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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.


Review – Uncle Drew

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FILM REVIEWUNCLE DREW. With Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller. Written by Jay Longino. Directed by Charles Stone III. Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language, and brief nudity. 103 mins.

uncle_drew_ver13Probably the most entertaining film ever based on a soft drink commercial, UNCLE DREW finds Boston Celtics’ superstar point guard Kyrie Irving reprising his role from a series of viral YouTube shorts promoting Pepsi Max. In these admittedly amusing spots, Irving plays the title character beneath a ton of “Coming to America” old man makeup, giving crowds of unsuspecting, trash-talking young whippersnappers a good what-for on the basketball court. The not inconsiderable pleasure of the Pepsi ads is in watching a doddering codger suddenly spring into action with the grace of a professional athlete. But is that enough to sustain a movie? Surprisingly, sort of.

Comedian Lil Rel Howery – the diminutive scene-stealer who managed to make us root for the TSA in last year’s “Get Out” – stars here as a bumbling, broke basketball coach who just lost his star player a few days before Harlem’s Rucker Park Streetball Tournament. Howery Is still haunted by a high school championship game in which his buzzer-beating shot was blocked by an obnoxious bully played by Nick Kroll, who has continued to torment him throughout adulthood as what girlfriend Tiffany Haddish calls, “The Ghost of White Boy Past.”

Out of options, Howery’s hapless coach enlists Irving’s barbershop legend Uncle Drew, who insists on reuniting his old Rucker team from half-a-century ago, all played by NBA icons underneath mountains of wrinkly latex. What follows is a road trip in Uncle Drew’s funkadelic orange van, blasting slow jams from the seventies while picking up Chris Webber’s born-again Preacher, the legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller) and mute, wheelchair-bound dementia patient Boots (Nate Robinson.) The geriatric squad is rounded out by Shaquille O’Neal’s aptly-named Big Fella, who hasn’t spoken to Drew in decades and isn’t about to start again now. (This is far and away Shaq’s finest big screen performance. The not-talking part helps.)

Director Charles Stone III (who after “Drumline” and “Mr. 3000” is an old pro at underdog stories) grounds the silly shenanigans in a sweetness that can get a bit sticky sometimes. But he keeps the nonprofessional actors in the cast fully committed to their characters with far more consistency and credibility than you’re used to seeing when, say, an athlete hosts “Saturday Night Live.” Irving, in particular, brings a surprising gravity to Drew’s more dramatic moments, even if he does fall back on calling everybody “Youngblood” a few too many times.

“Uncle Drew” invests absolute sincerity in cornball old tropes like: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.” (My favorite exhortation to teamwork is: “Everybody knows Gladys Knight was nothing without The Pips.”) The guilelessness is almost touching, albeit slightly disingenuous considering the film is spun off from a corporate branding exercise and contains wall-to-wall product placement as far as the eye can see.

But of course what you came to watch is your favorite players clowning around on the court, and in that department “Uncle Drew” delivers. Stone and his one-named cinematographer Crash take advantage of the cast’s prowess in the paint, shooting Harlem Globetrotter-styled slapstick sequences in long, head-to-toe takes so we can fully appreciate their artistry. (There’s also a delightful dance number that goes on for what feels like ever because apparently everyone was having too much fun to stop.) Inside jokes abound involving Webber’s time-out miscount and Shaq’s free throw difficulties, and by the end even WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie gets her turn to play.

“Uncle Drew” will never be mistaken for a masterpiece but as far as branded content goes it’s sunny and good-natured enough to get by. And hey, at least it’s better than “Space Jam.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Upgrade

Click for the R-rated "Red Band" trailer!
FILM REVIEWUPGRADEWith Logan Marshall-Green, Benedict Hardie, Simon Maiden, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson. Written by and directed by Leigh Whannell. Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language. 95 minutes.

upgradeThere was once a time when knowing what studio was releasing a film told you much about it. While those days are gone (really, who can really tell a Warner Bros. film from one from Paramount?), there are still certain production companies and distributors which have a signature style. One such company is Blumhouse Productions, which specializes in tightly-budgeted genre pieces many of which make a lot of money. If the “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” franchises are rather silly, they also have released solid efforts like “Sinister,” “Get Out,” as well as “The Purge” franchise.

UPGRADE isn’t “Get Out,” but it falls on the smart side of the ledger. Writer/director Leigh Whannell (who plays Specs in the “Insidious” films) sets his story in a high-tech near-future. Combining elements of “Death Wish” with “The Six Million Dollar Man,” it focuses on Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who witnesses the brutal murder of his wife and is left a quadriplegic. Enter Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), an eccentric and reclusive high-tech genius who convinces Grey to undergo an experimental operation which will implant a device – called Stem – in him that will give him full mobility again.

This is where the film takes off. Without giving too much away, Grey finds that Stem can communicate directly with him (voice of Simon Maiden), and that he not only can move but that his abilities have greatly increased. He begins tracking down and eliminating the men responsible for his wife’s murder, discovering that they have secrets of their own.

Although this a smartly written film, Whannell includes several scenes of graphic violence. The film richly deserves its R rating, and some may find themselves turning away from the screen at moments. On the other hand, when it reaches its “big reveal” and you react by thinking how formulaic and predictable it is, hang on. Whannell is just getting started.

Although the cast is largely unknown, that isn’t the same thing as saying that they’re not up to the job. Betty Gabriel, who you may recognize from “The Purge: Election Year” and “Westworld,” is all determination as Cortez, the cop assigned to the case and who wonders why someone confined to a wheelchair seems to be near several murder scenes. Marshall-Green carries much of the film as Grey and plays a range from loving husband to suicidal survivor to avenging angel. Although only heard, Gilbertson’s voicing of Stem puts him up there with Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL 9000 in “2001”) and William Daniels (as K.I.T.T. in “Knight Rider”) in making a digital voice a full-bodied character.

“Upgrade” is Blumhouse Productions at its best: a slick, taut genre piece that may have been done on a budget but doesn’t look like they cut corners. As the major studio blockbusters continue to roll out in the coming weeks, one can only hope they’re as well thought out and put together as this.•••

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 – Truth or Dare

. Starring Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, and Landon Liboiron; Written by Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow; 100 minutes; Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing content, alcohol abuse, some sexuality, language and thematic material.

truthWhat kind of person are you? Would you sacrifice yourself for the sake of humanity? What about your friends? Be honest…

In micro-horror-studio Blumhouse’s latest, TRUTH OR DAREevery kept secret and decision made has dire consequences for a group of college friends forced to confront their inner demons after unleashing a dangerously playful curse. You know, like real life.

After first watching the trailer, I could already hear the collective eye-rolling of a thousand horror purists lamenting. Yes, they’re all pretty young people with privileged problems, and that’s the point. The selfishness of our fears is at the heart of this film. Say what you will about the obvious plot conceit attempted many times before, director Jeff Wadlow (“Cry Wolf”) manages to pull off a wildly entertaining cautionary tale that touches upon relevant themes of gun violence, bullying, sexual consent, and cultural appropriation, all best experienced in a packed theater with varying degrees of movie-going etiquette.

Built as a supernatural slasher akin to “Final Destination,” “It Follows,” and “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” “Truth Or Dare” selectively subverts expectations by delivering its onscreen deaths in unpredictable patterns with suspense drawn directly from each character’s psyche as part of a game of Russian roulette in which the audience is complicit.

Pressured by her best friend Markie, Olivia (Lucy Hale from “Pretty Young Liars”) skips out on her commitments to Habitat For Humanity for a spring break of young debauchery. “Before life tears us apart,” she pleads. Off to Mexico they go, and before long they’re pounding shots and flirting with fellow American strangers. Smooth and mysterious guy-at-the-bar Carter promises an after-party without a last call as they stumble into a sacred church to play a hormone-driven game of Truth or Dare (is there any other kind?). Commence obligatory guy-on-guy, girl-on-girl action and a naked dash by “Teen Wolf” star Tyler Posey as Lucas who finds himself at the center of an awkward love triangle when wannabe doctor Tyson drops some truth about Olivia’s feelings for her best friend’s boyfriend. Oh, to be young again.

The stakes are raised when Carter finally reveals his true intentions. They’ve all just been entrapped in a deadly game. “I’m okay with strangers dying if I get to live,” he admits. The rules are simple. Tell the truth, or you die. Do the dare, or you die. There is no other option.” Tag, you’re it. The curse systemically stalks them one by one. Desperate to beat the game, every decision they make influences what happens next and to whom. Early on, Olivia tells Markie, “between you and the world, I choose you.” That is put to the test all the way through to an ending that is both silly and horrifying; a Twilight Zone finale that couldn’t be more timely.

The group of friends are well cast, and the relationships feel authentic. In an opening credit sequence, a montage of Snapchat stories documents their carefree Mexican vacation leading up to that fateful night. Blumhouse sent the cast on location with personal devices to capture the footage in an effort to build chemistry before officially shooting, and it pays off. I believe these kids, even if the windows of grief for their friends’ passing is short to non-existent. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Bills to pay, trends to kill, and demons to conquer.

The presence of guns in this film adds another layer of terror as they provoke mental health challenges and a false sense of security. Truth is a loaded weapon that can be set off with the most unintended consequences.

In a refreshing twist, Brad’s coming out ends up being a rare positive result of the game. For the first time, a weight is lifted off his chest as he’s able to live his truth with love and support from his father. Played by Hayden Szeto, he will go down in horror history as one of the best gay characters the genre has yet to see.

“Truth or Dare” introduces a “final girl” (the last surviving female character in a movie like this) who defines herself as a caring spirit wanting to save the world. As the story unfolds, we begin to question whether or not that goodwill is overcompensation for a guilty conscience or worse. Masked by good intentions and woke aspirations, Olivia and company may be the last bastions of the millennial generation but their vulnerabilities leave them just as capable of tolerating the pain of strangers as anyone else that has come before.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Kevin Lynch is the founder of Salem, Massachusetts’ defining annual genre festival, The Salem Horror Fest.

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.