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Review – Almost Friends

With Freddie Highmore, Odeya Rush, Christopher Meloni, Marg Helgenberger, Haley Joel Osment. Written and directed by Jake Goldberger. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. 101 minutes.

ALMOST FRIENDS is an amiable romantic comedy focusing on Charlie (Freddie Highmore), a young twenty-something whose life has stalled, and Amber (Odeya Rush), a high school senior he falls in love with in spite of the fact that she already has a boyfriend. We’ve seen this story: he’s a lovable misfit with a quirky sense of humor, she’s stunning-but-smart and seems to be taken for granted by the boyfriend. You can see where this is going from a mile away.

What makes it a pleasant film to watch (and it’s out now “On Demand”) are the leads. Highmore has been making the transition from children’s parts (most notably in the 2005 remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), and has been helped by television work on “Bates Motel” (as Norman Bates) and the current “The Good Doctor.” He manages to play Charlie’s earnestness as well as his self-doubts, the reasons for which are conveniently revealed late in the film.

Rush may be less known, but is smoothly working her way through teen roles in “Goosebumps” and “The Giver” to play the high school senior beginning to face some of the problems of the adult world. (As a footnote, it’s interesting that the British Highmore and Israeli Rush fit so smoothly into American roles.) When the film focuses on the two of them it is both funny and poignant as they have to deal with their undeniable attraction in spite of the fact that she’s in a long-term relationship. One has to be much older to put that into perspective, and the film falls short in providing Highmore and Rush the support they need.

Marg Helgenberger is sufficient as Hightower’s mom, but she and Chris Meloni are saddled with a story as to why their marriage failed and now has him improbably moving into their house – she’s since remarried – while he’s lining up a new job. The longer and more involved this subplot gets, the more annoying it is. Equally of little help is former child star Haley Joel Osment (“Sixth Sense”) who seems to be channeling Gary Busey as Charlie’s slovenly friend on his way to law school.

What keeps our attention is the young couple becoming friends in spite of themselves, and realizing that their friendship is generating the sort of feelings they’re entitled to, not something to be avoided. Although we’re fairly certain where the story has to end up, writer/director Jake Goldberger refuses to give us the big dramatic payoff a more conventional film might have offered up. The ending is happy and hopeful, but as with most young lives, there are no guarantees of what the future might bring.

The movie menu between now and the end of the year consists of blockbusters, family movies, and Oscar bait. “Almost Friends” isn’t any of those and so viewers in their teens and twenties (or who remember what that was like) may find this a pleasant change of pace.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille

FILM REVIEWTHE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE. Written and directed by Peter Brosnan. Unrated. 88 minutes.

There are three different stories going on in THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE, a documentary making its debut on Video-on-Demand. Anyone interested in movies, archaeology, or the issues involved in preserving historical artifacts deemed “pop culture” will find this a fascinating story. Others may find themselves sucked into the mystery as well.

Cecil B. DeMille was a major filmmaker from the founding of Hollywood to his final movie, the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” Other than historians and film buffs, though, most of his other films – which date back to the silent era – tend to have been forgotten, or perhaps noted in the film histories but rarely watched today. One such film was his 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments.”

To create ancient Egypt, DeMille had a “City of the Pharaoh” constructed in Santa Barbara County in California. It was a massive set that included 20 sphinxes and four statues of Ramses, each weighing several tons. The sets were to be destroyed or removed when filming was done, but Peter Brosnan came across a reference in DeMille’s memoirs indicating that, in fact, they had been buried in the sand dunes where the filming had taken place.

Thus begins the second story where Brosnan and associates begin looking for evidence that these massive artifacts may still exist beneath the ground. He began his search in 1982 when there are still people in the town of Guadalupe who remembered working on the film sixty years earlier. They find some evidence that there is material buried in the sand and begin the work of getting financing and permission to do the excavations.

Which brings us to the third story as Brosnan’s on-again/off-again project takes more than thirty years to come to fruition, as financing appears or evaporates, government bureaucrats throw up roadblocks, people die, and ownership of the land changes hands. One person involved became so fed up with the delays and obstacles that he walked away from the project and refuses to talk about it. Support arrives from surprising quarters, though, leading to some impressive discoveries. From a historical point of view we see how easily our past can get lost, and the efforts that must be taken to preserve it. When you watch the archaeological dig around the movie site, it’s not all that different from the work that goes on in the Middle East or other homes to ancient civilizations.

Why were the sets buried in the first place? Part of the reason may be because it was cheaper than carting it away. Another reason, suggested by Jesse Lasky, Jr. – a writer who worked with DeMille and whose father was one of the original Hollywood moguls – was that if the set had been left standing, other filmmakers might have tried to make use of it for their own, cheaper productions.

Along the way, we get DeMille’s story as well as the story of the thirty-year quest for the remnants of the set, as well as Brosnan’s’ own story. What began as a bit of a lark became a lifelong obsession – or close enough – to warrant its own film. At 88 minutes, “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” isn’t epic length, but it’s long enough to make its case for the preservation of historical artifacts, and perhaps makes you want to take a fresh look at DeMille’s own body of work.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Brimstone

FILM REVIEWBRIMSTONEWith Dakota Fanning, Kit Harington, Guy Pearce, Carice van Houten, Emilia Jones. Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Rated R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language. 148 minutes.

2926-11930-brimstonBRIMSTONE, which is being released on demand and other digital services, is an epic gothic western that boasts several strong performances but may be too violent and dark for some viewers. Dutch director Martin Koolhoven guides an English-speaking cast in this four-chapter story told out of order so that the full back story of the two principal characters isn’t revealed until just before the climactic section.

Dakota Fanning, the one-time child star who easily upstaged actors like Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, and Denzel Washington, has been working her way into adult roles. Now 23, she appeared in this and the equally disturbing “American Pastoral” last year. She uses her haunting looks to good effect, able to project layers of feelings beneath a seemingly placid surface.

Here she’s Liz, a mute woman on the frontier who works as a midwife and is married to Samuel (Kit Harrington), a farmer who already had a young son. Things go bad with the arrival of the Reverend (a chilling Guy Pearce), whose faith is a strict and cruel interpretation of Christianity. For reasons that will not be revealed until late in the film, Liz is afraid of the Reverend, and with good reason. He is targeting her and her family.

However, this is not the story of Liz’s victimhood. It’s about this deceptively quiet young woman who is determined not only to survive in a world where she’s considered little more than property, but to protect the little girl that she and Samuel have brought into the world. The second chapter shows Liz’s arrival at a “cathouse,” where the proprietor’s brother is the town’s sheriff. Punishment for women who object to their abuse is swift and brutal. It’s a bit disconcerting until one realizes that the reason Liz can now speak is that this is taking place earlier (the chapter titles, taken from Biblical books, are a strong hint).

Fanning plays Liz not as an avenging angel but as a woman constantly improvising to survive her horrific circumstances. While the gore is kept to a minium, there are multiple shootings and other deaths that make it seem that the Reverend’s descriptions of hell are already on Earth. Pierce’s depiction of the Reverend’s false piety may be the most unsettling element of the film given the crimes he justifies with it. By the time we get the “genesis” of his relationship with Liz, we’re ready for a climactic showdown, but things may not end up the way you expect.

“Brimstone” played the festival circuit where some hailed it and some found it too harsh, with a result that it’s getting a very limited theatrical release and going right to digital services. It’s often hard to tell in the absence of reviews and word of mouth what you’re getting with these little-seen movies. In this case, you’re getting a dark and engaging story of two people who won’t give up, one for his evil ends, the other for her chance of survival.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.