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Review – Life


FILM REVIEWLIFEWith Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror. 103 minutes.

9dbe17716ef6fbc4439de15d628d3a75There have been some outstanding science fiction films in recent years, movies that appeal to our sense of wonder yet also make us think: “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “Arrival.” And then there are movies like LIFE, where the filmmakers imagine they’re competing at that level but have merely dressed up old material in new clothes. It’s not terrible. It’s just terribly unoriginal.

Six astronauts are working on the International Space Station and their latest mission is to capture a Mars probe that has suffered damage on its return trip. It’s not a spoiler to say they succeed. It’s the premise that sets the story in motion. The six characters are barely sketched in, notable more for their nationalities than their personalities. Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) is the African biologist who is greatly excited when he discovers a single-celled creature among the Martian samples. He manages to revive it and the cells start multiplying, forming a more complex creature dubbed “Calvin.”

Over the course of the rest of the film, Calvin does two things: get bigger and starting picking off the crew one by one. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the plot of “Alien,” and the serial numbers have barely been scratched off. It’s more like a third- or fourth-generation photocopy, with neither the characters nor the creature are as engaging as in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film.

At that point, its simply a matter of seeing the evolving creature (nowhere near as inventive or frightening as the H.R. Giger’s memorable creatures from “Alien”) and guessing who the next victim will be. Will it be the Russian Commander (Olga Dihovichnaya) or the Japanese Engineer (Hiroyuki Sanada) who just became a father? The gung-ho pilot (Ryan Reynolds) or the Thoughful Medical Officer (Rebecca Ferguson)? It’s a safe bet it won’t be the top-billed Handsome Hero (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose character is developed the most. He’s been on the station for more than a year, setting a record, because he’s sick of the war and violence back on Earth.

Like “Alien,” this is essentially a haunted house movie with virtually the entire story taking place within the confines of the station. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the set design, and the acknowledgement that in the absence of a strong gravitational pull “up” and “down” have little meaning. Characters glide through the station, taking turns at odd angles, having to anchor themselves in place if they don’t want to float off. In a nice touch we’re told the biologist is wheelchairbound on Earth, but gets around the station as easily as everyone else.

In the end, “Life” is curiously lifeless. Where it should be grabbing us by the throat, it instead leaves us idly wondering if anyone will survive and what the final payoff will be. When it finally happens, you may no longer care.•••

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

Review – Beauty and the Beast


FILM REVIEWBEAUTY AND THE BEASTWith Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad. Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images. 129 minutes.

29cffbbcf6075926f4e76dba17f94d3cSeveral years ago, the suits at Disney all but admitted they had run out of ideas and started turning to the rides at theme parks for inspiration. While “Pirates of the Caribbean” was a hit, other attempts like “The Country Bears” and “The Haunted Mansion” were quickly forgotten. So they turned to their library of animated classics and announced they would be doing live action versions of them. Why? Because they could.

The arrivals of “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book” were greeted with skepticism… until they were actually seen. While one can debate the necessity of such remakes, there was no doubt these were well-mounted productions, and not at all cheap knock-offs. Which brings us to the much-anticipated remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The 1991 animated film was actually nominated for a Oscar for Best Picture (leading to the creation of a separate category for animated features).

The good news is that they got it right. There’s a new song or two, some little changes here and there (most notably in the character of LeFou, played by Josh Gad), but director Bill Condon and his team have harnessed what was so magical about the earlier film and made it work here. A veteran director who knows his way around musicals having made “Dreamgirls” and written the screeplay adaptation for “Chicago,” he shows how it ought to be done.

Watch Belle (a radiant Emma Watson) singing about the “provincial life” in her village as the various townspeople move around her, and the contrived traffic jam that opened “La La Land” seems artificial and clumsy. In terms of production numbers the acid test here was going to be “Be Our Guest” as Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) leads an entire kitchen’s worth of food, china, and cutlery in welcoming Belle to dinner. It shows how far CGI effects have come that such a thing can be done, flawlessly mixing actors, computer animation, and physical sets into a seamless whole.

For those coming in late, the story remains intact. Belle and her father (Kevin Kline) are the eccentrics in the village, where the obnoxious Gaston (Luke Evans) believes Belle is the woman to be his wife. Meanwhile the Beast (Dan Stevens) is under a curse that can only be broken by someone loving him. His castleful of servants have been transformed into animate objects like Lumiere, who is a candelabra, Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), a clock, and the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson). Belle sacrifices herself to free her father, who has been taken by the Beast, but over time comes to see the human beneath the monstrous exterior, even as it becomes obvious that the real beast is the horrible Gaston. (One of the changes in the film is that Gaston’s sidekick LeFou is allowed to redeem himself.)

The story hits all the expected beats, but because Disney didn’t treat it like one of their home video “sequels” but brought in top talent to bring it to life, it is pure magic. The reinterpretations of the non-human characters is inventive while Watson is perfect as Belle, alternately dreamy and strong-willed, just the character to break through the Beast’s tough hide and find the human heart beating inside. For fans, it will be a subject of endless debate as to which version is “better,” but that’s strictly a matter of personal taste and preference.

“Beauty and the Beast” is the best movie musical in years, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.•••

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

Review – Kong: Skull Island


KONG: SKULL ISLAND
With Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Tian Jing. Written by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language. 120 minutes.

1702250830297_lWhat do we want from a film about King Kong? Great special effects, of course. Lots of action scenes with the gigantic ape. Some human characters who are entertaining to follow. And a dash of intelligence about the mythology created for the film. We want to get a sense that the filmmakers put some thought into it beyond the CGI.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND has it all. It has an interesting setup that lets us meet Kong in the opening minutes of the film, and then provides reasons Skull Island has remained unexplored and why Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to go there now. Set in 1973, as American troops are leaving Vietnam, it even provides the expedition with a military escort led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a gung-ho soldier more interested in winning than in what “winning” means. Add to the mix a “tracker” (Tom Hiddleston) and a self-described “anti-war photographer” (Brie Larson), along with various soldiers and scientists, and the stage has been set.

For the next two hours there will be monstrous creatures, a lost civilization, a soldier (John C. Reilly) forgotten by time, and Kong. A key thread of the story is trying to determine Kong’s role on the island. Many of the new arrivals do not survive their first encounter, and initial viewers may want to try and predict who makes it to the end of the film. Although rated PG-13, this is not a film for the squeamish.

Estimated to cost $190,000,000 to make, the film works for the same reason that they used to say about the James Bond movies: all of the money is up there on the screen. When the characters enter the enclave of a lost civilization, you feel you could spend a few hours (rather than a few minutes) just exploring the location. We encounter other creatures on the island, most–but not all–deadly to the humans. The characters are varied enough that the fact that many of them are two dimensional (bureaucrat, nerd, hard-bitten soldier, eccentric old coot, etc.) doesn’t matter. This is a cast that can put a little topspin on what they’ve been given, so that Corey Hawkins, as Goodman’s sidekick, uses his earnestness to play off of Goodman’s character’s hype.

Which brings us back to Kong. At first just an angry force of nature, he becomes a character in the film as we learn his purpose and motivations. There is a scene at the end of the very long credits sequence that suggests Kong will be back and he won’t be alone. So grab the popcorn and sit back like a kid at a Saturday matinee. “Kong: Skull Island” is the real deal.•••

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 – Brimstone


FILM REVIEWBRIMSTONEWith Dakota Fanning, Kit Harington, Guy Pearce, Carice van Houten, Emilia Jones. Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Rated R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language. 148 minutes.

2926-11930-brimstonBRIMSTONE, which is being released on demand and other digital services, is an epic gothic western that boasts several strong performances but may be too violent and dark for some viewers. Dutch director Martin Koolhoven guides an English-speaking cast in this four-chapter story told out of order so that the full back story of the two principal characters isn’t revealed until just before the climactic section.

Dakota Fanning, the one-time child star who easily upstaged actors like Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, and Denzel Washington, has been working her way into adult roles. Now 23, she appeared in this and the equally disturbing “American Pastoral” last year. She uses her haunting looks to good effect, able to project layers of feelings beneath a seemingly placid surface.

Here she’s Liz, a mute woman on the frontier who works as a midwife and is married to Samuel (Kit Harrington), a farmer who already had a young son. Things go bad with the arrival of the Reverend (a chilling Guy Pearce), whose faith is a strict and cruel interpretation of Christianity. For reasons that will not be revealed until late in the film, Liz is afraid of the Reverend, and with good reason. He is targeting her and her family.

However, this is not the story of Liz’s victimhood. It’s about this deceptively quiet young woman who is determined not only to survive in a world where she’s considered little more than property, but to protect the little girl that she and Samuel have brought into the world. The second chapter shows Liz’s arrival at a “cathouse,” where the proprietor’s brother is the town’s sheriff. Punishment for women who object to their abuse is swift and brutal. It’s a bit disconcerting until one realizes that the reason Liz can now speak is that this is taking place earlier (the chapter titles, taken from Biblical books, are a strong hint).

Fanning plays Liz not as an avenging angel but as a woman constantly improvising to survive her horrific circumstances. While the gore is kept to a minium, there are multiple shootings and other deaths that make it seem that the Reverend’s descriptions of hell are already on Earth. Pierce’s depiction of the Reverend’s false piety may be the most unsettling element of the film given the crimes he justifies with it. By the time we get the “genesis” of his relationship with Liz, we’re ready for a climactic showdown, but things may not end up the way you expect.

“Brimstone” played the festival circuit where some hailed it and some found it too harsh, with a result that it’s getting a very limited theatrical release and going right to digital services. It’s often hard to tell in the absence of reviews and word of mouth what you’re getting with these little-seen movies. In this case, you’re getting a dark and engaging story of two people who won’t give up, one for his evil ends, the other for her chance of survival.•••

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 – Logan


FILM REVIEWLOGAN
With Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle. Written by Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green. Directed by James Mangold. Rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity. 137 minutes.

In the world of Marvel’s “X-Men,” Wolverine has always been a standout, at least on the big screen. He’s been played by Hugh Jackman in seven previous movies (and a video game), including two solo flms. So now that Jackman playing the character for the last time, it’s fitting that it’s a story of Wolverine’s last stand, sometime in the future. The character may pop up again in future movies, but it won’t be quite the same.

LOGAN (Wolverine’s real name) is in hiding with Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who once trained and led the mutant X-Men. They’ve been decimated by the anti-mutant forces, and are now just trying to survive. This is when they learn of new government experiments looking to create mutants who can be controlled as weapons. They take on a young girl Laura (Dafne Keen), who the government wants to destroy as part of an earlier, failed experiment. Much of the film is them on the run, looking for a sanctuary which Wolverine doesn’t believe is real.

This is a lot grimmer than the other entries in the series, the best of which were powerful metaphors for finding one’s way in the world for people who were “different.” Here, those who would destroy the mutants are winning, with Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) eager to test out his new breed of mutant, which is essentially a killing machine.

One can see what might have attracted Jackman and Stewart (who is reportedly also exiting the series) to these stories in the first place, but after a while they seemed to be just spinning their wheels. There was no point to making them except, of course, that they scored at the box office. So we get an almost mournful tone here as Xavier sees his dream die and Wolverine, always the angriest misfit among the good guys, more bitter than ever.

Partway through they are taken in by a farm family led by Will (Eriq LaSalle), and they seem re-energized by both the kindness of strangers and Wolverine’s being able to return the favor when they come under attack. The sequence plays out unexpectedly, moving the film into even darker territory. This all leads up to the climactic showdown in which we get tragic heroism and a hint that the story is not yet over, although it will go on without Wolverine.

For fans of the “X-Men,” this is easily the best entry in the series in some time, a film that’s more interested in the characters than in the special effects. Jackman brought serious acting skills to a character who might easily have been reduced to a ball of rage who can produce blades from his hands. With “Logan,” he gets to see that character through to the end. Both the actor and the character are treated with the dignity they deserve.•••

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 – Before I Fall


FILM REVIEWBEFORE I FALLWith Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Cynthy Wu, Elena Kampouris, Logan Miller. Written by Maria Maggenti. Directed by Ry Russo-Young. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images, and language-all involving teens.. 99 minutes.

BEFORE I FALL is a time loop story and hits all the expected beats. What’s a time loop story? Think “Groundhog Day” or “Edge of Tomorrow,” where a character repeats a period of time–usually a day–over and over again. The character trapped in the time loop goes from confusion to breaking all the rules to accumulating knowledge to setting things right.

This time out it’s Samantha (Zoey Deutch), a high school senior who is part of a group of girlfriends who are this film’s version of the Plastics from “Mean Girls.” They’re full of themselves and are cruel to everyone who’s not them. As we go through the day, Samantha is dismissive of her family and classmate Kent (Logan Miller), a childhood friend who is hosting a party that night. They make fun of oddball students like Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who is the particular target of Samantha’s friend Lindsay (Halston Sage), the leader of their clique. And she’s getting ready to lose her virginity to her hot boyfriend. Not everything works out as expected but she loses consciousness in a car accident on the way home from the party, waking up in her own bed and discovering she’s about to live the entire day over again.

Although the plot follows the time loop formula, it’s not about an adult romance or stopping an alien invasion. Instead, the movie is about Samantha’s moral education. Instead of blowing off her family, she starts making time for her young sister and actually expressing her love for her parents. We learn about her history with Kent and that he’s much better for her than the egotistical boyfriend her friends think is the perfect match because he’s “hot.” And she starts reaching out to the girls she’s been cruel to and–surprise–finds out they’re real people who don’t deserve the treatment they’ve had to endure.

For the teen and tween girls who are presumably the film’s target audience, that’s not a bad message, and Deutch is believable as the attractive girl who gets caught up in her popularity but starts to realize her priorities are wrong. As a high school movie, this isn’t up there with “Mean Girls” or “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” but it’s also not one of those movies that thinks it should be about sex, drugs, booze, and bodily fluids. The problem, as with another recent teen film, “The Space Between Us,” is that it doesn’t so much conclude as merely stop.

Without giving anything away, the movie gets us to a dramatic revelation that is a fitting payoff to Samantha’s learning about the ramifications of her actions, but then doesn’t tell us what happens next. Is she trapped in the loop forever? If so, her moral education is meaningless. Worse, while she accrues experience, for everyone else each day is a reset with no memory of previous iterations, so–for example–her skipping the party to have a heartwarming family dinner has no lasting impact on the rest of her family. And if it ends as the film seems to imply, then one is left with the unsettling answer as to what the penalty should be for being an obnoxious teenager. What was needed was some indication that she’s gotten out of the loop, but is now a better person for the experience. That’s the ending we don’t get.

“Before I Fall” is adequate entertainment for the current crop of teens and tweens, but it’s not one that their younger siblings will be wanting to see a few years from now.•••

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

Review – Get Out


FILM REVIEWGET OUTWith Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, LilRel Howery. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references. 103 minutes.

get-out-main-one-sheet-58753d5968ead-1A horror film by a first-time writer/director isn’t ordinarily the stuff of rave reviews. Indeed, these days it’s more likely to go directly to DVD and online streaming without ever making a stop at the local theater. GET OUT is something different. The feature directing debut of Jordan Peele (of the comedy team Key and Peele), it is a smart, scary–and, yes, funny–horror film that is coming along at exactly the right time.

After a creepy prologue which isn’t explained until much later in the film, we meet Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) a young black photographer who is about to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) very upper-class and very white family. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon, while Mom (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist. They greet Chris with hugs and charm, laying it on a bit too thick, like the father pointing out he’d have voted for a third term for Obama.

At first the odd things are peripheral: the black servants who seem like automatons or the psychiatrist hypnotizing Chris to stop smoking. As time goes on, Chris discovers what’s really happening, and at that point it’s anyone’s guess where this will end up. It’s to Peele’s credit that he’s able to set up certain expectations and then pull the rug out from under us.

As the young couple, Kaluuya and Williams are attractive twenty-somethings wending their way through the increasing awkwardness of this weekend visit. Veterans Whitford and Keener add some heft to the role of the parents, and their familiar faces serve to send precisely the mixed signals for which Peele is aiming. Comedian LilRel Howery is another plus as Chris’s friend Rod, a TSA agent who fancies himself a detective and is convinced that this is a plot to turn Chris into a sex slave.

As a director, Peele demonstrates a steady hand on the camera, showing us enough in the third act for the full horror to emerge, but not wallowing in guts and gore. The whole film is a delicate balancing act between what we (and Chris) don’t know, the increasingly disturbing stuff that is revealed, and the genuinely comic as when Rod tries to report his suspicions to the police. A moment late in the film sets up one ending before revealing another. Like the great Alfred Hitchcock, Peele expertly plays his audience.

So get out of your house and see “Get Out,” This is a a horror film that truly deserves to be called an original.•••

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