Monday, December 19, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Sully ***

Most of those who elect to see Sully, Clint Eastwood’s re-enactment of the 2009 ditching of a commercial airliner in the Hudson River, will remember the incident involving U.S. Airways Flight 1549 from news reports. For several days following the January 15 incident, this was the top story on all the nightly newscasts and provided food for the insatiable appetites of 24-hour news channels. As with all news stories, major and minor, this one faded from the American consciousness. However, since the story is so well-known, one might reasonably ask whether there’s enough material to warrant a feature film. As Sully argues, the answer is "yes," although just barely. With a skinny running length just clearing the 90-minute bar, the movie is forced to shoehorn in some extraneous material to keep it afloat. Nevertheless, on balance, the numerous strengths are more than enough to compensate for any weaknesses and, although not an Oscar-worthy endeavor, Sully proves to be by turns engaging, exhilarating, and nail-biting.

Rather than presenting events of early 2009 in a chronological fashion, director Eastwood employs a somewhat tortured narrative that relies heavily on layered flashbacks. Although not confusing to follow, it seems needlessly cumbersome and adds little to the progression of events. Eastwood wisely keeps the movie’s focus on a meticulous recreation of the accident/ditching/rescue and the subsequent NTSB investigation. For the former, Sully is exacting in its use of existing documentation and footage. For the latter, a degree of "dramatic license" is employed to make things more cinematic. Attempts to portray the protagonist’s PTSD and flesh out his relationship with his wife don’t work as well as they might have.

The dramatization of the flight is Sully’s most compelling slice of filmmaking. Knowing what happens ahead of time doesn’t reduce the tension. A veteran director like Eastwood understands how to use audience expectations to the movie’s benefit. Anticipation lends an edge to the routine pre-takeoff checks performed by Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) at LaGuardia Airport. The plane is airborne for only about six minutes before Sully brings it down for a near-perfect water landing in the Hudson after a bird strikes knocks out both engines and his experience as a pilot informs him that he probably can’t make it to any of several nearby airports for a conventional emergency landing.

For the most part, the NTSB is presented as antagonistic; several officials view Sully’s decisions with skepticism. The production’s portrayal of the investigation airbrushes things. For example, in the movie, it’s implied that the simulator pilots were able to land the plan with 100 percent accuracy. In reality, they only succeeded about half the time. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to get a peek behind the curtain at some of what goes into an accident investigation.

Hanks portrays Sully as a sensible, serious, salt-of-the-Earth type whose dedication and knowledge allow him to function admirably under pressure, saving 155 lives in the process. Although this isn’t likely to go down as one of Hanks’ great roles (and his physical resemblance to the real-life Sullenberger is only passable), it’s a solid performance. Hanks’ innate appeal causes us to immediately like and believe in Sully, and that’s all the movie needs. Eckhart plays Sully’s co-pilot, the only other person with meaningful screen time. Laura Linney is Lorraine Sullenberger but the only time we see her is when she’s on the phone with her husband.

Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern elected to shoot Sully almost entirely using digital IMAX cameras — a decision that enhances the immersion factor for those seeing the movie on large format screens. Sullenberger’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the production gives Sully a strong window into the captain’s psyche and provides a rare upbeat story from a grim, turbulent decade — an almost old-fashioned tale of heroism. It’s a good bridge from the noise of the seasonal DVD releases to the more sedate films of coming after the first of the year.

Storks **
Storks, the digital cartoon about a crew of sharp-beaked, flamingo-legged birds who deliver babies (or used to; they now deliver consumer packages — but I’ll get to that in a minute), is a strenuously unfunny animated comedy. These days, that’s a relatively rare bird to encounter, since animated filmmaking right now tends to hit certain baseline slick levels of amiable generic cleverness. In Storks, the jokes fall flat, but the pace is relentless, and those two things seem somehow intertwined, as if the filmmakers had convinced themselves that comedy that whips by fast enough won’t go thud. Even if you watch Storks and think, 4-year-olds will really dig it (and perhaps they will), frenetic and witless is not a great combination. At least, not for anyone over 4. The movie might get some rentals or streamings this first weekend of its home viewing release, but after that the situation looks dicier. In the animated marketplace, quality still counts.

The film’s weird absence of ingratiation begins with its premise, which takes off from established fairy-tale folklore in the vein of Shrek or any comedy built around, say, the lives of elves in the North Pole. In this case, however, something may stick a bit in your craw. Our stork heroes, led by Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg at his most gee-whiz unironic and benign), once zipped through the skies toting babies in their beaks, the infants encased in what look like miniature space capsules. But that’s all in the past. Now, the birds work for, delivering random products out of an elongated, train-car-shaped warehouse perched high up in the clouds. They’re couriers of Internet consumerism, and the movie treats the situation they’re in as a fall from grace, like the toys in Toy Story 3 after they were relegated to a scruffy day-care playroom. We’re supposed to be rooting for a return to the good old days.

But in Storks, even the good old days seem a bit …off. The myth of the stork delivering babies is certainly an entrenched part of our culture, and a long time ago it was a convenient wink of a way to explain procreation to young children. Taken literally, though, it presents problems. Storks truly does idealize a world in which parents get their little bundle of joy delivered, which makes you wonder things like: Does actual birth not exist in this movie? It’s not every high concept that rewrites the basic rules of the human race.

Things get spun into motion when Nate (Anton Starkman), the semi-ignored young son of two loving but beleaguered parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) who run a real-estate agency out of their kitchen — think Inside Out: The Sitcom — decides that he simply has to have a baby brother. Picking up on an old stork pamphlet that’s lying around the house (the one that must have been tied to the stork delivering him), he sends a letter to stork central, requesting an infant, and the letter accidentally gets plopped into the old, shutdown stork Baby Factory, reactivating the machine. How, exactly, does this contraption work? The letter gets split into tiny cells, which then replicate, and replicate some more, and out pops … a real live baby! The first one produced by the factory in nearly 20 years. (But how did couples get their babies in the intervening time? How the heck should I know? Ask Mary Poppins.)

It’s up to Junior, who has just been offered the job of boss/manager of (his über-overseer is played, with booming voice, by Kelsey Grammer), to deliver the new baby to its rightful parents. Partnering in this quest is Tulip (Katie Crown), Junior’s sole human co-worker, whose defining trait is an explosion of red hair that seems to have been borrowed from the heroine of Pixar’s Brave (yes, Storks gives you that kind of market-tested feeling), as well as an attitude of super-perky and giddy … uh, attitude that might have been more compelling if she actually had a few good lines to deliver along with the baby.

Tulip has constructed a makeshift flying contraption that she, Junior, and the big-eyed, shiny-pink-haired tot they’re shepherding use to get to their destination. Storks is basically a rambling road movie, with a number of rote encounters along the way, like one with a pack of wolves (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) who possess the rather arbitrary ability to group themselves into different shapes: a drive-able van, an enormous broken heart. Storks is a kiddie-entertainment vehicle that runs on the fuel of cliché. There’s a scene in which a character screams "N-o-o-o-o!" in slow motion, as well as glib montages set to And She Was and How You Like Me Now? The latter sequence features a character named Pigeon Toady who’s a sawed-off semi-villainous beaked bird in what looks like an orange toupee, voiced by Stephen Kramer Glickman, who does a virulent version of Full Valley Girl. He, at least, wakes the movie up.

One of the major disappointments of Storks is that it was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (with Doug Sweetland, the supervising animator on Cars, as co-director), a live-action comedy filmmaker who has proved himself to be a brash and creative talent. His debut feature was the 2008 Judd Apatow gem Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and in the years since that cult classic Stoller has done a snappy job of directing both of Seth Rogen’s Neighbors films as well as the heartfelt semi-autobiographical comedy The Five-Year Engagement. But where Rogen and company moved into the animated sphere with supreme confidence and verve in the uproarious and outrageous Sausage Party, in Storks the challenge of working in a new medium seems to have blunted Stoller’s instincts for timing and imagination. The movie’s (meager) appeal comes down to: Animated babies sure are cute! But there’s a difference — or should be — between a kiddie comedy and a kewpie-doll factory.

The Magnificent Seven **
Call it the law of diminishing results. Akira Kurosawa’s 1956 classic The Seven Samurai (the first time this story was made into a movie) is a great film — a contender for one of the best 100 motion pictures of all time. John Sturges’ innovative remake, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, was a considerable step down but still a solidly enjoyable tale. Now, two sequels and one television series later, along comes Antoine Fuqua to do what has sadly become commonplace in Hollywood — take a venerated property and create a middling "re-interpretation" for no apparent reason other than because it’s more than 30 years old and has a marketable brand. (Didn’t work well for Ben-Hur, did it?) If there’s a compelling reason to remake The Magnificent Seven, it can’t be found in the 2016 version, a loud, cluttered, and generally disappointing production.

The narrative mirrors that of The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven (1960) albeit with a number of minor changes. The movie opens with an unsettling sequence (arguably the best in the entire film) in which the bad guy, ruthless capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (a deliciously evil Peter Sarsgaard), clomps into the church of a small 1879 frontier town and declares that he will pay $20 per parcel of land and anyone who doesn’t like the offer can take the consequences. There’s a three week ultimatum involved and he punctuates his threat by turning several citizens into widows and orphans.

One of those widows, Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), decides she’s not going to passively accept Bogue’s demands. So she travels to other towns to recruit a fighting force who can oppose the aggressors. She finds Bounty Hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who brings on board the booze-loving-but-deadly Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), the wanted Mexican gangster Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the former Civil War sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his Asian compatriot, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), the famed tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and the Comanche exile Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). These seven are all who stand between Bogue’s ruthless greed and the peaceful men and women of Rose Creek.

It’s curious that, although the credits rightly cite The Seven Samurai as being the screenplay’s basis, they ignore William Roberts’ work on the 1960 The Magnificent Seven, where the story was first repurposed as a Western. Another oversight is the decision not to use Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme (which would be recognized by almost everyone regardless of their age and whether or not they’re familiar with the original movie) until the end credits. There are hints and echoes of it throughout but it never breaks through. (This may have something to do with how the music was developed. James Horner wrote bits and pieces of it prior to his death but it was left to Simon Franglen to assemble everything and compose the connective tissue.) Film score buffs will be understandably disappointed.

Of course, it’s not just movie music lovers who may find The Magnificent Seven to be lacking. Overall, the production has a generic Western feel to it with little added flavoring to make it worthwhile. The characters are all underdeveloped (the conceit used in the 1960 version of having them bond with townspeople is largely absent here) and the geography is muddled. One key of both The Seven Samurai and the 1960 The Magnificent Seven was to present a clear picture of the terrain and an understanding of where the enemy was at all times. In this movie, there’s a lot of shooting and things getting blown up but no cohesion. At no point do we have a good sense of how many enemies there are, how thinned their ranks have been by the Seven’s tactics, and whether it’s feasible to sneak up on the leaders.

Frequent Fuqua collaborator Washington (they previously worked together on Training Day and The Equalizer) gets top billing although it’s a laconic, low-energy performance that only gains resonance in the final 10 minutes. Pratt brings some comic relief along with his good looks and box office appeal. The other five members of the seven are mainly character actors (Hawke, D’Onofrio) or lesser known names. The film’s standout is Sarsgaard, who makes Bogue the kind of bad guy we really want to have a gory ending.

Fuqua does a good job with the slow-burn aspect of the build-up. There’s a palpable sense of tension in the minutes prior to the major conflict. Unfortunately, the battle itself is a letdown. As in the director’s King Arthur, there’s a lot of violence but the end result is confused and unsatisfying. The original The Magnificent Seven found a perfect balance between moments of grand triumph and the understated, solemn denouement. This The Magnificent Seven has the dour ending without the high points preceding it. With two better versions of this story readily available, why bother with this mediocre re-telling? "Currently recognizable actors" hardly seems like a good justification.

Other DVD releases this week
Hitchcock/Truffaut *** A landmark film book gets its just deserts. The cleverly curated clips are stunning and the analysis thought-provoking in this richly rewarding pierce.
Oasis: Supersonic *** As a music comedy, this is up there with Popstar, but with better-defined characters. It’s thick with tales of brawls, breakups, stage walk-offs, busted hotel rooms and astonishing rudeness.
It Had To Be You **½ Ultimately demonstrates enough cleverness and inventiveness to make it more than a by-the-book entry in a genre that’s become more than a little stale.
Goat **½ Few films take a look at the American male college tradition through such a dark, dramatic lens as this one.
Roseanne for President **½ Roseanne Barr is better at zinging quips than defining her Socialist agenda.
Dad’s ArmyIt has a strong, game cast but this is karaoke filmmaking, trading on nostalgia rather than breaking new territory. Affable, but forgettable.
31There’s not a single character worth caring about, and even less artistic license to appreciate. This is a dirty, depraved love-letter to horror that’s written in a bunch of different colored crayons to mark such simple words with distracting colors.
Greater This faith-based football drama fails on so many levels one scarcely knows where to begin.
The Disappointments RoomsLives (and dies) up to its title.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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