Monday, March 27, 2017

Seven not so Magnificent Reasons

Movie Reviewed: The Magnificent Seven

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Date: 27 March 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **

1. Denzel Washington can do anything.  He's eminently watchable, and even when given very little to do here other than posture in amazing clothing, he can do it.  He has never done a western, and now he has.

2. Chris Pratt is charming and trying to have more gravitas.  Even if he fails at it, he's fun to watch.

3. Montages of training villagers to fight in creative ways to set up the climactic final battle are always appealing, even though the thrust of this film is to just wait, and wait, and wait until the end battle.  The look of the film is grand with swooping cameras and colors that pop.

4. The Magnificent Seven reminds us obviously of the original and of The Seven Samurai.  And, a late-film development is an homage or borrowing from The Outlaw Josey Wales.  All of those movies I want to watch again.  This one, not as much.

5. The rest of the Magnificent Seven (Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Ruffalo, and Martin Sensmeier) are given so little to say or do that they hardly register in the film. Characters just show up and join the group.  Each one has a particular trait, way of talking, and/or costume that substitutes for character development.  I do not think that the movie has to be significantly longer, but I think that more moments and conversations among these warriors would have made the final scenes more powerful

6. Every Western needs a bad guy that can ratchet up the tension.  I like Peter Sarsgaard, but here, he essentially needs a mustache to twirl and a cape to embody one-dimensional evil.  How can one man equal all seven of the opposing performances?  Also, he is not in the film enough to offer much of a counterweight.

7.  The film's premise involves gigantic acts of mass violence committed in public, basically all-out warfare with heavy casualties on both sides.  The film need not consider the psychological or moral weight of what it does in defense of its own righteousness.  A wrong must be righted. It's best the less thought about its ramifications.  It offers revenge as soul-cleansing in as brutally violent a PG-13 film can be.  I do not think that it will be remembered fondly.

Image result for the magnificent seven denzel 2016

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bored of Bourne

Movie Reviewed: Jason Bourne

Director: Paul Greengrass

Date: 26 March 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **

Jason Bourne feels soulless, like the worst kind of simplistic video game, and that's a colossal disappointment coming from stellar director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon.  The film wastes its impressive cast and locations by boiling down its story to bare essentials, giving Jason Bourne very few lines and zero character development and arc.  Clumsy flashbacks to an inciting incident are supposed to show his motivation and uncertainty about his origins which haunt him.  But without Bourne talking to anyone, the film mostly becomes about crisp movement and fluid action set pieces, which although impressively staged and compelling, they just serve as spectacle, never substance, resulting in a glossy, unsatisfying experience.

Bourne (Matt Damon) begins the film in hiding, engaging in brutal street fights for money on an island in Greece; he's brought back into the fold by ex-operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who has found files that she wants him to read because the plot told her to do so (ostensibly, the CIA is up to its old malfeasance, but you know what I mean).  Way leads onto way, and fiery, protest-filled Greece bleeds into Iceland into Berlin into London and into Las Vegas. On the hunt for a resurgent Bourne are CIA Deputy Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and Cyber Ops Head Heather Miller (Alicia Vikander) who thinks he can be turned.  Also, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) plays a hubristic Mark Zuckerberg-type, the creator of Deep Dream social media platforms who figures into the C.I.A.'s work somehow in a vague attempt at social relevance.  Bourne investigates his own past while an intense assassin known only as Asset (Vincent Cassell) hunts him.  And, all roads lead to Vegas.

Because the film is committed to a near silent performance from Matt Damon, we get the enthralling filming of Bourne reading google searches to figure out who characters are.  Bourne always just shows up exactly where he is supposed to be with weapons and passports and escape routes fully figured out inside of his head but never shared with us.  C.I.A. Directors waive security and wait in darkened penthouses unguarded.  And handy surveillance technology just sits in bowls at Las Vegas conferences and is easily taken, installed, and monitored.  As a modern thriller, Jason Bourne is the kind of film where you can never even conceive of any of the main characters eating human food, taking a drink of water, or going to the bathroom. 

I hate to be so negative.  I like the character of Jason Bourne and the films (except the appalling entry with Jeremy Renner).  I have read the first book by Robert Ludlum.  I download every version of the Moby end song "Extreme Ways."  The travelogue aspect of the films always earns my respect (part of me feels that I only know how modern Europe looks because of these films), and, to be honest, Matt Damon walking, in a hurry, occasionally looking over his shoulder, works for me.  I like that, and even though it mostly reminds me of better movies (the original trilogy).  I give degree of difficulty points here for the filming of a chase scene in a fiery Athens riot and the Las Vegas strip filled with cars, even though one particularly incredible sequence of cars being thrown into the air by a speeding SWAT vehicle only made me think of the untold casualties that extended crash would result in.  Tommy Lee Jones is a formidable actor capable of greatness; here, whenever it seems like he is about to launch into a monologue or some speech that would shade his character a bit, Greengrass is content to show his craggy face instead.  As a result, Jones is no Joan Allen or David Strathairn or Brian Cox or Chris Cooper or Clive Owen or Scott Glenn or Albert Finney when it comes to Bourne's past formidable opponents.  And he could have been.  Academy Award winner Vikander also seems similarly wasted in a confusing role that could have been conceived of better.

The film is curious inert despite its intense action, but I think too it suffers there in comparison to its predecessors.  Greengrass himself has set the bar so high for car chases, one-on-one fights in close quarters, and hand-held camera work, that here, it just does not seem that compelling or interesting.  I hate to call a film a cash grab and insult it in that way, but what we have here seems clumsily done without the care and, dare I say, the grace of its previous thrillers.  The Bourne Identity ushered in a new era of spy techno-thrillers, leaving its fingerprints on the James Bond franchise as well as Batman in our post 9-11 world.  Jason Bourne deserves to be relegated to The Bourne Legacy as two offshoots that never fully pay off. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Get Out's Flat Out Brilliance

Movie Review: Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

Reviewed: 18 March 2017

jamesintexas rating--****

Jordan Peele's masterpiece Get Out pushes all the right buttons in its suspense and build-up, ending up with one of the darkest endings in modern film while fully earning every scare along the way.  The film announces Peele as a writer and director of the first order, and Get Out resonates on many levels in our political and social climate in early 2017.  And, it is ridiculously hilarious at times along the way. 

After an unsettling opening scene of violence on an unknown character, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) travels to the rural estate of girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), meeting her family for the first time.  Chris, a budding photographer, leaves his dog with his friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who needles him about the potential pain of the weekend.  On the way, they hit a deer and also encounter hostility from a local policeman.  Upon arrival, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) welcome the couple warmly. Dean is a neurosurgeon; Missy, a therapist.  Although Chris has been warned by Rose, Dean slips into calling him "my man" and opining about how he wishes that he could have voted for "Obama's third term."  So far, Chris experiences the awkwardness and the weight of being the only African-American character in sight. But he is not.  There are two African-Americans working for the Armitage family: groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Both seem dazed and to regard Chris with some sort of hostility.  When a late-night smoke break turns into a spooky encounter with both, Chris, a bit shaken, wanders into a hypnosis session with Missy who uncovers buried-deep trauma in Chris's childhood while ostensibly trying to help him stop smoking.

Chris and Rose's weekend visit coincides with a party of sorts as old friends of the family pour into the lakefront estate to celebrate. Things begin getting increasingly more uncomfortable for Chris as he becomes the designated racial spokesman, finds his cell phone unplugged and out of juice, and wonders about blind gallery manager Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) who seems to know his work without having ever seen it.  A chance encounter with the only other African-American, a laconic Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) leads to the first recitation of the titular phrase.

To say more would be to rob Get Out of its earned scares, laughs, and power.  I just found this film to be captivating in every way, from the performances to the score to the slow zoom-ins used by Peele to heighten the anxiety level in nearly ever scene.  Kaluuya's performance ably captures the reactions of Chris to his shifting environment, and I was impressed with his anchoring performance.  I could not tell where it was going, and it inspired great dread in me as an audience member. I needed the relief of looking over at my wife next to me in the theater, as well as the relief valves provided by other audience members shouting at the screen and reacting viscerally to what was unfolding.  I imagine that seeing the film in a crowded theater would have intensified its power.  And LilRel Howery's performance is a true standout of comic timing and delivery.

The third act and stunning ending of the film pose myriad questions about cultural appropriation and destruction, the racial hegemony of our country, and the subversion of the police as trusted agent of the power structure.  In a move worthy of comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, Peele uses a final scene to critique the distrust and menace offered by a cultural signifier, now read differently.  Get Out never missteps, and it offers a cathartic way forward into 2017 and cinema that acknowledges the deep rooted societal micro-aggressions and racism, pressures, and powers that cannot and should not be ignored.  First and foremost, it is a film that entertains and upsets, horrifies and makes one think.  Jordan Peele cannot be ignored as a substantial voice in American cinema.