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Review – Ready Player One


FILM REVIEW
– READY PLAYER ONE
With Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance. Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language. 140 minutes.

ready-player-one-poster_largeThere’s an audience for READY PLAYER ONE, but it’s a highly selective one. If you grew up with the video games and movies of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, this nostalgia trip should push all your buttons. Beyond that, it’s an overlong movie whose ultimate message is: turn off your devices and get out in the real world, at least occasionally.

When we first meet Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), he’s living in “the Stacks,” a near-future dystopia which isn’t quite “The Hunger Games” but is so dreary that he prefers life in the online world of Oasis, an immersive 3D video game where he gets to be his avatar, Parzival, and have a much cooler time. In the real world, he is obsessed with Halliday (Mark Rylance), the man who created Oasis, trying to learn everything he can about him.

When Halliday died, he left word that there was a hidden Easter Egg in the game, and the player who finds it will get his fortune. As Wade searches for the three keys that will lead to the prize, he acquires both friends and enemies. The biggest enemy is Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of IOI, an evil corporation that not only wants control of Oasis but has amassed an army of prisoners who are working off their massive debts.

Screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline have adapted Cline’s novel and reportedly improved on some of the problems in the book. This is essentially the “underdogs vs. the powerful bad guys” plot. Given that this is an old-school Steven Spielberg movie, you pretty much know how it’s going to turn out from the beginning. The characters are wafer-thin, with Mark Rylance (who won an Oscar for his turn in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”) coming closest to creating a full-bodied character.

The attraction here is neither the plot nor the acting, but the special effects – the usual top-notch work from Industrial Light and Magic – and the numerous pop culture references. The extended sequence where the characters find themselves in the world of Stanley Kubrick’s film of “The Shining,” is the stand-out. There’s also nods to a shelfful of video games, King Kong, MechaGodzilla, the Iron Giant, and Monty Python. For viewers of the right age, it will seem like a trip to a nostalgia-laden fun house.

“Ready Player One” is not a bad film, in that its target audience should find it satisfying and entertaining. However, it’s not a particularly good one either. At the end, the viewer is told “reality is real” and yet is left wanting to go play in the simulated world of Oasis. It’s a fitting summation of Spielberg’s career: occasional nods to the real world, but really preferring a world of fantasy and eternal adolescence.•••

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


Back To The Future is one of the many movies paid homage to in Ready Player One. Check out super-talented BTTF super-fan Adam Kontras‘s new documentary, The Fastest Delorean In The World, now available for streaming and download.

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Review – Tomb Raider


FILM REVIEW
TOMB RAIDER
With Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas. Written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons. Directed by Roar Uthaug. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language. 118 minutes.

tomb_raiderHaving no familiarity with the video game (other than knowing it exists), this reviewer will not attempt to guess how fans of the game will respond to this reboot of the Lara Croft movies, with Alicia Vikander replacing Angelina Jolie. That said, TOMB RAIDER was a thrilling and not entirely mindless action-adventure movie, and Vikander may find herself with a franchise.

Where it differs from the game (apparently being loosely based on the 2013 edition), is providing Lara with a good deal of backstory. Her father (Dominic West) has been missing for seven years and when we first meet Lara she’s getting beaten up in a boxing ring where we learn she’s behind on her gym fees. In fact, she’s an heiress, but in order for her to inherit she would have to sign papers declaring her father officially dead, and she’s reluctant to do so.

Through a series of clues, she learns that her father’s last journey was to a mysterious island off the coast of China, and she ends up hiring the son (Daniel Wu) of the man who took her father there, in order to go there herself. The second half of the film is said to be closer to the game with Lara and the bad guys (headed by Walton Goggins) solving a number of puzzles to get into the tomb of some ancient angel of death.

There’s more than a passing similarity to the “Indiana Jones” movies here, and Vikander is game, showing a good deal of physicality in the action scenes, but not afraid to show some emotion as she searches for her father. The latter gives her character some depth, but some viewers may decide it’s getting in the way of the special effects. Vikander, who was stunning in “Ex Machina” and won an Oscar for the arthouse film “The Danish Girl,” brings more than looks and athleticism to the role, making her Lara someone whose motivations we can understand.

“Tomb Raider” is clearly meant to launch a series, with Lara acquiring weapons at the film’s end that fans of the game may have been missing. The brief appearance of Kristin Scott Thomas as Ana Miller is also a setup for a future storyline, although cameos by Derek Jacobi and an uncredited Nick Frost may be just for fun.

With plenty of action set pieces, an engaging heroine, and taking itself just seriously enough not to veer into campiness, “Tomb Raider” is a film that you know is calculated to kick off future blockbusters in the series, and yet it works. Perhaps it’s because the filmmakers realized that the way you make people want to come back for more is to make sure you get it right the first time.•••

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

Review – Love, Simon


FILM REVIEWLOVE, SIMONWith Nick Robinson, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner, Katherine Langford, Logan Miller. Written by Elizabeth Berger & Isaac Aptaker. Directed by Greg Berlanti. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 109 minutes. 

love_simon_ver3_xlgLOVE, SIMON takes the standard Hollywood coming-of-age movie set in high school and gives it a fresh spin by making the main storyline about its protagonist coming out as gay. We’ve seen secondary characters who were either implicitly or explicitly gay, and there was the recent arthouse hit “Call Me By Your Name,” but by placing its gay character front-and-center in a mainstream movie pitched to teen audiences, this is a landmark.

Simon (Nick Robinson) informs us he’s a typical teenager counting down the days to graduation. However, he has a secret he hasn’t shared with anyone – he’s gay. Through an online site geared toward local teens, he discovers someone calling himself “Blue” who is similarly closeted. They start writing to each other and one of the plotlines is Simon trying to figure out who Blue might be.

Making his life difficult is Martin (Logan Miller), who discovers the online correspondence on a library computer and threatens to reveal Simon’s secret unless he helps Martin connect with Abby (Alexandra Shipp), a new girl in school. This leads to Simon lying to his friends to prevent Martin from posting his identity, and you don’t have to have seen many movies to know how that’s going to turn out.

In many ways, this is a conventional movie done well. There’s a good deal of comic relief, with Natasha Rothwell a standout as a teacher directing a painful high school production of “Cabaret.” Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner may be idealized parents for Simon, but each gets a touching moment where they have to face who their son is and decide how to respond. There are also complications involving his friends, well-acted by Katherine Langford as a childhood friend who doesn’t suspect Simon’s secret, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. whom he misdirects as a result of Martin’s blackmail.

The film’s major flaw is that of many a Hollywood high school movie in that these “typical” students are all decidedly upper middle class, with spacious suburban homes and little concern about money. In fact, at the start of the film, Simon’s parents present him with a new car. It may be a racially diverse cast, but economically, the characters and their families are doing better than many of the people likely to see the film.

That presumably allows the filmmakers to focus on Martin’s dilemma, and Robinson successfully conveys the difficulty of all adolescents in figuring out who they are and how they fit in. There’s only a token reference to any homophobia at his high school, and the miscreants are dealt with quickly. Our attention remains on Simon and how he will navigate his situation. Teen viewers, whether gay or not, should be able to relate to how it all works out, with even Martin getting a chance at redemption.

“Love, Simon” is special precisely because it doesn’t make a fuss over the fact that it’s the story of a gay teen coming out. It’s not an “issue” movie, nor is it making a big statement. In fact, simply by being a typical, if entertaining, high school movie, it may be making its most important statement of all.•••

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

Review – A Wrinkle in Time


FILM REVIEWA WRINKLE IN TIMEWith Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Deric McCabe. Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 109 minutes. 

wrinkle_in_time_ver2Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel, A WRINKLE IN TIME, has amazed and enchanted generations of young readers. Thus, it is fair to say that director Ava DuVernay’s big screen adaptation (there was a halfway-decent TV adaptation in 2003) is one of the most anticipated films of the season. Alas, it turns out to be one of the biggest disappointments.

The story focuses on Meg Murry (Storm Reid). Her parents (Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are scientists and, after a prologue, we learn that her father has mysteriously disappeared while attempting to travel across space via a “tesseract,” some sort of force field powered by the mind. Making the Murrys a multi-racial family works okay, particularly since young Reid is the best thing about the film.

However, Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), introduces them to a witch named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) who claims their father is still alive and they can go get him. In short order, we’re introduced to two other witches, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks in quotations, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who for some reason is giant-sized for part of the movie.

In short order, the two children, joined by their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are gallivanting across the universe, having magical adventures, but eventually forced to face “IT,” a force of darkness and evil who has held their father captive and now seeks to ensnare the children. Along the way Meg is forced to confront her deepest fears and faults before – no spoilers – the final showdown.

L’Engle’s book is inventive and imaginative, and glimmers of it appear here, but DuVernay – whose previous feature, “Selma,” had similar problems – directs at a leaden pace. She seems to have no idea how to get out of a scene once it has accomplished what it had to, letting it drag on to no purpose. It doesn’t help that she is similarly out of touch with her cast. Witherspoon and Kaling ham it up as two of the witches, while Winfrey gives what may prove to be the worst performance in a movie this year, lumbering around like the Statue of Liberty come to life as the giant Mrs. Which, and even at normal size stuffed into hideous outfits that were someone’s idea of what a witch would wear.

The other adults have less to do and, thus, less opportunity to embarrass themselves, although as a scientist who has cracked the secret of the universe Pine probably shouldn’t look like he’s about to burst into tears at any moment. It says something about the acting in the film that one has to say that the most subtle and understated performance is by Zach Galifianakis, as the Happy Medium, who is sometimes able to forecast the future. It is probably the first time either word has ever been applied to the actor, who more often comes across as someone who needs to be directed with a chair and a whip.

“A Wrinkle In Time” was a movie that should have sparked the imagination rather than show how much the Disney studio invested in special effects and art direction. It’s not always true that the book is better than the movie, but in this case, the book wins hands-down. Buy a copy for your kids if they haven’t read it and spare them having to endure this misbegotten film.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Death Wish

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FILM REVIEWDEATH WISH. With Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Elisabeth Shue. Written by Joe Carnahan. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated R for strong, bloody violence and language throughout. 107 minutes.

death_wish_ver2_xlgFor a movie directed by a notoriously smirky provocateur and featuring one of Hollywood’s few outspoken right-wingers running around the ghetto in a hoodie shooting brown people, what’s most shocking about Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH remake is just how lame and instantly forgettable it is. Twenty-four hours after seeing the film it has already blessedly begun to fade from my memory. You’d think such a morally repugnant gun-nut masturbation fantasy would at least be worth getting worked up about, but the movie’s so lugubrious and wheezy it’s almost pitiable. (I said almost.)

One can’t say the same for unrepentant schlockmeister Michael Winner’s 1974 original, which despite spawning four increasingly inane sequels still retains a crude kick. The crasser, bastard cousin to “Dirty Harry” and “Straw Dogs” became a cultural touchstone for its blunt-force depiction of Charles Bronson’s liberal pacifist Paul Kersey turning vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter raped in a New York City gone all to hell. Based on what I am told is a considerably more thoughtful novel by Brian Garfield, the film was at one point to be directed by Sidney Lumet with Jack Lemmon playing the lead.

From what I can ascertain, it was the Bronson/Winner team that threw out Garfield’s original ending – in which Kersey goes mad, eventually gunning down unarmed kids just because he doesn’t like the looks of them – and the author has spent subsequent years attempting to distance himself from their adaptation, even writing a sequel called “Death Sentence” to try and clarify his intentions.

Unfortunately, this remake is probably not gonna let Garfield sleep any easier. Scripted by Joe Carnahan, who has spent a career trafficking in macho bullshit from the sublime (“The Grey”) to the ridiculous (everything else he’s ever done), the new “Death Wish” strips whatever shreds of ambiguity existed in the original film in favor of a ghoulishly ill-timed NRA manifesto and a stroke-job for its washed-up star.

An indolent Bruce Willis stars as Kersey, no longer an architect but now a well-to-do surgeon in Chicago who goes from saving lives to taking them after his wife (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter (Camila Morrone) beaten into a coma by home invaders one night while he’s at work. In the most squeamishly-handled scene of “Hostel” director Roth’s otherwise lurid filmography, the movie not only skimps on the “Death Wish” tradition of gratuitous sexual assault but also discreetly cuts away to an exterior shot so that we don’t have to see the mayhem. (I briefly wondered if Ron Howard had been called in to direct some reshoots.)

Bronson’s Kersey — inspired in the original film by a gaudy Wild West theme park attraction slyly suggesting America’s addiction to outlaw myths — was on an endless, existential quest killing mad muggers in the night, every night, because he knew nobody would ever find the scum that destroyed his family. There’s a helplessness inherent even in the fantasy. But here Bruce Willis winds up obstructing the police investigation just so he can play detective and kill the bastards himself, going from everyday doctor to gunslinging superhero in the course of a cringe-inducing training montage set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

It’s embarrassing to watch the 62-year-old Willis putter around doing badly-faked stunts to classic rock while spitting out cheeseball one-liners that would have been rejected by “Eraser”-era Schwarzenegger. It wasn’t too long ago that “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Looper” offered the tantalizing possibility of an older Bruce Willis segueing into complex character roles, but he’s instead squandered the intervening years cashing paychecks for cameos in generic direct-to-VOD swill – films with which “Death Wish” would be presumably already be keeping company on your cable box were it not for the title’s brand name recognition and the fallacy of sunk costs.

Willis is atrocious in this film. He looks uncharacteristically frail and vainly preens through his scenes with an entirely inappropriate air of entitlement and a disinterest verging on somnambulism. Confoundingly, Kersey has been given a doting, deadbeat brother played by Vincent D’Onofrio who has nothing whatsoever to do with the story and provides an emotional support system that makes our protagonist’s vigilante turn even more improbable. Bronson was isolated, man. Going it all alone was part of his appeal.

Constant references to D’Onofrio’s money problems and his typically twitchy performance keep suggesting some sort of twist in which it will be revealed that the brother was perhaps in part responsible for the home invasion, but nothing of this sort ever arises. (Maybe Ron Howard cut that out, too.)

“Death Wish” was originally scheduled for release last October, but pulled after the Las Vegas massacre and moved up to what turns out to be an even worse time for this sort of pistol porn. There’s an incredibly queasy scene set in a chain sporting goods store (called Jolly Roger’s so I guess we’re not supposed to think it’s Dick’s) where a hot twenty-something blonde clerk and her delightful décolletage run through all the awesome armaments, joking with Willis about how easy it is to buy them.

It’s tone-deaf and gross, but also characteristic of this exhausted, lumbering relic of a movie, which somehow already feels even more dated than a film made 44 years ago.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice and WBUR. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.


Review – Red Sparrow


FILM REVIEWRED SPARROWWith Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons. Written by Justin Haythe. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. 139 minutes.

red_sparrow_ver2If there was any question whether Jennifer Lawrence is going to go the distance as an actress, one only has to look at her choice of roles. This is an actress who keeps seeking out challenges, not content to simply ride on her success in “The Hunger Games” movies. RED SPARROW is a spy thriller that might be described as an intelligent potboiler. In some ways, it’s a conventional thriller, yet it also offers up Lawrence in ways we haven’t seen in prior films.

Here she’s Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi who, early in the story, suffers a career-ending accident. Her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a spy, arranges for her to be admitted to “sparrow school.” There she will be trained to use any means necessary – including offering herself for sex – to get whatever her goals are for her assignment. What we learn is that as demeaning as the process is – and her teacher (Charlotte Rampling) tells her she isn’t expected to succeed – Dominika is both ruthless and focused.

Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot that eventually connects up with hers in which American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is working with a Russian mole. Edgerton is a wooden actor and for much of the film this story is a distraction, but it does eventually pay off and not simply because Dominika and Nate hook up with it not being clear who’s playing who.

Behind the scenes, we see that Vanya being told by his superiors (Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds) that they are not convinced that Dominika has what it takes. When she’s sent on assignment, she shares an apartment with another agent who makes it clear that she should mind her own business. The roommate has been cultivating an American politician’s aide (Mary-Louise Parker) in a subplot that will have its own twists and turns.

This is very much an R-rated film, for all the right reasons. In her training, we see Dominika strip in front of her class and humiliate a man to whom she is supposed to submit. Later we see her brutally tortured when she is suspected of being a turncoat, a scene that is topped by the torture of Nate involving slicing off his skin. This is not a movie for the squeamish.

Through it all, Lawrence plays Dominika as someone whose motivation is as simple as it is unexpected: it’s all about her mother (Joely Richardson), whose medical needs have been covered by the Bolshoi and who is now at risk if Dominika does not have a new source of support. Her determination to do whatever it takes to make sure that her mother is provided for makes this a stunning and unexpected tribute to supporting one’s parents.

Except for Edgerton, the cast is solid with some major players in small supporting roles, with Parker and Irons being standouts. As Vanya, Schoenaerts, who was previously seen in “The Danish Girl,” is a plus as well. In the end, though, this is a vehicle for Lawrence and she takes it seriously, without condescending to the material. She is clearly an actress to watch and who should excel when given the right material.

“Red Sparrow” won’t be on anyone’s ten best list or under consideration for Oscars next year, but for those looking for an entertaining thriller, or wanting to see what Lawrence can do after last year’s challenging arthouse film “Mother!” it more than satisfies.•••

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

Review – Annihilation


FILM REVIEWANNIHILATION. With Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez. Written and directed by Alex Garland. Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality. 115 minutes.

annihilation_xlgLike the 2016 film “Arrival,” ANNIHILATION is a provocative and intelligent science fiction movie that features aliens who are truly alien. At film’s end, there might be some understanding of their motivation and desires, but the mystery is far from fully resolved. It’s a work of science fiction that requires viewers to be engaged and not simply wanting to sit back and watch the special effects. The movie works, but it’s not going to be for every taste.

Alex Garland, whose last film was the masterful “Ex Machina,” has adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel about an eerie alien invasion. A meteor has struck near a lighthouse causing a zone called “The Shimmer,” to take root and expand around it. Those who have gone in to explore it don’t come back. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was one of the men who went. A year later he reappears, but it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong. To try to figure out what’s happened so that she might cure him, Lena volunteers to be part of the next expedition going in.

Without giving away too much, suffice to say that within The Shimmer, nature seems out-of-control, with the group – led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – encountering increasingly bizarre mutations. As they push onward, it becomes an open question as to whether they will survive. We know that Lena does, since she is relating the story in flashback. That doesn’t mean we can anticipate what has happened to her or the others or, indeed, to her husband.

As in “Ex Machina” – as well as his scripts for “Never Let Me Go” and “28 Days Later…” – Garland doesn’t promise a happy ending or even a predictable one. Instead, he crafts science fiction stories that are every bit the equal of the contemporary literature, which is usually looked at as light years ahead of its media counterparts. It’s not surprising that here, as with “Never Let Me Go,” he was adapting a pre-existing novel.

At a time when Hollywood is criticized for rampant sexism, it should be noted that, without making a big deal about it, this is essentially the story of the five women who comprise the latest expedition. Portman and Leigh are joined by Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez. While there are some good scares along the way, this is not a movie where a woman screams at an attacking monster waiting for the hero to save her. These women may be spooked, but they’re also ready to fight back.

Ultimately, whether the film works depends on your willingness not only to suspend disbelief, but also to acknowledge that the agenda of space aliens may be beyond human understanding. Is the annihilation implied by the title an intended attack on humanity and Earth, or is it the way these aliens assimilate new life forms? This is a film that is both disturbing and provocative, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.