ESPN found the story of Phiona Mutesi, a ten-year old chess wizard whose skills help her rise above the poverty of her situation in modern-day Uganda. The movie based on this story inspires and lifts up and fills all the needs of a family film. Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s hard scrabble mother, trying to keep her family together in the face of dire poverty. As the chess whiz, Madina Nalwanga provides a winning performance encouraging the audience to get on her side. The excellent actor David Oyelowo (best known as Martin Luther King in “Selma”) plays the youth worker who encourages young Phiona to follow her dream. “Queen of Katwe” takes its time telling this story. But the movie successfully gives those of us who find chess a mystery enough information to follow the moves. Director Mira Nair tells the story with a sure hand. She builds to a satisfying conclusion and follows the final credits pairing the real people with the actors who play them. The end credits create one of the most satisfying scenes in recent memory. 3 stars PG family fare. Does it deliver what it promises? Uplifting family story. Is it entertaining? A little slow but worth watching. Is it worth the price of admission? Very much.
You have to wait until the closing credits but it’s worth it to hear the stirring music from the 1960 version of “The Magnificent Seven.” Denzel Washington looks pretty cool on a black horse with a black hat wearing an all black outfit as the settlers of a small town beg him to bring them justice and revenge. Old school Peter Sarsgaard does everything but twirl his mustache as he routs the good farmers of Rose Creek out of his town so he can mine it for gold and plunder. Farm wife Haley Bennett finds Denzel after Sarsgaard kills her husband in cold blood for talking back. Washington recruits a diverse bunch including an Indian, a Mexican, a Chinese guy, a Confederate soldier, a mountain hermit, and a wise cracking comic played by Chris Pratt. I almost didn’t recognize Vincent D’Onofrio as the mountain hermit. Ethan Hawke adds a few good scenes as an ex Confederate marksman fed up with killings. “The Magnificent Seven” assembles its team and the fight begins. Considering the great actors and the beautiful scenery I thought something beyond cause and effect might develop. The end credits include the wonderful classic music. That music is about as close as this remake gets to anything classic. Does it deliver what it promises? Disappointing remake of a classic. Is it entertaining? One dimensional. Is it worth the price of admission? Not really.
“The Dressmaker” opened this year’s Washington D.C. International Film Festival, an appropriate choice for a quirky foreign film (made in Australia) starring a well known actress Kate Winslet with a supporting role for the great Judy Davis. This quirky story begins as Winslet returns to her backwoods village in help her looney mother and settle some scores, including taking the blame as a child for something she did not do. Winslet settles those scores with her sewing machine, stitching exquisite gowns for villagers she hates. Along the way she catches the eye of international hunk Liam Hemsworth. “The Dressmaker” aims for quirky fun but never gets enough speed to bring the viewer along. Most of the time the story makes little sense and many of the so-called comic moments fall flat. Winslet looks great, and Davis is a wonderful actress and many people find Hemsworth attractive. What are they doing in this? Does it deliver what it promises? Quirky comedy but not quirky enough. Is it entertaining? Fitfully funny. Is it worth the price of admission? Skip it.
The story of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency computer expert who went public with the agency’s ability to track almost anyone in the world, seems right up Oliver Stone’s alley. Stone, famous or infamous for historically based films including “JFK” has at the very least a love of the paranoid. “Snowden” implies that sometimes even the paranoid know what they’re talking about. The film tells the story of Snowden’s life in a straightforward manner, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Snowden as one of those young people who seem to have been born old. Dropping out of high school, Edward Snowden joins the Marines only to discover his leg bones can’t take the physical stress demanded. He applies to the CIA and finds a mentor played to the Orwellian hilt by Rhys Ifans and a fellow computer nerd played by Nicholas Cage. Together they help him find his way into the NSA. Shailene Woodley adds more tension as Snowden’s girlfriend. Her liberal beliefs and outlook challenge him. It will take years and probably decades to determine if Edward Snowden is a patriotic whistleblower or a government traitor. Stone comes down on the side of whistleblower but leaves enough room for you to decide. Does it deliver what it promises? Real life thriller. Is it entertaining? A little long and sometimes dull. Is it worth the price of admission. I get the feeling this might have been better told as trumped up fiction rather than biography.
I didn’t expect much from the latest Bridget Jones adventure, after all the series is fifteen years old, the sequel a few years later flopped, and Rene Zellweger hasn’t made a movie in years. So I am most surprised to report that I laughed and found this reboot enjoyable. This episode finds Zellweger as Bridget a little older and now alone after breaking up with Colin Firth aka Mr. Darcy. Now 43 — and let’s insert here that it’s nice to see a film centered on an over 40 woman — Bridget takes a fling at a weekend glamour camping event and winds up in the sack with American millionaire Patrick Dempsey. A few days later she runs into Firth, and again magic happens. And then, she’s pregnant and we’re not sure who’s the father or how this will come out, but thanks to some very funny writing (some of it by co-star Emma Thompson who plays Bridget’s ob-gyn) and a great gag toward the end, “Bridget Jones’ Baby” is great fun. Missing in action is Hugh Grant who figured prominently in the original, but the filmmakers even dish up a surprise involving him. Does it deliver what it promises? Update of a fifteen year old comedy. Is it entertaining? Surprisingly funny. Is it worth the price of admission? Sometimes fun is enough.
The combination of Clint Eastwood directing and Tom Hanks acting creates high expectations. “Sully” more than meets the challenge in one of the year’s best movies. Based on the events of January, 2009, Hanks plays hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger whose passenger jet lost both engines taking off from LaGuardia hitting a flock of Canadian geese. Eastwood recreates the moments in the air in a series of hold your breath scenes. As with the recent O.J. Simpson documentaries, even though we know the successful outcome, Eastwood holds our attention mixing the event with the National Transportation Safety Board hearings that followed. (“Sully” makes it look like the hearings took place immediately. I understand they took place several months later.) The movie makes the hearings look like a witch hunt, as board members appear to want to prove Sullenberger could have returned to LaGuardia as they question his decision to land on the Hudson. In the course of the hearings “Sully” celebrates the human factor in our computer age. The movie raises a few questions. I wondered if U.S. Air brass pushed Sullenberger into a media tour to promote their airline. I also wondered if the airline resented Sullenberger for not returning their expensive jet to the ground where they could repair and use it again. “Sully” includes the excellent Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, but doesn’t give her much material beyond a performance of concern and semi-hysteria. Aaron Eckhart fares better as Sully’s co-pilot. The men bond solving their life or death situation and then enduring the hearings that follow. Anna Gunn stands out as one of the NTSB board members but also doesn’t get much from the script beyond a questioning scowl. “Sully” also lays on the kind of stories “Airplane” parodied in 1980–the crying infant, the father separated from his son, the elderly woman returning home. In spite of those minor flaws, “Sully” presents a study in calm leadership. “Sully” delivers joy and uplift and couldn’t come at a better time. Does it deliver what it promises? A hero’s story. Is it entertaining? Gripping and compelling. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s best and an award contender. 3 1/2 stars PG -13 (a little strong language and a life threatening situation.) Eastwood and Hanks at the top of their game. See it in theaters because I doubt you’ll find this on the list of in-flight movies.
Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander make a beautiful couple in the old school melodrama “The Light Between Oceans.” Fassbender begins the story as a World War One veteran stumbling into civilian life filled with angst from the Great War. He takes a fill in job as a Lighthouse Keeper on an isolated island. He notices a beautiful village girl played by Alicia Vikander and they marry beginning their life together on his now permanent assignment on the island. Vikander has a series of miscarriages and falls into a depression until one day a boat washes ashore. The boat carried a dead adult and a live baby. Vikander pleads with her husband for permission to keep the child. Fassbender reluctantly agrees. The secret unravels in a plot twist involving Rachel Weisz. “The Light Between Oceans” takes its sweet time. It feels about a half hour too long. But it looks beautiful, and the actors look beautiful and they play this tale out to an equally beautiful sound track. Does it deliver what it promises? Old school melodrama. Is it entertaining? Long and slow but beautiful. Is it worth the price of admission? A good end of summer story.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” advances the art of animated story telling far beyond children’s entertainment. Based on a Japanese folk tale, Kubo has lost an eye and discovers his ancestors are coming for the other eye thanks to a family feud. To protect himself, Kubo must find his father’s armour. His quest enlists the aid of a talking monkey and a samurai warrior who has taken the form of a talking bug. Charleze Theron and Matthew McConaughey voice the animals. Rooney Mara voices the angry aunts intent on harm. Kubo performs origami stories which he literally whips up in some very neat segments. “Kubo and the Two Strings” combines a dash of “The Wizard of Oz” with “Harry Potter.” Just keep your youngest kids home. This entertainment is the stuff of nightmares. Does it deliver what it promises? Japanese stop action animation. Is it entertaining? Fascinating and frightening. Is it worth the price of admission? Might be the animated movie of the year.
A good guy comes under the spell of a less than good guy in the based on truth comic drama “War Dogs.” Miles Teller plays the good guy and has great chemistry with his high school pal Jonah Hill, the alpha male in this story. Jonah has stumbled on a scheme to sell guns and ammo to the U.S. military. Seems Uncle Sam need as many weapons as they can get their hands on for the various invasions of the middle east launched in the early 2000’s. At first, the money rolls in, then the boys bite off a little bit more than they can chew, aided by arms dealer Bradley Cooper. “War Dogs” is great fun thanks especially to Jonah Hill who excels as an immoral but likeable guy. An unknown Cuban actress named Ana de Armas makes a great impression as Teller’s disapproving wife. Kevin Pollak adds a lot of fun as a crooked dry cleaner. Seems everybody wants the easy money available in the gun business. Of course it all unravels and the straw that breaks the camel’s back is worth learning. “War Dogs” feels like “Wolf of Wall Street” meets “American Hustle.” That’s a way of saying it doesn’t do anything new. It does reflect another attempt at the style of filmmaking that made those two movies as well as ‘The Big Short” so watchable. 2 1/2 stars R rating for sex, drugs, and violence. Does it deliver what it promises? Comic drama. Is it entertaining? Familiar but entertaining. Is it worth the price of admission? Easy to watch and easy to like.
“Ben Hur” returns in a new version which will most likely irk fans of the 1959 Oscar-winning classic. But that’s ok because most movie goers weren’t alive in 1959. This remake serves up the famous chariot race in 3 D and does a grand job. Wheels crash, horses fall, drivers get crushed as the crowd cheers. Jack Huston, whom I have admired since his work on “Boardwalk Empire” plays Judah Ben-Hur, crown prince of a wealthy Roman family. Toby Kebbell plays Ben-Hur’s adopted brother, Messala, an orphaned Jew who joins the Roman army and rises to the position of leader, just a rung below Pontius Pilate. (Hmm, beginning to sound familiar?) Ben-Hur shows compassion to a religious zealot, who repays his kindness by firing an arrow at Pilate. The Romans blame Ben-Hur, seize his family and sentence him to a lifetime in a Roman galley ship. The rowing scenes rival the chariot race for harrowing action and excitement. You may remember “Ben-Hur” encounters Christ and ultimately adopts his teachings. ‘Ben-Hur” returns to the scene of his humiliation with the help of Morgan Freeman who sets up the chariot race. Unfortunately Freeman mouths some of the worst dialog of the year wearing a ridiculous wig that looks like an old fashioned mop. “Ben Hur” does fine in the action scenes, but when things get quiet a lot of bad acting comes through. “Ben-Hur” feels uneven, sometimes thrilling, other times laughable. This remake was produced by Mark Burnette and Roma Downey who specialize in Christian themed films. I imagine those most religious will find the new”Ben-Hur” satisfying. As a movie, I recommend taking a pass. 2 stars PG-13, for violence and a crucifixion. Does it deliver what it promises? Remake of a classic. Is it entertaining? Great action, lousy acting. Is it worth the price of admission? In general, no thanks.