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Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

FILM REVIEWFANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALDWith Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Written by J. K. Rowling. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG for brief rude humor. 134 minutes.

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_xlgIf you’re not invested in the Potterverse (i.e., the Harry Potter books and movies) and haven’t seen the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie, the FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is not the film with which to be introduced to the world of J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Potter books and is now writing the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. However, if you are among the initiated, this second chapter in a planned five-film series ratchets up the tensions introduced in this series.

The center of attention is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who collects and tends the magical animals of the wizarding world and was a favorite of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). Although Scamander’s misadventures in the previous film has led the Ministry of Magic to forbid him foreign travel, Dumbledore sends him to Paris in an attempt to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a mysterious orphan who is also being sought by Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Dumbledore and Grindelwald were close friends in their student days but are now on opposite sides of a fight in which Grindelwald looks for those with magic to rule over the non-magical “muggles.”

Newt is accompanied by his muggle friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), who has been brought to Europe by Queenie (Alison Sudol), who loves Jacob even though she is magical and he is not, a relationship forbidden in the wizarding world. Newt is in love with Queenie’s sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is seeking Credence on behalf of the Ministry of Magic. These characters are all running around Paris while Grindelwald gathers support, along with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), also working for the Ministry and set to marry Lita Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), with whom Newt has a history.

This is a movie in which little will be resolved by film’s end, because there’s so much more story to come. There are dazzling special effects and “fantastic beasts” galore, including Nagini (Claudia Kim), who is under a curse causing her to turn into a giant snake, a change that will eventually become permanent. Potter fans will recognize that she is doomed to become the pet of the evil Voldemort, villain of the Potter series, and if that doesn’t resonate for you, you might want to go back to the beginning. There are many such callouts to the early books/movies, such as an appearance by Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky) who is cited as the creator of the “philosopher’s stone” in the very first Potter adventure.

As a newcomer to the series, Jude Law cuts a nice figure as the young Dumbledore, although one suspects his character will be further developed in later movies. Depp, who was revealed as Grindelwald at the end of the last film, is an arch villain, coming across as perfectly reasonable when he reveals the horrors that the muggle world will cause in the future of World War II (the story is set in the 1920s), but then shows he’s capable of some horrors himself.

For Rowling’s loyal fans – who are legion – this is an exciting next chapter. For those who haven’t really paid much attention, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” may provide some fantastic moments but may seem otherwise impenetrable.•••

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, 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 – The Front Runner

FILM REVIEWTHE FRONT RUNNER. With Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alex Karpovsky, Alfred Molina. Written by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Jason Reitman. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated R for language including some sexual references. 113 minutes.

front_runner_xlgJason Reitman’s THE FRONT RUNNER may not be the worst movie of the year, but it’s gotta be the most inessential and out-of-touch. A hectoring finger-wag about former Colorado senator Gary Hart’s doomed 1988 presidential campaign, the film purports to pinpoint the moment when political coverage gave in to tabloid temptations and reporters stopped looking the other way when old rich dudes flaunted their extramarital affairs. 

Reitman treats this as a national tragedy, depicting D.C. journalism an eden despoiled by craven hordes pandering to the basest instincts of their readers while the country suffers because born leaders like Hart are brought low for inconsequential personal failings. He never seems to have entertained the notion that it might say something about a man’s character when he keeps tripping over his dick.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart from beneath a wig so distracting I had a hard time looking at anything else, but beyond the tonsorial disaster his performance is hard to get a handle on, as the film holds him at a distance. When he and long-suffering wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) have a late-movie emotional showdown the scene feels dropped in from another picture altogether. The one we’ve been watching doesn’t have that kind of access to these people’s private moments.

Based on the book “All The Truth Is Out” by Matt Bai (who co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” writer Jay Carson) the film is more concerned with the buzzing about of Hart’s campaign workers in crisis mode and long talks about ethics in bustling newsrooms, where we witness the insane casting of Alfred Molina as legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

“The Front Runner” runs around in shallow circles with lots of cluttered, wannabe-Altman crowd scenes and overqualified actors spitting out sub-Sorkin banter. Reitman regular J.K. Simmons is on hand to spout cynical one-liners and it’s all very grave business indeed, with dolorous faces frowning at Johnny Carson monologue jokes. (What a gift it was to comedy writers that Hart got caught fooling around on a yacht called “Monkey Business.”) Everyone here both behind and in front of the camera seems furious that JFK and LBJ could cat around all they wanted in the White House while now all of the sudden poor Gary Hart has to face consequences for his actions.

It’s my personal opinion that anyone who, like Hart, publicly dares reporters to follow him around and then acts all huffy and indignant when they catch him chasing pussy is probably too stupid to be trusted with the nuclear codes. Besides, Bill Clinton and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have already established that infidelity need not be disqualifying, and much better movies like Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s “Primary Colors” have already pondered the gap between policy brilliance and personal peccadilloes, wondering just how much we’re willing to put up with for what we consider the right reasons. Reitman’s movie feels a lot more than a day late and a dollar short, angrily and repetitively insisting a candidate’s sex life is none of our business, and that something important was lost when these Miami Herald reporters took Hart up on his dopey dare.

At a cultural moment when powerful men are finally being called upon to answer for their sexual improprieties, a film like “The Front Runner” couldn’t possibly be less in tune with the times. I’m also not sure right now it’s such a hot idea to make a movie demonizing the press as the cause of all the problems in politics. Reitman’s a glib, smarmy filmmaker who after a recent string of bombs has become something of a poster boy for mediocre white guys coasting on old money and family connections. This banal, deeply incurious picture exudes exactly that kind of entitlement, pining away for the good old days when the privileged and powerful closed ranks to protect their own. He should make a Brett Kavanaugh film next.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Speed Kills

FILM REVIEWSPEED KILLS. With John Travolta, James Remar, Kellan Lutz, Tom Sizemore, Matthew Modine. Written by David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop. Directed by Jodi Scurfield. Rated R for language, some violence and drug material. 102 minutes. 

speed_kills_xlgIn any other year, SPEED KILLS would be the most laughably incompetent gangster movie starring John Travolta. Alas, 2018 also brought us “Gotti,” a risible botch job directed by the dwarf who plays E on “Entourage,” which in its nauseating immorality insisted that the Teflon Don got a bum rap and positioned this murderous dirtbag as an aspirational figure of endangered masculine values in a fallen world of pussies and finks. It’s an astoundingly stupid, tedious and ugly-spirited picture, full of angry-old-man axe-grinding and clownish goombah posturing.

By contrast “Speed Kills” is merely inept, poorly fictionalizing the life of Don Aranow — the cigarette boat manufacturer who was pals with George H.W. Bush and famously outfitted the DEA with a fleet of boats slower than the ones he was selling to smugglers. (There’s a pretty good “30 For 30” on ESPN about Aranow, and at one point the late Tony Scott was set to make a film about his life.) For some reason screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop have chosen to toss out most of the interesting stuff in Aranow’s story, rechristening him “Ben Aranoff” and saddling the speedboat magnate with clichéd ties to notorious mob boss Meyer Lansky, sluggishly played here by James Remar.

The film begins in 1987 with Travolta staring down a hitman (special guest star Tom Sizemore) and flashing back twenty-five years to tell us his story before shuffling off to his eternal reward. There’s hilariously little attention to period detail and no attempt to age the star accordingly. (His sideburns look a little longer in the seventies but that’s about it.) Travolta seems to wear the same denim shirt throughout several decades, and the movie apparently could only afford one or two boats, which presents a bit of a problem when you’re shooting so many boat races.

Set in Miami but certainly not shot there, “Speed Kills” is severely short on sandy beaches and palm trees. It’s always overcast and even the water looks grey. Very few extras mill about on underdressed sets, and my personal favorite part is a big party celebrating Meyer Lansky’s return from Israel, with exactly two people standing listlessly under a banner that reads “WELCOME HOME MEYER” in blue lettering and for some reason, scare-quotes.

The dumbed-down story is boilerplate Mafia swill, with Aranoff earning the ire of Lansky’s dipshit nephew Robbie Reemer (what a name!) played by Kellan Lutz, one of the “Twilight Saga” kids who will most decidedly not be basking in the arthouse glory of his former co-stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Then Matthew Modine shows up as George H.W. Bush, a bizarre bit of stunt-casting that, like the rest of “Speed Kills,” feels like it should probably be more amusing than it actually is.

As in “Gotti,” Travolta just seems miserable, alternating between scrunching up his face like something smells bad and looking like he has to poop. It was only a couple years ago that this most erratic of actors gave a wonderfully wild performance as Robert Shapiro in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” This new late-career gangster phase plays against all his strengths — nobody wants to watch John Travolta be an angry hard-ass, and it’s worth remembering that while playing similar types in “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty” he suffused the characters with a boyish, porcine self-delight. I miss that kind of joy in his work.

Early promotional materials credited co-writer John Luessenhop as the director of “Speed Kills,” but the film now purports to have been helmed by one Jodi Scurfield, who does not have any IMDB credits or photos and returns no results on a Google search. So I figure either Luessenhop wanted his name off the picture and made up an “Alan Smithee” style alter-ego to take the rap, or this Scurfield person was so embarrassed by his or her work that he or she elected to vanish entirely from public life. Either choice is understandable.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Widows

FILM REVIEWWIDOWSWith Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Collin Farrell, Liam Neeson. Written by Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen. Directed by Steve McQueen. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity. 129 minutes.

A good heist movie requires a solid set-up so that we care about the characters as they plan their crime. It should involve a complex operation where things might not go as expected, with a few twists along the way. WIDOWS has all this to spare, with a solid cast propelling us through to the end.

The film opens with Harry (Liam Neeson) and his partners pulling off a job that goes very wrong, ending in a fiery explosion. The robbery was of the campaign funds for Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), running for Chicago alderman in a district long controlled by the family of Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), who is now trying to place his son Jack (Colin Farrell) in office. Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) are not above using violence to recover the money, with Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) being threatened if she doesn’t replace the missing funds.

Although well-heeled, Veronica can’t meet his demands so she contacts Linda (Michelle Rodiguez) – who has lost her clothing shop due to her late husband’s gambling debts – and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who has become a call girl to make ends meet. All desperate, the women get a hold of one of Harry’s future plans, which he recorded in a notebook, deciding to do it themselves. Belle (Cynthia Erivo) is later brought in to be the driver when their original plans have to change.

Director Steve McQueen (who adapted Lynda LaPlante’s novel with Gillian Flynn), has a lot of balls in the air here. The characters are working at cross purposes, often violently. Some of the plot lines might seem like distractions, but that’s the point. There are moments where things are set up that don’t pay off until much later, so we’re never quite sure what to focus on, with McQueen often catching us off-guard.

There are a lot of good performances here, none of which are likely to turn up at the Oscars or year-end awards, but with so much talent on hand there’s no wasted time. Davis, Rodriguez, and Debicki are standouts playing women forced to navigate in new worlds as they try to gain control of their lives. Farrell’s reluctant politician probably warrants a separate film, particularly in the glimpses we get of his life with his father. And Kaluuya, so effective as the victimized center of “Get Out,” is scary as his brother’s enforcer.

“Widows” is an entertaining thriller that grabs you from the start and puts you through the wringer. It may not be art, but it’s rattling good entertainment.•••

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.

Review – Can You Ever Forgive Me?

FILM REVIEWCAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? With Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Anna Deavere Smith, Jane Curtin. Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Directed by Marielle Heller. Rated R for language including some sexual references and brief drug use. 106 minutes.

can_you_ever_forgive_meThe film takes its title from a famous letter by Dorothy Parker, one in which the hard-drinking, acid-tongued author speculated that she might save time apologizing for feelings trampled upon during her frequent blackouts by going around New York City distributing pre-printed cards that ask CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

The letter is classic Dorothy Parker. It’s also a hoax — one of over 400 phony missives meticulously forged in the early 1990s by the late Lee Israel, a down-on-her luck non-fiction writer turned literary trickster and now the subject of director Marielle Heller’s warmly acerbic and altogether wonderful new picture. Played to boisterous, boozebag perfection by Melissa McCarthy, Lee’s a loudmouthed, lonely alcoholic whose days on the New York Times bestseller list are long in the rearview mirror. Saddled with a sick cat, a filthy apartment she can no longer afford and a skill set that’s fallen far out of fashion, our heroine soon finds herself punching up the one-liners on a few memorabilia items before quickly graduating to full-blown fraud.

Her partner in crime is Jack Hock, a flamboyant bon vivant nearing the end of the line and played with glorious, clay-footed bravado by Richard E. Grant. This blotto, foppish dandy with scuffed shoes can’t help but call to mind Grant’s legendary turn thirty years ago as one of cinema’s most quotable drunkards in Bruce Robinson’s great “Withnail & I.” Jack’s a sort of Withnail in winter, fully aware that the party ended years ago but still dancing as fast as he can. 

McCarthy and Grant have a brilliantly bitchy chemistry, blasting each other with filthy zingers while drinking away afternoons in the cozy gay bars of a pre-Giuliani Manhattan that’s just beginning to slip out of reach for these kind of misfits. Heller has an extraordinary eye for detail — you can practically smell the must in these antiquarian bookshops, as well as the less-pleasant feline aromas of Lee’s cluttered apartment. This is also one of the most honest films I’ve ever seen about how common it is for someone to be a quote-unquote successful writer while not doing well financially at all.

There’s a warm blanket of melancholy to these wintry New York City settings, and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” more than once reminded me of Curtis Hanson’s classic “Wonder Boys,” which featured similarly snowbound literary has-beens on benders with ruefully funny results. The particulars of Israel’s scheme never do quite take center stage, the film is too interested in these characters to become a true-crime procedural.

Instead, the sneaky screenplay — co-written the great Nicole Holofcener of “Walking and Talking” and “Enough Said” — lands on Lee’s unexpected swelling of pride in her work. Her fake letters are more convincing than a lot of real ones. She’s well-researched enough to approximate the author’s voices, and it’s unsurprisingly easy for her slip into a lot of these hard-drinking, oversized and often queer sensibilities. This is the best writing Lee’s ever done, and the only person she can tell is Jack.

It’s these two that’ll stay with you long after the lights come up — the potty-mouthed banter bouncing back and forth between McCarthy and Grant as they stagger through a disappearing New York, leaning on each other the way only the desperately lonely can. They’re like the Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo of used bookstores and parties full of old ladies and free shrimp. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a very small, extremely specific movie about a rarefied milieu, yet the emotions it conjures are huge and universal. I didn’t want it to end.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past nineteen 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 He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Grinch

FILM REVIEWTHE GRINCHWith the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Seely, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams. Written by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow. Directed by Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier. Rated PG for brief rude humor. 90 minutes.

grinch_ver2Just how many Grinches do we need? Dr. Seuss wrote his beloved book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” in 1957. An equally beloved 1966 cartoon version was created for television by legendary animator Chuck Jones, memorably voiced by Boris Karloff. Perhaps less known is a 1992 video, voiced by Walter Matthau. This was followed by a problematical live action version in 2000 directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey. With all of these readily available, there will be a stage version in Boston this season, as well as this new movie, animated by the same company that gave us “Despicable Me.”

We start with the idea that there’s absolutely no need for yet another version. Nonetheless, here is THE GRINCH. You know the story. Everyone in the utterly Christian village of Whoville is happily anticipating the arrival of Christmas. (There is apparently no one there celebrating any other holiday.) High up on a nearby mountain lives the Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who despises Christmas and the joyous fellowship shared by the residents. He comes up with a plan to steal Christmas by making off with all the decorations and presents on Christmas Eve, only to discover that the holiday is not about such trappings but about peace on Earth and goodwill towards Whos. This causes his tiny heart to grow, leading to a happy ending appropriate for the season.

So how is this new version? It’s certainly true to the spirit of the Dr. Seuss book. The Grinch may be bitter and cynical, but there are all sorts of hints about his ultimate redemption. His relationship with his devoted dog Max shows just how hungry he is for love and friendship. When he recruits a reindeer for his plot to steal Christmas disguised as Santa Claus, he releases the comical creature when its family shows up. His being touched by little Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), whose Christmas wish is not for herself but for her overworked single mom (Rashida Jones), is the logical outcome of the story.

In terms of the production, the animation from Illumination Entertainment is top-notch, bringing the surreal and cartoonish images of Dr. Seuss to life. Children should enjoy the colorful and imaginative settings, from the Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms of the Grinch to the busy yet efficient businesses of Whoville. Likewise, the depictions of the characters, particularly the Grinch, and the voice cast, is solidly done.

The one flaw is the music. Danny Elfman’s score is up to snuff, but for some inexplicable reason they’ve decided to update the key song associated with the story since the 1966 cartoon. This film’s discordant rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is so out of sync with the rest of the movie that it’s amazing that the project proceeded with it. They might have heeded the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This “Grinch” is not the mess that the live action movie was, and should entertain family audiences. Skeptics will remain unconvinced that there was any need for a new version.•••

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.

Review – Outlaw King

FILM REVIEWOUTLAW KINGWith Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Rebecca Robin, Billy Howle, James Cosmo. Written by Bash Doran & David Mackenzie & James MacInnes. Directed by David Mackenzie. Rated R for sequences of brutal war violence, some sexuality, language and brief nudity. 121 minutes.

outlaw_king_ver2If you’re a fan of “Braveheart” or are otherwise fascinated by the medieval Scottish revolt against British rule, you’re the target audience for OUTLAW KING, in a limited theatrical run and otherwise available via Netflix. Chris Pine stars as Robert Bruce, who risks everything to get Scotland out from under the heel of King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) of England.

The film begins after the defeat of William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”), where the various Scottish nobles take an oath of loyalty to the British crown. However, the brutality and capriciousness of the English king soon becomes more than Bruce can bear. After killing his rival for the kingship of Scotland, he begins to amass the forces to fight back. He is hampered by the fact that not all the Scottish families are willing to join him and that the English have many more soldiers at their disposal. The particularly sadistic Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), gets permission to put the rules of chivalry aside. The rebels are to be shown no mercy.

While this is a film that fairly demands to be seen on a big screen, given the complex and brutal battle scenes, it was financed by Netflix and is getting only limited theatrical release. Chris Pine (perhaps best known as Captain Kirk in the rebooted “Star Trek”) is the biggest name in the cast and while he is engaging, he doesn’t have the star power to “open” a movie on the basis of his starring in it. As Robert the Bruce, he is easily the most complex character in the film, willing to murder a rival in cold blood, and yet showing tenderness not only to his new wife (an engaging Rebecca Robin), but to those willing to risk their lives by following him into battle.

Those battle scenes are the standout moments in the film, and they are brutal. It’s the 14th century, and the weapons are swords, spears, axes, and maces. The filmmakers convey Bruce’s tactical brilliance in the climactic battle, but once the two sides are engaged, it’s merciless. Even the victorious survivors are covered in blood and gore. Often you can’t be sure which side is winning, because what you’re seeing is the madness and chaos of war.

Some may argue that the film simplifies the historical figures, in that Bruce is portrayed as near saintly – except for that murder – while the Prince of Wales is a nasty and vicious thug, who betrays a promise made to his father on the latter’s deathbed. “Outlaw King” doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, telling its story while clearly favoring one side. The result is a historical melodrama that will engage the eyes and stir the blood.•••

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.