Monday, September 26, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

*** out of ****

I have no room to whine about this one: The 2016 The Magnificent Seven is a good remake of a movie I like, which was already a remake itself. When I was around twelve, my Dad rented the 1960 classic one night and it was an effective bonding experience. I remember it being one of those old movies that captivated my young and often short attention span. It helped that I had already heard Elmer Bernstein’s theme to the film on a soundtrack collection CD and thought it was such a fun piece that I needed to see the movie it was attached to.

I also remember that shortly after, my dad found Seven Samurai, the original Akira Kurosawa version of the movie at the video store and bringing it home one day. To my shame, I had no patience for it. It may have only been a year or two ago that I noticed it was among Hulu’s Criterion selections and I watched the 1954 Japanese masterpiece in awe of its… magnificence.

The story of oppressed people in a remote place seeking the help of skilled defenders has been told again and again. Even if the most famous American telling of this tale has been entered into the flawed system, which brought us an unnecessary Ghostbusters remake earlier this year, the results are simple but admirable. I had fun seeing this one.

I suppose the old west setting justifies the connection to the title, since this film, like many remakes, changes just about everything from the locations to the names of its characters. Instead of a Mexican village threatened by banditos, small American townsfolk are being forced off of their land by a snake of a mining baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who has bought-off local law enforcement, enabling him or any of his men to kill anyone who stands in their way.

After losing her husband to this monster, a young woman (Haley Bennett) sets out to find a righteous gunman who may be able to help the town find justice. When she encounters a bounty hunter (Denzel Washington) and offers everything the townsfolk have pooled, the competent fighter is motivated by their plight, especially when he learns the identity of their oppressor and knows they’re going to need more men.

From there, a good ol’ round-up act of the film dominates a fair portion of its running time. We meet a tricky wisecracking maverick (Chris Pratt), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an ex-confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), his trusted knife expert companion (Byung-hun Lee), a burly mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier). 

Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s screenplay is something of a far-fetched multi-cultural fantasy to impose in an old western setting, but it is fair to say that liberties have always been taken with this period genre to reflect values of the moment. It’s delightful to see a fictional story that brings together different varieties of Americans and director Antoine Fuqua delivers a charming caper with an epic gun battle finale that should entertain people normally resistant to westerns.

I must say that I was mostly surprised at the film’s production value. Despite how phony movies can look now due to the convenience of digital tools, the 2016 Magnificent Seven is incredibly pure in its look. Shot on 35mm film featuring wonderfully lit compositions by cinematographer Mauro Fiore, this film’s stunts, staging and editing made me feel right at home - with exception of the last two shots.

As a lover of film soundtracks who can’t get much satisfaction these days, it’s also nice to hear the final compositions of the late James Horner, who worked on this film leading up to his untimely death last year. The film’s music doesn’t aim for the joy of Bernstein’s score from the original - even if Chris Pratt’s performance does plenty to bring that spirit to the production. The original theme is subtly worked into the new music, which is more inspired by Ennio Morricone than Aaron Copland. Still, I wouldn’t have left the theater truly happy without hearing Bernstein’s music prominently played at some point. Thankfully, we get it at the end credits. Good as it is, the movie wouldn’t have worked without it being somewhere.

Blair Witch

** out of ****

In 1999 The Blair Witch Project popularized the “found footage” horror film. Seventeen years later, its new sequel, titled Blair Witch, gives us every reason to say goodbye to the subgenre for squandering its potential.

During my first year of adulthood, I remember seeing the original movie with friends. My poor little sister was denied entrance to the film with the rest of us because I did not qualify as her guardian. Remembering her disappointment left more of an impression on my memory than the movie.

Refusing my teenage sister entrance was some bull that wouldn’t have gone down if we’d seen this experimental horror movie at our local art-house theater, but they had already sold out every show at the beginning of the day! So we were seeing a fake documentary, which had been so successful marketed, that it was playing at major multiplexes all over the country like the one we went to where droves of horror-craving goofballs had been duped into seeing it along us.

This incredibly low-budget venture was a decent movie, but I remember a lot of people in the audience seeming pretty unhappy with it. Some laughter broke out in reaction to the terrified lead character, prompting an angry patron to scold the hecklers by sarcastically yelling, “Yeah! That’s real funny!” I wondered how many people in the theater had bought in to the internet-buzz claim that the footage was real and what that said about them.

The movie inspired reactions even if they were polarized in regards to the movie’s value. It was a reserved suspense experience lacking the gruesome payoff that so many people desired. I thought it showed admirable restraint leaving everything unseen to haunt your imagination. Its significance as an event film with tremendous influence was something that made its bigger budget 2000 sequel worth ignoring.

Somehow, after so much time between that summer night in 1999, the ‘Member Berries of a Hollywood studio wanting to cash-in on a familiar title in their possession, duped me into seeing the new movie with a small unresponsive audience.

As a sequel (which only acknowledges events from the first film) it’s got an admirable approach comparable to how Aliens managed to expand on everything established in Alien with bigger, louder and more devastating scenarios taking place in an environment from the original.

The plot involves the younger brother of the lead documentarian from the original, who has spent his life obsessed with the disappearance of his sister and the recovered footage that suggested a small New England town’s superstitions of a forest demon to be true.

Recruiting the help of friends working as a crew in devotion to his cause, the obsessed man sets out to explore the wooded area, guided by a couple locals who recently uncovered more video footage suggesting that his sister is still alive.

As the terror begins to ensue, the movie is just as scary as it is annoying. Setting its characters up with an arsenal of modern camera technology, as if going into a cursed forest with multi-angle coverage will make them safer, gives director Adam Wingard more freedom to shoot everything less like a legit documentary and more like a supernatural shaky-cam thriller. It is interesting that as characters are offed, the camera angles become fewer, and the footage more chaotic, but it’s never believable.

The movie still manages to get to a place halfway through, which is so genuinely terrifying, it makes me wish the movie had abandoned all the predictable jump-scares and startle tactics surrounding it. There are some nightmare-like concepts involving time displacement, gruesome body horror and a claustrophobic situation that made me squirm in my seat.

It’s fair to say that this movie delivers on its scares, but without thanks to its chosen style. Fake documentaries are supposed to give a story the opportunity to thrive on major limitations, but for nearly two decades they’ve incorporated the lazy excuses of multiple camera sources and unbelievably brave operators with top-quality lighting and sound that make you wonder why this approach was worth risking the motion sickness of moviegoers.

When leaving the theater, I only took comfort in knowing that its 2016 audience was in no way confused over the film’s authenticity. I suppose there are scarier things in the news.


***1/2 out of ****

In Clint Eastwood’s Sully we get the kind of somber tale for which this director is so well known: A unique individual struggling against the shortsighted regulations and those who represent them. In the case of this film, we get a rather strong story, and Eastwood’s tendency to study his subject spares us his typical time-wasting redundant nature and it finds an ending well short of two hours.

The film tells us the story of US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenburger, a man who in the winter of 2009 managed land a crippled plane in New York’s Hudson River saving all 155 passengers. While this act garnered Sullenberger attention as a national hero, he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles spent time defending their careers during investigative sessions held by the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to the film, the NTSB found, through repeated simulations, that Sullenberger and Skiles had opportunities to land at nearby runways, but possibly jeopardized the passengers’ lives by resorting to the water landing. Sullenberger, in the process of starting an airline safety consulting business with expert piloting background in the US Air Force must use his superior knowledge to demonstrate the factors being overlooked in the investigation and prove that he made the right choice.

Tom Hanks will always have a devoted audience, but playing this character is the kind of typecasting that might deserve groans, particularly from snarky members of my generation or younger. Hanks has always been great at playing an American hero and while he’s attempted to go back to his comic roots (Larry Crowne) or take on some very atypical projects (Cloud Atlas), the return to playing idealists with undeniable humanity in films like Captain Philips, Bridge of Spies, and now Sully demonstrate that he is only getting better at it.

It’s also an extra treat to see Aaron Eckhart in a role that seems suited for him as the loyal and durable Skiles. Laura Linney as Sullenberger’s wife, Michael Rapaport as a New York bartender, and the many actors who play the crew and passengers of the flight also give their effortlessly natural performances.

I’m still tired of Eastwood’s low-color aesthetic. I wish he’d shoot in black and white. Also, I could have done without the visions Sully has of alternate 9/11-like outcomes of his flight. The movie lets us know what the Miracle on the Hudson means to people since it involved an airliner descending on New York City. Showing sensationalistic disaster segments that don’t match the realism of the actual emergency landing in the film seem like cheap methods of juicing up the film. There are other cinematic methods useful for conveying a hero’s trauma.

Controversy surrounds the antagonistic portrayal of the NTSB in this film. While Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley and Jamey Sheridan play their board members ranging from sympathetic to prying investigators, Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay (based on Sullenberger’s book) and Eastwood’s direction show contempt for a process, which only elongated the emotional recovery for the captain and his co-pilot.

The conflict introduced by this plot element isn’t completely necessary. The malicious portrayal of the investigation may have only been a subjective interpretation of Sully's and only as real as the crash visions he has. 

The movie shows that Sullenberger and Skiles were in no mood to go through with this business on top of the press and media bombardment, but it’s fair to say that if a simulation analyzed the event incorrectly, the entire investigation served to improve simulation protocol to gage future incidents with more accuracy.

Eastwood knows his audience and no matter how he chose to look at this hopeful story of courage and quick thinking, the movie climaxes in universal gratitude for its title character. Its method of representing the emergency landing from different perspectives by flashing back to them during each act of the story is a very wise way of cinematically prolonging a harrowing event that took place in a matter of minutes.

Sully is not thoroughly excellent, but probably Eastwood’s best movie in some time and I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Innocents

***1/2 out of ****

Not to be confused with the 1961 supernatural suspense classic, the new French/Polish film, The Innocents, tells the true story of a convent in 1945 Poland where multiple nuns have found themselves bearing children after suffering the sexual assaults of Russian soldiers. The story is mainly told through the eyes of a female Red Cross doctor who secretly comes to their aid.

The French doctor’s name is Mathilde (Lou de La├óge) who has become drained after a long voluntary devotion to the relief of war-torn Poland. Despite the world’s defeat of the Nazis, there is still no relief from the cruelty of oppressive authorities and the Soviet Red Army was no exception. This is very evident, when a nun visits the doctor, begging for a discrete visit to the convent where she discovers the atrocities put upon the women, which they are reluctant to expose.

The film becomes a story of compassion that must move against the obstacles of medical-aide regulations and the notion of sin. Some of the film’s most upsetting scenes revolve around the actions inflicted by the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), who believes she is saving the nuns from their shame before God.

Director Anne Fontaine, who made the critically acclaimed Coco Before Chanel in 2009, captures this troubling historical tale with a dreary and dim atmosphere of the cold convent and village with a vast snowy woodland between the two. There are times when this aesthetic seems like an unnecessary stylization that’s becoming too common in modern dramas, but it serves its purpose.

The story is well structured and the characters never lose a sense of realism, despite their archetypical roles. The movie almost feels like an extended episode of BBC’s Call the Midwife which dares to tackle heavier themes.

While all of this is admirable, I didn’t get a sense of payoff to all the ideas it introduces. For such troubling subject matter, I’m not sure if the movie owes us the spiritual resolution one might get from a more optimistic film, but audiences can feel safe from the kind of cynical attack someone like Lars von Trier would put in a film like this.

The movie exists to tell us a lesser-known story set during a time where we like to imagine a world of triumph, but some righteous people continued to live in a world of torment. This film is worthy of our attention.