Monthly Archives: September 2016

‘The Magnificent Seven’: clichés can’t keep a good remake down

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In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for the Cinema Sins YouTube channel. Some of my favorite films have been ruined irreparably for me based on their nitpicks. I’ve also been very open with my hatred of the phrase “turn your brain off.” But this is exactly what I ended up doing as I watched Antoine Fuqua’s remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ even as I wrestled the urge to nitpick it to death.

Richard Wenk and Nick Pizzolatto’s script is a cliché sandwich with a side of stock character au jus. However, the charismatic trifecta of Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke (who is on a roll this year – he deserves an Oscar for ‘Born to Be Blue’) elevates it to such an enjoyable experience that the fun I had far outweighed the complaints. It’s also worth noting that Fuqua brings a unique cinematic energy to the project, crafting a luxuriously paced western that still feels feisty.

None of my praise is to say that Fuqua’s film is anywhere near as captivating as John Sturges’s 1960 original western or Akira Kurosawa’s classic ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954) on which the western is based. In fact, what this version lacks most is the heightened sense of heroism amongst the ragtag vigilantes of the title.

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There’s something to be said, though, for the determination and slickness with which Fuqua crafts the picture. The sets are unapologetically old-Hollywood, but photographed smartly with likely the best cameras money can buy. The simple premise has not been updated in any major way: seven hired guns protect a small town from archetypal western villains. The archetype itself may have changed, but it’s surprising how little of story substance has been altered as the tale still manages to entertain.

Peter Sarsgaard scowls through his role as Bartholomew Bogue, a robber-baron mining magnate who literally shoots first and asks questions later. He and his men burn down a steeple and murder several men in the town of Rose Creek, prompting newly-widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to enlist the help of peace officer Sam Chisolm (Washington) in order to fend off an army of Bogue’s company men.

Emma follows Chisolm on his quest to recruit five of the most skilled outlaws he knows. The sixth shows up almost out of nowhere: a wandering Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). He’s the character whose lack of development I took the most issue with. Outside of being a great fighter and archer, the one thing we know about him is that he knows barely any English.

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However, even though the other outlaws of the seven aren’t developed much better, this movie still has much to offer. It’s a pleasure to see cinematographer Mauro Fiore’s vibrant canvas of hardscrabble wilderness filled in by such capable actors. Denzel is as compelling as ever in the iconic Yul Brynner role. He never tries to ape Brynner’s brand of altruism, but instead holds a quiet contempt for Bogue which he lets loose towards the end.

Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo round out the gang of misfit gunmen, and as much as Fuqua tries to position them all as completely heroic, they’re more interesting when they’re more complicated. The best of the dialogue is their one-liners, delivered both on horseback and in various taverns. Those quick exchanges tell us more about them than any ham-fisted attempt at backstory ever could.

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And then we get to the final shootout. It’s rare that I find myself willing to turn off my brain, but this scene earns it because even as it engages in western clichés, it upends them in a variety of interesting ways. The excellence of the pacing and choreography of this sequence cannot be overstated.

So even taking into account its flaws and the fact it can’t hope to hold a candle to the original, I found Fuqua’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ exciting, charming, and even laugh-out-loud funny at times. I’m surprised MGM and Sony released it in September. It’s a much better summer movie than any of this summer’s crop. Alas, even with name recognition, perhaps westerns simply don’t sell like they used to.

‘The Magnificent Seven’ = B+

‘The Magnificent Seven’ is rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material.

-George Napper

‘Our Little Sister’: pure movie magic

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I find it hard to write something insightful that will do justice to a film as uniquely perfect as ‘Our Little Sister.’ The first moment that brought about high levels of emotion in me was early on when the eponymous young half-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose) runs after a trolley car carrying the three older half-sisters she’s just met, and who have just invited her to live with them in their grandmother’s house.

From their first meeting, I so desperately wanted the four sisters to live peacefully together. And then the movie immediately gives us that without conflict. The slight dramatic tensions have to do with family strife just outside the sisters’ purview, but the fact that the movie is supremely entertaining without obvious friction is what makes it such a stunning achievement.

The eldest sister at 29 years old, Sachi (Haruka Ayase) is dealing with the recent loss of her father and the fallout from his past infidelity to her mother. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho), 22 and 19, respectively, are just starting to find their way in the adult world. At 13, Suzu is almost in a different film – hers is a coming-of-age story – but she becomes the glue that binds them in a trying time.

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Suzu, who was stuck tending to her father in his final days, finally finds her place in the world among her new family unit. Sachi sorts out how to be her own person and not so much a mother to her grown-up sisters. Yoshino learns to be a little less selfish when faced with a challenge at work. Chika shelters Suzu and keeps everyone balanced with a warm sense of humor.

Director Hirokazu Koreeda keeps all of this character development out of the after-school-special realm by keeping the family drama in the background and allowing his talented actresses the space to truly discover their characters. We get to know them as friends and not theme hangers.

If this sounds like a quaint and unassuming family saga, that’s because it is. But it’s also so much more. It’s a movie for adults that never once overindulges in darkness. Its pleasantries give way to a stunning finale, echoing redemption, love, grace, and forgiveness.

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When Sachi’s mother returns after having abandoned her daughters for more than a decade, she suggests that the house they live in be sold. I almost jumped from my seat because I was so insulted by that suggestion. That’s when I knew that not only had Koreeda subtly managed to make the house a fifth main character, but that he had crafted a masterpiece capable of ripping one’s heart out.

As I mentioned before, there aren’t many words that can qualify a film this beautiful. So I’ll end this review by strongly urging you to see this movie. However you might feel about having to read subtitles, please don’t miss this one. I honestly can’t think of any cinephile I know who wouldn’t fall head-over-heels in love with ‘Our Little Sister.’

‘Our Little Sister’ = A+

In Japanese with English subtitles.

‘Our Little Sister’ is rated PG for thematic elements and brief language.

-George Napper

‘Snowden’: Gordon-Levitt shines in Oliver Stone’s latest

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This week, I had the great pleasure of seeing Fathom Events’ presentation of “Snowden Live,” an early screening of Oliver Stone’s new film followed by a live-via-satellite q&a with the director, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, and subject Edward Snowden, skyped in from Moscow.

For me, the most revealing moment of the q&a was when director and subject recounted how they felt about each other when they first met. They complemented each other’s passion for their work, and Snowden said Stone’s mind is constantly working.

That constantly working mind may be to Stone’s detriment when it comes to structuring his films. The biggest problem with ‘Snowden’ is that it doesn’t know when to end. It’s a two-hour film stretched out to two hours and eighteen minutes because of a needlessly elongated finale which perhaps over-praises Snowden. Stone’s mind may sometimes work so hard that, in an artistic sense, it ends up doing too much of the hard work for us.

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As it is, it’s still one of Stone’s better films, even if it is on the lower end of that spectrum. His dialogue sounds sharp and believable coming from the mouths of his great leads, and although he can’t resist his recent proclivity to montages, that never quite gets in the way of the story.

The film follows two periods in Snowden’s life almost simultaneously: his rise to his final position at the NSA and the moment when he and The Guardian collaborated to make his leaks public. Because of his efforts, people everywhere now know to what extent the U.S. government and its allies keep track of non-threatening targets.

Stone’s illustration of Snowden’s paranoia over security is effective, if a bit on-the-nose. The one scene involving his fear which really doesn’t work at all is a sex scene between Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) and Lindsay Mills (Woodley), his girlfriend.

He sits up in bed, distracted for a moment when he glimpses an uncovered webcam from the corner of his eye. He did, in fact, put band-aids and tape over his personal computers’ webcams the day he found out that the NSA could activate them remotely. But that’s just an awkward time for anyone to have that kind of realization, and honestly we didn’t need any sex scenes in this film because the chemistry between the leads is already quite good. The non-explicit romantic scenes are some of the best in the movie.

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Mainly because the role allows him to explore not only Snowden’s mind but his heart as well, this is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s finest performance to date. The voice he creates is accurate without feeling like caricature, and the general calm with which he observes his day-to-day life underscores the genuine shock he feels when he digs deeper into the NSA’s underbelly.

It’s actually fascinating to learn how Snowden arrived at a place emotionally and philosophically where he felt like he had no option but to leak what he did. That’s the pleasure of that main two hours: being able to better understand Snowden as a person and not just a talking point.

Stone can’t do much to further the larger conversation about privacy and national security because the next event in Snowden’s story hasn’t occurred yet. Everyone who cares is still waiting to see what will become of him. But as an educational and entertaining historical drama, ‘Snowden’ is quite effective. It’s a testament to what can happen when a fascinating subject is put in the hands of a capable director and a phenomenal actor.

‘Snowden’ = B

‘Snowden’ is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.

-George Napper

‘The Neon Demon’ is a morality play for psychopaths

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They say “write what you know.” Nicolas Winding Refn has clearly never followed that rule, or at least I hope he hasn’t, for his sake. ‘The Neon Demon’ features intense misogyny, rape, torture, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism, and its tone is so blasé that not once did I feel a thing for any victim in it. I just felt rage towards Refn, a filmmaker who, up until now, I admired.

I’m not going to apologize for spoiling that shocking stuff, because this movie doesn’t deserve the respect of keeping its secrets shrouded. It deserves to be put on main street and laughed at. It’s a prime example of pretension at its very worst. It wants to pretend it’s somehow smarter than its audience. Newsflash: if you’re a functioning human being who isn’t criminally insane, you’re 10,000% smarter than this garbage.

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This movie is so unbelievably god-awful that I couldn’t even remember the protagonist’s name by the end of it. Elle Fanning plays Jesse (I had to look that up on IMDB), an aspiring model who has run away from home at 16 years old and constantly has to lie about her age to get work. A makeup artist named Ruby, played by Jena Malone (why are you here, Jena?), takes Jesse under her wing as she acclimates to the scene and realizes she may be destined for greatness.

For an hour or so, it’s at least halfway interesting. Watching Jesse come into her own is good fodder for a character study, even if Refn can’t help his male gaze. There are fleeting moments of craziness, but the story is grounded enough for that hour to make you want to see it stick its landing.

Then this thing really goes off the rails. Well, maybe “off the rails” isn’t right – this thing straps on a jet pack and shoots away from the station faster than you can say ‘Only God Forgives.’ Notice I referred to it as a “thing” and not a train. That’s because trains are cool and helpful, and I don’t want railroad workers to be offended.

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Jesse somehow escapes the roach motel she had been living in for the first half of the movie (run by Keanu Reeves – again, why are you here?) and moves in with Ruby. She says she’s “housesitting” this palatial mansion, but given everything that follows, I wouldn’t be surprised if she murdered the original owners, burned their bodies to a crisp and used the ashes as soil for potted plants.

Ruby, who had seemed like Jesse’s only ally, proceeds to force herself on the child (again, she’s 16) and seems disgusted when she shoves her off. From here, we get the aforementioned necrophilia, torture, murder and cannibalism, none of it with any insight, motivation, or even humor.

I’m a huge fan of at least one controversial film this year: ‘Swiss Army Man.’ For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s about a man stranded on a deserted island whose savior comes in the form of a farting corpse. While I see that movie as a bizarrely beautiful construct created to explore genuine inconsistencies in the human condition, I understand that others find it downright offensive and gross. But even if you didn’t like it, I challenge you to watch ‘Swiss Army Man’ and ‘The Neon Demon’ back-to-back and then tell me you wouldn’t watch ‘Swiss Army Man’ every day if it meant you never had to think about ‘The Neon Demon’ ever again.

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Refn isn’t an untalented filmmaker. Nor is he empty-headed, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this piece of trash. This movie doesn’t just offend, it puts its fingers into every orifice of your senses and dares you to look away. I imagine some of you reading this might ask, “Well, hasn’t the movie done its job if it offended you to this degree?” My answer would be, “Yes, but what the hell is the point?”

If I could say anything good about the second half of this film, it’s that the font of the credits reminded me of ‘A Bigger Splash’ from earlier this year, a film whose pleasures were similarly arch. But ‘The Neon Demon’ fails where ‘A Bigger Splash’ succeeds: I cared about the characters, however slimy, and they seemed like real people.

Refn’s film is total fantasy, and not the good kind with rings and dragons. It’s the fantasy of believing one has something insightful to say about the fashion industry and then finding out that the self-proclaimed emperor in fact has no clothes.

Leave the bad-boy stuff to Lars Von Trier, Nic. He’s better at it than you.

‘The Neon Demon’ = F

‘The Neon Demon’ is rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.

-George Napper

‘The Fits’: a debut feature with a definite voice

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Following ‘It Follows’ and ‘The Babadook’ in the recent tradition of indie horror with real-life allegory, Anna Rose Holmer’s ‘The Fits’ is a masterpiece. But Holmer’s is a film focused not on scares, but on setting. She and cinematographer Paul Yee imbue the Cincinnati community center they rarely venture from with layer after layer of life through their remarkable visual storytelling.

Not to mention their terrific lead actress, eleven-year-old newcomer Royalty Hightower. The semi-biographical story of Toni’s (Hightower) growth from a boxing tomboy to a graceful member of a dance team suits her well. Her arc isn’t told through dialogue (there isn’t much in the film) but shown through movement and shot composition.

We know she’s committed to the idea of switching sports because we’ve seen how determined she is when she’s training. The opening sequence of the film is Toni working on her punches. It’s this crucial scene that endears us to her. We feel like her experience is our experience because we naturally see what she’s like and how passionate she is.

When Toni first thinks seriously about joining the dance team on the other side of the hall, she has to stand on her tiptoes to look through a skinny little window. She takes time to imitate some of their moves when her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) isn’t looking.

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Jermaine is never shown apart from Toni’s view of him. Neither are any adults – a sly move to keep our attention on the kids. The camerawork is kept exclusively in Toni’s headspace and perspective, which is what keeps us sympathetic to her and initially disapproving of the older girls in the dance team. The detail is not in the plot, but in the film’s visual language.

As the plot does thicken, however, ‘The Fits’ becomes more than just a superb character study. It elevates into a stunning coming-of-age story and a profound statement on sisterhood. As the older girls start to experience the “fits” of the title – sudden seizures with no clear explanation – Toni and her new friends start to wonder what it all could mean and why it isn’t happening to them.

There’s a subplot with teachers and parents concerned about the drinking water; one girl calls it a “boyfriend disease,” but Holmer isn’t trying to stick the landing on her allegory. She’s much more interested in where the setup can take her. This results in an incredible climax and one of the most exhilarating endings of a film I’ve seen in quite some time.

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When I sit down to watch a film, I want to be transported into a character’s experience. It doesn’t matter how specific or bizarre the story might appear on the surface – if I find it relatable, that means the world to me. I am a twenty-something white male who’s just finishing college. How could I ever relate to an eleven-year-old black female athlete who’s having her first taste of womanhood? ‘The Fits,’ that’s how.

The Fits = A

‘The Fits’ is not rated, contains mature thematic elements.

-George Napper

‘Sully’ both skids and soars

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Unless you were living under a rock in January 2009, you saw US Airways Flight 1549 sitting in the Hudson River. This was the result of a flock of birds, failed engines, and the skill of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. His quick thinking saved all 155 lives aboard.

Clint Eastwood’s retelling, simply titled ‘Sully,’ focuses mainly on the man in charge and stumbles when it loses sight of him.

In the cockpit, Sully (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) begin the movie by going through their pre-flight checklist and taking off. Not long into the flight, the birds hit, disabling both engines and sending the plane straight into the heart of New York City with a fiery explosion.

Awoken from this nightmare with him, we immediately understand Sully’s insecurities as much as we possibly can. Although I’m not usually a fan of dream sequences, this one works because it sets a tone of cynicism and fear which Sully must overcome in the aftermath of the event.

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Sully and Skiles are grilled by a team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who claim it was possible for the plane to have safely returned to either LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport. If the NTSB is proven correct, the two pilots could lose their jobs and their retirement funds. On top of that, the media attention feels relentless to these otherwise average people, including Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorraine.

Interspersed into the investigation are snippets of the incident from multiple perspectives. We see the consequences failure could bring to bear on the air traffic controllers, the uncertainty of the passengers, and finally the actions of the pilots. All of these sequences are tense, but I couldn’t help feeling like Eastwood was holding something back.

For the majority of these flight scenes, there is no musical score – a fitting choice for a humble hero, but not an incredibly cinematic one. Most of the time, we critics complain about music manipulating the audience’s emotions. But here, I would have enjoyed being manipulated just a bit. When we already know the ending, it’s not that entertaining to simply give us the facts and nothing more. Spice it up, Clint!

That’s not to say the movie is ever boring. Far from it – Hanks could make the phone book fascinating and the film often feels like more than the sum of its parts due to the aura surrounding the event.

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But when we see a passenger swimming away from the downed plane because he thinks he won’t be rescued, or a group of passengers ecstatic about a family golfing trip, even if these things really happened, they seem like hackneyed ideas and they simply aren’t as interesting as the investigation. So on time management Eastwood doesn’t score too highly this time. I know he didn’t write it, but he’s instinctively a better filmmaker than Todd Komarnicki’s script gives him credit for.

In the end, though, ‘Sully’ is worth seeing and it’s worth seeing in IMAX. The spectacle of the accident and the surprising ways in which it’s recounted are a dazzling sample of some of Clint Eastwood’s best visual work. The allusions made to 9/11 feel apropos because it’s quite startling to see a huge airliner careening through downtown New York, filmed with IMAX cameras.

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Hanks and Eastwood have brought their considerable talents to a thrilling snapshot of America and its capacity for heroism. Despite its flaws, maybe ‘Sully’ is just what we needed this late into the election season.

‘Sully’ is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language

-George Napper

‘Southside with You’: one of 2016’s best and most romantic films

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Summer 1989: boys ride tricycles through the streets of Chicago. Laundry hangs and dries in room after room on a sweltering day. Young lawyer Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) prepares for what she says isn’t a date with Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers).

They’ve arranged to spend an afternoon together, but Michelle is under the impression that most of this time will be taken up by a community meeting on the south side of the city. Barack, an associate at her firm, convinces her to spend more time with him when she realizes the meeting isn’t until 4 p.m. His famous gift for speechmaking is put to good use here by writer-director Richard Tanne. It’s a cheeky moment with a certain finesse that continues to refine itself as their unanticipated bond grows stronger.

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That finesse in their dialogue is on full display when Barack and Michelle attend an Afro-Centric art exhibit. They come from different sides of a similar set of tracks. Michelle’s career and upbringing have made her more book smart, while Barack’s multicultural roots have made him more street smart. They tease each other on this basis quite a bit, until it’s clear to them both they share a deeper connection.

Ironically for a film about two such iconic political figures, politics are rarely discussed. Conversations will naturally coast in and out of topics of personal ambition, personal heroes, and personal fears, but for the most part, that’s as close as it gets to any sort of historical commentary. But that’s the secret genius of Tanne’s film. By scoping ‘Southside with You’ specifically to the experiences of these two people, he’s made a film that’s instantly relatable to everyone who’s been on a successful first date.

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Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are electric. Neither of them resort to caricature or attempt to copy the speech patterns of the couple. Sawyers (who couldn’t look more like the man) simply plays Obama as a good-hearted idealist who returns verbal volleys from Sumpter as if they were pieces of cherry pie. Sumpter imbues Robinson with a knowing sense of worldliness which never completely overshadows her pride.

As the day comes to a close, the eye of cinematographer Pat Scola returns to the streets with a calming shot of street-lamps overhead as Barack’s worn-out Datsun rattles into an ice cream shop. What follows is a stunning little coda that retains the film’s sweetness yet finally adds the pitch-perfect level of romance for the moment. We all knew it was headed to romance anyway, but ‘Southside with You’ takes us deeper into that journey while reminding us we can feel that love, too.

– George Napper

P.S. Stay during the credits for John Legend’s new song, “Start.” I’m sensing a Best Original Song winner here.

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‘Southside with You’ is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference.