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Category Archives: FILM REVIEW

Review – The Great Wall

REVIEWTHE GREAT WALLWith Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal. Written by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Directed by Yimou Zhang. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. 103 minutes.

wallYimou Zhang is one of China’s premier directors, having made such notable arthouse staples as “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers. With THE GREAT WALL, he makes his bid to do a Hollywood film–but on his own terms. Shot in China with a mostly Chinese cast, it features Matt Damon in the lead to give it some starpower in the U.S., along with Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal.

The resulting film is an action fantasy that will seem at once familiar and different. The plot will seem very familiar. William (Damon) is a mercenary who is in medieval China to obtain the explosive “black powder” which promises to change warfare. When he and his partner Tovar (Pascal) are captured at the Great Wall, they learn that the wall is to protect the emperor and the capital city from the hordes of the monstrous Tao Tai. These creatures attack every sixty years and even with the massive military might arrayed at this section of the 13,000-plus mile wall, it’s not looking good.

Had this been a conventional Hollywood film, William would be the great savior of the Chinese. Instead, while he offers crucial assistance, he also learns something of their ways, and the true hero of the story is Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), who leads the women’s forces in leaping off the wall to spear the Tao Tai. Add to this the director’s strong visual style, whether in character moments or shots that potray the vastness of the land and the opposing forces, and you get something that grabs the viewer earlier on and doesn’t let go.

Much of the Chinese cast is well-known at home, if lesser known (or not at all) to American viewers. Tian Jing is lovely yet manages to convey the toughness and dedication of someone who knows nothing but the military life. Andy Lau’s Wang, the strategist for the leaders, and Lu Han, as a soldier wrongly thought to be a coward, are among the standouts. Joining Damon and Pascal among the Westerners is Willem Dafoe as Ballard, who has spent 25 years in captivity and sees the new arrivals as providing a fresh opportunity for escape.

The joys of the film are both visceral and subtle. The fantasy action scenes are thrilling at the Saturday matinee level, particularly one weapon that consists of shears that emerge from the wall and cut the monsters in two. The subtlety is in the interplay between Chinese and Western expectations,both for the characters and for audiences. This is a Chinese/U.S. co-production, which meant it is has to please audiences coming for Matt Damon as well as those who are fans of Tian Jing or singer Lu Han. (By contrast, Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”was a hit in the U.S. and not as successful in China, where audiences found it tamer than homegrown fare.)

China has become an increasingly important market for Hollywood leading to Chinese investment in American movies becoming increasingly important. “The Great Wall” may be the next step in the cinematic collaboration of the two nations, which should be encouraged. Or, as one might say, make movies, not war.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – A Cure For Wellness

With Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie, Carl Lumbly. Written by Justin Haythe. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Rated Rated R for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language. 146 minutes.

mv5bmtg5njg1mziwnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwndu1njczmdi-_v1_sx300A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a gonzo, over-the-top, thriller that slowly morphs into a horror film. Viewers able to buy into this waking nightmare will find themselves amply rewarded; there will be many who think the movie asks too much. Overlong at nearly two-and-a-half hours–and with plot holes you could drive a truck through–it nonetheless sucks you in by way of it’s impressive and surreal production design and a story that keeps revealing deeper and deeper layers of madness. One is hard-pressed to think of any American film of recent years that even comes close to this.

Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is go-getter in financial services who got too cute with some recent transactions. The company principals are less upset at his ruthlessness than that he thought he could get away with it. They give him the opportunity to redeem himself by going to a spa in the Swiss Alps where Pembroke (Harry Groener), the head of the company, has gone for a rest cure and refuses to return. He’s needed to sign off on a merger.

The spa, under the direction of Volmer (Jason Isaacs), is impressive, although the local townies have a love/hate relationship with it. Lockhart is given the runaround and, after a car accident, finds himself stuck as a patient there himself. He locates Pembroke, who refuses to leave, and strikes up a friendship of sorts with Hannah (Mia Goth), an ethereal young woman in whom Volmer takes a special interest.

As the story progresses we learn more and more about the secrets of the spa, and why the wealthy individuals who come for “the cure” are never cured. To cite the most obvious problem with the narrative, even on crutches Lockhart seems to be able to explore secret levels of the facility with surprising ease, invariably being in the right–or wrong–place at the most opportune moment. That’s why this is more like a nightmare than a crisply-written thriller: there’s an internal logic going on that’s all the eerier because, at times, it doesn’t make sense.

DeHaan’s Lockhart is not a likable character, at least at first, more a smug yuppie who deserves a comeuppance. Yet as he becomes more victim than victimizer, he slowly wins us over, making us ever more suspicious of the smooth-talking and utterly practical Volmer. By the time we get to the film’s climax–after a scene where many might think the film is coming to its tragic ending but is really just getting warmed up–all bets are off. Even if you figure out, or think you figure out, where it’s going, you will not expect the operatic showdown which includes fire, water, perversion, and ballroom dancing. By comparison, “Fifty Shades Darker” is a cartoon.

Director Gore Verbinski (whose works include the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and the dreadful remake of “The Lone Ranger”) has created a film that recalls the British horror films of the 1950s and the Italian horror films of the ’60s, and yet is wholly original. (Verbinski developed the story with screenwriter Justin Haythe.) “A Cure for Wellness” could have used some tightening, but the result is unlike anything Hollywood is making these days. For many that will be a relief, so if you’re intrigued, see it sooner rather than later. This deserves to be seen on a big screen.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

REVIEWJOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2With Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common. Written by Derek Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity. 122 minutes.

1483187431-wick-postIf there’s a problem with JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is that it’s that we’ve lost the element of surprise. In the 2014 original, Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a retired hitman who is forced to fight back when–through no fault of his own–he gets on the wrong side of the Russian mob. It introduced us to an alternate reality in which contract killers had their own hotels, restaurants, services, and even coinage.

In this new entry, Wick cleans up the loose ends from the first film (wich a cameo from Peter Stormare as the new mob boss) and then looks forward to returning to retirement. However, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) has other plans for him. He hold a “marker” from Wick which means his refusal to perform a hit for D’Antonio violates one of the sacred rules of their world. D’Antonio “persuades” him, and Wick finds himself in Rome with the assignment of killing D’Antonio’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini).

This is where it gets complicated, because D’Antonio has done this as a way to amass power, but now Wick is a loose end. Soon Wick finds himself with a bounty on his head, chased not only by Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common), but D’Antonio’s silent boydguard Ares (Ruby Rose), and anyone else who thinks they can take him out for $7 million. At one point, Wick has to reach out for help from the Bowery King (his “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne) leading to shootouts and fight choreography topping everything we’ve already seen in this over-the-top movie.

Director Chad Stahelski is a stunt man who has served as stunt coordinator on numerous films. With the “John Wick” movies, he has taken full control, carefully constructing and choreographing action scenes that are violent, bloody, and almost balletic. Through it all there are the rules that must be followed, including Wick having to honor a marker and all the killers agreeing that the Continental Hotel in each city–where they hang out while on assignment–is neutral territory. When Wick and Cassian end a vicious fight by crashing into the hotel, the manager Winston (Ian McShane) reminds them of the rules, and they repair to the bar for a drink.

This is not a stupid movie by any means, but you’re also asked not to think too hard, but just go along with it. It works for the simple reason that the characters take the rules of their world seriously, even if we find them preposterous. By film’s end, the main story is resolved but there are a lot of loose ends (including what mechaninc John Leguizamo has done with Wick’s car) that will no doubt be addressed in the inevitable “John Wick: Chapter 3.”•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The LEGO Batman Movie

REVIEW – THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIEWith the voices of Will Arnett , Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Jared Stern & John Whittington. Directed by Chris McKay. Rated PG for rude humor and some action. 104 minutes.

148031153007311021137418461323859249140nAs one of the few critics who didn’t find “The LEGO Movie” (2014) the least bit amusing, the arrival of THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE was not greeted with enthusiasm. Thus let’s say at the outset that this new release may be one of the very best films based on the DC Comics universe. For those who enjoy superhero movies, this is one of the most insightful–and funniest–entries in the genre.

Animated with all of the characters in LEGO form (including legal notices inside the plastic tiles), it is actually a brilliant satire of the superhero genre and the Batman movies in particular. It explores the psyche of Batman in ways even the recent live action Batman films didn’t dare. It should tell you that this was a movie where the script came first, something that was sorely lacking in the earlier effort.

Batman (voice of Will Arnett) is a loner who is used to fighting crime in Gotham City without assistance. Then he goes home and, as millionaire Bruce Wayne, dines on lobster thermidor and secretly sheds tears watching movies like “Jerry Maguire.” When Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) replaces her father as Gotham’s police commissioner, Batman discovers that she’s looking for his cooperation, not simply summoning him to clean up the mess.

Unfortunately, the Batman’s greatest foe, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), isn’t cooperating either. When Batman refuses to acknowledge the Joker as his archenemy, the villain surrenders to Commission Gordon as the first step for his most nefarious scheme yet. In the course of the story Batman will have to acknowledge that he needs help, not only from Gordon, but from his newly-adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and his long-suffering butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).

Along the way the five (!) writers who worked on the script take pot shots at a variety of targets, from rival Marvel Comics to Superman (voice of Channing Tatum) to other franchises including “Lord of the Rings,” “Gremlins,” “Godzilla,” “King Kong,” and even “Doctor Who.” At one point Batman faces an army of Daleks, the automated bad guys from the long-running British series “Doctor Who,” and we’re told if we don’t get it we should ask our “nerd friends.”

What makes this especially fun is that it’s not only throwing zingers at recent “Batman” movies like last year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), which divided viewers, but to the older films, even including the campy 1960’s Batman of Adam West. A big complaint about the DC movies is that they lack the sense of fun that runs through the Marvel adaptations. It worked for the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman movies like “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008), but has been a stumbling block elsewhere.

“The LEGO Batman Movie” takes that notion by the horns and doesn’t let go. It’s raucous, comic, and a wonderful entertaining commentary on one of the major movie genres of our time.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Fifty Shades Darker

With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden. Written by Niall Leonard. Directed by James Foley. Rated R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. 118 minutes.

450_1000Are you familiar with the expression “vanilla sex?” It refers to plain, old-fashioned lovemaking with nothing weird or kinky. The “Fifty Shades of Grey” series–FIFTY SHADES DARKER being the film of the second book–purports to take us into the world far beyond that, of dominance and submission, of bondage and discipline, of sadism and masochism. Yet the picture-book result can’t even reach the level of outrageousness of a provocative photo shoot in a high end fashion magazine. Better to call it “butter pecan sex.”

When we last saw Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), she had ended her relationship with handsome young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Now out of school and working as an assistant to fiction editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) as a Seattle publishing house, she finds a penitent Christian pleading to be readmitted to her life. After a brief hesitation, they’re together again, and she has to deal with his bossy ways as well as his repressed vulnerabilities. Other than the fact that they’re both very pretty, it’s hard to tell what they see in each other.

As before, the film’s idea of “kinky sex” is laughably tame. In 2017 is a man orally pleasuring a woman considered so beyond the pale? He brings out a toy or two, mostly wrist and ankle restrains that don’t restrain her for very long. We discover along with her details of Christian’s history which leads to the admission that he isn’t a “dominant” but a “sadist” who enjoys inflicting pain on women who look like his late mother. That the film offers scant evidence to support this declaration is besides the point. The target audience for these books and movies aren’t serious kinksters who, in reality, must find the proceedings laughably tame, but for those seeking escape into romantic melodrama but who don’t have the patience for serious literature like “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights.”

For those unaware, the series began as “fan fiction” (or fanfic) related to the “Twilight” series. When they proved popular, the names and character biographies were changed, but the same old claptrap remained. Naturally, the path of true love doesn’t run smooth. A helicopter crash provides a bit of dramatic relief, but only a bit, and the story ends on potential threats for Christian and Anastasia coming from three possible directions: his former mentor (an odd turn by Kim Basinger), a former “sub” still obsessing over him (Bella Heathcote), and Anastasia’s now-former boss.

The best that can be said for the films is that because Christian is unbelievably wealthy, all the sets are lavish from his yacht to his apartment to his parents’ estate. In small snippets you could even imagine some of the scenes here set up for, say, a perfume ad. That doesn’t make up for the badly written characters and the weak plot, unless all you’re seeking is this safest of “dangerous” fantasies.

What will happen next? Can Anastasia’s willingness to go to the “red room” (Christian’s plush dungeon) get any duller? Will his mother Grace (Marcia Gay Harden) get to throw yet another party? Will Johnson and Dornan manage to have careers when these films are done? We’ll find out next year in what we can only hope will be the final entry in the series, “Fifty Shades Freed.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Space Between Us

With Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Carla Gugino, Gary Oldman, BD Wong. Written by Allan Loeb. Directed by Peter Chelsom. Rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language. 120 minutes.

spacebetweenusposterAlthough THE SPACE BETWEEN US is an original screenplay, you can see how it might have started as a YA (young adult) novel, with its two leads being teenagers on the run from adult authority. However, this is no “Hunger Games” dystopia, but a near-future world in which the adults are trying to save the life of one of the runaways whose very history means he’s on borrowed time.

The intriguing premise is that en route to Mars for what will be the first effort at setting up a permanent settlement there–amusingly dubbed “East Texas”–the commander of the mission discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t survive the delivery, and so NASA now has a problem. The baby largely developed in little to no gravity and, as a result, his bones and organs have adapted in a way that makes it unlikely he could survive back on Earth. They decide to keep his existence a secret.

Sixteen years later, young Gardner (child actor Asa Butterfield, maturing into a sensitive teen role) gets the opportunity to go to Earth. He wants to meet the teen girl nicknamed Tulsa (Britt Robertson) with whom he chats online without revealing his actual location, and he wants to find his father. Breaking out of quarantine, Garner finds Tulsa and soon they’re on the run trying to solve the mystery of who his father is while staying one step ahead of mission leader Dr. Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and returned astronaut Kendra (Carla Gugino), who has been a surrogate mother for him on Mars.

The script is sloppy in places. We see Gardner and Tulsa communicate between planets in real time, a physical impossibility given the distances involved, and how they connected in the first place is never really explained. Easier to take is why they connect: she’s been in and out of foster homes and has no friends and he’s been isolated on Mars his entire life with a handful of adults. She’s seeking honesty–which she has had all too little of in her life–while he is guileless. Except for keeping secret his Martian life until they finally meet in person, he’s completely open.

Their adolescent awkwardness with each other works as Gardner tries to adapt to Earth and she tries to figure out if he’s for real or not. It remains to be seen if Butterfield will make a successful transition to adult roles, but he seems to be on his way having progressed from “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” to “Hugo” to last year’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” He’s all arms and legs here due to his character’s low gravity upbringing, but when he tries to be “chivalrous” (following cues from a 1950s film about dating he presumably found on the Internet) he comes across as utterly sincere.

The trick for a film like is in the women’s roles and not reducing them to simply the characters the challenged hero needs to meet. Robertson is raw-edged as Tulsa and has to go through her own maturing transformation if the story is to work. Gugino has what could have been an even more thankless role, and makes it into something more. She’s not merely the adult Gardner latched onto on Mars, but has her own needs and regrets that dovetail nicely with the other characters.

You may think you know where the story is going and you’re probably right, but the film stops a scene short of where it ought to, hinting at the resolution we’re expecting but not giving it to us. Still, “The Space Between Us” is a touching teenage love story about a couple literally from two worlds, and with Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, a fitting date night at the movies.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – A Dog’s Purpose

With Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Gheisar. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon & Audrey Wells & Maya Forbes. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 100 minutes.

10711_500A DOG’S PURPOSE is a dog’s-eye view of the world. Its central conceit is that dogs don’t die, but keep coming back as other dogs–and not necessarily the same breed. Based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron (one of several writers on the script), it follows the lives of one dog–voiced by Josh Gad–in interacting with humans.

The longest story involves Ethan who, as a boy (Bryce Gheisar), helps rescue a dog and adopts him as his own. Naming him Buddy, they become inseperable, even as he becomes a teenager (KJ Apa) and discovers girls. It’s not all sweetness and light. His father (Luke Kirby) drinks too much and is stifled in his job as a salesman, and the parents eventually separate. There’s also another boy (Logan Miller) who is jealous of Ethan, leading to a nasty prank going wildly out of control.

Through it all, the friendship of Ethan and Buddy endures until the day comes when Buddy is dying and Ethan has to say goodbye. The fact that Buddy is soon reincarnated as another dog–a female German shepherd being trained for the K-9 corps of the Chicago Police–moves the story along. (And it also led to an accusation by the extreme animal rights group PETA of abuse on the set, a charge hotly denied by the film’s producers; moviegoers will have to make up their own minds whom to believe.)

In his various incarnations, Buddy takes on different roles but comes to understand his purpose in life is more than just reveling in disgusting smells and poking through garbage. It is to love and be loved by his human families. In one segment, he is the only friend of a lonely college student, but helps her find true love–as well as some canine companionship for himself. In another, he is maltreated, but ultimately finds a happy ending with an unexpected reunion.

It is a charming movie by a director Lasse Hallström, a Swedish director who first attracted Hollywood’s attention with his 1985 film “My Life as a Dog” and went on to do movies like “Chocolat” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” His films sometime wear their hearts on their sleeves, as this one does, but honestly earn their emotional responses.

Controversy aside, the warning about the film is directed at those with very young or sensitive children.There are some scary scenes in which people (and dogs) face danger. There’s also the repeated death and rebirth of Buddy, and a child unable to appreciate that “it’s only a story” might find it a bit too much. Beyond that, this is a movie that fully deserves the description of “family film,” because it is something the whole family can enjoy even if they’re reacting to different elements.The mostly-unknown cast is fine, and Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton show up in the final sequence to bring the story to a satisfying close.

When the real-world news is so unsettling, a feel-good movie like “A Dog’s Purpose” is needed. It won’t change things, but it provides some pleasant, if temporary, relief.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.