RSS Feed

Review – A Wrinkle in Time

FILM REVIEWA WRINKLE IN TIMEWith Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Deric McCabe. Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 109 minutes. 

wrinkle_in_time_ver2Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel, A WRINKLE IN TIME, has amazed and enchanted generations of young readers. Thus, it is fair to say that director Ava DuVernay’s big screen adaptation (there was a halfway-decent TV adaptation in 2003) is one of the most anticipated films of the season. Alas, it turns out to be one of the biggest disappointments.

The story focuses on Meg Murry (Storm Reid). Her parents (Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are scientists and, after a prologue, we learn that her father has mysteriously disappeared while attempting to travel across space via a “tesseract,” some sort of force field powered by the mind. Making the Murrys a multi-racial family works okay, particularly since young Reid is the best thing about the film.

However, Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), introduces them to a witch named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) who claims their father is still alive and they can go get him. In short order, we’re introduced to two other witches, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks in quotations, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who for some reason is giant-sized for part of the movie.

In short order, the two children, joined by their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are gallivanting across the universe, having magical adventures, but eventually forced to face “IT,” a force of darkness and evil who has held their father captive and now seeks to ensnare the children. Along the way Meg is forced to confront her deepest fears and faults before – no spoilers – the final showdown.

L’Engle’s book is inventive and imaginative, and glimmers of it appear here, but DuVernay – whose previous feature, “Selma,” had similar problems – directs at a leaden pace. She seems to have no idea how to get out of a scene once it has accomplished what it had to, letting it drag on to no purpose. It doesn’t help that she is similarly out of touch with her cast. Witherspoon and Kaling ham it up as two of the witches, while Winfrey gives what may prove to be the worst performance in a movie this year, lumbering around like the Statue of Liberty come to life as the giant Mrs. Which, and even at normal size stuffed into hideous outfits that were someone’s idea of what a witch would wear.

The other adults have less to do and, thus, less opportunity to embarrass themselves, although as a scientist who has cracked the secret of the universe Pine probably shouldn’t look like he’s about to burst into tears at any moment. It says something about the acting in the film that one has to say that the most subtle and understated performance is by Zach Galifianakis, as the Happy Medium, who is sometimes able to forecast the future. It is probably the first time either word has ever been applied to the actor, who more often comes across as someone who needs to be directed with a chair and a whip.

“A Wrinkle In Time” was a movie that should have sparked the imagination rather than show how much the Disney studio invested in special effects and art direction. It’s not always true that the book is better than the movie, but in this case, the book wins hands-down. Buy a copy for your kids if they haven’t read it and spare them having to endure this misbegotten film.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 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 – Death Wish

Posted on

FILM REVIEWDEATH WISH. With Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Elisabeth Shue. Written by Joe Carnahan. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated R for strong, bloody violence and language throughout. 107 minutes.

death_wish_ver2_xlgFor a movie directed by a notoriously smirky provocateur and featuring one of Hollywood’s few outspoken right-wingers running around the ghetto in a hoodie shooting brown people, what’s most shocking about Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH remake is just how lame and instantly forgettable it is. Twenty-four hours after seeing the film it has already blessedly begun to fade from my memory. You’d think such a morally repugnant gun-nut masturbation fantasy would at least be worth getting worked up about, but the movie’s so lugubrious and wheezy it’s almost pitiable. (I said almost.)

One can’t say the same for unrepentant schlockmeister Michael Winner’s 1974 original, which despite spawning four increasingly inane sequels still retains a crude kick. The crasser, bastard cousin to “Dirty Harry” and “Straw Dogs” became a cultural touchstone for its blunt-force depiction of Charles Bronson’s liberal pacifist Paul Kersey turning vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter raped in a New York City gone all to hell. Based on what I am told is a considerably more thoughtful novel by Brian Garfield, the film was at one point to be directed by Sidney Lumet with Jack Lemmon playing the lead.

From what I can ascertain, it was the Bronson/Winner team that threw out Garfield’s original ending – in which Kersey goes mad, eventually gunning down unarmed kids just because he doesn’t like the looks of them – and the author has spent subsequent years attempting to distance himself from their adaptation, even writing a sequel called “Death Sentence” to try and clarify his intentions.

Unfortunately, this remake is probably not gonna let Garfield sleep any easier. Scripted by Joe Carnahan, who has spent a career trafficking in macho bullshit from the sublime (“The Grey”) to the ridiculous (everything else he’s ever done), the new “Death Wish” strips whatever shreds of ambiguity existed in the original film in favor of a ghoulishly ill-timed NRA manifesto and a stroke-job for its washed-up star.

An indolent Bruce Willis stars as Kersey, no longer an architect but now a well-to-do surgeon in Chicago who goes from saving lives to taking them after his wife (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter (Camila Morrone) beaten into a coma by home invaders one night while he’s at work. In the most squeamishly-handled scene of “Hostel” director Roth’s otherwise lurid filmography, the movie not only skimps on the “Death Wish” tradition of gratuitous sexual assault but also discreetly cuts away to an exterior shot so that we don’t have to see the mayhem. (I briefly wondered if Ron Howard had been called in to direct some reshoots.)

Bronson’s Kersey — inspired in the original film by a gaudy Wild West theme park attraction slyly suggesting America’s addiction to outlaw myths — was on an endless, existential quest killing mad muggers in the night, every night, because he knew nobody would ever find the scum that destroyed his family. There’s a helplessness inherent even in the fantasy. But here Bruce Willis winds up obstructing the police investigation just so he can play detective and kill the bastards himself, going from everyday doctor to gunslinging superhero in the course of a cringe-inducing training montage set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

It’s embarrassing to watch the 62-year-old Willis putter around doing badly-faked stunts to classic rock while spitting out cheeseball one-liners that would have been rejected by “Eraser”-era Schwarzenegger. It wasn’t too long ago that “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Looper” offered the tantalizing possibility of an older Bruce Willis segueing into complex character roles, but he’s instead squandered the intervening years cashing paychecks for cameos in generic direct-to-VOD swill – films with which “Death Wish” would be presumably already be keeping company on your cable box were it not for the title’s brand name recognition and the fallacy of sunk costs.

Willis is atrocious in this film. He looks uncharacteristically frail and vainly preens through his scenes with an entirely inappropriate air of entitlement and a disinterest verging on somnambulism. Confoundingly, Kersey has been given a doting, deadbeat brother played by Vincent D’Onofrio who has nothing whatsoever to do with the story and provides an emotional support system that makes our protagonist’s vigilante turn even more improbable. Bronson was isolated, man. Going it all alone was part of his appeal.

Constant references to D’Onofrio’s money problems and his typically twitchy performance keep suggesting some sort of twist in which it will be revealed that the brother was perhaps in part responsible for the home invasion, but nothing of this sort ever arises. (Maybe Ron Howard cut that out, too.)

“Death Wish” was originally scheduled for release last October, but pulled after the Las Vegas massacre and moved up to what turns out to be an even worse time for this sort of pistol porn. There’s an incredibly queasy scene set in a chain sporting goods store (called Jolly Roger’s so I guess we’re not supposed to think it’s Dick’s) where a hot twenty-something blonde clerk and her delightful décolletage run through all the awesome armaments, joking with Willis about how easy it is to buy them.

It’s tone-deaf and gross, but also characteristic of this exhausted, lumbering relic of a movie, which somehow already feels even more dated than a film made 44 years ago.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice and WBUR. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Red Sparrow

FILM REVIEWRED SPARROWWith Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons. Written by Justin Haythe. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. 139 minutes.

red_sparrow_ver2If there was any question whether Jennifer Lawrence is going to go the distance as an actress, one only has to look at her choice of roles. This is an actress who keeps seeking out challenges, not content to simply ride on her success in “The Hunger Games” movies. RED SPARROW is a spy thriller that might be described as an intelligent potboiler. In some ways, it’s a conventional thriller, yet it also offers up Lawrence in ways we haven’t seen in prior films.

Here she’s Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi who, early in the story, suffers a career-ending accident. Her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a spy, arranges for her to be admitted to “sparrow school.” There she will be trained to use any means necessary – including offering herself for sex – to get whatever her goals are for her assignment. What we learn is that as demeaning as the process is – and her teacher (Charlotte Rampling) tells her she isn’t expected to succeed – Dominika is both ruthless and focused.

Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot that eventually connects up with hers in which American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is working with a Russian mole. Edgerton is a wooden actor and for much of the film this story is a distraction, but it does eventually pay off and not simply because Dominika and Nate hook up with it not being clear who’s playing who.

Behind the scenes, we see that Vanya being told by his superiors (Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds) that they are not convinced that Dominika has what it takes. When she’s sent on assignment, she shares an apartment with another agent who makes it clear that she should mind her own business. The roommate has been cultivating an American politician’s aide (Mary-Louise Parker) in a subplot that will have its own twists and turns.

This is very much an R-rated film, for all the right reasons. In her training, we see Dominika strip in front of her class and humiliate a man to whom she is supposed to submit. Later we see her brutally tortured when she is suspected of being a turncoat, a scene that is topped by the torture of Nate involving slicing off his skin. This is not a movie for the squeamish.

Through it all, Lawrence plays Dominika as someone whose motivation is as simple as it is unexpected: it’s all about her mother (Joely Richardson), whose medical needs have been covered by the Bolshoi and who is now at risk if Dominika does not have a new source of support. Her determination to do whatever it takes to make sure that her mother is provided for makes this a stunning and unexpected tribute to supporting one’s parents.

Except for Edgerton, the cast is solid with some major players in small supporting roles, with Parker and Irons being standouts. As Vanya, Schoenaerts, who was previously seen in “The Danish Girl,” is a plus as well. In the end, though, this is a vehicle for Lawrence and she takes it seriously, without condescending to the material. She is clearly an actress to watch and who should excel when given the right material.

“Red Sparrow” won’t be on anyone’s ten best list or under consideration for Oscars next year, but for those looking for an entertaining thriller, or wanting to see what Lawrence can do after last year’s challenging arthouse film “Mother!” it more than satisfies.•••

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 – Annihilation

FILM REVIEWANNIHILATION. With Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez. Written and directed by Alex Garland. Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality. 115 minutes.

annihilation_xlgLike the 2016 film “Arrival,” ANNIHILATION is a provocative and intelligent science fiction movie that features aliens who are truly alien. At film’s end, there might be some understanding of their motivation and desires, but the mystery is far from fully resolved. It’s a work of science fiction that requires viewers to be engaged and not simply wanting to sit back and watch the special effects. The movie works, but it’s not going to be for every taste.

Alex Garland, whose last film was the masterful “Ex Machina,” has adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel about an eerie alien invasion. A meteor has struck near a lighthouse causing a zone called “The Shimmer,” to take root and expand around it. Those who have gone in to explore it don’t come back. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was one of the men who went. A year later he reappears, but it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong. To try to figure out what’s happened so that she might cure him, Lena volunteers to be part of the next expedition going in.

Without giving away too much, suffice to say that within The Shimmer, nature seems out-of-control, with the group – led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – encountering increasingly bizarre mutations. As they push onward, it becomes an open question as to whether they will survive. We know that Lena does, since she is relating the story in flashback. That doesn’t mean we can anticipate what has happened to her or the others or, indeed, to her husband.

As in “Ex Machina” – as well as his scripts for “Never Let Me Go” and “28 Days Later…” – Garland doesn’t promise a happy ending or even a predictable one. Instead, he crafts science fiction stories that are every bit the equal of the contemporary literature, which is usually looked at as light years ahead of its media counterparts. It’s not surprising that here, as with “Never Let Me Go,” he was adapting a pre-existing novel.

At a time when Hollywood is criticized for rampant sexism, it should be noted that, without making a big deal about it, this is essentially the story of the five women who comprise the latest expedition. Portman and Leigh are joined by Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez. While there are some good scares along the way, this is not a movie where a woman screams at an attacking monster waiting for the hero to save her. These women may be spooked, but they’re also ready to fight back.

Ultimately, whether the film works depends on your willingness not only to suspend disbelief, but also to acknowledge that the agenda of space aliens may be beyond human understanding. Is the annihilation implied by the title an intended attack on humanity and Earth, or is it the way these aliens assimilate new life forms? This is a film that is both disturbing and provocative, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Half Magic

FILM REVIEWHALF MAGICWith Heather Graham, Stephanie Beatriz, Angela Kinsey, Chris D’Elia, Molly Shannon. Written and directed by Heather Graham. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and drug use. 94 minutes.

half_magicActress Heather Graham makes her writing and directing debut with HALF MAGIC, available on VOD and select theaters. It is a timely comedy about three women dealing with sexism. The good news for men is that not all the men in the movie are louts, although she has fun skewering those that are, and the real point is that women can support each other in looking to be treated with the love and respect they deserve.

The comedy is not subtle and, particularly with Graham’s character of Honey, seems to be settling some scores or, at the very least, speaking from personal experience. She’s an aspiring screenwriter who is a protégé of Peter Brock (Chris D’Elia), an action star who believes all movies should appeal to his target audience of teenage boys. Thus, all women are “sluts,” and Honey’s ideas for positive movies about women are dismissed out-of-hand. Indeed, he even claims to have an app for his phone that detects worthless movie ideas.

Honey goes to a program about female empowerment (featuring a cameo by Molly Shannon) where the participants are invited to celebrate their breasts and “pussies,” in effect taking their body parts back from male objectification. It is here that she meets Eva (Angela Kinsey) and Candy (Stephanie Beatriz), with the latter claiming that the candles at the store where she works have magical powers. Her (male) boss dismisses the idea as nonsense, but the three women light candles and hope to make improvements in their lives.

The film then follows the three of them as they navigate the good and the bad of relationships. Eva is still hung up on her ex-husband (Thomas Lennon), a self-absorbed artist who used her for inspiration and support without giving either in return. Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) is so lacking in self-esteem that even as her supposed boyfriend is seeing other women, she’s doing his laundry. And Honey, finally asserting herself, ends her sexual relationship with Peter only for him to announce that he’s broken up with her first, so she can’t be dumping him.

The movie focuses on the idea that you must be willing to claim – or regain – your self-respect before you can start dealing with others on equal terms. All three women have absorbed the negative attitudes projected onto them by their male partners. Each will learn that once they see themselves in a different light, they are ready to assert themselves, entering into new relationships where they will be on an equal footing. This male critic is guessing the film will probably resonate more with women, but that doesn’t mean men can’t learn something and be entertained by it. The #MeToo movement has been eye-opening for many men as we’ve learned what kind of treatment women have come to expect in their everyday lives. Graham satirizes it in a way that shouldn’t draw blood from those men who already get it.

While the film is getting a limited theatrical break, it’s much more typical of the films that go directly to VOD and streaming. It’s a movie that will play much better with the lower expectations of VOD releases which works to its advantage. “Half Magic” leaves one with the hope that Graham has more to say.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Hostiles

With Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Rosamund Pike, Jesse Plemons. Written and directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R for strong violence, and language. 134 minutes.

hostilesHandsomely mounted and well-acted, HOSTILES still has all the bearing of an “eat your vegetables” movie. It’s a message movie, and it’s not at all subtle about delivering that message. Those not in the mood for its sermon may find the film slow-going.

Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has had a long career as an Indian fighter – it was his “job” he keeps insisting – when he’s given the assignment to escort Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to his traditional land. Yellow Hawk is terminally ill and has been living on a reservation, but now in a spirit of conciliation, the military wants to assist his final journey.

Blocker has no interest, even willing to risk court-martial, since Yellow Hawk was a fierce fighter who killed many of Blocker’s fellow soldiers. Blocker is told in no uncertain terms that he will follow orders.  Along the way, they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family we see brutally slaughtered by the Apaches in the film’s opening sequence. When they first see her, she’s clutching the bloody corpse of her infant.

So what’s the point? Along the way Blocker, Quaid, and Yellow Hawk discover each other’s humanity and eventually find themselves working together against both Apache raiders and vicious white settlers. Love overcomes hate, but not before most of the characters we encounter are killed. It’s not the message that’s the problem but the way it’s delivered. Yellow Hawk makes profound observations, Quaid recovers her religious faith, and the stoic Blocker comes to realize that he and his former enemy have more in common than either does with the people they’re fighting. They killed, rightly or wrongly, for a cause they believed was just. The people they face in the film – Indian and white settlers – are just savages.

Between shootouts there’s much agonizing talk as some of the soldiers admit they are not proud of some of the things they have done. Yellow Hawk’s family attempts to reach out to Quaid, empathizing with her suffering. And, at film’s end, the few survivors are better people for having faced their demons.

The problem is that it’s all rather schematic, no matter how artfully staged and shot. Revisionist westerns that recognize that the treatment of the native tribes is America’s original sin are nothing new. Movies like “Broken Arrow” (1950), “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), and “Little Big Man” (1970), have raised these issues. And, like those earlier movies, “Hostiles” – while sympathetic to its Native American characters – keeps its focus on the white characters, and how they become, in the current jargon, “woke” to the realities the Indians have faced.

Bale, Studi, and Pike, as well as the supporting cast, offer up strong performances, but the characters remain object lessons rather than full-bodied people. You may feel virtuous for having watched “Hostiles,” but you may find yourself a hankering for a John Wayne movie afterward.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Game Night

FILM REVIEWGAME NIGHTWith Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, Jesse Plemons, Kyle Chandler, Lamorne Morris. Written by Mark Perez. Directed by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein. Rated R for language, sexual references, and some violence. 100 minutes.

game_night_ver2_xlgIt takes a while for GAME NIGHT to get rolling but once it does, it turns into a zany, action-packed farce that keeps upping the ante. It’s not terribly deep, but it provides enough laughs to make it a winner.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) meet as rival team captains at a pub trivia night and are smitten. They’re both competitive and love games, and so teaming up seems inevitable. A few years later finds them hosting their friends for a weekly game night, except for Gary (Jesse Plemons), a sad sack whose wife has left him. Things start to get interesting with the arrival of Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s older and more successful brother, who is constantly upstaging Max, even insisting on hosting the next game night himself.

His plan is to do a live-action mystery where a kidnapping will take place and the friends will have to figure out the clues to solve it. The plan goes awry when real kidnappers show up instead. At that point, the film kicks into high gear as they try to figure out what’s going on and what they will have to do to set things right.

The well-constructed script by Mark Perez sets up jokes and then builds on them so that a drinking game question about whether anyone had slept with a celebrity turns into an increasingly strange joke about Denzel Washington. Ryan (Billy Magnussen) shows up with a series of ditzy dates but arrives for the mystery party with a co-worker (Sharon Horgan) who is much smarter than him.

Best of all, Bateman and McAdams prove to be an effective comedy pairing. He hasn’t always had the best of luck with roles, and McAdams rarely gets the chance to show her comedy chops. The two of them play off of each other perfectly. If there are any filmmakers who understand what made the great screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s work, then please… get these two into a new one immediately.

It should be noted that this is an action comedy and while the emphasis is on the comedy, there is a good deal of violence, including the elimination of one of the bad guys that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie by the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino. It’s brutal… and it’s played for a big laugh. That should be fair warning to anyone who would just as soon give such material a pass.

For anyone else, “Game Night” is a zany romp that may not linger in the memory, but if it leads to Bateman and McAdams being paired again, it will have been well worth it.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.