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Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments. 141 minutes.

For those not immersed in the Marvel Universe (like this reviewer), here’s what you need to know going in to AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. The gem in the artifact recovered at the beginning is part of a larger story that will pay off in a subsequent film. The twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) are really Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but they can’t say that nor mention that Magneto from the “X-Men” movies is their father, because those movies are made by a different studio. And there’s one brief scene early in the closing credits and nothing further at the end except a promise of more “Avengers” movies.

So the villain this time is a robot/artificial intelligence creature named Ultron (effectively voiced by James Spader) who was created in the laboratory by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Things go wrong and Ultron decides that the best way to make the planet peaceful is to destroy humanity. In terms of plot, you can probably guess where this is going. After all, if Ultron had succeeded, we wouldn’t be here.

The reason to see the film is not the plot but the characters, with the actors having a great time with the situations and dialogue fashioned by writer/director Joss Whedon, returning for his second outing with the superheroes. In between the special effects battles, Whedon does a solid job balancing a large cast of stars and supporting players. Everyone gets moments to shine.

Scarlett Johannson returns as Black Widow, now tasked with keeping the Hulk under control, Chris Hemsworth gets a running gag about who can wield Thor’s hammer, and Chris Evans gets some laughs with a throwaway line at the beginning of the film that keeps coming back to bite him. As usual with Whedon, the witty banter plays counterpoint to more serious situations. During the climactic battle involving Ultron raising an entire city to turn it into a meteor, there’s actually concern by the good guys about getting the civilians out of the way. This may be a first for these summer special effects blockbusters. Along the way, we also get glimpses of the hidden demons that haunt our heroes, making them more than just wisecracking action figures.

Almost forty years ago, George Lucas was considered foolish for opening his science fiction blockbuster at the end of May, weeks before the start of summer. The success of “Star Wars” changed Hollywood thinking in several ways, including reconsidering the calendar. There may still be a nip in the air some days, but as far as the movie world is concerned, summer has begun. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a comic book movie, to be sure, but it’s got enough spectacle, wit, and talent on display to make it a most entertaining kickoff to the season. There will be more films to come hoping to strike it big at the box office, but this one sets the bar marvelously high.•••

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 most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Home

With the voices of Rihanna, Jim Parsons, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones. Written by Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember. Directed by Tim Johnson. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. 94 minutes

HOME isn’t likely to be an Oscar contender in the animation category next year, but it is a charming entertainment for children that should amuse the adults that have to accompany them. Reminiscent of Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch,” it is about the growing friendship between a human girl and a space alien as they deal a variety of issues that place the entire Earth in jeopardy.

Oh (voice of Jim Parsons) is a happy-go-lucky member of the Boov, an alien race whose chief trait seems to be running away. Deathly afraid of the Gorg, they flee from planet to planet, looking for some place to be safe. Unfortunately for humans, they take a very paternalistic attitude towards a planet’s native inhabitants, summarily removing all humans from around the globe and relocating them to Australia.

Due to a mistake, young Tip (Rihanna) has been left behind, separated from her mother (Jennifer Lopez) and living with her cat named Pig. Oh, unlike the other Boov, is very friendly, and invited everyone to a housewarming party–including, unfortunately, the Gorg. Now everyone is after Oh so they can get his password to rescind the invitation, and Captain Smek (Steve Martin) has ordered him “erased.” So Tip and Oh are on the run, Tip to find her mother and Oh to escape erasure.

The humor comes from the expected sources, but that doesn’t mean it’s not often fun. Oh and Tip have much to learn about each other’s species and ways, as when Oh asks if Tip keeps the cat for meat or milk, or is startled when he spontaneously starts tapping his (four) feet to her favorite music. As befits a movie based on a book geared to pre-teens (Adam Rex’s “The True Meaning of Smekday”) there’s a lot silliness, from Oh repairing Tip’s car with a frozen slush machine, to his experiences in human bathrooms.

Besides the clever script, the film’s visuals are appealing, from the Boov invasion of Earth to the aliens changing colors depending on their moods. The film also offers a number of positive messages including the importance of friends being honest with each other, and the bond between mother and daughter. The surprise showdown with the Gorg ties into these themes as well.

With pop stars Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez in the voice cast (and Rihanna offering several songs on the soundtrack), and comedy icons Steve Martin and Jim Parsons (the latter of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), there’s plenty of talent on hand to keep this simple story moving in an engaging fashion. Ultimately “Home” is about the importance of home and family, and how finding a place where you belong doesn’t always turn out as you might expect. It’s a message that should resonate with both young viewers and their families.•••

Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Insurgent

With Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts. Written by Brian Duffield and Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language. 119 minutes.

INSURGENT is the second film in the adaptation of the “Divergent” trilogy of books. One of the best thing about the first one was the announcement that it would only be three films. But then the greedy, selfish folks–called the “Erudites” here–saw the box office returns and announced that the third book would be split in two. They really have no shame.

Meanwhile, we’re back with Tris (Shailene Woodley) who thwarted a plot by the cruel Erudite leader Jeanine in the last film, but saw most of her faction–“Abnegation”–slaughtered by the “Dauntless” faction, who were being controlled by Jeanine. Now Tris and a few of her allies, including the dreamy Four (Theo James) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), are hiding among the fourth of the five factions, “Amity.” Imagine a hippie commune and you get the idea. Jeanine, however, has recovered a box than can only be opened by a strong Divergent–someone who doesn’t fit into any one faction–and sends her storm troopers out to capture them for ruthless testing. Guess who that happens to be?

To say more would be to give up some of the genuine twists in the plot, so let’s just point out the obvious: but for the success of “The Hunger Games” (books and movies) this probably never would have been made. It’s yet another dystopia in a post-apocalyptic world where a ruthless leader suppresses the majority of the people for the benefit of the few. Any similarity to the real world, and particularly to adolescent feelings of powerlessness, are purely intentional.

Shaileen Woodley has not yet had the opportunities that Jennifer Lawrence has had, so it’s not fair to compare them. Woodley does solid work here as she’s done elsewhere, and continues to be someone to watch, even if this series–financially successful as it is–will remain in the shadow of the other films. She is a modern female role model, showing both strength and vulnerability, intelligence as well as emotions. She’s decidedly not a male hero changed into a female character. On the other hand, she does have to keep a straight face in a sequence where she’s shown cutting her own hair and then appears with a perfectly coiffed shag haircut. Only in the movies.

The conspiracy gets more complex not only with the mysterious box that Jeanine hopes to use to wipe out the Divergents for good, but also the discovery of the “factionless” who may be a wild card in the proceedings. As adolescent science fantasy adventure, this should hit the sweet spot for its intended viewers (consumers of YA fiction of whatever age), but as serious science fiction, there’s a lot “handwavium” with technology that makes no sense except that it fulfills the needs of the plot. One such device seems to offer no hope of escape and then, just as easily, is suddenly no longer a factor.

Woodley carries the weight of the film, but Winslet seems to enjoy playing a ruthless villain. Naomi Watts shows up in a different sort of role among the factionless. Ashley Judd, playing Tris’s mother, returns even though she was killed in the first film. There’s a lot to be said for simulations and dream sequences.

“Insurgent” ends on several dramatic notes, making you want to know what happens next. At least this film offers a complete story. The final book, “Allegiant,” is being split like “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” and “Twilight: Breaking Dawn.” Making a movie of the first half of a book leaves those who haven’t it read it confused and unsatisfied. We’ll see this again, no doubt, next year. However, as long as these films make money, it’s a phenomenon that isn’t going to go away.•••

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 most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.



Review – Cinderella

With Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgård. Written by Chris Weitz. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG for mild thematic elements. 112 minutes.

Looking for new ways to exploit the catalog of Disney princesses, the studio has turned to live action versions of their animated classics. After last year’s “Maleficent” (which offered a novel twist on “Sleeping Beauty”), we get a mostly traditional take on CINDERELLA. Little girls–of all ages–will have a great time, and there’s some low comedy thrown in to keep the little boys happy as well.

Just in case you’ve missed the numerous retellings of the story in print and on the screen, this is the tale of Ella (Lily James, who plays Lady Rose MacClare of “Downton Abbey”) who becomes an orphan. She’s left to the not-so-tender mercies of her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her hideous stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). When the dashing but humble Prince (Richard Madden) throws a ball to meet a prospective mate, everyone attends… except poor Ella, who sleeps near the fireplace for warmth and has earned the insulting nickname of Cinder-Ella.

With the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she gets to go the ball after all and meet the Prince. Even if you don’t know the story, you know where this is going, but we’ll leave it at that so that the Spoiler Fascists won’t get the vapors. Just remember that this is a Disney film.

Surprisingly, it’s also a Kenneth Branagh film. Branagh does not appear, staying behind the camera, but his presence undoubtedly allowed them to get such people as Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgård as the evil Grand Duke, and Oscar winner Blanchett as the stepmother. She’s sensational in the part, vamping about in the colorful costumes by Sandy Powell, relishing acting the Disney villain in the style of Glenn Close’s Cruella deVille and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent.

The only problem is how safe they’re playing it here. The whole film looks gorgeous, including the dusty attic where Cinderella gets consigned. The special effects are imaginative, from the house mice she talks with to the animals who get turned into her magical coachmen by her Fairy Godmother. However, unlike 1998’s “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore or even the recent adaptation of “Into The Woods,” we’re to take the story at face value. It’s not so much that we need an ironic take for the hipsters who wouldn’t be going to this anyway, but it would be nice to have some reason for a new version other than that it will prime the pump of the Disney merchandising machine.

That curmudgeonly griping aside, this is a lovely film that will appeal to its intended audience. If you’re not sure who that audience is, the movie is preceded by a new cartoon short with the characters from “Frozen.” There is a song in it, but it’s unlikely to become this year’s “Let It Go,” much to the relief of people with ears everywhere.

More live action versions of Disney animated classics are on their way. (“Beauty and the Beast” has already been announced for next year.) So if they’re going to do it, at least do it right. This “Cinderella” may not be necessary, but it’s certainly all right.•••

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 most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Run All Night

With Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Common, Nick Nolte. Written by Brad Ingelsby. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Rated R for strong violence, language including sexual references, and some drug use. 114 minutes.

runallnightposterHere’s the plot of RUN ALL NIGHT: a veteran hit man has cordial ties with the local mob boss but is put in a situation where he has to kill the boss’s violent and out of control son. Blood is thicker than water, and so the boss sets out to kill the hit man using every means at his disposal, including hiring another professional killer. Much violence ensues.

In the hands of strong filmmakers this becomes “Road To Perdition” (2002). In the hands of people wanting to make a stylized, over-the-top movie, it becomes “John Wick” (2014). And now, under the direction of the sometimes interesting Jaume Collet-Serra, this plot is transformed into a lackluster Liam Neeson thriller.

Now just the fact that people now talk about Neeson’s action films is kind of amusing, because the Irish actor once known for movies like “Schindler’s List” and “Love, Actually” is now best known for the “Taken” films. Now in his early 60s, Neeson (or his stunt double) is engaging in high-speed chases and shoot-outs, when he’s not punching the living daylights out of someone. He’s worked with Collet-Serra before, in “Unknown” and “Non-Stop,” the latter of which featured a fight in an airplane’s restroom. There’s a fight in a bathroom here, too, but they’ve got a little more room to maneuver around.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, and in spite of a long history of killing people for Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), he is now an old drunk, haunted by his past. Indeed, his son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. By coincidence–meaning the heavy-handed plotting of scripter Brad Ingelsby–Mike chauffeurs some drug dealers to a meeting with Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook). It’s his job as a driver, but when he sees Danny kill them Danny comes after him as a witness, and that’s when Jimmy takes him out.

What follows are the expected chases, crashes, shootings, knifings, punchings, etcetera. Most of the cops are on the take, but an honest one, Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio), wants to get Jimmy to confess. This complicates matters since the corrupt cops are trying to frame Jimmy and Mike, and stone killer Andrew Price (Common), is out to kill them before they can talk. Nick Nolte inexplicably shows up for a scene as Jimmy’s brother, seemingly dropping in from another movie.

Collet-Serra tries to juice up the proceedings with some fancy camerawork, but it’s for naught. When, in “Perdition,” Paul Newman and Tom Hanks shared a dramatic moment about how they were both essentially doomed characters, it was powerful. Here Neeson and Harris certainly have the acting chops for it, but the dialogue is so uninspired there’s little they can do with it. As a result, there’s no real drama and little at stake. We’re not invested in these characters, nor are we longing for Jimmy and Mike to reconcile. As for the women characters, they barely register here, except for the adorable children playing Mike’s two daughters.

“Run All Night” will be lucky if it runs all week. This one’s dead on arrival.•••

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 most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Chappie

With Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Yo-Landi Visser. Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated by R for violence, language and brief nudity. 120 minutes.

chappieCHAPPIE is a welcome addition to the long and rich history of the robot in science fiction films. Students of the genre will easily trace its many influences, with the original “Robocop” only being the most obvious of them. Nonetheless, as with “District 9,” director Neill Blomkamp (who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell) gives it a fresh South African spin.

Deon (Dev Patel) is a brilliant robotics programmer and engineer. He has come up with the Scout series of robots which the Johannesburg police department has purchased in quantity to help the fight crime. The nearly indestructible robots have made a difference.

That’s good for Deon, and for Tetravaal, the company that makes the robots that’s run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). That’s not so good for his colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman), an ex-soldier who has created a robot called “Moose” which is more of a military weapon. Vincent’s budget has been cut and his boss keeps telling him to cut Moose back, not add more to it.

Deon has been working on his own time on coming up with a program for “artificial intelligence,” which would allow a robot to think and learn independently. He’s about to try it out on a defective robot headed for the junk heap when he crosses paths with a trio of drug dealers headed up by Ninja (played by South African musician Ninja) and Yolandi (played by by his wife and fellow musician Yo-Landi Visser). They end up with the sentient robot that Yolandi dubs “Chappie” (voice of Sharlto Copley) and now the complications really begin.

As with most such stories, Chappie allows us to see our humanity through artificial (or alien) eyes. “Why do you do such things?” he asks in despair at one point. Like Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and other such “innocent” robots, he’s trying to learn our ways and is baffled by them. Deon makes him promises never to commit a crime even though he’s being held by a drug gang. Ninja convinces him to steal cars by telling him that he’s simply taking back cars that had been stolen from him.

As the various plots play out–with plenty of shootings and explosions–the competing agendas of the various characters affect each other. Chappie wanting to please both his “Maker” (Deon) and his “Mommy” (Yolandi) ultimately has to go from robot-child to robot-adult and take control of his own destiny.

Blomkamp graduated to working with big stars when he went from “District 9” to his second film, “Elysium” (2013) with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, but now–with his third feature–he seems comfortable with balancing Hollywood with South Africa. His constant collaborator, Sharlto Copley, provides the voice of Chappie, while Weaver and Jackman have key, if supporting, roles.

Chappie” provides plenty of action, strong dollops of humor, and touches on the usual questions expected in stories of humans and robots interacting, but it also raises some questions–which it doesn’t pretend to answer–on the nature of human consciousness and the soul. So whether you just want to see a lot of things explode or you like your science fiction with wit and intelligence, the memorable “Chappie” should shake you out of your winter doldrums.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

With Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Richard Gere, Dev Patel. Written by Ol Parker. Directed by John Madden. Rated PG for some language and suggestive comments. 122 minutes.

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is a relaxed and charming follow-up to the 2011 hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about British retirees with limited funds who end up at a rundown hotel in India. The charm came from the top-flight cast playing quirky characters whom we not only laughed at but laughed with. The message was that it’s never too late and you’re never too old to have new adventures.

In this sequel, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) is ready to get outside help to acquire a second hotel and expand his operations. He’s also planning on marrying Sunaina (Tina Desai). Meanwhile, the residents are having their own romances. Douglas (Bill Nighy) is interested in Evelyn (Judi Dench) but she’s hesitant, instead throwing herself into a new career as a buyer of Indian textiles. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is as cantankerous as ever, but trying to help Sonny realize his dreams.

The arrival of Guy (Richard Gere) complicates things. He claims to be a divorced retiree working on his first novel. Sonny is convinced he’s really the secret inspector from the hotel chain with whom he hopes to make a deal. For his part, Guy is interested in Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey), Sonny’s mother.

There’s more, but as we jump from story to story, the plot is less important than the characters. If we didn’t like, say, Madge (Celia Imrie), we wouldn’t care about her dilemma of having two suitors and not being able to make up her mind. Watching the film you just want to relax and settle back. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm bath.

If the simple storylines border on cliché–Sonny’s jealous of a more attractive and wealthier cousin; Norman (Ronald Pickup) thinks Carol (Diana Hardcastle) is cheating on him–director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker once again make good use of the Indian locations where some of the film was shot. They also utilize various Indian customs surrounding Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding, making it seem “exotic” enough while keeping it friendly and accessible for viewers. By the time everyone breaks out into a “Bollywood” style dance number at the wedding, it will all seem quite familiar.

Of course, the real draw here is the cast, and the sheer professionalism of the actors is what makes it delightful. Veterans like Dench, Smith, Gere, Nighy and the others have all done better work elsewhere, but there’s never a moment where you feel they’re just showing up for a paycheck. A sequence in which Evelyn and her assistant have to negotiate with a Mumbai textile maker is a quite funny, while the heart-to-heart between Douglas and his daughter about their respective lives is touching. Those little moments of sly comedy or honest emotion redeem a lot of the schmaltz.

“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” leaves you wondering if there will be a third. Let’s put it this way: if there is, it will undoubtedly be a lot more welcome than sequels like “The Hangover, Part III.” •••

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 most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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