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Review – The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

Starring Bel Powley, Domino the Cat, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, and Christopher Meloni; Written by Phoebe Gloeckner (graphic novel) and Marielle Heller (screenplay); Directed by Marielle Heller; Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language, and drinking: all involving teens. 102 minutes.

Confrontational” is a label we too often give the art–and the feelings and topics such art brings to light–that we would like to pretend does not exist. We too often treat this kind of confrontation as if it were something that we should avoid at all costs, like a sacred symbol in a jar of tinkle. By doing this, though, we miss out on opportunities to advance our thinking and realign our perception to better reflect reality. Writer-director Marielle Heller’s debut feature THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is confrontational art in the the best sense.

British TV actress Bel Powley makes her Stateside debut in high style as Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco in 1976 who is trying to balance her aspirations as an artist with her emerging sexuality. Minnie lives with her younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait) and her former hippie mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and after a casual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), an affair ensues. Naturally, the discreteness and control that Minnie and Monroe thought they had going in evaporates, and they must confront the reality of what they have chosen.

Heller spares no detail while chronicling Minnie’s odyssey, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable while we are watching it unfold. From the crimson “X” she paints on Monroe’s leg after her first time to the frank, no-boys-around discussions about sex she has with her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Walters) to the tryst she has with high school friend Ricky (Austin Lyon) in which he admits that Minnie’s unabashed pursuit of pleasure scares him, Heller and Powley let us know who Minnie is, through her desires, naivete, and ill-informed decisions.

While Heller’s gender doesn’t make her uniquely qualified to tell Minnie’s tale, the fact that she wrote and played Minnie in the 2010 stage version of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel does. Both Heller and Powley are fearless in their presentation of Minnie, and it pays off in large ways. Powley’s slight stature (standing at 5’2”) helps us visualize Minnie as a child on the cusp, while her actual age (23 this year) gives them both license to present Minnie in ways that they could not with a minor in the role.

Just as “Saturday Night Live” veteran Kristen Wiig showed she is not afraid to take on the topic of mental illness in in films like “Welcome To Me,” “The Skeleton Twins,” and the misunderstood populist pic “Bridesmaids,” she takes on another gutsy role here. While Charlotte is not solely to blame for Minnie’s wanton ways (as if a teen’s desires are worthy of such blame) we can see how Charlotte’s own objectification of Minnie paired with her permissiveness swayed Minnie toward making the decisions she did. Wiig plays Charlotte with a sympathetic and effective matter-of-factness, without stealing Powley’s considerable thunder. Also likable–despite the fact that California law would brand his character a felon–is Skarsgård (“True Blood”) as Monroe. He manages to make Monroe’s ’70s porn ‘stache creepier than his lack of common sense and constant rationalization. This is no Solondz-style “Welcome To The Dollhouse” knockoff.

As Heller did on stage, she judiciously incorporates colorful visual cutaways here. Minnie’s animated proxy is a buxom giantess, rendered in the style of underground cartoonist R. Crumb (and a depiction of an acid trip is particularly inspired). Minnie’s artistic idol is Crumb’s paramour and wife Aline Kaminsky, whom she imagines seeing from time to time and takes advice from. It all feels very much like a first-person confessional like “Catcher in the Rye” by way of the schizophrenic magical realism of “Birdman” and the gender-bending fantasy of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a confrontational pedigree that all involved manage to elevate, like Minnie, to beyond just a slapdash label that we would have otherwise written off due to our own predispositions.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Robert Newton is a veteran film critic, novelty recording artist, and Creative Director of the Cape Ann Cinema & Stage in historic Gloucester, Mass.

Review – The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

With Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant. Written by Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity. 116 minutes.

There have been many bad movies made from TV shows, just as there have been bad movies made from books, Broadway shows, and a variety of other sources. There have also been television shows–good and bad–based on movies. It’s not the source that matters so much as what the people creating the new work do with the material.

In the case of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., it’s a movie based on a 1960s television show that was itself inspired by the James Bond movies which, of course, were based on Ian Fleming’s novels. So there are a lot of fingerprints on it. As it turns out, director Guy Ritchie (and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram) got it exactly right, introducing the characters to moviegoers who may have never heard of them while not insulting the memories of those who have.

They do this in two ways. First, they set the story in the same era as the show, the early to mid-1960s. Not only is the Cold War going on, but there’s all sorts of opportunities to show off “mod” styles and period music. Unlike “Mission: Impossible,” this is a ‘60s style spy thriller that felt no need to update itself for modern audiences. Second, they make the film an “origin” story, showing how the principal characters meet and work on their first assignment together. Unlike the recent “Fantastic Four,” this origin story leaves you eager to see the next installment.

For those of you just coming in, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a CIA agent who looks best in a tuxedo, even when engaging in spycraft. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is the soulful KGB agent. Both of them have complicated pasts, and in their recent encounter they nearly killed each other. Now they have to join forces to prevent an Italian industrialist (Elizabeth Debicki) from providing a mysterious criminal syndicate the means to build atomic weapons. It’s so 1960s.

Along the way, the colorful locations mix with the bantering between Solo and Kurayakin, both of whom prefer to work alone. Along for the ride is Gaby (Alicia Vikander), whom Solo has helped escape from East Berlin because her uncle is connected to Victoria, and her father, who has vanished, was working on the atomic missile project. Her cover story is that she’s accompanying her fiancé Kuryakin, a supposedly gifted architect.

Cavill and Hammer don’t try to impersonate the original actors, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, but they get the attitude right. Modeled on James Bond, Cavill’s Solo is polished and suave, having no trouble attracting female company. Hammer’s Kuryakin is more withdrawn, with a smoldering anger just beneath the surface, making him seem more in need of attention. Then there’s Hugh Grant as Mr. Waverly, who will become the boss of the new operation they are in the midst of forming.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a slick and entertaining reimagining of a ‘60s spy film, with thrills, action, and some arch comic relief. What the oldtimers will want for the next film is the reintroduction of the theme music and their New York headquarters behind the tailor shop. And, of course, the revelation that the unnamed criminal syndicate is really T.H.R.U.S.H.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Fantastic Four

With Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell,
Reg E. Cathey. Written by Simon Kinberg & Jeremy Slater & Josh Trank. Directed by Josh Trank. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language. 100 minutes.

What’s the worst thing you can say about a superhero movie? It’s dull. THE FANTASTIC FOUR is deadly dull. How dull is it?

It’s so dull that it’s a third attempt to launch the long-running Marvel characters into a film series.

It’s so dull that it takes half of its running time just to get them to turn into their superhero characters.

It’s so dull that we first meet Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as children and then pick up the story when they’re still in high school.

It’s so dull that it casts Miles Teller as Reed, Jamie Bell as Ben (who becomes The Thing), Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, and Kate Mara as Sue Storm and manages to make them all bland and uninteresting. Johnny can turn into a human torch and Sue can become invisible and project force fields, and they’re boring.

It’s so dull that the film’s supervillain, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) is introduced partway through prior to his transformation as Dr. Doom, and then disappears from the film. When he returns for the climactic battle, he wreaks havoc in a way clearly intended to be thrilling, but instead just seems to be going through the motions.

It’s so dull that the potential romantic triangle between Sue, Reed, and Doom is played out by Doom calling her “Susan” and Reed asking her if she prefers “Sue.”

It’s so dull that the highly expressive Reg E. Cathey, playing Dr. Franklin Storm, comes across as if he’s auditioning for a slot on “Sesame Street.”

It’s so dull that the entire film is an origin story, as if learning about the background of these characters makes us care any more about them.

It’s so dull that the background information we are given isn’t utilized to make the characters any more interesting. A menorah on a shelf tells us that Ben is Jewish. We learn that the white Sue was adopted by the black Dr. Storm. Reed apparently doesn’t get along with his (unseen) step-father. None of this turns out to matter in any way.

It’s so dull that the in the big confrontation with Dr. Doom the solution to defeating this apparently unbeatable supervillain is “teamwork.”

It’s so dull that the climax of the film are the characters–slowly–figuring out what they should call their “fantastic” quartet.

It’s so dull that this is a movie based on a long-time Marvel series and yet Stan Lee fails to make his expected cameo appearance, even though he’s listed as executive producer and even though he even had a cameo in the animated “Big Hero 6.”

How dull is it? If you made it to the end of this review and still want to see it, you’ll have to find out for yourself.•••

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

Review – Shaun the Sheep Movie

With the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour. Written and directed by Mark Burton, Richard Starzak. Rated PG for rude humor. 85 minutes.

In spite of the awkward title–it needs an extra “the” in there some place–SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE is the sort of delightful whimsy we’ve come to expect from Aardman Animation, who did “Chicken Run” and the hilarious off-kilter (and Oscar winning) “Wallace and Gromit” films. After a number of “Shaun the Sheep” shorts, they’ve decided he was ready for the big screen treatment. People looking for family entertainment that the whole family actually can enjoy will want to put this one on their list.

Unlike the other Aardman films, there’s no dialogue. Even the human characters speak in grunts. This is more of a silent comedy than, say, “Minions” where their gibberish starts to make a kind of sense.

Shaun and the other sheep live with a character identified only as “the Farmer,” who has raised him from lambhood. At the start of the story, all of the characters are in a rut, going through the same routines they’ve been doing for years. One day Shaun sees an advertisement suggesting that what they all need is a day off. The mastermind of the flock, Shaun figures out how to get the Farmer out of the way so they can take a break. Then things go wrong.

Much of the film takes place in the city, where the sheep have to disguise themselves as humans to avoid being captured by a manic animal control officer. Can sheep walk around on their hind legs and escape detection in a restaurant–where one of them starts to eat the menu? Only in the loopy world created here, and that works out just fine.

The humor works at a variety of levels, from the sheep imitating human burping (which should make the four-year-olds giggle) to the amnesiac farmer becoming a famous hairstylist by applying his sheep-shearing skills to the customers. There’s even a bit of spoofing of a famous thriller (“Silence of the Lambs,” of course) that should get laughs from the adults without the little ones even being aware of it.

As with most of the other Aardman films, “Shaun” is done in stop motion. (The 2006 “Flushed Away” was their attempt to go the computer animated route.) That adds to the unique feel of the film. As delightful as this summer’s animated offerings of “Inside Out” and “Minions” have been, the computer animation that once amazed us is now the unexceptional norm. The clay modelled characters here are quite different, managing to be quite expressive and individual, but without the digitized slickness.

At a tight 85 minutes, it’s worth noting that those looking for little gags after the movie will want to remain in the theater until the houselights come up. No, Shaun doesn’t enter the Marvel Universe, but there are a few final chuckles. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” proves to be a highly amusing late summer diversion.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

With Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity. 131 minutes.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION is the summer movie we’ve been waiting for: filled with action, exotic locations, and enough plot twists that you simply can’t check your brain at the door. Reminiscent of the early James Bond movies, it features an international conspiracy that employs modern high-tech but isn’t over-the-top unbelievable, and our group of good guys having to fight against all odds.

At the film’s start, CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is having the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) shut down. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is told that his top priority is to bring in Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), whom Hunley feels is a rogue agent. Hunt and his team, including Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), don’t play by the rules, but they get the job done. Hunt’s problem is that he is on the trail of a mysterious group known as “the Syndicate,” a terrorist organization headed by an ex-British spy (Sean Harris) and operated by former agents from around the world, all of whom are presumed dead.

Indeed, early on we see Ethan captured and ready to be tortured by a rogue agent named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), but through a series of reversals, Ethan is soon on the run with both the CIA and the Syndicate after him. (And if telling you that Tom Cruise’s character isn’t killed off–at the beginning of a two-hour franchise movie that he’s the star of–is a “spoiler,” then you need to stop reading reviews altogether.)

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has the pacing just right as we get one great action/suspense sequence after another with just another down time to catch one’s breath. Indeed, the only moment that seems tired is a car chase through a Moroccan market place with the inevitable barreling-through displays of wares. It gets better. Indeed there’s a sequence at the Vienna State Opera that’s a clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” that has no less than three shooters involved in an assassination plot with Ethan and Benji trying to thwart them. The payoffs work with several face-offs between antagonists that should have audiences cheering. (See? That’s avoiding spoilers.)

In terms of the acting, people do their job well, and the kudos go to Renner, Ferguson, and Harris who get to mix some character work in with the derring-do, not that the others aren’t entertaining as well. Renner, who is often underutilized (as in “The Avengers” movies), plays someone who’s trying to be a “company man” at the CIA while working to get his IMF back in operation. Ferguson similarly is playing both sides of the street and for much of the film we can’t quite be certain which side she’s on. As for Harris, he is utterly creepy as the rogue spymaster in the way of the early Bond villains–evil and brilliant while still retaining credibility.

“Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation” is sheer fun for those looking for action and thrills without having to enter some sort of alternate reality.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Southpaw

With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence,
Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent. Written by Kurt Sutter. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R for language throughout, and some violence. 123 minutes.

SOUTHPAW is a story we’ve seen many times before, but it’s acted with such heart and directed with such skill that it’s hard to resist. It’s a boxing story about redemption (see “Rocky”) with the bond between parent and child (see “The Champ”) at its core. Credit a solid cast and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) for keeping things taut despite a two-hour running time.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undefeated light heavyweight champ, and he has a habit of taking a terrific beating before coming back for the win. He’s had a tough life but seems to be in a good place now. Having grown up in an orphanage, he’s married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another orphan he met there. They live an idyllic life with their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Without going into details, Billy–who has relied on Maureen and his manager (50 Cent) to handle the details of his life–loses everything. Like a modern day Job, he finds himself stripped of his relationships, possessions, and his boxing career. Hitting rock bottom, he goes to a gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming his life.

As a story it’s melodramatic. However Jake Gyllenhaal–who gave a brilliant and underrated performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler”–makes Billy more than an inarticulate lug. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but he appreciates what he had in terms of personal relationships and support and never pretends he did it all on his own. He has to get beyond the feelings of loss and humiliation if he’s going to get his life back.

McAdams swiftly sketches in a character whose bond to Billy comes as much from their shared background as their current success. Whitaker’s character is equally complex, trying to keep Billy at arm’s length while trying to instill a sense of pride in the poor kids working and learning at his gym. Good as they are– and they’ve very good–the amazing performance here is that of young Oona Laurence as Leila. The character’s relationship with her father evolves over the course of the story, and Laurence is never less than believable as the pre-teen reeling from the mess her life has become.

Fuqua’s direction goes from the personal to the pugilistic with ease. The boxing scenes are brutal. Where early on non-boxing fans (such as this reviewer) may view the scenes as barbarous, things change when Billy comes under Tick’s guidance. It may not change your mind about real-life boxing, but Tick’s argument that boxing is more about strategy than brute force becomes clear in the final bout, bloody though it is.

As an entry in the venerable boxing film genre, “Southpaw” is simply a modern evocation of tried-and-true plot points and characters. What it loses on lack of originality it more than makes up for in execution, making this one of the unexpected surprises of the summer movie season.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Ant-Man

With Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll,
Bobby Cannavale. Written Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish & Adam McKay & Paul Rudd. Directed by Peyton Reed. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. 117 minutes.

ANT-MAN helps illustrate that the ever-expanding Marvel Universe knows no bounds. It’s sort of like the Unified Field theory in physics. Eventually everything will be explained in one formula.

For those coming in (like this reviewer) with limited knowledge of the comic books, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is actually the second Ant-Man. The first, Dr. Howard Pym (Michael Douglas), withdrew from public life after the death of his wife and his concerns that his research might be misused. Now his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is planning on doing just that and Pym has recruited Lang to don the ant suit for a special mission.

The suit allows him to compress his atoms (insert scientific mumbo-jumb0 here) so he can get real small while retaining his full-size strength. Various things happen, including two scenes in the closing credits, which let us know we’re being set up for further adventures of Ant-Man on his own and in the world of Captain America and Iron Man. For the comic book geeks, this is manna from cinematic heaven.

As for the rest of us, this a lesser but fun effort. Paul Rudd is not Robert Downey, Jr., but he does have a wry sense of humor (and co-authored the script). His character is motivated by his love of his young daughter, but being an unemployed ex-con it’s not easy to get a job and pay child support. It doesn’t help that his ex (Judy Greer) is living with a tough cop (Bobby Canavale).

It’s a mix of action, humor, and some parental drama. Scott misses his daughter. Howard has issues with his daughter (Evangeline Lilly), as well as surrogate son Darren. In these days where CGI makes special effects seem so effortless, scenes of Scott surfing through a water pipe on the backs of an army of ants seems par for the course. It’s in the cleverness of the final fight scene between Ant-Man and Darren, now in the guise of Yellowjacket, that the film fully comes alive. They battle across a toy train set and we see one heave the engine in a near death blow against the other tiny character only to see the lightweight plastic toy then clatter to a halt.

What’s interesting is watching Douglas fit right into this world as Howard Pym. As with Robert Redford in last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he takes the material as seriously (or lightly) as the moment requires, without the sense of, say, Marlon Brando in “Superman” (1978) obviously slumming it. For those eager to tie this in to the larger Marvel Universe, there’s appearances by Howard Stark (John Slattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

“Ant-Man” will likely play just as well on the small screen–so to speak–but for those needing their Marvel fix between “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and the reboot of “The Fantastic Four,” it will do.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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