Review – Angel Has Fallen

FILM REVIEWANGEL HAS FALLENWith Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Danny Huston, Nick Nolte. Written by Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook & Ric Roman Waugh. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Rated R for violence and language throughout. 120 minutes.

angel_has_fallen_xlgIn “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013) and “London Has Fallen” (2016) Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) had to save the President of the United States from terrorist attacks. Now, in ANGEL HAS FALLEN, Banning and his wife (Piper Perabo) have a young child, and he’s been taking painkillers to deal with all the abuse his body has taken in his work. Near the film’s start, the current U.S. President (Morgan Freeman), tells Banning that he plans to make him director of the Secret Service.

Then the attack begins. As in the previous films it’s massive, audacious, and coordinated. The President ends up in a coma and, as the only other survivor of the attack, Banning becomes the chief suspect. No fair guessing how it turns out. Indeed, even before the big reveals it’s pretty obvious who the film’s real villains will turn out to be.

What the series offers is some top-flight actors fleshing out their melodramatic roles, including Jada Pinkett Smith as a relentless FBI agent, Danny Huston as an old friend of Banning who has set up a counter-terrorism camp, Nick Nolte as a recluse with ties to the agent, and Tim Blake Nelson as the Vice President. Nolte, looking like a bedraggled hermit, seems like he’s having a lot of fun as his character becomes enmeshed in the plot. (Make sure to stick around for the scene with Butler and Nolte in the closing credits.)

What’s really the point of the series is that it provides visceral and violent action, delivering plenty of jolts mixed in with a dash of humor. The body count is high with most of those shot or blown up as anonymous as characters in a video game. We can be fairly certain that Banning will live to fight another day but, be warned, not all of the principals make it to the end of the film.

Stuntman turned writer/director Ric Roman Waugh and his collaborators have constructed the film around several action set pieces, leading to a climactic showdown at the hospital where the weakened but now revived President chooses to trust Banning to protect him. We’ve seen such scenes in other films, but they kick it up a notch with some twists that keep it from being predictable. It does, however, keep with preposterous premise that drove the other films – that Banning alone can take on an entire army almost single-handedly.

Perhaps that explains the series’ success. Butler turns 50 this November so his on-screen derring-do may serve middle-aged wish fulfillment, but it also comes with a touch of realism in that his heroism has a cost on mind and body. “Angel Has Fallen” works as an action film but also as an opportunity for older viewers (like this reviewer) to pretend – at least for its two-hour running time – that “I could do that too.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Ready Or Not

FILM REVIEWREADY OR NOTWith Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell. Written by Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett. Rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use. 95 minutes.

ready_or_not_xlgREADY OR NOT is that annual movie tradition: the late summer surprise. There’s usually some film that comes out of nowhere in late August that stands out after months of sequels, remakes, and tentpole movies. It’s an original, providing plenty of bloody thrills for the horror fans and some dark satire for those wanting something more.

It’s the wedding day of Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien). Alex has been estranged from his family, but now is welcomed back by at least some members of the LeDomas clan who have built a fortune on their gaming empire or, as Alex calls it, their “dominion.” Not everyone is happy to see Grace, but Alex’s mother (Andie MacDowell) thanks her for bringing her son home.

That evening Grace is introduced to a family tradition: the new addition has to play a game selected at random from a special box. It’s not a spoiler – indeed, it’s the basis for all the advertising for the film – to note that Grace discovers she is to be the prey in a deadly game of hide and seek. Once set in motion, the bulk of the story is Grace trying to stay alive while Alex’s father (Henry Czerny) reminds the family that they must get her by dawn or succumb to a lethal bargain made by an ancestor.

The filmmakers have several things going for them. As a horror film the details freshen up an old plot of the innocent young woman fending off violent attacks. Here we get the wealthy LeDomas family, still formally dressed, stalking Grace with rifles, a crossbow, and even a battle-ax. While they are deadly serious, they’re also not especially adept and accidents happen. It’s not for the squeamish.

Then there’s the satiric element which can hardly be called “subtext.” Anyone who has ever married into a family and tried to fit in will relate to Grace’s problem, from those members who consider her an interloper to those couples where the one who married into the family is more invested in tradition than the person there by birth. Likewise, Alex is torn between love for his bride and loyalty to his family. In some ways, this is covering the same ground – albeit in a horror context – as last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Finally, there’s Samara Weaving. Bearing a striking resemblance to another Australian actress, Margot Robbie, Weaving bears the weight of the film. If we’re not rooting for her, the film doesn’t work. She successfully conveys fear, growing strength in fighting back, and continuing incredulity at not only the family’s insanity, but that her groom did nothing to warn her in advance.

The film’s payoff is unexpected, a capstone to what’s come before, and leads to a perfect final moment. “Ready Or Not” will not win over a non-horror fans, but for those who can enjoy the genre, it’s a welcome addition to this summer’s movie season.•••

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

Spoiler Special – Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

SPOILER SPECIALONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references. 161 minutes.


Writing a spoiler-free, pre-release review of Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD felt a bit like typing with one hand tied behind my back. Only a bastard would dare divulge the shocks and delights that make a first viewing of this film such a raucous rollercoaster ride, so if you haven’t yet had the pleasure please stop reading right away. I’m about to be that bastard.

Tarantino plays upon our knowledge of the Manson murders to tighten the suspense screws, ramping up and dragging out the dread before suddenly flooding us with cathartic, cartoonishly comic relief. But what’s maybe most impressive upon repeat viewings is how deftly he sets up his surprises, the punchlines often hiding in plain sight. Tarantino films are always unpredictable but they never cheat. He’s not a trickster trying to pull one over on the audience. The movies tend to tell you exactly what they’re doing while they’re doing it. This one especially.

I’ve seen “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” three times now and I adore the film beyond all reason. This tale of two none-too-bright, mid-level has-beens on the verge of never-was is in many ways Tarantino’s sweetest picture, improbably moving in its painstaking re-creation of a magnificently tacky Los Angeles at the end of an era. The grandeur of Hollywood’s Golden Age had already gone to rot by the time this film begins in 1969, but Tarantino has such contagious affection for crap-culture ephemera that it translates into a touching sense of longing for this gaudy, Jurassic world. It’s a blizzard of bubblegum pop ditties, middling TV westerns, catchy advertising jingles and disposable studio programmers conjured with such loving attention to detail you can practically smell the after-shave and stale cigarette smoke. I wish I could live inside this movie.

The first tip-off to where we’re headed is a clip from “The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey,” what was intended to be the big-screen breakthrough for Leonardo DiCaprio’s modestly talented TV cowboy, Rick Dalton. For every Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen who made the jump from television westerns to movie stardom there were dozens of guys like Rick who couldn’t quite pull it off. The glimpse we get of this studio standard, WWII men-on-a-mission movie finds an eyepatch-wearing Rick torching Nazis with flamethrower (along with a priceless behind-the-scenes insert in which our prima donna asks if somebody can do something about the heat). Of course that flamethrower is gonna pay off big in a couple hours or so, and since Tarantino loves referencing himself the scene is also supposed to put us in mind of his “Inglourious Basterds,” another film in which history’s monsters are at the mercy of the movies.

Shaping up to be the film’s most curious controversy is a very funny flashback in which we see how Brad Pitt’s supercool stuntman Cliff Booth rendered himself unemployable by picking a fight with Bruce Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet.” It’s a layered sequence and its placement in the film is pivotal, as we’ve previously only seen Cliff as a kind and supportive pal to basket-case Rick. But now we’re rudely informed by Kurt Russell’s put-upon stunt coordinator (who also narrates the film with just the right amount of surly disdain for our protagonists) that Cliff killed his wife and got away with it. Pitt is giving the warmest and most enormously enjoyable performance of his career, to which Tarantino tries to complicate our responses by waiting so long to drop this biographical bomb. A flashback within the flashback is teasingly inconclusive, alluding to Natalie Wood as a way of further muddying the waters. Is Cliff really a murderer?

We’ll never know for sure. He’s definitely an asshole though, as evidenced by the hilarious, ball-busting banter between Pitt and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. It’s a situation in which Cliff understands full well that he should really just shut up and drink his milk (a marvelous touch) but he simply can’t resist being a dick, even if that means the end of his career. A lot of people have been mischaracterizing the scene as Brad Pitt beating up Bruce Lee, which is the kind of statement that gets you attention on Twitter but isn’t actually what happens in the film. It’s a three-round match and in the first Cliff is immediately planted on the ground by a single kick from the kung fu icon. During the second Cliff goads Lee into repeating the exact same move, which he counters and sends him flying into a car. Round three is interrupted, so I guess if hard-pressed you could say they fought to a draw.

It strikes me as deliberately disingenuous to claim that Quentin Tarantino – a man who has done more to introduce mainstream American movie audiences to Asian and martial arts cinema than any other living filmmaker and even had Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee’s yellow “Game of Death” jumpsuit in “Kill Bill” – somehow intended here to insult his idol. In fact, Tarantino already explained exactly what he was up to in the film’s very first scene, when Al Pacino’s fidgety talent agent tells Rick that the networks are using him in villain-of-the-week roles to boost the bona fides of their up-and-coming actors. If some nobody on his first TV show is seen beating up a guy like Rick Dalton, he becomes someone the audience can take seriously as a star. So what better way to establish Cliff’s seemingly superhuman physical prowess than by having him tussle with the most formidable fighter of all time? It’s a tribute, and a damn funny one.

Besides, I think any question of who really won the fight is answered by the fact that Cliff is remembering it all from up on a roof fixing Rick’s TV antenna because he can’t get any other work and Bruce Lee is off somewhere busy being a legend. Tarantino hammers this home with quick shots of Lee training glamorous friends like Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, while Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in with his dog. And if you really feel like getting into the weeds of it, the whole sequence is deliberately framed as Cliff’s memory of events, and as in nearly every Tarantino movie from the commode story in “Reservoir Dogs” to the snowy blow job in “The Hateful Eight,” tall tales are always as suspect as their tellers.

Besides, there’s already a pretty porous line between the movies and reality in this Hollywood fairy tale. The cameras and studio lights go missing from the soundstage during Rick’s performance on the TV pilot for “Lancer,” which is presented to us in glorious widescreen with a florid, Italian spaghetti western influence unheard of in television productions of the era. (That is, until Rick forgets his dialogue and we can suddenly hear the camera rig squeaking along the dolly track.) Tarantino even digitally inserts DiCaprio into a scene from “The Great Escape,” showcasing the limits of Dalton’s big-screen charisma as compared to his fellow former TV cowboy Steve McQueen. (Some have speculated that the character’s nagging smoker’s cough is a hint that Rick’s in the early stages of lung cancer, which would claim McQueen in 1980. If so, it’s even more perverse that the closing credits include outtakes from Dalton doing a cigarette commercial.)

Similar slight-of-hand finds DiCaprio replacing Burt Reynolds on an old episode of “The F.B.I.” But Tarantino pointedly leaves the vintage footage untouched during this film’s most beguiling sequence, when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate catches a matinee of “The Wrecking Crew” and watches the real Tate on a big screen with an appreciative audience. It’s the most heartfelt scene Tarantino has ever filmed, a valentine to the movies and to the late actress, embodied here by Robbie as a beatific beacon of lost promise. The film mostly keeps a respectful distance from her, the camera gazing from afar or overhead as she bounces and dances with giddy abandon. I’m not sure how you ask somebody to play an idea, but Robbie becomes the heartbeat of the movie – wide-eyed and full of wonderment as a whole new world of glamour and excitement are just beginning to open up in front of her. That we know this will all soon be sadistically snatched away in a massacre makes the fleeting moments we spend with Sharon almost unbearably poignant.

This depiction of Tate has become quite an issue for people who apparently don’t know how to watch movies. At Cannes a reporter asked Tarantino why Robbie didn’t have as much dialogue as her co-stars. (He answered curtly with, “I reject your hypothesis,” which was frankly more cordial than such a dumb question deserved.) Branching off from this nonsense, Time Magazine had not one but five reporters actually sit down and count how many lines are spoken by women in Tarantino’s films, then discarded “Death Proof” from their results because apparently it didn’t fit whatever point they were trying to make about the director of “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill” being some sort of sexist. I’m at a loss for words when a national publication presumes that such a dopey, anti-art stunt is how one is supposed to engage with cinema, particularly when Time Magazine’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek is one of the very best in the business and a personal hero of mine who has already written gorgeously about the movie in question.

“Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time,” sings Mick Jagger on the soundtrack in one of the film’s only music cues that doesn’t come from a visible source like a car radio. (It’s also a 1975 arrangement of the song, imposed editorially from the future.) The first time I saw the picture my palms were sweating and I had a pit in my stomach while Kurt Russell ran down the bone-dry, police report tick-tock of the hot August night that would prove to be Sharon Tate’s last. The movie dawdles on day-to-day details, as if fixating on the quotidian will forestall the inevitable. At the same time we’re watching Rick and Cliff sharing a drunken farewell dinner, their bozo boys’ club coming to a close as the falling star stares down an uncertain future of dubious career prospects, new marital responsibilities and a condo in Toluca Lake. Everybody’s running out of time.

Upon second viewing the song took on a different meaning. When Mick sings “you’re obsolete, my baby” he might as well be talking directly to Rick and Cliff, two dinosaurs from another era ill-equipped for the New Hollywood. They’re men out of their time, old cowboys who aren’t about to learn any new tricks. Watch how Tarantino shoots Pitt during the film’s brilliant, white-knuckle centerpiece sequence at the Spahn ranch. He’s a lone gunslinger in a Hawaiian shirt, with collapsing western sets from his glory days in ruins around him and the dusty streets lined with sneering, malevolent young people he no longer understands. (There’s a theory going around that Tarantino has made the most Gen X movie ever, as it’s all about being surrounded by sexy, scowling millennials who hate your guts and the moral of the story is that baby boomers ruined everything.)

It’s telling that he’s filled out the Manson family with the next generation of Hollywood offspring, including the daughters of “Pulp Fiction” cast members Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis, along with Andie MacDowell’s kid Margaret Qualley in a star-making turn as a hippie hitchhiker who props her dirty feet up on Pitt’s dashboard. The cultural climate in which a hotshot young director like Quentin Tarantino could become a household name was long ago crushed by stay-at-home streaming options and Disney franchise domination, while a lot of the punkish provocations in his earlier pictures would never pass without significant censure today. (Rick and Cliff let a few slurs slip but they’re nowhere near as casually racist as they’d be if Tarantino were writing this script twenty years ago.)


In casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt he’s deliberately picked the last two modern movie stars who don’t do sequels, social media, TV series or superhero shit, so in a way they’re almost as out of touch with our current era as the men they’re playing are in 1969. Tarantino’s always talking about retiring while he’s still at the top of his game, and it’s in this regard that “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” begins to feel intensely personal and elegiac, like the work of a guy making peace with the fact that his run is just about up.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be just yet? The delirious charge of this movie’s gonzo wish-fulfillment fantasy climax isn’t just in watching Beavis and Butt-head here save the day, it’s also in an idea that’s become something of an obsession for Tarantino but has never quite clicked for me before this particular film. “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” are about movies righting massive historical wrongs, killing Hitler and burning down the slave plantations. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” works on a more modest scale, seeing movies as a brief, blessed escape that can keep these characters and their dreams alive for just a little longer, at least until we see them through to the closing credits.

It’s amusingly typical of Rick and Cliff’s relationship that the stunt double gets stuck doing all the work while the star is lounging obliviously in his pool. Rick’s wasted and rocking out to The Royal Guardsmen’s novelty hit, “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” – a bizarre, crazily catchy tune in which everyone’s favorite illustrated dog shoots down notorious WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen. Of course we’re hearing a song about a cartoon animal vanquishing a real-life historical menace while a fictional stuntman kills the crap out of the Manson murderers, because once again Tarantino movies love to tell you what they’re doing while they’re doing it. He even works in one of his own beloved self-references, allowing an acid-tripping Pitt to reprise his gloriously zonked reactions to James Gandolfini and the gun-toting gangsters from “True Romance” some 26 years later.

I daresay I may not see anything funnier this year than DiCaprio, pantsless and resplendent in his robe, slurping margaritas from a blender pitcher while screaming about hippies and his property taxes. But I was unprepared for just how moved I would be to hear Robbie’s voice as Sharon Tate, safe and sound, speaking through the intercom after the film’s frenzied finale. It’s an incredibly delicate, exquisitely judged scene, with the gates to Sharon and Roman Polanski’s Cielo Drive mansion opening up for Rick like the entrance to heaven, a hale and hearty Jay Sebring standing to the side like St. Peter with a better haircut.

The final music cue is not one of Tarantino’s precious pop earworms, but rather a snippet of Maurice Jarre’s ethereal, melancholy score from “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” John Huston’s absurdist 1972 Western starring Paul Newman as a semi-insane, self-appointed lawman madly in love with an actress he’s never met. That film opens with the epigraph: “…Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been,” from which this picture no doubt took much inspiration, along with an annoying ellipsis.

But notice how we never do get another real look at Sharon Tate? When she rushes outside to greet Rick, Tarantino’s camera remains deliberately at a remove, way off up high and above the house. Her voice is faint and her back to us, as if she’s there but somehow not quite fully present… because we know all too well that she really isn’t and could never be. It’s a wistful, heartbreaking acknowledgment that there’s only so much movies can do. Even a movie as miraculous as this one.•••

Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Good Boys

FILM REVIEWGOOD BOYSWith Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis. Written by Lee Eisenberg & Gene Stupnitsky. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky. Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout – all involving tweens. 89 minutes.

good_boysRemember “Sausage Party” (2016)? It was a late summer animated film which earned many favorable reviews which made a point of saying: NOT FOR KIDS! Well, GOOD BOYS is a live action film about the misadventures of three sixth graders navigating that “tween” stage between childhood and adolescence and it is NOT FOR KIDS! (And it probably isn’t for the parents of kids that age either.)

Mixing raunchy humor with an undeniable sweetness, it follows the adventures of three friends since kindergarten who find themselves in a new world. Max (Jacob Tremblay) has discovered girls, more particularly one girl (Millie Davis) whom he declares to be his future wife. When he is invited by the cool kids to a “kissing party” he’s nervous because he has never actually kissed a girl. With his friends Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon), he sets out to get the information he needs.

Going online leads to kinky internet port that horrifies the boys. Instead they decide to spy on a high school girl and her boyfriend, using a drone belonging to Max’s dad (and which he was specifically forbidden to use). This sets in motion a series of events involving drugs, sex toys (of which they are oblivious to their use), playing hooky, and testing the limits of their friendship.

There are a lot of laughs, often coming from what the boys think they know proving to be wrong, or what they consider daring or adult. The poignancy comes from them slowly discovering what it really means to mature. Lucas is dealing with the announcement that his parents are getting divorced and the loss of stability in his life. Thor lets others define him so that while he loves to sing, he decides not to try out for the school musical. All three have to decide if the bond between them – they dub themselves the “Beanbag Boys” – will survive the transition to middle school.

While there have been numerous such movies about teenagers, such as “Superbad” and the recent “Booksmart,” this is new territory. Indeed, it is believed to be the first time a movie got an R rating for sex, drugs, and language “all involving tweens.” This is no “Afterschool Special.” The young boys are believable in their innocence and in how they cope with it, whether it’s Lucas constantly confessing or Thor bragging how he can drink four sips of beer. The playing out of Max’s romantic yearnings will remind viewers of just how raw those emotions can be when experienced for the first time.

“Good Boys” will strike a note for those who can remember what it’s like to be that age, while the R-rated material will make sure kids who actually are that age will just have to wait until they’re older.•••

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

Review – Where’d You Go, Bernadette

FILM REVIEWWHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTEWith Cate Blanchett, Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne. Written by Richard Linklater & Holly Gent & Vincent Palmo. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material. 107 minutes.

whered_you_go_bernadette_ver2WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is a “quirky” comedy about a woman who puts part of her life on hold until she can’t take it anymore, and the fact that the contrived plot works is due, in no small part, to star Cate Blanchett – she holds our interest as the story turns increasingly odd.

When we first meet Bernadette Fox (Blanchett), she is a wife and mother living in a massive
“fixer upper” that is very much a work-in-progress. In fact, her chaotic surroundings reflect her disconnection from her life. Other than her husband (Billy Crudup) and daughter (Emma Nelson), she is drifting through life, much to the consternation of her neighbors and other parents. We learn she was once a highly-regarded architect who walked away from her career.

Part of the film is discovering her backstory, helped by a cameo by Laurence Fishburne as her mentor. It reaches a point where something snaps, and she disappears. The audience knows where she’s heading even as the details are slowly revealed. It turns out that while her husband and daughter are in pursuit trying to figure it out, so is Bernadette. After years of holding herself in check, she’s now madly improvising, hoping that her instincts will serve her well.

While the film certainly works as a feminist story, with Bernadette deciding that it’s time to define herself rather than let others do so, there’s something else going on here, which may be what attracted director/co-writer Richard Linklater to the novel by Maria Semple. Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Boyhood”) is a filmmaker who likes examining idiosyncratic characters even in his more mainstream films like “School of Rock” and “Bernie.” His characters are often people frustrated in reaching their goals and who have to reinvent themselves to find fulfillment.

For Bernadette, denying her creativity and skill set simply means that that energy will be pent up, ultimately having to emerge in some other form. Blanchett could have played Bernadette as someone who was simply self-absorbed with her own issues, but even as she’s short with others (like a snobbish neighbor played by Kristin Wiig), she does not neglect the people important to her. That is until the pressure becomes unbearable and she runs off.

Blanchett is one of the finest actresses working in film today, easily moving between comedy and drama, and who threads the needle here in handling both. As with other Linklater films, it’s a slightly askew look at life that may not be for every taste, but “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” knows where it’s going and it’s worth going along for the ride.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

FILM REVIEWSCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARKWith Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Gil Bellows. Written by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman. Directed by André Øvredal. Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references. 102 minutes.

Things that go harrumph in the night

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is best understood as an attempt to launch a new horror movie franchise. Based on a series of books geared to younger readers in the 1980s, they featured stories that were creepy without crossing over into “adult” material. Author Alvin Schwartz was the Stephen King or Clive Barker of the middle school set.

Now with Guillermo del Toro as one of the producers and Norwegian horror director André Øvredal at the helm, “Scary Stories” reaches the screen. Instead of doing it as a series of unrelated short stories, the movie creates an overarching plot involving a book of horrific stories that come true for the characters. With many more stories available and the fate of at least two of the characters unresolved at film’s end, the people involved are clearly planning on sequels, although that will be determined by how this one fares.

The story is set in 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a bit of a misfit at her high school, as a horror fan and aspiring writer. On Halloween she and her only friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), plan one last time of trick-or-treating, more specifically to pull a nasty prank on the school bully (Austin Abrams). This eventually lands them at the town’s haunted house, where a girl locked up by her family is said to have killed herself many years earlier. Joined by Ramon (Michael Garza), a mysterious stranger passing through town, they explore the house and Stella finds a handwritten book of stories by the dead girl.

There’s not much new here for older horror fans, although the visual design – apparently inspired by the artwork by Stephen Gammell in the original books – is certainly imaginative. Without giving away who survives, the third act has two of the teens fighting off horrors from different stories. The 1968 setting allows for references to the 1968 election of Richard Nixon as President, which may be attempts to inject some political commentary about the current officeholder.

The young cast handles the material well, considering that their key moments involve running or screaming or running and screaming. Along for the ride are two veteran performers, Dean Norris as Stella’s dad and Gil Bellows as the town sheriff. Suffice to say you’re more likely to remember the creatures in the film rather than any of the performances.

Although the book series remains popular, the road is littered with would-be movie franchises that never got beyond the first episode, despite the relative success of the source material. The books come from an era that’s before the internet, before streaming, and just as VCRs were being brought into people’s homes. We’ll find out whether “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” is scary enough for today’s teens, or just another camper lost in the woods.•••

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

Review – The Art Of Racing In The Rain

FILM REVIEWTHE ART OF RACING IN THE RAINWith Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, voice of Kevin Costner, Martin Donovan, Kathy Baker. Written by Mark Bomback. Directed by Simon Curtis. Rated PG for thematic material. 109 minutes.

LeMans’ best friend

art_of_racing_in_the_rainTHE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is the sort of movie that is unlikely to garner good reviews from cynical critics but will be embraced by those viewers who look at their dogs not as pets but as members of the family. For the latter it will be a funny and touching tale of love and loyalty. For everyone else it will seem cloying and obvious. You know which you are.

The story involves Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an up-and-coming race car driver who, at the film’s start, adopts a puppy he names Enzo. The human plot is a sudsy tale involving love, parenthood, illness, and an ugly custody battle. The cast makes this much more engaging than it has any right to be, as we’ve seen variations of this more times than one can count.

The trick here is that it takes another overused plot point: presenting the story from the view point of Enzo, using veteran actor Kevin Costner at his raspiest as the voice of the dog. Enzo is devoted to Denny, finds he loves racing, and gradually accepts Eve (Amanda Seyfried), whom Denny marries. Enzo’s thoughts range from the amusing to the philosophical, as he tries to make sense of what’s going on around him.

We know from the film’s opening scenes, where we see the old dog nearing the end of his life, that the movie is going to tear at the heartstrings. However, Enzo has his own theories as to the meaning of life (which he picks up from a television documentary about Mongolia), and while the end of the movie may leave you teary, the intent is to leave you smiling as well. This is not “Old Yeller.”

Costner hits the right notes as Enzo’s voice, at times wry and other times rueful. He strikes the tone we hope our own pets – um, non-human family members – have when they engage with us. It makes what might have turned into a mawkish ending satisfying. As Denny, Ventimiglia gets to interact with the actual dog (played by at least one puppy and two adult dogs) while carrying the burden of the saccharine plot. He seems to understand that even though he’s got the leading onscreen role, this is the dog’s movie, and plays it with a light touch.

Indeed, it is the underacting by the cast (as opposed to the “chew the scenery, shout at the balconies” school of emoting) that keeps things moving. Seyfried is delightful as the love interest whose arc determines much of the second half of the film, while Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker, as Eve’s well-to-do parents, are able to quickly sketch in the complexities of their characters without playing them as the plot devices they are.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is niche filmmaking for a particular audience. The question is not whether this is a cinematic landmark. It isn’t. But it will engage those willing to speculate as to the intellectual and emotional lives of their pets and leave them feeling good, and that’s not bad.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.