Review – Starfish

FILM REVIEWSTARFISHWith Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft, Natalie Mitchell, Shannon Hollander. Written and directed by A.T. White. Not Rated. 99 minutes.

starfish_ver2If you think it’s difficult to craft a film in hopes that it will be a blockbuster hit, it’s even harder if your goal is to create something that will be an enduring cult favorite. That means it’s okay if the film doesn’t appeal to general audiences, but it has to generate a fervor among its fans that will make them want to watch it again and again. Movies as different as “Casablanca,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” have their followings, but there are others that either failed to reach a critical mass or sank without a trace.

Whether STARFISH will succeed remains to be seen. It has a showing at midnight, March 16 (i.e., Saturday night) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline with writer/director A. T. White in attendance. This ought to indicate that even the theater operators understand this will appeal not only to a select audience, but to those young and/or hardy enough to go to a movie that first starts at midnight.

It begins when Aubrey (Virginia Gardner of “Runaways”) is attending the memorial service for her friend Grace (Christina Masterson). She’s distraught for reasons that are never entirely clear beyond the fact that she’s lost a close friend. She ends up breaking into Grace’s apartment and spending the night there, apparently as part of her mourning process. Then it gets strange, and it’s here where the cultists will engage and everyone else will be checking their watches and eying the exits.

Aubrey discovers that a.) much of humanity has disappeared and b.) weird creatures have arrived on Earth. Some sort of signal seems to be opening “gates” between our world and some other dimension, allowing these creatures through. Aubrey discovers that Grace has hidden a series of mix tapes that include these signals, and she now tries to find them all. The bulk of the film consists of Aubrey searching for the tapes, avoiding the monsters, and mourning the loss of her friend. The connection between these three things is tenuous at best and isn’t helped by the film’s jumping around in space and time. At various times Aubrey finds herself falling through midair, sinking underwater, turned into an animated character, and even discovering that she’s on location for the movie “Starfish.”

For those ready to join the nascent cult, these are profound and evocative moments that invite viewers to speculate as to their meaning. For most viewers – including this one – this is utter nonsense, not very interesting, and one pushing you to disengage unless you’re committed to watching until the end. To be fair, there are similar films to which this reviewer is very much part of the fan base, so it’s ultimately a matter of taste whether you can connect with the material or not.

“Starfish” is a film with a very limited audience, but it’s worth noting that Gardner – who spends most of the film utterly alone – manages to keep her character engaging even if the material is less so. The film’s distributors already know what they up against. They’ve announced that the film goes to Video on Demand on May 28.•••

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


Review – Alita: Battle Angel

FILM REVIEWALITA: BATTLE ANGELWith Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley. Written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. 122 minutes.

alita_battle_angel_ver3For those who saw “Terminator 2” (1991) on its original release, there was a moment that changed everything. Robert Patrick, as the film’s villainous T-1000 cyborg, is in pursuit of our heroes when he finds his way blocked by bars… and so he oozes through them, re-forming on the other side. It wasn’t the first use of CGI special effects, but it was like nothing we had ever seen on screen, at least in a live action film. It looked so real it was hard to believe it wasn’t.

The film’s director was James Cameron whose subsequent films continued to push the technological limits of what’s possible to do on film. For ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, he’s handed the directorial reins over to Robert Rodriguez, although remaining as one of the film’s producers and sharing screenwriting credit with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis. This science fiction action film should engage fans of the genre, but all movie lovers will want to take note of the eye-popping breakthrough that is center stage.

Based on the popular Japanese manga (their version of comic books), Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens in the home of Dr. Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz). It’s a post-apocalyptic world where the privileged live in a flying city and everyone else – like Ido – tries to survive down below. One of the things he does is pick through the huge trash mounds of things dumped from up above, where he discovers a partial cyborg with its brain intact. He uses this as a basis to revive her only to discover she has no memory of who she is or where she comes from.

The story that ensues is one of self-discovery, with the help of Ido and a new friend Hugo (Keann Johnson). She also comes to the attention of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a shady and powerful figure, and Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who happens to be Ido’s ex-wife. As the title suggests, Alita soon discovers not only things like chocolate, but that she seems to have been programmed with incredible fighting skills. This leads to action scenes involving increasingly bizarre cyborgs, including the monstrous Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley).

Beyond the world-building, including a sporting event that seems like a cross between “Rollerball” and “Tron,” what’s notable about the film is Alita herself. The first thing you’ll notice is her outsized eyes, a nod to her origins in manga where characters are often drawn that way. The second thing you may not notice at all, and that’s why this film is a special effects landmark. The Alita we see run and fight and even engage in a soulful kiss is a computer construct. Rosa Salazar wore equipment that captured not only her physical movements, but her voice and facial expressions, so that the performance is wholly hers, but the character we see on screen owes as much to computer animation as the characters in “Toy Story.”

What they seem to have conquered is what’s known as “the uncanny valley,” which refers to artificial constructs becoming more disturbing the more realistic they seem to be. A good example of this is “The Polar Express” (2004), an animated film in which the performances were generated through motion capture technology, and which left many people creeped out at the soulless homunculi who appeared on screen. The key seems to be the eyes. When motion capture is used to create imaginary creatures – Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” or the Na’vi in “Avatar” – it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Perhaps it’s Alita’s large eyes that helps to avoid the problem but watching “Alita” you have no reason to doubt that she’s as real as anyone else on screen.

“Alita” gives us a heroine to cheer on, and a breakthrough in special effects that amazes.•••

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

Review – Captain Marvel

FILM REVIEWCAPTAIN MARVELWith Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening. Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language. 124 minutes.

captain_marvel_ver2When we last saw Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” he had just sent out an emergency message to Captain Marvel before he joined half of humanity in disintegrating into dust. In CAPTAIN MARVEL, the character is finally introduced in what is the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so that she will be able to play a role in the upcoming throwdown, “Avengers: Endgame.” Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the incredible planning that has gone into a series that has been rolling out for more than a decade, with standalone movies still feeding into an overall storyline.

Vers (Brie Larson) is part of a team led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) on behalf of the Kree, who are in a galactic battle with the Skrll, shapeshifters who are identified as terrorists. In a lengthy prologue, the Kree try to rescue an undercover agent on a remote world only find out it’s a trap with Vers being captured. She escapes – obviously, or there would be no movie – and lands on Earth, awaiting rescue.

Here two things happen, after which no more will be revealed about the plot. First, it’s 1995, which means it takes place long before the events of the last Avengers event movie, “Infinity War.” It’s also allows a running joke about 1995 technology, from her arrival at a Blockbuster video store to trying to use an Alta Vista search engine. Second, her arrival brings out a young Nick Fury and his junior partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Through Hollywood digital magic, both seamlessly appear as much younger versions of themselves.

Soon Vers and Fury are trying to escape the Skrll as well as find out information relating to Vers’ past, as it seems she originated on Earth, not among the Kree. For those who don’t already know the story from the comics, the plot has several twists and turns as Vers becomes increasingly aware of her powers and what she is capable of becoming. For those who want to see this as a metaphor for female empowerment, it is a much more interesting and satisfying film than “Wonder Woman” (2017), not to take anything away from Gal Gadot’s star-making turn in that role.

As Vers, Larson has to play a character who is both reclaiming her past and discovering her future. It’s a surprisingly complex role which may be why some of the fan base has been put off by it, and yet she nails it while keeping with the sometimes snarky sense of humor that is the hallmark of the Marvel movies. Jackson looks like he’s having a great time, as we learn a bit about Fury’s backstory. Watch his scenes with Goose the cat, which play out unexpectedly.

In addition to Jude Law, the film also has strong performance from Ben Mendelsohn as Talos (under a lot of Skrll makeup), and Annette Bening in another complicated role that can’t be explained without giving too much away. There’s also a cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee, filmed before his death last year, that’s perfectly appropriate for 1995.

“Captain Marvel” not only succeeds in its own right, but – with the two closing tags in the end credits – ought to gin up anticipation for “Endgame.” And in case you were wondering, that film opens April 26.•••

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

Review – A Madea Family Funeral

FILM REVIEWA MADEA FAMILY FUNERAL. Starring Tyler Perry, Cassie Davis, Patrice Lovely, Jen Harper and Courtney Burrell. Written and directed by Tyler Perry. Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, language, and drug references throughout.

tyler_perrys_a_madea_family_funeral_ver3Apologies for not taking Tyler Perry at his word that this eleventh big-screen appearance of his sass-mouthed, pistol-packin’ granny Mabel “Madea” Simmons will be her last. But if you’re gonna call the movie A MADEA FAMILY FUNERAL and she ain’t the one in the box, then I’ve got some suspicions.

Why would Perry quit when he’s so far ahead? The writer-director-performer-mogul has admirably built his own massive entertainment empire entirely independent of the entrenched white Hollywood power structure. (Madea’s first movie, “Diary Of A Mad Black Woman,” opened in the nationwide box office top ten without playing in a single Boston theater.) He delivered a deftly comic supporting turn in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” – less so in the lamentable “Vice” – but otherwise Perry appears perfectly content to stay away from the studios and continue wielding complete creative control over his own self-generated projects. Or, to borrow one of his own titles: “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.”

I find Tyler Perry films fascinating in how violently they whiplash from juvenile tastelessness to churchy sermonizing and back again – the lowest of lowbrow comedy interrupted by exhortations to get right with Jesus. Meanwhile, all of this is staged with such little regard or consideration for the basic principles of filmmaking that certain scenes approach the realm of outsider art. (Not since Kevin Smith has a director worked so often and learned so little about the nuts and bolts of his craft.)

“A Madea Family Funeral” is more of the same, placing our heroine in charge of the Baptist homegoing for a distant relative who was something of a dog. In fact, the man met his heavenly reward while wearing a ball-gag during some rough S&M play with his wife’s best friend. Making matters more difficult is that the generously apportioned deceased died with an erection so large the coffin won’t close all the way.

This leads to many admittedly amusing scenes of Madea wailing about while whaling on her regular sidekicks Aunt Bam (Cassie Davis), Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and brother Joe –who, like Madea, is played by Perry in old age makeup that will hardly have Rick Baker losing sleep at night. The crew is joined by Uncle Heathrow – played by Perry again, this time in a wheelchair and talking through an artificial voice box Madea likens to a vibrator for her ears. (Heathrow is bald on the top of his head but keeps his remaining hair long in what’s presumably the world’s first Jheri Curl mullet.)

The movie’s fine when all the old folks are bickering and bantering with little regard for propriety or good taste. (I lost it when Madea hit Joe so hard she knocked the dentures out of his mouth.) But as this is a Tyler Perry film, there are also way too many serious subplots about couples coping with infidelity, complete with scorching, heartfelt monologues and heavy dramatic performances keyed more toward the kind of movie that doesn’t have nearly as many jokes about a dead guy’s boner.

Despite Perry’s public claims, this ”Funeral” leaves plenty of room for more Madea movies in the future, the character herself noting how much she’s mellowed and matured over this series of films: “These days I don’t even hit a bitch in the mouth unless she says something I don’t like.” See, there’s life in the old girl yet.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Greta

FILM REVIEWGRETAWith Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Stephen Rea, Colm Feore. Written by Ray Wright and Neil Jordan. Directed by Neil Jordan. Rated R for some violence and disturbing images. 98 minutes.

greta_ver2GRETA has impressive credentials for a horror/thriller movie. It should satisfy genre fans, and may actually draw in fans of director Neil Jordan, whose credits include “The Crying Game” and “Michael Collins.” It’s a B-movie with A-movie production values.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a recent college graduate living in Manhattan, working as a waitress and sharing an apartment with her friend and classmate (Maika Monroe). At the start of the film she discovers a handbag that has been left in a subway car. Unable to leave it at the lost and found, she seeks out the woman’s whose license she discovers, Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Greta is a widow whose daughter, she says, is studying in Paris. Frances – whose mother has recently died – discovers a mutually beneficial connection. She and Greta make meals together, and Frances helps her adopt a dog.

Then it gets weird. Frances discovers that Greta has been lying to her. When she attempts to break off the relationship, Greta starts stalking her. Director Jordan – who shares screenplay credit with Ray Wright – keeps upping the ante, as Greta’s yearning for Frances goes beyond loneliness to obsession and beyond.

It’s interesting that both the heroes and villain of the piece are women. While noted actors are cast as Frances’s father (Colm Feore) and the detective he hires (Jordan regular Stephen Rea), this is about strong women as both victim and victimizer. As the movie tightens the screws, it’s not at all clear where it’s going. While the movie seems to end on a somewhat conventional note, the final confrontation is open to interpretation.

As Frances, Moretz is a young woman trying to do the right thing, who not only finds things going wrong, but learns that the world is not equipped to help her when she discovers just how seriously she is being threatened. It’s a strong performance, but not one that is unexpected in a genre entry like this. Far more surprising is international star Isabelle Huppert as the stalker. In turns charming, scary, and relentless, this is not the sort of performance that gets Oscar notice (as did her 2016 turn in “Elle,” which was cited by both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association), but it is one that will likely stand out as one of the year’s scariest characterizations.

“Greta” is a film should creep out genre fans who have no idea who Jordan or Huppert are, while drawing the same reaction from non-genre moviegoers who do.•••

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

Review – The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot

FILM REVIEWTHE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOTWith Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Larry Miller, Ron Livingston. Written by and directed by Robert D. Krzykowski. Not rated. 97 minutes.

man_who_killed_hitler_and_then_the_bigfootIt’s safe to say that although this is only February, THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT is one of the year’s oddest releases. Its lurid title belies a solid cast and production values, and what turns out to be a moving portrait of the regrets of old age. Of course, it also has Hitler and Bigfoot.

The distributors must have leapt for joy when the film’s star, Sam Elliott, snagged an Oscar nomination as Bradley Cooper’s older brother in “A Star is Born.” We first meet Elliott as Calvin Barr, nursing his drink at a bar. In short order we see him mugged by a trio of thugs thinking the old man is easy prey, and then him taking out all three predators. Clearly there’s more to him than meets the eye.

In flashblacks we see Calvin (played by Aidan Turner) in a complex plot to assassinate Hitler, as well as falling in love with Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), a local schoolteacher. Meanwhile in the present – which is presumably the ‘80s or ‘90s given the character’s age – Calvin is recruited by the U.S and Canada to take out Bigfoot, believed to be the carrier of a deadly plague. Calvin confides his reluctance to his younger brother (Larry Miller), but eventually is in the Canadian woods tracking the monster.

There are two stories here and they don’t always serve each other well. The first story focuses on the pulpy exploits indicated by the title. Although the film’s themes of loss and regret play out here, it will get in the way for some viewers who can’t get beyond the over the top trappings. The second story is about Calvin’s life, which starts out with promise that is never quite fulfilled. What seems to concern writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski – making his feature debut – is how Calvin deals with the life he hopes for versus the life he ends up having.

In spite of the title, this is no trashy exploitation film. Krzykowski has assembled a talented crew in front of and behind the camera. Elliott brings a stoic dignity to his role, and is moving in his scenes with Miller as his brother. Miller is good as well, although another recognizable actor, Ron Livingston, is underutilized as the government agent sent out to recruit Calvin. Adding to the film’s emotional weight are Turner as the younger Calvin and FitzGerald as the woman he woos. Their scenes add depth to Elliot’s portrayal of a life of loss.

There’s no question that “The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot” is a real curio. It will disappoint those looking for cheap thrills and cause some bafflement for those there for the drama, especially when Bigfoot arrives. If you’re able to buy into the admittedly odd premise, this is a movie that defies expectations.•••

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, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Fighting With My Family

FILM REVIEWFIGHTING WITH MY FAMILYWith Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Dwayne Johnson. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content. 108 minutes.

fighting_with_my_familyThere was a famous ad campaign in the 1960s that declared “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” Well, you don’t have to be a fan of pro wrestling to love FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, the true story of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), who holds a number of distinctions including being the youngest Diva Champion of World Wrestling Entertainment.

When we first meet her, she travels with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) and her parents (Nick Frost, Lena Headey), staging wrestling bouts around England. It’s strictly small time, but then the WWE offers tryouts and Saraya and Zak both go for it, even running into Dwayne Johnson (who plays himself and is one of the film’s executive producers). The person in charge of selecting and training the wrestlers, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), makes it clear that most of them won’t make the cut. In fact, only Saraya does.

Whatever you think of pro wrestling, the film makes clear that the performers undergo strenuous training. When Saraya arrives in Florida she begins to doubt if she has what it takes to make it. She’s attractive, but she looks nothing like the other women who seem to have been selected because they’ll look good on pin-up posters. As a personality – and the WWE stars are expected to do more than wrestle – she lacks the confidence and energy to win over the crowd. All the while, Hutch exploits the weaknesses of the trainees, urging them to quit.

So what the movie is really about, beyond the rise of a wrestling superstar, is the inspirational story of someone who has a dream, faces missteps and failures, and yet perseveres. You don’t have to know who Seraya is to want to cheer her on. Beyond that, writer-director Stephen Merchant (who has a small role as Zak’s prospective father-in-law), infuses the story with humor. Saraya’s family, all wrestlers themselves, have their own eccentricities and yet we can recognize such universal traits as parental pride and sibling rivalry.

The heart of the movie is Pugh’s performance as Seraya. She conveys both the excitement and self-doubt she experiences along the way. She has to adapt, overcoming the attitudes and fears that were getting in her way. It’s a winning performance that may not get notice at the Oscars next year but marks her as someone to watch.

For those who already know who Seraya is, this will be a celebration of a woman who became one of the most popular WWE personalities. For those who don’t, “Fighting With My Family” is an entertaining and surprisingly touching story that may not turn you into a pro wrestling fan but will make you appreciate the effort and hard work that goes into succeeding in that world.•••

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