Deepwater Horizon

These are the hardest reviews to write.  If I love a film, I can’t wait to put down rapturous if not purple prose about the glories of its excellence.  Likewise, if I hate a film, I can bring out my inner Dorothy Parker and delightfully rip it to shreds.  Most films fall close to one or the other pole, at least for me.  But there are some that wind up in the middle.  They are perfectly well made films with good performances that amuse me for an hour and a half but they are forgotten as soon as I walk out of the theater.  These films simply don’t plug into any emotions.

I suppose that, in and of itself, is a pretty serious criticism.

Mike Williams, played by Mark Wahlberg, works on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig that floats instead of being anchored to the sea floor.  That allows it to explore in water that is miles deep.  Its job is to find the oil, start a well and then move on to the next site.  Mike is a devoted family man and competent repair technician on the rig.  He’s also very much a working class figure who gets along with the roughnecks and everybody else on the crew.

This is based on a true story, so we know what happens next.  The oil from the well overwhelms the rig which catches fire, resulting in eleven deaths and the worst oil spill in American history.  There are some very exciting moments when things are exploding and stuff, but none of it really sticks with you.  The main reason is sensory overload.  In the second half of the movie, it’s dark, everybody’s covered in oil, and the soundtrack is so cluttered you can’t hear what they’re saying or even tell who they are.  And it doesn’t help that the filmmakers keep cutting from one scene to another.

The structure of this films is flawed.  The first half is build-up and foreshadowing and it drags.  The second half is the crew trying to get off the rig and it feels rushed.  Now I’m all for keeping action films in that hour and a half to two hour window, but they really should have taken more time during the actual crisis.

This is one you can definitely wait for.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The Magnificent Seven, the 1960 version directed by John Sturgis and starring Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and almost every other tough guy actor in Hollywood at the time, is one of those films that was cherished by an entire generation.  When it came on TV (this was before VCR’s or DVD’s) that was what I was watching.  Not an ambitious film, it was almost perfect in execution, striking the right balance of characterization and action.

Normally this would render re-making it the blackest of sins, but of course that would be silly because it itself is a remake of the Kurosawa masterpiece, The Seven Samurai.  And frankly the story has been remade in so many different settings over the years, it has become a classic if not archetypical trope.  The story of underdogs standing up to bullies and aging knights girding for one last fight is always going to be stirring.  So a remake, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt is not unwelcome.

It is, unfortunately something short of a triumph.  The action is great.  There’s a terrific cast.  Denzel is always easy to watch, even if he’s just being Denzel as he is here.  Chris Pratt has all kinds of charisma and it’s hard not to root for him.  Ethan Hawke is terrific as an old Confederate sharpshooter with a dangerous reputation.  There really isn’t a bad performance.

But there’s just something that doesn’t resonate.  Maybe it’s because westerns have been moribund for so long that we’re deaf to the themes that were once built into them, ideas that came naturally to the filmmakers and audiences of the past and didn’t need much exposition to explain.  The idea of samurai or gunslingers, scratching out livings at the end of their romantic eras and looking for one last chance at redemption, is integral to the Seven Samurai plot and Fuqua and his screenwriters, Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, pretty much ignore that theme.  It’s simply not the same.

The film is too long; it could have used a few more passes in the editing room.  There was one place at least where I was confused during a transition.  I quickly got back into it but the confusion drew me out of the story.

I guess the performances alone make this worth seeing, although you can certainly wait for the DVD release.

The Light Between Oceans

There is still a place in this world for a simple melodrama.  The Light Between Oceans is a straightforward story that puts its characters into untenable positions where they have to make their choices and pay the costs.  There are no superheroes, like in some of star Michael Fassbender’s other films.  Nor is this a gritty working class indie with method acting and grainy film stock like director Derek Cianfrance’s earlier work Blue Valentine.  This is a mainstream middle-brow drama with Oscar pretensions and hopes for a decent opening weekend.

Tom Sherbourne, played by Michael Fassbender, returns home to the western Australian coast from World War I with a sadness in his eyes and a huge dose of survivor’s guilt.  The only future he can see is one that he has to eke out, trying to live up to the incredible blessing, as he sees it, of living through four years on the Western Front.  He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on an island off the west coast of Australia.  In the nearest town he meets Isabel Graysmark, played by Alicia Vikander, the pretty young daughter of a local official.  She draws him out of his reticence and eventually they marry.

It is a happy union until she starts having miscarriages and it becomes obvious that the couple can’t have children which they both desperately want.  Shortly after the second one, a boat washes up on the island with a dead man and a baby girl.  Tom feels strongly that they should contact the authorities but Isabel talks him out of it.  Nobody on the mainland yet knows about the second miscarriage and if they hide the man’s body, they can tell everybody that the baby is theirs.

Tom is never comfortable with this and his guilt increases when he discovers that the baby’s mother, Hannah Roennfeldt, played by Rachel Weisz, is actually alive and is grieving heavily for the loss of her husband and daughter.  What makes it worse is that she doesn’t know their fate.  It eats at Tom for several years until he finally acts.

This is a beautiful film with sprawling landscapes of overcast skies and rugged coastlines.  The colors are subdued and they nicely echo Tom’s reticent demeanor.  The shots are beautifully framed and steady.  The cinematography was done by Adam Arkapaw.

Likewise the performances are also low-key for the most part.  Michael Fassbender is one of the best actors working today and excels at almost every role he plays.  His emotional journey in this film plays out almost entirely on his face.  It is a masterful example of how to act on film.

Vikander is also terrific.  She does have a few moments of high drama and she handles them expertly.  I’ve stated my admiration for her before and this performance only strengthens my belief that she’s one of our best young actors.

This is a slow paced film.  It takes about half the film to set up the characters and the setting.  I didn’t really mind that most of the time because the characters were so compelling but there were times when I wished they would just get on with it.  As a consequence of the stately pace, when we get to the main conflict, half the film is over.  I won’t say the second half feels rushed; I don’t think that’s the word.  But the resolutions seems too easy.

There is a theme in this movie about forgiveness and leaving the past in the past.  The symbol of the lighthouse on an island near the intersection of two oceans is key to the theme of the movie.  One of the minor characters in a flashback says the forgiveness is easier because you only have to do it once, whereas keeping up hatred takes effort.  I have no idea if this is Cianfrance’s theme in his screenplay or if it is in the novel by M.L. Stedman upon which the movie’s based, but it is patently untrue.  I offer the state of the world as my proof.  The fact is that it is very hard to let go of grudges and to forgive injuries.  It is a process that takes time and effort and that comes only with familiarity with the object of hatred.  Ironically that process is depicted in the movie but I’m not sure that the filmmakers noticed.

At any rate, The Light Between Oceans is a good old-fashioned drama and you should see it.

Florence Foster Jenkins

They say that the one percent live in a bubble, a fantasy world with problems that are different from yours and mine.  Consequently they become strange and somewhat out of touch with reality.  This was never any truer for anyone then for Florence Foster Jenkins, a real society matron in New York during the 30’s and 40’s, here played by Meryl Streep.

A classical music lover all her life, Jenkins generously gives to operas and orchestras in the city.  But she longs to be on the stage.  When she was younger, she taught piano and had ambitions of being a concert pianist but an accident damaged the nerves in her left hand.  Now she has turned her attention to singing.  The only problem is that she can’t sing.  Her voice is flat and piercing like a damaged air raid siren.

Because of her generosity, she knows all the great classical music figures of her time.  Arturo Toscanini, played by John Kavanaugh shows up at her doorstep to flatter her and ask for money.  She can hire the best professional voice coaches and they will tell her that she is a magnificent talent because she donates so much money.

The perimeter of this bubble is kept intact by Jenkins’ husband St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant.  In his own words Bayfield was a “good but not great” actor, who has given up the stage and devoted his life to keeping up his wife’s delusions.  When she wants to give a concert, he books a small salon, recruits an audience that he knows will be respectful and adoring, and bribes critics to give rave reviews.

The problem arises when she books Carnegie Hall and gives hundreds of tickets to returning servicemen who cannot be counted on to suppress their opinions on her performance or to even show up sober.  Nor can he keep out New York Post critic Earl Wilson, played by Christian McKay, who cannot be bribed.

In lesser hands the role of Florence Foster Jenkins could have been simply an object of ridicule.  But Streep is a master and she brings out not only the vulnerability of the character but also her great heart and strength.  She had not been rich all her life.  At one point her father disowned her because of her wish to devote herself to music.  She supported herself by teaching piano.  She’s known personal tragedy and suffers from a medical condition that I will not spoil here.  Streep shows us why all these people go to such great lengths to protect her.  The scenes where she tries to sing are hilarious but they are also heart-breaking.  She tries so hard.

Hugh Grant plays St Clair Bayfield as a slick man of the world, used to greasing palms and talking people around to his point of view.  He keeps a mistress.  But over the course of film you realize how devoted he is to his wife.  When faced with a choice, he chooses her.  Grant tones down but doesn’t entirely eliminate his usual mannerisms and delivers a terrific performance.

Simon Helberg, one of the geeks on The Big Bang Theory, plays Cosme’ McMoon, the pianist they hire to accompany Jenkins during her voice lessons and eventually her concerts.  He takes the gig for the money, which is quite good.  But once he discovers his new boss’s shortcomings, he begins to worry about his reputation.  His arc, which Helberg plays masterfully, is about coming around to St Clair’s position.  In the end Cosme’ wants to protect her just as much.

There are a couple of loose ends that keep the movie from perfection.  Jenkins carries a leather satchel with her at all times and McMoon is instructed to never ask what is in it.  When the secret is revealed it’s not that big a deal and doesn’t affect the plot.

But all in all this is a good entertaining film for adults.

Suicide Squad

I think a lot of people in the fan boy press were looking forward to The Suicide Squad, because of all the DC projects that Zach Snyder was shepherding to the screen, this one fit his dark vision for the DC universe the best.   I mean you got amoral spymaster Amanda Waller, here played by Violet Davis, coercing several badass DC villains into a team to go on a desperate dangerous mission.  It’s The Dirty Dozen remade as a superhero movie.  If there ever was a movie that should be made with attitude and underexposed footage this was it.

But then Batman vs. Superman bombed badly and was heavily criticized for its bleak tone.  Then suddenly there was talk of reshoots for The Suicide Squad and rumors about how the studio executives wanted to lighten it up.  There was probably some of that but it didn’t really stand out as much as you would think.  The problem was unengaging characterization and an unimaginative screenplay.  I suspect that Suicide Squad would have been a bad movie even without studio tinkering.

At the beginning of the movie for example, they give us a little precis of some of the prospective members of the team.  There are graphics on the screen and little flashbacks as Amanda Waller explains to various authority figures who each member is and what they can do.  The whole thing is jarring somehow, maybe because we’ve seen it so many times before.  It’s also repetitive and doesn’t really add to the tension.

I realize that Amanda Waller is supposed to straddle the line between good guy and bad guy, but the filmmakers have miscalculated and drawn her too far to the dark side.  The moral equations are hopelessly muddled here and there isn’t enough attitude in the film to make me overlook that.  Not everything she does is justified in my opinion.

As for the performances, they are fine.  It’s been a long time since Will Smith, who plays Deadshot, has relied solely on his own persona to carry a role, as he does here.  There’s really nothing wrong with that but it does make for some cognitive dissonance since Smith is playing a cold-blooded killer as a likeable and funny guy.  He doesn’t quite pull it off.

The only great performance is delivered by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  If nothing else this movie should ignite the second stage of her ascent into superstardom.  She actually brings out some of the tragedy of Harley Quinn’s story.  She also does crazy very well.  And it doesn’t hurt that she’s insanely hot.

There are a lot of funny moments in this but if you’ve been keeping up with the previews, you’ve seen them all.  So Warner Brothers’ inability to make a good DC comic book movie continues.  I can’t imagine many people have much hope for the Justice League movie.  Wonder Woman looks intriguing but then again so did this.  I really hope that they pull out of this slump or change their approach.

Jason Bourne

It seemed like very good news that Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass decided to return for another installment of the Jason Bourne saga.  The series has certainly had its ups and downs but every installment so far has been watchable and those two have been responsible for most of the ups.  In this one they turn their attention away from Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross and back to Matt Damon’s original super soldier.

What fascinates me the most about this series is that on the surface this is a comic book premise.  A government created super soldier is basically the same idea as Captain America.  The difference is that Greengrass and his screenwriters have written, shot and edited the films like they were LeCarre adaptations.    Not ever having been a secret government assassin, I have no idea how accurate these things really are but they certainly feel real.  The convoluted plotlines and cynical depictions of bureaucratic infighting provide a sophisticated setting to the exciting set pieces.  Also the grainy film stock and hand held cameras give the film a documentary like look and feel that adds to the illusion of realism.

When the story begins Bourne is at a low point.  He’s still on the run and still feels remorse for the things he did as a government created and controlled weapon.  But he’s gradually becoming aware that something is missing in his understanding of what was done to him in the Treadstone project.  They told him that his father was killed by terrorists, but fellow fugitive Nicky Parsons, played by Julia Stiles, contacts him during an austerity riot in Athens, Greece and informs him that that was not the case.  She also tells him that Robert Dewey, the new head of the CIA, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is starting up a new ominous surveillance program that has the capacity to watch everybody all the time.

Bourne springs into action with predicable mayhem.  As he looks for answers, he is chased around the globe by Dewey’s agent, Heather Lee, played by Alicia Vikvander and another super soldier known only as the asset, played by Vincent Cassel.  The asset was one of the super soldiers who was compromised when Bourne exposed the existence of Treadstone to the world in an earlier installment.  He was also the operative who killed Bourne’s father.

So this is personal for both of these men who by training and physiological tinkering are not supposed to have emotions.

Damon does a good job showing that Bourne is changing as the memories of his past return to him.  And he’s not happy about it.  He’s a weapon that has suddenly developed a conscience.  His quandary is that he can’t figure out what he wants to do about it.

Tommy Lee Jones is in this which means he was great.  Vincent Cassel manages to portray a man who has been grievously betrayed in only a few minutes of screen time.  And Alicia Vikvander turns in another of a growing list of great performances as an ambitious bureaucrat who occasionally has principles.

The problem with Jason Bourne is the same one as with most of the recent installments of long running series.  It’s the same plot.  Bourne surfaces, escapes a few traps, exposes a nefarious government plot and the current leadership of the CIA is eliminated.  The filmmakers stubbornly refuse to explore any other aspect of their premise.  In that respect Captain America is a better series.

Sure this is an exciting film and I was on the edge of my seat during the action sequences.  But I’m starting to realize that this is more because of the cinematography and the editing than it is from any concern for the characters.  I really do want to see something new in these series.

So Jason Bourne is not the best film in the series, nor is it the worst.  What makes this disappointing is the talent involved in this project is capable of so much more.

Star Trek Beyond

I often complain about a movie if it doesn’t take any chances.  Especially in these series movies, like Star Trek or Star Wars, the filmmakers are particularly risk adverse.  They have whole story generating universes to explore but are unwilling to do it, particularly in the summer.  TV is where all the creative action is right now and I’m really looking forward to this new Star Trek series.  That’s where Gene Roddenberry’s vision will ultimately be carried on.

Now, of course it’s possible to make a good movie that doesn’t challenge formulas.  After all pushing the envelope all the time can be just as tiring as seeing the same old thing time and time again.  Thus when the movie is a summer blockbuster that costs millions, us fans are dependent on the filmmakers’ ability to make a good movie within the formula.

So Star Trek Beyond gives us a Big Bad, Idris Elba playing Krall, a new fearsome enemy with seemingly invincible weaponry, an angsty Kirk and a plucky crew.  Yeah, they destroy the Enterprise but we’ve seen that before too.  Believe me there’s nothing new in this stew.

The plot is immaterial.  You know it; you’ve seen it a million times.  What you don’t see is a lot of the action because the screen is so dark at times.  I saw the 2D version so I can’t even blame the 3D glasses.  Plus the action scenes are cut too tightly and the camera is too close.  It’s really hard to follow especially in the beginning.  But of course it’s impossible to get lost in this linear hackneyed plot.

And yet I enjoyed it.  That’s partly because I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan and the franchise always gets a pass.  Into Darkness had many more flaws than this one but I still bought the DVD.  But also because the new crew of the Enterprise is exceptionally well cast, or rather re-cast.  Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is consistently interesting.  He’s evolving.  The beginning of this film shows him worn down by the responsibility of his position and the drudgery of routine to the point where he applies for a desk job.  He’s on the verge of totally suppressing the wild child we saw in the first film.  It’s interesting to see him resolve this internal conflict.

Zachery Quinto is probably the only person other than Leonard Nimoy who could play Spock.  He has the mannerisms and the character almost perfectly.  I think they are making him too emotional, but that’s just something the geek in me is going to grumble about while I enjoy the movie.

And finally, finally they have given Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy something to do.  His performance is exemplary in this and he has all the funny lines.  His banter with Spock is reminiscent of the show.

Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty and wrote the screenplay along with Doug Jung, also has a lot of good moments.  And he is even beginning to resemble James Doohan.  Scotty was always good for some comic relief in the series and Pegg has continued that.

Idris Elba is incapable of giving a bad performance, even when playing a stock bad guy with comic book motivations.  I liked newcomer Jaylah, played by Sophie Boutella, a black and white striped alien and a tough survivor.  At the end it looked like they were setting her up to replace Chekov, since J.J. Abrams has already said they probably won’t replace Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident.  I don’t think that’s a bad move.

Star Trek Beyond is a summer action film.  It’s a good one but it really doesn’t aspire to anything more than that.  But I hope that one day they return to more thoughtful and daring stories.

October 2016
« Sep    

Recent Comments

Mark Anderson on Deadpool
theotherebert on Star Wars Episode VII The Forc…
Mark Anderson on Star Wars Episode VII The Forc…
theotherebert on Star Wars Episode VII The Forc…
Mark Anderson on Star Wars Episode VII The Forc…

Blog Stats

  • 32,619 hits