Category Archives: FILM REVIEW

Review – Replicas


FILM REVIEWREPLICAS. With Keanu Reeves, Alice Eve, Thomas Middeditch, John Ortiz, Emily Alyn Lind. Written by Chad St. John. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, disturbing images, some nudity and sexual references. 107 minutes.

replicas_ver2By the time Keanu Reeves was crouched in an office bathroom straining to make small talk with his boss in the next stall while simultaneously sticking a needle into his eyeball in order to copy his cerebral cortex onto a laptop computer, I was pretty sure I had no idea where REPLICAS was gonna go next. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t either.

This is one strange shambles of a movie, thrown together on-the-cheap and overstuffed with so many stupid, bonkers conceits that it becomes morbidly fascinating to watch all the wild variations in tone and kooky, convoluted plot turns get flattened out by the pedestrian production and our genial leading man. The film lands firmly at the “Johnny Mnemonic” end of the Keanu science-fiction spectrum, though it’s nuttiness presumably won’t prove nearly memorable enough to be namechecked twenty years down the road. (I doubt people will even be talking about it this weekend.)

Reeves stars as a brilliant scientist working at a shady biotech firm headquartered in Puerto Rico. He’s been trying to implant the brain data of dead soldiers into robots with little success. His boss (John Ortiz) is about to pull the plug on the whole project, and then one night Keanu’s wife (Alice Eve) and three children are killed in a car crash. Instead of reporting the accident, our good doctor scans their brainwaves onto big, clunky hard drives and calls his lab assistant (Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley” and all those goddamn Verizon commercials) – who just so happens to know a thing or two about cloning.

With remarkable ease these dudes swipe millions of dollars in scientific equipment from work and set up a lab down in Keanu’s basement to try and recreate his dead family. (Middleditch identifies one of the purloined vats as containing “amino acids and primordial ooze.”) The catch is that there aren’t enough cloning pods for everybody, so Reeves has a mini-“Killing of a Sacred Deer” dilemma trying to choose which one of his children won’t be brought back to life.

This anguished decision is quite bizarrely juxtaposed with comedic nonsense like Reeves and Middleditch lying to teachers about the kids’ absences from school during the clone gestation process, or our over-protective dad angrily answering text messages from his teenage daughter’s wannabe suitor. These two actors have similarly laid-back line deliveries, lapsing into bits of dude comedy that don’t sit particularly well on top of all the dead kid business.

The family stuff is handled so awkwardly it’s almost a relief when Ortiz pulls a heel turn and “Replicas” becomes a regular corporate espionage thriller, albeit one that keeps bursting the boundaries of its own scientific concepts by having the characters yell laborious exposition in each other’s faces every time the script has written itself into another corner. Keanu remains an endlessly endearing screen presence but shouting gobbledygook terminology is pretty much the opposite of what he’s good at.

What’s astonishing is the all-around lack of urgency. Here you’ve got a couple of scientists who basically invent a cure for death without anybody making a big deal out of it. (Keanu’s cloned wife recovers from learning about her demise in shockingly short order.) The scale of the movie is all out of whack, nothing but drab industrial office spaces and a dingy basement. Even the supposedly futuristic scientific tools resemble crummy construction equipment, with Reeves doing his work in a flimsy helmet with a plastic face shield that makes him look like a guy who fixes telephone poles.

I suppose the general air of grubbiness could have been an aesthetic choice by the filmmakers to try and ground this outlandish story in a workaday reality. (Or the producers just could have been cheapskates.) But combined with the placid performances and nonplussed reaction shots it leaves “Replicas” flatlined, absent any sense of wonder. Keanu brings his whole family back from the dead and nobody even says “Whoa.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 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.

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Review – The Upside


FILM REVIEWTHE UPSIDEWith Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Tate Donovan. Written by Jon Hartmere. Directed by Neil Burger. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use. 125 minutes.

upsideThe good news about THE UPSIDE is that it isn’t as bad as expected. Why should there be low expectations? It’s a January release that’s been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. What’s changed is that the three leads are hot right now. Bryan Cranston is in the hit Broadway adaptation of “Network,” Nicole Kidman has a run of good roles including the blockbuster hit “Aquaman” and the Oscar contender “Destroyer,” and Kevin Hart is the once and possibly future Oscar host. The proverbial iron is hot, and fledgling distributor STX is striking it.

Based on a hit French film (“Les Intouchables”) – apparently inspired by a true story – it’s another odd couple story, like the recent “Green Book.” Phillip (Cranston) is a billionaire and best-selling author of business books who was rendered a quadriplegic after a skydiving accident that took the life of his wife. He has a decidedly quirky sense of humor and when his business assistant Yvonne (Kidman) is interviewing someone to be a personal aide, he impulsively hires Dell (Hart), a parolee trying to put his life back together.

The film is predictable in too many ways, but when it works it’s because of the rapport that develops between Phillip and Dell, which is to say Cranston and Hart. They truly are an odd couple, and yet they play off of each other in ways that are frequently comic and/or emotionally satisfying. As in the best romantic comedies – including a bromance like this – the two partners each have something to learn from the other. Phillip has become fatalistic and isn’t sure he wants to go on living. A pen pal relationship with a woman (Julianna Margulies) suggests possibilities, and it is Dell who urges them to meet. Dell, estranged from his wife and teenage son, has the opportunity to make amends thanks to his new job, something that Phillip encourages.

The person who is a third wheel here is Kidman. It’s not a problem with the performance. It’s that it’s a nothing role. As first we think that the tension between Dell and Yvonne is going to be a major plot point, but it quickly falls by the wayside. The relationship with her and Phillip is strictly businesslike, and in spite of hastily filling in her backstory, the payoff feels contrived.

After “Breaking Bad,” it’s clear that Cranston has a range that directors (in TV, movies, and theater) will enjoy plumbing for years. The person who has to be happiest about the film finally being released is Hart, who has his comic moments but also gets to turn in a more serious performance than his previous films have allowed. He will undoubtedly be looking for other such opportunities in the future.

So the upside about “The Upside” is that – surprisingly – there is an upside.•••

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 this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – A Dog’s Way Home


FILM REVIEWA DOG’S WAY HOMEWith Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes.

dogs_way_homeYou may not have noticed, but there’s an actual genre of movies in which an animal – almost inevitably a dog – is separated from his or her owner and has a series of adventures while trying to get home. This includes “The Incredible Journey” (1963) and “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017). The latter is especially significant because author W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote the novel and worked on the screenplay, handled similar chores on A DOG’S WAY HOME and the forthcoming “A Dog’s Journey.”

These family films – which also appeal to animal lovers – purport to give us the animal’s point-of-view about navigating the world. From a cinematic viewpoint, what’s interesting is the staging, filming, and editing of scenes to support that perspective. In that, the selection of director Charles Martin Smith was shrewd as he worked (as an actor) in “Never Cry Wolf” and (as a director) on a “Dolphin Tale.” He’s clearly conversant and comfortable with movies involving humans and mammals interacting.

The story focuses on Bella (a real-life junkyard stray voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), an animal-loving medical student working at the Veterans’ Administration in Denver. Bella is a stray mutt but has sufficient markings as a pit bull that she is endangered by (according to the movie) a Denver ordinance that bans such dogs within the city. While Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) try to find a new home outside city limits, Bella is sent to New Mexico to stay with a friendly family.

What follows is Bella leaving the family to “go home” to Lucas, a process that will take up the bulk of the film. Along the way she will be taken in by a gay couple, a homeless veteran (Edward James Olmos), and – in the film’s most impressive sequences – a cougar. There are various subplots, but the main storyline is always about Bella striving to get back to Lucas, while occasionally being tempted by other “family” possibilities along the way.

Smith clearly understands the material and its appeal to specific audiences. For kids there are moments of drama and threats, such as when Bella is threatened by a wolf pack. For adults it is Bella’s attempts to understand the world around her, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes finding it beyond her ability to cope. It’s completely manipulative, of course, with the guaranteed happy ending – did you have any doubt? – likely to generate a few tears or, at least, a lump in the throat.

“A Dog’s Way Home” is a formula movie designed to provoke particular reactions, not reveal something about the human or animal condition. If it isn’t a great artistic achievement, it is a well-crafted movie that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. If you find such material appealing, it will work. If you’re so cynical that you find the very concept nauseating, then watching this will not change your mind.•••

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 this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Escape Room


FILM REVIEWESCAPE ROOMWith Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis. Written by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik. Directed by Adam Robitel. Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language. 100 minutes.

escape_roomJanuary is a time for last year’s Oscar contenders to go wide, if they haven’t already, and for quick releases of movies that will soon be on a streaming service near you. First out of the box for the latter is ESCAPE ROOM, a thriller pitched to viewers with no interest in the more serious Oscar fare. It’s one of those “jump scare” films that will generate screams, clutched arms and – for the more cynical – rolling eyes. It’s definitely “check-your-brains-at-the-door” time.

After a scene of a young man seemingly being crushed in a room where the walls are closing in on him, the scene shifts to a few days earlier, where several people receive a puzzle box that produces an invitation. For an opportunity to win $10,000 they can experience a modern type of entertainment: being locked in a specially designed room and trying to decipher hidden clues to find a way out.

It’s an eclectic group, including an Iraqi war veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a brilliant and introverted college student (Taylor Russell), the young misfit from the prologue (Logan Miller), a financial wizard (Jay Ellis), a game-playing nerd (Nik Dodani), and a truck driver (Tyler Labine). We quickly learn that each has their own strengths and weaknesses and – important for the plot – secrets as well.

For obvious reasons, to provide any further details would be nothing but spoilers, because that’s all the film is: if you knew what was coming there would be no reason to see it. As they enter each room viewers can try to anticipate the solutions as well as the pitfalls. Some are obvious, and some are ridiculous, but we know from the opening scene where this is heading. Once we get there, there are a few more twists, with the inevitable set-up for a hoped-for sequel perhaps the most obvious and disappointing.

The cast is the best thing here, sketching in their characters in quick strokes so that we can easily follow their arcs. No one here should be expecting any award nominations for their performances, but they show potential for breakouts in future roles. In that sense, the movie’s escape theme may work on more than one level.

However the notion that “Escape Room” is, or ought to be, the launch of a new horror/thriller franchise seems more than overly optimistic. On the other hand, similar movies like “Final Destination” and the odious “Saw” did spawn several sequels, so there really may be no escape.•••

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

Review – Mary Queen Of Scots


FILM REVIEWMARY QUEEN OF SCOTSWith Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Martin Compston. Written by Beau Willimon. Directed by Josie Rourke. Rated R for some violence and sexuality. 124 minutes.

mary_queen_of_scots_ver3For those coming in late – or not up on their British history – here’s the backstory: After Henry VIII disempowered the Catholic Church in order to marry several times in pursuit of a male heir, the religious divide in England was severe. Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) ascends to the throne, but Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has a potential valid claim as well, although Mary is Catholic. Should Elizabeth die without leaving an heir, Mary or her offspring could claim the British crown. For the powers-that-be around Elizabeth, allowing a Catholic monarch simply could not be allowed.

In this film version of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, that’s important to know, but it’s not the chief item on the agenda of first-time director Josie Rourke (a British stage director) or screenwriter Beau Willimon. Instead, the movie becomes a metaphorical study of 21st century identity politics which, even if you agree with their point of view, seems anachronistic in the 16th century. The result is a film that is a fine showcase for its two lead actresses but fails to satisfy.

The problem, the film tells us, is the patriarchy, the male nobility that restricts and even prevents Elizabeth or Mary from acting freely. This includes Mary’s second marriage (she was a young widow) to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) from whom she subsequently becomes estranged and may or may not have been the father of her son. To give it a modern twist, Henry is depicted as either gay or bisexual. Actions are taken despite the desires of the two queens, further complicated by a production design in which nearly all the male characters have beards and dress in black. A battle scene defies one’s ability to note what side anyone is on.

There’s also the ahistorical diversity of secondary cast members, which is a positive effort for most movies, but seems odd here, as it is highly unlikely there were black or Asian nobles in 16th century England. To cement the “sisterhood is powerful (if the men would get out of the way)” theme, the film even gives us a clandestine meeting between Elizabeth and Mary which has no historical basis.

Willimon, perhaps best known for creating the American version of “House Of Cards,” the Netflix series of contemporary political intrigue and backstabbing, was an inspired choice for the script. Unfortunately, in shoehorning modern issues into a religious power struggle more than four centuries ago, he loses control of the material. Rourke may be a talent to watch in the future – there are moments here, including the fictional confrontation scene between the two queens, that are striking – but, in the end, she seems less interested in the historical conflict than in making a point about the suppression of women.

“Mary Queen of Scots” is a missed opportunity to shed light on a key moment in history, using it instead to export contemporary concerns to the past.•••

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 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 – Vice


FILM REVIEWVICEWith Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill. Written and directed by Adam McKay. Rated R for language and some violent images. 132 minutes.

vice_ver3Writer/director Adam McKay has done some very funny comedies with Will Ferrell, such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Yet while he aspires to do more serious films he can’t let go of the shtick. So, in “The Big Short,” about the stock market crash that led to the Great Recession, he interrupts the action to have actress Margot Robbie taking a bubble bath explaining the concept of “sub-prime loans.” There have been filmmakers who excelled at both comedy and drama – Billy Wilder comes to mind – but they understood how to strike a delicate balance when adding comic moments in their dramatic films, or vice versa.

With VICE, McKay does a somewhat better job, helped by focusing on a singular character, but still he can’t help himself. There are moments that betray his roots on “Saturday Night Live” which would be fine if this was just a sketch, but completely undercuts the material when telling a straight story in a feature length film. As a result, this biopic of Dick Cheney, vice president under George W. Bush, gets interrupted for a mock ending (including closing credits), or a scene where the Cheneys shift to Shakespearean dialogue. McKay may believe he’s showing his cleverness, but what he’s doing is throwing the viewer out of the story. The result is a movie that can’t decide if it’s serious, satiric, or a lampoon.

Its obvious strength is a bravura performance by Christian Bale as Cheney. After a few scenes of him as a young man, he is transformed into the Cheney who was in the news as part of several Republican administrations. The make-up job is impressive, but it’s the actor who makes it work. He has Cheney’s crooked smile down pat, as well as the man’s ability to sound perfectly reasonable as he mutters some outrageous claims, such as paving the way for the invasion of Iraq due to the “weapons of mass destruction” that were never found.

The serious parts of the film are effective, and show Cheney as a man ready to do whatever is necessary to achieve his goals. Bale is helped by Amy Adams as his wife, the similarly ambitious Lynn Cheney, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, whose relationship with Cheney evolves as they take on different roles. Sam Rockwell’s turn as Bush walks a fine line, showing a man easily manipulated by Cheney without turning him into a caricature.

The film is at its best depicting Cheney’s situational ethics. When he agrees to be Bush’s running mate, he notes that his younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill), is an out lesbian, and he cannot go along with the anti-gay platform of the Republicans. Throughout the Bush years Cheney was hardly waving the banner of gay liberation, but when the matter came up (as in the vice-presidential debates) he would quietly express his love and support for Mary. However – as shown here – when her sister Liz (Lily Rabe) was running for office and came under attack for not being sufficiently supportive of “traditional marriage,” Cheney and his wife publicly sided with Liz who announced she opposed gay marriage, causing a family rift.

As a study of a vice president who took on more power than anyone in that position before or since, “Vice” provides a schooling in recent American history. Yet because its filmmaker still wants to play the clown, it falls short of what it could have been.•••

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 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 – Vox Lux


FILM REVIEWVOX LUXWith Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Jennifer Ehle, Stacy Martin. Written and directed by Brady Corbet. Rated R for language, some strong violence, and drug content. 110 minutes.

vox_luxVOX LUX is an ambitious film that proves to be less than the sum of its parts. It’s going to be tough to engage audiences, but fans of Natalie Portman won’t want to miss her risk-taking performance here.

Those looking for a plot should look elsewhere. Things happen but there’s no real story here. Billed as a “Twenty-First Century Portrait,” the intent seems to be to use the rise and fall and possible rise again of rock star Celeste as a metaphor for America. In a prologue set in 1999, fourteen-year-old Celeste (an impressive Raffey Cassidy) is the survivor of a horrific event that will cast a shadow on the rest of her life. The film then moves into the first of two sections, set around 2000-2001, where Celeste slowly recovers from her injuries, and then gains fame performing a song written by her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) at a memorial service.

This leads to her embarking on a musical career, under the tutelage of her manager (Jude Law). As the Narrator (Willem Dafoe) tells us, this at first leads to the two sisters forming a closer bond but ends with a loss of innocence that sends them in separate directions. The second half of the film is set in 2017 where the adult Celeste (Portman) is planning what she refuses to call a “comeback” in connection with her new album. In conversation we learn of her troubles in the intervening years including alcohol and drug abuse, and a near-fatal car accident for which she was responsible. It culminates – as did the recent “Bohemian Rhapsody” – with a triumphant concert.

So what is the point? If Celeste is a metaphor for America, then the path she travels ought to tell us something about the past two decades. In some ways it does, as Celeste’s complex relationships with both Eleanor and her own daughter Albertine (played by Cassidy), show someone who can be abusive or neglectful or loving and supportive, all the while barely in control of her own life. Perhaps the film’s ultimate statement is the reactions of her fans at the concert, who are clearly entertained and uplifted by their idol’s performance.

Writer-director Brady Corbet favors long, talky scenes which sometimes work and sometimes bring the film to a halt. A scene with her wanting some “alone time” with her daughter goes on far too long, with the payoff given not to the two actresses but to the narrator. Portman, sporting a “Noo Yawk” accent, offers a complicated portrait of someone at the top, yet still carrying the burden of her past. Law has a few pertinent scenes as her manager, but it’s really the relations between the sisters and mother and daughter that carry the film’s weight. When we see Eleanor and Albertine react at the concert, it’s clear there are no pat answers to summing up Celeste’s life.

Perhaps that’s the point of “Vox Lux,” where modern American history is divided as before and after 9/11. Seventeen years later, it’s still not clear what America is becoming, just as Celeste has to examine and re-invent herself as she figures out how to go forward.•••

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.