Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Deepwater Horizon Review (2016)

In this recent stage of his career, director Peter Berg seems determined to take recent real life American tragedies and transform them into beefy, balls to the wall action flicks. And I have to admit, he’s pretty damn good at it.

In “Lone Survivor, “ four Navy Seals (including lone survivor Marcus Luttrell) get stranded behind enemy lines in Afghanistan, forced to take on an entire Taliban army. Now, in “Deepwater Horizon,” Berg depicts the devastating 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, leading to biggest oil spill in U.S history.  Later this year, (or next year) we will get a film dramatizing the Boston Marathon bombing in “Patriots Day.” Neither “Lone Survivor” nor “Deepwater Horizon;” is deeply profound; one is a fairly standard straightforward war film; the other is a fairly standard straightforward disaster flick. During a TV spot for “Deepwater” I saw a critic quote calling it: “The most important movie of the year.” Yeah…not even close. Yet, both films are visceral, highly absorbing additions to their respective genres. Berg knows how to grab you by the throat and not let up.

“Deepwater Horizon” is the kind of film that makes you yelp, cringe and ache along with the characters onscreen. You can’t take your eyes off the action, yet you also feel like breaking away and hiding under your seat. In “Lone Survivor” the SEALS take multiple painful tumbles down rocky hills. In “Deepwater Horizon” lethal, rapid-fire explosions, along with spewing mud and oil, flank the two hundred plus rig workers. And they get pieces of glass and jagged metal pulled out of their feet and other body parts--something that will always make me recoil in pain and discomfort.  By the end you feel beaten down and depleted, although that’s how you should feel. Berg immerses you in the mayhem and you feel like you’re on that exploding rig.

The film takes its time getting started, showing the arrival of the Deepwater crew. We meet Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg, buffed up, in hero mode again) as he eats breakfast with his wife and daughter before heading off to the rig, along with Andrea Fleytas, (Gina Rodriguez) Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell, mustached up and ready to go) and other rig workers. Berg patiently explores the interworking’s of the oil rig including the drill itself and emphasizes the various interactions between crewmembers onboard, showing their small talk and casual BSing. All to create a sense of calm and order--calm and order that will be shattered soon enough.

We also meet the BP oil employees headed up by Vidrine (John Malkovich). With his baldhead and confusing Cajun accent, Malkovich’s appearance and performance tends to border on cartoonish. In fact they all come across as one-note villains who want to skimp on safety procedures and tests because it’s costing them precious mula. Overall, none of the characterizations are particularly nuanced; the crewmembers (including Williams) are presented simply as friendly, hardworking people who go on to exhibit extreme courage, while the BP men are slimy and cowardly.  

Throughout this introductory section you know something bad is going to happen. Even if you knew nothing about the real disaster or managed to miss all promotional material and plot information, all signs point to catastrophe. However, to Berg’s credit, when chaos reigns you’re not prepared for the intensity and duration of it. The disaster portion of the film is relentless—terror and tension mount with each passing moment. Explosions of mud, fire, metal, and oil are rampant. The situation goes from bad, to worse, to flaming nightmarish hellscape, literally so. At one point the rig is a ball of fire.

Berg and co. don’t always have a grip on the action. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak shoots the film primarily in tight, hand held close ups (providing a sense of claustrophobia) which can be incredibly affective but also too disorienting, muddling the continuity of the action at times. Furthermore, the picture loses track of then causalities of the disaster. In “Lone Survivor” there were only four SEALS, making the situation more intimate and inevitable deaths and impactful. In “Deepwater” the casualties are more or less background characters. You forget them. I realize the movie is as much about the bravery of Williams, Fleytas, Harrell and the other survivors as it is the victims but adding a little more dimension to some of them (in total, eleven people died) would have made the final “in memoriam” segment all the more impactful.

“Deepwater Horizon” tells a very small part of an otherwise massive, sprawling story. You could easily make a movie (maybe even two) about the oil spill and the legal aftermath of the explosion. But for the sake of film I think it’s better that Berg focused all his energies on this one turbulent chapter instead of trying to bite off more than he could chew. I wish Rodriguez had been given more to do. The film sets her up as the secondary protagonist but by the end she gets pushed to the side so Wahlberg can do all the heroic stuff. Even so, “Deepwater” is still a tense, engrossing disaster film.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Magnificent Seven Review (2016)

Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” is a big, silly buddy action film set in the old west. A racially diverse crew of mercenaries takes on a racist, corrupt capitalist that’s keeping an innocent town hostage.  While far from great it manages to be a fun and ridiculous ‘b’ movie, thanks mostly in part to its cast, which includes big names like Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt.

When I first saw promos for “The Magnificent Seven” I said to myself: “that film is going to live or die based on the cast” and by and large I was right. The screenplay by Nic Pizolatto and Richard Wenk is simple and straightforward, predictable the entire way through and containing a lot of corny dialogue. A final piece of voiceover narration is a hoot to say the least. In the opening sequence we’re introduced to the villainous Bartholomew “Bart” Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, hamming it up big time) who’s essentially taking over the town of Rosewood so he can mine it for gold. From there, Emma (Haley Bennett) and Teddy (Luke Grimes) set off to find help in the form of bounty hunter Chisolm (Washington).

Then we watch as the rest of the seven are accumulated along the way. There’s gunslinger/gambler Josh Faraday,  (Pratt) former Confederate Sharp Shooter/legend Goodnight Robicheaux,  (Hawke) his friend and business associate Billy Rocks, (Byung-hun Lee) the outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). And finally we have the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and the mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio. After a few days of riding the group reaches Rosewood where they have eight days to militarize the town and fight Bart’s 200-man army.

That’s pretty much it as far as narrative is concerned and it all unfolds in a very neat and slick manner. There’s an action beat every five minutes or so with a minimum of five people getting killed, (although thanks to the PG-13 rating none of those casualties have any blood spewing out of them) which admittedly can get tedious and repetitive after a while.

Thankfully, the cast makes this thin, action heavy movie worthwhile. I’m not going to say these are fully dimensional characters that go through major character arcs but much like in “Star Trek Beyond” the group is charismatic and entertaining enough that you enjoy spending time with them. And they know what kind of movie they’re in--meaning they don’t take their roles too seriously. Washington is his usual confident, calculated tough guy. At this point in his life all he has to do is show up in a movie and he’s immediately the coolest guy there. Meanwhile, Chris Pratt is playing his character from “Guardians of the Galaxy” if that character decided to do a silly (but knowingly silly) impression of a Western gunslinger. Multiple times he squints his eyes like a junior Clint Eastwood. D’Onofrio may be the biggest surprise of the film, playing a deranged but unexpectedly sweet and gentle mountain man and Hawke is amusing as a washed up frontier celebrity. I do wish Bennett was given more to do; even though it’s basically Emma’s idea to put the group together there are long stretches of film where she’s absent without explanation.

It also helps that Fuqua doesn’t seem to be taking “The Magnificent Seven” very seriously either. The movie is clogged with cheesy Western clich├ęs; intense staring followed by gun duels, dramatic walking down dusty streets while pedestrians look on, and lots of gun twirling. All that’s missing are rogue tumbleweeds. At times it verges on parody; during one scene, Faraday uses a card trick to get out of being killed by two angry gamblers. After the melodramatic schmaltz that was “Southpaw” it’s nice to see Fuqua tackle something so unhinged and campy in tone. However, “Magnificent Seven” runs into trouble when it slows down and tries to be serious. Material involving Robicheaux’s post war stress and Chisolm’s secret, deep seeded motive for taking the job are underdeveloped and feel like they were ripped from a completely different movie.

There’s little in the way of conflict amongst the group. Outside of the usual tough guy ribbing they all seem to be fine with one another and the high-chance-of-death nature of the job. If the group was strictly made up of white males I think this would be more of a flaw but the fact that the group is racially diverse makes the lack of conflict oddly refreshing. I mean, we’re talking about a situation where a white mountain man (whose reputation is based on killing hundreds of Native Americans) is fighting side by side with a Comanche warrior with no tension, or an African American bounty hunter who immediately commands respect when he enters a new town and as the group’s leader.

While the Seven are aware of their racial differences it’s never a significant conflict in the narrative. They see each other as equals, as fellow mercenaries and associates doing a job. Their enemy is Bart, not each other. And that awareness allows them to be a cohesive, well oiled unit. It’s not the most thorough examination of race but it’s welcome in an otherwise extremely goofy action movie.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Blair Witch Review (2016)

Making a sequel to the found footage horror film “ The Blair Witch Project” is daunting not only because sequels to iconic, highly influential movies tend to blow but also because the original “Blair Witch” came out (in 1999) at a perfect time. It came out at a time when the “found footage horror” style was fresh and innovative; there were people who thought “The Blair Witch Project” was real and there were really people missing in the woods due to a creepy Witch. Now, that’s scary, and kind of mind boggling. This freshness added an additional layer of realism, complimenting the film’s micro budget less-is-more approach to horror.

Now, 17 years later years later we have the sequel “Blair Witch”—directed by up and comer Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett—and it’s also a found footage horror movie. The problem is that now the found footage horror style is a gimmick and it’s played out. And in “Blair Witch,” Wingard doesn’t really challenge this stale, limited format in any substantial way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect him to do so but this film could have been done so easily without that gimmick. In fact it would have been a good way to immediately distinguish it from the original.

However, the found footage issue speaks to the larger issue “Blair Witch” faces, which is that it doesn’t cover much new ground or feel very innovative. This is a shame considering the filmmakers. Wingard and Barrett’s last film “The Guest” was an audacious, gleeful, utterly unpredictable genre amalgamation. By contrast, “Blair Witch” feels more like a safe studio made feature trying to cash in on both the “Blair Witch” name and the found footage gimmick. It’s not a bad movie by any means; there are some fun and tense sequences throughout but overall it feels too familiar both in the context of the original and the horror genre.

The set up is intriguing. We’re introduced to brand new generation of youngins eager to explore those creepy Maryland woods with cameras in hand. Technology is more advanced this time around, meaning our witch hunters have GPS’s and a lot more cameras, including mini ones that go in your ear and a drone. The filmmaker is Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who’s making a documentary about her friend James, (James Allen McCune) who’s older sister Heather disappeared during the events of the first film. He believes he’s discovered footage of her whereabouts and wants to investigate.

This brother-sister relationship provides what should be a compelling personal bridge connecting both films. Pity that Wingard and Barrett neglect it. In the end it’s simply a way to get James, Lisa and their friends out to the woods. The filmmakers don’t explore James’ bond with his sister or his fascination/obsession with finding out what happened to her in any depth. In fact When they reach the woods the relationship angle is abandoned (and isn’t brought up again till the end) and we mostly get a rehash of the first film, with our group getting lost and experiencing the same old thrills— mysterious snapping branches, those creepy figures made of twigs etc. —with more camera angles. Some of these redundant thrills work and some fall flat but it’s disappointing that the James-Heather relationship is so undercooked; it should be the emotional core. Instead, it feels like an after thought.

To their credit, Wingard and Barrett do find a way to expand on the “Blair Witch” mythology and add dimension to “the woods” themselves during the last half hour. Without spoiling anything they provide a rather trippy explanation for why The Witch is so darn good at making campers disappear. But in the end it’s not enough. By and large, the narrative still progress the way you expect them to and the film settles for the typical found footage horror movie ending; an ending that used to be shocking but now feels like a cop out. “Blair Witch” ends with an underwhelming thud.

Speaking of the last half hour, all hell breaks lose. It’s a relentless, schizophrenic, beefed up version of the “Blair Witch Project” finale with our Witch hunters running for their lives. There’s more dirt, blood and heavy wheezing, along with furious rainstorms and tents flying around everywhere. This section yields some genuinely unsettling moments (a claustrophobic sequence in a tunnel) but it can also feel a little excessive at times—hysterical and over the top rather than terrifying. It sort of makes you yearn for the subtlety and simplicity of the original.

Yet, “Blair Witch” is still a decent movie and I can see an enthusiastic public response. Although I don’t see this one being remembered at years end, let alone years from now. For me, while I was mildly entertained, I expected more from Wingard and Barrett.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Snowden Review (2016)

In 2013, while holed up in Hong Kong hotel room, NSA contractor/ CIA analyst/computer extraordinaire Edward Snowden gave classified government documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras filming in the background. These documents showed that the NSA had been (still is?) monitoring the activity of US citizens (along with people from around the world) through cell phone calls, text messages, emails, credit cards, social media websites etc.

Oliver Stone’s biographical drama/thriller “Snowden” paints the thirty three year old as a hero for risking his reputation to bring all this to light, while at the same time painting the government as sneaky menacing villains violating the privacy of millions of people—exorcising economic and social control.  It’s as simple as that. And that’s the problem with the film.

“Snowden” is a flashy yet utterly bland biographical film (and a thriller free of suspense) that adds nothing to the Snowden/ mass surveillance conversation. It boringly summarizes Snowden’s life without providing any new insights on his life; you would have been better off staying home and reading his Wikipedia article. Scene after scene, the picture hammers home the same obvious, heavy-handed point (Snowden good. Government bad). This isn’t particularly surprising. As a filmmaker Stone has a tendency to be heavy handed and in your face, even in his great films (“Platoon,” “Wall Street”). While not as overwrought and inelegant as “Born on the Fourth of July” (I still can’t believe he won Best Director) there’s little in the way of nuance in this latest outing.

During one scene, as Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) proudly walks out of a top-secret base with secret files in hand, bright sunlight shines over his smiling face. This is followed by a slow motion silhouette shot from behind showing him walk off into blinding, almost divine white light. In multiple scenes, we can see an “I support online rights” sticker on his laptop. Are you kidding me? Meanwhile, Corbin O’ Brian, (Rhys Ifans) a high-ranking CIA official and one of Snowden’s mentors is essentially treated as a one dimensional, cartoon villain. In his penultimate scene he talks to Snowden via video call on a gigantic screen in a conference room—his head and torso towering over Snowden’s puny body. It’s like a sequence out of a second rate Bond flick. “Snowden” is a film made by a director who has his mind made up about his subject; there’s no room for debate or grey area.

The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (based on the book by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherna) is bloated, trying to cram roughly eight years of events into a little over two hours. We see Snowden as a plucky, awkward conservative eagerly wanting to serve his country gradually turn into the disillusioned fugitive he is now. All of this is told through the uninspired “protagonist-recounts-his-story-via-flashback” framing device. In fact there are large chunks where Snowden is simply narrating events in his life (or explaining various programs that the government used for surveillance purposes) over slick montages and info graphics. It’s as thrilling as a decently made Prezi.

At the very least it would have been better had Stone and company picked one chapter in Snowden’s life and zeroed in. There could have been a tight, tense little thriller that focused solely on Snowden’s interactions with the journalists in 2013 and his subsequent escape to Russia (instead that section is stuffed into the last five to ten minutes). Did we really need to see early sequences of Snowden aspiring to be a Special Forces solider in training camp? Or a sequence of Snowden trying to download the top-secret files, worryingly looking around, while dramatic techno music blares over the soundtrack?

From a filmmaking perspective, Snowden is slick, stylish and kind of obnoxious in how hard it tries to make its situations super intense and thrilling. There are a lot of wobbling, crooked close-ups on security cameras, lap top cams and Snowden’s paranoid face looking around. Scenes of characters conversing that are photographed from afar. You know…because they’re watching us! All the time!! In addition we get shots that take us INSIDE computers and high tech databases. Note to filmmakers who want to make cyber thrillers: this type of sequence was ineffective in “Blackhat” and it’s ineffective here. What are we supposed to gain by seeing a CGI’d interior of a computer? Visually, the film becomes more disorienting and ham-fisted as it goes along.

Watching “Snowden” it’s as though Stone is sitting next to you slapping you in the face, constantly whispering in your ear to pay attention like the film is revealing something new and profound and doing so subtly. At the end he lays the didacticism on thick, moving from slapping to repeatedly pummeling you. The film left me feeling beaten down and frustrated.

It’s all a shame because the cast is top notch. Levitt gives a solid performance, capturing Snowden’s nervous and awkward mannerisms (and robotic voice) quite nicely, while Shailene Woodley is down to earth and appealing as Snowden’s long time girlfriend Lindsay Mills. But they’re wasted. Everybody is wasted in this superfluous picture. If you want to see a far superior Snowden thriller, watch Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary “Citizen Four.”

Although, if you want to see an insipid dramatization of how that documentary came into fruition, look no further than “Snowden.”


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Sully Review (2016)

The most surprising thing about Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” is that it may be the only film I’ve seen featuring a massive commercial plane crash that can’t be labeled a “disaster flick.” To be sure, we do see the plane crash in three different sequences but those expecting an intense, adrenaline fueled disaster spectacle will be disappointed. Instead of using dramatic music and quick cuts, the crash sequences have a calm and leisurely quality to them--mimicking the cool demeanor of the plane’s captain, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks).

Furthermore, the movie (based on the true story of Sullenberger landing a jet on the Hudson river after both engines blew out and miraculously saving all 155 passengers/crew members on board) is an intimate human drama that focuses more on the aftermath of the flight; Sullenberger’s fight with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over whether the water landing was the right decision, as well as his PTSD and coming to terms with being viewed as a hero.

 It’s a skillfully made film in a lot of respects but it also left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. I walked out of the theater impressed but also asking myself, “is that it?”

 “Sully” is essentially a Man vs. Technology tale, using a Courtroom Drama-style structure. The NTSB is conducting an investigation into the crash and according to their engineer reports and computer simulations Sully could have successfully flown the plane back to two airports. However, Sully isn’t buying it. He was there and he knew that he couldn’t make it back. Computer simulations don’t take into account human/real world factors like reaction time. He’s got to prove the NTSB and those computer simulations wrong. Goddamn computers!

The film runs a brisk 96 minutes and I appreciate the fact that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (based on the book by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) choose to emphasize a single, significant chapter in the pilot’s life as opposed to trying to tell a bigger, mythologizing biographical tale. There are a few flash backs (one showing Sullenberger as a young Crop duster and another as an Air Force pilot) that could have been axed but otherwise the picture remains tight and focused on Sullenberger’s current dilemma and actions.

Hanks is in top form. At this point he’s become so iconic that he doesn’t really have to do much to win you over. He has such a comforting, likable onscreen presence. Here, he manages to be both restrained and natural; his performance free of any big” over-the-top actor-y moments. The kind that scream: “I want an Oscar!” Aaron Eckhart as Sullenberger’s First Officer/friend Jeff Skiles is also quite good and together they have a strong repartee. There’s a history between them, a sense of trust and camaraderie that’s readily apparent every time they’re onscreen together. We don’t need additional background scenes or flashbacks to develop their bond.

However, as good as “Sully” is there’s a level of predictability and routineness pulsing through much of it that’s impossible to fully shake. Being unfamiliar with many of the details of the crash and being even less familiar with the aftermath, it was still easy for me to predict where it was all going; not just in regards to the overall narrative arc but scene by scene. There’s not much in the way of suspense or tension, even during the plane crash sequences. Additionally, the conclusion is inevitable and leaves little for the audience to chew on. “Sully” simply tells its story and then leaves the room.

The picture becomes so constrained by the courtroom drama/procedural angle of the story that it neglects other aspects such as Sullenberger’s intense emotional and psychological problems. It would have been interesting had Eastwood explored the idea of memory and uncertainty more. At one point, doubt arises over whether or not both engines actually blew out, which would call Sully’s memory and version of events into question. But it’s quickly dropped and the film moves on. Sullenberger is so sure of himself and his actions but our memories aren’t always reliable. Sometimes we distort events to make them fit a narrative we’re trying to craft in our heads. Had the film included more moments of self-doubt and uncertainty, more scenes of Sully grappling with his own psyche, it would have added a layer of much needed suspense to the proceedings and additional character dimension. The movie treats Sully with so much respect (while subsequently demonizing the NTSB) that it leaves little doubt in the viewers mind as to whether he’s telling the truth or not. There’s never a moment where I thought: “are things not going to turn out well for him?”

I have other minor issues, namely that the ultra talented and underrated Laura Linney (as Sullenberger’s wife) is reduced to, “concerned-spouse-on-phone.” Linney does what she can but there just isn’t much for her to do. Her character is one-dimensional.

“Sully” could have been much worse but I think it could have been much better. It’s competently made and well acted but it ultimately plays things safe. With all this considered, it’s a solid film that you can watch in the comfort of your own home a few months from now and enjoy just fine.