Category Archives: FILM REVIEW

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.

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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 – 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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.

Review – Serenity


FILM REVIEWSERENITY. With Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou. Written and directed by Steven Knight. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images. 106 minutes.

serenityAs someone who came of age in the heyday of late-night premium cable, I have recently become quite puzzlingly nostalgic for erotic thrillers, which for some sad reason Hollywood stopped making ages ago. Largely crummy and compulsively watchable, these modestly budgeted potboilers required little more than an exotic locale and a few glimpses of celebrity skin to keep one tuned in through the usually underwhelming violent climax. Over the past months I must confess I’ve found myself staying up far too late to watch the lousy likes of “Masquerade” and “Consenting Adults,” and for about an hour or so writer-director Steven Knight’s SERENITY appeared poised to scratch a similar itch.

Set on the peculiarly named tropical island of Plymouth, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as the magnificently monikered Baker Dill – a swarthy fisherman possessed of an Ahab-like fervor for a possibly mythical, oversized tuna he calls “Justice.” When not at sea, Baker spends his afternoons servicing a ravishing, silk-robed rich lady (Diane Lane) and the two discuss her frequently missing cat in a spectacularly strange simulacrum of dirty talk.

Until one day, of all the gin joints and all the towns, in walks Baker’s ex (Anne Hathaway, decked out in blonde hair and noir lighting) offering him ten million dollars to take her rich, abusive husband (a seethingly unpleasant Jason Clarke) out for a fishing trip and toss him overboard to the sharks. Of course, she could also be playing him for a sucker, and if you’ve seen a few old Robert Mitchum movies you can probably figure out where this is headed.

Except you’d be wrong. Especially after the unseasonably dressed, black-suited fishing tackle salesman strolls in at 2:30 in the morning to drop a depth charge of goofball exposition and “Serenity” supernovas from a trashy little piece of pulp into a full-blown aria of nonsense. Suddenly all the overwrought performances and stilted dialogue – which felt so jarringly amateurish from the screenwriter of sophisticated, adult fare like “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” – are revealed to be by design, and if the movie has thus far felt like a thirteen-year-old boy’s idea of a film noir, well it turns out there’s a very good reason or that.

Bafflingly, “Serenity” soldiers on with business as usual after it’s movie-exploding plot twist. (I believe it was A.O. Scott who said of the dippy James Mangold thriller “Identity” that it rips the rug out from underneath you and then continues vacuuming. I thought about that line a lot while watching this picture.) You sort of just sit there, mouth agape, wondering why we must keep going through the motions here now that all the beans have been spilled. Nevertheless, Baker Dill’s pursuit of Justice continues.

“Serenity” is exactly the kind of movie that tanks at the box office and gets a lot of mock-outraged bad reviews and Razzie nominations, yet I think there is something to admire in the go-for-broke nuttiness of the entire affair, and the cast’s ardent commitment, no matter how foolish they sometimes look. (Watching his anguished, scenery-devouring cries here is a reminder that post-comeback McConaughey will never again be accused of giving too little to a role.)

After much puzzled meditation on the picture I think the problem with “Serenity” is not its inherent, absurd stupidity – lots of awesome movies are stupid – but rather Knight too often striving for the grim and unpleasant. McConaughey and Hathaway can be delightful performers, but they’re directed here to be relentlessly dour, and one of the reasons the movie comes off as so silly is because everyone’s taking it so damn seriously.

One marvels to think of what the slightly winking, sardonic tone of a De Palma or Cronenberg might have wrestled from this material. If “Serenity” had taken even the slightest bit of pleasure in its own ridiculousness this could have been something very special indeed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 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 RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Miss Bala


FILM REVIEWMISS BALAWith Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo. Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language. 113 minutes.

miss_balaMISS BALA, based on the 2011 Mexican film of the same name, is low-brow and pulpy, which is not to say it doesn’t work. It propels its heroine through a series of unlikely situations as she’s caught between a Mexican drug cartel and corrupt officials on both sides of the border. As with most pulp fiction, it’s successful only as far as it gets you caught up in her dilemma so that you’re not poking holes in it.

Gina Rodriguez, from TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” stars as Gloria, an American make-up artist going to visit her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) in Tijuana. One evening they’re out clubbing when the place is shot up by a gang led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), targeting the local chief of police. Gloria escapes but she can’t find Suzu, who has not turned up dead or at a hospital. Before Gloria can look far, she is kidnapped by Lino’s gang. He promises to help her find her friend, if she first performs some jobs for him.

Without giving too much away, Gloria subsequently finds herself in the hands of an unscrupulous DEA agent (Matt Lauria) who coerces her into going back to Lino in order to set him up. Further complications ensue, with Lino veering between acting tenderly and being a violent thug. The payoff to the story will leave the viewer wondering if this is a set up for a potential film franchise.

If that’s the case, a lot of the credit will go to Rodriguez. She hits the right notes in showing Gloria as being in way over her head but making it clear that she’s a survivor. Bit by bit, as she gets through one harrowing situation after another, she discovers an inner strength she didn’t know she had. When she gets to the climactic showdown, she’s changed from who she was at the beginning. Without Rodriguez showing Gloria’s evolution, the ending would come off as even more absurd than it is.

Politically and culturally, the film is a mixed bag. On the plus side of the ledger, the film has a mostly Latino cast – although Anthony Mackie pops up as an unexpected contact – and a woman director in Catherine Hardwicke. What’s especially interesting about the latter is that this kind of action film rarely has a female protagonist much less a female director. Hardwicke keeps things moving while ensuring that the violence is kept at a PG-13 level. There are numerous killings, but the camera doesn’t give us mutilated corpses. On the other side is the image of most of the Mexican characters playing into the worst sort of stereotypes. One can only hope President Trump doesn’t see this as, according to some reports, he’s made claims that seem tied to last year’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”

“Miss Bala” is what used to be called a B-movie. It’s not deep and its lurid story may not stand up to logic, but if all you ask is that it’s got action and someone to root for, it delivers.•••

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.