Review – What They Had

FILM REVIEWWHAT THEY HAD. With Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga. Written ańd directed by Elizabeth Chomko. Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference. 101 minutes.

what_they_hadYou don’t see a lot of actorly fussing about from Robert Forster. Plainspoken and direct in a pre-Method, old Hollywood fashion, Forster is one of those rock-solid guys from another era who plants his feet and tells the truth on camera. His turn as lovesick bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” is one of the great performances of the 1990s, and if Hollywood had any sense he’d have been working nonstop ever since. Indeed, the best thing about Elizabeth Chomko’s moving, occasionally awkward Alzheimer’s drama WHAT THEY HAD is that it gives Forster his meatiest role in ages.

Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, a fitness-crazed California poultry chef called home to Chicago on Christmas Eve after her dementia-addled mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) sneaks out and wanders the neighborhood in her nightie during a snowstorm. Dutiful dad Burt (a heartbreaking Forster) has been taking care of his beloved for so long he’s willfully blind to how far her disease has advanced, constantly insisting in a familiar chorus of Catholic repression that everything is fine. “Fine” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in this movie, and usually signifies that things are anything but.

Big brother Nick (Michael Shannon) runs a hipster bar downtown and currently crashes in the back room. He’s constantly quarreling with the old man, and even pulled some strings to secure a room for Ruth at the city’s nicest MemoryCare facility, but Burt won’t budge. No way is he gonna let a bunch of strangers tend to his girl, and there’s a palpable flush of fear in Forster’s eyes when we see him trying to contemplate what the hell he’d do all day without her. It was a stroke of genius casting the rough-edged Shannon as Forster’s son, as the two are seemingly incapable of false moments onscreen and they’ve got similarly hardened hides. This family really knows how to bust each other’s chops.

Considerably less compelling is Bridget’s frayed relationship with her college dropout daughter (Tessia Farmiga) and the well-meaning husband with whom she’s fallen out of love (Josh Lucas). Chomko has claimed that the film is semi-autobiographical, and I fear she’s overestimated our interest in the personal growth aspects of the story when we’d much rather be watching the frayed family dynamics play out.

The playwright-turned-filmmaker betrays her theater background by writing long sequences in which members of the ensemble enter and exit, but there’s an attention to detail here that feels lived-in and true, even when the scene structures beg credulity. Forster has a way of reading his newspaper at the dinner table that illustrates a lifetime, and Shannon’s wide, child-like grin whenever he’s able to get one over on his prodigal sister tastes like decades of resentment coming home to roost.

Danner probably has the trickiest part here, playing the majority of her scenes in a distracted fog and trying not to be a bother. There are moments when we can bask in the warm glow of Ruth’s five decades with Burt and in others we see the terrifying confusion and loneliness wrought by a horrific disease.

“What They Had” goes on for a bit longer than it probably should, piling on too many tidy resolutions when the movie’s strongest scenes are its messiest. But Chomko clearly loves these characters so much it’s hard to fault her for trying to give them all the kind of closure I imagine didn’t come so easily for their real life counterparts.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.


Review – Divide And Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes

FILM REVIEWDIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILESWith Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Richard Nixon. Directed by Alexis Bloom. Unrated, but contains profanity. 107 minutes.

divide_and_conquer_the_story_of_roger_ailesHe might not be a household name, but Roger Ailes has conceivably done more damage to the fabric of American life in the 21st century than any foreign despot could ever dream of causing. The disgraced former Fox News chairman was an unparalleled genius at media manipulation, a kingmaker of scoundrels, and an unrepentant lech.

Alexis Bloom’s blood-boiling documentary DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES methodically traces the diabolically brilliant tactics via which this porcine pervert transformed modern conservatism into a billion-dollar grievance industry. It’s a depressingly necessary viewing experience, basically the opposite of the Mister Rogers movie in that you spend two hours with one of the worst human beings to walk the planet during our lifetimes but in the end feel a little bit better because at least he’s dead.

Bloom’s film traces the arc of this unlikely arch-villain from his humble beginnings in Cleveland as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” where Ailes pitched guest and then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon on being his “media consultant” and somehow miraculously managed to make the sweaty, glowering mountain of mendacity come off okay on television. From there Ailes became the man behind the curtain for a murderer’s row of malignant pricks, from Rudy Giuliani to Mitch McConnell. His masterpiece, of course, was the notorious “Willie Horton ad” that rocketed a floundering George H.W. Bush to the Presidency by brazenly stoking white folks’ fear of big, scary black dudes, a staple of Ailes’ repertoire.

But like most people who spend all day grousing about celebrities and “Hollywood elites,” Ailes desperately wanted to be part of the club that wouldn’t have him as a member. In the early 1990s he oversaw the short-lived NBC cable channel America’s Talking and presided over a collection of banal daytime chat shows aimed at bored housewives. Indeed, the most revealing clip in Bloom’s documentary finds Ailes hosting a program of his own, sycophantically sucking up to Cyndi Lauper before busting out some cringe-inducing dance moves.

“Divide and Conquer” posits that the mogul might have remained perfectly happy to rub elbows with C-listers forever, had the Peacock not scuttled his programming and sold the channel to Bill Gates, thus creating MSNBC. A cheesy reenactment of the office furniture destruction that ensued culminates with a revenge-obsessed Ailes sliding up to Australian tabloid billionaire Rupert Murdoch to start their own “fair and balanced” 24-hour news network. And the rest, alas, is history.

An ex-producer from “The O’Reilly Factor” admits that around the office they called it “riling up the crazies” — conceiving of programming to make their target audience feel constantly under attack by frightening, nefarious forces beyond their control. Bloom cuts together damning montages to demonstrate the dopamine hits of fear and resentment provided around the clock to a mostly older, white audience increasingly obsessed with their own victimization. The nuttier the on-air crackpots the better, exemplified by a now contrite, formerly froth-mouthed Fox superstar Glenn Beck, who shows up here to wonder how things ever got so out of hand.

Then there are the women. One of my favorite Artie Lange bits on the old “Howard Stern Show” found the comedian confessing that he couldn’t watch Hurricane Katrina coverage on Fox News because the anchors kept giving him an erection and that felt inappropriate during something so sad. The documentary points out how Ailes outfitted his staff of blonde bombshells with see-through desks and carefully lit their legs underneath. In such an environment it’s no surprise abuse was rampant, particularly given the presence of serial harasser and loofah-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly as the public face of the network.

For a lot of viewers it won’t come as a surprise to learn that America’s most trusted news channel was a haven for disgusting old men hopped up on erectile dysfunction medication chasing women younger than their daughters around desks with trousers at their ankles, all the while peddling racist conspiracy theories confirming the worst prejudices of your out-of-work, alcoholic relatives nobody wants to sit near at Thanksgiving. But Bloom’s documentary does do a fine job of dispassionately laying out the whole sordid saga from end-to-end, complete with the contributions of two crisis management experts who actually quit working for Ailes and refused to take his money because the man was so revolting.

The sad twist ending to this all is that before finally kicking the bucket Ailes stuck us with a President embodying the most toxic tenets of his life’s work, a virulent misogynist wallowing in hysterical self-pity while bleating out paranoid, uninformed assertions with ugly racist undertones. A talking head in “Divide and Conquer” astutely points out, “If Donald Trump didn’t exist Roger Ailes would have had to invent him.” One might even argue that he did.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Tea With The Dames

FILM REVIEWTEA WITH THE DAMESWith Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith. Directed by Roger Michell. Not rated. 83 minutes.

MV5BZjI5ZGNmNzItZmM0OC00NDdhLTliMDQtMWI0ZWI3YTE1ZjJlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODY3Nzc0OTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Let’s get this out of the way at the start – nobody drinks any tea in TEA WITH THE DAMES.

Instead, what we get is conversation and reminiscences from four legendary British actresses who are lifelong friends and colleagues. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are probably the best known, having won Oscars and appeared in popular franchises – Dench in the later James Bond movies and Smith in the “Harry Potter” films – but, like Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins, they all have long careers on stage, as well as in film and television.

Their discussions of their theater work focuses on the parts of their careers that may be unknown to most American viewers, having taken place mostly in England. However, their stories include anecdotes about nervousness before going on stage, reacting to critics, and some of the stars that they worked with over the years, such as Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier (whom Plowright married).

Their discussion of how younger actors claim to perform “naturally” brings some lively reactions, with Plowright skeptical of inserting “ers” and “ums” into Shakespeare’s dialogue.

All four women have received honors and are “Dames,” hence the title of the film. We see each of them receiving their honor from Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. One might assume that this would be a highlight of their careers, but one points out that she was glad her father was alive to see it, with the consensus opinion that it was less about personal satisfaction than how proud their families were at their receiving such recognition.

The affection and respect that the four women have for each other is obvious, but there’s also the recognition that even though all have enjoyed success, it’s not all the same. We hear from one that her American agent tries to get her parts that Dench hasn’t already taken, suggesting that the Oscar winner for “Shakespeare In Love” is a Hollywood favorite.

What’s particularly interesting is while they love telling stories about the various roles and productions they’ve been involved with, they’re not obsessed with their own work. Smith confesses she’s never watched all of “Downton Abbey” (as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham), even though she’s been provided with a boxed DVD set of the series.

“Tea with the Dames” is the sort of film that will be embraced by viewers with a particular interest in one or more of the actresses, in theater or film, or simply in older women reflecting on their lives and experiences. It’s not going to be a blockbuster and won’t engage the majority of moviegoers, but for those it does, it’s priceless.•••

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

Review – Creed II

FILM REVIEWCREED II. With Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Stephen Caple Jr. Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality. 130 minutes.

creed_ii_ver31979’s “Rocky II” doesn’t get mentioned much when people are talking about their favorite films in Sylvester Stallone’s apparently deathless franchise. It’s an odd picture, that first sequel, tilting back and forth between the gritty, broken-hearted uplift of director John G. Avildsen’s 1976 original and the glossy, steroidal triumphalism of Stallone’s subsequent entries, which quickly degenerated into comic-book gladiator montages. “Rocky II” is kind of an awkward segue between seventies and eighties movies, and now almost four decades later, CREED II finds itself straddling a similar fence, following up a thoughtful, much-loved surprise hit with some fine character beats before drifting into stale, over-familiar formulas and fawning fan service.

Stallone was uncharacteristically gracious enough to step aside and hand Ryan Coogler the car keys for 2015’s “Creed,” in which this dynamo writer-director appropriated the “Rocky” saga for his ongoing exploration of young black men reckoning with absent fathers. This theme has been the cornerstone of former social-worker Coogler’s collaborations with the ferociously charismatic young superstar-in-waiting Michael B. Jordan. From 2013’s Sundance sensation “Fruitvale Station” to this past February’s Marvel mega-hit “Black Panther,” these two keep grafting a sneaky, sociopolitical agenda onto increasingly massive, crowd-pleasing canvases with blockbuster returns.

So I guess only someone with the ego of Sly Stallone could look at a movie as textured and thoughtful as “Creed” and think: “What everybody really wants now is more dumb Drago shit.” Coogler was so careful in how deftly he side-stepped the patent absurdity of “Rocky IV,” only mentioning in passing that Apollo died in the ring, while never getting into the whole Russian propaganda angle or Rocky ending the Cold War by carrying tree-trunks on his shoulders across mountains in Siberia to a tacky Vince DiCola synth score because everyone involved was too cheap to pay Bill Conti.

Alas, Coogler’s gone off to Wakanda and Stallone is back in the writers’ room. So we say goodbye to those vividly realized streets of Philadelphia and get ready for some Russian intrigue with the disgraced Dolph Lundgren bringing his brick shithouse kid Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) to America so he can find redemption for his family by clobbering Apollo Creed’s kid. “My son will break your boy,” Lundgren tells Sly, in a well-played scene that probably should’ve stung a little more considering Drago and Balboa’s shared history.

This silly backstory is a huge drag on “Creed II,” which strikes me as the biggest blown opportunity for a sequel since J.J. Abrams spent an entire movie setting up a brand new “Star Trek” universe just so he could remake “Wrath of Khan” four years later. The movie has some admittedly terrific moments between Jordan and Tessa Thompson as his trash-talking, dreadlocked better half, conspicuously mirroring the goofball marriage proposal and difficult childbirth sequences from “Rocky II.” (She even spends a fight wearing one of Talia Shire’s old, unflattering coat-and-hat combos.) But it’s all so purposefully secondhand, deliberately designed to remind you of he previous films you loved without going anywhere exciting or new.

“Creed II” is pretty much the movie everyone was worried the first “Creed” was gonna be, but it’s well-acted enough that I couldn’t hate it. Jordan and Thompson are as appealing as screen presences get these days, and though missing the pathos of the last installment Stallone still brings a reliable dim-bulb charm to his punchy palooka. Phylicia Rashad steals enough scenes for you to wish she was given more of them and I found myself fascinated by Lundgren’s sad-eyed scowl, though I could have done without him repeating umpteen variations on “I must break you.”

It was slyly (sorry) subversive of Stallone back in 1985 to put Carl Weathers’ swaggering, showboating Apollo Creed in an Uncle Sam outfit and place him alongside James Brown, both “Living In America” as two black and proud icons sayin’ it loud against the Soviet menace. I wish Stallone still had that kind of nerve, and I really wish he’d confronted head-on just how much of his target audience right now would probably root for the Russians over a black millionaire heir from California. That’s the kind of movie that might break you.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Ralph Breaks The Internet

FILM REVIEWWRECK-IT RALPH 2: RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNETWith the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina. Written by Phil Johnston & Pamela Ribon. Directed by Phil Johnston, Rich Moore. Rated PG for some action and rude humor. 112 minutes. 

ralph_breaks_the_internet_wreckit_ralph_two_ver18“Wreck-It Ralph” was a surprise hit when it came out in 2012, doing a mash-up of actual and imaginary video game characters in one movie, just as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” did it thirty years ago with its ‘toons. As a follow-up, Ralph is now ready to take on the online world in RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET. Animation fans of all ages won’t want to miss it.

The premise is that life has gone on for the characters, with Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) having built a strong friendship with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the star of a neighboring racing game called “Sugar Rush.” When her game breaks down it looks like it is beyond repair, with the missing part – a steering wheel – only available through e-Bay at a price the arcade’s owner can’t afford. Ralph and Vanellope decide to access the newly installed WiFi to get that wheel.

The internet proves to be even more overwhelming than the world of arcade games. From auction sites to search engines and on-line multiplayer games, Ralph and Vanellope do it all. The film’s targets including not only numerous websites, but internet scams, the importance of ignoring toxic user comments, and the generating of memes for fun and profit. Vanellope meets Shank (Gal Gadot), the star of a violent racing game which enchants someone whose racetrack consisted of sweets. Ralph becomes an internet star when he meets Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the ultra-cool proprietor of BuzzzTube, the home of the latest viral videos.

Undoubtedly the highlight is when Vanellope ends up at a Disney website where she meets Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan, Belle, Elsa, and other Disney princesses, who have a more blasé take on the world than in their own movies. In a brilliant bit of casting, most of them are voiced by the original actresses, including Kelly Macdonald who has an unintelligible Scottish burr as Merida from “Brave.” When Vanelllope is confused it’s explained that she’s from the “other studio” (i.e., Pixar). There are also voice cameos for characters from “Star Wars,” “Toy Story,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Beyond the power of friendship – and the need to be supportive and not controlling – the lesson for younger viewers is that there is a lot of fun to be had on the internet, but there are also things that can be scary or dangerous. The movie isn’t intended primarily as a morality play or parenting guideline, though. It’s in the grand tradition of the classic Hollywood cartoons in that it provides entertainment for all ages, even if you end up laughing at different things. As it turns out, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has laughs to spare.•••

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

Review – Green Book

FILM REVIEWGREEN BOOKWith Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly. Directed by Peter Farrelly. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material. 130 minutes.

green_bookIf someone told you that Peter Farrelly, the director of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber,” had made a sensitive movie dealing with the issues of race and class in the South in the 1960s, you would be right to scoff. It has been a long time since Farrelly’s films have garnered anything but scathing reviews and diminishing box office. That’s about to change.

is based on the true-life story of Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained pianist and recording artist, and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who is laid off from his job as a bouncer when the nightclub where he works is being remodeled. The bouncer is hired to drive the musician on a concert tour, and since he has been reduced to seeing who can eat more hot dogs to pick up money on a bet, he ends up taking the job.

The wrinkle is that Shirley is African-American, well-heeled (he lives in an apartment over Carnegie Hall), and somewhat of an introvert. Vallelonga, who prefers to be called by his nickname, is a working class Italian-American who shares many of the prejudices of his time and place. When his wife offers a glass of water to a black plumber fixing her sink, Vallelonga throws the glass away.

The story follows them through the South where they experience the societal racism that was such an ingrained way of life that the titular volume provided listings and ads at the time for those businesses willing to cater to “Negroes.” Over the course of the story the two men slowly break down the barriers between them. Race is a big part of it, of course. It’s one thing to use casual slurs with his family, but when Villalonga sees the unending humiliation of Shirley – at one point welcomed to perform in a Southern mansion but told he couldn’t use the bathroom and would have to go to the outhouse instead – he begins to see the world differently. Likewise, Shirley discovers that the man he assumed was an ignorant lout could, with some guidance, prove to have unexpected depths. Shirley starts helping Vallelonga compose letters to his wife that are so romantic that her girlfriends demand to know why their husbands can’t express themselves the same way.

There are moments of comedy and moments of drama, with some surprises as the two men let down their guard. Ali and Mortensen are the oddest of odd couples as Shirley and Vallelonga, and the two men manage to expose the flaws and the admirable qualities of the real-life people who would become lifelong friends as a result of their road trip. In year of some great performances, here are two more must-sees.

“Green Book” is about two men from very different worlds and experiences who discover their common humanity. As such, it is not merely a “feel good” movie. It is a story that speaks to us at time when the divisions in this country might seem insurmountable. The film suggests they don’t have to be.•••

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

Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

FILM REVIEWFANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALDWith Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Written by J. K. Rowling. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG for brief rude humor. 134 minutes.

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_xlgIf you’re not invested in the Potterverse (i.e., the Harry Potter books and movies) and haven’t seen the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie, the FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is not the film with which to be introduced to the world of J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Potter books and is now writing the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. However, if you are among the initiated, this second chapter in a planned five-film series ratchets up the tensions introduced in this series.

The center of attention is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who collects and tends the magical animals of the wizarding world and was a favorite of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). Although Scamander’s misadventures in the previous film has led the Ministry of Magic to forbid him foreign travel, Dumbledore sends him to Paris in an attempt to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a mysterious orphan who is also being sought by Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Dumbledore and Grindelwald were close friends in their student days but are now on opposite sides of a fight in which Grindelwald looks for those with magic to rule over the non-magical “muggles.”

Newt is accompanied by his muggle friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), who has been brought to Europe by Queenie (Alison Sudol), who loves Jacob even though she is magical and he is not, a relationship forbidden in the wizarding world. Newt is in love with Queenie’s sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is seeking Credence on behalf of the Ministry of Magic. These characters are all running around Paris while Grindelwald gathers support, along with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), also working for the Ministry and set to marry Lita Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), with whom Newt has a history.

This is a movie in which little will be resolved by film’s end, because there’s so much more story to come. There are dazzling special effects and “fantastic beasts” galore, including Nagini (Claudia Kim), who is under a curse causing her to turn into a giant snake, a change that will eventually become permanent. Potter fans will recognize that she is doomed to become the pet of the evil Voldemort, villain of the Potter series, and if that doesn’t resonate for you, you might want to go back to the beginning. There are many such callouts to the early books/movies, such as an appearance by Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky) who is cited as the creator of the “philosopher’s stone” in the very first Potter adventure.

As a newcomer to the series, Jude Law cuts a nice figure as the young Dumbledore, although one suspects his character will be further developed in later movies. Depp, who was revealed as Grindelwald at the end of the last film, is an arch villain, coming across as perfectly reasonable when he reveals the horrors that the muggle world will cause in the future of World War II (the story is set in the 1920s), but then shows he’s capable of some horrors himself.

For Rowling’s loyal fans – who are legion – this is an exciting next chapter. For those who haven’t really paid much attention, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” may provide some fantastic moments but may seem otherwise impenetrable.•••

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

Review – The Front Runner

FILM REVIEWTHE FRONT RUNNER. With Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alex Karpovsky, Alfred Molina. Written by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Jason Reitman. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated R for language including some sexual references. 113 minutes.

front_runner_xlgJason Reitman’s THE FRONT RUNNER may not be the worst movie of the year, but it’s gotta be the most inessential and out-of-touch. A hectoring finger-wag about former Colorado senator Gary Hart’s doomed 1988 presidential campaign, the film purports to pinpoint the moment when political coverage gave in to tabloid temptations and reporters stopped looking the other way when old rich dudes flaunted their extramarital affairs. 

Reitman treats this as a national tragedy, depicting D.C. journalism an eden despoiled by craven hordes pandering to the basest instincts of their readers while the country suffers because born leaders like Hart are brought low for inconsequential personal failings. He never seems to have entertained the notion that it might say something about a man’s character when he keeps tripping over his dick.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart from beneath a wig so distracting I had a hard time looking at anything else, but beyond the tonsorial disaster his performance is hard to get a handle on, as the film holds him at a distance. When he and long-suffering wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) have a late-movie emotional showdown the scene feels dropped in from another picture altogether. The one we’ve been watching doesn’t have that kind of access to these people’s private moments.

Based on the book “All The Truth Is Out” by Matt Bai (who co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” writer Jay Carson) the film is more concerned with the buzzing about of Hart’s campaign workers in crisis mode and long talks about ethics in bustling newsrooms, where we witness the insane casting of Alfred Molina as legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

“The Front Runner” runs around in shallow circles with lots of cluttered, wannabe-Altman crowd scenes and overqualified actors spitting out sub-Sorkin banter. Reitman regular J.K. Simmons is on hand to spout cynical one-liners and it’s all very grave business indeed, with dolorous faces frowning at Johnny Carson monologue jokes. (What a gift it was to comedy writers that Hart got caught fooling around on a yacht called “Monkey Business.”) Everyone here both behind and in front of the camera seems furious that JFK and LBJ could cat around all they wanted in the White House while now all of the sudden poor Gary Hart has to face consequences for his actions.

It’s my personal opinion that anyone who, like Hart, publicly dares reporters to follow him around and then acts all huffy and indignant when they catch him chasing pussy is probably too stupid to be trusted with the nuclear codes. Besides, Bill Clinton and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have already established that infidelity need not be disqualifying, and much better movies like Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s “Primary Colors” have already pondered the gap between policy brilliance and personal peccadilloes, wondering just how much we’re willing to put up with for what we consider the right reasons. Reitman’s movie feels a lot more than a day late and a dollar short, angrily and repetitively insisting a candidate’s sex life is none of our business, and that something important was lost when these Miami Herald reporters took Hart up on his dopey dare.

At a cultural moment when powerful men are finally being called upon to answer for their sexual improprieties, a film like “The Front Runner” couldn’t possibly be less in tune with the times. I’m also not sure right now it’s such a hot idea to make a movie demonizing the press as the cause of all the problems in politics. Reitman’s a glib, smarmy filmmaker who after a recent string of bombs has become something of a poster boy for mediocre white guys coasting on old money and family connections. This banal, deeply incurious picture exudes exactly that kind of entitlement, pining away for the good old days when the privileged and powerful closed ranks to protect their own. He should make a Brett Kavanaugh film next.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Speed Kills

FILM REVIEWSPEED KILLS. With John Travolta, James Remar, Kellan Lutz, Tom Sizemore, Matthew Modine. Written by David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop. Directed by Jodi Scurfield. Rated R for language, some violence and drug material. 102 minutes. 

speed_kills_xlgIn any other year, SPEED KILLS would be the most laughably incompetent gangster movie starring John Travolta. Alas, 2018 also brought us “Gotti,” a risible botch job directed by the dwarf who plays E on “Entourage,” which in its nauseating immorality insisted that the Teflon Don got a bum rap and positioned this murderous dirtbag as an aspirational figure of endangered masculine values in a fallen world of pussies and finks. It’s an astoundingly stupid, tedious and ugly-spirited picture, full of angry-old-man axe-grinding and clownish goombah posturing.

By contrast “Speed Kills” is merely inept, poorly fictionalizing the life of Don Aranow — the cigarette boat manufacturer who was pals with George H.W. Bush and famously outfitted the DEA with a fleet of boats slower than the ones he was selling to smugglers. (There’s a pretty good “30 For 30” on ESPN about Aranow, and at one point the late Tony Scott was set to make a film about his life.) For some reason screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop have chosen to toss out most of the interesting stuff in Aranow’s story, rechristening him “Ben Aranoff” and saddling the speedboat magnate with clichéd ties to notorious mob boss Meyer Lansky, sluggishly played here by James Remar.

The film begins in 1987 with Travolta staring down a hitman (special guest star Tom Sizemore) and flashing back twenty-five years to tell us his story before shuffling off to his eternal reward. There’s hilariously little attention to period detail and no attempt to age the star accordingly. (His sideburns look a little longer in the seventies but that’s about it.) Travolta seems to wear the same denim shirt throughout several decades, and the movie apparently could only afford one or two boats, which presents a bit of a problem when you’re shooting so many boat races.

Set in Miami but certainly not shot there, “Speed Kills” is severely short on sandy beaches and palm trees. It’s always overcast and even the water looks grey. Very few extras mill about on underdressed sets, and my personal favorite part is a big party celebrating Meyer Lansky’s return from Israel, with exactly two people standing listlessly under a banner that reads “WELCOME HOME MEYER” in blue lettering and for some reason, scare-quotes.

The dumbed-down story is boilerplate Mafia swill, with Aranoff earning the ire of Lansky’s dipshit nephew Robbie Reemer (what a name!) played by Kellan Lutz, one of the “Twilight Saga” kids who will most decidedly not be basking in the arthouse glory of his former co-stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Then Matthew Modine shows up as George H.W. Bush, a bizarre bit of stunt-casting that, like the rest of “Speed Kills,” feels like it should probably be more amusing than it actually is.

As in “Gotti,” Travolta just seems miserable, alternating between scrunching up his face like something smells bad and looking like he has to poop. It was only a couple years ago that this most erratic of actors gave a wonderfully wild performance as Robert Shapiro in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” This new late-career gangster phase plays against all his strengths — nobody wants to watch John Travolta be an angry hard-ass, and it’s worth remembering that while playing similar types in “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty” he suffused the characters with a boyish, porcine self-delight. I miss that kind of joy in his work.

Early promotional materials credited co-writer John Luessenhop as the director of “Speed Kills,” but the film now purports to have been helmed by one Jodi Scurfield, who does not have any IMDB credits or photos and returns no results on a Google search. So I figure either Luessenhop wanted his name off the picture and made up an “Alan Smithee” style alter-ego to take the rap, or this Scurfield person was so embarrassed by his or her work that he or she elected to vanish entirely from public life. Either choice is understandable.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Widows

FILM REVIEWWIDOWSWith Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Collin Farrell, Liam Neeson. Written by Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen. Directed by Steve McQueen. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity. 129 minutes.

A good heist movie requires a solid set-up so that we care about the characters as they plan their crime. It should involve a complex operation where things might not go as expected, with a few twists along the way. WIDOWS has all this to spare, with a solid cast propelling us through to the end.

The film opens with Harry (Liam Neeson) and his partners pulling off a job that goes very wrong, ending in a fiery explosion. The robbery was of the campaign funds for Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), running for Chicago alderman in a district long controlled by the family of Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), who is now trying to place his son Jack (Colin Farrell) in office. Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) are not above using violence to recover the money, with Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) being threatened if she doesn’t replace the missing funds.

Although well-heeled, Veronica can’t meet his demands so she contacts Linda (Michelle Rodiguez) – who has lost her clothing shop due to her late husband’s gambling debts – and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who has become a call girl to make ends meet. All desperate, the women get a hold of one of Harry’s future plans, which he recorded in a notebook, deciding to do it themselves. Belle (Cynthia Erivo) is later brought in to be the driver when their original plans have to change.

Director Steve McQueen (who adapted Lynda LaPlante’s novel with Gillian Flynn), has a lot of balls in the air here. The characters are working at cross purposes, often violently. Some of the plot lines might seem like distractions, but that’s the point. There are moments where things are set up that don’t pay off until much later, so we’re never quite sure what to focus on, with McQueen often catching us off-guard.

There are a lot of good performances here, none of which are likely to turn up at the Oscars or year-end awards, but with so much talent on hand there’s no wasted time. Davis, Rodriguez, and Debicki are standouts playing women forced to navigate in new worlds as they try to gain control of their lives. Farrell’s reluctant politician probably warrants a separate film, particularly in the glimpses we get of his life with his father. And Kaluuya, so effective as the victimized center of “Get Out,” is scary as his brother’s enforcer.

“Widows” is an entertaining thriller that grabs you from the start and puts you through the wringer. It may not be art, but it’s rattling good entertainment.•••

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