Review – Downhill

FILM REVIEWDOWNHILLWith Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods. Written by Jesse Armstrong and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Directed by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Rated R for language and some sexual material. 86 minutes.

downhillDo you have a spouse or significant other you want to break up with but can’t figure out how to do it? Here’s a suggestion: go see DOWNHILL with them. The movie, opening on Valentine’s Day, is being billed as a comedy but is – in fact – a cringeworthy story of a married couple whose relationship is in a humiliating downward spiral. Running only 86 minutes, it seems to go on for hours.

Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) have brought their two young boys to Austria for a skiing vacation. Pete is supposedly still getting over the death of his father and has booked them into a resort where there are no other children. They are greeted by Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a sexually liberated and totally inappropriate hotel employee. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The key moment is when a “controlled avalanche” goes out of control and – for a few moments – seems to threaten the family having lunch on an outdoor deck. Billie is shaken by the experience and it’s made worse by Pete’s reaction. He runs off, seemingly leaving his family to their fate. The rest of the film makes us endure their increasingly hostile reactions to each other, including Billie forcing their sons to back up her version of the events in front of one of Pete’s business colleagues Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao).

Based on the 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure,” this version has absolutely nothing going for it unless you enjoy watching other people ski. We get moments that include Billie attempting to masturbate in a bathroom stall and Pete getting so drunk that he’s ready to pick a fight in a bar. By contrast, the couple in the recent “Marriage Story” – in the midst of a divorce – are lovebirds.

The two leads are dreadful. Ferrell offers little of the comedy we’ve come to expect, and Louis-Dreyfus is shrill and unpleasant, as in a scene where she attempts to file a complaint about the avalanche to Austrian officials who couldn’t care less. Giulio Berruti provides some distraction as a ski instructor who Charlotte pairs with Billie, but it’s a subplot that goes nowhere.

About the only thing of note – for those who pay attention to such things – is that the opening credits play the famous “Fox Fanfare” while proclaiming this a “Searchlight Film.” That’s because Disney has acquired the 20th Century Fox film studio and will no longer have the Fox name used for movies released through that arm. This is the first movie with the newly revised logo.

There are countless movies one can share on Valentine’s Day. “Downhill” isn’t one of them.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Birds of Prey

FILM REVIEWBIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINNWith Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor. Written by Christina Hodson. Directed by Cathy Yan. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material. 109 minutes.

birds_of_prey_ver6With the notable exception of the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies with Christian Bale, the continued attempts to mine DC Comics characters for the big screen continues to fail. (Unlike, oddly enough, the various television efforts.) BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN is merely the latest disaster off the assembly line.

Clearly an attempt to launch a new franchise, the story takes Margot Robbie’s character Harley Quinn from “Suicide Squad” (2016) and have her lead an all-female group. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that the character arcs for all five are the same: they were wronged by some man. Quinn has been dumped by her (unseen) lover, the Joker, and is out on her own. She becomes protective of young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a tween pickpocket in an abusive home, who has stolen – and swallowed – a valuable diamond. Through some not-very-convincing plot churning, she is joined by Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a police detective who loses credit for her work to an unscrupulous male boss, The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is seeking revenge on the men who murdered her entire family, and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who works for the paranoid and sadistic Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).

The problems begin with building the story around Quinn as narrator. The character was a colorful stand-out in the lackluster “Suicide Squad,” but as the center of attention here one is struck how shallow and selfish she is. The other characters are similarly flat, defined by both their victimhood and their willingness to do violence. There are numerous fight scenes that are well-staged and choreographed, although missing the opportunity for a middle finger joke during a funhouse sequence. They lack consequence because the only reason to root for the Birds of Prey (a name they don’t take until the end of the movie) is that Sionis is even worse.

How much worse? Even with the film’s “R” rating, his sadistic streak focuses on torture (as with captives getting their faces cut off) and humiliation (of a young woman in his nightclub) in ways that should make viewers squirm. It’s not the fact that he’s evil, but that these scenes make viewers his partner as he gleefully inflicts pain on others. Ironically, McGregor turns in the film’s best performance, seemingly the only one aware that he’s a character in a comic book movie.

As for Robbie, she has continued to impress as an actress – she’s up for an Oscar for “Bombshell” – but does herself no favors here. The character of Harley Quinn is an immature adolescent fantasy of a badass hottie who was a brilliant psychiatrist before being raped and tortured by the Joker, becoming his lover. Her character has no arc and simply hits the same notes over and over. Robbie can do, and deserves, better.

“Birds of Prey” may not turn out to be the worst film of the year, but it is the nadir thus far.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Rhythm Section

FILM REVIEWTHE RHYTHM SECTIONWith Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Amira Ghazalla. Written by Mark Burnell. Directed by Reed Morano. Rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use. 109 minutes.

rhythm_sectionA good rule of thumb on movies based on books: they have to stand on their own. Any defense of a movie that begins with the notion that it would make more sense if one had read the book is an admission that the film doesn’t work. THE RHYTHM SECTION, based on the 1999 debut novel of Mark Burnell’s Stephanie Patrick series, doesn’t work.

After a murky prologue in which we see Patrick (Blake Lively) prepare to kill someone in Tangiers, we go back eight months earlier. It slowly becomes clear that Patrick’s family (her parents and siblings) have died in a terrorist bombing of a plane, and Patrick’s response was to drop out of university, take drugs, and become a prostitute. Enter Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), a journalist investigating the bombing, who wants to speak to Patrick.

How did he find her? The film doesn’t say. He then allows her to live in his apartment and leaves her alone there to rifle through his belongings and research. Why? If there’s any motivation other than that the plot requires it, the film is silent. One might say the writer was being clumsy in adapting the novel to the screen, but the script is credited to Burnell himself.

Patrick ends up at the remote outpost of “B,” an ex-British spy played by Jude Law. He begins to train her to be a killer for hire – another “why” that remains unanswered as he keeps pointing out how ill-equipped she is for the task – and she’s soon on the trail of not only the bomb maker, but those who were pulling the strings on the attack. The latter half of the film consists of Patrick getting information from an ex-CIA agent (Sterling K. Brown) and becoming more entangled in his affairs.

For this to work we have to believe that the drug-addled hooker we’ve seen earlier has learned how to be a killer, and that her contact with Alia Kaif (Amira Ghazalla) – whose son was the target on the doomed plane – provides her with the financing she needs for both weapons and international travel. This strains credulity to the breaking point, made worse by the fact that all of these characters are essentially ciphers.

Lively might have been hoping this was the launch of a franchise, but her opaque performance keeps us at a distance. Yes, her character is seeking revenge, but the transition from how she sank so low and then became an international assassin makes no sense, even if we see that it takes several attempts before she can kill easily. Law and Brown are similarly blank, with their characters’ motivations never made clear.

“The Rhythm Section” has some disconnected action scenes that perk things up for the moment, but mostly has characters we barely get to know carrying on in a fashion that sheds no light on their actions. Clearly the hope was that we’d want to see more of Patrick with further adaptations. Given the results here, that seems rather unlikely.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Gentlemen

FILM REVIEWTHE GENTLEMENWith Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery, Hugh Grant, Colin Farrell. Written and directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated R for violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content. 113 minutes.

gentlemen_xlgGuy Ritchie first came to notice with dark crime comedies like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000). His subsequent career has been all over the place in terms of content and audience appeal (e.g., his most recent film was last year’s live action “Aladdin”), but with THE GENTLEMEN, he returns to his roots. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s violent, and has more twists than a plate of spaghetti.

Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is an American who came to England on a Rhodes scholarship and stayed to become a marijuana kingpin. Now he’s looking to sell out. After a prologue that sets us up for the plot turns to come, we focus on Pearson’s right-hand-man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) who is visited by Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a sleazy reporter who offers to provide important information – and bury a story about Pearson – for a price. To reveal much more of the plot would rob the viewer of the pleasures of Ritchie’s script, which combines misdirection and the introduction of unexpected characters like a boxing coach played with droll understatement by Colin Farrell, before bringing it all home.

Much of the pleasure comes from the unexpected casting, particularly of Hugh Grant very much cast against type as the egotistical Fletcher who thinks he’s on top of everything, and Hunnam, who gets one of his best roles to date as Pearson’s fixer. McConaughey’s laconic turn as Pearson may be less of a stretch for the actor, until the moments when we discover the man he describes as someone with “blood on his hands.” As his wife, Michelle Dockery gets to play a character a far cry from “Downton Abbey’s” Lady Mary Cawley, complete with stiletto heels that leave you wondering how she stands on them. The cast has a field day with Ritchie’s dialogue – as clever and colorful as in a Quentin Tarentino film – and which remind us these characters are much smarter than they might initially appear.

Coupled with that is Ritchie’s witty direction, such as having the film itself illustrate Fletcher’s points about how he would depict the plot in movie form. More impressive is the way he shows a Hitchcock-like command of his camera, showing us what he wants us to see, and subsequently pulling the rug out from under the viewer. Hitchcock said, in reference to “Psycho,” that he played the audience like an organ. Ritchie does no less here.

This is a violent film and while some of it is played for laughs, it will not be for everyone. However, if you’re not put off by such doings on screen, the ironically titled “The Gentlemen” is hopeful sign that 2020 just might be a good year at the movies.•••

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

Review – Bad Boys for Life

FILM REVIEWBAD BOYS FOR LIFEWith Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Jacob Scipio, Vanessa Hudgens. Written by Chris Bremner and Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan. Directed by Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references, and brief drug use. 123 minutes.

bad_boys_for_life_ver2Was there really this huge demand for another “Bad Boys” movie? Consider that a 25-year-old who went to see the original hit film in 1995 is now at or near 50. Its stars – Will Smith and Martin Lawrence – are 25 years older as well. Indeed, Lawrence’s character of Marcus Burnett seems to have morphed into the Danny Glover character from the “Lethal Weapon” movies as he becomes a grandfather and wants to retire.

In BAD BOYS FOR LIFE, it’s been 17 years since “Bad Boys II,” which means that Lawrence and Smith are following the path of action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in trying to revitalize careers by playing action roles that they long should have outgrown. Smith, at 51, and Lawrence, 54, aren’t exactly senior citizens, but they both seem past their sell-by date for this kind of movie. It says something that the movie is being dumped in January (the last film was a summer release).

The story involves Armando (Jacob Scipio) who has been sent to Miami from Mexico by his mother Isabel (Kate del Castillo) to avenge the death of his father. He’s been killing those responsible for the drug kingpin’s demise, but Mike Lowery (Smith) survives. Thus, much of the film consists of action set pieces, car chases, and Mike deciding that there’s no reason that a police detective has to abide by any sort of rules in seeking out the perpetrators.

The film is an uneasy mix of violent action, comedy, and maudlin drama. The film veers from goofiness to people being shot or otherwise violently killed to Mike or Marcus having an emotional moment. There’s a twist in the story – not revealed here – that comes across as contrived, even if it serves to set us up for yet another sequel. Whether that film ever happens will likely depend on the box office returns of this one.

In jumping between Miami and Mexico City, the film offers some colorful locations but fails to engage us in the concerns of either of its lead characters. That’s fatal since its success depends on us actually caring about where it ends up. The death of one of the supporting characters does resonate – briefly – but only because the actor gives the movie’s most engaging performance.

To be fair, after a lot of action scenes that are the cinematic equivalent of fast food, the set piece in the climax involving a showdown in an abandoned multistory hotel is impressive. It’s the moment where the filmmakers light up the screen figuratively and literally. It’s not enough to save the film, but it is an exciting sequence on its own.

Those who are invested in the series will no doubt want to see it, but if you haven’t even thought about these characters since 2003, watching “Bad Boys For Life” will feel like going to a high school reunion and running into people whose names and faces are, at best, dim memories.•••

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

Review – Underwater

. With Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller. Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad. Directed by William Eubank. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, brief strong language. 95 minutes.

The uninspiringly titled, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am aquatic misadventure UNDERWATER gets right down to business in its opening scene. No sooner have we watched Kristen Stewart’s Sigourney 2.0 rescue a stray spider from a sink drain while brushing her teeth (see folks, she’s kind) than the entire undersea oil rig she’s been working on for months begins collapsing upon itself in a watery cacophony of twisted metal. Stewart and the crew have been drilling seven miles down, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. What could have caused this catastrophe? An earthquake, or something worse? (Spoiler: It’s something worse.)

An ideal January junk-food quickie like this knows we’ve already seen “Alien,” “The Abyss,” “Gravity” and all the other films from which it’s shamelessly stealing, so there’s no reason to fart around wasting everybody’s time with exposition or character development. Shot in 2017, “Underwater” has been kicking around the Fox/Disney release slate for some time and the final product feels edited down from a longer, more ambitious and presumably less propulsive picture. I think I like it better this way. Introductions are made on the fly while crucial information is often ADR-ed as the movie hustles along the ocean floor from one derivative but no less spine-tingling set-piece to another.

The secret weapon here of course is Stewart, and the chance to see the “Twilight” teen turned international art cinema icon battling nasty sea monsters in some slick schlock. Wearing a bleach-blonde buzz-cut and a bomber jacket over a sports bra, Stewart goes all in on the androgyny chic, showing no signs of slumming as she applies her trademark, inverted-Brando millennial murmurings to the screenplay’s stock scenarios. (I loved watching her in this.) Gallic maniac Vincent Cassel delivers a surprisingly tender turn as the doomed craft’s avuncular captain, and as they strap into their pressurized mech suits its easy to imagine these two sharing a downtime chuckle about how far they’ve strayed from the Cannes Croisette.

“Underwater” was shot so long ago that disgraced comedian T.J. Miller plays the Bill Paxton comic relief role. A naturally unwelcome presence, during his introduction Miller calls Stewart “a flat-chested elfin creature” as if that were some sort of bad thing. (Then again, the whole trick with obnoxious characters like this is waiting to see what kind of grisly demise the filmmakers have cooked up for them. He gets a doozy.) Likewise stranded on the rig are a pair of moony-eyed lovers played by Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr., along with Mamoudou Athie, who is the only black guy on the crew, so don’t get too attached.

The great cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who’s worked with everybody from Abel Ferrara to Michael Bay) pushes the limitations of low-light digital, making striking use of luminescent beams swallowed up by the sickly green, underwater murk. I adored how the dive suits have small crescents of LED lights near their necks that frame the actors’ faces with the most lovely little shadings and patterns. But it’s exactly this kind of exacting detail work I worry will be massacred by the botched projection of modern multiplex screens. Not since Bradford Young’s boundary-pushing work on “Solo: A Star Wars Story” has a movie’s aesthetic been so prone to highlighting the weaknesses of current presentation standards.

(I had the pleasure of seeing “Underwater” via the pristine projection at Boston’s brand new, state-of-the-art ArcLight complex, but I can’t imagine how impossible it would be to try and follow the action with one of those cheapo AMC bulbs flickering and a 3D cap on the lens. Indeed, I’ve read quite a few reviews from other markets in which critics complained they could barely see what was going on. This reminded me of something I once heard about how The Rolling Stones used to test their final album mixes by playing them through the crappiest car radios they could find. Maybe cinematographers should do the same, holding test screenings at janky suburban mall theaters to see how their hard work is actually being viewed by the masses.)

“You have to take your pants off or the suit won’t fit,” Stewart advises the comely young Henwick while they’re putting on their dive gear. It’s one of those lines that lets you know these filmmakers and actors all knew exactly what they were doing here, providing the most hilariously transparent of excuses to get Stewart running around in her sports bra and Ripley-skivvies for the big finale. That’s the kind of movie “Underwater” is, and exactly what I wanted it to be.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – 1917

FILM REVIEW1917With Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch. Written by Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language. 119 minutes.

1917 is impressive and engrossing for two reasons, one cinematic and the other thematic. And once you get over the impressive look of the film, you’re still caught up in the story of how war looks to someone actually fighting it. It’s a story that couldn’t be more timely.

Set during World War I, the plot is deceptively simple. The Germans have retreated and Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is prepared to lead British troops in to take advantage of that. However, General Erin More (Colin Firth) has received intelligence that it’s a trap and needs to get word to MacKenzie. Since it involves going on foot through potentially enemy territory, the task falls to Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay), two lance corporals. The movie then follows the two as they attempt to get the message through.

The key word is “follows.” Through some cinematic sleight-of-hand by director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the movie is presented as if it was shot in a single take. It wasn’t, but you won’t be able to see the seams. This technique has been used in several films whether for long sequences, as in the opening of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958), or entire films, like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s more recent “Birdman” (2014).

The effect is to make viewers feel as if they are experiencing the story in real time, with no editing out of the down times where nothing much seems to be happening. Since it’s wartime, there’s no guarantee that a moment of quiet might not be shattered in the next moment by the sound of gunfire giving us a taste of the tension and uncertainty of the lives of people in combat. There are also no guarantees for the success for the mission or whether the two soldiers will even survive it.

While the acting is solid, it’s not the point of the film. Cumberbatch and Firth appear briefly, and it is Chapman and MacKay who get the most screentime. Everyone seems to realize that, beyond wanting to live to see another day, these characters have no “arcs.” This is not about Blake and Schofield coming of age or realizing the futility of war. While treated respectfully, the filmmakers use them much as their commanding officers do, as a means to an end. It’s about what they go through, not about who they are. We find ourselves racing through trenches and bombed out villages, avoiding sniper fire, and encountering the local non-combatant victims of war. The locations are as much a character as any of the people, demonstrating how even the land pays a price.

Barely released at the end of 2019 (for awards consideration), “1917” becomes the first must-see movie of 2020.•••

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