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:

 


SOUTHPAW (2015)

July 26, 2015

southpaw Greetings again from the darkness. Is it possible to have a boxing movie without a crusty old trainer? Or a cute kid?  Or a stubborn macho lead who makes poor personal choices?  It doesn’t seem to matter much as this latest from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) checks off most of the expected cliché’s, and still slides easily into the canon of boxing movies that now covers nine decades.

This one packs a satisfactory punch both inside the ring and out. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope (the name courtesy of first time screenwriter Kurt Sutter, known for “Sons of Anarchy”). Mr. Hope follows the expected arc: 1. On top of the World! 2. A nasty crash landing  3. Redemption and comeback. However, just because we are familiar with the trail, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the hike.

Gyllenhaal continues his impressive string of performances that include End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler. In the latter, he transformed his body by losing 40 pounds. This time, he packs on the muscle to become convincing as a boxer. The recent trend of actors getting fat, skinny, ripped or ugly to attract awards attention is nothing new to Gyllenhaal, who has made a career of melding into his roles.

The supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife. The two share a background as orphans in Hell’s Kitchen and have a strong relationship with each other and their young daughter played by Oona Laurence. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Hope’s long-time manager who telegraphs his true colors much too early (and no, this doesn’t refer to the recent news involving Mr. Jackson). Naomie Harris is a bit underutilized as the social worker, but the film is at its best once Forest Whitaker enters as Hope’s last hope (sorry). Mr. Whitaker always elevates a film with his presence, and his character here would have provided a boost with even more screen time.

A few topics are touched upon, though none very deeply. The father-daughter story line was pretty effective, but the anger management issue could have been explored more effectively since it was so crucial to the story and Hope’s personality.

Eminem provides some new music for the film, and it should be noted that this was the final score composed by the great James Horner, who only recently passed away. Sure the film “borrows” from Rocky and Raging Bull and many other boxing classics, but at least it doesn’t go full “Champ” on us.

watch the trailer:

 


THE EQUALIZER (2014)

September 28, 2014

equalizer Greetings again from the darkness. While you are likely familiar with slapstick comedy, this latest from director Antoine Fuqua could be described as slapstick action. This fits because the implements of destruction include barbed wire, a power drill, a book (hardcover, of course), a nail gun, and even a corkscrew. Such an unusual assortment takes a bit of edge off the the extremely graphic violence. If the kills weren’t so gruesome, we might be tempted to chuckle. The titular character is the MacGuyver of Special Ops.

Writer Richard Wenk adapts the story from the terrific TV series which ran from 1985-89. It starred the late, great Edward Woodward as a classy, sophisticated guy who believed in justice for those who needed help against the odds. For the movie, Denzel Washington (re-teaming with his Training Day director) takes over for Mr. Woodward as Robert “Bob” McCall … the seemingly normal guy with extraordinary skills used to balance the scales.

McCall lives a quiet life with OCD tendencies. He is a friendly guy liked by his co-workers at the home improvement box store (imagine Clark Kent working at Home Depot), and even mentors an overweight hispanic young man in his quest to pass the security guard test. McCall is also an insomniac who hangs out after hours reading Hemingway at a local diner, passing along words of hope and wisdom to an underage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). None of these people have any idea of McCall’s previous career with “the company”. Our only glimpse of this is a quick visit to the home of characters from his past, played by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

Our villains here are the Russian mob, and it’s tough to beat that accent for a juicy villain. David Meunier (Johnny Crowder of “Justified” fame) is our first goon, followed up by the slick and menacing Marton Csokas (The Debt) who has an impressive resume of his own. It would have been interesting to have more screen time together for Csokas and Denzel, but we understand why that’s not practical.

Similar to the Bourne movies, the good guy always seems to be a step ahead of the bad, but that has little impact on our ability to find fun in the action. Director Fuqua provides four or five really stylistic shots (including super slo-mo), but also relies on Michael Bay-splosions for one laughable scene at the loading docks. A missed opportunity is the film’s score. We are slammed with a thumping bass line through much of the movie, rather than utilizing the Stuart Copeland theme from the TV series. Expect McCall to arrange the flatware just so, and continue to dish out justice in at least one sequel.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of action movies and enjoy very creative methods of hand-to-hand combat OR you were a fan of the TV series OR you always wondered if shot glasses or corkscrews had other uses.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: graphic gore and violence, even when provided by the always suave and cool Denzel Washington, is not to your taste

watch the trailer:

 


OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013)

March 25, 2013

olympus Greetings again from the darkness. Gerard Butler doesn’t always make wise decisions when picking his projects. In the right role, men admire him for being cool and tough, while women are enchanted with his charm. The role of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is just about perfect for Butler. He not only gets to be an action hero, but he also has a solid relationship (with Radha Mitchell) and is a role model for the President’s young son. Butler is so nearly perfect here, he should be cast in the next Old Spice commercial.

The movie starts out with the backstory on how Agent Mike Banning (Butler) fell out of grace with the President and was reassigned to a desk job at Treasury. Pushing paper is like Siberia for a man of Banning’s make-up. A terrorist invasion on the White House tosses Banning right smack in the middle of a violent and explosive act designed to leave the entire United States decimated. Circumstances being what they are, Banning is the only hope.

olympus2 Movies like this must have a quality bad guy. We get icy Rick Yune as Yang, a North Korean criminal mastermind. You might think this is extremely timely given the real world in North Korea, but Yune is certainly no Governmental official. The attack is very well planned and leaves Yune locked in the White House security bunker with the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense (a spunky Melissa Leo). At the Pentagon, this leaves the Secretary of State (Morgan Freeman) and a bombastic General (Robert Forster) jockeying for control. Angela Bassett is there to referee. As movie goers we are accustomed to seeing Morgan Freeman as God, as the President, and as the brains behind Batman.  Secretary of State seems a step backwards career-wise, so it’s a relief when he assumes Presidential control.  While this group of officials sits around looking anxious and worried, Agent Banning is a one man wrecking crew against the terrorists.

olympus3 The images of the White House being attacked will prove quite disturbing to any US citizen and the sequence comes off as something that could possibly occur. Let’s hope director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) performed sufficient research to know this attack couldn’t actually happen. Still, Aaron Eckhart is a believable President … in the Harrison Ford (Air Force One) mode, tough as nails but also intelligent.

There are of course similarities to Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire, and many are comparing it to the 1988 classic Die Hard. For me, the difference in Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning and Bruce Willis’ John McClane is that Butler is the right guy in a bad place, while McClane was a good guy in the wrong place. The action sequences in Olympus Has olympus4Fallen are even bigger than Die Hard, and it’s certainly clear there is much more at stake.

The cast also includes Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd. Without giving anything away, I’ll admit this is my favorite Ashley Judd role of all time. It will be interesting to see how this one compares to Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, which comes out in June. The story lines are almost identical with WHD starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Olympus Has Fallen is a very satisfactory action movie, with many traditional elements, and Butler has re-established himself as a real movie star. It’s doubtful Emmerich’s version will stand up against this one.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are an Action movie fan OR you want to see Gerard Butler in the perfect Gerard Butler role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the White House get attacked is something you prefer not to see even if it’s only a movie

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwx1f0kyNwI

 


BROOKLYN’S FINEST (2009)

March 6, 2010

(3-5-10) 

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since Training Day became a hit, director Antoine Fuqua has been one of the director’s that escape harsh criticism from the Hollywood elite. He is a master of intense moments in time, but I believe many of his movies lack continuity to the point where the story seems to come second to adrenaline rushes. Brooklyn’s Finest is no exception.

The film follows the unconnected stories of three cops. Richard Gere is the stereotypical veteran cop who is one week from retirement, and begins the film with a gun in his mouth. Ethan Hawke is the desperate young cop whose family just keeps growing (his wife Lili Taylor is pregnant with twins) and he longs to provide better living arrangements. Don Cheadle is the undercover cop who, if he hasn’t already crossed the line, is dangerously close.

The best scenes are with Cheadle and Wesley Snipes, who plays a just released from prison hardened criminal. Their dialogue rings true for an undercover cop trying to play both sides and hold on to what’s “right”. If not for Ellen Barkin‘s histrionics, the worst scenes would be watching Richard Gere show off his full repertoire of three different facial expressions. Poor Ethan Hawke looks like no one let him eat or shower for 2 months prior to filming. The boy looks sad.

Even though we know it’s coming, the final act where the three stories intersect is pretty interesting and make for a satisfying shoot-em-up ending. Brace yourself for some hardcore street violence and language and a meandering soundtrack.  The film seems to funnel to the point that there is a very fine line between right and wrong for those in law enforcement.  I prefer to cling to the belief that this is a serious exaggeration.