Review: Deepwater Horizon

Directed by: Peter Berg
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien, Kate Hudson
Released: October 6, 2016
Grade: B+

Deepwater Horizon
Given it took place only 6 years ago, many will already be familiar with the events that took place off the coast of Louisiana on 20 April 2010.  An explosion occurred aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig.  Lives were lost, a huge amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, and it was described as the “largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.”

The first half of the film is spent getting to know the key characters and the cause of the accident.  It’s evident from the early scenes.  While director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) has given it a documentary-like feel, it’s a Hollywood-ised version of what actually took place.

This is most evident during two sequences that tap into our superstitious nature.  Electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg) is in his kitchen explaining to his daughter how an oil rig works.  A coke can is used as a prop but it explodes onto the kitchen table.  Yeah, not a good sign.  Later that day, manager Jimmy Harrell (Russell) is preparing to escort a group of BP officials onto his rig.  He asks one of them to remove his magenta tie because such it’s the same colour as the warning light for dangerous gas levels.  It’s not hard to figure out what will happen next.

Before we get to that, the film needs to find someone to blame.  The person who has all the fingers pointed in his direction is Donald Vidrine (Malkovich), a well-paid BP executive who gave the order to commence drilling despite others raising safety concerns and calling it “the well from hell.”

Vidrine wasn’t afraid to articulate his reasons.  The project was overdue, the costs were blowing out, and it was putting the share price of the company at risk.  This is another part of the movie where truth blurs with fiction.  The actual event wasn’t as clear cut.  A government committee investigated the accident and spread the blame more widely amongst staff at BP and Transocean.

My early qualms about the film’s truthfulness were forgotten by the half way mark.  The explosion occurs, the action ramps up, and Berg’s movie transforms itself into an edge-of-your-seat survival tale.  It must have been a dream project for the sound technicians.  There are more explosions than a New Year’s Eve fireworks show.  The visual effects artists and stunt personnel also play a major part.

This is the best performance we’ve seen in a while from Mark Wahlberg (Ted) who is strong as the film’s level-headed hero.  Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight), Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner) and Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) get less screen time but still make an impression (well, only when you can hear them speaking over the deafening sounds of the rig).

Offering one of the most intense action climaxes of the year, Deepwater Horizon is well worth a look.


Review: The Magnificent Seven

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Nick Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Peter Sarsgaard
Released: September 29, 2016
Grade: B

The Magnificent Seven
I’ve said this far too often but one of the most important elements in an action film is a great villain.  This box is ticked repeatedly during the opening scenes of The Magnificent Seven.  Peter Sarsgaard plays Bartholomew Bogue – a cunning, corrupt businessman who cares for no one other than himself.

The year is 1879 and he rides into the small town of Rose Creek with a specific agenda.  He wants to steal land from rightful owners and use it for gold mining.  There’s no point arguing as Bogue has numerous “hired guns” on his payroll who he uses to squash dissenters.  The local sheriff is of no value either given the substantial cash bribes he has received.  When a priest politely speaks up in defence of the townsfolk, Bogue responds by burning down his church.

He is a horrid, disgusting individual... and I say that as a compliment to Sarsgaard.  The first thought that came into my head after the opening 15 minutes – “I can’t wait until the end of the film where you finally get what you deserve.”  I know that sounds cheesy but it’s the point of movies like this.  Why watch if it doesn’t get your juices flowing and you don’t care about anyone’s fate?

Unfortunately, things get sluggish during the film’s lengthy second act.  A group of seven men, driven by a mix of money and goodwill, have taken it upon themselves to be the heroes in this adventure.  They are led by Sam Chisolm (Washington), a bounty hunter who realises that brains will be just as important as brawn in defeating Bogue and his expansive army.

This group of characters isn’t as interesting as you might hope.  They’re an eclectic group with the screenplay struggling to give them all something to do.  Denzel Washington is the smart guy, Chris Pratt is the funny guy, Vincent D’Onofrio is the strange guy, and Byung-hun Lee is the silent guy.  Rounding out the pack are Ethan Hawke, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier.

There’s too much foreplay here.  Most of the film is spent watching our heroes get to know each other and prepare for battle.  I’d have preferred editor John Refoua (Avatar) to leave more on the cutting room floor given the film’s 133 minute running time.  Still, the action finale is worth the price of admission.  The body count is high and the shrewd strategy adopted by The Magnificent Seven pays dividends.

As a lover of movie music, the film is significant as it marks the final work of Academy Award winning composer James Horner (Titanic) who died in a plane crash in June 2015.  At the time, he’d completed several tracks for director Antoine Fuqua that feature trumpets, snare drums, and shakuhachi flute – all instruments that Horner fans will recognise.  The final score was completed with the help of Simon Franglen, a close working colleague of Horner.

This is the third time that this tale has been brought to the screen.  Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is still regarded as one of the great movies in the history of cinema.  The American remake from 1960 didn’t receive much acclaim but still found an audience thanks to a cast that included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.  This latest remake is far from perfect but in a time when westerns are few and far between, it provides a nice throwback to a forgotten genre.


Review: Spin Out

Directed by: Tim Ferguson, Marc Gracie
Written by: Tim Ferguson, Edwina Exton
Starring: Xavier Samuel, Morgan Griffin, Travis Jeffery, Lincoln Lewis, Melissa Bergland, Eddie Baroo
Released: September 15, 2016
Grade: B-

Spin Out
Up until yesterday, I had never heard the term “ute muster”.  I now know it’s like a rodeo except with cars in place of bulls.  Crowds line a fenced arena and they watch ute lovers rev their engines, drive in a circle, and complete a serious of manoeuvres.  It’s the kind of place where you might find characters from the Fast & Furious franchise when they’re not off committing crimes.

One aspect of country life I am familiar with is a Bachelor and Spinsters (B&S) ball.  While capital cities are filled with nightclubs that allow people to party every night of the week, B&S Balls provide a rare chance for rural youngsters to dress up, have a few drinks, and try to find true love (or something else perhaps).

These two events provide the backdrop for Spin Out – an Australian comedy penned by Edwina Exton and well-known comedian Tim Ferguson (best known as a member of the Doug Anthony All Stars).  City slickers might look at the setting with a sense of bewilderment (myself included) but country folk should be well familiar with the crazy happenings that one expects on such occasions.  Put simply, this is 90 minutes of people drinking, dancing and driving.  If none of those three boxes are ticked, they’re more than likely looking for love (or at the very least, a one-night stand).

The three central characters here are Billy (Samuel), Lucy (Griffin) and Sparrow (Jeffery).  The film is light on backstory but it’s clear that these three have grown up together in a small rural community and are best friends.  There’s an obvious sexual attraction between Billy and Lucy but neither has the guts to act on it.  Sparrow senses it too but he’s keeping quiet and is content to be the “third wheel.”

Things do reach a tipping point when on the eve of the town’s annual B&S Ball, Lucy announces that she’s moving to Sydney to make more of her life.  The fact she’s only giving 24 hours’ notice seems a bit hasty but ok, it’s a plot device to create tension.  It forces both characters to reveal their cards and when you throw a lot of alcohol into the equation things will be humorous and messy.

There are too many characters in this film and they do distract from the main show.  There’s a guy who is trying to break a beer drinking record while caring for his pregnant wife.  There are three dim-witted folk who have joined the army as an excuse to break up with their girlfriends.  There’s also two men who have rocked up to the B&S Ball in dresses and learn something about their sexuality.

I’d have preferred to see these supporting characters ditched and more time spent fleshing out the history and friendship shared between Billy and Lucy.  They’re ultimately the heart of the film.  That said, there are still a few subplots that add value.  The plight of Sparrow and his quest to win the affections of the no-nonsense Mary (Bergland) is both funny and cute.

Featuring one of the youngest collective casts that we’ve seen in an Australian film for some time, reactions to Spin Out are likely to vary depending on your own sense of humour.


Review: Storks

Directed by: Nicholas Stoller, Doug Sweetland
Written by: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Keegan-Michael Kay, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell
Released: September 22, 2016
Grade: B

Storks is a family flick but adults will find humour in its corporate setting.  Once upon a time, storks flew across the skies and delivered babies free of charge.  That was it.  Realising there was money to be made, those in charge on Stork Mountain decided to change the strategic plan.  They got out of the “baby business” and created a global online retailer called that listed on the stock exchange.  The public order goods from the website and the storks deliver them straight to their doorstep.

The film’s leading bird is a Junior (Samberg) – a high-flier who on track to be the company’s next Chief Executive Officer.  He’s been promised the top job by the current boss (Grammer) on the condition that he deal with an ongoing issue.  Two decades ago, a stork lost the delivery instructions and failed to deliver a newly born baby to its parents.  With no other options available, the storks raised her as one of their own and she’s now an employee of the company.

The problem with Tulip (Crown) is that she’s hopeless.  She can’t fly so she’s of no help in delivering goods.  She tries to help out around the factory but she’s clumsy and continually makes mistakes.  Junior’s instructions from the boss are simple – get rid of her.  There’s no chance of the company’s share price increasing with underwhelming employees such as Tulip dragging the organisation down.  It’s another of the film’s capitalist themes.

As all this takes place high in the sky, there’s another narrative being followed on the ground.  Nate is a young boy who yearns for a brother.  This is largely because his parents (Burrell and Aniston) are workaholic real estate agents who live by the company’s motto – “we never stop”.  They seldom spend any time with their son and it’s left Nate feeling bored and lonely.

These two storylines come together but I’d argue that things are a little too convoluted for younger audiences.  There’s a lot to understand and a lot that might require explanation.  There are still some signature moments however.  The film’s highlight is a fight sequence atop a high rise building that involves a sleeping baby.  You’ll be smiling regardless of your age.  The same applies to a group of shape-shifting wolves who hunt using unique methods.

He doesn’t get a lot of screen time but a sneaky pigeon is the film’s most memorable character.  He also has his eye on the CEO role and is keen to embarrass Junior at any opportunity.  Of the cast, the voices of a stressful Andy Samberg and a conniving Kelsey Grammer stand out best.

Written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (Bad Neighbours) eventually wins favour with a sweet finale but the chaotic happenings in the lead up don’t leave much of an impact.


Review: Bridget Jones's Baby

Directed by: Sharon Maguire
Written by: Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, Emma Thompson
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Sally Phillips, James Callis
Released: September 15, 2016
Grade: B

Bridget Jones's Baby
By way of a quick recap, Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) chronicled our hero’s efforts to find a boyfriend.  She wisely decided against the slimy Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) and went with the slightly awkward Mark Darcy (Colin Firth).  The follow up, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, followed her attempts to find a husband.  Mark Darcy was again the successful candidate but there were plenty of bumps along the way.

The opening scene of Bridget Jones’s Baby show that Bridget’s life has gone off the tracks yet again.  She’s at home, she’s alone, and she’s sitting on the couch in her pyjamas.  It may sound idyllic to some but it’s actually Bridget’s 43rd birthday.  Her friends have tried to drag her out to a nightclub but she’d rather sit at home and wallow in self-pity.  There’s no supportive husband by her side because there was no wedding.  Despite the upbeat ending at the end of the previous film, Mark and Bridget had their differences and went their separate ways (for reasons that aren’t well explained).

What happens next is something that Bridget would never have predicted.  Coerced into attending a large musical festival, she has a one night stand with Jack (Dempsey), a handsome, middle-aged guy who she meets in humorous circumstances.  Several days later, she is reunited with the now married Mark Darcy at a christening and after a few drinks, another bedroom session ensues.  A pregnancy test subsequently comes back with a positive result and the identity of the father is anyone’s guess.

The earlier movies were based on the published, well-read works of English author Helen Fielding.  A different path has been taken this time around.  Fielding’s third novel in the series, published in 2013, is set decades into the future and shows Bridget as an elderly widow with two grown up children.  Looking for something more audience and box-office friendly, the producers engaged Fielding to craft a new story that sits somewhere in between her last two books.  She was helped by co-writers Dan Mazer (Borat) and Emma Thompson (Sense & Sensibility).  Thompson is also the best of the supporting cast which highlights the benefits when you can write your own snazzy one-liners.

The recently released Blood Father reminded us that Mel Gibson is still alive and still has a strong screen presence.  The same applies to Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain) as this marks her first role in 6 years.  In explaining her absence, Zellweger has told reporters that she was fatigued and in need of a break.  The lure of bringing this famed character back to life was clearly too hard to resist and it’s nice to see her back in action again.  She has an endearing charm that makes her a great fit for the clumsy, yet likeable, Bridget Jones.

Directed by Sharon Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Baby takes a little while to warm up.  It needs to explain the happenings of the past decade and the absence of Hugh Grant.  Some subplots don’t add much value either.  These include an election involving Bridget’s mother (Henderson) and another involving Bridget’s boss and her plans to change a news-based television show.

The film is at its best when it brings its three leading actors together.  Their light-hearted battles and arguments provide more than enough laughs to make this an entertaining experience.


Review: Snowden

Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Starring: Jopseh Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Nicholas Cage, Ben Schnetzer
Released: September 22, 2016
Grade: A-

If you’re interested in learning about the actions of Edward Snowden, nothing can surpass Citizenfour, the 2014 film that won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.  It provided the actual, “real time” footage of Snowden as he went from a complete unknown to one of the world’s most wanted men.  You see his actions and you understand his thought process.  It’s hard to think of an equivalent in modern cinema.

It’s easy to see why Oscar winning director Oliver Stone (Platoon) was attracted to the idea of bringing a Hollywood-ised version of Snowden’s story to the big screen.  Stone is anti-establishment and is often critical of the U.S. Government.  In 2012, he directed a 10-part documentary called The Untold History of the United States.  It provided a different spin on the darker chapters in America’s past that are often misreported.

Most audiences will be familiar with Snowden but knowledge will vary in terms of his precise actions and the “crimes” he committed.  To sum it up quickly, Snowden held a number of positions within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA) between 2006 and 2013.  He became increasingly concerned about the surveillance of ordinary American citizens and the inordinate amount of data that was being collected.  In May 2013, he stole classified documents and “blew the whistle” with help of trusted journalists.

Stone’s film doesn’t come across as too “preachy”.  Yes, it leans a certain way but there’s enough scope for viewers to form their own judgement about these important issues.  Where should we draw the line between freedom and safety?  If you knew that every email and SMS you sent was in a database and that an intelligence agency could access your iPhone camera at any time, would that be acceptable if it helped reduce the risk of terrorist attacks?  Are you worried in any way that the data would be misused?

The film also offers insight in the world of whistleblowing.  Governments around the world have enacted legislation that protects whistleblowers but when it’s the government that’s being criticised and embarrassed, things aren’t as simple.  Snowden was charged under the Espionage Act and has spent the last 3 years of his life in Russia after seeking asylum.  Was it worth it?  Again, it’s a question for audiences.

Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald have created some sharp dialogue to add to the film’s impact.  Nicolas Cage makes a cameo appearance as a frustrated CIA professor who laments that “you would think that intelligence would count for something in the intelligence business.”  Rhys Ifans offers a counter view as a high-ranking CIA official trying to justify his agency’s surveillance methods – “secrecy is security, and security is victory.” 

Snowden boasts a strong cast with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Walk) deftly illustrating the moral quandaries of the title character.  That is most evident when the film delves into Snowden’s home life and the stress of having to keep things hidden from his long-time girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley).  He’s at a much better place mentally when he meets with journalists in Hong Kong and is finally rid of the heavy burden he has been carrying.

Encapsulating plenty of material inside of its 134 minute running time, Snowden will add to the growing debate about the reach of government, rightly or wrongly, into our lives.