THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

September 25, 2016

mag-7 Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it’s easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.

The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see’s for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can’t do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The “seven” are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D’Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.

Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What’s not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire … lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today’s sound technology really adds a welcome element – the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.

Fuqua’s stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it’s important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner’s final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner’s unique take, we can’t miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt’s “So far, so good” joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.

watch the trailer:

 


ITHACA (2016)

September 21, 2016

ithaca Greetings again from the darkness. The source material is the 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” from Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan; and it’s the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the one-time ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who reunites with her Sleepless in Seattle co-star Tom Hanks (in a ghostly cameo). Due to these juicy ingredients, we can be excused if our expectations are a bit high.

As a viewer, it’s easy to relate to the emotions of young Homer McCauley (Alex Neustaedter) as his messenger job expedites the disillusionment that often accompanies adulthood. While Homer becomes more disenchanted the more he learns, we feel let down with each successive sequence. The adapted screenplay from Eric Jendresen never picks a direction, and instead teases us with numerous pieces from the novel with little follow through on any.

Homer’s dad (a very brief Tom Hanks apparition) has recently passed, and with his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) off at war, Homer takes it upon himself to secure a job to help support his saintly and melancholy mother (Meg Ryan), his older sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his little brother Ulysses (an energetic Spencer Howell). He pledges to be the best bicycle messenger ever when hired at the local telegraph company run by Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and old-timer (grumpy and frequently inebriated) Willie (Sam Shepard).

Being that it’s war time, some of the telegraphs Homer must deliver are the worst possible news for the parents on the receiving end. As the film progresses, we see the light slowly go out of Homer’s once bright eyes. The accelerated coming-of-age aspect is at its best when his father-figure Willie brusquely tells him “You are 14 years old and you’re a man! I don’t know who made you that way.” It’s the most poignant moment of the film and the closest we get to a real theme.

The letters Homer receives from older brother Marcus contribute to his understanding of the world and the reading of the letters serves the purpose of story narration. The film is nostalgic and idealistic, but so unfocused that we are never able to fully connect with any of the characters. We are caught off guard when Homer proclaims his mother as the nicest person ever, although she has offered even less guidance than Forrest Gump’s mom. Ithaca, Ulysses, and Homer … we can’t miss the mythology ties, as well as the importance of home, but it always feels like something is missing.

In 1943, six time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown made a movie based on this same novel, and the cast included Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Donna Reid and Van Johnson. In this new version, John Mellencamp provides the musical score, and Ms. Ryan has stated that the novel helped her work through a difficult time in her personal life. She’s likely to get more opportunities to direct; her first outing is easy enough to watch, but just as easy to forget.

watch the trailer:

 


SILICON COWBOYS (2016, doc)

September 20, 2016

silicon-cowboys Greetings again from the darkness. After countless projects spotlighting Steve Jobs and Apple, it’s about time the tech-nerdy Texas entrepreneurs behind Compaq get their moment on the silver screen. Filmmaker Jason Cohen turns his camera on Rod Canion, Bill Murto, and Jim Harris … none who have the persona or magnetism of Mr. Jobs … and tells the story of how they took on Goliath IBM at a time when most wouldn’t dare.

Taking us back to 1981, the 3 friends (and Texas Instruments co-workers) quit their jobs to start a new company – only they have no real plan on what that company should be or even what industry it should be in. There is a re-enactment of a conceptual drawing of a mobile computer on a diner’s paper placemat … a drawing that helped them secure a big investment from Ben Rosen at a time when Venture Capitalism was non-existent for technology companies (yep, 35 years ago).

Those early days of a slow developing Silicon Valley featured more hobbyists and non-commercial efforts than anything going on these days. Mobile computing was not really even a product category when Compaq stuck a handle on their case … the visuals of businessmen toting them through airports is comical. This was truly the beginnings of the home computer era, and even the tech start-up. The film serves as a historical perspective of the times, while also documenting how Compaq fits into the evolution of the personal computer.

It’s pretty easy to draw comparisons to the great and powerful IBM ignoring the “little guys” to the 1970’s when GM and Ford overlooked Honda and Toyota. It’s always easy to chuckle at the arrogance of big corporations, and when Compaq computers were more compatible with IBM software than IBM computers were, it’s a real head-scratcher. The dawn of “clones” were more than a thorn in the side of Big Blue (IBM), and eventually it got worse for them. Head-to-head advertising campaigns of IBM’s Charlie Chaplin vs. Compaq’s John Cleese further emphasized the contrast between those out of touch with those who clearly understood the market.

Normally a movie that spends much of its time interviewing such down to earth guys as Canion, Murto and Harris, would feel like it’s dragging, but the historical significance is such that contemporary comparisons to Dell, Google, Apple and Facebook keep it briskly on track. Though the electronic background music seems out of place, many viewers will enjoy watching a true story where the nerds win!

 


THE FIRST FILM (2016, doc)

September 19, 2016

first-film Greetings again from the darkness. How do we handle challenges to historical achievements that have been accepted as facts for more than a millennium? Film classes have long taught that Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers were the pioneers of moving pictures. Director David Nicholas Wilkinson has worked for 33 years to prove that Louis LePrince actually beat them to the punch with his own camera and “movies” produced in 1888 Leeds. When LePrince mysteriously disappeared in 1890 he became the industry’s first tragedy/mystery, leaving him with no place in history … something Wilkinson is trying to correct.

You may have heard other arguments for Eadweard Muybridge, William Friese-Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, but it comes down to limiting the definition to a single lens camera capturing live action on film for playback. Director Wilkinson includes the 3 surviving snippets of scenes recorded by LePrince: a small gathering of friends/family walking around, LePrince’s son Adolphe playing an instrument, and a Leeds street shot of moving carriages.

To prove his theory and secure LePrince’s place in history, Mr. Wilkinson meets with film historians, researchers, academic experts, museum curators, and even a patent lawyer. The patents are key because LePrince had secured his U.S. and England patents, but the laws worked against him and his supporters once he disappeared. Details are presented in all aspects … some concrete, scientific and impressive; others more speculative and circumstantial (as you would expect 125 years later). Wilkinson is willing to do what’s necessary to make a clear point as evidenced by his searching a graveyard for a specific headstone (to establish a timeline of the “walking” footage).

Two of the more interesting sequences occur when Wilkinson visits the actual room in the oldest house in Manhattan where LePrince’s moving picture was to be shown; and his trip to Memphis, Tennessee to meet with LePrince’s great great granddaughter to share evidence, artifacts and stories. The three main theories surrounding LePrince’s disappearance are profiled. Was he murdered (possibly a hit by Edison)? Did he commit suicide? Was it all a plot to steal his patents? With no body, no witnesses and no evidence of a crime, the LePrince disappearance is the first unsolved mystery of the movie business.

It seems Wilkinson presents enough hard evidence to justify adding LePrince into the discussions around the birth of movie making. The unsolved mystery adds an element of intrigue, and makes for a more interesting movie. Mostly Wilkinson is to be admired for his 33 year obsession, for finishing his project, and for bringing attention to one of history’s forgotten players. Beyond that, the tongue-in-cheek manner in which he chooses to end his film allows us to appreciate his efforts and keep it in perspective.

 

 


OPHELIA (2016, short film)

September 16, 2016

ophelia Greetings again from the darkness. The best short films somehow find a way to connect with viewers and make us care about the story and character(s) – in just a few minutes and usually on a very limited budget. The first film from director (and writer) Anthony Garland expertly establishes atmosphere and tone, creates conflict and develops a character we care about … all in less than 8 minutes.

Garland seizes on one of the biggest emotional stressors for many people … the job interview. The opening scene has a well-dressed Ali Mueller slowly making her way through a dilapidated building while ominous music cues us that we are about to watch a horror film. This horror is psychological in nature and plays to the power of the mind, and the internal battles we fight when plopped into a stressful situation. Ms. Mueller faces a tribunal committee of interviewers (named in the credits as Grumpy, Sneezy, Doc) played by familiar actors whose faces you’ll likely recognize (Mary Pat Gleason, Larry Cedar, Allen Blumenfeld).

The film has a dream-like feel and often we aren’t sure what’s real. However, there are certain segments that are clear manifestations of Ms. Mueller’s insecurities and fears. There is a Black Swan nod with her younger self in the mirror, and a razor blade used to remove any doubt that her outward confidence often fails versus her internal struggles.

It’s a nifty little look at how we seek to control our fears and doubts, and fits nicely with Ophelia’s line from Hamlet: “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”.

 


SNOWDEN (2016)

September 15, 2016

snowden Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never really understood the artistic benefit to filming a biography after a spectacular documentary on that person has already been produced, made the rounds, and racked up awards. But then, I guess the point has little to do with art, and more to do with economics (documentaries are historically a money losing venture). Renowned director Oliver Stone brings us the story of Edward Snowden just two years after filmmaker Laura Poitrus won the Oscar for Best Documentary for her Citizenfour.

Much of what Ms. Poitrus documented in real time at the Mira Hotel in Japan is re-enacted here as one of the three core storylines in Mr. Stone’s film. To his credit, he fills in much of the backstory and Snowden’s resume by starting with a failed attempt at joining Special Forces (tumbling off the top bunk is automatic disqualification if it shatters one’s leg).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimics Snowden’s low key mannerism and measured vocals, while also fiddling with his eyeglasses during key moments. As a sought-after role for an actor, Snowden ranks a few rungs below, say Howard Hughes or Franklin Roosevelt or most any other person who has had an impact on America … just not much personality to work with – though his actions have created some of the most interesting discussions over the past few years.

Joining Snowden in the hotel room are Melissa Leo as Ms. Poitrus, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson showing off a Scottish accent as journalist (from The Guardian) Ewen MacAskill. The second storyline takes us through the initial recruitment and subsequent rise through the CIA and NSA, as we see how Snowden continually uncovered more about how the government was spying on citizens. His interactions along the way – such as Rhys Ifans as his CIA mentor Corbin O’Brian and Nic Cage as disgruntled agent Hank Forrester – provide a spark of energy on screen. The third piece of the pie revolves around Snowden and his politically-polar-opposite girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.

Since it’s an Oliver Stone movie (he co-wrote the screenplay with Kiernan Fitzgerald), we fully expect his political views to be on full display. It’s clear he is sympathetic and fully supportive of Snowden’s actions, and does his best to paint him as a patriot who had no choice but to go public with his belief that the spying had nothing to do with terrorism, but was instead a form of social and economic control. Based on the books “The Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kutcherena and “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding, the film portrays Snowden as increasingly disenchanted and disappointed, beginning in 2003 and moving through 2013.

Stone’s feel for visuals come into play as we track Snowden through Virginia, Geneva, Hawaii, Japan and finally Russia. Along the route, familiar faces pop up in almost every new scene – Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 10), Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Chaplin, Ben Schnetzer, and Joely Richardson. There are a couple of sequences in which Stone applies his stamp … a party with drones hovering overhead (until they aren’t), and an impactful full wall Skype with Rhys Ifans’ face looming larger than Snowden’s entire body.

Whistleblower or turncoat? Hero or traitor? Most people fall pretty clearly on one side of the debate, and there’s no doubt where Stone stands. Just prior to the voice of Peter Gabriel over the closing credits and clips of the real Ed Snowden, there is a fancy edit where Stone shows him at his computer in his current home in Russia. Stone’s movie makes a nice companion piece to Citizenfour, but if you are only going to see one, choose the documentary.

watch the trailer:

 


THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) revisited

September 10, 2016

thunderbolt Greetings again from the darkness. The 1970’s brought a wave of new filmmakers who not only changed the way films were made, but also the type and style of stories for the big screen. Due to the abundance of interesting movies from this era, it’s easy to see how, over time, a few gems can slip and fall into the ‘forgotten’ category. One of these is this personal favorite from the infamous writer/director Michael Cimino, who passed away just a couple of months ago (July 2016).

The opening shot has a car in the distance kicking up dust on a country road as it approaches a small rural church seemingly plopped in the middle of pasture. Once parked, the driver of the car steps inside the church and begins spraying bullets throughout the intimate wooden structure – his target being a bespectacled slow talking preacher played by Clint Eastwood who ducks out a side door.

As you might guess, John Doherty, nicknamed The Thunderbolt, (Eastwood’s character) is no real preacher. The man shooting at him is one of his old partners in crime, and he’s seeking revenge on Doherty for stealing the gang’s money from their last job. While Eastwood is dodging bullets in the pasture, a young wise-cracking Jeff Bridges is stealing a car from a local dealership. In short order Bridges (Lightfoot) has run over the guy shooting at Eastwood, and Clint is hanging onto the car for dear life as Bridges speeds off. And that’s how this inauspicious titular partnership begins.

What follows is a blend of buddy flick, road trip and heist movie. It’s spiced up with Thunderbolt’s other partners (played by George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) first chasing them down, and then reluctantly agreeing to partner up again to repeat their previous robbery. In the process, we travel through Hell’s Canyon along the Snake River in Idaho and listen to a lot of tough talk between the four key players. Kennedy’s character is especially hard on the young Bridges, and that’s what kicks off the pseudo father-son relationship at the core of the film – tough guy and loner Thunderbolt genuinely grows to like the fast-talking Lightfoot, who manages to quell a bit of Thunderbolt’s world weary bitterness.

The dialogue is filled with put-downs, smack-downs and threats, and is accompanied by some unusual visuals. In addition to the stunning countryside, seeing Kennedy and Lewis co-occupy a small ice cream truck is itself entirely worth the effort of tracking this one down. But that’s not all … how about Jeff Bridges in full dress, wig, heels and make-up? It’s all for his part in the heist, but it certainly nails down the closeness of he and Eastwood and they hide as a couple at a drive-in movie theatre … that is, until they are forced into a high-speed chase scene over the familiar speed humps that anyone from the drive-in era will recall. We also get the colorful wardrobe – Eastwood and Bridges spend much of the film in disco-type clothes stolen from the back of a car. Other standout visual moments include a woman on a motorcycle using a hammer to pound on Bridges’ van while both are driving over a bridge; comedian Don Rickles on TV; and a woman exposing herself to Bridges through a sliding glass door as he works his manual labor job.

These fabulous moments all fit perfectly into 1970’s cinema and are courtesy of the terrific cast, as well as the vision of writer/director Michael Cimino in his first feature film. Cimino’s story is the ultimate fall-from-grace. As a Yale graduate, he became a Madison Avenue advertising star with his unique and creative TV commercials. His script polishing of Magnum Force (the second Dirty Harry movie) so impressed Eastwood, that it led to the two collaborating on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With the success of this first film, Cimino moved on to the Vietnam picture The Deer Hunter, released in 1978. That film won 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (for Cimino). This propelled him to the top of the Hollywood mountain, and the rare opportunity for full control of his next project. The result was the legendary critical and box office flop Heaven’s Gate. It’s the flop by which all others are measured, and very nearly destroyed United Artists (a studio founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith). Cimino’s reputation and career never fully recovered and though he only made five more films, he did write two successful novels. Upon hearing of his passing, many of those he worked with had nothing but praise for Cimino as a writer, director and artist … especially Eastwood and Robert DeNiro.

Even casual movie watchers are somewhat familiar with the long (more than 60 years) and decorated career of Clint Eastwood. His impact on the entertainment world has come via acting, writing, directing, producing and composing. He has won four Oscars (two each for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven), while being nominated eleven times. His last acting role was Trouble with the Curve (2012), but he continues to direct films … including the recently released Sully, with Tom Hanks playing Captain Chesley Sullenberger who piloted the “miracle on the Hudson”. Eastwood’s big break came with the TV show “Rawhide”, which led to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s, and then to the 1970’s-80’s tough guy and action star Dirty Harry, before mixing in action/comedy with Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and the like. Although he continued to act, it seemed Eastwood’s passion lay behind the camera, where he has been able to make the films he wanted and include some of his personal views (not always popular with the Hollywood elite). Given the two high profile lawsuits, he probably wishes he had never met Sondra Locke, but Eastwood’s influence and legacy stretches across decades and multiple genres in the movie world.

In 1974, Jeff Bridges was still known mostly as the son of Lloyd Bridges, though he had also made a name for himself with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show (McMurtry, Bogdanovich, 1971). As Lightfoot, Bridges dons leather pants and a brash attitude while flaunting his acting style of just making everything look so darn easy … and receiving another Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Since then, Bridges has received Oscar nominations for Starman (1984), The Contender (2001), True Grit (2010) and of course for his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart (2009). Beyond these, Bridges has brought life to some incredibly unique and interesting characters: Kevin Flynn/Clu in Tron (1982), former NFL’er Terry Brogan in Against All Odds (1984), Preston Tucker in the underrated Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988), with brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), another lost gem The Fischer King (1991), the “highly” popular Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the suspicious neighbor in Arlington Road (1999), Tony Stark’s nemesis Obadiah Stone in Iron Man (2008), and most recently as the retiring Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water … one of the best films of 2016. And yes, he did appear in Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

george-kennedy In addition to Eastwood and Bridges, another key to why the film works is the presence of George Kennedy as Red, the grumpy, burly, hayfever-stricken guy who trusts no one. Prior to acting, Kennedy served under General George S Patton and was awarded 2 bronze stars. Like Eastwood, he broke in during the era of Westerns and moved on to tough guy roles in the 1960’s. The difference, of course, was that Eastwood was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, while Kennedy was simply one of the best character actors in Hollywood history. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for his memorable work opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967). In the 1970’s Kennedy appeared in the popular disaster films (the “Airport” franchise, Earthquake, etc), before turning his career on its ear by jumping into the Naked Gun spoof films. Never one to shy away from work, whether TV or movies, Kennedy appeared in 74 episodes (1988-91) of the immensely popular TV series “Dallas”. His role of Carter McKay breathed new life into the series. As a rancher/oilman from Colorado who bought a ranch from viewer favorite Ray Krebbs, Kennedy’s McKay became the ultimate nemesis for J.R. Ewing. Watching Kennedy and Larry Hagman go head-to-head was some of the best TV viewers could ask for. In fact it was Kennedy’s character who tricked J.R. into losing control of Ewing Oil. Kennedy also appeared in the two CBS “Dallas” movies that followed the end of the series. His final role was that of Mark Wahlberg’s grandfather in The Gambler (2014). Mr. Kennedy died in February 2016 at the age of 91, after more than 50 years of acting and nearly 200 screen credits. Fans of his work may remember his often gruff persona, but those who worked with him claim Kennedy was just about the nicest guy they had known.

The fourth cog in this Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wheel was Eddie played by familiar face Geoffrey Lewis. In the film, he was the good-hearted guy who seemed to be out of place, which allowed for the perfect contrast with hard-nosed George Kennedy. Mr. Lewis appeared in many movies with Clint Eastwood, and TV audiences may remember his as part of the series “Flo” (1980). Lewis, who is the father of actress Juliette Lewis, died in 2015 after more than 200 acting roles … including Heaven’s Gate.

The rest of Cimino’s first film is literally filled with one scene appearances by faces we either recognized at the time, or would come to know very well in the near future. These include: a 20 year old Catherine Bach, known also as Daisy Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard”; Gary Busey in a quick scene with Bridges; Burton Gilliam of Blazing Saddles fames; Dub Taylor (appeared in multiple films by both Sam Peckinpah and Robert Zemekis) is the gas station attendant who rants about US economics; Bill McKinney (much too memorable in Deliverance, numerous films with Eastwood) is the crazy driver who, along with his pooping raccoon, picks up a hitchhiking Eastwood and Bridges; Claudia Lennear (the inspiration for The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, part of Twenty Feet from Stardom) is the secretary who asks Eastwood for his social security number; Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague on “The Andy Griffith Show”) plays the vault manager and home invasion victim; Roy Jenson (in Chinatown, he’s the guy holding Nicholson when Polanski slices his nose) is Dunlop, the early church shooter; Gregory Walcott (Plan 9 From Outer Space) is the car salesman who Bridges dupes; Scott Eastwood (Clint’s kid) is the 5 year old boy at the ice cream truck; and Vic Tayback and Beth Howland, known for their work as Mel and Vera on “Alice”. Should you need more, that’s Paul Williams singing the theme song (that he wrote).

Admittedly, Michael Cimino’s directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot does not rank among the best of the truly great films released during the 1970’s: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Star Wars … just to name a few. However, it does belong on a list of forgotten gems – movies from the 1970’s that are still worth watching today. Where else can you watch Clint Eastwood preaching the gospel or George Kennedy bullying Jeff Bridges?

***This is part of theDarlin’ Dallas Blogathanrunning September 21-23, 2016 at https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/

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