Review – The Upside

FILM REVIEWTHE UPSIDEWith Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Tate Donovan. Written by Jon Hartmere. Directed by Neil Burger. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use. 125 minutes.

upsideThe good news about THE UPSIDE is that it isn’t as bad as expected. Why should there be low expectations? It’s a January release that’s been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. What’s changed is that the three leads are hot right now. Bryan Cranston is in the hit Broadway adaptation of “Network,” Nicole Kidman has a run of good roles including the blockbuster hit “Aquaman” and the Oscar contender “Destroyer,” and Kevin Hart is the once and possibly future Oscar host. The proverbial iron is hot, and fledgling distributor STX is striking it.

Based on a hit French film (“Les Intouchables”) – apparently inspired by a true story – it’s another odd couple story, like the recent “Green Book.” Phillip (Cranston) is a billionaire and best-selling author of business books who was rendered a quadriplegic after a skydiving accident that took the life of his wife. He has a decidedly quirky sense of humor and when his business assistant Yvonne (Kidman) is interviewing someone to be a personal aide, he impulsively hires Dell (Hart), a parolee trying to put his life back together.

The film is predictable in too many ways, but when it works it’s because of the rapport that develops between Phillip and Dell, which is to say Cranston and Hart. They truly are an odd couple, and yet they play off of each other in ways that are frequently comic and/or emotionally satisfying. As in the best romantic comedies – including a bromance like this – the two partners each have something to learn from the other. Phillip has become fatalistic and isn’t sure he wants to go on living. A pen pal relationship with a woman (Julianna Margulies) suggests possibilities, and it is Dell who urges them to meet. Dell, estranged from his wife and teenage son, has the opportunity to make amends thanks to his new job, something that Phillip encourages.

The person who is a third wheel here is Kidman. It’s not a problem with the performance. It’s that it’s a nothing role. As first we think that the tension between Dell and Yvonne is going to be a major plot point, but it quickly falls by the wayside. The relationship with her and Phillip is strictly businesslike, and in spite of hastily filling in her backstory, the payoff feels contrived.

After “Breaking Bad,” it’s clear that Cranston has a range that directors (in TV, movies, and theater) will enjoy plumbing for years. The person who has to be happiest about the film finally being released is Hart, who has his comic moments but also gets to turn in a more serious performance than his previous films have allowed. He will undoubtedly be looking for other such opportunities in the future.

So the upside about “The Upside” is that – surprisingly – there is an upside.•••

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 – A Dog’s Way Home

FILM REVIEWA DOG’S WAY HOMEWith Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes.

dogs_way_homeYou may not have noticed, but there’s an actual genre of movies in which an animal – almost inevitably a dog – is separated from his or her owner and has a series of adventures while trying to get home. This includes “The Incredible Journey” (1963) and “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017). The latter is especially significant because author W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote the novel and worked on the screenplay, handled similar chores on A DOG’S WAY HOME and the forthcoming “A Dog’s Journey.”

These family films – which also appeal to animal lovers – purport to give us the animal’s point-of-view about navigating the world. From a cinematic viewpoint, what’s interesting is the staging, filming, and editing of scenes to support that perspective. In that, the selection of director Charles Martin Smith was shrewd as he worked (as an actor) in “Never Cry Wolf” and (as a director) on a “Dolphin Tale.” He’s clearly conversant and comfortable with movies involving humans and mammals interacting.

The story focuses on Bella (a real-life junkyard stray voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), an animal-loving medical student working at the Veterans’ Administration in Denver. Bella is a stray mutt but has sufficient markings as a pit bull that she is endangered by (according to the movie) a Denver ordinance that bans such dogs within the city. While Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) try to find a new home outside city limits, Bella is sent to New Mexico to stay with a friendly family.

What follows is Bella leaving the family to “go home” to Lucas, a process that will take up the bulk of the film. Along the way she will be taken in by a gay couple, a homeless veteran (Edward James Olmos), and – in the film’s most impressive sequences – a cougar. There are various subplots, but the main storyline is always about Bella striving to get back to Lucas, while occasionally being tempted by other “family” possibilities along the way.

Smith clearly understands the material and its appeal to specific audiences. For kids there are moments of drama and threats, such as when Bella is threatened by a wolf pack. For adults it is Bella’s attempts to understand the world around her, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes finding it beyond her ability to cope. It’s completely manipulative, of course, with the guaranteed happy ending – did you have any doubt? – likely to generate a few tears or, at least, a lump in the throat.

“A Dog’s Way Home” is a formula movie designed to provoke particular reactions, not reveal something about the human or animal condition. If it isn’t a great artistic achievement, it is a well-crafted movie that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. If you find such material appealing, it will work. If you’re so cynical that you find the very concept nauseating, then watching this will not change your mind.•••

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 – Escape Room

FILM REVIEWESCAPE ROOMWith Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis. Written by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik. Directed by Adam Robitel. Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language. 100 minutes.

escape_roomJanuary is a time for last year’s Oscar contenders to go wide, if they haven’t already, and for quick releases of movies that will soon be on a streaming service near you. First out of the box for the latter is ESCAPE ROOM, a thriller pitched to viewers with no interest in the more serious Oscar fare. It’s one of those “jump scare” films that will generate screams, clutched arms and – for the more cynical – rolling eyes. It’s definitely “check-your-brains-at-the-door” time.

After a scene of a young man seemingly being crushed in a room where the walls are closing in on him, the scene shifts to a few days earlier, where several people receive a puzzle box that produces an invitation. For an opportunity to win $10,000 they can experience a modern type of entertainment: being locked in a specially designed room and trying to decipher hidden clues to find a way out.

It’s an eclectic group, including an Iraqi war veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a brilliant and introverted college student (Taylor Russell), the young misfit from the prologue (Logan Miller), a financial wizard (Jay Ellis), a game-playing nerd (Nik Dodani), and a truck driver (Tyler Labine). We quickly learn that each has their own strengths and weaknesses and – important for the plot – secrets as well.

For obvious reasons, to provide any further details would be nothing but spoilers, because that’s all the film is: if you knew what was coming there would be no reason to see it. As they enter each room viewers can try to anticipate the solutions as well as the pitfalls. Some are obvious, and some are ridiculous, but we know from the opening scene where this is heading. Once we get there, there are a few more twists, with the inevitable set-up for a hoped-for sequel perhaps the most obvious and disappointing.

The cast is the best thing here, sketching in their characters in quick strokes so that we can easily follow their arcs. No one here should be expecting any award nominations for their performances, but they show potential for breakouts in future roles. In that sense, the movie’s escape theme may work on more than one level.

However the notion that “Escape Room” is, or ought to be, the launch of a new horror/thriller franchise seems more than overly optimistic. On the other hand, similar movies like “Final Destination” and the odious “Saw” did spawn several sequels, so there really may be no escape.•••

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 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.

Dan Kimmel’s 10 Best Films of 2018

In “Grand Illusion,” the 1937 classic film about prisoners of war during WWI, there’s a moment when two escapees are seen crossing a vast field of snow. The troops chasing them stop and let them go because they have crossed the border into neutral territory. The imaginary line is akin to the tradition of picking the best of the year in December. It’s a total arbitrary demarcation that works only because we all share in the “illusion” that calendar years are distinct time periods. As in past years, this is really my ten favorite films of 2018, the ones I was most apt to recommend when asked.

STAN & OLLIE – Steve Coogan and, especially, John C. Reilly give incredible performances as the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy at the end of their careers. Long-time partners on-screen, it was while touring England and Ireland in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s that the two became friends. As biography, as show business story, and – most subtly – as a look at taking stock of one’s life in later years, this is a film that has stuck with me.

BLACK PANTHER – Are you tired of superhero movies yet? They may have started to blur together, particularly as the “Marvel Universe” films all play into each other. This one was unique, with an incredible cast – headed up by Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Michael B. Jordan as a villain whose motives were pure – taking us to places we hadn’t seen. Director Ryan Coogler managed to make an Afro-centric film that spoke to everyone, even people who didn’t think they could sit through a superhero movie.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS – I came into this knowing nothing about it except its vaguely suspect title and came out utterly charmed. As a fan of romantic comedies (and the author of I’ll Have What She’s Having), it was a pleasure to come across a romantic comedy that actually worked. The first all-Asian cast Hollywood film since the early ‘90s, it managed to be both specific and universal as an American academic learns that her boyfriend is part of one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. Vivid, colorful, and a whole lot of fun.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – There were a number of good documentaries this year, but this look at the life and work of Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood,” was the film that was the perfect antidote to the ugly, divisive times we find ourselves in. Rogers was a special person, and his inherent decency is something that we could use now. A lovely tribute to a man who quietly made a difference.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – I couldn’t have told you much about the rock group Queen going in. The film hits the expected beats one expects in a Hollywood biopic. What makes this a standout, apart from the recreation of a landmark concert appearance, is Rami Malek’s star turn as the group’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. He burns up the screen in a performance that was one of the outstanding acting jobs of the year.

FIRST MAN – Ryan Gosling’s tendency to underplay his roles can sometimes be annoying as he seems to be sleepwalking through a movie. However, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was taciturn and introverted, and Gosling’s portrayal showed us a man who did the job but wasn’t interested in the grandstanding. There are moments when he lets the mask slip and lets his interior feelings out, but for the most part it’s a portrait of a public man who let his actions speak for themselves, carrying his losses without demanding anyone’s sympathy, including his own family.

GREEN BOOK – This story of working class and somewhat racist white guy (Viggo Mortensen) hired to drive a brilliant pianist (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be black, through the South in the early ‘60s is about race, class, and male bonding. Both men (who, in real life, became lifelong friends) had to overcome their prejudices to connect with the other. It’s a feelgood movie that tells us something about ourselves and why we need to face the racial divides in this country.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 85, is a rock star. This is the second film about her this year, after the documentary “RBG.” This drama focuses on her tackling her first big sex discrimination case after having faced such discrimination herself at Harvard Law School and then out in the real world. It’s a movie that helps us understand why this is an issue for men as well as women, and why Ginsburg was marked for greatness right from the start.

THE HATE U GIVE – The dystopia in this adaptation of a YA novel was not set in the far future but in the present day, where a black teenage girl sees a friend pointlessly shot down by the police and has to decide what to do about it. If the ending is a bit pat, it’s still a film that confronts a number of painful truths. Black or white, this was a movie that told you something you needed to hear and left you with the idea that while one should not give up all hope, addressing matters won’t be easy.

OPERATION FINALE – What is it like to confront absolute evil? For the Israeli agent played by Oscar Isaac, it involves figuring out how to get Adolph Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, to cooperate in his removal from Argentina to stand trial for his crimes. Ben Kingsley is chilling as Eichmann. At a time when people on the far left and far right rationalize antisemitism, this is a timely film that reminds us that those who don’t learn from history may be doomed to repeat it.•••

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






Dan Kimmel’s 10 Worst Movies of 2018

The ten worst films of 2018? With any luck I missed most of them. Instead, here are the ten most unpleasant experiences I had at the movies this year, even if a few were praised in other quarters.

A QUIET PLACE – Yes, actor/director John Krasinski pulled off an interesting idea: a post-apocalyptic world where one had to be silent lest one attract homicidal aliens. Unfortunately, no one bothered to fix loopholes in the script big enough to drive a Mack truck through. He gets his wife pregnant because babies are SO easy to keep quiet. No birth control? The movie’s first scene is in a drug store! And how did the world’s military and scientists miss discovering the aliens’ weakness prior to the beginning of the story?

A WRINKLE IN TIME – Maybe this beloved children’s book can’t be filmed. Certainly, this abomination from director Ava DuVernay, which made the witches played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling look like they should be floats in the Thanksgiving Day parade wasn’t the answer. Slow and leaden, one can only hope it doesn’t discourage young readers from discovering Madelyn L’Engle’s wonderful original.

THE DEATH OF STALIN – Widely praised as a satiric look at Soviet history, it was a dark, violent and not at all funny movie in which a talented cast flailed about in a fruitless search for punchlines. This might have worked better as a straight dramatic film where the ironic twists might have stood out. One of the year’s biggest disappointments.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE – My fellow Boston area critics in two groups heaped awards on this movie with both naming Lynne Ramsay best director and the Boston Online Film Critics Association naming it best picture. I need to find out what drugs they were on at the time since this bleak, incoherent and violent movie was as dull as it was pointless. Perhaps it was the lack of much dialogue that impressed as Joaquin Phoenix battled hallucinations while tracking down a missing girl.

HEREDITARY – A dysfunctional family story tarted up as a horror film, it featured the horrific death of a child in a situation no normal parent would ever have allowed and ended up going completely off the rails. Toni Collette’s performance as the mother trying to unlock the mystery was mistaken in some quarters as acting instead of just getting increasingly hysterical. (Collette has done fine work elsewhere. She did herself no favors here.)

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – Jim Henson must be spinning in his grave as his son Brian directed this R-rated movie in which humans and puppets co-exist. In one scene Silly String is used as the equivalent of a bodily fluid usually only on camera in porn. The difference between this and “Team America: World Police” (2004), is while the latter mixed marionettes and raunch, only “Happytime” was utterly witless.

LIZZIE – Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny), a young Irish maid (Kristin Stewart), sexual shenanigans, and murder. What could possibly go wrong? How about turning the story into a listless mishmash that not only did not make history come alive but drove a stake through its heart to make sure it stayed dead. One was hard pressed to care if any of them lived or died.

THE OATH – There’s an old theatrical expression, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Here’s a good example why. In an increasingly oppressive America, a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner and fights over their differences. Moviegoers stayed away in droves, apparently thinking, “Been there, done that.” What they missed was the arrival of the secret police.

SUSPIRIA – Can’t anyone make a coherent horror movie anymore? This remake of the 1977 film about a Satanic dance academy took a story that ran 92 minutes and added another hour to it so that it made even less sense. The rule for artsy horror this year seemed to be it didn’t matter how bad the script was as long as the last half hour was completely over the top.

WELCOME TO MARWEN – Steve Carell has had a busy year, appearing in “Beautiful Boy” and “Vice.” He should have stopped there. In “Welcome to Marwen” he plays an artist with a brain injury who lives out his fantasies with dolls set in a village during World War II. Unfortunately director Bob Zemeckis paid more attention to the special effects than to the characters or story. ***

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

Review – Mary Queen Of Scots

FILM REVIEWMARY QUEEN OF SCOTSWith Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Martin Compston. Written by Beau Willimon. Directed by Josie Rourke. Rated R for some violence and sexuality. 124 minutes.

mary_queen_of_scots_ver3For those coming in late – or not up on their British history – here’s the backstory: After Henry VIII disempowered the Catholic Church in order to marry several times in pursuit of a male heir, the religious divide in England was severe. Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) ascends to the throne, but Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has a potential valid claim as well, although Mary is Catholic. Should Elizabeth die without leaving an heir, Mary or her offspring could claim the British crown. For the powers-that-be around Elizabeth, allowing a Catholic monarch simply could not be allowed.

In this film version of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, that’s important to know, but it’s not the chief item on the agenda of first-time director Josie Rourke (a British stage director) or screenwriter Beau Willimon. Instead, the movie becomes a metaphorical study of 21st century identity politics which, even if you agree with their point of view, seems anachronistic in the 16th century. The result is a film that is a fine showcase for its two lead actresses but fails to satisfy.

The problem, the film tells us, is the patriarchy, the male nobility that restricts and even prevents Elizabeth or Mary from acting freely. This includes Mary’s second marriage (she was a young widow) to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) from whom she subsequently becomes estranged and may or may not have been the father of her son. To give it a modern twist, Henry is depicted as either gay or bisexual. Actions are taken despite the desires of the two queens, further complicated by a production design in which nearly all the male characters have beards and dress in black. A battle scene defies one’s ability to note what side anyone is on.

There’s also the ahistorical diversity of secondary cast members, which is a positive effort for most movies, but seems odd here, as it is highly unlikely there were black or Asian nobles in 16th century England. To cement the “sisterhood is powerful (if the men would get out of the way)” theme, the film even gives us a clandestine meeting between Elizabeth and Mary which has no historical basis.

Willimon, perhaps best known for creating the American version of “House Of Cards,” the Netflix series of contemporary political intrigue and backstabbing, was an inspired choice for the script. Unfortunately, in shoehorning modern issues into a religious power struggle more than four centuries ago, he loses control of the material. Rourke may be a talent to watch in the future – there are moments here, including the fictional confrontation scene between the two queens, that are striking – but, in the end, she seems less interested in the historical conflict than in making a point about the suppression of women.

“Mary Queen of Scots” is a missed opportunity to shed light on a key moment in history, using it instead to export contemporary concerns to the past.•••

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