The Star Wars Anthology continues after last year’s Episode VII with Rogue One, which is technically a prequel to the 1977 original but also serves as a standalone film with a new slate of characters and settings. In some ways, it’s slavishly devoted to the mold created by its predecessors but it does take some creative leaps of its own and strives to get this artistic balance just right. Most importantly, this movie builds on the promise of The Force Awakens by providing more spectacular sequences of space battle that are as technologically ground-breaking today as the original trilogy was in its day.
The story here involves the covert Rebel operation to steal the plans for an impending weapon by the Empire called the Death Star, a mission which is led by the fugitive Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and a soldier named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The crew is also comprised of an Imperial pilot now aligned with the Rebels (Riz Ahmed) and Andor’s droid assistant name K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who provides some comic relief to this often grim tale. Hot on the Rebels’ trail is Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is in charge of the Death Star’s initial weapons tests and whose research helped develop it as the Empire’s most powerful war machine.
Director Gareth Edwards, who headed up the 2014 Godzilla reboot, paces this film breathlessly, beginning with a cold open prologue from Erso’s childhood that segues into introductions to a dozen new faces across several planets within the first 15 minutes. It’s a lot to take in but once he finds his rhythm, the plot begins to unfold more naturally and the stakes are laid out very clearly. Newcomers should have their hands full just keeping track of the action but existing Star Wars buffs, especially those of A New Hope, should also be able to pick up on many bits of fan service scattered along the way, particularly towards the film’s stunning conclusion.
A significant way that Rogue One doesn’t quite stack up to The Force Awakens is in its handling of these new characters, as Erso doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out as Rey was in last year’s film and Andor doesn’t have nearly the personality of Finn or Poe. It also squanders the charisma of actors like Riz Ahmed, who doesn’t have nearly enough to do here, and Donnie Yen, who has some well-designed combat scenes but is mainly left murmuring a mantra about the Force again and again. While the script isn’t as strong on its character development, it does have an engaging political subtext that I wasn’t expecting and some incisive messages about the consequences of war.
Aside from these details, the big picture is really what matters most and this movie delivers on the basis of pure adrenaline action in a way that none of the other prequels have in the past. In fact, there are two major setpieces, those on the rainy planet of Eadu and the Imperial base on Scarif, that could stack up even against some of the best action scenes from the original trilogy. Rogue One puts Disney at 2-for-2 since their acquisition of Lucasfilm and with the masterful Rian Johnson at the creative helm of Episode VIII, there should be plenty to make Star Wars fans excited for the future.
Ben Affleck is equal parts John Nash and John Wick in The Accountant, a new action thriller that’s much more exciting than its title may lead one to believe. Suspension of disbelief is crucial for enjoyment, not only in regards to the central casting (you’ve probably already decided whether or not you’ll buy Affleck as an autistic genius) but also as it pertains to the dubious plot elements that build on top of one another as the story progresses. There are bits of dark humor mixed in that suggest the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and I would say that’s good advice for any audience member to follow as well.
Affleck’s titular character is a methodical mastermind who masquerades as a small-town CPA using the alias Christian Wolff but makes his real living tracking down missing funds for international criminals and other powerful organizations. In order to evade heat from a probing, high-level Treasury officer (J.K. Simmons), he takes on a more legitimate assignment for the prosthetics company Living Robotics when their in-house accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) spots some financial inconsistencies. The two form an unlikely bond as they work to uncover the suspected embezzlement, throwing around accounting terms and math equations as an unorthodox manner of flirting with one another.
With an advanced background in military combat, courtesy of an army-trained father, the imposing Wolff turns out to be just as dangerous with a sniper rifle as he is with an Excel spreadsheet. This comes in handy when he and Cummings are marked as targets for an unnamed assassin (Jon Bernthal) after their snooping at Living Robotics proves to be more dangerous than they had anticipated. As the two make a run for it together, they uncover secrets from within the company and also from Wolff’s turbulent past that lead them to the inevitable culprit (and, in similar fashion, an inevitable shootout).
It’s clear that this film wants to have it both ways, with director Gavin O’Connor trying to evenly split time making both a free-for-all action melee and a heady adult drama. It’s not always the easiest hybrid to negotiate, as the visceral combat can prove overwhelming on its own and the storyline tends to get more convoluted when left unchecked for too long. If the mixture of brain and brawn exists on a sliding scale, The Accountant is at its best when it splits the difference and finds its rhythm somewhere close to the middle of these two genres.
Aside from these more broad categorizations, the movie is also layered with interesting details and idiosyncrasies that give it its own original spin on otherwise familiar material. Like variables in a complex math equation cherished so thoroughly by the lead character, small visual cues like a dent on a thermos or the brush strokes of a stolen painting lead to larger payoffs farther along in the story. It all adds up to a somewhat peculiar and highly entertaining piece of action fare; a brainy shoot-em-up that might make taxpayers think twice about double-crossing their CPAs come tax time next year.
This crowd-pleasing remake of the 1960 Western (itself an adaption of Akira Kuraosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai) brings a 21st century refresh to the star power and charisma that made the original such a success. The Magnificent Seven may not be an entirely necessary or reverent update but with such a timeless story at its core, it seems inevitable that this tale will be retold for years to come. Besides amping up the action level a considerable amount, director Antoine Fuqua also touches on themes of race and poverty in ways that make it more relevant to the current cultural climate.
Denzel Washington fills the Yul Brynner role as warrant officer Sam Chisolm, who is called upon by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to put a stop to the tyranny imposed by the villainous miner Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) on her small town of Rose Creek. To get the job done, Chisolm recruits six willing men with varying backgrounds, including the misfit gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) and legendary sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke). After running a smaller group of enforcers out of Rose Creek, Chisolm and his band of outsiders help train the locals to defend their town against the impending return of Bogue’s looming army.
The stellar cast of the original, which also included screen legends Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, was one of its most notable attributes and the same can also be said of this newer iteration. Washington is the perfect fit for a towering, no-nonsense gunman and Pratt once again channels his likeable goofball energy into another winning role. Other standouts in the group include Byung-hun Lee as the knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks and Vincent D’Onofrio, chewing up the scenery as a hunter buried under layers of animal pelts who speaks with an oddly high voice that had me cracking up during most of his line readings.
One area in which The Magnificent Seven is markedly improved over its predecessor is in the staging of the action sequences, which supplants the inconsistent foley gunshot sounds and unconvincing wound-clutching for violence that feels believable without being gratuitous. One of the highlights of Fuqua’s last Washington collaboration The Equalizer was the climactic standoff in a hardware store and he employs the same kind of cat-and-mouse tactics with the showdowns here too. The pacing could still stand to be a bit less frenetic but his camera gives us enough room to breathe and a tactile sense of location within the confines of this modest town.
Traditional Westerns aren’t nearly as common now as they were in the ’50s and ’60s, as films like Hell or High Water and The Revenant have incorporated Western themes into more modern and experimental forms of storytelling. These twists on the genre can obviously lead to excellent results but there’s also something satisfying about seeing a no-frills, popcorn shoot-em-up like this, especially when the direction is so sure-handed. Depending on how The Magnificent Seven fares at the box office, it may lead to a slew of other Westerns like it for a younger generation to call their own.
Richard Linklater, the undisputed king of the hangout movie, follows up his 12-year project Boyhood with this so-called “spiritual successor” to his 1993 breakout Dazed and Confused which pioneered a genre and introduced the world to a sea of fresh new faces. Like that film, Everybody Wants Some!! places its focus on feeling and mood over a concrete sense of story and narrative but its setting and characters are more limited compared to the sprawling high school landscape of Dazed. As that’s the case, it’s not as universal or open-minded as its big brother but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with this new band of hooligans.
We’re introduced to college freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) prior to his first week of classes as he moves into the house where he will staying with other members of the school’s baseball team. There he meets his new roommates, including seniors McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Finn (Glen Powell), who run the athlete residence in a way that closely emulates the shenanigans of other on-campus fraternities. The film follows the players as they engage in various forms of juvenile behavior and pause from time to time to wax philosophical on the fortuitous nature of their situation.
Though this group of affable jocks doesn’t provide the kind of distinct and varied character base present in Dazed, it does allow Linklater to hone in on more prominent themes surrounding masculinity and male ego. A recurring motif throughout the film is the seriousness with which the character treat the inane activities in which they all participate. This juxtaposition is mainly played for laughs (save for a tense ping pong match between Jake and McDaniels) but as one of the fellow teammates points out, this compulsion towards competition is what makes their baseball team so highly regarded on a national level.
This kind of push-pull male bonding is representative of the film’s main through-line about how college is a landscape for one to establish themselves both as individuals and as a part of a larger group. As we are first introduced to the guys, they seem almost intentionally homogeneous by design but as the story progresses, they distinguish themselves through small moments that show flashes of their unique personalities. There’s not a strong urgency towards traditional character development because the cast is meant more to act as a crystallized version of an ideal college experience rather than a realistic depiction of people who struggle and succeed through life’s challenges.
In fact, Linklater makes it clear that Jake and his crew need not worry about much at all as their youth and status on campus provide them with a cushy collective existence. The film’s carefree spirit that mirrors this attitude can lead to some meandering storytelling and stagnant pacing but it’s ultimately crucial to the type of laid-back vibe that it captures so well. It may be a drag for those looking for something more tightly structured but if you’re, as the tagline states, “here for a good time, not for a long time”, then Everybody Wants Some!! delivers.
Sharp and timely, the international military thriller Eye in the Sky is a thoughtful and tactful examination of the ethical grey areas that plague the potential efficiency of modern drone warfare. It focuses narrowly on one event –one decision, really– that could have been an ancillary plot point in another war movie but instead is given the attention that it deserves to explore the decision-making behind it. This is exceptionally patient and clear-headed storytelling from director Gavin Hood, who has graduated from the humdrum Hollywood fare of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to create a purpose-driven work that’s actually worthy of his talent.
The story centers around a capture mission of high-level terrorists in Kenya that is headed up by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) in London and by Lieutenant Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in a nearby briefing room with England’s top cabinet members. The global operation is also aided in real time by the aerial surveillance of drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from Nevada and image analyst Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) from Hawaii. When the situation proves to be more volatile than previously expected and a new potential causality enters the picture, the decision to potentially utilize a drone missile is debated both by those participating in the mission and by other seemingly unaffiliated parties as well.
Hood does an incredible job of taking these individual scenes of people communicating and working together from around the world and building it into one cohesive story that builds logically upon the small actions of each character. From watching the film, you would probably never guess that the four lead actors never actually met one another face to face during production but it speaks to the kind of narrative fluidity that’s on display as the tension builds. Even as more and more bureaucratic figures are brought into the picture, we never lose focus on what’s at stake and why this scenario proves to be so difficult to resolve.
With some exceptions, the script by Guy Hibbert is deft in dealing with these complex moral and political issues at hand without making the characters come across as shallow billboards for the beliefs that they represent. The concepts of collateral damage and greater good are routinely invoked but both sides of the arguments are presented fairly without the film giving us easy solutions to side with. One such moment occurs when Powell presses one of her subordinates to manipulate the calculations of a hypothetical attack; the moral conflict between the characters in that moment is palpable and representative of the challenging decisions that are made every day by military personnel.
Not only is the film thought-provoking but it’s also breathlessly paced and entertaining even at the surface level as a nail-biting thrill ride with plenty of small incidents that build towards larger consequences. Because the covert mission is in such a fragile state, even minor events like a veil covering the face of one of the targets or a cell phone running out of battery can affect all of the players involved in unexpected ways. Eye in the Sky is a breathtaking look at military intelligence in action and the technical evolution behind the battles yet to come.
In January 2009, captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles were faced with an unprecedented situation. During their takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, a flock of geese spontaneously flew through both of the aircraft’s engines and rendered them powerless to continue through the flight. Forced to react quickly on behalf of his terrified passengers, Sully surmised that the best option was to land their crippled airplane on top of the nearby Hudson River, a decision that saved the lives of all 155 people on-board US Airways Flight 1549 and captured the attention of news outlets around the world.
Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of this heroic event and the impact it has on those involved is the focus of his new film Sully, which stars Tom Hanks as Captain Sully and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Skiles. While the media adequately covered the result of the landing itself, it didn’t spend as much time focusing on the NTSB’s investigation to the crash, which alleged that Sully could have flown back to runways at one of two alternate airports in both New York in New Jersey despite his limited circumstances. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn, who you may recognize as Skyler from Breaking Bad, play the investigators tasked by the NTSB to suss out the situation.
It’s no surprise that the landing itself makes for the most exciting material in the story but Eastwood is smart about the way that he depicts fractions of the event from different perspectives before giving us an unbroken and definitive account towards the middle of the movie. When it did arrive, my heart was pounding as the plane taxied to the runway and began to take off. The amount of tension that’s built during the scene, from the quiet stillness of the engines right after the bird strike to the concurrent cries of “heads down, stay down!” from the flight attendants right before the crash, only subsides the moment after the plane hits the water.
With its white-knuckle crash sequence and subsequent probing from government officials looking to find flaws in the pilot’s performance, Sully has parallels to the recent Robert Zemeckis film Flight, in which Denzel Washington’s pilot character is initially hailed as a hero. While that film has different goals as a character study and redemption story, I can’t help but feel that Eastwood could have dug deeper into his protagonist the way Zemeckis did so well in his feature. Other than the fact that Sully is a hero who used a lifetime of training and preparation to divert a catastrophe, he doesn’t have much else to say about the central figure of his story.
Perhaps some of that also falls on Hanks, who portrays Sully as the calm and collected professional that he came across as in his numerous appearances in the press but jettisons some of his natural charm in the process. Eckhart fares a bit better in his role as Skiles, sporting a brilliantly authentic pilot’s mustache and a cunning wit that provides some much needed bits of humor to some of the film’s more drab stretches. Sully is an honorable and workman-like effort from Eastwood that reminds us that pure heroism is still powerful enough to inspire in increasingly cynical times.
This raunchy and ridiculous Pixar send-up stars Seth Rogen as Frank, a hot dog who lives in the Shopwell’s supermarket along with the myriad of other sentient food products in the store, including his package-mate hot dog Carl (Jonah Hill) and his neighboring hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig). On a busy Fourth of July shopping day, a housewife selects both of their respective packages for purchase but a shopping cart accident separates Frank and Brenda from the rest of their friends. With the help of new acquaintances Teresa del Taco (Salma Hayek) and Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), the two peruse the aisles of Shopwell’s in hopes of reuniting with their friends while also uncovering some unpleasant truths about their existence.
A rousing opening musical number (co-written by frequent Disney collaborator Alan Menken) asserts the food’s collective worldview that humans choose only the most worthy of the bunch to be taken to “The Great Beyond”, which exists outside of the store’s sliding glass doors. Ignorant of our predilection for food consumption, they’re not sure what awaits them when they leave the store but in their own words, “they’re sure nothing bad happens to food” in the outside world. When the seeds of doubt begin to creep into the minds of the characters, themes of faith and religion are tackled with more even-handedness than I expected.
So Sausage Party has a bit more on its mind than you may expect for a movie about talking food but its primary function as an R-rated animated comedy is to be as crude and offensive as it can be. I can say that it certainly achieves this goal but in doing so, it does sacrifice some comedic opportunities in the process. Some of my favorite moments didn’t involve certain four-letter words or obvious sexual innuendos but rather the film’s more clever visual touches, like a spot-on Saving Private Ryan homage that reappropriates the iconic Omaha Beach sequence to hilarious effect.
Working from a budget about a tenth the size of the Pixar films that it’s lampooning, the animation of Sausage Party obviously isn’t as sophisticated as recent efforts like Finding Dory but co-directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan find a visual language that spoofs the “sunny” disposition of classic Disney movies while also remaining crisp and vibrant on its own terms. Each new section of the store that our protagonists discover offers a new palette on which to introduce a fresh set of grocery characters and the culture that they’ve built up around them. In some cases, this results in some potentially ugly stereotyping that I hope is meant to satirize the food industry’s proclivity towards culturally homogenized packaging rather than serve as cheap punchlines on their own.
The voice casts also boasts the talents of Rogen regulars Michael Cera and James Franco while making room for newcomers like Nick Kroll, who steals the show as a roided-out version of a feminine hygiene product that lives up to his pejorative name. My absolute favorite, thought, was the Stephen Hawking-esque Gum, who delivers lines with the cadence of the physicist’s trademark speech synthesizer and introduces himself by his complex chemical makeup as opposed to just saying “gum”. Sausage Party has enough laughs, some more juvenile than others, to make it a worthwhile meal.
Following the relentlessly grim chore of a movie that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s good to see that DC has developed a new sense of fun and mischief to their movies. Suicide Squad may not be as triumphant as Marvel counterparts The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy but it has a rambunctious and irreverent quality to it that appealed to me more than I expected that it would. Director David Ayer has the daunting task of juggling a plethora of comic book characters, most of whom will be new faces to general audiences, and he succeeds in doing so while also drawing some memorable performances out of his sprawling cast.
The film introduces ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) as she seeks to build a covert mercenary task force in order to combat pending otherworldly attacks after the events of Dawn of Justice. She recruits a band of dangerous criminals, including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), as disposable assets in case any of the missions are compromised and the public seeks a scapegoat on whom to cast the blame. When one of the Squad members defects and seeks to wipe out mankind’s technological resources, the remaining ragtag band of misfits pool their unique talents and abilities to bring down the emerging threat.
Jared Leto also turns up in a subplot as a new iteration of the Joker and Ben Affleck briefly reprises his role as Batman but despite the standings of these characters in pop culture, their presence doesn’t overwhelm the film but instead situates the Squad members as the main focus of the narrative within this larger DC universe. While there may not be an even time split between the backstories of these new characters, we do get the lowdown on each of them from a flashy dossier montage early on that gives us enough context to how each of them may fit into this troubled team. There’s also a refreshing level of ambiguity to their roles on the moral spectrum of the comic book genre; they’re not quite heroes, villains or even anti-heroes.
The primary winning element of this film is the commitment level to the performances, specifically from Smith and Robbie. The two previously starred in last year’s con caper Focus and even in this wildly different setting of crazy costumes and wall-to-wall action, they maintain an electric chemistry and quick-paced repartee that scores plenty of laughs (Smith, in particular, has some outstanding one-liners). On the dramatic side of things, Viola Davis brings a quiet intensity and fierce intelligence to her character that keeps her one step ahead of her crew and often makes her the most captivating character in the movie.
No matter how things pan out box office-wise for Suicide Squad this weekend, it’s been made clear that this is meant to be a one-and-done feature and that going forward, DC will presumably put all of their eggs in the Justice League basket. As someone who enjoyed this movie, I can also appreciate the fact that we won’t have four unnecessary Suicide Squad sequels to bare if Warner Brothers hits its mark financially with this effort. As a scrappy and slight piece of offbeat superhero fare, this had just the right kind of crazy to keep me on board with the Squad.
The Secret Life of Pets, the new comedy from Illumination Entertainment, is about as fluffy and light and inconsequential as animated filmmaking gets. The stakes are uniformly low, the conflict is kept to a minimum and with the runtime coming in right at the 90 minute mark, the pace is fittingly breezy too. For some, this movie may seem too shallow and well, childish, but in a year where Disney has chosen to explore more mature themes in features like Zootopia and Finding Dory, a bit of old-fashioned, mindless fun turns out to be a nice change of pace.
The story centers around a loyal terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), whose pampered life is turned upside down when his owner adopts a boisterous and gigantic Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). After a day at the dog park goes wrong, the two are picked up by Animal Control but are aided in their escape by a deceptively cute rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his team of rogue, abandoned pets. Meanwhile, a band of pets from Max’s building pool their efforts to scour the streets of New York City in an attempt to find the two lost dogs and bring them home safely.
Much like Illumination’s previous film Minions, Pets opens with a clever and engrossing montage that was covered a bit too thoroughly in the advertising previous to its release and feels a bit spoiled as a result. Still, it serves as a reliable framework and fitting introduction to the myriad of pet characters that exist in the giant apartment complex. Each pet really only has enough screen time to embody one or two personality traits (a Pomeranian named Gidget, for example, is a hopeless romantic who harbors feelings for Max) but much like the movie’s story and tone, the characterizations are appropriately nonchalant.
Though the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be, a stellar voice cast that also includes Dana Carvey and Albert Brooks bring a tremendous amount of heart and energy to their collective performances. Speaking of heart, this is already Kevin Hart’s third movie released this year (Chris Rock even had a joke in the Oscars back in February about how many movies he does) but he proves again why he’s such a sought-after comedic talent. He brings the same manic charisma to his voiceover work here as he does for his live-action roles and the film is all the better for it.
This also marks a significant bump up in animation quality for Illumination as well, whose previous work was certainly serviceable in that area but not usually considered a focal point of their brand. Here, the setting of New York City in autumn leads to an animation design that’s crisp and vibrant, filled with all sorts of rich detail that’s always pleasing to the eye. Much like the simple comfort of cuddling with a loving dog after a long day at work, The Secret Life of Pets is a welcome distraction from the increasingly troubled world in which we live.
After a brief detour in the superhero realm with Iron Man 3, writer/director Shane Black returns to his buddy cop movie roots with The Nice Guys, a hilarious new detective comedy set in the decadent playground of 1970s Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling stars as Holland March, a bumbling private investigator who crosses paths with thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) while looking into the disappearance of a young girl. Despite an initial confrontation between March and Healy that leaves the former with a broken arm, the two eventually pair together to find the missing suspect while also uncovering a larger criminal conspiracy in the process.
The plotting grows increasingly dubious as the story progress but clearly the film’s biggest asset is the powerful comedic chemistry between its leads, which is surprising given the past work from the two actors. Gosling has done some comedies before, most recently last year’s The Big Short, but he’s still most notable for his dramatic roles and as far as I can tell, this is the first time that Crowe has ever been involved with a comedy or at least had a comedic role. Both come across as complete naturals and form the kind of believable bond that’s so important for a movie like this to succeed.
Gosling gets the juicer role in terms of comedic opportunities and he does a near genius level style of physical comedy in scene after scene. Sure, he gets plenty of quippy one-liners and back-and-forth banter with Crowe but he shines most when he’s tasked with some truly outlandish choreography. The most clear example of this is a bathroom sequence in which March, in an attempt to ambush Healy, fumbles for his gun while simultaneously trying to hold open the stall door and extinguish a lit cigarette that’s fallen into his pants while he’s also sitting on the toilet. Quite a bit to manage.
Meanwhile, Crowe mainly plays the straight man to Gosling’s lovable goofball but he doesn’t take things so seriously that he seems out of place or uncomfortable, even during some of the more ludicrous turns in the story. An early voiceover establishes Healy as a man who hasn’t quite found his place in life yet and as someone who is trying to find the good within himself but Crowe doesn’t burden the character too much with issues of the past. Healy has just the right amount of groundedness to make March’s pratfalls seem even more ridiculous by comparison.
I shouldn’t neglect what could be the film’s secret weapon: a 13-year-old Australian actress named Angourie Rice, who plays March’s daughter Holly and serves as the closest thing to the movie’s moral conscience. She gives a confident and smart breakout performance and her character’s lack of cynicism amid troubling circumstances gives the story a more humanizing angle than it probably deserves. It’s about one or two re-writes away from being a much tighter and most likely a funnier film overall but as it is, The Nice Guys is fast, loose and plenty of good fun.