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Review – First Man


FILM REVIEWFIRST MANWith Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber. Written by Josh Singer. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. 141 minutes.

first_man_xlgRyan Gosling has his fans but while he has a number of solid performances under his belt, all too often he underplays his roles to the point of inertia, as with “La La Land” and “Blade Runner 2049.” With FIRST MAN, in which he plays Neil Armstrong, he has found the perfect part in that he plays a man who revealed very little of himself to the public or even to those who were close to him. It’s hard to say what the future may hold but this may be the performance for which he’ll be remembered.

“First Man” is the story of the U.S. space program, seen through the eyes of Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. For viewers old enough to remember the actual event, it’s an impressive recreation of history, managing to generate suspense even when one knows what is going to happen. For younger viewers, it captures the sense of wonder that captivated supporters of NASA and what came to be called the “space race.” Having been repeatedly bested by Russia in launching satellites and in manned space flight, President John F. Kennedy put America on the path to put the first man on the moon.

Based on James R. Hansen’s book, it focuses on Armstrong, giving us a look at a man who was conditioned to persevere regardless of the circumstances. The film opens with him surviving a dangerous test flight, but perhaps the most revealing moment comes when his future moon partner Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), notes that the deaths after the Apollo 1 tragedy opens up opportunities for the other astronauts. When he says that he’s only pointing out what they’re all thinking, Armstrong replies that maybe he shouldn’t. Gosling walks a tightrope as Armstrong, rarely revealing his feelings so that when he lets the mask slip it has maximum impact, whether it’s offering a wry smile to a fellow astronaut or discussing with his children the uncertainty of his return from his mission. Indeed, death is a recurring theme not only in his personal life but with the repeated reminders of the dangers of what they are trying to accomplish as friends and colleagues perish along the way.

Director Damien Chazelle has upped his game from his previous films, the uneven “Whiplash,” which succeeded on the strength of a bravura performance from J.K. Simmons, and the overrated “La La Land.” Perhaps it helped that, for a change, he did not write the script and that Josh Singer has given him a much more solid base from which to work. Thus, we get suspenseful sequences such as Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission, and we get personal details about the relationship between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who demonstrates she’s no pushover for her husband or for NASA, yet clearly worked at maintaining a solid marriage.

In real life, Armstrong came back from the moon in 1969 and did not go on the lecture circuit or otherwise try to cash in on his fame, but largely withdrew from public life. “First Man” provides a sympathetic portrait of a true American hero, acknowledging that he was a complex person who was more interested in doing the job than getting the acclaim.•••

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 new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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Review – Molly


FILM REVIEWMOLLYWith Julia Batelaan, Emma de Paauw, Joost Bolt, Arnost Kraus, Andre Dongelmans. Written by Thijs Meuwese. Directed by Colinda Bongers, Thijs Meuwese. Rated PG -13. 91 minutes.

molly-2017-movie-colinda-bongers-2MOLLY is a Dutch “Mad Max” wannabe. It’s in English, but it doesn’t really matter since much of the film consists of fight scenes without dialogue. While it has moments of visual creativity – impressive given the minuscule budget on which the film was made – neither the plot nor characterization is particularly engaging.

We’re in a post-apocalyptic world, in which survivors on their own are barely hanging on and a thuggish bully has become the dictator of his own little realm. He distracts his followers with fights to the death among his captives, drugged into a rabid state. None of this makes sense, but you’re supposed to go with the flow.

He then learns about Molly (Julia Batelaan), a lone wolf who is not only an expert fighter but also appears to have extraordinary powers that are never really explained. He’s eager to have her captured in order to fight for him. Meanwhile, she’s found a young girl – whose parents we see captured at the film’s start – and decides to protect her.

And that’s really all there is to the plot. It comes down to whether Molly will prevail or not, but other than the fact that her opponents are the minions of the stereotypical post-apocalyptic dictator, there’s no reason to really care. Batelaan has done a number of film and TV productions in the Netherlands, but from this film, it’s hard to gauge her acting talent beyond her abilities to perform the martial arts choreography the story demands. That’s no small thing, but it would be pressing it to claim it a dramatic performance.

What merits the film may rest on the visuals, from the staging of the various fight scenes to the sets which reflect the makeshift nature of this world (and possibly the film’s budget). If all one asks is visceral action, then “Molly” delivers on that score. Unfortunately, it is done at the level of a not particularly imaginative video game, so that we get a setup and then get to root for Molly to prevail.

With a better script, “Molly” might have risen to the level of a B-movie. As is, it’s a disposable curio that might be of interest in retrospect if the star or directors prove their talent in more ambitious material down the road. It’s possible. Few people saw the original “Mad Max” on its original U.S. release nearly forty years ago and wouldn’t have guessed that director George Miller and star Mel Gibson had big careers ahead of them.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – A Star Is Born


FILM REVIEWA STAR IS BORNWith Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters. Directed by Bradley Cooper. Rated PG – 13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence. 111 minutes.

star_is_born_xlgGiven what a giant step forward A STAR IS BORN is for its two leads, it’s not surprising that they went with such proven material. It’s the fifth film version of this story. It originated as “What Price Hollywood?” in 1932 and was followed by two remakes as “A Star is Born” in 1937 and 1954. The focus shifted from Hollywood to the music industry with the 1976 remake, and that’s where this new telling takes place.

Bradley Cooper, making his debut as a director, stars as Jackson Maine, a superstar singer who gives concerts in packed arenas. He’s at the top of his game, but suffers from several demons, including drug and alcohol dependency and the deterioration of his hearing. At the start of the story, he goes into a bar to get loaded, not caring when he discovers it’s a drag club.

That’s where he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), an aspiring singer who is so good she’s the only woman welcomed into the all-male drag show. Her rendition of “La Vie En Rose” sets the tone for the film. She and Jackson meet, and he’s taken by her obvious talent, even more so when he learns she’s also a songwriter. He uses his clout and star power to launch her career. As she takes off, he starts to falter, setting up the film’s tragic storyline. They’re in love, but her success becomes one more thing with which Jackson can’t cope.

The early stages of their relationship are touching. He treats her with respect and doesn’t try to use his celebrity to overpower her, physically or emotionally. She’s ambitious, but insecure and doesn’t know if she has what it takes. As their fortunes change, he has to deal with the fact that he may be holding her back, even as she remains devoted to him (while not letting him off the hook for his lapses). For those who have never seen the earlier movies – and the 1937 and 1954 versions are classics well worth watching – the last act may come as a surprise. It lacks the impact of the earlier films, but times have so changed that the original ending probably wouldn’t work today.

The film runs long (though shorter than the ’54 and ’76 films), yet Cooper shows a sure hand in taking us into this world and letting us in behind the scenes. As Jackson, he lets his character be sympathetic while also showing just how difficult a man he is, as in his relationship with his brother (Sam Elliott) who manages his concerts.

The real revelation here is Lady Gaga. Although she’s done many videos and some television, her few film appearances have been relatively brief. Here she joins Cooper in carrying the film. She’s especially effective in the early scenes where she’s feisty but uncertain about her future. Her scenes with Andrew Dice Clay as her father serve to sketch in her backstory, with Dad warning about talented singers who don’t get the breaks, clearly referring to himself.

“A Star Is Born” is a time-tested story, and in this new version more than four decades after the last one, will undoubtedly work again for today’s audiences. If it doesn’t quite achieve greatness, it does show that Cooper’s gamble – both in stepping in behind the camera and giving Lady Gaga her first starring film role – has paid off handsomely.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Venom


FILM REVIEWVENOMWith Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott. Written by Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner and Kelly Marcel and Will Beall. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language. 112 minutes.

venom_ver2_xlgIf the folks planning future DC movies want to know how Marvel is running rings around them in film adaptations of comic book characters, and this year’s string of hits (“Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Deadpool 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp”) left them baffled, then they should go see VENOM. In a tight 100 minutes or so it introduces its character with action and humor, and when one of two bonus scenes in the closing credits sets you up for a sequel, you know you’ll be there.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is fired from his job as an investigative reporter for daring to ask pointed questions of Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant scientist and businessman who has a secret agenda. Drake has sponsored his own space program to collect samples of alien life which turn out to be symbionts. Roughly speaking, they can take over human bodies and merge with them, although the early experiments do not turn out well.

However, when the alien calling itself Venom takes over Eddie, they gradually develop a working relationship. For an alien that likes to feed by biting the heads off of humans, it turns out to have a sense of humor and a willingness to learn. We know this will have to end with a showdown between Eddie and Drake, but in the meantime, Eddie has to learn how to deal with Venom, who occasionally emerges as a toothy, pop-eyed monster courtesy of some impressive special effects. Fortunately, his ex-girlfriend (Michelle Williams) is now seeing a doctor (Reid Scott) willing to help.

So why does this work? Start with the casting of Tom Hardy, an actor not known for his light comic touch, who turns out to have one. In the tradition of a number of Marvel superheroes, Eddie is a bit of a misfit, who messes up his private life and doesn’t suddenly become ultra-competent when he merges with Venom. Add to that the fact that, unlike the DC films, the movie doesn’t seem as if it were shot during a power failure. It’s not dark and brooding (which only the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale “Batman” movies managed to pull off). And it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The film doesn’t take on the comic tone of “Deadpool” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but it doesn’t shy away from lighter moments, such as Venom commenting on Eddie’s love life.

One last lesson for the folks making the DC films: look at how Marvel promotes their films. Often, as here, a bonus scene will include a character who hasn’t appeared in the movie prior to this moment. Part of the audience will hoot and holler, while those (like this reviewer) who are unfamiliar with the comic book will have to find someone to explain that, yes, that character will have a major role in an upcoming film.

It would all be cynical and calculating except for this: “Venom” delivers for its audience. It’s exciting, entertaining, and fun. It’s not “Black Panther” in terms of reaching out far beyond the fan base, but for those already inclined to see such films, it should be another success for Marvel. DC’s upcoming “Aquaman” has its work cut out for it.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Bookshop


FILM REVIEWTHE BOOKSHOP. With Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance. Written and directed by Isabel Coixet. Rated PG for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking. 113 minutes.

bookshop_ver3It might sound strange to complain that a movie set in a bookstore is too literary, and yet here we are. Despite the best efforts of a winning cast, writer-director Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s beloved 1978 novel is a chunky, undigested construct. The themes of THE BOOKSHOP are bluntly articulated, yet also too abstractly rendered to play out in a satisfying cinematic context — watching it feels like reading CliffsNotes. Stripped of Fitzgerald’s prose, the events as depicted don’t pack much dramatic punch. This is no slight on the source material, just a reminder that not every great book needs to be a movie. In fact, most of them probably shouldn’t.

Emily Mortimer stars as a kindly WWII widow attempting to open a bookstore in a quaint little Suffolk town, instantly and unknowingly arousing the ire of a local dowager (Patricia Clarkson) who had eyes on converting the musty old shop into a community arts center. Of course, any bookstore worth a damn automatically becomes a community arts center in its own right, but Coixet has curiously little interest in depicting the town’s relationship with the title establishment. We’re simply informed via voice-over when business is booming and when it’s slow — a dull, tell-don’t-show approach Coixet’s screenplay extends to most matters of plot.

The one thing in the movie that works is our shopkeeper’s tentative friendship with a bookish recluse played by the great Bill Nighy. The lovely, swan-necked Mortimer strikes some unexpected sparks with the rigid-faced character actor. Nighy’s natural expression of severe gastrointestinal distress is usually deployed for poker-faced comedy, but here he finds a more romantic and affecting meter, mining the minimalism of his movements for a deep pathos. You love watching them together, and when he abruptly exits the film it feels like the pilot light has been blown out.

There’s a brief scandal surrounding the store when Mortimer decides to stock a controversial new bestseller by some guy named Vladimir Nabakov, and it appears as if the stage is being set for a lively conflict over censorship and freedom of expression. But that, like so many other storylines just sort of fizzles out, film instead on Clarkson’s increasingly elaborate and cinematically inert plans to rid the town of Mortimer’s shop once and for all. (You’d figure “Lolita” would be an easy enough angle, but instead Coixet opts to drown us in old English real estate law.)

Plucky young Honor Kneafsey co-stars as a kid who helps Mortimer around the shop, despite a vociferously stated preference for math over literature. She’s one of those characters that’s more of a device than a person, complete with the voice of a Secret Special Guest Star narrating the film from her perspective in the present day. 

Coixet and cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu stick to a postcard palate, stressing the banal beauty of these surroundings even when at odds with the needs of the script. “The Bookshop” has some big ideas it wants to make about conformity, provincialism and the price of individuality. But both Mortimer and Nighy’s characters would presumably agree you’re better off reading the book.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Night School


FILM REVIEWNIGHT SCHOOLWith Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Al Madrigal. Written by Kevin Hart & Harry Ratchford & Joey Wells & Matthew Kellard   and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Rated PG – 13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence. 111 minutes.

night_schoolThe beginning of NIGHT SCHOOL does not bode well for the film. Kevin Hart plays Teddy Walker, a high school dropout, who has forged a successful career as a salesman, although he is living beyond his means in order to impress his girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke). The lowbrow humor includes a scene where he puts pubic hair on a dessert in order to avoid paying a restaurant bill he can’t afford, and a proposal scene where you can see the payoff from the moment it starts. It’s not very promising.

However, when the main story finally gets underway, something happens. Teddy has the prospect of a new job but one that requires that he get his G.E.D. He thinks he can hustle his way through the process but discovers his old high school nemesis (Taran Killam) is now the principal, and Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), who teaches night school, expects him to do the work.

It’s when we get to the class that the film starts to take off. It still has its lapses into bodily function jokes, but as we meet the other students in the class they turn out to be a group of lovable misfits. Al Madrigal is the would-be singer/songwriter who lost his job over Teddy’s restaurant stunt. Rob Riggle is a big lug who wants to move into management at his moving company. Mary Lynn Rajskub dropped out when she became pregnant and complains about her less-than-ideal life before shifting gears and declaring she is “blessed.” Also in the class are Romany Malco as someone obsessive over various conspiracies, Anne Winters as a young woman who will go to jail if she doesn’t straighten her life out, and rapper Fat Joe whose character reveal shouldn’t be spoiled in a review.

What makes this different from what passes for comedies these days is that it’s not about humiliating its characters. Even the principal, the film’s heavy, gets a moment of redemption. In short – no pun intended – this is a movie with heart. Teddy and the other students are all in need of a second chance, try to find a shortcut, but ultimately learn that it comes through commitment and hard work. That’s not to say the film is without genuine laughs. Rajskub’s attempt to seduce the principal to distract him from a break-in to steal an exam is a long way from her buttoned-down character on “24.” And the fill-in job Teddy takes at a fast food joint calling itself “Christian Chicken” is funny without ever mocking characters simply for having sincere religious beliefs.

At the center of all this are Hart and Haddish, who get to cut loose and yet also get to show the humanity of their characters in ways that, say, Adam Sandler or Melissa McCarthy rarely have. By treating the characters as people rather than punching bags, “Night School” may be low comedy, but it doesn’t leave you wanting to take a shower afterward.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The House With A Clock In Its Walls


FILM REVIEWTHE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. With Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Sunny Suljic, Kyle MacLachlan. Written by Eric Kripke. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor, and language. 104 minutes.

house_with_a_clock_in_its_walls_ver2If I were to sit down and rank sentences I never thought I’d write, “That new children’s film directed by Eli Roth is really rather delightful,” would be pretty high up there. And yet it turns out the smirky torture-porn auteur behind the “Hostel” movies and this year’s odious, enervated “Death Wish” remake has a real knack for the old Amblin Entertainment house style of junior thrills and chills. Based on the beloved 1973 novel by John Bellairs, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a kicky throwback to those mischievous, slightly sinister kids’ adventures Spielberg proteges uses to churn out on a fairly regular basis three decades ago. Funny how it took Eli Roth, of all people, to make the best Robert Zemeckis movie in ages.

Owen Vacarro stars as Lewis Barnacvelt, recently orphaned and sent to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a giant shambles of a house we quickly figure out is haunted. Lewis’ laissez-faire approach to parenthood includes pearls of wisdom like “Why go to the trouble of having cookies for dessert when you can just eat them for dinner instead?” but he’s a bit of a stickler about his magic.

See, Uncle Jonathan is a warlock (don’t call him a “boy-witch” because that makes him angry) and not a particularly accomplished one at that. Along with Lewis we soon discover that Uncle Jonathan’s far more gifted former partner (Kyle MacLachlan, having a grand old time) turned evil and stashed a doomsday clock somewhere in these walls before blowing himself up in a blood magic ritual. Now it’s up to Uncle Jonathan, his nephew and a retired witch living next door (Cate Blanchett, all clipped consonants and clad exclusively in violet) to find and stop the clock before a lunar eclipse brings about the end of us all.

Roth establishes his Amblin bona fides almost immediately, tossing out “Space Man From Pluto” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” references to warm the hearts of middle-aged geeks. The film is set in 1955, but feels more like that particular 1980s brand of ’50s nostalgia than the actual period, with scenes of Lewis at school only a Jean Shepherd voice-over away from “A Christmas Story” territory. There’s plenty of Ovaltine, along with a Captain Midnight secret decoder ring and if the school looks anachronistically integrated, then that’s just another reminder that this is all the stuff of charming fantasy.

I’ve never been a big Jack Black fan, but I do get a kick out of him in children’s movies, where his oversized mugging plays like a little kid’s idea of what an adult would act like. He’s got a surprisingly great rapport with Blanchett, the two affectionately rattling off insults at one another with a cozy, lived-in warmth that seems sincere. Of course, our trio forms a makeshift family while doing battle with flying jack o’lanterns that puke pumpkin seed paste and other assorted, just-scary-enough gross-outs. And while I personally could have done without the winged topiary lion pooping brown leaves I also realize that’s the scene my niece and nephew are gonna be talking about clear through Christmas dinner.

“The House With A Clock In Its Walls” neither overstays its welcome nor spends too much time setting up the presumably inevitable sequels. There’s a modesty to the film that’s becoming, and a nimbleness to the wit suggesting Roth could have a big future in children’s entertainment if he so desires. I guess in retrospect his skill with a PG-rated picture shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, as his R-rated films weren’t exactly “adult,” either.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.