Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

The Quick of It -

I heard a snidbit of an interview that discussed the birth, or should I say rebirth, of this film.  Antoine Fuqua was challenged by one of the producers with the very real question, “Who will play the Yul Brynner role?”  I believe, to paraphrase and probably butcher his reply, “I wonder what Denzel Washington would look like in a black hat?”  This could all be just speculative conversation during the initial talks, but you can’t help but believe this must have been said at least once.

The answer to that question is clear after Denzel’s first few minutes on screen, and it is ‘magnificent’.  I am such a fan-boy for this guy.  I have heard tales of his professionalism when it comes to making a movie, beyond the actor’s contribution to a project.  His wisdom has probably saved more projects than we will ever know.  After seeing him in action all these years, you know that there can be no doubt of his ‘it’ factor.  And he is all that and a bag of chips here.

Let me put it another way.  I have this horrible opinion about running around conventions trying to grab autographs and taking pics with celebrities is the most absurd thing.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand to a point why people do this.  But, really?  These actors could care less who you are and they are not the actual characters you fell in love with.  And the ‘fees’…?  Again… absurd.  It should be their work as a whole that makes you excited to see them, not the part they play in a popular show.  For me, Denzel is one I would chase through maddening halls, filled with cosplay crazies and hygienicly deficient people, and willing to pay those exorbitant fees.

So, the movie…

Director Antoine Fuqua (of TRAINGING DAY, SHOOTER, THE EQUALIZER, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, BAIT, SHOWPAW) has a track record with Denzel and together; they have the ability to pull a masterful project together.  So when challenged to remake a high profile classic, there is no doubt they do so with resounding authority.  The story is a little choppy in parts and seemed partially rushed when gathering the forces, but THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN far exceeds this year’s other remakes (please reference GHOSTBUSTERS and BEN-HUR) and does live up to the hype.  The acting is exceptional from all involved, which helped to define the uniqueness of each character.  The setting was not as gritty as I would envision an authentic western should be.  There was a clean presentation to the scenes and people… if you know what I mean (please reference the hygienicly deficient people).    I call it the ‘CSI Miami syndrome’.  This is where you have sets super tidy and looking like a shiny nickel – such as shipping containers on a large dock not having one speck of rust.

One standout was Peter Sarsgaard (of JARHEAD, ORPHAN, GRREN LANTERN, BLACK MASS), playing the notorious bad guy Bartholomew Bogue.  He carries himself in such a way that you take notice of him even when around these other highly recognizable actors.  The tension scene that launches this revenge flick was fantastically executed and made you want to see his demise.  Also, Haley Bennett (of THE EQUALIZER, HARDCORE HENRY, MARLEY & ME), playing the lead female, continues the empowered woman trend, but does so subtly, as not to feel preachy.  Her part may have been diminished with so much screen time needed for other characters, but she was the linchpin and held her own.  If she had failed to make you sympathize, everything would have unraveled by the end. 

Remakes are always a risky venture, even now when studios and directors should have a greater understanding of what makes a film successful.  With Fuqua at the helm and the amazing cast, was there ever any question of its success?

Grade: B+

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

“Blu-ray or Bust” - THE CONJURING 2

“Blu-ray or Bust”
THE CONJURING 2 (R, 2016, 134 minutes, NEW LINE CINEMA)

You have to admire someone that wants to scare the Sweet Baby de Hey-Zeus outta you.  Really; all those people walking around amusement parks this time of year, dressed up to look like zombies, vampires, and mother-in-laws.  They all have my admiration.

With 2013’s THE CONJURING, we were introduced to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), two honest-to-goodness real-life paranormal investigators.  If something spooky happened anywhere, they were there to save the day—or debunk the hoaxes.  “Spooky s#@t, be gone!” they would say, and boom—no more spooks.  Okay, not really like that, but a real-life twist on the genre was an effective centerpiece.

Three years later, director James Wan (THE CONJURING, INSIDIOUS and INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER II) wants to introduce you to the Hodgson family.  Unlike the Perron family of the first film, the Hodgson’s consist of a single mom raising four kids; the stakes seem to be more dramatic.  Indeed, the family dynamic on display is well played by everyone involved.  The heaviest performance falls upon the more-than-capable shoulders of young Madison Wolfe (THE CAMPAIGN, “True Detective”); you have absolutely no problem believing this ordinary girl is occasionally possessed, and trying her best to just stay normal.

Unfortunately, Wan begins to repeat himself and his formula with this sequel.  What was original and scary in the first film comes off as an attempt to one-up himself.  Yes, “The Crooked Man” is a nice touch, but every Wan film seems to have a hook, a gimmick that you expect the worst from.  In CONJURING, it was the clapping.  Here, it’s the zoetrope, and from the first sight of it you know it’s going to go badly.  ‘No surprises’ is my point.

This time around, Wan is without cinematographer John R. Leonetti (both INSIDIOUS films, PIRANHA 3D), who so masterfully and elegantly captured the country landscape and set the tone of the first film. Don Burgess is Wan’s new cinematographer, and while he does a wonderful job of bringing the story to light, there is a different feel to this installment.  Whereas the first film wanted you to use your brain, the feel of this one is simply to use your eyes.  Not necessarily a bad thing—if you are watching an action film.  (Or Sumo wrestling midget porn.)  But here, the initial separation between the two slowly converging storylines becomes distracting.  Visually, there isn’t much of a difference between the two, and there should be.  You can’t leave it all up to lighting…

The Special Features are quite informative; you get a look into the lives of the all-too-real Hodgson family and the horror they experienced back in 1977.  As the film is based on a true story, the insights provided into these people’s lives is a fantastic complement to the film itself.  By including so much in the Features, Wan shows you that, like these people, he’s got nothing to hide.  The real-life story behind it all takes little Hollywood embellishment to make it scary.  You also get a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the production (which is done rather well) and a stupid “this set is haunted” bit that falls way flat (partly because it is done rather poorly) (but mostly because it is stupid).

Sticking to the same formula for a sequel can either be hit or miss.  While much of this film works, and there are several scenes that were executed very well, you wonder how the cast and crew managed to get through it all without saying “déjà vu” several times.  Then again, they are probably busy saying that right this very second on the set of INSIDIOUS 4…

Film Grade: B (originally I had it at a “C”, but Madison Wolfe is really that good)
Special Features: B
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: BLAIR WITCH

The Quick of It -

I have a ‘special’ relationship with the Blair Witch.  No, not like that, shame on you!  The first one, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, was an inspiration to all marketing professionals.  The hype was tremendous, and some people thought this was an actual account being released to the silver screen.  This, above all else, demonstrated the pure genius behind the marketing push.

Haxan and Artisan used the initial promo website as a base to start a viral marketing campaign, and built onto the content to further the mystery.  By the time everything was said and done, the marketing budget reached one million dollars.  As a side note, Artisan Entertainment bought the rights after its release at Sundance in 1999.  So, to follow the numbers:

Production Budget: $60,000
Rights Sold: $1,000,000
Marketing and Promotions: $1,000,000
Box Office Total: $248,600,000

Like I said, pure genius.

Now for another film, a sequel to the first, seemed almost a poor venture to the possible expectations by any studio.  And for me, I will never have the experience I did with the first.  You see, I went to the theatre with someone who believed this was authentic found footage.  You can’t make this up!  His experience was more horrifying than anyone could possibly achieve in that theatre that day!

In this sequel, BLAIR WITCH has a new group heading out into the woods, one being the younger brother to Heather from the original film, James (James Allen McCune).  As with the first, you are challenged to believe in the supernatural when it does not foreseeably exist, as the movie’s universal laws being based on the real world.  Things are quickly questioned or debunked, a means to build onto the sense of realism and ground the audience.  Everything seems normal right up until that valve is released.

This film has to be one of the most intense found footage films to date.  After a particular “breaking” point, you are on a ride that you wish you could get off.  Understandably, this may not be for everyone, but those people who do, you will not be disappointed.  I could hear people in the audience having trouble with the psychological impact and the visual assault.  And I am not just talking about jumps and screams.  I am talking about twisting uncomfortably in their chairs and trying to get reassurance from their neighbors with nervous chatter.

Director Adam Wingard (of YOU’RE NEXT, V/H/S, V/H/S/2, THE GUEST) really pulled this one together.  The use of multiple cameras thanks to new technology, to include a drone, offered new perspectives and shots.  He re-teamed with writer Simon Barrett to make this film and they achieved a new level of found footage intenseness.  To their benefit, I’m sure all the previous hype from past films fed right into the audience’s psyche.   Like I said, people who hate found footage will not appreciate this movie, but they sure are missing out.

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


“Blu-ray or Bust”

Occasionally—and I mean, like, once in a Thor moon—Marvel Studios releases something a wee bit questionable.

As of late, we’ve seen less popular characters from the Marvel Universe shine; Antman, The Scarlet Witch, and The Black Panther are all superheroes who thrived years ago in the world of Marvel comics. Panther has a stand-alone film due out in 2018, and the next Antman film should be out the same year. With DOCTOR STRANGE coming out in November, you can see how the studio is banking on some of the lesser-knowns to distract us from what is starting to become an exercise in redundancy.

Don’t misunderstand; there are parts of CIVIL WAR that are fresh and unique, as with every MU film. But the themes are not changing all that much, they are just evolving, growing bigger and more dramatic—although some of the urgency is getting lost in the translation.

After the events of the previous films (most notably the Avengers movies and the Cap’s prior adventures), things get out of control with a mission to Africa to stop a henchman from the last Cap movie. Civilians die, and—please, stop me if you’ve heard THIS one—the heroes come under attack by the politics of mortals. Sorry, kids, but this particular plot point is getting a wee bit old. It was done in the first iteration of the X-Men franchise, was an issue in THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and, most recently, a major them in BATMAN VS SUPERMAN (insert stifled yawn here).

And that ain’t the only problem; this is not so much a “Captain America” movie so much as it is a half-assed Avengers flick. Remember earlier when I mentioned the little guys? Not only does The Black Panther get a healthy amount of screen time, but so does the newer version of “Spider-man”, played with enough glee and humor by Tom Holland to show you why a re-boot of that particular character was absolutely necessary. The other standout is Chadwick Boseman’s Panther. His acting lifts the typical superhero performance above the norm, and seems to bring out the best in those around him. Robert Downey Jr. nails several of his more emotional scenes, and it is nice to see some acting amongst the exploding set pieces.

Again: the movie isn’t all bad. It does move the MCU along, but to follow THE WINTER SOLDIER with an Avengers initiative (sorry/not sorry) wrapped up with a bow that says “Captain America” almost seems a waste of a Captain America movie. The biggest plot may be about Roger’s relationship with his mentally wayward friend Bucky, yet it is overshadowed by the subplot, which splits the team in the first place.

The special features… are plentiful/exhaustive/all-inclusive. There are two Making Of’s (not sure why they split one in two, but, whatever) that clock in at twenty-two minutes each, and cover the production literally from page to screen. Both doc’s are a geek’s dream, and shows the attention paid to every stinkin’ detail. You also get a pleasing gag reel, and two four-minute behind-the-hero’s-motivation flicks that show you the conflicts for the two main players, the Captain and Ironman.

CIVIL WAR may not be the best MCU film, but it isn’t THOR: THE DUMB WORLD, either. As the next Marvel film is DOCTOR STRANGE, it will be interesting to see the future repercussions from the events played out here. Let’s just hope the upcoming BLACK PANTHER and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING films are left to their own devices; the iterations show in this film are wonderful to behold, even if they are being spring-boarded off of the broad back of Captain America.

Film Grade: B
Special Features: B+
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely

- T.S.Kummelman

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: MORGAN

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on MORGAN (2016, 92 minutes, R)

MORGAN is the launch of Luke Scott’s directing career on the silver screen.  Yes, that last name should look familiar, because he is the son of Ridley Scott.  And, it is also writer Seth W. Owen’s venture into larger budget films.

It’s intriguing to me how this movie reflects a particular perception and/or acceptance I hold of new writers’ stories.  MORGAN is a decent film, nothing spectacular, but worth the watch even if being a retold story.  It has more of a philosophical twist with how I personally view allowable common plots to still pass as suitable material as a writer is trying to grow.  To show you, this movie has been done before – a boy/girl/entity has been created and housed to see what becomes of the experiment; I.E. EX MACHINA, SPECIES, SPLICE, A.I., BICENTENNIAL MAN, etc…  I find that telling a story, even if closely paralleling another, still needs to be told.  Most editors will squeal and squirm from such a statement, but I find a writer needs that release.  I’m okay with that.

MORGAN will not break any box office records or garner notoriety for anyone involved in the project, but the story needed to be told.  The acting was on par with major projects so no complaints there.  Kate Mara (of THE MARTIAN, 127 HOURS, SHOOTER, IRON MAN 2) does an excellent job and is the central viewpoint.  Young actor Anya Taylor-Joy (of THE WITCH) is decent and was challenged to reflect emotions and emotional responses far above most roles.  You learn this through the psychological evaluation scene.  The subtlety of her progression in the responses, the core understanding of her intellectual level to respond in kind as a reflection of the expected responses rather than the expected empathy makes for a tough scene.  This does give credit to Scott to be able to capture all of that through the lens and her to carry the sense of realism throughout. 

Even though this one does not sit high on my ‘must watch list for 2016’, I recommend the film to all aspiring writers and directors to learn from.  You get to see what support from producers and third party talent can do for a film that is not anticipated to be a competitor for the summer blockbusters, but a vehicle for future projects. 

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

'Blu-ray or Bust' - NOW YOU SEE ME 2

'Blu-ray or Bust'

I have issues with films that ignore continuity. It irritates me. Makes me want to vomit angrily in the direction of Hollywood.

Don’t get me wrong—there are several moments of this sequel to the mediocre first film that are entertaining, and others that are just downright ludicrous. But to ignore the ending of the first film kinda bugs me. Like a scrotum rash. See, at the end of the first, our heroes jump onto a magical merry-go-round, with promises of real magic. If you watched through the first few minutes of the end credits, you are treated to an entirely useless scene in which they wind up in a magic trick junkyard in the middle of some desert via a van. The scene is useless, because it ends stupidly, and serves no purpose whatsoever. Because the second film has absolutely nothing to do with.

The best moments of the sequel involve Lizzy Caplan as new Horsemen member “Lulu”, who is a funny, violent spark in a sea of bland, over-written scenes, and Michael Caine, who is allowed to amp up his natural humor. Everyone else is okay, but the plot starts distracting from the performances; there are too many tricks in this film, and not enough of this ensemble being able to do what you know they could all do if given the chance. There is a palpable chemistry between the actors, but the plot sucks.

If you need a synopsis, let’s try this: Bruce Banner/The Hulk breaks Red out of Shawshank so they can rescue his “kids”: Woody from “Cheers”, Mark Zuckerberg, James Franco’s baby brother, and the hot girl at the party from CLOVERFIELD. Seems that they have been kidnapped by Batman’s butler and his bastard son, Harry Potter, in order to steal a computer thingy that can access any computer on the planet. This would give the bad guys access to your Facebook and Twitter, which would provide them with the means for world domination… or some stupid thing. It’s all a statement about protecting privacy, and the message falls flat due to the fact that the threat is more of a “yeah-well-I-could-totally-hack-your-Instagram” thing than it is a threat to human life.

There are three doc’s on the Blu-ray, which is one more than you get with the regular DVD release. If you are going to watch this, it should be in this format. Some of the “magic” tricks look very nice digitally, and the soundtrack sounds better. But honestly, don’t buy it. Rent it… if you have to.

As of this writing, there has not been a third installment announced. If the foreign box office has any influence (which it usually does), there probably will be another sequel. Don’t worry, though; if you skip this installment, I’m sure the filmmakers will totally ignore the mysterious ending of this one, too.

Grade: C-
Special Features: B
Blu-ray Necessary: If you absolutely must. But I wouldn’t. Go rent it.
-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: on DON’T BREATHE

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on DON’T BREATHE (2016, 88 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
As more astute moviegoers know, young careers can be launched from the horror film industry.  This is potentially at the expense of stumbling upon a critically acclaimed role and having them swimming though the depths of a genre where many themes have been played out.  But there are those innovative gems that have just enough panache to make a difference.

DON’T BREATHE was one of them, to a degree.  The film seems to find its novelty in the horror world by offering something a little different.  Director Fede Alvarez and Jane Levy, among others, re-pair after the EVIL DEAD – 2013 remake.  Jane costars with Daniel Zovatto (IT FOLLOWS) and Dylan Minnette in this late summer release.  Minette seems to be the biggest box office regular out of the youngin’s.  His career, being only 20-years-old, includes PRISONERS, GOOSEBUMPS, LET ME IN, and enough TV credits to fill an IMDB page… most impressive.

These three friends are crafty burglars, hoping to find their way out of Detroit’s gutter.  One gets a lead on a possible score that could solve a lot of their financial woes, a job on a house where a blind man lives.  Enter Stephen Lang (AVATAR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN).  This man has more charisma than “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, thus should now be dubbed so.  He is the Chuck Norris of ‘charisma’, if that helps.  There is just something about his physical presence, his guttural voice, and … blank stare.  Even playing a blind man, he made you pay close attention to everything he did, felt, and experienced. 

This was a movie where everyone was pretty much a bad person.  Sure, some people justified what they did because of their current life situation, or whatever, but they were making poor decisions.  No one was innocent here, and it made for a much more interesting story.  You could almost root for anyone as the story progresses, not caring about the outcome.

DON’T BREATHE was a great thrill ride.  And yes, it made you want to hold your breath.  I remember spending many late evenings as a child playing hide-n-seek at sleepovers at one particular friend’s house.  And I mean the kind where you have all the lights out in the house, blocking off all light sources to include outside, and playing in pitch black.  You could be standing right in front of someone and still not be found.  I would venture a guess that I held my breath a few times as well.  So stop breathing and head to the theater to support these young actors and their budding careers.

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

'Blu-ray or Bust' - THE JUNGLE BOOK

'Blu-ray or Bust'

Jon Favreau has magic eyeballs.  Really.

The visionary—and I’ll fight you on this one, if I have to—director of IRON MAN, CHEF, and ELF knows how to tell a story so well that you are willing to buy into it from the first frame.  He pays attention to details a person with ordinary eyeballs wouldn’t even think to do, all in an effort to get you to pay attention to the story.  Even if you have heard it before.

In his live-action reimagining of the Disney classic, Favreau not only has you believing animals can talk, but he does so with a righteous zeal that you accept as scripture.  OF COURSE a man could build a flying, bullet-proof suit in the caves of a desert!  OF COURSE a human could be mistaken for an elf!  And, like the aforementioned talking animals, OF COURSE Christopher Walken as the voice of a gigantic ape is entirely plausible!

The casting is as ingenious as the animation.  Walken does a terrific job as baddie “King Louie”, but he isn’t the only voice in the film.  Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba (he makes a wonderfully scary Shere Khan), and Ben Kingsley also lend their talents.  The one that most gives Walken a run for his money in the voice department is the hysterically under-played talent of Bill Murray.  His lazy “Baloo” earns the most laughs, and you can imagine Murray lounging on a couch, carefully—and not to mention, rather lackadaisically—reading his lines, not a care in the world.

Again, you have Favreau’s magic eyeballs to thank for every stinkin’ detail; from the actors to Baloo’s fur, he misses not a single beat.  He is also smart enough not to rest the entirety of this production upon the shoulders of newcomer Neel Sethi (“Mowgli”).  Don’t get me wrong—Sethi does a wonderful job in his first feature film, especially considering the fact that he was playing to illusion most of the time.  But surrounding him with bonafide movie star voices makes his hesitancy, his human emotions and fallacies, that much more applicable to the situations. By drawing attention away from him with a familiar voice, Favreau also manages to make you not forget any part of this boy’s journey.

Magic eyeballs, I tell ya.

If you do not purchase this on Blu-ray, there is something wrong with your brain.  Seriously, look up “neurologist” in the phone book and go have your noggin checked out.  The movie translates even better to the small screen than it did in theatres.  The animation, the voice acting, and the music all come through crisper and clearer with the transition to video.  Until you hear Baloo’s thundering paws barreling through the jungle, you haven’t experienced this film the way you should.  And the special features include a thirty-five minute documentary which shows you every trick these humans used to pull off a film that should not be as realistic and plausible as it should be.

Go watch this film, and watch it on Blu-ray.  Go put some of Jon Favreau’s magic in your eyeballs.

Grade: A
Special Features: A+
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman