Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Seven take another ride

Denzel Washington leads a diverse troupe of rogues in a remake of The Magnificent Seven.
 The late John Huston, a director with a resume that commands respect, once confessed to bemusement about Hollywood's approach to remakes. Why remake movies that worked, Huston asked? Why not have another go at movies that didn't make the cut? Maybe a fresh eye could figure out what went wrong.

Director Antoine Fuqua didn't follow Huston's advice. Instead, he tried his luck at an emphatic but not entirely stirring version of The Magnificent Seven in which Denzel Washington, who teamed with Fuqua on Training Day, took the role Yule Brynner played in the 1960 original.

Fuqua brings plenty of style to the project, but the movie's magnificent seven -- rogues who sign on to help protect defenseless farmers from a ruthless robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) -- tend to be sketches rather than well-drawn characters.

As a result, the movie is only moderately successful in its attempts to write a rousing ode to brutal men who find redemption by helping to protect the helpless.

This version of the Seven story has been ethnically diversified for contemporary audiences. In addition to Washington's Chisolm, we meet a knife-throwing Asian (Byung-hun Lee), a cigar-chomping Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an outcast Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a former marksman (Ethan Hawke) for the Confederacy, a bearish loner (Vincent D'Onofrio) and a tag-along novice (Luke Grimes).

Washington, Hawke and D'Onofrio receive the most attention; the others are reduced to embodiments of their skill sets. Good with knives. Not-to-be-messed, etc.

Washington's performance consists mostly of stoic minimalism. Dressed in black, he's the all-business member of the team. Perhaps that's why it falls to D'Onofrio's Jack Horn to sound the movie's theme: No man can ask for more than to serve his fellows in the company of men he respects.

Early on, Fuqua seems to be embracing genre cliches with gleeful relish. He has some fun with the scenes in which Washington's character rounds up the crew that will protect the decent people of the embattled town of Rose Creek.

Initially reluctant to get involved, Washington's Chisolm eventually responds to a request from a plucky woman (Haley Bennett) whose husband was gunned down in cold blood by Sarsgaard's Bogue. Bogue's capitalistic interests clash with the homespun agrarian virtues of the townsfolk.

Oddly, the movie begins to lose steam with its first gunfight, and the massive final battle sacrifices realism to non-stop pyrotechnics, including a vicious hail of bullets launched from a Gatling Gun that Bogue brings to the fight.

Cliches aren't necessarily a bad thing in a movie such as this, but by the time Washington straddles his horse as he fires one impossibly precise shot after another, the cliches have become ... well .... cliches.

Mauro Fiore's cinematography provides one of the movie's biggest pleasures: spacious landscapes, weathered faces, galloping horses. Even the town of Rose Creek -- though typically portrayed -- adds a welcome familiarity to Fuqua's Western adventure.

And the villain? Eli Wallach's Calvera from the original was more convincing than Sarsgaard's blandly ruthless capitalist. The endangered Mexican peasant farmers of Sturges's movie, of course, have given way to Rose Creek's predominantly white-bread population.

Composer Elmer Bernstein's trademark theme from Sturges's movie, hinted at throughout, provides a stirring coda for a drama that could have used that kind of punctuation throughout.

The Magnificent Seven isn't a bad movie, but there's something wrong when a movie's end credits feel more spirited than the scenes that immediately precede it.

And, no, neither the 2016 edition nor Sturges's movie surpasses the real inspiration for both films, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), a true masterpiece.

The vicious side of college life

 Fraternity hazing may be an easy target, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't become the subject of a cautionary tale about uncontrolled cruelty on college campuses. Director Andrew Neel's Goat is just such a movie. Neel begins his story when local thugs attack a high school senior (Ben Schnetzer), beating him almost senseless. Time passes and Schnetzer's Brad heals, but he heads for his first year in college with a lingering case of post-traumatic stress. Neel contrasts the random cruelty Brad suffered in his hometown with the organized humiliations orchestrated by the fraternity Brad pledges. Brad's older brother (Nick Jonas) -- a senior at the same school -- urges his brother to join the frat. The promise, of course, is that friendship and social acceptance will follow the demeaning rigors of Hell Week. Increasingly, Neel focuses the drama on Jonas's Brett, a young man who begins to understand that his fraternity brothers are crossing the line between acceptable rites of initiation and behavior that -- in other contexts -- might qualify as criminal. Goat doesn't take us any place we haven't been before, but its message bears repeating. Neel and his young cast skillfully handle events that are intended to repulse -- and do. Consider Goat an antidote to recent hard-partying, frat-boy comedies such as 2014's Neighbors. Goat's not about college fun; it's about the torture some will endure in order not to feel socially ostracized.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Oliver Stone tackles Snowden's story

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance clicks, but Snowden doesn't reach powerhouse levels.

Oliver Stone's Snowden turns out to be a reasonably straightforward procedural about a young man who drank lots of patriotic Kool-Aid before learning that it gave him moral indigestion. We are, of course, talking about Edward Snowden, whose explosive 2013 leak of classified information exposed a mass NSA surveillance operation that included ordinary US citizens.

Now resident in Moscow, Snowden has become one more figure around which Americans can divide. Some view him as a hero who did his country a great public service. Others see him as a traitor.

By the end of Snowden, it's clear that Stone wants to place Snowden on the heroic side of the ledger, even including him in a final series of images.

Whatever you think of him, Snowden hardly projects the personality of a calculating villain intent on damaging his country, something we already learned from Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras's Academy Award winning documentary about how Snowden leaked his information to the press and, subsequently, to the world.

The talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Snowden as a one-and-done whistleblower; he captures Snowden's persistence and intelligence, and charts his course from an apparently conservative patriot to a man at odds with his own government.

In this version of the Snowden story, Zachary Quinto appears as single-minded Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald; Tom Wilkinson breathes a bit more life into Ewan MacAskill, another Guardian journalist; and Mellisa Leo plays Poitras as a filmmaker who tries not to add to Snowden's already huge pile of problems.

For the most part, these characters remain underdeveloped, but Stone uses scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden and the journalists were ensconced to punctuate a story that traces Snowden's development from a solider (he enlisted after 9/11, but was discharged after he both broke legs) to a rising star in the nation's intelligence apparatus.

Rhys Ifans brings suggestions of evil to the role of Corbin O'Brain, a fictional CIA character who hires Snowden. The young man's intelligence impresses O'Brain, partly because hje believes that the future of warfare isn't on battlefields but in rooms full of tech wizards who know how to hack and protect data.

A teleconferencing scene in which O'Brain confronts Snowden about a violation of CIA rules finds O'Brain towering over the young man on a huge screen, and, I'm afraid, serves as an example of Stone's fondness for overstatement, which he mostly keeps in check here -- unless, of course, you believe there could be more sides to the Snowden story.

Nicolas Cage shows up as a jaded CIA cryptographer Snowden meets during his training; Cage's character later reappears to add an exclamation point of approval to Snowden's decision to fight the power.

Perhaps to keep Snowden from turning into a vaguely fictionalized version of Poitras's documentary, Stone focuses much attention on the relationship between Snowden and girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

Stone captures the tension that ripples through a relationship in which one of the partners (Snowden) never can talk about his day at the office.

The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald sometimes resorts to position-paper dialogue, and the movie lacks the dense intrigue of Stone's JFK or the undertow of rank corruption that filtered through Stone's Nixon.

I suppose that's another way of saying that a certain thinness keeps Snowden from feeling like a major statement about the ways in which the government may have violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects individual privacy.

The story often benefits from Stone's ability to create momentum, but if Stone wanted to shake us to the core about the perils of a government that's using security as a pretext to widen its control over us, I don't know that he gets the job done.

Perhaps Snowden isn't an epic enough character around which to build a powerhouse drama. As Snowden himself might attest, it's the debate he hoped to foster that matters, not him.

She's back -- and she's pregnant

Renee Zellweger reprises her role as Bridget Jones. The results are decidedly mixed.

I don't know about you, but I haven't breathlessly been awaiting another Bridget Jones movie, although I have missed Renee Zellweger's presence on the big screen. Zellweger hasn't appeared in a movie in six years.

I suppose it was inevitable that Zellweger would return to movie action by reprising her role as a British woman who first stole hearts in 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary (good) and followed with 2004's Bridget Jones, The Edge of Reason (not so wonderful).

These days, Bridget works as a TV news producer. Even with an established career, she's still wondering whether her life ever totally will jell. On the night of her 43rd birthday, she ponders the question in her apartment -- alone and in PJs.

The movie quickly introduces the men in Bridget's life: two of them.

As a reluctant attendee at a music festival, Bridget meets Jack (Patrick Dempsey), a billionaire who has made his fortune in the computer-dating business. For Jack, romance can be reducible to algorithms.

Bridget also reacquaints herself with the charmingly diffident Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), one of her flames from the first two movies.

Bridget sleeps with both men, becomes pregnant and then agonizes about which of her lovers might be the father of the expected child.

Director Sharon Maguire, who also directed the first movie, isn't working in subtle mode. Laughs are derived from bits such as the one in which Bridget falls face forward into the mud that has turned the outdoor musical festival into a swamp.

Lots of ink has been spilled about Zellweger's appearance. I won't spill any more, but this edition of Bridget Jones finds everyone looking a bit long in the tooth for a supposedly rollicking rom-com.

Perhaps because he was busy acting his age in Florence Foster Jenkins, Hugh Grant is absent from this edition -- although the screenplay finds ways in which to refer to his character.

Emma Thompson, Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent turn up in generally negligible roles.

Some of the comedy involving Bridget's job is border-line smart. She feeds questions to an on-air personality played by Sarah Solemani, a woman who takes a far more pragmatic approach to romance than Bridget.

And, yes, the movie finds ways to add a culminating spasm of physical comedy, the unavoidable scene in which Bridget's water breaks. She's hurried to the hospital in the company of both men in her life: They struggle to carry her crumpling body through the hospital's revolving door.

I probably should report that a largely female preview audience found the movie a good deal funnier than I did, but I also must confess to a deep lack of concern about whether Bridget Jones's Baby bombs or booms, except to fret that a whopping success just might breed more such strained efforts.

A movie that understands real horror

The Polish movie Demon looks at what happens when the past is buried.

Early in Demon, an outrageously conceived Polish film that explores a haunted part of the country's past, we see a huge construction site where crews have dug deep into the earth. In an important sense, excavation becomes the movie's subject -- not only what it means to dig into the soil, but to uncover disturbing remnants of a past that resists burial.

Because of its title, Demon can be seen as a horror film -- albeit one that owes a debt the Yiddish play The Dybbuk. Still, if you're expecting to be frightened by typical horror film ploys, you'll surely be disappointed.

The story begins when Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) boards a boat to reach his destination, a small Polish village. Piotr has traveled to Poland from Britain to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), a woman he met in London.

Zanete's father (Andrzej Grabowski), who runs the construction site we've just seen, expresses doubt about the impending marriage's chance for success, but has little choice but to go along.

Piotr and Zaneta plan to live in a rundown villa that she recently inherited from her grandfather. Skilled in construction, Piotr wants to build a paradise for himself and his bride.

Using a borrowed backhoe, he starts digging a hole for a swimming pool. His digging turns up a skeleton. Later, he has a ghostly vision of a young woman, presumably the spirit released along with the bones he's exhumed.

Most of the movie takes place at the wedding reception, held at the crumbling home the couple plans to renovate.

As the party progresses, Piotr's behavior grows increasingly strange. Gradually, it becomes clear that he's being possessed by a spirit, the ghost he inadvertently unearthed.

Adept at the art of denial, Zaneta's father keeps urging her boisterous but good-hearted brother (Tomasz Schuchard) to keep the guests well lubricated.

When it comes to vodka, the guests need little encouragement. Thanks to drink and a celebratory atmosphere, the revels becomes more and more frenzied, and we begin to realize that the wedding itself may be a form of crazed collective denial.

Denial of what? Eventually, director Marcin Wrona makes it clear that the townsfolk are eager not to be reminded about Poland's once thriving Jewish population.

When the ghost begins speaking through Piotr, her language is Yiddish. As the only person in town who understands Yiddish, the town's lone remaining Jew talks to the ghost. He begins to recall a past that he, too, probably has tried not to remember.

It may seem odd, at this point, to say that Demon has a comic side. Wrong reveals his wildly satiric impulses as the guests become sweaty, and the hem of the bride's dress becomes mud-stained. Intermittent torrential rains flood the reception.

No ordinary horror film, Demon raises questions about Polish complicity during the war years when Nazis began the systematic murder of Europe's Jews. How did grandpa wind up with this house? How, when the Nazis were busy rounding up Jews for mass shootings or shipment to death camps, could a Jewish skeleton remain behind?

Demon leaves us with much to ponder, hinging its drama on a contradiction: A haunted past tends not to stay buried. At the same time, the urge to deny that past proves astonishingly powerful.

At one point Zaneta's father strains to reach a consensus among the guests. They should, he says, agree to forget "what they didn't see."

What has been seen, of course, can't be unseen, but Wrona leaves it for us to decide whether the father's advice will be followed or whether the past will be acknowledged, digested and properly memorialized.

It should be noted that Wrona committed suicide just before his film had its premiere at last year's Gdynia Film Festival in Poland. His death adds a terrible footnote to a movie in which it's not really a ghost that does the haunting but a country's fraught history.

An American kid in Heidelberg

Adolescence inevitably seems to immerse young people in alien territory in which they can feel awkward, uncertain and confused.

In Morris From America, the ordinary problems of a dawning adolescence are amplified in ways that make for an illuminating movie with plenty of heart. Morris (a winning Markees Christmas), you see, is a black American kid living in Heidelberg, Germany, with his widowed father (Craig Robinson). Dad works as a coach with the local professional soccer team.

So what's life like for a 13-year-old who'd rather be back in the States?

Well, the kids at a local recreation center keep asking Morris whether he's a rapper or a basketball player? When drugs turn up at the center, a counselor immediately and wrongly accuses Morris. Even a 15-year-old (Lina Keller) who seems to accept Morris as a friend can't resist playing a cruel joke on him at a party.

Put another way, Morris faces racism that derives from stereotypes that have little to do with anything in his reality.

To make a movie such as this, director Chad Hartigan had to find just the right kid to play Morris. Chunky and reticent, Christmas gives a performance to which we slowly warm. By the end, he has entirely won us over as a young man forced to play the role of the stranger.

Much of the time Morris is on his own. He meets with the young woman (Carla Juri) who has been hired to tutor him in German or tries to stave off loneliness. He attempts to deal with a misguided crush on Keller's Katrin, who has an older boyfriend and who runs on a faster track than Morris can handle.

The heart of the movie beats around a father-son relationship. Familiar from such comedies as Hot Tub Time Machine, Pineapple Express and This Is The End, Robinson portrays a loving father who battles his own loneliness. He alternates between seeing his son as a companion and peer and as a kid who needs an authority figure in his life.

Robinson plays this character with a level of honest awareness that seems as real as the defenses Morris has developed to cope with this alien world.

As directed by Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner), Morris From America becomes a sweet and knowing movie about a kid who must learn how to navigate a foreign society -- even if he'll never fully accept that society or be accepted by it.

People vs. Fritz Bauer

Fritz Bauer, a prosecutor working in post-War Germany, turned up as a character in the recent movie Labyrinth of Lies. When I saw that movie, in which Bauer plays an important supporting character, I wondered whether Labyrinth shouldn't have spent more time with him than with a fictionalized young lawyer who tires to bring former Nazis to justice. In the new movie, The People vs. Fritz Bauer, Bauer becomes the main character in a complex and well-acted drama that, like Labyrinth, draws power from the real events on which its based. Director Lars Kraume focuses on Bauer's efforts to bring Adolf Eichmann to trial in West Germany. Bauer, a Jew, learns that Eichmann may be hiding in Argentina. He confirms what he's heard, but faces resistance from colleagues who wish to let the matter die. Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) presses on, eventually turning to the Israeli Mossad for help. Bauer works with an associate (Ronald Zehrfeld), a fictional character whose relationship with his boss is complicated by the fact that both have homosexual leanings that could land them in jail in West Germany of 1957. Kraume, who co-wrote the screenplay with Olivier Guez, can't quite give the drama the moral sweep for which he may have been aiming, but Klaussner's performance as the cigar-smoking, difficult-to-read Bauer conveys the complexities of a man trying to find justice in a society that not long ago wanted to see him dead and in which remnants of those sentiments haven't totally been purged.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Dysfunctional family, dysfunctional movie

Somewhere in the movie called The Hollars, a good family story might be hiding. Unfortunately, director John Krasinski, who also plays the lead role, didn't find it. This story of a dysfunctional Ohio family centers on the discovery that Mom (Margo Martingale) has a brain tumor. Dad (Richard Jenkins) can't stop weeping. One of the family's grown sons (Sharlto Copley) is mired in on-going tension with Dad, whose heating business verges on bankruptcy. Krasinksi plays the family's other son, the kid who left town to establish himself as an artist in the big city. Lest any stone of complication be left unturned, Krasinski's John Hollar and his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) are expecting a baby. Sincere in its sentiments and including a few touching scenes, The Hollars nonetheless presents a symphony of false notes that even a cast featuring the wonderful Martingale and Jenkins can't bring into tune.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Eastwood and Hanks team for 'Sully'

A real-life drama with stunning highlights.

In a society riven with division, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger qualifies as a hero nearly everyone can get behind. You remember Sully, I'm sure. In January of 2009, he made an emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. The feat was hailed as a heroic act of competence and daring in the face of potential disaster.

It all happened in a matter of minutes. Shortly after leaving Laguardia Airport, Sullenberger's jet was struck by a flock of geese. The plane's engines were disabled.

Sullenberger quickly calculated his chances of returning to Laguardia or making an unscheduled landing at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport. After determining that he couldn't reach either airport, Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles landed their plane in the Hudson.

Miraculously -- there's really no other word for it -- all 155 passengers survived. No one was even seriously injured.

We all saw pictures of the shaken passengers standing on the plane's wings in the middle of the Hudson on a day when temperatures dipped into the 20s. We saw rescue boats scurrying to bring the passengers to safety. It was a national "Holy shit" moment, and -- for once -- it ended in a good way.

Director Clint Eastwood's Sully, which stars Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, offers stunning recreations of those events on the Hudson, but rather than move steadily toward the fateful moment, screenwriter Todd Komarnicki places them toward the middle of a film that focuses on the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that followed the landing.

According to the movie, an NTSB committee left an already shaken Sullenberger wondering whether he'd made the right decision.

Hanks' low-key performance underscores Eastwood's celebration of Sullenberger's competence and modesty, even as Hanks conveys Sullenberger's continuing bouts with doubt. Sully dreams of what might have happened had he miscalculated. He experiences post-traumatic stress, and his life is made more difficult by a relentless flood of media attention.

As co-pilot Skiles, Aaron Eckhart shows a bit more flare. He's a staunch defender of Sullenberger, and believes that the highly experienced captain had no choice but to gamble on a river landing.

Although the tension of the landing can be felt throughout Sully's entire 95-minute running time, Eastwood makes a public NTSB hearing the movie's climax, hinging its outcome on questions about the validity of NTSB computer simulations used to evaluate Sullenberger's decisions.

In a battle between human judgment and computers, there's little doubt which side Eastwood will take. I suppose the NTSB is vilified a bit -- albeit not in excoriating fashion. The NTSB investigators -- Anna Gunn plays one -- are portrayed as a panel of not-always-friendly inquisitors.

A compelling story helps Sully survive some of the problems that keep the film from total takeoff. Flashbacks to Sully's past (his start as a crop-dusting youngster and an episode from his stint in the Air Force) are inserted without great finesse, and there's little attempt to flesh-out the drama.

Despite Sully's statement that the landing and rescue reflected a team effort of which he was only a part, the movie remains a solo flight built around Sully's experiences, which include brief, troubled phone conversations with his wife (Laura Linney).

Eastwood, who has been praised by those who work with him as a no-nonsense director who knows what he wants, must have warmed to Sully, who never regards himself as a hero and who talks about what he accomplished in mundane terms: He was just doing his job.

The film compacts (justifiably, I think) the NTSB investigation, which took place over the course of 18 months -- not in the few days following the emergency landing. Besides, can you imagine the outcry that might be heard if the NTSB didn't investigate emergency water landings?

A few nuances might have given us a better feeling for such complexities, but Sully seems interested mostly in keeping faith with the unquestionable trustworthiness of its main character.

The movie also leaves you with an indelible sense of the terror and panic that would rattle you to the core if you were on a plane that was heading for water, and you were hearing fight attendants straining to overcome the sounds of a falling aircraft. "Brace. Brace. Brace," they shout in drum-beat fashion.

It's a moment you won't soon forget.