Monday, September 26, 2016

Seven Nation Army

Director Antoine Fuqua reunites his ‘Training Day’ co-stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in his contemporary update of John Sturges’ 1960 western based on Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai.’  This timeless story of a few good men defending the weak from the predations of bad guys (standing up to bullies) never gets old and Fuqua, a veteran of the action movie genre with such gritty R-rated flicks as ‘The Equalizer,’ ‘Tears of the Sun,’ ‘Shooter’ and ‘Olympus has Fallen,’ is an accomplished director uniquely qualified to tackle the remake of the beloved classic which boasted Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn among its ensemble cast.
While the setting and dramatis personae are different, the tale is the same.  The American mining town of Rose Creek, Minnesota is beset and terrorized by an evil capitalist with the dastardly name of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his army of henchmen, who gave the poor homesteaders the ultimatum to get out of town or else.  After losing her brave but foolhardy husband when he resisted, frontierwoman Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) appeals to renowned Wichita, Kansas bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) for aid, who agrees to help and begins assembling his seven-man army.  And what a ragtag and colorful bunch it turned out to be.  Criticism has been leveled at the group's composition for its racial stereotypes and being too PC, since it not only includes a black man garbed in black but also a Mexican bandito (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a redskin brave from the Commanche tribe (Martin Sensmeier) and – I kid you not – a yellow man from the east (Byung hun-Lee) who goes by the all-too-white moniker of Billy Rocks.  Rounding out the group in the minority are three white men: Ethan Hawke’s tortured ex-Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, Chris Pratt’s easygoing hustler/gambler Josh Faraday and the Davy Crokett-like almighty-fearing mountain man/trapper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio).  It’s a transgression I am happy to overlook because watching these eclectic characters with their unique personalities, fighting styles and weapons of choice is a helluva lot more interesting than watching a bunch of white guys playing cowboy, historical likelihood be damned.
Although Fuqua dialed down the graphic violence a bit to attain the movie’s PG-13 rating, there is no shortage of bang-bang western action once the shooting starts and the fun begins.  Fuqua has a great eye for action and proves here once again why he’s one of Hollywood’s most surefire directors of action movies today.  Packed with heroism, villainy and sacrifice, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ stands on its own well even when compared to the 1960 original, I daresay.

Grade: A- 

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Rubik Man

Edward Snowden.  Mention of his very name will either conjure the image of a despised traitor or a selfless hero in your mind, depending on your biases and political outlook.  It is also the controversial subject of Oliver Stone’s latest biopic, which covers not only the pivotal events leading up to the big exposé but also delves into Snowden’s past and gives us a glimpse into who he is and what makes him tick.
Not having seen Laura Poitra’s documentary on Snowden, ‘Citizenfour,’ I have the luxury of evaluating ‘Snowden’ on its own merits.  Despite his blatantly liberal outlook, Stone gave us another masterfully crafted film that’s not only a well-paced and suspenseful nail-biter but also makes us think.  Snowden was part of that new breed of post-9/11 warriors in the intelligence community which relies more on brains than brawn, the computer nerds on the front lines of America’s cyber wars against near-peer adversaries like China and Russia.  As he’s immersed deeper into the black world of America’s cyber-intelligence activities, first with the CIA and then with the NSA, he becomes increasingly alarmed at the implications such activities had on our individual privacy and personal freedom.
Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealing to see how Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a great “method acting” job here mimicking his voice and mannerisms) gradually transformed from a conservative patriot whose devotion to Uncle Sam can be characterized as one of blind faith to a man who made the difficult and fateful decision to betray his own government by becoming a whistleblower.  Shailene Woodley also turned in a fine performance as his free-spirited love interest and conscience, Lindsay.  While ‘Snowden’ doesn’t seek to answer all of our burning questions, it is nonetheless a thought-provoking and paranoia-infused thriller that would be perfectly placed next to Stone’s previous conspiracy-tinged movie, ‘JFK.'

Grade: A- 
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Monday, September 19, 2016


The remarkable real life drama behind the “Miracle on the Hudson” when an Airbus A320 passenger jet landed in the Hudson River is the subject of the latest Tom Hanks biopic.   With ‘Sully,’ Hanks has shown once again that he is peerless when it comes to portraying flesh-and-blood personalities caught in difficult and trying circumstances while maintaining their dignity and humanity, as he managed to do in such previous films as ‘Bridge of Spies’ and ‘Captain Phillips.’
While the world has always known Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to be a hero for his masterful soft belly-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the calm waters of the Hudson with no casualties after a catastrophic bird-strike which disabled both engines in January of 2009, it is perhaps less well known that, behind the scenes, computer modeling and flight simulations conducted during the subsequent NTSB investigation suggest that he could have diverted the stricken airliner to nearby airfields at LaGuardia or Teterboro.  All the second-guessing and doubt merely formed the backdrop of director Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, who kept the movie's focus on Sully himself not simply as a pilot under intense scrutiny but also as a man and loving father and husband.
Fascinating, insightful and fundamentally human, ‘Sully’ represents yet another understated triumph for Hanks and Eastwood.  Hanks is fully in his element as the earnest, caring and humble airline pilot and ex air force “Phantom Phlyer” while Eastwood turned in what may be his best directorial effort since ‘Million Dollar Baby.’  Not just a tale of one man's vindication, ‘Sully’ is also a portrait of courage under pressure and how making the right decision in a life-or-death situation over the course of a mere three minutes twenty-eight seconds can make all the difference to the lives of 155 people.

Grade: A
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Once Upon a Time in West Texas

The best film of the year so far is ‘Hell or High Water,’ director David Mackenzie’s neo-noir contemporary western based on a screenplay from talented writer/actor Taylor Sheridan, who previously penned the script of Denis Villeneuve’s excellent drug war thriller ‘Sicario.’  A crowd favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, HOHW is not just your typical run-of-the-mill heist movie but also a deep social commentary on our troubled times.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster portray two brothers who become modern day “Butch and Sundance” of sorts as they rob a series of banks across the Midwest in order to keep their ranch from being foreclosed by greedy lenders after their irascible mother passed away.  Since their bank robbery spree is too trivial for the FBI to get their hands dirty, soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Injun-half-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) take on the merry chase to bring them to justice.  With the noose tightening around the outlaw siblings, can they evade the long arm of the law intact?
Evoking Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood with a dash of Coen brothers, HOHW is a tale of crime and punishment whose desperados are complex and conflicted anti-heroes whom we can’t help but have some sympathy with even if they’re bad guys.  Bridges is always a pleasure to watch and provided levity to an otherwise depressing story, but Pine delivered what had to be his best performance to date while Foster is also memorable as the big brother who decided that, if he was going to go down in a “blaze of glory” so to speak, he might as well christen himself Lord of the Plains.  Come hell or high water, do yourself a favor and go see this powerful tour de force of a movie.

Grade: A+

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Raising Morgan

‘Morgan’ is the feature directorial debut of Luke Scott, who has big shoes to fill indeed.  As you might have guessed from his last name, he’s the son of Ridley Scott, director of such films as ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Alien, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘The Martian’ (true, he also gave us ‘Thelma and Louise’ and ‘Prometheus,’ but we’re all entitled to our duds once in a while aren’t we?).  Having tutored under his famous dad, Luke is now ready to establish a name for himself in a genre that treated his father well back when he started.  Sci-fi/Horror is a safe and logical choice, the thinking goes.  So how is it that ‘Morgan’ bombed at the box office with less than $3 million over the past weekend?  Because no one watches movies (except yours truly) over the Labor Day weekend, evidently:
The latest variation on the familiar sci-fi “Frankenstein” theme we’ve seen in such movies as ‘The Fly,’ ‘The Hollow Man,’ ‘Splice’ and ‘Ex Machina,’ it didn’t help that ‘Morgan’ has been mercilessly panned by the critics.  Nonetheless, I’ve always been a sucker for these science-gone-awry movies where we know things will go very wrong because of human short-sightedness and hubris but somehow still can’t look away.  'Morgan' is an effective sci-fi/horror thriller even if it offers nothing new.
Fresh off her fine debut performance in ‘The VVitch,’ Anya Taylor-Joy is once again mesmerizing and compelling as the titular Morgan, a bio-engineered “human” with preternatural abilities who became the subject of an internal investigation by cold and methodical company “consultant” Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) after a violent episode in which she stabbed one of her doctors in the eye.  Can the project be salvaged or is it a write-off?  We may all know the answer to this question, but seeing how “playing God” once again leads to our own violent end is as deliciously fun as it ever was.
Grade: B+
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