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Review – Coco

FILM REVIEWCOCOWith the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor. Written by Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich. Directed by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina. Rated PG for thematic elements. 109 minutes.

cocoposterAfter the success of “Inside Out” in 2015, Pixar’s releases have varied from the weak (“The Good Dinosaur”) to the commercially acceptable (“Cars 3”) to entertaining-but-nothing-special (“Finding Dory”). What a pleasure, then, to report that COCO finds the computer animation studio (now part of the Disney Empire) at the top of its game.

Like “The Book of Life,” a 2014 animated feature that didn’t get its due, it is a story set in Mexico during the celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Families honor and remember their ancestors and, as we see, the ancestors who are thus remembered come back to visit for the day. “Coco” tells the story of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) who longs for the life of a musician. His problem is that his great-grandfather was a musician who walked out on the family and, as a result, music is a forbidden topic. Instead, the family is devoted to making shoes.

Miguel finds himself caught between the living and the dead when he crosses over to search for Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the greatest singer in Mexico’s history and a superstar in the afterlife as well. To avoid being trapped there, Miguel needs the blessing of his ancestors who are as against a musical career for him as his living relatives. Instead, he joins forces with Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a roving spirit, who is afraid that he will soon be forgotten by everyone in the living world and thus dissipate in the afterlife as well.

Miguel’s adventures are colorful and imaginative and, true to Pixar when they’re focusing on the script rather than the box office, ones that evoke an emotional response. The movie is not merely about the love of music, but the desire to be remembered and the importance of remembering. It’s a two-sided coin in which Miguel will learn the importance of both.

As always with Pixar, the visuals represent computer animation at their best, managing to evoke personalities from the skeletal remains of the dead. It’s done in a way that children should be enchanted rather than frightened, as well as providing an opportunity for parents to talk about departed family members as a way of keeping their memories alive. The film builds to an emotional tribute to such memories that brings to mind the opening sequence of another Pixar triumph, “Up.”

Some have complained that Pixar is ripping off “The Book of Life,” just as there were complaints when Pixar made “A Bug’s Life” following rival studio Dreamworks’ “Antz.” Let’s just say that the Mexican culture, and the lore connected to the Day of the Dead, are both rich enough to stand one, two, or many movies. In bringing us greater familiarity with our neighbor to the south, as well as providing an inspiring tribute to love across generations, “Coco” is one of the outstanding achievements of the year and not to be missed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 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.


Review – Roman J. Israel, Esq.

FILM REVIEW – ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. With Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated PG-13 for language and some violence. 129 minutes.

roman-j-israel-esq-2017When you look at the careers of the great actors and actresses – and Denzel Washington is certainly one of our finest actors – you may notice something: not every film they starred in is a masterpiece. Even the lesser films may offer a performance worth noting, but it doesn’t change the fact that nobody bats 1.000. With the awkwardly-titled ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., Washington creates an intense and flawed character who might be much more fascinating in another movie. The problem here is that his character is stuck in two different movies, neither of which helps the other.

We first meet him as the junior partner of a two-man law firm. The senior partner is revered legal giant, widely respected and revered. Israel is the one who never goes to court but is a whiz at legal research, drafting briefs, and providing the crucial support. As played by Washington, Israel may have a place on the Asperger’s scale: he’s very good at what he does but has trouble relating to people, which is presumably why he was kept back in the office.

Unfortunately, the senior partner has suffered a stroke, and – as becomes clear – will not be returning to work. No one, except Israel, thinks he’s ready to step up and take over. Instead, well-heeled lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), is brought in to shut the place down. So far, so good, as far as the story goes. Israel tries to find another position without any luck, but Pierce sees that Israel brings skills that could be very useful – and highly billable – for his own firm. It is not the best fit.

Midway through the film, Israel makes a bad choice – illegal and unethical – and suddenly this becomes an entirely different movie. Israel, who has been full of righteous indignation at the world’s injustice, is now responsible for one of them. Further, the people he’s crossed are none too pleased and plan to settle the score. Instead of being a psychological portrait of an obsessed lawyer, it turns into a mundane thriller, and one not very thrilling at that. The conclusion is meant to convey Israel’s ultimate triumph, but seems contrived and tacked on.

The problem is not in the performances. Washington has played numerous intensely driven characters and having one being out of step socially and in other ways is an interesting challenge he’s ready to meet. Likewise Farrell, as the bigshot attorney, is able to convey how he’s still touched by the lessons he learned in law school from Israel’s partner. Carmen Ejogo offers nice support as a civil rights organizer who tries to bridge the gap between Israel’s out-of-date approach and today’s activists.

Instead the problem is in the script by Dan Gilroy (who also directed) that bites off more than it can chew. Twelve minutes were cut from the movie after its premiere in September at the Toronto film festival, but what needed to be fixed required work long before the shooting or editing. In setting up a dilemma for its central character and then dropping it for something else, we end up lacking any investment in Israel’s fate, and not even Washington is able to turn that around.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is proof that the presence of a star may be enough to get a film made, but it’s not enough to guarantee that the resulting film will be any good.•••

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 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 – Live By Night

FILM REVIEWLIVE BY NIGHTWith Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper. Written and directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. 128 minutes.

As time goes by it’s becoming apparent that Ben Affleck is more of a character actor than a star, unlike his longtime friend Matt Damon or, increasingly, his brother Casey. However as a director he may prove to be the biggest star of all. With movies like “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and “Argo,” he has tackled complex stories and turned them into compelling films.

With LIVE BY NIGHT, he returns to Dennis Lehane territory (after “Gone Baby Gone”), with a tough-minded but ultimately sentimental gangster film set in the latter years of Prohibition. Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns from Europe after World War I utterly disillusioned. Son of a high-ranking official (Brendan Gleeson) in the Boston Police Department, Coughlin is a self-styled “outlaw.” He has no desire to joins the organized mobs of Albert White (Robert Glenister) or Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), but pulls off robberies with his two buddies. Coughlin is living an especially risky life, as his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller) is White’s mistress.

The first act is set in Boston, and Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, has fun with the locations and matter-of-fact corruption of the era. A scene where his father bargains with a prosecutor (Clark Gregg in a cameo) speaks volumes on how getting what you want turns on learning what other people want kept hidden.

Coughlin ends up throwing in his lot with Pescatore, looking for vengeance against White, and is sent to Tampa to handle a rum-running operation. This is where the story echoes our time, as Coughlin navigates a world where Cuban emigrants control the rum, and the Ku Klux Klan hates Catholic Irish-Americans like him as much as blacks, Jews, and Hispanics. The corruption takes on a Southern patina as well. Local police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) makes it clear that as long as Coughlin keeps his business activities to a specific section of Tampa rarely patronized by respectable citizens, he’s willing to look the other way.

Indeed, this is the fine line that is walked not only by Figgis, but by Couglin himself and, subsequently Figgis’s daughter (Elle Fanning). Coughlin makes threats and payoffs, eventually having to kill, but he also wants to lead a “normal” life with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the strong-willed sister of his Cuban business partner. On one level, the movie is the journey of Coughlin’s moral education. As this is a gangster film, there will be a lot of bullet-ridden bodies along the way.

As director, Affleck keeps a steady pace, making sure to play fair with the audience by setting up the film’s twists without tipping his hand. He also gets some strong performances from his cast, particularly the film’s three female characters, each are mixtures of light and dark motives, which is to say, they’re recognizably complicated and human. As an actor, Affleck seems to have come to terms that he’s more of an “everyman” than a “star,” and has learned to let the people around him have the showy roles to which he gets to react.

“Live By Night” doesn’t so much break new ground in the gangster film as deepen explorations into areas opened by others. As such, it’s a solid entry for fans of the genre, and for those enjoying watching the flowering of Affleck’s directing career. •••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 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 in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – War Dogs

With Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak. Written by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. 114 minutes.

If you look at films about World War II–particularly those made during the war–there’s a definite point of view. There’s no amibiguity as to who the good guys (us) and the bad guys (Germany, Japan) are whether the film is a drama or comedy, or it ends in victory or defeat. For filmgoers of that era, there was was no question as to why we were fighting.

In the decades since, those who led us into war–particularly in Vietnam or Iraq–could not convince Americans as to our goals. Stop the spread of Communism? Go after hidden caches of weapons? Spread democracy? The longer those wars went on, the less convincing the arguments were.

As a result, while the movies about these wars may ask us to “support the troops,” they are not about supporting the war effort itself. Instead, they are dark, often cynical movies, where lives are wasted and even the supposed good guys are flawed or, as in WAR DOGS corrupt. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, which is why for most of its running time, the film is sugar-coated as a comedy.

Based on a true story about two young Florida men who became arms merchants, it features Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, who enjoys easy money, drugs, and taking risks. He reconnects with an old school friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller) in 2005. He shows him how the government is letting people like him go after “the crumbs” of arms sales in Iraq and Afghanistan by putting their needs out to bid. David and his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) are expecting their first child, so the chance to make a lot more money than he was making as a masseuse is too good to pass up.

A goodly portion of the film is played for laughs. Efraim takes an order for Italian handguns for Iraq and then learns that Italy has passed a law forbidding exports to the country. When they ship the guns to Jordan–a neutral country–there’s still the problem of getting them to Iraq. In spite of the (brief) appearance of a dead body, the sequence plays like an action comedy. Even their interaction with big time arms dealer Henry Girard (a charmingly sinister Bradley Cooper) starts as a joke, as when he reveals he want to use them as middlemen because, inconveniently, he’s on a terrorist watch list.

A brief prologue suggests the inevitable change of tone that’s coming, but even when things go bad for David, the film maintains his essential goodness, even as Efraim is revealed to be a sleaze. Hill plays Efraim as larger than life, betraying everyone around him including his “best friend” David and the Jewish businessman (Kevin Pollak) who is bankrolling him because he has been led to believe it’s in support of Israel. David is seen as just another victim. Indeed, the real David Packouz even gets a cameo in the film (as an entertainer at an old age home). See? War can be fun.

By treating this is as a caper movie, “War Dogs” provides the requisite action and laughs. Yet it glosses over both the actual impact of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the moral implication of the actions of Ephraim and David, other than engaging in fraud in the deal that finally brings them down. Indeed the final scene of the movie leaves us wondering if we’re to be happy for David and his family, or chilled at what was left in the wake of his business dealings. American troops may be risking their lives in both countries going well into a second decade, but movies like this make it clear we still don’t know how to think about it, if we think about it at all.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Florence Foster Jenkins

With Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Allan Corduner. Written by Nicholas Martin. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. 110 minutes.

If FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS was the story of a clueless socialite’s public humiliation, there would be little reason to tell this story. Instead, like “Ed Wood” (1994), it’s a movie in which love of art and kindness of heart triumphs over lack of talent. And, ironically, the title character is played by the most gifted actress of her generation.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a real person who in 1940s New York was a patron of the arts and occassionally burst forth in song herself. The problem was that she could not carry a tune in the proverbial handbasket. In a word, she was awful. That didn’t stop her though. Those around her either pretended not to notice–hard as that might be–or really couldn’t tell. Her devoted husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) protected her by making sure only the right people were permitted to attend her performances, which is to say, those who wouldn’t mock her.

In the hands of Meryl Streep, with Stephen Frears directing (from a script by British TV writer Nicholas Martin), Jenkins is a lovably dotty figure. Over the course of the film, we come first to sympathize and then respect the path she has carved out for herself. She is not deterred by negativity, and wins over even those who are skeptical. We learn just how badly stacked the deck is against her–it’s not just a singing voice akin to fingernails on a chalkboard–and how she perservered in spite of it all.

Her marriage may seem peculiar, especially when we meet St. Clair’s girlfriend Katherine (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he lives, but like Jenkins, he is also not what he seems at first glance. Grant has played his share of cads, but that’s not who St. Clair is, and he navigates the tricky role with aplomb.

Thrown into this situation is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), a classically trained pianist hired to be her accompanist, including at her climactic concert at Carnegie Hall. He can’t quite believe what he’s gotten himself into but he, too, falls under the peculiar spell of Jenkins.

What is it about her utter lack of talent that is so endearing? Part of it is her sincere love for the music she’s mangling and her desire to share that love with the world. Those who conspire to keep the truth from her might see it as telling a child there is no Santa Claus. Who is she harming, after all? It is that childlike innocence, combined with her strong will to put herself out there–first in a recording, then at Carnegie Hall–that makes her the heroine rather than the patsy of this story. How many of us let self-doubt prevent us from doing the things we really want to do?

Florence Foster Jenkins” is the triumphant story of a woman who had multiple opportunities to give up, and refused to take them.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! Its a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartenders Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Southpaw

With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence,
Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent. Written by Kurt Sutter. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R for language throughout, and some violence. 123 minutes.

SOUTHPAW is a story we’ve seen many times before, but it’s acted with such heart and directed with such skill that it’s hard to resist. It’s a boxing story about redemption (see “Rocky”) with the bond between parent and child (see “The Champ”) at its core. Credit a solid cast and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) for keeping things taut despite a two-hour running time.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undefeated light heavyweight champ, and he has a habit of taking a terrific beating before coming back for the win. He’s had a tough life but seems to be in a good place now. Having grown up in an orphanage, he’s married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another orphan he met there. They live an idyllic life with their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Without going into details, Billy–who has relied on Maureen and his manager (50 Cent) to handle the details of his life–loses everything. Like a modern day Job, he finds himself stripped of his relationships, possessions, and his boxing career. Hitting rock bottom, he goes to a gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming his life.

As a story it’s melodramatic. However Jake Gyllenhaal–who gave a brilliant and underrated performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler”–makes Billy more than an inarticulate lug. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but he appreciates what he had in terms of personal relationships and support and never pretends he did it all on his own. He has to get beyond the feelings of loss and humiliation if he’s going to get his life back.

McAdams swiftly sketches in a character whose bond to Billy comes as much from their shared background as their current success. Whitaker’s character is equally complex, trying to keep Billy at arm’s length while trying to instill a sense of pride in the poor kids working and learning at his gym. Good as they are– and they’ve very good–the amazing performance here is that of young Oona Laurence as Leila. The character’s relationship with her father evolves over the course of the story, and Laurence is never less than believable as the pre-teen reeling from the mess her life has become.

Fuqua’s direction goes from the personal to the pugilistic with ease. The boxing scenes are brutal. Where early on non-boxing fans (such as this reviewer) may view the scenes as barbarous, things change when Billy comes under Tick’s guidance. It may not change your mind about real-life boxing, but Tick’s argument that boxing is more about strategy than brute force becomes clear in the final bout, bloody though it is.

As an entry in the venerable boxing film genre, “Southpaw” is simply a modern evocation of tried-and-true plot points and characters. What it loses on lack of originality it more than makes up for in execution, making this one of the unexpected surprises of the summer movie season.•••

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 most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.