September Movie Review Shorts

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ***

It’s great to see that Hollywood will still make Westerns every once in a while. This re-make of the 1960 classic of the same name that starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen will never be hailed as a landmark or “great” piece of film-making, but it is one fun couple hours of nostalgic entertainment that I found extremely enjoyable.

This time around, we have Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt filling in the Brynner/McQueen roles, and the western US stands in for Mexico, but the plot is still as simple as before, and as typical too.  A town filled with peaceful, plain folks comes under the foot of some greedy, diabolical scumbag and his hired army, so a brave resident or two reach out to a motley crew of professional gunslingers to help them avenge their dead and regain their town.  Variations of this storyline fill the annals of Hollywood Westerns from the original “Seven” to just about all of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns,  John Wayne’s True Grit, and all the way up to more modern fare like Kurt Russell’s Tombstone and Kevin Costner’s Open Range. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Well, it certainly ain’t broke here, and Director Antoine Fuqua does only a minimal amount of “fixing” to bring this up to 21st century style and sensibilities.  Haley Bennet (yeah, the same one that made her big-screen debut as a spaced out pop star opposite Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore in the 2007 rom-com Music and Lyrics) plays the plucky but grief-stricken widow who heads out to find gunmen who can avenge the death of her husband and help her townspeople after a murderous mining baron and his henchman-army assert their “right” to rule her peaceful town and rape it of its resources.  She finds Sam Chisholm (Washington), a sort of quasi-lawman, who, once approached, takes a particular interest in her proposition and heads out with her to collect a contingent of n’er-do-wells to train the town’s citizens to be fighters.  These include a highly diverse crew; Pratt’s “gambler,” an old mountain man, a Civil War sharpshooter who suffers from PTSD, a Native American warrior, a Mexican gunslinger, and a knife-wielding Asian assassin.  They come to town, start a ruckus with the baron (played with delicious ruthlessness by Peter Skarsgard), and you can fill in the rest of the David v Goliath plot, including a mostly happy ending.

Fuqua, in interviews, claimed that such diversity in his cast was not intentional (“we just wanted the best actors for the job”), but with Hollywood on-notice to broaden the racial, ethnic, and even age range of its casts, you’ve got to wonder.  Regardless, Vincent D’Onofrio (the old guy), Ethan Hawke (the traumatized vet), Martin Sensmeier (the Native–he’s half Alaskan Native American), Manuel Garcia-Ruflo (the Mexican), and Byung-hun Lee (the Asian), all are perfectly cast and have great chemistry that really drives the entertainment.  And don’t forget Pratt (the white guy), and the ageless Denzel (the African-American), who, at 61, carries on with action roles as if he’s still in his 30s.  Each provides his own unique leadership style that is the glue that binds the group and inspires the town’s citizens.

In this day and age, Westerns are hard to come by–especially good ones.  Don’t miss this excellent throw-back, with its uniquely modern take and look.

 

SNOWDEN ***1/2

In a month which features some of the most anticipated biopic/true event films of the year, this one does not disappoint.  Oliver Stone’s adaptation of two books (Anatoly Kucherena’s “The Time of the Octopus” and Luke Harding’s “The Snowden Files”) about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (or treasonous scumbag, depending on your political leanings) is an unusually quiet, thoughtful piece, and yet, like a volcano about to blow or an earthquake about to happen, underneath its serene surface is a tempest of tense, turbulent emotion and raw passion that slowly builds until its climactic explosion.

Edward Snowden, of course, is the guy that was all over the news back in June of 2013 for turning over to the press thousands of documents that proved that the NSA (National Security Agency) had been for years surveilling millions of ordinary Americans for no better reason than “they could.”  The depth and breadth of the breaches into people’s private lives was breath-taking, and Snowden, an NSA contractor and former CIA analyst, eventually went with his conscience, stole hundreds of top-secret computer files, and over a couple nights in a Hong Kong hotel, gave it all and told it all to a news crew from respected British newspaper The Guardian.  To liberals, he became an instant hero; to conservatives, a pariah.  Charged under the Federal Espionage Act, Snowden became a man forever wanted by the US for multiple felonious and treasonous charges that apparently will never be dropped.  He was made–and continues to be–a man without a country, currently living in Moscow at the behest of the Russian government.

How Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) came to the point where he’d trash a “perfect” middle-class life in Hawaii with beautiful and infinitely loyal partner Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley) for the sake of doing what he thought was right, though, is the real story here,

From the forest trails of the Army’s boot camp in Ft. Benning, Georgia, where the flaming-red conservative Snowden runs on his spindly, 150 pound frame under 80 pound packs so much that he shatters both his legs, to the halls of the CIA’s training facility for cyber warriors where he creates solutions in minutes that takes most recruits hours, we find that Edward is always, always an all-in guy.  Compromise and “gray areas” don’t exist for him.  This makes for some interesting banter when he meets Lindsey, every bit as sharp of a tack as he is, but one of the bluest of Barack Obama’s young, liberal voting base in 2008  And yet it’s not Lindsey, but Snowden’s work, first for the CIA, then the NSA, and the bosses that he serves that cause the uncompromising young analyst to wonder who he’s really gotten “all-in” with and whether his choice was a good one.

Gordon-Levitt is flawless in his portrayal of Snowden; even his look and mannerisms are eerily identical to the real guy (who we see near the end), and Woodley, an accomplished actress long before she shouldered the Divergent dystopian action/adventure franchise, brings real chemistry and emotion to the painfully conflicted Lindsey.  And a pleasantly surprising line-up of “guest stars,” if you will, in the supporting cast really put some dramatic punch into those around Snowden; Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, and others are a lot of fun to see pop up in just the right role at just the right time.  So fun to see so many lend their considerable talents to produce a film of such quality and power.

Oliver Stone has directed many movies, many of them biopics like this, but virtually all of those, from Alexander to Nixon to W., have been made after-the-fact (to be sure, W. was released while George W. Bush was still President, though two weeks later his successor, Barack Obama, was elected and everything in the film became water under the bridge).  Not this one.  Edward Snowden’s story still goes on, his fate and his legacy still uncertain.  And that’s at least one reason why Snowden will not only be known as another superb Oliver Stone film, but perhaps his most important one as well.

 

SULLY ****

Dramas that actually draw a large audience are rarities in Hollywood these days.  When they happen, they are usually based on accounts of extraordinary true events that made headline news.  Such films live or die on the strength of how the story is adapted, and the performances of the actors.  Regardless of what really happened, writers and directors still must create a compelling story filled with heroes, villains, action, tension, empathy, and a satisfying ending, and actors must bring that story unforgettably to life.  Otherwise, only the niche audiences will show up.   Sully, thankfully, is so well done that it would be a shame if anyone missed it.

There’s certainly no need to jazz up this “true event that made headline news.”  Anyone who was alive and not comatose on January 15, 2009 not only heard about this story, but saw its incredible climax and aftermath played out endlessly on every TV network that had a news department.  Yes, that really was an Airbus 320 jetliner filled with 155 passengers and crew swooping down towards the Hudson River next to downtown Manhattan and landing as gracefully as a gargantuan swan on its surface that frosty January morning.  Yes, those were real people, not movie actors, who were shivering on its wings and boarding ferry boats that rushed to the rescue.  And yes, there was a real pilot and co-pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, who somehow managed to crash a plane in such a way that everyone survived (sorry, that’s “water landed” a plane–you’re right, Sully…).  No shortage of drama or heroes there.

But what about villains?  How can you find villains in a situation so cosmically heroic?  Sadly, they were there too, every bit as real, and, as Todd Komarnicki’s script (based on Sully’s book “Highest Duty”) tells it, they are circling Sully like sharks almost before he can get some dry clothes on.  “They” are the National Transportation Safety Board investigative team, whose job it is to find out what went wrong to create such a traumatic situation in the first place, then assign blame where it is warranted.  Egging them on, it is not-so-subtly pointed out, are US Airways, Sully’s employer and owners of the plane, and their insurers, each of whom face large financial losses unless it can be shown that Sully, for whatever reason, panicked in the moment and ditched his plane in the drink when he actually could have landed it safely at a nearby airport.  With simulations showing just that, and his reputation on the line (not to mention his retirement pension), Sully is thrown into a tailspin of PTSD where he continually conjures visions of “what might have been.”  Since he can’t sleep, he fills his nights with jogging in the bitter cold while the NTSB investigators grill him during the days that seem to turn into weeks.  This all leads to a climax that, while likely the culmination of an artificially compressed timeline, is no less stunning or dramatic than the “true” event must have been.

Technically, this film is a triumph from the top all the way down.  Tom Hanks’s performance as Sully is amazing in how subtle and reserved, yet rock-like steady it is.  Though he speaks from a script, the essence of his demeanor is the real Sully Sullenberger; the guy who never forgot what his first job as a pilot was–to fly the plane.  Aaron Eckhart provides solid back-up as Skiles.  Laura Linney, as Sully’s traumatized wife Lorraine, is perhaps underused by Komarnicki’s script, but when all is said and done, Director Clint Eastwood made the right call (as he almost always does), when he kept his film in focus–on Sully and his struggle–and resisted what must have been the considerable temptation to delve into what would have been a totally different story.  The end result is his shortest film–just 95 minutes–that packs a heavyweight champion’s punch-full of emotion, tension, drama, and heroism.  This is true-life storytelling at its very, very best.