Review – The Secret Life of Pets 2

FILM REVIEWTHE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2With the voices of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford, Jenny Slate, Eric Stonestreet. Written by Brian Lynch. Directed by Chris Renaud, Jonathan del Val. Rated PG for some action and rude humor. 86 minutes.

secret_life_of_pets_two_ver3THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 should please kids and their families, but seems a bit of a step back for Illumination, the animation studio that’s given us “Despicable Me” (not to mention its iconic characters known as Minions) and “Sing.” At their best, the studio’s signature has been flashes of surreal humor, such as the dream sequence at a sausage factory in the first movie. In this sequel, the three storylines are more conventionally cartoonish.

Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C. K.) has made his peace with sharing his home with the lumbering Duke (Eric Stonestreet), but now has to contend with the fact that his human owners have become parents of a human baby. The family vacations out in the country, where Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford), a farm dog of few words. The comically nervous Max comes under Rooster’s tutelage.

Meanwhile he has entrusted a favorite toy with Gidget (Jenny Slate), which has accidentally bounced into the apartment of the local cat lady, requiring the dog to go undercover as a cat to try and retrieve it. And Snowball (Kevin Hart) is on a mission to rescue a baby tiger from a cruel circus owner. The three stories don’t really relate to each other, making it seem like it three different shorts that have been edited together.

Youngsters won’t mind the narrative problems, nor that what made the first film fun – learning the interior lives of pets when their owners aren’t home – seems perfunctory here. Still the animation is up to Illumination’s usual standard, and there’s enough comedy and action to keep older viewers accompanying the kids engaged during the film’s 86-minute running time.

Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, and Eric Stonestreet return in voicing their characters, but it’s the two newcomers who merit attention. Oswalt slips into the role of Max so easily that you’d have to watch the first film again to remember he wasn’t in it. He’s got the perfect comic timing and tone for the part. Even more notable is the presence of Harrison Ford, with the veteran actor making his animation debut. His Rooster is an old hand – or perhaps old paw – at farm life, taking everything in stride while it’s all new to Max. What might have made the story more interesting is if the situation was then reversed, with Rooster ill-at-ease in Max’s New York City.

Like too many animated sequels, the need to cash in on a hit seems to have been a greater motivating factor than having a new story to tell. Rival Pixar has fallen into the same sequel trap with the great exception being their “Toy Story” series. The upcoming fourth installment of that franchise will demonstrate whether they can keep it going or it’s a cartoon too far.

Meanwhile, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a fun entry for the younger set that may fall short of the original but manages to work on its own. ***

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


Review – Godzilla: King of the Monsters

FILM REVIEWGODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERSWith Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance. Written by Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields. Directed by Michael Dougherty. Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language. 131 minutes. 

godzilla_king_of_the_monsters_ver15There are some interesting ideas and strong actors playing around in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, but they’re doomed trying to compete against Godzilla, just like the kaiju alumni he battles. (Kaiju is the name for the Japanese genre of giant monster movies.) The result is a movie that probably could have been much shorter, since we’re really only there for the special effects.

Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is a scientist working on a project dealing with the giant monsters, whom she believes are an important part of Earth’s ecosystem. At the start of the film, she and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things”) are kidnapped by a mysterious terrorist group led by Jonah Allen (Charles Dance). The government turns to her ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), who had abandoned the project she’s continued, to help find her. He’s more concerned with rescuing his daughter.

It turns out the terrorists are looking to unleash Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed King Ghidora to lay waste to civilization. Who can battle such creatures? Why it’s Godzilla, who has appeared in various forms in Japanese cinema – many of which have made it to the U.S., although the original “Gojira” (1954) was re-edited with added scenes featuring American actors.

The film plays with environmental issues and family psychodrama, and even has some well-known characters actors in small roles like Bradley Whitford, Joe Morton, CCH Pounder, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn. None of it really matters. The thin script ties up most of the loose ends, while leaving a few threads for a sequel, including the promised showdown with King Kong, which is teased here as it was at the end of “Kong: Skull Island” (2017). The problem is that the appearance of four giant monsters leaves less time for plot and character development, which gave “Skull” its flavor.

Here you just want to sit back and enjoy the monsters. There are nods to the earlier films – such as the twins associated with Mothra – but it’s all just marking time until the main event, which is Godzilla battling King Ghidorah at Fenway Park. Yes, that’s right. Dr. Russell’s home base is Boston and the device used to lure the monsters is broadcast over the public address system at the stadium, using the open-air park as a giant transmitting dish. Some effort went into making Fenway look like the real thing, but once the monsters start trashing Boston it looks more like a generic city than any specific location.

It’s important to remember that after the original film, most of the kaiju movies bordered on camp. Some were more entertaining that others, showing some wit or creativity, but in the end, they were about giant monsters visiting destruction on one location or another. A 1998 attempt to Americanize Godzilla failed, but the 2014 “Godzilla” got it right, leading to this sequel. If it falls a bit short, it may be because this is the set up for “Godzila vs. Kong,” due out next year. Red Sox fans may find it hard to swallow, but the destruction of Fenway turns out to be no more than the warm-up act.•••

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 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 – Aladdin

FILM REVIEWALADDINWith Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad. Written by John August and Guy Ritchie. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG for some action/peril. 128 minutes.

aladdin_ver2Let’s face it – it wasn’t supposed to work. Robin Williams’s voicework as the Genie in the 1992 animated “Aladdin” was one of his signature performances. How could anyone presume to take on the role? And the choice of director Guy Ritchie, whose credits include “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” and the decidedly muscular “Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey, Jr., seemed an unlikely choice for a family-friendly Disney film.

But this ALADDIN does work… and beautifully. Without taking anything away from the earlier film, or simply trying to mimic it, this new “Aladdin” is a colorful and exciting story, with much that is familiar while updating it for contemporary audiences. The result is a movie that should appeal to all ages.

For those coming in late, this is the tale of Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a young and personable thief in the fictional Arabian kingdom of Agrabah. He meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she sneaks out of the palace, and he is smitten. When he goes to see her, he is captured and put to work by the ambitious Grand Vizier Jafar (Maran Kenzari), to risk his life in claiming a magic lamp.

The lamp is the home of the Genie (Will Smith) who grants Aladdin three wishes, one of which turns him into “Prince Ali,” a production number from the original film that soars. It is the moment when any doubts you may have had about this movie will vanish. Using CGI animation – yes, this “live action” film has a tremendous amount of animation – the movie magically finds its own way to tell the familiar story.

As the Genie, Smith makes the character his own. He doesn’t try to be Robin Williams. Instead he plays to his own not inconsiderable comic talents and turns in his best performance in years. As the romantic leads Massoud and Scott – who have worked mostly on the small screen – are delightful, hitting the right romantic comedy notes as they work their way through to the inevitable finale. For this version, Jasmine is a much more developed character, and not merely a princess who needs to be rescued.

Just as interesting is that Jafar, the villain of the piece, is given a backstory that doesn’t make him sympathetic, but does deepen his motivation beyond being the “bad guy.” Indeed, he makes a point of noting that his early years were similar to Aladdin’s, making a subtle point that it’s not circumstances but the choices one makes that is decisive. As Jafar, Marwan Kenzari isn’t a cartoon villain, but someone whose twisted nature becomes more exposed over the course of the film.

No doubt skeptics will now predict that Disney’s next live-action adaptation, “The Lion King” due out July 18, will be a failure. Sight unseen, we can’t really say. However, there’s no question that “Aladdin” is a triumph.•••

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 – Best. Movie. Year. Ever.

BOOK REVIEWBEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. Written by Brian Raftery. Published by Simon & Schuster. 387 pages.

814hgnm33clI got my first job as a professional film critic in April of 1999, working as a second-stringer for the Philadelphia Weekly. This was a long time ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away, back in the days of dial-up modems when alt-weeklies paid handsomely for arts coverage and movies were the central, driving force of American popular culture. Network television was where washed-up film stars went when nobody paid to see them in theaters anymore and cable was for looking at boobs. It was the movies that mattered, and by gawd there were a bunch of great ones in 1999. So many, in fact, that someone wrote a book about them all.

Brian Raftery’s BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. casts a wide net across a wild year of cinema offerings, making a compelling case for 1999 to be celebrated alongside film buff favorites such as 1939, 1955 and pretty much the whole first half of the 1970s. The list of titles covered herein is an embarrassment of riches: “Election,” “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “Three Kings,” “The Limey,” “Office Space,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Galaxy Quest,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Run Lola Run,” “The Insider,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Magnolia.” (As if all those weren’t enough, he also cheats a little by including “Rushmore” and “The Virgin Suicides,” released in 1998 and 2000, respectively.)

It’s wildly diverse slate of films that on the surface would seem to have little in common, but running through them all is a certain recklessness – a willingness to challenge audience expectations in ways that are unthinkable today at the studio level. Working from interviews both contemporaneous and recent, Raftery rattles off the stories of how these distinctive visions found their way into multiplexes in a bunch of punchy, largely self-contained chapters that read like the surprisingly meaty behind-the-scenes coverage you used to find in Premiere Magazine or Entertainment Weekly back in the ‘90s.

It’s a lot of fun, even if it feels more a collection of articles than an actual “book” book. The most interesting passages for me found Raftery trying to tease out the overlapping themes in disparate pictures, a la the underlying semi-apocalyptic cubicle drone revenge fantasies of “Office Space,” “American Beauty,” “The Matrix” and “Fight Club.” There was something in the air back in 1999, a heady mix of millennium paranoia and Gen X disaffection agitating we folks that Brad Pitt’s “Fight Club” bad boy Tyler Durden called “the middle children of history.” (It’s scarily worth noting that twenty years later those last two pictures have become key texts for the online alt-right, which means we’re now entering our third decade of people who really love “Fight Club” not understanding that “Fight Club” is making fun of them.)

“Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” stretches itself too thin when trying to cover a brief and largely unfortunate teen movie boom, as well the rise of internet fan sites like Ain’t It Cool News and subsequent ripple effects on the industry that could probably fill a volume of their own. The macro-focus is wobbly, probably because Raftery’s dealing with too many damn movies from too many different distribution models. He’s much better with the granular reporting than big-picture analysis. Still, you read the book wistfully, marveling that there was so recently a time when Disney would give Michael Mann a massive budget to make an almost three-hour, R-rated movie comprised mainly of men over fifty delivering depositions and arguing over journalistic ethics.

An unfortunate side-effect of a gold-rush year like 1999 was a fixation on the shiny and new, and I do recall bristling back then at my colleagues rushing to prematurely coronate the likes of Sam Mendes, Alexander Payne and David O. Russell at the expense of veteran filmmakers. In a year when everyone trashed the final Stanley Kubrick picture, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s flawed yet deeply felt “Bringing Out the Dead” was crudely dismissed, David Cronenberg’s outstanding “eXistenZ” passed without notice and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” was largely laughed off. Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” barely gets a mention from Raftery, its glamour and Old Hollywood craftmanship somehow suspect despite the film being far more subversive in matters of class and sexuality than a lot of allegedly edgier titles lauded here. (The book also ignores the punchline that twenty years later Mendes, Russell and Payne are now making almost exactly the kind of banal dreck they were celebrated for rebelling against.)

Naturally, in a year of such radical, exciting motion picture achievements the Academy Awards went out of their way to fawn over exhausted, already-forgotten treacle like “The Green Mile” and “The Cider House Rules.” The big prize went to “American Beauty,” a picture Raftery likes a good deal more than I — citing its dirty-old-man fixations and the suburban Nazi next door as somehow revelatory when really they’re just the same fatuous provocations with which filmmakers like Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute had spent the previous few years annoying arthouse audiences, only gussied up with some slick cinematography, Hollywood stars and a chickenshit third act full of finger-wagging moralism. Of course it won Best Picture.

“You go down that list of movies and go, ‘Okay, which of these made money?’” quips David Fincher, who never tires of reminding us that his “Fight Club” was a massive box office flop that got most of the folks involved fired from 20th Century Fox. (Now a revered cult classic, the movie was so poorly reviewed upon initial release that they had to use a quote from a nobody like me on the DVD box.) Indeed, the vast majority of pictures chronicled in “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” were stiffs at the ticket counter, and as much as we might enjoy Raftery’s look back at the classics the sad truth is there were two 1999 films that proved far more influential.

“Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” and “Toy Story 2” were the #1 and #3 films at the box office that year, setting the blockbuster template for a form of contemporary franchise filmmaking that relies on familiar branded content and beloved intellectual property over the capricious whims of movie stars and creative types. Of 1999’s twenty top-grossing films only three were sequels, as opposed to fourteen last year.

In fact, you can look forward to new “Star Wars” and “Toy Story” installments rolling out over the next few months, and they’ll probably still be making more of them twenty years from now, when I doubt anyone will be inspired to write a book like this about the films of 2019.•••

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 – John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

FILM REVIEWJOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUMWith Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos. Written by Derek Kolstad and Shay Hatten and Chris Collins & Marc Abrams. Directed by Chad Stahelski. Rated R for pervasive strong violence, and some language. 130 minutes.

john_wick_chapter_three_ver14It’s hard to believe that four writers are credited for the script for JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM in that so many scenes consist of “John gets into a fight.” Nonetheless, the original 2014 film has turned into a franchise, with a fourth film almost certainly in the cards. So what’s the appeal?

First and foremost are the multiple action scenes, featuring martial arts, gunfire, and swordplay. The fight choreography and stuntwork approaches the balletic, and there’s a nod to the more serene artform when John (Keanu Reeves) pays a call on the director of a Russian ballet company (a cameo by Anjelica Huston) to escape from New York. He has been declared “excommunicado” by the assassin’s guild he’s worked for and against, and there’s now a $14 million price on his head with everyone is forbidden to help him.

This gets to the second factor, which is that the series seems to be set in a parallel universe (one observer noted that it’s analogous to the “Harry Potter” movies) where these killers act with impunity, having their own hotels, coinage, and stock exchange. Wick has violated the strict rules of this world which is why he’s now on the run, and those who assisted him, including Winston (Ian McShane), operator of the Continental Hotel, and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who runs a network of street people, are those marked for punishment by the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). There’s a surreal element at work here, so that when Winston refuses to cooperate, he’s told his hotel will be “deconsecrated,” so it will no longer be deemed neutral territory.

What puts this above the level of a video game is that beyond the violent action and creative worldbuilding, there is a cast that takes the material seriously enough that we’re willing to play along. McShane’s wry hotelier is joined by Lance Reddick as his very proper chief of staff. Among the killers, Halle Berry pops up as an assassin who has been promoted to “management” in Morocco but who owes a debt to Wick, and Mark Dacascos is Zero, a sushi chef who leads a team of ninja-warriors against Wick. Such is the through the looking glass nature of the proceedings that between deadly battles, Zero expresses fannish admiration for Wick.

For the record, it should be noted that the film richly deserves its R rating for violence. It not only uses enough ammunition to supply a small war leading to an alarmingly high body count, it also features moments where even hardcore action fans may want to turn away from the screen. It’s not clear if Derek Kolstad, one of the screenwriters here who created the character and is credited with the story, has an end in sight to this saga, or they’ll just play it out until either Reeves or audiences get bored. Until then, no one is likely to be bored with “John Wick: Chapter 3.”•••

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 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 Hustle

FILM REVIEWTHE HUSTLEWith Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver, Casper Christensen. Written by Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning and Dale Launer and Jac Schaeffer. Directed by Chris Addison. Rated PG-13 on appeal for crude sexual content and language. 94 minutes.

hustleTHE HUSTLE is the third film version of a movie that began as “Bedtime Story” (1964) with Marlon Brando and David Niven, and the better known “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988) with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. The story of two con artists making a bet as to which will one will fleece their victim has revised the story to make the scammers women. That idea was apparently the last time anyone gave a thought to what they were doing.

Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway, sporting a variety of accents) lives a luxurious lifestyle on the French Riviera, financed by a series of gullible playboys. Glamorous, sophisticated, and dressed in a series of stunning outfits, she is everything that Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) is not. Penny is brash and vulgar. Penny asks to be tutored by Josephine but eventually their rivalry comes to the fore, as they set their sights on a high-tech millionaire (Alex Sharp).

If the material seems familiar to fans of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” there’s a reason. Of the four screenwriters credited, three of them are the authors of the earlier film (and two of them are dead). This may be one of the most unnecessary remakes since Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” There’s little attempt to put a fresh spin on the material beyond the casting.

It might have seemed smart on paper. Hathaway knows her way around comedy, and Wilson has moved up from supporting player after attracting attention in smaller roles. The problem is that there is no on-screen chemistry between the two stars. They often seem like they’re characters in different movies. Hathaway’s Josephine is a cousin to her Daphne in “Ocean’s Eight,” while Wilson’s Penny is more akin to her Fat Amy in the “Pitch Perfect” series.

While the lavish locations (with Spain filling in for the south of France) are attractive, there are only intermittent laughs in what ought to be a rollicking comedy. Unfortunately, Wilson pretending to be blind or Hathaway adopting a cartoonish German accent are what passes for humor here. The two leads not only are missing chemistry and a well-developed script, they also lack the star power that might have overcome some of the flm’s problems. Both are talented actresses who have handled challenging comic material (in movies like “Colossal” and the recent “Isn’t it Romantic?”), but neither is a “star” in the sense of being able to “open” a film (i.e., where their mere presence is enough to attract the interest of a large number of filmgoers).

The only ones being hustled by “The Hustle” are the studio executives who greenlit the project, and moviegoers led to believe that simply retrofitting old male roles for young actresses is a breakthrough for female empowerment in Hollywood.•••

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 – Long Shot

FILM REVIEWLONG SHOTWith Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgård, Andy Serkis. Written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use. 125 minutes.

long_shot_ver3LONG SHOT must have been a very hard project to sell. The premise involves Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who serves as Secretary of State but has decided to run for President. Is she supposed to be Hillary Clinton? Well, no, but she is a strong, independent, and very capable woman who has to deal with a President (Bob Odenkirk) who seems a bizarre cross between Donald Trump and Martin Sheen: his claim to fame before being elected is that he played the President on a popular TV show.

Meanwhile Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), is a feisty and profane journalist who has just lost his job when his newspaper was bought by a right-wing media mogul (Andy Serkis). By chance he crosses paths with Charlotte with whom he has a history: she was – improbably – once his baby sitter upon whom he had a crush. Now she’s in need of a speech writer who can help energize her campaign. Over the objections of her advisors, she picks him.

At this point you may think you’ve had enough about politics given that we’re now in the midst of a presidential campaign that won’t culminate until the election of November 2020, but if so, you’d be missing the point. While there are some political jabs here and there, “Long Shot” is a romantic comedy, a genre Hollywood once handled with ease but which it has struggled with for the last several years.

Wait, a romantic comedy? With Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen?! It’s true. The notion of these two as a cinematic couple seems beyond bizarre and yet, somehow, it works. Amazingly, these two talented performers turn out to have an entirely unexpected on-screen chemistry. Give credit where it’s due not only to the actors but to the filmmakers, who don’t shy away from the notion that in a relationship between a national figure seeking the highest office in the land and an ink-stained wretch, it’s the former who will be the “alpha” in the relationship.

In the style of the classic romantic comedies, they each have something to learn from the other. She needs to be reminded that sometimes there are higher values than winning, while he needs the discipline and focus of a job where his juvenile behavior can have a devasting impact. As in his other roles, Rogen is funny and likeable even if his penchant for vulgar humor makes him someone you would not bring home to your mother. Unlike such actors as Adam Sandler and Melissa McCarthy, Rogen is able to demonstrate empathy for others. When his screw-ups adversely affect Charlotte’s campaign, he shows that it matters to him.

Theron has not had much chance to show her comedic skills on the big screen and proves to be a classy foil for Rogen’s earthiness. She shows how her character is so buttoned-down and controlled that she relishes the taste of freedom Rogen’s character offers. Yet she also has to demonstrate that her character has the gravitas necessary to seek the presidency.

“Long Shot” turns out to be a delightful surprise. At times it borders on the offensive (think “There’s Something About Mary”) yet it has a sweetness at its core that makes it all right. It’s almost enough to make one think the romantic comedy is not yet dead.•••

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.