Review – Miss Bala

FILM REVIEWMISS BALAWith Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo. Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language. 113 minutes.

miss_balaMISS BALA, based on the 2011 Mexican film of the same name, is low-brow and pulpy, which is not to say it doesn’t work. It propels its heroine through a series of unlikely situations as she’s caught between a Mexican drug cartel and corrupt officials on both sides of the border. As with most pulp fiction, it’s successful only as far as it gets you caught up in her dilemma so that you’re not poking holes in it.

Gina Rodriguez, from TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” stars as Gloria, an American make-up artist going to visit her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) in Tijuana. One evening they’re out clubbing when the place is shot up by a gang led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), targeting the local chief of police. Gloria escapes but she can’t find Suzu, who has not turned up dead or at a hospital. Before Gloria can look far, she is kidnapped by Lino’s gang. He promises to help her find her friend, if she first performs some jobs for him.

Without giving too much away, Gloria subsequently finds herself in the hands of an unscrupulous DEA agent (Matt Lauria) who coerces her into going back to Lino in order to set him up. Further complications ensue, with Lino veering between acting tenderly and being a violent thug. The payoff to the story will leave the viewer wondering if this is a set up for a potential film franchise.

If that’s the case, a lot of the credit will go to Rodriguez. She hits the right notes in showing Gloria as being in way over her head but making it clear that she’s a survivor. Bit by bit, as she gets through one harrowing situation after another, she discovers an inner strength she didn’t know she had. When she gets to the climactic showdown, she’s changed from who she was at the beginning. Without Rodriguez showing Gloria’s evolution, the ending would come off as even more absurd than it is.

Politically and culturally, the film is a mixed bag. On the plus side of the ledger, the film has a mostly Latino cast – although Anthony Mackie pops up as an unexpected contact – and a woman director in Catherine Hardwicke. What’s especially interesting about the latter is that this kind of action film rarely has a female protagonist much less a female director. Hardwicke keeps things moving while ensuring that the violence is kept at a PG-13 level. There are numerous killings, but the camera doesn’t give us mutilated corpses. On the other side is the image of most of the Mexican characters playing into the worst sort of stereotypes. One can only hope President Trump doesn’t see this as, according to some reports, he’s made claims that seem tied to last year’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”

“Miss Bala” is what used to be called a B-movie. It’s not deep and its lurid story may not stand up to logic, but if all you ask is that it’s got action and someone to root for, it delivers.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – The Kid Who Would Be King

FILM REVIEWTHE KID WHO WOULD BE KINGWith Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Patrick Stewart, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris. Written and directed by Joe Cornish. Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language. 110 minutes.

kid_who_would_be_king_ver4THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING puts a fresh spin on the King Arthur legend by bringing it into the modern day. It’s something that should please school-age viewers and should be tolerable for parents who may accompany them.

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a British schoolkid who is often victimized by bullies (Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris). His best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) is similarly picked on, and his learning how to do magic tricks – not very well – isn’t especially helpful. While running onto a construction site while trying to avoid the bullies, he finds something that would be recognizable to anyone who knows the Arthurian story: the sword Excalibur.

When he pulls the sword from the stone it’s embedded in, it’s clear he has been marked for great things. However, it also puts him under threat from Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), King Arthur’s half-sister who has been trapped underground for centuries and has now come forth to claim the sword as her rightful inheritance. That brings forth the wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who instructs Alex how to fight Morgana and prevent her plan to enslave the world.

With the help of Merlin, Bedders, and the bullies he enlists to his side – as Arthur brought former enemies to his fabled Round Table – Alex sets out his quest. It’s done with some humor without undercutting the main story. A big laugh for adults will be when Merlin reverts to his adult form and it turns out to be played with grizzled panache by none other than Patrick Stewart.

The movie reaches a climax with Alex leading his whole school against Morgana’s army of undead soldiers, but along the way he learns a variation of the code of chivalry, which emphasizes loyalty and honor. While the special effects make for a dramatic finale, writer/director Joe Cornish doesn’t neglect having a real ending. No, it’s not a set-up for a sequel. It faces the question the whole film has been pointing towards: what is a 12-year-old who’s been told he’s the successor to King Arthur supposed to do now? It’s not like Queen Elizabeth and her family are going to be stepping aside for him.

Stewart’s appearances are fun, and Ferguson is an effective villain, but the weight of the film is on Serkis and the rest of the young cast, and they get the job done. It’s very much of a boy’s movie, although Dorris is an effective part of the core group. At least they didn’t make her the “love interest.”

“The Kid Who Would Be King” won’t be on next year’s Oscar list, but it is a solid entry for those seeking entertaining family films.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – King of Thieves

FILM REVIEWKING OF THIEVESWith Michael Caine, Charlie Cox, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent. Written by Joe Penhall. Directed by James Marsh. Rated R for language throughout. 108 minutes.

king_of_thievesOne goes into a heist movie knowing the elements of the genre: there’s the mastermind who plans the heist, the gathering of the gang members, the actual pulling off of the crime, and then the inevitable betrayals as it falls apart. There are variations, with KING OF THIEVES going with the one where nearly all the conspirators are old-timers. What makes this of interest is the cast, which is filled with familiar faces even if you can’t name them all.

Michael Caine, still a commanding presence at 85, stars as Brian Reader, who appears to be returning to a life of crime after the death of his wife. The robbery he plans – and it actually happened – involves getting into a bank vault and emptying the safety deposit boxes of a fortune in gems and cash. Except for young Basil (Charlie Cox), the gang members would not be out of place in a retirement community.

Two of them are notable for casting the actors against type. Michael Gambon, whose roles are more often authority figures (as in the “Harry Potter” movies), plays Billy “The Fish” Lincoln, a genial codger who is apt to doze off in the middle of things. It’s the sort of role that is closer to some of the parts Jim Broadbent has had but here he’s Terry Perkins, a nasty thug whose greed for more than his share of the take disrupts the operation. In addition, veteran actor Tom Courtenay and the comparatively younger (at 61) Ray Winstone are also on hand.

It’s such a pleasure watching this cast working together that it’s unfortunate that they’re not given more to do. The film cleverly hints at the backstories for the men by showing brief clips of the actors earlier in their respective careers (like Soderbergh did with Terence Stamp in “The Limey”). What would have been useful is actually learning more about them so that the audience could understand their individual motivations beyond simply wanting the loot and being at seeming dead ends in their lives. What we do get is their dealing with the infirmities of old age, as well their being out of touch with modern technology. It turns out brute force is no match for state-of-the-art electronics.

As an example of the British crime film, “King Of Thieves” may not break new ground but it does provide a showcase for its stellar cast.•••

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

Review – Stan & Ollie

FILM REVIEWSTAN & OLLIEWith John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston. Written by Jeff Pope. Directed by Jon S. Baird. Rated PG for some language, and for smoking. 97 minutes.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were one of film’s greatest comedy teams. Paired in the latter years of the silent period by producer Hal Roach, they easily transitioned into talkies. In the prologue to STAN & OLLIE, we see Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) getting ready to work on one of their best films, “Way Out West” (1937).

While the pair had a good working relationship, they were not close personal friends. Late in life, after their film career was over – although they did not yet realize it – they toured British and Irish music halls, and it was then they built a personal bond. That’s what “Stan & Ollie” is about, and the result is one of the very best films of 2018.

The film takes some liberties with the timeline, but it’s essentially a factual story of two longtime partners coming to appreciate just how important they have been to each other. As they attempt to build interest in their tour, Stan is trying to put a new movie deal together. The British comic, who came to America with the same theatrical troupe that brought over Charlie Chaplin, was the comic genius of the pair, writing and often directing their most famous bits. Ollie, who hailed from Georgia, had had some success in a solo career, including appearing as the Tin Man in a silent version of “The Wizard of Oz,” but it was when he started working with Stan that his own comic brilliance got to shine.

It’s been said that a comic team is like a married couple, and the film plays off the Stan/Ollie relationship with their own marriages, Stan’s to the strong-willed Ida (Nina Arianda) and Ollie to Lucille (Shirley Henderson), who has become increasingly concerned about his health. Like any such marriage, it has its problems, with the movie showing how the two men ultimately realize their partnership has been the most important thing in their lives.

As Stan, British actor Coogan hits all the right notes, and nails the different way the actor sounded on screen as opposed to real life. However, the jaw-dropping performance here is that of John C. Reilly as Ollie. Sure, he’s in a fat suit and with a lot of latex makeup to become the heavy-set comic, but it’s his acting, not the latex, that is amazing. We’ve taken this character actor for granted, even as he’s done comedy, drama, musicals, westerns, and even played villains. After this we have to consider Reilly at the rarefied level of Meryl Streep, where seemingly nothing is beyond his capabilities. In a year where several actors have hit career highs in biographical roles, Reilly was not nominated for the Oscar, but he deserved it.

As a Hollywood biopic, as a story of male bonding, as a look at how aging changes one’s perspective, “Stan & Ollie” is stellar. That it also provides some laughs as Coogan and O’Reilly recreate the team’s comic routines is a bonus. Don’t miss this one.•••

score_50Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Glass

FILM REVIEWGLASSWith James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language. 129 minutes.

glass_ver3Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has had one of the most disappointing careers in the movies. After scoring a big hit with his third film, “The Sixth Sense” (1999), he kept trying to recapture the magic with a series of increasingly lame movies where his “surprise twist” landed with a thud, such as “Signs,” “The Village,” and the laughably bad “Lady In The Water.”

Only “Unbreakable” (2000), which was not well-received at the time, has emerged with its own cult following. Then came “Split” (2017), a sorry excuse for a thriller that was saved by James McAvoy’s turn as a character with 24 different personalities, several of whom might emerge in a single scene. It was fascinating to watch even if the story was absurd. Then came the “surprise twist” at the end where the film, for no good reason, suddenly crossed paths with “Unbreakable.”

Thus we come to GLASS. After a not-very-interesting set up, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) from “Unbreakable,” and Kevin Crumb (McAvoy) from “Split,” are all locked up at the same mental hospital. There, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), is attempting to “cure” them by convincing them that they are not endowed with special superpowers, but are, in fact, ordinary people suffering from trauma and brain injuries.

Along for the ride are three actors from the previous films. Anya Taylor-Joy returns from “Split” to show her love and support for her former captor, while Charlayne Woodard repeats as Elijah’s mother and a grown-up Spencer Treat Clark returns as David’s son. As with Shyamalan’s other films, characters don’t act like human beings but are simply plot devices. So, when we get to this film’s “surprise twist” – it’s a set up for a potential sequel – it only works as much as you let it.

The three principal actors are trapped in their ridiculous characters. Jackson spends much of the film in a wheelchair, saying nothing and twitching. When he finally starts speaking you may wish he’d shut up. Willis’s character is similarly absurd, donning a poncho-like garment to become “The Overseer.” McAvoy gets to show his impressive range as various characters, and with luck will get the opportunity to show off his talent in the future in better movies.

An interesting footnote is the casting of Luke Kirby as one of the orderlies at the institution. Fans of the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will recognize him for his startingly effective turn there bringing comedian Lenny Bruce back to life. It will undoubtedly do more for his career than appearing here.

For those shaking their heads and thinking that “Unbreakable” and “Split” were wonderful movies, you may well connect with “Glass.” It develops out of the forced marriage of the earlier films, and plays it out to a conclusion, albeit an open-ended one. However, if you didn’t like those movies or – lucky you – didn’t see them, don’t waste your time with this.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – All These Small Moments

REVIEWALL THESE SMALL MOMENTSWith Brendan Meyer, Molly Ringwald, Jemima Kirke, Harley Quinn Smith, Brian d’Arcy James. Written and directed by Melissa Miller Costanzo. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes 

all_these_small_momentsThe emotional life of an adolescent can seem rough and raw because they’re experiencing so much for the first time. ALL THESE SMALL MOMENTS follows Howie Sheffield (Brendan Meyer) as he navigates several upheavals and, as in life, they’re all happening at the same time. At home his parents (Molly Ringwald, Brian d’Arcy James) seem headed for divorce, and not hiding from Howie or his brother (Sam McCarthy) just how tension and animosity has grown between them. The boys are helpless by-standers, but it affects them nonetheless.

Meanwhile, there are women in Howie’s life – sort of – and he’s equally at a loss what to do about it. One is Odessa (Jemima Kirk), whom he sees every day on the bus and develops a crush on, even though she doesn’t know him and is clearly several years older. The other is Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), another high school student he meets in study hall when he has to sit out gym due to a broken arm. She’s interested, and he might be too except for an ugly rumor about her.

The script by writer/director Melissa Miller Costanzo, making her feature debut after a career in film and television as an art director and production designer, consists of the “small moments” that can have great significance. Whether it’s a confession, a revelation, or a reconciliation, this is a movie about people trying to live their lives, not engage in car chases or fending off an alien invasion. It resonates precisely because the characters seem fallible and very real.

The actors fit the mold as well, with Meyer conveying the uncertainty that is the hallmark of adolescence. His puppy dog demeanor explains why the “older woman” is willing to befriend him rather than shoo him away, with Kirk’s character slowly revealing why she needs affirmation in her life as well, even if we think we know how it has to end up. Similarly, while the film is very much from Howie’s point of view, Smith’s character exposes that the teen years are hard on girls too. Ringwald and James have the tougher job, acquitting themselves well as we watch the pettiness and betrayals of a failing marriage while not making us wonder why they ever got together in the first place.

Like an impressionist painting, “All These Small Moments” is greater than the sum of the parts, with no single plot line and payoff but instead a portrait of a teenage boy learning that life is about doing the best you can, even if things don’t always turn out the way you expect.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Replicas

FILM REVIEWREPLICAS. With Keanu Reeves, Alice Eve, Thomas Middeditch, John Ortiz, Emily Alyn Lind. Written by Chad St. John. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, disturbing images, some nudity and sexual references. 107 minutes.

replicas_ver2By the time Keanu Reeves was crouched in an office bathroom straining to make small talk with his boss in the next stall while simultaneously sticking a needle into his eyeball in order to copy his cerebral cortex onto a laptop computer, I was pretty sure I had no idea where REPLICAS was gonna go next. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t either.

This is one strange shambles of a movie, thrown together on-the-cheap and overstuffed with so many stupid, bonkers conceits that it becomes morbidly fascinating to watch all the wild variations in tone and kooky, convoluted plot turns get flattened out by the pedestrian production and our genial leading man. The film lands firmly at the “Johnny Mnemonic” end of the Keanu science-fiction spectrum, though it’s nuttiness presumably won’t prove nearly memorable enough to be namechecked twenty years down the road. (I doubt people will even be talking about it this weekend.)

Reeves stars as a brilliant scientist working at a shady biotech firm headquartered in Puerto Rico. He’s been trying to implant the brain data of dead soldiers into robots with little success. His boss (John Ortiz) is about to pull the plug on the whole project, and then one night Keanu’s wife (Alice Eve) and three children are killed in a car crash. Instead of reporting the accident, our good doctor scans their brainwaves onto big, clunky hard drives and calls his lab assistant (Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley” and all those goddamn Verizon commercials) – who just so happens to know a thing or two about cloning.

With remarkable ease these dudes swipe millions of dollars in scientific equipment from work and set up a lab down in Keanu’s basement to try and recreate his dead family. (Middleditch identifies one of the purloined vats as containing “amino acids and primordial ooze.”) The catch is that there aren’t enough cloning pods for everybody, so Reeves has a mini-“Killing of a Sacred Deer” dilemma trying to choose which one of his children won’t be brought back to life.

This anguished decision is quite bizarrely juxtaposed with comedic nonsense like Reeves and Middleditch lying to teachers about the kids’ absences from school during the clone gestation process, or our over-protective dad angrily answering text messages from his teenage daughter’s wannabe suitor. These two actors have similarly laid-back line deliveries, lapsing into bits of dude comedy that don’t sit particularly well on top of all the dead kid business.

The family stuff is handled so awkwardly it’s almost a relief when Ortiz pulls a heel turn and “Replicas” becomes a regular corporate espionage thriller, albeit one that keeps bursting the boundaries of its own scientific concepts by having the characters yell laborious exposition in each other’s faces every time the script has written itself into another corner. Keanu remains an endlessly endearing screen presence but shouting gobbledygook terminology is pretty much the opposite of what he’s good at.

What’s astonishing is the all-around lack of urgency. Here you’ve got a couple of scientists who basically invent a cure for death without anybody making a big deal out of it. (Keanu’s cloned wife recovers from learning about her demise in shockingly short order.) The scale of the movie is all out of whack, nothing but drab industrial office spaces and a dingy basement. Even the supposedly futuristic scientific tools resemble crummy construction equipment, with Reeves doing his work in a flimsy helmet with a plastic face shield that makes him look like a guy who fixes telephone poles.

I suppose the general air of grubbiness could have been an aesthetic choice by the filmmakers to try and ground this outlandish story in a workaday reality. (Or the producers just could have been cheapskates.) But combined with the placid performances and nonplussed reaction shots it leaves “Replicas” flatlined, absent any sense of wonder. Keanu brings his whole family back from the dead and nobody even says “Whoa.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty 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.