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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.

Review – Thank You For Your Service

. With Haley Bennett, Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Amy Schumer, Keisha Castle-Hughes. Written by and directed by Jason Hall. Rated R for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity. 108 minutes.

thank-you-for-your-service-2017i-poster-300x450There’s an important story to be told in THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, but this dramatic adaptation of the book by David Finkel may not have been the best way to tell it. We may make a show of respect for our veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – see the bogus huffing and puffing over respectful protests during the playing of the national anthem – but we don’t really mean it. Consider that one of the most powerful statements here are not the actual and attempted suicides by veterans overwhelmed by their return to civilian life, but the bureaucracy and indifference facing them at the Veteran’s Administration. Even the people trying to make it work have to cope with the lack of sufficient funding or staffing, which speaks volumes about our actual priorities.

The movie tells the stories of several returning veterans, but focuses on two: Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) and Solo (Beulah Koale). Schumann returns home wracked by guilt. He feels responsible for the death of one soldier and injuries to another and sees his family in financial straits because of his inability to get a job in civilian life. Meanwhile Solo, who hails from American Samoa, feels the Army saved his life and doesn’t want to leave the service, but is discharged because of brain injuries he’s suffered.

In a documentary, these could be compelling stories. However, in a conventional Hollywood drama – which is what this is – it falls into cliché and convention. Thus Solo, whose condition remains untreated while awaiting an opening in a VA program, gets increasingly irrational and violent. He falls in with a bad crowd and makes some money delivering illegal goods for them. You just know this is going to turn out bad, and the coincidences and contrivances, even if true, come across as simply bad plotting.

Schumann’s story gets the most screen time as he tries to reintegrate himself into family life with his wife (Haley Bennett in a sympathetic performance) and two children, but he has to wrestle with his own demons. Here, again, the resolution is too pat and convenient. It doesn’t help that Teller is a bit bland as Schumann, so that his anger and frustration lacks the power it might otherwise have had.

Writer Jason Hall, who previously adapted the far better “American Sniper,” makes his directorial debut here. He obviously cares for the stories of the men depicted, but it isn’t enough to make “Thank You for Your Service” a compelling film. If this can get Congress to pay attention to really supporting our vets instead of just offering lip service, that will be all to the good, but more likely this movie represents a missed opportunity to get the message out.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Suburbicon

FILM REVIEWSUBURBICONWith Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Gary Basaraba. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and George Clooney & Grant Heslov. Directed by George Clooney. Rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality. 104 minutes.

rlaua4suc873cx8c3y0omwmsarpIt’s so easy to spot the problem with SUBURBICON, and it’s surprising that neither director George Clooney, nor his screenwriting team which included the Coen Brothers, nor his cast headed up by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore was able to spot it. Intended as a dark satire of 1950s suburbia, it presents two stories that play off against each other in such a contrived manner that it’s as if Clooney stood in front of the camera shouting, “Here’s the point we’re making!”

The setting is Suburbicon, a housing development not unlike Levittown, which is introduced in a witty prologue. Then two stories are set in motion. One involves the Meyers, the first black family to move into the neighborhood to the shock and dismay of their racist neighbors. Unfortunately, we learn virtually nothing about these characters, and so they are literally tokens subjected to increasing abuse.

The one neighbor who isn’t concerned are the Lodge family where Nicky (Noah Jupe) is encouraged to play with their young son. One night the Lodges are subjected to a home invasion by oily thugs who tie up Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife and sister-in-law (both played by Julianne Moore), and Nicky. The result of that crime constitutes the bulk of the story and so no further details will be provided. Suffice to say that as the story unfolds, we get a twisted image of the suburban dream.

The supposed irony is that while everyone blames the arrival of the Meyers for bringing “crime” into the neighborhood, it turns out that it is the white residents who are engaging in increasingly obnoxious and violent protests. They would do better to look at themselves. If the story of the Meyers was only one of several counterpoints to the unraveling of the Lodge family, it might have worked. Alone the story of suburban racism demands either to be the focus of the movie or cut out altogether so we can focus on the increasingly strange goings-on at the Lodges.

“Suburbicon” falls into that category of “interesting failure.” It doesn’t really work as intended but Clooney (and his production design team) create a vivid portrait of ’50s suburbia. Damon and Moore do a credible job as characters navigating the secret underworld of the community with Jupe a standout as the youngster caught in the middle of all of this. The problem is that the cartoonish and ironic violence of their story does not work well with the serious bigotry depicted in the Meyers’ tale. In a year that has given us “Get Out” and “Detroit,” this is a lightweight rendition of a serious matter and not the “statement” that was apparently intended.

This is one of those films where you have to sift through it to find the nuggets of satisfaction, like the arrival of Oscar Isaac as an insurance claim investigator who steals the movie in just a couple of scenes. Yet when you get to the all too clever and pat final moment of the film, of two boys playing catch, you find yourself wondering how they could have possibly missed the fact that the film never formed a coherent whole.•••

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 – The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille

FILM REVIEWTHE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE. Written and directed by Peter Brosnan. Unrated. 88 minutes.

There are three different stories going on in THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE, a documentary making its debut on Video-on-Demand. Anyone interested in movies, archaeology, or the issues involved in preserving historical artifacts deemed “pop culture” will find this a fascinating story. Others may find themselves sucked into the mystery as well.

Cecil B. DeMille was a major filmmaker from the founding of Hollywood to his final movie, the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” Other than historians and film buffs, though, most of his other films – which date back to the silent era – tend to have been forgotten, or perhaps noted in the film histories but rarely watched today. One such film was his 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments.”

To create ancient Egypt, DeMille had a “City of the Pharaoh” constructed in Santa Barbara County in California. It was a massive set that included 20 sphinxes and four statues of Ramses, each weighing several tons. The sets were to be destroyed or removed when filming was done, but Peter Brosnan came across a reference in DeMille’s memoirs indicating that, in fact, they had been buried in the sand dunes where the filming had taken place.

Thus begins the second story where Brosnan and associates begin looking for evidence that these massive artifacts may still exist beneath the ground. He began his search in 1982 when there are still people in the town of Guadalupe who remembered working on the film sixty years earlier. They find some evidence that there is material buried in the sand and begin the work of getting financing and permission to do the excavations.

Which brings us to the third story as Brosnan’s on-again/off-again project takes more than thirty years to come to fruition, as financing appears or evaporates, government bureaucrats throw up roadblocks, people die, and ownership of the land changes hands. One person involved became so fed up with the delays and obstacles that he walked away from the project and refuses to talk about it. Support arrives from surprising quarters, though, leading to some impressive discoveries. From a historical point of view we see how easily our past can get lost, and the efforts that must be taken to preserve it. When you watch the archaeological dig around the movie site, it’s not all that different from the work that goes on in the Middle East or other homes to ancient civilizations.

Why were the sets buried in the first place? Part of the reason may be because it was cheaper than carting it away. Another reason, suggested by Jesse Lasky, Jr. – a writer who worked with DeMille and whose father was one of the original Hollywood moguls – was that if the set had been left standing, other filmmakers might have tried to make use of it for their own, cheaper productions.

Along the way, we get DeMille’s story as well as the story of the thirty-year quest for the remnants of the set, as well as Brosnan’s’ own story. What began as a bit of a lark became a lifelong obsession – or close enough – to warrant its own film. At 88 minutes, “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” isn’t epic length, but it’s long enough to make its case for the preservation of historical artifacts, and perhaps makes you want to take a fresh look at DeMille’s own body of work.•••

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.