Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: The Magnificent Seven

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Antoine Fuqua's remake of the 1960 western classic - which is itself an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece "Seven Samurai" - isn't quite, well, magnificent, but as far as remakes go, it's a pretty decent - if narratively simplistic and a bit too rushed in the character development department - oater.

As the film opens, a robber baron known as Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, aiming to do nothing less than be the sleaziest villain of 2016) rides into a small town in the old west, announces that the land will soon be his, shoots the townsfolk who disagree with him and leaves their bodies lying in the street for all to observe.

The wife (Haley Bennett) of one of the dead men is less than enthused about this development, so she seeks out a righteous man to bring justice to the town. She stumbles upon Sam Chisolm (a steely Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter with a soft spot - and possibly an axe to grind - who agrees to return with Bennett's Emma to her town to put Bogue's efforts to a halt.

He rounds up - you guessed it - six other men, including a former confederate sniper with shell shock (Ethan Hawke), that man's knife throwing pal (Lee Byung-Hun), a wild man with hatchets and axes galore (Vincent D'Onofrio), Native American warrior (Martin Sensmeier), Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and wisecracking card player (Chris Pratt).

In terms of characterization, it's mostly limited to the character's introductions, although Hawke's Goodnight Robicheaux gets a little extra development late in the film when he can't decide whether he'll fight the good fight or flee. Washington, as always, brings the right amount of presence, although he's relegated to being the strong and silent type, with an emphasis on the latter.

The picture doesn't exactly stand up to the original, which was one of the better westerns of the early 1960s and - it goes without saying - it's no "Seven Samurai," which is among the greatest films of all time. But as remakes go, it's a mostly enjoyable shoot'em up with some great action choreography, gorgeous cinematography and scenery and a jokiness that, on the one hand, is not likely representative of how anyone in the old west behaved - as in, ever - but, on the other, adds a little levity to the nonstop bloodshed.

So, while the use of the word "magnificent" could be viewed as hyperbole in the case of this picture - although the "Good Enough Seven" doesn't quite cut it in the title department - it's an enjoyable enough modern take on a classic story.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review: Blair Witch

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
When it debuted in 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" was hailed as a true original and, despite having garnered some backlash over the years, the picture was a chillingly effective combination of low budget horror filmmaking and marketing. It also accomplished something that would appear to be impossible in this day and age - to come out of nowhere and become a smash hit, due to the internet still being in an earlyish stage and people not having the access to research everything ad nauseam on their phones.

A forgettable sequel ("Blair Witch: Book of Shadows") followed and, now, 17 years later, Adam Winguard - a low budget horror maestro whose work has ranged from moderately successful ("You're Next") to very good ("The Guest") - has rebooted the franchise with a follow-up that, on the surface and according to a few early reviews, sounded like a good thing.

Alas, having now seen the film, I can attest that it would probably have been best to leave well enough alone. Yes, "Blair Witch" has a few creepy moments - including an ending that is both spooky and completely incomprehensible - but they are mostly of the variety that have been overused in the found footage genre to the extent that they now induce sighs of boredom and eye rolls rather than shrieks.

I think you know what I'm talking about: things appearing just out of focus in the corner of the frame, loud bumping noises, jerky camera movements, people or evil beings popping up out of nowhere and, of course, individuals continuing to film what is going on around them, rather than attempting to make it out alive.

The setup for the film is slightly absurd. James (James Allen McCune) is sent a piece of video footage that was apparently discovered in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland (where the first film was set) that gives him the notion that his sister, Heather, the lead character from the first film who disappeared 17 years prior, could still be alive (as if).

He gathers up a group of friends - played by Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott and Callie Hernandez, whose Lisa wants to make a documentary of her own about the experience - and they travel to the woods where Heather was last seen. There, they meet a pair of locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), who agree to act as tour guides, but have their own agenda.

Once we're in the woods, it's down to business as usual: rustling tents, creepy noises in the night, disturbing stick figures hung from trees, etc. Having grown up in an era with unlimited access to digital media, the crew has GoPros, iPads, HD cameras strapped to trees and even a drone, all of which are used to record the creepy goings-on in the woods.

But while the technology has been upgraded, the story remains the same. One by one, the characters begin to disappear or exhibit strange behavior. The remaining survivors stumble upon the Blair Witch's house, which is where the first film ended, and the finale is a series scenes that might upset claustrophobics and involves lot of running around in the dark. The last 15 minutes of the movie are the scariest, but it's also difficult to discern exactly what is going on, due to the low lighting and wobbly camera movements. I'd argue that the filmmakers are relying on this to act as a cheap scare tactic device, so as to be able to get out of telling a coherent story.

As a horror/genre filmmaker, Winguard has talent. "The Guest," as I'd mentioned, is an intense shocker, "You're Next" can't be faulted for a lack of ingenuity (although it can be faulted for other things) and his serial killer thriller "A Horrible Way to Die," also far from perfect, has an unshakeable mood. I can see why he'd be attracted to rebooting this franchise, but "Blair Witch" should serve as a warning that sometimes you really can't go home again (or, in this case, again and again).

Review: Snowden

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
If you're hoping to learn more about the facts of the case regarding controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden after having seen Laura Poitras's acclaimed documentary "Citizenfour," Oliver Stone's new film won't likely give you anything new on which to chew. I'm not saying this is a bad or ineffective movie - in fact, it's pretty well made and acted and includes a decent amount of suspense, especially considering that we know how it all turns out. But Stone re-stages scenes almost directly from Poitras's film, during which she interviews the subject, and the result occasionally gives "Snowden" a been there, done that feel.

Also, Snowden himself has said that in blowing the whistle on his discoveries that the Natural Security Agency (NSA) was spying on its own people was not intended to make the conversation all about himself - a charge that could, perhaps, be more easily leveled at Julian Assange - and yet Stone spends much of the picture doing exactly that, focusing on Snowden's romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his declining well-being as a result of his discovery and so on.

The film also makes the mistake - in its finale - of portraying Russia as the munificent nation that has sheltered Snowden - a man calling for governmental transparency - when, in fact, that country's president is himself a former spymaster for the KGB who oversees a quasi-democracy with elements of totalitarianism. However, despite some obvious hero worship during the course of the film, it is accessible to those who either approve or disapprove of Snowden's actions (full disclosure: I agree with many of his beliefs about government surveillance, but am torn on how he conducted himself).

All of these criticisms aside, "Snowden" is a well-made political thriller, which should come as no surprise considering that Stone has long been a chronicler of U.S. history, from the 1960s to the present. And while "Snowden" isn't nearly as effective as "JFK" or "Nixon," for example, it does a pretty solid job of capturing the current mood: an era of terrorism paranoia, arguable governmental overreach, increased mistrust between nations and, especially in 2016, political unrest in the U.S.

Joseph Gordon Levitt captures Snowden's cadences and the supporting cast is very good, especially Rhys Ifans as Snowden's slippery CIA mentor, Nicolas Cage as a teacher who made a difference in the whistleblower's education and Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who reported on Snowden's story - and was featured in "Citizenfour" - for The Guardian.

Stone's film may too faithfully rehash scenes from Poitras's documentary and not divulge much information to which we were not already privy due to "Citizenfour" as well as the numerous articles written on Snowden, but as a work of cinema it is effective enough. If you are not entirely familiar with Snowden's story and prefer feature filmmaking to documentaries (although I'd recommend you prioritize "Citizenfour" over this one), Stone's movie is a decent starting point for the uninitiated.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: Sully

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Despite its brief running time that clocks in at just over 90 minutes, Clint Eastwood's "Sully" - which recounts the miracle on the Hudson during which Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks) landed a damaged plane on the river on Jan. 15, 2009 - feels a little padded.

Sullenberger's amazing feat of landing on the Hudson after birds struck the plane's engine took an approximate three minutes, but this film replays that moment over and over again, whether it's the recreation of the scene itself or simulations during Sully's testimony in front of the skeptical National Transportation Safety Board.

That being said, Eastwood and company recreate the scene in an intense and seemingly realistic manner and it helps that Hanks, the go-to actor for upright characters with whom we can sympathize, is the one guiding us through the moment.

Much like his previous film, "American Sniper," Eastwood's latest concerns itself with an iconic American from recent years - although the misunderstood "Sniper" was less of an outright hero worship as this one is, despite what some pundits might have told you - and, in this case, the story focuses on how an ordinary man did an extraordinary thing and must explain himself away to bureaucrats who don't have his years of experience, which likely saved the 155 people on board the flight.

Hanks carries the picture, giving a nuanced performance as a man who has been thrust into the spotlight, which obviously makes him uneasy, and is questioning himself as to whether he handled himself properly during the emergency landing. Aaron Eckhart is also very good as Jeff Skiles, Sully's co-pilot and, on occasion, the picture's comic relief.

Laura Linney, a great actress, doesn't have much to do as Sully's wife other than to look worried. There's a hinted-at trouble regarding Sully's marriage, but we're never given a clear picture, which results in the scenes between Hanks and Linney via phone not registering as they might have if we knew more about their situation.

"Sully" is not one of Eastwood's best films, but it's a well-made and acted - and, on several occasions, emotionally satisfying - drama that recounts an amazing true story. And it's pretty incredible that Hanks - who is his generation's Jimmy Stewart - has never worked with Eastwood prior to this film. They make a good team and "Sully" is, as a result, an engaging film.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Review: The Light Between Oceans

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Often visually breathtaking and sensitively acted, Derek Cianfrance's "The Light Between Oceans" - based on M.L. Stedman's novel - is a picture that has several key elements working in its favor and yet doesn't quite gel as it should. The director's previous works have been intense dramas about emotionally brutal romantic relationships ("Blue Valentine") or multi-generational crime sagas ("The Place Beyond the Pines") that packed a punch, but his latest is missing something.

One of the film's biggest problems is that while it's obvious that Cianfrance and company are going for restraint here, the film is often so emotionally distant - at least, at first - almost to the point of not registering. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander - and, later, Rachel Weisz, whose character is introduced about halfway through - are all good here, but it's obvious that they've been told to dial it down and the result is a story that doesn't have the emotional heft of Cianfrance's previous films.

As the film opens, World War I veteran Tom (Fassbender) has taken a job as a lighthouse keeper, insisting that, after the traumas of combat, a little isolation won't be the worst thing for him. But his solitude is short lived after he meets a young woman named Isabel (Vikander), with whom he falls in love and marries. However, their happiness is also short lived as the couple tries twice, but fails, to conceive, leaving Isabel emotionally scarred.

So it seems like a gift from the heavens or just good luck that a boat washes up on shore near the lighthouse that bears a dead man and an infant girl. Against his good judgment, Tom allows himself to be convinced by Isabel, to whom the baby signifies a turn of good fortune, not to report the incident. They keep the child, whom they name Lucy, and raise her as their own.

Several years pass and - wouldn't you know it - Tom runs across a sad woman named Hannah (Weisz), the daughter of a wealthy landowner, whose German husband and infant daughter were lost at sea several years prior. This begins to nag at Tom and he eventually makes a choice that results in his and Isabel's lives taking a turn for the worse.

"The Light Between Oceans" is at its best when the filmmakers pause to allow us to take in the gorgeous vistas that are accompanied by a great soundtrack of howling winds and crashing waves. The drama involving the three - or four, if you count Lucy - central characters is slow in picking up momentum. Eventually, it does and the picture ends with a coda that is more emotionally satisfying than anything leading up to it. It's the type of haunting ending that could have provided a powerful finale to a great film, whereas here it's more of a reminder of how uneven this one is.

Cianfrance is undoubtedly a talent. "Blue Valentine" was an unsettling film about a crumbling relationship, while "The Place Beyond the Pines" was an ambitious crime drama that cracked my top 10 of the year it was released. His latest is far from a bad movie. It's often beautiful to look at and the performances are subtle but effective. The film is ultimately a mixed bag, but it's the type of near-miss that you can tell has been made by a gifted person.