Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


Going to the market is a little different in Jumanji.

(2017) Adventure (Columbia) Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Sean Buxton, Mason Guccione, Marin Hinkle, Tracy Bonner, Najah Jackson, Natasha Charles Parker, Kat Altman, Maribeth Monroe, Missi Pyle. Directed by Jake Kasdan

 

There’s no doubt about it; there are pitfalls involved when making a sequel to a beloved and iconic family film 22 years after the fact. The original 1996 film Jumanji starring the late and equally beloved Robin Williams was based on a Chris van Allsburg-penned children’s book about a board game that had a bit of magic to it, bringing the jungle world of Jumanji into a small town complete with mischievous monkeys, scary spiders, rampaging herds of animals and a sadistic hunter named Van Pelt.

The sequel is a little bit updated. It starts with a young teen in 1996 being sucked into a mysterious console video game much as Alan Parrish was back in the day. Somehow the console with the videogame still in it made its way to a high school audio-video room which a group of disparate teens on detention have been tasked with cleaning up. The game is discovered and videogame nut Spencer (Wolff) is keen on playing it. Fridge (Blain), the football star in trouble because he’d enlisted Spencer to write a term paper for him reluctantly accedes as does Martha (Turner), a shy nerd and Bethany (Iseman), a Queen Bee of the school.

Of course the four teens are sucked inside the game and re-materialize as the avatars they’ve chosen; Spencer becomes the muscular and heroic Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge the manic but diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart), Martha the sultry martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and most amusing of all, Bethany the middle aged and out-of-shape cartographer Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black). It is the star power of these four that truly makes the film work.

In any case, they are given unique and special powers as well as weaknesses, some of which are amusing – for example, eating cake will make Mouse Finbar explode. Each of the avatars have three lives available; when they use them all up, they are gone from the game permanently and maybe out of real life as well. They are given the mission of retrieving a magic emerald from villainous Van Pelt (Cannavale) – very different than the one in the original – and restoring it into a gigantic panther statue in order to restore balance to the land of Jumanji. Along the way they’ll battle poisonous snakes, voracious hippos, a herd of rampaging rhinos and not-too-bright but vicious henchmen.

One of the big criticisms of the original Jumanji – best articulated by the late, great Roger Ebert – was that the children in the film were often in realistic peril, perhaps much too much for a film aimed at children. Kasdan solves this dilemma by having the young teens morphed into adult avatars which although being in peril throughout can at least say they weren’t children in peril. Parents concerned about this aspect of the original can rest easy.

As I said, the four leads are really the reason to see the movie. Kasdan wisely plays to the strengths of the actors; the rapid-fire delivery of Hart, the easygoing charm of Johnson, Black’s ability to be absolutely uninhibited and Gillan’s lustrous physicality. Fans may recognize her as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy but Doctor Who fans may not recognize anything of Amy Pond in Ruby Roundhouse.

The present-day sequences with the actors playing the teens (not all of whom are juveniles – Blain is thirty years old at the time of release – are less compelling but then again how would you expect even veteran young actors like Wolff to compete with some of the biggest stars in the business? I suppose it’s not really fair but then again it is noticeable that the charm drops precipitously during the bookending sequences of pre-game and post-game.

I have to admit that despite the star power of the cast that I didn’t hold very high hopes for this one. I knew that inevitably it would be compared to the 1996 original and I was pretty sure that it would come out getting the short end of the stick but actually that wasn’t the case. In some ways, the more recent version is better than the original – certainly in the CGI and while Williams delivered a terrific performance along with Bonnie Hunt, the fab four of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan all were just as good if not better. I was pleasantly surprised by this and it might just end up in our permanent video collection when the time comes. The fact that the film did some marvelous box office numbers and has already had a sequel greenlit just confirms that the movie-going public agrees.

REASONS TO GO: The adult actors are smashing. This is much better than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: The actors playing the juveniles are pretty meh.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action violence, some suggestive content and brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Hart previously starred together in Central Intelligence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Casting JonBenet

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The Dark Tower (2017)


Good vs evil goes nose to nose.

(2017) Fantasy (Columbia) Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Ben Gavin, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Nicholas Pauling, Michael Barbieri, José Zuñiga, Nicholas Hamilton, Inge Beckmann, Alfredo Narciso, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean, Mark Elderkin, Matthew Thomson, Karl Thaning, Charlize Churcher. Directed by Nicolaj Arcel

 

There are few who will accuse Stephen King of being a brilliant writer but it is true that when it comes to telling a story he is without peer. His most ambitious story is the eight-book Dark Tower saga featuring Roland Deschain (Elba) as the last of an honorable caste of warriors known as the Gunslingers. He is tasked to protect The Dark Tower, a structure at the intersection of all reality that keeps chaos at bay. It is in the process of failing thanks to an evil wizard named Walter O’Dim (McConaughey) a.k.a. The Man in Black and we’re not talking Johnny Cash. Walter wants the tower to fall and all worlds to fall apart in the process.

Jake Chambers (Taylor) is a powerful psychic who has visions of Roland and the Man in Black, the latter of whom wants to harness Jake’s power in order to bring the Dark Tower down. Jake lives on our Earth, the so-called Keystone which is the last holdout, the last world that has yet to “move on,” as the Gunslinger terms it. Jake escapes the minions of Walter and finds a portal into Mid-World, the Earth of Roland. Although Roland is disinterested in saving the universe, he is very much interested in taking down Walter who has killed everything that Roland loves. There is going to be some gunslinging you can be sure.

Elba and McConaughey are both terrific performers. Elba in particular excels; he seems literally born to roles like this one. He gives the role gravitas and a certain stoic nobility that made the role so compelling in the books. It’s the kind of character that was much more prevalent in the past than it is now; these days we like our heroes to be pure but Roland is riddled with impurities.

Sadly, these two performances are all there really is to recommend the movie. Opinion on the books is sharply divided; some believe that they are a case of King’s reach exceeding his grasp while others consider it a terrific read. Count me among the latter believers. However, trying to boil down eight books into a 90 minute movie is like trying to figure out a way to condense the Manhattan phone book into two names. You might get the gist of the series but you won’t get the flavor. There are some dynamic creature effects but they are so dimly lit that you can’t really make out the details. The pacing is all over the map; sometimes it seems rushed; other times it’s painfully slow. This has all the earmarks of a studio putting its grubby hands all over a project.

So the consensus is that this is a mess and not even a hot one. The books deserve better attention than this gives it; a full series would have done it more justice. I can’t imagine King himself is satisfied with what was done to a work he put so much time and effort into. I know that I, as a fan of the books, certainly am not.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba is perfectly cast for this role.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is a disappointment on nearly every level.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence particularly using guns and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eight-book Dark Tower series by Stephen King was inspired at least in part by Robert Browning’s epic poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Sony, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Stand
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sunset Park

Spider-Man: Homecoming


Spider-Man is torn between two worlds.

(2017) Superhero (Columbia/Marvel) Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Tyne Daly, Abraham Attah, Hannibal Buress, Jennifer Connelly (voice), Kenneth Choi, Selenis Leyva, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, Garcelle Beauvais. Directed by Jon Watts

 

One of the biggest news stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the last couple of years was the deal between Columbia and Disney that allowed Spider-Man to finally be part of the MCU. While he made his first appearance in the essentially Avengers tale Captain America: Civil War last year, Peter Parker (Holland) a.k.a. Spider-Man gets his own movie and thankfully it’s one of the very best of the franchise.

Holland is the third actor to play the webslinger after Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield both tried their hand at it and in many ways he’s much closer to the comic book original than either Maguire and Garfield who both had a bit of a swagger to them. Holland is a more humble Parker and while he has a bit of a smartass quip-oriented style, he still has a lack of self-confidence that manifests in his unrequited crush for fellow Scholastic Academic Bowl teammate Liz (Harrier).

He gets the benefit of having Keaton as the big bad, The Vulture a.k.a. Adrian Toomes. Collecting alien tech after helping with the clean-up of New York City following the Chitauri invasion of the first Avengers movie, When an unctuous city official (Daly) kicks him off the project leaving his business high and dry, he instead uses the tech to create weapons to help him steal further tech that allows him to develop weapons for criminals.

Parker is aided by Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man who essentially sees him as a kid who is just learning his way through his powers – which is an accurate enough assessment – but fails to take into account Parker’s heart and will to contribute. The relationship between the two is strained but the two actors have a chemistry which makes it fun whenever the two are onscreen together. Eventually despite having the enhanced spider-suit taken away from him (that Stark gifted him with in the first place), Parker shows his mettle as a hero and proves his place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The action set pieces can be CGI-heavy although some of them are pretty impressive, particularly one on a Staten Island Ferry and another one in an abandoned factory. This is thankfully not an origin story (there have already been two of them) but we still get Spidey at a nascent point in his career as a crimefighter. That was a wise choice. We see Parker as a high school kid; this is before he heads off to be a photographer at the Daily Bugle or a college student at ESU. That’s a good place to start him off.

Tomei plays a different kind of Aunt May. In the comics and in the movies, we’re used to seeing an elderly May (although Sally Field’s version was a bit younger in the Garfield iteration than Rosemary Harris in the Maguire version) but here she’s a hottie. The dynamic between May and Peter was always a central one in the early comic books; I would have liked to have seen it developed a lot more here but there are always future sequels.

Despite a couple of missteps this is a very fine addition to the MCU and certain to keep fans happy and waiting for further appearances in the MCU by Spider-Man which should begin with the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars feature next year. This is the closest that the movies have come to nailing the comic book Spider-Man onscreen and I for one are happy that they did.

REASONS TO GO: Holland gives maybe the best portrayal of Peter Parker to date. Spider-Man is brought neatly into the MCU. The relationship between Parker and Stark is fun. The movie that is closest in tone to the comic book yet.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little bit of CGI overload. I would have liked to have seen more of Aunt May.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was going to play Peter Parker’s mentor but the producers decided to go with Downey/Stark instead. Also, J.K. Simmons was in talks to reprise his role as J. Jonah Jameson from the Sam Raimi trilogy but he opted to go with Commissioner Gordon in the DCEU instead.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weird Science
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Dunkirk

Life


Ryan Reynolds in space.

(2017) Science Fiction (Columbia) Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, Haruka Kuroda, Alexandre Nguyen, Woong-sin Hiu, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Naoko Mori. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Space, by definition, is lifeless. Space movies shouldn’t be. The best science fiction movies allow us to see ourselves through a window of “what-if.” I suppose that’s true of movies, period.

The International Space Station is on a mission to retrieve a robotic spacecraft returning from Mars. Knocked off of its trajectory by space debris, it hurtles towards the ISS which will have just one opportunity to grab it or else the soil samples and data it collected will be lost forever. Astronaut Rory Adams (Reynolds) snags the spacecraft and brings it into the space station. There, biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) makes a startling discovery; there is life in the Martian soil. Single celled, maybe, but life nonetheless. The living organism becomes a sensation back at home as the astronauts study it and a naming contest among schoolkids bestow upon the creature the name “Calvin.”

As anyone who has ever seen this kind of movie knows, this doesn’t end well. When Calvin goes dormant, the supposedly brilliant scientists on the space station – presumably with the blessing of colleagues on Earth – decide to use an electrical current to wake up the organism. That’s a pretty rude thing to do to a guest, don’t you think?

Certainly Calvin thinks so and he reacts to the rudeness with homicidal mania. Wouldn’t you? In any case Calvin holds a few xenomorphing surprises up his sleeve…well, he doesn’t have sleeves exactly but you get my meaning. In any case he starts picking off the astronauts one by one and it becomes horribly apparent that the crew must keep Calvin from heading to Earth at all costs – even at the cost of their own lives.

This was originally slated for a summertime release before it was knocked back to March and for good reason; this is a seriously flawed film. For one thing, it follows Ridley Scott’s Alien virtually note for note. I’ll be honest, it’s better to rip off a classic film than a mediocre one but nonetheless the writers don’t offer anything new; it’s just a different kind of xenomorph than the original and it takes place closer to home in both time and place. You could do a pretty decent mash-up with the two movies and never lose a beat.

Espinosa has gotten himself a stellar cast for his movie. Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are two of the most popular stars out there and Reynolds brings the wise-ass persona from his most recent films onto the ISS here. It works rather nicely. Gyllenhaal is a bit more workmanlike, but nonetheless holds the attention of the viewer with his own intensity. He’s a little bit miscast but pulls it off nonetheless.

Most of the rest of the cast is fairly colorless which is a shame because the actors while lesser known than the two leads are solid in the acting department, particularly Sanada and Ferguson. The characters are essentially disposable, meant to be death bait for the CGI alien who is apparently much brighter than the humans because the humans keep putting themselves in situations that are way more dangerous than they have to be. Astronauts are supposed to be smart and in The Martian they were; here, they’re just good looking.

A movie like this is going to live and die on its CGI and the graphics here aren’t bad. Calvin shows up pretty early on and while he morphs into a succeeding variety of creatures each more deadly than the last, we don’t get the mystery we got from the original Alien where the creature wasn’t revealed until much later in the movie. This is a bit of a technical error on the part of the filmmakers. The first part of the movie when we’re meeting Calvin in his initial forms is far more interesting than the bug hunt portion of the film at the end.

I don’t mind films borrowing from other films. There is nothing new under the sun (or apparently under the stars) after all. I just wish there would be just a little bit more variance from the source material. Everything here is way predictable including the ending. This is basically a poster child for wasted opportunity. The idea behind Calvin was a good one; if only they had surrounded him with a story worthy of that imagination

REASONS TO GO: The alien creature is pretty nicely accomplished. Reynolds is on a roll and this kind of film is just tailor-made for him.
REASONS TO STAY: There is definitely a been-there, seen-that feel to the film. The second half of the movie loses what good will the first half builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a modicum of sci-fi violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skydance Media, the production company primarily responsible for the film, has been based at Paramount for seven years; not only is this their first film for a distributor other than Paramount, it is also their first R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Buster’s Mal Heart

Passengers (2016)


passengers

There’s nothing quite like a swim by starlight.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster, Kara Flowers, Conor Brophy, Julee Cerda, Aurora Perrineau, Lauren Farmer, Emerald Mayne, Kristin Brock, Tom Ferrari, Quansae Rutledge, Desmond Reid, Emma Clarke (voice), Fred Melamed (voice), Chris Edgerly (voice), Curtis Grecco, Joy Spears. Directed by Morten Tyldum

Loneliness can drive us to do terrible things. But contemplate this; you are completely alone on a starship full of sleeping human beings on their way to a distant interstellar colony. You have been awakened 90 years too early and are likely to be dead, or at least enfeebled, by the time the ship arrives. How do you cope? What do you do with absolutely no human contact for the rest of your life?

That is the prospect facing Jim (Pratt), an engineer and passenger aboard the Avalon, a colony ship headed to a distant world. His hibernation pod has malfunctioned and awakened him almost a century too early. The only conversation comes from Arthur (Sheen), a robotic bartender who dispenses whiskey and advice in equal measures.

Then Aurora (Lawrence), a fellow passenger also awakens. She’s a writer who had purchased a Gold level ticket, entitling her to more perks on the luxury liner than Jim gets (think of it as first class vs. steerage – Titanic much?) who is equally mystified even as the two enjoy the many amenities on the Aurora – in complete and utter silence and solitude.

But they have much bigger problems. The ship has begun to show a series of worsening malfunctions, from elevators that won’t work to failures of more critical systems. They don’t have access to the vital crew areas where the malfunctions can be dealt with. And while Jim and Aurora are falling deeply in love, there is a secret that may destroy the fragile relationship that is beginning to blossom – if they survive long enough for the relationship to develop.

Pratt and Lawrence are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood and star power is just what a movie like this needs. The bulk of the movie rests on their capable shoulders with little interaction with anyone else other than the aforementioned Arthur and a crew member (Fishburne) who also awakens early. Pratt often plays characters who are generally not very serious. Jim is super serious and the twinkle that Pratt normally has in his eye is not really present here. This is Serious Guy Chris Pratt and while some may prefer the Not So Serious Guy, he is displaying more range than he’s shown to date, which augers well for a long run as an A-lister.

I’ve always known Lawrence is a tremendously gifted actress with extraordinary range but I never thought of her as a sex symbol before this film. There is a scene where Aurora goes on a date with Jim (some of this is shown in the trailer) where she wears a stunning Little Black Dress and has the nightclub walk down. It is as sexy a scene as you’re likely to see and yet no clothes are shed and no skin is viewed. It’s just an actress showing that sexuality doesn’t have to be simulated humping; the most sexual organ is indeed the mind.

Also playing a huge role is the production design. The Avalon is a cruise ship as reimagined by the designers of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s sleek and in some cases sterile, but it looks like the way we thought the future would be back in the 60s before movies like the first Star Wars and Alien showed us a future that was more lived in and industrial. This future is, as Walt Disney might have put it, a great big beautiful tomorrow.

The movie begins to break down in the third act as the love story begins to unravel and turn into a straight-out disaster movie which I think is a tactical error. While Titanic used the love story to give the disaster humanity, here because there is no interaction essentially with anyone else, it becomes less of a disaster than a “Oh no, the ship is sinking!” kind of thing. More like the S.S. Minnow, if you get my drift.

The movie has all the ingredients to be a science fiction classic, but it unfortunately doesn’t pull it all together to make it so. The storytelling could have been tighter and there could have been more emphasis on the people than on the environment. The antiseptic corridors of the Avalon, devoid of human life, become an echo chamber for the two protagonists and that seems a bit cold and empty. The movie is the definition of eye candy; pretty to look at but ultimately nothing substantial once you’ve seen the images.

REASONS TO GO: Pratt and Lawrence make a beautiful couple. The effects are pretty special.
REASONS TO STAY: The story meanders a little bit. The ending is extraordinarily weak.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and nudity as well as some sci-fi action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The starship is named the Avalon after the mythical location connected with the legend of Camelot. Not coincidentally, the bartender’s name is Arthur.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sing

Inferno (2016)


Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Fausto Maria Sciarappa, Alessandro Grimaldi, Robin Mugnaini, Paul Ritter, Vincenzo Tanassi, Alessandro Fabrizi, Simone Mariani, Gabor Urmai, Jon Donahue, Fortunato Cerlino, Attila Arpa, Kata Sorbo. Directed by Ron Howard

 

I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize the novels of Dan Brown as an acquired taste. After all, he’s sold millions of copies of his Robert Langdon novels starting with The DaVinci Code. His plots tend to be complicated and sometimes overly so. Still, they can be an entertaining read. Now, his fourth novel in the series has become the third filmed version of the franchise

Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks), one of the world’s leading minds, wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memory of how he got there. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Jones) is trying to establish how he was shot; there is a head wound where a bullet apparently grazed his skull which might account for his amnesia. Just then a remorseless assassin (Ularu) comes for him, forcing the professor and doctor to flee.

In fact, it turns out a lot of people are after Langdon. The World Health Organization, with Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen) and .investigator Christoph Bouchard (Sy) are chasing Langdon with an unknown agenda. The Italian police are after him after surveillance footage reveals that he stole the death mask of Dante Alighieri  whose Inferno holds clues to a mad billionaire’s (Foster) plan to “cull the human herd” by releasing a plague that will kill half the world’s population and immediately ease overpopulation concerns. A bit of a drastic cure, that.

In any case as Langdon’s memories begin to slowly return, he finds he is in a race against time to find the killer virus and stop this mass murder on a demonic scale. In order to do that he has to follow a chain of clues left behind by the billionaire who killed himself rather than reveal the location of the virus’s delivery system to the WHO. Who can Langdon trust? As it turns out, not the people he thinks.

I have to admit I found the first film in the series, The DaVinci Code, to be genuinely entertaining – the follow-up, Angels and Demons, less so but still acceptable. The third in the series is by far the least entertaining so far; the preposterous nature of the plot has become far too glaring to ignore and the payoff not enough to be worth the ride. Hanks looks a bit tired here; I suspect he’s given Langdon about all he can give him as an actor. There were rumors that both Howard and Hanks were leaving the series after Angels and Demons but apparently they were prevailed upon to do the third film after pre-production on a proposed film version of the third book in the series, The Lost Symbol, stalled.

Again, Howard utilizes an international cast that is largely better known in Europe than in the United States with the exception of the Oscar-nominated Jones who shines here, reinforcing my opinion that she is one of the best young actresses out there who is likely to be one of the most honored actresses of her generation when all is said and done. Khan, who plays the nefarious head of a shadowy security agency, also has some meat on the bones of his character that he can work with but his part is all too brief alas.

Seeing the sights of Florence, Cambridge and Istanbul (among other places) is pleasing, particularly to me personally as I was in Florence just this past May and can attest to the beauty of the city having seen the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi with my own eyes. It certainly ignited the tourist in my soul to see some of the sights that the movie highlights. If you have that tourist gene inside you, you’ll likely be pleased by this as much as I was, but it’s not really enough to recommend a movie just for the setting. It’s rough when every ten minutes or so you’re rolling your eyes at yet another plot turn that defies logic. Even Dan Brown’s most loyal fans will be shaking their heads at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of lovely tourist opportunities for places like Florence and Istanbul.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is absolutely preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES:  Action and violence in plenty here, as well as a few disturbing images, brief sexuality, some disturbing thematic elements and brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Robert Langdon film not to be written by Akiva Goldsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Be My Cat: A Film for Anne

The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay