Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

(M) ★★★★

Director: Antoine Fuqua.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard.


Little known fact: The Wild West often celebrated racial diversity.

EVERYONE loves a good team-up.

Whether it’s Marvel’s Avengers, DC’s Justice League and Suicide Squad, cult ‘90s cartoon Captain Planet, or an NBA All-Star game, people enjoy watching uniquely talented individuals coming together to make something greater than the sum of their parts for the power of good.

When done properly, it’s a thing of beauty. Take for example Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai and its 1960 Western rehash The Magnificent Seven (anyone lamenting a remake of The Magnificent Seven was hopefully doing so with a healthy dose of irony). Both films are regarded as bona fide classics, and stand as team-up benchmarks, as well as being great examples of the “hired guns save the village” sub-genre (which has its own spin-off sub-sub-genre – “hired pretend guns save the village”, featuring the likes of Three Amigos, A Bug’s Life and Galaxy Quest).

Digressions aside, this remake from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) probably won’t be held in the same high regard in 50 years time as the Kurosawa or John Sturges versions, but the key qualities that made those predecessors tick are on display again here. This is perhaps damning it with faint praise, but Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven will always easily be the third best version of this story.

Uniting the team, in the Toshiro Mifune/Yul Brynner role, is Denzel Washington – as cool and calm as ever as Wild Mid-West registered bounty hunter Sam Chisholm. When he is approached by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Bennett) and asked to help save her town from the clutches of evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), Chisholm collects a random team of talented individuals who must come together to make something greater than the sum of their parts for the power of good.

The things that made its predecessors great are all here – colourful characters, a canny cast, and a stirring plot about sacrifice and overcoming impossible odds because, goddammit, it’s the right thing to do.


The cast in particular is outstanding. Seeing Washington re-team with his Training Day co-star Hawke makes you think they should do more films together. Pratt is playing the same louche hero he plays in all his films of late, but he does it so well it’s silly complaining about it. D’Onofrio hasn’t had a role this good outside of the small screen in decades. Sarsgaard gives good villain. Bennett is going to be big.

They all get decent characters, and while some aren’t as well sketched as they could be, at least some effort is made to hint at deeper layers.

The plot is rock solid and remains unchanged from 1954 and 1960. Fuqua hasn’t gone out of his way to mess with it and this is both a blessing and a curse.

On the downside, the film plays it incredibly safe. There is nothing daring or unpredictable about it – the only thing that will keep you guessing is trying to figure out which of the seven will survive the big shoot-out. This means this Magnificent Seven will always run a respectable third.

On the upside, Fuqua hasn’t done something stupid and attempt to fix something that ain’t broke. And in that sense, this version of The Magnificent Seven is a great success. It does exactly what you hope it would do – deliver an updated version of an old story with a few good laughs, a sense of cool camaraderie between its misfit heroes, and conclude with an over-the-top showdown that boasts a ridiculous body count. It is exactly as good as you hoped it could be, and not an iota more.

What more could you ask for in a remake of Seven Samurai?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Storks

(G) ****

Director: Nicholas Stoller & Doug Sweetland.

Cast: (voices of) Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman.

Parenting: not for the birds.

DO parents still tell their children that babies come from storks? I thought that changed to cabbage patches back in the ‘80s. And wouldn’t there be a more modern update involving the internet or something by now?

Either way, the old lie about storks delivering babies is at the centre of this surprisingly enjoyable CG animation from Warner Bros Animation, who appear to be back in the game thanks to The Lego Movie, which ended a decade-long drought from the former cartoon powerhouse.

Storks captures a similar vibe to The Lego Movie, offering the same brand of over-the-top self-aware humour, but without being as stylised or inventive. It’s just good old-fashioned fun with a new twist.

The starring stork is Junior (Samberg), a hotshot deliverer in the rebranded stork enterprise of Cornerstore.com, where they now deliver packages instead of babies.

Junior’s future as boss of the business is assured so long as he can get rid of the clumsy and troublesome Orphan Tulip (Crown), a well-meaning human who works in the Cornerstore warehouse, having been the last undelivered baby before the storks found their new purpose.

Unable to bring himself to fire Tulip, Junior instead finds a pointless job for her in the old baby factory, where she inadvertently “makes a baby” after receiving a letter from a young boy (Starkman) who is desperate for a brother.

With his job on the line, Junior is forced to team up with Tulip to deliver the baby before it is discovered and they get fired.


The premise is fun and modern and the plot dives into the world of storks with enthusiasm and intelligence. Right from the get-go, it sets up its sense of humour and you are either onboard or not. Samberg’s goofy charm is not to all tastes and when married with the exuberant zaniness of the comedy it could be off-putting to a lot of grown-ups.

But Storks will win you over. It’s absurdities pile on, one after the other – best examples are a pursuing wolf pack capable of some insanely complicated manoeuvres and an hilariously silent battle with some penguins – to the point where you just have to laugh, so you may as well embrace it as early as you can. Similarly, an important side character called Pigeon Toady (Kramer Glickman) is an utterly bizarre creation who becomes increasingly hilarious as the action progresses.

The film is also filled with pratfalls and visual gags, which the kids will love – in fact, the film’s broad humour is a large part of its all-ages appeal and it goes out of its way to impress and get a giggle out of every demographic.

Digging beneath the silliness, you'll also find a charming amount of heart rooted into the themes of family. Tulip, Junior and their baby form an unconventional unit that offers some knowing winks to the pains (and joys) of parenthood, while Nick and his workaholic parents (Aniston and Burrell) are a ‘conventional’ family that struggles with its own issues. Along the way, the character arcs are convincing, and by the end the whole thing bubbles over with a whole bunch of warm and fuzzy feelings (and more cute CG babies than you can poke a pacifier at).

Storks is disarmingly good fun, undeniably absurd, and surprisingly thoughtful in its look at what makes a family tick.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Pete's Dragon


(PG) ★★★★

Director: David Lowery.

Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford.

"Man, your dog is ugly. And fucking huge."

WHEN Disney started digging into their treasure chest to find story nuggets to re-model, polish up and re-mount as live action films for the big screen, there was the typical burst of cynicism that comes with the announcement of reboots and remakes.

But this heritage mining has yielded a couple of gems so far, in particular the reinventions of Cinderella and The Jungle Book.

Both nailed the things that made the Disney animations great. Cinderella captured the fairytale whimsy with perfection while simultaneously making Cinders a more modern character. Likewise The Jungle Book captured the swinging moods – from the humour of Baloo to the menace of Shere Khan – while creating a visual approach that was fresh and memorable.

Which brings us to Pete’s Dragon, the latest heirloom to be pulled out of Disney’s box of tricks. The 1977 musical mix of cartoon and live action has not aged well and is not as fondly recalled as Cinderella or The Jungle Book, but has its fans.

Even they will be impressed by the transformation the story has undergone. Instead of an orphan who escapes hillbillies to live by the sea with his traditionally animated dragon, Pete is an orphaned wild boy, forced to survive in the American north-west wilderness with his CG-animated dragon following the death of his parents (which is shown in a beautifully heartbreaking opening).

Pete (Fegley) and his dragon Elliot survive unnoticed in the forests until their world is intruded upon by humans in the form of park ranger Grace (Howard), her mill worker boyfriend Jack (Bentley), and Jack’s impulsive lumberjack brother Gavin (Urban).


As much as this is based on a ‘70s musical, its antecedents are ‘80s family films. The pacing, the predictable fish-out-of-water (or feral child-out-of-forest) plotting, the unconventional family dynamic, the big chase finale, the old man with the unbelievable stories – all these tropes feel like they’ve come from a hundred great and not-so-great all-ages adventures from a couple of decades ago. Throw in a captured beast that harks all the way back to King Kong, and a wild boy right out of the aforementioned Jungle Book, and you have a film that’s not exactly original.

So it’s to the film’s credit that Pete’s Dragon is so enjoyable and captivating. Like a great modern song, it somehow feels new and classic at the same time. Its comedic touch is light, so it’s the heart and the cast that are its biggest strengths.

The two kids – Fegley and Laurence – are excellent. The former has the tougher role, but the latter does hers effortlessly. They’re surrounded by plenty of talented adults, notably Urban, who keeps his ‘villain’ on the right side of goofy, the always solid Howard, and the 80-year-old legend Redford. The last name there is a spark that helps ignite the film’s latter half, which builds to a predictable yet enjoyable conclusion.

The fact Pete’s Dragon does everything you expect and yet somehow still keeps you hanging on is, ironically, somewhat unexpected. It can really only be put down to the strong storytelling, tight film-making, and a heart as big as a dragon’s. The start and finish are particularly good examples of this – the opening is concisely edited and powerfully sad, while the climax is a wonderfully satisfying set piece that manages to ramp up the tension while still being stunning to look at.

Through it all is Elliot the dragon. It should go without saying these days that the special effects are incredible (although you’d be surprised what some films try to get away with), but they really are amazing. Elliot fits into the world perfectly and is another great example of modern FX wizardry.

So Disney is on a good run with its live action rehashes. Let’s see if next year’s Beauty & The Beast can maintain the winning streak.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Secret Life Of Pets

(PG) ★★★

Director: Chris Renaud.

Cast: (voices of) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks.

It's a dog-meet-dog world.
Ugh. I hate myself.

WHAT do your pets get up to when you’re not around?

It’s not a bad premise for a CG animated movie – it’s also not that far removed from the premise of the Godfather of CG animated movies Toy Story (just swap ‘pets’ for ‘toys’).

This is no Toy Story however, and Illumination Entertainment is no Pixar, and it’s perhaps unfair to compare the two … but I’m going to anyway. If Pixar is the smart, thoughtful kid sitting in the corner reading, Illumination is the hyperactive kid running around crashing into things.

As with previous Illumination films (most of which have starred or co-starred the Minions), The Secret Life Of Pets is a slapstick-heavy adventure that’s big on over-the-top set pieces and an increasing level of ridiculousness.

This is not necessarily a criticism on its own, but that’s all Pets is. It’s a wacky premise and a bunch of wacky chases – kind of like Mad Max: Fury Road in a way, but not as exhilarating or amazing to look at it. And aimed at kids. Mad Pets: Furry Road, if you will (it's ok, I'll show myself out).

Pets also stars a Max – a Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.) who idolises his owner – whose world comes crashing down with the arrival of a big shaggy mongrel roommate named Duke (Stonestreet).

Max and Duke battle it out for the position of top dog, but their fighting results in them running afoul of some alley cats, animal control, and an underground gang of ‘flushed’ pets.

It’s up to Max’s secret admirer Gidget (Slate), with a little help from her friends, to come to the rescue.


The characters and voice cast are solid. Hart is a scene-stealer as the film’s nominal villain Snowball the Bunny, while Brooks chimes in with some great lines as Tiberius the Hawk, as does Bell as Chloe the Cat.

For much of its run time, Pets is exuberant and enjoyable, bouncing from one crazy set-piece to the next, barely drawing breath except to throw in some animal-related gags and a few clever lines.

The biggest problem is there’s not much more to it than that. Once it’s exhausted its jokey premise about what pets do while their owners are away, there’s little else going on. It’s the kids equivalent of an action movie.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Some of the set-pieces are both fun and funny, such as watching a psychotic rabbit drive a bus through peak-hour traffic, or seeing a Pomerian destroy a gang of thug animals. There is some good humour along the way but the biggest problem is the film’s endless chases and escapes get tiring and there is no depth or big life lesson to be learnt beyond ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ and ‘look after your pets’.

It’s predecessors are the madcap thrills of Looney Tunes and unhinged idiocy of The Muppets, but Pets lacks the depths and smarts of these ancestors, and is just left with the wacky sight gags and off-the-wall pratfalls.

Classic kids movies offer something new with every repeat viewing as a kid gets older, even into adulthood. The Secret Life Of Pets is not destined for ‘classic’ status. It’s vibrant and enjoyable, but it’s disposable and slim and somewhat forgettable.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Sully

(M) ★★

Director: Clint Eastwood.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney.

The Moustached Middle Distance Staring Competition was in full swing.

IT’S an odd truth of filmmaking, but sometimes incredible true stories don’t make for incredible films.

Case in point is Eastwood’s take on the extraordinary “Miracle On The Hudson” – the 2009 incident in which Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles lost both engines of their A320 Airbus over New York but managed to land safely on the Hudson River, saving the lives of the 155 people on board.

It was a stunning feat that instantly saw Sullenberger labelled a hero.

Hanks gives a great performance as Sully, portraying him as an unremarkable man thrust into a remarkable situation. His 40 years of piloting experience helped him handle a daring water landing, but it didn’t prepare him for the media circus and investigation that followed.

There are some nice moments in this film, such as when Sully finds out all 155 people have survived, and some good conversations between he and Skiles (a subtle performance from Eckhart), but on the whole, the film is a mess.


Despite being just 96 minutes long, there is a lot of padding going on. We watch the crash-landing, which is admittedly spectacular, twice in full (as well as three simulations of it, and a couple of nightmarish alternate versions). Such repetition is unnecessary and increasingly boring. There is also a sense of repetition in many of the conversations – phone chats between Sullenberger and his wife (Linney) either add nothing to the film or go over old ground.

In and around the crashes, the timeline is thrown around like luggage in turbulence. We go to before the crash, during the crash and after the crash with seemingly no rhyme or reason, stripping any rhythm from the film.

It seems as though Eastwood and his editor Blu Murray have done everything they can to avoid what happened to Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, which started with an incredible airplane crash sequence but struggled to reach those dramatic heights (pardon the pun) again for the rest of the film. Eastwood and Murray’s solution is to stick the crash in the middle and again at the end, but then throw the rest of the movie around them in a jarring manner.

The lack of focus and flow is distracting. When we do finally see the crash in its entirety for the first time, it comes mid-conversation, taking us out of one scene for about 20 minutes before dumping us back where we were. It’s anything but smooth.

Equally graceless is the film’s attempt to find a source of tension and antagonism to drive the drama. Sadly this comes in the form of the ludicrous investigation that follows, which tries to argue Sullenberger could have made it back to an airport and was therefore reckless in attempting a water-landing. While the investigation really happened, the plotting is idiotic (particularly the courtroom-style ending) and feels insincere. It may be true (the film is based on Sullenberger’s own autobiography) but it plays out as anything but.

With no convincing dramatic tension, Sully ultimately fizzles out and feels long despite it short run-time, surviving largely on the good graces of Hanks’ performances, the crash itself, and the occasional warm-and-fuzzies the Miracle On The Hudson generates.