Category Archives: FILM REVIEW

Review – The Kitchen

FILM REVIEWTHE KITCHENWith Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Domhnall Gleeson, Common. Written and directed by Andrea Berloff. Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content. 102 minutes.

Female empow!-pow!-pow!erment

kitchenGenre movies can be the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Some are outstanding works in themselves, but even a middling one can have its pleasures, among them being that you can ignore the conventional plot and see what variation the filmmakers and cast bring to the project. That’s the case with THE KITCHEN, part of the gangster sub-genre of women gangsters.

Although often merely serving as adjuncts to the male characters, films where women were equal partners or even led the gang go back to such movies as “Lady Scarface” (1941), “Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and “Bloody Mama” (1970). More recent examples include “Set It Off” (1996) and last year’s “Widows.” With “The Kitchen,” writer/director Andrea Berloff focuses on the arcs of the three main characters.

It’s the late ‘70s in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough part of New York City near Times Square which, at that time, was the base for the homegrown Irish mob. A robbery goes wrong and the husbands of the three principal women are all off to prison. For two of them it’s a relief. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) regularly faces physical abuse from her thuggish husband, while Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is an African American woman who has married into the Irish American family that runs the local mob. While her husband is behind bars his even nastier brother takes over. Only Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) seems to actually care for her husband and the father of her two children.

When their payments from the mob prove woefully inadequate to pay the bills, they decide to go into business for themselves, taking over the local protection racket. It happens a little too quickly, but they soon find themselves with plenty of money as well as local businesses and workers happy to pay them for actually providing something in return. Naturally this doesn’t sit well with Ruby’s brother-in-law, nor with the Brooklyn-based Mafia boss.

As a crime film it’s a mild diversion, but nothing special. As a metaphor for women struggling to find a place in the world, it takes some surprising turns. When Gabriel (Domnall Gleeson), a hit man with previous ties to the local mob shows up and offers to work with the women, Ruby and Kathy get squeamish when he shows them how to carve up a body for disposal. It’s the mousy Claire who is fascinated and finds herself wanting to learn more. Each of the three has to overcome those wanting to keep them subservient, whether it’s Ruby’s mother-in-law (the formidable Margo Martindale) or Kathy coming not to care what her husband or father think of what she’s become.

That’s what raises “The Kitchen” above the level of a potboiler: within the context of its gangster genre roots, it examines the choices women make and the consequences of those decisions as they transform both their relationships and themselves. ***

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


Review – Brian Banks

FILM REVIEWBRIAN BANKSWith Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Xosha Roquemore, Morgan Freeman. Written by Doug Atchison. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for language. 161 minutes.

The whole trial is out-of-order!

brian_banksCriminal justice reform is a topic that comes up in legal and political debates, but if you’re not employed by (or subject to) the system, its injustices are largely invisible. BRIAN BANKS personalizes those injustices in telling the true-life story of a young man, sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, fighting to clear his name even after he’s been paroled.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was a high school football star with a scholarship for USC when he was arrested and charged with kidnapping and rape of a classmate. It never happened, but the system pressures him to take a plea deal rather than face trial. Contrary to what he was told, his “no contest” plea leads to a prison sentence.

Now out on parole, and required to register as a “sex offender,” his supposed freedom turns out to be severely limited. It’s difficult to find someone willing to employ him, and the conditions of his parole restrict him in ways big and small. He reaches out to Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), a lawyer who runs the California Innocence Project, devoted to helping the wrongly convicted. There’s all sorts of reasons Brooks shouldn’t take on the case, not the least of which is the almost negligible possibility that they will succeed, but he does so.

In this era of #metoo, it’s interesting to note that the real life case turned on getting the accuser to admit that she had lied. Instead of making Kennisha (Xosha Roquemore) the villain of the piece, she turns out to have been victimized by her own mother. The message seems to be that women should be believed, but accusations have to be supported by facts. In Banks’ case, even a cursory investigation would have revealed that her story wasn’t true.

Hodge plays Banks with such quiet strength that it conveys what it must have taken the real man to bear up under the circumstances. A turning point was a teacher at the prison who reached out to him, played by Morgan Freeman in a cameo role. Kinnear offers able support as Brooks, combining a sense of fun with a seriousness of purpose. Sherri Shepherd also gets a standout moment as Banks’ mother, speaking of the toll our broken justice system has taken on her as well.

“Brian Banks” is a thoughtful movie that celebrates those who persevere over injustice, but also allows us to see what’s being done in our name, as with the prosecutor speaking “for the people.” Those seeking a quieter and more grown-up movie – where the heroes don’t need special effects – will want to take a look.•••

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

Review – Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

FILM REVIEWFAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW. With Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren. Written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce. Directed by David Leitch. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong language. 135 minutes.

hobbs_and_shawA much-needed summer vacation from the long-running franchise’s increasingly overcrowded, motorhead mythology, FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW is a goofy, scaled-back spin-off (or side-quel, if you will) stranding Dwayne Johnson’s gargantuan lawman alongside Jason Statham’s snarling spy on a mission of international mayhem. It’s a mismatched buddy picture aspiring to the spirit of 1980s cable staples like “48 Hrs.” or “Tango & Cash” in which the leads spend as much time busting each other’s balls as they spend breaking bad-guys’ heads. The movie’s a little too PG-13 and way too overstuffed for its own good, but clever stunts and movie star charisma have a way of carrying the day. It’s more fun than the last two lackluster “Furious” films, and you can do a lot worse at the movies in August.

Vanessa Kirby – who plays Princess Margaret on the Netflix series “The Crown” and memorably stole her single scene in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” last summer – commits grand larceny here are as MI-6 agent Hattie Shaw, framed for the betrayal and murder of her team while on the trail of a deadly mega-virus. Johnson’s musclehead federal agent Luke Hobbs is dispatched to track her down, but since this is a “Fast & Furious” movie it also must be a family affair, and so Hattie turns out to be the kid sister of Statham’s surly, sometime-villain Deckard Shaw, who’s hellbent on bringing her home to their mum (Dame Helen Mirren, behind bars and having a ball).

Of course, the plot is just a pretext to get sworn enemies Hobbs and Shaw shouting insults at each other while snapping the necks of assorted henchmen – ramping up the animosity by having Johnson become smitten with Statham’s sister. But then filmgoers everywhere are gonna fall hard for Kirby in this. Elegantly choking out adversaries between her thighs while rolling her eyes at the monotonous macho chest-thumping of her co-stars, Hattie’s often the only adult in the room. (Also my lord, those cheekbones!) It’s a star-making turn and almost enough to make me watch “The Crown.”

They’re all pitted against Idris Elba – having a grand old time as a cybernetically engineered super-solider who can apparently control his motorcycle with his mind. He’s the enforcer for a massive doomsday cult operating out of a secret lab inside Chernobyl, but for a movie featuring such outlandish future technology “Hobbs & Shaw” works best within the realm of old-fashioned, close-quarter smackdowns. Helmer David Leitch is a former stuntman who co-directed the first “John Wick” picture, carrying over that kinetic energy to Charlize Theron’s kickass Cold War thriller “Atomic Blonde” and the surprisingly well-structured set-pieces of last year’s “Deadpool 2.”

He indulges in a couple of massive CGI meltdowns here – it is a summer blockbuster after all – but the most effective action scenes in “Hobbs & Shaw” are the artfully staged fisticuffs, as when Kirby wallops one of Johnson’s underlings with his own office furniture, or when the two title characters devise a way to surmount Elba’s superpowers by blocking his punches with their faces. The best beats are rooted in character, like when Johnson hurls himself out a window and rappels down the side of a building while Statham nonchalantly takes the elevator.

Leitch exhibits far less control over two gratuitous guest star cameos, both improvising long and vamping hard for laughs in unfunny scenes that drag on for what feels like forever. I’m also not convinced the movie really needed a trip to Samoa for Hobbs to reconcile with his estranged brother (Cliff Curtis) but screenwriter Chris Morgan has penned the past seven “Furious” films and I’m pretty sure he thinks he’s getting paid by the number of times he types the word “family.” It’s all warm and fuzzy with a good message for the kids yet what we really came to see are scenes such as The Rock attaching a tow truck to a helicopter like a fish hook and trying to reel it in.

On that front “Hobbs & Shaw” more than delivers, and I’ll concede that these sort of spin-off side-quels strike me as a shrewd way to pare down the “Fast & Furious” franchise’s oversized cast and get around the gossip that nobody wants to work with Vin Diesel anymore. If you ask me, the next one should be “Hattie and Letty,” starring Kirby and Michelle Rodriguez.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

FILM REVIEWONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references. 161 minutes.

once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_ver7When Quentin Tarantino is at the top of his game, his films are the embodiment of that mathematical paradox of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. When he’s not, the resulting movie is worth seeing but more for specific moments than as a work in itself. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD falls into the latter category. Its disparate storylines do come together in the end, but the whole still plays more like a collection of scenes than a coherent work.

It’s 1960s Hollywood. More specifically, after a prologue showing western TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and close friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) being interviewed on the set of Dalton’s show, it’s 1969. Dalton (seemingly inspired by but not directly based on Clint Eastwood) is reduced to guest appearances on other’s shows, and Booth has become his driver. A producer (Al Pacino) wants to kickstart Dalton’s career by  traveling to Italy and having him appear in the era’s “spaghetti westerns.”

Dalton lives next door to director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Since we know that in real life Tate was among the victims of Charles Manson and his followers, including her in the story does two things. First, it focuses on her life more than her death. Robbie isn’t given much to do but she does get a lovely sequence where she goes to a theater showing “The Wrecking Crew,” a Dean Martin spy thriller Tate appeared in, and quietly enjoying the audience’s reactions to her scenes.

Second, it allows Tarantino to indulge his bent for alternate history as in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” here with an ending that comes after some two-plus hours which play like a stream of consciousness riff on the era rather than actual storytelling.

There are standout moments. DiCaprio and Pitt have an easy rapport as two friends who try to look out for each other. Rick arranges a job for Cliff on the show where he’s the guest villain, over the skepticism of the director (Kurt Russell), and Cliff ends up in a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Rick gets into a discussion on acting with an eight-year-old member of the cast. And then there are the moments which you either go with or else roll your eyes at Tarantino’s tics, as with his obsession with women’s feet.

For all his movie savvy, Tarantino’s take on Hollywood is broad but shallow. From early versions of “A Star Is Born” and the classic “Sunset Boulevard” to more recent films like “State and Main” and “Hail Caesar!” filmmakers have dealt with the hypocrisy, egos, and raw emotions involved in the movie business. “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” adds little to that discussion, either seriously or satirically, leaving the viewer adrift. It can be entertaining, but it falls short of the filmmaker at his best.•••

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

Review – The Haunting of Sharon Tate

FILM REVIEWTHE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATEWith Hilary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst, Pawel Szajda,   Ryan Cargill. Written and directed by Daniel Farrands. Rated R for strong bloody violence, terror, and some language. 94 minutes.

haunting_of_sharon_tateHorror films have always been transgressive. The fact that we now consider Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” a film classic shouldn’t make us forget what a shocker it was when it was released in 1960. Such films violate our social norms either by making icons of their bloody protagonists or by depicting violence or gore or by making us feel less safe in our surroundings. In that sense, THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE is very much in that tradition.

Tate, of course, was the young actress who was married to international filmmaker Roman Polanski and pregnant with their child when she and four other people were savagely murdered at the direct order of cult leader Charles Manson by four of his acolytes.

Writer/director Daniel Farrands, known primarily for documentaries on horror series such as “Friday The 13th,” “Nightmare On Elm Street,” and “Scream,” has crafted a slick and disturbing movie based the report that long before her death, Tate had a premonition about the murders. Over the course of 90-or-so minutes, Tate (played by one-time teen star Hilary Duff) experiences the home invasion by Manson (Ben Mellish) and his gang more than once. When the actual attack occurs, Farrands takes the story in an unexpected direction, providing an unconventional conclusion to a story where we already knew how it had to turn out.

Getting Duff for the lead is something of a minor casting coup. Known for her run as “Lizzie McGuire,” and later on “Younger,” this is her first foray into horror. She plays Tate as a considerate if someone shallow young actress, whose marriage to Polanski has raised her profile. She’s troubled by her visions and concerned about the forthcoming baby. It’s a credible performance.

Had this been a film about fictional characters, it might attract some notice among horror fans, as well as some curiosity seekers interested in Duff in an unexpected role. However, it’s not. It’s about the victims of one of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century. It’s not only in living memory but several family members – including Polanski and Tate’s sister – are still alive. Instead of being just a horror movie it becomes yet another wound, using the actress’s tragic death as fodder for cheap thrills.

Farrand knows the beats of the horror films he’s patterned this on, and it could be argued that his focus is on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Manson may be a monster, but the film isn’t about him the way, say, the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies are about the fictional Freddy Krueger. Still, there are times when one must question whether a film goes too far, even in a genre noted for pushing the boundaries.

The result is that “The Haunting Of Sharon Tate” works as a conventional horror film with a twist, but some will find that by using a real life story rather than borrowing some elements for a fictional one, it leaves a bad taste. Farrand doesn’t seem concerned, though. His next movie, currently in post-production, is “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Lion King

FILM REVIEWTHE LION KINGWith Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones. Written by Jeff Nathanson. Directed by Jon Favreau. Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements. 118 minutes.

lion_king_ver2THE LION KING is the third “live action” version of a Disney animated classic to be released this year, and some of the reactions indicate they might want to slow the pace, particularly with “Pinnochio,” “Mulan,” and “The Little Mermaid” remakes in the pipeline. Some of the complaints have been that this follows the original so closely that it’s unnecessary.

Well, yes, that has been the point of these “live action” remakes with some taking greater liberties than others. Here there is an unexpected shout out to another Disney classic, but otherwise it pretty much follows the original. For those who are so invested in the animated “Lion King” (1994) because of how old (or young) they were when they saw it, then no, there’s no reason to see this. Pull out your DVD (or VHS cassette) and watch it instead.

For the rest of us, this is another successful adaptation in that it brings a lot of talented people together committed to making an entertaining movie rather than a cheap knock-off. Jon Favreau was the right choice as director, having made the highly-praised 2016 adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” showing he could handle the ironic paradox here: this “live action” film is largely animated. It’s a mixture of live action and CGI (i.e., computer animation) with the intent of making it seem real.

The story remains the same: Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) proclaims the birth of his son Simba. His evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) murders Mustafa and causes Simba to run away. Simba is taken in by two slacker animals, the warthog Pumbaa (perfectly voiced by Seth Rogen) and the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), but as an adult is called back to battle Scar by lioness Nala (Beyoncé) and his former tutor, a hornbill named Zazu (John Oliver).

The reason these remakes continue to work is because Disney has attracted top talent who are there for more than the paycheck. Besides Favreau and the voice cast, the new film has veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel behind the camera and brought back Hans Zimmer to do the film’s score. (Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs are used as well.)  The notion that a 25-year-old film is so sacrosanct it should not be remade will come as a surprise to those who have made a hit of Julie Taymor’s creative stage adaptation.

“The Lion King” is not the landmark that the animated original was, but it is an entertaining film in its own right. It should please viewers who either unfamiliar with the original or didn’t see it so many times growing up that any other version borders on the blasphemous. We don’t complain when there’s a new film of, say, a Shakespeare play that has been filmed before and while the Disney canon may not be Shakespeare, they are also open to fresh stagings. However, three such remakes inside of four months may prove to be a bit much for audiences.•••

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

Review – Crawl

FILM REVIEWCRAWL. With Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Morfydd Clark, Ross Anderson, Jose Palma. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Rated R for bloody creature violence and brief language. 88 minutes.

crawlThere’s a story certain members of my family love to tell about a trip to Florida for our cousin’s wedding. We were staying at a house overlooking a large lake, separated from it by an iron fence and a considerable stretch of land. While enjoying an afternoon cocktail in the swimming pool, I saw an alligator peek its head up out of the lake at least half a mile away, far beyond the fence and all that land. I immediately jumped out of the pool and ran inside the house sopping wet, screaming about how there’s a fucking alligator out there!

My personal, Captain Hook-level aversion to these scaly beasts plus an affection for modestly budgeted B-programmers probably makes me the ideal audience for CRAWL, a wickedly efficient little creature-feature from director Alexandre Aja. This trim tale of daughter and her dad trapped inside their flooding Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane with a bunch of toothy, uninvited guests is exactly the kind of lean, no-frills thriller that can feel like sweet relief during a bloated blockbuster summer. “Crawl” is the best movie of its kind since Blake Lively fought that shark.

British actress Kaya Scodalario (who I’m told is from the “Maze Runner” movies, whatever those are) stars as a college swim team washout who goes looking for her depressed dad (Barry Pepper) when he stops answering his phone during the media frenzy ramp up to yet another storm of the century. Ignoring evacuation orders, she discovers him stuck in a crawlspace under their old house with big bites out of his leg and shoulder, thanks to a surly gator who’s apparently decided to ride out the storm in their basement. Oh, and the green guy’s brought some friends.

What’s so much fun about “Crawl” is that there’s really nothing remotely resembling a safe space for our protagonists. Whenever they manage to get a moment’s respite from the alligators there’s also that pesky hurricane to contend with. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (who wrote John Carpenter’s “The Ward” and a couple other nifty scare pictures) tend to specialize in these sort of single-setting fright flicks. Here they find some sinister ways to turn the family’s house against them once the levee breaks and waves start rolling in, with precious heirlooms and mementos weaponized into fast-floating debris. (My favorite flourish charts the rising waters against pencil scribblings on a wall where Pepper marked down his children’s heights as they were growing up.)

Director Aja is a scarily talented French brutalist whose 2003 breakthrough “High Tension” remains one of the most crudely effective stupid movies I’ve ever seen. (If I’m not mistaken the surprise twist ending means the main character somehow managed to get into a car chase with herself.) Anyway, Aja will always have a place in my heart thanks to his gloriously gratuitous “Piranha 3-D,” which contains a centerpiece sequence so spectacularly sickening that a cackling college buddy described it as “like Goya, but with tits.”

There’s nothing nearly as nasty in “Crawl” but it’s got its share of bracing bites, with a shower scene that’s one for the books. Sure, maybe it takes the two of them a little too long to get out of that basement crawlspace, and the blessedly brief father-daughter therapy conversations feel like studio notes tacked on to force an emotional investment that their perilous physical situation already provides. (Just like all that junk about Blake Lively’s mom in “The Shallows.”) Still, I’d wager there’s seldom been a movie image more exquisitely Floridian than a family of yokels trying to put a stolen ATM in a rowboat.

Taking care of business in a slender 88 minutes, “Crawl” is a finely-tooled, no-nonsense, mid-summer diversion that wants nothing more than to provide a fun Friday night out at the movies. Jump a couple of times, have a few laughs and enjoy the air conditioning. Such modest pleasures should not be underestimated.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.