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Review – The Martian

With Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean. Written by Drew Goddard. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity. 141 minutes.

It’s nice to have Ridley Scott back. After last year’s “Exodus: Gods and Men,” it was hard to remember when we looked forward to his films. With THE MARTIAN, with screenwriter Drew Goddard adapting Andy Weir’s novel, he is in full command of the medium once again.

The premise might be characterized as “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” meets “Gravity.” From the former 1964 film it takes the concept of an American astronaut stranded on Mars with no immediate way of getting off or being rescued. From the latter 2013 film it takes the seriousness–and serious dangers–of space exploration, trying to be as realistic as possible. (Note to astrophysicists and others ready to nitpick: it’s a movie, which means some liberties may have been taken. Get over it.)

A Mars mission has to be aborted when a severe storm occurs that may damage the ship if they don’t leave immediately. In the evacuation, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck and lost, presumed dead. With moments to spare, the commander (Jessica Chastain) gives the order to leave. What we know going into the film is that he’s survived.

What follows is the process of figuring out how to stay alive and then how to survive long enough to be rescued. It’s a matter, as he says late in the film, of problem solving. He has to solve one problem after another after another and we revel in his triumphs and shudder at his setbacks. Damon uses his boyish good looks (yes, he’s still boyish even as he’s turning 45 next week) to good effect. There are moments when Mark seems like he’s going to lose it and other moments where he sees the humor in his dire situation.

Meanwhile, back on Earth the folks at NASA–headed by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels)–have their own problems. First there’s the memorial service for Watney, which his crew mates can’t attend since they’re still on the ship heading back to Earth, a journey that will take months. Then there’s the discovery that he’s alive. Do they tell the crew? Do they announce it to the public? Can they send him additional supplies? Can they help him until a rescue mission–four years away–can come off?

Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor), director of the Martian program, wants to do everything they can. However, besides matters of money and time, Sanders also has to question whether to put other lives at stake, as well as the overall fate of the space program. As he notes, his job is to keep them flying.

There are other characters–including the crew who return to the story late in the film–and through both casting and a delicate balancing act we get caught up in the professional lives of the wide range of people who become committed to bringing Mark home safely. It’s a superb ensemble cast with Damon front-and-center for much of the film.

Scott makes us feel both the excitement and potential danger that space crews must face, or will face, once we get serious about leaving Earth again. The recent discovery of flowing water on Mars couldn’t have been better timed. As with the best of the serious space dramas including “Gravity” and last year’s “Interstellar,” this is a movie that leaves you wondering why we’ve turned our back on space.

The Martian” is engaging drama, exciting entertainment, and one of the best films of the year.•••

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 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 – The Intern

With Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Linda Lavin. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and brief strong language. 121 minutes.

Nancy Meyers is known for comfortable comedies. The characters are engaging and the atmosphere is warm and cuddly. As Ben (Robert De Niro) might put it, inside it’s a lot of mush. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. THE INTERN is a comedy that should appeal to older viewers hungry for entertainment after a summer of superheroes, and anyone not overly jaded by cynicism.

Ben is a 70-year-old widower living in Brooklyn who’s at a loss what to do with himself. Retired from a job he held for 40 years–for a company that made phone books, which underscores how out-of-step he is with the modern world ]–he’s looking for some purpose in life. He sees a notice for a local internet start-up looking for “senior interns,” older people interested in offering the benefit of their experience to the new company.

The company specializes in mail order clothes and Jules (Anne Hathaway), its founder and leader, is a woman on-the-go. She races through the company’s loft space on a bicycle, going from meeting to meeting. She doesn’t even remember approving the intern program, but suddenly she’s saddled with Ben.

Ben is decidedly “old school,” showing up in a suit and tie and an attaché case from the ‘70s. He has to learn how to set up a Facebook account and check his email. When Jules doesn’t have much for him to do, he becomes like a favorite uncle to the other workers, dispensing advice on both the business and personal level. Eventually, he’s working directly with Jules, becoming the surrogate parent/best friend she’s needed.

The plot complications are just that. Her investors want her to select someone to be a CEO and run the business. Her husband (Anders Holm), once a hotshot business type himself, is now a stay-at-home dad. A pushy friend (Linda Lavin) obviously has the hots for Ben, but he’s more interested in the company massage therapist (Rene Russo). In one very silly and contrived sequence, Jules accidentally sends a nasty email to her mother and Ben leads several co-workers in a break-in to delete the message before it can be read.

If this works, it’s because Meyers has noted skills with actors. Think of the unlikely pairings of Meryl Streep with Steve Martin in “It’s Complicated” or Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in “Something’s Got To Give.” Here there’s no suggestion of a romance between Ben and Jules. It’s about a platonic friendship where she gives new meaning to his life, and he brings some much needed grounding to hers.

The two are charming and given how De Niro has largely been coasting along for years now it’s nice to see a performance from him that isn’t phoned in or embarrassing. It’s light comedy to be sure. His comic talents have been underrated but are solid. Without any of the mugging of the “Meet The Parents” movies, he plays someone out of step with the world but gamely trying to catch up on his terms. As for Hathaway, she provides a lovely portrait of a modern woman having her own issues navigating through life, but insisting to do it her way.

“The Intern” is sweet comedy that may not stick with you, but will leave you smiling.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.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! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Black Mass

With Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard. Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth. Directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. 122 minutes.

BLACK MASS is a dramatization of the criminal career of James “Whitey” Bulger, now behind bars after his conviction for his part in several murders. For a period of time in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was not only one of the major crime kingpins in Boston, he was also an FBI informer. His relationship with agent John Connolly, a childhood friend from South Boston, is at the core of the story.

The FBI office in Boston was hot to take down the local Mafia family, based in the North End, but had no leads, even as to where they were headquartered. Connolly made a deal with Bulger. In exchange for information about the Mafia, Connolly would see that Bulger was “protected.” It is a deal with the devil. Bulger does eventually provide key information but–according to the film–most of it was recycled material from other informants that Connolly attributed to Bulger. Meanwhile, Bulger engages in brutal murders, racketeering, drug trafficking, and even an attempt at arms running to Northern Ireland.

As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Bulger is cold-blooded and vicious. He can be calm and even charming, but it’s a veneer. In one scene he accepts an underling’s apology and while they shake hands plugs him between the eyes. Depp’s work here is the best he’s done in years, and may remind you of the time–pre-Captain Jack Sparrow–when he was thought to be one of the best actors there was, period.

The other key performance here is Joel Edgerton’s as Connolly. His take on Connolly is weasel-like, looking to use his connection to Bulger to advance his own career, with the bond between the two of them trumping everything else. Even his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) starts to get creeped out by Bulger which leads to a scene where–without raising his voice–the gangster seems to be threatening her.

The odd casting choice is that of Benedict Cumberbatch as former state Senate President William “Billy” Bulger. The story of two brothers, one of whom became one of the most powerful politicians in the state and the other one of its most notorious gangsters, has always fascinated, but not very much of it is made here. Why the tall British actor was cast as the famously short Irish-American politician is a mystery. It may play in most of the country but local viewers who remember him will find it at least a bit jarring.

As this is based on a well-documented story, “Black Mass” lacks the romance and melodrama of other gangster films, but that works here. We might find, say, Michael Corleone, an engaging figure in “The Godfather” movies. Here, Whitey may have some charming moments, but for the most part what we notice are his dead eyes and humorless smile. This is a violent film about a criminally evil person who killed or corrupted almost everyone around him. Depp’s portrayal of him makes this one not to miss.•••

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! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Transporter Refueled

With Ed Skrein, Loan Chabanol, Ray Stevenson, Radivoje Bukvic, Gabriella Wright. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage & Luc Besson. Directed by Camille Delamarre. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements. 96 minutes.

It’s not like “The Transporter” is a major cinematic franchise. THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED is the fourth film in the series (which has also included a television show), and Ed Skrein replaces Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a driver of many talents who will take anything, anywhere… for a fee, no questions asked.

These are extended chase films with fancy cars and occasionally other vehicles smashing through things as Frank sets things right. Statham was (and is) an engaging action star, while Skrein is an actor whose career is on the rise with several upcoming films as well as a stint on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” He brings his own sensibility to the role, but maintains Frank’s stoicism and professionalism. Indeed his lack of reaction–which should not be confused with lack of personality–brings to mind the “Great Stone Face” of Buster Keaton. Different performances, but both push through whatever gets thrown at them.

This time Frank gets caught up in a convulted plot by Anna (Loan Chabanol) to get revenge on a Russian mobster and pimp, Arkady Karasov (Radivoje Bukvic). The story is easy enough to follow but it won’t be summarized here because there are a few reverses along the way that are intended as surprise twists. Suffice to say the plot includes not only several ex-prostitutes engaging in elaborate thefts from Arkady and his associates, but Frank’s father (Ray Stevenson), himself a retired spy who gets caught up in the activities. If it seems contrived, Stevenson’s presence turns out to be a major plus for the film, offering him opportunities for wry commentary on the proceedings.

However the bottom line is that these films are about the action and, most particularly, the chases. One would think it all been done–how many police cars crashing into each other do we need to see?–however, a sequence set at an airport that involves a runaway private plane is hugely entertaining even if the details stretch your willingness to suspend disbelief to the near breaking point.

“The Transporter Refueled” might be considered a reboot of the series, but it’s really a continuation. If audiences buy Skrein in the lead–and there’s no reason they shouldn’t–he could stick around for a sequel or two, or not. It’s a film that is engaging if you go for this sort of thing but, even then, not something likely to stick with you. In other words, if this is the last of the line, no one will be asking in a year or two when the next one will be out. It’s the cotton candy of action films. It’s fun while you’re enjoying it, but not something that you’ll remember very often.•••

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 – Amy

AMY. With Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, and Mitch Winehouse; Directed by Asif Kapadia; Rated R for language and drug material; 128 minutes.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through Asif Kapadia’s staggering documentary AMY that is simultaneously beautiful and tragic. It was during the Grammys in 2008, for which the then-24-year-old jazz phenom won five awards for her album “Back to Black.” Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole were presenting the award for Record of the Year, with Winehouse beamed in by satellite from London, where she had just gotten clean-and-sober in a nearby rehab center. Kapadia, who expertly told the fascinating story of F-1 racing legend Ayrton Senna in 2010’s “Senna,” presents the moment by intercutting the awards broadcast from Los Angeles with the live feed from the club in London from which Winehouse would perform two songs. When Bennett announced Winehouse as the winner, the look on the young, overwhelmed singer’s face is inspiring and rewarding, albeit ultimately heartbreaking. Even though we know where her story will end–with her death from alcohol poisoning in July of 2011–we wish against all reality that it could continue on with her conquering adversity and letting her amazing talent shine on and renew into her golden years. Sadly, moments later, a friend relates that Winehouse viewed this pinnacle of success as “boring without drugs.” And so it goes.

In the film, Bennett, who recorded the standard “Body and Soul” with Winehouse for his hit 2011 album “Duets II,” holds Winehouse in the same esteem as jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Hearing the singer belt out song after song–most of which she wrote herself–this assertion is very easy to accept. At the beginning of the film, Kapadia introduces us to Winehouse with a recording of her singing “Happy Birthday” from a friend’s 14th birthday party, and from that instant, we are captivated. Initially, this is because the confident and nuanced voice of a performer four times her age comes out of her, but gradually, Kapadia gives us plenty of other reasons to love her.

Thanks to Kapadia’s access to hundreds of hours of interviews and the ever-present home video cameras, Winehouse’s take-no-shit attitude, passion for her craft, and wonderful sense of humor shine through, as does her inability to keep it together when her star reaches its zenith. While no writer is credited, Kapadia is also responsible for telling Amy’s story in all its exquisite irony. By making us so fully invest in a character we know is doomed from frame-one, he proves not only his sensitivity and intelligence, but his incredible skill as a storyteller.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Robert Newton is a veteran film critic, novelty recording artist, and Creative Director of the Cape Ann Cinema & Stage in historic Gloucester, Mass.

Review – The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

Starring Bel Powley, Domino the Cat, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, and Christopher Meloni; Written by Phoebe Gloeckner (graphic novel) and Marielle Heller (screenplay); Directed by Marielle Heller; Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language, and drinking: all involving teens. 102 minutes.

Confrontational” is a label we too often give the art–and the feelings and topics such art brings to light–that we would like to pretend does not exist. We too often treat this kind of confrontation as if it were something that we should avoid at all costs, like a sacred symbol in a jar of tinkle. By doing this, though, we miss out on opportunities to advance our thinking and realign our perception to better reflect reality. Writer-director Marielle Heller’s debut feature THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is confrontational art in the the best sense.

British TV actress Bel Powley makes her Stateside debut in high style as Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco in 1976 who is trying to balance her aspirations as an artist with her emerging sexuality. Minnie lives with her younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait) and her former hippie mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and after a casual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), an affair ensues. Naturally, the discreteness and control that Minnie and Monroe thought they had going in evaporates, and they must confront the reality of what they have chosen.

Heller spares no detail while chronicling Minnie’s odyssey, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable while we are watching it unfold. From the crimson “X” she paints on Monroe’s leg after her first time to the frank, no-boys-around discussions about sex she has with her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Walters) to the tryst she has with high school friend Ricky (Austin Lyon) in which he admits that Minnie’s unabashed pursuit of pleasure scares him, Heller and Powley let us know who Minnie is, through her desires, naivete, and ill-informed decisions.

While Heller’s gender doesn’t make her uniquely qualified to tell Minnie’s tale, the fact that she wrote and played Minnie in the 2010 stage version of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel does. Both Heller and Powley are fearless in their presentation of Minnie, and it pays off in large ways. Powley’s slight stature (standing at 5’2”) helps us visualize Minnie as a child on the cusp, while her actual age (23 this year) gives them both license to present Minnie in ways that they could not with a minor in the role.

Just as “Saturday Night Live” veteran Kristen Wiig showed she is not afraid to take on the topic of mental illness in in films like “Welcome To Me,” “The Skeleton Twins,” and the misunderstood populist pic “Bridesmaids,” she takes on another gutsy role here. While Charlotte is not solely to blame for Minnie’s wanton ways (as if a teen’s desires are worthy of such blame) we can see how Charlotte’s own objectification of Minnie paired with her permissiveness swayed Minnie toward making the decisions she did. Wiig plays Charlotte with a sympathetic and effective matter-of-factness, without stealing Powley’s considerable thunder. Also likable–despite the fact that California law would brand his character a felon–is Skarsgård (“True Blood”) as Monroe. He manages to make Monroe’s ’70s porn ‘stache creepier than his lack of common sense and constant rationalization. This is no Solondz-style “Welcome To The Dollhouse” knockoff.

As Heller did on stage, she judiciously incorporates colorful visual cutaways here. Minnie’s animated proxy is a buxom giantess, rendered in the style of underground cartoonist R. Crumb (and a depiction of an acid trip is particularly inspired). Minnie’s artistic idol is Crumb’s paramour and wife Aline Kaminsky, whom she imagines seeing from time to time and takes advice from. It all feels very much like a first-person confessional like “Catcher in the Rye” by way of the schizophrenic magical realism of “Birdman” and the gender-bending fantasy of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a confrontational pedigree that all involved manage to elevate, like Minnie, to beyond just a slapdash label that we would have otherwise written off due to our own predispositions.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Robert Newton is a veteran film critic, novelty recording artist, and Creative Director of the Cape Ann Cinema & Stage in historic Gloucester, Mass.

Review – The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

With Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant. Written by Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity. 116 minutes.

There have been many bad movies made from TV shows, just as there have been bad movies made from books, Broadway shows, and a variety of other sources. There have also been television shows–good and bad–based on movies. It’s not the source that matters so much as what the people creating the new work do with the material.

In the case of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., it’s a movie based on a 1960s television show that was itself inspired by the James Bond movies which, of course, were based on Ian Fleming’s novels. So there are a lot of fingerprints on it. As it turns out, director Guy Ritchie (and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram) got it exactly right, introducing the characters to moviegoers who may have never heard of them while not insulting the memories of those who have.

They do this in two ways. First, they set the story in the same era as the show, the early to mid-1960s. Not only is the Cold War going on, but there’s all sorts of opportunities to show off “mod” styles and period music. Unlike “Mission: Impossible,” this is a ‘60s style spy thriller that felt no need to update itself for modern audiences. Second, they make the film an “origin” story, showing how the principal characters meet and work on their first assignment together. Unlike the recent “Fantastic Four,” this origin story leaves you eager to see the next installment.

For those of you just coming in, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a CIA agent who looks best in a tuxedo, even when engaging in spycraft. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is the soulful KGB agent. Both of them have complicated pasts, and in their recent encounter they nearly killed each other. Now they have to join forces to prevent an Italian industrialist (Elizabeth Debicki) from providing a mysterious criminal syndicate the means to build atomic weapons. It’s so 1960s.

Along the way, the colorful locations mix with the bantering between Solo and Kurayakin, both of whom prefer to work alone. Along for the ride is Gaby (Alicia Vikander), whom Solo has helped escape from East Berlin because her uncle is connected to Victoria, and her father, who has vanished, was working on the atomic missile project. Her cover story is that she’s accompanying her fiancé Kuryakin, a supposedly gifted architect.

Cavill and Hammer don’t try to impersonate the original actors, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, but they get the attitude right. Modeled on James Bond, Cavill’s Solo is polished and suave, having no trouble attracting female company. Hammer’s Kuryakin is more withdrawn, with a smoldering anger just beneath the surface, making him seem more in need of attention. Then there’s Hugh Grant as Mr. Waverly, who will become the boss of the new operation they are in the midst of forming.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a slick and entertaining reimagining of a ‘60s spy film, with thrills, action, and some arch comic relief. What the oldtimers will want for the next film is the reintroduction of the theme music and their New York headquarters behind the tailor shop. And, of course, the revelation that the unnamed criminal syndicate is really T.H.R.U.S.H.•••

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! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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