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Author Archives: Daniel M. Kimmel

Review – Life Itself


FILM REVIEWLIFE ITSELFWith Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Rated R for language including sexual references, some violent images, and brief drug use. 118 minutes.

life_itselfLIFE ITSELF is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. For the terminally cynical that will make it unbearable. For those open to its message that life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy, it can be an engaging parable about how we can’t always foresee what will happen next. Sometimes, out of the depths of despair, there may be planted the seeds of future happiness. If that thought makes you gag, you’re probably not a fan of writer/director Dan Fogelman, best known for his TV show, “This is Us.”

The movie is told in chapters and seems to be jumping from one story to another until – and some viewers may anticipate it – everything is tied together in the end. It begins with Will (Oscar Isaac), who appears to be working on a screenplay but is really recovering from a mental breakdown after the end of his marriage to Abby (Olivia Wilde), the love of his life. His therapist (Annette Bening) tries to get him to face reality, but it does not end well.

The story continues with their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who acts out her anger and depression at the hand she’s been dealt as the lead singer for a punk rock band. Suddenly the film shifts gears and we’ve moved from New York to Spain, where we focus on the marriage of Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Isabel (Laia Costa). When their young son witnesses a horrific accident and is troubled by nightmares, Javiar’s benevolent boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) takes an interest. Unfortunately, he also takes an interest in Isabel.

To reveal much more of the plot would be to give things away. Fogelman’s point is that life is messy and doesn’t always work out as one might have hoped. As the old Yiddish expression goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” Terrible things happen to these characters. Yet wonderful things happen as well. Coping with the bad times instead of giving up seems to be the way that they can move beyond them.

Fogelman has assembled a wonderful cast. Isaac and Wilde, and Peris-Mencheta and Costa, are engaging as the loving couples, with Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart offering yet another couple as Will’s parents. While finding true love is no guarantee of happiness in the long term, it remains part of the human condition to seek it out. Rodrigo (Alex Monner) – Javier and Isabel’s son – learns this anew with the two relationships he pursues in the story.

“Life Itself” is a movie that wants to push your buttons. There are moments that will shock, moments that may move you to tears, and others that may make you smile.  On the other hand, if your attitude is that life is meaningless and then you die, you may want to give this one a pass. Fogelman clearly believes life has meaning, even if we can’t always see it for ourselves.•••

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

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Review – Lizzie


FILM REVIEWLIZZIEWith Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Kim Dickens, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan. Written by Bryce Kass. Directed by Craig William Macneill. Rated R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some language. 105 minutes.

lizzieIt’s one of the most famous of unsolved American murder mysteries. In 1892, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby (Fiona Shaw) the woman he married after the death of his first wife, were found brutally killed, apparently from being attacked with a hatchet. The chief suspect was Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), but what actually happened was never uncovered. Over the years numerous theories have emerged, from Lizzie being involved in a lesbian affair with the family’s Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), to the suspicion that the brother (Denis O’Hare) of the first Mrs. Borden was involved.

There have been various novels, movies and TV shows that have explored the case, but none are likely to be as dull as LIZZIE, a film that moves at such a glacial pace that by the time we finally see the murders occur you’re unlikely to care who is responsible. Apparently, it was a longtime passion project for Sevigny, but it is a film utterly lacking in passion. Those still awake at the end and unfamiliar with the history may be surprised at how it turned out.

The problem is not only the sluggish pacing, but the bloodlessness with which the characters are depicted. Lizzie Borden herself is largely a cipher. In this telling, she defies a bullying father and engages in a sexual relationship with Bridgette – whom her parents condescendingly call “Maggie” as if all Irish maids had the same name – but whose motivation for murder is obscure. Is it her objection to her father’s business dealings with his former brother-in-law? Is it because he beheaded a number of pigeons over her objections? Or is it because he seems to be sexually abusing Bridgit?

And what is driving Bridget? Is it class differences? For all the buildup to the connection between her and Lizzie, it seems more like something to titillate modern audiences than any real feelings between them. Likewise, the gratuitous nudity seems more in the nature of goosing the box office than anything having to do with character or plot. Given the drabness of their clothes, burning any blood-stained evidence would have been unlikely to have been noticed.

A cast that has done interesting work elsewhere seems to have been encouraged to sleepwalk through their roles, as if stodginess somehow made them more believable as 19th-century persons. “Lizzie” is the sort of movie where you keep checking the time and can’t believe how little has passed since you last looked. A serious drama about this American mystery might serve as the basis for an engaging movie. Unfortunately, this one isn’t it.•••

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

Review – Mandy


FILM REVIEWMANDYWith Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Bill Duke. Written by Panos Cosmatos & Aaron Stewart-Ahn. Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Not Rated. 121 minutes.

mandy_xlgNicolas Cage’s career can be divided into films he made when he was a top star (such as his Oscar-winning performance in “Leaving Las Vegas”) and those made after his financial difficulties led him to take on seemingly every role that came his way. The latter sometimes includes some interesting if truly odd movies, like “Mom and Dad,” but then there are those that probably wouldn’t have been made at all if not for the participation of a name actor in the lead role.

Thus, we get to MANDY. Without Cage, this would have been a low-budget revenge film of the sort that was sent up in “Grindhouse.” With him, though, we get an intense performance that won’t be noticed by Oscar voters but will certainly endear him to those who thrill to this sort of fare.

Here he’s Red Miller, a lumberjack who lives with his beloved wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in their rustic house set in the woods. (The story is set in the Pacific Northwest in 1983 but was actually shot in Belgium.) They’re playful and gentle with each other, very much in love. In a film like this, that’s asking for trouble. Trouble arrives in the form of Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a cult leader who takes a fancy to Mandy and orders her kidnapping. Things go from bad to worse, and the rest of the film involves Red killing the cult members, saving Sand for last.

But that doesn’t really capture the fever dream that “Mandy” is, with visuals that suggest that the characters, the filmmakers, or perhaps the audience are having their perceptions altered by drugs. Sand is in communication with what seem to be demons (or perhaps aliens) whose presence provide more entities for Red to kill. In one particularly brutal scene, Red appears to castrate one of the demons, leading to a spray of blood across his face that he wears for the remainder of the film. In another, Red has a showdown with one of the cultists as they duel with chainsaws. You know this is not going to end well. (The movie is unrated. It should be considered an R, although the distributor may have felt they were risking an NC-17 for some of the violence.)

The film is getting a limited theatrical release locally prior to going to video in October, so if this is something you want to see on the big screen, do it quickly. Of course, there’s a reason that, like most other films with Cage in recent years, that it’s not opening nationwide on 2,000 screens. “Mandy” is not aspiring to be a blockbuster. It’s hoping for cult status. This is a movie that its partisans will praise as a visceral and imaginative work and that others will deride as violent and absurd, if they are even aware of its existence.

Director and co-writer Panos Cosmatos clearly had a vision that he brought to the screen. Whether it will do for him what “Last House on the Left” did for the late Wes Craven early in his career remains to be seen.•••

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.

Review – Peppermint


FILM REVIEWPEPPERMINTWith Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh. Written by Chad St. John. Directed by Pierre Morel. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout. 102 minutes.

peppermintPEPPERMINT takes what should have been a visceral revenge story and turns it into a conventional action movie. It hints at what the movie might have been, yet other than former “Alias” star Jennifer Garner in the role of vigilante, there’s nothing special here.

In a prologue, we meet Riley North (Garner), a feisty suburban mom. Her husband and young daughter are gunned down by three thugs and then have all charges dropped against them. Now she’s ready to take the law into her own hands. Her training herself in martial arts and military weapons is quickly sketched in, and then the vengeance starts.

Oddly, we don’t see much of it. The police (John Gallagher, Jr., John Ortiz) discover the thugs’ bodies hanging from a Ferris wheel. The corrupt lawyers meet their doom off-camera. There’s a brief scene where she confronts the judge, but with no explanation as to how she got him bound, gagged, and with his hands nailed to his desk.

Instead, the film focuses on her going after the operation of Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), the local drug kingpin who had ordered the hit on her husband. It’s standard action fare with shootings and explosions, but until her final confrontation with Garcia, there’s nothing personal to it, which is the whole point of a revenge tale. Indeed, with a scene showing that Garcia is, himself, a cog in a much larger operation, they seem to be sowing the seeds for a sequel. Attempts at psychological complexity are grafted on, to little effect, as when she discovers that Garcia is himself the parent of a young child.

Garner is an engaging screen presence and up to the physical demands of the role, but she’s hamstrung by a script that sets up a powerful motivation for her character and then does nothing with it. Ironically, director Pierre Morel also made the Liam Neeson vengeance film “Taken,” which handles similar material in a much better way, focusing not only on the action but the hero’s righteous anger.

There is one moment where we get a hint of what the film could have been, where Riley settles a score with the snobbish mother whose action early on inadvertently sets up the situation where her family is killed. It’s personal and gives the audience the vicarious thrill of settling scores, where most of the action in the film does not.

By failing to get us to see the world through Riley’s eyes, “Peppermint” turns into a film where one might enjoy the pyrotechnics but will have little reason to come back in the unlikely event of a sequel.•••

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 – Operation Finale


MOVIE REVIEWOPERATION FINALEWith Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll. Written by Matthew Orton. Directed by Chris Weitz. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language. 123 minutes.

operation_finaleIn 1960, a team of Israeli operatives arrived in Argentina on a mission: to kidnap Nazi official Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, and to bring him to Israel to stand trial. Beyond the logistics, there was also the issue of their violating Argentine sovereignty and the question whether Israel had the right to try him for crimes that occurred in Europe, not Israel. Would such a proceeding even be deemed a fair trial by the rest of the world?

While taking some dramatic liberties, OPERATION FINALE tells the story right by focusing on the people rather than the diplomatic or judicial issues. The latter are addressed, but the drama of the film comes from exploring how it affects the Israelis who are forced to share close quarters with their prisoner for several days until he can be removed from the country. For them, it’s personal as we see in one scene where they seem to compete with each other in a bitter contest over who had more family members murdered.

Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, who was also one of the film’s producers) lost a beloved sister and her children. The film depicts him as falling somewhere between the rigid professionalism of the team’s leader (Michael Aronov) and one of the more headstrong members (Greg Hill) who wonders why they don’t just put a bullet in Eichmann’s head. To ensure that they would face no legal repercussions for participating in the operation, the Israel airline El Al required that Eichmann sign a document stating he was willingly going to Israel to stand trial. The central drama of the story is convincing him to do so.

It is in the scenes between Isaac and the protean Ben Kingsley, adding another memorable performance to his filmography as Eichmann, where the film’s dilemma plays out. Rather than try to coerce their captive, Malkin treats him humanely, attempting to win his trust enough to sign the document. Realizing Eichmann is obsessive over his self-image, Malkin assures him he will be able to tell his story and it will not be a show trial. It is a psychodrama where Eichmann, knowing how it must end, tries to wring concessions from his captors, with Malkin granting him the mercy that Eichmann never showed his millions of victims.

The supporting cast, which includes Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Peter Strauss, and Greta Scacchi, is solid, but the film really rests on the performances of Isaac and Kingsley as each probes the other for weakness, looking for the appropriate buttons to push. Each has a moment or two where they lose control, starting with how the agents get their captive to admit he actually is Eichmann. It is those scenes that redeem the more contrived moments of suspense, which seem to have been added to spice up the historical record.

“Operation Finale” is powerful not because it attempts to “explain” the Holocaust, something that is ultimately impossible, but because it instead shows an instance of Jews taking charge of their destiny in the aftermath of one of the great horrors of modern times.•••

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 – Kin


MOVIE REVIEWKINWith Jack Reynor, Myles Truitt, James Franco, Zoë Kravitz, Dennis Quaid. Written by Daniel Casey. Directed by Jonathan Baker, Josh Baker. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language. 102 minutes.

kin_ver4KIN wastes a talented cast in a road movie tarted-up with some superficial science fiction trappings. Indeed, the movie leaves us with more questions than answers, so that this plays more like the pilot for a TV series than a feature film. If the idea was that we learn more in a sequel film, don’t hold your breath waiting for it.

The story focuses on Jimmy (Jack Reynor), an ex-con who returns home to find his father (Dennis Quaid in a nothing role) being less than welcoming. Jimmy owes $60,000 to the thuggish Taylor (James Franco). When Jimmy’s attempt to clear his debt goes wrong, he goes on the run with his adopted younger brother Eli (Myles Truitt). Along the way, they pick up a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold (Zoë Kravitz), while Taylor and his gang are in pursuit.

So, where’s the science fiction? Eli has been picking up money selling copper wiring he’s ripped out of abandoned buildings, and along the way, he discovers the bodies of some soldiers who are clearly not of our space or time. He picks up an item that turns out to be some sort of powerful ray gun. Two of the armored soldiers are also in pursuit, presumably to get the ray gun back.

And that’s about it. When the film finally reveals who the soldiers are and where they came from, it explains very little, leaving viewers hanging. Were this a TV series, one could tune in next week (or binge watch) and find out what happens next, but instead all we get are the closing credits.

It’s too bad, because while Quaid gets little to do but growl and Franco gets to sneer and swagger, the three main cast members have an easy rapport. In a series, their characters would get to develop from episode to episode. The actors do what they can to bring some depth to their paper-thin characters. Truitt, a TV actor making his feature debut, is especially effective as Eli, a kid who has to grow up very fast.

Brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker – yes, another sibling filmmaking team – make their feature debut based on a short film they did (“Bagman,” which can be found online here: https://vimeo.com/285412731), but Daniel Casey’s screenplay fleshes out their original concept with largely conventional choices. The Bakers may show promise, but “Kin” only showcases their potential for the future, not the realization of that promise in the present.•••

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 – The Happytime Murders


FILM REVIEWTHE HAPPYTIME MURDERSWith Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, voices of Brian Barretta and Dorien Davies. Written by Todd Berger. Directed by Brian Henson. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material. 91 minutes.

The last time we saw an R-rated puppet movie was fourteen years ago with “Team America: World Police.” It was a political satire from the creators of “South Park” and so the raw humor was to be expected. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is from Brian Henson, son of legendary Muppeteer Jim Henson, and plays like a dirty version of “The Muppet Show.” And that’s the problem.

The story is set in an alternate universe in which puppets and humans live together, but the puppets are mostly second-class citizens. Phil Phillips (voiced by Brian Barretta), was the first puppet to be accepted onto the police force but left under circumstances that aren’t revealed until later in the film. All we know is that something happened that was so awful that puppets were thereafter banned from joining the police force. So now he’s a private investigator in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe mold. While researching his latest case – at a porn shop specializing in kinky puppet sex – he inadvertently witnesses the aftermath of a puppet massacre.

It soon emerges that someone is killing the cast members of “Happytime,” an old TV show featuring a bunch of puppets (including Phil’s brother) and human Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), with whom Phil has some history. Phil ends up working with his old partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and there’s bitterness because of something in their past. Somehow there’s also a connection with Sandra (voice of Dorien Davies), a puppet femme fatale who is Phil’s client.

In terms of technical artistry the Henson Workshop knows how to make the mix of puppets and human look real. In the closing credits they show how they achieved some of the effects and it’s impressive how much work had to go into making it look easy. Note that there are even puppet “extras” in the background of scenes.

However, unless you’re primarily interested in the art of puppetry what’s on display is a not-especially-clever and overly raunchy puppet show. The film definitely earns its R rating and may even gain a cult following, but is there really an audience for puppet sex and violence? A sex scene between Phil and Sandra in his office may get some laughs for its novel use of Silly String, but the movie has the depth of a dirty joke. The on-screen humans are relatively restrained in their cartoonish roles, including Maya Rudolph as Phil’s secretary. Even Melissa McCarthy comes off better than usual, perhaps because the victims of most of her abuse are puppets.

Unlike “Team America,” or such R-rated animation as “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and “Sausage Party,” what “The Happytime Murders” lacks is any wit. The puppetry may be topnotch, but the humor is crude with the result that most viewers won’t have very much of a happy time at all.***

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.