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The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it's easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.
The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see's for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can't do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.
Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The "seven" are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D'Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.
Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto ("True Detective") and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What's not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today's sound technology really adds a welcome element the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.
Fuqua's stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it's important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner's final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner's unique take, we can't miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt's "So far, so good" joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.
Silicon Cowboys (2016)
Greetings again from the darkness. After countless projects spotlighting Steve Jobs and Apple, it's about time the tech-nerdy Texas entrepreneurs behind Compaq get their moment on the silver screen. Filmmaker Jason Cohen turns his camera on Rod Canion, Bill Murto, and Jim Harris none who have the persona or magnetism of Mr. Jobs and tells the story of how they took on Goliath IBM at a time when most wouldn't dare.
Taking us back to 1981, the 3 friends (and Texas Instruments co-workers) quit their jobs to start a new company only they have no real plan on what that company should be or even what industry it should be in. There is a re-enactment of a conceptual drawing of a mobile computer on a diner's paper placemat a drawing that helped them secure a big investment from Ben Rosen at a time when Venture Capitalism was non-existent for technology companies (yep, 35 years ago).
Those early days of a slow developing Silicon Valley featured more hobbyists and non-commercial efforts than anything going on these days. Mobile computing was not really even a product category when Compaq stuck a handle on their case the visuals of businessmen toting them through airports is comical. This was truly the beginnings of the home computer era, and even the tech start-up. The film serves as a historical perspective of the times, while also documenting how Compaq fits into the evolution of the personal computer.
It's pretty easy to draw comparisons to the great and powerful IBM ignoring the "little guys" to the 1970's when GM and Ford overlooked Honda and Toyota. It's always easy to chuckle at the arrogance of big corporations, and when Compaq computers were more compatible with IBM software than IBM computers were, it's a real head-scratcher. The dawn of "clones" were more than a thorn in the side of Big Blue (IBM), and eventually it got worse for them. Head-to-head advertising campaigns of IBM's Charlie Chaplin vs. Compaq's John Cleese further emphasized the contrast between those out of touch with those who clearly understood the market.
Normally a movie that spends much of its time interviewing such down to earth guys as Canion, Murto and Harris, would feel like it's dragging, but the historical significance is such that contemporary comparisons to Dell, Google, Apple and Facebook keep it briskly on track. Though the electronic background music seems out of place, many viewers will enjoy watching a true story where the nerds win!
choose the doc
Greetings again from the darkness. I've never really understood the artistic benefit to filming a biography after a spectacular documentary on that person has already been produced, made the rounds, and racked up awards. But then, I guess the point has little to do with art, and more to do with economics (documentaries are historically a money losing venture). Renowned director Oliver Stone brings us the story of Edward Snowden just two years after filmmaker Laura Poitrus won the Oscar for Best Documentary for her Citizenfour.
Much of what Ms. Poitrus documented in real time at the Mira Hotel in Japan is re-enacted here as one of the three core story lines in Mr. Stone's film. To his credit, he fills in much of the backstory and Snowden's resume by starting with a failed attempt at joining Special Forces (tumbling off the top bunk is automatic disqualification if it shatters one's leg).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimics Snowden's low key mannerism and measured vocals, while also fiddling with his eyeglasses during key moments. As a sought-after role for an actor, Snowden ranks a few rungs below, say Howard Hughes or Franklin Roosevelt or most any other person who has had an impact on America just not much personality to work with though his actions have created some of the most interesting discussions over the past few years.
Joining Snowden in the hotel room are Melissa Leo as Ms. Poitrus, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson showing off a Scottish accent as journalist (from The Guardian) Ewen MacAskill. The second storyline takes us through the initial recruitment and subsequent rise through the CIA and NSA, as we see how Snowden continually uncovered more about how the government was spying on citizens. His interactions along the way such as Rhys Ifans as his CIA mentor Corbin O'Brian and Nic Cage as disgruntled agent Hank Forrester provide a spark of energy on screen. The third piece of the pie revolves around Snowden and his politically-polar-opposite girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.
Since it's an Oliver Stone movie (he co-wrote the screenplay with Kiernan Fitzgerald), we fully expect his political views to be on full display. It's clear he is sympathetic and fully supportive of Snowden's actions, and does his best to paint him as a patriot who had no choice but to go public with his belief that the spying had nothing to do with terrorism, but was instead a form of social and economic control. Based on the books "The Time of the Octopus" by Anatoly Kutcherena and "The Snowden Files" by Luke Harding, the film portrays Snowden as increasingly disenchanted and disappointed, beginning in 2003 and moving through 2013.
Stone's feel for visuals come into play as we track Snowden through Virginia, Geneva, Hawaii, Japan and finally Russia. Along the route, familiar faces pop up in almost every new scene - Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 10), Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Chaplin, Ben Schnetzer, and Joely Richardson. There are a couple of sequences in which Stone applies his stamp a party with drones hovering overhead (until they aren't), and an impactful full wall Skype with Rhys Ifans' face looming larger than Snowden's entire body.
Whistleblower or turncoat? Hero or traitor? Most people fall pretty clearly on one side of the debate, and there's no doubt where Stone stands. Just prior to the voice of Peter Gabriel over the closing credits and clips of the real Ed Snowden, there is a fancy edit where Stone shows him at his computer in his current home in Russia. Stone's movie makes a nice companion piece to Citizenfour, but if you are only going to see one, choose the documentary.
The First Film (2015)
First film, first mystery
Greetings again from the darkness. How do we handle challenges to historical achievements that have been accepted as facts for more than a millennium? Film classes have long taught that Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers were the pioneers of moving pictures. Director David Nicholas Wilkinson has worked for 33 years to prove that Louis LePrince actually beat them to the punch with his own camera and "movies" produced in 1888 Leeds. When LePrince mysteriously disappeared in 1890 he became the industry's first tragedy/mystery, leaving him with no place in history something Wilkinson is trying to correct.
You may have heard other arguments for Eadweard Muybridge, William Friese-Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, but it comes down to limiting the definition to a single lens camera capturing live action on film for playback. Director Wilkinson includes the 3 surviving snippets of scenes recorded by LePrince: a small gathering of friends/family walking around, LePrince's son Adolphe playing an instrument, and a Leeds street shot of moving carriages.
To prove his theory and secure LePrince's place in history, Mr. Wilkinson meets with film historians, researchers, academic experts, museum curators, and even a patent lawyer. The patents are key because LePrince had secured his U.S. and England patents, but the laws worked against him and his supporters once he disappeared. Details are presented in all aspects some concrete, scientific and impressive; others more speculative and circumstantial (as you would expect 125 years later). Wilkinson is willing to do what's necessary to make a clear point as evidenced by his searching a graveyard for a specific headstone (to establish a timeline of the "walking" footage).
Two of the more interesting sequences occur when Wilkinson visits the actual room in the oldest house in Manhattan where LePrince's moving picture was intended to be shown; and his trip to Memphis, Tennessee to meet with LePrince's great great granddaughter to share evidence, artifacts and stories. The three main theories surrounding LePrince's disappearance are profiled. Was he murdered (possibly a hit by Edison)? Did he commit suicide? Was it all a plot to steal his patents? With no body, no witnesses and no evidence of a crime, the LePrince disappearance is the first unsolved mystery of the movie business.
It seems Wilkinson presents enough hard evidence to justify adding LePrince into the discussions around the birth of movie making. The unsolved mystery adds an element of intrigue, and makes for a more interesting movie. Mostly Wilkinson is to be admired for his 33 year obsession, for finishing his project, and for bringing attention to one of history's forgotten players. Beyond that, the tongue-in-cheek manner in which he chooses to end his film allows us to appreciate his efforts and keep it in perspective.
sometimes the right ingredients still don't work
Greetings again from the darkness. The source material is the 1943 novel "The Human Comedy" from Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan; and it's the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the one-time 'America's Sweetheart' who reunites with her Sleepless in Seattle co-star Tom Hanks (in a ghostly cameo). Due to these juicy ingredients, we can be excused if our expectations are a bit high.
As a viewer, it's easy to relate to the emotions of young Homer McCauley (Alex Neustaedter) as his messenger job expedites the disillusionment that often accompanies adulthood. While Homer becomes more disenchanted the more he learns, we feel let down with each successive sequence. The adapted screenplay from Eric Jendresen never picks a direction, and instead teases us with numerous pieces from the novel with little follow through on any.
Homer's dad (a very brief Tom Hanks apparition) has recently passed, and with his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) off at war, Homer takes it upon himself to secure a job to help support his saintly and melancholy mother (Meg Ryan), his older sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his little brother Ulysses (an energetic Spencer Howell). He pledges to be the best bicycle messenger ever when hired at the local telegraph company run by Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and old-timer (grumpy and frequently inebriated) Willie (Sam Shepard).
Being that it's war time, some of the telegraphs Homer must deliver are the worst possible news for the parents on the receiving end. As the film progresses, we see the light slowly go out of Homer's once bright eyes. The accelerated coming-of-age aspect is at its best when his father-figure Willie brusquely tells him "You are 14 years old and you're a man! I don't know who made you that way." It's the most poignant moment of the film and the closest we get to a real theme.
The letters Homer receives from older brother Marcus contribute to his understanding of the world and the reading of the letters serves the purpose of story narration. The film is nostalgic and idealistic, but so unfocused that we are never able to fully connect with any of the characters. We are caught off guard when Homer proclaims his mother as the nicest person ever, although she has offered even less guidance than Forrest Gump's mom. Ithaca, Ulysses, and Homer we can't miss the mythology ties, as well as the importance of home, but it always feels like something is missing.
In 1943, six time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown made a movie based on this same novel, and the cast included Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Donna Reid and Van Johnson. In this new version, John Mellencamp provides the musical score, and Ms. Ryan has stated that the novel helped her work through a difficult time in her personal life. She's likely to get more opportunities to direct; her first outing is easy enough to watch, but just as easy to forget.
The Hollars (2016)
Closer to fine
Greetings again from the darkness. John Krasinski's second film as a director mines the all too familiar territory of dysfunctional family life only the script from Jim Strouse takes it a step further by burdening each character with their own special form of advanced personal dysfunction. The saving grace here is the always dependable Margo Martindale who anchors the gaggle of struggling men in her life.
Richard Jenkins plays Margo's husband a husband quick to cry and slow to recognize most any situation. Sharlto Copley plays their oldest son who is living in their basement and going through life rudderless ever since his divorce. Lastly there is John Krasinski who relocated from their Midwest hometown to NYC pursuing his dream of making it as a graphic novelist.
One morning Margo collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. Krasinski rushes to her bedside to discover that Dad has recently fired the oldest son from the family business that is rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Additionally, big brother is super jealous of his ex-wife's (Ashley Dyke) new relationship (Josh Groban) and takes to stalking and bad-mouthing. Of course, Krasinski is toting his own baggage. He is whiny and depressed about his job, and has cold feet towards marrying his 8 months pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).
The film is loaded with familiar faces and talented actors. Charlie Day shows up as Margo's nurse and Krasinski's insecure former high school nemesis who is now married to Mary Elizabeth Winstead oh yes, she still has the hots for her high school sweetheart (Krasinski). Randall Park is Margot's doctor, and Mary Kay Place has a (very) brief role as Jenkins' sister and employee.
Unfortunately the familiarity extends beyond the faces and into the clichéd characters and story lines. Most of the conversations are predictable, though there are plenty of laughs throughout. It may be the only film to feature punchlines utilizing Jenny Craig, Rod Steiger and Indigo Girls. It's also interesting to see how all three of the lead male characters are wandering aimlessly when the women aren't guiding them. This is a theme that could have been better explored and helped set the film apart from so many similar type films.
Despite the negatives, any movie that offers up a few laughs to go along with Margo Martindale at its core, does have some value.
He's the Captain now
Greetings again from the darkness. Society has a tendency to go to extremes hero worship for those who probably don't deserve it and character assassination for those who have the gall to be less than perfect. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger has experienced both. On January 15, 2009, Sully made the decision to land the crippled aircraft of US Airways flight 1549 right into a river an event immediately labeled "Miracle on the Hudson".
Surprisingly, this is the first film collaboration for Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood. Both have cinematic experience with true life stories and real people: Hanks most recently in Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies; and Clint with American Sniper and J. Edgar. This one is the perfect fit as Hanks takes on a good man who takes pride in doing his job, and Clint brings to life a story that showcases the best of human nature.
Tom Komanicki adapted the screenplay from the book "Highest Duty", co-written by Sully and Jeffrey Zaslow. Much of the attention is given to the doubts and uncertainty Sully experienced during the NTSB review. The scrutiny of his work by the committee (played here by the ultra-serious Mike O'Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) left his career and reputation dangling, inspiring nightmares that are much worse than yours and mine.
Certainly we are in awe of what Sully pulled off that morning, but as movie goers, we are anxious to see the plane crash/splash/landing. Clint comes through in breath-taking fashion. While it lacks the hysterics and drama of the upside-down plane in Flight, this re-creation is so realistic that we nearly obey the flight attendants repeated instructions of "Heads down. Stay down". Even the cockpit chatter, passenger evacuation, and first responder's (many of whom are real life folks, not actors) activities are played in matter-of-fact manner more people just doing their job. We shiver knowing the icy Hudson River water is 36 degrees, and we feel Sully's anxiety as he desperately tries to get a final count a count that he prays will hit 155.
Aaron Eckhart plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles and has a couple of memorable scenes, and Laura Linney embraces the thankless role of telephone wife of Sully during the aftermath and hearings. We get a glimpse of Sully's background with flashbacks to his flight lessons at a Denison Texas private airfield, as well as a portion of his military service. Hanks is the perfect choice for a role that would have suited James Stewart just fine if it were the 1940's.
The conflict here comes from the NTSB inquiry. Backed by computer simulators that show the plane could have coasted back to LaGuardia, we get the distinct feeling that the committee's goal is finding human error naming a scapegoat (other than Canadian geese) for their "lost" plane. It's Sully who reminds us that the committee is simply doing their job just as he was, Skiles was, the Flight Attendants were, and the first responders were.
This is technically expert filmmaking. We know the ending, but are glued to the screen. Frequent Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern handles the cinematography, and like the acting and story-telling, the camera work avoids any excess or over-dramatization. The film provides one of the best examples ever of the duality of hero worship and intense scrutiny, and how a person can be a hero by simply doing their job. The closing credits show clips of the flight's reunion and every survivor would agree that the best among us allowed a continuation of life
something that could have gone to the other extreme.
Mon roi (2015)
healing a knee and a heart
Greetings again from the darkness. We have all had that friend who falls head over heels for someone we know is not good for them. If we are a dutiful friend, we make every effort possible to open their eyes before it's too late. Sometimes they are simply too far gone to listen and what follows is a roller-coaster of emotions, or even an outright train wreck. Writer/director (and sometimes actress) Maiwenn, who was once married to director Luc Besson, finds much to examine in the roller-coaster relationship of Georgio and Marie/Tony.
The story is viewed through the eyes (and recollections) of Marie/Tony played with exuberance by Emmanuelle Bercot. After a skiing "accident", Tony goes to a rehabilitation center to receive post-surgery treatment. While her knee is healing, she also spends her time self-analyzing a tumultuous and destructive relationship with her ex Georgio (Vincent Cassel). It's easy to see the parallels for her learning to walk again, while also learning to live again.
Tony is a successful criminal attorney and self-described "normal" woman. She falls hard for the exciting Georgio, a life-of-the-party type. Tony's brother Solal (Louis Garrel) and Georgio's suicidal ex Agnes (Chrystele Saint Louis Augustin) are both against this relationship, but it's challenging to stop the love bug when it hits this hard. The film acts as a blueprint of how relationships and falling in love can start strong, build to a crescendo, and then crash and burn.
Georgio has many childlike characteristics. He is fine when he gets his way, but explosive and manipulative at the drop of a hat. He is fully engaged in phase one which is filled with passion, lust, fun and excitement; however, once the everyday toil and maintenance of the relationship is required, his bi-polar personality becomes difficult to watch.
Addiction plays a key role here. Georgio is addicted to freedom, partying, and drugs; Tony is addicted to the excitement and passion that he delivers to her "normal" life. There are some cinematically rare "real life" scenes scattered throughout, and none better than the couple's first time in bed, and a later dinner scene where Georgio's charm and manipulation skills are on full display as he puts Tony in a no-win situation.
Vincent Cassel has joined Mads Mikkelsen on my short list of actors that I will watch regardless of the project. His screen presence is powerful and emotionally-driven, and here he generates both admiration and disgust at varying times. We understand why Tony is in a "can't live with him, can't live without him" mode. Emmanuelle Bercot (also a writer and director for other films) manages to cover the full spectrum of emotions during the film, and she takes us along for the self-reflection. We pull for her even as we question her sanity at times. Somehow we get it
he's the king of jerks, but he's her king. If only she had listened...
noble mind o'erthrown
Greetings again from the darkness. The best short films somehow find a way to connect with viewers and make us care about the story and character(s) - in just a few minutes and usually on a very limited budget. The first film from director (and writer) Anthony Garland expertly establishes atmosphere and tone, creates conflict and develops a character we care about all in less than 8 minutes.
Garland seizes on one of the biggest emotional stressors for many people the job interview. The opening scene has a well-dressed Ali Mueller slowly making her way through a dilapidated building while ominous music cues us that we are about to watch a horror film. This horror is psychological in nature and plays to the power of the mind, and the internal battles we fight when plopped into a stressful situation. Ms. Mueller faces a tribunal committee of interviewers (named in the credits as Grumpy, Sneezy, Doc) played by familiar actors whose faces you'll likely recognize (Mary Pat Gleason, Larry Cedar, Allen Blumenfeld).
The film has a dream-like feel and often we aren't sure what's real. However, there are certain segments that are clear manifestations of Ms. Mueller's insecurities and fears. There is a Black Swan nod with her younger self in the mirror, and a razor blade used to remove any doubt that her outward confidence often fails versus her internal struggles.
It's a nifty little look at how we seek to control our fears and doubts, and fits nicely with Ophelia's line from Hamlet: "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown".
The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Baby in a boat
Greetings again from the darkness. As the closing credits rolled, it seemed incredulous that Kleenex was neither a sponsor or even mentioned in the "special thanks". Surely a tissue company was behind such a straightforward cinematic sob-fest (calling this a tear-jerker doesn't do it justice).
Director Derek Cianfrance is accustomed to wallowing in movie sadness. His 2010 gem Blue Valentine was an expose into a fractured and challenging relationship. This time he tackles the M.L, Stedman novel and slows the pace to an excruciatingly slow crawl.
Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a tormented WWI veteran so intent on isolating himself from society and people that he accepts a job as the lighthouse keeper in some desolate area of Australia. The locals in the small town of Stanley in Tasmania welcome Tom and provide him a festive send-off. One of these locals is Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who, despite grieving for her brothers killed in the war, takes an instant liking to the handsome and mysterious Tom.
Soon enough Tom and Isabel are married and living a blissful life on the isolated rock. Emotional turmoil and tragedies follow as Isabel suffers numerous miscarriages. It's then that the movie takes a wild turn. Rather than a message in a bottle, Tom and Isabel find a baby in a boat. Yep, unable to bear their own, the sea delivers a baby to their ocean front home.
Tom can't help but notice that Isabel's depression instantly disappears as she cares for the baby, and in the blink of a misplaced eye, the three become a family. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a movie if the baby's birth mother wasn't discovered, so Rachel Weisz as Hannah brings her own tragic story and mourning to the façade of Tom and Isabel's make-believe happiness. What follows is a look at loyalty to spouse versus doing the right thing a dilemma that isn't as easy as it should be.
The lighthouse and surrounding coastline are extremely photogenic, as is the town and, of course, Fassbender and Vikander (both deliver excellent performances). It's also nice to see Aussie screen veterans Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, 1980) and Bryan Brown (Cocktail), even in small roles. It's a purposefully sad and gut-wrenching movie that evidently moves so slowly to ensure the viewers have sufficient time to utilize those Kleenex.