Saturday, September 24, 2016

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Not The Most Magnificent Remake But A Purty Good Time

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:


(Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2016)

How much of a remake exactly is Antoine Fuqua’s new familliarly titled western?

Well, it shares the same name with John Sturges’ 1960 American classic, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese classic SEVEN SAMURAI, and it has basically the same premise, but the names have been changed and one of the film’s principal leads, Chris Pratt, has said that “it’s probably a lot more ‘Wild Bunch’ than ‘Magnificent Seven.’

And there’s also that Washington, the film’s star in his third collaboration with the director, has said that he’s never seen the original.

So, after taking it in, I consider Fuqua’s film to be a re-imagining of an established title in the wake of more modernist takes on the western genre, like say Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but despite its black lead, it’s a pretty old fashioned affair without a single N-word in ear range.

In its prologue, we are introduced to the villain, industrialist Bartholomew Bogue, perfectly played by Peter Sarsgaard at his most sinister, as he crashes a small town meeting in the fictional Rose Creek which is supposed to be in the desert of Texas, but we know it’s Louisiana with a bit of Arizona mixed in because you’ve got to have Monument Valley in every Western. Bogue’s goons kill people, including the protesting husband (Matt Bomer) of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the film’s only female lead.

Seeking revenge, Emma rounds up a posse made up of Washington as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, Pratt as gambler Josh Farraday, Ethan Hawke as the grizzled sharp sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, a delightfully drunk Vincent D'Onofrio as tracker Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as assassin Billy Rocks, Martin Sensmeier as Commanche warrior Red Harvest, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Mexican outlaw Vasquez, to take down Bogue.

The crew outfits the town by digging trenches, rigging explosives, and equipping the townspeople with guns in a way that heavily recalls ¡THREE AMIGOS! more than its actual source material, for the movie’s massive shoot ‘em up climax.

That’s basically it plot-wise. It’s ultimately a Denzel Washington indestructible bad ass scenario crossed with a Chris Pratt action comedy under a commercial western banner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that as there are plenty of laughs and quickfire thrills on screen.

Fuqua and Washington have done good work previously in the 2001 cop drama TRAINING DAY, which also featured Hawke and won Washington a long deserved Osccar, and in the 2014 action thriller THE EQUALIZER (another remake!), and the third time definitely has its charms here, but don’t expect any awards season activity this time.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ’16 is a good not great update * of one of the principles study subjects of Westerns 101. It’s a solid piece of pop entertainment, but it doesn’t go very deep – don’t go looking for fully fleshed out characters or new takes on time worn plot devices - nor does it justify political interpretations (don’t give me any the villain symbolizes Trump tripe). “I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse” Fuqua has been quoted as saying in more than one interview.

Maybe more than anything else, this film succeeds as a forum for that sure to become iconic image, but the rest of it is a purty good time as well.

“Good not great update” is a registered trademark of Film Babble Blog (see the GHOST BUSTERS 16 review for one of many examples).

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Babblin’ ‘Bout BLAIR WITCH, SNOWDEN, & The Beatles

Clint Eastwood’s SULLY, starring Tom Hanks as that airline captain that water landed his plane in the Hudson river back in ’09, was the #1 movie at the box office this last weekend, beating out two sequels that opened last week: BLAIR WITCH and BRIDGET JONES’S BABY. I found the third BRIDGET JONES film to be a fine, just funny enough follow-up, but the third in the BLAIR WITCH franchise struck me as a bogus retread. 

Actually horror filmmaker Adam Wingard’s (YOU’RE NEXT, V/H/S) BLAIR WITCH is supposed to be seen as a direct sequel to the 1996 smash hit THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (the original filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez executive produce), and we’re supposed to forget about or not count what happened in Joe Berlinger’s much maligned 2000 follow-up BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, which is easy for me as I’ve never seen it.

So this new entry is yet another reboot that’s also a remake (see: THE THING, ROBOCOP, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, every other movie from the last five years), which deals with another group of 20-year olds getting lost deep in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland on a quest to solve the mystery of what happened to the three people from the first movie. One of the characters, played by James Allen McCune, is the brother of the missing Heather Donahue who you may remember from this iconic image:

See? I knew you'd know that image!

McCune is joined by Callie Hernandez as his girlfriend, and another couple, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid who all are equipped with headset cameras, GPS devices, walkie talkies, and an aerial camera drone on their hike inspired by an image on a videotape that was found in the forest by a couple of sketchy locals, played by Wes Robinson and Valore Curry.

Robinson and Curry invite themselves along on much to the annoyance of the others, but after they awaken the next morning to find those classic stick figures twined together hanging from the trees surrounding their camp, the four friends suspect the couple to be pranking them and they kick them out of their group.

If you’ve seen the first you can guess the rest – the gang tries to head back to civilization but they get even more lost and circle back to their same campsite again (just like the river in the first one), one of them disappears, and the remaining kids wind up at the same spooky house from the original, and despite more action involving tunnels and the freaky naked witch that you can only see in quick flases of light, it ends pretty much the same way.

It’s a pretty tedious exercise full of jump scares and the shakiest of shaky camerawork in the entire found footage genre. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the first movie, and I only saw it once at the theatre (a multiplex in Greensboro if I remember correctly) but its imagery is burned into my brain as it was a fresh approach at the time. Despite all the new tech, BLAIR WITCH ‘16 doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of story or ideas, nor does it do anything to flesh out the series’ mythology.

We just get that there’s this supernatural, evil force that can uproot trees, change time and space, and can screw with your leg injuries (Reid sprains her ankle early on and the witch does what she can to make the wound worse just so there’s some gore) and these kids are stupid to think that they can solve any mystery about it, what happened to the previous party, and give us anything more than a bunch of jump scares. A found footage fail for sure.

I was also disappointed by Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic SNOWDEN, about the former CIA employee who in 2013 leaked tons of sensitive data about the scary extent of the United State’s mass surveillance, 
currently #4 at the box office. 

I’ve been a big fan of Stone’s work in the past (still think JFK is a masterpiece), and I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but their film falls way short of greatness. Pop culture critic extroadinaire Nathan Rabin once wrote that “there comes a moment in every cinephile’s intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realize that Oliver Stone is full of shit.” And I laugh because, yeah, I remember when that happened for me (U-TURN).

But I wouldn’t say that SNOWDEN is full of shit, but just that it’s a by-the-numbers biopic that adds up to a preachy bore.

I’ll start with how takes too many liberties with its subject’s background. Stone dramatizes Snowden going through basic training as a candidate for Special Forces until he breaks his leg, but in real life he was only in the military briefly and had not undergone any training. Also Snowden’s role as a NSA security contractor is exaggerated, and the man most surely did not smuggle tons of classified CIA files on a SD card hidden inside one of the squares of his Rubik’s Cube. Actually that’s one of the better scenes in the movie but I still wasn’t buying it.

I also hear that Snowden’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills played by Shailene Woodley, isn’t represented truthfully, but I was amused at how he becomes obsessed with the government spying on him, and everyone, through laptop webcams – one thing Stone does well is paranoia – but Woodley’s Lindsay doesn’t care and says things to him like “so what? I’ve got nothing to hide.”

By the time Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Snowden (biopic rule #13: show the real person at the end) we’ve basically gone through all the ripped from the headlines motions and true story tropes Stone could squeeze out of the story. It does help that Stone has assembled a great cast – Gordon-Levitt is joined by the likes of Melissa Leo as filmmaker Laura Poitras, who made the Oscar-winning Snowden doc CITIZENFOUR, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson as The Guardian writer Ewen MacAskill, and a bunch of fabricated characters or amalgams portrayed by Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage.

Stone’s SNOWDEN has noble intentions – to make a hero out of a man that exposed a great injustice – but it’s an underwhelming experience bereft of the epic angriness that gave his early work its “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” fire.

Lastly, I’m happy to report that Ron Howard’s THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS has been such a success that its run has been extended for another week at my local indie film venue, the Rialto Theater in Raleigh (it’ll run through September 29th). 

The wonderful rock doc, which I raved about in my review last week, is also currently available on Hulu, but I highly recommend making the pilgrimage to see it at an art house near you because the scores of great archival footage deserves to be seen on the big screen, and the 30-minute bonus film “The Beatles Live at Shea Stadium,” which looks and sounds amazing owing to its recent digital restoration, is an in-theaters-only exclusive.

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Opie Cunningham’s EIGHT DAYS A WEEK Brings Beatlemania Back To The Big Screen


With hope, Ron Howard’s new documentary, which serves up a greater inside look into the worldwide sensation The Beatles at their live performance peak than has ever been explored before, will help dispel the idiotic notion that the Fab Four sucked live.

Anyone who’s ever given the two volumes of The Beatles Live at the BBC, or the newly remastered release of Live at the Hollywood Bowl (released on CD for the first time last week), or many of the band’s bootlegs (this guy makes a great case for their 1963 Swedish Radio Show being one of the best performances by anyone) a good listen should know that the idea is bogus, but for those who believe the oft told tales that the teenage girls screamed so loud that the Beatles didn’t even try to play their instruments or sing at their best, this doc is essential viewing that should right that wrong.

From the opening footage of the quartet at Manchester's ABC Cinema in 1963 (among the earliest color films of the group) to their historical TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 to their equally historic Shea Stadium show (the first rock concert ever staged in a stadium) in 1965 to their final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966 we see the Beatles play and sing their asses off despite the roaring audience. I won’t trust anyone who watches this material, much of it never officially released before now, and says that they were a bad band live. 

Howard, who despite his big league movie directing career will always be Opie Cunningham * to me, and editor Paul Crowder (no stranger to rock docs as he co-directed and edited “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who”) supplement the wealth of rare footage with new interview segments with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with archival interview clips of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Paul and Ringo don’t really have any insights that they haven’t shared in countless other docs or interviews, but I’m always happy to see them reminiscence about the time that they were the biggest music act the world has ever known, and it’s touching to hear McCartney admit that “We were all pretty scared.”

There are also tasty testimonials from the likes of Sigourney Weaver (love the clip of her as a teenager being just another emotional, screaming fan at one of their shows), Whoopi Goldberg (her mother took her to the Shea Stadium show), Elvis Costello, Eddie Izzard, and broadcast journalist Larry Kane, who accompanied the Beatles on every date of their first two US tours.

Although I understand that he doesn’t fit into the “four guys against the world” narrative, it doesn’t seem right that original drummer Pete Best isn’t mentioned at all. The Beatles’ early years are glossed over pretty quickly to get to when they broke big – I get that – but Best deserves at least a quick shout out. 

There are some other subjects that are perhaps too tidied up as well, like the bit about Lennon’s famous quote about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus that led to album burnings and threats from the KKK, and it would’ve been nice to note the time that Ringo was replaced for a leg of their 1964 tour by a temporarily lucky bloke named Jimmy Nichol, but if Howard included every great anecdote, clip, or song from the band’s touring years it would be a mini-series half a day long.

Credit must be given to how much history Howard crams into this project; the Beatles’ own big screen offerings during the period, A HARD DAYS NIGHT and HELP (cash-ins on Beatlemania that became classics in their own right) are even covered properly. 

As a big Beatles fan since birth (it at least feels that way), I adored EIGHT DAYS A WEEK, and know that the bulk of Fab Four fans will completely groove on it too. I can’t speak for the non fans, but I bet they wouldn’t have read this far.

The film, which premiered last evening in my area at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh, and is now showing at many indie theaters across the country (it also premieres on Hulu on Saturday, September 17th), is augmented by a 30 minute bonus film of the complete Beatles “Live at Shea Stadium” concert. It looks and sounds great owing to its 4K restoration, and it wonderfully keeps the joyous Beatles live vibe going if the one hour and forty minutes of Howard’s doc isn’t enough for you.

As one could easily deduce from this review, EIGHT DAYS A WEEK only scratched the surface for me, but I’ll take it as it’s undeniably a powerful primer.

* For those who dont get it, Opie comes from Opie Taylor, Howard's role as a kid on ‘60s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show (where he was when Beatlemania went down), and Cunningham is from Richie Cunningham, his role on the ‘70s sitcom Happy Days (which took place in the ‘50s). Sigh, wish I didn't feel like I had to explain these things.

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