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Review – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

With Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Aldis Hodge, Patrick Heusinger. Written by Richard Wenk and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz. Directed by Edward Zwick. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements. 118 minutes.

Tom Cruise is back as the title character in JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK. Reacher is ex-military police and now just a drifter who gets involved in fighting injustice, and after a brief prologue which reminds us what Reacher is capable of, he shows up in Washington, D. C. to meet Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has his old position. However, when he goes to her office he discovers she’s been arrested… for treason.

Something doesn’t add up, and so Reacher ignores instructions to go away and dives into the case uncovering a conspiracy that reaches high into the military. Further complicating matters is the appearance of Samantha (Danika Yarosh), whom the military believes is Reacher’s daughter. Reacher insists he doesn’t have any children, but when “the Hunter” (Patrick Heusinger)–the conspiracy’s enforcer–thinks otherwise, her life is at risk. So after a few fights and chases, Reacher, Turner, and the 15-year-old Samantha are on the run.

In terms of plot, it’s rather pedestrian and you’ll see the big reveal coming a mile away. That isn’t the same as saying that the movie is dull. The action scenes play well, and Reacher is no Boy Scout. When he wants to do serious damage, he doesn’t hold back.

What makes the film different from other action films are its female characters. With both Turner and Samantha, Reacher–a macho loner–has to learn to see things in a different way. At one point they’re holed up in a hotel and have a lead to follow up. For Reacher, the division of duties is simple: he’ll follow up the lead and Turner will “babysit” the teenage girl. Turner, who can be just as tough as nails in a fight, makes it clear that as the officer who has had two people under her command murdered, she’s even more motivated to want to take down the perpetrators than he is. This is no “damsel in distress” for Reacher to rescue.

As for Samantha, her character can be irresponsible but she can also adapt, and Reacher has to consider what it will mean if it turns out she is his daughter. When she takes evasive action late in the film, Reacher knows what’s she’s doing. Why? Because that’s exactly what he would have done.

None of this does anything to make Reacher anything less than the action hero he’s supposed to be. Cruise has Reacher treat these things as add-ons rather than game-changers. He can also learn and adapt. What makes him of a piece with other recent action characters like Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Ben Affleck’s “Accountant,” is that he keeps his emotions bottled up. At most he’ll suggest that after surviving a battle to the death with an adversary, it’s not the best time for a conversation.

Smulders is solid as Major Turner, making her secure in who she is, and bouncing back in a fight as much as Reacher. Yarosh’s Samantha can be an annoying character, but also shows the ability to surprise. These two very different women prove to challenge Reacher from opposite directions.

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is a conventional action film with some unconventional ideas and the star power of Tom Cruise. It should go down easy with its target audience.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Accountant

With Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow. Written by Bill Dubuque. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout. 128 minutes.

Save your receipts. Ben Affleck is THE ACCOUNTANT, and you don’t want to get on his bad side.

Christian Wolff (Affleck) is one of the more unusual heroes of recent movies. He’s an accountant who handles ordinary clients with professional efficiency, but also handles the books for mobsters, terrorists, and drug dealers. He’s brought in when they need someone who can be trusted to be discreet and whose eye for detail means nothing will escape his attention.

The twist is that he’s somewhere on the autism scale. Others can dissect how accurate (or not) the character is, but as presented here he is someone whose life is done to precise and painstaking order. This affects everything from how his dinner is presented to following certain rituals to retain control of his life. On the other hand, he is so good with numbers that he can spot discrepencies that no one else would see.

Because of his shady connections, he comes to the attention of a government investigator (J. K. Simmons) who puts an agent (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) on Wolff’s trail. It turns out that Wolff is not only a whiz with numbers, he’s also a skilled assassin. How that came to be is slowly revealed as Wolff investigates the records of his latest client, scientist/businessman Lamar Black (John Lithgow).

There’s plenty of action and twists to the plot, although the big reveal may be telegraphed in advance. Indeed, for a movie with such a bland title, it is extremely violent. The climactic showdown has a high body count, and the film doesn’t try to prettify the shootings and knifings. Action fans will be pleased. The squeamish should probably look elsewhere.

Affleck’s character, though fascinating, does not get to offer a range of emotions since his character has had to learn how go through even the most basic social interactions. He seems to open up to Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) and the film teases us with the possibility of a romantic connection. The supporting players get the more dramatic moments, whether it’s Jeffrey Tambor as a prisoner who becomes a mentor to Wolff, to Simmons as a conflicted official, to Lithgow, whose character seems to be running on two tracks.

The two women–Kendrick and Addai-Robinson–are given enough complexity to make them interesting with Addai-Robinson having a sufficiently complicated backstory to support a film all on its own. Indeed, one suspects that the story of the accountant and Addai-Robinson’s investigator is only just beginning.

In the end, “The Accountant” seems to be setting us for not only a sequel but perhaps a series of movies. If such films can attract a cast like this and have a storyline strong enough to keep us interested, this just might be a series worth seeing.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – The Birth of a Nation

With Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union. Written by Nate Parker. Directed by Nate Parker. Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity. 120 minutes.

Movies about American slavery tend to be similar to the movies made about South African apartheid. Even the films most sympathetic to the plight of the black victims of these oppressive systems tended to be told through the eyes of its white characters. Even the exemplary “Twelve Years A Slave” stumbled in requiring a white man to save the day. Thus THE BIRTH OF A NATION, about the Nat Turner Rebellion, offers a much-needed corrective.

Turner (played by the film’s writer/director Nate Parker) is born into slavery in the American South. Though it is forbidden, he learns to read and finds religion when reading the Bible. He is acquired by plantation owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who finds his ability to preach makes him doubly valuable. First, Nat can placate his fellow slaves with words about their eternal reward. Second, and just as important, Samuel can get much needed income by hiring out Nat to other planation owners.

Along the way, Nat sees the horrors and brutality of slavery and pays a price when he starts to take his own religious calling too seriously. Eventually, this leads him to organize an armed rebellion that will come to a bad end, but is heroic in the sense that they die as free men fighting for their lives rather than as slaves. From a modern perspective, what makes this significant is that Nat Turner is the center of our attention and the white characters–whether good or bad–are secondary.

This is a violent movie, particularly in its depiction of the punishment and killing of slaves. By contrast, it downplays to some extent the violence of the rebellion. The movie makes it seem that he was meting out justice to those who deserved it (particularly Jackie Earle Haley as a vicious hunter of runaway slaves), while glossing over that Nat Turner and his followers were not so particular in who they killed.

The film has been criticized for being conventional in many ways, and it is, but the notion of telling the story from Nat’s point of view and not pandering to try to make it more appealing to non-black audiences is commendable. One doesn’t have to be black to appreciate this story any more than one has to be Jewish to watch “Schindler’s List” or Scot to watch “Braveheart.” The yearning for freedom is universal. The specifics are what makes this stand out.

However what one assumes was a deliberate choice of title is unfortunate. “The Birth of a Nation” is the name of D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1914 film–the first feature-length American movie–set during and after the Civil War. (The Turner Rebellion took place decades earlier.) Griffith’s film is a compelling masterpiece, and it is also the problem child of American cinema as it reflects then-widely-held beliefs about Reconstruction in the South, including making heroes of the Ku Klux Klan. Such is the taint the film has borne that several years ago the Directors Guild of American removed Griffith’s name from their highest award. Both choices are unfortunate. We need to understand history and correct mistaken views of the past. In that sense this new “Nation” does that in telling a chapter of history that Americans ought to know. By taking Griffith’s title–which doesn’t even fit the events depicted in that Turner’s rebellion failed–filmmaker Parker needlessly muddies the waters.

This new “Birth” is less of a landmark than Parker might have intended, but in its point of view and the story it tells, it is worthy addition to the list of movies spotlighting American history.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Girl on the Train

With Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Alison Janney. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson. Directed by Tate Taylor. Rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity. 112 minutes.

From its patronizing title to its incoherent storytelling, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is one of the least satisfying thrillers in some time. It doesn’t even have the camp value of last year’s hilariously inept “The Boy Next Door.” Based on the best seller by Paula Hawkins, something may have gotten lost in the translation to the big screen.

It takes nearly a third of the film’s running time just to set up the story. Rachel (Emily Blunt) rides the train back and forth between Manhattan and suburban Westchester for no apparent reason. She likes to look out the window at her old house where her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) live with their baby girl. Their nanny, Megan (Haley Bennett) lives a few doors down. Megan disappears on a night when a drunken Rachel has woken up covered in blood and not sure what she’s done the last few hours. Rachel pretends to have been Megan’s friend so she can tell her husband Scott (Luke Evans) that she saw Megan from the train embracing a man who turns out to be her psychiatrist (Edgar Ramírez).

If all of that is confusing, the filmmakers make it as difficult as possible to follow. The actresses playing Anna and Megan look so similar that it may not be clear early on who’s cheating on who. Then there’s a structure that keep jumping back to different points in time and then back to the present so that the timeline isn’t always clear. Even worse, none of these characters–and we can add the police detective (Alison Janney) assigned to the case–is the least bit sympathetic. Rachel, in particular, is a self-destructive alcoholic who once entered her old house and walked out with the baby of her ex and his new wife. When we learn that her memories of events may be false, it doesn’t erase this particularly deranged incident.

Director Tate Taylor then follows the unusual strategy of using lots of close-ups, so that we’re constantly in the faces of these characters. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help us understand them or sympathize with any of them. The best that can be said is that the men run the spectrum of abusive behavior while the women all share at least some culpability for their various degrees of victimhood. That’s not to say they deserve what happens to them, but all of them make bad choices for which they have only themselves to blame. When we get to the big reveal and climax, it’s less than satisfying except in that it signals that the movie is nearing the end.

Finally, while they chose to retain the title of the novel, often done when a book is well known, one has to ask why a character in her 30s (Blunt is 33) is “The Girl on the Train.” Adult men are sometimes referred to “boys” as in “boy’s night out,” and there’s nothing wrong with that slangy use of “girls” to refer to women. However, that’s not the case here, where even Rachel refers to herself as a “girl” (and not ironically). The movie is ample proof that it’s time for all involved to grow up.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

With Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp. Written by Jane Goldman. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril. 127 minutes.

Ransom Riggs’s trilogy of books that begins with MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN might not have seemed easily adaptable to the screen, but on the very short list of directors capable of doing it, Tim Burton was an obvious choice. Showing restraint is unusual for him, and letting the inherent weirdness of the story do the work, he has turned out his best film since “Sweeney Todd” (2007).

The story is complex, which is not the same as being too hard to understand. It just means you have to pay attention. Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an out-of-sorts teen living in Florida whose world is shaken up when his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp) dies under mysterious circumstances. He discovers information that indicate the answers he seeks are at an orphanage on a remote island off the coast of Wales. The plot contrives to get him there so that he may go through a passage that will take him to the facility which is stuck in a time loop on a single day in 1943.

There he meets Emma (Ella Purnell) and other “peculiar” children who have strange abilities from being invisible to making plants grow to controlling air or fire. Jake isn’t quite sure what he’s doing there, but Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who can transform herself into a bird, welcomes him. It’s clear they all knew Jake’s grandfather and that Emma may have been in love with him.

Complicating matters are the “Hollowgasts” led by Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). These are peculiars who have gone bad, and have declared war on their fellow peculiars in hopes of gaining the secret to immortality. Barron and a few others have evolved from the monstrous Hollowgasts. It’s Jake’s task to discover his own peculiarity and see if he can save the day.

It’s all very imaginative and dark, which means parents should heed the PG-13 rating. Younger children who have not read the books–or were frightened by the later “Harry Potter” movies–might want to wait a bit. There are also a number of significant differences from the books, including the ending and the powers assigned to some of the children. Inevitably lost in the transition are the memorably bizarre photographs that served as the inspiration for the story. As with other good adaptations that differ from their sources, this one may be disappoint some of the books most loyal fans. It should be noted that the author has publicly approved of the resulting film.

The casting of the leads is solid, from Green’s pipe-smoking mother figure to Butterfield’s reluctant hero. If there’s a problem in the performances its mostly that of not having enough time for character development. When we get it, it pays off beautifully, as in the moment Jake finds himself on the phone in 1943 with his grandfather.

In trying to make this a self-contained story, the movie heads toward a resolution quite different from the book which becomes more involved and continues for two more volumes. Viewers of all ages who enjoy the movie should go on and read the books. And those who like Tim Burton best when his surreal world has a passing resemblance to our own (as in “Edward Scissorhands”) should give this film a look. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” turns out to be a very good match of filmmaker and story.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Deepwater Horizon

With Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Directed by Peter Berg. Rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language. 107 minutes.

tham-hoa-gian-khoan-deepwater-horizonDEEPWATER HORIZON is at least the third movie this year based on a true story about people fighting to survive a serious accident, following “The Finest Hours” and the current “Sully.” They pretty much follow the same dramatic structure, and “Deepwater Horizon” fails at nearly every point. Unless you’re going just to see an oil rig explode, this is likely to disappoint.

The movie takes its title from a British Petroleum oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to what were apparently lax safety standards, an explosion occurred in April 2010. It resulted in a number of deaths and led to the worst oil spill in American history. It was both a tragedy and a disaster.

To dramatize this story for the screen requires two things. First we need characters whom we get to know and in whose fates we becomes invested. In “Sully,” it’s primarily the pilot of the plane who chose to land his plane in the Hudson River when his engines failed. In the case of “The Finest Hours” it’s both the Coast Guard crew risking their lives off the coast of Massachusetts in the midst of a blizzard, and the surviving people aboard a ship that has been torn apart and sinking. In both cases, we’re pulling for lives to be saved because we’ve gotten to know at least some of them.

Here, we barely know anyone. Mark Wahlberg is a heroic crew member whose chief character trait seems to be wanting to get a dinosaur relic for his young daughter for show and tell. Kurt Russell, in the film’s best performance, is the crusty safety supervisor. John Malkovich is one of the cardboard villains. If he had a moustache he could twirl it while putting company profits before people and the environment.

All three films cast an actress in the thankless role of the woman back home waiting to hear if her husband makes it. In the earlier films, we get some backstory about their relationship so we know what she has at stake beyond the obvious not wanting her husband to die. Here, Kate Hudson is wasted in a role that’s barely defined at all.

The other thing such a film needs is that the accident/rescue has to be both dramatic and comprehensible. You may never have been to sea, but “The Finest Hours” gives us an understanding of what both crews are facing if they’re going to make it. The same with “Sully,” which–whatever its flaws in making the National Transportation Safety Board the heavy–takes us through both what happened to the plane, and what alternatives the pilot faces with only moments to make a decision.

Unless you read the news stories at the time, you’d be hard-pressed to say what went wrong on the rig. That the company cut corners is made clear, but what exactly happened? It has something to do with the pumping system, or maybe more than one, or one that has too much pressure or something. What’s worse, the directing and editing gives us no sense of the space. It’s never clear where characters are in relation to each other and, often, in relation to the action. It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to connect the dots and follow what’s happening except that it’s bad and it involves fire.

As a result, “Deepwater Horizon” is a less than engaging film which never makes it quite clear where it’s going or why this story is being told in this way. The real-life workers who were injured or killed that day deserved better.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Magnificent Seven

With Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee. Written by Richard Wenk, Nic Pizzolatto. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material. 132 minutes.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a movie with an interesting pedigree. A remake of the 1960 western which starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, among others, that film was itself a remake of the 1954 masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa, “The Seven Samurai.” If the 1960 film was no masterpiece, it was a successful and solidly entertaining film. However, it does not carry such historic weight that a new version is unthinkable.

As before, the story involves a small village of farmers and families being terrorized by outsiders. In this case it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants all their land for his mining operation, and will do whatever it takes to get it. After he and his thugs murder several people and burn down the church, the newly-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) goes out to hired some gunmen to defend the town. Asked if she wants vengeance she said she’s seeking righteousness but will settle for revenge.

Thus the team assembles, led by Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who puts together a modernly diverse crew. There is no racial or ethnic bar here. What’s interesting is that the crew reflects the fault lines of the 19th century. There are men who fought on either side of the Civil War, including Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Southern sharpshooter. The presence of Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican, evokes the Alamo, especially when he tells one of the others who lost family there that it might have been at the hands of his own grandfather, fighting for the other side. Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) reminds us of how Chinese immigrants were treated after being brought over for cheap labor, while the Native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) doesn’t require much elaboration as to that history, especially when they are joined by trapper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is reminded that the government isn’t paying a bounty for scalps any longer. Even cardsharp Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) is more than a western cliché in that he finds himself indebted to Chisolm, who has redeemed his horse.

The key to this tale in all its versions is that the characters have to be individuals and we have to care about their various stories as they pull together for the big showdown. Most of the townspeople and all of the villains except Bogue are essentially pawns who either triumph or get killed as the plot requires. Although the characters are sketched in broad strokes, the script and the cast work to ensure that they are distinct.

Director Antoine Fuqua has shown himself a director who can craft action films that are both muscular and smart. He provides the necessary gunfire and explosions, but never at the expense of dumbing down the material. It’s no surprise that actors like Hawke and Washington (who won his Oscar for Fuqua’s “Training Day”) come back to work with him again and again.

The Magnificent Seven” is an old-time western with a modern sensibility. Unlike all too many remakes, it fully justifies its existence.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! Its a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartenders Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.