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Review – The Way Back

FILM REVIEWTHE WAY BACK. Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins. Written by Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O’Connor. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. 108 minutes.

way_back_ver2In many ways, Ben Affleck – the Burt Reynolds of Generation X – wears his stardom lightly and always seems to be having a better time than you are, creating an easy rapport with the audience that overcomes his rather limited range and an unfortunate penchant for making terrible movies. Like Burt before him, he’s locked into a perpetual comeback cycle and whenever he finds himself solidly back on the upswing has an uncanny knack for mucking things up in spectacular fashion. Affleck’s ubiquitous tabloid travails have made it impossible for him to really disappear into a character, with his best roles these days being thinly veiled considerations of his Affleck-ness. 2014’s “Gone Girl” may have been the ultimate meditation on Being Ben, but THE WAY BACK comes a close second.

An inspirational sports drama directed by Gavin O’Connor – whose “Miracle” and “Warrior” were both about as good as this genre gets – the film stars Affleck as a California construction worker who begins every morning with shower-beers and at night the regulars all help carry him home from his neighborhood dive bar. A star basketball player back in high school, he walked away from a full-boat scholarship to spite his dad and has seemingly devoted the rest of his life to screwing up in one way or another, until his old alma mater comes calling, looking for a new coach.

The screenplay (which the director wrote with Brad Inglesby) is pretty boilerplate stuff. Think “Hoosiers” with Dennis Hopper as the head coach, or “The Bad News Bears” if Buttermaker’s alcoholism was supposed to be sad. But the thing about formulas is that they work, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the familiar beats of the misfit coach turning around a losing team just in time for the playoffs. O’Connor knows how to low-key sidle up to triumphant moments on the court, making them feel earned instead of obligated. The grainy cinematography and rough-and-tumble production design scuff up the script’s Disney slickness, as does Affleck’s habit of bellowing f-words in front of priests at this Catholic school for boys.

He’s terrific in this, by the way. Burly and bearded, exuding the same shambolic gravity he brought to his shockingly effective turn in last year’s nifty “Triple Frontier,” Affleck is finally aging into the soulful screen presence he couldn’t pull off in his self-directed performances. (There’s a reason the best movie he’s helmed stars his little brother.) Playing a jock gone to seed is the perfect use of a persona that in his early stardom too often came off as callow or fratty. Consequences look good on him.

The film plays footsie with Affleck’s real life, excessively well-documented substance abuse issues, to a point where I felt like his confessional promo campaign bordered on distasteful. But boy can this guy crush a drunk scene. Exhibiting the same elan with which in “Triple Frontier” he slipped his breakfast beer into a cozy before driving his daughter to school, Affleck has a showstopper of a sequence here when he houses a 24-pack, rattling around his empty apartment at night, rehearsing his half of imaginary conversations while making sure to always pop the next can into the freezer so it’ll be ice cold when he drains this one.

Unfortunately, in its second hour the film veers from the tried-and-true. Right when we’re really rolling with the team and getting to know the players, “The Way Back” drops a surprise tragic backstory for Ben and pulls our attention away from the game. It’s a development that’s honestly too big for this modest movie to bear, throwing everything that follows out of whack and cheapening the character’s self-destructive tendencies by explaining them away. As it becomes more overtly melodramatic, the film becomes less emotionally effective, straining for massive moments as if Affleck had gotten jealous of kid brother Casey’s “Manchester By The Sea.”

The kids and the game that we’d become so invested in are all but lost here, and it feels like crucial scenes have gone missing during the runup to the playoffs. (Curiously, initial press materials listed the film’s running time as 29 minutes longer than it is now. A last-minute edit, perhaps?) I’m not often one to complain about movies being too short but this one feels awfully tight around the middle.

I wanted more time in the paint. As with his superlative hockey scenes in “Miracle,” O’Connor is excellent at conveying the strategy of sport without just letting an announcer to explain to the audience what’s going on. There’s a great bit in which Affleck sketching out a play is intercut with the team pulling it off, and of course it’s pure gold every time our coach cusses out the referees. “The Way Back” barely puts any emphasis at all on the big game, by then mired in off-court drama that’s decidedly less interesting. But I guess there’s something poetic and in character about such a solid Ben Affleck comeback vehicle finding a way to screw everything up.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 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 – Captain Marvel

FILM REVIEWCAPTAIN MARVELWith Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening. Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language. 124 minutes.

captain_marvel_ver2When we last saw Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” he had just sent out an emergency message to Captain Marvel before he joined half of humanity in disintegrating into dust. In CAPTAIN MARVEL, the character is finally introduced in what is the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so that she will be able to play a role in the upcoming throwdown, “Avengers: Endgame.” Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the incredible planning that has gone into a series that has been rolling out for more than a decade, with standalone movies still feeding into an overall storyline.

Vers (Brie Larson) is part of a team led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) on behalf of the Kree, who are in a galactic battle with the Skrll, shapeshifters who are identified as terrorists. In a lengthy prologue, the Kree try to rescue an undercover agent on a remote world only find out it’s a trap with Vers being captured. She escapes – obviously, or there would be no movie – and lands on Earth, awaiting rescue.

Here two things happen, after which no more will be revealed about the plot. First, it’s 1995, which means it takes place long before the events of the last Avengers event movie, “Infinity War.” It’s also allows a running joke about 1995 technology, from her arrival at a Blockbuster video store to trying to use an Alta Vista search engine. Second, her arrival brings out a young Nick Fury and his junior partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Through Hollywood digital magic, both seamlessly appear as much younger versions of themselves.

Soon Vers and Fury are trying to escape the Skrll as well as find out information relating to Vers’ past, as it seems she originated on Earth, not among the Kree. For those who don’t already know the story from the comics, the plot has several twists and turns as Vers becomes increasingly aware of her powers and what she is capable of becoming. For those who want to see this as a metaphor for female empowerment, it is a much more interesting and satisfying film than “Wonder Woman” (2017), not to take anything away from Gal Gadot’s star-making turn in that role.

As Vers, Larson has to play a character who is both reclaiming her past and discovering her future. It’s a surprisingly complex role which may be why some of the fan base has been put off by it, and yet she nails it while keeping with the sometimes snarky sense of humor that is the hallmark of the Marvel movies. Jackson looks like he’s having a great time, as we learn a bit about Fury’s backstory. Watch his scenes with Goose the cat, which play out unexpectedly.

In addition to Jude Law, the film also has strong performance from Ben Mendelsohn as Talos (under a lot of Skrll makeup), and Annette Bening in another complicated role that can’t be explained without giving too much away. There’s also a cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee, filmed before his death last year, that’s perfectly appropriate for 1995.

“Captain Marvel” not only succeeds in its own right, but – with the two closing tags in the end credits – ought to gin up anticipation for “Endgame.” And in case you were wondering, that film opens April 26.•••

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 – Greta

FILM REVIEWGRETAWith Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Stephen Rea, Colm Feore. Written by Ray Wright and Neil Jordan. Directed by Neil Jordan. Rated R for some violence and disturbing images. 98 minutes.

greta_ver2GRETA has impressive credentials for a horror/thriller movie. It should satisfy genre fans, and may actually draw in fans of director Neil Jordan, whose credits include “The Crying Game” and “Michael Collins.” It’s a B-movie with A-movie production values.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a recent college graduate living in Manhattan, working as a waitress and sharing an apartment with her friend and classmate (Maika Monroe). At the start of the film she discovers a handbag that has been left in a subway car. Unable to leave it at the lost and found, she seeks out the woman’s whose license she discovers, Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Greta is a widow whose daughter, she says, is studying in Paris. Frances – whose mother has recently died – discovers a mutually beneficial connection. She and Greta make meals together, and Frances helps her adopt a dog.

Then it gets weird. Frances discovers that Greta has been lying to her. When she attempts to break off the relationship, Greta starts stalking her. Director Jordan – who shares screenplay credit with Ray Wright – keeps upping the ante, as Greta’s yearning for Frances goes beyond loneliness to obsession and beyond.

It’s interesting that both the heroes and villain of the piece are women. While noted actors are cast as Frances’s father (Colm Feore) and the detective he hires (Jordan regular Stephen Rea), this is about strong women as both victim and victimizer. As the movie tightens the screws, it’s not at all clear where it’s going. While the movie seems to end on a somewhat conventional note, the final confrontation is open to interpretation.

As Frances, Moretz is a young woman trying to do the right thing, who not only finds things going wrong, but learns that the world is not equipped to help her when she discovers just how seriously she is being threatened. It’s a strong performance, but not one that is unexpected in a genre entry like this. Far more surprising is international star Isabelle Huppert as the stalker. In turns charming, scary, and relentless, this is not the sort of performance that gets Oscar notice (as did her 2016 turn in “Elle,” which was cited by both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association), but it is one that will likely stand out as one of the year’s scariest characterizations.

“Greta” is a film should creep out genre fans who have no idea who Jordan or Huppert are, while drawing the same reaction from non-genre moviegoers who do.•••

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 – How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

FILM REVIEWHOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3: THE HIDDEN WORLDWith the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler. Written and directed by Dean DeBlois. Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor. 104 minutes.

how_to_train_your_dragon_the_hidden_worldThe “How To Train Your Dragon” series, based on books by Cressida Cowell, have done well at the box office and with critics. People are impressed by the animation, the flying dragons, and making a young hero with a physical challenge – Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) suffers the loss of a leg in the first film – the story’s protagonist.

All well and good. This reviewer was tepid on the first film, but enthusiastic about the second. Now with HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3: THE HIDDEN WORLD, the third (and presumably final) film in the series, it’s back to tepid. Why? Read on, but let’s first address parents who want to know if they should take their kids to see it, particularly during school vacation week.

Yes, of course. The animation is colorful and vibrant, and the story is about Hiccup trying to find a safe haven for his people and for the dragons, in the face of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who has made it his mission to kill the particular type of dragon known as Night Furies of which Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon, is one. Those who enjoyed the first two films, and the children who have watched them over and over, will be thoroughly engaged. The movie’s coda, which takes us several years ahead of the action, provides a touching conclusion to the series that even this reviewer found hard to resist.

That said, it is an amazingly dull film, consisting mostly of scenes of dragons swooping through the sky in battle or engaging in courtship as Toothless meets a female Night Fury, dubbed Light Fury, not knowing that she has been sent by Grimmel. If you enjoy the creatively designed dragons flying about, no problem. However, if you want any sort of depth, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Hiccup is all self-doubt. Grimmel is smarmy arrogance. Astrid (America Ferrara) is the feisty female who is really there just to inspire the hero.

Children who don’t concern themselves with such things can enjoy the dragons which are the real appeal of these films. When the issue comes up whether Hiccup and his people can continue to protect and live with the dragons, or will the creatures need to go to the “hidden world” to be safe from humans, the film tries to have it both ways. Young viewers won’t care. Many adults won’t care. Those who do recognize the thinness of the script may not find the vivid animation is enough to overcome it.

DreamWorks has proven a worthy rival to Pixar, but “How To Train Your Dragon 3” is more akin to “Cars 3.” It’s a sequel that will do well at the box office, but not something that will regarded as one of the hallmarks of the studio.•••

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

Review – All These Small Moments

REVIEWALL THESE SMALL MOMENTSWith Brendan Meyer, Molly Ringwald, Jemima Kirke, Harley Quinn Smith, Brian d’Arcy James. Written and directed by Melissa Miller Costanzo. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes 

all_these_small_momentsThe emotional life of an adolescent can seem rough and raw because they’re experiencing so much for the first time. ALL THESE SMALL MOMENTS follows Howie Sheffield (Brendan Meyer) as he navigates several upheavals and, as in life, they’re all happening at the same time. At home his parents (Molly Ringwald, Brian d’Arcy James) seem headed for divorce, and not hiding from Howie or his brother (Sam McCarthy) just how tension and animosity has grown between them. The boys are helpless by-standers, but it affects them nonetheless.

Meanwhile, there are women in Howie’s life – sort of – and he’s equally at a loss what to do about it. One is Odessa (Jemima Kirk), whom he sees every day on the bus and develops a crush on, even though she doesn’t know him and is clearly several years older. The other is Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), another high school student he meets in study hall when he has to sit out gym due to a broken arm. She’s interested, and he might be too except for an ugly rumor about her.

The script by writer/director Melissa Miller Costanzo, making her feature debut after a career in film and television as an art director and production designer, consists of the “small moments” that can have great significance. Whether it’s a confession, a revelation, or a reconciliation, this is a movie about people trying to live their lives, not engage in car chases or fending off an alien invasion. It resonates precisely because the characters seem fallible and very real.

The actors fit the mold as well, with Meyer conveying the uncertainty that is the hallmark of adolescence. His puppy dog demeanor explains why the “older woman” is willing to befriend him rather than shoo him away, with Kirk’s character slowly revealing why she needs affirmation in her life as well, even if we think we know how it has to end up. Similarly, while the film is very much from Howie’s point of view, Smith’s character exposes that the teen years are hard on girls too. Ringwald and James have the tougher job, acquitting themselves well as we watch the pettiness and betrayals of a failing marriage while not making us wonder why they ever got together in the first place.

Like an impressionist painting, “All These Small Moments” is greater than the sum of the parts, with no single plot line and payoff but instead a portrait of a teenage boy learning that life is about doing the best you can, even if things don’t always turn out the way you expect.•••

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 – On the Basis of Sex

FILM REVIEWON THE BASIS OF SEXWith Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates. Written by Daniel Stiepleman. Directed by Mimi Leder. Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content. 120 minutes.

on_the_basis_of_sexIt’s been said that the average person is more likely to know the names of the Seven Dwarves than the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. The great modern exception is 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg who has the sort of celebrity – which she hasn’t tried to curry – usually reserved for rock stars. Indeed, she even has a hiphop-inspired nickname, “The Notorious RBG.”

The Justice, currently recovering from cancer surgery, was the subject of not one but two movies in 2018, the documentary “RBG” and the late year release ON THE BASIS OF SEX, opening wide for award season this weekend. The latter is a dramatization of her early years, with Felicity Jones playing her as a Harvard Law student at a time when even the dean (Sam Waterston in a delightfully sneering performance) condescends to these new entrants to what was a primarily male preserve.

The movie is important for several reasons. For one thing, it reminds us just how far we’ve come, even if we have farther to go. Ruth Bader is a brilliant student, but has trouble finding a job because women weren’t taken seriously by major law firms. While her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), himself a successful lawyer, holds her in high esteem, she finds that even an ally like the American Civil Liberties Union – personified by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) – is skeptical she can win a sex discrimination case she wants to pursue. Ironically, it involves a man being discriminated against, involving gender stereotypes where men and women are treated almost as if they were different species.

And that gets to the real reason the film works, which is that it has passion. Jones and director Mimi Leder get us involved in what’s at stake and shows us why it matters. The case that Ginsburg argues would prove to be the first major sex discrimination case upon which a whole body of law would eventually be built. We see that men can be victimized as well as women, and that sympathetic men can be as much of an obstacle as antagonistic ones.

Jones, seeming to realize that she is depicting an American icon, portrays her with dignity but not as a clay idol. She gets frustrated, she argues with her daughter, in short, she’s human. That it is a portrait crafted with respect and admiration is not surprising, given that first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the Justice’s nephew. It’s important to remember that this is a dramatization, not a documentary, and so while it’s apparently largely accurate, some dramatic liberties have been taken.

“On the Basis of Sex” is a compelling and engaging drama that reminds us that the issues that Justice Ginsburg has made her career upon are not merely “women’s issues,” but matters that affect men as well. In short, the fight for equal rights is the fight for human rights. The movie dramatizes this well, in a way that proves both entertaining and enlightening.•••

score_50Daniel 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 – Blue Iguana

FILM REVIEWBLUE IGUANAWith Sam Rockwell, Ben Schwartz, Phoebe Fox, Peter Ferdinando, Simon Callow. Written and directed by Hadi Hajaig. Not rated. 100 minutes.

BLUE IGUANA is a throwback to movies like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” They were early works by Guy Ritchie that combined humor and violence in offering a modern and quite British take on the gangster film. Adding Americans Sam Rockwell and Ben Schwartz to the mix may expand its audience appeal somewhat, although it’s only getting a limited theatrical release and otherwise can be seen on Video on Demand.

Eddie (Rockwell) and Paul (Schwartz) are two losers out on parole working at a seedy diner when British attorney Katherine Rookwood (Phoebe Fox) shows up with a proposition. If they will go to London and steal a satchel, she’ll pay them $20,000. After some haggling over the price, they agree, with only lip service given to the fact that leaving the country will violate their parole.

After that, the details are unimportant, with the content of the satchel being merely the means to an end which will explain the film’s title. Suffice to say that there are other people interested in the satchel including a gang boss (Peter Polycarpou) to whom Katherine is indebted and a mulleted flunky (Peter Ferdinando) who leaves a number of bodies in his wake.

Essentially this is a caper film with a lot of people working at cross-purposes. We’re supposed to be rooting for Eddie and Paul in spite of the fact that they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. Veteran British actors Simon Callow (as a relative teaching the Americans how to talk “British”) and Amanda Donohoe (as a pub owner with whom Paul becomes involved) show up in supporting roles, adding a touch of class to the proceedings, but much of the film consists of the characters plotting or bungling or doing both.

The story is less important than the character turns and so one’s enjoyment depends on the principal actors engaging us. Rockwell and Schwartz play characters who are self-assured with no reason to be, so that it’s hard to empathize with them. They are amusing but cause many of their own problems. Ferdinando and Polycarpou are effective heavies, the former appropriately thuggish and the latter more genteel until he gets violent.  It’s Fox who fares best, as the young attorney with a promising career who – for reasons that emerge – finds herself in debt to the mob boss.

If you’re looking for a bunch of eccentric characters shooting each other or otherwise engaging in various acts of mayhem, then “Blue Iguana” may work for you. If you want a complex plot that makes sense with characters who are more three dimensional than comic caricatures, you’ll have to look elsewhere.***

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.