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Review – Their Finest

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FILM REVIEW
THEIR FINEST
. With Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant. Written by Gaby Chiappe. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. 117 minutes.

marquee-mobile_1492559833As sure-footed and satisfying an entertainment as I’ve seen so far this year, THEIR FINEST is a backstage screwball romance set during the London Blitz that balances ensemble comedy and wartime tragedy with sturdy, old-fashioned aplomb. It’s the kind of movie you can point to when people say they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half” (a much better title), the film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a copywriter conscripted by the War Department to write convincing female dialogue for their propaganda films. The fact that these guys refer to actresses’ lines as “the slop” might explain why they’re having such a rough go at it, but that’s just one example of the casual sexism Mrs. Cole encounters every day at the office. “You’ll be uncredited,” huffs an ever-officious Richard E. Grant, “and of course we’ll have to pay you less than the chaps.”

Mrs. Cole almost immediately butts heads with Mr. Buckley (Sam Claflin), a snooty scenarist whose condescension is even tougher to take because he happens to be right most of the time. The two are tasked with penning a big screen adaptation of an “optimistic and inspiring” news item about a couple of young country gals who stole their father’s fishing boat to go rescue some soldiers at Dunkirk. It turns out to all be a crock of baloney, but then nobody in the picture business has ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Before long “The Nancy Starling” is headed into production––in glorious Technicolor, no less––with a few “optimistic and inspiring” embellishments.

One of which is a fictional uncle for the girls–a boozy old coot finding redemption by aiding them in their mission. It’s a plum role for faded matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard, played here with sublime self-absorption by the great Bill Nighy. Hilliard’s monolithic egotism can only occasionally cloud the realization that his stalled-out career is on the upswing lately just because all the younger actors are off fighting in the war. Nighy’s droll pokerface betrays an at times ineffable sadness–he’s an arsehole with hidden depths.

The other big addition to the cast is an actual American flying ace played by Jake Lacy, written in at the request of the War Department as an attempt to politely nudge the Yanks along into joining the battle. Problem is that nobody ever screen-tested the lantern-jawed hunk, and Lacy’s hysterically mangled line readings raise the bar for depictions of bad acting in the movies. I could honestly watch an entire spin-off sequel just of Nighy’s flustered Hilliard trying to tutor the handsome lummox on this fictional set.

Because they enjoy sniping at each other so much, we as trained moviegoers know it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Cole and Mr. Buckley will begrudgingly fall into one another’s arms. Indeed, some tiresome business with her inattentive husband (Jack Huston) provides the movie’s most predictable dramatic detours. “Their Finest” works much better as a workplace romantic comedy, albeit one where WWII casts a long shadow, disaster always just an air-raid siren away. It’s a very funny movie but it also understands how the world can be a terribly sad and unfair place, especially during this particular moment in history.

I’ve never been much for movies about “the magic of the movies,” whether we’re talking “The Artist” or “La La Land” I have little patience for Hollywood’s love affair with itself. And yet in this film the eventual unveiling of “The Nancy Starling”––complete with note-perfect Technicolor mimicry and magnificently dated special effects––captures a rather wondrous communal feeling. The audience, exhausted by the ravages of this damned war, joins together to laugh and cry at an admittedly cheesy melodrama in a great big group catharsis. It’s a marvelous argument for what movies can do. Optimistic and inspiring, even.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Alien: Covenant


FILM REVIEW
ALIEN: COVENANT.
 With Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity. 122 minutes.

alien_covenantThe six “Alien” movies (let’s not count those silly “Aliens vs. Predator” outings) all tell the same story: Space is just another dirty job. The people/corporations/governments financing the missions can’t be trusted. And the aliens they encounter will be absolutely relentless. As we go through the ritualized story, it’s the variations and nuances we should focus on, even as we’re getting our thrills from the latest appearance of the fearsome “face hugger” or “chest burster.”

ALIEN: COVENANT takes place several years after the events of “Prometheus” (2012). After a cryptic prologue that will become perfectly clear late in the film, we’re aboard the Covenant, a ship bringing colonists to an Earth-like planet. Two things then happen in short order. A solar flare of some sort causes damage to the ship including the death of the captain who, like the rest of the crew, is in suspended animation. And when the crew is awakened to deal with the emergency, they discover an Earth-like planet nearby sending signals that indicate intelligent life on the planet.

The acting commander of the ship (Billy Crudup) decides this new planet is worth exploring. As we expect, things start to go wrong. To say much more would give away too much of the variations of this version of the story. As usual we have an android, Walter (Michael Fassbinder), a more advanced model of David in “Prometheus.” In keeping with the theme of space exploration being a job rather than a calling, we see the crew go down to the planet and violate all sorts of common sense rules. They don’t test the atmosphere. We see a soldier smoking a cigar and tossing the butt away without a thought about how that might contaminate the alien environment. And, of course, they split up rather than stay together, making them easier to pick off.

The film follows on the idea from “Prometheus” that whomever created the monsters we know from previous films may have been responsible for seeding life on Earth along with the suggestion that they may have developed second thoughts about it. What becomes the issue for “Covenant” is not so much meeting our creators as what it means to be a creator in the first place. In the case of the androids in these two films, what does it mean to be a sentient creature when your life is in service to the humans who have created you? By film’s end–including the expected climactic battle and an unexpected plot twist–“Alien: Covenant” sets us up for the original “Alien” (1979), and so we have come full circle. (Reportedly, though, more films are planned.)

The large ensemble cast doesn’t allow for much in the way of standout performances, although Crudup does well as the self-effacing Oram who finds himself thrust into the role of commander without the full allegiance of the ship’s crew. Fassbender, playing David in the prologue and Walter on the ship, gets the the most complicated role.

The original “Alien” was a shocker for showing us horrors (thanks to H. R. Giger’s creature designs) we had never seen. The follow up “Aliens” capitalized on Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (the one character in both movies) as a kick-ass female action heroine. At this point viewers expecting this series to break new ground will be disappointed. “Alien: Covenant” can’t surprise us as the early films did. Instead, it plays in the margins, providing variations on a theme. For those who get how the franchise works, this film provides both the shocks and the thought-provoking ideas we’ve come to expect.•••

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

Review – Everything, Everything


FILM REVIEW
EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING
With Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Danube R. Hermosillo. Written by J. Mills Goodloe. Directed by Stella Meghie. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality. 96 minutes.

everythingThis season’s “teenager with a possibly terminal illness” movie is here. You didn’t know this was a genre? Well, it’s been around for some time with movies like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “A Walk to Remember,” and “The Space Between Us.” Now we get EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, and teenagers who have no interest in “Alien: Covenant” this weekend can go to this and have a good cry.

The premise is that Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) has a rare immunity deficiency that has led her mother (Anikia Noni Rose) to keep her safely locked up in their lavish house since infancy. Now 18, most of her contacts are online and she can only dream about being on the other side of the windows that surround her. One day Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door. He’s the proverbial good “bad boy.” He’s not really bad. He just dresses all in black and has no friends because his father keeps moving the family around due to his losing his job.

They start communicating–by texting, naturally–but eventually want to meet. Her nurse (Ana de la Reguera) secretly lets Olly in, and these two misfits fall in love. It’s all very formulaic, including a long sequence where they run away to Hawaii (money doesn’t seem to be an issue here) and she finally gets to experience the ocean. In the film’s most creative sequences their texting is turned into imaginary meetings in the structures Maddy has designed for her online architecture class.

This is Nicholas Sparks territory–with star-crossed lovers who risk it all to be together– adapted for teen audiences where the emotions are raw and the sensuality is as powerful and discreet as demanded by a PG-13 rating. Stenberg and Robinson do their jobs, with the latter simply having to look dreamy, intense, and (as several characters note) in need of a haircut. Stenberg carries the emotional burden for the audience of, presumably, teenage girls, and while one hestitates to predict her future career on the basis of this movie, is a sympathetic and strong protagonist.

However, two points should be made with regard not to her, but how she is used in the film. First, kudos for making an African-American woman the focus of a general audience teen film. The fact that Maddy and Olly are an interracial couple is ignored which is significant given that a couple of generations ago that would have been the point of the film (see “Loving” and “A United Kingdom”). More problematic is that Stenberg’s voluptuousness is used by the filmmakers to make it seem is if having a fatal disease is sexy. She doesn’t play it that way, but the filmmakers certainly do, and they do the young actress a disservice (as well as people who do not become more attractive as they get sicker).

There was a time when Hollywood (and film critics) dismissed films like “Everything, Everything” as a “three hanky movie.” Some of those older melodramas are now highly regarded. It’s hard to see this film being hailed as a great achievement in decades ahead, but we can only judge it for the moment. For teenagers who feel they have discovered passion and love–sentiments apparently unknown to earlier generations–this is a movie that may to speak to them. For viewers to whom the strings being pulled are all too obvious, you may not need any hankies at all.•••

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 – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword


FILM REVIEW
KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD
With Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana. Written by Joby Harold and Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language. 126 minutes.

arthur111There are many movie versions of the King Arthur legend, including a musical (“Camelot”), a Disney cartoon (“The Sword in the Stone”) and a broad spoof (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). However, director Guy Ritchie–who was willing to give us a fresh take on “Sherlock Holmes”–wasn’t put off. He saw that there hadn’t been one that combined martial arts with giant snakes; now, there has been.

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD focuses on Arthur’s rise to power. As a babe he, has witnessed the murder of his father, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), and mother by his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Sent adrift downriver to Londinium, he is discovered by a group of decidedly healthy-looking prostitutes. In a montage, we see his rough upbringing which serves to toughen him up, particularly the training in Asian martial arts he receives from George (Tom Wu).

As an adult, he looks out for the women and his crew, but meanwhile Vortigern is obsessed with the notion that Uther’s heir will withdraw the sword Excalibur (which is embedded in a stone) and lead a revolution against him. Arthur does so early on and the rest of the film is about Arthur and his allies, include the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), plotting to bring Arthur to power.

As Saturday matinee fare it works, with plenty of action, and actors who bring some heft to the material. If it seems like a variation of “Game of Thrones” it may be for reasons beyond the royal jockeying for power and medieval trappings. There’s the casting of Aiden Gillen as one of Arthur’s key supporters, given that he may be best known as “Littlefinger” on the HBO series. This is a surprisingly diverse medieval England, which also includes Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere.

As one would expect from a Ritchie film, there’s never a dull moment. When Arthur gets going in a fight the action shifts to slow motion so we can appreciate the uncanny powers he seems to have acquired with the sword. There’s also sorcery involving a variety of species (and special effects), perhaps most effective in the scenes where we see the price that Vortigern has to pay to maintain his power. It’s a rare instance where a figure of evil acknowledges how horrible he’s being instead of playing the cartoon villain, yet not stopping himself from doing whatever it takes to achieve his aims.

Of the cast, the weight of the film falls on Charlie Hunnam, who has gotten kudos in a number of supporting roles (and he played the lead on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” for seven seasons) but here has to play the title character. Portraying Arthur as an action hero, Hunnam shows himself capable of more than the usual requirements of suffering defeat before triumphing over evil. Whether he’s capable of more depth will no doubt be tested in other roles. Here, it’s more important that he be someone audiences can root for rather than spending too much time exploring his deeper motivations.

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is not likely to be be remembered as one of the great depictions of the Arthurian legend on screen. Yet as action films go, it’s engaging enough for those mere mortals who–as the Mage warns Arthur–look away when they can’t bear what they see. Audiences willing to play along won’t have to look away too much.•••

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 – Snatched


MOVIE REVIEWSNATCHEDWith Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack. Written by Katie Dippold. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Rated R for crude sexual content, brief nudity, and language throughout. 90 minutes.

snatchedThere’s so many ways that SNATCHED could have gone wrong that it’s amazing that they managed to pull it off, more or less. Making the leads more aggressively stupid (think Melissa McCarthy or Adam Sandler) and making it a film in which the other characters exist to be humiliated by the leads (too many examples to mention) might have spelled box office success, but it would have been just another lowest-common-denominator comedy.

While we get the expected bodily function jokes and gross-out humor, the movie also has heart. Mother (Goldie Hawn, in her first movie in 15 years) and daughter (Amy Schumer), may bicker but–in the best tradition of these sort of “buddy” comedies–each has something to learn from the other. Director Jonathan Levin and screenwriter Katie Dippold surround them with comic characters who don’t have to be treated like idiots to make us laugh, and the result is a movie that will no doubt find appreciative audiences on Mother’s Day weekend.

Emily (Schumer) has just lost her job and her boyfriend, and has non-refundable tickets for two to Ecuador. Unable to find anyone to go with her, she ends up taking her mother Linda (Hawn). The miscommunications between the two ring true. Linda claims Emily hardly ever visits. Emily claims Linda is constantly putting her down. Neither can see the world through the other’s eyes, and that’s the problem the film sets out to solve.

In terms of plot, the two women are kidnapped and held for ransom (presumably under the theory that any American who can afford a vacation at a South American resort must be rich). Unfortunately, the only family back in the States is Emily’s brother (Ike Barinholtz) who’s afraid to leave the house and calls Linda “Mama” (emphasis on the second syllable). Thus when they escape they are left to their own devices and the people the meet along the way, including a manic couple of tourists (Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack) who have some experience in counter-intelligence.

As the mother, Hawn’s character relies a little too much on caricature, but the problem is with the writing, not the performance. Whether it’s doing a spit take or observing how her daughter has become more responsible than she’s given credit for, Hawn remains a strong screen presence. Schumer gets more of the broad humor, but she also gets to show an adult daughter discovering that her mother was young once too. When they dance together during the closing credits we get the sense that both the characters and the actresses have come to enjoy their time together.

“Snatched” is like a Mother’s Day brunch. It’s enjoyable enough if you’re celebrating the day, but may leave you feeling a bit off-target if you’re not.•••

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 – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2


FILM REVIEW
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2
With Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell. Written and directed by James Gunn. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content. 136 minutes.

guardiansofgalaxy2Perhaps the most unexpected joke in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 is that it is essentially the same movie as the recent “The Fate of the Furious.” To be sure, “Guardians” has more aliens and spends less time on Earth, but both movies are about a band of misfits caught in over the top situations, stress actual and assumed family ties, and would be impossible to make without today’s menu of special effects. They even both have Kurt Russell and Vin Diesel in their casts.

After Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) doublecrosses their latest clients, the Guardians are chased through space by a fleet of drones. All seems lost until they are rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell) who turns out to have a special relationship to Quill (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is trying to deny she has any feelings towards Quill while also dealing with her murderous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Drax (David Bautista) is denying that he finds new arrival Mantis (Pom Klementieff)–an antennaed empath–the least bit attractive. And Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been drummed out of the Ravagers by their leader (Sylvester Stallone!). And let’s not forget adorable Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), whose single line of dialogue–“I am Groot”–is comprehended in numerous ways by the other Guardians.

In short, while there are all sorts of shout-outs to the hardcore Marvel Comics fans (including another cameo by Howard the Duck and teases about further developments in the Marvel Universe), this is a movie with heart. We come for the eye-popping visuals and the snarky humor, but we’re touched by the emotional ties of the characters, and how they connect–or fail to connect. Russell and Rooker, in particular, are standouts here, but the complicated relationship between the two sisters is played well by Saldana and Gillan. Even if you don’t have much use for most of the superhero movies (and there are lot of them coming our way), “Guardians of the Galaxy” works not because they’re brooding and angst-ridden, but because they seem to be having so much fun.

Speaking of which, besides the inevitable cameo by surviving Marvel patriarch and creator Stan Lee, one of the hallmarks of these films is the “Easter egg,” or additional scene, stuck into the closing credits that may advance the story a bit more or give as a clue what’s coming next. Well, don’t leave this one until the projector is turned off because there are no less than five such Easter eggs, plus there are a number of unexplained things in the credits themselves. Without giving anything away, the prospect of Teenage Groot may make the next film worth the price of admission all by itself.

You might not know it from the weather, but the arrival of “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” is the kickoff to the summer movie season. Given the news of late, a movie that’s this much giddy, goofy fun couldn’t have come at a better time.•••

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.

Review – The Circle

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FILM REVIEWTHE CIRCLE. With Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Bill Paxton. Written by Dave Eggers and James Ponsoldt. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. 110 minutes.

the-circle-2017One of the more enjoyable movies nobody saw last year was “A Hologram for the King,” director Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of a Dave Eggers book that starred Tom Hanks as an over-the-hill salesman struggling to hang on to a demeaning new job at an upstart tech company. The film wasn’t so much released as it was taken out back behind the barn and shot, which is a shame because it had a lot of odd, charming idiosyncrasies and moments of real truth, most of them found in Hanks’s quietly soulful performance. (I think we take him for granted because he always makes everything look so easy.)

Another April, another Dave Eggers adaptation with Tom Hanks as a guy at a tech company that’s being quarantined like the measles by its distributor. (This one wasn’t even screened in advance for critics, almost unprecedented for a film with such a distinguished pedigree.) A big difference is that this time, instead of a starring as a workaday schlub, Hanks has a supporting role as the Steve Jobs-like founder of a Google-ish monolith with utopian dreams of a surveillance state.

An even bigger difference is that THE CIRCLE is a terrible, terrible movie.

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, an idealistic post-grad overjoyed to get a job in “Customer Experience” on the title company’s massive Bay Area campus. It’s a workaholic cult of shiny, happy millennials speaking almost exclusively in marketing buzzwords, and right away we can tell something’s amiss. Hanks has a grand old time playing up the sinister side of his avuncular persona–the performance has the insinuating edge he seemed to be trying to smuggle into his work as Walt Disney in that neutered Mousechwitz propaganda film, “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Director James Ponsoldt specializes in earnestly plodding indie dramas like “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now.” There’s nothing in his stylistic arsenal to suit the surreal requirements of Eggers’ story, which is sort of a panicky, Luddite “Invasion of the Facebook Friend Snatchers.” Mae undergoes at least two or three massive personality shifts that make no sense whatsoever, a characterization as wobbly as Watson’s American accent. The plotting takes bizarre detours almost into the realm of science-fiction, but Ponsoldt insists on shooting it all with the granola aesthetic of a Sundance also-ran about a family farm. He’s an astonishingly wrong choice for this material, which is already pretty thin soup to begin with.

No points for guessing that Hanks’ privacy-obliterating ideals aren’t all that altruistic. But what may surprise you is what a poor case the movie makes against 24/7 surveillance as a fact of life, with no real ideas behind its portentous, already dated statements about The Way We Live Now. Eggers’ book was released in 2013 but the film feels like it was made at least fifteen years before that. (Mae’s allegedly culture-defining decision to webcast every banal detail of her life suggests Eggers never spent much time surfing camgirl sites.) As far as clueless alarmism goes, the “The Circle” will make a great double feature with Sandra Bullock’s 1995 camp classic “The Net.”

Obviously a troubled production, the movie is riddled with strange logic leaps and chucks of post-dubbed dialogue played off the back of the speaker’s heads. Uncomfortably awkward performances by “Boyhood’s” Ellar Coltrane and former Stormtrooper John Boyega are more cut-around than edited. Danny Elfman’s incongruous action movie score blares over conference room conversations as if they were Spider-Man rescuing a subway car.

The movie’s one great moment finds Hanks surveying the situation, putting a big fake smile and taking a sip off coffee as he mutters, “We are so fucked.” He must have just seen the dailies.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.