Friday, September 23, 2016

Movie Review: “The Magnificent Seven”


The Magnificent Seven

*** out of 5
132 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material
Sony Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com
If there’s one genre that’s still sputtering to take off again, it’s the western. While there have been a few that were better than others — The Proposition, True Grit, Bone Tomahawk, and Quentin Tarantino’s double whammy of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight — it feels like Hollywood is going back to the drawing board by introducing a new generation to The Magnificent Seven. Unfortunately, not even the usually reliable Antoine Fuqua, or stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, can save the film from being modestly mediocre.

While you may feel like you’re having a good time watching, it’s instantly forgettable and pales in comparison to the original. The fact that the original theme song isn’t even used until the end credits should show you how much effort was put into this rehash. The saddest part is it’s just a reminder of how faithful Pixar’s A Bug’s Life was to Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai.

The story remains the same: in a small town — this time Rose Creek — the evil mining tycoon Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has gunned down Emma Cullen’s (Haley Bennett) husband Matthew (Matt Bomer), a few other townsfolk, and set the local church on fire. He threatens the town that he’ll return in the fall when the last… leaf… falls… err, I mean in three weeks. The grieving Emma is left with no choice but to call upon bounty hunter Chisolm (Washington) for some good old revenge.

Chisolm has no plans to go at it alone, and soon enough, his misfit gang is in place to save the town. Along for the ride is the wiley Josh Faraday (Pratt), the drunken Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his Asian sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), the bearish Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), hispanic Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and American Indian Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). Together, they’ll all join forces to take Bogue down and return the town to its people.

If there’s one thing we’ve come to expect from Fuqua, it’s a little bit of technical razzle dazzle and a good amount of fun. After the pairing of him and Washington in The Equalizer and Training Day — which also starred Hawke — and the addition of Pratt, you’d think that we’d have one of the funnest westerns around. All we’re left with is a slapdash screenplay courtesy of Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective). They both clearly love the story, but kill the one thing that holds everything together: the town’s plight. Never once do we care about whether Rose Creek is saved from the Bogue varmint. Not once.

It’s a shame the only one who really seems to be having any fun is Lee. Try as Pratt might, even he doesn’t stand up to being the comic relief Fuqua clearly expected. Not that it’s his fault. The screenplay relies far too heavily on outdated racial slurs for comic effect and puts no effort into dialogue or situations. Even the action feels sloppy under John Refoua’s editing knife. Scenes either meander too long or feel extra rushed. Even some of our poor protagonists’ demises feel shortchanged as if they were merely extras.

My only hope is that Sony Pictures learns a thing or two from this Magnificent Seven blunder and give director Nikolaj Arcel the freedom to keep the western aspects of his adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower as western as it should. While Magnificent Seven may not be of the same sorts of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s at least not Jane Got a Gun bad. I would refuse to say it could be called Mediocre Seven, but doggone it, I just gone and done it.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Movie Review: “Bridget Jones’s Baby”


Bridget Jones's Baby

*** out of 5
122 minutes
Rated R for language, sex references and some nudity
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It’s been 15 years since Bridget Jones’s Diary arrived in theaters with its hilarious and heartbreaking mixture. With the help of Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) and Andrew Davies, Helen Fielding’s titular Bridget won over audiences worldwide. While the casting of Renee Zellweger was a left-field choice, she threw herself into the misadventures with aplomb. It was only a matter of time before a sequel came along and three years later we were assaulted with the terrible Edge of Reason. Never proving its existence with critics or audiences, it took another 12 years for original director Sharon Maguire and Helen Fielding to team up with Zellweger yet again for Bridget Jones’s Baby. Worth the wait it was not.

Throwing continuity out the window, with Bridget crashing her way through her 43rd birthday. She may have a fantastic job where she loves her co-workers — especially her BFF Jude (Shirley Henderson) who decides to take her to a weekend rave to make up for having run into Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) at Daniel Cleaver’s (Hugh Grant) funeral. On said excursion, Bridget winds up in the wrong tent and sleeps with mystery man Jack (Patrick Dempsey). A few days later, she winds up sleeping with Mark also. Now, Bridget finds herself in the biggest pickle of her life after she realizes she’s pregnant and has no idea who the father is. Aw-shucks, hilarity tries to abound.

I suppose there should be something refreshing about a film based around a woman trying to have her cake and eat it too. It’s just that director Maguire is stuck with Fielding’s rambling screenplay. You would think that being co-written by Emma Thompson would make things more palatable, but there’s a threeway tug-of-war happening between Fielding, Thompson, and additional screenwriter Dan Mazer (frequent Sasha Baron Cohen collaborator: Da Ali G Show, Borat, and Bruno). Some of the jokes will leave a bad taste in your mouth, even if they might hit a little close to home.

Thankfully, Maguire has a lot of returning cast members on hand — Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent, Sally Phillips, and James Callis — to at least make things feel more homey. But it’s too little too late and almost none of the original’s charm is left. If this happens to be the last we see of Bridget Jones, at least she gets what she deserves.

Movie Review: “Blair Witch”


Blair Witch

**** 1/2
89 minutes
Rated R for language, terror and some disturbing images
Lionsgate Films

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

If there’s any genre more subjective than comedy, it’s horror. What’s scary for one may be laughable to someone else — or even downright boring. When The Blair Witch Project was unleashed back in 1999 at the Sundance Film Festival, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez struck solid gold with one of the most polarizingly terrifying horror films ever. And pretty much single-handedly invented the found footage subgenre.

To say The Blair Witch Project wrecked me is an understatement. Watching a bootlegged copy on a friend’s computer at midnight was not how someone who is scared to death of the woods should have been introduced to the hysteria. I’ve still only been able to sit through it from start to finish a total of three times. No one knew a direct sequel was coming — especially 17 years later. Lionsgate managed to pull the wool over our eyes all over again by releasing a super creepy trailer for a new film called The Woods, directed by none other than Adam Wingard. Anyone who’s a fan of Wingard — and constant collaborative writer Simon Barrett — have a decent idea of what they’re getting into.

After You’re Next and The Guest I began salivating for what could be the year’s scariest film. Then, they pulled the ultimate gotcha and released a brand new trailer for what the film really is, simply titled Blair Witch. The fear and nostalgia were instantly back. But the big question was, could Wingard and Barrett bring the franchise back to its backwoods roots after the abominable Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 stopped the series dead in its tracks? The short answer is this: absolutely!

For anyone not in the know, the premise is every bit as simple as the original: James (James Allen McCune) believes his sister Heather is still alive in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. He sets out to find her armed with his best friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Peter (Brandon Scott). James thinks he’s found a lead after he contacts Lane (Wes Robinson) who agrees to take them out to where he found one of Heather’s videos. Now, everyone — including Lane’s girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry) — will come face to face with what really lies out in the woods.

The cast obliges to what Wingard puts them through and the scares come fast and furious once they start. It does take its time before settling into ultimately becoming a bit of a remake of the original, but Wingard and Barrett still manage to put a non-stop stranglehold on the audience. If you buy into the premise, of course. As was the case with the original, this Blair Witch is also a love it or hate it kind of movie.

There will be those who complain about inconsistencies and plot holes, but do they really matter in a horror movie? What matters are the scares and Wingard taps right back into premium xylophobia. For the rest of you, you’ll probably walk out annoyed and/or bored. If you’ve seen the original, you know what you’re in for. The rest of you might as well stay home. And besides, if you didn’t like the original, why would you go anyway? This Blair Witch is the sequel fans have been waiting for and won’t leave disappointed.

4K UltraHD/Blu-ray Review: “Now You See Me 2”

Movie: ** 1/2 out of 5
4K: *** 1/2
Video: ****
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: ** 1/2

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Magicians and illusionists can get away with a lot if the use enough smoke and mirrors. With the assistance of some editing and special effects, they can pull off even more in movies like Now You See Me 2. Considering most tricks are all really just a big cheat, it comes as no surprise that a film based around magicians would be anything less. As if that isn’t lazy enough, director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ed Solomon have gone even lazier by pulling the oldest sequel rabbit out of their hat: the twin brother! Not even two Woody Harrelsons and one Harry Potter can clean up the mess audiences are left with. Considering NYSM2 only brought in about half as much box office as the first one (at least here in the U.S.), it’s a head scratcher that Lionsgate has a proposed third installment waiting in the wings.

Picking up shortly after the first film, J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is still searching for the ever elusive “Eye.” FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is still pretending to be hot on the Four Horsemen’s trail, while Agent Cowan (David Warshofsky) is still waiting to unmask him for the fraud he suspects. Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is patiently waiting in prison to exact his revenge, meanwhile, tycoon Arthur Tressler’s (Michael Caine) illegitimate son Walter Mabry (Radcliffe) is helping his dad exact revenge. Meanwhile, Merritt McKinney’s (Harrelson) twin brother Chase (Harrelson again) is helping Walter, leaving Jack “Faked-His-Own-Death” to play odd man out even if he’s written into a forced relationship with the new Horseman Lula (Lizzy Caplan).

Lionsgate has issued Now You See Me 2 on both Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD, and the results are a mixed bag when poised against each other. The 1080p presentation is the more favorable of the two as the blacks aren’t quite as crush-filled, there’s less noise, and has a far more filmic look. The 4K has an artificial sharpness to it, something that should have been left behind from the days of DVD and early Blu-ray, but still wreaking havoc on most Universal catalogue titles. A simple thing such as the leather interior of a Hummer looks simply like leather at 1080p whereas there’s a weird shimmer to it in 4K.

Colors on the 4K aren’t necessarily better either, even with the touted HDR. Brighter doesn’t mean natural. Skin tones fluctuate way more throughout the 4K disc than the Blu-ray, they’re far more consistent in 1080p. There’s been complaints about constant judder throughout the 4K, but I never witnessed it once on a 65” Samsung (UN65J58500) played through a Samsung UBD-K8500. This could be a case of early 4K adopters having older monitors. All things considered, the 4K looks like an upscaled Blu-ray, which is funny since playing the Blu-ray on either a 4K display or on a 1080p display still looks better. If you have to have the 4K disc, at least it comes with the Blu-ray.

The included Dolby Atmos track (downgraded to a 7.1 for this review) is as good as you’d expect. While the film itself never finds itself as the kind of film made for an Atmos mix, it still sounds way better than I’m sure a 5.1 would. Does it need Atmos? No. But it’s nice to see Lionsgate continuing to pull out the stops on the audio front. Dialogue is never lost amidst the random moments of chaos and there’s plenty of prioritization and directionality. There’s also plenty of ambient use of all surrounds, even when it’s just Rhodes talking to agents in his office. Bass is deep but never wall-shaking. Crowded moments are always enveloping and the score is never overwhelming. Additional audio tracks include the English Dolby TrueHD 7.1, Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, and an English Dolby Digital 2.0. English and Spanish subtitles are also available.

All special features for NYSM2 are on the Blu-ray disc. What is included are your typical EPK material with the cast and crew indulging in lots of back-patting. They may have had a great time making the film, but so did the cast of Ocean’s Twelve, and that didn’t cross over to audience enjoyment either. First up is an audio commentary with Director Jon M. Chu. Behind-the-scenes featurettes include “The Art of the Ensemble” (21 mins) featuring the cast and crew discussing how awesome they all are; “You Can’t Look Away” (17 mins) goes over the sets, production design, and location filming; “Bringing Magic to Life” (16 mins) could have been the most interesting since it includes producer David Copperfield and Magic & Mentalism Consultant Keith David. They clearly think they’re way more clever than the audience and try to convince you that most of the tricks were done in-camera. Anyone watching the film will see right through Chu’s smoke and mirrors.

I was never a huge fan of the first Now You See Me, as it might as well have been called Exposition: The Movie! since it spent half the movie explaining what was going on. This is no different. Except that the tricks are bigger and faker. The 4K presentation isn’t much of a step up from the standard 1080p, but at least both discs are being packaged together. Fans of the first will probably find a few things worth checking out, but for a film centered around magic, it certainly lacks in that department.

The special features are self indulgent and add nothing to helping the film’s cause. Chances are you won’t even remember watching the film once you’ve sat through another one. A rental wouldn’t be a huge loss, but it’s not necessarily worth paying the extra money for a 4K purchase. At least the audio lives up to Atmos standards. But there are way better demo discs that are way more deserving of your hard earned cash and time. See it at your own risk.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Movie Review: “Sully”

Sully

**** 1/2 out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is such a real life hero, it’s not surprise he received the big screen treatment. Since he’s portrayed by Tom Hanks, I should have known better than to question the casting aspect of Sully. It’s director Clint Eastwood who could easily be called into question. The man hasn’t directed a slam dunk in years. Even with all the love showered upon American Sniper, it was still every bit as boring as Jersey Boys, J. Edgar, Hereafter, Gran Torino, and Changeling. What’s funny is that his most entertaining movie of the last eight years is probably his least seen, Invictus. Considering audiences already know most of what happened on January 15, 2009 to US Airways Flight 1549, we finally get to see the human side of the Miracle on the Hudson.

Sully is suffering from PTSD after landing on the Hudson and saving everyone on board. His mental state isn’t helped by the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation questioning his decision to make a water landing after a bird strike took out both engines. With Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley), Ben Edwards (Jamey Sheridan), and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) breathing down his neck, Sully has his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) standing by his side —  who is just as thankful for Sully’s quick thinking as much as anyone else on board. The NTSB insists that he could have made it back to either LaGuardia Airport or Teterboro Airport with minimal damage. But Sully knows he made the right choice, and stakes his entire reputation upon the salvation of all 155 passengers.

It’s only pointing out the obvious that Hanks is a blessing in any movie.  He’s one of the greatest actors working today and brings his all to even the most introspective roles. Sully is another notch on the man’s belt and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. While he may still have some Dan Brown paycheck films to work out of his system, he’s still got plenty of life left in him. The rest of the cast also lend a hand in keeping the film afloat. Eckhart is one of very few moments of levity for such a heavy-handed drama. Laura Linney could have been wasted playing Sully’s wife Lorraine, but she manages to shed some light on the love and possible marital strife going on at home.

As good as Hanks is, the film’s biggest detriment lies in Todd Kamarnicki’s screenplay. Based on the book Highest Duty by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, the film is focused on one man’s plight to prove he did the right thing. Sully is a pilot doing his job and never stopped until all 155 passengers were accounted for. While he may have moments of self doubt, it only shows that he really is human, and his big speech during the NTSB only hits harder because of this.

Eastwood does get to put us through the wringer a number of times, with varying accounts of the landing, but never letting the truthers get their glory. This is not a smear campaign; Sully was just a man at work, doing the best he could during a moment of crisis. It’s not always the easy thing that’s right, and the situation very easily could have turned out badly for everyone involved. Thankfully, Sully is a fantastic human drama, shedding a little more light on a terrifying reality. This is one of the year’s best films and Hanks easily gives one of the year’s best performances.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Movie Review: “Morgan”


Morgan

**** out of 5
92 minutes
Rated R for brutal violence, and some language
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Sometimes the best way to walk into a film is without any preconceived notions. While having seen the release of trailers and TV spots for the new thriller Morgan, it still managed to slip under my radar. Man, what a breath of fresh air this was after a so-so 2016 summer. Packed with a game cast, a director bred from royalty: Sir Ridley Scott (Luke Scott), and a twist you can see coming a mile away but won’t care. Morgan is one of the year’s funnest action thrillers. It is kind of a shame the big twist isn’t more of a surprise, but sometimes it’s not about the destination, but the journey.

Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) has been called out to the middle of nowhere to investigate an incident. Something has gone wrong with Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) and she’s attacked one of the scientists on duty, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kathy’s fellow doctors/scientists aren’t keen on Lee’s appearance. Turns out, Morgan is part of a line of experimental prototypes creating human hybrids. While they may not be machines, they still function like AI and have to be taught how to live in the real world. Morgan may look 20 years old, but she’s really only five and still has some growing up to do. The next day, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) arrives to provide a psyche evaluation on Morgan when all hell breaks loose.

The best thing about not knowing anything about Morgan is finding out it bears a striking similarity to another one of my favorite underseen action films, The Guest. That too played with conventions, but while The Guest never really answers the questions behind the characters’ motives or abilities, he could also be part of the experiment here. The cast may feel like some of them are going through the motions — especially Toby Jones as the lead doctor — but they play these parts so well, you never care that they’re all basically playing caricatures.

Rose Leslie and Boyd Holbrook manage to steal the scenes they’re in, but Taylor-Joy gives a fantastic performance as a girl who isn’t quite sure who she really is or what she may ultimately be engineered for. It’s a shame Leigh feels pretty much wasted. Considering she’s all banged up after getting stabbed in the eye by Morgan, she almost looks like she got called off the Hateful Eight set to film her scenes. Michelle Yeoh also manages to almost bring some pathos to the shenanigans, but still seems almost out of place. She almost seems to only serve as a means to the end’s twist, but it’s always a pleasure to watch her on screen.

It may be venturing into spoiler territory to mention that the real gist of Morgan is that screenwriter Seth W. Owen loved last year’s Ex Machina as much as the rest of us, but wondered what it would be like starring Jason Bourne. This is exactly how the film plays out and the scant runtime never wastes a minute. Scott makes sure that the film plows full speed ahead to the end credits, this is all killer, no filler. Same as The Shallows, this one is lean and mean — especially when it comes to watching knock down drag out fights between women. While Scott may rely a little too much on jump cuts, the brawls are gnarly.

Movies like these need to be seen so that Hollywood will know that it’s ok to take a chance once in awhile. Don’t let Morgan slip under your radar the way it did mine, this is one that’s a whole lot of fun, and doesn’t spend too much time on its setup only to make it feel like you were shortchanged by the end.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Blu-ray Review: “Clown”

Film: **** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: **

Article first published on Blogcritics.

A lot of films — especially horror films — can take awhile before finally seeing the light of day. The two that instantly spring to mind are All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and You’re Next. The real question is, was it worth the wait? The latest to join the crop of delayed releases is co-writer/director Jon Watts’s coulrophobia-drenched Clown. What started as a joke is now a full-length feature film. Watts originally created a fake trailer for the film and plastered Eli Roth’s — creator of Cabin Fever and Hostel — name on it. Next thing Watts knows, Roth is on the line offering him the chance to expand his idea.

As scared of clowns as some people already are, what happens when you put on a costume and can’t take it off? Therein lies the trouble for our poor protagonist Kent (Andy Powers). What starts as a lark for his son Jack’s (Christian Distefano) birthday party, after the clown they hired cancels, turns into a David Cronenbergian nightmare. Kent’s concerned, loving, and pregnant wife Meg (Laura Allen) now gets to put the pieces together after Kent can’t take off the costume and it starts to transform him into some kind of child-murdering demon. The only person who seems to be able to help them is the possibly crazy Karlsson (Peter Stormare) who knows way more about the costume than anyone should, but may also know the key to helping Meg save Kent.

Starz/Anchor Bay transforms Kent’s descent into madness onto 25 GB Blu-ray disc that’s just the right size for a 100-minute movie with only one special feature. Colors may not be as bold as you’d expect for a movie revolving around a clown, but this is a horror film after all. Desaturation is the name of Watts’s game and, as the film progresses, so does the color palette. Detail is never quite as sharp as you’d hope, but there’s never any sign of digital tampering. No smudgy facial features here. It also helps add some extra gruesomeness to the practical effects, even if it does make some of the CGI-enhanced moments look a little hokey. Blacks never dive into crush and the faint noise on hand appears more grain-like than mosquito noise. It’s about what you’d expect a modern horror movie to look like and gets the job done. English and Spanish subtitles are available.

Same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While faring a little better than the video, it’s still rather front heavy, but does kick in surround usage anytime something horrific is about to happen. Deep bass also manages to keep viewers on their toes as they await characters’ impending dooms. As for that one special feature, all we get is a quick (6:24) “Making Clown Featuring Producer Eli Roth” with the cast, and a few of the crew, talking about the story and some of the behind-the-scenes work. Roth is featured most prominently discussing how much he loved the original short and how great it was to give Watts this opportunity. A digital copy of the film is also included.

Clown may not be a new classic. It is quick, efficient, and as every bit as creepy as it needs to be. I was honestly shocked that the film features so much on screen violence directed at children, although it helps make the transformation all the more frightening. Watts and Powers put everything into Kent’s evolution into the villainous monster, and the most surprising thing is that Watts is moving on from this to Spider-man: Homecoming. Considering how far he was willing to go in this film gives me great hope for some memorable super villain(s) in the new Spider-man film.

It would have been even more interesting to see how he could have handled the remake of Stephen King’s It following Cary Fukunaga’s departure. While it is nice to see him jump genres, he really could have brought a lot to the table there. As it stands, Clown is a nice little jolt for those who like movies about killer clowns. Considering they keep making them, there’s clearly an audience for it. But let’s face it, if there’s something to be scared of, Hollywood will find a way to try and make money off of it. Since the film is nearly bargain priced, it’s worth a blind buy for interested parties; just make sure you put the kids to bed first.