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Review – Ben-Hur

With Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman. Written by Keith R. Clarke & John Ridley. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. 124 minutes.

Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” has been filmed several times, most notably in a 1925 silent version with Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman and the 1959 version with Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. If you want to know why this new BEN HUR is dead on arrival here’s the answer in a nutshell: Hollywood no longer knows how to do period epics.

Consider that the 1959 version (which ran an hour-and-a-half longer than this one) came after numerous big screen films over the course of the decade that had been set in ancient times. These include movies like “David and Bathsheba,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Quo Vadis,” and “The Robe.” What’s a recent model? The 2014 box office disaster “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Today’s filmmakers may know how to do superhero movies (most of the time), but the Biblical-era epic eludes them.

For those just coming in, the film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), who we are constantly told is a “Jewish prince.” The “Jewish” part is important only because this is a Christian fable, and Judah will be transformed by his encounters with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro). The “prince” part makes no sense as the land is under Roman rule, and so he has no real role. It just lets us know that his family has wealth.

Judah has a brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in years earlier. Messala realizes that he will never fully be accepted by the family–though Judah is devoted to him–so he goes off to join the Roman army, eventually coming back to Jerusalem in a leadership position. Things quickly go bad with Judah arrested and sent off to be a galley slave. Five years later, he comes back to get his vengeance against Messala (in the famous chariot race) and have his transformative experience with Jesus.

The problem here is that the actors have no idea how to bring these characters to life. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is stilted and wooden. Even an accomplished veteran like Morgan Freeman (sporting gray dreadlocks) sounds like he’s reading his lines off of a teleprompter. Few of the rest of the cast get the time or material to build a character, and Huston hasn’t the gravitas to carry off Judah. (By contrast by the time he did “Ben-Hur,” Charlton Heston had already played Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”) Kebbell is bland as Messala, and the three women playing Judah’s wife, mother, and sister (Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Sofia Black-D’Elia) seem almost interchangeable.

Of course, the chariot race is what holds our interest, and the film actually opens with a brief scene from it as if they realized it would be the only thing keeping us in our seats. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has yet to fulfill the early promise of his Russian-set vampire films “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” bringing strong visuals and set pieces to films that proved not to be worth it, like “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” Chalk up this “Ben-Hur” as one more wasted effort. Let’s hope he can find the right project before Hollywood moves on to someone else.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Batman: The Killing Joke

. With the voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise. Written by Brian Azzarello. Directed by Sam Liu. Rated R for some bloody images and disturbing content. 76 minutes.

“Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s good,” hisses Mark Hamill’s Joker in this icky animated adaptation of a seminal 1988 graphic novel that was perhaps better left alone. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE is a singularly unpleasant viewing experience, confounding in its wrongheadedness and noxious in its cruelty. The project reunites the principal voice actors from “Batman: The Animated Series” and yokes the beloved afterschool TV program’s aesthetic to a miserably dated exercise in shock value for its own sake. Basically this is a Batman cartoon that looks and sounds like the one you used to watch when you were a little kid, except now it’s rated R and full of torture and sexual assault. When it was over, I wanted nothing more than to take a shower.

Published a couple of years after Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” announced that superheroes aren’t just for children anymore, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland’s exceedingly nasty “The Killing Joke” provided a tragic backstory for Gotham City’s most malevolent clown and pushed the Caped Crusader to the brink of murdering his longtime nemesis. After escaping once again from Arkham Asylum, The Joker attempts to demonstrate that only one bad day stands between good men and madness by shooting Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (who is secretly Batgirl) through the spine and torturing her father in a carnival funhouse decorated with photographs of the girl’s bloody, naked body.

As you might imagine, this all seemed very heady when I was thirteen years old, dressed in black all the time and hated my parents for getting divorced. But as influential as it unfortunately remains to this day, “The Killing Joke” has not aged particularly well. Moore (who refused to allow his name on this adaptation) often apologizes for writing it and in a 2009 interview lamented that superhero stories “are stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.” (And to think he said this seven years before “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)

What pushes this adaptation over the line from merely misguided into madness is an all-new, twenty-eight minute prologue scripted by Brian Azzarello and apparently intended to give Barbara Gordon something to do in the story besides just get shot. It’s one of the most cluelessly misogynistic portrayals I have ever seen, presenting Batgirl as a bumbling flake with a massive crush on her emotionally aloof crime-fighting mentor. (She even gets a crassly stereotypical gay best friend to confide in, because I guess this is a ‘90s sitcom.) After a gangster’s perverted son named Paris France (for real) becomes sexually obsessed with Barbara, she and Master Wayne wind up boning on a rooftop beneath a hilariously disapproving stone gargoyle. After that, Batman stops returning her calls and she eventually quits being Batgirl.

Azzarello’s additions turn an already problematic piece into an atrocity. Leaving aside out the bizarre notion that a monastic, self-flagellating hero like Batman would bang his best friend’s daughter and then ghost the poor kid, this production is hyper-sexualized in an incredibly creepy way, with leering butt-shots of countless cartoon hookers and lingering, appreciative views of Barbara in her underwear. Batgirl is constantly objectified, humiliated into giving up her career, then ultimately paralyzed, so “The Killing Joke” now reads as if she’s being punished for sleeping with her father figure. It’s telling that Azzarello never bothers to show us that Barbara survived the shooting, but he does add a scene between Batman and some dockside prostitutes heavily implying that she was raped.

So who is this movie for? The crude animation tries to mimic the panels of the original comic but it’s missing all the richness and detail of Bolland’s drawings. Similarly, Moore’s florid dialogue was obviously meant to be read and not recited, as voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill trip over speech patterns distractingly different than the ones we heard in the first half-hour. (The only one who pulls it off is “Twin Peaks” alum Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon, but maybe that’s just because we’re used to hearing him cry about his daughter.) Why again was “The Killing Joke,” of all Batman stories, translated into the style of a popular animated program for children?

Earlier this month, several female colleagues of mine were viciously harassed online for days on end after giving negative reviews to the abysmal DC Comics adaptation “Suicide Squad.” (A few dudes I know got some blowback, but the majority was heaped upon the ladies.) It’s an objectively terrible movie, incoherent in ways I never imagined possible from a major studio release. Characters are introduced–or not introduced–then introduced again, with so many major plot points elided while others are incessantly repeated; it is extremely difficult to believe that anyone at Warner Brothers could have actually watched “Suicide Squad” from start to finish and deemed it in releasable condition.

One must wonder what it is about these superhero sagas that inspires their devotees and defenders to call my friends the c-word while threatening them with sexual assault? The biggest laugh in “Suicide Squad” comes when Ben Affleck’s Batman punches Margot Robbie in the face, which is one of the few times the camera isn’t pointed at her ass. These adolescent power fantasies have grown toxic, and their treatment of women reveals a pathological, deep-seated fear and loathing on the part of fans and creators. After all, what kind of healthy, grown adult old enough to see an R-rated movie wants to watch a cartoon in which Batgirl gets crippled and raped?•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

With the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei. Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler. Directed by Travis Knight. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. 101 minutes.

Even in a year that has seen some creative and entertaining animated films, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS would be a standout. Borrowing from Japanese folktales, anime, medieval woodblocks, and even origami (decorative paperfolding), it draws you into its story of young Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) and his quest.

When we first meet Kubo, he’s living in a cave with his mother for reasons that only slowly become clear. It turns out they live near a village where Kubo entertains people with his magical tales. His mother insists he must be home before nightfall and when he fails to return on time one night, we learn why: he is being pursued by his aunts who are acting on behalf of his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). They have already killed his father, a samurai.

He goes off to recover his father’s magical armor, accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Along the way they encounter monsters and other challenges leading to–and no real spoiler here–Kubo having to face his grandfather. As with most such animated features, there’s enough scariness that parents of very young or sensitive children may wish to take note, but most kids should have no problem with it. What makes this special is that it’s also engaging for adults, and not simply by putting in topical references and in-jokes.

The stop-motion animation is quite beautiful and seamless here. Laika Entertainment seems to avoid having a “house style” so while there are thematic links in their movies, each one has it’s own look. Laika has favored the dark and macabre in their animation, and whether their previous films–like “Corpse Bride,” “Coraline,” “Paranorman,” and “The Boxtrolls”–worked is a matter of opinion. (This reviewer liked only “Paranorman.”) With “Kubo,” though, they have gone to a new level. Instead of making what seemed to be intended as a Halloween special, they have created an adventure that transrends its weird elements. We marvel at the magic, but our focus is on Kubo, a boy trying to find his place in the world. It’s that combination of animation design and story that makes “Kubo” stand out.

Finally, it should be noted that someone will undoubtedly accuse the film of “cultural appropriation,” a trendy criticism which suggests artists are not to look to other cultures beyond their own for inspiration. Yet Shakespeare in England did plays like “Two Gentlemen of Verona” set in Italy, the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone made westerns, and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki made films set in Europe. It’s what artists do.

Kubo and the Two Strings” is that rare late summer film that will stay with you long after the leaves start to turn.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! Its a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartenders Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – War Dogs

With Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak. Written by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. 114 minutes.

If you look at films about World War II–particularly those made during the war–there’s a definite point of view. There’s no amibiguity as to who the good guys (us) and the bad guys (Germany, Japan) are whether the film is a drama or comedy, or it ends in victory or defeat. For filmgoers of that era, there was was no question as to why we were fighting.

In the decades since, those who led us into war–particularly in Vietnam or Iraq–could not convince Americans as to our goals. Stop the spread of Communism? Go after hidden caches of weapons? Spread democracy? The longer those wars went on, the less convincing the arguments were.

As a result, while the movies about these wars may ask us to “support the troops,” they are not about supporting the war effort itself. Instead, they are dark, often cynical movies, where lives are wasted and even the supposed good guys are flawed or, as in WAR DOGS corrupt. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, which is why for most of its running time, the film is sugar-coated as a comedy.

Based on a true story about two young Florida men who became arms merchants, it features Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, who enjoys easy money, drugs, and taking risks. He reconnects with an old school friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller), in 2005. He shows him how the government is letting people like him go after “the crumbs” of arms sales in Iraq and Afghanistan by putting their needs out to bid. David and his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) are expecting their first child, so the chance to make a lot more money than he was making as a masseuse is too good to pass up.

A goodly portion of the film is played for laughs. Efraim takes an order for Italian handguns for Iraq and then learns that Italy has passed a law forbidding exports to the country. When they ship the guns to Jordan–a neutral country–there’s still the problem of getting them to Iraq. In spite of the (brief) appearance of a dead body, the sequence plays like an action comedy. Even their interaction with big time arms dealer Henry Girard (a charmingly sinister Bradley Cooper) starts as a joke, as when he reveals he want to use them as middlemen because, inconveniently, he’s on a terrorist watch list.

A brief prologue suggests the inevitable change of tone that’s coming, but even when things go bad for David, the film maintains his essential goodness, even as Efraim is revealed to be a sleaze. Hill plays Efraim as larger than life, betraying everyone around him including his “best friend” David and the Jewish businessman (Kevin Pollak) who is bankrolling him because he has been led to believe it’s in support of Israel. David is seen as just another victim. Indeed, the real David Packouz even gets a cameo in the film (as an entertainer at an old age home). See? War can be fun.

By treating this is as a caper movie, “War Dogs” provides the requisite action and laughs. Yet it glosses over both the actual impact of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the moral implication of the actions of Ephraim and David, other than engaging in fraud in the deal that finally brings them down. Indeed the final scene of the movie leaves us wondering if we’re to be happy for David and his family, or chilled at what was left in the wake of his business dealings. American troops may be risking their lives in both countries going well into a second decade, but movies like make it clear we still don’t know how to think about it, if we think about it at all.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Florence Foster Jenkins

With Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Allan Corduner. Written by Nicholas Martin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. 110 minutes.

If FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS was the story of a clueless socialite’s public humiliation, there would be little reason to tell this story. Instead, like “Ed Wood” (1994), it’s a movie in which love of art and kindness of heart triumphs over lack of talent. And, ironically, the title character is played by the most gifted actress of her generation.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a real person who in 1940s New York was a patron of the arts and occassionally burst forth in song herself. The problem was that she could not carry a tune in the proverbial handbasket. In a word, she was awful. That didn’t stop her though. Those around her either pretended not to notice–hard as that might be–or really couldn’t tell. Her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) protected her by making sure only the right people were permitted to attend her performances, which is to say, those who wouldn’t mock her.

In the hands of Meryl Streep, with Stephen Frears directing (from a script by British TV writer Nicholas Martin), Jenkins is a lovably dotty figure. Over the course of the film, we come first to sympathize and then respect the path she has carved out for herself. She is not deterred by negativity, and wins over even those who are skeptical. We learn just how badly stacked the deck is against her–it’s not just a singing voice akin to fingernails on a chalkboard–and how she perservered in spite of it all.

Her marriage may seem peculiar, especially when we meet St. Clair’s girlfriend Katherine (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he lives, but like Jenkins, he is also not what he seems at first glance. Grant has played his share of cads, but that’s not who St. Clair is, and he navigates the tricky role with aplomb.

Thrown into this situation is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), a classically trained pianist hired to be her accompanist, including at her climactic concert at Carnegie Hall. He can’t quite believe what he’s gotten himself into but he, too, falls under the peculiar spell of Jenkins.

What is it about her utter lack of talent that is so endearing? Part of it is her sincere love for the music she’s mangling and her desire to share that love with the world. Those who conspire to keep the truth from her might see it as telling a child there is no Santa Claus. Who is she harming, after all? It is that childlike innocence, combined with her strong will to put herself out there–first in a recording, then at Carnegie Hall–that makes her the heroine rather than the patsy of this story. How many of us let self-doubt prevent us from doing the things we really want to do?

Florence Foster Jenkins” is the triumphant story of a woman who had multiple opportunities to give up, and refused to take them.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! Its a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartenders Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Sausage Party

Click for the R-rated "Red Band" trailer!FILM REVIEWSAUSAGE PARTYWith the voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Salma Hayek, Michael Cera. Written by Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg. Directed by Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon. Rated R for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language, and drug use. 89 minutes.

Let’s get the warning out of the way: FOLKS, THIS IS RATED R. Yes, it’s a cartoon about talking food, but do not bring the kids unless you intend to have a lot of interesting and embarrassing discussions on the way home.

Okay. SAUSAGE PARTY is the story of items at a supermarket who look forward to being purchased and going to the “Great Beyond.” Little do they know what is in store for them until one day a jar of honey mustard gets returned and tries to tell them the truth: they’re going to be eaten.

This sets in motion a journey in which Frank (voice of Seth Rogen who also worked on the script) and Brenda (Kristen Wiig)–a hot dog and a bun who are in love–try to find out whether the “gods” (i.e., the human shoppers) could really be so cruel. They are joined by an Arab Lavash (David Krumholtz) and a Jewish Bagel (Edward Norton), who argue over shelf space and hummus, and a Taco (Salma Hayek) who wants to put the moves on Brenda. Oh, and they’re being chased by a Douche (Nick Kroll).

Essentially this is a no-holds-barred grown up comedy with strong language, explicit sexual situations, drug use, and graphic violence. The violence is mostly directly at the food, but not entirely, particularly in the climactic battle at the store. It’s a movie where one might easily take offense at one thing or another unless one realizes that they are equal opportunity offenders, making fun of everyone and everything. Except for the fact that you may feel queasy going to the supermarket in the future, there are no bad side effects.

In a so-so summer at the movies, it’s the animated films that have turned out to be the real treats. “Sausage Party” is an original. While we’ve seen cartoons that imagine what toys (“Toy Story”) or animals (“The Secret Life of Pets”) do when the humans aren’t around, having sentient food learn its fate takes it to a whole other level. Indeed, the reason it works is that they keep upping the ante. Just when you think this surreal world can’t surprise you any longer, it comes up with something else that may make you gasp or wince but will most likely make you laugh.

For all its raunchiness, Rogen and company haven’t forgotten the jokes, a common failing of modern comedy. If you enjoyed movies like “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” and “Team America,” you will have a great time at this “Sausage Party.” And if you’re looking for something for the kids, there are several other cartoons out there that are perfectly appropriate and another one is coming next week. You’ve been warned.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Suicide Squad

FILM REVIEWSUICIDE SQUADWith Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Common. Written and directed by David Ayer. Rated PG – 13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language. 123 minutes.

Okay DC fans, it’s time to finally admit that the Marvel Universe movies are kicking butt. This reviewer takes no pleasure in this, having grown up a DC fan who never read the Marvel comics and constantly has to ask what’s going on when new characters suddenly appear in the “X-Men” and “Avengers” movies. However there’s just no getting around it: unless simply seeing these characters on the big screen is entertainment enough for you, SUICIDE SQUAD is a disappointment.

It starts off with promise. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) gets permission to get the worst supervillians together to form a special defense squad, supposedly to tackle the jobs regular superheroes like Batman (Ben Affleck) and the Flash (Ezra Miller) can’t or won’t handle. (Since this is in the “Extended Universe” of DC characters, Superman is still dead as of this spring’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”) We then get the backstories for all these characters, including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Diablo (Jay Hernandez). If you’re new to these characters, it’s a lot to take in, especially when at least one is introduced just to be killed off and another is introduced who isn’t a supervillain at all.

So who is the bad guy here? Hard to say. It could be the Joker (Jared Leto), who we know from numerous Batman movies. Harley Quinn is his former psychiatrist turned insane girlfriend, such transformation apparently caused either by forced electroshock or diving into a vat of chemicals or both, but in either case it’s all a bit sick given that’s her character is essentially a sex doll. Or is it June Moone (Cara Delevingne), a mild mannered archeologist whose body has been taken over by the all-powerful Enchantress? In either case it’s not clear why the Suicide Squad is needed.

And the overwrought plot is just getting started. The Squad is under the command of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is romantically involved with June. Amanda is arguably sicker and more violent than any of them as we see when she kills a roomful of innocent people because their presence is inconvenient. And there are still other characters and their stories but we’re running out of space.

So what does writer/director David Ayer do with all this? He gives us extended fight scenes between the Squad and the Sorceress’s homunculi, and later, the Sorceress herself. Some characters die. Some who seem to have died come back to life. Others do not. What he does not do is give us any reason to care about the results. By the time Marvel did the first “Avengers” movie there had been separate movies introducing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, so we at least had a chance at following the proceedings. With this new crew, Ayer needed to greatly simplify the plot so we could get to know who these chraracters are instead of just dumping a lot of information on us and figuring his duty was discharged.

The result is a movie that is surprisingly unengaging. It’s not entirely without exciting moments but don’t be surprised if your mind starts to wander, even during the extended fights. As for the performances, Smith does what he can to make his character both dangerous and sympathetic, while Hernandez gives it his best shot with cheesier material. Poor Margot Robbie, who should have been the breakout star here, takes a giant step backwards. No doubt adolescent boys will enjoy her scanty outfit and character’s wicked ways, but no one will confuse what she’s allowed to do here with acting.

Sorry DC fans. “Suicide Squad” was supposed to turn it all around for you, just like “Batman v. Superman” was. Now you have to wait until next year for “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League.” Let’s hope they finally figure out what they’ve been doing wrong, or they’re never going to get it right.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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