Monthly Archives: September 2016

Ride ‘Em Cowboy

‘Magnificent Seven’ brings western past into focus with Hollywood present

Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee

Meet the new ‘Magnificent Seven’: Vincent D’Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee

The Magnificent Seven
Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard & Haley Bennett
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
PG-13

The western pretty much trotted into the sunset decades ago, but every once in a while something gallops out of Hollywood that reminds us just what a big deal cowboys used to be.

And the cowboy, as depicted and polished by Hollywood and pop culture, remains one of America’s most potent mythic figures—a rugged, rustic, stoic, individualistic, self-sacrificing hero, good with a gun and sometimes even better with women.

The Magnificent Seven gets a lot of its retro dust honestly. For starters, it’s a remake of a remake: The original Seven, in 1960, was an all-star Americanized version of a 1954 Japanese classic, Seven Samurai, in which a samurai warrior and six others band together to defend a village from marauding bandits.

Director Antoine Fuqua certainly knows how to make an action-packed project click into place, with clear-cut lines between good guys and bad guys, a lofty morality-lesson overlay and a dark undertow of bloody revenge.

Denzel Washington;Chris Pratt

Denzel Washington plays bounty hunter Sam Chisholm.

The star here is clearly Denzel Washington—his collaboration with Fuqua in Training Day brought him an Oscar, and the two also worked together in The Equalizer. He plays sure-shot bounty hunter Sam Chisholm, who comes to the aid of a small frontier town under the rule of ruthless robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his murderous cutthroat bodyguards. Bogue has poisoned the water supply, set fire to the church, enslaved the local men to work in his gold mine and demanded that the residents either sell out, move out—or else.

Beseeched by a firebrand widow (Haley Bennett) whose husband was killed by Bogue’s thugs, Chisholm—whose very name evokes the title of a 1970 John Wayne western, Chisum—assembles a group to help reclaim the town.

The multinational, cross-cultural rainbow coalition looks awesome onscreen, but it feels more like an Old West Suicide Squad—or a colorful team of Avengers assembled by way of High Noon—much more than an organic group of renegades and rogues, despite all the grime, grit, dirt, sweat, stubble and scruff.

Chris Pratt

Chris Pratt

Chris Pratt is heavy-drinking, wisecracking Josh Faraday, whose skill with cards helps him in more ways than one. Ethan Hawke’s erudite former Confederate sharpshooter is haunted by ghosts of his wartime past. His Chinese partner (Byung-hun Lee) can do lethal wonders with any type of blade or firearm.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a hunky Mexican outlaw whose vicious skillset makes him a valuable member of the seven. A young renegade Comanche (Martin Sensmeier) likes the gallant cause and wants to come aboard. Vincent D’Onofrio’s big, Bible-quoting mountain man is a holy terror—and an audience favorite.

Bullets fly, bodies fall, blood flows, hooves thunder, jokey banter gets bantered, dynamite goes ka-boom. There’s a particularly twisty twist at the end that you won’t see coming. You may catch—or imagine—wispy glimpses of the ghosts of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and other western icons looming and lurking around the edges of some of the scenes.

With a winning combo of gunpowder and star power, The Magnificent Seven brings the cowboy past into focus with the Hollywood present. If you like your popcorn sprinkled with old-fashioned, good-guy gusto, it’s as rip-roaring a time that’s come along on horseback in years.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Witchy Poo Park

Young documentarians return to haunted woods

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Blair Witch
Starring James Allen McCune & Callie Hernandez
Directed by Adam Wingard
R
In theaters Sept. 16, 2016

Witches have been around for centuries, and the Blair Witch—well, she’s been on the scene since 1999, when a modestly budgeted little flick called The Blair Witch Project became a spectacular $250 million worldwide hit and created an entire genre of “found footage” horror films in its wake.

“Found footage” movies came to follow a certain format: Someone documents something unsettling with a video camera then mysteriously vanishes, leaving their baffling “footage” behind for someone else to discover—and decipher. The footage can shape the entire movie, or—as in the original Blair Witch Projectbe the movie.

_DSC0358.ARWIn this latest Blair Witch spawn, nearly 18 years later, another group of attractive young people ventures into the same haunted woods in Maryland that claimed the original movie’s victims. Apparently, they’ve seen the “footage,” if not the original film. James (James Allen McCune) is looking for clues to the disappearance of his big sister, who never came back from that fateful trip. He brings along three of his friends, one of whom (Callie Hernandez) is working on a student-documentary project for her college class—so she rigs everyone with every kind of recording gizmo conceivable.

The group picks up another pair, a rather odd young couple (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who found the original footage and posted it online. They claim they can be their guides into the Black Hills Woods—a place steeped in legends of a 17th century witch lynching, a cursed town and modern serial-killer madness.

In addition to “traditional” hand-held cameras, everyone has mini-cams that clip to their ears. They also carry portable units that can be mounted on branches, heads or sticks, and there’s even a drone that lets them see what’s going on from high above.

Callie Hernandez

Callie Hernandez

The result is that everything gets recorded—and I mean everything. We see the group drinking in the bar the night before they leave, eating weenies around a campfire, crawling into their tents to sleep. We get to watch as one pees on a tree.

On the upside, all the cameras “explain” why, and how, we’re seeing what we see; this is this movie’s “found footage.”

And when the scares start to roll in and ramp up, all the different shots—the jumpy, jerky cuts between cameras, the glitches and bleeps as audio and video signals cut in and out—add to the sense of extreme disorientation, especially when things get all weird and time-warpy. But the gotchas aren’t anything novel, particularly frightful or ghastly, or anything you haven’t seen before; they just come via new gadgetry.

Important takeaways: Don’t get too attached to any of the characters. Beware, as always, of the “stick men,” the Blair Witch’s handmade calling cards. Don’t go wandering off at night by yourself. Take proper care of all puncture and slash wounds, lest something hideously creepy happen to them. Keep hands and fingers away from the whirring blades of drones lodged in the tops of tall trees. In eerie, deserted houses in the middle of haunted forests, for God’s sake, stay out of attics and basements. And never look directly at the Blair Witch: “No one’s ever seen her and lived to talk about it,” warns one character.

That may indeed be true. But after seeing how upset she particularly seems to be at this group of kids invading her ancient dark space with their arsenal of high-tech recording devices, I’m wondering if the grumpy ol’ gal just simply isn’t in the mood to be photographed and uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or anything else. She doesn’t strike me as the social media type.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

 

 

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Baby Mama

Romantic triangle sets up sturdy comedy in ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’

Film Title: Bridget Jones's Baby

Bridget Jones’s Baby
Starring Renèe Zellwegger, Colin Firth & Patrick Dempsey

Directed by Sharon Maguire
Rated R
In theaters Sept. 16, 2016

“How in the hell did I end up here again?” Bridget Jones asks herself as she sits on the couch of her London flat watching the pitiful flicker of a birthday candle in a cupcake remind her that she’s celebrating yet another birthday—number 43—alone.

We might ask the same question: How did Renèe Zellwegger end up in the same place, in the same role, one she hasn’t played in 12 years (since Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), as a character that she launched back in 2001 in a movie originally made from a Helen Felding novel kinda-sorta based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

Zellwegger received an Oscar nomination for Bridget Jones’s Diary, a delightfully frothy British rom-com, in the title role that captured viewers’ hearts—a plucky, single, working-class lass struggling with her career, her weight, her love life and her tendencies to over-indulge in booze and cigarettes. She chronicled it all in her diary.

Film Title: Bridget Jones's Baby

Bridget and the two possible fathers of her baby: American matchmaking website mogul Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey) and British barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth)

Now, 15 years down the road, Bridget has moved up—and somewhat on. She’s a producer for a TV news show; she’s managed to corral her figure into something she’s proud to show off. She’s stopped smoking and cut down on the booze. These days she writes on a laptop. But she’s still single, and now more than ever she’s feeling the ticking of her biological clock.

“I’m beginning to think I’ve passed my sexual sell-by date,” she tells one of her co-workers. She refers to her ovaries as “the last barren husks in London.”

But that’s about to change, as you likely surmised by the title of the movie.

Yes, Bridget gets pregnant. But the big question is, who’s the daddy?

Is it her longtime—nearly lifelong—crush, London barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth)? Or is it the new American dating-website guru Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey)? As fate would have it, Bridget had “intimate encounters” with them both, just weeks apart. As the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours.

That romantic triangle sets up the sturdy structure of the movie’s comedy, and there are plenty of laughs as Bridget at first tries to keep both Darcy and Qwant in the dark about each other, then resigns herself to telling them both. Original Diary director Sharon Maguire also sets up some hilarious gaffes and snafus in Bridget’s workplace as her personal life begins to intrude—once again—on her career.

Emma Thompson is hilarious as Bridget's no-nonsense OG/GYN.

Emma Thompson is hilarious as Bridget’s no-nonsense OG/GYN.

It’s nice to have the original Diary gang—or most of them—back, including many of the supporting players (like Bridget’s parents and pals). Zellwegger and Firth pick up where they left off, just as their characters do, after more than a decade apart; the absence of Hugh Grant’s caddish Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s other love from the previous two films, is explained early in the movie, with a dry twist of British wit. Dempsey slides right into his role like a sweet slice of blue-eyed American pie.

And Emma Thompson, who was also one of the screenwriters, shines as a bright comedic charm as Bridget’s no-nonsense OB/GYN. There’s a very cool cameo from Grammy-winning British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.

So how did Bridget end up here again? The important thing is the little bundle of joy she leaves with two hours later, and the laughter—and the surprises—along the way.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Coming In Hot

‘Sully’ signals start of serious fall movie season

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Sully
Starring Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart
Directed by Clint Eastwood
PG-13
In theaters Sept. 9, 2016

“Brace for impact.”

Those three words are at the heart of this inspiring big-screen salute to Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, whose successful emergency landing of crippled US Airways Flight 1549 became known around the world in 2009 as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Sully makes the “impact” announcement when he realizes there’s no way for his plane—with two failed engines, both destroyed by a massive flock of Canadian geese—to make a conventional landing. The line is later brought up, for much more lighthearted effect, when Sullenberger and his flight crew make a TV appearance alongside late-night host David Letterman.

usp-07014rv2But “Brace for impact” also means for you, the viewer, to hang on and get ready to dig in: Summer is over and a more serious movie season has begun. Based on Sullenberger’s 2009 best-selling memoir Highest Duty, directed by Clint Eastwood and with Tom Hanks in the starring role, Sully gives off somber Oscar signals with its theme of an ordinary, matter-of-fact man simply doing his job—until something extraordinary comes along requiring him to rise up to meet its unprecedented challenge.

“Everything is unprecedented,” Sully notes later, “until it happens for the first time.”

US Airways 1549 was in the sky less than four minutes, and Eastwood’s film toggles back and forth between the incident itself, Sully’s nightmarish flashbacks, and the wrenching post-event investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which drilled and grilled Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (an excellent Aaron Eckhart) on every detail. Was the plane really too damaged to to fly? Did Sully do everything he could to get back to the airport—any airport—instead of risking lives unnecessarily by landing on water? Pilots in computerized flight simulators, fed with data of the incident, indicate that it would have been possible to bring the plane back to LaGuardia, or into nearby Newark, or Teterboro…

“They’re playing Pac-Man!” an exasperated Skiles counters. “[We were] flying a plane full of human beings.”

Laura Linney plays Sullenberger's wife.

Laura Linney plays Sullenberger’s wife.

As the investigation drags on and Sully is hauled before the “court” for days and days, with his career and reputation on the line, the media feasts on his amazing feat—a water “crash” landing from which all 155 passengers and crew members were safely evacuated. And the Big Apple, in the financial dumps of the Great Recession and still reeling from the aftershocks of 9/11, anoints him a hero. A bar names a drink—a shot of Grey Goose with a splash of water—in his honor. Strangers give him hugs and kisses.

“It’s been a while since New York had news this good,” one character tells him, “especially with an airplane in it.”

“I don’t feel like a hero,” Sully says. “I’m just a man who was doing his job.”

usp-fp-0155-for-web-72-cropHanks, his hair dyed white, looks very much like the real-life pilot he’s portraying, a career aviator whose lifelong love of flight—as we see—dates back to boyhood and crop-dusting biplanes. “Never forget,” his first flight teacher tells young Sully in a lesson that certainly reverberated through the years, “no matter what happens, fly the airplane.”

Just a man doing his job, a guy flying a plane, a pilot controlling the stick. Brace for impact—Sully shows us just how important that one “ordinary” person can be, when ordinary circumstances sudden, unprecedentedly, become extraordinary.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rough Sailing

Sea of tears washes over ‘The Light Between Oceans’

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The Light Between Oceans
Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander & Rachel Weisz
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
PG-13
In theaters Sept. 2

“With the ocean, anything is possible,” says Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), the stoic World War I veteran who takes a job on a remote lighthouse island 100 miles off the coast off Australia in director Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of Tom Isabel’s 2012 romantic novel.

It sure seems like anything is possible in The Light Between Oceans, in which a sea of happiness and an ocean of tears wash over the characters before it’s over, all because of things brought in by the endless ebb and flow of the tide.

Blissfully alone on the barren island, Tom and his new young wife from the mainland, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), try to start a family. But two wrenching miscarriages leave Isabel an emotional wreck. Then one day, a small open boat washes ashore. In it is a dead young man—and a crying baby girl.

Tom dutifully prepares to telegraph the mainland to report the tragic incident, but Isabel begs him otherwise: She wants to keep the child and raise her as her own. “We haven’t done anything wrong!” she pleads. It’s a sign, a blessing, surely not just a coincidence, she says. Tom reluctantly relents, buries the corpse and pushes the empty dingy back out to sea.

Rachel Weisz

Rachel Weisz

The repercussions of Tom and Isabel’s morally questionable act ripple across the waves when they come home for a visit with their little “Lucy” and meet a grieving woman in the village (Rachel Weisz) whose husband and baby daughter were lost at sea…in a rowboat…at about the same time Tom and Isabel made their joyous discovery on the beach.

Uh-oh.

How this all comes together, and becomes even more complicated and crushing, is at the heaving melodramatic heart of the story, which goes beyond its soap-opera surface with some deeper, darker themes and things to ponder. Tom’s lighthouse is situated between the warm Indian Ocean and the colder Antarctic waters on an island called Janus Rock, named for the two-faced Roman god of transitions, passages, beginnings and endings. One of the faces of Janus looks to the past, the other looks to the future.

The movie suggests that, like the waters of the great oceans that cover the Earth, all things are connected—past, present and future; grief and happiness; war and peace; life, love, loss and death.

Cianfrance isn’t known for making lite-and-lively movies, as you’ll know if you saw Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines or Cagefighter. There are no real shining rays of sunshine in Oceans, either, but the photography is often sumptuous and sweeping, and Fassbender and Vikander do look cool in vintage 1920s garb. And there are some very strong performances, particularly from Vikander and Weisz, whose character enters late in the plot but becomes essential to the movie’s message about what can happen when righteous anger gives way to forgiveness.

Extreme camera close-ups show faces so tightly on the screen that you can almost taste the salt from their tears. Oh, wait—no, those tears will be your own. Bring a hankie or some tissues to The Light Between Oceans. You might even want a bucket or a mop. These seas can get pretty rough.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

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