Dir. Peter Berg
Armageddon and Deep Impact. Volcano and Dante's Peak. Batman v. Superman and Captain America Civil War. All of these are examples of the strange phenomena of "twin movies" - two films released at roughly the same time that have seemingly identical plotlines. The same could be argued for Deepwater Horizon and Sully, my previous featured review. Both films deal with very recent true stories involving blue collar American heroes thrown into a crisis, who bravely come together to survive by means of pure professionalism, workmanship, and mastery over complex machines. While I much prefer Clint Eastwood's introspective Sully to the more traditionally "Hollywood" Deepwater Horizon, I do appreciate that both films take the time to genuinely give appreciation towards those people who go into work every day and simply do their jobs as well as they can.
The story follows the events surrounding the 2010 explosion of the massive oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which killed many of the workers stationed there and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, effectively ruining the day of many-a pelicans. Among the crew fighting for survival is Chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Also aboard this floating majesty of human achievement over nature is BP supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who doesn't heed the warnings of the crew before it's too late. When it comes down to it, Deepwater Horizon pretty much follows the template of a standard disaster flick, only the events have a bit more weight because we know that everything really happened.
As can be said about his previous film, Lone Survivor (which surprisingly ended up on my Top Ten of 2014 list), Peter Berg knows how to capture the frenzy of a chaotic situation really well. When the drill first erupts into a volcano of oil, it looked as real to me as if it were really happening, and Berg is able to effectively convey the mental and physical struggle of the characters extremely well; my favorite scene involves not the giant fireball set piece, but an important decision Andrea must make against protocol. Those little moments comprised of the "little guy" going up against their corporate masters were nicely sprinkled throughout the film.
However, at times Deepwater Horizon awkwardly creates an action movie out of a real-life tragedy (like with a guy swinging a crane last-second to save someone, or with Marky Mark dramatically jumping off a ledge). Also - and maybe this gripe is actually unfounded - but the heads of BP really are portrayed as the modern day equivalent of mustache-twirling villains tying civilians to the train tracks. Maybe they really are, but John Malkovich's evil Foghorn Leghorn impression was a little too sinister to ring true for me. Everyone and their mother is giving this guy and his executive cronies warning signs based on their actual computer data, but he wants to drill anyway. Maybe that is the way things went down, but I still wish the film wasn't so black and white.
Deepwater Horizon has some solid performances, it captures the oil rig "life" in a relatively honest and respectful way, and overall made me appreciate the cost of this tragedy even more. It's easy to forget that most of the drill team working on the rig weren't money-grubbing BP execs, but regular Joes just going to work. My biggest problem with the film is its uncomfortable action movie genre trappings - not excluding the "distraught wife on the phone" cliche (which again parallels Sully) - which, despite not feeling exploitative, in my mind cheapens the movie a little bit.
Overall though, this is worth seeing in a theater, especially one with a good sound system. I think Peter Berg may have a monopoly on dramatizing our tragedies as later this year we'll be seeing him team up with Wahlberg again for Patriots Day, about the Boston Marathon bombing, and I have no doubt that by the end of the film, like for both Lone Survivor and now Deepwater Horizon, every American in the theater will want to stand up and salute the screen.
The Magnificent Seven
Dir. Antoine Fuqua
The question you have to consider when remaking a film, especially when it's an old school western like The Magnificent Seven (a property I can safely say no one was clamoring for to be remade), is "what is this story's relevance today?" What can this broad template of "seven hired men saving a village from marauders" bring for today's audience? While the answer might appear to involve interesting ideas surrounding American race relations based on the diverse casting choices, Antoine Fuqua's throwaway western disappointingly does nothing new with this story and absolutely nothing to warrant this property to be reboot-worthy.
The story begins in the small western town of Rose Creek, besieged by industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). With their lives and town in jeopardy, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) turns to notorious bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) for help. After some haggling, Chisolm agrees and recruits a rag-tag group of gunslingers to join him, including some familiar and not-so-familiar faces like Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier. The entire film consists of the team-up and eventual showdown at Rose Creek, stretched out to a laborious 2.5 hours.
"Getting the team together" movies are typically a lot of fun. The Avengers, Ghost Protocol, Guardians of the Galaxy - watching a group of misfits with strong, conflicting personalities try to work together makes for an inherently entertaining ride. But the characters in Fuqua's Seven just fall flat across the board. Washington looks badass and can spin a pistol on his finger with the best of them, but he doesn't have much to do here besides wait for the finale, which is surprising given the fact that he is a black man in the late 1800s. While I could see how it might be considered "progressive" to have a black authority figure in a western and not have anyone comment on it (besides a few questionable looks from saloon-folk), it certainly doesn't make the world of the film feel lived-in or realistic. Even Blazing Saddles has a more realistic depiction of race relations of the Old West!
The rest of the cast ranges from underutilized to downright cringe-worthy. Chris Pratt is totally miscast here as the grizzled drunk meant to be the comedic relief. Ethan Hawke has shadows in his past that caused him to drink that are never satisfyingly tied up. And don't get me started on whatever the hell Vincent D'Onofrio is doing. He's basically a Jeremiah Johnson-esque mountain man who speaks like he's straining to talk after sucking in helium. I only wish I was making that up - especially after his amazing turn as Kingpin on Netflix's Daredevil series, it doesn't even seem like the same guy. The three others are the token Asian, Mexican, and Native American respectively and have no discernible character traits. The film is in dire need of any real character development or a sense of fun that propels the story forward instead of bringing everything to a halt (Pratt performs a painfully unfunny "magic card" scene that goes on longer than your average SNL sketch).
It's disappointing that Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar for Training Day, was unable to bring anything interesting to the table here. While the filmmaking is competent enough, with a distinctly "classic" tone and a decently staged final shootout, I was simply bored for most of the film. There's not much to hang on to here besides enjoying watching a Western on the big screen again and imagining just what in the hell kind of drugs D'Onofrio must have taken before 'action' was called.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Dir. Tim Burton
King of the "peculiar," the union of Tim Burton with the popular young adult novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children seems like a perfect fit on paper. As in many of his other films, the story follows another "misfit" Burton surrogate, Jake (Hugo's Asa Butterfield), whose boring, monochrome life in suburban Florida comes to an end after his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp) leaves him clues leading him to a magical, stuck-in-time orphanage in rural England for children with special powers - essentially a Burton-ized X-Men. It's run by the matriarch-in-black Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), whose power includes transforming into a bird and literally turning back time via a time loop - which comes in handy as every single night a WWII Nazi plane bombs their crib. As Jake learns more about the school and its students, he realizes the danger they face from a mysterious enemy, the Death Eaters, led by a Nic Cage-level goofy Samuel L. Jackson, and that he needs to discover his own "special" power to save the day.
The story is actually really interesting from a thematic standpoint and its oddball hodgepodge of elements ranging from superheroes to period pieces to celebrations of imagination to even a brief, very cool sequence involving stop-motion animation, Miss Peregrine's almost seems like a "greatest hits" for Burton's career. However, none of these things quite come together in a satisfying way, and for a film that supposedly holds 'uniqueness' up on a pedestal, it certainly feels like Burton is rehashing many of the same ideas we've seen from him over and over, and done better. Not helping matters is Butterfield's drab performance; his forced, affectless American accent prevents any meaningful attachment to his character.
Burton's films are always visually arresting and there are images in Peregrine's that stick out, like Jake holding onto a rope attached to his floating friend Emma, or a disturbing moment at the dinner table when a sweet-looking girl reveals a hungry mouth in the back of her head. Thankfully the visuals aren't the only thing driving the show here (unlike his Alice in Wonderland), but the story just lacks enough emotion and coherency to place it among Burton's earlier pantheon of great films.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week
Dir. Ron Howard
He seems like a great guy, but I honestly think Ron Howard is the most bland mainstream director in Hollywood today. So it's no surprise that his documentary on the Fab Four's touring years, Eight Days a Week, is completely free of controversy or revelatory information. Even those with only a passing knowledge of the world's most famous band will probably know most of the information in this movie, but you know what - I'm kind of alright with that. Eight Days a Week is a movie that feels like it should play on the TV in the background of a museum. It boasts a ton of fun archival footage from various interviews, concerts, films, newsreels, etc, and focuses a lot on the music itself, at times feeling partly like a straight concert film. You could spend your time in a lot worse ways than listening to and re-visiting the history of the Beatles (albeit an incomplete one), but unlike what the poster tagline will have you believe, you've heard this story before.