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Review – Mother!

FILM REVIEWMOTHER! With Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson. Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity, and language. 121 minutes.

mother-300x450After a summer of superheroes and sequels, the fall movie season brings us back to the year’s other big trend: the metaphor movie. These are allegories where, if you take the story literally, you miss the point. Two of the best films of the spring were about something other than their supposed storylines. People who saw “Colossal” as a movie about a woman struggling with the fact that a giant monster is mimicking her in South Korea or “Get Out” about the problem of upper-class white families in the suburbs conducting medical experiments couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Which brings us to MOTHER!. It is a film that is likely to divide audiences not the least of which because writer/director Darren Aronofsky not only doesn’t explain anything, but keeps misleading viewers. People who think they’ve walked into a conventional horror movie aren’t going to know what hit them.

It begins Jennifer Lawrence (all of the film’s characters are unnamed–check out the closing credits) waking up in bed in an old house that apparently is being rebuilt after a horrendous fire. She is married to a poet (Javier Bardem), who has had a very successful book but is now suffering writer’s block. He spends the days trying to write while she slowly repairs and decorates the house. One night, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) comes to their door, thinking it’s a bed and breakfast. Without consulting his wife, the poet invites him to spend the night. Strange things start happening, often just out of earshot of the woman. You begin to think we’re in “Gaslight” territory, as she is being manipulated for some reason.

The arrival of the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) adds more tension, as her actions and words are intrusive and inappropriate. What is going on? There’s more, much more, and nothing described so far can prepare you for it. Aronofsky has created a work that plays as if Guillermo del Toro was directing a play by Harold Pinter. The dialogue is about as much about what’s unsaid as what is, and characters arrive at the house as if they belong there. Indeed, Lawrence is made to feel the outsider, frequently being asked by these strangers, “Who are you?”

What is it a metaphor for? That would be telling and, in fact, it’s possible to read the film in a number of ways, whether for the life of a creator of art or the life of the Creator of everything. Is Lawrence suppose to represent the spouse of an artist, a skeptic among religious fanatics, or simply a woman trying to protect her home from the outside world? Critics and fans of the film will have plenty to argue about for years to come.

The principal actors succeed even though they are less playing characters than attitudes and negative forces. If you go see “Mother!” you should go in knowing you may be shocked, you may be angered, and you will certainly be left with more questions than answers. If you take the chance, you will be rewarded with one of the most challenging films all year.•••

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 latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – American Assassin

FILM REVIEWAMERICAN ASSASSINWith Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet, Taylor Kitsch. Written by Stephen Schiff and Michael Finch and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language, and brief nudity. 111 minutes.

a19479cd-4383-49f6-a98e-a6d5ca17ff95AMERICAN ASSASSIN is one of those action thrillers that, if taken at face value, should be a “check-your-brain-at-the-door” movie. Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) loses the woman he loves in a brutal terrorist attack. Now he lives for only one thing: revenge. He single-handedly tracks down the people responsible, but before he can get his vengeance, the CIA intervenes.

They’re not protecting the terrorists. In fact, Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) is a top intelligence official who wants to recruit Rapp for an elite group within the CIA that answers only to her and to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a veteran “black ops” guy who ruthlessly trains his team. Their new mission: track down 15 kilos of weapons-grade plutonium that they fear may fall into Iranian hands, even though this would violate their agreement to abandon their weapons program. Somehow involved in the transactions is a mysterious figure known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who has some sort of history with Hurley.

And that’s it. Just sit back and enjoy the shootouts, fist fights, torture scenes and explosions. No one will be accused of acting here, but the cast inhabit their cardboard characters that engage you in the same way that you would enjoy a page-turner without taking it seriously. (The movie is, in fact, based on a popular series of books.)

The problem with taking this as a simple action movie is the not-so-subtle political message it wants you to swallow as well. It’s not so much that the villains are, mostly, Iranians and “radical Islamic terrorists” as what the film wants us to accept about America. It’s a world where assassinations are routine and the only bad thing would be getting caught.

The message of the movie is that obedience to authority and protocol is important, except when it’s not. Rapp keeps breaking the rules and disobeying orders, but it’s because he sets a higher goal on accomplishing the mission. Time and again, despite the carnage he leaves in his wake, he’s shown to be right. This is a spy thriller for the Trump Era, where rules that are inconvenient are simply brushed aside.

The fascinating thing about genre movies is how their formulas evolve to reflect the time in which they were made. “American Assassin” very much reflects the attitudes of at least part of the public and government. James Bond, a fictional spy born out of the Cold War, has continued to evolve over fifty years of movies. It remains to be seen if Mitch Rapp will transcend this era.•••

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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Home Again

With Reese Witherspoon, Pico Alexander, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Lake Bell. Written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material. 97 minutes.

125905Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of director Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated,” “The Intern”), makes her writing/directing debut with HOME AGAIN. It’s a smart comedy about a single mother finding herself, but one that avoids a lot of real-life issues by making her the daughter of a deceased film director who has left her a palatial Los Angeles home and, apparently, no concerns about money.

Alice (Reese Witherspoon) arrives in L.A. with her two little girls, having just separated from her music producer husband (Michael Sheen). Going out with some girlfriends for her 40th birthday, they run into three aspiring filmmakers led by Harry (Pico Alexander). After a night of drinking and dancing they end up at Alice’s house, with an awkward encounter between Alice and Harry, not the least of which because he’s only 27.

As it turns out, the three–out in L.A. to pitch their first film–need a place to stay. With a little goading from Alice’s mother (Candice Bergen, who adds a touch of class to every scene she’s in), Alice offers them her guest house. What ensues is that Harry, George (Jon Rudnitsky), and Teddy (Nat Wolff), all fall in love with Alice, but it’s Harry who she ends up taking to bed. All three become involved in her life and that of her girls, and so she has to decide what makes sense for her in moving forward.

The plotting is the film’s weak point, where things often happen because the writer needs them to, not because it makes sense. A fistfight comes out of left field, and a race to keep an appointment because George promised to be at the school where one of the daughters is performing a play she wrote is right out of SitComs 101. No one questions who has been maintaining Alice’s beautiful home while she’s been living in New York, which includes a storehouse of memorabilia from her late father.

Indeed, this is the sort of movie where we learn the young filmmakers want to make their movie in black and white as sign of how “serious” they are, a joke that goes back to at least Christopher Guest’s “The Big Picture” (1989). Myers-Shyer can be forgiven for not knowing that as she was only three years old at the time.

Yet in spite of the contrivances, the characters ring true. Witherspoon, at 41, perfectly balances the dilemma of the modern middle-aged woman who wants to have a full life but won’t accept the nonsense of life in one’s twenties. The May/September relationship between her and Alexander may seem odd until another character points out that the reverse is so common as to be unremarkable. Best of all, Myers-Shyer seems to like her characters. Except for a pointless subplot with Lake Bell as a self-absorbed socialite, there are no villains here. Instead, what we see are people who may not get everything they want, but remain open to new possibilities.

“Home Again” is a promising debut for Myers-Shyer, who might want to take on a collaborator for her next script, but has some warm and comic things to say about adults trying to make sense of their lives. If this film is any indication, she’ll be a talent to watch in the future.•••

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 – It

FILM REVIEWITWith Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard. Written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language. 135 minutes.

it-imax-2d-4644The basic problem with IT, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, is that it’s thirty years too late. Already turned into a television miniseries in 1990, the story of a group of misfit tweens who are terrorized by both sadistic bullies and a ghoulish clown who preys on their fears, has the disadvantage of having been told many times by now. Indeed, it plays like a cross between the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies and “Stand By Me” (1986), itself based on a King short story.

Moving the action from the 1950s to the 1980s, the story begins when Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a paper boat for his beloved little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). The young boy tries to retrieve it when he goes down a storm drain only to encounter Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a malicious clown who, improbably, lives in the sewer. George’s failure to return home psychologically scars his brother Bill.

The story moves to the following summer where there are enough plots for half a dozen movies (which may be why this project spent so many years in development hell). Bill and his friends are attacked by bullies led by the particularly sadistic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton). Each of the friends is a misfit in their own way. They are joined by three others, equally clichéd. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) has a “reputation” which is not only false but covers up her real secret. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the “new kid” who is overweight and shy. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the home schooled black kid in the otherwise lily white town of Derry, Maine. Calling themselves the “Loser’s Club” they will have to unite and overcome their fears in order to defeat abusive parents, bullies, and Pennywise. And this is only Chapter One. The novel has the friends reunited as adults 27 years later which will presumably be the plot of the follow-up movie.

In adapting King’s overwrought prose, the filmmakers have done what others before them have done: scaled it back and toned it down. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of horror on hand, including a key scene with blood spewing out of a bathroom sink, but–to the film’s credit –they didn’t feel the need to make a verbatim transition from page to screen. The result is a tighter, more coherent story, even if it’s overlong at two-and-a-quarter hours.

The film’s real strength is in its young and unknown cast. This is a movie pitched to teens and adults where the major characters are all 12 and 13. Lieberher, Lillis, and Taylor are standouts, forming an unlikely triangle that is both emotionally truthful and age appropriate. Most of the attention, of course, will be on Skarsgård’s Pennywise. Buried under makeup and prosthetics, he is a memorable “evil clown,” employing a voice that simultaneously entices and frightens.

The bottom line is that “It” is one of the better Stephen King film adaptations, but falls short of the pantheon of such films as “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “Stand By Me,” and “Misery.” Nonetheless, it should be more than enough to satisfy his fans, as well as anyone else willing to go along for the ride.•••

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 – The Limehouse Golem

. With Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Eddie Marsan, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid. Written by Jane Goldman. Directed by Juan Carlos Medina. Not rated. 109 minutes.

the-limehouse-golem-new-posterPerhaps it’s a good thing to have different standards for movies seen on TV and those on the big screen. It might be the cost of seeing the movie or the effort required, but whatever the reason we tend to cut movies seen by way of the convenience of at-home PPV some slack. THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM probably wouldn’t have packed them in, even at the local art house, but from the living room sofa, this murder mystery set in 19th century London is quite appealing. Although not rated, the violence and brief nudity puts this in R-rated territory.

John Kildare (Bill Nighy) of Scotland Yard is assigned the case of a series of gruesome murders in the seedy Limehouse district. There’s no apparent rhyme nor reason to the selection of the victims, but Kildare knows why he was chosen: he’s expected to fail and will provide his superiors a convenient scapegoat. At the same time Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), a local actress, is on trial for the murder of her husband, journalist and failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid).

Kildare discovers a clue which leads to a list of four men who were at the library on a key date, including Cree and none other than Karl Marx. As Kildare pursues the lead, he comes to believe that it is Cree who was the killer in which case he could have the means of sparing Lizzie the hangman’s noose. Based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, the movie follows Kildare while daring the viewer to figure it out before him.

Even if you’re not trying to guess the solution, the movie gives us a sense of the low-class British music hall entertainment of the era. A constable assigned to work with Kildare is surprised the inspector knows nothing of stars like Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), whose act consists of dressing in drag. Leno becomes a key figure when he takes a shine to Lizzie and brings her into the act, with the approval of Uncle (Eddie Marsan), the benevolent owner of the theater who has a few dark secrets of his own.

Beyond a strong cast, particularly Nighy, whose trademark drollness takes on a tragic air, what the film offers is atmosphere. It’s not clear how director and Florida native Juan Carlos Medina, making his sophomore effort here, immersed himself in the world of 19th century London, but he revels in the details. We go through not only the streets and music halls, but the pubs, the court chambers, the apartments, and offices of the period. This is a fully-realized world where you feel you might bump into David Copperfield or Sherlock Holmes around the next corner.

So why is it getting a limited theatrical release and going primarily to On Demand (with a DVD release set for November)? Presumably because it lacks any major stars among the recognizable faces, and the murders–while grisly–aren’t quite grisly enough for the horror fans. In short, “The Limehouse Golem” is an atmospheric murder mystery that may not achieve blockbuster status yet it draws you into its world and its mystery, and keeps you guessing right to the end.•••

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 – It’s Alive! (PEM Exhibit)

exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 26, 2017

pem_its_alive_front_coverwebWith “It’s Alive!”, The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has gone where no museum has gone before in presenting the first curated exhibition of science fiction and horror movie posters from the extensive collection of Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist for the heavy metal group Metallica. The problem for museums in such an exhibit is that the works on display––primarily posters and lobby cards––were created as advertising and meant to be disposed of when the film’s run ended. Can any of it possibly be considered art?

Graphic design and illustration are now recognized for the creativity and vision of the people behind the works, and time spent at “It’s Alive!” brings you into the nightmare worlds promoted by the mostly anonymous artists. Hammett, an immensely successful musician, has been able to indulge his interests becoming what museums approvingly call “an obsessive collector.” How obsessive? One of the outstanding works on display is for one of the “Frankenstein” films when it was shown in Finland. According to Hammett, it was discovered relatively recently when a long-abandoned projection booth was opened and the poster was found there.

If the exhibition is not a complete success it has more to do with the curation by the museum staff than Hammett’s collection itself. Much of what is shown is well-chosen and well-displayed. The museum went through much of his collection to select items, and Hammett insisted on certain items as well. Perhaps they should have just let him decide what to spotlight from his own collection.

After passing a film clip of the silent vampire film “Nosferatu,” the first part of the exhibit is a salute to the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s: “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and, of course, the “Frankenstein” films. It’s here that we first see the curator not quite sure whether to focus on time or theme, which will prove a stumbling block for the whole exhibit. In the midst of the “Dracula” posters is one for “Nosferatu,” which predates the Bela Lugosi film, and another, “Blacula,” a 1970s mashup with that era’s “blaxploitation” movies.

Fans of Hammett will then want to spend time with a display of his guitars covered with images from the films that have inspired his music. This leads into another strong section, focusing on the science fiction films of the 1950s like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “War of the Worlds.” In the center of the room is a mannequin wearing a costume that will strike fear in the hearts of nearly everyone of a certain age: one of the Martians from “Invaders from Mars,” a film in which a young boy sees his parents, his teacher, and even the police taken over by Martians.

At the far end of that room are three posters that should be labeled, “One of these things is not like the others.” Perhaps afraid of making it too much an exercise in nostalgia, there are posters for 1970s hits “Alien” and “Star Wars.” That’s all well and good, but the third poster is for the ’50s chiller, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” which has absolutely nothing to do with the other two films, thematically or in the styling of the posters.

The remaining sections are thematic, with several working quite well. A range of posters showing how women have been depicted ranges from “Island of Lost Souls” to “Dracula’s Daughters” to “Rosemary’s Baby” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Here, the juxtaposition of posters for different genres and from different times works well, as we notice not only stylistic changes, but also the changing roles for women.

There’s also another triptych of posters that is so off-point it’s a wonder no one objected. It is a display labeled “Laugh one moment, scream the next.” There are posters for “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and the low-rent “Terror of Party Beach,” followed by one for Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Psycho.” Even claiming (as was done during a press tour of the exhibit) that Hitchcock thought his film a comedy misses the point. For Hitchcock, the humor was in how he could manipulate the audience (later telling fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut that he had played them like an organ). “Psycho” is in no way comparable to other two films, and a poster for something for “Gremlins” or “Men in Black” (if in the collection) would have been far more appropriate.

The final rooms, featuring mad scientists and zombies, offer up some striking works including a huge display for the 1933 “King Kong” believed to be the last one of its kind. There’s also a series of posters for movies, like “The Crawling Eye,” where artists emphasize the gaze of who or what is depicted, reversing the usual relationship with the moviegoer.

Are these posters art, or are we lowering standards by treating advertising as something more? It helps to remember that there was a time when the movies themselves were considered disposable ephemera, and as a result, we have lost quite a bit of our early film heritage. “It’s Alive!” opens the door to more comprehensive exhibitions of movie-related art. For fans of science fiction and horror, this is a museum show not to be missed.•••

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 – Goon: Last of the Enforcers

FILM REVIEWGOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS. With Seann William Scott, Wyatt Russell, Alison Pill. Callum Keith Rennie, Liev Schreiber. Written by Jay Baruchel and Jesse Chabot. Directed by Jay Baruchel. Rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content and bloody sports violence. 101 minutes.

bb2af0d88cefbf66e09415dc31a6db3c-hd-movies-movie-filmBarely released to theaters in the spring of 2012, the scrappy, foul-mouthed hockey comedy “Goon” went on to become something of a sensation on home video––at least amongst sports fans and those of us who enjoy elaborate arias of profanity. Based on a memoir by Hanson, Massachusetts’s own Doug Smith about his un-illustrious career in the minor leagues (over 400 penalty minutes and zero goals), the movie’s grubby authenticity felt like a throwback to the naughty, bygone days of “Slap Shot” or “Semi-Tough” and an antidote to today’s blandly inspirational sports sagas. Cheerfully disreputable and endlessly quotable, “Goon” is the kind of movie guys like to put on when they come home drunk.

Like most comedy sequels, GOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS cranks everything about the original up a few notches thinking audiences won’t be satisfied unless they get a bigger, louder and more outrageous version of what they enjoyed last time. And like most comedy sequels, it’s pretty lousy. Sean William Scott returns as Doug Glatt, the lovably lunkheaded enforcer for the Halifax Highlanders. The whole joke with Doug is that he’s not much of a hockey player and can’t even skate very well, but he’s got a skull made out of rock and an almost supernatural ability to inflict grievous bodily harm upon his opponents. Our Number 69 is also a great big sweetheart, tenderly helping players off the ice after knocking their bloody teeth out.

But it’s Doug’s turn to get carried off in the opening moments of this sequel. He’s flattened and beaten within an inch of his life by Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), semi-psychotic estranged son of the Highlanders’ new owner (Callum Keith Rennie). First-time director Jay Baruchel––who co-wrote the original and briefly reprises his role here as Doug’s annoying Masshole pal—stages the scuffle with geysers of blood better suited for a Tarantino movie. The previous picture’s casually escalating brutality already amped up to absurdity before the opening credits have even rolled, there’s nowhere for this movie to go except bigger, bloodier and more ridiculous. And believe me, it gets there.

His career seemingly ended by injuries, Doug tries working at a day job at an insurance company while not-so-secretly itching to get back on the ice despite doctor’s orders. His pregnant wife Eva (the returning Alison Pill) has a monologue in which she begs him not to turn her into the stereotypical shrew standing between her husband and his dreams, and for a moment it feels like they left the camera rolling while the actress was yelling at Baruchel and co-screenwriter Jesse Chabot because that’s exactly what has happened here.

“Goon: Last of the Enforcers” lurches its way around a long season of incoherently melodramatic developments, with the dastardly Anders Cain becoming the Highlanders’ captain between suspensions and then getting traded again whenever the plot requires additional conflict. Russell––a former professional goalie––has a few scenes here in which he’s genuinely scary, at odds with the oft-buffoonish comic tone but interesting enough to make you wish you were watching whatever movie he seems to think he’s in.

One of the things that made “Goon” so special was that the actors all took their ridiculous characters desperately seriously. Nobody acted like they were in a comedy and even Eugene Levy played it straight. Baruchel’s bigger-is-better M.O. leads to a lot more shouting and face-pulling. A direly unfunny blooper reel that runs under the closing credits reveals that the actors were encouraged to ad-lib to their hearts’ content, which would account for the erratic, over-scaled performances and random non-sequiturs that probably seemed funny on set.

Bless that Liev Schreiber though, who reprises his role here as Ross Rhea, a former bruiser for the Boston Bruins not going gently into that good night. Once again, Schreiber plays the part like he’s Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” an elaborately mustachioed relic with an odd gentlemanly streak, still swinging away according to ancient codes of combat. There’s a brief, wonderfully affecting scene in which he simply sits alongside Doug, bloody and concussed while lighting yet another cigarette. It’s a tiny moment in which Schreiber allows us to catch a quick glimpse of this cartoon character’s pain and regret, and it belongs in a much better movie than this one.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past eighteen 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.