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Review – Coco

FILM REVIEWCOCOWith the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor. Written by Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich. Directed by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina. Rated PG for thematic elements. 109 minutes.

cocoposterAfter the success of “Inside Out” in 2015, Pixar’s releases have varied from the weak (“The Good Dinosaur”) to the commercially acceptable (“Cars 3”) to entertaining-but-nothing-special (“Finding Dory”). What a pleasure, then, to report that COCO finds the computer animation studio (now part of the Disney Empire) at the top of its game.

Like “The Book of Life,” a 2014 animated feature that didn’t get its due, it is a story set in Mexico during the celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Families honor and remember their ancestors and, as we see, the ancestors who are thus remembered come back to visit for the day. “Coco” tells the story of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) who longs for the life of a musician. His problem is that his great-grandfather was a musician who walked out on the family and, as a result, music is a forbidden topic. Instead, the family is devoted to making shoes.

Miguel finds himself caught between the living and the dead when he crosses over to search for Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the greatest singer in Mexico’s history and a superstar in the afterlife as well. To avoid being trapped there, Miguel needs the blessing of his ancestors who are as against a musical career for him as his living relatives. Instead, he joins forces with Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a roving spirit, who is afraid that he will soon be forgotten by everyone in the living world and thus dissipate in the afterlife as well.

Miguel’s adventures are colorful and imaginative and, true to Pixar when they’re focusing on the script rather than the box office, ones that evoke an emotional response. The movie is not merely about the love of music, but the desire to be remembered and the importance of remembering. It’s a two-sided coin in which Miguel will learn the importance of both.

As always with Pixar, the visuals represent computer animation at their best, managing to evoke personalities from the skeletal remains of the dead. It’s done in a way that children should be enchanted rather than frightened, as well as providing an opportunity for parents to talk about departed family members as a way of keeping their memories alive. The film builds to an emotional tribute to such memories that brings to mind the opening sequence of another Pixar triumph, “Up.”

Some have complained that Pixar is ripping off “The Book of Life,” just as there were complaints when Pixar made “A Bug’s Life” following rival studio Dreamworks’ “Antz.” Let’s just say that the Mexican culture, and the lore connected to the Day of the Dead, are both rich enough to stand one, two, or many movies. In bringing us greater familiarity with our neighbor to the south, as well as providing an inspiring tribute to love across generations, “Coco” is one of the outstanding achievements of the year and not to be missed.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Roman J. Israel, Esq.

FILM REVIEW – ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. With Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated PG-13 for language and some violence. 129 minutes.

roman-j-israel-esq-2017When you look at the careers of the great actors and actresses – and Denzel Washington is certainly one of our finest actors – you may notice something: not every film they starred in is a masterpiece. Even the lesser films may offer a performance worth noting, but it doesn’t change the fact that nobody bats 1.000. With the awkwardly-titled ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., Washington creates an intense and flawed character who might be much more fascinating in another movie. The problem here is that his character is stuck in two different movies, neither of which helps the other.

We first meet him as the junior partner of a two-man law firm. The senior partner is revered legal giant, widely respected and revered. Israel is the one who never goes to court but is a whiz at legal research, drafting briefs, and providing the crucial support. As played by Washington, Israel may have a place on the Asperger’s scale: he’s very good at what he does but has trouble relating to people, which is presumably why he was kept back in the office.

Unfortunately, the senior partner has suffered a stroke, and – as becomes clear – will not be returning to work. No one, except Israel, thinks he’s ready to step up and take over. Instead, well-heeled lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), is brought in to shut the place down. So far, so good, as far as the story goes. Israel tries to find another position without any luck, but Pierce sees that Israel brings skills that could be very useful – and highly billable – for his own firm. It is not the best fit.

Midway through the film, Israel makes a bad choice – illegal and unethical – and suddenly this becomes an entirely different movie. Israel, who has been full of righteous indignation at the world’s injustice, is now responsible for one of them. Further, the people he’s crossed are none too pleased and plan to settle the score. Instead of being a psychological portrait of an obsessed lawyer, it turns into a mundane thriller, and one not very thrilling at that. The conclusion is meant to convey Israel’s ultimate triumph, but seems contrived and tacked on.

The problem is not in the performances. Washington has played numerous intensely driven characters and having one being out of step socially and in other ways is an interesting challenge he’s ready to meet. Likewise Farrell, as the bigshot attorney, is able to convey how he’s still touched by the lessons he learned in law school from Israel’s partner. Carmen Ejogo offers nice support as a civil rights organizer who tries to bridge the gap between Israel’s out-of-date approach and today’s activists.

Instead the problem is in the script by Dan Gilroy (who also directed) that bites off more than it can chew. Twelve minutes were cut from the movie after its premiere in September at the Toronto film festival, but what needed to be fixed required work long before the shooting or editing. In setting up a dilemma for its central character and then dropping it for something else, we end up lacking any investment in Israel’s fate, and not even Washington is able to turn that around.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is proof that the presence of a star may be enough to get a film made, but it’s not enough to guarantee that the resulting film will be any good.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Almost Friends

With Freddie Highmore, Odeya Rush, Christopher Meloni, Marg Helgenberger, Haley Joel Osment. Written and directed by Jake Goldberger. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. 101 minutes.

ALMOST FRIENDS is an amiable romantic comedy focusing on Charlie (Freddie Highmore), a young twenty-something whose life has stalled, and Amber (Odeya Rush), a high school senior he falls in love with in spite of the fact that she already has a boyfriend. We’ve seen this story: he’s a lovable misfit with a quirky sense of humor, she’s stunning-but-smart and seems to be taken for granted by the boyfriend. You can see where this is going from a mile away.

What makes it a pleasant film to watch (and it’s out now “On Demand”) are the leads. Highmore has been making the transition from children’s parts (most notably in the 2005 remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), and has been helped by television work on “Bates Motel” (as Norman Bates) and the current “The Good Doctor.” He manages to play Charlie’s earnestness as well as his self-doubts, the reasons for which are conveniently revealed late in the film.

Rush may be less known, but is smoothly working her way through teen roles in “Goosebumps” and “The Giver” to play the high school senior beginning to face some of the problems of the adult world. (As a footnote, it’s interesting that the British Highmore and Israeli Rush fit so smoothly into American roles.) When the film focuses on the two of them it is both funny and poignant as they have to deal with their undeniable attraction in spite of the fact that she’s in a long-term relationship. One has to be much older to put that into perspective, and the film falls short in providing Highmore and Rush the support they need.

Marg Helgenberger is sufficient as Hightower’s mom, but she and Chris Meloni are saddled with a story as to why their marriage failed and now has him improbably moving into their house – she’s since remarried – while he’s lining up a new job. The longer and more involved this subplot gets, the more annoying it is. Equally of little help is former child star Haley Joel Osment (“Sixth Sense”) who seems to be channeling Gary Busey as Charlie’s slovenly friend on his way to law school.

What keeps our attention is the young couple becoming friends in spite of themselves, and realizing that their friendship is generating the sort of feelings they’re entitled to, not something to be avoided. Although we’re fairly certain where the story has to end up, writer/director Jake Goldberger refuses to give us the big dramatic payoff a more conventional film might have offered up. The ending is happy and hopeful, but as with most young lives, there are no guarantees of what the future might bring.

The movie menu between now and the end of the year consists of blockbusters, family movies, and Oscar bait. “Almost Friends” isn’t any of those and so viewers in their teens and twenties (or who remember what that was like) may find this a pleasant change of pace.•••

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 – Justice League

FILM REVIEWJUSTICE LEAGUEWith Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher.Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon. Directed by Zack Snyder. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action. 121 minutes.

justice-league-posterAs someone who grew up reading DC comics, including what was then called the “Justice League of America,” it saddens this reviewer that the best one can say about the long-anticipated movie JUSTICE LEAGUE is that it’s just-okay. It has its moments, but it comes across as an “Avengers” wannabe with second-rank superheroes. It doesn’t help that the greatest hero of the DC universe – Superman (Henry Cavill) – was killed off in the earlier “Batman v. Superman.”

The villain is some character named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who arrives to unite three mysterious boxes that will allow him to destroy the Earth. Batman (Ben Affleck) knows he can’t do it alone so with the help of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), they enlist the help of their reluctant partners: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Alas, the novelty of characters from different comic books working together in the same story has long since worn off.

The influence of the “Avengers” and related films is hard to miss, from the mythological villain and the arch dialogue (“Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon shares credit for the script) to the transformation of classic DC characters into watered-down Marvel ones. Neither the Flash nor Aquaman are true to their comic book roots, with Flash going from adult to teenage boy, perhaps so he can attract some of Spiderman’s fans. Aquaman has gone from sleek and blond to dark and huge, becoming this film’s underwater version of the Hulk.

There are even two “easter eggs” in the closing credits, the one playing off of a long-running debate among DC fans and the other ploddingly setting us up for a sequel, complete with characters who have not appeared elsewhere in the movie. Meanwhile, Affleck continues to find his way as Batman, with his choices sometimes scoring (as with his “explanation” of his superpower) to the mistaken idea that we should see his unshaven stubble beneath his mask.

The one who comes across best is Gal Gadot proving that her turn in “Wonder Woman” earlier this year was no fluke. In a film that’s striving to avoid the darkness of so many of the DC entries to the point where it’s lost its effectiveness, Gadot’s sunniness points the way for not only her career but where the series might go as well. Of course, if they really wanted to throw caution to the wind they’d do a Justice League/Avengers crossover. What would Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have to say to each other? Would Flash and Spiderman become friends or would they each decide the other is a loser?

“Justice League” reminds us that warmed-up leftovers can be thoroughly satisfying if that’s what the choice is, but no one will ever confuse it with an original thoughtfully-prepared meal.•••

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 – Wonder

FILM REVIEWWONDERWith Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin.Written by Stephen Chbosky and Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Directed by Stephen Chbosky. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action. 113 minutes.

wonderThis has not been a great year at the movies. Too many films were made simply because the studio owned the rights and wanted to do a reboot/remake/sequel/prequel. Director Stephen Chbosky is different. Having adapted his own book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” into a powerful and engaging film, he returns behind the camera for WONDER, a movie that proves to be about much more than you think going in.

Based on the book by R. J. Palacio, it tells the story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who is born with a deformed face. Even after multiple surgeries, he still doesn’t look “normal,” but inside there’s a perfectly normal ten-year-old who has been homeschooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) but is now going to enter fifth grade at a well-heeled private school. If the movie was simply about Augie’s struggle for acceptance, that might have been enough, but like the novel it’s based on, we get the perspectives of many characters including his sister Via (Izabetla Vidovic) and his first real friend Jack (Noah Jupe).

What we learn is that each of the kids has their own burden, whether it’s being at the school on financial aid, having divorced parents who lost interest in their child’s life, or – in the alternative – bully their son with their own prejudices and behaviors. Everyone can see how Auggie is different, while the differences of others are largely invisible.

The choice of Chbosky as director (he also co-wrote the screenplay) was inspired. He clearly relates to these young characters and remembers what it’s like to be shunned in the lunchroom or to lose someone you thought was a friend. Likewise, he remembers the joys of making a new friend, and – most especially – discovering that you’re not alone in the world. The adults, including a subdued Owen Wilson as Augie’s dad, are supportive, but by the tween years, one is looking for acceptance by one’s peers. Augie’s journey will have you tearing up, laughing, and cheering. This is an example of the rare but much-desired “family film” which addresses all ages. It’s not surprising to see that Walden Media is one of the companies involved in this project as they have made quality family films like the first “Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Bridge to Terabithia,” and “The B.F.G.” their hallmark.

The adult cast provides some star power, including a cameo by Sonia Braga as the grandmother, but Chbosky tamps down Wilson and Patinkin and even Roberts, so that it is the young performers who are in the foreground. Young Tremblay (with the help of prosthetic makeup) is utterly natural as Augie, struggling to play the hand life has dealt him. The others succeed in showing us the complexities of tweens and teens today, sometimes doing the right thing and sometimes not.

“Wonder” may not be a blockbuster or Oscar bait, but if you’re looking for a movie this season that, for a little while at any rate, will make you feel better about the world, this is the one you need to see.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Murder On The Orient Express

With Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz.Written by Michael Green. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. 114 minutes.

murder-on-orient-express-1How good is MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS? Even if you’re familiar with the Agatha Christie novel or one of the several adaptations (particularly the memorably lavish 1974 movie), you will find yourself caught up in what has to be called one of the best murder mystery plots of all time.

Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, stars as Christie’s fastidious and somewhat eccentric Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Summoned to London while traveling in the Middle East, he books passage on the Orient Express, a luxurious train whose first-class accommodations are already filled to capacity. Somehow, they fit him aboard.

His fellow passengers are a curious cross-section of people. There’s Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a flamboyant American widow. Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a shady businessman, is traveling with an entourage that includes his valet (Derek Jacobi) and his accountant (Josh Gad). There’s some European nobility, including Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a ballet star, and his wife (Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton), and the elderly Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her personal maid (Olivia Colman). There’s also a missionary (Penélope Cruz), a scientist (Willem Dafoe), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a car dealer (Marwan Kenzari), and a governess (Daisy Ridley).

The premise is simple. During the journey, the train is stopped by an avalanche. It will take several days to get them dug out and back on track. What complicates matters is that one of the passengers is murdered, and as Poirot begins his investigation, each of the seemingly unrelated people turn out to have some connection to the murder victim. Poirot has to decide if his rigid commitment to the truth will stand if it takes him to someplace wholly unbelievable.

What makes this such an oft-filmed property (at least four or five versions including one in Japanese) is its elegance. The characters are trapped in one place and Poirot has a limited amount of time to solve the case before they are rescued, allowing the person or persons involved to flee. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green leave the story in its pre-World War II time period, which is a boon for both plot and the art direction. In terms of plot, it not only resonates against a well-known real-life criminal case, but also allows for the mixes of classes and cultures which might play out very differently today. It also permits the recreation of the heyday of luxury rail service, with the décor as impeccably designed as the characters and the clothing they wear.

Luscious to look at, with Branagh’s colorful Poirot as our guide through a complex murder plot, “Murder On The Orient Express” remains a classic mystery and one well-served by this production.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Thor: Ragnarok

FILM REVIEWTHOR: RAGNAROKWith Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum.Written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost. Directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material. 130 minutes.

4aff7849ly1fkdb90ot9mj21aw1xgb2gIt’s easy to tell the difference between the Marvel movies and the DC movies when it comes to the current cycle of competing superhero movies. The DC movies, like “Superman v. Batman,” are dark and largely humorless, even in comparison to the supposedly bleak but often witty “Batman” movies directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale.

By contrast, the Marvel movies – think “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” and especially “Guardians of the Galaxy” – are filled with quirky characters and giddiness mixed with the special effects and action sequences. The new THOR: RAGNAROK very much takes this approach, making it a tremendous amount of fun provided that you go for this sort of thing. You may even find yourself being entertained in spite of yourself.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), has some problems. His aged father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is not long for the world, his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is as untrustworthy as ever, and now a long-forgotten older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, diving head first into the action) arrives to destroy Asgard and take her rightful place as supreme ruler. Much of the film is a shaggy dog story, as Thor chases and is chased around the universe until the inevitable showdown with Hela. And that’s where the fun is.

There’s a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who seems willing to sell out Thor but may still have loyalties to her Asgardian roots. And then there’s Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the ruler of a planet where he’ll grant freedom to anyone who can defeat his champion, only no one ever does. That may be because his champion turns out to be the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of several characters from other Marvel movies to show up here, but in a substantial enough part that it’s not a spoiler. (There are other surprises not to be revealed here.)

The result is the first Thor movie that can take its place in the first ranks of Marvel movies, instead of just being something to do with the character between outings in the “Avengers” series. One thing they’ve done is eliminated the Earth characters from the earlier films, although Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) is back. The filmmakers seem to realize that while they have to take the story seriously enough that we care how it turns out, it doesn’t have to be taken much more seriously than that. Cate Blanchett is one of the finest actresses in the movies today, and as Hela, she doesn’t condescend to the material but sinks her teeth into the role and has fun with it.

As usual, there are scenes in the closing credits to stay for, including a tease for next year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” but it is the final moment – in which one character self-servingly sums up the entire movie – that really captures the spirit of it. This is a “get a bucket of popcorn, sit back, and have fun” movie and, as such, it works perfectly.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.