All Stand Together Pt 5 (The Magnificent Seven, 2016)

Magnificant_Seven_2016While there had been a two season TV series in the late 90’s, the Seven Samurai inspired franchise had remained quiet. Certainly, plenty of films have used the “group of gunslingers or outlaws step up to help people in need.  It is one of the most popular western motifs.  But it took until 2016 for it to come back to life.

Set in 1879, Tycoon Bartholomew Bogue has overtaken the town of Rose Creek.  He owns the Sheriff and has had his men deputized. Forcing the people into labor, they are living in misery.  After he has some of the towns people killed to “lay down the law”, they seek the help of Sam Chisolm, a U.S. Marshall.  Chisolm starts recruiting people, starting with gambler Joshua Faraday, who is trying to get his horse back, but lacks funds. As they work their way back, they reach out to various individuals…a Mexican Outlaw named Vasquez, an old trapper named Jack Home.  He also brings in former Confederate officer named Goodnight Robicheaux and his partner Billy Rocks. Finally, they bring in exiled Comanche Warrior Red Harvest.

This film has a very conscious eye towards diversity.  Billy Rocks is a Korean immigrant skilled both with knives and guns.  Chisolm is a black man. And even the Confederate is explicitly portrayed as “not the racist kind”.  He clearly has a longstanding friendship with Chisolm and his relationship with Rocks is an equal partnership.

But this works in the favor of the film.  These characters all come from desperately different backgrounds, but come together to form a solid unit that trusts each other.  I found myself genuinely liking these characters.  Granted, a certain amount of this is due specifically to the cast.  Denzel Washington tends to bring a sense of authority to every role.  Chris Pratt of course has a likeable sweet boyishness that tends to run through his roles. Byung-Hun Lee is just kind of a dashing hero type.  You can always depend on D’Onofrio and Hawke to deliver terrific character performances.

And Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue? He is a clear cut, unambiguous bad guy. He does not even see himself as the hero of his story.  He just believes in “might makes right”.  When we are introduced to him, he steps into a church and shows no sense of respect for the faith of the parishioners.

Overall, this film is quite exiting and smartly chose to create an entirely new set of “Seven”.  It is also a bit darker and grittier.  That is not to say it is not fun, it definitely has it’s moments of levity.  I feel like the addition of a revenge element for one of the Seven was unnecessary, and even kind of undermines the idea of the willingness of these guys to sacrifice themselves for the town.

But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter and the Equalizer) delivers a pretty solid energetic modern western with the Magnificent Seven.

Future Love Pt 2 (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, 2017)

Valerian_PosterDirector of the Fifth Element, Luc Besson, returns to Science Fiction with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  Based on the french comics Valerian and Laureline, this is a visual science fiction feast.  An early sequence indulges in a beautiful ocean planet that seems to be just ocean and beaches.  The alien species are tall slender humanoids of grace and beauty. But it is disrupted by falling ships, which incinerate the planet.  We are then introduced to Major Valarian and Sergeant Laureline, who seem to be enjoying a pleasant day at the beach.  This is revealed to be a hologram, and they are actually on their way to a special covert mission.  And so begins the continuous roller coaster of a story.

Valerian is a playboy special agent, a space James Bond if you will.  He is trying to pursue romance with Laureline, who repeatedly shoots down his attempts…mainly on the grounds of his apparent commitment issues.  As they go from adventure to adventure, taking risk upon risk, they eventually find themselves uncovering a deep governmental cover-up.

The action scenes are many and exciting.  The film is vibrant and colorful, filled with exotic creatures and life forms.  Besson indulges fanciful aliens and hungry beasts.  But at the core, what matters to this story is love.  Love plays a huge part of the resolution.  Not just romantic love, but a larger love based in trust and faith.

And yet?  The film is a bit of a disappointment.  The story comes second to the amazing visuals, the barest of plots to justify the beauty of a distant future filled with wonder and threat.

While the film desires to feel like it is about something exciting and big, the characters are light and barely caricatures.  Valerian is the rakish rogue with a good heart.  Laureline the smart and capable better half.  This leads to characters filling in by the numbers stereotypes. The Commander seeking to hide a dark secret.  The unknowing Defense Minister who must help uncover the secret, unaware of the danger this puts him in.  And so on and so on.  There are no surprises to the story.

Valarian and the City of a Thousand Planets is satisfying only in it’s visual aesthetic, not it’s story.

Sinister Times (Sinister, 2012)

Last year, a movie called Insidious was released.  Director Scott Derrickson saw that and set about discussing ideas with the guys who produced Insidious.  What Derrickson and his team have produced is Sinister.  What exactly is it?

Ethan Hawke is Ellison, a real crime writer who  hit it big with his first novel (partially because it helped expose shoddy police work and free an innocent man) but has seen decline in the years that followed.  This is hot home in that the only book people ask him to sign in the film is that first book.  He believes that if he can just find that one story for a new book…he can return to that former glory.

To this end, he moves his family into a home where the previous family was murdered and one of the children disappeared.  Ellison hopes to crack the mystery, maybe even help find out what became of the missing child.  To make this possible, he moves his family into the very home where the previous family was killed.  When setting up his office, he goes into the attic, and discovers an old box marked Home Movies.

In the box, Ellison finds a set of super eight films and a projector.  This discovery sets in motion a series of events that leads to a most inevitable ending.  As he watches each film and starts to research what he sees, he finds the story growing and growing into something…terrifying.

As thrillers and horror films go, Sinister is a strong story.  It uses some risky devices, and in a lot of hands, this might have become a Hostel style gore-fest.  Instead, Derrickson will often shy from graphic violence in favor of unnerving the viewer.  In one scene, we are focused on Hawke- causing the screen behind him to be blurry-we know what’s happening, but Hawke’s horror is telling us what we need to know.  And another nicely shot reflects a portion of the screen in Ellison’s glasses.  The film quickly will cut away from possible gore, yet not hide from the horror.

The audio of the film really absorbs the viewer.  It is hard to tell where sound effects and musical queues are ending or beginning.  Music will be punctuated with a sound that relates to the (silent) super 8 image (such as a lawn mower).  You will hear woven into the music the sound of the super 8 projector.  The sound department and composer Christopher Young provide support to Derrickson’s story that pull you inside the story.  There are musical moments still worming through and haunting my brain.

Derrickson, his cinematographer Chris Norr and film editor Frédéric Thoraval create an incredibly strong visual sense.  The repeated choppy shots of Hawke splicing film or threading film through the projector creates a frenetic sense of urgency and he works his way through each horrifying film reel.  There is a wonderful shot of Hawke falling asleep on his couch and the scene going from night to day.

Throughout the film, Hawke’s Ellison talks about his legacy, his desire to have one more shot.  His wife struggles to reach through that to get him to see his family should be his center.  The problem is, he thinks that is exactly what is driving his desire to break down the wall of success.  It’s for his family.  We get to see footage of a younger Ellison being interviewed where he argues bringing justice trumps any feelings of fame and the importance of family over fortunes…we see he has lost his way these things…or maybe he never believed them in his heart.

Along with Ellison’s struggles between the hope of fame and his family, there are metaphysical questions regarding spiritual things, media and how it changes the nature of human kind.

In light of the various themes, the film’s final spoken line is both tragic, chilling and apropos.

Sinister is a powerful experience.  Along with the visuals and audio, Hawke is compelling in his role as a man unraveling.  He is grasping for a hand to grab hold of, but he’s being dragged further into a despairing abyss.  I would have to say this is probably the best serious horror experience I have had this year.

Also, a movie monster that is a snappy dresser.  Love those.

Growing Up In the Movies Is Kinda Dull (Boyhood, 2014)

Boyhood_posterI happened to see the Golden Globes Best Picture Drama winner Boyhood this weekend.  While it was a nominee of course.

The film has a neat gimmick, it was filmed across a twelve year span.  The young boy at the film’s start is the same college age actor we see at the end.  The same goes for his sister and friends.  So, as the characters age, they are not suddenly a new actor every few scenes.  It is a nifty gimmick on it’s face.  The acting is strong in the film.  I went in very much looking forward to the film, as it seems to garner praise and love from everyone who sees it.

Well, except, apparently me.

Richard Linklater’s ode to boys becoming young men is…well, kind of dull and aimless.  Young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lacks any sense of personality or spark.  He feels aimless at the start of the film and feels entirely aimless at the end of the film.  His parents grow and change, but in an ambiguous fashion.  We see the father (Ethan Hawke) living in a run down apartment with a musician friend, and the next time we see him he is married with a new baby.  His mother (Patricia Arquette) survives an abusive relationship, valiantly fighting to protect her children…then needs her boyfriend to remind her it is her son’s birthday.

But Mason…well, we never, ever get a sense of his hopes and dreams.  In fact, the film offers no indication that he has them.  We only see him take an interest in photography later in the film.  And yeah, it hints that he has a real gift for it.  But the film gives no connection to this being a true passion for him.  Because Mason comes across and completely uninterested in anything.  As a viewer, we are given this unformed character.  And maybe his lack of drive was intentional…but frankly, it just reads as dull for me.

It does not help that the film makes the passage of time unclear.  One of Mason’s step parents just vanishes from the story after a fight.  No indication as to when or why he is gone, he just is.  Linklater clearly meant for things like music to help define the passage of time as the songs use tend to be from the general years the story is happening.

Truthfully, if you took the gimmick away.  If this had been filmed during a three month period a year or so back with different actors playing Mason at the various stages of his life?  I cannot see the film garnering half the praise it does.  It feels like every scene was created on the fly, like Linklater was relying on the actors to overcome the lack of anything resembling a story.  In many cases, it is not even the most interesting points of Mason’s life.

I am a bit amazed how people are connecting with this one when Mason is such an empty character on screen.  He has no drive, no passions, no hopes…he just is there.  What is there to connect to?

It has brief moments…there were times I laughed.  And times I felt something akin to caring.  But it was never brought about by Mason, who is the focus of the film.  It was always because of characters outside of him.  This is not because I thought Ellar Coltrane was a bad actor…I just found Linklater imbued the character with nothing for Coltrane to connect with.  So he shrugs his way through the story.

What kills me is I love the behind the scenes aspect.  The idea that the film took twelve years to make and Mason is played by the same actor all the way through?  Very interesting.  But that does not make the actual result, the actual movie itself, interesting.

He’s Gonna Be So Mad(Sinister 2, 2015)

sinister_2_posterA couple things.

Firstly, I really liked Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s 2012 Sinister.  It was eerie and ended strongly (with real tragedy).  It was a challenge to the pursuit of selfish glory and especially at the expense of the needs of your loved ones.

Secondly, I have been spelling Bughuul wrong for the past three years.  I am so embarrassed.

Sinister 2 appears to pick up a couple years after the original film.  Deputy So & So (James Ransone) is now Ex-Deputy So & So (EDS&S from here on out).  He is actively working to stop the spread of Bughuul’s evil, though he clearly is missing some of the information that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio) discovered in the first film.  Conveniently for the story, Jonas is now missing.

sinister-2-edsoandsoEDS&S has tracked the last Bughuul styled murder (all cases feature a horribly murdered family, a missing child and mysterious painted symbols) to a remote farmhouse with an old church.  He goes to burn it down before anyone else can move in and continue the cycle.  But he arrives to late and discovers there is a mother (Shannyn Sossamon) hiding with her two young sons Dylan and Zach.  She is trying to keep her sons from the hands of her abusive husband,  Unfortunately, Bughuul has reached out to her quiet and youngest (Dylan, played with gentleness by Robert Daniel Sloan).

The film has amped up the presence of the ghost children.  In the first film, they quietly haunted Ellison, but we did not see them speaking much.  Here they are very talkative, mostly appearing only to the young boys until the end when they become active poltergeists.

sinister_2_kids_2It also has changed the film projector from the first film a bit, inexplicably adding  a turntable to play creepy music as the boys watch the films.  The creepy snuff films are back.  While the audience knows Bughuul’s goals and the way he works, EDS&S has to figure it out all over again, which includes a ham radio.  I appreciate the attempt to show how Bughuul has used various forms of media (both films show an idea that art and mediums used for art allow him to move through the world)…but the first film suggested that Bughuul now was released into the internet.  It is a bit of a shame that this was not really followed up on.

Honestly, the focus on EDS&S trying to figure out how Bughuul does it slows things down.  The film does have some well done moments.  EDS&S has a good connection with Dylan.  And the idea that Dylan has a history of abuse becomes interesting as you see Bughuul’s ghost children try and use that to fire up a desire for cruelty.  When one of the children mention his mother, Dylan snaps back that his mother did not do anything.  The Ghost child coldly replies, “Exactly.”

sinister_2_dylanThere is a nice twist.  And the film tries a very different ending, but it does not work on multiple levels.  Parts convenience (getting certain characters out of the way) and parts troubling (making the central villain to take out a young boy is fairly problematic).  It is hard to root for EDS&S to aggressively stop a child with physical violence (especially when you have involved themes of child and spousal abuse into the story).  The creators kind of wrote themselves in a corner and are left finding another way to end the villainous kid while avoid having EDS&S be a killer of children.

The film has a final “horror movie” moment that felt like the creators were at a loss of how to end it and wanted a scare.  So they repeat the same gag from the first film.

I feel Sinister 2 is better than some critics have said, but it still fails to deliver on what we got from it’s predecessor.


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