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Review – Girls Trip

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. With Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Kate Walsh. Written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity and drug material. 122 minutes.

girls_trip_xlgTiffany Haddish in GIRLS TRIP is one of those out-of-nowhere breakout performances––like Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” or Zach Galifianakis in “The Hangover”––where you can’t remember if you’ve ever seen them in anything before, but you know you want to see everything they’re in from now on. As the most unabashed and excitable of four friends reuniting for a road trip in this bawdy, good-natured comedy, Haddish runs away with so many scenes you might find yourself missing key plot points because you’re busy scanning the screen for her reactions. The actress, who previously played the wonderfully inappropriate sister-in-law Nekeisha on NBC’s late, lamented “The Carmichael Show,” brings a boisterous innocence to even the raunchiest material. When she’s being dirty she still seems awfully sweet.

That’s also a pretty good way to describe “Girls Trip,” which exploits a few gross-out girls-gone-wild gags but smartly never quite crosses the line between naughty and smutty. It’s already shaping up to be the surprise hit of the summer, which really isn’t surprising at all once you’ve seen it. “Girls Trip” has some big laughs––but more importantly, you really like these characters and feel good about laughing with them. It’s the kind of movie people tell their friends about.

Regina Hall stars as Ryan Pierce, a self-help author married to a hunky former NFL star (Mike Colter) and so ascendant in her career she’s already been dubbed “the second coming of Oprah.” When Ryan gets invited to give a keynote speech at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, she decides to bring along her old college girlfriends. Careers and families have kept this crew––formerly known as the Flossy Posse––apart for too many years, it’s high time for them to all get together and cut loose like the old days.

Of course things ain’t like they used to be. Queen Latifah’s former journalist Sasha these days hustles for a scummy celebrity gossip blog, barely one step ahead of her creditors. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Lisa was once the life of the party and is now a dowdy, overprotective single mom. Haddish’s Dina is still pretty much the same though––enthusiastically talking about how she’s smuggled weed onto the plane “in her bootyhole” and accidentally getting the Flossy Posse kicked out of various upscale establishments throughout New Orleans.

The plot kicks in when Sasha receives a paparazzi photo of Ryan’s husband getting down with “an Instagram skank,” and it turns out our rising star’s life isn’t as perfect as she makes it out to be on television. But her handsome husband and their allegedly idyllic marriage are such an important part of “her brand,” the suspense comes from the question of how much humiliation Ryan is willing to put up with for the sake of a pending TV deal.

One of the keys, I think, to the film’s success is that it’s about how these women all once again become their best and truest selves when reunited with their friends. Director Malcolm D. Lee, of “The Best Man” films and last year’s surprisingly sophisticated “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” shoots “Girls Trip” as a glossy, old-fashioned Hollywood “women’s picture,” lavishing attention on these beautiful ladies in their fine fashions and luxurious surroundings, while also sneaking in some thoroughly modern sex jokes––including something involving a grapefruit I can’t even try and explain, save to say that it in a just world it would be Tiffany Haddish’s Oscar clip.

The performances are hugely appealing across the board, with Pinkett Smith and Latifah at one point slyly acknowledging that this is the first time they’ve appeared onscreen together since the seminal “Set It Off” some twenty-one years ago. Like most Malcolm D. Lee movies, this one’s probably about fifteen minutes too long, as he often tends to get a bit over-enamored with the dramatic side of his comedies at the expense of keeping the story moving along. Nonetheless, time with the Flossy Posse is time well spent.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past seventeen 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.

Review – Atomic Blonde

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FILM REVIEWATOMIC BLONDEWith Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Directed by David Leitch. Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. 115 minutes.

atomic_blonde_xlgIt used to be that as actors got older they would segue into more mature roles. However, in recent years performers like Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise, and Keanu Reeves have all focused on careers as action heroes, a genre that used to have its own stars. With ATOMIC BLONDE, they are joined by Charlize Theron, completing a transition that has included “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Fate of the Furious.”

Based on a graphic novel (“The Coldest City”), this fast-paced thriller offers us the stunning actress kicking butt and taking names. The story lacks the surreal overtones of the similar “John Wick,” but makes up for it by setting the action in Berlin in November 1989, in the weeks before the Berlin Wall was torn down. The thin plotline has her involved in extricating an East German agent (Eddie Marsan) who has a top-secret list of all the spies there.

Lorraine Braughton (Theron) is being debriefed by her boss at British intelligence (Toby Jones) and his counterpart at the CIA (John Goodman) and tells the story in flashback. She arrives in Berlin and is immediately made by the KGB. The top British agent on the ground, David Percival (James McAvoy), seems to have gone native, being more interested in wheeling and dealing on the black market. Meanwhile, Lorraine has to figure out who she can trust while being manipulated by British, American, Russian, German, and French agents, the last of whom (Sofia Boutella) has more than a professional interest in her.

As is typical in such stories, most of them are double or triple agents, working one side against the other, with Lorraine not always certain whom she can trust. One thing is certain, though––when she’s attacked, watch out. Using fists, feet, high heel shoes, guns, a heating plate, and almost anything at hand, she takes no prisoners. The action scenes are well-choreographed as one would expected from former stuntman-turned-director David Leitch, who did some work on “John Wick.”

Theron is relentless as Lorraine, dressing in high fashion, but ready to take out a team of enemy agents at a moment’s notice. McAvoy has fun as the dissipated British agent who may be following an agenda of his own making. The rest of the cast manages to avoid making their somewhat cliched characters too predictable, particularly Marsan as the defector. Pay particular attention to Boutella’s French agent. If she seems somewhat familiar but you can’t place her, Boutella’s recent credits include “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond,” and this summer’s “The Mummy.”

“Atomic Blonde” lacks the iconic weight of “Wonder Woman.” While there is no doubt discussion to be had about Lorraine breaking the mold-–both the violence and the sex here are very much on her terms––no one should mistake this for anything other than a summer action movie. We will likely see her further adventures and, if the filmmakers start to fully explore what having a fearless woman as the protagonist of such a film does to the assumptions of the genre, the sequels might become increasingly more interesting.•••

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 – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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FILM REVIEWVALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Herbie Hancock. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language. 137 minutes.

zxkzoofbhvv_d9uoiklgk6bvgdzduyreuldgxpic0maIt’s funny because I was just complaining last week after watching that miserable “Apes” thing that summer blockbusters seem to have lost their sense of wonder. Nobody ever really marvels at anything in the Marvel movies, their wiseacre, in-jokey screenplays specialize in dragging the fantastic down to the realm of the mundane. Superheroes these days fight in empty stairwells and on anonymous airport tarmacs. Then along comes something like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, a goofball romp from writer-director Luc Besson so visually bonkers and achingly sincere it’s almost impossible to absorb all at once. The movie is a cuckoo-bananas, madcap mess with stilted dialogue, iffy performances and the final half-hour just kind of stalls when it should soar. Still, I want to see it again as soon as possible.

Based on the 1960s French comic book “Valerian and Laureline,” this is the movie Besson claims he has wanted to make ever since he was ten years old. That the film feels like a ten-year-old directed it is both an accurate summation of its shortcomings and a high compliment indeed. Set some 700 years in the future, the movie imagines an intergalactic utopia where all planets share knowledge and goodwill in a massive space station megalopolis and Rutger Hauer is president of the galaxy. Young Leonardo DiCaprio wannabe Dane DeHaan and runway supermodel Cara Delevingne star as agents of a peacekeeping federation, assigned by their supervisor Herbie Hancock (!!!) to investigate the disappearance of an obviously sinister military commander, played by Clive Owen with maximum sneer.

I honestly couldn’t summarize the permutations of the plot with a gun to my head, but basically Owen has done dire wrong to a planet of translucent-skinned, loincloth-wearing cousins to the Na’vi in “Avatar,” and the endangered tribe’s deceased princess has somehow beamed her consciousness into the not-exactly-crowded skull of DeHaan’s swaggering hotshot Valerian. Meanwhile, our hero is constantly trying to get into the space drawers of partner Laureline, prompting Delevingne to give her famously furrowed eyebrows quite an amusing workout.

But really the movie is about these two kids heedlessly running and jumping into one crazy, non-sequitur set-piece after another. Besson seems hellbent on putting every penny of the $180 million budget on screen, cramming the frames with so many bizarre alien creatures and spectacular vistas it verges on sensory overload. (This is a rare movie where it’s worth shelling out the extra bucks for 3D.) Anyone who’s seen “The Fifth Element” already knows that Besson’s ga-ga sensibility is unencumbered by taste, and there’s a rip-roaring recklessness to “Valerian’s” tangents–like the scene in which Laureline needs to locate her missing partner by sticking her head inside the ass of a psychic jellyfish. (I guess I could try to tell you why, but would any explanation suffice?)

My favorite bit finds Valerian cruising a red light district known as “Paradise Alley,” where everybody somehow still listens to Wyclef Jean and Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting pole dancer for a side story that summons a surprising amount of pathos. Ethan Hawke hamming it up as a piano-playing space pimp named Jolly is not something I was expecting to see at the movies this week––or really ever––but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted. This genuinely nutzoid sequence culminates in a Lewis Carroll-styled procession presenting food to a pot-bellied emperor of a species that looks like melting clay, while Delevingne models a hat the size of a helicopter blade.

Such a shame all this gaudy madness eventually has to settle down into some semblance of a story, and you can feel the film begin to deflate upon Owen’s return. The title character is also a problem, as there might possibly be a way to make Valerian’s antiquated lothario routine charming, but casting charisma-vacuum Dane DeHaan is certainly not it.

But really, who cares? Such matters feel like mere nitpicks when there’s this much invention and exuberance on the screen. The experience of watching “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is perhaps best summed up by a chase sequence in which our hero starts kicking his way through walls in the thickly settled title town. He barges through one wondrous world after another, giving us quick glimpses of odd environments and eerie extraterrestrials, and an imagination that apparently has no bounds.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen 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.

Review – Dunkirk

FILM REVIEWDUNKIRKWith Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language. 105 minutes.

dunkirk-posterAfter a summer of reboots and retreads, writer-director Christopher Nolan has come to the rescue with a powerful, gripping movie about World War II focused on a dramatic retreat by the Allies that would turn into a source of inspiration. DUNKIRK covers several days in the spring of 1940 when some 400,000 troops were trapped by the Germans on the beaches of France, unable to evacuate quickly enough across the English Channel.

As more than one character says, they can see “home” from where they are, while remaining easy pickings for German planes and U-boats. England doesn’t want to commit their fleet of troop ships or planes where they might leave England itself ill-prepared to fight, and those that are sent are limited in how many they can take at once.

Nolan takes an impressionistic approach, giving us a number of characters and stories to follow knowing that there are countless more that won’t be told. A British soldier (Fionn Whitehead), the sole survivor of his squad, tries to find some way to exit, connecting with others similarly abandoned. We see the helplessness of the individual soldiers, even as they dutifully line up on the beach hoping for a way out.

Meanwhile, a small fleet of civilian boats are heading from England to France under the theory that these smaller boats can get closer to shore and will be harder targets for the Germans. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and the two young lads he has with him pick up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy), horrified at the thought that they are going towards Dunkirk.

A third storyline deals with the RAF pilots such as Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose mission it is to take out the German planes attacking the British ships. These dogfight scenes are not merely thrilling, as if this was some sort of an adventure tale. They are nerve-wracking, as success and failure go back and forth in the blink of an eye.

Overseeing all this are officers under Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), trying to maintain some semblance of order even as they’re being told England will consider the rescue accomplished if only 10% survive.

Nolan and his team keep the action moving forward even as we jump around in time (which is sometimes disconcerting). The various storylines are not running in parallel, and yet through Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and Lee Smith’s breathtakingly precise editing, we are caught up in the momentum even if we can’t place it on a timeline. When we get to the end, perhaps the biggest surprise–given that audiences presumably know who the victors were in World War II–is how the survivors expect to be perceived and the actual reaction.

“Dunkirk” instantly enters the pantheon of great modern war films, like “Platoon” and “Saving Private Ryan.” These are movies that don’t glorify war, but respect and honor those who have had to endure it.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 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 – War for the Planet of the Apes

With Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller. Written by Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images. 140 minutes.

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3_xlgWAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES continues the reboot of the ’70s series, but it’s hard to believe that these bleak and largely humorless films will be remembered in any way like the sometimes campy and often darkly satiric originals. Grant the new films their impressive special effects, where Caesar, the lead ape, is a mixture of computer animation, motion capture technology, and–buried beneath it all–the performance of Andy Serkis.

After a brief recap of the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” we’re thrust into a new story. Humanity is much worse off now. There’s fighting among the humans and the disease that brought intelligence to the apes seems to be erasing it from the surviving humans. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is a holdout. With his troops he plans to create a fortress impenetrable by simians and humans alike, building it with slave labor from captured apes.

When Caesar–who has the power of speech–loses his family during a human raid, he joins the battle, driven by revenge. Before long, Caesar is a prisoner, sadistically beaten and tortured not only by the Colonel, but collaborators among the apes derisively referred to as “donkeys.” There’s only one thing left for him to do, and that’ plan a massive breakout from the prison camp.

Yes, this is essentially the ape version of “The Great Escape,” complete with building tunnels, trying to fool the guards, and all the other trappings of this kind of story. Only they’re apes. Harrelson is bald, like another commandant played by Otto Preminger in “Stalag 17,” another classic of the prison of war escape genre, but the actor capable of a wide range of performances essentially is allowed one note here, snarling a lot.

Of the three films, “Dawn” remains the most interesting, playing with the possibility of an ape/human detente and then showing how it is undercut by both sides. Here it’s much more black and white and, consequently, much less interesting. Except for the collaborators, the apes are all good, although Caesar is said to be struggling with just letting loose against all humans. Meanwhile the humans are all evil, except for Nova (Amiah Miller), an orphan girl the apes pick up along the way. So much for subtlety.

It is a dark and bleak film that seems to have been shot mostly in blue and gray. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, you may be looking for your own escape hatch. This lets up briefly at film’s end to suggest that the surviving apes may have reached a safe haven, but it’s so dreary and heavy-handed that the bigger fear is that they might be setting up a fourth film [which they totally are –Ed.].

For those able to suspend their disbelief and buy into the mythology of the series, “War for the Planet of the Apes” advances this future history and is a showcase of how actors, particulary Serkis and Steven Zahn, as “Bad Ape,” can personalize a performance under layers of special effects. Yet as an example of crisp and compelling storytelling, this “War” is a loss.•••

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 – Wish Upon

With Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Ki Hong Lee, Sydney Park, Sherilyn Fenn. Written by Barbara Marshall. Directed by John R. Leonetti. Rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing images, thematic elements and language. 90 minutes.

Sandwiched between classics of horror and those entries that are so unutterably stupid you can’t believe you got suckered into watching it are movies like WISH UPON. It has enough going for it in terms of plot and casting to keep you engaged, so that even if you come out of the theater saying you’d never watch it again, you don’t feel your time has been ill-spent.

Loosely based on the classic horror tale “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Wish Upon” opens with a disturbing prologue in which a young girl witnesses her mother’s suicide. Flashforward a dozen years later and Clare (Joey King) is a high school misfit. She has her friends, but the “cool kids” taunt her, particularly since her father (Ryan Phillipe) seems to be earning a living salvaging trash.

One day Dad discovers what turns out to be a Chinese wishing bowl which he gives to Clare. It offers her seven wishes but, unknown to her, a life will be taken for each wish granted. The early part of the film sets up the premise as Clare gets revenge on the girl who has been tormenting her, becomes popular, and inherits wealth. However as she discovers the price that others are paying for her good fortune, a moral dilemma arises.

The script by Barbara Marshall makes good use of high school dynamics, from the ever-present smartphones to the caste system among adolescents. The horror moments are supremely creepy but not gory, so we get glimpses of the “blood price” her wishes require, but not long shots of exposed entrails. Much of the horror comes from the anticipation of what we know, or suspect, is coming. Marshall and director John R. Leonetti are clever enough to know when to give in to our fears and when to set us up and then pull the rug out from underneath.

King is quite good as the conflicted teen, and the young cast offers able support. Ki Hong Lee as a classmate who can get her help to translate the “ancient Chinese” on the bowl works well as a potential romatnic interest, and Sydney Park and Shannon Purser score as Clare’s best friends. The adult actors, including Phillipe as her father, Kevin Hanchard as his trash-picking partner, and Sherilyn Fenn as a sympathetic neighbor, bring some depth to what might otherwise be cardboard roles.

“Wish Upon” is not a game-changer. It will soon be just another horror movie available at Redbox outlets and in Netflix queues. Yet in a brisk 90 minutes it provides its audiences with a few shudders at the real horror show–high school–and makes us wonder what we might be willing to risk if we could (or could have) reshaped it to our liking.•••

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 – Spider-Man: Homecoming

FILM REVIEW – SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMINGWith Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau. Written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers. Directed by Jon Watts. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments. 133 minutes.

spiderman_homecomingSpider-Man has always been the problem child of the Marvel cinematic family. While most of the Marvel Comics characters are now under the control of Marvel Studios (owned by Disney), Spider-Man had been licensed to Columbia Pictures. Thus we had the popular, if overpraised, series with Tobey Maguire as the webslinger, but when he and director Sam Raimi left the series, the studio was obligated to keep making Spider-Man films or lose the character. So we got the reboot with Andrew Garfield which pretended the earlier films never happened.

Now, however, Columbia and Marvel have come to an agreement where Columbia can continue to have the Spider-Man films in partnership with Marvel Studios, which leads to this new incarnation in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. Spider-Man is now played by Tom Holland, who was introduced in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War.” The significance of this for Marvel fans is that Spider-Man can now interact with the other Marvel characters, so that Tony Stark, a/k/a Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), can appear here as his mentor, along with Stark’s aide Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau).

For those who find such things fascinating, this new film is an important piece of Marvel history. However for those expecting a coherent story, it’s quite another matter. An incredible six (!) credited writers have created a hodgepodge where the basic theme is that young Peter Parker–back in high school–has a long way to go before he’s ready to assume full responsibilities as Spider-Man.

Take the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). He’s put a lot of money into his salvage operation, cleaning up the mess at Stark’s headquarters after the battles in a previous film. Suddenly, an agency comes in and says he’s out, they’re taking over, tough luck. And so he turns to crime, illegally stealing alien artifacts and selling them on the black market. He’s a victim of bureaucracy who suddenly becomes an arch-villain called the Vulture. Why? Because it said so in the comic books.

The comedy elements are uneven. On the one hand, we get Peter learning how his new suit (courtesy of Stark) works, as well dealing with the problems of being a high school student. On the other hand is his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who seems to have been written as the Jar Jar Binks of the story, needlessly making things worse. The biggest joke may be unintentional. Viewers of all the previous movies may find it amusing how Aunt May seems to have discovered the Fountain of Youth. Once played by Rosemary Harris, who was 75 at the time of “Spider-Man” (2002), she was succeeded by Sally Field, who was 66 in “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012). Here she’s become Marisa Tomei, age 53. At this rate Aunt May will soon be younger than her nephew.

If you’re a fan of the character or the Marvel Universe, then you’ll be seeing “Spider-Man: Homecoming” regardless of any review. Holland is a bit fidgety in the role but is able to bring out the youthful inexperience of the character. Perhaps he’ll grow into the role. We can only hope. They’ve already announced a sequel for 2019.•••

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.