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Review – Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

FILM REVIEWMAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAINWith Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Cher, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan. Written and directed by Ol Parker. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material. 114 minutes.

mamma_mia_here_we_go_again_ver3Ten years ago “Mamma Mia!” was released. It was the movie version of the Broadway show inspired by the music of pop group ABBA… and it was a train wreck. Yet there were people who loved it and so now we get a sequel. MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is – surprisingly – a much better film. Writer/director Ol Parker, who had nothing to do with the first movie, seems to have figured out what worked and what didn’t, and it shows.

The plot, of course, is fluff, constructed just so that there is an excuse to perform songs like “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” and “Waterloo.” We learn that Donna, the free-spirited character played by Meryl Streep in the first film has passed away. (No spoilers here but look at the ads for the new film.) Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), has taken over the property on the Greek island where they lived and is ready to open it as a hotel.

Parker is credited with the script, but shares story credit with Catherine Johnson, who did the original play and movie, and – more significantly – Richard Curtis, whose credits include “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love, Actually.” This is a much smarter and wittier script that the last time around, and while it’s difficult to parse out who did what, Curtis’s contributions could only have helped.

Fortunately, the present-day story, which will bring characters back including Donna’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), as well as the three men any one of whom may be Sophie’s actual father (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård), does not carry the narrative or musical weight of the film. One of the problems with the first movie was that many in the cast – particular the male actors – couldn’t sing to save their lives.

This film solves that problem by having extended flashbacks to young Donna (a star-making turn by Lily James) meeting, in turn, young Harry (Hugh Skinner), young Bill (Josh Dylan), and young Sam (Jeremy Irvine). These young actors – who also include Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies as younger versions of Tanya and Rosie – can sing and dance without grating on the ear. Skinner and James do a surreal version of “Waterloo” at a Parisian restaurant that is much more entertaining than anything in, say, “The Greatest Showman” or “La La Land,” two painfully overpraised recent movie musicals. Added to the mix is Cher, as Sophie’s flamboyant grandmother, and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager. Cher, as we know, can sing, and has a showstopper duet with Garcia.

The result is a colorful and energetic movie with lots of familiar pop tunes (some repeating from the last film), and which should not only please those already fans but win over some new ones as well. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is that rarest of sequels: it surpasses the original.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.



Review – Sorry To Bother You

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FILM REVIEWSORRY TO BOTHER YOU. With Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer. Written and directed by Boots Riley. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use. 105 minutes.

sorry_to_bother_youThe damndest thing you’re gonna see this summer – and probably all year – is rapper Boots Riley’s debut feature, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, a screamingly funny anti-capitalist manifesto, an air-horn blast of subversion with a surreal, midnight-movie twist. It’s like if “Get Out” got all mixed up with “Repo Man,” Robert Downey Sr. and scabrous early Brian De Palma satires like “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” Even the title proves hilariously ironic for such a punchy provocation.

The film stars Lakeith Stanfield as the exquisitely-named Cassius Green, currently living in his Uncle Sergio’s garage somewhere in Oakland while dating a radical performance artist (Tessa Thompson) of dubious talent. “Cash,” as he’s called by his friends, takes a questionable job selling encyclopedias on commission for a telemarketing firm, and the first of Riley’s prankish visual stunts finds the contents of Cash’s cubicle crash-landing into the kitchens and living rooms of prospective customers while he repeats the film’s title, trying sputter out a sales pitch.

Cash’s co-worker Danny Glover (who gloriously gets to claim he’s “too old for this shit”) coaches him on finding his “white voice” – a way of appealing to clients by sounding like all of your bills are paid. Our hero discovers a hitherto unknown upper octave (amusingly overdubbed by real-life white guy David Cross) and it launches his sales into the stratosphere. Before long Cash Green is seeing tons of green cash, taking a literal golden elevator up to a luxurious corporate office while abandoning his friends on the floor who are trying to organize for fair wages.

In synopsis “Sorry to Bother You” probably sounds like a black-and-white morality tale about the perils of selling out to The Man, which I suppose it is, in addition to being about at least sixteen other things at once. Riley brings along his carefully cluttered hip-hop style to sample dozens of social satire riffs, skipping across subjects with an enthusiasm as clumsy as it is infectious. The movie misses almost as often as it hits, but when the big swings land they leave a mark. Flat as all the inane art-world parody may fall, when Cash is coerced into rapping for his new white friends Riley conjures an incendiary, catch-in-your-throat comic set-piece to rival anything in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.”

It only gets more audacious upon the arrival of Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift, a coked-out tech-bro of Jobs or Bezos proportions who has big plans in mind for our protagonist. Hammer’s vaguely sinister air of aristocracy hasn’t been put to such good use since “The Social Network,” and Stanfield’s naturally suspicious demeanor makes for a perfect foil. (I wouldn’t dare give away the big twist, save to say that certain particulars involving stereotypically black physical characteristics are gasp-inducingly funny even though I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh.)

“Sorry to Bother You” is ultimately too scattershot to be a great movie, but it’s a great first movie. Here’s a ferocious new talent kicking down the door with enough cojones and go-for-broke ambition to fuel a dozen lesser films. You leave wanting most of all to see what Boots Riley does next.•••

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, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Equalizer 2

FILM REVIEWTHE EQUALIZER 2With Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Orson Bean. Written by Richard Wenk. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R for brutal violence throughout, language and some drug content. 121 minutes.

equalizer_twoWhen you see a film directed by Antoine Fuqua, you know that it’s going to have some hard-hitting and expertly-directed action sequences, but it may also be a bit fast and loose in terms of narrative. THE EQUALIZER 2 – his third pairing with Denzel Washington since the actor’s Oscar-winning turn in “Training Day” – shows Fuqua at his best and worst.

A sequel to the 2014 movie which was inspired by a 1980s TV series, it continues the story of Robert McCall (Washington), a retired special ops agent for the government who now is leading a quiet life as a Lyft driver, and occasionally wreaking vengeance on those who prey on the weak. He’s still connected to Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), who can access information he needs, as well as her academic husband (Bill Pullman). A brutal murder in Brussels leads to other killings, and when someone close to McCall dies, he becomes involved.

Unfortunately, there are several other stories going on, and while they’re not hard to follow, you may wonder what they’re doing here. One story, involving a kidnapping, is essentially a prologue, but another one – involving abusive stockbrokers who seem to have drugged and raped an intern of theirs – seems dropped in simply to provide an action scene at that point. One can see why they might have thought one was needed.

There are three other plots threading their way through this. In one, an elderly Holocaust survivor McCall drives is trying to regain a painting of a sister whom he has not seen since the war. (The man is played by veteran actor Orson Bean, who turns 90 this Sunday.) In another, a young African-American man (Ashton Sanders) is torn between pursuing his studies as an artist and making quick money dealing drugs. Hanging over all of this is an impending hurricane which seems to take forever to get to Boston, where much of the film is set.

Holding it all together is Washington, who combines righteous anger and humor as McCall. When he reads the riot act to the would-be artist, it is a powerful and dramatic moment. If the movie had been about the relationship between the two men, it would be a standout. Instead, it’s a subplot that not-too-convincingly is shoehorned into the main story when the artist gets caught in the crossfire between the bad guys and McCall. The climactic set piece, in which four of McCall’s former colleagues are gunning for him in a deserted seacoast town while a hurricane is raging is Fuqua at his best, controlling both the action and our understanding of the space so that the suspense mounts even if we know (or suspect) how it will turn out.

Much is being made that this is the first time Washington has been in a sequel to one of his films, but it’s more likely what was appealing was a chance to team up with Fuqua again. “The Equalizer 2” won’t be considered a standout in the career of the director or the actor, but it’s not an embarrassment either. It’s a mid-level entry that may be what one or both men needed before tackling more ambitious projects.•••

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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Leave No Trace

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FILM REVIEWLEAVE NO TRACE. With Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dana Millican, Dale Dickey. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini. Directed by Debra Granik. Rated PG for thematic material throughout. 109 minutes.

leave_no_traceThey say a movie is only as good as its villain. But what about one with no bad guys? Is there any drama to be found in a picture about people doing their best under damnable circumstances to try and help each another out? Will audiences sit still for a film in which ordinary folks are just trying to be decent and kind? The sleeper success of director Debra Granik’s enormously moving LEAVE NO TRACE suggests we might be starved for just such a thing. It’s a sad movie that’s somehow still full of hope. You leave with your heart aching but not quite broken, dismayed but not despairing.

Granik’s surprise 2010 smash “Winter’s Bone” provided a career-making showcase for a then-unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence, and “Leave No Trace” offers the same for the remarkable young Thomasin McKenzie, who stars here as thirteen-year-old Tom, coming of age in a campsite off the grid in an Oregon National Park with her PTSD-rattled dad, Will. Played by an uncharacteristically undercranked Ben Foster, his haunted eyes hint at untold traumas as father and daughter seclude themselves away from the outside world, living off the land in isolation from modern life and all its noisy intrusions.

Unfortunately, they’re also trespassing, at least in the eyes of the law. But when Tom and Will are discovered by some well-meaning police officers and social workers we’re miraculously spared the plot machinations and misunderstandings that would have driven a more Hollywood take on the material. I honestly kept waiting for their case officer (affectingly played by Dana Millican) to turn inexplicably evil or intolerant for no other reason than to goose the drama along.

Instead, “Leave No Trace” admirably avoids histrionics while following these characters through a situation that inevitably becomes impossible. Folks keep reaching out to Will and Tom with great understanding and generosity, trying to help them acclimate, but there’s just something in his brain that got broken over there. Will can make a good show of things for a little while but he never quite does get the hang of making small talk, or even sleeping indoors. Credit the movie for never giving us any specifics as to what exactly happened overseas, relying on Foster’s anguished gaze and subtle flinches in lieu of exposition.

One of the most delicious hams in modern movies, Ben Foster has been making memorable meals out of the scenery as far back as TV’s “Freaks and Geeks.” (My favorite part of 2016’s terrific “Hell or High Water” is when he starts a fist-fight at a gas station simply by staring.) What happens to him here is similar to Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread” – the thrill when a chronic over-actor underplays and as a viewer you can feel everything they’re holding back reverberating through the tiniest of gestures. (See also: Pacino, Al. “The Godfather.”)

McKenzie has an even more difficult role, remaining devoted to her dad while also opening up in the presence of peers. We watch Tom come into her own the way we’re watching the actress become a star and take command of the movie, even if Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rossellini lean a little too hard on the symbolism when she meets a friendly beekeeper and suddenly everybody starts talking about hives and colonies.

“Winter’s Bone” was pretty overwrought in that department as well. But “Leave No Trace” actually has more in common with Granik’s superb 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” which followed a Missouri trailer park manager along on a motorcycle pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and in the process upended every possible preconceived notion you might have made about the people portrayed onscreen.

She’s stacked the supporting cast here with first-time actors and their scenes exude a grubby, hardscrabble authenticity. You might think you have these folks pegged at first glance but chances are they’ll keep surprising you with their kindnesses. As far as visions of America go, “Leave No Trace” might not exactly be 100% believable, but it’s awfully welcome right now.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 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, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – American Animals

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FILM REVIEWAMERICAN ANIMALS. With Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier. Written and directed by Bart Layton. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude sexual material. 116 mins.

american_animals_ver2It’s an ancient conservative bugbear to say that bad kids see too many movies, but personally, I’ve always thought the problem was more a matter of watching them wrong. That’s certainly the case with the young men of AMERICAN ANIMALS, writer-director Bart Layton’s true-life tale of a 2004 rare book heist gone awry at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. The four students who fancied themselves criminal masterminds weren’t in any particular financial need, they were just bored, overprivileged, and wanted life to be as exciting as their favorite films. Too bad none of them paid attention to how those pictures end.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s” supremely creepy Barry Keoghan plays the straight man here, seduced into a whole playbook of bad ideas by Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) when the two set their eyes on the school library’s stash of original Audubon books. (There’s also a copy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in there too, because real life is full of hacky symbolism.) They round out the crew with a childhood friend (Jared Abrahamson) and recruit a spoiled rich kid (the spectacularly smarmy Blake Jenner) to be their getaway driver because he can borrow his mom’s minivan for the heist. There’s even a scene in which they assign themselves multi-colored code names, mimicking “Reservoir Dogs” as if the blood-soaked black comedy was somehow aspirational.

“Not my favorite Tarantino,” chimes in one of the real-life robbers, who by the way happen to appear throughout “American Animals” in quasi-documentary interviews. Occasionally they even show up like ghosts over the shoulders of their Hollywood counterparts as Leyton riffs on the malleability of memory, adjusting the movie mid-scene to correspond with the participants’ occasionally conflicting accounts. (I seem to recall the filmmaker toying with unreliable perceptions in his acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Imposter” but for all that movie’s stuck with me I honestly couldn’t tell you anything else about it.)

The movie’s meta-trickery isn’t nearly as impressive as Leyton’s handling of the heist itself, a squirm-inducing set-piece during which our boys are forced to subdue the school’s kindly librarian (old reliable Ann Dowd) and their celluloid fantasies come crashing down to cold, ugly reality. These guys haven’t quite figured out how to account for the sheer size of these Audubon books, and taking the elevator isn’t exactly the smartest way to make a clean getaway. Those things also stop on other floors, you know?

Their scheme is so stupid one could easily see Leyton turning the tale into a Coen Brothers-y farce in which bad things happen to dumb criminals, but instead, he sticks with a tone of impressively mounting dread. “American Animals” conjures a nifty, pit-of-your-stomach feeling like when you know you’ve blown it but there’s no going back. The movie’s most novel element is not its show-offy intrusions by the actual participants, but rather how long it wallows in the robbery’s aftermath – the cold clammy wait to get caught.

And yet, on the other hand, there’s something troubling about seeing everybody here just a decade and change later – happy, healthy and appearing in a movie about their own misguided youthful foray into armed robbery. In many ways these boys are finally getting what they always wanted – their adventure immortalized in just the kind of heist picture they’d probably all buy on DVD.

After all, well-heeled white kids don’t have their lives ruined by such transgressions, a class critique the movie probably could have made more explicit but is lurking around the margins all the same. There’s something troubling about “American Animals,” but I think deliberately so. It sticks in your craw.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Skyscraper

With Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, Roland Møller, Byron Mann. Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language. 102 minutes.

skyscraper_ver5In the late 1970s on the comedy series “SCTV,” John Candy and Joe Flaherty did a bit called “Farm Film Report” in which they reviewed the films of the day. Their highest praise was for movies that “blowed up real good.” They would have loved SKYSCRAPER.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, whose previous movies have been comedies like “Meet the Millers” and “Central Intelligence,” his new film puts the action front-and-center while allowing for some comic relief around the edges. In a prologue, we meet Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), who loses a leg during a SWAT team operation. However, he ends up marrying Sarah (Neve Campbell), the surgeon who saves him.

Jump ahead to the present. The Sawyers – now with two kids – have moved to Hong Kong to the world’s tallest building, because Will has been hired by Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the designer and owner of the building, to troubleshoot its security. However, the building will soon be under attack by Kores Botha (Roland Møller), who is targeting Zhao to obtain information connected to the criminal underworld.

In other words, don’t sweat the details. Combining elements of “Die Hard” and “The Towering Inferno,” the bulk of the movie has Will trying to break into the tower to rescue his family while explosive flames spread, and Botha and his minions focus on Zhao and the information he has. Don’t worry if you can’t follow the details. There won’t be a quiz, and the good guys and bad guys are readily apparent

What Thurber has done is created an entertaining summer action film. There are hair-raising stunts, plot twists, and action set pieces. Some of it is so ludicrous that at one point Will, about to risk his life in a truly outlandish setup, says, “This is stupid.” It doesn’t matter. You just go with the flow.

The reason this works is Dwayne Johnson. Thurber surrounds him with good actors – like Campbell and Han, a star in China – but then lets him play to his strengths. Make no mistake, Johnson is no Olivier or De Niro, but he is able to deftly play comedy and drama with his everyman persona. The former pro wrestler may be built like a tank, but he’s not just spitting out one-liners between throwing punches. His scenes as a father show an emotional depth we don’t often get from our action stars.

With so many actors in these sorts of films getting up there (even Tom Cruise is in his mid-50s), Johnson – at 46 – has come along at precisely the right time, bringing humor, a multi-cultural background, and an engaging screen presence to a genre that desperately needs all three. “Skyscraper” is, in the end, something to enjoy while munching popcorn and little more. It is, without question, a fun summer action movie.•••

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 Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Ant-Man And The Wasp (Dan’s Take)

. With Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena. Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari. Directed by Peyton Reed. Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence. 118 mins.

antman_and_the_wasp_ver10Yes, this year we’re being inundated with superhero movies, but not all of them are the same. “Avengers: Infinity War” is a key chapter in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” paying off storylines that have been set up in numerous films over several years. It’s an impressive achievement as narrative even if you’re not particularly invested in it. On the other hand, “Black Panther” was a film that should be seen even if you have no interest in superhero movies in general. In terms of character, plot, art direction, and performance, it is truly one of the best films of the year.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP doesn’t fall into either of those categories, instead landing in another: it is the most fun to be had on screen so far this year. For a summer movie, having high entertainment value is a definite plus. With a top-notch cast and exceptionally witty script, this is pure fun.

A follow-up to the 2015 “Ant-Man,” it continues the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who has inherited the role of Ant-Man – wearing a suit that can shrink him to minuscule size – from Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Scott is near the end of two years of house arrest for violating rules governing superheroes, but now he has been removed by his old girlfriend Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is both Hank’s daughter and “The Wasp.” It seems Scott has somehow come into contact with Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mother, who was lost on a mission many years ago in a sub-atomic space. Hank and Hope believe that Scott is key to rescuing Janet, who they thought had died.

That’s all the plot you’re going to get because the screenplay – credited to five writers including Rudd – juggles a half-dozen stories as the characters work at overlapping and cross-purposes. These include Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), who is suffering from a bizarre condition and needs the technology that Hank has been developing to rescue his wife, Sonny (Walton Goggins) who has been supplying Hank with illegal tech and now wants a piece of the action, and Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) who is an old rival of Hank’s whose motives aren’t entirely clear. Adding to the confusion is Scott’s security agency, headed by Luis (Michael Peña), and the FBI agents supervising Scott and looking for Hank and Hope led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). It is to the credit of director Peyton Reed that the storytelling never gets confusing.

What makes the film work are three elements. First, this is a great cast. From major stars to character actors to up-and-comers, they have fun with their roles without condescending to them. Second, this is a film with heart. Several of the plots have to do with parent (or quasi-parent) relations with daughters, including Scott not wanting to mess up his situation and lose access to Cassie (the comically adorable Abby Ryder Fortson). Third, the special effects are impressive without overwhelming the story, even if – scientifically – they make no sense. When Hank shrinks an office building to the size of a suitcase, there’s no reason it should now weigh no more than a suitcase.  Like a Road Runner cartoon, the laws of physics have been suspended here.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the most fun you’re likely to have at the movies this summer. And if you are committed to the Marvel Comics Universe, you’ll know not to leave until you’ve seen all of the closing credits.•••

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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.