Review – The Fanatic

FILM REVIEWTHE FANATICWith John Travolta, Devon Sawa, Ana Golja, Jacob Grodnik, James Paxton. Written by Dave Bekerman, Fred Durst. Directed by Fred Durst. Rated R for some strong violence, and language throughout. 89 minutes.

Producer/teacher/sometimes-actor John Houseman used to tell those starting out on their dramatic careers that there are two paths they could follow: taking every role that came along or picking and choosing parts that would challenge them. The catch, he’d note, was that looking back over such careers, each offered about the same number of standout roles mixed in with the misfires.

Thus we get to John Travolta. If his career was an amusement park ride it would be a roller coaster. Over the last forty years he’s had landmark roles in movies like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Pulp Fiction,” outrageous turkeys like “Battlefield Earth” and “Gotti,” and seemingly everything in between. His latest, THE FANATIC, is somewhere in between.

In it he plays Moose, a mentally challenged man who is obsessed with action star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). His sole means of support seems to be as a street performer – a very odd turn as a British bobby – with his only friend a paparazzi (Ana Golja) who at least makes her celebrity obsession pay off. When Moose has an unpleasant encounter with Dunbar, she tells him about a phone app that tells where the stars live. He decides to go to Dunbar’s home. Their confrontations become increasingly nasty as the actor tries to chase away Moose, leading to a violent confrontation with unexpected results.

The movie was directed and co-written by Fred Durst, who was frontman for the rock group Limp Bizkit, apparently inspired by his own confrontation with an intrusive fan. Durst tries to take us inside Moose’s delusions and the affirmation he expects to get from his idol, but there’s no question that Moose lacks basic interpersonal skills. Moose is so sure of the purity of his motives that he greatly resents any suggestion that he’s a “stalker.”

Travolta’s performance is a daring one for a leading man, and will not work for everyone, but it’s clear this is an actor still willing to take chances. With a Three Stooges “Moe” haircut and a scraggly beard, he’s almost unrecognizable at first. It is a role where his character is debased and humiliated in pursuit of his obsession. Travolta may not always make the best choices, but his career is far from over. As when it was revived by “Pulp Fiction,” he needs another such project to come along, perhaps a better one showcasing his segue into character roles.•••

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 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 – Knives Out

FILM REVIEWKNIVES OUTWith Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material. 130 minutes.

In a season of blockbusters and Oscar bait KNIVES OUT, is a neat bit of counter-programming. It’s a comedy-mystery with a strong ensemble cast that has no pretentions beyond wanting to entertain. Like this past summer’s “Ready or Not” – without the horror elements – it has an outsider trying to figure out the complicated secrets of a decidedly insular family.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is mystery writer whose immense success has subsidized the lives of his several children and grandchildren, all of whom have gathered at his ornate mansion which, as one notes, evokes the board game “Clue.” When he’s discovered dead, everyone is a suspect and, somewhat unusually, a private detective (Daniel Craig) is already on site.

There’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose husband (Don Johnson) is cheating on her, and Harlan knows. Does that provide a motive for murder? Her sister Toni (Toni Collette) has been able to send her daughter to private school thanks to Harlan, who is now ready to cut her off. Their brother Walt (Michael Shannon) is about to lose control of his father’s business interests, while Linda’s wastrel son Ransom (Chris Evans) was heard arguing with Harlan before his death. Trying to navigate this is not only the detective, but Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who is told she’s considered family but has a few secrets of her own.

The comedy comes not only from the eccentric characters but their lack of loyalty to each other. With Harlan’s estate at stake, and family matters which they want to keep hidden, there’s every reason to find a scapegoat for the murder so the rest can get on with their lives. Through it all the detective – who isn’t even sure who hired him – asks questions and follows leads before arriving at the film’s unexpected and satisfying conclusion. Shot in Massachusetts, the movie makes good use of locations including the Thrombey mansion which becomes yet another quirky character in the film, decorated with a variety of props and mementos from the mystery writer’s career.

“Knives Out” isn’t the sort of movie that garners awards or year-end notices. It simply wants to be a modern-day twist on an Agatha Christie mystery, with some satiric jabs mixed in with the broader humor and red herrings. The cast looks like they were having a great time making it. Viewers should have similar fun watching 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 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 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

FILM REVIEWA BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOODWith Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett. Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster. Directed by Marielle Heller. Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language. 108 minutes.

Fred Rogers was a very special person. In A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, Rogers (portrayed by Tom Hanks) is referred to as a “living saint,” a phrase that makes his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) bristle because she knows him as a real person, not someone beyond human experience. What made him special was on display in last year’s superb documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It was an inherent decency, and how he treated everyone he met as a fellow human being, worthy of his attention and respect. (This reviewer experienced that himself when he interviewed Rogers on two occasions, the first time consisting of several minutes of Rogers asking him questions.)

Hanks perfectly captures that in this dramatization based on a real-life situation where Rogers befriended a troubled reporter who had come to do a magazine profile of him. In an imaginary scene from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the gentle host addresses us in the audience about some of his friends, leading to him showing a photo of a battered Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Vogel has issues with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), and gets into a fight with him at his sister’s wedding. Married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and a new father himself, he is clearly troubled.

For a movie ostensibly about Rogers we spend an awful lot of time on Vogel’s story, and it’s not until well into the film when Vogel arrives in Pittsburgh where Rogers shoots his show. (The studio scenes in the film were shot at Rogers’ actual studio at WQED in Pittsburgh.) It quickly becomes clear that to be in Fred Rogers’ orbit requires readjustment. The recording of the show is well behind schedule because Rogers is engaging with a troubled little boy who is visiting the studio with his parents.

The arc of the movie is how gently and non-judgementally Rogers gets Vogel to deal with the things in his life he’s been avoiding, including forgiving the father who had abandoned the family when his mother fell ill. It’s not easy, and the movie touches on how Rogers has dealt with the troubles and frustrations in his own life, but the drama is in Vogel’s story. If not a saint, Rogers remains the same throughout, getting satisfaction from easing the burden of his new friend.

Audiences expecting a story exploring Rogers’ life will be disappointed, but it won’t be because of the performance by Hanks. In a career that has ranged from broad comedy to serious drama, his turn as Rogers enters the pantheon of his greatest roles. One can see why Rogers’ widow has endorsed the movie, because it captures what made him special while keeping him grounded in the real world. Rhys and Cooper and Watson have the responsibility of carrying the story forward, with Rhys being the audience stand-in who can’t quite get Rogers… until he finally does. It is that journey that allows his character to face his father and the anger he’s been carrying.

What “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” leaves us with is an appreciation of Tom Hanks, who is almost certain to get yet another Oscar nomination for his performance, and more particularly, an appreciation for Fred Rogers, and how much we could use someone of his temperament today.•••                                                             

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 – Charlie’s Angels


FILM REVIEWCHARLIE’S ANGELSWith Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart. Written and directed by Elizabeth Banks. Rated PG-13 for action/violence, language and some suggestive material. 118 minutes.

charlies_angelsWhile one would like to think that the notion that Hollywood has run out of ideas is just a joke, this new CHARLIE’S ANGELS could be exhibit A for the argument that that’s no joke at all. It’s the classic case of a remake/reboot/sequel that was made not because anyone had a story they were inspired to tell, but simply because the rights to do so were at hand.

For those unfamiliar with it, “Charlie’s Angels” was an exceedingly silly, if popular, TV show that ran 1976-81. The idea was that the unseen Charlie ran a detective agency and through his onscreen assistant Bosley would send three beautiful women on various cases. There was action and chases, but the key thing was that there was “jiggle.” Although some talented actresses appeared on the show, the focus was on their bodies, not their minds.

In 2000, the first movie appeared. The women were still beautiful, but the emphasis was now on action. The move was a hit and led to a single sequel. Times they were a-changin’, though, and when the show itself was revived on TV in 2011, it was cancelled after only eight episodes. Clearly this was a concept that had exceeded its sell-by date.

Actress/writer/director Elizabeth Banks tries to deepen the “mythology” of the series with many women employed, being run by a number of “Bosleys.” Indeed, she plays one, as does Patrick Stewart and Djimon Hounsou. The plot – if the script can be credited to having one – involves a new technology which holds great promise but also great danger, especially if it falls in the wrong hands. Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) is trying to bring news of the danger to the company’s head but is thwarted by an executive with a different agenda. Instead, she finds herself working with Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and Jane Kano (Ella Balinska) in trying to steal the technology before it can be weaponized.

The movie jumps around various locations with outbursts of action and occasionally pausing for some labored attempts at humor. There’s even an attempt at mystery when it’s discovered that there may be a traitor in Charlie’s organization. It’s all to no avail. The problem begins with a script that is not only unpolished, but features characters who have to be substantially rewritten simply to rise to the level of cardboard.

For all the emphasis on female empowerment, there may no longer be much “jiggle” but there’s also not much depth. None of the women are given more than one note to play, whether it’s Scott being naïve, Balinska being glamorous, or Stewart being snarky. They all can fight and use weapons (with Scott’s inexperience supposedly being a source of humor), but there’s nothing to make the viewer care about what’s going on at all. The cast is pleasant enough – except for the bad guys who are cartoonishly evil – but there’s no attempt to let us see them as any more than game pieces.

It would be all too easy to dismiss “Charlie’s Angels” as having the depth of a video game, but that would be unfair… to video games. Perhaps it’s time to lay this ‘70s relic to rest and look elsewhere for a vehicle for female action heroes?•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is 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 Good Liar


FILM REVIEWTHE GOOD LIARWith Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Bill Carter, Russell Tovey, Mark Lewis Jones. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated R for some strong violence, and for language and brief nudity. 109 minutes.

good_liarThere are two reasons to see THE GOOD LIAR. First is the plot about which, going in, you should know as little about as possible. This is one of those movies in which if you do know at least some of the twists going in – and there are several of them – then it will significantly diminish your enjoyment. Even if you anticipate what will happen, it’s the not-knowing that provides the pleasure, along with some plot turns that you’re unlikely to anticipate.

The story is about two widowers who meet on a computer dating site in England. Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) is a con artist – we know this right from the start – whose designs on Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) makes it clear his goal is a financial score. She’s a stunning older woman (in costumes designed by potential Oscar nominee Keith Madden) who has a large bank account and whose only son has pre-deceased her. Her grandson (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of this interloper into their family but can’t immediately prove anything.

The plot is very clever but it’s likely to only work once. What that means is that the film is entertaining but probably won’t stand up to a second viewing. That’s not a flaw, but it does mean that what the film offers are immediate pleasures and not something likely to stand the test of time (or at least the kind of repeat theatrical viewings that can mean the difference between a movie being a modest hit and a considerable one).

What may lift the movie beyond that is the casting of McKellen and Mirren as the two leads. At 80 and 74 respectively, it’s unusual to see seniors in leading roles outside of movies about “old” people. Both are tremendous talents, which means that even if you anticipate one or more of the film’s surprises it doesn’t really matter since there’s great entertainment value in watching these two veterans show how it’s done. Both have had much greater and serious roles, but they do not condescend to their roles here. They take their parts as seriously as is required.

Director Bill Condon has done serious films and helmed projects where the focus was primarily on entertainment. “The Good Liar” is more the latter than the former yet doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of the audience. If you come in looking to enjoy the surprises without worrying if it is a film for the ages, then you will find a satisfying diversion even if you can’t remember whether you saw it months from now.•••           

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 – Doctor Sleep


FILM REVIEWDOCTOR SLEEPWith Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan. Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use. 151 minutes.

Even though Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining” is considered an iconic horror film, the author famously disliked it. This presented a unique challenge for writer-director Mike Flanagan in tackling King’s sequel novel, DOCTOR SLEEP. He manages to thread the needle in making it both an adaptation of the novel and a sequel to the earlier film.

At the start there are two stories. One story involves Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) who, as a boy, was terrorized by his father and other horrors at the Overlook Hotel, while struggling with his gift of the “shining,” which allowed him to tap into supernatural powers. It’s not been an easy life. Like his father, he has been self-medicating with booze, but thanks to a new friend (Cliff Curtis), joins AA and sobers up.

Meanwhile Abra (Kyliegh Curran), also has the shining, and becomes aware of a group led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who torture and kill their young victims since the “steam” they release in their fear and suffering is their sustenance. Eventually Danny and Abra will meet up and join forces in a battle with Rose and her gang. This leads to a climactic battle at – wait for it – the abandoned Overlook Hotel.

Although overlong, the film has a lot going for it. McGregor provides a nuanced turn as Danny, a man with great powers who has been haunted by his past and tries to reconcile the two. Curran, in her first major role, is a definite plus as the tween Abra, handling not only the horror elements but some of the comical elements as well, including a scene where she’s supposed to be a conduit for Danny. Ferguson brings out Rose’s sexiness and lust for control, given that her success means extended life spans for her and her followers.

As usual with King, the proceedings are overwrought. Flanagan might have followed Kubrick in reining in or ignoring the author’s excesses, but instead chooses to focus on recreating characters, sets, and situations from the 1980 movie. Kudos for casting substitutes for Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and the late Scatman Crothers, all of whom evoke the originals without turning into parody. Yet the payoff is over-the-top and may not work for everyone.

In the concluding moments, the film offers an evocative conclusion that echoes its early scenes and provides a neat conclusion. However, it ends with a final moment that seems to contradict what we’ve just seen. Viewers can come up with their own interpretations for it, but it comes across more like a setup for yet another sequel.

The lesson of “Doctor Sleep” is that making a movie longer doesn’t necessarily make it better, and that offering up an ambiguous ending doesn’t make it deep. This is a movie that will attract interest of fans of the novels or the earlier movie but falls short of its epic intentions.•••                                                             

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 – Jojo Rabbit


FILM REVIEWJOJO RABBIT. With Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence and language. 108 minutes.

jojo_rabbit_ver2Writer-director Taika Waititi’s asinine JOJO RABBIT begins with footage from “Triumph Of The Will” recut to an early German-language Beatles recording of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The joke here – which I keep seeing praised in print by people who really should know better – is equating Hitler’s rise to power with Beatlemania, a bunch of screaming, empty-headed teens losing their mind over the latest fad. Like most attempted insights in this deeply obnoxious movie, it’s a comparison that falls apart if you spend more than five minutes thinking about it. But then this picture has been designed in such a way to circumvent thought, instead congratulating the audience for catching its references and inviting them in turn to admire the filmmaker for his “daring” tweaks of taboos, wrapping it all up in a warm bath of sticky sentiment to send you home with a smile. I really hated this movie.

It’s Berlin in the waning days of WWII, and 10-year-old Jojo (played by cuddly Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to be a Nazi. Raised by his single mother (Scarlett Johansson), he ends up housebound after a grenade accident at his Hilter Youth camp, a schticky sort of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kristallnacht” presided over by a closeted SS-washout (Sam Rockwell). All the adults here seem to realize that the war is just about over and it’s not going to end their way, but they nonetheless go through the motions of Nazi-ism – which they all admittedly find pretty silly – in a half-assed fashion for the sake of the kids, who really want to believe in the Reich like it was Santa Claus or something.

Young Jojo even confides in an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler (played by the director in a grating, loose-limbed performance that’s like being trapped in an elevator with an improv comic) and the two happily frolic through their anti-Semitic “Calvin and Hobbes” while the rest of us wonder why any of Waititi’s loved ones didn’t intervene tell him that this was all a really gross idea. Billed as “an anti-hate satire,” the movie intends to skewer Nazi-ism for its stupidity, adopting the fanciful tone of a children’s fairy tale to present these Aryan adventures as exercises in arrested development. It’s all a phase – like Beatlemania, I guess – that Jojo is soon going to grow out of. (Waititi has apparently forgotten that people still really like The Beatles. Nazis, too.)

The plot thickens when the boy discovers that mom has stashed a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie of the excellent “Leave No Trace”) in the cupboard, and how much do you want to bet that much to his imaginary friend’s frustrations, Jojo’s gonna learn to move past his prejudices after getting to know her? For anyone who ever wanted to see the Anne Frank story re-done as a cutesy tween romance with a happy ending, I’ve got good news.

I got even angrier as the movie went along, recoiling at Waititi’s twee production design and winking, anachronistic dialogue. It made me start thinking about the difference is between a movie told from a child’s POV with an adult’s perspective and a film that treats its audience like children. There’s a long tradition of movies seeing war through the eyes of a child – heck, John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” even came out the same damn year – while Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” depicted the rise of fascism in Italy as an extended adolescence, authoritarianism as a fart-filled wank.

None of those films pissed me off like “Jojo Rabbit” because they didn’t pull their punches the way Waititi does. Late in the running time, Jojo discovers that something horrible has happened, but the movie doesn’t allow us to see it. We’re kept safe from any grisly images, to the point where Jojo’s allegedly “disfiguring” grenade accident leaves just a couple of minor scratches on his adorable face. There’s a running gag about a kid from camp who keeps getting blown up in battles and miraculously reappearing, joking to the camera about how apparently he’s very difficult to kill. A dead child would derail all the upbeat, feel-good whimsy, and who wants that to happen in a movie about the Holocaust?

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re not one of them,” his cool new Jewish girlfriend tells him before they dance in the street to a David Bowie song. (You can probably guess which one.) In fact, deep down none of these Nazis are all that bad, with Rockwell heroically even stepping in to save Jojo’s life near the climax. The point, I think, is that we’ve all gotta grow up and get past these silly differences, which strikes me as a dangerously Pollyanna-ish attitude considering what a comeback actual real-life Nazis have been making lately. But it’s emblematic of the movie’s stunted worldview, snickering in-jokes, and deliberate distance from anything resembling reality. Waititi tells us that people are truly good at heart in a movie where Anne Frank lives at the end. This is a deeply, distressingly insulated picture – the Funko Pop collector’s edition of “Shoah.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 0 out of 5.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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.