Review: Sully

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Todd Komarnicki
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Holt McCallany
Released: September 8, 2016
Grade: C+

There’s a moment in Sully when a member of the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) listens to the cockpit voice recorder aboard US Airways Flight 1549.  He remarks that he’s investigated many plane crashes but this is the first where he’s listened to the recording and then had an opportunity to question the pilots.

That is a very good thing.  For a commercial airliner to experience a catastrophic failure and then find a way to land safely with no fatalities is remarkable.  A character sums it up best by saying “it’s been a while since New York City has news this good… especially with an airplane in it."  The event, which took place in early 2009, was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson” by New York State Governor David Paterson.

The most interesting aspect of Clint Eastwood’s film is the flight itself.  The plane left LaGuardia Airport in the mid-afternoon with 155 passengers on board.  Three minutes later, it struck a flock of birds and thrust was lost on both engines.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks), a pilot with 42 years of experience, quickly realised he couldn’t get the plane back to the airport.  His only option was to attempt an emergency water landing in the Hudson River.

Todd Komarnicki’s (Perfect Stranger) screenplay offers numerous perspectives.  We hear the thoughts of Sully and his co-pilot (Eckhart) as they size up the situation.  We watch the air traffic controllers assess available options.  We see the passengers thinking the worst but hoping for the best.  The film also acknowledges the work of the NYPD and ferry drivers who brave freezing waters to play a part in the rescue effort.

A major limitation in bringing this tale to the screen is that the flight itself only lasted for 5 minutes.  So while the crash landing sequence will grip audiences, it doesn’t have the stamina to match other plane-drama films such as Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (still a masterpiece).  The remainder of the film is spent chronicling Sully’s upbringing, the media attention following the event, and the investigation by the NTSB.

This is where the film suffers.  It’s apparent that events have been altered to simplify the story and make it more Hollywood-friendly.  The “court room” finale is borderline laughable.  The NTSB puts pressure on Sully to admit that he made a mistake and that the plane had the capability to return safely to the airport.  When Sully exposes the basic flaws in their assumptions (which a high school student could figure out), it makes the NTSB look like incompetent fools.  Is this what really took place?

The subplots involving Sully’s flying history and the strained relationship with his wife (played by Laura Linney) also feel superfluous.  We are shown fleeting flashbacks and quick phone conversations that don’t add much to the narrative or our insight into Sully.  The same can be said of dream-type sequences that try to illustrate the difficulty Sully is having in adjusting to post-accident life.

Let me make it clear – Captain Chesley Sullenberger is a hero and a terrific guy.  This film doesn’t do him justice though.  Several television shows and documentaries have already been made which chronicle US Airways Flight 1549 and they offer more insight than this cheesy, fictionalised version.


Review: The Secret Life of Pets

Directed by: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Written by: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks
Released: September 8, 2016
Grade: B

The Secret Life of Pets
In 1995, Toy Story posed the question – what do kids’ toys get up to when there’s no one else around?  Illumination Entertainment, the production company behind the animated Despicable Me franchise, have taken that concept and applied it to the world of pets.  When owners close the front door and head to work, what adventures keep their beloved animals occupied?

Our leading man in this case is a Jack Russell terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.)  He describes himself as the “luckiest dog in New York” because he has such a loving, caring, affectionate owner, Katie.  They live together in a spacious high-rise apartment with a beautiful view of Manhattan.  When left alone during the day, Max uses the external fire stairs to catch up with other animals in the building.  They include cats, birds, fish, hamsters and many other dogs.

Max’s idyllic world is upended when Katie brings home a new pet – a giant shaggy dog named Duke (Stonestreet).  Displaying his selfish side, Max is threatened by Duke and is worried that he’ll play second fiddle in the battle for Katie’s affections.  His problems are about to get much bigger.  Taken to the local park by a professional dog walker, Max and Duke fight and then become lost in New York City.  It’s time to tap into an iconic movie theme – two adversaries teaming up in pursuit of a common good.

Their efforts to find a way home won’t be easy.  They are led into the sewers by a villainous rabbit named Snowball (Hart) with a hatred for the upside world.  He was once a magician’s rabbit but has harboured a grudge against all humans after being discarded by his owner (bunny tricks went out of fashion).  He now leads a group of discarded animals that go by the name of The Flushed Pets.

Not everyone in this ensemble has a darker side.  The friendly animals from Max’s apartment building have bandied together, risked their lives, and gone in search of him.  They include a white Pomeranian dog with a secret love interest, an apathetic tabby cat who loves to raid her owner’s fridge and a feisty hawk (voiced by the iconic Albert Brooks) with mixed motives.

Kids should be entertained by the film’s light-hearted nature but the story doesn’t offer much in the way of emotion.  That’s not a wholly bad thing.  There’s a great scene where Max and Duke break into a sausage factory and go on a feast to the backdrop of the song “We Go Together” from Grease.  My point is that you’ll laugh at these individual moments but they seem to have more focus than the broader, more heartfelt narrative of two dogs reconciling and finding a way home.

It’s hard not to fall love with these characters though.  The varied voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan and Albert Brooks are big help.  Credit also goes to the animation team.  Animals are cute but talking, animated animals are even cuter.


Review: Ben-Hur

Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Written by: Keith Clarke, John Ridley
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman, Pilou Asbæk
Released: August 25, 2016
Grade: B-

The 1959 Ben-Hur was an epic all senses of the word.  It clocked in at 3 hours & 32 minutes making it one of cinema’s longest mainstream movies.  It had a budget of roughly $15m making it the most expensive film of the era.  It topped the box-office that year and is still one of the highest grossing films in history (adjusted for inflation).  It also won 11 Academy Awards – a record that has never been eclipsed.

Given its extraordinary success, the question will be asked – why did we need to make another one?  Why mess with perfection?  Could we not find some fresh stories worth telling on the big screen for the first time?  If we took that stance though, you’d have to also shine the spotlight on the likes of Hamlet, Pride & Prejudice and Les Misérables.  Someone would also have to explain why we needed three different Spidermen franchises inside of two decades.

If you listen to Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch), the reason for this 2016 film is that he wanted to put a different spin on the Judah Ben-Hur tale.  Writers Keith Clarke (The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) revisited Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel and have created a tale that focuses on forgiveness as opposed to revenge.  Action fans need not stress.  There’s still a chariot racing sequence that serves as a highlight.

The story itself begins in the year 25 A.D. and is centred on a wealthy Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) who helps rule the independent city of Jerusalem.  Before he passed away, Judah’s father was trying to stop the growing tension between the Jews and the Romans.  He did this by adopting a Roman son, Messala (Kebbell), who he welcomed wholeheartedly into his family.  As if borrowing from the pages of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, he wanted two “houses” to put aside their political differences and live together in unison.

Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned.  Despite being given all that he could ask for in life, Messala never felt like he had “earned” the family name.  Messala left his brother, headed to Rome, and became a high-ranking soldier.  When he finally returns to Jerusalem several years later, it is clear that he is now loyal to Pontius Pilate (Asbæk), a fear-inducing individual looking to expand the Roman Empire and take control of Jerusalem.

Those plans involve the removal of Judah Ben-Hur who is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is enslaved for 5 years as an oarsman aboard a large Roman ship.  Finally managing to escape, he crosses paths with a wealthy sheik (Freeman) who offers a helping hand and some advice.  He suggests that rather than retaliate not with weapons… but with something intangible.  If Judah could win the public chariot race competition against his previously undefeated brother, it would put a serious dent in the Roman’s pride.

There are some interesting themes being explored in this reimagined Ben-Hur.  It’s looking at the blurry line between revenge and justice.  It also has something to say about the value of competitive sport and the way it which people can be influenced.  Morgan Freeman’s character sums it up best when he says “give them a show and the people will adore you.”  It left me reflecting on the recent Olympic Games in Brazil.

Despite its best intentions, it’s hard to imagine this film leaving a huge impact on audiences.  Gladiator made a lasting impression because of its strong, charismatic hero (Russell Crowe) and its “can’t wait to see him die” villain (Joaquin Phoenix).  Ben-Hur isn’t even close to matching that level of passion and intensity.  Pontius Pilate is hardly seen and the role of Jesus Christ in the film (played by Rodrigo Santoro) is a puzzling distraction.

The early box-office figures from the United States have been disappointing and one gets the sense that most are not currently in the mood for a grand Roman epic.

You can read by chat with star Jack Huston by clicking here.


Review: Blood Father

Directed by: Jean-François Richet
Written by: Peter Craig, Andrea Berloff
Starring: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Michael Parks, William H. Macy, Miguel Sandoval
Released: September 1, 2016
Grade: B+

Blood Father
Mel Gibson has put together a resume that any Australian actor would be proud of.  He rose to fame in the early 1980s with Gallipoli and the Mad Max trilogy.  He was snared by Hollywood and starred in a string of hits including What Women Want, Ransom, and the Lethal Weapon franchise.  He then transitioned into directing – winning an Oscar for Braveheart and setting box-office records for The Passion of the Christ.

It’s no secret that Gibson’s career has taken a few steps back over the past decade.  He had always intended to take a break from acting and spend more time behind the camera.  However, the overriding reason was a severe drop in popularity after some not-so-great personal moments.  This included a series of racist comments after being arrested for drunk driving in 2006 and the leaking of a tape that showed him going on a violent tirade against his then wife in 2010.

When you look at the figures, it’s hard to believe how inconspicuous Gibson has been.  Blood Father is only his 6th acting credit in the last 12 years.  It’s not exactly a big film either.  This is a low-budget affair that received a tiny release in the United States before going straight to video-on-demand.

His character has had a similarly chequered past.  Link (Gibson) is an ex-con who spent 9 years in prison and is now trying to forge a new life.  He lives in a rundown trailer in the middle of nowhere.  He makes a meagre living as a tattoo artist.  He reluctantly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is battling to stay sober.

His quiet, lonely existence is upended when he received an unexpected phone call from his teenage daughter, Lydia (Moriarty).  The two have spoken in several years but she’s in desperate need of help and has nowhere else to turn.  Her ex-boyfriend (Luna) was part of a huge drug syndicate and given how much information she knows, a professional hitman has been directed to kill her.

It evolves into an action thriller reminiscent of the Taken franchise.  In true Liam Neeson style, Link will do whatever it takes to protect his daughter.  He doesn’t care how many laws he breaks, how many crimes he commits, and how many more years he’ll spend behind bars.  This is his one chance do something right for Lydia after years of neglect.

It’s a fairly standard premise but Gibson makes it work by creating sympathy for his forlorn character.  Link has hit rock bottom and you can’t help but support his efforts to find redemption.  French director Jean-François Richet (Assault on Precinct 13) adds value by crafting a number of suspenseful action sequences where Link and Lydia try to outrun and outsmart their many pursuers.

This is a slightly unorthodox release for Father’s Day but for fans of Mel Gibson, it should provide a timely reminder that he still commands a powerful, likeable screen presence.


Review: War Dogs

Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak
Released: August 18, 2016
Grade: B

War Dogs
I heard someone describe this as the lighter version of The Wolf of Wall Street and it’s an apt reference.  It’s a film that highlights the dark side of capitalism.  Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Teller) are two twenty-something-year-old entrepreneurs who have started a small business and are selling arms to the United States to be used by the military.  They both admit that they’re anti-war but the overriding factor if that they’re both “pro money”.

A few details have been changed to make it fit the traditional movie narrative (e.g. their trip to Iraq never happened) but this based on actual events.  When we first meet our two protagonists, the year is 2005 and they’re catching up for the first time in years at the funeral of a friend.  David admits that life isn’t going as planned.  He dropped out of college, got fired from his first 6 jobs, had a falling out with his parents, and is now a 22-year-old masseuse getting paid $75 an hour.

Efraim has been a little more successful.  He started out by buying weapons at police auctions and then on-selling them to the public.  It’s a lot of work though and he’s decided to transform his business by focusing on the world’s biggest “gun nut”.  That single customer he is referring to is the United States Government.  Efraim acts as the middle man.  He bids for small weapons contracts through the government’s tendering system and if successful, he tracks down the suppliers who can supply the arms that are required.

For a while, things are great.  These guys stick to small, simple deals and it’s not long before they’re driving around in Porches and living in luxurious, high-rise apartments.  That’s not enough though and I can’t help but think of a line from Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – “I’d trade it all for a little more.”  Efraim and David win a $300 million contract to provide bullets to the Afghan military and now appear to be out of their depth.  To get the job done, they’ll need to commit fraud and deal with dodgy individuals.

Directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover) is largely framed as a comedy.  There’s a scene for example where the two guys are trying to negotiate the release of weapons from a customs warehouse in Jordan and end up using an 11-year-old as part of the negotiation process.  While I don’t mind the comedic approach, it does feel like these characters aren’t being judged harshly enough.  The finale is also messy in that certain actions aren’t well explained.  For example, why wasn’t Efraim paying the box maker in Albania?

This is still an interesting “truth is stranger than fiction” tale though.  It’s hard not to be surprised by the simplicity with which these guys were able to exploit the government’s procurement system and disregard international laws.  It’s not explored enough but Phillips and his co-writers also touch on the theme that wars create their own “economy”.  There are plenty of conflicted individuals who profit from the human tragedy.

Miles Teller (Whiplash) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball) are both strong in the leading roles.  They’re a big part of the reason why this film will entertain many who take the time to see it.


Review: Nerve

Directed by: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Written by: Jessica Sharzer
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Juliette Lewis
Released: September 1, 2016
Grade: C

Kids spend too much time on their phone.  Kids are subject to peer pressure.  Kids do dumb things.  None of these statements are ground breaking.  Drawing from Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 young adult novel, screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story) has crafted a teen-orientated thriller that highlights these very themes.

Our hero is a character we’ve seen before.  Vee (Roberts) is about to finish up at high school and is unsure about whether she should leave her fragile mother (Lewis) and attend college.  She’s got a major crush on the star on the football team but is too shy to talk to him.  She doesn’t realise that her closest male friend (Heizer) is madly in love with her.  Oh, and her best friend is a bossy cheerleader (Meade) who is forever stealing the attention.

Trying to break free from her own timid personality, Vee signs up to an online phone application called Nerve.  Those who choose to “play” are given dares which they must complete to win money.  Those who choose to “watch” pay a small daily fee and watch live footage of the dares on their phones, tablets and computer screens.

An interesting aspect of the dares is that they draw from all knowledge available about each person on the internet.  After scrolling through Vee’s social media accounts, an algorithm selects a dare that will rattle her comfort zone.  She’s given 2 minutes to walk into a crowded café, find a stranger, and plant her lips on him for 15 seconds.  The prize is a generous $100.

The lucky guy receiving the kiss is Ian (Franco), a fellow Nerve competitor.  They’re asked by the game to team up and complete a series of increasingly difficult dares.  It’s at this point where the film jumps off the deep end and loses all sense of reality.  How are people watching these dares unfold?  Fellow Nerve users conveniently pass by with their own phone cameras but how good can the footage be from a moving taxi?  What about all the parts when they’re not being filmed?  The Truman Show this is not.  I’d also like to know who’s paying $20 a day to watch this dodgy, fragmented footage.

The film’s most puzzling element is the character of Vee who changes her nature every 10 minutes or so.  She starts out as a smart, shy woman and within 24 hours has become a complete fool.  She has no qualms when the game asks her to walk along a fire ladder hanging precariously between two buildings (it’s suicidal stuff) and yet she’s passionately upset when the game induces a petty stoush with her best friend (which is easily forgivable).

As the film enters its third and final act, you realise that it’s not possible for it to be wrapped up in a logical fashion.  There’s a group of muddled subplots involving Vee’s worrying mother, a group of underground computer hackers, and a bunch of masked strangers who threw away their moral compass.  The cops would have no hope in piecing this all together.