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Review – Half Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review – Hostiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Black Panther

– BLACK PANTHERWith Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright. Written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture. 134 minutes.

black_pantherSome superhero movies are fun, and some are chores. Some are a showcase for a star or director, as with last year’s “Wonder Woman,” even if the movie itself covers a lot of familiar territory. And then there’s BLACK PANTHER.

Director Ryan Coogler has taken the Marvel Comics characters – along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole – and come up with a story that dazzles and surprises while not skimping on character or theme. Often these movies get so caught up in their special effects that you’re left wondering if the actors playing the parts were even present during the climactic battles. Not so here. As with very few in the genre, this is a game-changer.

The film quickly sketches in the background we need to know although not revealing everything at first. The fictional African nation of Wakanda is the only known source of “vibranium,” the strongest substance on Earth. As far as the world is concerned, Wakanda is a poor and difficult-to-reach place, and the locals prefer it that way because they are actually a super-advanced civilization. Their new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is, through technology, able to transform himself into the superhero Black Panther. T’Challa has a tendency to be cautious, and so very much needs the help of the strong women around him including his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his mother (Angela Bassett), the fierce General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and best of all, his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is a brilliant scientist with a sassy sense of humor.

The story begins with T’Challa on the track of the evil Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has been stealing vibranium and knows the secret of Wakanda. Klaue is wanted for numerous crimes, but with the help of the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has managed to evade justice. It becomes more complicated, but that’s all the plot summary you get here. Coogler has a strong narrative sense so that we don’t have trouble following the action despite reverses and characters meeting unexpected ends. You just have to hang on for the ride.

And what a ride it is. Black Panther was the first African superhero in American comic books, being introduced in 1966 (and apparently predating the Black Panther Party). Coogler has fully embraced the African heritage here with colorful costumes, and some characters engaged in tattooing or ritual scarring of their bodies, letting us know this isn’t Gotham City. Others have noted that having a black superhero be center stage – and surrounded by a cast that includes those mentioned plus Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Martin Freeman – is an important statement. It also shows that diversity works for us all: those who have not been previously exposed to these images and traditions should find them fascinating and engrossing.

As T’Challa, Boseman racks up yet another outstanding performance, increasing his star power. Look, too, to Jordan, who deals with the complex motivations for his character’s actions. While we’re rooting for T’Challa, Killmonger is an adversary for whom a case can be made. Indeed, one could go through the cast noting outstanding moments big and small for all of them.

The glut of superhero movies isn’t going to end anytime soon, and we’re already promised that Black Panther will return in “Avengers: Infinity War” later this year. Suffice to say “Black Panther” is the best movie of its kind since “Batman Begins.” The bar has been set high.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 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 – Early Man

With the voices of Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade. Written by Mark Burton and James Higginson. Directed by Nick Park. Rated PG for rude humor and some action. 89 minutes.

early_man_ver3There’s no question that Nick Park and his team at Aardman Animation are seriously daffy.  It’s mad enough to do stop motion animation with clay models in this age of CGI, but it’s the stories they choose to tell that puts them over the edge.  These are the people who have brought us “Wallace and Gromit,” “Chicken Run” and “Shaun the Sheep,” in which the stories spin wildly – and hilariously – out of control, at least for the characters. For the people making the films, they know exactly what they’re doing.

EARLY MAN begins with a meteorite crashing into prehistoric Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and, not-so-incidentally, allowing cavemen to invent soccer. This being a British production, it is referred to (as it is through most of the world) as “football.” Time passes, and we are introduced to Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe, who live a happy and simple life in their valley. Then, suddenly, they must flee for their lives.

It seems the Bronze Age has arisen next door, and Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) has invaded the valley to be able to plunder its resources. Dug attempts to fight back and discovers that while Nooth is amassing riches, the people of the Bronze Age are marveling over amazing inventions like sliced bread and going to cheer their champion soccer team. Indeed, soccer is something of their religion.

All of this is a set-up for that most conventional of sports stories: the underdogs who have to win the big game. Dug challenges Nooth and his champions, demanding their valley back if he wins. Of course, if they lose they will be condemned to slaving in Nooth’s mines. While we’re pretty sure how this story is going to turn out, it’s an excuse for jokes ranging from slapstick pratfalls to the color commentators of the big game who keep pointing to the awful puns they’re making.

As with the best of this kind of animation, it plays to a lot of different audiences. Adults will appreciate the surprising turns in the dialogue, as when a character is chastised for not finishing his “primordial soup,” while kids will find it hilarious when a gigantic prehistoric duck relieves itself on Lord Nooth. Let’s not overlook Hognob, a boar whose grunts are provided by director Park, and who proves much more adept at navigating the “modern” Bronze Age city than Dug and company. Fortunately, Goona (Maisie Williams), a local who dreams of being allowed to play soccer, throws in her lot with the cavemen.

“Early Man” owes more to interest in World Cup soccer coming up this summer than to real pre-history or even cartoon pre-history like “The Flintstones.”  This is sure-fire family entertainment during school vacation week. Indeed, it’s for Aardman fans of all ages.•••

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 – 12 Strong

FILM REVIEW12 STRONGWith Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Navid Negahban. Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. Rated R for war violence and language throughout. 130 minutes.

12-strong-movie-posterIn the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the push was on to strike back quickly and severely against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, their protectors in Afghanistan. 12 STRONG follows the Army special forces team that went in only a month later with the mission of supporting the “Northern Alliance” and liberating a Taliban stronghold.

The problems were many, starting with the fact that there was no such “Alliance” and the rival warlords hated each other as much as they hated the Taliban. Further, the Afghan terrain was treacherous, and the Americans were backing a faction fighting on horseback and were outnumbered by forces armed with tanks and missiles. And just to make it more complicated, winter was only weeks away and even the Russians – one of many groups that had invaded Afghanistan and failed – found the snow made fighting impossible.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is sent in with 11 men under his command to work with General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who declares that Nelson lacks “killer eyes.” Part of the story is how Nelson and Dostum come to trust one another as they proceed against all odds. War films like this touch on the male bonding, the gallows humor, and the violence of war, and all of that is crucial to the genre. But this kind of film works best when we get a sense of why they’re proceeding as they do, and what the reasons are for their tactics.

Nelson points out that while Dostum and his men control the ground, the Americans control the air. Nelson has the ability to call in airstrikes, which is a major advantage. Dostum counters that Nelson and his men may be brave fighters, but they want to survive. They are facing an enemy that embraces death believing they will be rewarded in the world to come. As they proceed, the Americans have to adapt to the conditions of a country that has been the downfall of more than one empire.

Hemsworth and Negahban are the human core of the film, but we also get to know some of the other Americans, including Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña). Beyond that, we get a lesson in the challenges of fighting in Afghanistan where there is only one route to the city they need to capture, and it goes through another town where the Taliban has an endless supply line. To win that battle, they need to figure out how to cut off those supplies.

The war in Afghanistan is still ongoing more than sixteen years later, and is sometimes called “The Forgotten War.” The key fight depicted here was classified for a number of years and the Americans who came home from it returned with no fanfare. In the spirit of “now, the story can be told,” this film adaptation of Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers is a fitting tribute to the men who went in first and succeeded against all odds. “12 Strong” is less a celebration of American military might than of the tenacity of the men who responded to the horrors of 9/11 by answering their country’s call.•••

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 – Den of Thieves

FILM REVIEWDEN OF THIEVES. With Gerard Butler, Jordan Bridges, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., 50 Cent. Written and directed by Christian Gudegast. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. 140 minutes.

den_of_thieves_ver2Having written a few action films, including the Gerard Butler vehicle “London Has Fallen” (2016), Christian Gudegast makes his directorial debut with DEN OF THIEVES, a bank heist film that gives Butler an especially meaty role. Even as you anticipate what will happen, Gudegast proves to be one step ahead of the audience. It’s a fast-paced crime drama that doesn’t feel overlong at nearly two-and-a-half hours.

We’re told from the outset that Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world. We see the hijacking of an armored truck in the early hours of the morning that turns violent. This brings it to the attention of the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, headed by Nick Flanagan (Butler). With his unshaven and blotchy look and clothes that always look like he slept in them, Nick isn’t fooling when he threatens a suspect by pointing out that he and his men are the “bad guys.” Sure, they’re fighting crime, but they’re also fighting the L.A.P.D. and the FBI.

The hijacking was carried out with military precision, even to the point that while they brutally killed the uniformed guards, they pointedly let a civilian witness live. This leads Nick to Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), an Iraqi vet and ex-con whose gang boasts similar credentials. Their goal is an audacious one: to rob the Los Angeles outpost of the Federal Reserve. There’s a good deal of cat-and-mouse tactics along the way, with Nick trying to flip Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), one of Merriman’s underlings.

Gudegast pads out the story a bit with a few scenes bringing out the personal lives of a few of the characters, particularly the breakdown of Nick’s marriage. His grief at the separation from his young daughters is played off against one of Merriman’s men making it clear to his daughter’s prom date how she will be treated, but these scenes are really not necessary. Once Merriman is ready to put his elaborate plan in action, it’s the details of the robbery and its aftermath that is our focus.

As the rival leaders, Butler and Schreiber are a good match, each showing a respect for the skills of the other even as they struggle to come out on top. The person to watch though is Jackson, who is the son of rapper Ice Cube and who had a memorable acting debut actually playing his father in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015). As the seeming pawn caught between the two sides, he gets to play the widest range, including a key role in the robbery.

Behind the camera, Gudegast keeps things moving. We can follow the complex details of the robbery, but he can also distract us when he wants to hold something in reserve. As for the action set pieces, the car chase/shootout that is the climax of the film should satisfy genre fans while allowing for a few character driven moments in the midst of the carnage. “Den of Thieves” won’t make any ten best lists next year, but as a midwinter entry to rev the engines, it satisfies.•••

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 – Mom and Dad

FILM REVIEW – MOM AND DADWith Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Lance Henriksen. Written and directed by Brian Taylor. Rated R for disturbing horror violence, language throughout, some sexual content/nudity and teen drug use. 83 minutes.

mom_and_dadOpening in select theaters and on Video on Demand, MOM AND DAD is the sort of darkly satiric horror film that should find an appreciative cult audience. In a tight 83 minutes, writer/director Brian Taylor sets up his absurd premise, and then runs with it, with a delicious twist in the third act. Don’t watch this one with your parents – or your children.

The film opens on the Ryan family. Brent (Nicolas Cage), is the loving father who, we discover, is full of seething resentment over not living up to his dreams. His wife Kendall (Selma Blair), has devoted herself to motherhood and now that her kids are older is frustrated at being unable to go back to work. Their daughter Carly (Anne Winters), is a typical teenager, and her younger brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) is navigating the pre-teen years. In a mainstream film, this family would face some sort of crisis and, perhaps, be strengthened by the experience.

Instead –– without warning and with little explanation –– a seemingly worldwide plague has infected parents with the desire to kill their own children. There are scenes of violence (or its aftermath), but Taylor wisely draws the line at turning this into torture-porn with kids, which would be distasteful beyond belief. Instead, he lets his camera imply what’s going on or could happen, including a horrific scene at a hospital where Kendall’s sister is giving birth.

Carly and her friend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) gather what’s happening from news reports and go to rescue Josh before her parents get home. At that point, the film focuses on the mad parents trying to act out their violent desires, and the kids trying to stay alive. Flashbacks suggest that it’s not the anger/resentment towards the kids that’s unusual, but removing the normal filters that keep such murderous desires in check.

As the parents, Cage and Blair get to act out, although Cage is mostly given the opportunity to rave and rant. Blair gets the more complex role, showing that it’s not adults vs. the kids, but parents vs. their own offspring. To be fair to Cage, he has a touching scene with Arthur in a flashback where we see the sort of understanding father he was, although a flashback with Blair – where he demolishes a pool table – suggests this was a character ready to snap. Winters, Arthur, and Cunningham hold their own as the potential victims doing what they have to do to stay alive.

It’s not clear at the end whether the madness was a short-term event or something permanent, and the ambiguity of the film’s final line plays off the tension between parents and their kids that exists in even the best of families. Here the dark side gets the chance to run free, and it’s the actions –– not the emotions –– that seem over-the-top. There may be a limited audience for “Mom and Dad,” but those who get it are likely to find its twisted humor much to their liking.•••

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.