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Category Archives: FILM REVIEW

Review – 12 Strong


FILM REVIEW12 STRONGWith Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Navid Negahban. Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. Rated R for war violence and language throughout. 130 minutes.

12-strong-movie-posterIn the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the push was on to strike back quickly and severely against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, their protectors in Afghanistan. 12 STRONG follows the Army special forces team that went in only a month later with the mission of supporting the “Northern Alliance” and liberating a Taliban stronghold.

The problems were many, starting with the fact that there was no such “Alliance” and the rival warlords hated each other as much as they hated the Taliban. Further, the Afghan terrain was treacherous, and the Americans were backing a faction fighting on horseback and were outnumbered by forces armed with tanks and missiles. And just to make it more complicated, winter was only weeks away and even the Russians – one of many groups that had invaded Afghanistan and failed – found the snow made fighting impossible.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is sent in with 11 men under his command to work with General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who declares that Nelson lacks “killer eyes.” Part of the story is how Nelson and Dostum come to trust one another as they proceed against all odds. War films like this touch on the male bonding, the gallows humor, and the violence of war, and all of that is crucial to the genre. But this kind of film works best when we get a sense of why they’re proceeding as they do, and what the reasons are for their tactics.

Nelson points out that while Dostum and his men control the ground, the Americans control the air. Nelson has the ability to call in airstrikes, which is a major advantage. Dostum counters that Nelson and his men may be brave fighters, but they want to survive. They are facing an enemy that embraces death believing they will be rewarded in the world to come. As they proceed, the Americans have to adapt to the conditions of a country that has been the downfall of more than one empire.

Hemsworth and Negahban are the human core of the film, but we also get to know some of the other Americans, including Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña). Beyond that, we get a lesson in the challenges of fighting in Afghanistan where there is only one route to the city they need to capture, and it goes through another town where the Taliban has an endless supply line. To win that battle, they need to figure out how to cut off those supplies.

The war in Afghanistan is still ongoing more than sixteen years later, and is sometimes called “The Forgotten War.” The key fight depicted here was classified for a number of years and the Americans who came home from it returned with no fanfare. In the spirit of “now, the story can be told,” this film adaptation of Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers is a fitting tribute to the men who went in first and succeeded against all odds. “12 Strong” is less a celebration of American military might than of the tenacity of the men who responded to the horrors of 9/11 by answering their country’s call.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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Review – Den of Thieves


FILM REVIEWDEN OF THIEVES. With Gerard Butler, Jordan Bridges, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., 50 Cent. Written and directed by Christian Gudegast. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. 140 minutes.

den_of_thieves_ver2Having written a few action films, including the Gerard Butler vehicle “London Has Fallen” (2016), Christian Gudegast makes his directorial debut with DEN OF THIEVES, a bank heist film that gives Butler an especially meaty role. Even as you anticipate what will happen, Gudegast proves to be one step ahead of the audience. It’s a fast-paced crime drama that doesn’t feel overlong at nearly two-and-a-half hours.

We’re told from the outset that Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world. We see the hijacking of an armored truck in the early hours of the morning that turns violent. This brings it to the attention of the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, headed by Nick Flanagan (Butler). With his unshaven and blotchy look and clothes that always look like he slept in them, Nick isn’t fooling when he threatens a suspect by pointing out that he and his men are the “bad guys.” Sure, they’re fighting crime, but they’re also fighting the L.A.P.D. and the FBI.

The hijacking was carried out with military precision, even to the point that while they brutally killed the uniformed guards, they pointedly let a civilian witness live. This leads Nick to Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), an Iraqi vet and ex-con whose gang boasts similar credentials. Their goal is an audacious one: to rob the Los Angeles outpost of the Federal Reserve. There’s a good deal of cat-and-mouse tactics along the way, with Nick trying to flip Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), one of Merriman’s underlings.

Gudegast pads out the story a bit with a few scenes bringing out the personal lives of a few of the characters, particularly the breakdown of Nick’s marriage. His grief at the separation from his young daughters is played off against one of Merriman’s men making it clear to his daughter’s prom date how she will be treated, but these scenes are really not necessary. Once Merriman is ready to put his elaborate plan in action, it’s the details of the robbery and its aftermath that is our focus.

As the rival leaders, Butler and Schreiber are a good match, each showing a respect for the skills of the other even as they struggle to come out on top. The person to watch though is Jackson, who is the son of rapper Ice Cube and who had a memorable acting debut actually playing his father in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015). As the seeming pawn caught between the two sides, he gets to play the widest range, including a key role in the robbery.

Behind the camera, Gudegast keeps things moving. We can follow the complex details of the robbery, but he can also distract us when he wants to hold something in reserve. As for the action set pieces, the car chase/shootout that is the climax of the film should satisfy genre fans while allowing for a few character driven moments in the midst of the carnage. “Den of Thieves” won’t make any ten best lists next year, but as a midwinter entry to rev the engines, it satisfies.•••

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 – Mom and Dad


FILM REVIEW – MOM AND DADWith Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Lance Henriksen. Written and directed by Brian Taylor. Rated R for disturbing horror violence, language throughout, some sexual content/nudity and teen drug use. 83 minutes.

mom_and_dadOpening in select theaters and on Video on Demand, MOM AND DAD is the sort of darkly satiric horror film that should find an appreciative cult audience. In a tight 83 minutes, writer/director Brian Taylor sets up his absurd premise, and then runs with it, with a delicious twist in the third act. Don’t watch this one with your parents – or your children.

The film opens on the Ryan family. Brent (Nicolas Cage), is the loving father who, we discover, is full of seething resentment over not living up to his dreams. His wife Kendall (Selma Blair), has devoted herself to motherhood and now that her kids are older is frustrated at being unable to go back to work. Their daughter Carly (Anne Winters), is a typical teenager, and her younger brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) is navigating the pre-teen years. In a mainstream film, this family would face some sort of crisis and, perhaps, be strengthened by the experience.

Instead –– without warning and with little explanation –– a seemingly worldwide plague has infected parents with the desire to kill their own children. There are scenes of violence (or its aftermath), but Taylor wisely draws the line at turning this into torture-porn with kids, which would be distasteful beyond belief. Instead, he lets his camera imply what’s going on or could happen, including a horrific scene at a hospital where Kendall’s sister is giving birth.

Carly and her friend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) gather what’s happening from news reports and go to rescue Josh before her parents get home. At that point, the film focuses on the mad parents trying to act out their violent desires, and the kids trying to stay alive. Flashbacks suggest that it’s not the anger/resentment towards the kids that’s unusual, but removing the normal filters that keep such murderous desires in check.

As the parents, Cage and Blair get to act out, although Cage is mostly given the opportunity to rave and rant. Blair gets the more complex role, showing that it’s not adults vs. the kids, but parents vs. their own offspring. To be fair to Cage, he has a touching scene with Arthur in a flashback where we see the sort of understanding father he was, although a flashback with Blair – where he demolishes a pool table – suggests this was a character ready to snap. Winters, Arthur, and Cunningham hold their own as the potential victims doing what they have to do to stay alive.

It’s not clear at the end whether the madness was a short-term event or something permanent, and the ambiguity of the film’s final line plays off the tension between parents and their kids that exists in even the best of families. Here the dark side gets the chance to run free, and it’s the actions –– not the emotions –– that seem over-the-top. There may be a limited audience for “Mom and Dad,” but those who get it are likely to find its twisted humor much to their liking.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Post


FILM REVIEWTHE POST. With Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts. Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence. 115 minutes.

large_post-posterIt may not be polite to mention it but director Steven Spielberg – a master of the cinematic craft – is only as good as the script he’s shooting. When he has “Lincoln” (written by Tony Kushner) or “Bridge of Spies” (co-written by the Coen Brothers), he can use his camera to tell a compelling story. When he has a bland script like the one served up by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer for “The Post,” you end up with a workmanlike film, where not even the star power of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks is enough to compensate.

This is the story of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that the government didn’t want to leak because it revealed the truth of our military misadventure in Southeast Asia. In the movie, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) coordinates his reporters to break the story. Publisher Katherine Graham (Streep), who took over the paper after the suicide of her husband several years earlier, is wary. The paper is about to make a public stock offering and stepping into a controversy that could end up with the paper and personnel held in contempt of court – or worse – might bring the financial deal down before it even starts.

Those old enough to remember or otherwise up on their history might find it odd that they chose to make the Post the focus of the story. It was the New York Times that originally published excerpts from the Papers and they were the ones hauled into court when the Nixon Administration tried to prevent further publication. As is only hinted at here, the leaker – analyst Daniel Ellsberg – started getting copies of other newspapers, including the Post. Making the Post the center of attention would be like making a movie about Watergate where the focus was on Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The movie isn’t so much bad as it is pedestrian. Tom Hanks, certainly one of the finest American actors working today, pretty much plays his standard dramatic turn of “decent-guy-working-to-do-the-right-thing.” Compare his performance here with his previous outing with Spielberg in “Bridge of Spies” and you can see he barely breaks into a sweat here. As for Streep, there aren’t enough superlatives to cover her career (even with the upcoming “Mamma Mia” sequel), and she gets the most interesting arc in the film. She’s part of Washington, D.C. society – former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is a friend – and she’s not quite sure if she’s really up to the task of being a newspaper publisher, especially given the stakes. The filmmakers might have done better to make this film about her and cover more than the incidents depicted here. (As seen in the film’s coda, the Washington Post would soon be leading the way on a different story, about a break-in at the Watergate complex.)

“The Post” may be getting overpraised because it seems to be in touch with the current revulsion towards more current government lies, but that’s just not enough. Adequate at best, this represents a missed opportunity.•••

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, MA.

Review – The Commuter


FILM REVIEWTHE COMMUTER. With Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill. Written by Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language. 104 minutes.

thecommuternewpostermainbig5992Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is not having a good day. An ex-cop who has been selling life insurance, he lost most of his savings in the 2008 crash, he’s got a son going off to college, and – at age 60 – he’s just lost his job. Not your typical action hero by any means, but someone all-too-familiar in the real world. Things are about to get a lot worse.

The premise of THE COMMUTER is preposterous, but no more so than “Speed” (1994) or “Phone Booth” (2002). On the train home, Michael encounters a woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga) and who strikes up a conversation with him, echoing the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Strangers on a Train” (1951). She offers him the chance to make a $100,000 by locating someone named “Prynne” who is on the train, and placing a tracking device in the bag the person is carrying. The only thing he’s told is that the person is not a regular on the train. Oh, and if he wants to see his wife and son alive he’ll do as he’s told.

He tries to notify the police, but Joanna seems to be one step ahead of him, telling him that he’s the one responsible for the bodies that start piling up. It’s a convoluted plot, to be sure, and you just have to go with the flow and not question exactly how Joanna knows what he’s up to even though she’s no longer on the train. That she’s not working alone is obvious, but it would take an evil genius to manipulate things as she does here.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, in his fourth outing with Neeson (after “Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” and “Run All Night”) is adept at keeping things moving so quickly that you don’t have time to question the proceedings. When Michael discovers a body hidden beneath the floorboards, it leads to him ending up outside the moving train and having to get back in. It’s a bravura action sequence where it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself wondering how a 60-year-old insurance salesman has both the mental and physical capacity not to end up torn to pieces.

The film is really all Neeson, but he is surrounded with a solid cast including Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”) as a fellow commuter, Patrick Wilson as his ex-partner, and Sam Neill as the too-slick police captain who has an unspoken history with Michael. Suffice to say there are red herrings galore, with plenty of suspects including an obnoxious broker with Goldman Sachs (Shazad Latif) who provokes the most populist line in the movie.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “The Commuter” is that Neeson, who is actually 65, started out as a serious actor and now has a wide range of roles from drama to comedy to voiceover work to action star. For aging Baby Boomers, Neeson is an inspiration. It’s never too late to branch out, even if it means hanging from the side of a train.•••

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 lives in Somerville, MA.

 

Review – Insidious: The Last Key


FILM REVIEWINSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEYWith Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Bruce Davison, Kirk Acevedo. Written by Leigh Whannell. Directed by Adam Robitel. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence, and terror, and brief strong language. 103 minutes.

insidious-the-last-key-posterINSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, the latest installment of the “Insidious” franchise, makes no more sense than any of the other films in the series especially since this one – the fourth – is apparently a prequel to the first one. Suffice to say those who are easily scared, not bothered by gaps in narrative logic, or are fans of Lin Shaye, who plays ghost hunter Elise Rainier, will treat it as the film event of the year. Or at least the first week of January.

It turns out Elise has been having visions since she was a child and seems to have let loose some sort of demon on her household, although whether her father (Josh Stewart) would have been a sadistic brute anyway is an open question. Now Ted Gara (Kirk Acevedo), the new owner of her old family home near a prison in New Mexico, is being haunted and asks for her help. So she shows up with her sidekicks Specs (series writer Leigh Whannel) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) and attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A lot of the film involves various characters going down to the dark (naturally) basement and confronting one surprise or another. If you watch this on DVD or streaming video in a month or two there will be moments you’ll want to pause the movie and say, “Wait a second, that makes no sense.” In the theater, though, you just have to go with it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is what it says about families. When young Elise runs away from home, she leaves her brother Christian behind. Now, years later, they meet again only Christian (Bruce Davison) wants nothing to do with her. Yet his own daughters are fascinated by the aunt they never met and one of them has a secret of her own. Elise is also burdened by the guilt she has for feeling she was responsible for the death of her mother (Tessa Ferrer). It says something about the film that Davison and Ferrer turn in the film’s two best performances and also have a minimal amount of screentime.

The scares are the “pop out and say ‘Boo!’” variety, which is the cinematic equivalent of sneaking up on someone. There’s no deep dread or eerieness here, just the sense of people who have lucked into a profitable franchise and are milking it for all its worth. There’s even a cameo by a couple from previous entries allowing this to tie into the first movie, proving that this is a gift that keeps on giving.

Blumhouse Productions has shown Hollywood how to make low-budget horror movies that are profitable, scoring not only with “Paranormal Activity” but with the truly creepy “Sinister” and the acidly satiric “The Purge” and its sequels. In terms of the bottom line, the “Insidious” films have to be considered a success, but as entries into the venerable haunted house genre of movies, they are also-rans. This may be above average for the series, but that’s still only a C-plus.•••

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 – The Breadwinner


FILM REVIEWTHE BREADWINNER. With the voices of Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Soma Bhatia, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah. Written by Anita Doron. Directed by Nora Twomey. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images. 94 minutes.

the-breadwinner-new-poster-544x800As the old saying goes, if you only see one children’s cartoon about Taliban-occupied Kabul this holiday season… Okay, so that’s probably not a real saying, as there’s certainly not another film out there quite like THE BREADWINNER, director Nora Twomey’s rousing – and occasionally grueling – animated adaptation of the bestselling book by Deborah Ellis. Set in Afghanistan circa 2001, it’s a tough-minded child’s adventure that might be too much for some children. (This is the part of the review where critics typically guesstimate an age the film is appropriate for. I think you know your kids well enough to be able to tell if it’s suitable for them without me assigning an arbitrary number.)

Eleven-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) helps her father in the tattered Kabul marketplace, where he reads and writes letters for the largely illiterate population. Until one day the old man earns the ire of a former student turned gun-toting street-creep and ends up busted for keeping books around the house. He’s dragged off to the local prison under mysterious charges for an unspecified length of time, which leaves Parvana to fend for the family. This is a task easier said than done, since under Taliban rules women aren’t allowed outside without male accompaniment, and the man of the house is not yet two years old.

Cutting her hair and donning a dead older brother’s clothes, Parvana makes up a comically phony boy’s name and takes to the streets with a newfound freedom. She soon happens upon a classmate named Shauzia who’s working a similar scam, and “The Breadwinner” begins a dance between exhilarating escapades and unthinkable brutality, which though largely confined to offscreen spaces nonetheless lurks over the movie like a dark cloud. Much like “The Florida Project,” this film understands that children are always going to be children and cannot resist the urge to play, even under circumstances that terrify us adults in the audience.

There’s a great camaraderie between these two characters, pulling a fast one on their ogre-like oppressors and climbing on tanks for kicks. The evocative animation sticks to bold, simple line drawings, my favorite design belonging to a massive hulk of an adult figure who becomes an unlikely ally to Parvana after she reads him some bad news. I was captivated by how much director Twomey is able to convey by the fashion in which he slices fruit – a pause in his process bringing one of the film’s most unexpected emotional payoffs.

What doesn’t work so well are the movie’s occasional sidelines into Afghan folklore, with Parvana spinning tall tales and legends about an Elephant King in a heightened cut-out animated style that’s visually pleasing yet superfluous to the proceedings. The final reel, taking place on the eve of the American invasion, is so unbearably tense that the meandering metaphors become something of a nuisance. The reality of Parvana’s story is nerve-racking enough without all these fanciful interruptions.

Still, “The Breadwinner” is an exceptionally strong film, one that stands alongside executive producer Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” as 2017 movies that make visceral for us the day-to-day realities of life during wartime, through the eyes of children who sadly don’t know of anything else.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.