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Review – Chappaquiddick

With Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Clancy Brown, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern. Written by Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan. Directed by John Curran. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking. 101 minutes.

chappaquiddick_xlgIf Shakespeare had written CHAPPAQUIDDICK, it would have been called “The Tragedy of Edward Kennedy.” In telling the story of the fateful incident that took the life of a young woman and forever stained his reputation, it presents not an exposé but an examination of his character flaws as well as the enablers – and the public mood of the era – that granted Kennedy a second act, if not the Presidency.

In July 1969, the weekend when Neil Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the moon, Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke), and some colleagues including cousin and trusted aide Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), have invited a group of young women who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign – cut short by his assassination in June 1968 – to join them for a “reunion” just off Martha’s Vineyard.

The film tells the story in a straightforward manner. Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), identified as a “secretary” by Kennedy but actually an experienced political operative, is weighing whether she would want to work on a new Kennedy campaign. In the course of a long evening of drinking and partying, Kennedy and Kopechne go off together, although there is no hint of anything but a professional relationship between them. Kennedy is weighed down by the deaths of his brothers, and the pressure on him to pick up the mantle and run for President himself. Even his father Joseph (Bruce Dern), debilitated by a stroke, is on his back.

Heading back, Kennedy drove their car off an old bridge and it ended up submerged in a pond. Kennedy escaped, while Kopechne either drowned or was asphyxiated. What happened next is why Kennedy – who would later be revered as the “Lion of the Senate” who was able to work with Democrats and Republicans in forging legislation – was never entirely free of the stain of that night. He told conflicting stories as to what happened, didn’t report it to the authorities until the following morning, and then cooperated with a cover-up. With the help of heavy hitters like former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), both the legal authorities and the media were massaged and manipulated. The end result was that the story became that of his own redemption from his inexplicable and inexcusable behavior.

Could this happen today? Not the way it’s depicted here. In an age of smartphones and cable news and social media, it’s a different world. Kennedy had a life of privilege which, to be fair, could also be a burden, and it allowed him to walk away from this admitting to leaving the scene of an accident and getting a short, suspended sentence.

The performances are solid and serious, with Clarke seemingly tortured by the Kennedy legacy before finally embracing it. Mara brings to life the woman largely remembered for her death. Helms and Dern are standouts as they appeal to Kennedy’s better and worse instincts.

“Chappaquiddick” is no hatchet job. Instead, it offers a serious meditation on the uses and abuses of power, a story that is timely in any era.•••

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 – Rampage

With Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Joe Manganiello. Written by Ryan Engle and Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel. Directed by Brad Peyton. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures. 107 minutes. 

rampageRAMPAGE is a film we’ve seen before, yet it works thanks to top-notch special effects and the way Dwayne Johnson is able to engage us on screen. If you can put yourself in the mindset of a twelve-year-old cheering the good monsters versus the bad monsters, you’ll have a great time.

The premise is that an evil corporation has been conducting genetic experiments in space, and when things go wrong, the results end up back on Earth, causing animals exposed to a pathogen to turn into vicious, gigantic, and invulnerable monsters. One of them is George, an albino gorilla under the care of Davis (Johnson), who grows enormously and becomes increasingly aggressive.

The government is, naturally, concerned, especially when it learns that George is joined by a wolf and an alligator, and all of them are converging on Chicago. Davis has the help of Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who had worked with the bad guys, and a mysterious government agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who may or may not have their best interests at heart. It comes down to a massive showdown in Chicago, with lots of destruction and a plot twist or two.

Much of the film is preposterous. David survives not one, but two crashes. The scientific breakthrough that sets the story in motion seems more of a plot device than something with the slightest connection to reality, especially when we learn that that among the DNA “editing” that has taken place is something that allows wolves to fly. The massive destruction that we see taking place in Chicago is something we’ve come to expect at the movies but would be catastrophic if it occurred in reality.

In spite of all that, if you’re able to just go with the flow, it’s an exciting adventure as the good guys search for the antidote for George and fight both the bad guys and the bad monsters. While the effects are impressive, a lot of the credit has to go to Johnson who has utterly transcended his background in professional wrestling and turned into a credible actor. No one will confuse him with Laurence Olivier or Meryl Streep, but within his range, he deftly handles both comic and dramatic roles, while successfully getting viewers on his side.

“Rampage” is what used to be called Saturday matinee material, as its target audience is clearly tweens and young teens. Whatever your age, if you have fun with movies where giant monsters are wreaking havoc, you’ll have a blast.•••

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 – Isle of Dogs

With the voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images. 101 minutes.

wes2banderson2bisle2bof2bdogs2bmovie2bposterLong a favorite of certain critics and the arthouse crowd, Wes Anderson’s films have always left this reviewer cold. Thus, it is with surprise and delight that it can be reported his latest, ISLE OF DOGS finally puts his highly stylized (the less charitable would say “limited”) skills to work in service of an actual story. Although the screenplay is credited to Anderson alone, he shares the story credit with three other writers: Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. This collaboration may have made all the difference.

Like the somewhat overrated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), the film is done in stop-motion animation. For reasons never made clear, it is set in a near-future Japan where strongman Mayor Kobayashi (voice of Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki issues a decree banning all dogs and exiling them to “Trash Island.” Supposedly, this is to prevent the spread of disease, but when the cure for the disease is found it’s clear he simply hates dogs.

The conceit of the film is that the dogs speak to each other in English, but the Japanese humans speak in often untranslated Japanese. However, there’s enough translation or English-speaking that one can follow the action. On the island, the dogs have been abandoned and it seems to have devolved into, literally, a “dog-eat-dog” world. But then Atari (Koyu Rankin) arrives, in search of his missing dog. The boy is a ward of the mayor, further complicating matters.

The bulk of the story is how the dogs (voiced by, among others, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Scarlett Johansson) manage to liberate themselves with some help from Atari and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig). It’s fanciful nonsense, but it’s played straight so that it seems like a fairy tale for grown-ups. Children might be bored by the relatively slow pace and lack of much in the way of physical humor, while very young children might find some of the proceedings disturbing. Parents are advised to proceed with caution.

What makes this standout from other Anderson films (besides having a plot) is that the characters – particularly the dogs – are much more well-rounded than the caricatures who you usually parade through his movies. We find ourselves rooting for these literal underdogs, as they fight back against all odds. For a change Anderson’s visuals are in service to his story, with Trash Island managing to be both bleak and visually fascinating, contrasting with the formal structures of Megasaki.

While the film boasts an extensive voice cast (also credited are Harvey Keitel, Yoko Ono, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand) few have distinctive enough voices that you’ll recognize many of them outside of the closing credits. The key exceptions are Goldblum (as Duke) and Courtney B. Vance (as the film’s narrator).
“Isle of Dogs” may or may not represent a turning point for Anderson; time will tell, Yet, for a change, there’s enough substance to his whimsy to make this an engaging fable about a society thinking it can wall off part of its community without consequences, making it as timely as it is entertaining.•••

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 – Truth or Dare

. Starring Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, and Landon Liboiron; Written by Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow; 100 minutes; Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing content, alcohol abuse, some sexuality, language and thematic material.

truthWhat kind of person are you? Would you sacrifice yourself for the sake of humanity? What about your friends? Be honest…

In micro-horror-studio Blumhouse’s latest, TRUTH OR DAREevery kept secret and decision made has dire consequences for a group of college friends forced to confront their inner demons after unleashing a dangerously playful curse. You know, like real life.

After first watching the trailer, I could already hear the collective eye-rolling of a thousand horror purists lamenting. Yes, they’re all pretty young people with privileged problems, and that’s the point. The selfishness of our fears is at the heart of this film. Say what you will about the obvious plot conceit attempted many times before, director Jeff Wadlow (“Cry Wolf”) manages to pull off a wildly entertaining cautionary tale that touches upon relevant themes of gun violence, bullying, sexual consent, and cultural appropriation, all best experienced in a packed theater with varying degrees of movie-going etiquette.

Built as a supernatural slasher akin to “Final Destination,” “It Follows,” and “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” “Truth Or Dare” selectively subverts expectations by delivering its onscreen deaths in unpredictable patterns with suspense drawn directly from each character’s psyche as part of a game of Russian roulette in which the audience is complicit.

Pressured by her best friend Markie, Olivia (Lucy Hale from “Pretty Young Liars”) skips out on her commitments to Habitat For Humanity for a spring break of young debauchery. “Before life tears us apart,” she pleads. Off to Mexico they go, and before long they’re pounding shots and flirting with fellow American strangers. Smooth and mysterious guy-at-the-bar Carter promises an after-party without a last call as they stumble into a sacred church to play a hormone-driven game of Truth or Dare (is there any other kind?). Commence obligatory guy-on-guy, girl-on-girl action and a naked dash by “Teen Wolf” star Tyler Posey as Lucas who finds himself at the center of an awkward love triangle when wannabe doctor Tyson drops some truth about Olivia’s feelings for her best friend’s boyfriend. Oh, to be young again.

The stakes are raised when Carter finally reveals his true intentions. They’ve all just been entrapped in a deadly game. “I’m okay with strangers dying if I get to live,” he admits. The rules are simple. Tell the truth, or you die. Do the dare, or you die. There is no other option.” Tag, you’re it. The curse systemically stalks them one by one. Desperate to beat the game, every decision they make influences what happens next and to whom. Early on, Olivia tells Markie, “between you and the world, I choose you.” That is put to the test all the way through to an ending that is both silly and horrifying; a Twilight Zone finale that couldn’t be more timely.

The group of friends are well cast, and the relationships feel authentic. In an opening credit sequence, a montage of Snapchat stories documents their carefree Mexican vacation leading up to that fateful night. Blumhouse sent the cast on location with personal devices to capture the footage in an effort to build chemistry before officially shooting, and it pays off. I believe these kids, even if the windows of grief for their friends’ passing is short to non-existent. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Bills to pay, trends to kill, and demons to conquer.

The presence of guns in this film adds another layer of terror as they provoke mental health challenges and a false sense of security. Truth is a loaded weapon that can be set off with the most unintended consequences.

In a refreshing twist, Brad’s coming out ends up being a rare positive result of the game. For the first time, a weight is lifted off his chest as he’s able to live his truth with love and support from his father. Played by Hayden Szeto, he will go down in horror history as one of the best gay characters the genre has yet to see.

“Truth or Dare” introduces a “final girl” (the last surviving female character in a movie like this) who defines herself as a caring spirit wanting to save the world. As the story unfolds, we begin to question whether or not that goodwill is overcompensation for a guilty conscience or worse. Masked by good intentions and woke aspirations, Olivia and company may be the last bastions of the millennial generation but their vulnerabilities leave them just as capable of tolerating the pain of strangers as anyone else that has come before.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Kevin Lynch is the founder of Salem, Massachusetts’ defining annual genre festival, The Salem Horror Fest.

Review – A Quiet Place

With Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds. Written by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski. Directed by John Krasinski. Rated PG-13 for terror and some bloody images. 90 minutes.

quiet_place_xlgA QUIET PLACE is a seriously-made horror film with a strong cast and smart direction. Why doesn’t it work? It should have been obvious before the cameras started rolling. It has a clever premise that the three writers (including director/actor John Krasinski) didn’t fully consider. As a result, one must stop thinking while watching or else it all falls apart.

It starts off promisingly on “Day 89.” We’re three months into a worldwide crisis that is never explained. We see the Abbott family rummaging through a drug store in an abandoned town, trying not to make a sound. As we learn, creatures of unknown origin are rampaging across the planet, and are attracted by sound. If they hear you, they will attack.

We then jump ahead a year or so later, and we see the Abbotts in their stronghold on their farm. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is pregnant. Her husband Lee is trying to find other survivors while protecting his own. Their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf, but Lee is trying to devise a hearing aid for her. Their young son Marcus (Noah Jupe) isn’t sure he’s old enough to start learning survival skills.

Now as the family dynamics proceed with the ever-present fear of the creatures, a number of questions arise. Evelyn is pregnant? Did they think babies could be ordered to be quiet on command? When they were raiding the drug store did they not think to pick up some condoms? Since they’re being so careful not to make a sound that they spread sand everywhere they walk, how could they do this?

Then there’s the question of what the world did prior to the start of the film. Once they figured out the creatures were attracted by sounds, why not set off sirens or loudspeakers, and then pick off the monsters once they arrive?  We see the characters using sound to distract the creatures, why didn’t they use it to go on the offensive?

Which leads to the big reveal – not given away here – of what might be effective against them. With scientists, governments and the militaries all over the world realizing the fate of humankind was at stake, did no one think of this? Perhaps providing a little more backstory would have been helpful.

Recent attempts at what might be called “smart horror,” like “Get Out” and “Colossal,” didn’t offer up documentary reality but they did have an internal logic for the world the films created. “A Quiet Place” fails this basic test. What it does have is solid performances by its four principals, particularly Simmonds as their daughter, and some suspenseful set pieces such as Evelyn going into labor while trying not to make noise.

“A Quiet Place” is more of an interesting failure than a total disaster. It’s worth a look if you like the genre. Just try not to think too much while you’re watching.•••

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

Review – Ready Player One

With Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance. Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language. 140 minutes.

ready-player-one-poster_largeThere’s an audience for READY PLAYER ONE, but it’s a highly selective one. If you grew up with the video games and movies of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, this nostalgia trip should push all your buttons. Beyond that, it’s an overlong movie whose ultimate message is: turn off your devices and get out in the real world, at least occasionally.

When we first meet Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), he’s living in “the Stacks,” a near-future dystopia which isn’t quite “The Hunger Games” but is so dreary that he prefers life in the online world of Oasis, an immersive 3D video game where he gets to be his avatar, Parzival, and have a much cooler time. In the real world, he is obsessed with Halliday (Mark Rylance), the man who created Oasis, trying to learn everything he can about him.

When Halliday died, he left word that there was a hidden Easter Egg in the game, and the player who finds it will get his fortune. As Wade searches for the three keys that will lead to the prize, he acquires both friends and enemies. The biggest enemy is Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of IOI, an evil corporation that not only wants control of Oasis but has amassed an army of prisoners who are working off their massive debts.

Screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline have adapted Cline’s novel and reportedly improved on some of the problems in the book. This is essentially the “underdogs vs. the powerful bad guys” plot. Given that this is an old-school Steven Spielberg movie, you pretty much know how it’s going to turn out from the beginning. The characters are wafer-thin, with Mark Rylance (who won an Oscar for his turn in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”) coming closest to creating a full-bodied character.

The attraction here is neither the plot nor the acting, but the special effects – the usual top-notch work from Industrial Light and Magic – and the numerous pop culture references. The extended sequence where the characters find themselves in the world of Stanley Kubrick’s film of “The Shining,” is the stand-out. There’s also nods to a shelfful of video games, King Kong, MechaGodzilla, the Iron Giant, and Monty Python. For viewers of the right age, it will seem like a trip to a nostalgia-laden fun house.

“Ready Player One” is not a bad film, in that its target audience should find it satisfying and entertaining. However, it’s not a particularly good one either. At the end, the viewer is told “reality is real” and yet is left wanting to go play in the simulated world of Oasis. It’s a fitting summation of Spielberg’s career: occasional nods to the real world, but really preferring a world of fantasy and eternal adolescence.•••

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.

Back To The Future is one of the many movies paid homage to in Ready Player One. Check out super-talented BTTF super-fan Adam Kontras‘s new documentary, The Fastest Delorean In The World, now available for streaming and download.

Review – Tomb Raider

With Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas. Written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons. Directed by Roar Uthaug. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language. 118 minutes.

tomb_raiderHaving no familiarity with the video game (other than knowing it exists), this reviewer will not attempt to guess how fans of the game will respond to this reboot of the Lara Croft movies, with Alicia Vikander replacing Angelina Jolie. That said, TOMB RAIDER was a thrilling and not entirely mindless action-adventure movie, and Vikander may find herself with a franchise.

Where it differs from the game (apparently being loosely based on the 2013 edition), is providing Lara with a good deal of backstory. Her father (Dominic West) has been missing for seven years and when we first meet Lara she’s getting beaten up in a boxing ring where we learn she’s behind on her gym fees. In fact, she’s an heiress, but in order for her to inherit she would have to sign papers declaring her father officially dead, and she’s reluctant to do so.

Through a series of clues, she learns that her father’s last journey was to a mysterious island off the coast of China, and she ends up hiring the son (Daniel Wu) of the man who took her father there, in order to go there herself. The second half of the film is said to be closer to the game with Lara and the bad guys (headed by Walton Goggins) solving a number of puzzles to get into the tomb of some ancient angel of death.

There’s more than a passing similarity to the “Indiana Jones” movies here, and Vikander is game, showing a good deal of physicality in the action scenes, but not afraid to show some emotion as she searches for her father. The latter gives her character some depth, but some viewers may decide it’s getting in the way of the special effects. Vikander, who was stunning in “Ex Machina” and won an Oscar for the arthouse film “The Danish Girl,” brings more than looks and athleticism to the role, making her Lara someone whose motivations we can understand.

“Tomb Raider” is clearly meant to launch a series, with Lara acquiring weapons at the film’s end that fans of the game may have been missing. The brief appearance of Kristin Scott Thomas as Ana Miller is also a setup for a future storyline, although cameos by Derek Jacobi and an uncredited Nick Frost may be just for fun.

With plenty of action set pieces, an engaging heroine, and taking itself just seriously enough not to veer into campiness, “Tomb Raider” is a film that you know is calculated to kick off future blockbusters in the series, and yet it works. Perhaps it’s because the filmmakers realized that the way you make people want to come back for more is to make sure you get it right the first time.•••

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.