The Magnificent Seven (MGM/Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 132 min.). Director Antoine Fuqua's remake of the 1960 John Sturgess-directed classic of the same name, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson --itself a remake of the 1954 Japanese classic, "Seven Samurai," by Akira Kurosawa -- also boasts a trio of stars in Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, but lacks any charm. It can be reduced down to two action sequences, with the in-between stuff making the film seem too long. What little moralizing there is in the film is only superficial, compared with Kurosawa's masterpiece.
Pratt ("Guardians of the Universe," "Jurassic World") comes across best as Josh Farraday, looking like he was having the best time. Washington is serviceable as Sam Chisolm, the leader of the group that comes together to try and save the people of Rose Creek from land usurper/gold industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard in a performance that hardly registers after some opening true villainy; he burns down the town's church and kills Matt Bomer's character). The year is 1879. Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux, who apparently has been so scarred by the Civil War (what one character calls The War of Northern Aggression) that he can no longer kill. He heads out of Rose Creek, only to predictably return with guns a blazing. Vincent D'Onofrio tries to steal the film as mountain man Jack Horne, embracing both his bulk and less-than-sociable manners. In much limited roles, but still making an impression are Byung-Hun Lee as the knife-throwing Billy Rocks and Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, an arrow-shooting Comanche. (Sensmeier is an Alaska Native actor of Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan descent.) Rounding out the seven is Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, one of Chisolm's bounties.
The first half-hour introduces the true evil of Bogue and some of the terrified townsfolk, before turning most of its time to Chisolm, a legalized bounty hunter, and Farraday, a drunk who likes to play cards. The next 20 minutes quickly assembles the rest of the seven, before they storm into Rose Creek and kill 22 of Bogue's unsuspecting hires. My favorite moment of the whole film is when Chisolm tells his horse to leave his side and it does. The film spends much less time training the townspeople and setting up traps than Kurosawa did. Despite some of the flatness that has gone before, the final shootout is well put together by Fuqua, cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua.
Where the release excels is in its bonus features, the main one of which is a 173-minute Vengeance Mode of watching the film, with full-screen commentary and cuts to behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews (hence, it is 41 minutes longer). There also are four deleted scenes (7:29); the cast discussing the director (5:03); looks at the actors' training on horseback and with weapons (4:55); a look at the seven characters and the actors who play them (8:36); a look at Bogue (5:26); a piece on the music, started by James Horner and completed by Simon Franglen after Horner's death (4:10); and a closer look at the first big shootout (5:16). Exclusive to Blu-ray are the Vengeance Mode, deleted scenes and the features on the cast's training and the first gun battle. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Ben-Hur (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 124 min.). Based on Gen. Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," which was highly popular in the later 1880s, the new version of "Ben-Hur," directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Night Watch," "Day Watch"), is given an updated look, but misses the heart of the 1959 classic, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the title role. The 1959 film won 11 of the 12 Academy Awards it was nominated for, include Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. There also has been a 1925 silent film version, directed by Fred Niblo and Charles Brabin, as well as a 2010 TV miniseries. With the 1959 film so honored, it could be argued that this new version was totally unnecessary.
"Ben-Hur" is still the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston of "American Hustle," "Price and Prejudice and Zombies"), a Jewish prince and member of one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem who is betrayed by Messala Severus, a Roman. Instead of a friend, Messala (Toby Kebbell of "Kong: Skull Island") this time is Judah's adopted brother. Bekmambetov opens the film with the start of the famed chariot race, but quickly cuts to the past, when the two brothers are racing horses. Judah's horse stumbles and Messala has to save Judah's life by carrying him home. Messala is enamored of Judah's sister, Tirzah, (kind of an icky situation as she is his adopted sister), but feels that to be worthy of her he needs to go off and find fortune and fame. He does so by enlisting in the Roman army and rising to the rank of tribune, becoming Pontius Pilate's (Pilou Asbæk) right-hand man. Years later, Pilate brings a legion through Jerusalem and one of the city's zealots tries to kill Pilate, shooting an arrow from the roof of the Ben-Hur home.
To protect his position, Messala betrays the Ben-Hurs. The mother (Ayelet Zurer) and Tirzah are taken away to be killed and Judah is forced to become a rower in a Roman ship's galley, where he labors for five years. One of the film's two highlight scenes takes place below decks on the ship during a battle with the Greeks in the Ionian Sea. The ship first rams a Greek warship and then it is rammed itself, with Judah the only survivor. He is rescued by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, who also narrates the film's opening and close), who just happens to have a chariot team that he enters in races he bets on. Messala, of course, has become the undefeated Roman chariot champion and the stage is set for the frenzied final race sequence, which is a cruel one, particularly to the horses. Jesus of Nazareth does show up now and then, but he almost seems like an afterthought. Where the film falters most is in development of personal relationships. There just is not enough time between characters.
Bonus features include a look at the book, its author and previous film versions (10:27); a look at casting (12:10); a look at "repurposing" the film for modern audiences (15:25); a closer look at the chariot race (10:37); seven deleted or extended scenes (10:23); and three music videos, two of which have brief behind-the-scenes looks. Grade: film and extras 2.25 stars
Bridget Jones's Baby (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 123 min.). This is the third film in the series, after "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001) and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" (2004), and in it, our plucky heroine has reached age 43 and decides to have at least one more fling, as she is tricked into attending a weekend music festival by her pal Miranda (Sarah Solemani). Bridget (a returning Renée Zellweger) runs into Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), whom she later learns is an American billionaire who has designed a romance app and Website. About a week later, she and old flame Mark Darcy (a returning Colin Firth) are godparents to the same child. Both encounters lead to sex and when she learns she is pregnant, Bridget selfishly decides not to find out who the father is, thus stringing both men along as potential fathers.
There is a sense of familiarity in "Bridget Jones's Baby," as Sharon Maguire, director of the first film is back, along with several other cast members, including Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones as her parents, with Mum a local council candidate running on a family values platform. Mark continues to be an uptight conservative barrister, although his current court case involves defending the free speech rights of a female rock group. At work, Bridget has to contend with a younger female boss who is rebranding the TV news show, "Hard News," for which Bridget is a producer. The news segments actually contain some of the film's funniest moments. Playing Bridget's no-nonsense obstetrician is Emma Thompson (who has won Oscars for acting in 1992's "Howards End" and for screenwriting in 1995's "Sense and Sensibility"), who did a total rewrite of the already-existing script, adding much of the humor. Not present is Hugh Grant's Daniel Cleaver, Bridget's former boyfriend; since Grant did not want to be in the film, he was written out -- apparently killed in an airplane crash, although his body is not found (I sense a fourth film) -- and a funeral service is actually held for Cleaver. There also is a funny bit, which sort of becomes a running gag, involving British musician Ed Sheeran, who plays himself in the film.
Bonus features include an alternate ending that injects four extra mini-scenes among the closing credits (3:31); a gag reel (2:06); a five-part making-of featurette (18:54); and nine deleted or alternate scenes (17:25). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.25 stars
Morgan (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 92 min.). This cautionary tale about genetic engineering, directed by Luke Scott (feature debut) and produced by his father, Ridley Scott, is presented as a thriller. Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a risk management consultant sent by Corporate to determine the feasibility of series L9, a genetically modified, grown "human" called Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), after Morgan has stabbed one of her handlers (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Kathy) in the eye in a fit of anger. The third and first successful try in the L9 series, Morgan is only 5 years old but appears to be in her early 20s due to her accelerated development. In far too many ways, the film reminded me of the superior "Ex Machina," which starred Alicia Vikander as the artificial intelligence female creation.
Morgan is being kept on a farm, which also contains the underground laboratory. The staff members are played by Rose Leslie, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan and Boyd Holbrook. Most viewers will expect that not many of them will survive and they would be right. However, the first victim is a visiting psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti), who arrives to test whether Morgan is mentally stable. Weathers has the final say on whether Morgan should be terminated. The film mainly suffers from a hackneyed script and under-developed characters, who mostly just seem to be there to be killed off. The film's surprise twist is telegraphed often in advance and even mirrored in one scene -- which was deliberate according to director Scott in his audio commentary. Scott also provides optional commentary on the five deleted scenes (6:03) and the short film "Loom" (20:27), which stars Giovanni Ribisi as a worker in a genetic engineering meat plant who is doing some illegal home research into artificial intelligence. The short is actually more effective than the feature film. There also is a photo gallery and a look at the science behind the film (19:40) that also is of interest. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3 stars
The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection (1929-32, Universal, 3 Blu-ray, NR or G, 6 hours 48 min.). In this collection, the five Marx Brothers comedies that featured all four brothers -- Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo -- make their Blu-ray debut, digitally remastered from their original film elements. Each of the films -- "The Cocoanuts," "Animal Crackers," "Monkey Business," "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" -- has undergone an extensive restoration process, including dirt clean-up, scratch removal and color correction. The restoration of "Animal Crackers" was done in collaboration with the British Film Institute and includes newly discovered footage, not seen since the film was edited to meet production code standards for reissue in 1936. The hours of bonus features include new interviews with the Marx family, Leonard Maltin, Dick Cavett, filmmakers and historians, new feature commentaries, rarely seen home movies and more.
The commentaries feature Harpo's son, Bill Marx; film historians Anthony Slide, Jeffrey Vance and Robert Bader; and film critics F.X. Feeney and Maltin. There is a new feature-length documentary, "The Marx Brothers: Hollywood's Kings of Chaos." From the NBC vaults come "The Today Show" interviews with Harpo, Groucho and Bill Marx, featuring the rare home movies. There also is a 12-page booklet with an essay by Bader and rare photos.
The films themselves are among the funniest ever made. "The Cocoanuts" was one of the first all-talking musicals, coming over from Broadway in 1929. Its standout scenes are the auction and the "viaduct" routine. "Animal Crackers" also moved from Broadway in 1930 and has Groucho singing "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Co-written by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond, and directed by Howard Hawks, "Monkey Business" involves the discovery of a rejuvenation serum. "Horse Feathers" has Groucho as the head of Huxley College, building up the football team to play rival Darwin U. Finally, in "Duck Soup," Grouch plays Prime Minister Rufus T. Firefly of the postage stamp-sized country of Freedonia who decides to declare war on neighboring Sylvania just for the fun of it. Grade: collection 4.5 stars
Some Christmas movies
Christmas All Over Again (Lionsgate DVD, PG, 79 min.). Waking up to Christmas every morning may sound like a wonderful life, but what happens when there are no presents to wake up to? Earning the Dove Family Seal of approval, this film stars Sean Ryan Fox (TV’s "Henry Danger"), Amber Montana (TV’s "Haunted Hathaways"), Sean Ryan Fox (TV’s "Henry Danger") andChristy Carlson Romano (TV’s "Kim Possible"), with Joey Lawrence (TV’s "Melissa & Joey"). On Christmas Eve, teenager Eddie (Fox) hopes a sweet new pair of Breezy 3000 sneakers will catch the eye of neighbor girl Cindy (Montana). However, the next morning, the tree is empty and every new day brings another Christmas without presents. To escape from this loop, Eddie turns to a mysterious shoe store owner (Lawrence), who helps him understand that true joy does not come tied up in a bow. The DVD comes with minuscule bonus episodes.
Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays (Time Life DVD, NR, 110 min.). Hope's TV Christmas connection began on Dec. 24, 1950 with "The Comedy Hour" and from then on, each and every holiday season, Hope invited friends from the world of entertainment and sports to celebrate the season in hilarious and heartwarming fashion. In 1993, guests gathered for the special, "Bob Hope's Bag Full of Christmas Memories." Those guests include Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. Highlights include: A compilation of Bob's monologues from his many holiday tours for the USO; Hope and Skelton (as Freddie the Freeloader) experience a small Christmas miracle; Benny visits Santa at the North Pole for a holiday stickup; former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt delivers a Christmas message of historical note; Naomi and Wynonna Judd sing "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem"; Lily Pons, Robert Cummings and Hope examine a large, mysterious package under the tree; Bob and Dolores Hope Hopsing "Silver Bells" over a montage of him performing the song with an array of female costars from 17 holiday specials; and clips of the most hilarious Christmas sketches throughout the years.
Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (Warner DVD, NR, 87 min.). This TV sequel of the feature film, "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors," was recently broadcast on NBC. Both works are inspired by Parton's upbringing in rural Tennessee. The family-oriented film stars Jennifer Nettles (also a Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter), Ricky Schroder, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Kelli Berglund, Mary Lane Haskell, Cameron Jones, Stella Parton, Hannah Nordberg, Farrah MacKenzie, Parker Sack, Forrest Deal, Dylan Michael Rowen, Blane Crockarell and Gerald Raney. Dolly Parton introduces the film, serves as narrator and plays the Painted Lady. In the story, Daddy Parton (Schroder) and his clan try to scrape together enough cash to buy Mama (Nettles) the wedding ring she has long waited for. Then a fierce blizzard threatens their lives. Bonus content includes deleted scenes and three featurettes with behind-the-scenes interviews.