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A six-movie grab bag

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2016

Since school ended, I’ve been digging into movies that got past me in the previous months. Besides my two longer posts below (on “Manchester By the Sea” and “La La Land”), here are some briefs about other films, in alphabetical order.

“Doctor Strange.” A fine addition to the Marvel Universe, despite the obligatory Big Confrontation at the end, this benefited tremendously from the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is an acknowledged master at playing brilliant assholes. And Doctor Strange is very much that – pre-enlightenment Tony Stark to the nth power – nor does achieving great power diminish the arrogance. (On a side note, I fully understand the grievances against Tilda Swinton’s casting, even if she does not.) Fun talk, including some gibberish, about time, and a nifty post-credits scene pairing the Doctor with Thor.

“The Magnificent Seven.” OK, I usually like Denzel Washington, thought “Flight” could have earned him another Oscar and am looking forward to seeing “Fences” on Friday. But I LOVE the original “M7” (especially in a double feature with “The Great Escape”) and that cast is legendary (Bronson, Vaughn, Coburn, McQueen … perhaps not big names at the time – the star was Yul Brynner – but damn, they put on a show). Although the original has some dated elements, the new one is still just a rethinking of an old concept – I know, “Seven Samurai” before the westerns, just not as big on my radar – in a way that adds nothing to it. Scary villain, troubled heroes, big battle, OK. Still not something I would rush to see again, and I’d pause just about any time I came across the earlier version on TV.

“The Nice Guys.” Shane Black hit an action mother lode with the first “Lethal Weapon” and at times it has appeared that he has kept looking for another perfect buddy-action-comedy combo. (The Fox series version of “LW” is not it, BTW.) While this peculiar pairing of a grizzled old pro (Russell Crowe) and a young, slimy loser (Ryan Gosling) won’t make any forget Glover and Gibson, it has at least one merit: It is very funny. Much of the humor comes from Gosling and his character, who is not only moral flexible but far from the sharpest pencil in the pack. (A scene late in the film where he gets to be momentarily smart is one of the weaker bits.) Crowe plays along well enough, only much of the time there’s not much to play with: dangerous dames, nasty bad guys, a precocious child (Angourie Rice, very good), been there, seen that. Still, I enjoyed the two leads just enough to keep watching and laughing. I’d take it over “Suicide Squad” (see below) any time.

“Rogue One.” A mixed blessing at best, it stumbled through much of the early going, leaping from location to location and character to character with little beyond nostalgia to make people care. It improved in the second half, not least because of plucky Felicity Jones, but also because it connected its thread to the larger fabric of the “Star Wars” story. And it ended in a way that both underscored the sacrifice that was inherent to a rebellion (even if I had to wonder, after all these movies, why a group as repeatedly incompetent as the Empire was able to take over in the first place) – and made necessary sense in relation to the later movies on the time line. In short, it was OK, better than Episodes I-III (as most things are) but not as good as Episodes IV-VII.

“Sing Street.” Sweet-spirited, charming, with delightful music accompanying a clear sense of what it’s like to be young and only marginally sure of what you want to be. (A fun touch is the way the main character’s wardrobe changes every time he discovers another trendy outfit in a music video.) From writer-director John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”), this has ‘80s teen Ferdia Walsh-Peelo trying to get past his family’s troubles and his brutal school life through music – and then through a girl (the incandescent Lucy Boynton). She says she’s a model, and Walsh-Peelo tries to woo her with the offer of a role in his band’s music video. Only problem: there’s no band. He gradually assembles one and together they begin to mine music and their lives for ideas, and come up with some good ones. The attempts at romance are also nicely done – not least when one or the other says exactly the wrong thing – and the ending is a fistful of smiles. Completely unrealistic, too, but we need that smile.

“Suicide Squad.” Another blockbuster, but a genuine mess of one. Halfheartedly presented, with a largely nonsensical plot, the only bright spot was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and the connecting of her to the Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me.” I am an easy target for superhero movies, or compelling supervillains, but this was just a burden to watch. Who needs a burden when so many movies are out there?

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