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Review – The Magnificent Seven


FILM REVIEW
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
With Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee. Written by Richard Wenk, Nic Pizzolatto. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated Rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material. 132 minutes.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a movie with an interesting pedigree. A remake of the 1960 western which starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, among others, that film was itself a remake of the 1954 masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa, “The Seven Samurai.” If the 1960 film was no masterpiece, it was a successful and solidly entertaining film. However, it does not carry such historic weight that a new version is unthinkable.

As before, the story involves a small village of farmers and families being terrorized by outsiders. In this case it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants all their land for his mining operation, and will do whatever it takes to get it. After he and his thugs murder several people and burn down the church, the newly-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) goes out to hired some gunmen to defend the town. Asked if she wants vengeance she said she’s seeking righteousness but will settle for revenge.

Thus the team assembles, led by Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who puts together a modernly diverse crew. There is no racial or ethnic bar here. What’s interesting is that the crew reflects the fault lines of the 19th century. There are men who fought on either side of the Civil War, including Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Southern sharpshooter. The presence of Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican, evokes the Alamo, especially when he tells one of the others who lost family there that it might have been at the hands of his own grandfather, fighting for the other side. Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) reminds us of how Chinese immigrants were treated after being brought over for cheap labor, while the Native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) doesn’t require much elaboration as to that history, especially when they are joined by trapper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is reminded that the government isn’t paying a bounty for scalps any longer. Even cardsharp Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) is more than a western cliché in that he finds himself indebted to Chisolm, who has redeemed his horse.

The key to this tale in all its versions is that the characters have to be individuals and we have to care about their various stories as they pull together for the big showdown. Most of the townspeople and all of the villains except Bogue are essentially pawns who either triumph or get killed as the plot requires. Although the characters are sketched in broad strokes, the script and the cast work to ensure that they are distinct.

Director Antoine Fuqua has shown himself a director who can craft action films that are both muscular and smart. He provides the necessary gunfire and explosions, but never at the expense of dumbing down the material. It’s no surprise that actors like Hawke and Washington (who won his Oscar for Fuqua’s “Training Day”) come back to work with him again and again.

The Magnificent Seven” is an old-time western with a modern sensibility. Unlike all too many remakes, it fully justifies its existence.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! Its a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartenders Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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Review – Storks

 


FILM REVIEW
STORKS.
With the voices of Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman. Written by Nicholas Stoller. Directed by Nicholas Stoller, Doug Sweetland. Rated PG for mild action and some thematic elements. 89 minutes.

When we look back at the film year, this has been a good run for American animation: “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Sausage Party,” “Kubo and the Two Strings.” One film that won’t be added to that list is STORKS, an embarrassment for all concerned.

The premise is that storks have gotten out of the business of delivering babies and now deliver packages in an operation that looks surprisingly like a certain online behemoth. Unfortunately, it’s a promising idea that goes nowhere. Instead we meet Junior (voice of Andy Samberg), whom Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) is about to appoint to head the entire operation. First, however, Junior has to deal with Tulip (Katie Crown), a teenage girl who was raised by the storks when her deliverer Jasper (Danny Trejo) became obsessed with the baby and broke the tracking device to find her human family.

For reasons not made clear, Tulip is constantly making a mess of things, and Junior is to “liberate” her by removing her from the facility. Instead he assigns her to the mailroom, to deal with the requests for babies that are no longer being processed. Cut to little Nate (Anton Starkman), a young boy who wants a baby brother because his workaholic parents (Ty Burrell, Jennfer Aniston) have no time for him. When Tulip processes Nate’s letter and a baby is produced, Junior and Tulip set off to deliver the unauthorized baby before Hunter can find out.

There’s much more plot churning, little that makes sense. There’s Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), who calls everyone “Brah” and may be the most annoying movie character since Jar Jar Binks. There’s a wolf pack (whose leaders are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), that can transform itself into things like submarines and suspension bridges, and which becomes obsessed with the baby’s cuteness. And, of course, there’s the absurd character changes such as when Hunter goes from stern boss to “villain who must die” and Nate’s parents, who transform themselves from an obsession with their real estate business to “fun Dad” and “fun Mom.”

The animation is serviceable, although anyone who pays for the 3D version is essentially making a charitable donation to Warner Bros. The real problem is the script, from the lame story, to the lack of any likeable characters. As the protagonists, Junior and Tulip may be the least sympathetic heroes of any movie this year, live action or animated. The theme of finding family–whether actual or makeshift–is a common one in animated films, so one has to wonder why it is handled so badly here.

Suffice to say, if your child is old enough to know where babies come from, he or she is too old for “Storks.” If you choose to endure it with younger children who are apt to be less critical, you’re on your own.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Snowden


FILM REVIEW
SNOWDEN
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage. Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. 134 minutes.

Oliver Stone doesn’t shy away from controversy, and with SNOWDEN, he’s locked on to an issue that will work up the partisans on both sides. Edward Snowden (portrayed here in a solid turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a government operative who worked for the CIA and the NSA, focusing on using the tools of the internet to fight terrorism.

As portrayed here, he’s a patriotic young man who washes out of the military after breaking his leg, but is eager to serve his country. A gifted programmer, he is doted on by his instructors (Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage) at the CIA and whose career is on the fast track. Eventually, he discovers that the government is prying into the phone calls and emails of ordinary American citizens in violation of the law. This isn’t troubling to the higher-ups who go so far as to lie to Congress when asked point blank if such a program is going on. That’s when Snowden decided to go public.

To those on his side–and that includes many people including filmmaker Stone–Snowden is a whistleblower and a hero, exposing illegal action by the government and bringing it to the attention of the American people. To others he’s a traitor, or worse, or revealed government secrets and may have put America at risk. The movie will not likely change anyone’s mind on that score.

What it does do is paint a portrait of the man, who is currently living in Russia because the U.S. has lifted his passport so he cannot travel. You may have seen the real Snowden in the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” (2014). Now we get a portrait of who he was before he sat down in a Hong Kong hotel room and revealed what he knew. The film spends a good deal of time on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), because it reveals a man whose “agenda” was to serve his country, make a home with the woman he loved, and not to become the focus of an international debate. It takes us through the process to the point where he felt he had no choice and could only act as he did.

The supporting cast is strong. In addition to Ifans and Cage as two very different CIA operatives, there’s also Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson as the journalists interrogating him, as well as apperances by Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, Ben Chaplin, and Scott Eastwood. The weight of the film, though, is on Gordon-Levitt and Woodley and these are easily two of the best performances of the year. Gordon-Levitt easily portrays sympathetic characters, but this may his most nuanced performance as he struggles with not only the legal dilemma but some personal issues as well. Woodley may be best known for the “Divergent” series but, like Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games,” her non-franchise performances show her to be a serious and multi-faceted actress. Her Lindsay is supportive even when she doesn’t–and can’t–know what’s troubling her boyfriend.

The film ends with Snowden in exile giving a remote interview with Gordon-Levitt replaced by the real man. (We await filmgoers questioning why two actors were cast in the part.) Whether you believe his actions were justified or not–and the film makes the case they were–“Snowden” wants to show that Snowden the man acted from the best of motives, leaving the discussion as to whether he should be pardoned or prosecuted in a somewhat more ambiguous place.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Bridget Jones’s Baby


FILM REVIEWBRIDGET JONES’S BABYWith Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani. Written by Helen Fielding and Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson. Directed by Sharon Maguire. Rated R for language, sex references and some nudity. 122 minutes.

Remakes, sequels, reboots. So much of what Hollywood churns out these days is based on what we’ve already seen… or at least heard of. BRIDGET JONES’S BABY is the third entry in a series about a single woman in England originally created by author Helen Fielding. Given that the first two movies were released in 2001 and 2004, we’ve all gotten older.

The film opens with Bridget (Renée Zellweger) turning 43. She’s still alone–everyone’s bailed on her birthday–but at least she has a successful career going as producer of an evening newscast. Her best friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani) decides she needs to go out and live it up. She ends up at a music festival where she has a romp with Jack (Patrick Dempsey), the wealthy American founder of a dating website. Then she’s at a christening where she runs into her old flame Mark (Colin Firth), and they end up in bed together as well.

All this exposition is to set up the main storyline: Bridget is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is. Her obstetrician (Emma Thompson, who shares a screenplay credit) is unable to help Bridget determine the father–at least not with a procedure that could endanger the pregnancy–and so the farce is in play. First it involves not letting either man know about the other, and then–when they inevitably find out–plays out the rest of the pregnancy with her coping with two dads. Indeed, at a birthing class the teacher assumes the two men are the couple and that Bridget is their surrogate.

It’s not exactly sophisticated humor, nor can one really call this a romantic comedy, because the focus is on Bridget with the two men basically there to service the plot. This isn’t so much of a complaint as an observation. There are certainly too many movies where the women are mere plot devices, but a successful romantic comedy requires the two be treated somewhat equally. Instead, the two men here are eye candy. For many of his fans Firth will forever be Mr. D’Arcy from “Pride and Prejudice” while Dempsey remains “Dr. McDreamy” from “Grey’s Anatomy.” The result is less a date night movie than one better suited for “girl’s night out.”

It’s liight and fluffy with less of an edge than the earlier films. Bridget is somewhat more self-assured than she had been, which makes sense. Someone who’s awkward in her twenties might be amusing but in her forties one would have hoped she finally grew up. So there’s some slapstick (Bridget falls in the mud) and silliness (Bridget conspires to get a DNA sample from Jack), but nothing you’re likely to take home with you. Indeed, the cleverest thing here is how they deal with the absence of Hugh Grant, one of the male leads in the earlier two films.

For those who enjoyed those earlier films, and for those happy to see Renée Zellweger return to the screen after a six year absence, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is light, undemanding entertainment.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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Review – Sully


FILM REVIEW
SULLY
.  With Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan. Written by Todd Komarnicki. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language. 95 minutes.

At 86, it’s hard to believe that Clint Eastwood is still directing movies, but what’s even more impressive is he keeps setting new challenges for himself. In his mid-70s, he made two World War II movies back-to-back, one of them in Japanese. Two years ago, he made his first adaptation of a Broadway musical and followed that up with a movie about the war in Iraq. This time out, with SULLY, he has shot the film in the large screen IMAX process.

The story is the true life saga of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a veteran pilot for U.S. Airways who did something unprecedented: he landed a jet plane on the Hudson River with 155 people aboard, and they all lived to tell the tale. As Sully (Tom Hanks) tells the panel from the National Transportation Safety Board reviewing the incident, something is unprecedented until it finally happens.

On January 15, 2009, he and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Shortly after takeoff a flock of birds flew right into the path of the plane, damaging both engines. In less than five minutes he decided that they could not reach nearby airports in time and that his only choice was to land in the river, in below freezing weather.

The script by Todd Komarnicki uses the investigation as the narrative hook. As computer simulations demonstrate he could have made it to an airport, Sully finds himself being second-guessed. Nearing the end of his flying career, a finding of negligence would rob him of his pension and destroy his new aviation-related business. In phone conversations with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), we learn their financial situation is precarious, this being a moment when the country seemed headed into a second Great Depression.

However, we know how this story turns out. The real drama here is that of an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances and finding this his skills and lifetime of experience has prepared him to meet the challenge. Once he’s safely on land and already being lauded as a hero, his first concern is that everyone on the plane be accounted for and alive. They are, and that just adds to his heroic image.

However, Sully–in a pitch-perfect performance by Hanks–doesn’t feel like a hero. He’s haunted by nightmares of the landing going wrong. And when strangers hug him, or offer him drinks, or invite him to be on television, he finds it hard to cope. He doesn’t want to be a celebrity. As far as he was concerned, he–and everyone else involved–just did what they were supposed to do. It takes an airline official to point out that it had been quite a while since New Yorkers had news to cheer about, particularly news that involved an airplane. In the shadow of 9/11 and in the midst of worst economic crisis in eighty years, Sully’s professionalism was a needed reminder that there was good in the world.

In telling the story of that fateful flight and the people who rose to the occasion that day, “Sully” provides us a similar message, and one that is most welcome.•••

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 most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Light Between Oceans


FILM REVIEW
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
With Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content. 132 minutes.

It’s not been a great summer at the movies. The animation was pretty good, the comedies were weak, and the superhero movies all blurred together. The last few months of the year generally bring the grown-up films–Oscar-bait, as they’re known–but usually we have to wait until mid-September for them to start to roll out. Traditionally Labor Day weekend was a dumping ground.

Which is why it’s so unusual that THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is opening now. Or maybe not. It’s got a superb cast, none of whom are well known by name by the public, although the faces are familiar. Perhaps it’s the perfect time to release a serious and moving drama that doesn’t have any star power to guarantee a big opening weekend.

Michael Fassbender (“X-Men: First Class,” “12 Years a Slave”) is Tom Sherborne, a veteran of World War I, who was emotionally scarred by his experiences. He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Australia, happy for the solitude. During one of his trips to the mainland, he becomes involved with Isabel Graysmark, played by Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina,” “The Danish Girl,” “Jason Bourne”), and they marry. For a while it is a happy marriage, but after two miscarriages, there are strains.

Then a rowboat is spotted off the island with two inhabitants: a dead man and a live baby. Isabel wants to claim the baby for their own. That fateful decision hangs over the rest of the story and it is because we have by that time becomes so invested in the characters that it has an impact. The only “special effects” that need concern us in this movie are the power of raw–and very real–human emotions.

It’s precislely because the two leads are not stars that we bring no expectations to their performances. By contrast when we see a star like Tom Hanks–even as a gangster in “Road to Perdition”–we know we’re going to sympathize with his character’s essential goodness. Fassbender has played a variety of roles, and each one is a revelation. His lighthouse keeper is decent man hounded by guilt over his surviving the war when so many others died. By narrowing his world to the lighthouse, he regains some sense of control.

Vikander, whose career has burned brightly over the last couple of years, makes Isabel yet another character who we think we get at first sight. She then peels back the layers so we discover Isabel is more complicated than the sweet young thing who captured Tom’s heart. The supporting cast includes veterans Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, and another actress–Rachel Weisz–who has a long career although you may not immediately place her. (In Weisz’s case, that may change after her leading role in the forthcoming “Denial.”)

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance, in adapting M. L. Stedman’s novel, contrasts the two primary locations of the island and the village as two differing forms of isolation from the rest of the world, leaving us to ponder who or what the metaphoric “light” of the title is meant to be. That a movie has us reflecting on the human condition rather than whether there will be a sequel does send one unmistakable message. “The Light Between Oceans” tells us loud and clear that summer is over and it’s okay for grown-ups to go to the movies again.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Morgan


FILM REVIEW
MORGAN
With Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Written by Seth W. Owen. Directed by Luke Scott. Rated R for brutal violence, and some language. 92 minutes.

MORGAN is the flip side of “Ex Machina,” which was one of the best films of 2015. This time it’s the outsider who is the hard-nosed corporate type, and the people who have created the artificial being who become emotionally attached to it. While it raises some of the same questions, it plays out quite differently, making it part of a lively debate rather than the “ripoff” or “clone” that some critics will inevitably claim.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a biological construct as opposed to a mechanical device who has rapidly matured. The scientists on the project refer to Morgan as “she.” As with many stories about artificial intelligence, a key question is whether sentience exists and whether the resulting creature is an “it” or has become something akin to humanity.

In a prologue, Morgan unpredictably attacks and injures one of the scientists. This brings the arrival of Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a sleek and serious corporate investigator who will determine if the Morgan project can be salvaged or should be terminated. As far as Lee is concerned, Morgan is an “it.” Over the course of a couple of a couple of days, Lee will talk to the various scientists as they await the arrival of Dr. Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), whose intense grilling will demonstrate whether or not Morgan is irretrievably out of control.

The scientists (including Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michele Yeoh) are committed to the project. One even seems to have developed a personal bond with Morgan. Whereas the question in “Ex Machina” was whether the female android had developed real human emotions, the question here is whether allowing Morgan to develop emotions has turned into a fatal flaw. And just what would it mean if she has to be terminated?

The feature directing debut of Luke Scott, whose father Ridley Scott tread on similar ground in the classic “Blade Runner,” “Morgan” plays everything close and tight. Almost all the action takes place at the remote house where the experiment has been underway. (We learn of an earlier massive failure in Helsinki which may explain why they are far from any city.) Morgan is presented as a somewhat sullen teenager who rarely removes her hoodie, yet clearly is more than an automaton. Deciding she is less than human–and simply an experiment gone wrong–will have a devastating impact on her “family” of creators. Seth W. Owen’s clever script keeps us focused on the competing agendas of Lee and the scientists, and only in the third act do we discover that we–and most of the film’s characters–have been asking the wrong questions.

The ensemble cast is solid, with Mara tightly wound and relentless as the corporate hand, and Taylor-Joy tackling another complex role after her turn earlier this year in “The Witch.” In each case she seems to be just another pretty face–and cast for that–only to reveal deeper layers as the story progresses. She’s clearly someone to watch.

“Morgan” proves to be a lot more interesting than any of the superhero blockbusters that have filled our screens in the last few months, which means you’d better catch it fast.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is the author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.