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Review – Free Fire


FILM REVIEW
FREE FIRE
With Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley. Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use. 90 minutes.

free_fire_ver12In 1927, Laurel and Hardy released one of their most famous silent comedy shorts, “The Battle of the Century.” It’s famous because it contains the pie fight to end all pie fights. It starts with one pie being thrown, and then another in response, and then another, and then another… By the end, an entire city block of people are throwing pies at each other. Reportedly, the film used up the entire day’s output of a single bakery.

The reason for this history lesson is that FREE FIRE is, in effect, a remake of that comedy film, substituting bullets for pies. It starts slowly. A group of shady, comic figures are waiting for a meet-up at a warehouse. They are there to purchase guns. They are met by Ord (Armie Hammer), who has apparently arranged the deal. The dealers are led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley), who has deliberately brought the wrong rifles and is very concerned about keeping his suit clean.

Things get complicated when it turns out one of the underlings for the buyers was beaten up by one of the underlings for the sellers the night before, and the bad blood between them has not been resolved. This leads to one taking a shot at the other, and then the pies… er, bullets… start to fly. The remainder of the film consists of the two sides shooting at each other within the confines of the warehouse, sometimes hitting the wrong person.

As it escalates, neither side is willing to put a stop to it because once one of either gang gets hit, they now need to get back at the other side. It’s all very violent and since there wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all killed each other right off, it’s mostly flesh wounds until late in the film. Instead we get absurdities like Chris (Cillian Murphy) asking Justine (Brie Larson), his business partner on the deal, if she’d like to go out afterwards, or Ord making fun of Frank (Michael Smiley) for being old. There’s no great character development here, but since this is the action film version of slapstick farce, we shouldn’t be expecting any.

Instead, we watch not only the variations on a theme, but the plot details like the driver of one of the vans liking John Denver music, or one of the characters we thought had been killed suddenly opening fire on the others. This is an action film for people who are tired of getting bogged down with story, characters, dialogue or, indeed, the things we expect from most movies. It is visceral action all the way, with just enough cartoonish information so we can tell one character from the other even if don’t have much reason to take sides.

Like that Laurel and Hardy short, “Free Fall” doesn’t have much of a story to tell, but simply wants to keep escalating its slapstick premise far beyond what you thought possible. If you get the joke and are willing to play along, it’s a hilarious critique of action movies. If not, it’s just an hour-and-a-half of generally unpleasant people shooting at each other.•••

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 – Unforgettable


FILM REVIEW
UNFORGETTABLE
With Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Cheryl Ladd, Marissa D’Onofrio. Written by Christina Hodson, David Johnson. Directed by Denise Di Novi. Rated R for sexual content, violence, some language, and brief partial nudity. 96 minutes.

unforgettableOkay, here’s the premise: there’s a divorced couple with a child. One of them remarries. The one who doesn’t is jealous of the new spouse. Question: is this a comedy or a drama?

Interestingly enough, it seems to depend on which spouse remarries. If it’s the mother, then it’s a comedy, as in “Daddy’s Home,” where bumbling Will Ferrell tries to win over his stepchildren but has to compete with father and ex-husband Mark Wahlberg. If it’s the husband who remarries, on the other hand, it’s a melodramatic thriller, as with “The Girl on the Train” and now, UNFORGETTABLE.

David and Julia (Geoff Stults, Rosario Dawson) are happily married, and Julia makes room for not only his little girl from his first marriage to Tessa (Katherine Heigl), but tries to have a good relationship with the ex as well. Tessa, at first seemingly all sweetness and understanding, believes Julia is the usurper, who has taken her place and must be removed and destroyed.

Complicating things are Julia’s own troubled past which she is trying to put behind her. Yet the increasingly threatening situation with Tessa is not only putting her at risk, but dredging up things she had hoped to leave behind.

The first-time director is veteran producer Denise Di Novi who has crafted a slick and polished film, but which offers up the same old story of the woman scorned. Indeed, the “surprise” ending–not to be spoiled here–suggests that women are incapable of acting any other way. Those arguing for more opportunities for women to direct present their case as the chance to see things from another perspective. A movie about a woman stalking another woman out of irrational jealousy seems more like a step backward.

Heigl plays for the audience’s sympathy for a while, but as Tessa ratchets up her campaign against Julia it becomes increasingly difficult not to see her as just another in long line of crazy, vengeful women. Dawson has the easier time playing the victim, but neither actress can escape the cliched roles they’re been handed. It’s a double standard that these kinds of rivalries are played out in a dark manner if its between women and comically if it’s men. Could Hollywood make a movie where first husband Mark Wahlberg tries to get rid of stepdad Will Ferrell as a straight thriller? To realize the impossibility of such a film is to recognize what the problem is here.

In the end, audiences are likely to find “Unforgettable” to be all too forgettable, or at least blurred together with several other similarly-themed movies. Heigl and Dawson–and DiNovi–deserve better. So do moviegoers.•••

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 – The Fate Of The Furious

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FILM REVIEWTHE FATE OF THE FURIOUS. With Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron. Written by Chris Morgan. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language. 136 minutes.

forsazh_8_74b7b492b17364dd2fbd8f2a68504a3dThey probably should have called it a day last time around, when the clumsy, jerry-rigged “Furious 7” went out on a semi-incoherent, affectingly melancholic note after trying to cobble a movie together from footage co-star Paul Walker filmed before his tragic death under circumstances the picture did not exactly make it easy to forget.

It was a heartfelt, albeit kinda lousy capper to a franchise that had gotten awfully lucky in the third installment with the arrivals of director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan–who took a bargain basement “Point Break” knock-off and spun it out for the next four films into a sprawling, insanely crowded, time-jumping action melodrama modeled on Hong Kong’s euphorically pulpy Golden Harvest films of the late 1980s. I’ll maintain that “Fast Five” –the series’ zippy zenith that snuck up on everyone back in 2011–is still the best John Woo movie John Woo never made.

Alas, director Lin left to go make “Star Trek” flicks a couple sequels ago. And while “Friday” and “Straight Outta Compton” helmer F. Gary Gray doesn’t do a half-bad job here, he also can’t conjure Lin’s ardent, goofball sincerity. You’re always aware THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS is a mercenary product that has no real reason for being except to make more money and more “Furious” movies, collecting characters and co-stars like a lint-roller while putting them into increasingly absurd and strangely weightless vehicular cataclysms.

This time, Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto–the family values-minded patriarch of our expansive, outlaw clan–is blackmailed into becoming a villain by the fearsome, anarchist hacker Cipher, an aptly named, shockingly boring white chick with dreads played by the insanely overqualified Charlize Theron. If the idea of Furiosa taking on the Furious is enticing to you, forget about it. This most intensely physical of actresses gets stuck behind a keyboard for the entire picture, barking orders and typing adamantly. How does anyone watch “Fury Road” and then not let her drive?

Dom turns heel and absconds with a super-scary electro-magnetic pulse device, leaving Kurt Russell’s smooth-talking CIA fixer to get the band back together and try to take him down. I so appreciate the way Russell approaches this performance, as if tickled pink by the absurdity of the exposition his character exists only to deliver. He demands that Jason Statham’s bad guy from the previous picture become part of the crew, and our gang doesn’t take long warming up to the dude who cold-bloodedly murdered their beloved little Korean buddy last movie, which is kinda weird.

“It’s shit but I didn’t-not enjoy it,” a colleague said to me about this film the other night, which is perhaps the best way to explain its bloated, Roger Moore-era 007 charms. Every time I was exasperated by “The Fate of the Furious” and about to give up on it, something odd and wonderful happened -–whether that be the splendid sight of Dwayne Johnson coaching his kid daughter’s soccer team, or Jason Statham cementing the series’ John Woo bona fides by re-enacting everybody’s favorite scene from “Hard Boiled.” Helen Mirren has a cameo so delightful I’m still smirking just thinking about it, and ditto for the sight of Tyrese attempting to drive an orange Lamborghini while spinning out across the frozen Russian tundra.

It does have the lugubrious, nothing-matters quality of those eighties Bond films, though. So for all the wit of the remote-controlled “zombie cars” sequence that takes Manhattan but looks as if it were filmed anywhere else, there’s still some business with a submarine that goes on for so long you’ll laugh remembering they said they were only going a mile, and then try to do the math in your head. Gray also succumbs to some big tonal miscalculations. A series regular is callously executed in a scene that throws off the goofball charm, a moment far too unpleasant for a picture this silly.

But Johnson, perhaps trying to make up for what amounted to merely a glorified cameo in “Furious 7” works overtime here, selling the hell out of his terribly hokey one-liners with such gusto it almost feels like he’s kidding but not quite and that’s what makes him The Rock. Scott Eastwood is a lot of fun as a mealy-mouthed government toady, so between this picture and “Snowden” I’m amused that the kid is carving out a career playing the kind of uptight pencil-pushers his dad used to punch out at the end of every one of his 80s movies.

As for Diesel, it is an act of enormous bravery for a man of his age and thickening build to wear white jeans in a major motion picture. Bless him for that, at least.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Assignment


FILM REVIEW
THE ASSIGNMENT
With Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Caitlin Gerard, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia. Written by Denis Hamill and Walter Hill. Directed by Walter Hill. Rated R for graphic nudity, violence, sexuality, language and drug use. 95 minutes.

assignmentA few years ago, former Boston-based film critic Nat Segaloff wrote a book called Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors. In it, he looked at the final works of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and many others. What he found was that some had great works at the ends of their careers, others had films best left forgotten, and still others had curios that hearkened back to some of their earlier career.

Walter Hill, the director and co-writer of THE ASSIGNMENT–which is newly-released on Video-on-Demand and select theaters–caught a lot of attention with his third film, “The Warriors” and then had a huge hit with “48 Hrs.” Now 75, he’s been busier as one of the producers on the “Alien” film series, including the upcoming “Alien: Covenant.” As director, his last outing was the Sylvester Stallone flop “Bullet to the Head” four years ago. So this may not be his last film, but it would seem his days as a hot director are long behind him.

However, that’s not at all the same thing as saying his films aren’t worth seeing. “The Assignment” is a real curiosity and is probably destined for cult status, much like “The Warriors.” We first meet Frank Kitchen checking into a seedy hotel, and being approached by “Honest John” Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia) to perform a hit job. A short while later, Hartunian says Frank is no longer needed, and has him knocked out. When he comes to, he is no longer a he. Frank has been turned into a woman (Michelle Rodriguez) by a mysterious surgeon known as the Doctor (Sigourney Weaver).

In the present, the Doctor is a straitjacketed prisoner at a mental hospital, being questioned by Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub) to see if she’s sane enough to stand trial. As she relates her story in flashback, it turns out that there are a lot of dead bodies, but no evidence that Frank Kitchen ever existed. The various mysteries are worked out, but we follow the two tracks separately, going back and forth in time.

In some ways this a conventional revenge thriller, stripped down to its bare essentials. The kicker is the forced sex change. Althought Rodriguez plays Frank before and after the change (with a not-very-convincing beard), there is sufficient nudity involving either special effects or a body double to get the point across that Frank has been altered. It is noted that the Doctor’s actions are is not intended as a commentary on real life transsexuals, because–in this case–it was done against his will. Now, hiding out with a nurse and part-time hooker named Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), this is the sort of spare action film that Hill was doing at the start of his career in movies like “Hard Times” and “The Driver.”

With an economy of style and a surprisingly strong cast for this kind of material, Hill delivers a taut 95 minutes of suspense and vengeance, as Frank tracks down the people responsible for his/her predicament, while the Doctor plays mind games with Galen for reasons that don’t become clear until the very end of the movie. Obviously “The Assignment” is not going to be for every taste, but if this is Hill’s final film as director, it’s of a piece with his body of work.•••

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 – Going in Style


FILM REVIEW
GOING IN STYLE
With Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, Ann-Margret, Christopher Lloyd. Written by Theodore Melfi. Directed by Zach Braff. Rated PG-13 for drug content, language and some suggestive material. 96 minutes.

16121708103110_lIf you’ve seen the 1979 film GOING IN STYLE, you’ll remember the casting of Art Carney, George Burns, and Lee Strasberg as three old-timers who decide to rob a bank. It was a bittersweet comedy, and while watchable because of the stars, it was not the best showcase for any of them. Thus, a remake nearly 40 years later isn’t so shocking, especially when the three leads are Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, and Morgan Freeman. Individually, they can make a dull film worth watching. Together, we just sit there and consider ourselves lucky that we can still enjoy their work.

The premise remains contrived. Three retirees who are barely making ends meet discover that their former employer has been sold and their pension fund looted. They decide to rob the bank that is making the deal possible. Director Zach Braff (who is also an actor but doesn’t appear here) and screenwriter Theodore Melfi (coming off the triumph of “Hidden Figures”) saw what the flaw was in the original movie. Given our sympathies for the characters, we’re not looking for irony, we’re looking for satisfaction. The original ending was a downer which might have been realistic but was also the only note of realism in the film. It was out of place.

Here we get an ending that leaves us smiling, with not one but several twists along the way. A lot of it has to do with simply getting out of the way and letting three professionals do their stuff. Alan Arkin plays the cantankerous Albert, who is skeptical about being able to pull off the robbery and is equally skeptical of the attentions of Annie (a still stunning Ann-Margret), yet allows himself to be convinced on both counts. Morgan Freeman is Willie, who would love to see his daughter and granddaughter more than once a year and is also facing his mortality in the absence of a kidney transplant. And then there’s Joe played by Michael Caine, an actor who has transitioned from the leading man of his youth to an irresistable character player today. Joe is devoted to his granddaughter (Joey King), and is facing he prospect of losing the house where she and her mother live with him.

The lead-up to the heist is played for laughs, particularly in a practice “robbery” at the local supermarket. When it finally takes place it goes like clockwork, with even the unexpected events working out. In the end, the script is a bit too clever and neat, but by then you’ll be so charmed by the three principals that it won’t matter. Also along for the ride is Christopher Lloyd, as the head of the local senior center, whose character seems liked an aged version of Jim Ignatowski, his dazed cab driver from “Taxi.” Matt Dillon is the FBI agent trying to solve the case and he works hard at making his character as unsympathetic as possible.

“Going in Style” is no more destined to be a classic than the original was. Instead, it’s a film where we get to enjoy three of our finest elder actors showing just how easy they can make it all look.•••

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 – Ghost In The Shell

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FILM REVIEW
GHOST IN THE SHELL
. With Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano. Written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images. 107 mins.

ghost_in_the_shell_ver5_xlgAn eye-popping technical wonderment without much going on underneath the hood, GHOST IN THE SHELL is a $110-million Hollywood reworking of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 anime, and eventually becomes something of a metaphor for itself. The searching, philosophical qualities of the original picture (and presumably the manga by Masamune Shirow upon which it was based) have been tossed aside in favor of bold-stroke, blockbuster battles between good and evil, less concerned with what it means to be human than with showing Friday night audiences a grand old time. As far as dumb action movies go, this is a great-looking one, but it should have been so much more.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, a special-ops cyborg fond of flesh-colored jumpsuits and leaping through skyscraper windows with pistols ablaze. She and the gang from covert Section 9 protect an unnamed, bustling future metropolis from cyber-terrorists, occasionally pausing to get touch-ups on their personal robotic enhancements from a warmly maternal doctor played by (of all people) Juliette Binoche. But when a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) begins picking off corporate honchos that hold the patents on our Major’s super-skeleton, the plot, as they say, thickens.

Oshii’s sometimes tediously chatty original film was fixated on questions of the singularity and the soul, with the Major struggling to assert her humanity despite being a disembodied consciousness inside a machine. It’s the kind of role that almost feels like typecasting for Scarlett Johansson when you consider the post-human trilogy of “Her,” “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” from a few years back. As a performer, Johansson is capable of a steely, magnetic reserve that’s both empathetic and otherworldly. She can also fight like hell in a catsuit.

Johansson isn’t as revelatory as she was in those other pictures, but she’s still awfully fun to watch here, a shapely vision erupting from the water while wearing a cloaking device that flickers like an old TV on the fritz. The rococo visual design pig-piles neon greens and pinks with backdrops so dense with detail that my eyes often strayed around the screen, ignoring the story to take in the sights. There’s also one marvelously haunting scene in which the Major contemplates a colleague’s physicality and Johansson makes visceral the yearning to once again be human.

Alas, since this is an expensive corporate product, we don’t have much time for metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Instead we’ve got cleanly-drawn lines with a glowering, one-dimensional baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) working for the mega-cybernetics company and unleashing his private army against the good folks of Section 9, who in addition to the Major include Pilou Asbaek’s cuddly bruiser and a commander played with incomparable cool by the great filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. He’s such a badass that he talks in Japanese the whole time and everybody in the film understands him, as if he were speaking English like the rest of the cast.

It’s precisely that sort of cross-cultural mishmash that’s made “Ghost in the Shell” a subject of controversy ever since this American remake was first announced. While the setting is never named, the movie obviously takes place in Tokyo (either there or on planet “Blade Runner”) with a ton of Asians in supporting parts, yet a pretty young white chick got cast in the lead. Now I’m not gonna mansplain to angry thinkpiece writers about how Hollywood economics work, but there are very few female stars who can secure a budget of this size and I’m sorry the lady robot isn’t ethnic enough. (Seriously though, this isn’t like Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in “Aloha.” The Major’s head is made out of titanium. Also, how many major studio blockbusters have juicy roles for Takeshi Kitano?)

The movie rather klutzily tries to tackle this taboo head-on when we discover that Major Mira Killian actually used to be one Motoko Kusanagi, a runaway-turned-activist kidnapped and brainwashed by those nasty bastards at the lab before her consciousness was implanted in our heroine’s exoskeleton. That’s right, “Ghost in the Shell” is ultimately about a Japanese troublemaker abducted by a large corporation and made over into a hot, rule-abiding Anglo movie star in a ludicrously expensive undertaking. Like I said, a metaphor for itself.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Boss Baby

FILM REVIEWTHE BOSS BABYWith the voices of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Miles Bakshi. Written by Michael McCullers. Directed by Tom McGrath. Rated PG for some mild rude humor. 97 minutes.

the-boss-babyLike last year’s sub-par “Storks,” THE BOSS BABY takes us to the imaginary place where babies come from for an adventure that is intended to amuse those young enough not to know any better. Fortunately, there’s a bit more wit here, so that parents who may have to endure it may find themselves being actually amused.

The movie is narrated by the adult Tim (voice of Tobey Maguire) who recounts what happened when, at age 7, he (voiced by Miles Bakshi) got a very peculiar baby brother. The Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin), shows up in a suit and tie and takes over the house, so that Tim is no longer the center of attention. However, this isn’t simply about sibling rivalry. The Boss Baby is on a mission.

Wherever babies come from in this universe, it is run like a huge corporation. Boss Baby is up for a promotion if he can uncover and foil a plot by a rival concern that might do away with babies forever. The first part of the film is Boss Baby and his infant allies in the neighborhood making life difficult for Tim. Eventually, the truth comes out, and the two join forces against the seemingly benevolent Francis Francis (Steve Buscemi), who runs the pet supply company that employs Tim’s Mom (Lisa Kudrow) and Dad (Jimmy Kimmel).

It’s all very silly with the occassional bodily function joke thrown in, since nothing suggests cutting edge humor to a four-year-old like a poop joke. However, there is some genuine cleverness in the big reveal of Francis Francis’s plot, as well as some character development as Tim and Boss Baby have to figure out a way to work together.

Based on a book by Marla Frazee, it’s a movie that doesn’t break any new ground in animation or storytelling, but fortunately, isn’t a step backwards either. The animation in on par with the more cartoonish computer animated offerings these days, and children will enjoy the involved bit about the sorting operation which prepares the newborns for their new lives. There’s also some amusing gags on how much babies get away with on the basis of their being cute.

However, where animated films like “Inside Out,” “Zootopia,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and “The Batman LEGO Movie” have become destinations not only for kids but for adults as well, “The Boss Baby” falls short. It should engage the youngsters but will leave more sophisticated viewers–say, those older than eight or nine–wanting something with more substance, or at least more jokes. Adults hoping that Baldwin will turn into the other boss baby he’s been playing on “Saturday Night Live” will find none of that here. This is a kid’s cartoon, pure and simple, and they’re welcome to it.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.