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Review – The Meg

FILM REVIEWTHE MEGWith Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, Bingbing Li, Ruby Rose, Cliff Curtis. Written by Dean Georgaris and Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language. 113 minutes.

megIt’s been more than forty years since “Jaws” (1975) set the standard for shark movies, and “The Meg” isn’t going to be replacing it. Yet as a late summer thriller, it ups the ante in entertaining ways, providing plenty of thrills even if none of the characters are likely to stick in your memory.

In a prologue we see Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) lead a daring underwater rescue of men trapped in a submarine. When the vessel comes under attack from what he claims is a gigantic creature, he abandons some of the rescuers and surfaces with the survivors. Now, five years later, he’s summoned back into action when an aquatic research station off the coast of China has lost contact with one of their exploratory subs, commanded by Jonas’s ex-wife (Jessica McNamee).

When he arrives, he meets a crew of stock characters who seem to have been hired to appeal to different demographics, including China whose Gravity Pictures is one of the film’s co-producers. Among them are the (of course) venal American billionaire financing the project (Rainn Wilson), and scientist Suyin (Bingbing Li) who inexplicably has her adorable daughter on board. One of the games with this kind of movie is guessing which characters will survive until the end of the film.

They soon discover that Jonas was right in recognizing that there was a huge predator beneath the waves. It is a Megalodon, a 70-foot shark that was thought to be extinct. Once it is identified (and it’s not a spoiler given the title of the movie) the bulk of the film has the crew engaging in repeated attempts to destroy it. Between encounters, we get some character moments involving Statham and Li (separately and together), and comic or dramatic relief from everyone else. The reason for that is that other than Taylor and Suyin, we know absolutely nothing about who these people are, except as part of the scientific crew.

The rhythm of attack-and-break, attack-and-break was something established in “Jaws,” and director Jon Turteltaub and the three writers credited with adapting Steve Alten’s novel of the same name have no reason to change it. It’s effective in ramping up the action and then giving the audience a chance to catch their collective breath. In the climactic showdown, the film provides numerous subplots – including a wedding aboard a boat and a crowded beach – which allows the inevitable shark attacks to be different from what came earlier. Given the two-dimensional nature of the characters, no one has to do much in the way of heavy lifting, although Statham deserves credit for showing a gentle side in his scenes with Shuya Sophia Cai who plays Li’s daughter.

“The Meg” is another of those typical “August movies,” holding our attention while you’re enjoying an air-conditioned theater but not likely to provoke discussions or sequels 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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – The Spy Who Dumped Me

FILM REVIEWTHE SPY WHO DUMPED ME. With Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Hasan Minhaj, Sam Heughan. Written by Susanna Fogel & David Iserson. Directed by Susanna Fogel. Rated R for violence, language throughout, some crude sexual material and graphic nudity. 116 minutes.

spy_who_dumped_me_ver2The buddy action comedy has a long history, with last summer’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” being a recent example. Team-ups of two women occur less often, and 2013’s “The Heat” was a good reason why. Yet it ought to work – if the comic team has chemistry. Pairing up Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon (finally in a starring role in a movie) is why THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME works as well as it does.

Audrey (Kunis) and Morgan (McKinnon) are two single thirty-year-olds who are best friends. Audrey’s boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) has just broken up with her via text message, and she’s feeling blue. When Morgan suggests they burn the things Drew left in her apartment – and then sends him a text to that effect – he shows up to make amends. Unfortunately, he also has a hit team after him.

Soon Audrey and Morgan are off to Vienna to deliver something to a mysterious contact, and the movie turns into a variation of the current “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” with plenty of spies, chases, shootouts, and explosions. The difference is that the earlier film plays it straight while offering some comic relief, while this one goes for broad comedy and then provides what might be called “dramatic relief.” People die, our heroines are tortured (by a nasty Russian gymnast), and they go racing around Europe being chased by seemingly everyone.

Director Susanna Fogel (who co-wrote the script with David Iserson), keeps the focus on the two women who are in over their heads yet keep rolling with whatever is thrown at them. Along the way they meet up with a British spy (Sam Heughan) partnered with a CIA agent (Hasan Minhaj) who seem to be working at cross-purposes. As often happens in serious spy films, the key issue is who can be trusted.

However, it’s the dynamic between Kunis and McKinnon that makes this film different. They’re close friends and back each other up. It would have been easy to make Audrey more of a patsy given that Morgan’s brashness is her signifying character trait. Yet the one moment where they seem at odds is when Morgan insists that Audrey acknowledge how amazing she has been under the circumstances.

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” is a typical August release. With only a few weeks of the summer movie season left the studios are no longer looking for movies that will play for months, as they are in May or June. Instead, it provides its two young stars a chance to play at being superspies (although it’s unlikely they did their own stunts as Tom Cruise did for “Mission: Impossible) while getting some laughs. Fans of Kunis and McKinnon, and of the genre, should find it an enjoyable escape from the late summer heat.•••

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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Darkest Minds

With Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Patrick Gibson. Written by Chad Hodge. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Rated PG-13 for violence including disturbing images, and thematic elements. 95 minutes. 

darkest_minds_ver2When this reviewer’s daughter was a teenager we discussed the “Hunger Games” trilogy of books, the first of what would become a sub-genre of YA dystopian novels. I asked her if it wasn’t really a metaphor for adolescence and how teenagers were under the thumb of adult authority. Looking at her father as if I had just declared “water is wet,” she replied, “Of course.”

Since the success of the movie versions, Hollywood has looked for the next big YA franchise. Some have succeeded (“Divergent,” “Maze Runner”) and others have fallen flat (“The Giver,” “City of Ember”). Whether THE DARKEST MINDS, an adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s book series, will be a one-off or launch a new film franchise remains to be seen. If it scores, look for several more films covering the remaining two novels and three novellas.

The premise is that a mysterious disease has killed most of the world’s children, and the remaining 2% seem to have gained powers like super-intelligence or telekinesis. Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) has the power to enter the minds of others and control them. As such she is deemed especially dangerous and is marked for death by a government that locks these children up in prison camps. Here’s where the movie packs an emotional wallop beyond what the filmmakers may have intended. Seeing children marched into these camps by armed guards who will brutalize their charges seems less science fiction and more like the news stories we’ve seen over the last few months.

A sympathetic doctor (Mandy Moore) helps Ruby escape, acting on behalf of something called the “League of Children.” Are they good guys or not? Ruby gets conflicting messages and ends up running away, linking up with others of her kind including Liam (Harris Dickinson) and Chubs (Skylan Brooks). They’re looking for a hidden sanctuary run by someone known only as the “Slip Kid.” For Ruby, the question is who can she trust? Those viewers not familiar with the books may be disappointed that the story ends with the ultimate battle yet to unfold. Still, there’s enough imagination on hand to make “The Darkest Minds” an engaging film, in spite of the plot holes (like what’s happening to new children being born?).

Amandla Stenberg (who played the tragic Rue in “The Hunger Games”) is the anchor for the film, as Ruby tries to make sense of not only a world where children oppressed and killed, but of her own powers and what she might do with them. And so, as with other YA dystopian stories, it is a metaphor for adolescence in which the protagonist is negotiating a world in which she has little control and is subject to the authority of others.

Whether the film succeeds or not is less the province of adult film critics than of the teen viewers to whom this presumably speaks. “The Darkest Minds” may be the launch of a new franchise or not, but stories about teens struggling to make sense of the world they find themselves in will continue to find an audience.•••

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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Mission: Impossible – Fallout

MOVIE REVIEWMISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUTWith Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language. 147 minutes.

mission_impossible__fallout_ver3The late Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, producer of the James Bond movies, used to say that his rule in creating one of the most successful movie franchises of all time was to “put all the money up on the screen.” In other words, if the audience couldn’t see it, why were they spending money on it? The makers of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT – the sixth film in the series based on the ‘60s television show – have taken that advice to heart. It’s a mixture of suspense, adrenaline-pumping thrills, exotic locations, and just the right touch of humor, making this entry in the franchise the most entertaining one yet.

The movie’s convoluted plot takes a while to unfold. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg) accept the mission of recovering some stolen plutonium. When things go wrong, the director of the CIA (Angela Bassett) forces the team to take on one of her agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), over the objections of Hunt’s boss (Alec Baldwin). When Hunt goes to make a deal with a mysterious heiress known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), he learns that British spy/past romantic interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is also involved, as is his old nemesis former spy-turned-terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

Got all that? It gets even more complicated because several of the people mentioned are double agents or have secret agendas and characters may turn out to be someone else in disguise. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie may be more interested in extended chases and suspense scenes – including no less than three last-second rescues intercut with each other – but he also gives the characters time to be more than stick figures running around and to show that they aren’t quite superheroes. A frequent response to how they’re going to handle a seemingly insurmountable problem is, “We’ll figure it out.”

As with the classic Bond films, money has been spent on extensive location shooting, with wild chase sequences in Paris and London. The Paris chase is a film in itself with several twists along the way. The London chase has Cruise – doing his own stuntwork – in hot pursuit while jumping from rooftop to rooftop. It was during this sequence that the actor, who just turned 56 this month, broke his ankle, necessitating a seven-week shutdown of the production. Given what he does on screen, he’s lucky that’s all he broke.

A talented cast, great action, stunning locations, and sure-footed control of the visuals – yes, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” may not be a masterpiece of cinema, but it is smashing entertainment because all the money is up there on the screen.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

FILM REVIEWMAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAINWith Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Cher, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan. Written and directed by Ol Parker. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material. 114 minutes.

mamma_mia_here_we_go_again_ver3Ten years ago “Mamma Mia!” was released. It was the movie version of the Broadway show inspired by the music of pop group ABBA… and it was a train wreck. Yet there were people who loved it and so now we get a sequel. MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is – surprisingly – a much better film. Writer/director Ol Parker, who had nothing to do with the first movie, seems to have figured out what worked and what didn’t, and it shows.

The plot, of course, is fluff, constructed just so that there is an excuse to perform songs like “Dancing Queen,” “Fernando,” and “Waterloo.” We learn that Donna, the free-spirited character played by Meryl Streep in the first film has passed away. (No spoilers here but look at the ads for the new film.) Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), has taken over the property on the Greek island where they lived and is ready to open it as a hotel.

Parker is credited with the script, but shares story credit with Catherine Johnson, who did the original play and movie, and – more significantly – Richard Curtis, whose credits include “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love, Actually.” This is a much smarter and wittier script that the last time around, and while it’s difficult to parse out who did what, Curtis’s contributions could only have helped.

Fortunately, the present-day story, which will bring characters back including Donna’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), as well as the three men any one of whom may be Sophie’s actual father (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård), does not carry the narrative or musical weight of the film. One of the problems with the first movie was that many in the cast – particular the male actors – couldn’t sing to save their lives.

This film solves that problem by having extended flashbacks to young Donna (a star-making turn by Lily James) meeting, in turn, young Harry (Hugh Skinner), young Bill (Josh Dylan), and young Sam (Jeremy Irvine). These young actors – who also include Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies as younger versions of Tanya and Rosie – can sing and dance without grating on the ear. Skinner and James do a surreal version of “Waterloo” at a Parisian restaurant that is much more entertaining than anything in, say, “The Greatest Showman” or “La La Land,” two painfully overpraised recent movie musicals. Added to the mix is Cher, as Sophie’s flamboyant grandmother, and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager. Cher, as we know, can sing, and has a showstopper duet with Garcia.

The result is a colorful and energetic movie with lots of familiar pop tunes (some repeating from the last film), and which should not only please those already fans but win over some new ones as well. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is that rarest of sequels: it surpasses the original.•••

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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Sorry To Bother You

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FILM REVIEWSORRY TO BOTHER YOU. With Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer. Written and directed by Boots Riley. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use. 105 minutes.

sorry_to_bother_youThe damndest thing you’re gonna see this summer – and probably all year – is rapper Boots Riley’s debut feature, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, a screamingly funny anti-capitalist manifesto, an air-horn blast of subversion with a surreal, midnight-movie twist. It’s like if “Get Out” got all mixed up with “Repo Man,” Robert Downey Sr. and scabrous early Brian De Palma satires like “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” Even the title proves hilariously ironic for such a punchy provocation.

The film stars Lakeith Stanfield as the exquisitely-named Cassius Green, currently living in his Uncle Sergio’s garage somewhere in Oakland while dating a radical performance artist (Tessa Thompson) of dubious talent. “Cash,” as he’s called by his friends, takes a questionable job selling encyclopedias on commission for a telemarketing firm, and the first of Riley’s prankish visual stunts finds the contents of Cash’s cubicle crash-landing into the kitchens and living rooms of prospective customers while he repeats the film’s title, trying sputter out a sales pitch.

Cash’s co-worker Danny Glover (who gloriously gets to claim he’s “too old for this shit”) coaches him on finding his “white voice” – a way of appealing to clients by sounding like all of your bills are paid. Our hero discovers a hitherto unknown upper octave (amusingly overdubbed by real-life white guy David Cross) and it launches his sales into the stratosphere. Before long Cash Green is seeing tons of green cash, taking a literal golden elevator up to a luxurious corporate office while abandoning his friends on the floor who are trying to organize for fair wages.

In synopsis “Sorry to Bother You” probably sounds like a black-and-white morality tale about the perils of selling out to The Man, which I suppose it is, in addition to being about at least sixteen other things at once. Riley brings along his carefully cluttered hip-hop style to sample dozens of social satire riffs, skipping across subjects with an enthusiasm as clumsy as it is infectious. The movie misses almost as often as it hits, but when the big swings land they leave a mark. Flat as all the inane art-world parody may fall, when Cash is coerced into rapping for his new white friends Riley conjures an incendiary, catch-in-your-throat comic set-piece to rival anything in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.”

It only gets more audacious upon the arrival of Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift, a coked-out tech-bro of Jobs or Bezos proportions who has big plans in mind for our protagonist. Hammer’s vaguely sinister air of aristocracy hasn’t been put to such good use since “The Social Network,” and Stanfield’s naturally suspicious demeanor makes for a perfect foil. (I wouldn’t dare give away the big twist, save to say that certain particulars involving stereotypically black physical characteristics are gasp-inducingly funny even though I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh.)

“Sorry to Bother You” is ultimately too scattershot to be a great movie, but it’s a great first movie. Here’s a ferocious new talent kicking down the door with enough cojones and go-for-broke ambition to fuel a dozen lesser films. You leave wanting most of all to see what Boots Riley does next.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Equalizer 2

FILM REVIEWTHE EQUALIZER 2With Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Orson Bean. Written by Richard Wenk. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R for brutal violence throughout, language and some drug content. 121 minutes.

equalizer_twoWhen you see a film directed by Antoine Fuqua, you know that it’s going to have some hard-hitting and expertly-directed action sequences, but it may also be a bit fast and loose in terms of narrative. THE EQUALIZER 2 – his third pairing with Denzel Washington since the actor’s Oscar-winning turn in “Training Day” – shows Fuqua at his best and worst.

A sequel to the 2014 movie which was inspired by a 1980s TV series, it continues the story of Robert McCall (Washington), a retired special ops agent for the government who now is leading a quiet life as a Lyft driver, and occasionally wreaking vengeance on those who prey on the weak. He’s still connected to Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), who can access information he needs, as well as her academic husband (Bill Pullman). A brutal murder in Brussels leads to other killings, and when someone close to McCall dies, he becomes involved.

Unfortunately, there are several other stories going on, and while they’re not hard to follow, you may wonder what they’re doing here. One story, involving a kidnapping, is essentially a prologue, but another one – involving abusive stockbrokers who seem to have drugged and raped an intern of theirs – seems dropped in simply to provide an action scene at that point. One can see why they might have thought one was needed.

There are three other plots threading their way through this. In one, an elderly Holocaust survivor McCall drives is trying to regain a painting of a sister whom he has not seen since the war. (The man is played by veteran actor Orson Bean, who turns 90 this Sunday.) In another, a young African-American man (Ashton Sanders) is torn between pursuing his studies as an artist and making quick money dealing drugs. Hanging over all of this is an impending hurricane which seems to take forever to get to Boston, where much of the film is set.

Holding it all together is Washington, who combines righteous anger and humor as McCall. When he reads the riot act to the would-be artist, it is a powerful and dramatic moment. If the movie had been about the relationship between the two men, it would be a standout. Instead, it’s a subplot that not-too-convincingly is shoehorned into the main story when the artist gets caught in the crossfire between the bad guys and McCall. The climactic set piece, in which four of McCall’s former colleagues are gunning for him in a deserted seacoast town while a hurricane is raging is Fuqua at his best, controlling both the action and our understanding of the space so that the suspense mounts even if we know (or suspect) how it will turn out.

Much is being made that this is the first time Washington has been in a sequel to one of his films, but it’s more likely what was appealing was a chance to team up with Fuqua again. “The Equalizer 2” won’t be considered a standout in the career of the director or the actor, but it’s not an embarrassment either. It’s a mid-level entry that may be what one or both men needed before tackling more ambitious projects.•••

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 is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.