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:

 

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THE 33 (2015)

November 12, 2015

the 33 Greetings again from the darkness. How do you structure a film based on a true story that lasted 69 days, occurred 5 years ago, and was followed live on TV by half of the global population? Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress, 2012) delivers a film designed to tug on heartstrings, and is based on the book “Deep Down Dark” from Hector Tobar, as well as interviews with the key players.

In 2010, the San Jose copper/gold mine collapsed trapping 33 Chilean miners more than 2300 feet under tons of rubble and an unstable rock that dwarfed the Empire State Building. Through some pretty solid special effects, we are there for the collapse. It’s this segment and the immediate reactions from the miners that provide the film’s best segment. We feel the miner’s sense of panic and doom as they begin to come to grips with their plight.

The film rotates between three struggles: the isolation of the miners struggling to survive, the tent city populated by their families struggling to maintain hope, and the Chilean government struggling with the politics and public relations of a rescue mission. From a character standpoint, each of these three segments is given a face. Antonio Banderas as Mario becomes the focal point of the miners. He searches for an escape route, takes charge of the (very limited) food rations, and acts as referee and light of hope in an extremely volatile situation. Juliette Binoche (yes the French actress) is Maria, the sister of one of the trapped miners and the most assertive of those pushing the government to attempt a rescue. Rodrigo Santoro plays Laurence Goldborne, Chile’s Minister of Mining, and the one who pushes the government to move forward with the costly rescue mission.

Other key characters include Bob Gunton as Chile’s President Pinera, Lou Diamond Phillips as “Don Lucho”, the safety inspector, Gabriel Byrne as the chief engineer, James Brolin as Jeff Hart (leading the U.S. drilling team), Naomi Scott as Mario’s wife, and three of the other miners: Oscar Nunez, Mario Casas, and Juan Pablo Raba.

The most bizarre segment comes courtesy of miner hallucinations. It’s a fantasy-infused Last Supper sequence that plays out to the sounds of a Bellini opera, while the food and drink flow and the family members join in the joy. It’s not difficult to imagine the brain taking these poor gentlemen to such places of mental torture.

As if the approach is to make the most viewer-friendly buried miner film possible, we aren’t witness to much underground conflict, and the internal bickering within the Chilean government officials is kept to a minimum. We do get to see the media circus that occurred during the ordeal … of course, most of us witnessed it in real time.

Director Riggen has delivered a film that taps into the multitude of emotions for the different groups of people, rather than concentrating on the miserable situation of the miners. It’s a challenge to keep us interested in a true story of which we all know the ending, but most viewers will stay engaged with the characters. It should also be noted that the minimalistic score is some of the last work from the late, great James Horner.

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: