoids the politics of our having troops in Iraq by giving us the point of view of those wearing the proverbial “boots on the ground.” Leavey has to adapt, as in when she’s told that should not be sharing the name of her dog with the locals, even a little boy, and slowly earns the respect of her fellow Marines when she and Rex uncover weapons and saves their lives. When one situation goes bad and Leavey and Rex are both injured, the question becomes not only their survival, but whether their connection will be allowed to go on as well.

Kate Mara does some of her best work to date as Leavey, with a fine supporting cast including Edie Falco and Bradley Whitford as her estranged parents, Common as the commander of the K-9 unit, and Ramon Rodriguez as another member of the unit with whom she forges a different kind of bond. However, it’s Mara who carries the weight of the film on her shoulders, and she shows the grit of a Marine in combat as well as the feelings of the human being inside, never letting one undercut the other.

So go enjoy “Wonder Woman.” It’s a good time at the movies. But if what attracted you to it was the message of female empowerment, both in front of and behind the camera, then make plans to see “Megan Leavey.” But do it fast. It’s not a summer blockbuster kind of movie and likely won’t be around very long. And that probably tells you more about Hollywood today than anything else.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Wonder Woman

FILM REVIEWWONDER WOMANWith Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis. Written by Allan Heinberg. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content. 141 minutes.

wonder-woman-final-posterWell, it’s about time. After kicking around for years, we finally get a WONDER WOMAN movie. As a story, it’s serviceable, with the unusual choice of setting the action during World War I. What makes this a must see for fans of superhero movies is the performance of Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. This is a star-making turn, and we’ll be seeing more of her as Wonder Woman and, likely, in other roles as well.

After a brief prologue the story takes us back to Paradise Island, home of the Amazons, where the child Diana wants to learn to fight but her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) objects. As Diana reaches adulthood, the all-female preserve is invaded first by Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy whose plane has been shot down, and then by the Germans in pursuit. Learning of the war in the outside world––which she believes is the work of Ares, the Greek god of war––Diana chooses to leave the Amazon sanctuary and defeat Ares.

The decision to set the story during World War I may seem odd, given how Wonder Woman’s roots in the comics begin during World War II, but perhaps it was felt that the second World War had been taken over by the rival Marvel Universe. (Wonder Woman is a DC superhero.) With the help of Steve and his friends, Wonder Woman searches out General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who rejects talk of an armistice in favor of using a new poison gas as a secret weapon for German victory.

The story provides plenty of action sequences for our heroine, but except for Steve’s secretary Etta (Lucy Davis), the female characters are limited to the Amazons and Ludendorff’s henchwoman Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), inventor of the gas. Since Wonder Woman has long been a symbol of female empowerment, the male dominance in the film is odd. However, by setting the action in 1918 it also means that Diana, who is immortal, survives into the present while all the other characters (save the Amazons) are presumably dead.

Gadot lifts the film up above what could have been a straightforward battle of good vs. evil by making Diana/Wonder Woman a complex character. She’s smart and strong, but she’s also facing a steep learning curve in discovering the outside world. Tasting ice cream for the first time she turns to the vendor and, in all sincerity, declares, “You should be very proud.” Yet despite such naiveté, she does not back down against the male authority figures (of an England that had not yet granted women the vote) nor the power of Ares when he finally reveals himself. Teen boys who buy tickets because Gadot is stunning yet seemingly the girl next door will find, perhaps to their surprise, that they are cheering on a heroine who repels bullets with her magic bracelets and is ready to take down any villain, no matter how powerful.

“Wonder Woman” is a conscious attempt to set right the DC Universe after what many perceived as the misstep of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” After years of Batman and Superman setting the tone for DC on the big screen, “Wonder Woman” makes it clear that it’s a whole new ballgame.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

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FILM REVIEWNORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Rated R for some language. 118 minutes.

norman_the_moderate_rise_and_tragic_fall_of_a_new_york_fixerIt takes a lot less time than you’d probably expect to adjust to seeing Richard Gere playing a noodge. The suave, silver-maned matinee idol has been stretching his wings in offbeat projects as of late, whether as a homeless alcoholic in Oren Moverman’s excellent “Time Out of Mind” or here as the title motormouth in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Rumor has it that Gere’s gone indie these days because his outspoken activism on behalf of Tibet has made him unemployable in a new Hollywood hungry for Chinese box office. Or it could be just because independent films are where all the good roles are for actors his age. Norman is a great one.

He paces the streets of New York City all day on his iPhone, babbling into earbuds while trying to make one convoluted deal after another, most which seem to involve introducing people to each other. The self-proclaimed CEO of Oppenheimer Industries, Norman doesn’t appear to have an office but he does have a lot of moxie. He natters, he cajoles and he eventually badgers his way into situations and invitations far above his station. Norman’s a small-timer with dreams of being a big deal. His only skill seems to be making people feel important, but in the rarefied world he orbits sometimes that can be enough.

It is in the case of Micha Eshel, an up-and-coming Israeli politician Norman barnacles onto in the opening scenes. Played by Lior Ashkenazi, he’s charmed by the old coot’s insistent chatter and lets his guard down long enough to accept a gift he really shouldn’t. Three years later Micha becomes Israel’s new Prime Minister and Norman finds himself finally allowed behind those metaphorical velvet ropes, free to jibber-jabber up and down the corridors of power. Of course, he blows it almost instantly by running that big mouth of his.

The second hour of “Norman” keeps the camera locked firmly on Gere as he sinks into a puddle of quicksand almost entirely of his own creation. There’s a plum supporting part for Charlotte Gainsbourg as a steely Israeli intelligence agent, and Michael Sheen is oddly convincing as Norman’s nebbishy nephew. By the time Steve Buscemi shows up as a disappointed rabbi you might be wondering if the almost all-Gentile cast in this extremely Jewish story is some kind of running joke, but the actors all pull it off so Mazel Tov, I guess.

“Norman” is mostly a one-man-show anyway, and we watch with morbid fascination as Gere talks up, down, around and in circles trying to stave off the inevitable. It’s a bravura turn, made even more impressive when realizing his Woody Allen mannerisms should by all rights seem silly coming from such a handsome goy. Gere––always a much better actor than he’s been given credit for––sells us on Norman’s desperation, on his aching need to be “somebody.”

Director Cedar pins him into tight close-ups that at times become visually monotonous, even when the performance dazzles. “Norman” flirts with redundancy as the title character circles the drain. (A few judicious trims to the third act would go a long way.) But when all is said and done––and believe me, an awful lot is said––the film remains a rare look inside a moneyed Manhattan subculture seldom seen at the movies. After meeting Norman Oppenheimer, you’re not likely to forget him anytime soon.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen 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.