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Review – Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

With Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt. Written and directed by Angela Robinson. Rated R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language. 108 minutes.

This is the year of Wonder Woman, no question. This year’s “Wonder Woman,” which featured a stunning debut by Gal Gadot in the title role, is one of the biggest hits of the year. Gadot returns in the role later this year in “Justice League.” And then there’s PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN. The title is no cheap trick to cash in on the success of the other films. Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) was, in fact, the creator of the comic book character. So here’s the obligatory warning:


Professor Marston, who at one point was a psychology professor at Radcliffe, had some provocative ideas involving dominance and submission in human interactions, and a very unconventional lifestyle. He and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) brought another woman, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), into their relationship. The fact that she was a student of Marston’s may be surprising. The fact that she was involved with both William and Elizabeth may be even more surprising, especially given the time period (1920s-1940s).

The film is framed by protests beginning in the late ’40s against the popular Wonder Woman comic book which Marston began in 1941. A superheroine was unusual enough, but Marston’s stories regularly featured such things as bondage and spanking, not to mention that Wonder Woman was an Amazon who came from the all-female society on Paradise Island. For those examining the not-so-subtle subtext of these comic book adventures, this was nothing short of scandalous.

To her credit, writer/director Angela Robinson doesn’t shy away from the trio’s unconventional explorations, but also doesn’t treat it in a titillating or salacious manner. It’s simply who these people are, while also – believe it or not – being the inventor of the modern lie detector and serious explorers in the then new academic field of psychology. Of course, when their unconventional lifestyle is discovered, they pay a price from losing jobs to being ostracized by neighbors to Olive moving out of the house along with her children with Marston.

As a work of fiction, this might be hard to believe, but it’s true. While the Wonder Woman comic was “cleaned up” after Marston’s death, she was reclaimed as a feminist icon in the 1970s and a number of recent books have explored her history and brought the original comic book stories back into print. Of all the superhero origin tales – real or fictional – this one may be the most extraordinary.

The three leads all excel in their roles, with Evans sincerely earnest, but not humorless, as Marston, a man who truly believed in his ideals and saw Wonder Woman as a means of sharing them with the world. Heathcote’s Olive is all dewy-eyed innocence, at least as first, but shows Olive changing as she emerges from being the student to an equal partner. Hall’s performance may be the standout as she is in turns smart, sexy, jealous, open-minded, and making it clear that she’s nobody’s fool. She doesn’t give into Marston’s unconventional ideas, she becomes a willing participant who will see to her own needs as well.

It’s hard to believe that “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is being given a wide release rather than being treated as an art film for select venues, but that’s the case. If you’re interested, see it soon. Even seventy years after Marston’s death it’s still hard to see his beliefs being readily embraced by mainstream audiences.•••

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


Review – Marshall

FILM REVIEWMARSHALLWith Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell. Written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff. Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong language. 118 minutes.

Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, had an impressive career as a lawyer before his appointment, most notably winning Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that desegregated the nation’s schools. In MARSHALL, we’re back a decade or so before that, to the person who was, in effect, the one-man legal department for the NAACP. Barely having time to go home to his wife, he goes from city to city arguing cases where an innocent black man is being prosecuted. His brief is to fight racism, and he does not defend those who are guilty.

Played by Chadwick Boseman, Marshall comes off as brilliant and a bit cocky. His latest case proves to be both a challenge and a lesson. In Bridgeport, Connecticut Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is on trial for rape and attempted murder. His alleged victim is Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), the upper-class wife of the man who employs him as a chauffeur. The bigotry and bias in the court are palpable, with the judge (James Cromwell), an old crony of the father of the prosecutor, denying Marshall the ability to try the case as out-of-state counsel. Instead, he can only advise – quietly – Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a civil lawyer who wants nothing to do with the case.

Much of the film is given over to the investigation and trial, as well as the blowback that both Marshall and Friedman receive for taking the case. It nicely picks up on the details of the process, such as the judge allowing an obviously biased juror to be seated, while Marshall surprisingly insists on including a woman recently relocated from North Carolina. The case proceeds with dramatic revelations and reversals, and finally, a dramatic moment where an unexpected character has an “aha!” moment.

Boseman, who has already had memorable turns in movies as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, scores again as Marshall. He shows how hard it was to prevail over a system that was stacked against him, and yet is firm in the belief that the law is a tool that can be used to set things right. He’s also self-aware enough to know when he has to reconsider his options. Gad has also proven to be a capable actor, and watching Friedman rise to the occasion of trying a high profile criminal case is one of the film’s pleasures. Hudson is cool and brittle as the ultimately tragic Strubing, turning in a powerful performance, as does Brown as the hapless defendant whose key scene tells us what we need to know about the times.

It would be easy to dismiss “Marshall” as a conventional courtroom drama although a series of sequels about some of Marshall’s other cases might make for interesting viewing. What makes it much more than that are the performances, and – sadly – the resonance the film’s issues still have today. However, don’t think this is an “eat your vegetables” sort of movie where we’re expected to absorb the film’s lessons and think ourselves good citizens for watching. This is an absorbing drama based in fact, about a true American hero.•••

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 – The Mountain Between Us

FILM REVIEWTHE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US. With Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney. Written by J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language. 103 minutes.

Depending on how far you’re willing to ignore the details, there are supposed to be only a handful of plots for writers to work with. One filmmaker said there was only one: in the first act you chase your characters up a tree, in the second you throw rocks at them, and in the third, you let them back down. One doesn’t have to go quite that far to see that the plot of THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is one that is so well-worn as to be threadbare.

In Act I, the romantic couple – news photographer Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) and surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) – unexpectedly meet and take a journey together. One or both are involved with someone else. In this case, it is Alex who is on her way to her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney), while Ben hints at strain in his marriage. In Act II, circumstances lead to the couple falling deeply in love. In this case, it’s the crashing of a private plane that they have chartered to get ahead of a storm. The pilot (Beau Bridges) dies but the couple – and the pilot’s dog – lives.

In Act III… well, you don’t want to know how the film ends but having seen numerous movies with similar plots, from “It Happened One Night” to “An Affair to Remember” and countless others, you can already figure it out. It’s the basic plot for all romantic comedies and dramas. What makes the best of them stand out is the details. Are the characters fascinating? Is the dialogue memorable? Is the adventure the couple shares so unusual that it holds our interest?

Here, whether the film works or not, depends almost entirely on the viewer’s interest in Kate Winslet and/or Idris Elba. If you think being trapped with one of them in a life-threatening situation is the height of romanticism, the film will work, no matter the contrivances of the plot. When they decide they can no longer wait to be rescued and have to attempt to descend the mountain themselves, the discovery of a cabin – complete with working wood-burning stove – is just too convenient. On the other hand, if by now you’re fantasizing about being alone with Winslet and/or Elba, this is additional fuel for the fire.

If the film works at all, it’s not only because of the inherent sexiness of the two leads but the fact that they are both solid actors. Their appeal is more than skin-deep. So while both actors have done better work elsewhere, their ability to play the material seriously enough for willing audience members to become invested in their characters is to their credit.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying that as far as the plot goes – derived from a novel by Charles Martin – there’s not much depth. Various perils are introduced after the crash, from a lack of food to a mountain lion, to a bear trap, but it’s more like needing some action between the romantic scenes. If the film had gone on much longer they might have had to meet a survivalist sect or a group of zombies. “The Mountain Between Us” is escapist fare unlikely to win over skeptics, but able to please those willing to enjoy a story oft-told.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Blade Runner 2049

 With Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Jared Leto. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language. 163 minutes.

blade_runner_twenty_forty_nine_ver4Easily one of the most anticipated films of the year, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a mixed bag. It has moments of brilliance, encompassing everything from its art design to the futuristic concepts it develops. Alas, it is also a slow-moving, overlong film in which most of the cast was encouraged to underact to the point of sleepwalking. It’s a must-see for fans of the 1982 original film, but there will be heated debates to come between its advocates and its critics.

It’s thirty years after the original story and the Tyrell Corporation, which created the near-human “replicants” is no more. It has been supplanted by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has developed a new generation of replicants who are more compliant to human control. Still, there are many of the Tyrell replicants out there and so “blade runners” like K (Ryan Gosling), are still needed to track them down and “retire” (i.e., kill) them.

One of the conceits of the film is that not only do the replicants seem human, but the humans seem robotic. K has no name. It’s the start of his serial number. He is repeatedly tested to see if he’s at his “baseline,” and yet–unlike the Voight-Kampff test for empathy in the original film–it’s utterly unclear how this new test is supposed to work.

K is given a new assignment, to track down a child that has gone missing and is now an adult. In the tradition of “noir” detective stories which the original followed, K’s journey takes him on an exploration of his world. It is a world of massive sets that seems decidedly underpopulated. Eventually it takes him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner of the original film who took off with a beautiful replicant at the end of the movie and may – and this has been debated for years – be a replicant himself.

The problem here is that, besides the leaden pacing, it’s not clear what this movie is about. “Blade Runner” asked what it means to be human and, more, what was the meaning of life in the face of death. This film has a few tricks up its sleeves, but they’re plot twists, not something to think about afterward. Indeed, in learning about a potential new rebellion of the surviving replicants, it’s not clear what that would mean for them or for humanity. Do they want liberation or do they want to overthrow the established order and put themselves in charge?

There are moments of invention that are standouts. K’s sole emotional connection is with a hologram (Ana de Armas), and in a surreal moment that is both touching and creepy, the hologram merges with a prostitute so that he can have a physical connection as well. It’s moments like this that make the film worth watching and thinking about, yet there are more set pieces like a fistfight between K and Deckard that go on pointlessly while providing some clever visuals.

“Blade Runner 2049” is less than the sum of its parts, although some will overlook or defend its flaws and embrace it. Perhaps going in with lowered expectations will make for a more satisfying experience.•••

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.



Review – Battle of the Sexes

. With Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity. 121 minutes.

battle_of_the_sexes_ver2_xlgIt was 1973, and a mix of personalities and social trends came together in a perfect storm that would have ramifications no one could have foreseen from a pop culture event. BATTLE OF THE SEXES tells the story of the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match capturing both the comic and the seriously earnest aspects of what would become one of the most famous tennis matches ever.

Twenty-nine-year-old King (Emma Stone, bearing a striking resemblance) has just won the position of the number one player in women’s tennis. It is an achievement that gets her a congratulatory phone call from President Nixon, but as far as Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the tennis association is concerned, it’s a sideshow to “real” tennis which is all about men. By way of contrast, she learns that the top prize on the women’s tour is $1,500 while for the men it’s $12,000. So with the help of her manager (Sarah Silverman), King sets up a competing women’s tour to call attention to the skills and accomplishments of women players.

Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) was a legitimately great tennis player who is now in his 50s and playing the senior circuit for small rewards. An inveterate gambler and hustler, Riggs makes more money with outlandish stunts, like playing matches in costumes or with obstacles like sheep on the court. He then gets the idea to challenge the top woman player, billing himself as a male chauvinist who will send women back to the kitchen.

Riggs didn’t really believe it–he relied on the income of his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue)–but he knew it would play well. All this led to what became an internationally televised tennis match where Riggs was essentially a clown, but still a solid player, while King saw an opportunity to puncture the attitudes that Riggs professed and countless others actually believed.

Behind the scenes, and unknown to the public at the time, Riggs’ marriage was on the rocks due to his gambling addiction, and King–who was married–was questioning her sexuality through an involvement with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). If women’s equality was a hot topic in 1973, gay rights were barely on the radar. If King’s story had become public at the time, it might have destroyed her career. There’s a touching moment when the obviously gay designer (Alan Cummings) of the outfits for the women’s tour tells her that someday things will be different.

The filmmakers and the cast capture the era, striking just the right tone in reflecting upon the confrontation. Carell’s Riggs is a provocateur, but not the villain of the piece, who is really the tennis association’s Kramer, a man who had the power to enforce his sexist views on the sport. When we see the patronizing way ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell deals with tennis player Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), who is commenting on the match, we see just how unthinking these attitudes were.

As for Stone, it is an outstanding performance, letting us see the woman who had the strength at 29 to take on the establishment and risk her career, and taking on another risk in agreeing to participate in Riggs’ hustle where a loss would have made her a footnote to history. The battle for equality may not be over, but “Battle of the Sexes” reminds us–in the slogan of the women’s tour sponsor–we’ve come a long way, baby.•••

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

Review – American Made

FILM REVIEWAMERICAN MADEWith Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones. Written by Gary Spinelli. Directed by Doug Liman. Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. 115 minutes.

tt35322162017Such is our public cynicism these days that movies about America’s involvement in modern war end up playing as tragedy or farce. AMERICAN MADE, like last year’s “War Dogs,” purports to be the mostly-true story of American civilians getting caught up in international intrigue in exchange for big bucks, but who are really only being used by more powerful people who are not really interested in their welfare.

In this case, it’s Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a commercial airline pilot for TWA who is approached by a “Mr. Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) who denies it, but works for the CIA. (“Barry Seal” is the name of the film in some overseas countries.) They want to set up Seal in his own business where he’ll make frequent flights in a small plane to Central and South America. It’s the 1980s and the U.S. is obsessed with the Sandinistas in El Salvador. Seal is paid to do reconnaissance but is soon making payoffs to Manuel Noriega in Panama and supplying arms to the Contras in El Salvador. That’s when he’s approached by the Medellin drug cartel. As long as he’s doing these flights back and forth, how would he like to make some money smuggling cocaine?

No one is interested in anything but results and as long as arms go south, drugs go north, and, later on, Contras arrive on land put in Seal’s name in Mena, Arkansas for clandestine training, everyone’s happy. Indeed, Seal is making so much money that a local bank builds a second vault to handle the assets of their other customers, the main vault given over entirely to Seal. It’s still not enough, with suitcases stuffed with cash piling up, attracting the attention of not only the state police, but also the FBI and the DEA.

Cruise plays this mostly for laughs, and it’s a return to the screen of the charmer of his earlier films. Other characters, like his wife (Sarah Wright) and brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) are barely sketched in, and so we don’t really see them as more than background to Seal’s story. While the film has its laughs and its action, it falls short in terms of narrative coherence. As Seal skips from one adventure to the next, there are loose threads all over the place.

It’s suggested that George W. Bush was involved in fighting the drug cartel as a pilot, but that goes nowhere. Another character is murdered and not only are there no consequences, but after he disappears no one seems to notice he’s going missing except for a scene played as a joke where someone not aware of the murder worries he might talk to the authorities. The story is told in flashback via videos Seal is recording about his misadventures, yet we later see those video confiscated by the government, so how did this story get out?

“American Made” is not quite a brainless movie, as its digs at bureaucratic infighting, or the ease at which Seal escapes responsibility for his actions for much of his career, are amusing. Yet in going for easy laughs–as in “Schafer’s” transition from one interenational mess to another at film’s end–it doesn’t require much thought either. Overall the film is diverting, which counts for something, but not much more.•••

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 – Stronger

. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Lenny Clarke. Screenplay by John Pollono. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images and brief sexuality/nudity. 116 minutes

stronger“Boston Strong? What the fuck does that even mean?” asks Jeff Bauman on his way home from the hospital, baffled by the slogan that became a merchandising bonanza during the weeks following April 15th, 2013. STRONGER, an admirably tough-minded picture adapted from Bauman’s memoir by screenwriter John Pollono and director David Gordon Green, is about a young man grappling with the media-fueled transformation of his unique circumstance into a universal symbol. It’s a movie interrogating the neat little narratives we need to tell ourselves in order to help wrap our heads around unfathomable tragedies, even if while doing so it kinda can’t help becoming one of those stories itself.

As local folks undoubtedly remember, Bauman was on the finish line at the marathon and caught a glimpse of one of the bombers before losing both legs above the knee. It was Jeff we saw in that unforgettable photo, blood-spattered and being pushed to safety by Carlos Arredondo–the mysterious Man in the Cowboy Hat. Through several surgeries and a painful, lengthy rehabilitation, Bauman became an emblem of the city’s perseverance, on the ice at the Garden waving a Bruins flag and throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. Bauman was our hero, the epitome of Boston Strong.

“What’s so heroic about standing there getting my fuckin’ legs blown off?” asks Bauman in the movie. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an affable, hard-drinking party guy who wakes up in a nightmare, Jeff can’t really comprehend his newfound fame but nevertheless keeps putting on a brave face for the benefit of others. (He’s what fellas in the neighborhood call “a good kid,” which is less distracting than it probably should be considering the pushing-forty Gyllenhaal is at least ten years too old for the role.) The visual motif used most often by director Green and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keeps Bauman in sharp focus, crammed in a foreground corner of the frame while the rest of a blurry world goes about its business behind him.

The only one allowed to share Jeff’s isolation in such shots is Erin, his on-again, off-again girlfriend played by Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”). They’d broken up again before he showed up at the finish line to try and win her back, and the bombing is depicted with chilling understatement from Erin’s point of view while she’s running the race. The relationship becomes a complex tangle of tenderness, guilt, and resentment, with Maslany using a haunted stillness to elevate a script that sometimes borders on the schematic. She allows us to see an inner world that isn’t always on the page.

Director David Gordon Green confounded fans of his early, lyrical coming-of-age indies “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” by veering into raunchy studio stoner comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” He’s a restless talent, difficult to pin down but possessing a strong capability for capturing privileged moments between his actors and telling stories in visual terms. (I was amused during an early scene to spot a DVD of Green’s downbeat 2007 melodrama “Snow Angels” on one of the Bauman family’s shelves. Didn’t peg them as fans.) He keeps the movie on a muted, even keel throughout, eliciting Gyllenhaal’s least histrionic performance in years.

It’s a tricky tale to pull off, the largely internal journey of a young man reconciling his private pain with the requirements of a public persona. Bauman might not feel like the hero the city wants him to be, but eventually he learns how to be comfortable with allowing people to project what they need to onto him. The film’s highlight is Jeff’s long-delayed meeting with Arredondo, artfully framed to keep the audience at arm’s length — reminding us that we cannot imagine what these men have been through, and shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to try.

At its best, the film recalls late-period Eastwood pictures like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “American Sniper,” in its plumbing of the gulf between the truth and what people need to hear. While last year’s despicable act of movie star auto-fellatio “Patriots Day” invented a phony hero to save the day, “Stronger” reminds us that tragedy and survival are a lot more complicated than a bumper-sticker slogan.

And if the closing crawl neglects to mention that Jeff and Erin are currently divorcing, well, remember the whole point of the film is that we don’t like our inspirational stories to get too messy.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past eighteen 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.