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Monday
Sep262016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Everything Old is New in the New Old West

In a recent Movie Mob video, friend and colleague Emmanuel Noisette shared his list of "Five Things Every Western Needs". Consciously or not, Eman created a note-perfect, five-minute distillation of Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven remake, delivered in one-twenty-sixth the time. This “new” film is so full of crowd-pleasing clichés that it serves as a testament to the ability of star-power, filmmaker cache, and branding to triumph over originality. Had Mag7 2016 been called Rose Creek’s Revenge; been directed by Shane Van Dyke; and starred Michael Ealy and Charlie Day instead of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, I suspect this thing would have died in development, gunned down in the proverbial empty street at high noon.

And yet…

I think you should go see it. I rarely recommend films that take no chances, have said everything that their particular genre has said (and said better), and that exist solely to cash in on a name that, among the majority of today’s moviegoing audience, elicits only the faintest of bell rings.* In this case, Fuqua seasons his tried-and-true Western-movie comfort food with a dynamic cast and some truly exciting visuals, which, for just a moment or two, might trick you into thinking you’re eating a gourmet treat.

The new version’s screenplay (by writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, and based on Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni’s script for The Seven Samurai) differs from the 1960 film in a few key ways. But the heart of the story is pure gang-of-rebels-fighting-their-way-out-of-a-small-town goodness (which, admittedly, I’m a sucker for). Haley Bennett stars as Emma Cullen, whose beloved town of Rose Creek has been targeted for economic demolition by nefarious land magnate Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). After Bogue and his men set fire to the local church and kill a few key citizens to make sure everyone knows they mean business, Emma takes up a collection to hire the baddest mercenaries money can buy.

She meets a bounty hunter named Chisolm (Washington), who has a run-in with snarky gunslinger/amateur magician Josh Faraday (Pratt), who in turn helps recruit the rest of the titular band of in-it-for-the-money warriors destined to help Rose Creek stand up to Bogue’s bullies and reclaim their land in a bloody, climactic shoot-out. Pratt is the key to this whole film; not his character, but the actor himself. Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is less an adaptation of a Western than a re-skinned version of Guardians of the Galaxy,** crossed with a self-serious version of Blazing Saddles (I half-expected to see Bogue look up “landsnatching” in the dictionary).

It took a few scenes to shake the feeling that Pratt was just doing “Old West Star Lord”, but Fuqua and the writers put their stamp on the archetype, making Faraday into a charismatic but stone-cold killer. The rest of the gang follow suit, from the rogue-ish façade of ex-Confederate officer Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) to the selectively religious protestations of man-bear Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Seven reveal characteristics about themselves that don’t quite sync with surface assessments (another genre trope that is multiplied, rather than turned on its head).

Perhaps because the filmmakers knew they weren’t headed into original territory, they felt comfortable just letting us hang out with these colorful characters. The found-family paradigm is one of Mag7’s selling points; audiences aren’t meant to get caught up in the specifics of Bogue’s land grab any more than they are the mechanics of Ronan the Accuser’s (poor) plan for galactic domination, or the (indistinguishable) Fast & Furious villains’ (equally poor) schemes for stealing cars/money/drugs/data.

The other selling point is the fact that you can feel The Magnificent Seven as tactile entertainment. The sets, costumes, and locations are as authentic and lavish as a studio-backed blockbuster might make them. If there’s any CGI here, I couldn’t spot it, and that includes the spectacular explosions, stabbings, shootings, and Gatling gun havoc that Bogue and his men wreak on Rose Creek at the end.

That’s only a spoiler if you haven’t seen Django or The Wild Bunch. In the latter film, though, Sam Peckinpah used heavy artillery as a metaphor for the new age wiping out the Old West; here, it shows up because it was used in other Westerns. If you’re looking for a weighty Fall film that comments on modern society by reflecting on a primitive one, you won’t find it in Mag7. You will find a saddlebag full of wholly satisfying, empty intellectual calories that is fun (and surprisingly touching) while it lasts—which is more than I can say for ninety percent of the movies that preceded this movie in 2016’s dreary, whizz-bang-whatever summer season.

*This is pure speculation on my part, but I’d wager those who know about 1960’s The Magnificent Seven have no interest in seeing a mega-watt, glossy do-over—unless the studio or the press could give some assurance that this new incarnation is A) necessary, B) faithful, or C) superior. None of these is the case, which means the target audience for Mag7 is between 18 and 34, and assumes the term “cinephile” has something to do with child pornography.

**Which also starred Pratt as a snarky mercenary headlining a group of misfits on a mission, and also heavily lifted from another source—namely 1977’s Star Wars, which was itself inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The circle is, indeed, complete.

Thursday
Sep222016

Johnny Guitar (1954)

The Hateful Greatness

If you're a relative newcomer to Westerns (as am I), no one would blame you for walking right past a 50s movie called Johnny Guitar. It sounds like a lame singing-cowboy flick, and the poster art's impossibly vivid Sunday-funnies coloring doesn't exactly scream "cool". But spend five minutes with Nicholas Ray's ultra-violent, ultra-feminist, ultra-'mazing genre experiment, and you'll be roped into a hypnotic vortex of positively rapturous cinema.

Yep, that language is as florid and pretentious as it gets (as is the word "florid"). But there's simply no overstating the power of Joan Crawford navigating a love pentagram* while outwitting a town of hypocritical Puritans, led by one of the most blood-chillingly evil characters I've ever seen on film. Last year, Quentin Tarantino tripped over himself trying to deliver a button-smashing commentary on frontier justice, marked by cruelty-as-gender-equality (or something). Johnny Guitar accomplishes a hundred percent more than The Hateful Eight, with a third less run-time and an eightieth less bloodshed.

The film opens with a deadly stagecoach robbery, followed by a convergence of all the major players in Vienna's, an elegant but empty casino/saloon on the outskirts of a small New Mexico town. First comes Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a mysterious traveling musician who witnessed the robbery from afar. Next is the mob of angry townsfolk, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), whose brother was killed in the hold-up. Emma suspects that one of Vienna's many unscrupulous lovers, The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), committed the crime. Moments later, the Kid and his gang bust into the saloon to escape the dust storm wreaking havoc outside.

Vienna refuses to let anyone leave her place with a noose around their neck, especially without any proof of wrongdoing. The local lawmen have to practically drag the bloodthirsty Emma away, but not before she vows to kill Vienna for protecting her brother's killer (and, apparently, for years of sordid history that the movie only hints at). We soon learn that Vienna and Johnny Guitar have their own complicated past, that The Dancin' Kid doesn't care too much for playing second fiddle, and that nearly every man in town is reluctant to bring Vienna down because, well...there's a lot that's implied.

To give the rest of the plot away is unfair. Suffice it to say, the situation gets twistier by the scene. Philip Yordan and an uncredited Nicholas Ray (working from Roy Chanslor's novel) establish a few key flashpoints that their characters react to in poor but understandable ways. Johnny Guitar is like a Rube Goldberg machine of misunderstandings and desperation that can't be paused or re-set--even though the audience (and, to a large extent, the characters) know that everyone would make better, more rational decisions, if only they'd allow themselves a moment to cool down. There's a lot of Tarantino in Johnny Guitar and, I suspect, a lot of Johnny Guitar in most of Tarantino's works. Sure, the creator of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Hateful Eight never claimed to have invented robberies-gone-wrong; double- and triple-crosses; poetic, tough-guy dialogue; and violent, climactic set pieces--but watching Johnny Guitar was a personal revelation, an awakening to the fact that Nicholas Ray had one-upped Tarantino forty years earlier, and with a pair of whip-smart, fiery female leads to boot.

Yes, the movie is named after Sterling Hayden’s character, and it’s lousy with gruff, swingin’ dicks, but Johnny Guitar belongs to the women. Whatever rage fuels Emma’s vendetta against Vienna, its angry pulse energizes every scene and reduces the men to clumsy, passion-blind cat toys. I have never been so terrified by a non-supernaturally-possessed character than I was of Emma Small. McCambridge, who, particularly in the last half of the film, when she’s dressed all in black and embracing the bonfire she’s set in the middle of Vienna’s saloon, looks like Anna Kendrick by way of Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz. There’s a certain cowardice to Emma’s mania that makes her uncontrollable rage so much more frightening, as if her annoyance at upholding the mask of civility has spurred on even darker degrees of sadism.

Then we have Vienna. It’s not hard to see why a town full of men (straight-laced and crooked alike) would fall for the sassy saloon owner who’s not afraid to use guns and sexuality to build an empire in exile. With her slim frame, short-cut hair, and penchant for wearing masculine clothes, Crawford exudes something resembling androgyny that swings a bit too far over the line in each direction to be outright labeled as such. Vienna is subtly tender but mostly caustic, and her saloon is a manifestation of society’s compartmentalized guilt, the place men secret away to on Friday and pray about on Sunday. It is only by virtue of a far more aggressively powerful temptress that Vienna loses her tenuous social footing.

A bit more on that idea of Vienna’s as a den of physical and spiritual temptation: the saloon is built into a mountainside, and the interior wood walls bleed into blazing red rock. Virtue evaporates here, and Ray underscores the saloon as a portal to moral collapse midway through the film, when the townspeople (all dressed in black) conduct a hasty trial of Vienna (dressed all in white) and one of The Dancin’ Kid’s injured posse. This tense and truly wicked display of mob justice is absolutely terrifying, thanks in part to the performances, and in part to Ray's operatic, otherworldly visuals.

In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino relied on sustained abuse to Jennifer Jason Leigh's face and casual use of the "N" word to sell audiences on the boldness and inherent danger of his film. Contrast that with Nicholas Ray, who uses up-close violence sparingly, so that when we see a main character take a bullet right between the eyes, the shock registers in our hearts as well as on the actor's face. Just as Johnny Guitar isn't really about Johnny Guitar, Ray's film isn't about reveling in morbidity, even though it has one of the blackest hearts of any Western you'll ever see.

*Too many points of connection for a run-of-the-mill love triangle. Plus, every character involed is likely going to Hell.

Tuesday
Sep202016

High Noon (1952)

Love It and Leave It

When asked about his Academy-Award winning performance as beleaguered lawman Will Kane in 1952's High Noon, Gary Cooper gave most of the credit to stomach ulcers. The role called for Kane to stand alone against a town of ungrateful and dubiously scrupulous citizens, who see his arch-nemesis’ return from prison as maybe not such a bad thing. At every moment, Cooper's face conveys the dual pangs of human discomfort and fictitious existential dread roiling around his innards.

It is perhaps one of cinema’s greatest ironies that, when Cooper was unable to attend the 1953 Oscars, John Wayne accepted the award for him. Wayne would later call High Noon the “most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life,” thanks in large part to Cooper’s portrayal of a wishy-washy marshal in a town full of cowards. Hard to believe The Duke could be such a dunderhead.

Director Fred Zinnemann's real-time Western held an unflattering mirror up to a nation that, ironically, loved what it saw. High Noon was a massive hit with critics and audiences, even though it delivered a scathing critique of the climate of fear and conspiracy gripping America at the time. This was the early 50's, remember, when Washington was still keen on sending down un-Constitutional monstrosities from on high, with names like "blacklist" and "The House Un-American Activities Committee" (HUAC).

Back to those ulcers. We meet Kane at his wedding to a lovely young Quaker named Amy (Grace Kelly). Even through the film's black-and-white filter, I could tell Will looked a little green. For him, marriage represents the beginning of one life and the end of another: shortly after the ceremony, he and Amy are supposed to hop onto their carriage and ride away from the guns, booze, and gossip of “civilized” living, toward the non-aggressive simplicity of Quakerism.

Meanwhile, a trio of criminals passes through town and settles in at the train depot. Their leader, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is scheduled to arrive in seventy minutes, at which point the four horsemen will seek out and kill the marshal that sent Miller away five years ago. Word spreads quickly, and the townsfolk urge Kane to take Amy and run. As you can imagine, Kane ultimately decides to stick around and posse up as many deputized guns as he can. Surely, he thinks, a miniscule threat can’t withstand the righteous fury of an entire town united!

One slight problem with this brilliant plan: No one will take up the cause. As the clock ticks closer to noon, Kane meets with just about every able-bodied person in town, from the gang who helped him bring Miller down a half-decade ago to the angry church mob who sees Kane’s righteous stance as an act of selfishness that might get everyone killed. Kane’s former deputy (Lloyd Bridges) is pissed at having been passed over for the marshal’s job. Kane’s ex-lover and local saloon manager (Katy Jurado) abruptly liquidates her stake in the town and makes plans to leave on the same train Miller’s arriving on. Even Amy turns her back on her newly minted husband, outraged at his inability to leave violence behind.

By making their film a real-time thriller, Zinnemann and writer Carl Foreman illustrate just how quickly a society’s values can crumble in the face of nonspecific threats. Once the clock starts ticking towards mid-day, High Noon becomes a documentary of devolution; we watch in horror as the once-happy community splinters, then rationalizes, then turns downright venomous toward the one man who wants to protect himself, his family, and his town from the real threat to their values: complacency.

Yes, it would have been so much easier to inform Miller that his quarry had left town, and to take the chance that he and his gang wouldn’t tear up the place—or take root in it, as they had before Kane showed up all those years ago. Their memory of what Frank Miller was has softened with time, replaced by a desire to relive the fun parts of lawlessness that they’ve since romanticized. Kane is the conscience that the town espouses itself as having, but which is quickly ignored at the first sign of trouble.

Instead of spoiling High Noon’s climax, I’d like to share a little more history about the making of the film, which offers some eerie parallels. Producer Stanley Kramer and writer Carl Foreman were not just producing partners, but also army buddies. When Foreman, a self-identified member of the Communist Party, was called to testify before the HUAC, he refused to give up the names of other suspected Hollywood Communists (unlike the aforementioned great American Hero, John Wayne). Foreman was blacklisted; bought out of his partnership by Kramer, who didn’t want the hassle or bad publicity; and forced to move his family to England to escape federal prosecution.

It’s comforting to think of High Noon as “just a really great Western” (it is), or the Red Scare as “just a really dark period in our history” (it was), but Zinnemann’s film is as timely today as it was sixty-four years ago. Particularly in this political season, heightened by the angry din of media voices and imperfect candidates, it’s often hard to know what to think or where to stand, and with whom. The sad lesson of High Noon is that sometimes the only right answer is to go it alone, to head for the figurative (or perhaps even literal) mountains. Sure, there’ll be cries of “Coward!” or “Traitor!”, but they’ll eventually give way to screams, then wailing, then silence as whatever is left of so-called civility devours itself in the desert.

Saturday
Sep172016

Max Rose (2016)

Bloom My Mind

Sometimes even film critics get under film critics' nerves. Case in point: twice in as many weeks, I made the mistake of looking up a film's Rotten Tomatoes score before deciding whether or not to watch it.* As you might imagine, holding down a family, a day job, and a nearly-full-time reviewing slate means my days are scheduled down to the post-lunch piss break. So when someone emails me with, "Hey, we'd love any coverage you might provide on _____!", I have to be very selective about what I nudge off the plate to make room for the unknown.

A few weeks back, I took a chance on The Sea of Trees, despite its 8% approval rating among RT's "Top Critics", and Nico Lang's ghoulishly brutal review in Salon, which claimed Gus Van Sant's latest has the "worst movie ending of all time". That's a serious charge, especially when bundled with accusations of cultural insensitivity on the part of the filmmakers and a scathing dig at the score. After watching the film, I arrived at two conclusions:

1. Nico Lang is full of shit. I give him points for apparently believing his own nonsense, but that doesn't mean I have to. Just because a Japanese character (who happens to be a ghost whose very existence is a metaphor) says his daughter's name is "Yellow", doesn't mean the filmmakers are guilty of "accidental racism".

2. I may not be cut out for film criticism. You'd think I'd have this whole thing figured out after seven years, but I still find myself baffled at how consistently I fail to align with my peers' consensus. What confluence of life experience and bad wiring has made me, legitimately, "The Last Guy Anyone Asks"? I don't know, but it's getting to be a bit much.

Which brings us, at last, to Max Rose. This one has a significantly higher Tomatometer score than The Sea of Trees, but 30% is still a far cry from good. The reviews I skimmed used words like "saccharine" and "contrived" to describe writer/director Daniel Noah's drama, but I couldn't resist seeing Jerry Lewis return to movies after being absent for over two decades. As I'm sure you've guessed, I really enjoyed the film, and once again find myself in the awkward position of defending something that apparently everyone hates.

Max Rose is the very definition of a "showcase", reminding audiences that the ninety-year-old Hollywood legend not only still "has it", but that we haven't seen nearly enough of "it" in recent years. For much of the film, I was, frankly, concerned that Noah had simply placed a camera in front of Lewis and directed him to be old, cranky, and trembly. But as the story sauntered from convention to introspection, I began to appreciate the measured layers of the actor's performance.

Lewis plays Max, an eighty-something jazz pianist who has just lost his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom), of sixty-five years. Before she died, he discovered a message engraved in her makeup compact: a note from a possible lover, dated more than fifty years ago. Max had already been depressed about a career that never took off and a strained relationship with the son he never connected with (Christopher, played by Kevin Pollak), but now even the rock-steady love of his life has become shrouded in doubt.

Max's granddaughter, Annie (Kerry Bishé), provides some much-needed company, even as she struggles with her own relationship issues. Her positive influence does little to soften Max's petty, irrational behavior, and Max soon finds himself living in a senior community, surrounded by much older people who've seemingly mastered (to his chagrin) the art of contentment. After having finally pushed away everyone and everything he's ever held dear, Max is left with no choice but to confront what he believes to be the source of his troubles.

Without giving too much away, the film's climax centers on a late-night chat between Max and Ben Tracey (Dean Stockwell), the man he believes stole his wife's heart five decades earlier. In Max Rose's meatiest ten minutes, Daniel Noah presents us with an epic battle for two men's souls; Rose and Tracey are deeply hurt people who have allowed jealousy and self-sabotage ruin the best things in their lives. This scene has a striking film-noir quality--driven partially by the actors, who seem beamed in from another era, and partially by the setting: an old-world-wealthy bedroom that could have belonged to Charles Foster Kane.

Noah's script is light on plot and more dependent on convenience than some might prefer, but the last fifteen minutes of Max Rose are some of the most honest and unexpected I've seen all year--full of the kind of unglamorous Big Life Stuff that mainstream films often can't be bothered to tackle in any honest way. In presenting us with a battle for the souls of two deeply hurt people, Noah reminds us of the everyday gifts we so often overlook because our eyes are fixed on some distant, elusive, and ultimately illusory prize.

So, yes, maybe it's time for me to stop worrying about how my opinions align with those of other critics. They didn't watch this movie or The Sea of Trees with my brain (and certainly not with my heart). In all its corny, saccharine, and contrived glory, Max Rose is a personal and moving film about acceptance, closure, and self-forgiveness. And it's definitely worth making space for on your plate.

*Yes, I check the Tomatometer. No, it's not pointless.

Thursday
Sep152016

Blair Witch (2016)

Forest Ire

Blair Witch is spoiler-proof. It contains not one original or authentic moment, not one "twist" or character arc that its target audience won't have seen in The Blair Witch Project, or in the dozens of knock-offs it inspired. Most distressing of all, the scares depend entirely on the volume at which one watches the movie. Horror's found-footage sub-genre is on its last legs, and instead of giving audiences a reason to show up for more, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett hobble the flailing, wailing, pathetic beast before our very eyes. There's literally nothing to see here. Move along.

Unlike 2000's rushed sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the new movie dispenses with the meta-narrative of Blair Witch Project fans venturing into the Maryland woods. Blair Witch is a conventional follow-up to the 1999 sleeper hit, and finds the Heather Donahue character's younger brother, James (James Allen McCune) retracing his missing sibling's steps with another crew of amateur filmmakers. Armed with ear-mounted cameras, LED perimeter sensors, a drone, and absolutely no concern that they might actually encounter something in the legendary haunted forest, James and his polished, bitchy Dead Meat friends go camping--but they don't go camping...alone! DUN-DUN-DUN!

Or should I say, "Dumb, Dumb, Dumb"?

Blair Witch is the definition of marketing-driven filmmaking. Were it not for the brand-name recognition; Wingard and Barrett's cred in the horror community; and a clever unveiling at Comic-Con,* this movie would have been forgotten two minutes after crash-landing at Redbox. The story beats are a mash-up of The Blair Witch Project and Book of Shadows, down to the filmmakers separating into rival camps; discovering eerie artifacts ("Now with MORE rock piles and BIGGER stick-men!!!!!"); and walking in circles. The mysterious witch house springs up at precisely the same point as it did in the original, and the two hapless survivors barge into it, screaming like idiots.

Wingard and Barrett's "new" story contributions include a girl whose foot becomes infected with an otherworldly worm;** another character getting attacked by angry, growling trees; and an "homage" to the circular-purgatory twist of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which you won't need a drone to see coming. Say what you want about Joe Berlinger's ill-conceived Book of Shadows, that film had a point of view, a voice that took on the daunting chore of pushing an already somewhat novel idea in an even more novel direction. Blair Witch offers no evidence that Wingard and Barrett even have a voice beyond that of a parrot--one that sits atop a multi-million-dollar, studio-constructed perch, far above such pedestrian concerns as justifying its existence.

If you want a solid (and far more affordable) thrill this weekend, rent Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek. It's a found-footage movie about two would-be YouTube stars looking for Bigfoot, and it's made by someone who can't stand the sub-genre's dull clichés. Like The Blair Witch Project, this smart, creepy (and occasionally funny) film understands that an hour-and-a-half of jump scares and frantic POV whip-pans around a moldy haunted-house is not inherently scary. It's just artifice in search of emotion. 

*An audience who thought they'd showed up for a movie called The Woods was surprised to learn that Wingard's latest was a new Blair Witch sequel. Cue the hype. Having now seen the film, I'm convinced that the positive buzz coming out of San Diego had everything to do with the high of being first--as close to, I'd wager, the bragging-rights euphoria felt by early Blair Witch Project audiences in '99, before the world at large knew it wasn't a documentary.

**If you take a shot every time the filmmakers sacrifice scares for squirms by depicting the wrapping and unwrapping of bloody wounds, you'll be drunk halfway through Blair Witch (not a bad idea, regardless).