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Review – A Dog’s Purpose

With Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Gheisar. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon & Audrey Wells & Maya Forbes. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 100 minutes.

10711_500A DOG’S PURPOSE is a dog’s-eye view of the world. Its central conceit is that dogs don’t die, but keep coming back as other dogs–and not necessarily the same breed. Based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron (one of several writers on the script), it follows the lives of one dog–voiced by Josh Gad–in interacting with humans.

The longest story involves Ethan who, as a boy (Bryce Gheisar), helps rescue a dog and adopts him as his own. Naming him Buddy, they become inseperable, even as he becomes a teenager (KJ Apa) and discovers girls. It’s not all sweetness and light. His father (Luke Kirby) drinks too much and is stifled in his job as a salesman, and the parents eventually separate. There’s also another boy (Logan Miller) who is jealous of Ethan, leading to a nasty prank going wildly out of control.

Through it all, the friendship of Ethan and Buddy endures until the day comes when Buddy is dying and Ethan has to say goodbye. The fact that Buddy is soon reincarnated as another dog–a female German shepherd being trained for the K-9 corps of the Chicago Police–moves the story along. (And it also led to an accusation by the extreme animal rights group PETA of abuse on the set, a charge hotly denied by the film’s producers; moviegoers will have to make up their own minds whom to believe.)

In his various incarnations, Buddy takes on different roles but comes to understand his purpose in life is more than just reveling in disgusting smells and poking through garbage. It is to love and be loved by his human families. In one segment, he is the only friend of a lonely college student, but helps her find true love–as well as some canine companionship for himself. In another, he is maltreated, but ultimately finds a happy ending with an unexpected reunion.

It is a charming movie by a director Lasse Hallström, a Swedish director who first attracted Hollywood’s attention with his 1985 film “My Life as a Dog” and went on to do movies like “Chocolat” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” His films sometime wear their hearts on their sleeves, as this one does, but honestly earn their emotional responses.

Controversy aside, the warning about the film is directed at those with very young or sensitive children.There are some scary scenes in which people (and dogs) face danger. There’s also the repeated death and rebirth of Buddy, and a child unable to appreciate that “it’s only a story” might find it a bit too much. Beyond that, this is a movie that fully deserves the description of “family film,” because it is something the whole family can enjoy even if they’re reacting to different elements.The mostly-unknown cast is fine, and Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton show up in the final sequence to bring the story to a satisfying close.

When the real-world news is so unsettling, a feel-good movie like “A Dog’s Purpose” is needed. It won’t change things, but it provides some pleasant, if temporary, relief.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Gold

With Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Stacy Keach. Written by Patrick Massett & John Zinman. Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. 121 minutes.

1ea7146c-2d53-4a5c-92e2-916f03647b37-300-1In GOLD, Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a man who makes and loses fortunes in the mining industry, and whose life is defined less by greed than the need for success. Having inherited the business his grandfather started and reduced to running it out of a bar, he makes a desperate gamble on geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who believes he knows where there’s gold to be found in Indonesia.

The film is a roller coaster ride as Wells’s fortunes ebb and flow. At one point he is looking for investors and goes to the firm of Clive Coleman (Stacy Keach), an old friend of his father’s. He doesn’t get to see Clive and is shunted off to two underlings, who pass on the opportunity. When Wells and Acosta find what is described as the greatest discovery of gold in the 1980s, Clive is now happy to see him–and Wells sends one of the underlings out to freshen his drink.

Of course, this success attracts attention, and a Wall Street broker named Brian Wolff (Corey Stoll) is eager to become involved, as a partner, not merely an investor. When a big operator in gold Mark Hancock (Bruce Greenwood), proposes a partnership, Wells finds his company’s name will disappear entirely. For Wells it’s not merely the wealth that the gold represents, but being able to say that it was his success. It leads to tensions with his wife Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) and, eventually, being the prime suspect in an FBI investigation.

McConaughey continues to show he’s less interested in being a leading man than an actor, and his Wells is paunchy and balding, with long, stringy hair and an in-your-face attitude. He’s more anti-hero than hero. It’s his success the film is riding on, but it’s not so much that we like him as that we’re fascinated by his single-mindedness. As McConnaughey makes clear, Wells doesn’t merely want to win, he wants people to know he has earned it. When he wins an award for prospecting, his awkward speech is from the heart.

Like the recent “The Founder,” about how Ray Kroc built the McDonald’s empire, “Gold” is a story about the joys and pitfalls of American capitalism. When Wells’s new business associates are ready to throw him to the wolves, we see the difference between his burning ambition to succeed and that of others to simply amass wealth.

The film’s final twist–not to be spoilt here–should leave viewers with questions about the meaning of success and the price that others have to pay for one person to rise to the top. If “Gold” didn’t turn out to be the Oscar contender it was apparently intended to be, it is nonetheless a fascinating film about our culture and what we really think is of value.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Split

FILM REVIEWSPLITWith James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language. 117 minutes.

4eb2b3b1eb3ca7aae324f14e862d8ec1Eighteen years ago, writer/director and would-be actor M. Night Shyamalan made a movie called “The Sixth Sense.” It was an eerie mystery with a killer surprise twist that turned it into one of the biggest hits of the year. He’s been trying to repeat that ever since. While some of his later films have their partisans, particularly “Unbreakable,” he never really captured it again.

His latest attempt, SPLIT, has all the things that make slogging through his movies such a chore. There are dramatic loose ends and improbable happenings, there’s the inevitable surprise twist which has been foreshawdowed all along, there are characters who don’t act like any human being not in a Shyamalan movie, and there’s a wink or two at the audience as the filmmaker pays homage to himself. While not as bad as “Lady in the Water” (2006), where he cast himself as a misunderstood genius, it continues the egotism that suffuses his films.

In “Split,” three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) are kidnapped by man (James McAvoy) who has that movie favorite, the multiple personality disorder. His psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who has a copy of “Sybil” on her bookshelf, believes him to be brilliant and possibly possessing special powers. He visits her as a fashion designer, but in the locked basement room where he keeps his captives, he appears as a little boy, a woman, and a man with an accent obsessed with cleanliness. We’re told he has 24 distinct personalities including one known as “The Beast.”

This would be a conventional thriller, except we get increasingly troubled flashbacks of one of the girls as a child. We know she’s a misfit who isn’t really friends with the other two, but she may be the one who best understands Kevin/Barry/Hedwig, and so on, and might figure out how they might escape. By the time we finally get to the end of it all, one must not only suspend one’s disbelief in order to accept the proceedings. One must strangle it until it is thoroughly dead, dead, dead. To cite but one thing without giving too much away, how has the man managed to hide out where he is without being discovered when, as we learn, he in a place that is regularly patrolled?

Of course the calling card for the film is McAvoy playing multiple characters, sometimes in the same scene. That he makes them all distinctive is to his credit, but he is trapped in a script–credited to Shyamalan–that makes these personalities cartoonish. The other performances are adequate, but the only one who can really be accused of acting, besides McAvoy, is Taylor-Joy as Casey. As her story plays out you begin to wish the movie was about her, instead of placing her in this clichéd thriller.

Perhaps the most charitable way to look at “Split” is that is a cry for help by its director. “Stop me before I film again,” he seems to be saying. Let’s hope Hollywood–and the audiences that encourage Hollywood–takes heed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 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 – xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

FILM REVIEWXXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGEWith Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Toni Collette, Samuel L. Jackson. Written by Rich Wilkes. Directed by D.J. Caruso. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language. 107 minutes.

xxx-roxg-chrpost-gallery-11Taking a page from the “Fast and Furious” series, which started out lackluster and then took off in the later entries, XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE jumpstarts the franchise and gives it new life. Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) was recruited into a secret government program in the 2002 original film, but supposedly died. His handler, Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), recruited a replacement–played by Ice Cube–in the 2005 sequel.. and there the series ended. Now with the investment of the Chinese film industry–and the inclusion of Asian stars like Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Deepika Padukone, and Kris Wu–Cage is back. Diesel, who is in the “Fast and Furious” films as well, seems to have brought the lessons of that series with him.

It’s a complicated plot that makes sense when you watcfh it but only slowly reveals itself. Suffice to say, the U.S. government tracks down Cage, who been living in hiding, in order to get him to recover something called “Pandora’s Box.” It is a device that gives its operator control over the thousands of satellites in orbit around the globe, and to turn them into weapons. His new handler Jane Marke (Toni Collette, in a very different role for her), tells him it has been stolen and they need to recover it.

What follows are a series of outrageous action scenes that include a chase on top of moving vehicles, shootouts in a plane in freefall, and a lot of martial arts choreography. As motives are revealed, players change sides, a techie (Nina Dobrev) who insists she’s not a field agent has to improvise with an automatic weapon, and Diesel gets off some one-liners. The movie has a cheeky sense of humor, as when we get a reference to another Samuel L. Jackson role by hearing that someone whom he wanted for the xXx team thought he was being recruited for the Avengers. It’s a movie that refuses to take itself seriously even while it’s rushing forward towards a finale of special effects and incredible stuntwork.

And, for action fans, that makes it fun. It’s a roller coaster ride where you’re there for the thrills, not character development or plot nuance. Beside the creative action sequences, the other lesson from the “Fast and Furious” films seems to be the international and multi-ethnic cast. One one level it’s a matter of economics. Some of the names that may not be well known to American audiencs are big stars in other parts of the world. Yet it’s also sending a message of diversity and cooperation across groups and borders that’s sorely needed in these times.

Diesel knows from experience that a strong ensemble cast makes all its participants look good, which may be why he agreed to return to a fifteen year old role for a second outing. The door is wide open at the end of “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” for additional films. Prior to this that would have sounded more like a threat than a promise. Now there are some real possibilities.•••

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, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Founder

FILM REVIEWTHE FOUNDERWith Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, B. J. Novak. Written by Robert Siegel. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 115 minutes.

poster-1482953840Move over “Wall Street,” as the best movie on American capitalism may now well be THE FOUNDER, the story of how salesman Ray Kroc, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Keaton, took a California hamburger stand run by two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch) and turned it into a worldwide restaurant chain.

It’s important to note that the movie portrays Kroc in all his amibiguity. It’s left to the viewer to decide if he was a marketing genius, an exploiter of the work of others, a visionary, a person consumed by greed, or some amalgam of them all. It’s to Keaton’s credit that people will come to different conclusions and that his take on Kroc is neither hero nor villain.

Kroc was selling milk shake machines when he came upon the original McDonald’s. What impressed him was how efficient it was in turning out what would later be called “fast food.” The Brothers’ operation had it down to a science–or choreography, if you will–in getting burgers, sodas, fries, and shakes to the customer as quickly as they could order. They had tried to open up a few other outlets but had little success as they could not maintain quality control.

Fascinated by the system, Kroc made a deal to expand the operation to the Midwest. It was a matter of trial-and-error as he realized that he didn’t need rich investors who would make changes disrupting the process, but people motivated by wanting to run a successful business and willing to follow an operating plan. According to the film, Kroc was willing to work with anyone, without prejudice, so long as they didn’t tinker with the system.

Inevitably, there would be conflicts with the Brothers, with Kroc chafing at need for their approval as he saw ways to rapidly expand and increase profits. They were handsomely paid when they were bought out–although not getting everything they were promised–but the real question was whether they would have done better to work with Kroc instead of trying to control him. Were they blind to the possibilities or were they noble purists who were ultimately pushed aside?

Keaton perfectly captures the excitement of a man long looking for his piece of the American Dream who realizes he’s finally found it. He’s open to suggestions on how to change and adapt, but he will not be dissuaded from his vision that he was found his way to success. It is when he starts to imagine that it is all about him–his store becomes “McDonald’s #1,” not the original operation by the Brothers–that we suspect his desire for greater success is consuming him. It’s no surprise that his relationship with his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) suffers, and he ends up involved with a woman named Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), who is married to one of his franchisees.

“The Founder” tells us the story behind a business we all know, or think we know, and gives Michael Keaton one of his best roles ever. Don’t miss it.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. 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 – Monster Trucks

FILM REVIEWMONSTER TRUCKSWith Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Thomas Lennon, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover. Written by Derek Connolly. Directed by Chris Wedge. Rated PG for action, peril, brief scary images, and some rude humor. 104 minutes.

Director Chris Wedge, best known for animated movies like “Ice Age” and “Robots,” switches to live action for MONSTER TRUCKS. Well, mostly live action. The monsters are all CGI and the script is about as sophisticated as a cartoon, at least the sort of cartoons Wedge has done.

Tripp (Lucas Till) is a teenager in a small town in North Dakota (played by the Canadian province of British Columbia) who is fed up with his life. He can’t afford a truck. His parents are divorced. He works part-time at a junkyard where he scrounges for parts. And he’s pestered by Meredith (Jane Levy), another student who is supposed to be tutoring him in biology. Even worse, his mother (Amy Ryan) has taken up with the town’s sheriff (Barry Pepper).

Meanwhile, an evil oil company executive (Rob Lowe)–and is there any other kind?–is overseeing drilling operations outside of town when it becomes clear that a huge deposit of oil and water underground may be inhabited by previously unknown creatures. When three of them emerge, two are captured by the company but the third gets away, ending up at… yes, the junkyard. Have you seen this already?

The huge, toothy, multi-tentacled creature seems scary at first, but Tripp soon becomes friends with the one he imaginatively names “Creech,” discovering that it lives on oil. When the bad guys employed by the oil company come poking around, Creech hides in the monster truck Tripp has been building and turns it into a vehicle that can go high speeds, climb walls, and even race across roofs.

From hereon out it’s the good guys–who include the junkyard owner (Danny Glover) and a scientist with the company who goes rogue (Thomas Lennon)–versus the bad guys, trying to prevent the lovable, innocent monsters from being killed. Oh, and Tripp and Meredith fall for each other and he’s reconciled with his potential step-dad. Should there be spoiler alerts here?

This is a movie that apparently required four writers to concoct a plot that could have been planned on the back of an envelope (which was actually developed by one-time studio president Adam Goodman with the help of his then-4-year-old son). There are a number of talented actors inexplicably choosing to add this to their résumés, with a paycheck or perhaps young children in the family being the explanations. And that latter point is the only real one about this utterly disposable film.

While the effects are technically impressive and delayed the completion of the film by nearly two years, it was to tell a cartoonish story that will only succeed if seen through a child’s eyes. Little kids, particularly those who like playing with toy cars and trucks, will not have seen this story a hundred times (unless they’ve been watching “E.T.” over and over) and so will be caught up in the adventure.

“Monster Trucks” is a more about commerce than art, but for parents wanting to find something to do with their kids on a wintry afternoon, it will do the trick.•••

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 new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.