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Review – The Breadwinner

FILM REVIEWTHE BREADWINNER. With the voices of Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Soma Bhatia, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah. Written by Anita Doron. Directed by Nora Twomey. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images. 94 minutes.

the-breadwinner-new-poster-544x800As the old saying goes, if you only see one children’s cartoon about Taliban-occupied Kabul this holiday season… Okay, so that’s probably not a real saying, as there’s certainly not another film out there quite like THE BREADWINNER, director Nora Twomey’s rousing – and occasionally grueling – animated adaptation of the bestselling book by Deborah Ellis. Set in Afghanistan circa 2001, it’s a tough-minded child’s adventure that might be too much for some children. (This is the part of the review where critics typically guesstimate an age the film is appropriate for. I think you know your kids well enough to be able to tell if it’s suitable for them without me assigning an arbitrary number.)

Eleven-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) helps her father in the tattered Kabul marketplace, where he reads and writes letters for the largely illiterate population. Until one day the old man earns the ire of a former student turned gun-toting street-creep and ends up busted for keeping books around the house. He’s dragged off to the local prison under mysterious charges for an unspecified length of time, which leaves Parvana to fend for the family. This is a task easier said than done, since under Taliban rules women aren’t allowed outside without male accompaniment, and the man of the house is not yet two years old.

Cutting her hair and donning a dead older brother’s clothes, Parvana makes up a comically phony boy’s name and takes to the streets with a newfound freedom. She soon happens upon a classmate named Shauzia who’s working a similar scam, and “The Breadwinner” begins a dance between exhilarating escapades and unthinkable brutality, which though largely confined to offscreen spaces nonetheless lurks over the movie like a dark cloud. Much like “The Florida Project,” this film understands that children are always going to be children and cannot resist the urge to play, even under circumstances that terrify us adults in the audience.

There’s a great camaraderie between these two characters, pulling a fast one on their ogre-like oppressors and climbing on tanks for kicks. The evocative animation sticks to bold, simple line drawings, my favorite design belonging to a massive hulk of an adult figure who becomes an unlikely ally to Parvana after she reads him some bad news. I was captivated by how much director Twomey is able to convey by the fashion in which he slices fruit – a pause in his process bringing one of the film’s most unexpected emotional payoffs.

What doesn’t work so well are the movie’s occasional sidelines into Afghan folklore, with Parvana spinning tall tales and legends about an Elephant King in a heightened cut-out animated style that’s visually pleasing yet superfluous to the proceedings. The final reel, taking place on the eve of the American invasion, is so unbearably tense that the meandering metaphors become something of a nuisance. The reality of Parvana’s story is nerve-racking enough without all these fanciful interruptions.

Still, “The Breadwinner” is an exceptionally strong film, one that stands alongside executive producer Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” as 2017 movies that make visceral for us the day-to-day realities of life during wartime, through the eyes of children who sadly don’t know of anything else.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past two decades, 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 – All the Money in the World

FILM REVIEWALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLDWith Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris. Written by David Scarpa. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content. 132 minutes.

all-the-money-in-the-world-2017-poster-7The irony is that what ought to be something distracting us from the story of ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD turns out to be its great strength. Part of the fallout from Hollywood’s ever-widening sexual harassment scandal was the derailing of actor Kevin Spacey’s career. With the film already completed, it was decided to remove him from the movie and recast the role of J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer. Recasting is done from time to time, but this entailed nine days of shooting and then recutting the film.

Watching the movie one quickly forgets all about that because, as it turns out, Plummer is absolutely riveting. This was not a matter of a few scenes. It’s the major supporting role and he walks away with the film. This is going to be a case study in film acting for years to come.

The story is based on the true-life kidnapping of Getty’s grandson John (played by Charlie Plummer; apparently no relation) in Italy. It’s not clear if the kidnappers were revolutionaries or simply opportunists, but knowing John is the grandson of the richest man in the world (think: Getty Oil) and you can see why he’d be a target. However his parents are divorced and his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) – J. Paul’s ex-daughter-in-law – has nothing like the money being demanded. And J. Paul turns out to be a miserly sort who has no inclination to pay the ransom. Instead, he sends his security chief Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to do what he can to get his grandson back without paying out any money.

The film shifts back and forth between the kidnappers (who are comically inept but no less dangerous) with their hostage, J. Paul always looking to turn things to his own advantage, and Gail and Fletcher navigating between the two as well as with the Italian authorities. One of the kidnappers (Romain Duris), takes a liking to John but that doesn’t help him when local mobsters become involved in wanting the ransom.

In telling the story of the kidnapping, which was notorious at the time it occurred in the early 1970s, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa are more interested in what great wealth does to people. For J. Paul it means never having enough. He spends millions on artwork but washes his own underwear to avoid paying for laundry service. For his son – John’s father – it means burning out as a drug addict. For Gail, it means being at the mercy of others while for John himself, whom J. Paul hoped to groom as his successor, it means not really fitting into the world.

The key to Plummer’s performance is not to play J. Paul like Scrooge (whom, coincidentally, he plays in the current “The Man Who Invented Christmas”) but as a man who can justify his actions in his own mind, even as we sense it’s really all about proving himself to his long-dead father who didn’t think he’d amount to much. Williams is suitably intense as the bereft mother, while Wahlberg wisely underplays a role where he is not meant to be the center of attention. As John, Charlie Plummer has the difficult task of playing the victim and coming to realize just how serious his situation has become.

As a thriller, albeit a historical one, “All the Money in the World” does the job, although not in ways we haven’t seen in other films. It is in Christopher Plummer’s tour de force as J. Paul Getty that it makes its mark, which can only amaze since he wasn’t supposed to be there at all.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 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 – Downsizing

FILM REVIEWDOWNSIZING. With Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier. Written by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use. 135 minutes.

301337movieMatt Damon is not having a good year. After “The Great Wall” and “Suburbicon” he might have been advised to pick a more conventional film role to re-establish himself with audiences. Instead, he stars in DOWNSIZING, a science-fiction comedy that goes off in so many directions that it ends up being pointless. There are certainly interesting ideas at play and moments that catch our attention, but the whole is very much less than the sum of the parts.

The “what if” premise is that scientists have come up with a way to shrink people to only a few inches in height. It is presented as a way of conserving resources and for those who move to the new miniature communities to live like kings since they can make use of comparatively tiny amounts of life’s luxuries. It may not be the most engaging premise for a movie, but when occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Damon) realizes that he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) will never enjoy the lifestyle they want in their present circumstances, it becomes an attractive alternative.

Unfortunately, writer/director Alexander Payne (who wrote the original script with Jim Taylor) have no idea where to take this storyline, so they take it everywhere. Through a plot twist, Paul gets to move into luxurious quarters but finds himself alone. There he is befriended by Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who has figured out a way to make a fortune importing goods into the miniature communities. After all, one Havana cigar or bottle of Stoli multiplies in value when it can be broken up into tiny segments.

So the movie turns into a social satire, especially when we learn of the underclass who do the mean labor for the wealthy residents. They’re also tiny but live on the outside, surviving on the handouts of others. That’s how Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a cleaning lady who was miniaturized against her will as punishment for rebelling against her native government. If the story is getting garbled, it’s about to get worse: Tran becomes the film’s love interest. There’s still more, involving Paul meeting Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), inventor of the process who now has second thoughts about it, but at this point, you’re unlikely to care. Indeed, the very notion that these miniaturized communities depend on the continued existence of the “real world” seems to have been forgotten, which might have made for a more interesting conflict than anything seen here.

The cast is stranded by the material. Damon is likable if unmemorable as Paul, perhaps because he wasn’t sure what the movie was about either. Waltz and Udo Kier, as his business partner, are pluses as glib, decadent Europeans who have seen it all. Chau, on the other hand, seems to have been encouraged to play Tran as a cartoon character speaking in pidgin English, making it difficult to take her seriously as a rebel leader. Kristin Wiig and Jason Sudeikis come and go in what are little more than cameo roles, neither making a lasting impression.

As with Damon’s other films this year, “Downsizing” seems to have been made on the basis of a general concept and the casting of Damon. And all three films prove that while both an attention-grabbing concept and a star like Damon can be beneficial to a film’s success, it’s just not enough.•••

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 – Pitch Perfect 3

FILM REVIEWPITCH PERFECT 3With Anna Kendrick, Hailee Steinfeld, John Lithgow, Rebel Wilson, Ruby Rose. Written by Kay Cannon. Directed by Trish Sie. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language and some action. 93 minutes.

pitch-perfect-3-movie-posterAs with the new “Star Wars,” it probably helps if you’ve seen the previous movies before catching PITCH PERFECT 3. In this case, it’s less for the plot points than knowing the backstories of the characters.

The storyline is about an all-female acapella group called The Bellas and inevitably comes down to them having to win a big competition. Surprisingly, it has also turned out to be an excuse for movies combining musical numbers with off-the-wall comedy.

In this entry, The Bellas are struggling in the real world after graduation (except for Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily, who is still in school) when an opportunity comes along for a reunion. They’ve been invited to go on a USO tour in Europe where they will compete with other acts to be selected as the opening number for the final show starring DJ Khaled (playing himself). Among the competitors is a girl rock group called Extra Moist headed by Calamity (Ruby Rose). They’re intended to be the “bad girl” rivals to The Bellas, but that storyline really doesn’t go anywhere.

Instead, our focus is on the various Bellas, particularly Beca (Anna Kendrick) who has to decide what to do about her floundering career as a music producer, and Amy (Rebel Wilson) who is reunited with her father (John Lithgow with an improbable Australian accent), a former arms dealer and criminal. Other characters get their moments – keep your eyes on Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) – but we’re never really concerned about the story except, perhaps, for an explosive prologue that will not be explained until late in the film.

Although Elizabeth Banks is not directing this time, she and John Michael Higgins return as the catty commentators who are now producing a documentary about The Bellas. Their by-play with each other, and reacting to others, provides some of the zaniest moments in the film, including a final payoff to their relationship over the three films.

As this is billed as the final film in the series, each of the characters is granted closure, although some have to wait for the closing credits. If some of the details make no sense or seem wildly unlikely, don’t worry. This is a movie that wants you to laugh and enjoy the music, not engage in analysis. When the group shows up to a party in which Khaled is said to travel with his own portable beehive in a glass case, you’re simply counting the minutes until a character’s comment that it’s “an accident waiting to happen” comes to fruition. It’s that sort of movie.

The name you’ll want to remember from “Pitch Perfect 3” is someone who doesn’t appear on-screen. Screenwriter Kay Cannon, who wrote all three films and has a number of television credits, makes her directing debut next year with “Blockers.” If she can bring the same comic sensibility to a project written by others, we could be seeing the launch of a major comedy film career.•••

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 Greatest Showman

With Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Paul Sparks. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. Directed by Michael Gracey. Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl. 105 minutes.

poster-largeThere are certain genres that Hollywood used to excel at and now seems to get right only by accident: westerns, romantic comedies, musicals. It’s gotten so some critics and moviegoers can’t even tell the difference anymore, so that the leaden “La La Land” was hailed year as the return of the musical, instead of being recognized as the derivative mush it was.

In what we can only hope won’t be a series of bad musicals, we now get THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, with Hugh Jackman playing P.T. Barnum in a cartoonish and whitewashed version that has only a passing resemblance to history. Of course, dressing up Barnum’s life with a lot of hokum might be said to be keeping with the spirit of his character: he exploited “freaks” – the midget “Tom Thumb,” a bearded lady, conjoined twins Chang and Eng – to sell tickets to a gullible public. In this movie, he creates a “family” where these outcasts all belong. This no doubt would have surprised Barnum.

The filmmakers then made a series of mistakes. They decided to make their movie a musical. They apparently rejected adapting an already existing musical (1980 Tony nominee “Barnum”). And they hired Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – who wrote the lyrics for “La La Land’s” unmemorable songs – to pen the songs here. The result is a treacly mess.

As told here, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) in spite of the fact that he’s poor and she comes from a wealthy family which objects to the marriage. Through chicanery and nerve, he launches his museum of oddities which slowly morphs into what we come to be known as a circus. Although it’s a success, he faces opposition from a snooty critic (Paul Sparks) who finds the show appalling and from local ruffians who hate it for reasons never entirely clear. He brings in a successful playwright (Zac Efron) to help him appeal to the “carriage trade.” However, Barnum is not satisfied with financial success. He wants legitimacy and respect, which he attempts to obtain by producing the American tour of Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer known as “the Swedish Nightingale.”

While all this is going on, viewers may find themselves dreading the next musical number, with an array of undistinguished songs that Jackman and company try to sell to no avail. The music and lyrics are repetitive and once one gets the simple message of each song there’s no reason to go on, but go on they do. Jackman is an experienced song-and-dance man on stage, and showcasing him in a vehicle where he’s not Wolverine is an appealing idea. However, after this and the earlier “Les Misérables,” it may be a long time, if ever, that he gets a chance on screen again. For all his energy and cute poses, the staginess of the production numbers will remind many why movie musicals went out of fashion.

The paint-by-numbers nature of the story further undercuts the production. When Efron’s genteel character falls in love with the African-American aerialist (Zendaya), you know it’s only a matter of time before they have to confront a watered-down version of 19th-century racism. When Barnum abandons his family to go on tour with Lind, the film tries to have it both ways: he’s accused of having an affair with her but – at least here – he really didn’t. Cue his wife’s forgiveness.

“The Greatest Showman” is a film that will be quickly forgotten. As such it’s unworthy of its subject or its star.•••

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 – Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

FILM REVIEWSTAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDIWith Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.. 152 minutes.

star-wars-the-last-jedi-japanese-movie-poster-in-englishThe “Star Wars” franchise turned 40 this year. It’s telling that George Lucas’s two greatest contributions to the series may have been, first, creating it, and then selling it off. Certainly the offerings since the 2015 reboot of the series with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has helped fans forget the dreadful “prequels” which have a place in the hearts of most fans only slightly higher in the canon than the “Star Wars Christmas Special.”

“The Force Awakens” had its plusses and minuses, but for the most part was a strong effort to move the story forward. While Disney – which now owns the franchise – is trying to turn out a “Star Wars” film every year, they are creatively offering films that branch off from the series rather than attempting to do a new chapter every year. Thus last year’s “Rogue One” was a true prequel, a story set just before the events of the original “Star Wars,” and a story focusing on Han Solo is due next year.

This year, though, brings us STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI. In answer to the first question people have: yes, you need to see “The Force Awakens” before you see this. Picking up where that story left off, the film follows two storylines. In one, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her final role), is leading the remnants of the Resistance in escape after a devastating attack by the First Order, the successors to the bad guys of the original trilogy. Among her crew are Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who defected from the Empire, and Poe (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot fighter pilot who doesn’t always follow orders.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley), has tracked down the long-missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a much older, much grumpier version of the callow youth of the original series, hoping to be trained as a Jedi Knight. All of them are working to the purpose of resisting and defeating Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who follows the “dark side” of the Force (and happens to be the son of Leia and Han). Rey, who has a mysterious link to Kylo, believes he can be redeemed.

In terms of plot, that’s really all you need to know – and, perhaps, want to know – going in. The resulting film will more than satisfy fans in spite of, and maybe even because of, things we come to expect. Yes, there’s a variation of the cantina scene from the original “Star Wars,” but on a much grander scale than previously depicted. And when Finn and Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) have to deactivate a tracking device, it is through as convoluted a process as possible.

On the other hand, there are moments of great invention, and some surprising new cast members, some of whom one hopes will return for “Episode IX” (tentatively scheduled for release in December 2019). There’s also some welcome humor, often when least expected. What’s clear with “The Last Jedi” is that the people at the helm now have found their footing, and are taking their inheritance seriously but are not afraid to break new ground. That seems to have been Lucas’s problem with his prequels – digging in rather than thinking about what might happen next. If “The Last Jedi” has a main flaw it’s that it’s too long at just over two-and-a-half hours. When the film is cross-cutting between the escape of the Resistance and the showdown with Snoke, one might assume this was the climax of the film. In fact, there’s much more to come.

Time will tell how Disney will shepherd the “Star Wars” franchise into the future, but for now “The Last Jedi” represents a triumph for the series and will make you forget Jar Jar Binks ever existed.•••

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, including Jar Jar Binks Must Die. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Ferdinand

FILM REVIEWFERDINANDWith the voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning. Written by Robert L. Baird and Tim Federle and Brad Copeland. Directed by Carlos Saldana. Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements. 106 minutes.

ferdinand-2017-movie-posterWhether by coincidence or design, both the major studio animated offerings this season feature Hispanic characters. “Coco,” the box office hit from Pixar/Disney, is set in Mexico and has been justifiably praised as one of the best films of the year. However, with school vacation coming up, it’s helpful to have some other family-friendly movies, and this year FERDINAND fills the bill.

Based on the classic children’s book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, it tells the tale of a bull who is raised to battle matadors to-the-death but has no interest in that. Rather than fighting, he prefers to smell the flowers. Needless to say, this does not earn him the respect of the other bulls.

In this rendition (the story was previously animated as a Disney short) Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) escapes and is adopted by a little girl. However, after an incident in the proverbial china shop, he is mistakenly deemed a wild animal and returned to the very place he escaped, where bulls are prepared to fight.

Given that the film is from Blue Sky, whose greatest success are the unending series of “Ice Age” movies, one doesn’t have high expectations here. Yet as the film proceeds, it shows both a surprising depth and some inventive zaniness, which proves to be an entertaining combination. The depth comes from the competition among the other bulls to be selected for the ring, not realizing that it’s not a fair fight and that it inevitably ends in the death of the bull. (While older bulls we meet in the prologue are doomed, parents should know that the characters who are fully developed may be in danger, but all make it to the happy ending.)

The zaniness really takes off with Ferdinand’s return, when a hyperactive goat (voiced by Kate McKinnon) tries to put Ferdinand in training. Even nuttier are the snobbish horses with German accents in the next enclosure, who look down on the plebian bulls. This leads to a competitive dance contest that is the highlight of the movie.

In the end “Ferdinand” is about being true to one’s self, instead of conforming to someone else’s idea of what you “ought” to be, and if that means being a bull who likes to sniff flowers, so be it. The message may resonate even more today than it did at the time the book was published. It’s solid fun for the kids and entertaining for the adults who have to accompany them.•••

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.